Africa Hits the Court with Professional Basketball League Debut

Twenty-six games, writing a major chapter of African sports history. That’s the narrative of the inaugural season of the new Basketball Africa League, an offshoot of the U.S. National Basketball Association.  
The action tips off Sunday, in Rwanda’s capital.  
Basketball is not currently the continent’s favorite sport. That trophy goes to the mighty soccer, or football, as it’s more commonly known.  
But the hardwood game has risen in popularity since it was introduced widely on the continent in the 1960s, siring African stars who hit American courts running, like NBA legends Hakeem Olajuwon of Nigeria, Dikembe Mutombo of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Luol Deng of South Sudan.  
The 12 BAL teams are culled from the best clubs — many of them police and army teams — across the continent. They include West African teams from Nigeria, Cameroon and Senegal, southern heavyweights Angola and Mozambique and the might of the Maghreb in the form of teams from Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. And, bringing a bit of musical flash and street cred to the new league: rapper J. Cole has signed on to the Rwandan team, the Patriots BC, according to local media reports. 
Refiloe Seiboko is a sports journalist based in Johannesburg. And although her home team, South Africa, didn’t qualify for this tournament, that won’t keep her from watching.   
“I am really, really excited about it. It’s been a long time coming,” she said “… I think it’s a real moment of excitement for a lot of people on the continent, for a lot of basketball fans and basketball players, people who are employed by the sport, it’s a big moment. It really, really is. I can’t downplay how much it means for African basketball in the past and going into the future.”
 Who’s in your May Madness bracket?  
Seiboko declined to bet on a winner, but said viewers can expect a great show.  
“If anybody watches African players they’re often touted for their energy and their high motors,” she said. “And so people can definitely expect a lot of energy, a lot of athleticism from the guys. They’ve been training for this and ready for this for a long time.”VOA caught up with BAL President Amadou Gallo Fall in Johannesburg before the first game. He said the decision to give Africa its own league was pretty obvious.  
“We have no doubt, and everybody recognizes, the tremendous amount of talent that the continent has,” he said. “You know, players from Africa have been having major impact, not only in the NBA but also in the NCAA. And today, I mean, these days, we had the March Madness, the annual college basketball tournament taking place with many African players in multiple elite college rosters. So you know the talent has always been there.”  
 Keeping the talent close to home
And, Seiboko said, this is a great way to show off Africa’s excellence – and keep it on home soil.   
“It’s so incredibly important to have a league of Africans on the African continent,” she said. “For so many levels, we have the talent, number one: if we have the talent, let’s do it. Let’s get these guys the opportunities to play at home on their continent and not have to feel like they have to go outside of the continent to Europe or to the States to be successful. I think this is such an important step. And just like, teaching the young people who are going to be watching them that, you know, you don’t have to leave home to go and make a success of yourself as an athlete.”    
So will this starting season reveal Africa’s streaky shooters? Or a torrent of threes, free-throw sprees, dunks to die for, or nothing but net? Spectators will have to see – or hear – for themselves.  
VOA radio will simulcast the games in English and French and give play-by-play coverage in Bambara, Kinyarwanda, Wolof, and Portuguese for some games.   
The action starts Sunday, when Rwanda’s Patriots Basketball Club takes on Nigeria’s Rivers Hoopers at the Kigali Arena in Kigali, Rwanda.   

Fully Vaccinated Americans Can Go Maskless, CDC Says

U.S. health officials said Thursday that people who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus can go maskless and stop maintaining social distancing in most social settings. Folks, if you’re fully vaccinated — you no longer need to wear a mask.If you’re not vaccinated yet — go to Taisei Kikuchi performs in the park competition during a test event set in preparation at the venue for the Olympic Games, which has been rescheduled to start in July, in Tokyo, May 14, 2021.Calls to cancel Tokyo Olympics
In Japan, a petition with more than 350,000 signatures, calling for the cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics, was submitted Friday to the Olympic and Paralympic committee chiefs, as well as Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.Japan is experiencing a surge in cases in various locations, including Tokyo where the Olympics are scheduled to start on July 23.  “Precious medical resources would need to be diverted to the Olympics if it’s held,” said “Stop Tokyo Olympics” campaign organizer Kenji Utsunomiya.Japanese officials seem determined to push ahead with plans to open the games which were cancelled last year because of the COVID outbreak.  “Though there is a global pandemic, it is important to hold safe and secure Tokyo 2020 Games,” Governor Koike said recently.Multiple funeral pyres of people who died of COVID-19 burn at the Ghazipur crematorium in New Delhi, India, May 13, 2021.India cases mount
“We are facing invisible enemy, fighting it on war-footing mode,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Friday about the COVID contagion in India.  On Friday, India reported 343,144 new cases in the last 24 –hour period.  Last week, daily cases sometimes totaled more than 400,000. Only the U.S. has more COVID-19 cases than India, but public health officials say India’s coronavirus numbers are likely undercounted.  According to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, India has 24 million COVID cases while the U.S. has 32.9 million.  Brazil is in third place, according to Johns Hopkins, with 15.4 million infections. 

Misinformation Surges Amid India’s COVID-19 Calamity

The man in the WhatsApp video says he has seen it work himself: A few drops of lemon juice in the nose will cure COVID-19.”If you practice what I am about to say with faith, you will be free of corona in five seconds,” says the man, dressed in traditional religious clothing. “This one lemon will protect you from the virus like a vaccine.”False cures. Terrifying stories of vaccine side effects. Baseless claims that Muslims spread the virus. Fueled by anguish, desperation and distrust of the government, rumors and hoaxes are spreading by word of mouth and on social media in India, compounding the country’s humanitarian crisis.”Widespread panic has led to a plethora of misinformation,” said Rahul Namboori, co-founder of Fact Crescendo, an independent fact-checking organization in India.While treatments such as lemon juice may sound innocuous, such claims can have deadly consequences if they lead people to skip vaccinations or ignore other guidelines.In January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that India had “saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.” Life began to resume, and so did attendance at cricket matches, religious pilgrimages and political rallies for Modi’s Hindu nationalist party.Four months later, cases and deaths have exploded, the country’s vaccine rollout has faltered and public anger and mistrust have grown.”All of the propaganda, misinformation and conspiracy theories that I’ve seen in the past few weeks has been very, very political,” said Sumitra Badrinathan, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist who studies misinformation in India. “Some people are using it to criticize the government, while others are using it to support it.”Distrust of Western vaccines and health care is also driving misinformation about sham treatments as well as claims about traditional remedies.The caretaker of a crematorium, center, tries to console a man who lost his 5-month-old child to COVID-19 as they perform a post-burial ritual at the Seemapuri crematorium in New Delhi, India, May 13, 2021.Satyanarayan Prasad saw the video about lemon juice and believed it. The 51-year-old resident of the state of Uttar Pradesh distrusts modern medicine and has a theory as to why his country’s health experts are urging vaccines.”If the government approves lemon drops as a remedy, the … rupees that they have spent on vaccines will be wasted,” Prasad said.Vijay Sankeshwar, a prominent businessman and former politician, repeated the claim about lemon juice, saying two drops in the nostrils will increase oxygen levels in the body.While Vitamin C is essential to human health and immunity, there is no evidence that consuming lemons will fight off the coronavirus.The claim is spreading through the Indian diaspora, too.”They have this thing that if you drink lemon water every day that you’re not going to be affected by the virus,” said Emma Sachdev, a Clinton, New Jersey, resident whose extended family lives in India.Sachdev said several relatives have been infected, yet continue to flout social distancing rules, thinking a visit to the temple will keep them safe.India has also experienced the same types of misinformation about vaccines and vaccine side effects seen around the world.Last month, the popular Tamil actor Vivek died two days after receiving his COVID-19 vaccination. The hospital where he died said Vivek had advanced heart disease, but his death has been seized on by vaccine opponents as evidence that the government is hiding side effects.Much of the misinformation travels on WhatsApp, which has more than 400 million users in India. Unlike more open sites like Facebook or Twitter, WhatsApp — which is owned by Facebook — is an encrypted platform that allows users to exchange messages privately.A sign is displayed at a closed market during a lockdown imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus in Hyderabad, India, May 13, 2021.The bad information online “may have come from an unsuspecting neighbor who is not trying to cause harm,” said Badrinathan, the University of Pennsylvania researcher. “New internet users may not even realize that the information is false. The whole concept of misinformation is new to them.”Hoaxes spread online had deadly results in 2018, when at least 20 people were killed by mobs inflamed by posts about supposed gangs of child kidnappers.WhatsApp said in a statement that it works hard to limit misleading or dangerous content by working with public health bodies like the World Health Organization and fact-checking organizations. The platform has also added safeguards restricting the spread of chain messages and directing users to accurate online information.The service is also making it easier for users in India and other nations to use its service to find information about vaccinations.”False claims can discourage people from getting vaccines, seeking the doctor’s help, or taking the virus seriously,” Fact Crescendo’s Namboori said. “The stakes have never been so high.”

Beset by Virus, Gaza’s Hospitals Now Struggle with Wounded

Just weeks ago, the Gaza Strip’s feeble health system was struggling with a runaway surge of coronavirus cases. Authorities cleared out hospital operating rooms, suspended nonessential care and redeployed doctors to patients having difficulty breathing.Then, the bombs began to fall.This week’s violence between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers has killed 103 Palestinians, including 27 children, and wounded 530 people in the impoverished territory. Israeli airstrikes have pounded apartments, blown up cars and toppled buildings.Doctors across the crowded coastal enclave are now reallocating intensive care unit beds and scrambling to keep up with a very different health crisis: treating blast and shrapnel wounds, bandaging cuts and performing amputations.Distraught relatives didn’t wait for ambulances, rushing the wounded by car or on foot to Shifa Hospital, the territory’s largest. Exhausted doctors hurried from patient to patient, frantically bandaging shrapnel wounds to stop the bleeding. Others gathered at the hospital morgue, waiting with stretchers to remove the bodies for burial.At the Indonesia Hospital in the northern town of Jabaliya, the clinic overflowed after bombs fell nearby. Blood was everywhere, with victims lying on the floors of hallways. Relatives crowded the ER, crying out for loved ones and cursing Israel.”Before the military attacks, we had major shortages and could barely manage with the second (virus) wave,” said Gaza Health Ministry official Abdelatif al-Hajj by phone as bombs thundered in the background. “Now casualties are coming from all directions, really critical casualties. I fear a total collapse.”Gutted by years of conflict, the impoverished health care system in the territory of more than 2 million people has always been vulnerable. Bitter division between Hamas and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and a nearly 14-year blockade imposed by Israel with Egypt’s help also has strangled the infrastructure. There are shortages of equipment and supplies such as blood bags, surgical lamps, anesthesia and antibiotics. Personal protection gear, breathing machines and oxygen tanks remain even scarcer.Last month, Gaza’s daily coronavirus cases and deaths hit record highs, fueled by the spread of a variant that first appeared in Britain, relaxation of movement restrictions during Ramadan, and deepening public apathy and intransigence.In the bomb-scarred territory where the unemployment rate is 50%, the need for personal survival often trumps the pleas of public health experts. While virus testing remains limited, the outbreak has infected more than 105,700 people, according to health authorities, and killed 976.As cases climbed last year, stirring fears of a health care catastrophe, authorities set aside clinics just for COVID-19 patients. But that changed as airstrikes pummeled the territory.A medic treats a wounded girl in the intensive care unit of the Shifa hospital, May 13, 2021, in Gaza City. She was injured by a May 12 Israeli strike that hit her family’s home.Nurses at the European Hospital in the town of Khan Younis, frantically needing room for the wounded, moved dozens of virus patients in the middle of the night to a different building, said hospital director Yousef al-Akkad. Its surgeons and specialists, who had deployed elsewhere for the virus, rushed back to treat head injuries, fractures and abdominal wounds.If the conflict intensifies, the hospital won’t be able to care for the virus patients, al-Akkad said.”We have only 15 intensive care beds, and all I can do is pray,” he said, adding that because the hospital lacks surgical supplies and expertise, he’s already arranged to send one child to Egypt for reconstructive shoulder surgery. “I pray these airstrikes will stop soon.”At Shifa, authorities also moved the wounded into its 30 beds that had been set aside for virus patients. Thursday night was the quietest this week for the ICU, as bombs had largely fallen elsewhere in Gaza. Patients with broken bones and other wounds lay amid the din of beeping monitors, intercoms and occasional shouts by doctors. A few relatives huddled around them, recounting the chaotic barrage.”About 12 people down in one airstrike. It was 6 p.m. in the street. Some were killed, including my two cousins and young sister. It’s like this every day,” said 22-year-old Atallah al-Masri, sitting beside his wounded brother, Ghassan.Hospital director Mohammed Abu Selmia lamented the latest series of blows to Gaza’s health system.”The Gaza Strip is under siege for 14 years, and the health sector is exhausted. Then comes the coronavirus pandemic,” he said, adding that most of the equipment is as old as the blockade and can’t be sent out for repairs.Now, his teams already strained by virus cases are treating bombing victims, more than half of whom are critical cases needing surgery.”They work relentlessly,” he added.Ihsan Al-Masri, 24, left, rests at the Shifa hospital in Gaza City, May 13, 2021, as her son plays on a mobile phone on the bed next to her. She was injured in a May 10 Israeli strike that hit a near her home.To make matters worse, Israeli airstrikes hit two health clinics north of Gaza City on Tuesday. The strikes wreaked havoc on Hala al-Shawa Health Center, forcing employees to evacuate, and damaged the Indonesian Hospital, according to the World Health Organization. Israel, already under pressure from an International Criminal court investigation into possible war crimes during the 2014 war, reiterated this week that it warns people living in targeted areas to flee. The airstrikes nonetheless have killed civilians and inflicted damage on Gaza’s infrastructure.The violence also has closed a few dozen health centers conducting coronavirus tests, said Sacha Bootsma, director of WHO’s Gaza office. This week, authorities conducted some 300 tests a day, compared with 3,000 before the fighting began.The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, ordered staff to stay home from its 22 clinics for their safety. Those now-closed centers had also administered coronavirus vaccines, a precious resource in a place that waited months to receive a limited shipment from the U.N.-backed COVAX program. Those doses will expire in just a few weeks and get thrown away, with “huge implications for authorities’ ability to mobilize additional vaccines in the future,” Bootsma said.For the newly wounded, however, the virus remains an afterthought.The last thing that Mohammad Nassar remembers before an airstrike hit was walking home with a friend on a street. When he came to, he said, “we found ourselves lying on the ground.”Now the 31-year-old is hooked up to a tangle of tubes and monitors in the Shifa Hospital surgical ward, with a broken right arm and a shrapnel wound in his stomach.