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International Briefs

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The Mecca Ban

The coronavirus effect continues to reverberate around the world, disrupting supply chains, suspending flights, tanking financial markets and sporting events, undermining tourism and travel for work or pleasure. Now, add one, for religious pilgrimages. Saudi Arabia has suspended the entry of foreigners to the cities of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam. Millions of Muslims from across the world, a large number from India, make the pilgrimage—the Umrah—around the year but the peak for visitors is the Haj pilgrimage, for which preparations had already begun.

Now, with the entry suspended for visits to Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and home to Islam’s holiest shrine, as well as Medina, where he is buried, millions of Muslims will have to change their plans. Every adult Muslim must perform the Haj at least once in a lifetime and the travel ban has come as a huge shock. Saudi Arabia’s ministry of foreign affairs said the suspensions were temporary but did not say when they would end. So far, 400,000 tourist visas have been issued, mostly for Muslims planning the holy pilgrimage.

Clooney’s Clash

In America, television and billboard ads featuring Hollywood heartthrob George Clooney promoting Nespresso coffee machines and pods are fairly common. The Oscar-winning actor has been the company’s brand ambassador since 2006 but now faces an embarrassing situation, thanks to a media investigation which showed the use of child labour at Nespresso’s coffee bean suppliers in Guatemala. The investigation by journalist Anthony Bartlett for Channel 4 in the UK appeared to show children picking beans in coffee plantations in Guatemala, a major coffee producer. Clooney issued a statement saying he was “surprised and saddened” by the exposé. Clooney also happens to be a member of Nespresso’s sustainability advisory board, which makes his position even more contentious. In his statement, he added: “Clearly this board and this company still have work to do. And that work will be done.” Nespresso is owned by Swiss food giant Nestlé, which says it has launched its own investigation to identify the farms at the centre of the allegations. The company said it has stopped purchase of coffee from all farms in the region until they guarantee that child labour is not being used. More than Nestlé, it is Clooney’s image as an environmentalist and actor with a strong social conscience that has come under the grinder.

Slowing Ageing

According to the MIT technology review, a new class of anti-ageing drugs has begun human testing. These drugs are meant to target specific ailments, thereby slowing or reversing the process of ageing. What this means is that a number of different diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and dementia, could potentially be treated by new drugs which also slow ageing.

The drugs are called senolytics, and they have the potential to remove certain cells that accumulate as we age. Known as “senescent” cells, they create low-level inflammation that suppresses the normal process of cellular repair and creates a toxic environment for neighbouring cells.

San Francisco-based Unity Biotechnology is developing drugs to treat age-related diseases of the eyes, lungs and knees, among other conditions.

Another company called Alkahest says it hopes to halt cognitive and functional decline in patients suffering from mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. The company also has drugs for Parkinson’s and dementia which are undergoing human testing. Other researchers are looking at whether creams could slow ageing in human skin. All this reflects new efforts to learn if the many diseases associated with getting older can be treated with new drugs to delay their onset.

The Hustler’s Way

The Hollywood movie, People vs Larry Flynt, was a biographical drama, starring Woody Harrelson as editor/publisher of Hustler, the pornographic magazine, and his frequent clashes with religious institutions and the law. Though not as famous as Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, Flynt’s Hustler is far more explicit and also profitable. While Flynt has been involved in numerous controversies, he is best known for thumbing his nose at the government, which is reflected in his long-time practice of sending issues of his monthly hardcore porn magazine to each member of the US Congress. It is actually a form of protest against legislative actions that have been taken against him in the past, which led to a brief stint in prison. However, his brazen—and bizarre—protest has been going on for almost 40 years. In 1984, Congress took legal action, trying to get him to stop but a court ruled in Flynt’s favour, saying that the people are given the right to petition the government, even through the use of porn. For Congressmen, who receive individual copies each month, the problem is how to dispose of them without looking awkward or guilty.

The Star of Tokyo

There are still concerns that the Tokyo Olympics may be cancelled if the coronavirus becomes a pandemic and threatens the health and lives of visitors to Japan, including athletes. If, however, the Games do go on, there will be one star who will occupy centrestage, just like Usain Bolt did in earlier Olympics. He is pole vaulter Armand Duplantis, a 20-year-old phenomenon who has been breaking world records with consummate ease. The US-born Swede recently cleared 6.17 metres in the pole vault to set a new world record. Later, he broke his own mark with a 6.18-metre vault on his first attempt. That earned Duplantis a $30,000 bonus.

Pole vaulting has been in his blood. His father was a former American pole vaulter who built a pit in the back garden of the family home in Louisiana where Duplantis started training when he was three years old.

“There are a lot of reasons why this event is so complicated and so many things go into making a good jump,” Duplantis said in an interview, “but the Olympics is where I want to be the best.”

Lead picture: UNI

 

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