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Troops in Ukraine to return next month, will be replaced with smaller force

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OTTAWA — The Canadian Armed Forces plans to withdraw the 200 troops it currently has in Ukraine and replace them with a skeleton force next month to hold the fort until the COVID-19 pandemic has passed.

That means the soldiers will be returning to Canada as scheduled, though there was no immediate word on what quarantine restrictions the returning troops will be under, including whether they will be allowed to stay in their homes or barracks.

The soldiers arrived in Ukraine in October and are the latest Canadian contingent to take part in what is now a five-year mission to train Ukrainian soldiers.

The training mission was launched in 2015 after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and started to support separatist forces in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region in a war that has killed more than 10,000 people and left tens of thousands more wounded or homeless.

Military commanders had been weighing their options in recent days over what to do with the mission, dubbed Operation Unifier, amid strict orders against non-essential travel and activities to protect the Armed Forces from COVID-19.

“In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic situation both at home and abroad, and the suspension of non-critical activities on our deployed operations, the decision has been made to reduce the number of personnel departing in early April on Op Unifier,” Capt. Alexia Croizer of the Canadian Joint Operations Command said in an email on Thursday.

“Where approximately 200 CAF members were scheduled to deploy, approximately 60 members will now relieve the current rotation of personnel expected back in Canada at the end of April following the completion of their six-month deployment.”

With training efforts suspended due to COVID-19, the replacement force is expected to largely hunker down to ride out the pandemic while maintaining the Canadian military’s presence in the country.

The other 140 military personnel who were scheduled to deploy to Ukraine will remain on high alert back home in case they are needed on short notice, Croizer said. Commanders will reassess in June whether they should join their comrades or not.

“Every measure will be taken to ensure the health and safety of our deploying personnel to Ukraine, as we are currently doing so with our deployed (Canadian Armed Forces) members under Op Unifier,” Croizer added.

 Defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance this month ordered a halt to all non-essential military movement and activities to protect the force from COVID-19 while those involved in the training mission — like most Canadian troops deployed overseas — are on lockdown due to the pandemic.

The military’s “operational pause” was expected to last only three weeks, but in a letter to military personnel last week, Vance said Forces members must “face the reality” that it may last longer to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus and the respiratory illness it causes.

Ukrainian public health officials reported 156 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country as of Tuesday, with five deaths. There were two confirmed cases in the western city of Lviv, near where some of Canadian troops are based.

Andriy Shevchenko, the Ukrainian ambassador to Canada, emphasized the importance of the training mission in an interview earlier this week, noting the war in the Donbass region continues to rage nearly six years after it started.

Ukrainian and Canadian military officials are looking at ways to resume the training mission while preventing the virus from spreading, he added.

Concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19 among military personnel were underscored this week when the U.S. Navy reported the respiratory illness has infected members of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.

The vessel was patrolling the Philippine and South China Seas but has since been ordered to Guam amid reports the illness was spreading throughout the ship.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2020.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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Spain passes China in infections; Trump extends US lockdown

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MADRID — In an abrupt turnaround, President Donald Trump extended lockdown measures across the United States as deaths in New York from the new coronavirus passed 1,000. Spain on Monday became the third country to surpass China in infections after the United States and Italy.

With a population of only 47 million to China’s 1.4 billion, Spain’s tally of infections reached 85,195, an 8% rise from the previous day. Spain also reported 812 new deaths, raising its overall virus death toll to 7,300.

The health systems in Italy and Spain have been crumbling under the weight of caring for so many desperately ill patients at once. The two nations have more than half the world’s 34,600 deaths from the virus that has upended the lives of billions of people and devastated world economies.

At least six of Spain’s 17 regions were at their limit of ICU beds and three more were close to it, authorities said, while crews of workers are frantically building more field hospitals. In hard-hit Madrid, flags were hoisted at half staff for an official mourning period.

Even as the rate of new infections slows in Spain, Dr. Maria José Sierra said there’s no end to the restrictions in sight yet.

“Reducing the pressure on the ICUs will be important for considering de-escalation measures,” said Sierra, who took over Monday as the health emergency centre’s spokesperson after its director, Fernando Simón, tested positive.

In a situation unimaginable only a month ago, Italian officials were cheered when they reported only 756 deaths in one day.

‘’We are saving lives by staying at home, by maintaining social distance, by travelling less and by closing schools,” Dr. Luca Richeldi, a lung specialist, told reporters.

In a stark reversal of his previous stance, Trump extended federal guidelines recommending that Americans stay home for another 30 days until the end of April to slow the spread of the virus. The turnabout came after Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said up to 200,000 Americans could die and millions become infected if lockdowns and social distancing did not continue.

“We want to make sure that we don’t prematurely think we’re doing so great,” Fauci said.

The U.S. now has more than 143,000 infections and 2,500 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University, while around the world 732,000 people are infected. The true number of cases is thought to be considerably higher because of testing shortages and mild illnesses that have gone unreported.

Moscow went on its own lockdown Monday as all of Russia braced for sweeping nationwide restrictions. The Russian capital of 13 million accounts for more than 1,000 of the country’s 1,836 coronavirus cases.

“The extremely negative turn of events we are seeing in the largest European and U.S. cities causes extreme concern about the life and health of our citizens,” Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said.

An electronic monitoring system will be used to control residents’ compliance with the lockdown, he said.

In Italy, which has by far the most deaths from the virus worldwide, officials expressed cautious optimism that the drastic measures they have taken to keep people apart are having an impact.

Italy has reported 97,689 infections and 10,779 deaths, but said the number of positive cases in the last day increased just 5.4%, and the number of deaths have dropped about 10% a day since Friday.

Experts say the critical situations seen in hospitals in Italy and Spain will be soon heading toward the United States.

Coronavirus patient Andrea Napoli, 33, told The Associated Press he didn’t remotely expect that he would be hospitalized, struggling for his life, since he was young and fit. But what he saw at a Rome hospital shocked him.

While he was being treated, three patients died in his ward. He saw doctors stressed and exhausted from the long hours, out of breath from pushing equipment around, dressed in protective masks, suits and gloves.

‘’What I saw was a lot, a lot of pain. It was very hard,’’ Napoli said. ‘’I heard screams from the other rooms, constant coughing from the other rooms.’’

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia and can be fatal. More than 155,000 people have recovered, according to Johns Hopkins.

China’s National Health Commission on Monday reported 31 new COVID-19 cases, among them just one domestic infection. At the peak of China’s restrictions, some 700 million people were ordered to stay home, but those rules are easing.

New York state remained the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, with the vast majority of the deaths in New York City. But infections were spiking not only in cities but in Midwestern towns and Rocky Mountain ski havens. West Virginia reported its first death, leaving only two states — Hawaii and Wyoming — with none linked to COVID-19.

The virus is moving fast through nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other places for vulnerable people, spreading “like fire through dry grass,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

Britain’s National Health Service said EasyJet and Virgin Atlantic were writing to cabin crew who have been laid off — especially those with first aid training — to ask if they would work in makeshift hospitals under the supervision of doctors and nurses.

Britain’s political elite have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with the country’s prime minister, health minister, chief English medical director and Brexit negotiator all testing positive and in isolation, as well as the heir to the throne, Prince Charles.

Cases across Africa rose close to 5,000 in 46 countries. Zimbabwe began a three-week lockdown Monday and more cities across the continent were shut down.

The pandemic is also taking its toll economically around the world.

A lockdown in India covering the country’s 1.3 billion people has put day labourers out of work and left families struggling to eat. With no jobs, those living in the country’s crowded cities are walking back to their native villages.

In Europe, budget airline EasyJet grounded its entire fleet of aircraft — parking all 344 planes — amid a collapse in demand due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Japanese automaker Toyota Motor Corp. announced that its auto plants in Europe will halt production at least until April 20. Toyota has facilities in France, Great Britain, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Turkey and Portugal. All its plants in China resumed normal production Monday.

Asian markets started the week with fresh losses. Japan’s benchmark fell nearly 3% and other regional markets were mostly lower. Shares in Australia, however, surged 7% after the government promised 130 billion Australian dollars ($80 billion) to pay up to 6 million workers the minimum wage for the next six months.

“We want to keep the engine of our economy running through this crisis,” said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

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Rising reported from Berlin; Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Associated Press writers around the world contributed to this report.

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Follow AP news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

Aritz Parra, Vladimir Isachenkov And David Rising, The Associated Press




















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Tokyo Olympics rescheduled for July 23-Aug. 8 in 2021

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TOKYO — The Tokyo Olympics will open next year in the same time slot scheduled for this year’s games.

Tokyo organizers said Monday the opening ceremony will take place on July 23, 2021 — almost exactly one year after the games were due to start this year.

“The schedule for the games is key to preparing for the games,” Tokyo organizing committee president Yoshiro Mori said. “This will only accelerate our progress.”

Last week, the IOC and Japanese organizers postponed the Olympics until 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

This year’s games were scheduled to open on July 24 and close on Aug. 9. But the near exact one-year delay will see the rescheduled closing ceremony on Aug. 8.

There had been talk of switching the Olympics to spring, a move that would coincide with the blooming of Japan’s famous cherry blossoms. But it would also clash with European soccer and North American sports leagues.

Mori said a spring Olympics was considered but holding the games later gives more space to complete the many qualifying events that have been postponed by the virus outbreak.

“We wanted to have more room for the athletes to qualify,” Mori said.

After holding out for weeks, local organizers and the IOC last week postponed the Tokyo Games under pressure from athletes, national Olympic bodies and sports federations. It’s the first postponement in Olympic history, though there were several cancellations during wartime.

The Paralympics were rescheduled to Aug. 24-Sept. 5.

The new Olympic dates will conflict with the scheduled world championships in track and swimming, but those events are now expected to also be pushed back.

“The IOC has had close discussions with the relevant international federations,” Mori said. “I believe the IFs have accepted the games being held in the summer.”

Both Mori and CEO Toshiro Muto have said the cost of rescheduling the Olympics will be “massive” — local reports estimate billions of dollars — with most of the expenses borne by Japanese taxpayers.

Muto promised transparency in calculating the costs, and testing times deciding how they are divided up.

“Since it (the Olympics) were scheduled for this summer, all the venues had given up hosting any other events during this time, so how do we approach that?” Muto asked. “In addition, there will need to be guarantees when we book the new dates, and there is a possibility this will incur rent payments. So there will be costs incurred and we will need to consider them one by one. I think that will be the tougher process.”

Katsuhiro Miyamoto, an emeritus professor of sports economics at Kansai University, puts the costs as high as $4 billion. That would cover the price of maintaining stadiums, refitting them, paying rentals, penalties and other expenses.

Japan is officially spending $12.6 billion to organize the Olympics. However, an audit bureau of the Japanese government says the costs are twice that much. All of the spending is public money except $5.6 billion from a privately funded operating budget.

The Switzerland-based International Olympic Committee is contributing $1.3 billion, according to organizing committee documents. The IOC’s contribution goes into the operating budget.

IOC President Thomas Bach has repeatedly called the Tokyo Olympics the best prepared in history. However, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso also termed them “cursed.” Aso competed in shooting in the 1976 Olympics, and was born in 1940.

The Olympics planned for 1940 in Tokyo were cancelled because of World War II.

The run-up to the Olympics also saw IOC member Tsunekazu Takeda, who also headed the Japanese Olympic Committee, forced to resign last year amid a bribery scandal.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Stephen Wade, The Associated Press






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