Empty seats, historic turns: President Biden delivers unique speech to US Congress

News Network
April 29, 2021

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Washington, Apr 29: Addressing lawmakers Wednesday in an eerily unfilled US Capitol, President Joe Biden delivered his first speech to Congress under extraordinary circumstances that highlighted the coronavirus pandemic and January's deadly riot that shook the citadel of democracy.

Barely 200 mask-wearing lawmakers spread out in the House of Representatives chamber — the very body where many were acting to certify Biden's election victory on January 6 when marauders sent members scrambling for their lives.

"As we gather here tonight, the images of a violent mob assaulting this Capitol — desecrating our democracy — remain vivid in our minds," he told the hushed chamber in a primetime speech to mark his first 100 days in office.

But he turned the reaction to the harrowing attack, and America's response to the coronavirus, as cause for optimism.

"We have stared into an abyss of insurrection and autocracy — of pandemic and pain — and 'We the People' did not flinch," he said.

Evidence of the unrest remains on Capitol Hill. The metal fencing around Congress still stands, and heavily armed National Guard troops ringed the building Wednesday as a precaution.

The building's hallways were nearly empty, the tours that normally bring tourists and other guests to the Rotunda halted.

Covid restrictions made Biden's maiden speech to Congress one like no other. Most of the US Supreme Court's nine members usually attend such addresses, but this time Chief Justice John Roberts alone represented the bench.

Of the entire Biden cabinet, only Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin were present.

The joint session was historic on multiple fronts: the unprecedented number of empty seats in the chamber, indicative of the nation's ongoing 14-month battle against the Covid-19 pandemic that requires social distancing and mask-wearing at public gatherings.

And with Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seated at the dais, two women flanked a US president during his speech to Congress for the first time ever.

"Madam Speaker. Madam Vice President," Biden began warmly as he noted their historic turn. "And it's about time."

The chamber burst into applause, with First Lady Jill Biden and Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff joining in the ovation.

But the two spouses were largely alone in their box in the gallery. Normally filled with lawmakers' guests, the upper seats were virtually empty, as guests were relegated to watching from home.

Biden, making his case for a dramatic expansion of government social safety net programs like child care and free community college, directly appealed to Republicans in the hopes of winning at least the barest of support necessary to advance his progressive agenda.

He fist-bumped congresswoman Liz Cheney, a member of Republican leadership who has angered many in her caucus for openly denouncing former president Donald Trump, and huddled after his speech with Republican Senator Rob Portman.

Biden used a strikingly personal tone, at times whispering as he did, when he urged corporate America and the nation's wealthiest to "pay their fair share" of taxes.

The line drew blank stares from most Republicans, and loud applause from Democrats.

Biden is perhaps the American most familiar with these speeches and how they are used to win over the public and earn congressional support.

Elected to the Senate in 1972, Biden attended Richard Nixon's final State of the Union address, and sat at the dais as vice president for multiple congressional addresses by Barack Obama.

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News Network
April 23,2021

Ottawa, Apr 23: Canada has announced a 30-day ban on all passengers flights from India and Pakistan effective Thursday (Apr 22), citing exponential rise in COVID-19 cases in both the countries.

"Given the higher number of cases of COVID-19 detected in air passengers arriving in Canada from India and Pakistan, Transport Canada is issuing a notice to airmen, or NOTAM, to halt direct passenger air traffic from those countries," Xinhua quoted Canadian Transport Minister Omar Alghabra as saying.

The Transport Minister was addressing a joint press conference with other Canadian ministers.

The minister said the ban is implemented as more passengers arrive in Canada with positive test results from those two South Asian countries.

If travelers departing from those two countries take an indirect route home, they'll be required to show a negative RT-PCR test at their last point of departure. Once they arrive in Canada, they'll follow the standard protocols, unless exempt, including taking another test and booking a stay at a designated government hotel while they await their results.

"I want to say that our hearts are with the citizens of India, Pakistan, indeed the whole region during these incredibly difficult times. In the meantime, we'll continue to apply stringent testing and quarantine measures for all passengers arriving in Canada," she said.

In a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier on Thursday, Both Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Quebec Premier Francois Legault called on the Trudeau government to cut the number of international flights arriving in Canada and impose greater restrictions at the Canada-US land border.

Also on Thursday, the House of Commons passed a motion to have the government immediately suspend non-essential passenger flights from countries with high rates of COVID-19 variants infections.

On Monday, UK had added India to a 'red list' of countries from which travel to the UK is not allowed.

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News Network
May 3,2021

New Delhi, May 3: The Supreme Court has asked the Union and state governments to consider imposing a ban on mass gatherings and super-spreader events, as well as bring about a lockdown, to curb the spread of the coronavirus "in the interest of public welfare".

A three-judge bench, presided over by Justice D Y Chandrachud, made the suggestion in light of the continuing surge of infections in the country. The court asked the Centre and state governments to put on record by May 10 the efforts taken to curb the spread of the virus and the measures that they plan on taking in the near future.

The order comes at a time when several state governments have imposed curbs, including curfew on movement of the public, at a local level.

In a detailed order in the suo motu matter, released on Sunday evening, the bench clarified, "We are cognisant of the socio-economic impact of a lockdown, specifically on the marginalised communities. Thus, in case the measure of a lockdown is imposed, arrangements must be made beforehand to cater to the needs of these communities."

The court, which asked the Centre to revisit its policy on procurement of essentials drugs, oxygen and vaccination, also favoured taking care of healthcare professionals -- not just limited to doctors, but also nurses, hospital staff,  ambulance drivers, sanitation workers and crematorium workers for their dedicated efforts in currently tackling the pandemic.

The bench, also comprising Justices L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat, noted that the Centre has extended for one year the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package Insurance Scheme of Rs 50 lakh to help about 22 lakh healthcare professionals.

The court directed the central government to inform how many claims are pending under the scheme, and the timeline to settle them.

It noted that till date, only 287 claims have been settled, including from the families of 168 doctors who died after contracting Covid-19 while treating patients.

The court also asked the central government to provide other facilities such as food, rest during intervals, transportation, non-deduction of salary, overtime allowance in both public and private hospitals. A separate helpline for doctors and healthcare professionals was also needed to ensure the nation truly acknowledges their effort and creates incentives for them".

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News Network
May 2,2021

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May 2: Akhil Gogoi's fight against the CAA on Assam streets landed him in jail in December 2019 and even invited sedition charge. His fight did not succeed then as BJP went ahead with the CAA despite the violent protests.

But the maiden electoral battle that Akhil fought from behind the bars brought success on Sunday when he was elected from Sivasagar Assembly constituency. Akhil, 46 defeated Surabhi Rajkonwari of BJP.

Sivasagar, the erstwhile capital of Ahom Dynasty (1238-1826), which witnessed strong protest against the CAA in 2019, was a Congress stronghold. Veteran Congress leader Pranab Kumar Gogoi was elected from Sivasagar four times (2001 to 2016). Gogoi died in February last year.

Surabhi came second in 2016 Assembly elections.

"Akhil Gogoi is a symbol of Assamese people's fight against the CAA. Though only Akhil won from the party, he will continue to fight for protection of identity and culture of the Assamese," a leader of Raijor Dal, Akhil's party said.

Akhil has been in judicial custody since December 2019 when the anti-CAA agitation turned violent in Guwahati and in other places. Akhil's case was handed over to the NIA, which booked him under sedition charge alleging his nexus with Maoists.

Akhil has been constantly vocal against BJP and its policies. Be it BJP's land swap deal with Bangladesh, big dam projects in the Northeast or disinvestment in the PSUs.

Akhil says the CAA would destroy the Assamese identity by giving citizenship to 1.90 crore post-1971 Hindu Bengali migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. BJP, however, rejected the charge.

Raijor Dal, the party he leads was constituted on October 2 (Gandhi Jayanti) last year with a target to cash on the anti-CAA sentiments against the BJP. The party contested in 32 of 126 seats and supported Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP), another anti-CAA party in a few other seats. 

AJP failed to win a single seat. Its president, Lurin Jyoti Gogoi, who also led the anti-CAA agitation lost in both Naharkatiya and Duliajan. Lurin lost to Taranga Gogoi of BJP in Naharkatiya and Congress' Dhrubajyoti Gogoi in Duliajan.

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