INDEPENDENT 2024-05-16 10:04:41

Putin arrives to meet Xi Jinping as West watches with growing concern

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping have met in Beijing as they begin two-day talks to discuss their deepening “friendship”.

It comes as Russian forces advanced further into Ukraine’s northeast Kharkiv region on the seventh day of its surprise attack across the border.

Xi pledged to “cherish and nurture” China’s relationship with Russia as Putin described their partnership as “one of the main stabilising factors on the international arena”.

Key delegates, including Putin’s newly-appointed defence minister Andrei Belousov and his predecessor Sergei Shoigu, have joined Putin for the talks, which are expected to focus heavily on Russia and China’s burgeoning defence co-operation.

In Ukraine, Russian forces pushed closer towards the Kharkiv region’s namesake capital, which is home to around 1.3 million civilians.

Ukrainian war tracker DeepState suggested Kremlin troops were pushing towards the village of Lyptsi, less than 20 miles north of Kharkiv city centre.

Nearby, a local Ukrainian official said Russian forces had entered the streets of Vovchansk, a small city that has become the primary Ukrainian defensive line against the recent Kremlin push.

Gordon Brown warns African nations paying more on debt than healthcare

Gordon Brown has warned that the West may never be forgiven for not offering African countries urgent relief during the worst debt crisis in a generation.

The former prime minister’s rallying call comes as a poll shows nearly half of Britons think the UK should wipe the debts of lower income countries so the money can be used to fund hospitals, schools and tackle the climate crisis.

It follows a report which shows many African countries spent more on debt payments than on health or education last year.

Mr Brown said the findings showed the urgent need for action. “The scale of this inequality between Africans and the rest of the world is so great that I am not sure the world will ever forgive us for failing to deliver urgent debt restructuring,” he writes in a foreword to the Christian Aid report.

The study found that 34 African countries spent more on external debt payments than they did on health or education last year.

In Sudan, where millions are facing hunger, more than 10 times more is spent on external debt than on healthcare, according to the charity.

In Malawi, where just 15 per cent of children finish secondary school, twice as much is spent on debt than education.

In total African governments spent 50 times more on external debt payments than the entire UK aid budget to the continent last year.

The charity warns the continent is experiencing its worst debt crisis “in a generation”.

It has its roots in the 2008 financial crash, which led to lower growth, but was compounded by shocks including the pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which caused food prices to soar, and the climate crisis.

External debt payments this year are set to be the highest since 1998, researchers said – almost four times as much as in 2010.

Polling by Savanta, which was commissioned by Christian Aid, also shows 45 per cent of Britons think the debts of lower income countries should be wiped out so they can spend the money on healthcare, education and tackling the climate crisis.

The survey also found 39 per cent believe debt servicing is a perpetuation of colonialism and should be eradicated.

Mr Brown said that despite rapid improvements, Africa “is the only region expected to lag behind the rest of the world in life expectancy by 2050. The scale of this inequality between Africans and the rest of the world is so great that I am not sure the world will ever forgive us for failing to deliver urgent debt restructuring”.

He added: “In many African countries, more money is being spent on debt payments than on health or education, and so debt restructuring is a matter of life and death.”

Ahead of a general election later this year, the report calls for new legislation to ensure private lenders play their part in cancelling debt when lower income countries are in crisis.

They also want new laws to tackle predatory private creditors who lend recklessly and charge the highest interest rates.

Jennifer Larbie, the report’s author, said: “This would help create a fairer system, prevent future crises and improve the lives of millions.

“Decades after independence, many African countries are trapped in a debt crisis which is not of their making with no way out. Rather than building hospitals and schools and training doctors and teachers, they have no option but to line the pockets of predatory private creditors.”

Chief researcher for the report, Tim Jones, head of policy at charity Debt Justice, added: “Our new analysis reveals in stark terms just how much African nations are being forced to divert funding from crucial public services to pay external creditors. The figures confirm that the continent is experiencing the worst debt crisis in a generation, consigning millions to a life of poverty and ensuring the world will fail to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Black hole ‘plunge’ finally proves Einstein’s theory of gravity

Researchers have finally confirmed one of Albert Einstein’s key predictions about gravity after observing a “plunging region” around a black hole.

A team from Oxford University used X-ray data to gain a better understanding of black holes and observed gravity in its “strongest possible form”.

Einstein’s theory states that it is impossible for particles to safely follow circular orbits when close to a black hole. Instead they rapidly plunge towards the object at close to the speed of light – giving the plunging region its name.

“Einstein’s theory predicted that this final plunge would exist, but this is the first time we’ve been able to demonstrate it happening,” said Dr Andrew Mummery from Oxford University’s Department of Physics.

“We believe this represents an exciting new development in the study of black holes, allowing us to investigate this final area around them. Only then can we fully understand the gravitational force.”

Researchers say that there has been much debate between astrophysicists for many decades as to whether the so-called plunging region would be detectable.

The Oxford team spent the last couple of years developing models for it and, in a study just published, demonstrated its first confirmed detection found using X-ray telescopes and data from the international space station.

Later this year, a second Oxford team hopes to move closer to filming first footage of larger, more distant black holes,” said Dr Mummery.

“What’s really exciting is that there are many black holes in the galaxy, and we now have a powerful new technique for using them to study the strongest known gravitational fields.”

The findings were detailed in a study, titled ‘Continuum emission from within the plunging region of black hole discs’, published in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society on Thursday.

Additional reporting from agencies.

Why we should be ‘calling in unhappy’ at work

When you’re feeling overwhelmed by unhappiness, the last thing you feel like doing is gritting your teeth and gearing up for a day of work. Whether you’re experiencing a mental health issue or whether you’re simply dealing with a passing mood slump, coping with the demands of the working day when you’re out of sorts can feel like wading through concrete. Basic tasks turn into unfathomable chores; simple requests from colleagues become veiled pass-agg jibes; criticism that you’d normally brush off feels unbearable.  

On a day like this, the temptation is to cut your losses and call in sick: when you’re labouring under the cloud of low mood, there’s little chance that you’re going to be able to even pretend to look productive. But instead of citing mental health as the reason behind our absence, many of us will feign physical sickness instead. We’ll temporarily develop a croaky voice in order to sound more flu-stricken over the phone, or tell a dramatic story about a bout of food poisoning in order to skirt around the truth – because despite all the campaigns and pastel-coloured Instagram infographics telling us that it’s “good to talk”, the stark fact is that opening up about mental health is still incredibly difficult. Wouldn’t it be so much easier if you could just call in “unhappy” instead, with no questions asked?  

For employers at Pang Dong Lai supermarket chain in China’s Henan province, this is becoming a reality. Speaking at a business conference last month, the company’s founder Yu Donglai revealed that his staff can take up to 10 “unhappy days” annually, on top of their usual sick leave and holiday entitlement. “I want every staff member to have freedom,” he said. “Everyone has times when they’re not happy, so if you’re not happy, do not come into work.” Yu also made it very clear that managers aren’t allowed to turn down their employees’ requests for this leave either. “Denial is a violation,” he added.  

China is known for its relentless working culture: the controversial “966” system, whereby many employees are expected to work from 9am to 9pm, six days per week, is seen as a badge of honour for some tech industry workers (despite the fact that this practice is actually illegal). Only last week, the head of PR at the country’s biggest search engine Baidu came under fire for sharing videos glorifying over-work and suggesting that employees shouldn’t complain about 50-day work trips. But even though the expectations don’t tend to be quite so extreme in the UK (unless you’re working for a magic circle law firm or an investment bank, perhaps), the introduction of “unhappiness leave” would still be a game-changer for workers here.  

In 2018, a study from the occupational health service BHSF found that two-fifths of UK employees had called in sick with a physical illness when they were actually experiencing poor mental health. Although there are some statistics to suggest that younger generations are gradually getting more comfortable with telling bosses that they need a mental health day – last year a survey by workplace wellbeing platform Unmind found that 66 per cent of workers between 16 and 25 had taken time off due to poor mental health – many of us still struggle to express this, to such an extent that even sharing a white lie feels less daunting. An umbrella term like “unhappiness leave” might make it easier for employees to honestly ask for the day off, without having to go into too many difficult details with their boss.  It’s also worlds away from “duvet day”, the cutesified term that some companies have adopted as an alternative to “mental health day”.  

Of course, there is an argument that employees taking time off for unhappiness addresses the symptom rather than the cause: it might act as a sticking plaster, covering up the issues that might be making workers feel low in the first place. A measure like this would certainly need to be paired with other measures to redress the work-life balance in the long run: flexible working, strict rules about overtime, no emails out of hours, to name a few. But in the shorter term, I’d gladly swap two working weeks of unhappiness leave for the gimmicky policies foisted on workers in the name of “mental health awareness” (a concept that, naturally, often only seems to exist in most workplaces during Mental Health Awareness Week, before conveniently dematerialising).  

Plus, a bout of “unhappiness leave” in a team would act like a warning sign. If everyone’s off under the guise of various imaginary ailments, then it’s hard to see a pattern emerge: your boss could tell themselves that flu season is to blame for the fact that half their team is wiped out, for example, rather than overwork and exhaustion.  

Wellbeing measures in the workplace are too often overly sanitised and mistake random, one-off freebies for useful action. I don’t want someone coming into the office and offering head massages in a boardroom suffused with eau de Pret sandwiches. I don’t want a lunchtime yoga class that no one actually has time to attend, or to be pointed to an internal website that tells me to download the Headspace app for the millionth time. I’d much rather be able to benefit from a scheme that recognises that, yes, “unhappiness” can sometimes have a major impact on whether you can do your job effectively or not. A policy that doesn’t shy away from calling sadness what it is. Wouldn’t you?

How Ukraine’s war changed Oleksandr Usyk – and how it didn’t

As Oleksandr Usyk heard the words “and still”, he winced more than he had done under the impact of any of Anthony Joshua’s punches. While the Ukrainian’s heavy left hand was raised by the referee, his face contorted as he tried to trap the swell of tears. With his right, the world heavyweight champion reached over his head and hoisted his nation’s flag above his shoulders then dragged it down over his face – wishing to hide, for just one brief moment.

Moments later, in the refuge of his locker room in the Jeddah Superdome, an emotional Usyk was welcomed by messages from a unique set of friends and fans. “He received videos from the soldiers deep in the ground on the battlefield, who were watching his fight live on smartphones,” Usyk’s promoter and compatriot Alex Krassyuk tells The Independent, referencing their countrymen who were fighting Vladimir Putin’s Russian forces in Ukraine. “The guys on the frontline, they were sending Usyk words of support. This is something that cannot be expressed in words; the spirit he gives is motivation for the guys who are battling for the light. He is giving them incentive to live, fight for their homeland, struggle for freedom.”

Several months earlier, Usyk was standing with these very men, after Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine marked the latest and most significant development in a conflict that can be traced back to 2014. Usyk, urged by the soldiers he had served alongside, eventually left the frontline in Kyiv to return to his usual battlefield: the boxing ring, to begin training for a rematch with Joshua.

The 37-year-old’s clinic against the Briton in London, in 2021, was arguably his greatest triumph yet – in a career that had already seen the southpaw claim Olympic gold in the same city, before he became the first undisputed cruiserweight champion of the four-belt era. This rematch with Joshua, in Saudi Arabia, was more closely fought yet eclipsed Usyk’s first victory over his fellow Olympic champion. Having taken the unified heavyweight belts from “AJ” in their first meeting, this time Usyk retained the titles after surviving a late scare. Somehow, following a round in which he was at risk of being finished, Usyk reasserted his superiority, aggressively outboxing a bewildered Joshua. The Briton’s post-fight, in-ring meltdown conveyed the depth of his disorientation.

This August 2022 rematch, thanks to Usyk’s campaigning, was shown on free-to-air TV and YouTube in Ukraine, intended as a brief distraction from Russia’s onslaught. While the same set-up will not be in place on Saturday, Usyk’s long-awaited clash with Tyson Fury is likely to engender the same nationwide sentiment in Ukraine; the bout in Riyadh, to crown the first undisputed heavyweight champion in 24 years, will be a fleeting but welcome interruption to a ghastly routine in the under-siege country.

“[The reaction] will be something you can’t imagine, because Ukraine now is deep in war, deep in depression,” Krassyuk says over the phone, one week before Usyk and Fury defend their world titles and unbeaten records. “Every day, Russia attacks Ukraine with missiles, rockets, all kinds of weapons. For people who are depressed by all this, it will be a breath of fresh air when their compatriot – the guy who stands for Ukraine, helps Ukraine as much as he can – wins the crown of all the divisions. It will make him the most successful athlete in the history of boxing. God help him in the upcoming battle of his life.”

As Krassyuk says, Usyk has done what he can to aid his nation amid the ongoing conflict, establishing a charity to help victims of the war and, in a much different form of support, even wielding weapons.

“Every day I was on patrol, I would pray to the Lord: ‘Please don’t let anybody try to kill me,’” Usyk said in June 2022. “But also, ‘Please, God, don’t let me have to shoot any other human being,’ which I knew I would have to do if I felt any danger, or that my family’s lives were in jeopardy. It took me only one day of war to understand completely that everything I have, I can lose it all in just one second.”

That might never have felt more real than when Russian soldiers broke into Usyk’s house. “They did damage to create living space and stayed there for some days,” he recalled. In that moment, Usyk was more relatable than ever to his compatriots.

“As a man who is originally from a very simple neighbourhood and common family, he reached the highest heights just from hard work, patience, being goal-oriented and a very faithful and trustful person,” Krassyuk says. “I admire him like normal fans do. He has become a national hero, an example for new generations.”

It is a sentiment echoed by Tatiana Strelchuk, a Ukrainian barber in London. “We all know him very well, 100 per cent, as he fights for Ukraine and always shows that we are a decent country,” she says. “Ukrainians are the most powerful people, I’m very proud to be Ukrainian, and Usyk is the best of the best. I can’t wait to watch [Usyk vs Fury], I think everyone will watch. I was thinking of going to Saudi, too.”

Olena Skachko, a Ukrainian journalist based in London, concurs. “Usyk is an extraordinary figure. It is hard for me to define his exact place in people’s hearts, as I have friends who love sports and live by it, but other people’s attitudes are different… but Usyk is a national treasure for the country.

“And in my opinion, in light of current events, it is more important than ever to show Ukraine in a positive light, showing victories and significant achievements. It is important to cheer for our people. Ukrainians have to live their lives and carry on, even amid the risk of being killed.”

Usyk and Krassyuk have also carried on, in their own way, with the southpaw most recently fighting in August, when he stopped Daniel Dubois in front of thousands of Ukrainians in Poland.

Yet Krassyuk admits: “I can’t say I ‘managed’. I’m still in this, but when you are stuck in some circumstances, you make a choice. Either you sit and wait to get depressed, or you keep living. You keep doing things you used to do, putting goals in front of you, achieving results. Life goes on, unless the Lord decides otherwise. For Ukraine as well: Whatever happens, it happens for a reason.

“We have to be strong, we have to stand it, we have to overcome it. Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Deep in his heart, Usyk remains the same: the same man with all those extremely valuable human characteristics. No obstacles or hardships changed him for the worse.”

Yet Usyk has changed in other ways, as Krasyuk sees it.

“Before, he was a wise man. After the war started, he became an extremely wise man. He is a guy who keeps reading books instead of browsing the internet, he is a real family man – a great father, husband, son – and a patriot.”

For some Ukrainians, however, that final note requires an asterisk. Usyk was born in the Crimean city of Simferopol in 1987, when the peninsula was still part of the Soviet Union. Since Russia’s war with Ukraine began in 2014, and Russian president Putin annexed Crimea (officially part of Ukraine at the time), Usyk has frequently been questioned over the peninsula’s ownership.

After years of downplaying the question, Usyk ultimately answered: “Crimea belongs to God.”

Skachko highlights the moment as one in which perceptions of Usyk changed in some of his compatriots, who wanted a more pro-Ukraine answer. Yet Vladimir Konstantinov, a Crimean-Russian politician, wanted a more pro-Russian answer. As such, Usyk was stripped of the titles awarded to him by Crimea.

“When he said, ‘Crimea belongs to God,’ it was probably the 10th or 15th time he was asked the question,” Krassyuk explains. “The first time he was asked, he’d had just two fights, and it was an interview where he was wearing the yellow and blue tracksuit and had the traditional Ukrainian haircut. There was no hesitation with his answer. Then we had a press conference where he was asked the same question, and he said it again and again.

“In 2016, we had another press conference, and a TV station showed up to ask only one question. Usyk was so frustrated and tired of answering, so he said: ‘I’m not a parrot. I told it once. If your memory is weak, just watch the video. But still they tried, so he said: ‘It belongs to God, as everything around us belongs to him.’ That was his diplomatic answer.

“But trust me, this man is a real patriot, a real citizen of Ukraine. He loves Ukraine, he has Ukraine in his heart. The Ukrainian coat of arms is the trident, and as he used to say: The trident is tattooed on his heart.”

Usyk will wield no trident when he shares a ring with Fury, just the same two weapons that made him a national hero long before he picked up a gun for Ukraine. As missiles rain down, somehow a country at war will pause momentarily, watching Usyk throw hands as if Ukrainian lives depend on it.

The Usyk Foundation has launched a fundraiser to purchase 50 ambulances in support of Ukraine. The foundation will raffle off three pairs of boxing gloves signed by Oleksandr Usyk and an exclusive collector’s box from the night of Usyk vs Fury. For every 5 USD/EUR/GBP donation, donors will receive one ticket; the more tickets they acquire, the greater their chances of winning. The donor who contributes the most will receive a box containing a tracksuit and a T-shirt signed by Usyk.You can participate here. The campaign will continue until 18 May (10pm BST).

Off the beaten track in Costa Dorada

Blessed with swathes of golden sandy beaches between sea and mountains, Costa Dorada has an abundance of landscape to explore.

Jet2holidays makes it even easier to land your perfect active trip to Costa Dorada. Flying from 10 UK airports in 2024 and 11 in 2025, they provide package holidays you can trust and look after you every step of the way, with hotel, flights, free return transfers, 22kg baggage and 10kg hand luggage included – giving plenty of space to pack in the hiking boots and water shoes.

Here, we round up some of the best ways to immerse yourself in the region’s grand nature.

With roads being smooth and often car-free, Costa Dorada is an ideal destination for biking. There’s the Serra del Montsant mountain range for pushing those uphill challenges or coastal paths for smooth-sailing along the rugged cliff edges and golden sand beaches. The route from Falset can take in the lush wineries and rolling vineyards the area is known for. Start from this mountainous village and follow the road to the village of Margalef near the mountain edge before heading back to Falset. Or to take in the sea and mountains, start in the coastal resort of Salou before winding up the steep hairpin bends of La Mussara mountain. Make your way back to the sea at the coastal resort of Cambrils – known as the gastronomic hub of this region – for some well-deserved tapas.

There’s an abundance of coastal paths that navigate around the more secluded parts of the shores here. Camino de Ronda in Salou stretches for 6.5 km, curving in a U-shape along rocky coast and over golden sand beaches. The route can be stretched out to around 9km to cover the coastal path of Salou by starting in Vila-seca, La Pineda. The route runs between sea and mountains, with 23 viewpoints dotted along the way. It passes by plenty of places to stop for a spot of lunch with views over the Mediterranean Sea, too. If you want active pit stops along your walk, there are places along the route that offer up water sports.

Take a day trip out to the coastal city of Tarragona to explore its Roman ruins. The city was once a popular destination for Roman emperors, with the Amphitheatre dating back almost 2,000 years. There are other ruins along the coast to explore, with Roman, Spanish, Arabic and Moorish history weaved into the architecture. While in the port city, check out the Roman tombs and walled Medieval Old Town, before strolling along the harbour with its small fishing boats and pastel-hued houses.

Costa Dorada has an impressive total of 26 Blue Flag beaches, recognised for their calm, safe waters, cleanliness and environmental management. They’re particularly family-friendly, with resorts Salou, Cambrils and La Pineda being ‘Certified Family Destinations’ with dedicated facilities for families during the summer. Yet there are still many beaches that remain quiet and more secluded. Playa de la Pineda Platja is the main beach in the coastal resort of Vila-seca, La Pineda, yet remains fairly quiet. It also benefits from being close to Aquopolis Water Park with its giant slides and pools. While not being Blue Flag-accredited, Playa Llarga in Salou is outside of the city centre (but close enough to attractions like PortAventura amusement park), surrounded by a small pine forest that immerses you in nature.

The towering peaks of Montserrat National Park are one of the greatest symbols of Catalonia. The mountainous landscape is peppered with grottos and caves, while birds of prey soar above in the sky. While offering untouched nature, it overlooks one of the best wine regions in the area, with vineyards and wine cellars to visit. Head here for a full day hike or visit one of the four mountain villages in the area for a gentle walk. Elsewhere closer to ground level, Parc Sama Botanical Gardens in the coastal resort of Cambrils has an abundance of forest and foliage, with 1,500 species of flora and fauna. There’s also a lake with a canal and waterfall to stroll around.

To really win voters, Starmer must discover a radical edge

Heir to Blair” is a title to which many politicians have laid claim, not always with conspicuous success; but even if it is unspoken, it is clear that Sir Keir Starmer is making a rather more credible attempt to emulate Sir Tony Blair’s achievements than most of the imitators down the years.

Sir Keir’s latest staging post in what he hopes will be a decade of power is some key pledges for the initial stages of that administration – six “missions” and five “first steps”, all of them, no doubt, forged in the white-hot crucible of the marginal-seat focus group. They are fairly familiar to anyone paying much attention, and all are to be put on a New Labour-style pledge card.

They are unexceptionable, if not laudable – just like the ones in the Blair era. Few voters will want to quibble with shorter NHS waiting lists, recruiting 8,500 teachers, and more neighbourhood police officers to deal with anti-social behaviour. The two new bodies to be set up almost immediately after a Labour election win – Great British Energy and the Border Security Command – may well do some good, and certainly not any harm.

Can Labour’s new deal for workers satisfy the unions and business?

For a movement literally founded to promote the interests of working people, the Labour Party has found itself troubled by the question of workers’ rights and the power of trade unions to a remarkable degree. Today, as they will doubtless continue to do over the coming months in the run-up to the general election, the party’s leaders in parliament are negotiating with the Labour Trade Union Organisation (LTUO) in an effort to decide what Labour’s next manifesto should say about employment and industrial relations law.

The LTUO is the umbrella body that represents the 11 trade unions that are affiliated with the party and fund much of its activities. It is led by Mick Whelan, the general secretary of the train drivers’ union, Aslef.

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