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Biden’s Presidency is somewhat different

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Mike Pence escorted out of the Chamber to safety Trump instigated mobs attacked the Capitol building

 

by Kumar David

Indications are that the Biden Presidency does not resemble any other post-war American presidency. Though he was Obama’s Vice President, thankfully he is not imitating that failed model. Post-war Democratic presidents (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton and Obama) followed a different agenda. FDR however comes to mind when searching for something similar; maybe because the crises now and during the Great Depression were both so daunting. Look at the parlous predicament now – a covid catastrophe, an economic slump, decline in global power, foreign policy setbacks, and Trump incited domestic terrorism. Except for the Great Depression there is no other period since the Civil War when conditions were so perilous. Maybe this is the reason why Biden’s actions so far are reminiscent of the FDR model.

At the same time duplicity is apparent; on Iran he refuses to lift sanctions until the latter comes into full compliance with a treaty that his predecessor Trump ripped up. The US as a superpower thinks it can eat its words and have them. Foreign policy hawks may be regaining ground they lost during the election campaign. When China, as expected, blocked a Security Council resolution to condemn the Burmese coup calling it “an internal affair” (no doubt akin to the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang!), US condemnation of Chinese duplicity was muted. But with protests spreading across Burma and against the backdrop of a US decision to renew links with the UN Human Rights Council, Biden finally made the right call and imposed tough sanctions on Burma’s military. This will hearten local and international observers of the upcoming UNHRC debate on Sri Lanka. Fifteen months ago I explicitly told my readers that the road to dictatorship in this country will be through the transformation of institutions (courts, constitution, state administration and the military).The Gotabaya Executive, now snarled in internal disarray and a Sino-Quad logjam is uncertain which way to turn. Weeks ago I said in this column (everyone says it now) that tension was rising between the Executive and the Parliamentary arms of government. The Wimal-Kariyawasam clash is symptomatic.

To return to my topic, what is distinctive about the Biden Administration so far is that it is not treading the beholden-to-Wall-Street path that the Obama Administration did from day one. He is also holding firm to a climate-change, racial equality and poor relief agenda despite hostility of powerful lobbies. There is a tussle right now about Biden’s refusal to back-down on his $1.9 trillion covid control, cum economic stimulus, cum income relief for low and middle earner, package, which has run into determined Republican opposition. In FDR style, Team Biden is using stimulus not to shower handouts to big business, as Obama did, but to target infrastructure development and job creation. I am in no hurry to hand out a good-conduct certificate yet, it’s too early for that, but it is necessary to take note of trends. This huge $1.9 trillion package scripts his presidency as an FDR-style New Deal initiative. He seems to be exploring new ground, but caution for a while more before any hagiography is wise.

The $15 per hour minimum wage is a contentious issue. Is it too expensive? Even its most vociferous champion curmudgeonly Bernie Sanders admits “It was never my intention to increase the minimum wage to $15 immediately and during the pandemic. My legislation gradually increases it to $15 an hour over a five-year period; that is what we have got to do.” This minimum wage would reduce poverty but cost jobs, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office says. Doing so by 2025 would boost pay for 17 million people but cut 1.4 million jobs. Biden cannot backtrack on his oath to implement minimum wage legislation and Democrats will be able include the wage hike in a bill to be passed by Reconciliation (a complicated short-cut process in the Senate that can be used a few times a year without a super-majority, 60 votes). It would have a positive effect of $64.5 billion per year on the federal budget, the boost coming in part from increased payroll tax revenue.

Sri Lankan readers may find a few comments on some members of Biden’s Cabinet helpful – it is overall an able team. Some are known to be competent intellectuals, a few quite distinguished; Yellen (Treasury), Binken (State), Garland (AG, that is Justice) and Granholm (Energy). There are four other appointments which are interesting; Gen. Lloyd Austin the first black Defence Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas a Hispanic in charge of sensitive Homeland Security, Deb Haaland (Interior) the first native American to hold cabinet position, and Pete Buttigieg (Transport) of unconventional sexual orientation. Biden has made good on his promise that his choices would reflect America’s diversity.

Biden’s seven person science team (Office of Science and Technology Policy – OSTP), which the media describes as “Among the brightest, most dedicated people not only in the country but the world” is headed by a world-renowned biologist Eric Lander (Princeton Bachelors, Rhodes Scholar and Oxford DPhil) and includes America’s first woman Nobel Laureate (Frances Arnold). The other five too are world-class scientists. Gina McCarthy of environmental fame has been named Presidential Climate Advisor (“Climate Tsar” they call her, an appellation she will have to share with John Kerry named Climate Ambassador). One thing for sure, people of this calibre speak out and speak their minds; no dumb-cluck politician can intimidate them because they aren’t obliged to anybody for anything. A very refreshing thought, my scientist and engineer friends are sure to agree.

Having said so many nice things about Biden I am sure you are expecting a few stings in the tail and I am loath to disappoint you. The obvious one is to repeat that it is early days and while voicing approval it is necessary to express caution as well – how many politicians started off as everyone’s darling and wound up failures and miscarriages. The principal challenges facing the new administration are also a hurdles at which it may stumble; the uncertainty of Covid, class conflict over the economy, the large disgruntled mass which opted for Trump and will remain knotty for years more, race which won’t change colour and the complexity of international relations. I will speak of each in future columns, but let me say something upfront now. Because America is a country of top technological (still the leader I guess), scientific (a bigger concentration of the world’s best), economic (soon to be overtaken by China) and social potential (I will explore this carefully some other time), what happens in America in the next few decades is one of the cardinal matters that will shape the Twenty-first Century.

Rome did not decline to nothing in a day; from the start of the decline to eventual fall many moons elapsed. Gibbon begins his account of decline from the accession of Commodus (180 AD) and the fall of the Western Roman Empire is conventionally dated to 476 AD, when Flavius Odoacer a “barbarian” deposed Emperor Romulus Augustulus and proclaimed himself ruler. Other historians prefer different chronologies and dating, but the point I am making is that when global powers metamorphose, it is a prolonged process. More important is that their influences persist long afterwards. The impact and influences of Rome persist to this day. Someone said that if you go on a journey in philosophy on any theme, soon you will meet an ancient Greek returning from the same voyage. Likewise with Roman physical infrastructure, Roman law and governance. This getting lyrical so let’s return to earth. What I am pointing to is that the impact of American mores and culture will persist for longer than its superpower status. The language, artifices and political practices of the blithering English are still around nearly a century after the blooming empire was laid to rest. The traditions of some empires persist for long others do not – where is Ozymandias king of kings? Persia’s eight-century Achaemenid Empire or the Mayas have evaporated without trace so far as latter-day cultures notice. Why some go one way and others the other is too long and complex to pursue here.

My case is that the influence of American society will persist for long after the American Empire. What will persist above all else is the robustness of its unique social comportment and its roughshod democracy. A socialist America will have to be a democratic America, nothing less can put down roots in this soil and clime. Last week I was glued to the Trump impeachment trial in the Senate. A lesson I took away is recognition of the boldness of its democracy – bourgeois liberal-democracy, if you want theoretical purity. Democracy survived but it was a close call; at certain moments the threat was deadly. One mishap in a court, one truant State refusing to certify results, one bunch of electoral officials cowed by Trump’s bullying, one bullet in Nancy Pelosi’s head, or one misstep by Mike Pence, and who knows, history may have had to be rewritten.

I am certain Trump’s trial will not gather the requisite majority in the Senate for conviction though the Constitution says he is commander-in-chief of the military but from the summer 2020 he has been commander-in-chief of mobs. He goaded the lawless to insurrection and prepared the way for rioters to storm the Capitol. In a desperate effort to cling to power he allowed his rowdies to go after his own Vice President Pence chanting “Hang Mike Pence”. It is an enigma that the citadel of American democracy was stormed by American neo-fascists, egged on by the nation’s sitting president. Yes, democracy prevailed this time, but is unrest just beginning? A surreal plague of illiberalism has infected a portion of the body politic? It can and must be defeated but how will future historians make sense of this bizarre episode? I have to leave that too for another time and sign off with a celebrated paradox: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”.



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Playing politics with science!

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It is obvious that the only way out of this disastrous pandemic is through science––the use of vaccines that have been introduced in double quick time due to scientific ingenuity. It is the duty of politicians to refrain from playing politics with science.

 

By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

If you thought it was only our politicians who played politics with science, you thought wrong. Admittedly, ours are pretty bad as evident from the Dhammika peniya episode. We had our Health Minister freely advertising the concoction by ingesting it in her office and wasting the valuable time of academics by instructing them to test it for efficacy. Getting a pretty bad attack of Covid-19 demonstrated the idiocy of her action but she continues unashamedly to be our Minister of Health!

A Professor of Pharmacology turned politician did likewise. Forgetting what he taught his students, he supported the untested therapies, the explanation given by one of his colleagues being that he behaved as a politician, not a scientist! By implication, even scientists can forget science when they become politicians! Funnily, he was rewarded by being appointed the Acting Minister of Health the day the Health Minister was discharged from hospital, which was rather bizarre considering that during the Minister’s prolonged period of hospital-stay there was no acting appointment! Perhaps, fearing that he might take the bread out of her mouth, the Minister returned to office within a few days of discharge.

Although the first wave of the Covid-19 epidemic was very effectively controlled, the loss of efficiency as regards the second wave was due no doubt to allowing non-scientific ideas to creep in. The refusal of permission for the burial of Covid-19 victims in spite of a group of top scientists recommending it, made us look foolish and turned international opinion against the country.

The clamour for vaccination is a welcome sign, more so because the UK is continually producing evidence for the extreme efficacy of vaccination.

The UK was the first country in the world to start vaccination and has already vaccinated more than 21 million of its 66 million population. It started with the Pfizer vaccine, closely followed by the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. EU, which was a late starter, was critical of the Oxford AZ vaccine. The French President Emmanuel Macron is obviously guilty of playing politics with science as he was one of the vaccine’s most vociferous critics, calling it “quasi-ineffective” for the elderly. As a result of political comments of this nature, more than half of EU countries limited the Oxford AZ vaccine to those under 65 years, in spite of the European Medicines Agency approving it for all age groups.

Another political appointee, Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President, had a public spat with AstraZeneca over gaining more of its vaccine doses and introduced a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland; she was forced to reverse her decision, quickly. She then suggested the UK had compromised on “safety and efficacy” by approving the jab so early, despite the EMA reaching the same conclusions as the UK’s internationally-respected MHRA, which approved the Oxford AZ vaccine for all ages. Millions of doses of Oxford AZ vaccine, which they obtained in spite of criticism, remain unused in France and Germany. Why did they not have the generosity to give these to struggling countries like Sri Lanka?

Data released by Public Health England (PHE) shows that both the Pfizer and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines are highly effective in reducing COVID-19 infections among those 70 years and over. Since January, protection against symptomatic Covid-19, four weeks after the first dose, ranged between 57 and 61% for Pfizer and between 60 and 73% for the Oxford AZ vaccine.

In the over 80s, data suggest that a single dose of either vaccine is more than 80% effective in preventing hospitalisation, around 3 to 4 weeks after the jab. There is also evidence for 83% reduction in deaths from Covid-19 with the Pfizer vaccine and data for Oxford AZ vaccine is awaited.

European aversion to Oxford AZ vaccine is, no doubt, due to Brexit than to science. Very soon, all EU countries would be forced by science to allow all age groups to have the Oxford AZ vaccine which, by the way, is the cheapest vaccine that is easier to transport and store. Politicians who criticised Oxford AZ vaccine have had to eat humble pie but they will no doubt come out with some claim to justify their idiocy!

A Belgian minister, Budget State Secretary Eva De Bleeker, has angered vaccine manufacturers by revealing sensitive and confidential commercial information – the price that the EU has agreed to pay for the leading Covid-19 vaccines. Though her twitter message was deleted quickly, screenshots taken show that the EU agreed prices for the three vaccines used at present are as follows: Oxford/AstraZeneca: €$ 1.78, Pfizer/BioNTech : €$ 12 and Moderna: $18.

Moderna, a Bio-tech company, which has not been profitable so-far, is heading for wind-fall profits and the drug-giant Pfizer will get richer. No one seems to have followed the noble gesture of AstraZeneca, which agreed with the Oxford group to provide the vaccine on no-profit basis.

It is obvious that the only way out of this disastrous pandemic is through science––the use of vaccines that have been introduced in double quick time due to scientific ingenuity. It is the duty of politicians to refrain from playing politics with science.

As Dolly Parton sang with a rewrite of her famous song ‘Jolene’ whilst having her jab:

“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, I’m begging of you, please don’t hesitate. Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, because once you’re dead, then that’s a bit too late.”

 

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Who wants to live forever?

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The haunting lyrics of The Queen song and the almost plaintive tone in Freddie Mercury’s oh so unique voice, when he sang this song (particularly in his live performance at Wembley), echo through my mind these days. There are two main reasons why longevity is foremost these days.

The first, of course, being the pandemic that is among us. It may be the first time that the civilian population of the entire world is facing the possibility of sudden death, not from incoming fire or even suicide bombers but from an insidious, unseen, minute germ!

The second reason why the length of our lives and prolonging it for as long as we possibly can have been entering my thoughts, is when I see the scramble to get the anti-virus vaccine that I observe in the Pearl. Now, most of us are Buddhists and somewhere in those teachings is a belief that we come into this world with a certain amount of AYUSHA or length of life, and that when that is over the end happens and there is no choice. At least, that is the basic interpretation of undoubtedly very complex teaching.

If that is the case, why this scramble for the vaccine? Why are we using privileged positions (connections to rulers and politicians), connections to doctors, and even the Mayors of certain cities to short-circuit the waiting lists? Older people are complaining that they are being denied the vaccine, why? Those people have probably achieved all their objectives in life, completed successful lives, seen grandchildren or even great-grandchildren, why do they want to deny some young man or woman starting out on life with all those milestones to reach, the vaccine, particularly if they are devoted to the teachings of the Buddha.

Is it selfishness, greed, and avarice, things we should avoid according to these self-same teachings, or is it simply one-up-man-ship and the need to be able to boast that they got the vaccine when the “ordinary” man is still standing in queues and probably infecting each other due to the total chaos and non-observance of Covid protocols in these places of administering the vaccine? Think about it dear readers, especially those of you who have completed productive and useful lives, brought up “successful” children, and as is the way in our society provided them with houses, lands, dowries, and other ways of sustenance. Do we really need to join this scramble for the vaccine? Or, use our position of privilege to probably deny some younger person, with a life to live, the chance of getting it. Is it even our ego (something else we should control and make less significant in our lives and decisions) that allows us to justify our long existence in this world? They need my superior intellect, does this world and this society, therefore I must live as long as possible! Or, is it simply the basic animal instinct to live as long as possible, something that we as humans with our superior brains should be able to think around?

Here in Aotearoa, we have re-entered a level 3 lockdown in our most heavily populated city and a level 2 lockdown for the rest of our country. This has been due to certain non-observance of Covid protocols by people of a clearly identified community, living in a certain part of the city of sails, as Auckland is also known. This is the second time that the community, living in that part of the city has brought about an escalation of the pandemic and stricter lockdowns. It has brought more economic misery and spelled the end of the road to more businesses and enterprises. Now, in the Pearl, we may have resorted to attacking those communities and even rioting. All that seems to have happened here are of course the usual vitriolic racist attacks on the internet and a government decision to vaccinate those areas of the city first, in an attempt to control the pandemic. Wow! in the pearl either all these people would have been rounded up and locked up in a camp in the Vanni or locked down under strict curfew with the threat of being shot if violated. The jury with regard to if the Pearl alternative or the Aotearoa alternative of these should have been used is still out …

Maybe some readers are interested in the outcome of the threat that is looming over us from the upcoming United Nations action in Geneva? I have been trying to get some feedback from “intellectuals” currently living in the Pearl, but they seem distracted, and a feeling of helplessness seems to prevail. The incumbent Foreign Minister seems to think that a humble Indian Ocean Island with what strictly speaking, can be considered a failed or at least failing economy, can dictate terms to the UN, behaving like the proverbial bull in a china shop. Maybe our “new best friend” China, probably aided and abetted by Russia has lent strength to his arm.

Even a “victory’ for Lanka at the UNHCR to this resolution should not be cheered too vociferously, as the countries ranged against us will have long term plans. Every step of this government will be monitored closely. The loss of our garment exporting privileges to the first world could result along with other economic sanctions that would make the cost of living in the Pearl even higher.

One rather interesting possibility seems to be travel bans on certain individuals and freezing of their assets held abroad. Now that could be stimulating, especially if the numbers involved are made public! However, if that was the case, I believe the attempt to rectify the situation would have been given to a more competent person than “the bull in the china shop”!

I cannot resist putting this out dear readers and I apologise profusely in advance. What if someone like Ranil W, was in charge of foreign affairs? Do you think we would have had a more professional approach and had a better chance in dealing with the complicated nuances of handling UN diplomacy, in the long term? At least we may have not insulted and possibly humiliated the visiting PM of one of our allies, Imran Khan of Pakistan! On the other hand, Mr. Khan, you may rest assured that even if you had addressed our parliament, no member would have understood anything you said or even been able to decipher your immaculate Oxbridge accent. It is only those of us who have shut ourselves out mentally from the shenanigans or gone into voluntary exile who watch with dismay, who would have savoured your words and briefly wondered …what if … ?

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Thanks for quick vaccination; harmful dabblers in the occult should be severely dealt with

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There has been much in the daily press on vaccination against Covid-19 in this fair isle of ours, or rather in Colombo and its suburbs

Let’s put aside complaints and say praise be!

Most of what was media-written was on the ensuing chaos of not knowing where to go for the jab; how to get a token; which age group will be given it (apart of course from VIPs and politicians who were close behind frontline health workers). Mercifully, the authorities righted the initial wrong of deciding on prioritizing the 30-65 age group and neglecting the over 65s, who were placed second in the priority list in more enlightened countries following WHO strictures. And so lots have got the jab and we anticipate a drastic drop in infection and Covid death rates. Cass contributed her fair share of criticism in this column but not stridently nor unreasonably. She had not seen the privileged list that passed off as Municipal workers on Tuesday 24 February at the Public Library, Colombo 7, arriving in Mercedes Benzes and SUVs. If she had, her ire would have emerged in pure vitriol! One friend said she enquired from several sophisticates in the queue how they got there, but received mumbled replies. So, a Rose by any other name, even Do-Gooder, smells as bad when it goes unjust! Things got much better and the service worked smoothly once the MOHs came into their own.

What Cass notes in summarizing the issue today is thanks and gratitude to the government and the Health Services particularly, for vaccinating so very many so quickly. People who wrote about this issue, Cass included, were all praise for the actual data takers and vaccine givers. In certain centres, the old and disabled were queued in a different line and vaccinated within an hour.

The gratitude Cass renders is because only part of the total amount of vaccine was gifted by India and the WHO. Our government booked early and paid for the rest, and of the Oxford kind. This vaccine is admittedly relatively cheaper, but it had to be paid for, which cost the government bore. We have to appreciate the massive organization entailed and excuse inevitable hiccups. This fact struck Cass as a feeling of much needed security and elimination of fear was felt, and all for free. Also when a friend in Melbourne wrote they were as yet awaiting vaccination.

 

Black Magic and witchcraft in Sri Lanka

If you thought as Cass did that we would never ever resemble a dark Congo tribe resorting to occult cures or a re-enactment of shades of supernatural superstitious beliefs in witchcraft as in Salem, Massachusetts, USA, in 1692 (where some young girls caught prancing naked cooked up lies about good women in the village being witches), you and Cass were both mistaken. We’ve had these in different styles right here in supposedly majority Buddhist Free Sri Lanka with other religions holding people together, in the 21st century with some of our own doing brilliantly well in advanced scientific disciplines all over the developed world. Cass, as you now know, was born and bred in the hills of Kandy with its most sacred Dalada Maligawa and picturesquely situated quaint temples in peaceful green valleys with the sound of evening pooja bells, joined by Kovil tinkles and Sunday sonorous Church gantara and the cry of the Muzeen. We never had a bali or thovil ceremony. If an inauspicious time descended on the village or a household, it was pirith chanted by Bhikkhus. So to Cass what has been happening very recently is even stranger than to those who have village cousins who dabble in mantra and kodivina with kattadiyas in action.

I refer here to the stupidly preposterous belief in Dhammika’s peniya as both a prophylactic and cure for pernicious Covid-19. Where is that charlatan veda – oops sorry- Kaliamma devala kapurala now? Safe with his ill-gotten gains, we suppose.

The latest voodoo story, but with such a tragic ending, is that of the 9-year-old Delgoda girl who suffered an emotional (rather than mental) aberration and was subject to exorcism by caning her mercilessly. The exorcist could not be a woman; she must certainly be a sadistic aberration herself. Can you believe that she applied oil on the girl and used the cane on her till the kid went unconscious? Was the cane an ordinary one? At first I could not believe the story read in the papers – how cane a person to death, but it was a child receiving the torture and who knows what sort of ‘weapon’ was used. The mother definitely must be punished more severely. Maternal love, even in the animal kingdom, will never allow harming an offspring, so how on earth did the mother watch all that caning. One shot would have torn Cass to the defence of her child, or for that matter any child, with talons extended and blood now not turned to milk as the Sinhala saying goes, but to vitriolic fury. The woman exorcist with supernatural powers and the mother are in police custody. Why doesn’t she do a Houdini and astound handsome Police high-up Ajit Rohana?

People claiming superhuman clairvoyance and divine power crop up everywhere. Cass accompanied a friend to consult a girl in the suburbs of Kandy to find out where her hub had ‘donated’ a fairly large sum of money. This girl had given clear directions to find a lost Persian cat to a third friend; hence the visit. She was a pretty, soft girl of around 18. Once Cass and the other entered the room, the girl changed, was in a near trance and speaking in an entirely different voice, pronounced the reason for seeking her help and said “Look for a man always dressed in long sleeves and thinning hair parted in the middle.” The friend was baffled and defeated by this long shot, but finally she met a man of this description – the father of a girl in her husband’s office. She did not ask for the money!

Such ‘powers’ are temporary; maybe like poltergeist manifestations in a teenager’s home. But going for cures to them is unthinkable. Buddhist bhikkhus and maybe bhikkhuunis, so also certain Christian priests (the bulk of lecherous Father Mathew intrudes here) do have powers of exorcism. A medical doctor is the best bet, in any case, including even mental upsets.

 

Short Takes

Imran Khan’s all too brief visit was a successful veni, vidi, vici in spite of being snubbed ungraciously over the address to Parliamentarians (what a weak, threadbare excuse was offered – C-19 precaution!) and missing out two of our cricket greats: Michael Tissera and Anura Tennakoon from the list of cricket folk to say Hi to the great Cricketer at lunch at Shangri La. What was the success apart from charming everyone and showing off what a Statesman can look like and carry himself off? Why – the Muslims of Sri Lanka conquered. Burial was theirs or so it seemed. But hold it, is it gazetted or is this ‘yes’ like the Prime Minister’s definite ‘can bury’ pronounced in Parliament and then brushed aside and explained by the Gaman as “he was merely expressing his thoughts.”

Main headline in The Island of Wednesday 3 March:” PCol report on Easter Sunday carnage: AG won’t be given ‘sensitive’ volumes.” Why on earth? Is it X-rated and the AG underage?

Picture on page I of same issue of Dr Rajitha Senaratne arriving at the Colombo High Court to appear in a case involving two persons who accused then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa of various crimes. We have long forgotten even a single word of what they said. They will not get off free is Cass’ bet unlike Aluthgamage, who emerged very recently from a court house free as a bird, accused of corruption, Cass recalls.

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