Monday, May 31, 2021

Air Canada paid $10M in COVID-19 bonuses to top execs while negotiating gov’t rescue plan

Sean Boynton 
© THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch The tail of the newly revealed Air Canada Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner aircraft is seen at a hangar at the Toronto Pearson International Airport in Mississauga, Ont., Thursday, February 9, 2017.

Air Canada paid its top executives and managers a combined $10 million in bonuses tied to the COVID-19 pandemic late last year, despite the airline losing billions of dollars and cutting thousands of jobs in 2020.

The bonuses, which were outlined in the airline's annual proxy circular to shareholders, came with special stock rewards that were meant to compensate those executives for salary cuts they took as the pandemic wreaked havoc on the travel industry. Yet they also came as Air Canada was negotiating a multibillion-dollar rescue package with the federal government — one that caps future executive compensation.

Trudeau calls Air Canada aid package a ‘good and fair deal’

The airline justified the bonuses and stock awards to shareholders by saying the senior executive team "reacted urgently, decisively and skillfully to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the company."

Read more: Feds announce $5.9B aid package to Air Canada to help customer refunds, jobs

Those actions included slashing over 20,000 employees from Air Canada's workforce, a reduction of more than 50 per cent. The airline also received $656 million through the government's Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) program last year to keep some remaining employees on the payroll.

"And with equal vigor, the leadership team played offence," the airline continued in its message to shareholders, highlighting the safety and business measures it undertook to ensure the company can bounce back from the pandemic.

"We believe we must retain and motivate our senior leaders to help Air Canada recover as quickly as possible," the airline said, adding its "compensation decisions" would help with that goal.

Wesley Lesosky, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees' Air Canada component, said in a statement to Global News that his members that were laid off have not benefited from the CEWS, and criticized the airline for continuing to pay out bonuses amid the pandemic.

“We’re disappointed the company was finding ways to keep paying bonuses to executives, while at the same time cutting off a lifeline for thousands of my members by denying them access to the federal wage subsidy," he said.

"Our members were left out to dry, and the federal government stood by and let it happen.”

Air Canada aid package gives government equity stake in airline: Freeland

In April, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and Transport Canada announced a $5.9-billion federal bailout plan for Air Canada, largely built on repayable loans to the airline in order to rescue it from pandemic-related financial collapse.

By the end of 2020, Air Canada's operating revenue had plummeted 70 per cent to $5.8 billion, from $19.1 billion in 2019. Air Canada shares also lost more than 50 per cent of their market value over the course of last year.

Last spring, the airline announced that its then-chief executive Calin Rovinescu and deputy CEO Michael Rousseau would waive 100 per cent of their salaries for April, May and June of 2020, and cut their salaries in half for the remainder of the year. Three other top named executives took 50 per cent salary cuts for three months, then 20 per cent cuts for the rest of 2020.

The cuts amounted to combined losses of $766,723 for the five executives, including $490,000 for Rovinescu.

On the eve of those executive salaries being fully restored at the start of 2021, Air Canada gave those same five executives special "stock appreciation units" that would serve as an "opportunity to recuperate their foregone salary," the company told shareholders.

Rovinescu received 21,398 stock appreciation units, which Air Canada estimated to be worth $168,396 on a payout based on the increase of Air Canada's share price over the next two years. A payout will not occur if the price dips below the average set at the end of 2020.

Read more: Smaller airlines call on feds for financial support after Air Canada relief deal

The $10 million in "COVID-19 Pandemic Mitigation" bonuses, meanwhile, were based on a new executive compensation program centred on pandemic-era goals of customer service and cost-cutting, among other criteria. That program replaced the existing compensation guidelines that heavily valued profitability to determine bonuses.

Because of "management's exceptional performance" in meeting the new goals, Air Canada's board approved a $20-million bonus package for management and executives, down from the $45 million that would have been approved under the previous program.

Only $10 million was paid out, however, including $723,000 to Rovinescu and a combined $1.116 million to the other four named executives.

Air Canada also determined that losses from the pandemic would impact its long-term incentive plan for executives, eliminating payouts for the past three years of performance-based share units and stock options. As a result, 2020's results were dropped from the formula to ensure payouts would still move forward.

The company justified this move to shareholders by arguing that losing the payouts "could potentially create an important 'retention' issue thereby putting the organization at risk at a time when we most need our key talents to ensure our survival and future recovery for the benefits of our shareholders."

Overall, Rovinescu earned a reported $9.26 million in total compensation last year, down from $12.87 million in 2019.

Rovinescu has since retired and officially stepped down on Feb. 15 of this year, getting replaced by deputy CEO Rousseau.

All airlines eligible for loan to help refund customers impacted by COVID-19 pandemic: Freeland

Over the course of pandemic-hit 2020, Air Canada dramatically reduced its domestic and international flight network and pulled out of several smaller and regional airports across Canada. It also shed 79 older planes from its fleet and cancelled orders for 22 aircraft.

The airline stayed afloat through a series of financing and liquidation moves that the company says totalled $6.780 billion in 2020.

The federal rescue package announced in April saw Ottawa provide Air Canada $5.37 billion in repayable loans, including a $1.4 billion credit facility that the airline can draw from to refund customers whose flights were impacted by the pandemic. The government also purchased a $500-million equity investment in the airline.

As part of the package, executive compensation will be capped at $1 million until those loans are fully paid back with interest.

The airline has also promised to not cut any more jobs from its workforce as it continues to recover from the pandemic.

In an email, Katherine Cuplinskas, a spokesperson for Freeland's office, said questions about executive compensation prior to the agreement being signed should be directed to Air Canada.

The government says the cap on executive compensation is in place from when the deal was announced in April until 12 months after all loans are repaid.

Florida Supreme Court rejects challenge to medical-marijuana law from Tampa's Florigrown

Medical marijuana in Florida --- the nation’s third most-populous state --- has exploded in the few short years since its legalization.

 MAY 28, 2021 

The court’s 42-page ruling came in a drawn-out legal battle launched by Tampa-based Florigrown LLC, which, in part, challenged the state’s system of requiring licensed medical-marijuana operators to handle all aspects of the cannabis business, including, growing, processing, distributing and selling products.The challenge argued that the state law ran afoul of the 2016 constitutional amendment. Lower courts sided with Florigrown and, in a rare move, the Supreme Court ordered two sets of arguments in the case.

But Thursday’s 6-1 decision found that Florigrown, owned in part by prominent Tampa strip-club operator Joe Redner, “has not demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of any of its constitutional claims.” 

The 2017 law’s requirement that marijuana operators handle all aspects of the cannabis business involves what is known as “vertical integration.” In arguing that the requirement is unconstitutional, Florigrown contended that it limits the number of companies that can participate in the industry.

But the Supreme Court reversed a temporary injunction imposed by then-Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, saying that the vertical-integration requirement “is within the Legislature’s specific authority.”

The court also rejected arguments that the law’s cap on the number of medical-marijuana licenses that the Florida Department of Health can issue is contrary to the constitutional amendment.

Previous court rulings that the license limits were unconstitutional “are based solely on a factual finding that the statutory caps have made medical marijuana unavailable, or insufficiently available, in this state and partly on a legal conclusion that the statutory caps are unreasonable in light of the amendment’s purpose,” the majority opinion, shared by Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justices John Couriel, Jamie Grosshans, Jorge Labarga, Carlos Muñiz and Ricky Polston, said.

“We disapprove of these rulings because competent, substantial evidence does not support a finding that the statute has made medical marijuana unavailable, and the amendment does not preclude a limit on the number of MMTCs that can be licensed,” the majority said, using an acronym for medical marijuana treatment centers, the term the state uses for marijuana operators.

Medical marijuana in Florida --- the nation’s third most-populous state --- has exploded in the few short years since its legalization. But the industry and investors have been leery about investing or expanding in Florida until the Supreme Court resolved the Florigrown case.

“This ruling is welcomed for this industry because it affirms the regulatory scheme that a lot of participants have already built their business models around. And for some of the more recent entrants into the market, it allows them to ramp up their spending in Florida with confidence in the regulatory scheme,” John Lockwood, a lawyer who represents several marijuana license holders, told The News Service of Florida on Thursday.

But state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a major cannabis proponent, blasted the Supreme Court decision, saying the medical-marijuana market will “remain closed-off, restricting freedom of opportunity, weakening the free market and leading to ever-higher prices for patients.”

“This ruling by our Republican-dominated Supreme Court further entrenches Florida's unfair, unconstitutional medical marijuana system put in place by our Republican-dominated Legislature,” Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, said in a prepared statement. “This status quo helps absolutely no one except the 22 medical marijuana companies in Florida at the expense of patients.”

Under the 2017 law, the number of medical marijuana licenses grows as the number of qualified patients increases. With more than 561,000 patients, at least a dozen new licenses are available. But the Department of Health has not opened the license application process while the Florigrown lawsuit was awaiting a Supreme  Court ruling.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case last spring, but ordered a new round of arguments focused on whether the statute equates to an unconstitutional “special law.” The Florida Constitution bars “special” laws, which, generally, are intended to benefit specific entities.

During arguments on Oct. 7, Florigrown attorney Katherine Giddings pointed to the 22 marijuana operators, each of which had applied for licensure under a 2014 law authorizing non-euphoric cannabis, which preceded the passage of the constitutional amendment.

“This is definitely a closed class because no one can ever receive the same privileges that these have had,” she said. “This is everything but a free market. It has created a monopoly for a few entities. That is why the licensing scheme is inappropriate and arbitrary.”

But Thursday’s majority opinion said that “the statute as a whole” does not limit licensure to the applicants that were granted licenses under the 2014 law.

“In addition, any other entity that wishes to apply for a license in the future may do so, and may potentially receive one, as the number of available licenses expands … to meet the needs of the state,” the opinion said. “All future licensees will receive licenses equal to the ones initially issued during this early stage of Florida’s medical marijuana industry. The fact that other entities may join the class of licensed MMTCs in the future as circumstances in the state change means that the class is open and the law general.”

But in a 10-page opinion that concurred in part and dissented in part with the majority decision, Justice Alan Lawson disagreed.

A special law violates the Florida Constitution if it “grants a privilege to a private corporation,” Lawson wrote.

Provisions in the 2017 law “grant certain private corporations --- described so precisely that they might as well be named in the statute --- the right to MMTC licensure without entering the competition that others must enter for a statutorily capped number of licenses,” Lawson wrote.

“Because the law grants this clear benefit to these private corporations, it violates the Florida Constitution unless it can be properly construed as a general law,” he wrote, adding, “I am aware of no case in which this court has held that a statute using a closed class of private entities can be saved from a determination that it is a special law simply because the classification scheme is reasonable in relation to the statute’s purpose.”

Ari Gerstin, a lawyer who represents Florigrown, said in an email Thursday that Redner and his team are  “disappointed with the decision and are currently evaluating our options.”

But medical marijuana operators currently in Florida --- where licenses sell for between $35 million and $45 million --- and companies seeking to establish a footprint in the state celebrated the ruling.

“The long-awaited decision is well-reasoned and maintains the status quo, which will help preserve stability in the state’s medical marijuana market,” Jim McKee, an attorney who represents numerous operators, told the News Service. “We can expect an increase in investment in the Florida medical marijuana market.”

Homeland Security unveils new cybersecurity requirements for pipeline operators

by Lance Whitney in Security on May 27, 2021, 10:24 AM PST

Owners and operators will have to identify any gaps in their security and report new incidents to key federal agencies because of the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack.

Image: Bloomberg/Getty Images

In the wake of the ransomware attack against Colonial Pipeline, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has revealed new requirements aimed at all pipeline owners and operators in the U.S. Announced by DHS' Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on Thursday, the security directives are designed to better detect and combat cyber threats against companies in the pipeline industry.

First, owners and operators of critical pipeline facilities will have to report both confirmed and potential cybersecurity incidents to DHS' Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). Further, pipeline operators must select someone to act as a cybersecurity coordinator, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Next, pipeline owners and operators will be required to review their current cybersecurity practices, identify gaps and detail measures required to mitigate any risks. They'll also have to report these results to both the TSA and CISA within the next 30 days.

The TSA said it's looking into additional requirements to help the pipeline industry improve its cybersecurity and enhance the public-private partnership that's key to the country's security.

Both the TSA and CISA have an active part to play in these new security requirements. Along with DHS, the TSA was established shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Since then, the agency has worked with pipeline operators and partners on the physical security of hazardous liquid and natural gas pipeline systems.

Responsible for defending the country's critical infrastructure against security attacks, CISA hosts a Cyber Resource Hub with details on potential threats and recommendations for organizations on how to defend themselves against ransomware attacks. Last December, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2021 that gave CISA more power to secure federal civilian government networks and critical infrastructure from physical and cyber threats.

"The cybersecurity landscape is constantly evolving and we must adapt to address new and emerging threats," Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said in a press release. "The recent ransomware attack on a major petroleum pipeline demonstrates that the cybersecurity of pipeline systems is critical to our homeland security. DHS will continue to work closely with our private sector partners to support their operations and increase the resilience of our nation's critical infrastructure."

Though the recent ransomware attack against Colonial Pipeline wasn't the first to affect critical infrastructure, the incident raised alarm bells around the world, especially in the U.S. government. The apparent ease at which Colonial Pipeline was compromised showed how key resources are vulnerable. The energy sector in particular has long been susceptible to cyberattack.

"Cybersecurity risk management can be particularly challenging for energy companies," said Anthony Pillitiere, co-founder and CTO at Horizon3.AI. "With a primary objective of reducing outages, they often have to adopt an 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' mentality where software/hardware component patches are not installed to avoid the possibility of service disruptions. Any new regulation to secure critical infrastructure is going to require funding to have any hope of implementation by an industry already under stress."

The cybercriminal groups that target critical infrastructure also have ample skills and resources to carry out their attacks.

"Attacks targeting critical national infrastructure (CNI) tend to be the work of advanced persistent threat (APT) groups working on behalf of nation states with specific goals," said Joseph Carson, chief security scientist at ThycoticCentrify. "Such high-level adversaries are difficult to defend against as they have the time and resources required to repeatedly test security measures and find gaps, whereas more opportunist criminals in search of profits will opt for soft targets."

The new cybersecurity requirements sound like steps in the right direction, but some analysts believe energy companies will have difficulty following them.

"This is a start, but there is a lot of ambiguity in what will constitute confirmed and potential cybersecurity incidents," said John Hellickson, CXO adviser for cyber strategy at Coalfire. "Depending on the interpretation, would a phish attempt in itself be a potential incident?"

Further, the 30-day deadline imposed on identifying and remediating potential security gaps is too short, according to Hellickson. As such, organizations will likely have internal staffers conduct the reviews, which could leaded to missed data.

"Ideally, the organizations would be required to have a third party perform an assessment based on a defined cybersecurity standard, and results provided in say 90 days to give time to perform the assessment and integrate it into their overall cybersecurity strategy," Hellickson. "Once a remediation strategy and roadmap is defined, check-ins by TSA/CISA demonstrating measurable improvements will be key."
Hundreds of protesters flood back into old-growth blockade camps cleared by RCMP

Kieran Oudshoorn 
© Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC Lou secures a dory into a tree at the Ridge camp, which was set up by protesters to defy a court injunction over logging in the Fairy Creek watershed near Port Renfrew, B.C.

In the middle of the woods, 20 kilometres from a police barricade, sits a man in a boat in a tree.

He is one of hundreds of activists who have returned to camps the RCMP has spent weeks trying to clear to enforce a B.C. Supreme Court injunction allowing a forestry company to continue old-growth logging activities in the area near Port Renfrew, B.C.

"It's an old wooden sailing dory," said Lou, describing his vessel. "There's lots of room to have tons of food and tons of gear."

CBC News has agreed to let activists like Lou use only first names because they face potential prosecution.

He and others hauled the boat approximately 12 metres off the ground into the tree, which Lou says is a mountain hemlock, using ropes and pulleys.

Since RCMP began enforcing the injunction on May 17, officers have arrested 142 people for breaching the injunction or for obstruction. Nine people have been arrested more than once, according to police.

Activists face the potential of jail time and stiff fines if they are found in contempt of court for not obeying the court-ordered injunction. Several activists who spoke with CBC News said if they were arrested, upon release they would return to the area and rejoin the blockades.

CBC has requested an interview with the provincial government about the blockades six times since May 25. Each time, the province has declined.

© Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC Protester Diana Mongeau sits at the foot of an ancient yellow cedar in the Fairy Creek watershed in September 2020.

In August 2020, activists began to establish a blockade on a forestry road hugging a high ridge as it crested into the unlogged Fairy Creek watershed, which is known for its dense forests and where trees, some as old as 800 years, are prized by the timber industry for their value and quality.

Additional camps then began blocking access to the watershed from other directions. The protesters eventually created watch camps to monitor logging activity and block work in entirely different valleys, including the Caycuse River valley further north.

Activists such as Lou say they are willing to defy the injunction to protect old-growth trees in the area, which they say need to remain standing for their ecological value.

"I'm apprehensive of what is going to happen but I am also excited," said Lou. "I want to do my part in this whole movement … so I am going to stand my ground and hold the line until I have to let go."
© Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC An activist known as Lou prepares to defy an court injunction near Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island by sitting in a dory in a tree on Sunday.

Lou's tree-sit is at the site of the original blockade, known as the Ridge camp, which is directly in the path of the road the Surrey-based Teal-Jones Group went to court to build. From his vantage point, Lou can look out to the ocean and Cape Flattery on his left and to a stand of ancient yellow cedars in the Fairy Creek watershed on his right.

Due to a combination of police and activist blockades, the camp is only accessible on foot, meaning all supplies must be carried up remote logging roads with gruelling grades.

After spending several months on blockades, Lou said his motivation has evolved from wanting to save endangered habitats to a desire to play a constructive role in truth and reconciliation.

"These are the unceded territories of the Pacheedaht," he said. "And for too long, logging in B.C. has been done without First Nations involvement or consent."

Lou's concerns echo those of Pacheedaht elder Bill Jones, an ardent supporter and figurehead for the anti old-growth logging protests. But not everyone in the 284-person nation agrees with Jones's demands to halt old-growth operations in their territory, with the community's elected chief issuing statements asking for protesters to leave.

© Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC Activists back in the Waterfall camp in the Fairy Creek watershed on Vancouver Island on Sunday, May 30, 2021.

At the Waterfall camp, about eight kilometres down the road closer to Port Renfrew, an activist who calls himself Plates says a lot of work has gone into rebuilding and resupplying the site after the RCMP dismantled it last week.

He said the camp is the frontline of the protest, designed to protect activists like Lou who are in areas close to the cut blocks.

"We are reoccupying," Plates said. "We are just letting [RCMP] know that they can tear us down and we're just as content to build back up."

© Keiran Oudshoorn/CBC A barrier set up by activists in the Fairy Creek watershed on Sunday to prevent the Teal-Jones Group from logging in the area.

He described the process as "whack-a-mole," where officers come in, make arrests and break up camps, only to have protesters move back in afterward.

"They break us down and we come back stronger, we've got more support … and I feel like the morale is high, we're not getting beaten down."

Police did not make any arrests over the weekend. Activists in the area say they are ready to peacefully defy the injunction again this week, and on Monday six were arrested in the Port Renfrew area, where police allege four vehicles were placed across the Gordon Mainline Forest Service Road to block access.
Lower Mainland support

Earlier on Sunday, dozens of activists gathered at the offices of Teal-Jones in Surrey to denounce the company's logging activities on Vancouver Island.

They held signs that said "Save Old Growth" and "Teal-Jones on Watch" and made speeches supporting people at the blockades.

The protesters said the province is ignoring the wishes of people in B.C. who want better protections for old-growth trees, which they say need to be preserved to protect the natural environment.

Teal-Jones spokesperson Jack Gardner said the company handed out seedlings to the Surrey protesters as a symbol of how it practices environmental stewardship, and encouraged them to plant them in their yards.

He said Teal-Jones has planted more than 44 million trees in British Columbia over the past 25 years.

"We're not that much different from the protesters," he said. "We do believe in environmental stewardship, but also logging a working forest."

Gardner said the company is committed to logging in its 595-square-kilometre tenure on southwest Vancouver Island where the the blockades are taking place. He said some of the old-growth trees flagged to be cut help support jobs in the province.

Teal-Jones employs more than 1,000 people directly in B.C., Gardner said.

© Doug Kerr/CBC Tree seedlings that Teal-Jones Group says it gave out to demonstrators gathered at its headquarters in Surrey, B.C., as a symbol of the environmental stewardship it practises as part of its logging activities.
GOP Rep Malliotakis Introduces Bill Banning BLM Flags at US Embassies

ByAnna Wichmann
May 31, 2021

Black Lives Matter flag at the US Consulate in Thessaloniki. Credit: Us Consolate Thessaloniki

Republican Congresswoman Nicole Malliotakis has introduced a bill that would ban flying Black Lives Matter flags at US embassies and other diplomatic posts around the world.

The move comes after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken allowed, but did not mandate, US Embassies and other diplomatic posts to fly BLM flags and banners on the one-year anniversary of the killing of George Floyd on May 25.

Greek-American Rep Malliotakis, along with six other Congresspeople, introduced the Stars and Stripes Act of 2021 which would “restrict the display of certain flags or banners at diplomatic and consular posts around the world” on Friday.

if the bill passes, no “political” flags would be permitted at US diplomatic posts. In a statement to Congress, Malliotakis referenced Secretary of State Blinken’s announcement specifically, saying:

“It is inappropriate for President Biden and Secretary Blinken to authorize and encourage the display of inherently political flags that are in no way affiliated with the U.S. Government over American embassies overseas.”
Malliotakis: “The American flag is a beacon of freedom and hope”

Malliotakis considers the presence of BLM flags at US embassies to be an “insult” to those who have died in battle for the US.

“The American flag is a beacon of freedom and hope for oppressed peoples around the world; it should be the primary flag flown above our embassies and that is what my legislation seeks to accomplish…

“The Administration’s directive is an insult to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our flag and our nation – especially as we head into Memorial Day weekend – and it is absolutely ridiculous that legislation is needed to correct this issue,” Malliotakis expressed.

Co-sponsor Micheal Guest, a Republican from Mississippi, acknowledged the importance of remembering George Floyd’s death, but felt that the display of BLM flags at US embassies was inappropriate.

“The death of George Floyd opened important discussions surrounding police reform in the United States. However, using United States resources to display a non-government organization flag over United States embassies is not permissible,” Congressman Guest stated.

Republican Congressman Darrel Issa, who also introduced the bill, provided a more pointed critique of the Biden Administration.

“The White House may think the American flag is just another banner to be displayed or replaced in foreign capitals when the mood strikes,” said Congressman Issa.

“But this is more than untrue. It’s an emphatic misunderstanding of what this nation represents in every corner of the globe. And it fails to appreciate how our country’s symbols have sustained the hopes of the world in the darkest of hours. This legislation may be necessary, but even more important is for the Biden Administration to take stock of America’s exceptionalism,” he continued.
US Embassy in Athens; US Consulate in Thessaloniki displayed BLM flags

The US Embassy in Athens flew a Black Lives Matter (BLM) banner last Tuesday, one year since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020.

The killing of the 46-year-old father of five shocked the world, and provoked a reckoning with racial justice not only in America but across the planet.

Protests against police brutality and racism were staged in cities around the world, including in front of the US Embassy in Athens, in response to the disturbing video that showed every minute of the horrifying murder of George Floyd.

In a statement published on Facebook, the US Embassy in Athens stated:

“We raise this banner in honor of George Floyd, murdered one year ago today, in solidarity with people around the globe seeking a world without racial discrimination and a future with equal opportunity for all.”

The US Consulate in Thessaloniki has also flown the Black Lives Matter flag to mark the day.

“We raise this flag to mark one year since the murder of George Floyd – we honor Mr. Floyd and stand in solidarity with other nations to advance racial justice, a key priority within U.S. foreign policy #BLM.” read a statement on US Consulate’s twitter account.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken authorized the display of BLM flags and banners on US embassies around the world to mark the anniversary of Floyd’s murder last Tuesday.

Many activists and US diplomats have celebrated the decision, noting that the death of George Floyd last year shook international confidence in the US’ commitment to human rights and racial justice.

It was expected that Blinken’s authorization of BLM flags would also garner controversy, especially from conservative politicians, who remain distrustful of the BLM movement.


4.1-magnitude earthquake rattles northwest Oklahoma

The epicenter of the earthquake was just outside of the town of Shattuck, Okla. Image courtesy of USGS
The epicenter of the earthquake was just outside of the town of Shattuck, Okla. Image courtesy of USGS

May 25 (UPI) -- A 4.1-magnitude earthquake rattled northwest Oklahoma on Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. Geological Survey reported.

The shaking could be felt throughout parts of Oklahoma, and neighboring Kansas and Texas.

Shattuck, Okla., town manager Sam Hamilton told NBC News there were no initial reports of damage. He said earthquakes were rare in that part of the state.

"I don't remember a quake in this area," he said.

The epicenter of the temblor was located about 67 miles north-northwest of Elk City and 145 miles west-northwest of Oklahoma city. It originated about 4.78 miles below ground, according to the USGS.

6.1-magnitude earthquake rattles Southcentral Alaska

The earthquake was centered near Denali, also known as Mount McKinley. File photo by bcampbell65/Shutterstock

May 31 (UPI) -- A 6.1-magnitude earthquake Southcentral Alaska from Homer to Fairbanks, but resulted in minimal damage, local officials said.

The Alaska Earthquake Center said the temblor was centered 60 miles to the east of Talkeetna and 100 miles northeast of Anchorage and was felt most strongly in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and Anchorage areas.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported the quake affected a largely rural area.

Residents said the tremors were enough to send items flying off the shelves.

"Talkeetna...long rumble followed by a very strong jolt that flexed the house and sent some stuff on shelves to the floor," Mark Westman of Talkeetna said on Facebook. "Then more rumbling. It was a long one. No damage, but the big jolt in the middle definitely rattled the nerves, that one packed a punch." He later added in a message, "It was notable for the duration as well as the big jolt in the middle."

Talkeetna, the area of population closest to the quake's center, has a population of just shy than 1,000 and is perhaps best known for electing a cat named "Stubbs" as mayor. Stubbs died in office in 2017 after 20 years -- a liftetime -- in office.

The outpost is home to a ranger station at Denali National Park and is starting point for those who venture up the peak. Tourism is also prevalent in the area with those from the lower 48 flocking to its natural beauty for fishing during the salmon run and rafting

The earthquake was he strongest to hit the region since a 7.1-magnitude in 2018.

UNICEF: Severe child malnutrition in Haiti doubles in one year
Don Jacobson

Haitian women sell meat in a market located on the international highway between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in Tilory, Haiti, May 8. File photo by Orlando Barria/EPA-EFE

May 31 (UPI) -- Severe acute malnutrition among young children in Haiti could more than double this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, rising levels of violence and other factors, UNICEF warned Monday.

Lack of access to proper nutrition services and clean water, unhygienic environments and extreme weather conditions exacerbated by climate change are also likely to play major roles in raising the number of severely malnourished children under five from 41,000 in 2020 to more than 86,000 this year, according to UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean Jean Gough.

"In just one year, more than twice the number of children are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition in Haiti," he said in a statement released following a seven-day field trip to the impoverished Caribbean nation.

"In the hospitals, I was saddened to see so many children suffering from malnutrition," Gough said. "Some will not recover unless they receive treatment in time."

Acute malnutrition among children under five, meanwhile, has also skyrocketed in Haiti this year, jumping 61 percent from about 134,000 in 2020 to 217,000 this year, UNICEF estimated.

The sharp spike is "alarming" and has sparked concerns about a shortage of ready-to-use therapeutic food in the coming weeks, the United Nations agency said, warning it will run out of such supplies in June unless it can quickly raise $3 million.

For the entire year, UNICEF said it hopes to raise $48.9 million to meet the humanitarian needs of 1.5 million people in Haiti, including more than 700,000 children. So far, "this humanitarian appeal has remained almost completely underfunded," the agency said.

RELATED Pope Francis urges universal healthcare, equitable vaccine distribution

Adding to the pressure is the looming hurricane season, which it warned is likely to worsen Haitians' access to available food in the coming months.

Meanwhile, disruptions caused by the pandemic have led to sharp declines in child immunization rates for diseases such as diphtheria and measles -- such unvaccinated children are also more vulnerable to suffer and die from malnutrition, UNICEF said.

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Remembering the earthquake in Haiti

People stand on the remains of a market in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on January 19, 2010, after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake caused severe damage on January 12. UPI/Anatoli Zhdanov | License Photo 

Water shortage threatens thousands affected by volcanic eruption in DRC

Congolese residents of Goma flee from Mount Nyiragongo volcano as it erupts over Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, on May 22. Photo by Hugh Kinsella Cunningham/EPA-EFE
Congolese residents of Goma flee from Mount Nyiragongo volcano as it erupts over Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, on May 22. Photo by Hugh Kinsella Cunningham/EPA-EFE

May 31 (UPI) -- More than 500,000 are at danger of having prolonged water access issues following the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, health experts said Monday.

Mount Nyiragongo erupted on May 22, killing at least 31 people. While many have returned to the area it is unclear how they will manage without clean water, Doctors Without Borders said.

Waterpipes from the city of Goma's main reservoir were damaged in the eruption. The irrigation system serves over 500,000 people living in the area.

The organization, known as Médecins Sans Frontières or MSF in French, is asking other humanitarian organizations to step in and help.

"We are assisting the immediate needs of displaced people, but it is not enough," Magali Roudaut, MSF head of mission in DRC, said. "More clean water should be urgently provided; cholera is endemic in the area and poses a huge threat to people, including to the host communities."

Buildings have been damaged and collapsed in some areas and basic needs such as water, electric and healthcare are in scarce supply.

The area was evacuated after the eruption but without anywhere else to go residents have returned as lava flows subsided.

"There are urgent needs that are still unmet such as food, latrines, shelters, blankets, and jerrycans for water," Roudaut said. "We demand urgent support of other humanitarian organisations to assist people."

The eruption was the first since in the DRC 2002 when 250 people were killed. After that eruption 120,000 became homeless.

COVID-19: Coronavirus variants given new names by the WHO under new system - here's the full list

Concerns have risen that labelling variants by their locations could fuel hate crimes following attacks against Chinese people.

Monday 31 May 2021 
The variants are being renamed following criticism

Coronavirus variants have been renamed with letters of the Greek alphabet following criticism of the way they have been labelled up until now.

Under a new system revealed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Kent variant will now be known as Alpha, the Indian variant as Delta, and the South African variant as Beta.

Their scientific names - B.1.1.7, B.1.617.2 and B.1.351 - had been considered too complicated to remember, but there were also concerns about referring to them by the locations where they were discovered.

Critics have warned this can stigmatise countries where variants are first found and some have warned the rise in coverage of the so-called Indian variant as it becomes more widespread could fuel racism against Indian people.

Human Rights Watch said that "political parties and groups... have latched onto the COVID-19 crisis to advance anti-immigrant, white supremacist, ultra-nationalist, antisemitic, and xenophobic conspiracy theories that demonize refugees, foreigners, prominent individuals, and political leaders".

Last year, the fact the pandemic originated from China led to an increase in hate crimes against Asian people, and former US president Donald Trump was condemned for regularly referring to coronavirus as the "China virus", among other such labels.

The UK's East and Southeast Asian communities saw a 300% increase in hate crimes during the pandemic, according to advocacy group End the Virus of Racism.

Play Video - Rise in hate crime against Chinese people
COVID-19: Coronavirus variants given new names by the WHO under new system - here's the full list |

As a result, the WHO has sought to rename the new variants using a different system.

These are the new names for each of the variants:

• Kent / B.1.1.7 - Alpha
• South Africa / B.1.351 - Beta
• Brazil / P.1 - Gamma
• India / B.1.617.2 - Delta
• US / B.1.427 / B.1.429 - Epsilon
• Brazil / P.2 - Zeta
• B.1.525 - Eta
• Philippines / P.3 - Theta
• US / B.1.526 - Iota
• India / B.1.617.1 - Kappa

The choice of the Greek Alphabet followed months of deliberations, with ideas such as Greek gods and pseudo-classical names floated by experts.

However, many were already the names of brands, companies or aliens.

Viruses have historically been named after the locations where they were first discovered.

For example, the Ebola virus was named after the Congolese river.

But this labelling can be damaging and at times inaccurate, with the "Spanish flu" pandemic retaining its name despite its origins being unknown.

"No country should be stigmatised for detecting and reporting variants," said WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove.


After cutting off federal aid, Florida

Republicans are betting more people will return to low wage jobs

“These expanded unemployment benefits have been a lifeline for so many,” said Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Marcus Dixon.

 MAY 26, 2021 

Screen Shot20210526At4 32 53PMPHOTO VIA DESANTIS/TWITTERFlorida Republican leaders touted the state’s economy Wednesday and said they expect businesses to boost hiring as additional federal unemployment benefits end in the coming weeks.

“We have emerged from the pandemic. At least, I feel like we've emerged from the pandemic,” state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said while appearing at the Florida Chamber of Commerce “Prosperity & Economic Opportunity Solution Summit” in Sarasota.

Separately, Gov. Ron DeSantis pointed to expected hiring this summer after the state announced Monday it will stop providing $300 a week in additional federal unemployment benefits on June 26. The additional benefits have been aimed at helping out-of-work people during the COVID-19 pandemic, but business owners, particularly in the restaurant and tourism industries, have bemoaned an inability to find workers.

DeSantis said the state Department of Economic Opportunity has 460,000 online job openings, but that number might be low.

“I think in reality it may be even more than that because once they can start filling those, I think some of these businesses can expand because of all the good things that are going on in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said while at Baker County Middle School to promote teacher bonuses in the new state budget.

“So, we're in a much different situation than we were a year ago,” DeSantis continued. “Fortunately for us, I mean, look, you'd rather the problem be too many job openings than not people able to get jobs. But we are back, I think, to where the economy is performing very well. There's a lot of job openings. And so, we can transition back to a pre-pandemic construct on that.”

But Democrats have criticized the DeSantis administration for planning to cut off the additional benefits. They contend that other factors are involved in some people not returning to jobs, including low wages, poor working conditions, a lack of child care and some industries not fully running.

“These expanded unemployment benefits have been a lifeline for so many,” Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Marcus Dixon said in a statement Wednesday. “They are the difference between being able to put food on the table and not, being able to buy diapers and not."

After the Department of Economic Opportunity announced the decision Monday to stop the additional benefits, Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, called the decision “inhumane” and said Florida has some of the lowest state unemployment benefits in the country.

“While they’re not saying it, the real message from Gov. DeSantis is that Floridians have to make a choice between substandard wages and living conditions or starvation,” Farmer said. “This is cruel, misinformed and not an acceptable attitude for any government to have towards its people.”

The state on Tuesday also will start requiring new unemployment applicants to follow a “work search” rule that requires claimants to apply for five jobs a week. The state suspended the work-search requirement last year because of the pandemic.

“It's important that we get our workforce back in place, and we continue to do right by the businesses that created this incredible state,” said Patronis, whose family has long operated a restaurant in Bay County.

The state announced last Friday that Florida’ s unemployment rate in April was 4.8 percent, up from 4.7 percent in March and reflecting 487,000 Floridians unemployed from a workforce of 10.24 million. While the unemployment rate has largely held steady since the start of the year, the new numbers indicated people employed increased by 59,000 from March to April, while the workforce grew by 73,000 in the same time.

Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Dane Eagle, speaking at Wednesday’s Florida Chamber event, said the changes in benefits should make landing jobs a little harder in the coming weeks.

“That competition is slow right now, but it's about to become very competitive in the workforce,” Eagle said. “We want to make sure that people coming through the door, through their own way, have been able to find the training they need to be able to service that business. And that that business can look to someone and have confidence that they're going to help serve them in their community.”

Florida pays a maximum of $275 a week in state benefits to unemployed people. Eagle has said people are taking advantage of the combined state and federal assistance, which is competitive with weekly pay at many restaurants and tourism businesses.

While Patronis and Eagle spoke of people and businesses moving to Florida from states that have maintained lockdowns during the pandemic, Patronis acknowledged almost $100 billion in federal relief has flowed into Florida over the past year, helping families avoid “catastrophic debt.”