(CASABLANCA, Morocco) -- "I feel very happy to carry my child," 26 year-old Halima Cissé told ABC News, while holding newborn Muhammad, one of the nine babies to beat the world record for most babies born at one birth.
Cissé, already a mother to a little girl, gave birth to nine children on May 5. "All the children are doing well," said Dr. El Alaoui, head of the clinic.
The four boys, named Muhammad, Bah, El Hadj and Oumar and five girls -- Adama, Hawa, Fatouma, Oumou and Kadidia, are being taken care of at the clinic Ain Borja in Casablanca, Morocco.
Cissé, a 26 year-old student and Abdelkader Arby, a 35 year-old adjudant in the Malian army, say they have always wanted children. " Everybody wants children … but if they had told me that I, Abdelkader Arby, would one day be the father of nine, I would not have believed it," he told ABC News.
The parents say the extraordinary birth is a "gift from God," and said the "responsibility is heavy,"
After a consultation with an OB-GYN revealed that Cissé, was carrying seven fetuses, authorities organized her transfer from Bamako, Mali, to the clinic Ain Borja in Morocco where she would received specialized care.
The clinic prepared for the unusual birth of seven , before discovering during the operation two others.
"A lot of things were going through my mind, fear for myself, fear for my kids, how it was going to unfold," Cissé told ABC News.
El Alaoui, head of the clinic Ain Borja, told ABC News that they tried to postpone the birth as long as they could to keep the babies’ chances high.
Cissé, who nearly lost her life due to blood loss and had to be operated on after the delivery, spent a month at the clinic on her back before the birth. She describes the difficult nights when she couldn’t sleep on the side until the day of birth, at 30 weeks pregnant.
"We thought, if we manage to save four, five children it’s already not bad," said El Alaoui.
The birth of nine children is an extremely rare phenomenon. Only two others were recorded so far, in Australia in 1971 and in Malaysia in 1999. But Cissé’s is the the first example of nonuplets born alive.
Soumia Arkoubi, head nurse at the clinic, said "they take care of [the nonuplets] like it’s our own children" and that "it will be hard to see them go."
With diapers changed every three hours at the clinic, the nine bundles of joy go through nearly 75 diapers a day and 100 bottles of milk.
American Nadya Suleman, nicknamed "Octomom," holds the current Guiness world record after giving birth to eight children following an IVF treatment.
However, according to the parents and the medical staff at Ain Borja, Cissé’s children were conceived naturally.
The children were all born prematurely, the smallest weighing only one pound at birth.
They will have to stay in the neonatal care at the clinic for at least another month before they can hope to meet their big sister in Mali.
(ST. PETERSBURG, Russia) -- At the start of June, St. Petersburg’s local administration stopped publishing information about how many COVID-19 patients had been hospitalized in the Russian city.
The sudden disappearance of the previously daily reported figures happened to coincide with the opening of one the city‘s most prestigious annual events, the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.
The forum, a gathering of Russia’s elite and a showcase for its biggest companies, has become a flagship event under President Vladimir Putin. Over five days, 13,000 people were expected to attend the event, where Putin told the audience that life was "gradually returning to its normal routine” after the pandemic.
But the forum was opening just as St. Petersburg was seeing a terrifying surge in COVID-19 cases, as a third wave fueled in part by the delta variant bore down on the country. The last bulletin before the numbers vanished had shown St. Petersburg hospitalizing 500 people a day -- a record number and one that meant the city would run out of hospital beds within days.
Journalists and critics of the government quickly started asking if the disappearance of the COVID-19 statistics was connected to holding the forum. St. Petersburg’s administration refused to comment and the latest figures weren't published again until nearly three weeks later. They were no longer updated daily, either.
"They need to create the impression that everything is OK," said Boris Vishnevsky, an opposition lawmaker from St. Petersburg's city assembly, who also opposed holding the forum. "They don't care about people's lives and health."
Throughout the pandemic, Russian authorities have been accused of massaging statistics to hide the real scale of the country’s COVID-19 impact. The Kremlin has repeatedly suggested that although it has been difficult, Russia has fared better than most other countries, even as it has neglected to impose tough lockdown measures.
But publicly available mortality statistics, as well as other data, show an ever growing, yawning gap between Russia’s official COVID-19 figures and what are likely the far larger real numbers. The data suggest the true death toll may already be over a half-million people. Far from doing better than most, the data suggests that, in reality, Russia has suffered one of the deadliest COVID-19 epidemics in the world.
The toll is growing even steeper now as Russia endures a deadly third wave that has remained largely unchecked amid few restrictions and poor vaccination uptake -- the latter caused in part by some of the highest levels of vaccine scepticism in the world.
Russia’s official COVID-19 death toll, published by the government’s coronavirus task force, currently stands at around 155,000. In total numbers, that still places Russia fourth in the world, behind only Brazil, India and the United States. But, given the size of the country’s 144 million population and the number of cases it has had, that number appears puzzlingly low.
There is a consensus among experts internationally that the best method to assess the true toll of the pandemic in Russia is by counting so-called "excess deaths." That is, comparing the total number of deaths from any cause in a country during the pandemic periods with the total number of deaths in an average year.
Almost every country hit by the pandemic has seen a steep increase in total deaths compared to the average. Although some of those extra deaths can be attributed to other causes, such as disruption to health systems, most experts believe the vast majority are COVID-19 deaths.
Russia’s official death toll doesn’t take into account excess deaths, but its national statistics service, Rosstat, has quietly continued to release total mortality data for each month, publishing it in spreadsheets on its website. That has allowed independent demographers and journalists to calculate excess deaths for Russia during the pandemic.
The mortality data so far released by Rosstat shows that in 2020, Russia suffered 340,000 more deaths than in 2019. For the first five months of 2021, there were 133,000 more excess deaths.
That means Russia has sustained at least 473,000 more deaths during the pandemic than usual, already three times higher than its officially reported toll. That does not yet include June and July, the deadliest months of the current third wave.
“I think that by the end of September, the overall excess mortality will be at least 700,000 people,” said Alexey Raksha, an independent demographer who previously worked at Rosstat. "It is a huge number."
By proportion of the population, the current figures give Russia the highest death toll of any major country in the world and place it in the top five of any country in the world, behind only Peru, Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Serbia, according to a ranking by The Economist tracking excess deaths globally.
“In November and December of last year, the number of deaths have been record. The biggest in history, in post-war history in Russia,” said Raksha.
Raksha was fired from his job as a demographer at Rosstat last year after he publicly pointed out the discrepancies in the official COVID-19 statistics. He has accused Russian authorities of crudely manipulating the numbers, which he says is visible in the unnatural anomalies in the data released by the country's coronavirus task force.
He points to line graphs showing monthly deaths for Moscow, where steep curves indicating increasing deaths at certain times suddenly flatline and hold steady for several days.
“It’s in contradiction with all statistical, epidemiological, demographical law,” Raksha said. “It’s just impossible.”
He said the sudden plateaus are nicknamed the "Soybanin’s Shelf," referring to Moscow’s Mayor Sergey Sobyanin. He said they were the result of city officials simply putting a limit on the number of deaths that could be published that day.
“At some point, Sobyanin just ordered not to show more than 75 deaths daily in Moscow. That’s it,” Raksha said.
Russian health officials have previously said they take a more conservative approach to assessing COVID-19 deaths. But that does not explain the vast difference and, at times, officials have acknowledged the real death toll is substantially higher.
In December, Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova, who oversees the COVID-19 response, acknowledged that around 81% of all excess deaths in Russia were caused by COVID-19. The federal statistics service in June also published an estimate suggesting there had been over 270,000 COVID-19 deaths.
But Russia’s primary official death toll, which is most often used internationally and in state media, has not been updated to match those statements.
A recent investigation by three independent Russian investigative news sites also found evidence that internal government records show it is also concealing the scale of COVID-19 cases in the country by as much as five times.
The sites, Meduza, Kholod and Mediazona, reported that an oversight by Russia’s health ministry in issuing certificates confirming recent COVID-19 patients had inadvertently revealed the ministry has a database containing 29 million recorded COVID-19 cases. The official public count currently only shows six million.
The government has denied the reports, but issued conflicting responses, saying the database was not accurate and that it also contained vaccination numbers.
Critics have said the efforts to make Russia’s bout with the pandemic appear less deadly are making it worse by discouraging people from taking the virus seriously, which they say also hampers its push to vaccinate. Although Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has been found to be effective, authorities are struggling to persuade Russians to get it.
With few restrictions in place and still less than 20% of the population fully vaccinated, doctors in the city told ABC News they feared a fourth wave in the autumn was already inevitable.
"Doctors will answer for it, not the government," said a paramedic in St. Petersburg, who requested anonymity over concerns she could face retaliation.
In St. Petersburg last week, Alexander Yablokov, a 68-year-old soccer manager, said he did not believe the official death toll after he spent three weeks in a COVID-19 hospital. While there, he said he was in a small ward where all but one of seven patients with him died within a week. He said he had pulled his blanket over his head whenever he heard the sound of a gurney coming down the corridor, knowing another of his neighbors had passed.
“I thought I had found myself in a morgue. Not a hospital but a morgue,” he said
(LONDON) -- Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, has spent most of her adult life in the public spotlight, first as the wife of Prince Andrew and then as a favorite target of the British tabloid media.
Several decades later, another new royal bride, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, became the target of the tabloid media when she wed Ferguson's nephew, Prince Harry, in 2018.
"I believe that everybody has a right to their own voice and there should be no judgment on race, creed, color or any other denomination," Ferguson told Good Morning America about the press' treatment of Meghan, who joined Harry in stepping down from their senior royal roles last year and moving to California.
"I personally would never be able to judge another, so I just am not like that," she said. "I wish Harry and Meghan so much happiness and I know that [the late Princess] Diana would be so proud of her sons and their wives."
Ferguson -- whose latest chapter in life is as author of a new novel, Her Heart for a Compass -- was a close friend of Princess Diana's, her sister-in-law in Britain's royal family. Though the two were pitted against each other in the British press, she calls Diana her best friend.
Diana, the mother of Princes William and Harry, died in 1997 after a car crash in Paris, but Ferguson said she keeps her friend's memory alive to this day.
"She's in my heart," Ferguson said of the late princess, whom she calls her "laughing friend."
"I always say it doesn't matter whether you get the love back or you don't get love back or she's here or she's not here, you can love anyway and keep the kindness," she said
"I loved Diana and I will always love her even if she isn’t here in person. It’s a really lovely thing to have," she said.
Ferguson, now 61 and a grandmother of one with another on the way, said she also imagines what life would be like now with Diana, whose two sons have five children between them.
"If she was here, we'd be racing to the bouncy castle with our grandchildren," said Ferguson. "The funny thing is we’d be with our grandchildren running in the egg and spoon race. She was always a better, faster runner than me."
Finding her voice through writing
Ferguson drew on her own journey in the spotlight to write her first novel, which is set in the Victorian era and is based on her distant relative, Lady Margaret.
"Lady Margaret is an extremely wonderful, strong, very resilient redhead who fights for her heart ... against extraordinary confines of what is seen as noble and duty," she said. "I think I couldn't write that and I couldn't explain it if I hadn't had a hint of fighting my own journey through my own compass of my own heart."
"She didn't have a voice," Ferguson added. "So it's about literacy, empowerment, empowerment of a woman's voice that has been shut away."
Ferguson said she is just now learning in her own life to speak up and not be a self-described "people pleaser," saying, "I don't believe I've really spoken out until now, properly."
In the novel, Margaret is portrayed as having a complicated but honest relationship with her mother, a relationship Ferguson said she never got to have with her own mom.
"When she left me, I was so young," said Ferguson. "And then my sister went to Australia, so I became the head of the house around 13, 14 years old, and I think that that's possibly why I still have the rebel in me."
Ferguson spoke with GMA while doing one of her favorite activities, horseback riding, which she said she relied on as a child for stability in her life.
"My ponies really helped me so much when my mother went to live in Argentina because they were my friends," she said, describing them as "consistent" and "steadfast." "They don't go anywhere and they didn't answer back. They are just so special."
Taking life 'one step at a time'
Though she had a complicated time as a member of Britain's royal family, Ferguson remains an ardent supporter of the monarchy.
"I am a number one fan of the monarchy," she said. "And I stand very strongly for the extraordinary steadfastness of the queen."
She also speaks fondly of Prince Andrew, whom she married in 1986 and divorced a decade later, though the two remain very close.
"He is a great man and [our wedding day] was the best day of my life," she said. "I would do it all over again because he was a very good-looking sailor, but I fell in love with him and I think love conquers all."
Andrew, who shares two daughters with Ferguson, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, has faced intense scrutiny over his relationship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who died in prison in 2019.
Andrew, the third child of Queen Elizabeth, spoke out in a 2019 BBC interview and categorically denied allegations he had sex on multiple occasions with an American teenager who's claimed she was trafficked to the prince at the direction of Epstein. Shortly after the interview, Andrew announced that he would step back from public duties, "for the foreseeable future" amid heavy criticism.
When asked how she has found resilience in the face of personal drama and tabloid scandal, Ferguson said she has learned to "take one step at a time."
"You just look at it. What do I need to learn from this? How do I feel? [You] apologize profusely to yourself, to others, mostly to yourself for letting yourself down, perhaps, and you move forward and you get on and you take one step at a time," she said. "I have destroyed myself many times, but the most important thing is to get up and get going."
Ferguson also gives credit to the American public for helping her regain her footing after she and Andrew divorced. She credits Americans with welcoming her and supporting her through different ventures, including working with WW, formerly Weight Watchers.
"That's why I want to say thanks to the American people, because they have given me a life," she said. "And they've given me a chance to be able to have a platform to talk and to be able to say, 'Be yourself.'"
Speaking of her ability to continually evolve both personally and professionally, Ferguson added, "I'm 61. I'm just starting my life. "
(WASHINGTON) -- The first Afghans who worked for the U.S. military and diplomatic missions are being evacuated and will arrive in the U.S. late Thursday night or early Friday morning, according to a source familiar with the plans.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday that they would arrive "very, very soon," speaking during a press conference in Kuwait. He confirmed that the U.S. and Kuwait have had diplomatic discussions about hosting another group of Afghans, including during the day's meetings, but he did not announce an agreement to do so.
These arrivals are the first after President Joe Biden's pledged to support Afghan interpreters, guides and other contractors who served alongside U.S. troops and diplomats -- many of whom now face threats from the Taliban as the militant group gains strength amid the U.S. military withdrawal.
Biden ordered all remaining American forces out of the country by the 20th anniversary this fall of the Sept. 11th attacks, which first brought U.S. troops to Afghanistan to destroy al Qaeda's operations in the country and topple the Taliban government that gave them sanctuary.
Afghans who worked for the U.S. mission and now face threats for that work are eligible for a special immigrant visa program for them and their families. There are approximately 20,000 Afghans who have applied, plus their family members, according to a State Department spokesperson -- although it's unclear how many of them the administration plans to evacuate.
So far, the administration has announced that some 750 Afghans who have already been approved and cleared security vetting will be brought to the U.S., along with their family members -- 2,500 in total. They will be housed and provided temporary services at Fort Lee, a U.S. Army base in central Virginia, for seven to 10 days as they undergo medical exams and finish their application processing.
A second group of some 4,000 Afghan applicants, plus their family members, will also be housed overseas, possibly including at U.S. military installations, according to senior State Department officials. A U.S. official told ABC News the administration has had conversations with Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and several Central Asian countries -- Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
But during his visit to Kuwait, Blinken did not announce a new agreement with the U.S. ally to house Afghans there, where there are several U.S. military installations.
Blinken confirmed for the first time that the U.S. and Kuwait are discussing the mission, including in his meetings Thursday at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but it seemed they were unable to reach an agreement.
"We're talking to a number of countries about the possibility of temporarily relocating" Afghans, Blinken told reporters. "That's one of the issues that came up in our conversations today, but we are very much focused on making good on our obligations."
(NEW YORK) — With 155 days left in 2021, humans have already surpassed what global resources can sustain in a single year, according to international sustainability organization Global Footprint Network.
Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when demand for Earth’s ecological resources exceeds what the planet can regenerate. This year, the date is July 29.
The Global Footprint Network, which calculates the date each year, said humans currently use 74% more than what the planet can remake.
Mathis Wackernagel, CEO and founder of Global Footprint Network, told ABC News Radio to think of the resource deficit like a bank account.
“How long can you use 70% more than Earth can renew?” Wackernagel asked. ”You can use more than your interest payment for some time, but it reduces the asset base. And what we see as a consequence, for example, is the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere or deforestation.”
The Global Footprint Network found that the total global ecological footprint increased by 6.6% compared to 2020, based on data from the International Energy Agency and the Global Carbon Project.
Last year, the global forest biocapacity -- the natural resources in forests -- decreased by 0.5%, mainly due to a large spike in deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Forests are a key to slowing climate change because they can store carbon for long periods of time.
“Last year, we had the lockdown. The lockdown changed behaviors instantaneously, quite radically, but just changed behaviors for that time,” Wackernagel said. “It didn't change the system. So we're back to where we were before in terms of resource demand.”
The Global Footprint Network estimated carbon emissions in 2021 will be 4.8% higher than 2020, but it will still be below 2019 levels, when the overshoot date was July 26.
According to the organization, the world has been overshooting the planet's resources since the 1970s, when Earth Overshoot Day was late in December.
The date has since moved up five months, but the rate at which the date has moved up the calendar has decreased. In the 1970s, the day was moving up three days a year, now it moves less than one day a year on average over the past five years.
These are worldwide numbers, though -- if the rest of the world consumed resources the way the United States does, according to the organization, the overshoot day would have been March 14.
Wackernagel told ABC News overshoot will end someday.
“It's a question whether we do it by design or disaster,” Wackernagel said. “All of the global downturns are associated with disaster rather than design, like oil crises, financial crises, pandemic. They have pushed us down, and eventually, it will push us down if we don't do it ourselves. We can choose a comfortable path, or we will be hit by crises.”
There are ways to push Earth Overshoot Day back.
According to an analysis by the Global Footprint Network and Schneider Electric, retrofitting existing buildings to be more energy efficient and decarbonizing electricity could move the day back 21 days. If everyone in the world decreased their meat consumption by 50%, the date could be pushed back 17 days.
“If we moved Earth Overshoot Day out six days every year continuously, we'd be down to less than one planet before 2050,” Wackernagel said. “But given the huge climate debt, we may have to move faster.”
(WASHINGTON) -- Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged Wednesday during a joint press conference in India that the situation in Afghanistan is headed in the wrong direction -- noting the Taliban is "making advances" and calling reports that the group has committed atrocities "deeply, deeply troubling."
They "certainly do not speak well of the Taliban's intentions for the country as a whole," he told ABC News.
Blinken made a quick visit to New Delhi, where he and senior Indian officials focused on deepening U.S.-Indian cooperation on key challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic, China, and climate change. But with the security situation in nearby Afghanistan deteriorating quickly, their meetings also focused on the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the Taliban's swift efforts to control more territory.
As he and other Biden officials have argued, however, he said that the international community would make a "pariah state" of an Afghan government that "does not respect the rights of its people, an Afghanistan that commits atrocities against its own people."
"The Taliban says that it seeks international recognition, that it wants international support for Afghanistan," and that it wants sanctions and travel bans on its leaders lifted, he added, saying there's "only one path" to achieving those aims, "and that's at the negotiating table."
But it doesn't seem that the Taliban -- which now control nearly half of the country's districts since launching their offensive in May, according to the Pentagon -- agrees.
The group's leadership has also denied responsibility for the atrocities Blinken mentioned, including extrajudicial killings, forced displacements and attacking civilian infrastructure -- a sign that their promises remain empty and they do believe they can take power by force or that they don't have full control of their fractured forces across the country.
President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops before the 20th anniversary, this fall, of the Sept. 11th attacks that brought American forces to Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaida's operations there and topple the Taliban government that gave them sanctuary.
In the weeks since then, the Taliban have won control of dozens of districts by force or through surrenders, as they dawdle at negotiations with the Afghan government meant to secure a ceasefire and decide on the country's future government.
Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, agreed with Blinken that, despite the deadlock in those talks, they were the only solution to Afghanistan's fighting. But he declined to say how concerned India's government is now about the deteriorating security situation, instead calling it "natural" and "inevitable" that "there will be consequences" to the U.S. military withdrawal.
"What is done is done. It is a policy taken, and I think in diplomacy, you deal with what you have," he told ABC News - agreeing with Blinken that negotiations are the only solution.
But he subtly took issue with Pakistan, India's neighbor and long-time adversary, adding that "not everyone who agrees ... does what they say they will do." Without a direct mention, he called its support for the Taliban a "reality of the last 20 years."
A senior State Department official said after the day's meetings that the two sides made no specific asks of one another, but committed to deepening cooperation and information-sharing on the situation.
"It's a chance for us to talk about, sort of, the way forward and really where we can find points of leverage to try to bring the Taliban along and get toward a negotiated settlement," they said.
The two foreign ministers were chummy after their day of meetings -- cracking jokes and praising U.S.-Indian cooperation. Jaishankar said the two powers had "entered a new era," with cooperation on COVID-19, defense, trade and investment, climate change, and regional issues.
In particular, Blinken said the two countries "will be leaders in bringing the pandemic to an end," as India ramps up vaccine production and exports, and the U.S. launches the first of the 500 million doses next month that Biden promised during the G-7 summit.
The Biden administration had hoped to share three million of those doses with India, but they remain held up by Indian bureaucracy, which must first approve their import, according to the senior State Department official, who added they hoped for "some movement soon."
While the increasing U.S.-India partnership has irked the Chinese government, which has accused both countries of trying to "contain" it, Jaishankar shot back Wednesday -- saying, "People need to get over the idea that somehow other countries doing things is directed at them."
"For groups of countries to work together is not strange. It's the history of international relations," he added, earning a laugh from Blinken.
But much of this visit has been focused on China -- including Blinken's meeting Wednesday morning with the Dalai Lama's representative, Central Tibetan Administration Representative Ngodup Dongchung. It's the first high-level engagement from the Biden administration with the Tibetan leader and his team -- one that is sure to anger Chinese officials who have long opposed U.S. support for the spiritual figure.
The senior State Department official tried to downplay the meeting, saying they met "very briefly" so that Dongchung could present Blinken with a scarf as a "gesture of good will and friendship."
Blinken also tried to send a message with another meeting Wednesday morning, starting his day before the cameras with a group of Indian civil society leaders. Before the press, he talked about how both countries' democracies "are works in progress. ... Sometimes that process is painful, sometimes it's ugly, but the strength of democracy is to embrace it."
That process in India has been particularly ugly in recent years. Earlier this year, Freedom House, the U.S. think tank, rated India as "partly free" for the first time in its annual global survey, as the government of Narendra Modi has been accused of curtailing minorities' rights, especially Muslims; attacking political opponents and the free press; and restricting human rights groups and NGOs.
With his morning meetings, Blinken tried to send a message about that, talking up the importance of "a vibrant civil society" and talking openly about American democracy's struggles and faults -- including the events of Jan. 6.
But during their presser, Blinken was more conciliatory than critical of Modi and Jaishankar's administration, saying Americans "admire" India's "steadfast commitment to democracy, pluralism, human rights, fundamental freedoms."
"As friends, we talk about these issues. We talk about the challenges that we're both facing in renewing and strengthening our democracies, and I think humbly, we can learn from each other," he added, clearly highlighting the common ground, rather than risk alienating this critical new partner.
Jaishankar had a sharper edge in response to the question -- telling the reporter who asked that Modi's changes are an effort to "really right wrongs when they have been done" -- the kind of 'don't question' attitude that critics say is at the heart of Modi's democratic back-sliding.
(TOKYO) -- Tokyo reported a record number of 3,177 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday as the Olympic games remain underway.
It's the second day in a row in which Japan's capital reported record-breaking cases. On Tuesday, the city reported 2,484 COVID-19 cases, which exceeded its previous record of 2,520 cases set on Jan. 7, 2021, according to Kyodo News.
Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Disease (NIID) has estimated that the highly contagious delta variant is responsible for nearly 80% of infections in Tokyo.
Patients who make up the new cases mainly involve people ranging in age from their 20s to 40s, according to the NIID, which reported an increase in hospitalization in people under the age of 50.
As of Wednesday, at least 27% of the country has had at least one dose of the vaccine, according to a government report at the beginning of the month. Tokyo remains under its fourth coronavirus state of emergency.
Last week, the International Olympic Committee reported that nearly 80 people accredited to the games had tested positive for the virus, including more than two dozen athletes.
Although Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga urged people during a press conference Tuesday to avoid non-essential travel, he said there is no reason to consider suspending the Games at this time, saying, “Please watch the Olympic Games on TV at home."
(HELLA, Iceland) -- Hotel Rangá in Iceland is looking for a photographer to chase the northern lights, also known as aurora borealis.
This dream job consists of three weeks chasing the lights from September to October.
The hotel is located in the Icelandic countryside, where temperatures typically average 40 to 50 degrees during the fall season.
The photographer chosen for the job will be required to provide high-quality photos and videos in order to receive travel to and from Iceland.
The requirements also include giving the hotel “unlimited license to mutually agreed-upon photographs and videos.”
"In exchange for providing content of the northern lights at the hotel, this seasonal employee will receive free room and board along with access to the hotel‘s stargazing observatory and hot tubs, not to mention the opportunity to explore the photogenic land of fire and ice on their days off," the hotel wrote on its website.
(LONDON, HONG KONG and JAKARTA) -- A perfect storm with the coronavirus appears to be brewing across the Asia-Pacific region: surges in the highly contagious delta variant combined with slow vaccination uptake.
Tight vaccine supplies are a major factor and experts caution that unless most of the global population is vaccinated, and richer countries share more of their vaccines, the world will face a far longer bout with the coronavirus than anticipated.
The issue extends from countries at the center of the current surge, like Indonesia, to those that fared relatively well with the disease early on in the pandemic, like South Korea.
Even as countries like the U.S. and U.K. face rising cases despite their largely vaccinated populations, hospitalizations and deaths have not yet risen to the same levels as 2020 due to the success of vaccination efforts, public health experts say. Yet the vast majority of the global population remains unvaccinated (just 3.7 billion out of 10-12 billion recommended doses have been distributed).
More people have died of COVID-19 since Jan. 4, 2021 than the whole of last year, according to an ABC analysis of WHO data.
The pandemic is not just far from over -- it is in a “critical moment where we are all under threat,” due to rising new variants and vaccine inequality, according to WHO spokesperson Dr. Margaret Harris. The course of the virus, she said, is that it is likely to become “endemic” -- meaning it will not disappear, but eventually could become manageable like the other coronaviruses in circulation.
But a true end to the pandemic will likely only happen with the artificial immunity conferred by mass vaccination, according to Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“You have countries that are making good progress toward building an immunity shield,” he told ABC News. “When you look at the rest of the world, a very small percentage of the population [is] being vaccinated."
The stark vaccine disparity is far from lost on people in Indonesia, who in the last few months have seen the delta variant rip through their communities, overrunning hospitals, filling graveyards and leaving family and friends who’ve lost loved ones in anguish.
In scenes reminiscent of when India was at its devastating peak earlier this year, there is a clamor for oxygen canisters in Indonesia -- now the coronavirus epicenter of the region. Afflicted families, turned away from hospital wards, are taking treatment into their own hands. For two weeks, Defitio Pratama, 27, a marketing salesman based just outside Jakarta, took care of his sick mother at home.
“We had no idea what to do at that time since we did not have oxygen tank at hand,” he told ABC News in Jakarta, where there are long lines for scarce oxygen cylinders. “I started contacting friends and families for oxygen tank, I even went all the way to other city when I found my mother’s friend offering to lend theirs. We could not take my mother to hospital because they kept rejecting us, we had no choice but to treat her at home.”
While Pratama has received one dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, his mother, who is asthmatic, remains unvaccinated. In the week ending July 19, 9,696 deaths were recorded, an increase of 36% from the week before, according to the WHO. Just under 16% of the population has received at least one dose of vaccine.
In Indonesia, a combination of a lack of supply, vaccine hesitancy and concerns over the Chinese manufactured Sinovac have contributed to the slow rollout, but the country is by no means alone in the region.
Thailand, Australia, Vietnam and South Korea -- all countries that were praised last year for their swift containment strategies -- have reintroduced restrictions to deal with outbreaks of the Delta variant, which is estimated to be 60% more transmissible than the alpha variant, in recent months. According to Harris, the world’s richest countries are “basically holding the rest of the world hostage by not insisting that their manufacturers share.”
“This is why you've got massive outbreaks going on around the world,” she told ABC News. “But people don't seem to hear it. What they're hearing is possibly what they want to hear is 'I'm vaccinated, now, I can go back to normal.' You can't. Not until you sort it out in the rest of the world.”
The Biden administration has pledged to donate more than 80 million doses to countries in need, with 23 million going to Asia. Some 3 million doses of Moderna arrived in Indonesia from the U.S. on July 11 -- but the rollout needs to significantly increase in order to meet the WHO’s target to vaccinate at least 10% of every country in the world by the end of September.
For the pandemic to end and the virus to become manageable on a global level and COVID-19 to become manageable as with other coronaviruses, between 10 and 12 billion doses need to be administered around the world, Huang said, ideally with high effectiveness. That number currently stands at around 3.7 billion, according to the WHO.
“The best case scenario is that through these vaccination efforts that by the end of next year we have produced enough vaccines that can vaccinate a majority of the population worldwide, and that vaccination is effective in terms of preventing severe cases of death,” Huang said. “Previously I was more optimistic about how and when the pandemic is going to end. “But now, with that divide in terms of vaccine access, in terms of the strategies adopted by countries, in terms of the continued emergence of the new variants, I'm not that optimistic anymore.”
(LONDON) -- Beginning next month, the United Kingdom will allow fully vaccinated U.S. citizens to enter the country without quarantining.
In a statement, the U.K. Department for Transport says the policy will apply to travelers from countries on their "green" and "amber" lists, but not for those from several dozen nations on the "red list." It will go into effect on August 2, and will cover vaccines that have been approved by the European Medicines Agency, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or the Swiss vaccination program.
Those arriving in the U.K. will still be required to complete a pre-departure test before landing in England, as well as a PCR test for COVID-19 within their first two days there. Separate rules apply for those entering the U.K. from France.
The plan is expected to help the British economy, as well as enable fully vaccinated people from other nations to reunite with family and friends.
"We've taken great strides on our journey to reopen international travel," said U.K. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. "Whether you are a family reuniting for the first time since the start of the pandemic or a business benefiting from increased trade - this is progress we can all enjoy."
More than 70 percent of adults in the U.K. have received both shots of a COVID-19 vaccine. Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid credited that fact with helping to build "a wall of defence against this virus so we can safely enjoy our freedoms again."
(BERLIN) -- At least one person was killed and more than a dozen others were injured in an explosion at an industrial park for chemical companies in western Germany on Tuesday morning, officials said.
The powerful blast at Chempark's site in Leverkusen reverberated through the surrounding city and sent dark plumes of smoke billowing into the air just before 10 a.m. local time. Germany's Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance classified the explosion as "an extreme threat" and urged residents in the area to stay inside and keep all windows and doors closed.
Currenta, the operator of Chempark, which is home to dozens of chemical companies including Bayer, confirmed the death of one employee and said four others were still unaccounted for. City officials said at least 16 people have been injured.
The deadly explosion occurred at a waste disposal center within Chempark Leverkusen, where more than 5,000 types of chemicals are manufactured, and sparked a fire at a tank storage site. Firefighters have since extinguished the blaze, according to Currenta.
Pollution detection vehicles were also deployed to the scene to assess what threat the smoke could have on the surrounding air quality. Police in the nearby city of Cologne, about 12 miles south of Leverkusen, took to Twitter to advise people to avoid the area of the explosion, saying the situation was still unclear. Several highways in the surrounding area have been blocked off due to the incident.
The cause of the explosion was unknown, according to Currenta.
(NEW DELHI) -- If this week is the Biden administration’s full-court press in Asia, then Secretary of State Antony Blinken is playing point guard with his first trip to India.
President Joe Biden has made it a top foreign policy priority to rally against the rising authoritarianism of China, Russia.
That makes Blinken’s visit to the world’s largest democracy critical, amid global challenges like COVID-19 and climate change that Blinken has stressed require global cooperation and as ties with China harden.
That relationship took another nasty turn this past weekend. Beijing issued a strident warning to Washington as Blinken’s deputy Wendy Sherman met her Chinese counterparts in China on Sunday – again accusing the U.S. of bullying and scapegoating.
In addition to Blinken’s high-profile visit, Biden has deployed his Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Southeast Asia to meet key partners, while Sherman consulted top allies Japan and South Korea before her meetings in China.
India, with a population larger than China’s and an economy third only to the U.S. and China, is seen as critical in Washington to pushing back on Beijing. But after a decadeslong bipartisan push to pull India closer to the United States’ orbit, there is a concern in some circles over India’s democratic backsliding, especially on minorities’ rights, political dissent and freedom of the press.
Those are issues that Blinken has said will be at the forefront of Biden's foreign policy, but they may take a back seat to pressing geopolitical priorities, like boosting India’s production and export of COVID vaccines or decreasing carbon emissions and seeking other solutions to climate change.
Dean Thompson, the top U.S. diplomat for South and Central Asia, said India’s record on human rights will be addressed during Blinken’s meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.
“We will raise it, and we will continue that conversation because we firmly believe that we have more values in common on those fronts than we don’t,” he said -- a collaborative, not critical tone.
Thompson also made clear that the meetings in New Delhi “will focus on expanding our security, defense, cyber, and counterterrorism cooperation” and boosting their “increased convergence on regional and global issues.” In particular, Blinken himself emphasized ending the pandemic as swiftly as possible by unleashing India’s vaccines overseas again after its own horrific outbreak led to restrictions on exports.
“When that production engine gets fully going and can distribute again to the rest of the world, that’s going to make a big difference, too, so I’ll be talking to our Indian friends about that,” he said in an interview with MSNBC Friday.
That pause in India’s distribution of vaccines has delayed efforts to combat the pandemic, although Thompson said that a billion-dose initiative by the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia is still aiming to roll out in 2022. But as cases rise around the world again, including in the U.S., there’s a new urgency to speed up global distribution and stave off any new variants.
Beyond vaccines and climate, it’s clear Biden officials hope to pick up where predecessors left off and boost ties with India to counter what they consider China’s aggressive behavior.
Wendy Sherman, the No. 2 at the State Department, met her Chinese counterparts in the northern port city Tianjin on Sunday, urging open lines of communication and saying the U.S. “do[es] not seek conflict,” according to the State Department.
But she also carried a laundry list of Chinese behaviors that the U.S. opposes, including economic espionage and cyber theft, territorial claims like in the South China Sea, and human rights violations in Hong Kong and against Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang province.
The U.S. says many of these issues are evidence of China undermining the world’s rules. But China has dismissed that in increasingly vocal and dramatic tones, including during a very public spat between Blinken and Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and their Chinese counterparts in March.
“U.S. policy seems to be demanding cooperation when it wants something from China; decoupling, cutting off supplies, blockading or sanctioning China when it believes it has an advantage; and resorting to conflict and confrontation at all costs,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng said during the meetings, according to China’s Foreign Ministry. All of these issues the U.S. raised are China’s business as a sovereign country, it added, accusing the U.S. of bullying.
Not long ago, India was largely neutral on these issues. But it has also now borne the brunt of Chinese action and waded into its own hostilities with Beijing. Last year high in the Himalayas, security forces from the two countries even sparred in hand-to-hand combat over their disputed border.
In the year since then, Modi’s government has taken steps to penalize China, including banning dozens of Chinese apps like WeChat and TikTok.
That’s helped to push India closer to the so-called “Quad,” with Japan, Australia and the U.S.
Biden held the first leader-level summit of the group as one of his first foreign meetings of his administration, with Blinken’s trip this week expected to help lay the groundwork for another – and the first in-person – in the months to come.
(NEW YORK) -- A rural schoolteacher and son of illiterate campesinos from the Andean highlands is poised to be sworn in as Peru's president Wednesday, the same day the country will commemorate its 200th anniversary of independence from Spain. His inauguration comes after a fiercely contested presidential runoff last month.
The moonshot candidacy and ultimate victory of leftist Pedro Castillo, whose ascension from political oblivion as a fiery union leader, was announced last week after one of the most protracted political battles in Peru's history. His far-right challenger, Keiko Fujimori, daughter of jailed former President Alberto Fujimori, refused to concede for over a month, alleging widespread voter fraud with sparse evidence.
Castillo's win has rattled Peru's coastal elites and electrified its marginalized peasant and Indigenous classes hailing from the Andes and Amazon regions, hundreds of whom have descended on the capital, Lima, to serve as ronderos, or peasant patrollers in support of the president-elect.
"Those with power in this country treat us like second-class citizens. We're here to reclaim what is ours," said Maruja Inquilla Sucasaca, a Quechua environmentalist from Puno in southeastern Peru.
The final tally hinged on just 44,000 votes. Castillo's Marxist Leninist party, Peru Libre, clinched 50.1% of votes to Fujimori's conservative Fuerza Popular party, which took 49.9%.
Backed by a battalion of lawyers, Fujimori delayed certification of Castillo's victory for over 40 days, seeking to disqualify 200,000 votes in Indigenous and rural enclaves in which he drew overwhelming support.
In a speech last week, Fujimori maintained that thousands of votes were stolen from her. She decried the electoral commission's results as "illegitimate" and encouraged supporters to continue to mobilize, while also signaling she would honor the results.
International observers, including the Organization of American States, have called the elections free and fair. In a statement last week, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the Biden Administration is "eager to work with President-Elect Castillo's administration."
"She undertook a Trump-like effort to delegitimize the election," said Brian Winter, vice president of policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas. "But under extreme pressure, the electoral authority managed to appear sober, even-handed and calm."
Keiko Fujimori is heiress to a political dynasty forged by her father, Alberto Fujimori, a towering and deeply polarizing figure who ruled the Andean nation with an authoritarian grip from 1990-2000.
Despite suspending the constitution and sanctioning death-squads to suppress Maoist guerrilla insurgencies in the 1990s, many credit him for laying the foundation of Peru's modern economy. Fujimori, 82, is currently serving a 25-year sentence for human rights violations.
"It's almost impossible to separate her identity from the nostalgia a part of Peruvian society feels toward her father," said Winter. "She has now twice come within a very close distance of the presidency. It's premature to declare her career over."
For weeks, Fujimori's supporters have camped in front of Peru's supreme court demanding an international audit of votes.
"In this election fraud and the scourge of communism won. We're here to fight for our democracy," said one supporter, Fredy Gonzales, 60.
Four blocks away, in front of the national electoral commision headquarters, rural supporters of Castillo said they were camped out to "defend" the electoral authority and safeguard their votes. Some carried traditional Andean whips known as chicotes in case of unrest.
"We'll stay until his inauguration, but if the president of the people calls on us, we'll return as many times as he needs us," said Jaime Diaz, 49, another Quechua supporter.
The cornerstone of 51-year-old Pedro Castillo's campaign, a slogan as well-worn as his straw hat: "No more poor people in a rich country." The president-elect, who hails from Cajamarca in Peru's rugged north, has promised to rewrite the country's constitution and redistribute mineral wealth. Peru is the world's second-largest copper producer.
Castillo's victory comes amid ever-deepening political turmoil. Peru has endured four presidents and two congresses in the past five years.
Castillo's rise from a cow and chicken-raising provincial school teacher came in 2017 when he gained national recognition as leader of a prolonged teachers strike. His victory has served as a blunt rebuke of Peru's political and business class in Lima, many of whom fear the proposed economic policies of his Marxist party will plunge the country into a crisis the likes of neighboring Venezuela.
On Wednesday Castillo will take the helm of a nation reeling from economic and public health crises. Over 195,000 Peruvians have died from COVID-19, the highest per capita death rate in the world.
Addressing hundreds of supporters from a balcony in central Lima Friday, Castillo vowed to vaccinate all Peruvians and recharge a stagnant economy. He also sought to allay concern he will transform Peru into a socialist Venezuela or Cuba.
"I categorically reject the notion that we're going to bring in models from other countries. We are not Chavistas, we are not communists or extremists, much less terrorists."
(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden said the U.S. is "not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission" in Iraq.
The president, while meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi Monday afternoon, said the U.S. role there will be focused on training and assisting to combat the Islamic State group.
"Our shared fight against ISIS is critical for the stability of our region and our counterterrorism cooperation will continue, even as we shift to this new phase we're going to be talking about," Biden said.
A U.S. official told ABC News Thursday the change in mission is more of a semantic one and the number of U.S. troops in Iraq will not dramatically differ as they shift their emphasis to training and assisting.
As with anywhere around the world, the official added, U.S. troops reserve the right to defend themselves too.
Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S. Fareed Yasseen told ABC News last week that Iraqi forces will continue to request direct U.S. assistance for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and training.
Several U.S. officials have said the 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq are already largely in that kind of advise-and-assist role.
Both sides have repeatedly committed to U.S. troops exiting once the coalition to defeat ISIS completes its work, essentially kicking the can down a long road now to appease political pressure in Iraq, fueled by Iranian-backed factions and militias and U.S. air strikes against them.
During the Trump administration, a tit-for-tat series of attacks between Iraqi militias and U.S. forces in Iraq to fight ISIS precipitated an assault on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad in January 2020. While the Shiite militias were able to breach an outer perimeter, no one was injured in the attack.
Days later, President Donald Trump ordered the airstrike that killed Iran's most powerful general Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite Quds Force. The strike outside Baghdad International Airport further inflamed anti-American sentiment among Shiite militias and Iraq's government responded by denouncing it as another U.S. violation of its sovereignty.
With a majority in parliament, Shiite lawmakers voted to expel U.S. troops that month. While the resolution was non-binding, there's been strong political pressure on the Iraqi government since then to see an end to the U.S. military presence, especially after the two governments and the defeat ISIS coalition declared the end of the terror group's so-called caliphate.
In a series of "strategic dialogues" since then, they have negotiated ways to strengthen U.S.-Iraqi cooperation on other issues, including trade, energy and diplomacy with Iraq's Arab neighbors, while repeatedly committing to pulling American forces out one day.
Biden on Monday also noted that the U.S. is sending Iraq 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines, which the president said should be arriving "in a couple of weeks."
With Monday's announcement, that day could be closer -- but it's still not here yet.
That much was clear to those Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, also known as Popular Mobilization Forces. The spokesperson for one group, the Nujaba Movement, said in a statement that the change in mission was a "cheap trick."
They "will not differentiate between advisers of the occupation or soldiers of the occupation, for all of them are important targets for the weapons of the resistance, until the last occupying soldier leaves the land of Iraq," said the spokesperson, Nasser al Shammari.
ABC News' Libby Cathey contributed to this report.
(NEW YORK) -- Some 150 miles from Tokyo's Olympic venues, calendars that line the walls of empty classrooms remain frozen on a date more than a decade in the past: March 11, 2011.
Images from an abandoned elementary school in Futaba, Japan, are an eerie reminder of the uneven recovery efforts 10 years after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggered a catastrophic tsunami and caused the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
About 164,000 people were forced to evacuate in the aftermath of the meltdown at the now-infamous Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. Many never returned home.
As the Japanese government doggedly forges ahead with the delayed and beleaguered Olympic Games this year, some advocates say initial promises that the situation in Fukushima is "under control" are false. Some also say the "Recovery Olympics" branding exploits residents who feel forgotten, and cleanup of the Dai-ichi power plant will take decades longer than government estimates.
Japanese officials insist radiation levels in reopened parts of Fukushima prefecture -- which is set to host baseball and softball for the Summer Games -- are safe for visitors, and many independent monitors agree. But what many say is a lack of transparency has eroded public trust, and a new debate rages over the what to do with the more than 1 million tons of "treated" radioactive wastewater piling up in storage tanks at the damaged nuclear power plant.
Here is how the legacy of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe looms large over the Tokyo Olympics.
A 'Made in Japan' disaster
Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the chairman of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (a group mandated by Japanese legislators to examine what went wrong and make recommendations), told ABC News that recovery efforts are far from complete and a permanent plan for how to dispose of contaminated waste is not in place.
"It has a long way to go," Kurokawa told ABC News of Fukushima's recovery. "It's a very tragic thing -- and there are just certain people that cannot go back."
"The issue is, what is the long-term prospectus of how to contain Fukushima Dai-ichi, and I'm not so sure TEPCO [Tokyo Electric Power Company] has a clear long-term plan of what to do," Kurokawa added. "They're doing at least their best effort, but I think cleaning up radioactivity is a mess, and particularly with Fukushima Dai-ichi's issues."
While the quasi-state-owned power firm that runs the embattled nuclear power plant has suggested a 30- to 40-year timeline for decommissioning, Kurokawa said conflicting research estimates it could take at least "100 years."
In his team's scathing report on what went wrong, delivered to Japanese lawmakers in the aftermath of the event, Kurokawa calls the nuclear catastrophe a "profoundly manmade disaster -- that could and should have been foreseen and prevented."
Kurokawa blasted cultural factors in the nation with the world's third-largest gross domestic product that he says ultimately resulted in more suffering.
"What must be admitted -- very painfully -- is that this was a disaster 'Made in Japan,'" Kurokawa wrote in the English version of the executive summary. "Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to 'sticking with the program'; our groupism; and our insularity."
While they are separate issues, similar criticisms have been leveled at Japanese officials still insistent upon hosting the Olympics despite a global pandemic.
"The biggest issue from our point of view has been this historical lack of adequate transparency on the part of TEPCO and also the Japanese government," Azby Brown, a researcher for the nuclear monitoring nonprofit organization Safecast, told ABC News, "and this is from the beginning and may actually predate the accident."
"We see some similar things happening regarding the coronavirus response and even among the negotiations or the discussions regarding the Olympics and what measures will be taken to protect the safety of people who come here for that," Brown added. "So, it's all part of a similar phenomenon within Japanese institutions and bureaucracies and government."
'Recovery is far from reality' ahead of so-called 'Recovery Olympics'
Before the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the world, the Japanese government originally painted the 2020 Olympic Games as the "Recovery Olympics," meant to showcase how the nation rebuilt in the decade following the cataclysmic triple disaster of 2011.
The global health crisis and mounting costs associated with hosting the international event during a once-in-a-century pandemic has led to dwindling public support for holding the games, but these concerns appear to have largely fallen on deaf ears. Many locals have expressed fears that it could lead to a surge in coronavirus cases as vaccination rates in Japan lag far behind its peers in the developed world.
For some residents or evacuees of Fukushima, however, hosting the Olympics at a cost of some $12.6 billion is a painful reminder of government-spending priorities.
"Some people feel abandoned not only by the government but also by the nation," Kazuya Hirano, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, told ABC News. "They also feel used for the promotion of the government slogan, the 'Recovery Olympics.'"
Hirano -- whose research has focused on the continued social, political and health effects of the disaster -- said that the government terminated financial support for evacuees in 2017, but most have not returned home.
"Reconstruction does not make much sense as most former Fukushima residents who were affected by the disaster have not returned or have no intention to return because they are worried about the radiation for their families as well as themselves," Hirano said. "Most people have already settled in new places."
Safecast's Brown said that he feels some people in the region take pride in hosting Olympic events, as it provides something to be optimistic about.
"But for them to try to use this as a way to showcase recovery, it was a sketchy idea from the beginning and I think now it's probably certainly backfired," he said. "Instead, it will only highlight the problems and the lack of recovery."
"We spend a lot of time with people in communities we help," Brown said. "They're all totally skeptical of these big-picture things, like to spend millions and millions on Olympics. They are saying we need more support for concrete things -- actual support for small businesses, actual support for single parents."
With "real, concrete things" still not adequately taken care of in Fukushima, Brown said many residents view the billions of dollars pumped into the Olympics as "just misspent funds."
In his 2013 speech pitching Tokyo as a host city, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told members of the International Olympic Committee that the situation in Fukushima is "under control" and "has never done and will never do any damage to Tokyo."
His words have drawn ire from Fukushima residents for years.
In July 2020, Katsunobu Sakurai -- who was mayor of Minamiosama, Fukushima, at the time of the catastrophe -- blasted the "Recovery Olympics" branding in an interview with the one of the country's biggest newspapers.
"No matter how much you tout the games as a sign of recovery, the overall picture of only Tokyo prospering while the recovery of the disaster-hit areas in the Tohoku region remains undone will not change," he told the Mainichi newspaper, referring to the region that is home to Fukushima. "I've been to Tokyo many times, and saw that there were more crane trucks at the construction site of the athletes' village than in the disaster-hit areas."
"It was obvious at a glance where the national government was placing its resources," he added.
How safe is the area now?
The Japanese government has been slowly lifting evacuation orders and "restricted areas" over the years, removing top soil and declaring new swaths of land safe for residents to return to in the lead up to the Summer Games. Currently, a vast majority of Fukushima is considered safe to visit -- only about 230 square miles remain in designated evacuation zones, or 2.7% of the total area of Fukushima prefecture.
Fukushima's Azuma Baseball stadium, about 42 miles from the Dai-ichi power plant, is set to host baseball and softball competitions for the Tokyo Olympics.
In a symbolic move, the Olympic torch relay kicked off at the J-Village National Training Center, a sports complex just 12 miles south of the Dai-ichi plant. The complex served as a front-line base for first responders in the aftermath of the meltdown.
"That place, the base of operations dealing with the nuclear accident, has now been reborn into Japan's largest holy site of soccer, filled with children's smiling faces," Abe said of J-Village in a January 2020 speech. The former prime minister and fierce champion of hosting the games also reminisced how a man born in Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb was dropped carried the Olympic flame in Tokyo's 1964 Olympics, sending a message to the world that "Japan had achieved reconstruction" following World War II.
While the government has assured visitors the designated areas in Fukushima are safe, some independent monitoring organizations, including Greenpeace Japan, have reported finding radioactive hotspots with readings that don't align with figures released by the officials.
Kurokawa and Brown agreed that the risk of dangerous levels of radiation exposure in reopened areas of Fukushima is low, but residents' trust in official statements also remains low.
"More or less, I think it's very clean and if there's any sort of radioactivity, there are some warnings around there, so I think local people know where it is safe and where may not be as safe," Kurokawa told ABC News. He added that he believes people can "reasonably trust" municipal radiation data even if they have doubts about TEPCO-released figures.
Brown added that barring intentionally scaling a fence and entering a prohibited zone, radiation in most areas welcoming Olympic guests is relatively low.
"Before coronavirus there was a question if it was safe to have Olympic events in Fukushima. We were involved in that and had people involved who measured at the stadium, talked to people," Brown said. "Our opinion was that ... the risk of an overseas visitor going to Fukushima was similar to the radiation risk they got on their flight over."
"That is not an exaggeration and is not trying to minimize risk in general," he added. "You get a very hefty dose on an overseas flight."
'Transparency is the foundation of trust'
Earlier this year, Japan's government announced plans to start releasing "treated" radioactive wastewater from the Dai-ichi plant into the Pacific Ocean in approximately two years. The move had already been delayed due to protests, drawing ire from local fisherman as well as Japan's neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said this decision is "unavoidable" in order to "make progress in the decommissioning of Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant and achieve the reconstruction of Fukushima."
The wastewater has been stored in tanks at the wrecked power plant for years, and space is reaching full capacity, the prime minister added. As of January 2021, there were approximately 1,061 tanks on the site of the power plant, carrying 1.24 million tons of treated water. Suga said he doesn't think the plan reflects a "contradiction" to Abe's former pledge to Olympic officials that the Fukushima situation was "under control."
The water has been treated, but still contains minute amounts of the harder-to-remove radioactive isotope tritium. In a failed bid to gain public support for the plan, the Japanese government created a rosy-cheeked so-called "Little Mr. Tritium" mascot. The cute character that looked like something out of a children's book was scrapped from government websites in a single day after community backlash.
"The gap between the gravity of the problems we face and the levity of the character is huge," a local fisherman told Japan's Kyodo News Agency.
Suga promised they would reduce the tritium concentration to "one-fortieth or less of the domestic regulatory standard value," or levels small enough to be largely considered safe by the nuclear energy community.
While nuclear operators around the world release small amounts of tritium into the ocean as part of standard operating procedures, Brown told ABC News that it's a "false comparison to say that Fukushima Dai-ichi is the same."
"What we're dealing with is a stopgap emergency response to a horrific nuclear disaster," he said, noting that the release is not being done as part of the designed operation of the plant.
"Another criticism of ours is that there should be a process, a full environmental impact assessment before the decision is made," Brown said. While a limited assessment was carried out, he added, "It has not been done transparently."
"We think that if it is done the way they said they are going to do it, then the impact on health and the environment can be very low," he added. "But the point is there has been such bad faith all along that none of us should take it on their word. We believe it needs to be independently verified."
Kurokawa added that while the tritium debate has dominated discussion, there's evidence that there could be trace amounts of other radioactive elements in the wastewater destined for the Pacific.
"I just testified in the parliament, there are other sort of radioactivities in addition to tritium," he said. "But nobody talks much about this."
While he said he genuinely believes the levels are within accepted norms, it sill must be disclosed.
"It's safe, but you have to say it," he said.
Kurokawa is advocating for TEPCO and the Japanese government to invest in a highly transparent, bilingual website that is constantly being updated with the latest data and plans for Fukushima.
"I think all the data has to be available because in this connected world, transparency is a foundation of trust," he said. "You just cannot hide it."
The city of Minamiosama, where Sakurai was mayor, was among the hardest-hit by the disaster. Kurokawa and his team's report found that 44% of evacuees from Fukushima were residents of this city. Data indicates that even after it was declared safe, it still suffered a mass exodus of its young people.
"The Japanese government has prepared for the Olympics while upholding the 'disaster recovery' label, even though a recovery is far from reality," Sakurai said to the Mainichi newspaper in July 2020. "It is superficial to declare a recovery with no actual progress."
"The government is now talking of an Olympics that could be a sign of humanity's triumph over the pandemic, but vaccines have not yet been put into practical use, and the world has not yet been freed from the risk of infection," he added. "There is no chance of success by trying to box in reality to meet the labels the government upholds. The idea of a 'coronavirus Olympics' may also likely end as a mere fantasy."