First Thing: Biden says west is united on Ukraine

·7 min read
<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

Virtual meeting between western powers comes as the US put 8,500 troops on alert and UK warns of ‘unprecedented sanctions’ against Russia

Good morning.

Joe Biden has said there was “total” unity among western powers after crisis talks with European leaders on how to deter Russia from an attack against Ukraine, as 8,500 US troops are put on high alert.

“I had a very, very, very good meeting – total unanimity with all the European leaders,” the president told reporters shortly after a one hour and 20-minute video conference on Monday with allied leaders from Europe and Nato.

In London, Boris Johnson’s office also said “the leaders agreed on the importance of international unity in the face of growing Russian hostility”.

The UK prime minister had warned of “unprecedented sanctions” against Moscow should an invasion take place amid growing tensions over Ukraine.

  • Who else was on the call? The leaders of Germany, France, Italy, Poland and the EU also took part in the crisis talks.

UN data reveals ‘nearly insurmountable’ scale of lost schooling due to Covid

Schoolchildren in Cape Town, South Africa
Schoolchildren in South Africa are between 75% and a whole school year behind where they should be. Photograph: Hemis/Alamy

The scale of the number of children who have lost out on their schooling during the pandemic is “nearly insurmountable”, according to UN data.

Up to 70% of 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries cannot read or understand a simple text, up from 53% pre-Covid, the research suggests.

Classroom closures continue to affect more than 635 million children globally, with younger and more marginalised children facing the greatest loss in learning after almost two years of Covid, according to the UN children’s agency, Unicef, which called for intensive support to help students recover.

Across the world, children have lost basic literacy and numeracy skills and their mental and physical health has suffered. In South Africa, schoolchildren are between 75% and a whole school year behind where they should be.

  • What has the impact been like in the US? Learning losses have been seen in the US, including in California, Colorado, Tennessee, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Maryland.

  • Can you give an example of this? Yes. In Texas, two-thirds of children in grade 3 (age eight to nine) tested below their grade level in math in 2021, compared with half of children in 2019.

Too young to retire but at risk for Covid, older Americans struggle to find work

Nevin Overmiller, 78, examines an order of KFC while delivering the meal for Uber Eats to supplement his retirement income.
Nevin Overmiller, 78, examines an order of KFC while delivering the meal for Uber Eats to supplement his retirement income. Photograph: Douglas R Clifford/AP

The unemployment rate has tumbled dramatically since the height of the pandemic but older workers are still struggling to find work despite all the reports of worker shortages.

About 5.7 million workers ages 55 or older lost their jobs in the US in March and April 2020, 15% of workers in an age demographic that has also experienced the vast majority of Covid-19 deaths. The unemployment rate for workers aged 65 and older hit a record rate of 7.5% in 2020.

A June 2021 analysis by economists at the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at The New School found at least 1.7 million more older workers than expected retired due to the pandemic.

The analysis encouraged policy solutions such as expanding Medicare eligibility to the age of 50, expanding social security benefits, and creating a department dedicated to older workers at the US Department of Labor.

  • Monique Morrissey, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, explained there are differences among affected older workers. She said: “Job losses are concentrated among non-college-educated workers in lower-paid jobs and are disproportionately also jobs that have high contact with the public.”

In other news …

  • Taylor Swift has criticised Damon Albarn, the lead singer of Blur and later of Gorillaz, on Twitter after the British musician told the LA Times she “doesn’t write her own songs”. Swift said she wrote all of her songs and his “hot take is completely false and SO damaging”. Albarn later apologised.

  • Marilyn Manson has denied raping the actor Evan Rachel Wood on the set of the music video for Heart-Shaped Glasses (When the Heart Guides the Hand). In a new documentary, Wood said during a “simulated sex scene”, Manson, born Brian Warner, “started penetrating me for real”.

  • The Jeopardy! contestant Amy Schneider has broken yet another record this week. The engineering manager from Oakland, California, scored her 39th win on last night’s episode, giving her the second-longest winning streak of any contestant.

  • The fate of more than 700 boys and teenage detainees has become central to the siege of a Kurdish-run prison in Syria that was overrun on Friday by jihadists, who are accused of using the boys as human shields. There have reportedly been multiple deaths and injuries among the child prisoners.

Don’t miss this: Two pioneering overdose prevention centers in New York are saving lives

The stress, anxiety and isolation of the Covid-19 crisis, combined with widespread contamination in the illicit drug market from the synthetic opioid fentanyl, has worsened the overdose epidemic in the US. More than 100,000 Americans died of an accidental overdose in the year ending April 2021, a sharp increase compared with the previous year. The country’s first two sanctioned overdose prevention centers (OPCs) opened in New York on 30 November and are already saving lives.

… or this: how the US stitched up the Honduras garment industry

Colorful shirts hanging on hooks.
Corporations will always go where their costs – and their responsibilities – can be kept to an absolute minimum. Photograph: vasiliki/getty

By scouring the world for cheap labour, US clothing brands are not merely opportunistic, they are also sometimes actively parasitic. Honduras is a case study: one in which US corporations and the US state department have worked together for decades to bring cheap garments to American consumers, framing job creation as a blessing for the Honduran economy while simultaneously engaging in political interventions that keep citizens poor.

Climate check: how plastic pellets ravaged a Sri Lankan paradise

Sri Lankan security personnel remove debris from the X-Press Pearl ship, on a beach at Pamunugama in Negombo
Debris released from a sunken ship continues to wreak environmental and economic havoc in Sri Lanka. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

The sinking of the X-Press Pearl cargo ship off Sri Lanka’s west coast last May caused wave upon wave of nurdles, the tiny pellets that are the raw material of the plastics industry, to wash ashore. Millions – or even billions – of them have turned the country’s golden beaches black. A UN report called the incident in May 2021 the “single largest plastic spill” in history, with about 1,680 tonnes of nurdles released into the ocean. Most of them were partly burnt and contaminated with chemicals and debris from the ship spill, posing even more of a threat to marine life – and the local community.

Last Thing: Michigan woman checks spam folder and learns she won the lottery

Lottery tickets on the counter at a convenience store
Laura Spears won $1m on her original ticket but had paid another $1 to add a Megaplier, a gambit that can multiply prizes up to five times. Photograph: Nam Y Huh/AP

A woman in Michigan checked her spam email folder – and found out she had won a $3m lottery prize. Laura Spears, 55, from Oakland county, said she bought a ticket and a few days later was looking for a missing email from someone and checked her spam folder. “That’s when I saw an email from the lottery saying I had won a prize. I couldn’t believe what I was reading, so I logged in to my lottery account to confirm the message in the email. It’s all still so shocking to me that I really won $3m.”

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