Start Your Day Here: The State Of The Pandemic, The UN's Concern With AI And Other Top Stories

Published September 16, 2021 at 7:34 AM EDT
J Balvin performs in white sunglasses and a patterned purple and green shirt. He has tattoos on his arms.
Ferhat Zupcevic/Getty Images for Guess
Getty Images Europe
J Balvin performs on stage at a concert on July 26, 2019 in Istanbul, Turkey. The reggaeton sensation is the first artist featured in NPR's "El Tiny" concert series, premiering today at noon ET.

Good morning,

Here are some of the stories we're following today:

Pandemic update: The state of the pandemic is still grim, but there is a glimmer of hope. Here are the latest numbers.

U.N.'s warning: The United Nations' human rights chief is calling for a moratorium on artificial intelligence systems because of their potential impact on human rights.

El Tiny: NPR is kicking off Hispanic Heritage Month with a special spinoff of the Tiny Desk Concert series. First up is a video of Colombian reggaeton artist J Balvin. Here's why we're excited.

🎧 Also on Up First, our daily podcast, the U.S. is sharing its nuclear submarine technology with Australia.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

(Dana Farrington, Scott Neuman, Nell Clark, Chris Hopkins, Lilly Quiroz and Manuela López Restrepo)


3,000 French Health Care Workers Have Been Suspended For Not Getting A COVID-19 Shot

Posted September 16, 2021 at 11:07 AM EDT
Medical staff and patients are seen from the hallway of the COVID-19 intensive care unit at the AP-HP Georges Pompidou European Hospital in Paris in April.
Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images
Medical staff members tend to patients infected with COVID-19 in the COVID intensive care unit at the AP-HP Georges Pompidou European Hospital in Paris in April.

France’s health minister has said that thousands of health care workers across the country have been suspended without pay for failing to get a required COVID-19 vaccine.

"Some 3,000 suspensions were notified yesterday to employees at health centers and clinics who have not yet been vaccinated," Olivier Véran told France’s RTL radio on Thursday, according to a France24 translation.

French regulations set a Sept. 15 deadline for health care employees to have at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine and show a negative coronavirus test as a condition for working, unless they have an exemption for health reasons or because they’ve recovered from COVID-19. By Oct. 16, health care workers must show they are fully vaccinated.

Defending the decision to suspend those who did not meet the deadline, Véran said that “the continuity of care, the security of care, and the quality of care were assured yesterday in all hospitals and health-care facilities” in the country.

Several dozen employees resigned rather than meet the vaccine requirement, he said.

Despite the suspensions, “continued health care is assured,” he said, noting that France has some 2.7 million health workers.

Véran said that most of the suspensions were mainly support staff and only “very few nurses.” He said most of them were “temporary.”


The Pandemic May Have Hit A Peak, But Upcoming Colder Months Will Be A Test

Posted September 16, 2021 at 9:57 AM EDT

One in every 500 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19. Here are more sobering numbers from NPR health correspondent Rob Stein:

  • About 150,000 people are still catching the virus every day
  • More than 96,000 are hospitalized
  • More than 1,800 are dying every day

“That's still not nearly as bad as things got during the darkest days of last winter,” Stein tells Morning Edition, “But it's still really awful. And no one thought the pandemic would still be taking this kind of toll, especially so many months after we thought the vaccines would be like the cavalry riding to our rescue.”

But he says there is a glimmer of hope: “It looks like the surge may have hit a peak and could finally be starting to subside, at least for now. The rate of new infections may have plateaued over the last few weeks.”

Why is that? Stein says the spread has started to slow in the states with the lowest vaccination rates that have been hardest hit, particularly in the South. But doctors are keeping an eye on states up north now, as temperatures drop and people head back indoors.

But: “The relatively high rates of vaccination in those ... northern states could be enough to keep it from getting really bad, like last winter. But just how bad depends on what people do,” Stein says. “Do enough people finally get vaccinated? Do they wear their masks enough? Do they stay away from crowds?”

More resources from NPR's Science team:

Urban Astronomy

If You're In Pittsburgh: Look Up. The Sky Might Be Starrier Soon

Posted September 16, 2021 at 9:30 AM EDT
Dark trees can be seen below a starry night sky. The sky looks yellow in some places and the milky way is clear.
Bill Ingalls/AP
In this 30 second cameras exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, in Spruce Knob, West Virginia.

Pittsburgh is fighting to bring back the night sky.

Over 40 years of living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania astronomer Diane Turnshek has witnessed the stars where she lives gradually fade away as they were drowned out by ever-brighter city lights.

“When I grew up in New England, you could just walk outside, look up, and see the Milky Way,” Turnshek tells NPR’s Morning Edition.

“But when I arrived in Pittsburgh, the sky had started to decline in quality.”
Diane Turnshek

At the time, she says, her astronomy students at Carnegie Mellon University were familiar with the Milky Way. But today, “I have to explain what the Milky Way is, describe what it looks like.”

Last week, however, Pittsburgh’s city council decided to try to do something about that, passing a “dark sky” ordinance. The new regulation is aimed at combatting light pollution, which could not only make for starrier skies but also increase energy efficiency by reducing unnecessary lighting.

Light pollution affects more than just stargazers. It also “can negatively impact the mental and physical health of nearby neighbors, visibility for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians as well as habitats for plants, animals and birds,”the city said in a news release.

Mayor William Peduto introduced the legislation last month, joined by the National Aviary, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, and the Pittsburg Zoo and PPG Aquarium.

The ordinance will require newly installed or retrofitted streetlights, newly constructed and renovated park spaces and playgrounds as well as newly constructed and renovated city-owned buildings all adhere to new regulations, which include such things as shielded fixtures that direct illumination to the ground, where it is needed, instead of into the sky.

The city worked in cooperation with the International Dark Sky Association, or IDA, an organization that has been working toward such local ordinances for decades.

Peduto and the IDA are hoping Pittsburgh can lead the way for other cities.

"Pittsburgh is the first city to take a principles-based approach to legislation, clearly aligning with IDA’s values-centered approach to lighting,” said Ruskin Hartley, executive director of the association.

The local legislation "presents an opportunity to adopt policy that is easy to understand, implement, and enforce,” Hartley said. “We foresee this approach serving as a model for other municipalities looking to effectively reduce light pollution."


European Official: We Have A 'Moral Duty' To Help Afghan Refugees

Posted September 16, 2021 at 9:26 AM EDT
European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson walks surrounded by flags at the European Council building in Brussels.
Virginia Mayo/AP
European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson arrives for a meeting at the European Council building in Brussels on Aug. 31.

European Commissioner Ylva Johansson believes Europe has an obligation to help Afghan refugees.

“We have a lot of people that have been fighting for our values and done that in a real good way in Afghanistan. And it's our moral duty now to do everything we can to protect them and evacuate them to a safe home,” Johansson told NPR’s Rachel Martin.

Johansson, who handles migration and home affairs for the bloc, has been working to reach a deal, but the 27 EU member nations have yet to agree.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen criticized the holdouts in her annual State of the Union address, saying that they must work together on a solution.

“This ultimately comes down to a question of trust. Trust between member states. Trust for Europeans that migration can be managed. Trust that Europe will always live up to its enduring duty to the most vulnerable and most in need,” von der Leyen said.

Johansson believes part of that mistrust stems from 2015, when more than a million people came to Europe seeking asylum. Many were from Syria.

“We were not prepared and we reacted too late,” Johansson said. “We are much better prepared and we should not wait until people have been smuggled and [are] suffering and coming to the EU’s external borders. The best way to avoid that is to avoid a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.”

She says politicians need to step back from “dramatizing” the issue of migration.

“Migration is normal,” she said. “Migration has always been here, will always be here. Of course, we have challenges, but they are manageable. And if you start panicking and being afraid of migration, then you will not be able to manage in a humane and orderly way.”

NPR Exclusive
Hispanic Heritage Month

J Balvin's 'El Tiny' Concert Drops At Noon. Here's Why We Can't Wait

Posted September 16, 2021 at 8:40 AM EDT
J Balvin adjusts his red sunglasses. He is in a multicolored Guess brand jersey.
Colombian musician and composer José Alvaro Osorio Balvín aka J Balvin poses during a photo call at the Universal Music offices in Mexico City on March 3, 2020.

These next couple of weeks, NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts are getting a makeover for Hispanic Heritage Month. NPR Music has teamed up with NPR podcast Alt. Latino to present “El Tiny,” a concert series that will feature all Latinx artists. Up first is Colombian reggaeton sensation J Balvin.

His El Tiny concert will be released at noon ET (and by the way, he performed it floating on a barge in the middle of the East River in New York City!). You can listen here at noon and follow along with music lovers from across the world.

But before you listen, here’s why we’re extra excited for this one:

Let’s start with the artist himself

You may be wondering: Is it J BAHL-vin or J bahl-VEEN? As a Spanish speaker growing up in the states — and likely embracing my Latinidad more and more later in life — I first adopted the English way of saying his name. But regardless of how you say his name, J Balvin wants you to also know his real name: José — it’s the title of his latest album.

In his Amazon documentary, The Boy From Medellín, the singer says J Balvin is his alter ego and José is his truest self. Some of the songs in his latest album, like “7 de Mayo” and “La Familia," get to this more personal side of him and we hear themes of gratitude.

His music resonates globally

While these songs aren’t the typical reggaeton hits like “Mi Gente” or “Ginza” that the mainstream audience might know him for, there are still plenty of other danceable beats. It’s difficult to choose, but some of my top songs from this album are “Una Nota,” “Qué Más Pues?” and “Que Locura.”

J Balvin has stood by his word to keep true to his Colombian roots by only singing in Spanish. There are only two songs in the album that include English lyrics (“Otra Noche Sin Ti” ft. Khalid and “UN DIA” ft. Dua Lipa, Bad Bunny and Tainy.) Balvin acknowledges that people don’t need to know what he’s singing. "I think it's the beat and the melodies and the love that we put into the music; the good vibes” —Balvin says that's what attracts people to this music.

Need some music to tide you over until his concert drops at noon? Our friends at NPR Music have got you covered with this playlist specially made for fans of J Balvin.


Observing The Jewish Holiday Yom Kippur

Posted September 16, 2021 at 8:21 AM EDT

The holiest day of the Jewish year is underway. Yom Kippur, or the "day of atonement," caps off the high holy days. Here are some images of how Yom Kippur and the preceding days have been observed in Israel.

For more on the history and meaning of this time of year, Wisconsin Public Radio spoke with Judaic studies professor Deborah Dash Moore. She describes the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a time of repentance and making amends, with the goal of having a clean slate to start the new year after Yom Kippur. Listen to that conversation here.

🎧 WRTI in Philadelphia has this playlist for an uplifting holiday season.


U.N. Warns That AI Poses A Threat To Human Rights

Posted September 16, 2021 at 8:03 AM EDT
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet clasps her hands at a podium during a climate event in 2019.
Ricardo Rubio/Europa Press via Getty Images
Europa Press
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, speaks at a climate event in Madrid in 2019. A recent report of hers warns of the threats that AI can pose to human rights.

The United Nations’ human rights chief has called on member states to put a moratorium on the sale and use of artificial intelligence systems until the “negative, even catastrophic” risks they pose can be addressed.

The remarks by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet were in reference to a new report on the subject released in Geneva.

The report warned of AI’s use as a forecasting and profiling tool, saying the technology could have an impact on “rights to privacy, to a fair trial, to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention and the right to life.”

The report, and Bachelet’s comments, follow the recent revelation that widespread use was being made of spyware, known as Pegasus, to target thousands of phone numbers and dozens of devices belonging to international journalists, human rights activists and heads of state.

Bachelet acknowledged that AI “can be a force for good, helping societies overcome some of the great challenges of our times,” but suggested that the harms it could bring outweigh the positives. But she also warned of an "unprecedented level of surveillance across the globe by state and private actors,” that she said is "incompatible" with human rights.

“The higher the risk for human rights, the stricter the legal requirements for the use of AI technology should be,” she said.

Upon the release of the report, Tim Engelhardt, UNHRC’s human rights officer, rule of law and democracy section, called the situation regarding AI “dire” and said it has “not improved over the years but has become worse.”

The document includes an assessment of profiling, automated decision-making and other machine-learning technologies.


USA Gymnasts Say Abuse By Their Former Doctor Was Supported By The System

Posted September 16, 2021 at 7:33 AM EDT

Four elite gymnasts testified in a Senate hearing about the abuse they faced from former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. They also faulted investigators, including the FBI, for mishandling the case.

Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, McKaylan Maroney and Maggie Nichols each shared their experiences in Wednesday's testimony, including feeling dismissed and undermined by the people who should have been protecting them. They also described how the impact of the abuse and the aftermath stay with them to this day.

It is very difficult testimony, but you can read a summary of what was said here. Watch a clip of Biles saying she blames not just Nassar but also “an entire system that allowed his abuse.”


Watch The Launch Of Four Civilians Aboard SpaceX Inspiration4

Posted September 16, 2021 at 7:33 AM EDT

The first-ever all-civilian crew has successfully made orbit aboard a SpaceX rocket where the four astronauts will spend three days before a return to Earth.

You can see the final moments of countdown and the launch starting at about 4:17:00 on the video.

Jared Isaacman, the billionaire founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments, is the commander of the mission, known as Inspiration4, and paid for himself and seats for the rest of his crew: Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital; Chris Sembroski, an aerospace data engineer; and pilot and geoscientist Sian Proctor.

The four lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida just before 11p.m. ET aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket inside their Crew Dragon capsule.

The mission is pushing the boundaries of commercialization of space and space tourism even further after the successful flights of billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos. In July, Branson reached the edge of space aboard his Virgin Galactic company’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle. Within days, Bezos, the founder of Amazon, followed suit in his Blue Origin rocket.