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Getting ‘crushed’ on Melbourne’s path to coronavirus success

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“It was pretty grim. There was a lot of sadness in people’s eyes. A lot of fear of the unknown.”

Matt Lanigan is describing life on Melbourne’s Chapel St during the city’s recent four-month lockdown.

“The streets were completely deserted. It was like something out of [post-apocalyptic film] Mad Max,” says Mr Lanigan, who owns cafe Lucky Penny on the iconic shopping strip.

Melbourne first went into lockdown in March, but its second, which began in July after a fresh Covid outbreak, was a bigger blow. That lockdown went on to become one of the longest and strictest in the world.

“It was brutal,” Mr Lanigan says of trying to keep his business afloat. “It was like I was in a boxing match and I just got knocked to the floor. For a moment there, I felt like maybe it wasn’t worth getting up.”

But things are slowly turning around. On Friday, Melbourne and the state of Victoria achieved one measure of “elimination” of the virus – 28 consecutive days with no new infections. After seeing daily cases soar above 700 in July and August, the city is seen as an example for the rest of the world on how to handle a second outbreak.

Now on reopened Chapel St, music and chatter fill the air as people enjoy their Sunday brunches. Customers are coming in and out of shops on both sides of the road. The scene is very Melbourne.

Despite the high spirits, everywhere you look there are signs of how battered this city has been.

Many businesses are still shut, some displaying “for lease” signs. Others are open but half empty. Placards saying “support local” dot Melbourne.

Not far from Chapel St, Melissa Glentis runs a cafe called Dilly Daly.

“Most of Melbourne was feeling just crushed,” she says. “Our spirits were crushed, the streets were dead. I didn’t actually want to come to my own business, which I’ve worked [on] my entire life to get to this point.

“It was a roller coaster of emotions. There were days where we just didn’t want to get off the couch. I just wanted to stay home and cry.”

The lockdown divided the city between those who supported it and those who said it was too extreme and too long.

The huge public health benefit has also come at a huge cost. Melbourne’s economy could be reduced by up to A$110bn (£60bn; $81bn) over the next five years because of the pandemic. Victoria is projected to lose up to 325,000 jobs this year alone, according to a report by the City of Melbourne.

Mr Lanigan says his business barely survived – he offered takeaway services, created an online grocery store, and took up a government subsidy called JobKeeper.

“We could have easily just shut the doors. Instead we decided to push harder.” Part of that, he says, was deciding to use his takeaway window as a way to keep the local community connected.

“They would come down and have a five or a ten-minute conversation [at the window]. It was their one piece of social interaction for the day.”

It became clear through these conversations how dire the situation had become for many people, he says.

“We were hearing about people not having food on their tables. Every second person you spoke to was struggling with something. I could see the fear everywhere. From people telling me ‘I’m missing my mum, I’m worried about my grandma,’ to ‘I’ve had enough’.”

After a three-hour conversation to talk a friend out of suicide, he decided to take a mental health first aid course online.

“He had a breakdown and he was on the edge of killing himself,” Mr Lanigan says. “He’d lost his events company, and there was no roadmap, no direction, no hope.”

“The conversations I was having sitting at that window on the street every day, it was evident that people needed help, and I needed to be more qualified and confident to give it.”

He says the real economic and mental health toll will become clearer in the months to come, especially when government wage subsidy schemes end.

“I think you’ll see the real fallout in March, April and May next year. That will be when you get a real understanding of the unemployment figures, a real understanding of the mental health toll, a real understanding of the suicide figures,” he says.

On Friday, Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton said the 28 days without a new infection was “rightly worthy of celebration”, but acknowledged many had “suffered enormously”. More than 800 people in the state had died, he added.

“So it’s only right that many of us still feel anxious, angry or burdened by sadness,” he tweeted.

Ms Glentis says that reopening feels like she’s starting from scratch, with the shop sometimes empty on weekdays.

“The business was decimated. We’ve lost a lot of our regular customers and our corporate customers in the area. A lot of the residents moved. It means that we literally have to start from zero again.”

“It is a little bit soul-destroying, but I am the most positive person, and we will work as hard as we can to get back to where we were.”

Ms Glentis says she is anxious about another outbreak, however.

“What worries me the most is having to do this all over again. I don’t think on a personal level, I will be able to get through this again.”

Read from source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-55081684

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Honduran abortion law: Congress moves to set total ban ‘in stone’

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Parliament in Honduras has initially approved a bill that will make it virtually impossible to legalise abortion in the country.

The new measure will require at least three-quarters of Congress to vote in favour of modifying the abortion law, which is among the strictest in world.

Honduras forbids abortion under any circumstance, even rape or incest.

Its latest move comes in response to Argentina legalising abortion last month.

Across Latin America, there has been increased pro-choice campaigning, known as the “green wave”, based on the colour worn by protesters.

The new legislation in Honduras hinges on an article in the constitution that gives a fetus the same legal status of a person. Constitutional changes have until now been permitted with a two-thirds majority, but the new legislation raises that bar to three-quarters within the 128-member body.

The measure still needs to be ratified by a second vote. However, support was clear on Thursday: with 88 legislators voting in favour, 28 opposed and seven abstentions.

Honduras has a stanchly conservative majority, which referred to the measure as a “shield against abortion”.

“What they did was set this article in stone because we can never reform it if 96 votes are needed [out of 128]”, opposition MP Doris Gutiérrez told AFP news agency.

Mario Pérez, a lawmaker with the ruling party of President Juan Orlando Hernandez, formally proposed the change last week, calling it a “constitutional lock” to prevent any future moderations of the abortion law.

“Every human being has the right to life from the moment of conception,” said Mr Pérez.

Ahead of the vote, UN human rights experts condemned the move, saying in a statement: “This bill is alarming. Instead of taking a step towards fulfilling the fundamental rights of women and girls, the country is moving backwards.”

Abortion has been constitutionally banned in Honduras since 1982.

In 2017, lawmakers voted on decriminalising it in the case of rape, incest or when there was danger to the mother or the fetus, but the move was roundly rejected.

Nicaragua, El Salvador and Haiti also have complete bans on abortion, but Honduras is the only country to also prohibit the use of emergency contraceptives in all cases, including after rape.

Cuba, Uruguay, Guyana and Argentina are the only Latin American countries to permit abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy.

Read from source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-55764195

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Mynor Padilla: Killer of anti-mining activist pleads guilty

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The ex-security chief at a mine in Guatemala, Mynor Padilla, has pleaded guilty to killing an anti-mining activist in 2009.

Adolfo Ich was killed at the Fénix mine, which was owned at the time by a subsidiary of Canadian mining giant Hudbay Minerals.

He had been campaigning against the mining project and for his community’s land rights.

Germán Chub, a bystander, was also shot, leaving him paralysed.

The guilty plea comes at a retrial after Padilla was cleared of murder at a previous trial.

What happened in September 2009?

The Fénix nickel project was owned by the Guatemalan Nickel Company (CGN), a subsidiary of Toronto-based Hudbay Minerals.

CGN wanted to develop the mine, but the indigenous Maya community objected, arguing that much of the company’s land belonged to them.

The company said it engaged in talks to negotiate their resettlement but members of the Maya community said they were threatened with forced evictions.

On 27 September 2009, security guards at the mine attacked members of the community with machetes and firearms, according to witnesses.

Adolfo Ich was killed, Germán Chub was left paralysed, and at least seven more people were injured.

What was Mynor Padilla’s role?

Mynor Padilla was the chief of security at the Fénix project and witnesses said he was the key man in the attack on 27 September 2009.

Hudbay defended its personnel, alleging that members of the Maya community had turned on each other and that their security staff had acted in self-defence.

Following a three-year murder trial Padilla was acquitted, much to the outrage of the victims’ families who launched an appeal.

What’s the latest?

The court of appeal overturned the acquittal and ordered a retrial which began in December 2020.

After having for years maintained his innocence, Mynor Padilla entered a guilty plea which was accepted by the court on Wednesday.

A lawyer for Adolfo Ich’s widow in a civil lawsuit against Hudbay Minerals in Canada called it a “momentous day”.

Why does it matter?

There are three civil lawsuits under way against Hudbay Minerals in Canada, in connection with the Fénix mine.

One of them was filed by Adolfo Ich’s widow, Angélica Choc, who alleges that the company failed to take adequate precautions to ensure that human rights abuses would not be perpetrated by Hudbay’s security personnel.

In 2013, a court in Ontario allowed the lawsuits to proceed, making it the first time that foreign claimants were allowed to pursue a lawsuit against a Canadian company in Canada for alleged human rights abuses.

Cory Wanless, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, said that following Mynor Padilla’s guilty plea “it will be difficult for Hudbay to continue to argue that it does not bear responsibility for the killing and shooting”.

Hudbay Minerals has released a statement saying it would “review the court’s decision once it is released”, which is due to happen later this month.

The company, which sold the Félix mine to Swiss-based Solway Group in 2011, also stated that “any agreements made in the Guatemalan court do not affect our view of the facts of Hudbay’s liability in relation to civil matters currently before the Ontario court”.

Read from source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-55573682

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Deepening divisions: Venezuela’s haves and have nots

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The Hotel Humboldt sits atop El Ávila, a national park overlooking Venezuela’s capital, Caracas.

At more than 2,000m (6,500ft) above sea level, you have to take a 20-minute trip in a cable car to the top of the mountain to reach it.

From there, a golf buggy drives guests along the ridge to an impressive glass and aluminium structure surrounded most of the day by rolling clouds that suddenly clear to reveal the most astounding view.

The hotel was built in 1956. Finished in less than 200 days, it was the pet project of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, who ruled Venezuela from 1950 to 1958.

At a time of great oil wealth, it was a show of pomp and modernity.

National icon

It operated as a hotel for just a few years before falling into disrepair, but it has remained an icon, one that the late President Hugo Chávez wanted to restore to its former glory. After his death in 2013, his successor, Nicolás Maduro, has been intent on finalising the restoration.

“This building means so much for the Venezuelan people,” says Carlos Salas, one of the hotel’s managers.

He shows me around the hotel, which has just started accepting overnight guests after nine years of renovations.

“It’s a representation of a golden era for Venezuela.”

But that golden era is long gone.

The economy is in crisis, oil prices have slumped as has production and around 60% of Venezuelans now live in poverty, according to researchers at the Andrés Bello Catholic University.

Financially sound or a folly?

A stay at the Hotel Humboldt costs around $300 (£225) a night.

Clearly a lot of hard work has been put into restoring this architectural jewel but it is not your typical five-star lodgings. Indeed, the classification was awarded by the government which is promoting it, and the hotel is still a bit rough around the edges, despite having been inaugurated a month ago.

The Marriott hotel chain was given the concession to run it in 2018 but it did not stay long as partner. The team now in place is clearly proud of its achievements but in crisis-hit Venezuela, the hotel’s restoration feels like a folly, promoted by a president with his head buried in the sand.

“One banana here costs triple the price [elsewhere],” Mr Salas says, explaining the logistical challenges of getting supplies up the mountain to the hotel.

“My people here, we have to pay them more, the maintenance of the building, water, electricity, it’s really difficult.”

So what, I ask, is the demand for a hotel like this, in a country where the minimum wage is around $2 (£1.50) a month.

He responds without flinching, arguing that five-star hotels are not within everyone’s reach anywhere in the world. Venezuela is no different, he says.

Emerging elite

The hotel is seen by many as a symbol of the rise of a group of newly wealthy Venezuelans, in particular those who have become rich thanks to their close ties to the government.

And Hotel Humboldt is not the only sign of an economic revival in Venezuela.

Faced with US sanctions, rampant hyperinflation and a spiralling economic crisis, President Maduro responded by removing the price controls and easing the capital controls introduced by his predecessor and fellow socialist, Hugo Chávez.

With the local currency increasingly hard to come by due to the sky-high inflation rate – a cup of coffee with milk can set you back almost 1.5m bolivars in Caracas – Mr Maduro also begrudgingly accepted the use of the US dollar.

The result of this easing of economic restraints can be seen across Caracas, where new “bodegas” (shops) have opened up, selling all sorts of imported goods to people long-used to shortages of even the basics.

The Caracas stock exchange is another beneficiary, booming because of an uptick in private enterprise, although it is still comparatively small.

A brighter future?

It has made life a bit more bearable for many, especially in this toughest of years, but not everyone is positive about these changes.

“The government is building on the ashes of this wrecked economic model in a very disorganised fashion,” says economist Tamara Herrera.

“This re-accommodation of the economy is amorphous, disorganised and positive results are difficult to judge. This won’t mend the tragedy that you can see in the population,” she argues.

And there is no doubt that while there may be an emerging class of haves, there are still plenty of have nots – those with little or no access to dollars, or basic services.

In the poor neighbourhood of Catia, on the outskirts of Caracas, I met former housekeeper Diurka González, who is helping out in a soup kitchen. Every day, the kitchen provides lunches for as many as 140 children, including her two-year-old daughter.

“My boss couldn’t keep me on because she was scared of the pandemic,” Ms González tells me.

She did not even earn $2 a month, but now she gets nothing. The soup kitchen allows her daughter to eat one decent meal a day.

Hard realities

A few doors down, Jonathan Fermenal is feeding his two-year-old daughter Samara with the lunch they have just picked up from the soup kitchen. He relies on the free lunches for Samara and his other two children.

Mr Fermenal’s wife, Laila, left to find work in Colombia at the beginning of the year.

The plan was for the rest of the family to follow a few months later, but then came the coronavirus pandemic. They have not been able to see her since.

“At the beginning, it was horrible, horrible,” he says about his wife’s departure. “My youngest was 18 months old, she was still breastfeeding and had to stop suddenly. The first month, I didn’t sleep at all.”

Mr Fermenal has had to learn to play the role of both mother and father. “For my wife it’s also been hard, everything is done by Whatsapp, a photo here, a voice message there, but it’s not the same,” he says.

“And the way I live is how thousands and thousands of Venezuelan families are living,” says Mr Fermenal about the more than five million Venezuelans who have left to escape their home country’s economic hardships over the past six years.

Lives – and hardships – that are far more common than those who invested in the Hotel Humboldt would like to believe.

Read from source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-55364444

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