Cities will endure, but urban design must adapt to coronavirus risks and fears



Public spaces must now meet our need to be ‘together but apart’.
Silvia Tavares, Author provided

Silvia Tavares, University of the Sunshine Coast and Nicholas Stevens, University of the Sunshine Coast

The long-term impacts of coronavirus on our cities are difficult to predict, but one thing is certain: cities won’t die. Diseases have been hugely influential in shaping our cities, history shows. Cities represent continuity regardless of crises – they endure, adapt and grow.




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Once we can have our old lives back we will likely return to familiar routines and our memories of lockdown and isolation will start to fade. While our lack of memory is arguably a resiliency resource, urban designers and planners have a long-term role in ensuring urban life is healthy. To fight infectious diseases, cities need well-ventilated urban spaces with good access to sunlight.

The design of these spaces, and public open spaces in particular, promotes different levels of sociability. Some spaces congregate community and are highly social. Others may act as urban retreats where people seek peace with their coffee and book.

How urban spaces perform during disease outbreaks now also demands our close attention.

What is urbanity and why does it matter?

Urban spaces are where communities come together. Urban planners and designers strive to generate a sense of belonging that makes people choose certain areas of a city or even a city itself. Urbanity refers to the public life that happens as a result of the exchanges and communication each space enables.

The combination of diversity and density achieve urbanity – it’s a product of diverse social opportunities in close proximity. This is why densifying cities has been a goal for achieving healthy, social and prosperous cities.

However, the risks of COVID-19 transmission have strengthened anti-density discourses. It is worth remembering, then, that ways of fighting disease, such as sanitation, were only possible because of the financial savings and infrastructure efficiencies enabled by denser cities. Density done right is safe. And it permits the human interactions and connections we need – and which we are now missing.

Once COVID-19 is less of a threat we will crave the normality of going back to our old lifestyles as much as possible. The role of urban planners and designers is then to create a background for public life to happen in social and healthy ways.

Learning from other disasters

Following the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, where the CBD lost some 800 buildings, the community took a very different view of urban spaces. Crowded areas and tall buildings were a source of fear. The common attitude was to avoid density – what if another earthquake hit?




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Urban designers and decision-makers learned that buildings and public spaces had to respond differently. Safe pop-up areas started to emerge. This new normal made some old quiet cafés and public open spaces resilient, while other pop-ups become popular retreat areas. These urban retreat areas were away from streets and tall buildings, and so offered a way of “being there” and being safe.

A park-like retreat space on South Colombo Street, Christchurch.
Silvia Tavares, Author provided

Both the Christchurch earthquake and coronavirus have made people cautious about their safety in the city – because of their proximity to surrounding buildings and to other users of the space, respectively. Christchurch teaches us a lesson about “being together but apart”: cities are not made only of social spaces, and not all residents want the same thing.

People need choice in their use of urban spaces to feel secure and be safe. While larger social spaces are vibrant, support public transport and local economies, urban retreat spaces apply the idea of prospect and refuge: they meet our psychological needs to observe and be part of the public space (prospect) while feeling safe and removed from the scene (refuge).

Post-quake Christchurch showed how the social character and dynamics of urban spaces influenced the people these spaces attracted and how they behaved there.




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Designing spaces with microclimates in mind

Another factor to consider is the influence of urban microclimates on the use and prosperity of public spaces.

The main activity of large urban social spaces is based upon the presence of people, social interaction and cultural exchange. The use and dynamics of these spaces are more predictable and consistent than for urban retreat spaces. Being close to transport or commercial uses often means weather conditions have less impact on social activity and interaction.

Shops along the street add to the local urbanity of Cashel Mall, Christchurch.
Silvia Tavares, Author provided

When looking for peaceful experiences and personal space, however, people tend to choose urban retreat spaces. Here they have less tolerance of adverse conditions. The place itself is the attraction, so the microclimate and personal comfort are more significant factors in its use.

Understanding, harnessing and managing microclimate, sunlight and ventilation is a clear and known approach to fighting disease and to establishing safe and resilient urban spaces. Offering people choice in the ways they interact with their urban environments, while long considered important, is now essential.




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Broad engagement is essential to get it right

Redesigning our urban spaces to reassure users of their safety and provide community choice is not a straightforward process. Designs for the different forms and locations of urban retreat spaces must acknowledge community diversity and optimise microclimate.

While right now we might just want to hold on to all the good things we had pre-coronavirus, the nuances generated by the work of urban planners and designers are likely to make our lives safer. However, our responses cannot simply be reactive interventions such as warning signs, fencing, wider pathways and the like. Such approaches ultimately have implications for equity and quality of life.

We have long had a reactive, piecemeal approach to urban design and development. The current disaster presents an opportunity to establish safe, resilient and healthy urban spaces. It requires meaningful engagement across communities, designers and decision-makers now, before collective amnesia about COVID-19 sets in and we go back to business as usual.The Conversation

Silvia Tavares, Lecturer and Researcher, Urban Design and Town Planning, University of the Sunshine Coast and Nicholas Stevens, Senior Lecturer and Researcher, Land Use Planning & Urban Design, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How safe is COVIDSafe? What you should know about the app’s issues, and Bluetooth-related risks



Shutterstock

James Jin Kang, Edith Cowan University and Paul Haskell-Dowland, Edith Cowan University

The Australian government’s COVIDSafe app has been up and running for almost a fortnight, with more than five million downloads.

Unfortunately, since its release many users – particularly those with iPhones – have been in the dark about how well the app works.

Digital Transformation Agency head Randall Brugeaud has now admitted the app’s effectiveness on iPhones “deteriorates and the quality of the connection is not as good” when the phone is locked, and the app is running in the background.

There has also been confusion regarding where user data is sent, how it’s stored, and who can access it.

Conflicts with other apps

Using Bluetooth, COVIDSafe collects anonymous IDs from others who are also using the app, assuming you come into range with them (and their smartphone) for a period of at least 15 minutes.

Bluetooth must be kept on at all times (or at least turned on when leaving home). But this setting is specifically advised against by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.

It’s likely COVIDSafe isn’t the only app that uses Bluetooth on your phone. So once you’ve enabled Bluetooth, other apps may start using it and collecting information without your knowledge.

Bluetooth is also energy-intensive, and can quickly drain phone batteries, especially if more than one app is using it. For this reason, some may be reluctant to opt in.

There have also been reports of conflicts with specialised medical devices. Diabetes Australia has received reports of users encountering problems using Bluetooth-enabled glucose monitors at the same time as the COVIDSafe app.

If this happens, the current advice from Diabetes Australia is to uninstall COVIDSafe until a solution is found.

Bluetooth can still track your location

Many apps require a Bluetooth connection and can track your location without actually using GPS.

Bluetooth “beacons” are progressively being deployed in public spaces – with one example in Melbourne supporting visually impaired shoppers. Some apps can use these to log locations you have visited or passed through. They can then transfer this information to their servers, often for marketing purposes.

To avoid apps using Bluetooth without your knowledge, you should deny Bluetooth permission for all apps in your phone’s settings, and then grant permissions individually.

If privacy is a priority, you should also read the privacy policy of all apps you download, so you know how they collect and use your information.

Issues with iPhones

The iPhone operating system (iOS), depending on the version, doesn’t allow COVIDSafe to work properly in the background. The only solution is to leave the app running in the foreground. And if your iPhone is locked, COVIDSafe may not be recording all the necessary data.

You can change your settings to stop your iPhone going into sleep mode. But this again will drain your battery more rapidly.

Brugeaud said older models of iPhones would also be less capable of picking up Bluetooth signals via the app.

It’s expected these issues will be fixed following the integration of contact tracing technology developed by Google and Apple, which Brugeaud said would be done within the next few weeks.




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Vulnerabilities to data interception

If a user tests positive for COVID-19 and consents to their data being uploaded, the information is then held by the federal government on an Amazon Web Services server in Australia.

Data from the app is stored on a user’s device and transmitted in an encrypted form to the server. Although it’s technically possible to intercept such communications, the data would still be encrypted and therefore offer little value to an attacker.

The government has said the data won’t be moved offshore or made accessible to US law enforcement. But various entities, including Australia’s Law Council, have said the privacy implications remain murky.

That said, it’s reassuring the Amazon data centre (based in Sydney) has achieved a very high level of security as verified by the Australian Cyber Security Centre.

Can the federal government access the data?

The federal government has said the app’s data will only be made available to state and territory health officials. This has been confirmed in a determination under the Biosecurity Act and is due to be implemented in law.

Federal health minister Greg Hunt said:

Not even a court order during an investigation of an alleged crime would be allowed to be used [to access the data].

Although the determination and proposed legislation clearly define the who and how of access to COVIDSafe data, past history indicates the government may not be best placed to look after our data.

It seems the government has gone to great lengths to promote the security and privacy of COVIDSafe. However, the government commissioned the development of the app, so someone will have the means to obtain the information stored within the system – the “keys” to the vault.

If the government did covertly obtain access to the data, it’s unlikely we would find out.

And while contact information stored on user devices is deleted on a 21-day rolling basis, the Department of Health has said data sent to Amazon’s server will “be destroyed at the end of the pandemic”. It’s unclear how such a date would be determined.

Ultimately, it comes down to trust – something which seems to be in short supply.




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The COVIDSafe app was just one contact tracing option. These alternatives guarantee more privacy


The Conversation


James Jin Kang, Lecturer, Computig and Security, Edith Cowan University and Paul Haskell-Dowland, Associate Dean (Computing and Security), Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Fix housing and you’ll reduce risks of coronavirus and other disease in remote Indigenous communities


Nina Lansbury Hall, The University of Queensland; Andrew Redmond, The University of Queensland; Paul Memmott, The University of Queensland, and Samuel Barnes, The University of Queensland

Remote Indigenous communities have taken swift and effective action to quarantine residents against the risks of COVID-19. Under a plan developed by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group, entry to communities is restricted to essential visitors only. This is important, because crowded and malfunctioning housing in remote Indigenous communities heightens the risk of COVID-19 transmission. High rates of chronic disease mean COVID-19 outbreaks in Indigenous communities may cause high death rates.

The “old story” of housing, crowding and health continues to be overlooked. A partnership between the University of Queensland and Anyinginyi Health Aboriginal Corporation, in the Northern Territory’s (NT) Tennant Creek and Barkly region, re-opens this story. A new report from our work together is titled in Warumungu language as Piliyi Papulu Purrukaj-ji – “Good Housing to Prevent Sickness”. It reveals the simplicity of the solution: new housing and budgets for repairs and maintenance can improve human health.




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Infection risks rise in crowded housing

Rates of crowded households are much higher in remote communities (34%) than in urban areas (8%). Our research in the Barkly region, 500km north of Alice Springs, found up to 22 residents in some three-bedroom houses. In one crowded house, a kidney dialysis patient and seven family members had slept in the yard for over a year in order to access clinical care.

Many Indigenous Australians lease social housing because of barriers to individual land ownership in remote Australia. Repairs and maintenance are more expensive in remote areas and our research found waiting periods are long. One resident told us:

Houses [are] inspected two times a year by Department of Housing, but no repairs or maintenance. They inspect and write down faults but don’t fix. They say people will return, but it doesn’t happen.

Better ‘health hardware’ can prevent infections

The growing populations in communities are not matched by increased housing. Crowding is the inevitable result.

Crowded households place extra pressure on “health hardware”, the infrastructure that enables washing of bodies and clothing and other hygiene practices.




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We interviewed residents who told us they lacked functioning bathrooms and washing machines and that toilets were blocked. One resident said:

Scabies has come up a lot this year because of lack of water. We’ve been running out of water in the tanks. There’s no electric pump … [so] we are bathing less …

[Also] sewerage is a problem at this house. It’s blocked … The toilet bubbles up and the water goes black and leaks out. We try to keep the kids away.

A lack of health hardware increases the transmission risk of preventable, hygiene-related infectious diseases like COVID-19. Anyinginyi clinicians report skin infections are more common than in urban areas, respiratory infections affect whole families in crowded houses, and they see daily cases of eye infections.

Data that we accessed from the clinic confirmed this situation. The highest infection diagnoses were skin infections (including boils, scabies and school sores), respiratory infections, and ear, nose and throat infections (especially middle ear infection).

These infections can have long-term consequences. Repeated skin sores and throat infections from Group A streptococcal bacteria can contribute to chronic life-threatening conditions such as kidney disease and rheumatic heart disease (RHD). Indigenous NT residents have among the highest rates of RHD in the world, and
Indigenous children in Central Australia have the highest rates of post-infection kidney disease (APSGN).




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The answer to Indigenous vulnerability to coronavirus: a more equitable public health agenda


Reviving a vision of healthy housing and people

Crowded and unrepaired housing persists, despite the National Indigenous Reform Agreement stating over ten years ago: “Children need to live in accommodation with adequate infrastructure conducive to good hygiene … and free of overcrowding.”

Indigenous housing programs, such as the National Partnership Agreement for Remote Indigenous Housing, have had varied success and sustainability in overcoming crowding and poor housing quality.

It is calculated about 5,500 new houses are required by 2028 to reduce the health impacts of crowding in remote communities. Earlier models still provide guidance for today’s efforts. For example, Whitlam-era efforts supported culturally appropriate housing design, while the ATSIC period of the 1990s introduced Indigenous-led housing management and culturally-specific adaptation of tenancy agreements.

Our report reasserts the call to action for both new housing and regular repairs and maintenance (with adequate budgets) of existing housing in remote communities. The lack of effective treatment or a vaccine for COVID-19 make hygiene and social distancing critical. Yet crowding and faulty home infrastructure make these measures difficult if not impossible.

Indigenous Australians living on remote country urgently need additional and functional housing. This may begin to provide the long-term gains described to us by an experienced Aboriginal health worker:

When … [decades ago] houses were built, I noticed immediately a drop in the scabies … You could see the mental change, could see the difference in families. Kids are healthier and happier. I’ve seen this repeated in other communities once housing was given – the change.


Trisha Narurla Frank contributed to the writing of this article, and other staff from Anyinginyi Health Aboriginal Corporation provided their input and consent for the sharing of these findings.The Conversation

Nina Lansbury Hall, Senior Lecturer, School of Public Health, The University of Queensland; Andrew Redmond, Senior Lecturer, School of Medicine, The University of Queensland; Paul Memmott, Professor, School of Architecture, and Director, Aboriginal Environments Research Centre (AERC), The University of Queensland, and Samuel Barnes, Research Assistant, School of Public Health, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Hot and bothered: heat affects all of us, but older people face the highest health risks



Older people’s bodies can’t regulate their temperature as well as younger people’s.
From shutterstock.com

Arnagretta Hunter, Australian National University

Australian summer temperatures have risen by 1.66℃ over the past 20 years. In the past century we’ve seen a significant increase in the number, intensity and duration of heatwaves during our summers.

Heat is the natural hazard associated with the highest mortality in Australia. When heatwaves occur, the death toll routinely reaches into the hundreds. For example, the 2009 heatwave across southeast Australia resulted in close to 500 deaths.

Heat is more likely to endanger the health of people with pre-existing conditions, people who are socially isolated, and people who have limited access to air conditioning. These are often older members of the community.




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Heat affects people of different ages in different ways

Human body temperature is set at 36.8℃, although our normal temperature can vary slightly and may marginally decrease as we age.

Ambient temperatures well below this prompt us to keep ourselves warm, and as the temperature rises we look for ways to keep ourselves cool.

An important mechanism of cooling is perspiration. As sweat evaporates, it cools our skin. However, humid weather impedes our capacity to cool ourselves in this way.

Heat stress occurs when the body can’t cool itself and maintain a healthy temperature. Heat stress can begin at temperatures around 30℃ when the humidity is high, and at temperatures closer to 40℃ in dry heat.




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Babies and young children are highly vulnerable to the heat because of their small size. They can become dehydrated and develop heat stress more quickly than adults.

This is because they absorb heat faster, and often cannot remove themselves from hot environments. So little ones need to be kept cool and well hydrated (with milk for babies and water for small children) during hot periods.

Babies and young children can become dehydrated more quickly than adults.
From shutterstock.com

While young people and adults face lower health risks from the heat, extended periods of hot weather can adversely affect our mood. One recent study pointed to increased intimate partner violence during heatwaves.

This effect appears to be exacerbated when night time temperatures are also high. High overnight temperatures are associated with increased crime rates, decreased productivity and poorer academic results.

But generally, it’s people over 65 who are at highest risk from the heat.

How does heat affect older people’s health?

The ageing body doesn’t cope with sudden stresses as quickly or effectively as a younger body. For example, an elderly person’s skin does not produce sweat and cool the body as efficiently as a younger person’s skin.

Importantly, heat stress can exacerbate existing health conditions common in older people, such as diabetes, kidney disease, and heart disease. Many heat deaths are recorded as heart attacks.

In short, this is because heat requires our hearts to work harder. In very hot conditions, our blood vessels dilate, increasing our heart rate. For people with abnormal heart function, these hot periods can lead to worsening of their heart failure.

With severe, prolonged heat stroke, heart failure can even develop in people without pre-existing heart disease.




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For people with pre-existing kidney disease, dehydration during hot periods can impact their kidney function. So people with kidney disease need to take extra care to stay hydrated during hot periods.

Dehydration can also affect older people’s blood pressure, making falls more likely.

Further, hot weather can affect blood sugar control for people with diabetes. Heat stress can increase blood sugar levels even in people without diabetes, but is most concerning in those with the condition. Poor blood sugar control is associated with many different diabetes complications including increased risk of infections.

Hot weather can indirectly affect health if the heat means not being able to exercise.
From shutterstock.com

Older people with chronic medical problems usually take regular medications. Some medications can hinder the body’s ability to regulate temperature and make people more susceptible to heat stress.

For example, people with heart failure often take diuretic medications to manage symptoms like swelling and shortness of breath. But increasing diuretic medications in hot weather can cause dehydration, worsening heart failure and often affecting the kidneys.

Added to this, heat stress may cause disorientation, confusion and delirium. This risk is more pronounced for older people with cognitive conditions and dementia.

Social factors and exercise

Socioeconomic factors and isolation can magnify the risk of heat exposure among older people. For example, some pensioners may not be able to afford air conditioning at home.

Being part of social networks can help. One person may recognise if another is unwell, increasing the likelihood of their friend getting medical attention.




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Further, extended periods of hot weather can interrupt our exercise routines. This can be particularly problematic for older people who may be using exercise to manage chronic health conditions.

Regular exercise correlates with improved quality of life in many conditions, including heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression, diabetes, cognitive impairment and osteoporosis.

When our activity is disrupted for weeks at a time it can be hard to regain previous fitness. This can be especially true for older people, as muscle mass is commonly lost as we age. Periods of inactivity accelerate muscle loss, and regaining strength and endurance is often more difficult in this context.




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Australia’s climate is changing. We’re likely to experience longer periods of hot temperatures, with hotter summers and some extraordinarily high temperatures. This will test our health and our health-care systems. Understanding the challenge ahead can help to reduce the risks.

On a practical level, be aware of spending too much time in hot temperatures, stay hydrated, and know where you can access air conditioning – particularly if power fails. Consider vulnerable relatives, friends and neighbours, especially those of advanced age.The Conversation

Arnagretta Hunter, Physician & Cardiologist, The Canberra Hospital; Clinical Senior Lecturer, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Five ways parents can help their kids take risks – and why it’s good for them



Have real conversations with your kids about what they’re doing, and the potential consequences of their actions.
from shutterstock.com

Linda Newman, University of Newcastle and Nicole Leggett, University of Newcastle

Many parents and educators agree children need to take risks. In one US study, 82% of the 1,400 parents surveyed agreed the benefits of tree-climbing outweighed the potential risk of injury.

Parents cited benefits including perseverance, sharing, empowerment and self-awareness. One parent thought it allowed her son to learn what his whole body was capable of.




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Taking risks and succeeding can motivate children to seek further achievements. Failing can lead to testing new ideas, and finding personal capabilities and limits. In this way, children can overcome fears and build new skills.

We mentored a group of educators in a research project trialling how to best introduce kids to risk.

Parents identified sharing and collaboration as one benefit of letting kids climb trees.
from shutterstock.com

Parents can use some of the lessons these educators learnt to help their own children take more risks and challenge themselves.

What was the research?

Adamstown Community Early Learning and Preschool (NSW) wanted to conduct research around risky play. “Risky play” is a term which has evolved from a trend to get more children out into nature to experience challenging environments.

Adamstown wanted to find out whether adult intervention to promote safe risk-taking would play a significant role in developing children’s risk competence.

Educators engaged children in conversations about risk, asked prompting questions and helped them assess potential consequences.

The Adamstown research built on 2007 Norwegian research that identified six categories of risky play:

  • play at great heights, where children climb trees or high structures such as climbing frames in a playground

  • play at high speed, such as riding a bike or skateboarding down a steep hill or swinging fast

  • play with harmful tools, like knives or highly supervised power tools to create woodwork

  • play with dangerous elements, such as fire or bodies of water

  • rough and tumble play, where children wrestle or play with impact, such as slamming bodies into large crash mats

  • play where you can “disappear”, where children can feel they’re not being watched by doing things like enclosing themselves in cubbies built of sheets or hiding in bushes (while actually being surreptitiously supervised by an adult).

The educators examined their practices in these areas to see how and whether they were engaging children in risky play, and how children were responding.

Skating down a hill is one way kids can engage in risky play.
from shutterstock.com

Here are five lessons educators learnt that parents can apply at home.

1. Have real conversations with children (don’t just give them instructions)

Adamstown educators found children were more likely to attempt risky play when adults talked to them about planning for, and taking, risks.

Parents can use similar strategies with their children, helping them question what they are doing and why.

Phrases like “be careful” don’t tell children what to do. Instead, say things like

That knife is very sharp. It could cut you and you might bleed. Only hold it by the handle and cut down towards the chopping board.

Equally, praise with meaning, using phrases like

You cut the cake, thinking about how you held the knife and didn’t slip or cut yourself. Well done!

It is important for children to provide insight into their own problem solving. You could ask their thoughts on what might happen if they used the knife incorrectly or what safety measures they could put in place. This will help develop their risk competence.

2. Introduce risk gradually

Allow your children to try new things by slowly increasing the levels of difficulty.

At Adamstown, a process of introducing children to fire spanned nine months. First – on the advice of an early childhood education consultant – they introduced tea-light candles at meal times. This then moved to a small fire bowl in the sandpit, before children were introduced to a large open fire pit.




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The fire pit is now used for many reasons. In winter, children sit around it in a circle and tell stories. Educators show them cooking skills, referencing the ways Australia’s First Nations People cook. The fire pit is also used to create charcoal for art.

Encourage your children to think about risk when they’re in a safe situation.
from shutterstock.com

Children have been made aware of the safe distance they need to keep and about the potential hazard of smoke inhalation.

During the research process, as children were introduced to more risk, there were no more injuries than before and all were minor. There were also no serious incidents such as broken bones, or events requiring immediate medical attention.

3. Assume all your children are competent – regardless of gender

Adamstown educators were surprised to discover that, although they weren’t excluding girls from risky play, the data indicated they challenged and invited participation more often with boys.

Parents may hold intrinsic biases they are not necessarily aware of. So, check yourself to see if you are:

  • allowing boys to be more independent

  • assuming boys are more competent or girls don’t really want to take as many risks

  • dressing girls in clothes that limit their freedom to climb

  • saying different things to boys and girls.

4. Be close-by but allow children to have a sense of autonomy

Children don’t always want to be supervised. Search for opportunities to allow them to feel as if they are alone, or out of sight. Be close-by, but allow them to think they are playing independently.

5. Discuss risk at times that don’t directly involve it

When walking together to the shops, talk about the risks involved in crossing roads, such as fast cars. You can note safe and unsafe situations as well as encouraging your child to notice these as you go about your daily life. This can also be done in relaxed situations like in the bath.

This way, when the time comes for your child to learn a new skill like crossing the road alone, they have already had some opportunity to consider measures to keep themselves safe in a non-stressful situation.

If your child has a fall or other mishap, when everything is settled again, ask your child about why it happened and how they might suggest it could be prevented next time.




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Kids learn valuable life skills through rough-and-tumble play with their dads


This article was written with Kate Higginbottom, Service Director and Nominated Supervisor at Adamstown Community Early Learning and Preschool Centre.

The Adamstown centre was part of a larger research project, in which four Australian early childhood centres in Newcastle took part as practitioner researchers.The Conversation

Linda Newman, Associate Professor, University of Newcastle and Nicole Leggett, Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As Turkish troops move in to Syria, the risks are great – including for Turkey itself



Turkish armoured vehicles drive down a road during a military operation in Kurdish areas of northern Syria.
AAP/EPA/STR

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

Turkey did not waste much time in launching an attack on Syrian soil just days after US President Donald Trump announced he would withdraw US forces from northern Syria. As this development opens a new chapter in Syria, Turkey maybe unwittingly sinking deeper into that country’s civil war.

This is not the first time president Trump has mentioned withdrawal from Syria – he voiced it in April 2018.

Alleged gas attacks by the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s incumbent government followed, which resulted in the US continuing its stay in Syria despite its reluctant president.

The US government has always been tentative with its Syrian policy, which was openly exploited by Russia in its bid to support the Assad government’s grip on power in the embattled country.




Read more:
Trump decision to withdraw troops from Syria opens way for dangerous Middle East power play


It is also not the first time Turkey has talked about a military presence in Syria. In January 2018, it sent troops to north-western Syria, establishing its control over lands to the west of the Euphrates river. Turkey has increased its military build up on the Syrian border ever since.

The US contained any further Turkish advances by making it clear Turkey was not welcome to the east of the river, especially when the US needed the support of Kurdish forces in ending Islamic States’s presence in Syria.

Why does Turkey want to increase its military presence in Syria?

There are three main reasons Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is eager to send more troops in to northern Syria east of the Euphrates river.

The first is the prospect of free Kurdish states near its borders inspiring the sizeable Kurdish populations in the south east of Turkey to seek similar aspirations. Northern Iraq is slowly moving towards independence. If Kurds in northern Syria were to establish an autonomous region, it would only be a matter of time before the same demands were raised in Turkey.

Fearing this development, Erdogan has pursued an increasingly tough policy on Kurdish political activities in Turkey. The leader of pro-Kurdish party HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, has been in jail for almost three years.

Turkey’s second concern is the reported 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey since the conflict began in 2011. Although they were initially welcomed with open arms, there is growing discontent in the Turkish media and society, with many calling for their return.

Opposition parties have been critical of the Erdogan government’s inability to effectively manage the refugee crisis, which was one of the key issues that led to Erdogan’s loss in this year’s Istanbul elections.

Erdogan plans to create a safe zone in Northern Syria, establish new settlements within this region and slowly move Arab Syrian refugees back to Syria. This will change the demographics of the region and undermine Kurdish dominance.

Erdogan’s third aim is to make a political investment for future elections. This may be the most important reason, as Erdogan first mentioned a military offensive in Syria soon after his local government election loss in June 2019.

The Turkish leader needs the coalition with MHP, the nationalist party, to maintain his grip on power and enhance his chance of re-election. He needs a war to unify his electorate, please his coalition partner and silence the growing critical voices in the midst of a worsening Turkish economy.

Erdogan made strong hints in August he would send troops to northern Syria against the US-allied YPG, which Turkey considers to be a terrorist group. He was most likely testing international, especially US, reaction. The US responded by offering a joint operation in the region.

It appears Erdogan thought the US involvement was limiting his goals and wasting his time. Perhaps he reasoned the timing was right to make a bold move when Trump was politically weakened by an impeachment inquiry.

It seems Erdogan’s strategy worked. Trump agreed to withdraw from Syria on the condition Turkey took responsibility for handling thousands of IS prisoners and their families in camps.

Trump added a threat to “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if it was to do anything considered “off-limits”. But the move was still a green light for Turkey to send troops to Syria.

What is likely to happen now?

Trump’s announcement does not mean the US is pulling out of Syria completely. It’s likely the US will continue to have a presence in eastern Syria to watch developments closely and intervene if the situation deteriorates.

A total pull-out would further weaken Trump. He would not want to risk the already-waning Republican party’s support over concerns about a resurgence of IS in Syria.

Russia seems to be pleased with the developments. Putin knows the US withdrawal means greater Russian influence and shores up the Assad government. Since Erdogan does everything with full Russian endorsement, their close collaboration gives Russia leverage in its political and diplomatic struggle with the NATO.




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Further strikes on Syria unlikely – but Trump is always the wild card


One possibility is that Turkish forces do not face much resistance. They would then only advance to a limited region, with their stated aim of establishing a safe zone and returning Syrian refugees back to Syria. This may contain the situation without further escalation.

Another possibility is that the US abandoning its protection of the Kurdish YPG forces in northern Syria will have a cascading effects. A sizeable portion of Kurdish civilians may be displaced, and some may flee in advance, fearing the worst.

The Kurdish YPG forces may initially avoid open conflict with the advancing Turkish forces, and look for new alliances in Syria. The most likely candidate for this is Assad, who may see an opportunity to bring the Kurdish populations and regions under his control.

If an Assad-Kurdish partnership eventuates, Turkish forces may be drawn into the war within Syria.

Kurdish populations in Turkey may then become involved, threatening Turkey with what it fears the most – a Kurdish insurrection within its own borders.The Conversation

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As Australia looks to join a coalition in Iran, the risks are many



The Morrison government must have a plan for Australia’s involvement if the “peacekeeping” descends into hostility.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has indicated Australia will join a multinational peacekeeping force to protect freedom of navigation in the Gulf, but at this stage he has not indicated what form Australian participation might take.

Speaking to reporters after a conversation overnight with newly-installed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Morrison said Australia was “looking very carefully at an international, multinational initiative” to provide a peacekeeping role.

But given recent experience of Australia too hastily joining an American-led Iraq invasion of 2003, with disastrous consequences, Morrison and his advisers need to ask some hard questions – and set clear limits on any Australian involvement.

It is not clear the extent to which the prime minister and his team have interrogated the risks involved before acceding to an American request for some form of military contribution to policing one of the world’s most strategically important waterways.




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Nor is it clear what form Australian engagement might take to deter Iran’s threats to tanker traffic. This includes its seizing of a British-flagged vessel.

Options include sending a warship or warships to join peacekeeping patrols under American command, or stationing surveillance aircraft in the region to monitor ship movements through the Strait of Hormuz.

The operative words in the above paragraph are “American command”.

Any peacekeeping mission might be presented as a multinational exercise, but in effect the preponderance of American power, including an aircraft carrier battle group, means Americans would be in command.

In the Iraq invasion of 2003, Australians operated under broad American oversight, as did the British at considerable cost to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s reputation.

This is not an argument against Australian involvement in protecting a vital sea lane through which passes one-third of the world’s seaborne tradeable oil every day. Rather, it is to make the case for extreme caution.

Morrison and his team need to ask themselves whether there is a risk of being drawn into an American exercise in regime change in Iran. What might be the limits on Australia’s involvement should hostilities broke out in the Gulf?

What would be the rules of engagement? What might be an exit strategy?

What, for example, would be Australia’s response if a warship involved in a peacekeeping exercise was damaged – or sunk – in a hostile act? This includes hitting a mine bobbing in the Gulf waterway, or a limpet mine stuck on the side of a vessel.

We have seen this before in 1984, when traffic in the Gulf was brought to a standstill by Iran floating mines into busy sea lanes.

What would Australia’s response be in the case of a surveillance aircraft or drone being shot down if it strayed into Iranian airspace?

In other words, there are multiple possibilities of conflict escalating given the concentration of firepower that is planned for the Gulf.

The aim of any international mission to which Australia attaches itself should be to de-escalate tensions in the world’s most volatile region. A military presence cannot – and should not – be detached from a political imperative.

That imperative is to draw Iran back into discussions on a revitalised Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Under this 2015 plan, the Iranians agreed to freeze their nuclear program under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision.

Iran was complying with that agreement before US President Donald Trump recklessly abrogated it in 2018 and re-applied sanctions. These have brought Iran’s economy to its knees.




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Trump’s abandonment of the JCPOA against the wishes of the other signatories, including the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, was as inexplicable as it was damaging.

Now, the world is facing a crisis in the Gulf of American making, and one that Washington is asking its allies to police.

Morrison has been equivocal about the JCPOA. He would be well advised to reiterate Australia’s backing for the agreement as a signal to the Americans that Australia stands with its allies in its support of international obligations.

These cannot – and should not – be ripped up at the whim of a president who seems to have been motivated largely by a desire to undo the useful work of his predecessor.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this has been an act of self-harm to American interests and those of its allies. It is a crisis that need not have occurred.

Viewed from the distance of Canberra, Morrison and his advisers might have difficulty fully comprehending the risks involved in a potential escalation of tensions in the Gulf.

In a useful paper, the International Crisis Group warns of the dangers of an escalation of hostilities due to a mistake or accident in a highly charged environment.

As Iran Project Director Ali Vaez puts it:

Just as in Europe in 1914 a single incident has the potential of sparking a military confrontation that could, in turn, engulf the entire region.

What should be kept in mind in all of this is that it is not simply stresses in the Gulf itself that are threatening stability, but a host of other Middle East flashpoints. These include ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and heightened tensions between Iran and a Sunni majority led by Saudi Arabia.

Then there is the drumbeat on Capitol Hill. Hawkish Republican lawmakers agitate for pre-emptive strikes against Iran in the mistaken belief such an exercise would be clinical and short-lived.

Further destabilisation of the entire region would result, and possibly all-out war.

The ICG is urging America to redouble its efforts to establish a dialogue with Iran to bring about a resumption of negotiations on a revised JCPOA. This would require Washington making a down payment in good faith by easing sanctions on Iran’s oil exports.

It is not clear the Trump administration would be willing or able to make these concessions.

Morrison could do worse than argue the case for “redo” of the JCPOA when he is in Washington next month on a state visit.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australian universities must wake up to the risks of researchers linked to China’s military



Two universities are conducting internal reviews of research collaborations linked to the suppression and surveillance of the Uyghur minority in western China.
Tracey Nearmy/AAP

Clive Hamilton, Charles Sturt University

Two Australian universities, University of Technology Sydney and Curtin University, are conducting internal reviews of their funding and research approval procedures after Four Corners’ revealed their links to researchers whose work has materially assisted China’s human rights abuses against the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province.

UTS, in particular, is in the spotlight because of a major research collaboration with CETC, the Chinese state-owned military research conglomerate. In a response to Four Corners, UTS expressed dismay at the allegations of human rights violations in Xinjiang, which were raised in a Human Rights Watch report earlier this year.

Yet, UTS has been aware of concerns about its collaboration with CETC for two years. When I met with two of the university’s deputy vice chancellors in 2017 to ask them about their work with CETC, they dismissed the concerns.




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According to a report for the Jamestown Foundation, CETC openly declares that its purpose is “leveraging civilian electronics for the gain of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army).” Similar concerns had been raised about CETC’s military links and its work with the CSIRO.

Alex Joske, now an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and I had also uncovered a pattern of widespread research collaborations between academics at Australian universities and Chinese scientists and corporations connected to China’s armed forces and security services.

Along with UTS, ANU and UNSW are the most heavily invested. Some of the collaborations have been partly funded by the Australian Research Council. Some of our research was published in June and October 2017.

Some universities challenged over their associations have reacted defensively. Responding to a story questioning the wisdom of UNSW’s huge commitment to a China-funded “Torch Technology Park”, DVC Brian Boyle dismissed the evidence and suggested the criticisms were motivated by xenophobia.

When UTS teamed up with CETC in 2016 to collaborate on research projects worth A$10 million in its CETC Research Institute on Smart Cities, CETC was already working with the Chinese state to improve the world’s most comprehensive and oppressive system of surveillance and control of its citizens.

CETC is upfront about its Smart Cities work, saying it includes “public security early warning preventative and supervisory abilities” and “cyberspace control abilities.” A report by the official Xinhua news agency in 2016 noted that CETC’s work on smart cities “integrates and connects civilian-military dual-use technologies.”

Defence controls

When asked about their collaborations with Chinese experts in military and security technology, universities have typically responded that all of their research proposals comply with the Defence Trade Controls Act, which restricts the export of technologies, including IP, deemed sensitive.

They were able to tick the right boxes on the relevant forms because it was possible to describe the planned research as “civilian.” But even well-informed amateurs know that the traditional distinction between civilian and military research no longer applies because major civilian technologies, like big data, satellite navigation and facial recognition technology, are used in modern weapons systems and citizen surveillance.

At the urging of President Xi Jinping, China’s government has been rapidly implementing a policy of “civilian-military fusion.”




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UNSW scientists have collaborated with experts from the National University of Defence Technology (NUDT), a top military research centre, on China’s Beidou satellite system, which has many civilian as well as military uses, including tracking the movements of people and guiding missiles.

Joske found that some two dozen NUDT-linked researchers have passed through UNSW as visiting scholars or PhD students in the last decade. A further 14 have passed through ANU. Some have backgrounds working on classified Chinese defence projects.

Having visited and studied at Australian institutions, these researchers, who hold rank in the People’s Liberation Army, return to China with deep international networks, advanced training, and access to research that is yet to be classified. In many cases, a clear connection can be drawn between the work that PLA personnel have done in Australia and specific projects they undertake for the Chinese military.

The same can be said for companies like CETC that take research output from Australian researchers and apply it to the security and surveillance technology used across China.

“Orwellian” seems inadequate for the types of surveillance and security technologies being implemented in China. Facial recognition scanners have even been set up in toilets to allocate the proper amount of toilet paper. The state tells you whether you can wipe your backside.

Fixing the system

Some universities pass the buck by saying that the department of immigration is responsible for any security concerns when assessing visa applications for researchers. (Now the authorities are doing more checks, but the universities are grumbling because visas for Chinese scientists are taking too long.)

The universities’ refusal to accept any responsibility tells us there is a cultural problem. Most university executives believe that international scientific collaboration is a pure public good because it contributes to the betterment of humankind — and, of course, the bottom line.

So asking them more carefully to assess and rule out some kinds of research goes against the grain.




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All of this suggests that the system is broken. The fact remains that Chinese military scientists and researchers at companies like CETC have been returning to China with improved knowledge of how to build better weapons and more Orwellian surveillance systems.

American universities are now alive to the problem by looking much more closely at the China links of scientists working in the US. So, in April 2018, it was reassuring to see the Australian minister of defence, Marise Payne, commission an inquiry into the effectiveness of the defence trade controls regime.

However, when it came time, the report failed to recognise Australia’s new security environment, especially the risks posed by China’s aggressive program of acquiring technology from abroad. It accepted the university view that the system is working fine and, apart from a few recommended adjustments to the existing Defence Trade Controls Act, kicked the can down the road.

In short, defence and security organisations, who can see how the world has changed, lost out to those who benefit from an open international research environment, one that has been heavily exploited by Beijing for its own benefit.

In the US, federal science funding authorities have been sending the message that continued funding will be contingent on universities applying more due diligence to the national security impacts of their overseas research collaborations. We can expect to see something similar in Australia.The Conversation

Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE), Charles Sturt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The risks of a new Cold War between the US and China are real: here’s why



File 20180925 85773 fky1d3.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The US and China find it extremely difficult to see the world from the other’s perspective.
AAP/EPA/Roman Pilipey

Nick Bisley, La Trobe University

Donald Trump is making good on his trade war rhetoric with China, announcing tariffs on a further US$200 billion worth of goods from the PRC. As China promises retaliation, the warmth of the Mar-a-Lago summit of April 2017 is a thing of the past. When this is added to the wide-ranging tensions such as the disputes over barely habitable rocks in the East China Sea, tensions over the competing claims in the South China Sea, and the spectre of nuclear catastrophe on the Korean Peninsula, the sense of geopolitical risk is as palpable as it is frightening.

During such periods of turbulence, it is not surprising that scholars and commentators look to the past for parallels to current crises. Not long ago, the trend, prompted by the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war, was to see Asia on the cusp of 1914-like conflagration. This proved a highly imperfect point of comparison.

Today, a more common refrain is that Asia is on the cusp of a new Cold War. If it were to happen, it would mean the rivalry that has been growing is transformed into overt militarised competition that drags the region into its vortex.

In this case, the US is confronted not by an expansionary Soviet Union seeking to capitalise on decolonisation to advance its ideological and geopolitical ambition, but by a resurgent China. Its ambitious president, Xi Jinping, has clearly set out his aim to make China the world’s preeminent national power.

Until very recently, it seemed unlikely that a Cold War with 21st century characteristics would eventuate. The USSR and United States inhabited almost entirely separate economic universes during the Cold War.

This meant the dynamic of competition was driven by power politics and ideology alone – the tempering effect of shared economic interests simply didn’t exist. Today, so the argument goes, their economic interdependence is a powerful brake on the worst instincts of the two countries.

While China and the US are in competition, the two countries have also established an extensive range of bilateral mechanisms to manage their complex relationship. There are around 1000 meetings between the countries every year, ranging from summit level down to mid ranking officials, covering issues from trade and investment to coastguard and fisheries.

The two countries know they have to work hard to ensure the competitive dynamic does not spiral out of control. And of course, both sides’ nuclear weapons act as a great disciplining force, ensuring even the most heated of relationships can remain short of outright conflict. Asia also has a wide array of institutional mechanisms such as ASEAN and the East Asia Summit that regularly discuss their common concerns and build a sense of regional trust.

Yet, in spite of their many meetings, in which there is much discussion but little agreement, there are good reasons to think a Cold War 2.0 might be a good deal closer than we realise. The US and China are plainly entering into a period of significant geopolitical rivalry. Each has ambitions that are mutually incompatible. Beijing wants a south-east Asian region in which it is not beholden to US primacy, while Washington wants to sustain its regional dominance.

The two also find it extremely difficult to see the world from the other’s perspective. Washington does not seem able to grasp that even though Beijing benefited from US primacy in the region, it will not forever accept a price-taker’s position in the regional order.

For its part, Beijing simply does not believe Washington’s claim that it wants China to achieve its potential, and that this can occur without meaningful changes to the current international order. When that is added to the nationalism that is a powerful political force in both countries, the prospects of a bleak geopolitical future seem very real.

The trade war escalation is one of the most worrying developments. Not only does it signal a more turbulent and less dynamic period in the global economy, it represents the victory of nationalist politics over shared economic interests. More importantly, it may presage a return to a less integrated global economy.

Trump evidently wants to rip up global supply chains and turn back the clock to the days of mercantilist approaches to economic development. Most worryingly, due to China’s behaviour in the past — stealing IP, predatory approaches to foreign investment and refusing access to its vast markets — Trump’s tariffs have a surprising level of support in business circles in the US.

The risk is not only one of sustained tension between the world’s biggest economies, but significant division between the interests of the two most important countries. If the golden straitjacket of economic interdependence is gone, the prospects of geopolitics and nationalism winning the day are significantly enhanced. China also sees in the tariffs a confirmation of its long-held suspicion that the US is intent on keeping the country from fulfilling its potential.

Worryingly, there is widespread complacency in the region. We used to think great power politics had been banished by globalisation. We were wrong. We thought Trump would come to his economic sense when elected. Wrong again. And now the escalation of trade conflict is undermining the most important link between the US and China – their shared economic interests.

We must not fool ourselves again. High intensity geopolitical competition is increasingly likely. Unless the US and China can step down from the escalatory cycle they are on, we are sliding into another period in which great power rivalry, militarised competition and dangerous nationalism once again dominate the region.The Conversation

Nick Bisley, Head of Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations at La Trobe University, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Christian Forced to Sell Kidney to Pay Debt to Boss in Pakistan


Employer charges non-Muslims at least 400 percent interest.

LAHORE, Pakistan, May 14 (CDN) — A low-wage Pakistani Christian said his Muslim employer last week forced him to sell his kidney in an effort to pay off a loan his boss made at exorbitant interest rates charged only to non-Muslims.

John Gill, a molding machine operator at Shah Plastic Manufacturers in the Youhanabad area of Lahore, said he took a loan of 150,000 rupees (US$1,766) – at 400 percent interest – from employer Ghulam Mustafa in 2007 in order to send his 17-year-old daughter to college. 

“I kept paying the installments every month from my salary, but after three years I got tired of paying the huge interest on the loan,” Gill told Compass.

The employer denied that he had received payment installments from his Christian worker, although Gill said he had receipts for monthly payments.

Mustafa confirmed that he took over Gill’s home last week after giving the Christian two weeks to pay off the outstanding interest on the loan. Then, on May 6, Mustafa came to Gill’s home with “about five armed men” and transported him to Ganga Ram hospital, where they forced him to sell his kidney against his will, the Christian said.

“They sold my kidney and said that they will come next month for the rest of the money,” Gill said.

The value of the kidney was estimated at around 200,000 rupees (US$2,380), leaving Gill with outstanding debt of about 250,000 rupees (US$2,976), he said. Recovering at home, Gill said he did not know he would repay the rest of the debt.

Mustafa told Compass that Gill owed him 400 percent interest on the loan.

“I only offer 50 percent interest to Muslim employees,” he said, adding that he refused to take less than 400 percent interest from any non-Muslim.

‘Kidney Bazaar’

There was no immediate confirmation from Ganga Ram hospital. Rights groups, however, have complained that hundreds of rich foreigners come to Pakistan every year to buy kidneys from live, impoverished donors.

Kidney failure is increasingly common in rich countries, often because of obesity or hypertension, but a growing shortage of transplant organs has fueled a black market that exploits needy donors such as Gill and risks undermining voluntary donation schemes, according to Pakistan’s Kidney Foundation.

Pakistani legislation aimed at curbing trafficking in human kidneys has not ended a business that has turned the country into the world’s “kidney bazaar,” critics say.

Gill said he is trying to contact local Christian advocacy groups to help him recover and overcome his financial and spiritual difficulties. Christians are a minority in heavily Islamic Pakistan, where rights groups have lamented discrimination against Christian workers.

Report from Compass Direct News