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UK cost-of-living crisis pushes mothers to the brink

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UK cost-of-living crisis pushes mothers to the brink

At an east London church on a bitterly cold winter’s day, Beautine Wester-Okiya picks her way through boxes of donated baby clothes, toys and other assorted items destined for local people battered by the UK’s cost-of-living crisis.

It’s the frontline of something the special needs nurse could never have imagined before — dire poverty in a developed Western nation.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life here in the UK,” Wester-Okiya, who came to Britain 40 years ago from Malaysia, told AFP.

It’s a similar story of economic hardship 140 kilometres north (85 miles) north in the central English city of Coventry.

In a huge warehouse, employees of the charity Feed the Hungry pack emergency food supplies not just for children in Nicaragua, Ukraine and Africa but also families just a few miles down the road.

Britain is in the midst of the biggest surge in prices in decades, from fuel and heating to food and housing costs.

The crisis has put food banks that have already become a feature of modern British life under even greater pressure, prompting a drive to branch out into offering other services from baby clothes to help applying for welfare payments.

‘Suicidal mums’

“We have suicidal mums… we have kids who just managed to come through the pandemic only to find this terrible cost-of-living crisis,” said Wester-Okiya.

“Broken mums, broken homes, broken families. The mums are depressed, the kids are crying all the time.”

For the past two-and-a-half years the Hackney Children & Baby Bank has been flat out coordinating help for the needy.

Set up during the pandemic, it has repeatedly swung into action to deal with crisis after crisis, from migrants who have arrived in small boats with nothing to homeless Afghans and Ukrainians.

But many of those in need of help now are people from the UK who’ve never before faced such economic pain.

“We’re no longer talking of just migrants, we are talking of middle-class people having to sell their house, people like teachers,” said Wester-Okiya.

Faced with a constantly growing crisis — the UK now has more than 2,500 food banks — the baby bank has expanded its operations to include older children too.

Toiletries are in particularly high demand.

“One teen, 14 years old, wrote a terrible poem about how she’s bullied because she’s not able to wash,” said Wester-Okiya, adding how the girl described her mother cutting a bar of soap into four and giving each family member a small piece.

Next meal

In Coventry, a city once home to a thriving car manufacturing industry, the “crazy” cost of everything has led single mother-of-four Hannah Simpson to visit a food bank for the first time.

Simpson, 29, whose youngest is just 12 months old, has been skipping meals to make sure her children can eat.

But that has inevitably taken its toll, leaving her feeling “tired and drained”.

“I try and hide my struggles from them… but my daughter did say to school the other day, ‘I’m worried because mummy hasn’t been eating dinner with us and there’s not enough food to go round’,” she said.

“It’s a lot of stress. I’ve got four children, I’ve got to manage, keep on top of and I’ve got to worry where I’m going to get our next meal from.”

A 50-year-old woman who gave her name as Tracy said the food bank has been a “lifesaver” since she began coming in November.

“My cupboards were completely bare, I’ve been having one meal a day, just waiting until my tea every day,” she said.

Faced with a crisis that is only getting worse, Feed the Hungry, which runs Coventry’s 14 food banks as well as its international operation, has launched a range of projects aimed at helping people to cope long term.

A project to teach people to cook and make the best of what they have available is under development.

‘Sold everything’

A “Pathfinder” project offers people the chance to buy food worth £25 ($30) for a small fee, giving them back some choice and “dignity” while at the same time offering them help to access grants and unclaimed welfare payments.

“It’s working, the only issue that we have is that demand far outstrips what we can actually deliver,” said project manager Hugh McNeill.

People who come through the charity’s doors have “no financial resilience whatsoever, they’ve borrowed and they’ve sold everything they’ve got”, he added.

“You can go right round the country and it’s exactly the same in every city and every town.”

For Wester-Okiya, hopes of building resilience are a long way off.

“My phone never stops,” she said, waving a smartphone buzzing constantly with messages and pleas for help.

“I’ve lived here for 40 years and as a nurse I interact a lot with families but last year was terrible and I fear for the next three months.”

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South Korea trainee doctors stage walkout against medical school quotas

South Korea trainee doctors stage walkout against medical school quotas

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South Korea trainee doctors stage walkout against medical school quotas

More than 1,600 trainee doctors in South Korea’s major hospitals staged a walkout on Tuesday to protest against a government plan to admit more students to medical schools, stoking fears of delays to surgical operations and patient treatment.

The government wants to boost medical school admissions by 2,000 from the 2025 academic year, against a current annual figure of about 3,000, and eventually add 10,000 more by 2035.

In protest, about 6,400 of the 13,000 doctors and interns at large hospitals handed in resignations and some 1,630 of them had left by 11 pm on Monday, the health ministry said.

Adding medical school places is key to improving access to basic healthcare in remote areas and developing cutting-edge technologies, President Yoon Suk Yeol told a cabinet meeting.

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“It is a task of the times that can no longer be delayed,” he added.

The industrial action came despite a government order for the doctors to stay at work, and major hospitals said they were altering surgery schedules and patient appointments.

Park Ki-joo, 65, said the walkout forced him to stay overnight in Seoul with his 9-year-old daughter, who was due for neck surgery at a major hospital.

“I don’t live here but now have to get a place to stay,” Park, a resident of the northern town of Cherwon, told Reuters.

“But I’m more worried it could take even longer for her to get treated.”

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Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, who had pleaded with doctors not to take people’s lives and health hostage, ordered emergency measures such as the use of telemedicine, more operations at public hospitals and the opening up of military clinics.

About 76% of South Koreans back the plan for more medical students, a Gallup Korea poll showed last week, amid concerns about an acute shortage of doctors for paediatrics, emergency units and clinics outside the greater Seoul area.

South Korea’s population of 52 million had 2.6 doctors per 1,000 people in 2022, far below the average of 3.7 for countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

But doctors and medical student groups say there are already sufficient physicians and an increase in numbers could lead to unnecessary medical procedures and undermine the finances of the national health insurance plan.

They have also criticised the government for failing to consult and for “demonising” existing doctors.

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Park Dan, head of the Korea Interns and Residents Association, said on Facebook he submitted his resignation on Monday because of what he called the government’s “messy policy”.

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Chinese tourists flock to Southeast Asia as overseas travel bounces back

Chinese tourists flock to Southeast Asia as overseas travel bounces back

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Chinese tourists flock to Southeast Asia as overseas travel bounces back

Chinese travellers flocked to tourist hot-spots across Asia over the Lunar New Year break, with visitor numbers and spending in destinations including Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia exceeding pre-COVID levels.

Visa-free access for Chinese tourists to the Southeast Asia countries boosted traffic and signalled a robust revival in travel since Beijing lifted strict COVID restrictions in early 2023 that had all but shut China’s borders for three years.

The increase also provides a welcome relief to countries whose tourism industries rely on the Chinese and their spending for growth, although the outlook for a sustained recovery in overseas travel is overshadowed by a sluggish mainland economy and volatile financial markets that have seen consumers tighten their belts at home.

“Despite the macroeconomic headwinds, we believe Chinese citizens are still willing to spend on travel-related experiences … we think travel-related spending could continue to outpace this overall domestic consumption,” HSBC said in a research note.

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Bookings to Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia combined jumped more than 30% from Feb. 10-17 compared with 2019, according to travel website operator Trip.com, with Chinese visitors to Hong Kong, Macau, Japan and South Korea also increasing.

The holiday in 2024 lasted for eight days, one day more than the Lunar New year break in 2019.

Reflecting the boost from visa waivers, hotel bookings for Bangkok tripled over the period from Feb. 10-13 year-on-year, while those for Singapore jumped nine-fold, according to travel platform LY.com.

Spending in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia combined on the Chinese mobile payment platform Alipay increased 7.5% in the period from Feb. 9-12 from 2019 levels and nearly 7-fold from last year, Alipay said.

However, overall consumer spending only recovered to 82% of levels four years ago, the company said.

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MIDDLE EAST SURGE

As Chinese scour for new adventures, the Middle East proved a popular Lunar New Year destination, with travel to Saudi Arabia up more than nine-fold from 2019 levels and bookings to United Arab Emirates climbing 60%, Trip.com said.

The gambling hub of Macau, the only place in China where citizens can legally gamble in casinos, recorded a surge in Chinese tourists with more than a million visiting over the holiday and average hotel occupancy rates reaching 95%, according to official data.

The jump in tourists bodes well for some of the world’s largest casino operators in the former Portuguese territory, including Sands China and Wynn Macau.

JP Morgan said in a note it expected daily gross gaming revenues for the peak of the holiday to hit $124 million for the first time in more than four years – higher than the $112 million generated during the October 2023 Golden Week holiday.

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Mass gaming rates were forecast to have reached 120% of pre-COVID levels, it said, adding that it expects February gross gaming revenues to rise by at least 80% year-on-year to $2.36 billion, the highest in more than four years.

Across the border in Hong Kong, leader John Lee said on Tuesday more than 1.2 million Chinese tourists visited the city over Lunar New Year and overall hotel occupancy rates reached 90% in the first few days. Around 1,980 group tours from mainland China visited Hong Kong during the holiday.

South Korea’s Justice Ministry said more than 114,000 Chinese visitors entered the country during the holiday, up 4% from 2019, while some travel agents noted tourists were increasingly opting to travel on their own rather than in groups, which meant fewer organised trips to mega-stores.

“With drops in the number of group tourists, we don’t get to see Chinese tourists carrying big shopping bags anymore,” an official at a travel agency in Seoul told Reuters, requesting not to be named as he is not authorized to speak to media.

In Japan, department store operator Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings said that through to Feb. 14 “duty-free sales were significantly higher than the previous year, partly due to the Chinese New Year”.

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A shift in holiday tastes was reflected in some data as travellers sought more experience-based trips, with Alipay reporting Chinese tourists globally spent 70% more on food and beverages compared with pre-COVID levels.

Trip.com said overseas car rentals on its platform jumped 53% compared to 2019 and tickets for scenic experiences abroad soared more than 130%. 

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TikTok violates Indonesian in-app transactions ban, says minister

TikTok violates Indonesian in-app transactions ban, says minister

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TikTok violates Indonesian in-app transactions ban, says minister

Chinese short video app TikTok is still violating Indonesia’s rule that bans in-app transactions, a cabinet minister said on Tuesday, after it took control of the country’s biggest e-commerce platform to restart its online shopping business.

TikTok had been forced to close its relatively new e-commerce service, TikTok Shop, in Indonesia after the country banned online shopping on social media platforms last year, citing the need to protect smaller merchants and users’ data.

Indonesian tech conglomerate GoTo said last month that TikTok, owned by China’s ByteDance, had completed a deal agreed in December to buy 75.01% of Tokopedia for $840 million.

Teten Masduki, the Indonesian minister for small-medium enterprises (SMEs), who spoke frequently against TikTok Shop prior to last year’s ban, told reporters that TikTok still had not complied with the regulation.

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“The trade minister has to reprimand TikTok so that it complies with the regulation, if not then … the government’s authority is undermined,” he said.

A TikTok representative in Indonesia did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

The trade ministry said it was still considering how best to respond to the issue.

TikTok said last year it intended to invest billions of dollars in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, the region’s biggest economy. 

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