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The fight over plexiglass dividers at the VP debate is a microcosm of Pence’s coronavirus failures

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On Tuesday evening, Vice President Mike Pence’s team finally agreed to allow a plexiglass barrier to be placed near Pence when he debates with Kamala Harris in Utah on Wednesday evening. Frankly, it’s ridiculous but not at all surprising that Pence — chair of the White House coronavirus task force — resisted such a commonsense health precaution in the first place.

The dispute over the barriers started when the Biden-Harris campaign requested the Commission on Presidential Debates implement additional safety precautions and the Trump-Pence campaign resisted. The kerfuffle added some needless uncertainty to the debate prep, but it’s also emblematic of the Trump administration’s coronavirus failures, which will certainly be a central topic of conversation on Wednesday night. It highlights the Biden-Harris strategy of painting themselves as the responsible candidates who would take a safety-conscious approach to running the country in the middle of a public health crisis.

The Cleveland Clinic is advising the commission on health safety for the debates and has recommended the installation of plexiglass dividers to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which Pence has likely been exposed to (perhaps repeatedly) in recent days. This echoes similar guidance issued by the World Health Organization and the US’s public health and workplace safety agencies, recommending the use of clear plastic or glass barriers to reduce the spread of respiratory droplets.

But Pence’s team pretended there’s no good reason for them.

“We have yet to hear medical evidence what the plexiglass is for,” Pence Chief of Staff Marc Short told CNN earlier this week.

Even after agreeing to them, Short continued to mock Harris for requesting dividers on Wednesday morning:

Pence’s team likely wants to avoid a repeat of the optics of Sen. Lindsey Graham’s recent debate with Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison, where plexiglass dividers served as a symbol of the coronavirus failures of the Trump administration and its enablers.

But, as Harris’s camp argued, safety should be the top priority, especially considering the fact that there are now 32 coronavirus cases linked to the White House — all of them diagnosed since the September 26 Amy Coney Barrett event in the Rose Garden that Pence attended.

“Senator Harris will be at the debate, respecting the protections that the Cleveland Clinic has put in place to promote safety for all concerned,” said Sabrina Singh, a Harris campaign spokeswoman, according to CNN. “If the Trump administration’s war on masks has now become a war on safety shields, that tells you everything you need to know about why their Covid response is a failure.”

Pence has been swimming in a sea of coronavirus for weeks but is carrying on as if he’s immune to it

At the September 26 Rose Garden event, a mask-less Pence sat directly in front of Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), who has since tested positive for coronavirus, and close to first lady Melania and former White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, both of whom have also tested positive.

That wasn’t even Pence’s only possible exposure to the coronavirus on that day. Before the ACB event, Pence spent time at an absolutely packed prayer march with Pastor Greg Lauri, who also has tested positive for the coronavirus.

On Tuesday, news broke that White House adviser Stephen Miller tested positive for the coronavirus. Miller’s wife, Katie Miller, is Pence’s communications director and traveled to Utah with him for the debate.

While Katie Miller has already had Covid-19, the news serves as a stark reminder of why, in a sane world, Pence’s repeated exposures to the virus would prompt him to quarantine. Stephen Miller says he self-isolated at home for the last five days and tested negative each day, only to finally have a positive test on Tuesday. But predictably, the vice president’s physician produced a note on Tuesday saying that since Pence’s most recently coronavirus test was negative, he’s free to debate.

That’s not really how it works. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University, explained to Rolling Stone why a negative test isn’t a sufficient reason for someone like Pence to not quarantine.

“The reason for that 14-day quarantine if you’re exposed to even one confirmed case, much less [what Pence has been exposed to], is the fact that tests are not 100 percent reliable,” Rasmussen said. “We just saw that as [Press Secretary] Kaleigh McEnany has now tested positive after several days of negative tests. This virus has a 14-day incubation period, which means that you can still be infected without the virus being detectable by a test.”

Pence, however, has long flouted public health common sense for the sake of political expedience.

Pence has been just as irresponsible as Trump but with a more presidential tone

As head of the White House coronavirus task force, Pence has consistently misled the public while flouting mask mandates even when he’s visited hospitals. A very recent example of this came on Saturday, when Pence and his wife Karen talked to reporters without wearing masks even as Trump was hospitalized with coronavirus.

Pence’s line for six months now has been that the administration has done a great job and the end of the coronavirus pandemic is right around the corner. Some people may have bought that in April and May, but it’s become a harder sell as new daily case numbers have risen back up over 40,000 in recent weeks and the seven-day average of daily deaths remains above 500.

It will be hard for Pence to defend this record during Wednesday’s debate — especially while he’s encased behind plexiglass that serves as a physical embodiment of how his administration and task force has failed to keep America safe.

The last debate was a coronavirus debacle

The plexiglass controversy has swirled along with questions about if Trump was infectious with the coronavirus during last Tuesday’s presidential debate.

The White House has refused to say when Trump’s last negative coronavirus test occurred, which raises questions about whether Trump wasn’t being tested nearly as often as the White House wanted the public to believe he was or whether he may have had the coronavirus before he publicly announced his diagnosis early last Friday morning.

If that’s the case, it’s possible that Trump exposed Joe Biden to the coronavirus during the first presidential debate last Tuesday. It’s clear that the virus was in attendance that night in Cleveland — in addition to the White House cluster, at least 11 positive coronavirus tests have been traced to organizers of the first presidential debate or media members who covered it. Biden himself has repeatedly tested negative, but per CDC guidelines should still be self-isolating for another week. (He, however, is resuming campaign activities and plans to travel to Nevada on Friday.)

The Trump children made a big show of sitting in the debate hall last Tuesday without wearing masks. Debate officials have indicated that sort of behavior won’t be tolerated for the vice presidential debate. And Harris and Pence will stand 13 feet apart from each other — slightly further than Biden and Trump did.

Given the precarious nature of Trump’s health, the responsible thing for Pence to do would be to limit his travel until he’s sure that he won’t have to take over presidential duties. But with Trump’s reelection campaign on the ropes and in even worse shape than it was last week because of the White House coronavirus debacle, the vice president apparently feels the need to project a sense of normalcy.

But that, in a nutshell, embodies the White House’s coronavirus failures. Pence has spent seven months telling the public that everything is fine when it’s clearly not, and as a result, he’ll have to debate behind a sheet of plastic to protect the public from himself.


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Nine civilians killed in bomb attack on bus in Afghanistan

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Four policemen were also wounded, Ghazni police spokesman said, blaming the Taliban for the attack.

A roadside bomb tore through a passenger bus east of the Afghan capital, killing nine civilians.

The blast took place about 10:30am (05:30 GMT) on Saturday when the bus was going from Kabul to the eastern city of Ghazni, Waheedullah Jumazada, spokesman for Ghazni governor, told AFP news agency.

“Nine civilians, including three women, were killed in the explosion,” he said.

Four policemen were also wounded, Ghazni police spokesman Adam Khan Seerat said, blaming the Taliban for the attack.

There was no comment from the Taliban on the incident.

Violence on the ground has spiked in recent weeks despite the Taliban and the Afghan government holding peace talks in Qatar to end the country’s grinding war.

The top US envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said earlier this week that fighting is threatening the peace process.

On Friday, rights group Amnesty International said at least 50 people had been killed in attacks just in the preceding week, accusing the warring sides of failing to protect civilians.

“The world must sit up and take notice. Afghan civilians are being slaughtered on a daily basis,” said the rights group’s Omar Waraich.

“The international community must make the protection of civilians a core demand for their ongoing support of the peace process.”

Afghan authorities also faced criticism this week after 11 children were killed in an air attack by the military that hit a mosque in the northeastern province of Takhar on Wednesday.

The authorities in Kabul insist that those killed were Taliban fighters operating in that area.

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Clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh after Washington talks

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Azerbaijan reported fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh despite Pompeo holding talks with both sides in Washington, DC.

Clashes have broken out between Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian forces over Nagorno-Karabakh a day after talks in Washington, DC to try to end the deadliest fighting in the mountain enclave in more than a quarter of a century.

Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence reported on Friday that there was fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, a part of Azerbaijan that is populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians.

On October 23 and 24, operations continued in the Aghdere, Khojavend, Fizuli, Hadrut, and Gubadli directions, the ministry was quoted as saying by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency.

Local officials accused Azerbaijan’s forces of shelling buildings in Stepanakert, the largest city in the region, which Baku denied.

Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from Goris in Armenia, said there was an Azeri attack on Stepanakert late on Friday night.

“Sirens went off at approximately 9pm [17:00 GMT] in the city and a short while later, volleys of rockets or missiles came raining down,” he said. “Because of the sirens, people hid in shelters. There was no report of causalities.”

On Friday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met separately foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia in a new attempt to end nearly a month of bloodshed that Russian President Vladimir Putin said may have killed 5,000 people.

The collapse of two Russia-brokered truces had already dimmed the prospect of a quick end to fighting that broke out on September 27.

Azeri forces say they have made territorial gains, including full control over the border with Iran, which Armenia denies.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian administration says its forces have repulsed attacks.

President Ilham Aliyev told French newspaper Le Figaro that Azerbaijan was ready to sit down for negotiations but blamed Armenia’s actions for the continued hostilities.

“We are ready to stop even today,” Aliyev was quoted as saying. “But, unfortunately, Armenia grossly violated the ceasefire … if they don’t stop, we will go to the end with the aim of liberating all the occupied territories.”

Both sides accuse each other of targeting civilians during the conflict [File: AP]

‘Good progress’

US President Donald Trump said “good progress” was made on the issue but did not elaborate and declined to say if he had spoken with the leaders of either country.

Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan told reporters talks with Pompeo were “very good”, adding that work on a ceasefire would continue.

World powers want to prevent a wider war that draws in Turkey, which has voiced strong support for Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has a defence pact with Armenia.

Shortly before the Washington talks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul that he hoped Moscow and Ankara could work together on resolving the conflict.

Differences over the conflict have further strained relations between Ankara and its NATO allies, with Pompeo accusing Turkey of stoking the conflict by arming the Azeri side. Ankara denies it has inflamed the conflict.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said he saw no diplomatic resolution of the conflict at this stage, and Aliyev has described the prospects of a peace settlement as “very remote”.

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‘Libya deserves better’: Hope, doubts follow ceasefire deal

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Libyans have reacted with a mix of hope and doubts after the signing of a nationwide ceasefire deal intended to pave the way towards a political solution to the country’s conflict.

While observers have welcomed the United Nations-backed deal, few are under any illusions about the difficulties of turning it into lasting peace on the ground.

“We’ve seen a lot of deals in the past,” said Hassan Mahmud al-Obeydi, a 40-year-old secondary school teacher from the eastern city of Benghazi. “What’s important is the implementation.”

Friday’s deal was signed in Geneva by military delegates from the two main warring parties in the North African country, which plunged into violence in 2011 with the NATO-backed revolt that toppled former leader Muammar Gaddafi.

The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and rival forces led by renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar agreed to withdraw from the front lines, start demobilising armed groups and set about integrating them into the state.

Crucially, the deal also calls for the departure of all foreign forces from Libyan soil within three months.

“It’s good that the two sides have been prepared to compromise, but the devil is in the detail,” said Peter Millett, a former British ambassador to Libya. “There are an awful lot of questions. A key one is – will countries that have been sponsors of military forces in Libya support this compromise?”

Both camps in Libya’s complex war have received extensive backing from foreign powers.

Friday’s deal comes four months after Haftar’s Russian- and Emirati-backed forces gave up their yearlong attempt to seize the capital, Tripoli, a battle that killed hundreds of people and displaced tens of thousands.

In June, Haftar withdrew from western Libya in the face of a blistering counterattack by forces supporting the GNA which is backed by Turkey.

The battle had further deepened the bitter mistrust between the rival political camps and their military allies, as well as common Libyans.

“The war caused terrible social divisions,” said Obeydi. “Work is needed immediately, right now, to rebuild and to heal the deep wounds in Libyan society.”

The deal calls for the departure of all foreign forces from Libyan soil within three months [AFP]

‘Ready to react’

“We have experience with a previous agreement, which was five days before Haftar’s attack on Tripoli, during which he destroyed the capital’s infrastructure and killed many people,” pro-GNA fighter Salim Atouch said, voicing doubts the ceasefire would hold.

“I hope this won’t be like previous agreements, meaning we go back to war again. We will abide by it, but we are ready to react at any moment if it’s violated.”

The Geneva talks were the military part of a process led by the UN’s Libya mission UNSMIL.

Separate political talks that start on Monday aim to create a new governing body and prepare for elections.

Mohamed Dorda, co-founder and consulting director of geopolitical risk consultancy Libya Desk, said the ceasefire was a positive step that “creates a basis for the political talks”.

“Libya needs a security arrangement to allow a government to be set up. If we don’t deal with the security crisis, we will find ourselves in same situation in a few years.”

Massoud al-Fotmani, a 57-year-old from Benghazi who runs a group of food stores, said he hoped the ceasefire would hold.

“The war has caused a terrible economic downturn,” he said. “We’ve lost a lot of money because of the cutting of commercial ties between east and west due to the roads being closed.”

English teacher Mayssoon Khalifa, who works at a private school in Tripoli, echoed his call for lasting peace.

“Many are hopeful, but not optimistic,” she said. “I sincerely wish that this deal will hold. Libya deserves better.”

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