Less than a year after passing a secularism law forcing certain members of religious minorities to uncover their heads and faces, Quebec is now debating whether to force everybody to put masks on.
As the province at the centre of Canada’s coronavirus outbreak, Quebec is currently “strongly recommending” that citizens wear masks – but the measure will not be mandatory.
Asked why not, Horacio Arruda, the province’s public health director, told reporters: “You need to have a good argument for infringing on individual rights for the sake of a collective right.”
But such arguments ring hollow to Nour Farhat, a Montreal lawyer whose dreams of being a Crown prosecutor were dashed after the Quebec government passed legislation last year barring certain public sector workers from wearing religious symbols at work.
The law – known as Bill 21 – mainly affects Muslim women working in education, law and other public sectors. Farhat said:
Bill 21 violates the rights of religious minorities without a real or urgent situation. And now that we’re in a real and urgent situation, the premier cares about violating people’s rights.
For them, it was always OK to violate the rights of religious minorities.
Bill 21 has always permitted masks for medical reasons, and government media representatives say their hesitancy on masks is not related to that law.
But head and face coverings carry a certain political weight in Quebec. Recent years have seen multiple instances of people trying to snatch hijabs from women’s heads in the province.
And only last year did Montreal reverse a seven-year ban on people wearing masks at protests.
Russia’s virus spread stabilising, health official says
Ministers and officials from every nation will meet via video link on Monday for the annual world health assembly, which is expected to be dominated by efforts to stop rich countries monopolising drugs and future vaccines against Covid-19.
As some countries buy up drugs thought to be useful against the coronavirus, causing global shortages, and the Trump administration does deals with vaccine companies to supply America first, there is dismay among public health experts and campaigners who believe it is vital to pull together to end the pandemic.
While the US and China face off, the EU has taken the lead. The leaders of Italy, France, Germany and Norway, together with the European commission and council, called earlier this month for any innovative tools, therapeutics or vaccines to be shared equally and fairly.
“If we can develop a vaccine that is produced by the world, for the whole world, this will be a unique global public good of the 21st century,” they said in a statement.
The sole resolution before the assembly this year is an EU proposal for a voluntary patent pool. Drug and vaccine companies would then be under pressure to give up the monopoly that patents allow them on their inventions, which means they can charge high prices, so that all countries can make or buy affordable versions.
In the weeks of negotiations leading up to the meeting, which is scheduled to last for less than a day, there has been a dispute over the language of the resolution.
Countries with major pharmaceutical companies argue they need patents to guarantee sufficiently high prices in wealthy nations to recoup their research and development costs.
Even more fraught have been attempts to reinforce countries’ existing rights to break drug and vaccine company patent monopolies if they need to for the sake of public health.
A hard-fought battle over Aids drugs 20 years ago led to the World Trade Organization’s Doha declaration on trade-related intellectual property (Trips) in favour of access to medicines for all, but the US, which has some of the world’s biggest drug companies, has strongly opposed wording that would encourage the use of Trips.
Campaigners say the resolution expected to be passed by the world health assembly’s 198 member states is along the right lines, but too weakly worded.
Jamie Love of Knowledge Ecology International said:
In a global crisis like this, that has such a massive impact on everyone, you would expect the WHO governing body to have the backbone to say no monopolies in this pandemic.
It’s one thing for a country to use its economic clout to buy preferential access to drugs or vaccines. It’s another to prevent others from manufacturing and expanding global supply.
- Spain has recorded its lowest single-day death toll in two months. According to the latest figures from the health ministry, 87 people have died from Covid-19 in the past 24 hours, down from 102 the day before. The country has confirmed 231,350 cases of the virus using PCR tests, and reported 27,650 deaths.
- Brazil’s health ministry announced 14,919 new cases, taking the country’s total to 233,142, ahead of Spain and Italy, making theirs the fourth largest outbreak in the world. Mainland China reported five new confirmed Covid-19 cases for May 16, down from eight the previous day, the National Health Commission has said in a statement. Two of the five confirmed cases were so-called imported infections, while three were locally transmitted in northeastern Chinese city of Jilin. Japan also confirmed five new cases.
- The Greek government is poised to announce that restaurants and other eateries can now open on 25 May, one week ahead of schedule. Shopping malls and department stores will also be allowed to open tomorrow, two weeks ahead of schedule. By law staff and customers will be obliged to wear face coverings. Shopping malls have reopened in Thailand for the first time since their lockdown.
- Four out of five merchants at a major fruit market in Peru have tested positive for coronavirus, revealing shocking levels of infection – and prompting fears that Latin America’s traditional trading centres may have helped spread Covid-19 across the region. Seventy-nine per cent of stall-holders in Lima’s wholesale fruit market tested positive for Covid-19, while spot tests at five other large fresh food markets in the city revealed at least half were carrying the virus.
- China has asked trading firms and food processors to boost inventories of grains and oilseeds as a possible second wave of coronavirus cases and worsening infection rates elsewhere raise concerns about global supply lines. Both state-run and private grain traders as well as food producers were urged to procure higher volumes of soybeans, soyoil and corn during calls with China’s Ministry of Commerce in recent days, three trade sources told Reuters.
- Barack Obama attacked the Trump administration’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic during a speech on Saturday. The comments are a rare rebuke of a sitting president from one of his predecessors, and come in the midst of a pandemic that has had devastating and disproportionate effects on communities of color in the United States.
Spain records lowest single-day death toll in two months