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Philippines’ 20 month lockdown of children sparks creative playtime

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November 5, 2021

By Neil Jerome Morales

MANILA (Reuters) – For the first time in her young life, two-year-old Nathania Ysobel Alesna was playing outside her house in the Philippine capital after 20 months of being kept at home by government coronavirus restrictions.

At a department store east of Manila one recent day, Nathania giddily rode a scooter and a bike as her mother, Ruth Francine Faller, looked on.

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Later, Faller shared her elation with a Facebook group dedicated to helping fellow parents find places where kids can be outdoors or in public places without trouble from police enforcing the Philippines’ stay-at-home orders for children, among the strictest in the world.

“Her joy was overflowing. She looks innocent at the same time amazed at what she saw,” Faller told Reuters.

For many of the 40 million Filipinos under the age of 18, the pandemic has been a continuous lockdown because the government classifies children as a particularly vulnerable group for COVID-19, though few other countries do so.

Now, after 20 months, hundreds of thousands of parents are turning to social media to find safe hangout places for their children, as they worry about the impact of prolonged time indoors on the mental health of children.

Finding creative ways to classify play as exercise – and public spaces where enforcement is looser – is the goal of the private Facebook group “Kids Are Allowed”.

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Hershey May Avillo-Parcarey, 37, in March set up the group with other parents to exchange tips on where they can bring their children outdoors, and word has quickly spread.

Parcarey said she gets up to 5,000 requests a day to join the group, which now has around 200,000 members.

Similar online groups have also sprouted up, allowing parents to share information on public places like shopping malls, restaurants and parks accepting children.

Some restaurants caught accepting kids have been temporarily shut down in recent months, but authorities in some areas, wary of restriction fatigue, sometimes overlook violations.

While many countries imposed total lockdowns at the onset of the pandemic early in 2020, the Philippines has maintained President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy of banning minors from outdoors and public spaces, although it can be unevenly enforced and has exceptions for exercise.

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The Philippines is one of just 17 countries where schools have been closed for the entire pandemic, says the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF. A two-month pilot test of face-to-face classes https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/philippines-launch-pilot-plan-resume-face-to-face-learning-2021-09-20 in low-infection areas starts this month.

This is despite only 12.5% of the Philippines’ 2.8 million confirmed COVID-19 cases are people aged 10-19 years, with deaths only 1.7% of the country’s nearly 44,000 deaths.

The presidential palace spokesperson reminded the population late in October that vulnerable groups – including children – are still under stay-at-home orders.

Nevertheless, Mica Cañete recently visited a Venice-themed mall in Manila with her husband and nearly three-year-old daughter, their first family outing in 20 months.

“I already have many spots in my bucket list for the kids, so I am thankful for ideas in the Facebook group,” Cañete said.

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Mental health experts say such groups provide support for overwhelmed parents and for children who have become anxious, confused and irritable after prolonged time indoors.

“In a time when we are all stuck at home, these virtual communities help inoculate parents from feeling isolated,” said Anna Cristina Tuazon, a clinical psychologist for children and their family, and professor at the University of the Philippines.

Around the world, depression and anxiety rates among children may have doubled since the start of the pandemic, said a report in JAMA Pediatrics in August.

Kids Are Allowed’s Parcarey said she screens up to 300 posts a day, and does not approve posts like hiding kids in the driver’s seat to avoid checkpoints.

Her own eight-year-old son, Railey Samuel, said he misses visiting malls to watch movies.

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“Now, it’s hard for me to go out,” he said. “I pray for the coronavirus pandemic to be gone.”

The Philippines has fully vaccinated just a quarter of its 110 million population and a nationwide vaccine rollout for children over 12 began this week, prioritising those with existing medical conditions.

(This story corrects typo in headline)

(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Michael Perry)

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Calm returns as clean-up begins in Solomon Islands -media

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November 28, 2021

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Soldiers and police from Australia and Papua New Guinea were helping to restore calm in the Solomon Islands as clean-up operations started, after several days of rioting left three dead and led to dozens of arrests, local media reported.

The Solomon Star newspaper said Australian soldiers and police and troops from Papua New Guinea had helped to restore normalcy in the country’s capital Honiara, halting the looting, rioting and burning of buildings and shops.

Overnight, clean up operations began in earnest in areas that were particularly hard hit, including the city’s Chinatown, the newspaper said. Footage obtained by Reuters showed heavy machinery moving rubble from burned out shops.

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Three charred bodies were discovered in a store on Friday in the Chinatown district, an area targeted by protesters still resentful the government in 2019 ended diplomatic ties with Taiwan to establish formal links with China.

More Australian Federal Police would arrive in the South Pacific nation on Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a televised news conference.

“Although things are very unstable at this point … plans, we know, are being made, to ensure there can be calm,” he said.

Some 50 officers from the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary arrived in Honiara on Friday, a day after Australia sent its own forces to the capital, both in response to requests from the Solomon Islands government for help.

(Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Tom Hogue)

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Australia to introduce new laws to force media platforms to unmask online trolls

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November 28, 2021

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia will introduce legislation to make social media giants provide details of users who post defamatory comments, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Sunday.

The government has been looking at the extent of the responsibility of platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, for defamatory material published on their sites and comes after the country’s highest court ruled that publishers can be held liable for public comments on online forums.

The ruling caused some news companies like CNN to deny Australians access to their Facebook pages.

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“The online world should not be a wild west where bots and bigots and trolls and others are anonymously going around and can harm people,” Morrison said at a televised press briefing.

“That is not what can happen in the real world, and there is no case for it to be able to be happening in the digital world.”

The new legislation will introduce a complaints mechanism, so that if somebody thinks they are being defamed, bullied or attacked on social media, they will be able to require the platform to take the material down.

If the content is not withdrawn, a court process could force a social media platform to provide details of the commenter.

“Digital platforms – these online companies – must have proper processes to enable the takedown of this content,” Morrison said.

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“They have created the space and they need to make it safe, and if they won’t, we will make them (through) laws such as this.”

(Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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In Honduras, parties flag fears of fraud ahead of pivotal vote

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November 28, 2021

By Gustavo Palencia and David Alire Garcia

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – Warnings of potential foul play are flying from all sides ahead of Sunday’s presidential election in Honduras, raising fears of possible disputes and unrest if leading challenger Xiomara Castro does not win by a clear margin.

The charged political atmosphere reflects memories of the disputed 2017 election, which the ruling National Party won after a delayed count and that the Organization of American States said was riddled with irregularities before calling for a fresh vote.

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The opposition said the result was fraudulent and both sides claimed victory. More than two dozen people were killed in the ensuing riots and repression.

The current election cycle has already claimed more political violence than four years ago, with more than 30 killed so far, according to researchers at Honduras’ national university.

Salvador Nasralla, the 2017 runner-up, is the current candidate for vice president for the leading opposition slate led by self-declared democratic socialist Castro. He accuses the National Party of planning a repeat of what he said was voter suppression in 2017.

“I don’t have any confidence in our electoral process,” he told Reuters.

The conservative National Party routinely uses its full control of government institutions and funds to reward supporters, punish opponents and influence elections, politicians from both sides say.

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This week, the party itself issued a statement blasting the electoral authority for already committing errors including a lack of transparency that could lead to a “national crisis” with delayed and suspect results.

“It creates a situation of high risk to the election,” it said.

Sunday’s vote will mark the latest fraught political showdown in Central America, after Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega cruised to re-election this month after detaining all leading rivals.

In a sign of concerns in the final week before the election, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden took the unusual step of sending a high-level delegation to meet with the main candidates, government officials and election organizers.

After the visit, a senior U.S. State Department official said the main objective of the delegation was to encourage a fair, free and peaceful election, given what it describes as democratic backsliding in the region.

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If poll leader Castro wins, she would bring the Honduran left to power for the first time since her husband, former President Manuel Zelaya, was ousted in a 2009 coup.

If ruling party candidate Nasry Asfura prevails, he will have overcome the unpopularity of outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who is fighting accusations of corruption and links to drug smugglers.

Hernandez denies wrongdoing.

A LOOK AT THE CANDIDATE’S PHONE

During an interview, Nasralla showed Reuters a video on his phone he said was captured by his home-security cameras a few days ago. It showed someone painting slurs on a wall of his house. In the video, the person can be seen removing an outer layer of clothing to reveal a shirt bearing the logo of Castro’s Libre party underneath.

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Nasralla said the video was evidence that National Party agitators were disguising themselves as Libre supporters, and worried they will provoke violence or property destruction to erode opposition votes.

“They’re the ones that cause violence,” he said.

The National Party did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Friday, a handful of businesses in the capital Tegucigalpa covered glass store entrances with wood and metal panels, in a sign some were taking the possibility of unrest seriously.

Rixi Moncada, the Libre Party’s representative on the electoral council, said the government and the National Party have caused “a lot of obstruction” in its efforts to organize a fair vote.

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She specifically accused the finance ministry of interfering with the council’s budget and causing delayed deliveries of polling station equipment, like printers and finger-print readers.

Moncada, a lawyer, expressed concern that any post-election dispute might reach the courts, widely seen as loyal to the ruling party.

“This country has very little faith in our system of justice,” she said.

(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia and David Alire Garcia; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Daniel Flynn and Nick Zieminski)

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