The US Senate confirmed retired general Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense Friday, the second cabinet nominee of new President Joe Biden to gain approval, and the first African American to lead the Pentagon.
Austin sailed through with overwhelming support from both Biden’s Democrats and opposition Republicans, who voted 93-2 in his favor.
The retired four-star general will be the first African American to lead the Department of Defense, and takes on the job as the Pentagon sees the need for greater efforts to root out racism in the ranks and give more opportunities for leadership positions to minorities.
Biden picked Austin, and the Senate endorsed him, despite a law that says the US military must be led by a civilian or, if a former military official, someone who has been out of the service at least seven years.
The requirement is to ensure civilian control of the military,
That meant both houses of Congress had to grant a waiver for Austin, who retired in 2016.
Biden chose a former officer he knew well from when he was vice president in the administration of Barack Obama.
Austin, a West Point graduate who served four decades in the military, was commander of US forces in Iraq and then head of the US Central Command covering the Middle East, from 2010 to 2016.
The two bonded because Austin was friendly with Biden’s late son when both were serving in Iraq.
Biden called him “uniquely qualified to take on the challenges and crises we face in the current moment” when announcing the nomination in December.
Austin, known to be media-shy and not particularly politically savvy, tweeted a statement quickly after gaining Senate approval.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to serve as our country’s 28th Secretary of Defense, and I’m especially proud to be the first African American to hold the position,” he wrote.
“Let’s get to work.”
– Key threats: China, extremism – He honed in on two urgent issues facing the US military in his confirmation hearing on Tuesday.
He singled out China as the country’s most potent adversary.
Under his leadership, the Pentagon would “make sure that we are prepared to meet any challenge and that we continue to present a credible deterrent to China or any other aggressor who would want to take us on, and convince them that would be a really bad idea,” he said.
He also pledged to tackle extremists in the forces, after some members of the military took part in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol by supporters of then-president Donald Trump.
“The activity that we’ve seen recently in terms of potential racists or extremist behavior within our ranks is in my view absolutely unacceptable,” Austin said.
“The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies. But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks,” he added.
Italian prosecutors have opened a probe into the accidental death of a 10-year-old girl who allegedly took part in a “blackout challenge” on the video-sharing network TikTok.
The girl died in a Palermo hospital after being discovered Wednesday by her five-year-old sister in her family bathroom with her cellphone, which was seized by police.
TikTok, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, said Friday it had not managed to identify any content on its site that could have encouraged the girl to participate in any such challenge, but was helping the authorities in the probe over possible “incitement to suicide”.
“The safety of the TikTok community is our absolute priority, for this motive we do not allow any content that encourages, promotes or glorifies behaviour that could be dangerous,” a TikTok spokesman said.
Medical experts have warned about the danger of the challenge being taken up by some young people, who refer to it as “scarfing” or “the choking game” in which restricted oxygen to the brain results in a high.
The girls’ parents told La Repubblica newspaper that another daughter explained that her sister “was playing the blackout game”.
“We didn’t know anything,” the girl’s father told the paper.
“We didn’t know she was participating in this game. We knew that (our daughter) went on TikTok for dances, to look at videos. How could I imagine this atrocity?” he said.
Italy’s data protection agency filed a lawsuit against TikTok in December, alleging a “lack of attention to the protection of minors” and criticising the ease with which very young children could sign up to the video app.
TikTok, which went global in 2018, has built its rapid success on its parodies, messages and short dance or comedy video performances set against popular music — along with an algorithm that determines which content is most likely to interest each user.
The death of the girl provoked strong reactions in Italy and calls for better regulation of social networks.
“Social networks can’t become a jungle where anything is allowed,” said Licia Ronzulli, president of Italy’s parliamentary commission on child protection.
Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane has tested positive for COVID-19, the Spanish club announced Friday.
The positive test comes a day before Madrid travel to Alaves in La Liga seeking to bounce back from an embarrassing midweek Copa del Rey exit.
“Real Madrid C.F. report that our coach Zinedine Zidane has tested positive for Covid-19,” the club said in a statement.
Zidane already had to self-isolate this month after coming into contact with a person infected with the virus.
He tested negative at the time and was able to oversee the team.
After successive defeats in the Spanish Super Cup and Copa del Rey, the second a shock loss to third-tier Alcoyano, Zidane is again under pressure as Real Madrid try to reignite their La Liga title challenge away to Alaves.
Zidane’s side are playing catch-up to Atletico Madrid after draws against struggling Elche and Osasuna, two of the league’s bottom three, in recent weeks.
Alaves beat Madrid 2-1 in the capital in late November but have won just once in eight matches since, their slide into a relegation scrap costing coach Pablo Machin his job last week with former Spain international Abelardo Fernandez returning to take charge.
Real assistant coach David Bettoni said that Zidane was “fine” after his positive test, although “sad” not to be among the players.
“I spoke with the coach this morning and he is fine,” said Bettoni.
“He was a little sad this morning not to be with us. He will not physically be with us, but we all know that he will be with us supporting.
“He will not be with us physically during tomorrow’s game, but he will be with us to support the players, give his energy and help everyone.”
Bettoni also played down talk of Zidane’s future after their Copa del Rey embarrassment.
“You know the boss, he likes football, it’s his passion. He is fortunate to coach this great club. In football it is a complicated time, but he is in good spirits,” said Bettoni.
“I see him every morning with a smile, with joy, wanting to train. We want to carry on, we are fortunate to train at this club, so we enjoy them every day with our players.”
Relatives of 62 people killed when an Indonesian passenger jet slammed into the sea scattered flowers at the crash site Friday, as investigators look for clues to why the plane dropped from the sky minutes after takeoff.
The memorial came as the search for human remains and wreckage ended two weeks after the Sriwijaya Air Boeing 737-500 plunged roughly 10,000 feet (3,000 metres) in less than a minute before crashing into waters off Jakarta.
However, the hunt continues for a still-missing cockpit voice recorder, as investigators pore over details from a retrieved flight data recorder — so-called black boxes that could be critical to the probe.
Maintenance logs pointed to an issue with the plane’s autothrottle, which controls engine power, authorities said, but it was not clear what role — if any — the apparent malfunction played.
On Friday, dozens of relatives tossed red petals from the deck of a navy ship, some overcome with emotion.
“When I cast the flowers I could see my sister’s face on the surface of the water,” said Heri Purnomo, whose older sibling Agus Minardi and her husband were on the flight.
“I burst into tears… It was a very sad moment.”
Jefferson Irwin Jauwena, the airline’s president director, said he was “devastated” by the accident which claimed 12 crew lives.
“We also feel sad and lost,” he said.
So far, 47 of the 62 victims have been identified through fingerprints and DNA matches to living family.
But Bety Saprianti, 33, who lost five relatives, is waiting for her aunt to be officially identified.
“We did not attend the ceremony today. None of our family joined — it was too painful,” she said.
“Our only hope now is (the last) of our relatives is identified soon.”
The 26-year-old plane crashed just four minutes after setting off from Jakarta, bound for Pontianak city on Borneo island, a 90-minute flight away.
Authorities said the crew did not declare an emergency or report technical problems with the aircraft before its dive, and that it was probably intact when it hit the water — citing a relatively small area where the wreckage was scattered.
The crash probe is likely to take months, but a preliminary report is expected next month.
Poet Amanda Gorman on Wednesday became a sudden star at age 22 at President Joe Biden’s inauguration as she recited verse inspired by the Capitol attack, touching on how democracy “can never be permanently defeated.”
Gorman was the youngest poet to recite at an inauguration, a role first given to Robert Frost by John F. Kennedy in 1961, after First Lady Jill Biden saw one of Gorman’s readings and invited her to participate at the Capitol steps.
Gorman said that she had been writing a few lines a day but stayed awake at night out of a compulsion to complete her inauguration poem, “The Hill We Climb,” following the January 6 ransacking of the Capitol by supporters of then president Donald Trump who hoped to undo Biden’s victory.
“We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it / Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy,” she recited.
“And this effort very nearly succeeded / But while democracy can be periodically delayed, / It can never be permanently defeated.”
Gorman, who graduated from Harvard University last year, was the first to hold the role of national youth poet laureate by the Library of Congress and earlier held a similar honor in Los Angeles, where she has started a non-profit group to promote literacy.
She has previously written about the struggle for racial equality and the #MeToo movement against sexual assault.
Showing both composure and joy as she took the podium moments after Biden, Gorman opened her reading by speaking of how “We the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president — only to find herself reciting for one.”
Among her previous works, Gorman wrote “Tyrants Fear the Poet” to address the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia — an episode that Biden said motivated him to challenge Trump, who had said the crowd included “very fine people on both sides.”
In an interview with National Public Radio, Gorman said that she grew up with a speech impediment in which she could not pronounce certain letters — a trait she shares with Biden, who has been open about his struggles with stuttering.
Her reading triggered loud applause at the inauguration and an avalanche of praise on social media.
“I have never been prouder to see another young woman rise!” tweeted daytime television queen Oprah Winfrey, drawing a parallel to another celebrated writer, the late Maya Angelou, who read at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration.
Joanne Liu, the former president of Doctors Without Borders, called Gorman’s recitation “the most inspiring 5:43 minutes for the longest time.”
Below, a full transcript of Gorman’s poem that has everyone talking.
Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” Poem Transcript
Dr. Biden, Madam Vice President, Mr. Emhoff, Americans, and the world.
When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never ending shade? The loss we carry, a sea. We must wade. We’ve braved the belly of the beast. We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace. And the norms and notions of what just is, isn’t always justice. And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it. Somehow we do it. Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that it isn’t broken, but simply unfinished. We, the successors of a country and the time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting for one. And yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect. We are striving to forge our union with purpose. To compose a country, committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man. And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside. We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another. We seek harm to none and harmony for all. Let the globe, if nothing else say, this is true. That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped. That even as we tired. We tried that we’ll forever be tied together victorious. Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division. Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made. That is the promise to glade the hill we climb. If only we dare it’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.
We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it. Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. And this effort very nearly succeeded, but while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated in this truth. In this faith we trust for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us. This is the era of just redemption. We feared it in its inception. We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of of such a terrifying hour, but within it, we found the power to author a new chapter. To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe? Now we assert how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us? We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be a country that is bruised. But whole benevolence, but bold, fierce, and free.
We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation. Our blunders become their burdens, but one thing is certain. If we merged mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy, and change our children’s birthright. So let us leave behind a country better than the one.
For there was always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it.
We were left with every breath, my bronze pounded chest. We will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one. We will rise from the gold limbed hills of the West. We will rise from the wind swept to Northeast where our forefathers first realized the revolution. We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the middle Western States. We will arise from the sun baked South. We will rebuild, reconciled and recover and every known nook over our nation.
And every corner called our country. Our people diverse and beautiful will emerge, battered and beautiful. When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid, the new dawn balloons, as we free it. For there was always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.
Health systems in Africa hobbled by shortages of oxygen and other resources are struggling with coronavirus’ “second wave,” pushing the fatality rate above the global average, the continent’s health watchdog said Thursday.
Africa has so far recorded around 3.3 million cases of COVID-19 and nearly 82,000 deaths, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).
These figures represent small fractions of the global totals, but cases have increased by an average of 14 percent each week for the past month.
Africa CDC director John Nkengasong told a press conference Thursday that the continent-wide case fatality rate was now 2.5 percent — above the global average of 2.2 percent.
That is a break from earlier in the pandemic, when death rates on the continent were on average lower than the rest of the world, Nkengasong said.
“During the second wave we are beginning to see that reverse. So I think that is one of the remarkable characteristics of the second wave, which we must fight hard,” Nkengasong said.
A total of 21 African countries have so far recorded death rates higher than 2.2 percent, Nkengasong said.
The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in Western Sahara — an African Union member state — has a death rate of 11.8 percent, followed by Sudan at 6.2 percent, Egypt at 5.5 percent, Liberia at 4.4 percent and Mali at four percent.
Nkengasong explained this by noting that rising cases were stretching health systems.
“That also means you’re overwhelming the ability of nurses, doctors to manage patients. Because of that there will be inadequate attention and care… to patients because we have limited beds, limited supplies.”
He also cited the need for more oxygen supplies, which he said was becoming “critical.”
In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, health officials have described being forced to “decide which patients to manage and which not to manage,” Nkengasong said.
Last week the African Union announced it had secured 270 million doses of coronavirus vaccines, which will complement those secured via Covax, the globally-pooled vaccine procurement and distribution effort.
There are “ongoing talks” with Russia and China to potentially secure more doses, though “for now we don’t have any deals,” Nkengasong said Thursday.
Joe Biden’s administration unveiled a detailed COVID-19 roadmap Thursday to boost vaccinations and testing while centering scientific expertise, after the new US president warned during his inaugural speech the pandemic was entering its “deadliest period.”
Officials said Biden would immediately sign 10 executive orders and other directives to jumpstart the national strategy, which experts said was sorely missing under his predecessor Donald Trump.
The US is the world’s hardest-hit country with more than 405,000 deaths, and government models suggest the B.1.1.7 variant imported from Britain could supercharge the outbreak’s trajectory in the coming months.
“For almost a year now, Americans could not look to the federal government for any strategy, let alone a comprehensive approach to respond to Covid,” Jeff Zients, a former management consultant who is Biden’s new Covid-19 task force coordinator, told reporters.
“As president Biden steps into office today, that all changes,” he added.
Biden’s presidency will initially be shaped by his response to Covid-19 and the associated economic emergency.
Whereas Trump seldom acknowledged the tragic toll the virus was inflicting on Americans, Biden paused in his inaugural address — which the public was essentially barred from attending due to the pandemic — to offer a moment’s silent prayer for its victims.
– ‘Restoring trust’ – The plan has organized goals like restoring the trust of the American people, surging the vaccination campaign, and mitigating viral spread through aggressive masking and testing, while expanding the public health workforce.
It also seeks to expand emergency relief and invoke emergency legislation to increase industrial production; safely reopen schools, businesses and travel; protect the most vulnerable and advance racial equity; and restore US global leadership with future pandemic preparedness.
The administration is seeking $1.9 trillion from Congress for its plans, which includes $20 billion for vaccines and $50 billion for testing.
Taken as a whole, the strategy amounts to a more closely coordinated approach than that of the previous administration, which sidelined key agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sought to censor recommendations by prominent scientists, and said individual states should do what seems right for them.
Some of the measures were already announced in recent days, including recommending that the eligibility criteria for vaccine priority groups be widened and simplified in order to increase the rate of shots being injected.
As it stands, the federal government has overseen the allocation of 35.9 million doses to states, of which 16.5 million have been used — or 46 percent.
The figure is well below targets set by the Trump administration, but the administration rate has been steadily ticking up in recent days.
– Vaccine blitz – New White House vaccines coordinator Bechara Choucair restated the administration’s intention to bring online thousands of federal vaccination centers as well as the mobilization of thousands more workers to help.
These plans would bring the financial and logistical clout of the federal government in the fight against the virus — again, an element that had largely been missing.
The administration will also continue the policy of rolling out vaccine doses for Pfizer and Moderna’s two-shot regimes as soon as they become available.
The Trump team had initially set aside the booster as reserve, but later changed course after running low on supply.
Executive orders would also be advanced to establish a pandemic testing board, to boost research efforts into treatments, and create a Health Equity Task Force.
This group, headed by Yale associate professor Marcella Nunez-Smith, will advise the president on allocating resources and funding in communities affected by inequities linked to race, geography and disability.
The administration also plans to invoke the Defense Production Act to boost supply of personal protective equipment, lab equipment and to maximize vaccine production.
Tim Manning, who will coordinate supply chain issues, told reporters he had identified 12 supply shortfalls where the law could be invoked.
Biden’s team has relentlessly criticized the Trump administration in recent weeks over its failure in particular to adequately plan for the last mile of its Covid response and get vaccines developed at record speed into arms.
An early test will be whether they achieve their own goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans within Biden’s first 100 days in office, by April 20.
Mongolia’s prime minister resigned Thursday following protests and public outrage over the treatment of a coronavirus patient and her newborn baby.
Landlocked Mongolia reported just a handful of COVID-19 cases last year after imposing strict border controls, but in November its first domestic transmissions caused a new wave of lockdowns and restrictions.
Anger mounted this week after TV footage showed a woman who appeared to have recently given birth being moved to an infectious disease centre wearing only hospital pyjamas and plastic slippers, despite temperatures dipping to minus 25 degrees Celsius.
After protests outside government buildings on Wednesday, the Mongolian politician apologised on behalf of the government and said he would stand down immediately.
“Unfortunately, we made mistake during relocating that mother,” admitted Prime Minister Khurelsukh Ukhnaa Thursday. “It was heartbreaking to see how she was treated.”
“As a prime minister, I must take the responsibility.”
The video of the woman in an ambulance clutching her baby prompted fierce criticism, particularly as Mongolian tradition dictates new mothers should avoid the cold weather and cold food for the first month after birth.
On Wednesday around 5,000 mostly young protesters gathered in a square opposite government buildings in the capital Ulaanbaatar, some carrying wrapped up bundles to represent babies.
Ulziibayar Purevsuren, 30, held a banner reading “resign” and said she was there to complain about “incompetent doctors”.
The vice prime minister — also head of the national emergency commission handling the pandemic — had already resigned on Wednesday evening, followed by the minister of health.
The head of the hospital and disease centre in the middle of the row also resigned.
– ‘Voices heard’ – The row is the latest clash over the government’s handling of the outbreak as anger simmers over Mongolian nationals stuck overseas after the country closed its borders.
“I don’t think Mongolians will die of Covid-19, instead they will die of poverty and hunger,” said 20-year-old student Odbayar Lkhagvadorj.
“We are here to make our voice heard,” said Batzul Batenkh, a 21-year-old mining worker.
Restrictions on movement between provinces have been imposed since November, leaving about 80,000 people stranded in the capital.
Many have complained of waiting weeks for virus tests to allow them to return to their homes or of having to sleep in their cars with hotels closed due to lockdowns.
Officials were forced to apologise when a 58-year-old woman died in December after being refused entry to a hospital because she did not have a negative Covid-19 test result.
Since March, Mongolia has only allowed citizens to enter the country on chartered flights and required 21 days of quarantine in centralised facilities, followed by two weeks of further isolation at home.
There have been 1,584 coronavirus cases in the country so far and just three deaths.
Bernardo Silva fired Manchester City to the top of the Premier League for the first time since August 2019 as his late strike inspired a 2-0 win against Aston Villa on Wednesday.
Pep Guardiola’s side found it hard work to pierce Villa’s stubborn defence at the rain-lashed Etihad Stadium.
Silva finally made the breakthrough with 11 minutes left with his first Premier League goal since July.
Villa boss Dean Smith was sent to the stands after a furious complaint that Rodri should have been given offside in the build-up to Silva’s goal.
Ilkay Gundogan’s penalty ensured City made it nine successive wins in all competitions as they extended their unbeaten run to 16 matches.
They move above previous leaders Leicester on goal difference, but Manchester United would take over top spot if they win at Fulham later on Wednesday.
After a spluttering start to the season, City, last crowned champions in 2019, are hitting their stride at just the right time.
Plagued by defensive problems last season, they have been rock solid this term, conceding only once in the 11 matches John Stones and Ruben Dias have played together at centre-back.
The only worry for Guardiola was the sight of Kevin De Bruyne coming off in the second half with a possible injury after Kyle Walker limped off in the first half.
A significant coronavirus outbreak at Villa meant their first team had not played since they lost to Manchester United on New Year’s Day, with the club fielding a youth side for their FA Cup defeat against Liverpool.
Villa had only three days of training before facing City and put up a brave fight before fading at the end.
With Sergio Aguero still in self-isolation and Gabriel Jesus on the bench, Phil Foden came into the front three in a move that left City without a recognised striker.
Silva started in the false nine role and the Portugal playmaker should have opened the scoring in the fourth minute.
When Rodri’s header looped towards him, Silva’s effort from virtually on the goalline was brilliantly saved by Emiliano Martinez before Matt Cash threw himself in the way of John Stones’ shot from the rebound.
Smith had joked it was “nice to be out of the house” as he named all his returning stars, including Ross Barkley after two months out with a hamstring injury.
But Smith might have wished he was back on the sofa as Guardiola’s men monopolised possession, with Foden and De Bruyne having shots blocked.
With Foden in fine form, City kept up the pressure, but another mazy run from the youngster ended with Rodri’s goalbound shot hitting Raheem Sterling instead of the back of the net.
Villa finally came out of their shell as Barkley’s curling strike from the edge of the area tested Ederson.
Gundogan went close with a curler, while Bertrand Traore’s outrageous control took him into range for a strike that Ederson pushed away.
As the game became more open, City defender Joao Cancelo made an incisive raid into the Villa area before shooting against the bar.
When De Bruyne pulled up sharply, Guardiola sent on Jesus with half an hour left.
Villa nearly snatched the lead as Douglas Luiz’s 20-yard blast was repelled by Ederson.
Gundogan’s close-range shot was superbly stopped by Martinez, but City finally grabbed their controversial winner in the 79th minute.
Rodri, coming back from an offside position, nicked the ball off Tyrone Mings and found Silva on the edge of the Villa area.
Silva twisted into space before curling a fine finish into the top corner.
In stoppage-time, Jesus had a header blocked by Cash’s hand and Gundogan stepped up to convert the spot-kick.
Joe Biden on Wednesday became the 46th president of the United States with a call to unity, vowing to bridge deep divides and defeat domestic extremism two weeks after a mob attack tried to undo his election victory.
On a frigid but sunny day at the very Capitol building that was assaulted on January 6, Biden swore the oath of office moments after Kamala Harris, who became America’s first woman vice president, turning the page on Donald Trump’s tumultuous four years.
“Democracy is precious, democracy is fragile and at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed,” Biden said before a National Mall that was virtually empty due to the ultra-tight security and a raging Covid-19 pandemic that he vowed to confront immediately.
“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts, if we show a little tolerance and humility and we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes.”
“Together we shall write an American story of hope, not fear, of unity, not division, of light, not darkness. A story of decency and dignity, love and healings and goodness.”
But Trump, who falsely said that he was cheated out of a second term and egged on his supporters before their rampage at the Capitol, broke 152 years of tradition by refusing to attend his successor’s inauguration.
Biden appealed to Trump’s supporters, pledging to listen to all sides after four years of deep polarization in which Trump belittled minority groups and tried to cast doubts on basic facts.