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India starts world’s largest COVID-19 vaccination drive

NEW DELHI (AP) — India started inoculating health workers Saturday in what is likely the world’s largest COVID-19 vaccination campaign, joining the ranks of wealthier nations where the effort is already well underway.

India is home to the world’s largest vaccine makers and has one of the biggest immunization programs. But there is no playbook for the enormity of the current challenge.

Indian authorities hope to give shots to 300 million people, roughly the population of the U.S and several times more than its existing program that targets 26 million infants. The recipients include 30 million doctors, nurses and other front-line workers, to be followed by 270 million people who are either over 50 years old or have illnesses that make them vulnerable to COVID-19.

For workers who have pulled India’s battered healthcare system through the pandemic, the shots offered confidence that life can start returning to normal. Many burst with pride.

“I am excited that I am among the first to get the vaccine,” Gita Devi, a nurse, said as she lifted her left sleeve to receive the shot.

Trump’s presidency not just a blip in US foreign policy

WASHINGTON (AP) — President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to scrap President Donald Trump’s vision of “America First” in favor of “diplomacy first” will depend on whether he’s able to regain the trust of allies and convince them that Trumpism is just a blip in the annals of U.S. foreign policy.

It could be a hard sell. From Europe to the Middle East and Asia, Trump’s brand of transactional diplomacy has alienated friends and foes alike, leaving Biden with a particularly contentious set of national security issues.

Biden, who said last month that “America’s back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it,” might strive to be the antithesis of Trump on the world stage and reverse some, if not many, of his predecessor’s actions. But Trump’s imprint on America’s place in the world — viewed as good or bad — will not be easily erased.

U.S. allies aren’t blind to the large constituency of American voters who continue to support Trump’s nationalist tendencies and his belief that the United States should stay out of world conflicts. If Biden’s goal is to restore America’s place in the world, he’ll not only need to gain the trust of foreign allies but also convince voters at home that international diplomacy works better than unilateral tough talk.

Trump has insisted that he’s not against multilateralism, only global institutions that are ineffective. He has pulled out of more than half a dozen international agreements, withdrawn from multiple U.N. groups and trash talked allies and partners.

Biden: We’ll ‘manage the hell’ out of feds’ COVID response

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to boost supplies of coronavirus vaccine and set up new vaccination sites to meet his goal of 100 million shots in 100 days. It’s part of a broader COVID strategy that also seeks to straighten out snags in testing and ensure minority communities are not left out.

“Some wonder if we are reaching too far,” Biden said Friday. “Let me be clear, I’m convinced we can get it done.”

The real payoff, Biden said, will come from uniting the nation in a new effort grounded in science.

Biden spoke a day after unveiling a $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” to confront the virus and provide temporary support for a shaky economy. About $400 billion of the plan is focused on measures aimed at controlling the virus. Those range from mass vaccination centers to more sophisticated scientific analysis of new strains and squads of local health workers to trace the contacts of infected people.

“You have my word: We will manage the hell out of this operation,” Biden declared. He underscored a need for Congress to approve more money and for people to keep following basic precautions, such as wearing masks, avoiding gatherings and frequently washing their hands.

Trump administration carries out 13th and final execution

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — The Trump administration early Saturday carried out its 13th federal execution since July, an unprecedented run that concluded just five days before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden — an opponent of the federal death penalty.

Dustin Higgs, convicted of ordering the killings of three women in a Maryland wildlife refuge in 1996, was the third to receive a lethal injection this week at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

President Donald Trump’s Justice Department resumed federal executions last year following a 17-year hiatus. No president in more than 120 years had overseen as many federal executions.

Higgs, 48, was pronounced dead at 1:23 a.m. Asked if he had any last words, Higgs was calm but defiant, naming each of the women prosecutors said he ordered killed.

“I’d like to say I am an innocent man. … I am not responsible for the deaths,” he said softly. “I did not order the murders.”

AP EXCLUSIVE: Maduro ally presses for dialogue with Biden

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said Friday he’s hopeful the Biden administration will roll back a “cruel” sanctions policy and instead give room for diplomacy that could lead to the reopening of the U.S. Embassy and the release of several jailed American citizens.

Jorge Rodríguez’s comments came in his first interview since taking the helm of Venezuela’s National Assembly over strong protests from the U.S., European Union and domestic opponents.

Rodriguez, extending an olive branch to the incoming U.S. president, said the ruling socialist party is eager for a new start after four years of endless attacks by the Trump administration that he believes not only exacerbated suffering among Venezuelans and failed to unseat Maduro but also punished U.S. investors who historically have been important in the OPEC nation.

“All points and all issues are on the table,” he said, including the future of six Venezuelan-American oil executives arrested on corruption charges and two former Green Berets caught in a failed attempt to overthrow Maduro.

It’s unclear if the Biden administration will accept the overture or continue with the hardline policy of regime change it inherits. A lot hinges on its treatment of Juan Guaidó, head of the outgoing congress, whom the Trump administration recognizes as Venezuela’s rightful leader.

NRA declares bankruptcy, plans to incorporate in Texas

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The National Rifle Association announced Friday it has filed for bankruptcy protection and will seek to incorporate the nation’s most politically influential gun-rights group in Texas instead of New York, where a state lawsuit is trying to put the organization out of business.

The announcement came months after New York Attorney General Letitia James sued the NRA, seeking its dissolution over claims that top executives illegally diverted tens of millions of dollars for lavish personal trips, no-show contracts for associates and other questionable expenditures.

The coronavirus pandemic has also upended the NRA, which last year laid off dozens of employees. The group canceled its national convention and scuttled fundraising. The NRA’s bankruptcy filing listed between $100 million and $500 million in assets and between $100 million and $500 million in liabilities. Still, the NRA claimed in announcing the move that the organization was “in its strongest financial condition in years.”

The NRA filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in federal court in Dallas and said it planned to incorporate in Texas, where records show it formed a limited liability corporation, Sea Girt LLC, in November 2020. Sea Girt LLC made a separate bankruptcy filing Friday, listing few assets and fewer than $100,000 in liabilities.

In its filing, the NRA said its longtime leader, Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, made the decision to file for bankruptcy protection in consultation with a committee of three NRA officials formed in September to oversee its legal strategies. The NRA board voted Jan. 7 to clarify LaPierre’s employment agreement, giving him the power to “reorganize or restructure the affairs” of the organization.

Diary shows how quest for love landed Navy vet in Iran jail

WASHINGTON (AP) — Michael White’s long-anticipated trip to Iran was already a disappointment. The love interest he’d gone to visit had stopped seeing him and he’d idled away hours in his hotel room by himself.

Then it got much worse.

On his final day, the car he and his tour guide were in was abruptly cut off by another vehicle with a passenger frantically waving his hands at them. He recalls three men getting out, one with a video camera, forcing him into their car and driving him to an office for questioning. From there, it was on to jail, where orange-tinted water spewed from the sink and shower and prison-issued dirty sandals proved useful in shoving sewer roaches in the bathroom into the toilet.

A handwritten journal he wrote behind bars — a copy of which was provided exclusively to The Associated Press — offers new details about his ordeal in Iran, which ended last June when the State Department secured the Navy veteran’s release. In it, he catalogues physical abuse from his jailers and taunts from fellow inmates while held on dubious allegations. He writes tenderly of the woman he visited even while likening himself to a mouse lured into a trap. And he brands himself a “political hostage,” held on pretextual charges to secure concessions from the U.S.

Seven months after his release, White is trying to reassemble his life in Mexico, unsure what comes next but eager to share his story.

Pragmatic governor Laschet elected to lead Merkel’s party

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right party on Saturday chose Armin Laschet, the pragmatic governor of Germany’s most populous state, as its new leader — sending a signal of continuity months before an election in which voters will decide who becomes the new chancellor.

Laschet defeated Friedrich Merz, a conservative and one-time Merkel rival, at an online convention of the Christian Democratic Union. Laschet won 521 votes to Merz’s 466; a third candidate, prominent lawmaker Norbert Roettgen, was eliminated in a first round of voting.

Saturday’s vote isn’t the final word on who will run as the center-right candidate for chancellor in Germany’s Sept. 26 election, but Laschet will either run for chancellor or will have a big say in who does.

Merkel, who has been chancellor since 2005, announced in late 2018 that she wouldn’t seek a fifth term. She also stepped down from the CDU leadership.

The decision ends an 11-month leadership limbo in Germany’s strongest party after outgoing leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who had failed to impose her authority on the party, announced her resignation. A vote on her successor was delayed twice because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Inauguration Day also is move in/out day at the White House

WASHINGTON (AP) — Moving from house to house is challenging under the best of circumstances, and even with movers as first rate as the housekeepers and other staff who work in the White House.

But the coronavirus pandemic could be a complicating factor as the executive mansion gets ready for a new president and executes the Inauguration Day ritual of moving out one leader and settling in another.

It’s typically a precision operation: Both moves are usually carried out in about five hours. The clock would normally start ticking when the outgoing and incoming presidents leave the White House together to head to the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony. The process would continue during the ceremony and the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.

“They basically have the moving trucks waiting outside the White House gates,” said Matt Costello, a historian at the White House Historical Association. “And as soon as the president and president-elect leave, they wave in the moving trucks, and they’ll pack up the outgoing president’s things, and then they’ll unpack all of the new first family’s things.”

Biden’s wife, Jill, said Friday that she and the president-elect had spent the past two months preparing to move from their home in Wilmington, Delaware, and that they were “packing up our closets this morning.”

China builds hospital in 5 days after surge in virus cases

BEIJING (AP) — China on Saturday finished building a 1,500-room hospital for COVID-19 patients to fight a surge in infections the government said are harder to contain and that it blamed on infected people or goods from abroad.

The hospital is one of six with a total of 6,500 rooms being built in Nangong, south of Beijing in Hebei province, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

China had largely contained the coronavirus that first was detected in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019 but has suffered a surge of cases since December.

A total of 645 people are being treated in Nangong and the Hebei provincial capital, Shijiazhuang, Xinhua said. A 3,000-room hospital is under construction in Shijiazhuang.

Virus clusters also have been found in Beijing and the provinces of Heilongjiang and Liaoning in the northeast and Sichuan in the southwest.

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