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Morning news brief

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

China is reopening to the rest of the world after nearly three years of closed borders. It just announced that starting in January it will no longer require hotel quarantines for inbound travelers. The U-turn comes as the country battles an enormous wave of COVID infections nationwide, a surge that has overwhelmed hospitals and ambulance service, even in the capital of Beijing. Joining us now is NPR's Emily Feng. Emily, why this sudden change because I remember earlier this year you were reporting that China was still requiring two weeks of quarantine for anyone who wants to go into the country?

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Right. But the difference is, right now, China is going through a huge wave of COVID itself right now. And it's also gone through this massive and sudden about-face on COVID policy. This is so sudden. Just to give you an example, earlier this month, parts of Beijing were still on lockdown because of a few dozen cases. Now China says it's opening up, however, and it just doesn't make sense to quarantine people when you're seeing millions of new cases daily in China already. And this move is in line with how government messaging has suddenly changed as well. Just earlier this month, they were saying still that COVID was this deadly Western-made virus. Now China's saying COVID and this omicron variant that's been spreading across the country are no worse than a cold and people shouldn't be worried about it. And so on January 8, COVID will be downgraded in seriousness as a virus, and all you need is a negative COVID test 48 hours before and a visa if you can get it, which China says it's going to start issuing again as well, to enter the country.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow, those are some pretty big changes. China's borders have been closed for nearly three years now. How are people reacting to this news?

FENG: Well, for the most part, people are enthused, so expect a lot of pent-up Chinese tourism to resume next year in Europe, the U.S., Southeast Asia, as Chinese citizens can finally travel internationally again without a quarantine next year. International students outside of China who were locked out when China's borders suddenly closed in early 2020 can now apply for visas and finally get back in and resume their studies. And academics and government officials who had to cut off their in-person exchanges tell me they're thrilled they'll finally be able to interact with people in China. It's one of the biggest, most important countries in the world. And these people want to get a sense of what's going on on the ground, especially as politically China's relationship with the U.S. grew extremely tense throughout the pandemic. And one of the scholars I spoke to who was really excited to visit China again is Neysun Mahboubi. He's a research scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.

NEYSUN MAHBOUBI: In terms of various moments of crisis in U.S.-China relationship, the ballast of having all these students, scholars going back and forth very consistently and being able to share their perspectives in the country that they were visiting and then come back and report on what they found in that country were enormously important.

FENG: Other people in China say they're angry. You know, they're asking online what was the point of nearly three years of painful lockdowns and onerous testing if China was just going to open up suddenly with very little preparation? And also don't expect a sudden rush of people going into China right now, because ironically, it's one of the most likely places you'll get COVID right now.

MARTÍNEZ: That makes a lot of sense. Now, China is dealing with a huge number of infections. So how are they holding up?

FENG: They're not holding up very well. NPR has spent the last month reporting on how hospitals there are extremely overcrowded, mostly from sick elderly who fill the lobbies and quarters of hospitals we visited because beds there have just run out. The number of sick is so overwhelming that ambulance services have not been able to keep up. And the danger now is holiday travel into January means the virus is spreading from cities to rural areas, where the health care system is often quite poor. And these are scenes, I have to emphasize, that are tragically familiar to us in the U.S. and to the rest of the world as we struggled to deal with COVID earlier. But what's different is China bought itself time to prepare its health care system and vaccinate its elderly when it closed borders in 2020. And unfortunately, those preparations don't seem to be sufficient.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Emily Feng. Emily, thanks.

FENG: Thanks.

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MARTÍNEZ: Ukrainian officials say they want to host a peace summit at the United Nations in February. Now, that would be one year since Russia launched its full-scale invasion against Ukraine. The proposal comes just a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine of being unwilling to negotiate an end to the war. NPR's Julian Hayda has been following this from Kyiv. Julian, OK, so what can you tell us about this proposed peace summit?

JULIAN HAYDA, BYLINE: Yeah, so we learned about the summit yesterday in an interview that Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, gave the Associated Press. He said he wants the U.N. to mediate, especially Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, to be part of this mediating team and to have, quote, "everybody on board" with the Ukrainian peace plan. But I got to say, this peace plan sounds a lot more like a list of demands than any peace plan I know of. Ukraine wants Russia to retreat to its prewar borders. They want Crimea back. They want all of their prisoners of war to come home. And they want security guarantees from the West that something like this, this war, never happens again, that Russia is never allowed to invade someone like Ukraine again. And if that's not enough, Kuleba also says that he doesn't even want Russia at the summit until Russian officials are dragged in front of a war crimes tribunal. Now, that takes a really long time to set up. Tribunals like this take years, if not more.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, it seems like a list of demands that at least right now seems unlikely to happen, at least the way Ukraine wants it to happen. So what do you think is really going on here?

HAYDA: Yeah, Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has expressed frustration with the U.N. He's repeatedly chastised them for being ineffective. He partially blames that on the fact that Russia has a seat on the Security Council, something that Ukraine is trying to get taken away from Russia. I think Ukraine is, especially here at the U.N., trying to shore up international support as the war grinds into its second winter. Ukraine wants a broader coalition to help it take on Russia militarily and economically. The Ukrainians want cash, and they want Russia totally isolated. Now, when President Zelenskyy was in Washington last week, he said on a bunch of occasions how much he wants the Global South to join in the sanctions regime against Russia. And he knows that as ineffectual as he accused the U.N. of being, it can make a difference. I mean, look at the grain deal that the U.N. bridged in July, making sure that ships loaded with Ukrainian foodstuffs reach famine-prone countries in Africa and Asia. Zelenskyy's hoping that if he keeps pushing the U.N., he can get some of those member states who are kind of on the fence to back Ukraine.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, let's assume for just a second that they find a way to go ahead with this idea of a peace summit. Any reason at all to think that it could help change the direction of the war?

HAYDA: It's unlikely. Ukraine has been talking for quite a bit about how a negotiated settlement would look. You might remember back in March, Ukrainian and Russian negotiators appeared to be getting pretty close to some sort of negotiated settlement. But Ukraine began to reclaim territory, and all these atrocities began emerging, you might remember, at Bucha. And that was the end of that. I remember going with my NPR colleagues to visit Ukraine's top negotiator in the spring. And this negotiator said, of course Ukraine wants to negotiate, but only after things play out on the battlefield. And that's basically what Kuleba told the AP yesterday. He said, quote, "Every war ends on the battlefield and at the negotiating table."

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Julian Hayda. Thanks a lot.

HAYDA: Thank you.

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MARTÍNEZ: This summer, the federal government told states to stop a little-known practice that hurts families when they're in crisis. It told states to stop sending parents a bill to pay for some of the costs when their children go into foster care. That guidance came after an NPR investigation that showed that bill burdens struggling families in long-term debt and even delays or even prevents parents and children from being reunited. And reunification is considered the best outcome in most cases when children wind up in foster care. NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro joins us now. Joe, you're reporting that this bill for foster care could be a big one and that it hurts parents and children.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: I went to North Carolina, where I met families who got this bill for foster care, this bill that the federal government now says to stop. But when these parents didn't pay, sometimes their kids were taken from them forever, like Courtney and Jeremy Johnson. When their twin sons went into foster care, the county sent them a bill for $17,000. And that's a lot. The Johnsons are going from paycheck to paycheck.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, and this practice of billing parents for foster care comes from a federal law, and it applies to impoverished families.

SHAPIRO: Right, a federal law that's almost 40 years old from a time when government thought people who got welfare needed to show responsibility and share some of the cost. So that's right. This applies only to people poor enough to be eligible for welfare. Courtney and Jeremy Johnson faced allegations of neglect, that they didn't take their sons to medical appointments, and then one of the boys burned his fingers on a barrel of burning trash. The kids went into foster care, and a judge laid out all the things they needed to do to get them back - go to parenting classes. Find a better place to live.

MARTÍNEZ: And that's got to be hard to do when you've got a $17,000 debt to pay off.

SHAPIRO: Exactly. They saved, and they rented a bigger and a better trailer home. They were hopeful the twins were going to come home. In July, the Johnsons went to see the boys to celebrate their 7th birthday. And then shortly after that, the state Supreme Court ruled to take the boys away forever. And not because the Johnsons didn't take those steps to be better parents, but because they didn't pay off that bill for foster care. They never got to see their boys again or to say goodbye. And Courtney wonders what her sons are thinking.

COURTNEY JOHNSON: Did my mom just - did my parents just leave us? Did they just, like, not care? And as a mom, you should be able to fix their pain. And not to be able to fix it, you just try not to think about it.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow. Now, some of the parents you met in North Carolina told you they'd never even been told they owe the money.

SHAPIRO: That's right - parents who weren't told to pay or how much. The Johnsons didn't get a court order to pay until after the county started the proceedings to take away their sons on the grounds that they hadn't paid this debt. I looked at two years of court decisions in North Carolina to end the parents' rights to their child. The failure to pay for foster care comes up in 30% of cases. Most of the time it's included with more serious charges like abuse or abandonment, where there seemed to be good reason to take children. But then there are these other cases where failure to pay was the only reason and often when the argument to take children away wasn't so clear at all. And that's why critics say it's unfair to parents and why they want reform.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Joe Shapiro. Joe, thanks.

SHAPIRO: Thank you, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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