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Empty shelves or unaffordable food: Tunisia’s crisis deepens

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(AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisians have been hit with soaring food prices and shortages of basic staples in recent weeks, threatening to turn simmering discontent in the North African country — the cradle of the Arab Spring protests — into larger turmoil.

Sugar, vegetable oil, rice and even bottled water periodically disappear from supermarkets and grocery stores. People stand in line for hours for these food essentials that have long been subsidized and are now increasingly available in rations only. When they do appear on the shelves, many people cannot afford to pay the staggering price for them.

“I came to shop and found people fighting to buy and the prices were very high,” said shopper Amina Hamdi, 63, despairing at trying to buy basic goods.

“It is not possible to live without food,” said Aicha during a recent shopping trip to the fish and meat market in Tunis. “We can live without furniture, construction material, but we have to eat.” She only gave her first name for fear of persecution by police for speaking out.

The government has blamed speculators, black market hoarders and the war in Ukraine, but economic experts say the government’s own budget crisis, and its inability to negotiate a long-sought loan from the International Monetary Fund, have added to Tunisia’s troubles.

Fights sometimes break out at food market queues, and scattered protests and sporadic clashes with police over rising prices and shortages have occurred around the country. In a suburb of the capital, Tunis, a young itinerant fruit vendor recently killed himself after police seized the scales he used to weigh his wares.

His act of desperation revived memories of the 2010 self-immolation of another Tunisian vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, which prompted protests that led to the ouster of long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and provoked similar uprisings around the Arab world.

The Ministry of Commerce promised last month that shortages would ease, announcing the import of 20,000 tons of sugar from India to be available in time for Mouled, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. But the night before the holiday, citizens formed long lines in front of supermarkets in the hope of getting a package of sugar, an essential food to prepare traditional dishes for the religious holiday.

Food isn’t the only thing in short supply. Lacking energy resources like those in neighboring Libya and Algeria, Tunisia relies heavily on imports, and its long-running economic troubles mean it has limited leverage on international markets to secure the goods it needs.

Inflation has reached a record rate of 9.1%, the highest in three decades, according to the National Institute of Statistics.

The Central Bank of Tunisia (BCT) added a hit by increasing bank fees and interest rates, hindering access to consumer loans.

In Douar Hicher, an impoverished suburb on the outskirts of Tunis considered a barometer of popular discontent, hundreds of people took to the streets at night last month to denounce the deterioration of their living conditions.

With cries of “work, freedom, dignity” — the flagship slogan of the 2010-2011 revolution — demonstrators blocked the town’s main artery by setting fire to tires, braving the police who sprayed tear gas to disperse them.

“Enough of speeches and promises, people are gripped by hunger and poverty,” read a banner erected by the demonstrators, their anger at the government and political elites palpable.

After sacking the prime minister and dissolving parliament, President Kaïs Saied has granted himself sweeping powers over the past year. He said the moves were necessary to save the country amid protracted political and economic crisis, and many Tunisians welcomed them, but critics and Western allies say the power grab jeopardizes Tunisia’s young democracy.

Saied attributes the scarcity of food products and the rise in prices to ”speculators” and those who hold a monopoly on goods they store in illegal depots. He suggested that his main political rivals, the Islamist movement Ennahdha, had some role, which the party firmly denies.

In a statement, the Salvation Front, a coalition of five opposition parties and several independent groups, called the demonstrations a sign of “a general explosion and the collapse of the social and political order.”

The general secretary of the powerful trade union UGTT, Noureddine Taboubi, blames the state’s overburdened budget.

The government is currently negotiating a $2 billion to $4 billion loan with the IMF to cope with a budget deficit aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine. A high-ranking Tunisian delegation went to Washington on Saturday in the hope of finalizing a deal.

In return, Tunisia will have to commit to painful reforms, including shrinking the public administration sector — one of the world’s largest — which eats up about a third of the state budget. The IMF is also demanding the gradual lifting of subsidies and the privatization of state-owned enterprises, which implies massive layoffs and a worsening of unemployment, already at 18% according to the latest World Bank figures

The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, an NGO that closely monitors migration, says 507 Tunisian migrants have died or gone missing so far in 2022 as they attempt the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea.

According to National Guard spokesman Houssameddine Jebabli, the coast guard thwarted more than 1,500 attempts at illegal migration to Italy from January to September 2022, involving entire families including nearly 2,500 children.

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Health

$10 Million Gift from Dr. Phillips Charities to Bolster New College of Nursing Building at Lake Nona

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ORLANDO, Fla. – Leaders from Dr. Phillips Charities and UCF announced a $10 million donation to support the College of Nursing’s new building, which will help UCF graduate more nurses and combat the nation’s critical nursing shortage while fostering more innovation and collaboration in Lake Nona’s Medical City.

The new home of the College of Nursing will sit on the 50-acre property already home to the UCF College of Medicine and the UCF Lake Nona Medical Center.

“Our mission is to give with purpose, and the purpose could not be more clear here — nurses save lives and our community has a great need for more talented nurses,” says Kenneth D. Robinson, president and CEO for Dr. Phillips, Inc. and The Dr. P. Phillips Foundation. “Dr. Phillips Charities is excited to make this investment in UCF to build a stronger educational ecosystem, a pipeline that will provide nursing talent to our region for generations to come.”

“Both Dr. Phillips Charities and UCF are rooted in the mission to transform lives, and this generous gift will have a transformational impact on our future nurses and educators, and on all in our community who will be touched by their talents and compassion,” says Alex Martins, chair of UCF’s Board of Trustees.

The generous donation will accelerate a campaign to raise $30 million to support the creation of a 21st century building that will house the College of Nursing’s education and research activities. The Florida Legislature previously allocated $29 million toward the approximately $60 million building during the 2022 legislative session. The new building is anticipated to open during the 2025-2026 academic year.

“We have a bold vision for the future, which is to continue to provide the highest quality healthcare to our community. This innovation and impact would not be possible without this lead gift contribution of Dr. Phillips Charities, and for that we are very thankful,” says UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright. “Our strong foundation of partnership and deep commitment to our region will deliver a real impact to our community.”

The new building is a much-needed investment for the region and the state, both of which are facing a critical healthcare worker shortage. The Florida Hospital Association estimates that an additional 2,300 registered nurses (RNs) are needed to enter the workforce each year to address the projected state shortage of 37,400 RNs by 2035.

UCF currently graduates more newly licensed RNs annually than any other institution in the State University System, with approximately 260 Knight nurses entering the workforce each year. With the support of the Florida Legislature, UCF is already investing $6.9 million to increase the university’s ability to educate more nurses, and more space is needed for these new faculty and students.

Once the new building is complete, the college expects to increase enrollment for new nurses and future nurse educators, grow the number of existing UCF faculty, and ultimately graduate an additional 150 new nurses annually to enter the healthcare industry — primarily in Florida. With 13,000 alumni to date, more than 85 percent of Knight nurses live and work in Florida.

With additional faculty, staff and space, the college also will grow enrollment capacity for its doctoral and master’s degree programs. These programs help educate more advanced practice providers, nurse leaders and executives, and nurse educators who are essential to fueling the pipeline of nursing faculty required to combat the nursing shortage.

“As a leader in nursing education, no other university is better equipped to be a part of the solution to the nursing shortage, and the many other healthcare challenges we face today and will face in the future,” says Mary Lou Sole, dean of the College of Nursing. “Today we are so lucky to have an incredible community leader who is helping to accelerate our efforts, Dr. Phillips Charities.”

Preliminary plans for the new building include classrooms as well as state-of-the-art learning labs for health assessment, essential skills and virtual reality located in an expanded space for the College of Nursing’s accredited Simulation, Technology, Innovation & Modeling Center, an international leader in providing high-quality simulation experiences to prepare students for clinical practice.

The design also calls for new research space — to include wet and dry labs — along with a host of student study spaces. When the new building is complete, the College of Nursing will relocate from its current location in Research Park and will have almost double its current square footage.

The location at the UCF Academic Health Sciences Campus also will offer students and faculty new opportunities for collaboration and enhanced learning and research experiences.

“I am proud to be a UCF Knight nurse, joining thousands of UCF nursing graduates on the frontline to provide compassionate, quality care to our community. We are impacting human lives, your friends, your family, your neighbors here in Central Florida. I have never felt so fulfilled, as there is nothing more heartwarming or rewarding than when I provide comfort to a patient and bring a smile to their face,” says Sayid Yasin ’22, accelerated second degree BSN alumnus. “Without a doubt, our community needs more Knight nurses to care for our community, and Dr. Phillips Charities’ generosity is going to help make that possible.”

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Health

Gates Foundation pledges $7B for health, farming in Africa

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NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Bill Gates, on a visit to Kenya, has announced his foundation will spend $7 billion to improve health, gender equality and farming in Africa.

The new pledge will be spent over the next four years and is in addition to existing Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funding to strengthen health systems across the continent.

“Africa’s young people have the talent and opportunity to accelerate progress and help solve the world’s most pressing problems,” Gates said.

The new funding comes as countries in East Africa and the Horn of Africa face the worst drought in decades.

“We will invest in local institutions and new collaborations that build the long-term resilience needed to make these crises less frequent and less devastating,” Gates Foundation CEO Mark Suzman said.

On his visit to Kenya, Gates has been visiting primary healthcare centers, leading medical and agricultural research institutes, and smallholder farms.

During the visits he learned from partners about “what programs and approaches are making an impact, what obstacles remain, and how the foundation can better support future progress,” the foundation said in a statement.

“The foundation will continue to invest in the researchers, entrepreneurs, innovators, and healthcare workers who are working to unlock the tremendous human potential that exists across the continent,” he said.

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Health

USDA program keeps extra COVID-era money for fruits, veggies

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U.S. agriculture officials proposed changes Thursday to the federal program that helps pay the grocery bills for low-income pregnant women, babies and young children, including extending a bump in payments for fresh fruits and vegetables allowed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The update also adds more whole grains, canned fish and non-dairy options to their shopping carts. The effort is aimed at expanding the number and type of healthy foods available to families who get assistance from the Agriculture Department’s program known as WIC, officials said.

“These proposals will promote healthier lifestyles and brighter futures for millions of children,” said Stacy Dean, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services.

The revisions would make permanent payments authorized by Congress during the COVID-19 pandemic that increased vouchers for fruits and vegetables to $25 a month for children ages 1 to 5 and to $49 a month for breastfeeding women.

“This increase in fruits and vegetables has really made it attractive for families to have their children in the program longer,” said Geraldine Henchy, director of nutrition policy for the nonprofit Food Research & Action Center, who applauded the changes. “Kids really love fruit.”

At the same time, the plan would reduce the amounts of some foods, for example reducing or eliminating juice allowed for some recipients. It also reduces the amount of milk and cheese covered under the program, a move that drew immediate criticism from the dairy industry.

“It is unfortunate for WIC participants that the proposed rule would decrease access to dairy products and the unique nutrient profile they provide,” the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation said in a statement.

More than 6.2 million pregnant women, mothers, babies and young children participate in the program annually. The federal government currently pays about $5 billion a year to run the program, which is administered through states and other jurisdictions. The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children provides vouchers to mothers and children who qualify and specifically lists the amount and types of food they can buy.

“It reflects the fact that different people have different capacities to tolerate different kinds of food,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak said.

More canned fish, such as tuna, would be available as well as easy-to-prepare canned beans, in addition to dried beans, officials said. The plan would also change the amount of infant formula provided to partially breastfed babies.

Increasing the voucher for fruits and vegetables to $25 a month during the pandemic has allowed Elizabeth Loya, 28, of Los Angeles, to encourage her 4-year-old daughter, Gisselle, to sample new foods.

“She tried Brussels sprouts and, two weeks ago, she tried asparagus,” Loya said. “She liked them.”

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