Pandemic’s economic impact “pales” compared to population decline, OECD says – dpa international

In a Malaysian train station shortly after the easing of Covid-related restrictions (Simon Roughneen)

While the coronavirus pandemic upended state spending plans and left economies reeling, its impact is likely to pale in comparison to challenges such as ageing populations, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The Paris-based group’s secretariat said on Tuesday that before the pandemic, governments were facing health spending rises of over two percentage points of gross domestic product (GDP) between now and 2060 and around the same for pensions in countries with what the OECD labelled “unfavourable demographics.” By comparison, recently accrued government debt to pay for pandemic-related social and health spending is likely to add “only about 1/2 percentage point of GDP to long-run fiscal pressure in the median country,” according to the OECD.

Subsistence hunting labelled a threat to dozens of protected species – dpa international

Images of grinning, gun-toting, khaki-clad hunters posingI over dead lions and elephants have long provoked outrage, scorn and bewilderment. But safari trophy-seekers are not the biggest threat to some protected animals, including several species closely related to humans, according to a report published by the UN’s Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). According to the study, “most migratory ungulates” as well as “all chimpanzee subspecies and three of the four gorilla subspecies” are “experiencing large population declines” that can in part be blamed on them ending up on people’s dinner plates. Of the 105 species covered in the study, which was prepared by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), 47 are hunted for so-called “bush meat” markets and another 20 are taken for other reasons, including “sport hunting.”

Birth rates in wealthy nations down since start of pandemic – dpa international

DUBLIN — Birth rates have fallen by almost 10 per cent in some wealthy countries since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, according to research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US. Using monthly live birth numbers from 2016 to March this year, the researchers reported “preliminary evidence” showing the pandemic has “decreased fertility” in all but 4 of 22 “high income countries” studied. The authors, from the University of Oxford, Cornell University and Universita Commerciale Luigi Bocconi in Milan, factored in seasonality and long term trends, but nonetheless estimated a 9.4 per cent fall in Italy and more than 8 per cent in Hungary and Spain. “Belgium, Austria, and Singapore also showed a significant decline in crude birth rates,” they said.

Ireland’s bishops challenge government’s restrictions on some ceremonies – dpa international

St. Saviour's Catholic church in Dublin in mid-July 2021 (Simon Roughneen)

DUBLIN — Ireland’s government and several Catholic bishops have clashed over whether already-postponed first communion and confirmation ceremonies should be put off until later in the year. Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said plans by three of Ireland’s 26 dioceses to proceed with the ceremonies, which usually take place during the school year but have been postponed as part of pandemic curbs, amounted to “putting lives at risk.” Donnelly’s warning followed similar comments by Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Michéal Martin late last week. However the health minister acknowledged as correct an interpretation advanced last week by Kevin Doran, bishop of the western Elphin diocese, that the apparent bans are guidelines rather than laws. Alphonsus Cullinan, bishop in the southern town of Waterford, said on Saturday he could “see no valid reason for the further postponement of the sacraments,” after crowds returned to sports events.

Listening to Mozart could curb epilepsy, Czech neurologists say

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DUBLIN — Listening to Mozart could prevent epileptic seizures, according to research being presented over the weekend to the European Academy of Neurology. A Czech-led team, from St. Anne’s University Hospital and Masaryk University in Brno, found a 32 per cent reduction in seizure-inducing epileptiform discharges (EDs) among patients who listened to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos K448. Exposure to Mozart “may be a possible treatment to prevent epileptic seizures,” the team suggested, after using “intracerebral electrodes” that were “implanted in the brains of epilepsy patients prior to surgery” to measure the effects of music.

Ireland set to end long-running pandemic lockdown next month – dpa international

The parish church in the Irish pilgrimage town of Knock, where Mass has not been celebrated in public since late 2020 (Simon Roughneen)

DUBLIN — Ireland will end one of Europe’s longest and strictest pandemic lockdowns next month by accelerating a phased relaxation plan to allow restaurants and pubs to reopen sooner than expected and public religious services to resume. Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told broadcaster Newstalk on Thursday that “from the 10th of May there will be changes in restrictions, quite significant ones.”  Services such as hairdressers and “non-essential” retailers are expected to get the green light to reopen, with a ban on and related criminalisation of attending religious services expected to be lifted at the same time. The capacity limit on public transport is to be doubled from the current 25 per cent. Outdoor service at pubs and restaurants could resume in June, according to media reports that a revised reopening plan would be announced on Thursday – accounts Coveney said were “quite accurate.”

Irish government apologises for mother and baby homes – dpa international

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DUBLIN — Ireland’s head of government Micheál Martin on Wednesday apologised on behalf of the state to former residents of so-called mother and baby homes for “unforgivable” treatment spanning nearly 8 decades. Citing a “profound generational wrong” inflicted on unmarried mothers and their children, Martin, Ireland’s Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, apologised “for the shame and stigma they were subjected to.” Martin’s statement to Ireland’s parliament came one day after the publication of findings by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. The almost 3000-pages-long report outlined a “very high rate of infant mortality” in the homes, which housed “about 56,000 unmarried mothers and about 57,000 children.”

Irish public broadcaster says sorry for sketch showing God as rapist – dpa international

Lining up at a shop in Knock, one of Ireland's main Catholic shrines, in early December 2020 (Simon Roughneen)

DUBLIN — After receiving what is described as “a significant number” of complaints, Ireland’s national broadcaster RTÉ on Thursday apologized for and said it would remove from its website a sketch depicting God as a rapist that it broadcast as part of a New Year’s Eve countdown show. The public television and radio station said the item, which was “intended as satire,” did not comply with its Editorial Standards Board requirements. “On behalf of RTÉ, I fully apologize,” said director-general Dee Forbes. RTÉ, which receives state funding, on Wednesday said it had fielded “approximately 4,375 emails and 1,390 calls” regarding the mock news broadcast, which was written by satirical website Waterford Whispers News and voiced by Aengus Mac Grianna, a former  news anchor, who apologized earlier this week. The head of Ireland’s Catholic bishops, Eamon Martin, said he was “shocked” that the producers of the broadcast “did not realize how deeply offensive” the sketch was.

Catholic leaders worry about post-pandemic congregations – dpa international

KNOCK — On December 2, almost two months to the day since his parishioners were last permitted to attend Mass, Father Richard Gibbons’ greeting to eager, returning worshippers mixed relief and barely disguised elation. “Good afternoon to you all and welcome back to Mass,” said Gibbons, parish priest in Knock, a village in the west of Ireland and Marian pilgrimage site visited by Pope Francis in 2018. Ireland’s second coronavirus-related lockdown had just ended. Among the restrictions, which included pubs, restaurants and “non-essential” retail being forced to close, was a ban on attendance at religious ceremonies other than weddings and funerals. So, after two months of saying Mass to unseen believers watching online from their homes, Gibbons was glad to face even the sparse gathering permitted inside the vast Knock basilica, which can seat almost 4,000 people. “It’s great – for me – to have somebody at Mass,” he said, emphasizing the “somebody.” But the reprieve did not last: on December 22, the Irish government announced a return to lockdown, citing concerns over a new coronavirus strain in nearby Britain.

Can a pandemic kill a curse? Old rivals meet again in Ireland’s national final – dpa international

Roadside building in Manulla, Co. Mayo, painted in the colours worn by the county's Gaelic football team. Taken in evening fog on December 7 2020, the day after the team qualified for a 5th All-Ireland football final in 9 years (Simon Roughneen)

DUBLIN — “Any tickets?” “Anyone buying or selling?” Any other year, such would be the refrain in the streets near Dublin’s 82,000-capacity Croke Park throughout the morning of Gaelic Football’s All-Ireland final. But instead of the usual August or September, this year’s delayed and truncated competition will finish the week before Christmas, with those tens of thousands of supporters told watch from home. Restrictions imposed in response to the coronavirus pandemic mean that come 5pm on Saturday, the vast arena will echo only to the collisions of the 30 players and the yelling of substitutes and coaches. “It’s a pity there won’t be a crowd to see [the final],” said Maurice Quinlivan, part of the Tipperary team thrashed by Mayo in the last four, while previewing the match on Irish radio. Even watching in a bar will be difficult, as only premises that serve food can operate under pandemic-related rules. Around 3,500 of Ireland’s pubs have been forced to close since March for all but two weeks. “We miss the fun, the craic,” said John Maughan, a former Mayo player and manager. “It’s not the same.”