Rare Botticelli sells for $45 million at New York auction

A rare Botticelli painting depicting Jesus Christ sold at auction for more than $45 million Thursday at Sotheby's in New York, a year after a record $92 million was paid for a work by the Italian Renaissance master.

While the majority of works by Sandro Botticelli, such as the famous "Allegory of Spring" or "Birth of Venus", are on display at the Uffizi gallery in Florence, pieces circulating in private collections are much rarer.

After a seven-minute bidding battle among three buyers via phone, the painting "The Man of Sorrows" sold for $39.3 million, plus fees and commissions, for a total of $45.41 million.

The price was above Sotheby's estimate of $40 million, and more than half the record set in 2021 for the Botticelli painting "Young Man Holding a Roundel," which sold for $92.2 million.

"The Man of Sorrows" is a portrait of Jesus against a black background. He is staring intently, a crown of thorns on his head and surrounded by angels. His hands are bound by ropes and scarred.

Art experts say the painting dates back to the early 1500s, at the end of Botticelli's life (1445-1510). In addition to his works at the Uffizi, the artist's frescoes decorate the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

The well-preserved painting had remained with the same family of art collectors, who split their time between Britain and Italy, since the mid-19th century, before being sold to its current owners in 1963 at auction for 10,000 pounds at Sotheby's.

Auction houses benefited from a dynamic art market in 2021, after the pandemic limited supply in 2020. Sotheby's reached its highest sales figure in history -- $7.3 billion -- in 2021.

Thursday's sale, which was devoted to Old Masters, was held in the morning in New York both in person and online, to allow European and Asian buyers to participate.

The Botticelli painting went on a world tour before being displayed in New York. Sotheby's also created a virtual chapel to show off the masterpiece.

© 2022 AFP

Xiomara Castro to be sworn in as first woman president of Honduras

Xiomara Castro will be sworn in Thursday as the first woman president of Honduras, which is grappling with poverty, migration, drug trafficking and corruption, after apparently resolving a crisis in congress that threatened her leadership.

The 62-year-old leftist former first lady's inauguration will put an end to 12 years of right wing National Party rule.

"Twelve years of struggle, 12 years of resistance. Today the people's government begins," Castro, the wife of former president Manuel Zelaya, who was deposed in 2009, wrote on Twitter.

From dawn, queues formed outside the national stadium in the capital Tegucigalpa where 29,000 people will watch the inauguration.

In order to implement her campaign promises, Castro needs the support of congress but last week a crisis broke out when rival factions in her Libre party voted in their own presidents of the legislature.

Negotiations to end the impasse seemed to have reached a successful conclusion on Thursday as Castro's choice, Luis Redondo, opened a legislative session.

Rebel Libre deputy Jorge Calix, who presided over a rival session on Tuesday, did not repeat the move this time.

On Wednesday night, Castro revealed she had offered Calix the job of Cabinet Coordinator -- a similar role to chief of staff -- in her government, in a bid to convince him to drop his claim to the congress president role.

Calix, who had led a band of close to 20 dissident Libre deputies supported by the right wing opposition, sparked hope of a breakthrough by replying to Castro with: "You will soon receive my answer."

'Deep crisis'

The congress dispute is an embarrassing distraction for the president-elect, with US Vice President Kamala Harris, King Felipe VI of Spain and Taiwan Vice President William Lai due to attend the inauguration.

Once she assumes office, Castro will inherit "a country in a deep crisis, above all a social crisis, whose despair, whose deterioration of living conditions have become so profound," Eugenio Sosa, a sociologist at the National University of Honduras, told AFP.

The main reflection of the crisis, he added, "is in the massive exodus of families to the United States."

Castro's challenge, though, before even taking office, was to try to resolve the congress dispute.

The schism emerged last Friday when a group of Libre dissidents ignored an agreement with the Savior Party of Honduras (PSH), whose support was key to Castro winning the November elections.

PSH leader Salvador Nasralla agreed to withdraw from the presidential race in return for the position of vice president and a pledge to support the PSH's Redondo as president of congress.

But dissidents refused, arguing that congress should be led by the party with the most members -- Libre has 50 deputies, to just 10 for the Savior party.

The dispute turned nasty, with some deputies coming to blows.

Castro accuses the dissidents of allying with the National Party of outgoing president Juan Orlando Hernandez to prevent the changes she promised in her campaign, including the restitution of laws against impunity that were rolled back by the previous administration.

Migration talks

During her visit, US vice president Harris is due to hold talks with Castro on the root causes of Central American migration toward the United States, a senior US official said.

"The topics will include expanding economic opportunity, combating corruption, and humanely managing migration," the official added.

Some 71 percent of the close to 10 million Hondurans live in poverty, according to an NGO called FOSDEH.

"Everyone wants to leave because there's no work. If there were more job opportunities here, there would be no need to look for another country," university student Jensi Davila told AFP in Tegucigalpa.

Honduras is also wracked by violence instigated by criminal gangs involved in drug trafficking. The murder rate is close to 40 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Lai is due to hold separate talks with Castro and Belize Prime Minister John Briceno during his visit.

Taiwan's foreign ministry said Lai's meeting with Castro would be "to exchange views on issues of mutual concern."

Honduras is among just 14 countries that still recognize Taiwan.

China, which considers Taiwan a part of its territory, has spent decades successfully encouraging the island nation's allies to switch sides.

During her election campaign, Castro vowed to "immediately open diplomatic and commercial relations with mainland China" if she won.

© 2022 AFP

US economy grew 5.7% in 2021, but Omicron hit looms

The world's largest economy staged a solid recovery last year as it grew at the fastest pace since 1984, but damage from the Omicron variant of Covid-19 still looms.

Surging prices continue to pose a challenge, as inflation picked up speed in the final three months of the pandemic's second year, according to official data released Thursday.

That threatens to dampen the consumer demand that has underpinned the recovery, while supply chain snarls continue to create headaches for businesses, and for President Joe Biden's efforts to return the country to normal.

After the downturn in 2020, US GDP expanded by 5.7 percent last year, the Commerce Department said in its latest quarterly report.

Amid the rise of Omicron in the October-November period, GDP grew 6.9 percent, the data showed. While that topped expectations, economists warn the figure was inflated by businesses' attempts to rebuild depleted inventories.

"The upside surprise came largely from a surge in inventories and the details aren't as strong as the headline would suggest," said Kathy Bostjancic of Oxford Economics.

"What's more, beneath the headline GDP print, the handoff to 2022 is weak. With consumer spending retrenching in December and Omicron dampening economic activity," she said in an analysis.

Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics agreed, saying the start of the year looks grim: "Our tentative Q1 GDP forecast right now is zero."

But Biden, whose signature social spending bill is stalled in Congress, cheered the report, highlighting "the fastest economic growth in nearly four decades, along with the greatest year of job growth in American history."

And, he said, "for the first time in 20 years, our economy grew faster than China's."

"This is no accident. My economic strategy is creating good jobs for Americans, rebuilding our manufacturing, and strengthening our supply chains here at home to help make our companies more competitive."

Inflation on the rise

Ongoing supply snarls and shortages, combined with strong demand for goods fueled by generous government aid, have created a perfect storm of inflationary pressures that have undercut Biden's approval among American voters.

Prices accelerated during the year, peaking in the October-December period with a 6.5 percent surge in the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index -- the measure the Federal Reserve focuses on. That was the biggest increase in 40 years.

For the full year, inflation rose 3.9 percent, according to the data, still far above the Fed's two percent goal.

Excluding volatile food and energy prices which have increased sharply in the year, the core PCE price index rose 3.3 percent in 2021, and 4.9 percent in the fourth quarter.

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday issued a clear signal that it plans to begin raising interest rates in March to tamp down inflation, but that also could restrain growth next year.

Trudeau to isolate after Covid exposure

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Thursday that he had been exposed to Covid-19 and would isolate for five days, in accordance with health rules for vaccinated people.

"Last night, I learned that I have been exposed to Covid-19," Trudeau tweeted. "My rapid test result was negative."

"I feel fine and will be working from home," he said.

He will not be physically present when the House of Commons resumes its session on Monday.

Trudeau, 50, received a Covid-19 booster shot in January. In his tweet, he again urged Canadians to get vaccinated against the virus.

At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, Trudeau had to isolate for 14 days after his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, tested positive for the coronavirus on her return from a trip to London.

Canada is battling a rise in Covid cases and hospitalizations due to the Omicron variant. The province of Ontario, where Trudeau lives in the Canadian capital Ottawa, requires unvaccinated people to isolate for 10 days.

Ontario, Canada's most populous province, is expected to start easing Covid restrictions from Monday, allowing restaurants, bars, sports venues and movie theaters to reopen.

Canada has recorded more than 2.9 million cases of Covid-19 and 33,192 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

© 2022 AFP

How three-quarters of French Jews survived the Holocaust, despite the Vichy regime

The fate of France’s Jews during World War II has become an unlikely topic of debate in the run-up to the French presidential election, exhumed by a revisionist candidate’s widely debunked claims that the Nazi-allied Vichy regime offered them protection. FRANCE 24 spoke to historian Jacques Sémelin, whose latest book sheds light on the real reasons some 200,000 French Jews survived the Holocaust.

Sémelin’s quest began more than a decade ago, following an interview with the late Simone Veil, the revered politician and Holocaust survivor who was recently inducted into the Panthéon of French heroes. During their conversation, back in 2008, Sémelin found he could offer no easy answer to the following question: “How is it that so many Jews were able to survive in spite of the Vichy government and the Nazis?”

Of the roughly 320,000 Jews established in France at the start of the war, an estimated 74,150 – most of them foreign nationals – were deported by Nazi Germany with the complicity of its allies in the Vichy regime, according to data compiled by the renowned French historian and Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld. The figures translate into a survival rate of 75 percent, one of the highest in Nazi-dominated Europe, well above the 25 percent documented for the Netherlands or neighboring Belgium’s 45 percent.

Understanding this French exception is the focus of Sémelin’s recent book, "Une énigme française, pourquoi les trois quarts des juifs en France n’ont pas été déportés" (A French enigma, why three-quarters of Jews in France were not deported), based on 10 years of painstaking research on the fate of Western Europe’s largest Jewish community at the time.

Minimising the guilt of Vichy France

Since 1995, when President Jacques Chirac acknowledged the French state's responsibility in helping expedite the Holocaust, few have challenged the notion that the Vichy regime led by Marshal Philippe Pétain colluded in the arrest, deportation and mass murder of Jews. However, some revisionists continue to minimize the regime’s guilt, claiming it sought to protect Jews who were French nationals.

Contrary to the claims made by Éric Zemmour, a far-right candidate for the French presidency, French Jews who managed to avoid wartime deportation do not owe their survival to Pétain’s regime, says Sémelin.

“Such claims are nonsense. There is absolutely no archival evidence to back them up,” says the historian, whose book recalls Vichy France’s own antisemitic laws, enacted independently of Nazi Germany, as well as the active role of French police in the arrests and round-ups that preceded deportations. He adds: “Zemmour is simply playing on people’s ignorance of the matter.”

To understand why a majority of France’s Jews were not deported during the Holocaust, Sémelin combined archival research with witness accounts of wartime France. These included extensive interviews with Jews who were able to avoid deportation, many of whom were either ignored after the war or reluctant to share their personal stories.

“There is a sense of guilt among survivors. At first, a lot of them told me they had nothing to say. But when we sat down for a chat, tongues would loosen and their stories eventually unspooled,” says Sémelin. “My aim was to restore the voices of Jews who were persecuted in France by the laws of the Vichy regime. They experienced anguish, separation and displacement. They also suffered.”

‘Web of social relationships’

The first and most obvious escape route for Jews was to cross into the so-called zone libre (free zone), the southeastern part of the country, covering roughly two-fifths of the entire French territory, that was controlled by Vichy but not occupied by the Nazis – at least not until November 1942. There, many Jews were able to hide in remote corners of what was still a predominantly rural country.

“Two-thirds of France’s Jews fled to the zone libre and scattered across the territory,” says Sémelin. Stressing that “those who spoke French and were better off financially had the best chance of hiding.” Still, as late as the spring of 1944, some 40,000 Jews continued to live in Paris, according to the historian, whereas the Jewish communities of Warsaw or Amsterdam had by then been practically wiped out.

Sémelin says French Jews’ best ally during the war was the “web of social relationships” which they were very much part of. French Jews were highly integrated and had friends, neighbors and colleagues they could call upon. Without minimising wartime collaboration with the Nazis, Sémelin rejects the notion of a profoundly antisemitic French public. He cites the more than 4,000 French citizens recognised by Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations” for their role in saving Jews from deportation. He also points to the multiple round-ups of Jews, including the infamous Vel d’Hiv round-up of July 1942, which fell short of Nazi targets.

>> Macron restates France’s responsibility for wartime round-up of Jews

“When the Vel d’Hiv round-up took place, something unexpected happened,” he explains. “The Nazis and their Vichy allies were counting on the arrest of 27,000 Jews, mostly foreigners. In the end, they had to settle for 13,000 – though obviously it was still 13,000 too many.” More than half the targeted Jews were able to avoid arrest, largely because their fellow Parisians gave them advance warning and helped them to hide. Sémelin adds: “A large part of the public was outraged that police were going after women and children.”

‘They are our brothers’

With the unprecedented mass arrest of Jewish women and children, the Vel d’Hiv round-up marked a turning point in France, exposing – in part – the sinister motives of the Nazis. It triggered the secretive establishment of rescue networks across the country, including by Catholic and Protestant clergy. Some prominent figures publicly spoke out against the treatment of Jews, including the archbishop of Toulouse, Monsignor Saliège, who urged worshipers to respect “human dignity” in a sermon delivered on August 23, 1942.

“Children, women, men, fathers and mothers being treated like a lowly herd; members of a single family being separated from each other and carted away to an unknown destination – it is our age which was destined to see this dreadful sight,” the archbishop said. “ Jews are men and women. Foreigners are men and women. One may not do anything one wishes to these men, to these women, to these fathers and mothers. They are part of the human race; they are our brothers, like so many others.”

The sermon, which was carried by the BBC and the New York Times, “had a considerable impact on the public,” says Sémelin, who ranks himself “among those who believe Monsignor Saliège has not been given the recognition he deserves. His words still resonate.”

Fourteen years on from his conversation with Veil, Sémelin has come up with a detailed, 224-page answer to her question. Establishing historical facts is also “the best answer to those who attempt to fabricate history,” he says, referring to Zemmour’s claims. His book helps clarify why a much higher proportion of France’s Jews survived the Holocaust than in other Nazi-occupied countries. It does so without forgetting the 74,150 Jewish men, women and children who were deported from France – most of whom perished.

Stephen Breyer: pragmatic pillar of US Supreme Court

Stephen Breyer, the oldest justice on the US Supreme Court and the senior member of the bench's liberal-leaning wing, boasts a record of pragmatism in the hundreds of opinions he has authored in his long career.

The bespectacled California native, aged 83, was nominated to the nation's highest court by Democratic former president Bill Clinton, and US media reported Wednesday that he plans to retire at the end of the current term in June.

He has spent more than 25 years on the nine-member bench, which towards the end of his tenure has firmly leaned to the right of the political spectrum.

But being in the minority has not dimmed his jovial nature or passion for the work of the court. Breyer has insisted in his rulings on assessing real-world implications when deciding cases, rejecting the strict reading of the Constitution favored by some of his peers.

Breyer -- who carries an annotated copy of the Constitution with him in his jacket pocket -- is a fierce opponent of the death penalty, and has ruled in favor of abortion rights, same-sex marriage and environmental protection.

He has bristled at the notion of partisanship on the court.

"My experience of more than 30 years as a judge has shown me that, once men and women take the judicial oath, they take the oath to heart," he said in a 2021 lecture at Harvard Law School, his alma mater.

"They are loyal to the rule of law, not to the political party that helped to secure their appointment."

From Harvard to high court

Born on August 15, 1938 in San Francisco, Breyer was educated at Stanford, Oxford and Harvard -- a prestigious academic career that challenged his keen intellect.

He began his legal career in 1964 as a clerk to then-Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg and then spent time working in the Justice Department on antitrust matters, before serving as an assistant special prosecutor on Watergate in 1973.

He taught at Harvard University until 1980, when he got the nod from then-president Jimmy Carter to serve on the federal court of appeals in Boston, where he remained for more than a decade, eventually becoming its chief judge.

Breyer was initially considered for a Supreme Court spot in 1993, but his candidacy was marred by a revelation that he had failed to pay taxes for a part-time housekeeper.

A year later, he became Clinton's second nominee to the high court, after Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The pair would end up shoring up the liberal-progressive wing of the court for more than two decades.

- 'Not my job' -

Upon Joe Biden's arrival in the Oval Office, Breyer found himself drawn into a perennial discussion when the White House changes hands -- should older justices retire when a president of their own political persuasion takes office?

Biden's predecessor Donald Trump had appointed three justices to the Supreme Court, sealing a 6-3 right-leaning majority.

But Breyer has repeatedly decried injecting politics into the court, and did not answer the call from liberals to leave his lifetime appointment to ensure a like-minded replacement.

"If the public sees judges as politicians in robes, its confidence in the courts, and in the rule of law itself, can only diminish, diminishing the court's power," he said in 2021.

In an interview with AFP in 2016, Breyer -- who is a Francophile and speaks fluent French -- refused even to say what qualities an ideal candidate for the court would possess.

"I can't suggest who the president should appoint. It's not my job," Breyer said.

"Asking me a question about who should be appointed or how that process works is like asking for the recipe for chicken a la king from the point of view of the chicken," he quipped.

Breyer is married to psychologist Joanna Hare, a member of the British aristocracy. They have three children.

© 2022 AFP

'Every indication' Putin plans force by mid-February: US

The United States believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin remains poised to use force against Ukraine by mid-February despite a pressure campaign to stop him, a top diplomat said Wednesday.

"I have no idea whether he's made the ultimate decision, but we certainly see every indication that he is going to use military force sometime perhaps (between) now and the middle of February," Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told a forum.

Sherman, who met with her Russian counterpart earlier this month in Vienna in an attempt to warn Moscow against invading its neighbor, said that Putin's planning may be affected by the Winter Games in Beijing, which the United States and several allies are boycotting due to human rights concerns.

"We all are aware that the Beijing Olympics begin on February 4, the opening ceremony, and President Putin expects to be there," Sherman told the Yalta European Strategy forum.

"I think that probably President Xi Jinping would not be ecstatic if Putin chose that moment to invade Ukraine, so that may affect his timing and his thinking."

Sherman said that the United States was "pushing for diplomacy" but also "preparing for the worst."

She reiterated that "even one Russian troop further invading Ukraine is a very serious matter" -- a continued message from Washington after President Joe Biden raised eyebrows by speaking of a different European response to a "minor" incursion.

But she said the United States was "preparing for all kinds of scenarios," from a "full-on invasion" to "hybrid attacks or subversion or sabotage or coercion."

Any invasion "has tremendous consequences for Ukraine and Europe, but also sends a message to the entire world that other autocrats can act with such impunity and go past long-held international principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity and an ability of a country to choose its own alliances."

Russia late last year amassed tens of thousands of troops near the border with Ukraine, where a pro-Moscow insurgency has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.

Russia, while denying plans for an invasion, has demanded concessions from the United States including a guarantee that Ukraine will never enter NATO.

© 2022 AFP

Netflix's first Arabic production ignites moral outrage in Egypt

Netflix's first Arabic film production was always set to be a big event, but within days of its release, public opinion in Egypt was so inflamed that critics called for a ban on the platform.

"Ashab wala Aaz" -- one of countless remakes of the Italian comedy-drama "Perfetti Sconosciutti" (Perfect Strangers) -- features renowned actors from Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.

The movie is about a group of friends meeting for dinner and deciding to make the night more interesting by agreeing to share every text message, email and phone call received with the rest of the group.

As events unfold, the game reveals shocking truths about members of the group as it touches on topics from adultery and premarital sex to homosexuality, all widely considered taboos in Egypt.

The film, which was released on January 20, immediately shot up to the most-watched list in Egypt.

But in the ensuing fracas, lawsuits have been filed against the culture ministry and the censor's office for allowing the film to be streamed, and MPs have called for a special session to discuss whether to ban Netflix altogether.

Online, many slammed celebrated Egyptian actress Mona Zaki, who took part in what they dubbed a "disgraceful" movie.

Amid the storm, the US streaming giant has refrained from commenting.

'War on morals'

One lawyer argued that the film "promotes homosexuality" while another said it seeks to "destroy family values" as part of a "systematic war on the morals" of Egyptian society.

While homosexuality is not expressly outlawed in Egypt, it is often punished under loosely worded laws prohibiting "debauchery".

Moreover, discrimination against the LGBT community is widespread in the deeply conservative and religious society.

Lawmaker Mostafa Bakry argued Netflix should be banned altogether as he called for an urgent meeting in parliament to discuss it.

He particularly lambasted a scene in which one of the actors -- who was playing a father to a teenage girl -- discussed with his daughter her first sexual encounter.

Premarital sex is also taboo in Egypt, where in extreme cases it may provoke "honor killings", especially in rural areas.

"This network targets Egyptian and Arab citizens ... we should ban Netflix," Bakri said in an interview with a private TV channel.

He said the film includes "more than 20 suggestive profanities which shocked Egyptian families".

Netflix rated the one-and-a-half hour long feature as not suitable for those under 16 years old, though it did not include any nudity or sex scenes.

'Bold, unconventional'

Egyptian film critic Tarek Shennawy said he was "surprised" at the attack on actress Mona Zaki.

Zaki, who played the part of a wife trapped in an unsatisfying marriage, was particularly criticized for a scene in which she removes her underwear from under her dress.

On social media, many viewed the scene as a source of shame for her husband -- renowned actor Ahmed Helmi -- and their daughter.

"How did Ahmed Helmi allow his wife to play this part in the movie," one user asked on Twitter.

Another questioned how Zaki "was not afraid for her daughter to see her this bold".

But Shennawy argued that "the movie's content should not affect the personal or national honor of those who took part in it".

"We are confusing fiction with reality and this is very weird."

'Deny, silence or ignore'

Egyptian cinema has a long history of films that shake social mores.

Nearly 20 years ago, "Sahar al-Layali" (Sleepless Nights), broached the troubles facing young married and unmarried couples.

It too raised topics such as adultery, classism and sexual dissatisfaction in marriages.

In 2006, cinemas screened "The Yacoubian Building" -- adapted from the best-selling novel by Alaa al-Aswany -- which explicitly discussed homosexuality.

Perhaps the greatest irony is the fact that in 2016, the Cairo International Film Festival's top prize went to none other than "Perfetti Sconosciutti".

But public appetite for such films has clashed with a mounting backlash as Egypt has become more conservative and freedoms have been further curtailed under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who took office in 2014.

Yet despite the scathing criticism, others defended the film, viewing it as an accurate depiction of reality.

"It is bold, unconventional and broached topics that Arabic cinema did not discuss before," prominent leftist lawyer and former presidential candidate Khaled Ali wrote on Facebook.

"It is realistic, no matter how much we try to deny, silence or ignore it."


At up to $8,000/week, America's travel nurses keep COVID-slammed hospitals afloat

For Allyssa Findorff, the decision to hit the road on short-term nursing contracts was an easy one: she'd always wanted to see the rest of America, and the attractive rates on offer helped seal the deal.

A year into the pandemic, with what she felt was enough experience in the ER under her belt, the 32-year-old, her restaurant server boyfriend and their two dogs left their native Wisconsin for her hospital assignments in Florida, followed by Colorado and now Arizona.

With the Omicron variant pushing the nation's health care system to the brink, and staff leaving in droves due to poor conditions and burnout, "travel nurses" are helping plug the gaps -- and sometimes pulling in wages that exceed those of surgeons.

"My boyfriend and I kind of agreed to only stay somewhere for four months, even if we love it, just so that we keep moving," she told AFP, adding the pair wanted to see "each corner of the country" by the time she's done.

Travel nursing isn't new, but the sector saw revenue growth of 35 percent in 2020, and was projected to expand a further 40 percent from 2020 to 2021, according to figures by Staffing Industry Analysts.

Mike Press, a recruiter at staffing agency Judge, told AFP rates were going as high as $8,000 per week, though this was on the higher end.

Most listings on Facebook groups advertising for jobs currently fall around the $3,000-5,000 per week range, still significantly higher than before the pandemic, when travel nurses typically earned around 15 percent more than those on staff per year.

Year's salary in three months

Contracts typically last three to four months, during which time travel nurses can make as much as they did in a full year before the pandemic, although some hospitals are now "testing the water with four-to-six week contracts" as the current hospitalization spike is forecast to taper, said Press.

Stacey Bosak, a 45-year-old from the Philadelphia area, is a single mother-of-four who leapt at the opportunity to start "traveling" as soon as the pandemic hit.

Elective surgeries were being canceled, staff who worked in non-emergency fields were being laid off -- and besides, Bosak had an instinct for running towards dangerous situations others might flee from -- including during the September 11, 2001 attacks, prior to being a nurse.

"When 9/11 happened, I drove there, and obviously there was nothing to do, and so when this happened, I had all the tools to help," she told AFP.

Her first job as a travel nurse came in the spring of 2020 in New York, when the city became the global epicenter of the coronavirus.

After a stint in Maryland, Bosak is back in her home area on a short contract.

She says that the situation during this wave "has been hell on Earth."

"The hospital is no place for a sick person right now -- it's really bad," she said, with staffing shortages extending to administrators and other types of medical worker.

Bosak gave the example of a case where she was tending to Covid patients who required high-flow oxygen through a nasal cannula, a technique which has been shown to reduce the need for invasive intubation on a ventilator, which not all patients need.

But because the hospital didn't have enough high-flow machines, the patients had to be intubated, which can lead to worse outcomes.

Corporate greed

Hospital systems have accused recruitment agencies of exploiting the pandemic, with industry group American Hospital Association in February 2021 calling on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate.

"It shouldn't be permitted during a pandemic, just like we don't permit building companies to triple the price of lumber after a hurricane," John Galley, chief human resource officer at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told trade magazine Becker's Hospital Review recently.

But according to Edward Smith, executive director of the DC Nurses Association, the nursing crisis existed well before the pandemic. One of the underlying reasons was low nurse-to-patient ratios driving nurses to burnout, caused by the greed of hospitals themselves.

"It's not that there's not a shortage of available nurses -- there's really a shortage of available nurses that will continue to put their license in jeopardy, their lives in jeopardy, and the patient's care in jeopardy," he told AFP.

Hospital groups have lobbied furiously against state level bills that would legislate against low staffing to patient ratios -- spending $25 million in Massachusetts in 2019 to defeat such an effort.

Finally, the current windfalls for travel nurses come with certain pitfalls, Colin Bosak, who advises temporary medical staff for the firm 1847Financial, told AFP.

Most temporary staffing companies don't offer benefits like retirement plans -- or, ironically, health insurance.

93 potential graves found at Canada school site

An Indigenous community in Canada has identified nearly 100 "potential" graves at a residential school site, months after the discovery of hundreds of children's remains at former boarding schools rocked the country.

The Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) community said on Tuesday that a geophysical survey revealed "93 reflections" with characteristics "indicative of potential human burials" at the former St. Joseph's Mission residential school in British Columbia.

Investigators "surveyed approximately 14 hectares of the broader 480-hectare site", which is about 300 kilometers (186 miles) north of Kamloops -- where the remains of 215 children were found in May.

Since May, more than 1,000 anonymous graves have been found near former "Indian residential schools" run by religious groups, shedding light on a dark chapter in Canadian history and its policy of forced assimilation of First Nations people.

Thousands of Indigenous children attended St. Joseph's Mission between 1886 and 1981 when it operated as a residential school run by various religious sects as part of a Canadian government system, according to WLFN, a community of around 800 people.

"There is much more work to do on the St. Joseph's site, and we have every intention of continuing with this work," WLFN Chief Willie Sellars said in a statement.

In early January, Ottawa announced $1.9 million Canadian dollars ($1.5 million) in funding for the investigation at St. Joseph's mission.

"To date, $116.8 million has been committed to support First Nation, Inuit and Metis Survivors, their families and communities and go toward locating and commemorating missing children who attended residential schools," the government said in a statement at the time.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday that the news of the potential graves "brings a lot of distressing emotions to the surface."

"My heart breaks for the members of the community, and for those whose loved ones never came home."

Numerous investigations into former residential schools are underway across the country, with between 4,000 and 6,000 children believed to be missing, according to authorities.

In total, about 150,000 Indigenous children were enrolled from the late 1800s to the 1990s in 139 of the residential schools across Canada, spending months or years isolated from their families, language and culture.

A truth and reconciliation commission concluded in 2015 the failed government policy amounted to "cultural genocide."

© 2022 AFP

The exiled sculptor of 'all that is no longer there' in Syria

A Syrian neighborhood targeted by regime bombing lies in ruins, with bodies and broken toys poking out of the rubble; tall, grey buildings are reduced to crumbling, empty shells, their walls blown away or pockmarked by the blast.

The scene, captured in devastating detail, has been created by artist Khaled Dawwa, a Syrian exile and prison survivor who now works in France.

In his colossal work entitled "Here is my heart!", Dawwa is still battling oppression, urging viewers "not to forget the revolution by the Syrian people and all their sacrifices".

"When I'm working on this piece in my studio, I'm in Damascus. I do everything I can here, while not being there...," the 36-year-old tells AFP.

Deeply scarred by the years of repressive rule and violent crackdowns and the loss of friends killed, missing or imprisoned, Dawwa's work is both an act of revolt and memory, targeting "the international community's inaction against dictatorial regimes" in Syria and elsewhere.

"In the face of the disaster that is happening in Syria, I feel a responsibility because I have the tools to express myself," he says.

Among several of his massive installations -- including one in bronze -- being exhibited for the first time this year in France, "Here is my heart!" has been on display in Paris and soon transfers to a big national museum.

- Bearing witness -

Dawwa began the piece in 2018, as regime forces retook the rebel bastion of Eastern Ghouta, on Damascus' outskirts.

At nearly six meters (nearly 20 feet) long and more than two meters high, it is imposing.

Using polystyrene, earth, glue and wood, covered in clay, he details the destruction inside and out -- the shattered doors, blown-away balconies, right down to the overturned chairs.

In the debris, crunched-up bicycles and the wreckage of a bus can be seen -- but also the bodies of a child lying next to his ball and of an old woman.

"It's totally unique and innovative," says philosopher Guillaume de Vaulx, of the French Institute for the Near East (Ifpo) and co-author of "Destructiveness in Works. Essay on Contemporary Syrian Art".

"Artists have shown destroyed things and made it their art, but he shows the process of destruction from within," de Vaulx adds, speaking from Beirut.

"He stops before the form has totally disappeared but the viewer is inevitably led to imagine the moment when everything will crumble..."

'Broken memories'

Themes pitting people against authority dominate the works of Dawwa, who graduated from Damascus' School of Fine Arts.

From the onset, he took part in the nationwide anti-government protests that began in 2011, before joining other artists and activists to set up an independent cultural centre in Damascus, initiated by Syrian actor Fares Helou.

Despite police pressure, Dawwa continued to demonstrate and work at the center for three years. By 2013, he was practically the only one left there.

"My battle was to not abandon the project, otherwise it was as if we were giving up hope," he says.

It was during that period he came to understand the impact his sculptures could have.

Posting a photo of his work on Facebook, he was surprised to see it shared hundreds of times.

Although risky, he continued to create and post pictures, but then destroyed the sculptures "in order to leave no trace", he says.

Then, in May 2013, he was seriously wounded in his studio by shrapnel and, on leaving hospital, jailed, spending two months in various prisons.

"There were thousands of people. Every day, at least 10 would die," he says.

"Their bodies would stay for two days next to us, no one removed them from the cell... on purpose."

Of the horror of the experience which still gives him nightmares, he says: "They broke the memories in my head."

After his release, he was forced into the army but escaped beforehand, fleeing to Lebanon, then to France in 2014 where he was granted refugee status.

'Rebuilt our history'

His street-scene artwork, he says, is an attempt to convey "all that is no longer there; families, memories".

The Syria conflict, which broke out in 2011, has killed close to half a million people and spurred the largest conflict-induced displacement since World War II.

Veronique Pieyre de Mandiargues, a founding member of France's Portes Ouvertes Sur l'Art association, which supports artists in exile, said Dawwa "wanted to create a fixed image of what was happening in Syria so that it remains in our memories".

Lifting her hand to her heart, Syrian psychoanalyst Rana Alssayah, 54, also a France-based refugee, expresses her emotions on first seeing the piece.

"The magnitude of the destruction that Khaled has recreated, it's so real... I couldn't look at all the details inside the buildings, it was too hard."

Through this work, "he is saying the sorrow and pain that we can't talk about, he has rebuilt our history."

© 2022 AFP

Biden admin withdraws Covid vaccination mandate for businesses

President Joe Biden's administration on Tuesday formally withdrew the Covid vaccination-or-testing mandate for large businesses that was struck down by the Supreme Court.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said that although it was withdrawing the mandate it "strongly encourages vaccination of workers against the continuing dangers posed by Covid-19 in the workplace."

The conservative-dominated Supreme Court delivered a blow to Biden this month when it blocked his vaccination-or-testing mandate for businesses with 100 employees or more.

The nation's highest court did allow a vaccination mandate for health care workers at facilities receiving federal funding to go into force.

After months of public appeals to Americans to get vaccinated against Covid, which has killed more than 869,000 people in the United States, Biden announced in September that he was making vaccinations compulsory at large private companies.

Unvaccinated employees would have to present weekly negative tests and wear face masks while at work.

But the Supreme Court's six conservative justices blocked the mandate, saying it would represent a "significant encroachment into the lives -- and health -- of a vast number of employees."

"Although Congress has indisputably given OSHA the power to regulate occupational dangers, it has not given that agency the power to regulate public health more broadly," they said.

The three liberal justices dissented, saying the ruling "stymies the federal government's ability to counter the unparalleled threat that Covid–19 poses to our nation's workers."

Second NY cop dies after gun battle in Harlem

- A New York policeman wounded in an exchange of gunfire last week died Tuesday, raising the toll in the tragedy to two, officials said.

The death of Wilbert Mora, 27, as a result of the gun battle Friday night in Harlem was announced by police commissioner Keechant Sewell.

"He was murdered in the line of duty -- fighting until the very end," read the Twitter account NYPD News.

Mora and his partner were responding to a report of a domestic disturbance in an apartment in Brooklyn after a woman called to say her son was acting violently.

The colleague, 22-year-old Jason Rivera, was shot and killed by the suspect, a 47-year-old man who was also shot in the exchange and died Monday of his wounds.

Three other police officers have been shot and wounded since January 1, when former cop Eric Adams took over as mayor of the city of nine million people.

Adams vowed Monday to rid New York of guns, including by deploying plainclothes police on the streets, after the recent spate of violence.

"Gun violence is a public health crisis that continues to threaten every corner of our city," said the new mayor.

A week before the exchange of gunfire in Harlem, in the same neighborhood a 19-year-old Puerto Rican woman was shot dead by a robber in a fast food restaurant where she worked.

In another incident, an 11-month-old girl was wounded by a stray bullet in the Bronx while in a car with her mother.

Gun violence rocked the New York borough again on Tuesday, when around noon a 35-year-old man was shot while in the emergency room of a Bronx hospital, police and hospital authorities said.

The victim was not in danger of dying from his wounds, police said, adding two suspects had fled the scene.

"This was a reprehensible act, one made even worse by the fact that it happened in a place where New Yorkers go for safety and to heal," Adams tweeted.

Fearful Wall Street awaits Fed's next moves on inflation

The Federal Reserve's first policy meeting of the year hasn't even concluded but Wall Street already is unhappy, wary of what central bank chief Jerome Powell might say on Wednesday about his inflation-fighting plans.

At the conclusion of the two-day meeting, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) is expected to further signal how it will act to stifle the wave of price increases hitting country's families and businesses.

In the run-up to the announcement, major New York stock indices have seen days of tumultuous trading and big losses.

The trend was confirmed on Tuesday when Wall Street closed lower again, further proof that investors are dreading the likely end to the central bank's easy money policies, including zero interest rates and the massive bond-buying program which helped the economy survive the pandemic.

The bond purchases are scheduled to end in March and Powell and other officials have strongly suggested they will raise rates then, and potentially twice more this year as the Fed looks to ensure the seven percent surge in consumer prices that occurred in 2021 -- the highest in nearly four decades -- does not repeat.

"The Fed has done everything but bash investors over the head with a sledgehammer to warn them that rate hikes are coming," economist Joel Naroff said.

"That suddenly everyone is worried about rate hikes proves another of my favorite sayings: 'Markets may be efficient, but that doesn't mean they are rational.'"

The Fed is the world's most influential central bank, and its policies have implications for lending globally.

Top IMF official Gita Gopinath on Tuesday praised the Fed's signaling of its policy change, but warned, "This is going to be a challenge for central bankers this year to be able to communicate the transition to tighter monetary policy, and they should handle that with care."

- Stocks up, inflation too -

While the pandemic caused a widespread economic downturn in the United States, the Fed's moves to ease lending conditions and ensure liquidity kept flowing through the economy helped Wall Street post big gains, with the broad-based S&P 500 rising 27 percent last year.

But while the central bank hoped to keep its lending rate at zero for longer to ensure marginalized groups benefit from the recovery, persistently high inflation throughout last year forced Powell and others to signal rate hikes would come sooner than they initially expected.

The causes driving inflation are myriad, from global issues like supply chain snarls and the semiconductor shortage to more domestic issues like government stimulus policies that have fattened Americans' wallets, while the pandemic kept spending focused on goods rather than services.

The central bank is deliberately opaque about what exactly it may do, but does give strong signals.

If rate hikes are coming, Chief US Financial Economist at Oxford Economics Kathy Bostjancic said the Fed will indicate on Wednesday that the economy has reached "maximum employment," one of its two mandates, along with stable inflation.

"The path for rate hikes will depend critically on the future pace of inflation and the intersection with wage growth," she said, predicting inflation would cool in the second half of the year, and the Fed will raise rates by a quarter of a percent each quarter.

"The risk is for a faster pace of Fed tightening given the stickiness of inflation," she added.

Fearing uncertainty

How markets react if policy tightens as expected remains to be seen, but the last few days have not been encouraging.

Last week, the Nasdaq, which is rich with tech stocks that boomed thanks to the Fed's easy money policies, lost seven percent, while on Monday, the S&P 500 oscillated wildly, sinking 3.5 percent before ending trading with a slight gain.

Chaos in the markets isn't a good look for the Fed, Naroff said, and further selloffs may sway Powell and his colleagues into moving slower with rate hikes.

"The markets may dictate what the Fed does once again, and if that happens, it is too bad," he said.

Russia warns against 'destructive' sanctions on Putin

Russia hit back Wednesday at US threats of direct sanctions against President Vladimir Putin, saying moves against the Russian leader would be ineffective and hurt efforts to lower tensions over Ukraine.

Officials from France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine were set for talks in Paris on Wednesday in the latest bid to ease a crisis sparked by fears that Moscow is preparing an invasion of its pro-Western neighbor.

The West has warned Russia of severe consequences if it does invade, and on Tuesday, Washington said there could be sanctions personally targeting Putin.

Reacting to the news, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the threats as worthless because senior Russian officials are barred from holding assets abroad.

But such a move, he said, would do serious damage to diplomatic efforts to ease ratcheting tensions over Ukraine.

"Politically, it's not painful, it's destructive," Peskov told reporters.

The Kremlin has previously said any US sanctions personally targeting Putin would be akin to crossing a red line, warning the move could result in a rupture of bilateral ties.

US President Joe Biden said Tuesday that any Russian military attack on Ukraine would trigger "enormous consequences" and could even "change the world".

High-tech export sanctions

Echoing Biden's message, a senior US official described potential economic sanctions "with massive consequences" that would go far beyond measures implemented in 2014 after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea region.

The official said new measures would include restrictions on exports of high-tech US equipment in the artificial intelligence, quantum computing and aerospace sectors.

Cutting Russia off from these technologies would hit Putin's "strategic ambitions to industrialise his economy quite hard", the official said.

The speaker of Russia's lower house said Wednesday that Washington's threat against Putin showed the US "wants a loyal Russian president that it can control".

"The United States is not happy that under President Vladimir Putin, the Russian Federation has become strong and independent," Vyacheslav Volodin wrote on social media.

During weeks of talks between Russian, US and European diplomats, Western leaders have repeatedly warned of far-reaching economic measures against Moscow in the event of an attack.

The next round of talks in Paris on Wednesday will bring together one of Russia's deputy prime ministers and a senior aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, as well as diplomatic advisors to French President Emmanuel Macron and German leader Olaf Scholz.

Negotiations so far have failed to ease tensions, though Washington and Moscow have agreed to keep talking.

Russia to take 'necessary measures'

Russia is expecting this week to receive written US responses to sweeping security demands Moscow made last year that seek to dramatically limit NATO's reach and capabilities in Eastern Europe and the ex-USSR.

Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned in an address to lawmakers Wednesday that Moscow would take "all necessary measures" if it didn't receive constructive responses and if the West continued its "aggressive policy".

Moscow has meanwhile announced a spate of military drills including in Belarus, and said Tuesday it would hold fresh exercises involving 6,000 troops near Ukraine and within the Crimea region.

As part of separate naval exercises announced this month, Russia warships entered the Barents Sea on Wednesday, the North Fleet said in a statement.

The West has accused Russia of massing some 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Wednesday that the number of Russian troops "is insufficient for a full-scale offensive" but does pose "a direct threat" to Ukraine.

Fears of a Russian invasion follow on from Moscow's annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and the capture by pro-Kremlin separatists of two self-proclaimed breakaway republics in Ukraine's east.

More than 13,000 people have died in the fighting between government forces and the pro-Russian rebels.