Morning news brief
Referenda began in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine today. The flu might be coming back strong this year. Leaders meet in Pittsburgh for climate talks.
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A MARTINEZ, HOST:
Voting began in parts of occupied Ukraine at 8 o'clock local time. The Russian news agency TASS says they began their plan to formally annex parts of their neighbor.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Four separate referendums cover four Russian-occupied areas. This kind of voting, shifting the allegiance of territory under military occupation, violates international law and, of course, also Ukrainian law.
MARTINEZ: Independent observers are not on hand for the voting Russia describes, but NPR's Kat Lonsdorf has been talking to people leaving the occupied areas. Kat, where are you? And what did you see?
KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Hey. Yeah. So yesterday I was in the city of Zaporizhzhia. I was in this giant parking lot that's been set up for months now as a staging area for people fleeing from other parts of Ukraine. And this long line of cars pulled in. It was a convoy full of people. And officials started checking their documents. These people were mostly coming from cities like Melitopol and parts of the Kherson region down south. Those have both been under Russian occupation for months.
MARTINEZ: What are they telling you?
LONSDORF: Every person I talked to said that they finally made the decision to leave as soon as they heard about these referendums. I talked to one older couple named Anatoli and Viktoria Yermoleny.
ANATOLI YERMOLENY: (Non-English language spoken).
VIKTORIA YERMOLENY: (Non-English language spoken).
LONSDORF: So they told me that they had been waiting, hoping that Ukraine would be able to retake their city. But they said that this referendum was the last straw; they had to leave. They did say that their neighbor stayed behind, and their neighbors' plan was to hide if Russian soldiers come to their home to try to get them to vote.
MARTINEZ: Russian soldiers coming to their home - is that something people are worried about there?
LONSDORF: Oh, yeah, absolutely. That's what most people said they expected to happen. And Russian news outlets have reported that that's how they are, in fact, doing this voting - paper ballots, door to door. I talked to one woman, 67-year-old Ninel Lysenko. She's from Melitopol. And she told me that she's originally from Donetsk, and she was living there when the referendums happened before in 2014.
NINEL LYSENKO: (Non-English language spoken).
LONSDORF: She told me they were staged, that Russia went to houses, essentially forcing people to vote. She asked me, how can you really vote when they have guns?
MARTINEZ: So it's fair to say, I think, that the people you've talked to don't have any trust in this vote, which helps explain why they're leaving. But is there any support at all for the referendum, for actually becoming a part of Russia?
LONSDORF: Yeah, I did ask people if they knew of support in the areas they were coming from, and many told me, yeah, of course, there are people who support this. But they said it's mainly older people, you know, people who have maybe fond memories of the Soviet Union or have been bribed with humanitarian aid or extra pension money. And, you know, the people I was talking to were quick to point out that that kind of support has dropped dramatically, especially after people have been bombed and occupied for the last few months.
MARTINEZ: And it's all part of a larger move by Russia. They passed new laws and are now mobilizing hundreds of thousands of men. How do these referenda fit in with all that?
LONSDORF: Yeah, it's still a little unclear. But this could give Russia an argument that these areas are Russian soil, meaning that they would say that any attempt from Ukraine to take these areas back is an attack on Russia itself. Now, to be clear, almost every nation has said they don't recognize these referendums, and neither does Ukraine, obviously. But that won't stop Russia from claiming it. And one more worrying thing - people yesterday told me that all men ages 18 to 35 in their convoy were stopped by Russian soldiers, sent back to the occupied territory. One father I talked to said that this happened to his 34-year-old son that morning. I asked him if he was worried that his son would be mobilized to fight for Russia, and he just sighed and said he hadn't even let himself think about that yet.
MARTINEZ: NPR's Kat Lonsdorf reporting from Dnipro, Ukraine. Kat, thanks.
LONSDORF: Thank you.
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MARTINEZ: The flu mostly disappeared for two years as the pandemic overtook it.
INSKEEP: Yeah, people who isolated themselves or worked from home didn't get the flu. Hardly any illness in my family. And to put it brutally, vulnerable people who might have had the flu died instead from COVID. This year, influenza appears poised to come back, raising the possibility of what's called a twindemic.
MARTINEZ: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is here. Rob, we haven't had to deal with the flu for years now. I haven't even had a sniffle. So what makes it look like the flu is going to be a problem this year?
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Yeah. You know, A, the first thing I should say is that the flu is notoriously unpredictable. So it's impossible to say precisely what's going to happen. That said, there are signs that the flu's hiatus is ending. And not only does it look like the flu could be back for the first time in three years; there are indications that it could be a bad flu season.
MARTINEZ: What are those clues?
STEIN: You know, it's what happened in the Southern Hemisphere. A big one is that after disappearing in the Southern Hemisphere for the last two years, the flu came roaring back in some countries south of the equator. In Australia, during the winter there, the flu also hit unusually early. And what happens in the Southern Hemisphere's winter often foreshadows what's going to happen here. Dr. William Schaffner is a flu specialist at Vanderbilt University.
WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: Clearly, the Southern Hemisphere had a serious influenza season. So if we have a serious influenza season and if the omicron variants continue to cause principally mild disease, this coming winter could be a much worse flu season than COVID.
STEIN: In fact, the CDC says the flu is already spreading in parts of the south, like Texas.
SCHAFFNER: This could very well be the year in which we see a twindemic - that is, we have a surge in COVID and, simultaneously, an increase in influenza.
STEIN: And, you know, A, when it comes to the flu, it's both the elderly and children doctors worry about most, especially this year.
MARTINEZ: Why is that?
STEIN: You know, a big reason the flu basically vanished the last two years was everything everyone did to fend off COVID - staying home, avoiding other people, you know, wearing masks, not traveling. That prevented flu viruses from spreading, too. At the same time, the coronavirus may have kind of elbowed out the flu out of the way. That helped spare us from an earlier twindemic. But it also means lots of kids have never been exposed to the flu. I talked about this with Dr. Helen Chu at the University of Washington.
HELEN CHU: Because children haven't seen flu for two years now, you have the 1-year-olds, the 2-year-olds and the 3-year-olds who'll all be seeing it for the first time, and none of them have any preexisting immunity to influenza. So I'm a little worried.
STEIN: And the flu does appear to have hit kids especially hard in Australia.
MARTINEZ: But, Rob, we still have pretty good flu vaccines, right?
STEIN: Yes, absolutely. So doctors are urging everyone to get a flu shot, which so far look like a pretty good batch. Here's Dr. Richard Webby at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
RICHARD WEBBY: We should be worried. You know, I don't necessarily think it's run-for-the-hills worried, but we need to be worried enough to go out and get the vaccine, and my suggestion is get the vaccine probably early this year.
STEIN: Like now, Webby says. But experts are worried about that, too, because vaccination rates are down because of the anti-vaccination sentiments stirred up by the pandemic.
MARTINEZ: Anything else people can do out there?
STEIN: Well, the hope is that certain aspects of our new normal could help. I talked about this with Alicia Fry at the CDC.
ALICIA FRY: The wildcard here is we don't know how many mitigation practices people will use. For example, people now stay home when they're sick instead of going to work. They keep their kids out of school if schools are stricter about not letting kids come to school if they're sick. All of these types of things could reduce the transmission.
STEIN: And could help prevent - or at least blunt - a twindemic.
MARTINEZ: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks.
STEIN: You're welcome.
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MARTINEZ: Energy and climate leaders from around the world are in Pittsburgh to discuss efforts to curb climate change.
INSKEEP: This is a prelude to an upcoming United Nations climate summit in Egypt.
MARTINEZ: The Allegheny Front's Reid Frazier joins us from Pittsburgh, where he's covering the Global Clean Energy Action Forum. Reid, this event comes a month after President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act. That's the largest action the U.S. has ever taken to curb greenhouse gases. His climate envoy, John Kerry, spoke yesterday. What was Kerry's message?
REID FRAZIER: Well, Kerry wanted to stress that because of the Inflation Reduction Act and other actions by the Biden administration, the U.S. is committed to transforming its economy and the way it generates energy with really unprecedented investments in decarbonization. He said all of this will help the U.S. meet President Biden's goal of cutting its CO2 emissions in half by 2030.
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JOHN KERRY: We will hit our 50 to 52% reduction, if not more, and I believe it will be more. Why? Because of the rate and pace at which technology is already moving.
FRAZIER: Kerry said the U.S. is playing catch-up on this from four years under President Donald Trump, when the federal government was not as committed to lowering its emissions as it is now. But he said even under Trump, three-quarters of all new electricity during those years in the U.S. came from renewable energy.
MARTINEZ: But even if the U.S. makes progress, I mean, there's still the rest of the world out there, and it's going to cost trillions to lower their carbon emissions. So what did Kerry have to say about that?
FRAZIER: Kerry basically said governments are not going to be able to fund this transition on their own. He said they don't have enough money. He thinks the key for this is getting private money flowing towards renewable energy.
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KERRY: I believe the private sector - I've said this for years now. No government is going to solve this problem. No government has enough money to be able to solve this problem.
FRAZIER: He said that policies that encourage private investment, like the tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act, are really the best way to get this to happen.
MARTINEZ: I know forums like this are an opportunity for governments to highlight their climate efforts. Yesterday, the Biden administration's Energy Department announced funding for six to 10 hydrogen hubs around the country. How does hydrogen figure into the move to cleaner energy?
FRAZIER: Yeah, so hydrogen is a - basically a zero-carbon fuel. When you burn it, it doesn't produce any CO2. But you have to make it first. You can make hydrogen using renewable energy, so you could basically power a factory using just solar panels, in theory, but you can also make it using natural gas. This is not as clean as using renewables. It creates carbon emissions that need to be captured and then buried. And there's a lot of interest in this natural gas version of hydrogen here in western Pennsylvania because, of course, there's lots of fracking nearby, and companies here want one of the hubs to be built near Pittsburgh.
MARTINEZ: Tomorrow, at the same conference, Joe Manchin is expected to talk. What are you going to be listening for?
FRAZIER: Well, talk about the permitting bill that he - the text of which he just released. The bill has a lot of concessions to speed up reviews for oil and gas pipelines and other projects like that. And that has a lot of climate activists worried. But renewable advocates are also intrigued by the bill 'cause it could free up a lot of wind and solar that right now is stranded in the middle of the country. It's going to be interesting to hear how Manchin plans to convince his colleagues in Congress to vote for it.
MARTINEZ: Reid Frazier of the Allegheny Front. Reid, thanks.
FRAZIER: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.