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Angry but determined: Portuguese workers protest for better wages amid pandemic

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Thousands of workers gathered in cities and towns across Portugal on Saturday (26 September) demanding higher wages and more government action to protect jobs threatened by the coronavirus pandemic, write and .

During the peaceful protests, organized by Portugal’s biggest umbrella union, the CGTP, workers wearing masks and keeping a safe distance urged the country’s Socialist government to raise the national minimum wage to €850 from the current €635, the lowest in western Europe.

“Workers’ rights are increasingly being stolen,” said Anabela Vogado, from trade union CESP, as she marched to Lisbon’s main square. “The fear of the pandemic cannot take our rights away.”

Unemployment in Portugal rose above 400,000 in August, according to the latest data, and is up more than a third on the same period last year.

In the southern Algarve region, which relies heavily on tourism, the number of people registered as unemployed soared 177% in August compared to a year ago.

“Why is there so much money to support (companies) with investments and moratoriums and then there is no political courage to stop the workers from being fired?” said worker Luis Batista, who was visibly angry.

The government, led by Prime Minister Antonio Costa, has introduced several measures to help businesses weather the coronavirus pandemic, including state-backed loans and delaying some tax payments.

It has also introduced a furlough scheme, allowing firms to temporarily suspend jobs or reduce working hours instead of firing workers. But those at Saturday’s protests believe the measures were not enough.

“Our government mostly supports companies and forgets about the workers,” said glassmaker Pedro Milheiro, who had joined the protest in Lisbon to express his frustration. “More support is needed.”

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What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

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Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now, writes Linda Noakes.

Brazil deaths on track to pass worst of US wave

Brazil’s brutal surge in COVID-19 deaths will soon surpass the worst of a record January wave in the United States, scientists forecast, with fatalities climbing for the first time above 4,000 in a day on Tuesday as the outbreak overwhelms hospitals.

Brazil’s overall death toll trails only the US outbreak, with nearly 337,000 killed, according to Health Ministry data, compared with more than 555,000 dead in the United States.

But with Brazil’s health-care system at the breaking point, the country could exceed total US deaths, despite having a population two-thirds that of the United States, two experts told Reuters.

India posts record cases

India’s second wave of infections continued to swell as it reported a record 115,736 new cases on Wednesday (7 April), a 13-fold increase in just over two months.

The federal government has asked states to decide on local curbs to control the spread of the virus, but has so far refused to impose any national lockdown after the last one in 2020 devastated its economy.

The total number of cases since the first recorded infection in India just over a year ago now stands at 12.8 million, making it the third worst hit country after the United States and Brazil.

Japan’s Osaka cancels Olympic torch run

Japan’s western region of Osaka on Wednesday cancelled Olympic torch events scheduled across the prefecture, as record infections prompted its government to declare a medical emergency.

Health authorities fear a virus variant is unleashing a fourth wave of infections just 107 days before the Tokyo Olympics begin, with a vaccination drive still at an early stage.

The prefecture reported 878 new infections on Wednesday, a second-straight day of record numbers. Severe cases have filled about 70% of hospital beds in the region.

UK begins rollout of Moderna vaccine

Britain begins rolling out Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday in Wales and expects to be using it in the rest of the United Kingdom in the coming days in a boost to the country’s health system after supplies of shots started to slow.

Moderna will become the third vaccine to be used in Britain after the Oxford-AstraZeneca and Pfizer jabs and comes as the supply of shots from Astra starts to slow due to manufacturing issues including at a site in India.

The United Kingdom has vaccinated 31.6 million people with a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine - and administered 5.5 million second doses. It will soon have vaccinated half of its total population.

A third of survivors suffer neurological or mental disorders

One in three COVID-19 survivors in a study of more than 230,000 mostly American patients were diagnosed with a brain or psychiatric disorder within six months, suggesting the pandemic could lead to a wave of mental and neurological problems, scientists said on Tuesday (6 April).

Researchers who conducted the analysis said it was not clear how the virus was linked to psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression, but that these were the most common diagnoses among the 14 disorders they looked at.

Post-COVID cases of stroke, dementia and other neurological disorders were rarer, the researchers said, but were still significant.

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IMF says more vaccine spending is fastest way to shore up public finances

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The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to swell global public debt in 2021, but spending more money to accelerate vaccinations is the fastest way to start to normalize government finances, the International Monetary Fund said on Wednesday (7 April), writes David Lawder.

The IMF said in its 2021 Fiscal Monitor report that if faster global vaccinations bring the virus under control sooner, more than $1 trillion in additional global tax revenue could be collected through 2025 in advanced economies.

If that same upside scenario in the Fund’s economic forecasts materializes, global GDP output could increase by $9 trillion during the same period as businesses reopen and hire more quickly, the IMF said.

“Vaccination will, thus, more than pay for itself, providing excellent value for public money invested in ramping up global vaccine production and distribution,” the IMF said in the report.

The IMF and the World Bank during their virtual Spring Meetings this week are urging member countries to keep up fiscal support for their economies and vulnerable citizens and businesses until the pandemic is firmly under control.

The Fund estimated governments have deployed some $16 trillion in pandemic-related fiscal support since the pandemic started through March 17 this year. That includes $10 trillion from additional spending and foregone revenue, and $6 trillion worth of government loans, guarantees and capital injections for businesses.

In 2021, the Fund projects fiscal deficits will shrink slightly in most countries as pandemic-related support expires or winds down, unemployment claims drop and revenues start to recover as businesses reopen.

Average overall budget deficits reached 11.7% of GDP for advanced economies in 2020 -- quadruple their 2.9% share in 2019 -- but they should narrow to 10.4% in 2021, the IMF said.

Deficits in emerging economies will also shrink slightly in 2021 to 7.7% of GDP for emerging market economies and to 4.9% for low-income economies.

Average worldwide public debt is projected to hit a record 99% of GDP in 2021 and to stabilize at that level after rising slightly from 97% in 2020. For advanced economies, debt will peak at 122.5% in 2021, up from 120.1% in 2020.

The IMF called for more targeted support for vulnerable households, including minorities, women and workers in low-paying jobs in the informal sectors of many economies. More focused support for small businesses was also needed, it said.

But it said some advanced countries with high debt levels may need to start rebuilding fiscal buffers to prepare for future shocks. It said those countries should develop multi-year frameworks for increasing revenues and rationalizing spending, giving priority to investments to fight climate change and reduce economic inequality.

In a Fiscal Monitor chapter released last week, the IMF said advanced economies could use more progressive income taxes, inheritance and property taxes, and taxes on “excess” corporate profits to help reduce inequalities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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A third of COVID survivors suffer neurological or mental disorders: study

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One in three COVID-19 survivors in a study of more than 230,000 mostly American patients were diagnosed with a brain or psychiatric disorder within six months, suggesting the pandemic could lead to a wave of mental and neurological problems, scientists said this week, writes Kate Kelland.

Researchers who conducted the analysis said it was not clear how the virus was linked to psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression, but that these were the most common diagnoses among the 14 disorders they looked at.

Post-COVID cases of stroke, dementia and other neurological disorders were rarer, the researchers said, but were still significant, especially in those who had severe COVID-19.

“Although the individual risks for most disorders are small, the effect across the whole population may be substantial,” said Paul Harrison, a professor of psychiatry at Oxford University who co-led the work.

Max Taquet, also an Oxford psychiatrist who worked with Harrison, noted that the study was not able to examine the biological or psychological mechanisms involved, but said urgent research is needed to identify these “with a view to preventing or treating them”.

Health experts are increasingly concerned by evidence of higher risks of brain and mental health disorders among COVID-19 survivors. A previous study by the same researchers found last year that 20% of COVID-19 survivors were diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder within three months.

The new findings, published in the Lancet Psychiatry journal, analysed health records of 236,379 COVID-19 patients, mostly from the United States, and found 34% had been diagnosed with neurological or psychiatric illnesses within six months.

The disorders were significantly more common in COVID-19 patients than in comparison groups of people who recovered from flu or other respiratory infections over the same time period, the scientists said, suggesting COVID-19 had a specific impact.

Anxiety, at 17%, and mood disorders, at 14%, were the most common, and did not appear to be related to how mild or severe the patient’s COVID-19 infection had been.

Among those who had been admitted to intensive care with severe COVID-19 however, 7% had a stroke within six months, and almost 2% were diagnosed with dementia.

Independent experts said the findings were worrying.

“This is a very important paper. It confirms beyond any reasonable doubt that COVID-19 affects both brain and mind in equal measure,” said Simon Wessely, chair of psychiatry at King’s College London.

“The impact COVID-19 is having on individuals’ mental health can be severe,” said Lea Milligan, chief executive of the MQ Mental Health research charity. “This is contributing to the already rising levels of mental illness and requires further, urgent research.”

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