New Zealand welcomes more international tourists. Ferdinand Marcos Jr set to be Philippine president. US abortion rights at risk as Supreme Court re-examines Roe v Wade.

By Jonathan Pearlman.

Ukraine evacuees who were trapped underground reach safety

Evacuees from Mariupol on bus to safety
Evacuees, including some from the Azovstal plant in Mariupol, arrive in in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, this week.
Credit: Chris McGrath / Getty Images

Great power rivalry

Ukraine: The first evacuees from the steel plant in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol made it to safety this week after sheltering for two months in bunkers and tunnels beneath the sprawling complex.

Valentina Sytnykova, a 70-year-old who had lived underground with her son and 10-year-old granddaughter, told Reuters: “We had said goodbye to life, we didn’t think anyone knew we were there.”

The United Nations said on Tuesday that it had evacuated 101 people, though up to 2000 soldiers and about 200 civilians are still believed to be underground. The Azovstal plant is the final holdout in the city, which, if captured, would allow Russian forces to connect separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine to Crimea, seized in 2014.

Ukraine accused Russia of shelling the plant despite an agreed ceasefire. Russia claimed Ukrainian troops used the ceasefire to move to new firing positions. About 100,000 civilians remain in the city, which had 450,000 residents before the war.

The United States said this week it believes the Kremlin plans to annex the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have declared breakaway states. Russia is also believed to be planning to annex Kherson, a southern city it occupies. A US official said “highly credible” intelligence showed Moscow plans to stage fraudulent referendums in the areas in mid-May.

European states this week revealed plans to phase out imports of Russian oil in a bid to “break the Russian war machine”, as European Council president Charles Michel put it. Germany has drastically cut its dependence on Russian oil, which now accounts for 12 per cent of its imports, down from 35 per cent before the war.

Russia’s gross domestic product is expected to shrink by 11 per cent this year.

Russian billionaire Oleg Tinkov recently described the war as “insane”. In response, he revealed this week, the Kremlin forced him to sell his holding in the bank he founded for “kopecks”. “I have nothing left in Russia,” he wrote on Instagram. “It is a pity that my country has finally slipped into archaism, paternalism and servility. There is no Russia, it was all gone.” 

The neighbourhood

New Zealand: On Monday, international visitors returned to New Zealand for the first time in more than two years after the government ended one of the world’s strictest Covid-19 border closures.

Travellers from more than 50 countries – including the US and Japan – have been allowed to enter if they are vaccinated and have tested negative. Restrictions are due to end for other visitors from October.

“We are now open for business,” Tourism Minister Stuart Nash told 1News. “We’re not quite back at normal, but this is another step towards normal.”

New Zealand was one of the last countries to try to eliminate Covid-19 but eventually began lifting restrictions after the Omicron strain proved impossible to suppress.  Australian travellers have been allowed to enter since mid-April.

On Tuesday, authorities in New Zealand recorded 9109 new Covid-19 cases, down from a peak of more than 20,000 daily cases in early March. There were 481 infected patients in hospital and 20 deaths.

Before the pandemic, New Zealand received almost four million tourists a year, accounting for more than 5 per cent of its gross domestic product.

Democracy in retreat

The Philippines: Ferdinand Marcos Jr, whose father ruled as a brutal dictator in the Philippines in the 1970s and 1980s, is on track to win a landslide victory in presidential elections to be held on Monday.

Marcos, a 64-year-old former governor and senator, has pledged to unify the country. But his candidacy has been divisive, especially as he has attempted to dismiss his family’s grim record of corruption and human rights abuses. His father, Ferdinand E. Marcos, ruled from 1965 to 1986, plundering an estimated $US10 billion from the country and imposing martial law in 1972 that led to the deaths and torture of thousands of people. He was ousted following the 1986 People Power Revolution.

In recent decades, the family, which returned from exile in the 1990s, has tried to restore its reputation with social media campaigns that have used disinformation to paint the dictatorship as a “golden era”. The famous luxury shoe collection of Ferdinand’s wife, Imelda, for instance, usually seen as a symbol of excess, has been recast on social media as gifts from world leaders that show the family’s high international esteem.

Marcos has dismissed attacks on his and his family’s criminal past as “fake news” and campaigned through TikTok and Facebook, where much of the audience has no memory of his father’s rule. His popularity has been fuelled by discontent with poverty and inequality.

A Pulse Asia opinion poll on Monday found 56 per cent of voters support Marcos, followed by 23 per cent for his main opponent, vice-president Leni Robredo, and 7 per cent for former boxing champion Manny Pacquiao.

Marcos is set to replace Rodrigo Duterte, who by law can serve only one term. Duterte’s rule has been marked by his bloody “war on drugs”, which has led to the deaths of an estimated 8000 to 30,000 people. Marcos’s running mate is Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, the mayor of Davao City.

Spotlight: Overturning Roe v Wade

United States: Until this week, Samuel Alito Jr, a soft-spoken conservative US Supreme Court justice who opposes gay marriage and Covid-19 restrictions and supports gun rights, was best known for mouthing the words “not true” during Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address. (Obama, incidentally, was warning that a recent decision by the court could allow foreign entities to influence elections.)

But Alito is now set to radically alter US legal history and the rights of American women by writing the judgement that will overturn Roe v Wade, the 1973 decision that protects women’s right to an abortion.

A draft of Alito’s ruling, which was reportedly endorsed by four other Republican-appointed judges (three of whom were appointed by Donald Trump), was leaked to Politico on Monday. “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start,” the draft says. “Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences.”

The judgement would end national abortion protections. Women will be banned or restricted from having abortions in at least 20 states, mostly in the south. Research has found about half of the women in these states who wanted to terminate a pregnancy would instead give birth, including mainly poorer women who cannot afford to travel interstate for an abortion.

The leaked decision prompted protests outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, where people chanted “Abortion is healthcare” and “Hey hey, ho ho, sexist fascists got to go”.

A statement by Democratic congress leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi said: “These conservative Justices, who are in no way accountable to the American people, have lied to the U.S. Senate, ripped up the Constitution and defiled …  the Supreme Court’s reputation.”

Chief Justice John Roberts, who leads the nine-member bench, launched an investigation into the leak, which he said was a “betrayal”. Alito’s 98-page draft said the judges should not be affected by “extraneous influences such as concern about the public’s reaction to our work”.

Neal Katyal, an academic and Supreme Court litigator, said the draft “says it is written by Alito and definitely sounds like him”. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2022 as "Evacuees who were trapped underground reach safety".

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