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COVID-19

Feds silent on enforcement as national long-term care standards get final ‘tweaks’

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By Laura Osman in Ottawa

Jane Sustrik remembers the sense of fear hanging over her in those early months of the pandemic.

Dozens of residents from her mother’s congregate living home in Edmonton died of COVID-19, as Sustrik read reports of the abysmal conditions in long-term care homes across the country and the number of residents falling victim to the virus.

Sustrik was vice-president of United Nurses of Alberta before leaving her job to be a full-time caregiver to her mom in the congregate home. That was just before COVID-19 hit.

At the time she remembers saying, “My greatest fear is that we’re not going to learn anything from this.”

“I feel now that we’ve learned a lot from COVID,” Sustrik said in a recent interview. “But we haven’t done anything with it.”

Teams of experts have been working since last year to put together national long-term care standards to reflect those hard-earned pandemic lessons and offer Canadians better and safer lives in congregate homes.

They’re now putting the finishing touches on two sets of standards, but the question remains what the federal government intends to do once they’re finished.

The Health Standards Organization and the CSA Group — formerly the Canadian Standards Association — are expected to approve the final version of the standards in a matter of weeks and they will be publicly released in December.

Dr. Samir Sinha, who chairs the HSO’s panel of experts on long-term care, said he’s spoken to the federal ministers on the file who’ve expressed enthusiasm about the work so far but won’t commit to mandating the standards until they are finalized.

The Liberals promised to legislate safety in long-term care during the last election, and that promise is a condition of the party’s supply and confidence agreement with the NDP to prevent an election before 2025.

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos’ office referred questions about the government’s promise to Health Canada, which would not say whether the government plans to table legislation in the House of Commons this fall.

“We want to see action on this immediately,” said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh at a news conference Thursday. “We need to see that standard of care be legislated and we want to see that implemented as quick as possible.”

The agreement between the two parties doesn’t include a timeline for the new legislation, or any specifics about what it should contain.

Sustrik said better standards are needed immediately. People have already become complacent about long-term care conditions, even as outbreaks continue in the homes, she said.

“We’re back to where we were before again,” she said. “I feel like nothing’s happened. So if we could get some decent standards in long-term care, it’s absolutely vital.”

The government set aside $3 billion in the 2021 budget to help provinces and territories implement the standards when they are complete, and Health Canada said in a statement any legislation will be designed to reflect the provinces’ jurisdiction over the industry.

Sinha and CSA Group’s committee chair Alex Mihailidis say the standards will be very similar to the drafts released earlier this year, with some minor “tweaks.”

The standards focus on every aspect of life in long-term care, from infection control and prevention, to staff working conditions, food and visitor policies.

CSA Group received 2,000 pieces of feedback on the draft after it was released at the beginning of the year, Mihailidis said, and most reinforced the approach the committee was already taking.

He believes the standards will help to curb transmission of COVID-19 and other disease outbreaks.

“I think there could be a difference down the road, obviously if and when the standard is implemented,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2022.

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COVID-19

China vows crackdown on ‘hostile forces’ as public tests Xi

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BEIJING (AP) — China’s ruling Communist Party has vowed to “resolutely crack down on infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces,” following the largest street demonstrations in decades staged by citizens fed up with strict anti-virus restrictions.

The statement from the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission released late Tuesday comes amid a massive show of force by security services to deter a reoccurrence of the protests that broke out over the weekend in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and several other cities.

While it did not directly address the protests, the statement serves as a reminder of the party’s determination to enforce its rule.

Hundreds of SUVs, vans and armored vehicles with flashing lights were parked along city streets Wednesday while police and paramilitary forces conducted random ID checks and searched people’s mobile phones for photos, banned apps or other potential evidence that they had taken part in the demonstrations.

The number of people who have been detained at the demonstrations and in follow-up police actions is not known.

The commission’s statement, issued after an expanded session Monday presided over by its head Chen Wenqing, a member of the party’s 24-member Politburo, said the meeting aimed to review the outcomes of October’s 20th party congress.

At that event, Xi granted himself a third five-year term as secretary general, potentially making him China’s leader for life, while stacking key bodies with loyalists and eliminating opposing voices.

“The meeting emphasized that political and legal organs must take effective measures to … resolutely safeguard national security and social stability,” the statement said.

“We must resolutely crack down on infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces in accordance with the law, resolutely crack down on illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order and effectively maintain overall social stability,” it said.

Yet, less than a month after seemingly ensuring his political future and unrivaled dominance, Xi, who has signaled he favors regime stability above all, is facing his biggest public challenge yet.

He and the party have yet to directly address the unrest, which spread to college campuses and the semi-autonomous southern city of Hong Kong, as well as sparking sympathy protests abroad.

Most protesters focused their ire on the “zero-COVID” policy that has placed millions under lockdown and quarantine, limiting their access to food and medicine while ravaging the economy and severely restricting travel. Many mocked the government’s ever-changing line of reasoning, as well as claims that “hostile outside foreign forces” were stirring the wave of anger.

Yet bolder voices called for greater freedom and democracy and for Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades, as well as the party he leads, to step down — speech considered subversive and punishable with lengthy prison terms. Some held up blank pieces of white paper to demonstrate their lack of free speech rights.

The weekend protests were sparked by anger over the deaths of at least 10 people in a fire on Nov. 24 in China’s far west that prompted angry questions online about whether firefighters or victims trying to escape were blocked by anti-virus controls.

Authorities eased some controls and announced a new push to vaccinate vulnerable groups after the demonstrations, but maintained they would stick to the “zero-COVID” strategy.

The party had already promised last month to reduce disruptions, but a spike in infections swiftly prompted party cadres under intense pressure to tighten controls in an effort to prevent outbreaks. The National Health Commission on Wednesday reported 37,612 cases detected over the previous 24 hours, while the death toll remained unchanged at 5,233.

Beijing’s Tsinghua University, where students protested over the weekend, and other schools in the capital and the southern province of Guangdong sent students home in an apparent attempt to defuse tensions. Chinese leaders are wary of universities, which have been hotbeds of activism including the Tiananmen protests.

Police appeared to be trying to keep their crackdown out of sight, possibly to avoid encouraging others by drawing attention to the scale of the protests. Videos and posts on Chinese social media about protests were deleted by the party’s vast online censorship apparatus.

“Zero-COVID” has helped keep case numbers lower than those of the United States and other major countries, but global health experts including the head of the World Health Organization increasingly say it is unsustainable. China dismissed the remarks as irresponsible.

Beijing needs to make its approach “very targeted” to reduce economic disruption, the head of the International Monetary Fund told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday.

“We see the importance of moving away from massive lockdowns,” said IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva in Berlin. “So that targeting allows to contain the spread of COVID without significant economic costs.”

Economists and health experts, however, warn that Beijing can’t relax controls that keep most travelers out of China until tens of millions of older people are vaccinated. They say that means “zero-COVID” might not end for as much as another year.

On Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns said restrictions were, among other things, making it impossible for U.S. diplomats to meet with American prisoners being held in China, as is mandated by international treaty. Because of a lack of commercial airline routes into the country, the Embassy has to use monthly charter flights to move its personnel in and out.

“COVID is really dominating every aspect of life” in China, he said in an online discussion with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

On the protests, Burns said the embassy was observing their progress and the government’s response, but said, “We believe the Chinese people have a right to protest peacefully.”

“They have a right to make their views known. They have a right to be heard. That’s a fundamental right around the world. It should be. And that right should not be hindered with, and it shouldn’t be interfered with,” he said.

Burns also referenced instances of Chinese police harassing and detaining foreign reporters covering the protests.

“We support freedom of the press as well as freedom of speech,” he said.

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COVID-19

Students sent home, police on patrol as China curbs protests

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By Joe Mcdonald, Dake Kang And Huizhong Wu in Beijing

BEIJING (AP) — Chinese universities sent students home and police fanned out in Beijing and Shanghai to prevent more protests Tuesday after crowds angered by severe anti-virus restrictions called for leader Xi Jinping to resign in the biggest show of public dissent in decades.

Authorities have eased some controls after demonstrations in at least eight mainland cities and Hong Kong — but maintained they would stick to a “zero-COVID” strategy that has confined millions of people to their homes for months at a time. Security forces have detained an unknown number of people and stepped up surveillance.

With police out in force, there was no word of protests Tuesday in Beijing, Shanghai or other major mainland cities that saw crowds rally over the weekend. Those were the most widespread protests since the army crushed the 1989 student-led Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement.

In Hong Kong, about a dozen people, mostly from the mainland, protested at a university.

Beijing’s Tsinghua University, where students rallied over the weekend, and other schools in the capital and the southern province of Guangdong sent students home. The schools said they were being protected from COVID-19, but dispersing them to far-flung hometowns also reduces the likelihood of more demonstrations. Chinese leaders are wary of universities, which have been hotbeds of activism including the Tiananmen protests.

On Sunday, Tsinghua students were told they could go home early for the semester. The school, which is Xi’s alma mater, arranged buses to take them to the train station or airport.

Nine student dorms at Tsinghua were closed Monday after some students positive for COVID-19, according to one who noted the closure would make it hard for crowds to gather. The student gave only his surname, Chen, for fear of retribution from authorities.

Beijing Forestry University also said it would arrange for students to return home. It said its faculty and students all tested negative for the virus.

Universities said classes and final exams would be conducted online.

Authorities hope to “defuse the situation” by clearing out campuses, said Dali Yang, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Chicago.

Depending on how tough a position the government takes, groups might take turns protesting, he said.

Police appeared to be trying to keep their crackdown out of sight, possibly to avoid drawing attention to the scale of the protests or encouraging others. Videos and posts on Chinese social media about protests were deleted by the ruling party’s vast online censorship apparatus.

There were no announcements about detentions, though reporters saw protesters taken away by police and social media posts said people were in custody or missing.

Police warned some detained protesters against demonstrating again.

In Shanghai, police stopped pedestrians and checked their phones Monday night, according to a witness, possibly looking for apps such as Twitter that are banned in China or images of protests. The witness, who insisted on anonymity for fear of arrest, said he was on his way to a protest but found no crowd there when he arrived.

Images viewed by The Associated Press of photos from a weekend protest showed police shoving people into cars. Some people were also swept up in police raids after demonstrations ended.

One person who lived near the site of a protest in Shanghai was detained Sunday and held until Tuesday morning, according to two friends who insisted on anonymity for fear of retribution from authorities.

In Beijing, police on Monday visited a resident who attended a protest the previous night, according to a friend who refused to be identified for fear of retaliation. He said the police questioned the resident and warned him not to go to more protests.

On Tuesday, protesters at the University of Hong Kong chanted against virus restrictions and held up sheets of paper with critical slogans. Some spectators joined in their chants.

The protesters held signs that read, “Say no to COVID panic” and “No dictatorship but democracy.”

One chanted: “We’re not foreign forces but your classmates.” Chinese authorities often try to discredit domestic critics by saying they work for foreign powers.

China’s “zero-COVID” policy has helped keep case numbers lower than those of the United States and other major countries, but global health experts have increasingly criticized the methods as unsustainable.

Beijing needs to make its approach “very targeted” to reduce economic disruption, the head of the International Monetary Fund told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday.

“We see the importance of moving away from massive lockdowns,” IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said in Berlin. “So that targeting allows to contain the spread of COVID without significant economic costs.”

“Zero COVID” means few Chinese have been exposed to the virus. Meanwhile, elderly vaccination rates lag other countries as seniors decline the shots, and China’s domestically developed vaccines are less effective than those used abroad.

Public tolerance of the onerous restrictions has eroded as some people confined at home said they struggled to get access to food and medicine.

The Chinese Communist Party promised last month to reduce disruptions, but a spike in infections has prompted cities to tighten controls.

The protests over the weekend were sparked by anger over the deaths of at least 10 people in a fire in China’s far west last week that prompted angry questions online about whether firefighters or victims trying to escape were blocked by anti-virus controls.

Most protesters over the weekend complained about excessive restrictions, but some turned their anger at Xi, China’s most powerful leader since at least the 1980s.

In a video that was verified by The Associated Press, a crowd in Shanghai on Saturday chanted, “Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP! Step down!” Such direct criticism of Xi is unprecedented.

Sympathy protests were held overseas, and foreign governments have called on Beijing for restraint.

“We support the right of people everywhere to peacefully protest, to make known their views, their concerns, their frustrations,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a visit to Bucharest, Romania.

Meanwhile, the British government summoned China’s ambassador as a protest over the arrest and beating of a BBC cameraman in Shanghai.

Media freedom “is something very, very much at the heart of the U.K.’s belief system,” said Foreign Secretary James Cleverly.

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian disputed the British version of events. Zhao said the journalist, Edward Lawrence, failed to identify himself and accused the BBC of twisting the story.

Asked about criticism of the crackdown, Zhao defended Beijing’s anti-virus strategy and said the public’s legal rights were protected by law.

The government is trying to “provide maximum protection to people’s lives and health while minimizing the COVID impact on social and economic development,” he said.

Wang Dan, a former student leader of the 1989 demonstrations who lives in exile, said the protest “symbolizes the beginning of a new era in China … in which Chinese civil society has decided not to be silent and to confront tyranny.”

But he warned at a news conference in Taipei, Taiwan, that authorities were likely to respond with “stronger force to violently suppress protesters.” ___

Kang reported from Shanghai and Wu from Taipei, Taiwan. Associated Press writers Kanis Leung in Hong Kong, Jill Lawless in London, David McHugh in Berlin, and Ellen Knickmeyer in Bucharest, Romania, contributed.

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