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U.S. Rallies Against Asian-American Violence; AstraZeneca Vaccine Still Suspended In Majority Of European Countries; World Down Syndrome Day; High Vaccine Hesitancy In U.S. Among Republicans; Future Of U.S. Troops In Afghanistan; Major Flooding In Australia; Iceland Monitoring Volcano Activity. Aired 2-3a ET

Aired March 21, 2021 - 02:00   ET




MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hello, everyone, and welcome to Studio 7 here at CNN Center in Atlanta. I am Michael Holmes. Appreciate your company.

Coming up here on CNN NEWSROOM, grief, anger and sheer frustration: cities demanding justice for the killing of eight people, most of them Asian Americans.


GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anyone here think it's a good idea to get the vaccine?

Raise your hand.

Not one person here thinks it's a good idea?

HOLMES (voice-over): We hear from Americans who want nothing to do with the COVID vaccine.


HOLMES: And we meet some children in Syria thriving with Down syndrome despite witnessing the horrors of war of war.


HOLMES: Welcome, everyone.

Americans are banding together this weekend, showing solidarity with the Asian American community, with rallies in cities like Atlanta, where, on Tuesday, a gunman walked into two spas and started shooting.

He'd done the same at a spa just outside of Atlanta, leaving eight dead in total, six of them women of Asian descent. Saturday's rally in Atlanta was similar to the rally in New York City in Times Square, with demonstrators carrying signs, reading, "Stop Asian hate." Crowds in Pittsburgh also gathered to remember Tuesday's victims and to condemn the rise in these kinds of attacks.

Information is coming in about those who were killed. One victim was a single mother of two sons. Another was a licensed massage therapist who had reportedly just returned to work after being laid off because of the pandemic.

Both of Georgia's newly elected Democratic U.S. senators attended Saturday's rally in Atlanta. They and other state leaders publicly condemning the attacks, some calling on law enforcement to categorize the killings as hate crimes.


BEE NGUYEN, GEORGIA STATE REPRESENTATIVE: I do hope that the administration as well as law enforcement will take this as a hate crime and will treat it as a rate crime. What was that our community needs. That is what our community demands and it is simply the truth.



MAYOR KEISHA LANCE BOTTOMS (D), ATLANTA, GA: In Georgia, as you know, a hate crime can be based upon race, it can be based upon sex, it can be based on national origin.

So I will be surprised if hate crime charges are not brought. The acknowledgement that this was a crime built upon hatred for a particular community matters. And I think that it's important that prosecutors and police consider that in making those charges.


HOLMES: Now CNN's Natasha Chen spoke to the family of one of the shooting victims days away from celebrating her 50th birthday. The family said they want justice for the massacre.


NATASHA CHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Four of the eight people killed were here at two different spas in Atlanta. The South Korean foreign ministry identified them as being of Korean descent, one a South Korean citizen who was a U.S. permanent resident. The other three believed to be Americans of Korean descent.

At the third spa location in Cherokee County, one of the victims was Xiaojie Tan. I had an opportunity to sit down with her family and talk about her story. She seemed to build the American dream for herself. She came from China to the U.S. to Florida as a nail technician, worked her way up, moved to Georgia, ended up buying businesses.

She was known as a very hard worker, sometimes working seven days a week, always saving her money and made quite the impression on her customers as being an incredibly friendly person.

I want to share something with you what her daughter said about the experience of Tuesday and waiting to find out the news about her mother. And after you hear from her daughter, Jami, you'll hear from Michael Webb, her ex-husband, talking about how fiercely she defended the legitimacy of her business.


JAMI WEBB, XIAOJIE TAN'S DAUGHTER: I was just hoping that it wasn't my mom, it's not my mom. So I was having this hope that maybe my mom got shot in somewhere else, like maybe on the arms or on somewhere.


J. WEBB: That it wouldn't be like took her life away.

MICHAEL WEBB, XIAOJIE TAN'S FORMER HUSBAND: She never knows what goes on behind closed doors. She made sure that she trained them. They had meetings every week. They had signage. She didn't allow locks on the doors.

She wanted to know where her employees were, who the client -- who the customers were she used to tell me a lot of times she would throw customers out because they would come in and think that they could -- could have sex.

And she would say, get out my business, you know, and she would throw them out. And so, you know, she was a strong mother hen over that business and the people that worked there, she protected it.

CHEN: I had to ask them how they feel about the designation of these attacks as a hate crime, which so many people have been debating. Michael Webb really wanted to make it clear that he wants to allow the investigators to complete their work, and that he didn't want to comment on that specifically.

But Jami did say that she understands where the Asian American communities' fear and anxiety is coming from. They are sensitive to that, but they wanted to emphasize that they'd rather have the authorities make that call without making a statement on that ahead of time -- Natasha Chen, CNN, Atlanta.


HOLMES: It is estimated that California has the largest Asian American population in the U.S. and now legislation is being introduced there to make it easier and safer to report hate crimes. CNN's Paul Vercammen reports from Los Angeles.


PAUL VERCAMMEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You can hear the sounds of a march behind me, the drums. This is Little Tokyo and there are 1.5 million Asian Americans or people of Asian American descent in Los Angeles County.

What leaders have been telling us, whether their roots are in the Philippines, Korea, China or Japan or other countries is, that they have been feeling this target on their backs during this wave of anti- Asian violence.

But they say there's a remedy: the legislative process. One assembly man is looking to pass a bill that would put in place a hotline, where Asians who might be culturally reluctant to report a crime can call the hotline anonymously.

AL MURATSUCHI, CALIFORNIA ASSEMBLY MEMBER: One of the biggest problems in fighting hate crimes is that too many of the incidents are not reported. Many of the victims, they may be reluctant to deal with law enforcement. They may choose not to report incidents even when they're victims.

So we want to make it as easy and as safe as possible for people to even be able to report incidents anonymously. I mean, there are many people in the immigrant community, some that are undocumented. And so we want to make it as easy and safe as possible for people to report these incidents of hate crime.

VERCAMMEN: This vigil in Little Tokyo also focused on the treatment of Asian American seniors, particularly Japanese seniors in some retirement homes. There was an inordinate amount of deaths in two of these homes.

They also don't want to see Japanese Americans transferred or lose their place in any of the homes due to eviction. One thing is for certain, though, we're starting to see this community coalesce, this Asian American community in Los Angeles. And that was evident by what happened on the streets of Los Angeles today -- reporting from Little Tokyo, I'm Paul Vercammen. Back to you.


HOLMES: Paul, thanks.

Some members of the Asian American community say they felt real fear with the spike of Asian American violence. We asked some people of Asian descent to describe their experiences. Here's what they told us.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It must have been a month after lockdowns in New York City.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was going to my car with my cart --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lady started following us --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And this guy in this big giant Suburban almost ran me over. He didn't yield to me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She started screaming things directed at me.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: About all kinds of terrible things.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Go back to China. You're so dirty.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There was a period of time where I didn't want to be Asian at all. I wish I was like some other race because it's like -- it's just so -- I feel so sick of being like, oh, sorry, my gosh, discriminated against.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I hope that this experience allows more people to stand up for us and not just, you know, Asian Americans but anyone in general, who you feel like is being mistreated, just based on who they are, like nothing about them, just their skin color, their gender, their ethnicity. So I really hope people are more proactive and really speak up.



HOLMES: Parts of the U.S. are now on spring break but the coronavirus, of course, certainly is not. The mayor of Miami Beach declaring a state of emergency and ordering a curfew. He says it's because the crowds currently in the area are, quote, "more than we can handle."

Health experts in the U.S. are afraid that another case surge is in the cards, just like we're seeing right now in Europe. But the country's top infectious disease expert is optimistic.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF COVID-19 MEDICAL ADVISER: Vaccines are coming on really well, between 2 and 3 million doses per day are going into people. If we could just hang on a bit longer. The more people get vaccinated, the less likelihood that there is going to be a surge.


HOLMES: Meanwhile, there has been a cancellation of the first game at the NCAA men's basketball tournament, also known as March Madness. The association says it is because there are some COVID-19 issues with Virginia Commonwealth University's basketball team.

The virus is shutting down Europe but thousands of protesters won't hear of it. We are seeing protests against coronavirus measures across Europe, the largest ones in months. People have gathered in Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, Germany, just to name a few and sometimes clashing with police.

They're dealing with a third wave of infections, so some countries have been ordering new restrictions. In London, police arrested at least 3 dozen people.

Europe is relying on AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine but the shot is once again under scrutiny. Denmark investigating two new cases of blood clots that could be linked to the vaccine. Along with Norway, Finland and Sweden, they're putting the vaccine on hold while they look into that. About 20 million people across the region have received the

AstraZeneca product so far. Reports of clotting have been exceedingly rare.

High honors for BioNTech. It developed the first COVID vaccine produced with Pfizer. The married founders were awarded Germany's highest honor, the Knight Commanders Cross. Fred Pleitgen has more.


DR. OZLEM TURECI, BIONTECH: This marriage is a great honor for us and it also is a celebration of science as a problem solver for, in this case, a global health crisis. It also honors the fact that, when we work together internationally, in partnerships and across private- public borders, that important differences can be made.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There's a lot of concern about variants of the novel coronavirus, mutations.

How confident are you that your vaccine will continue to be effective against those mutations?

TURECI: From what we know, based on the scientific data, the current variants, for example, the U.K. variant and the South African variant, we are protected against those with the current version of our vaccine. However, what we also prepare is -- and this is basically to be prepared for tomorrow, in case such a variant of concern would occur -- the process with which we can adapt to a new variant.

The other is that you have to pre-discuss with regulators the process with which you do this. And which basically means we exchange the new sequence against the one we have now and use our RNA platform technology.

PLEITGEN: Of course, right now there's a lot of demand for your vaccine and other vaccines as well.

What of the plans to even further upscale the production to make sure you can meet that global demand?

TURECI: This is new technology. You cannot just repurpose vaccine facilities which are there and you can also not train people very fast. So we are working and turning every stone basically to upscale and roll out our capacities. And continuously we are evaluating. The target we have already set could be overperformed.



HOLMES: Next up on the program, caring for the most vulnerable children of a wartorn country. We'll visit a center for kids with Down syndrome in Syria as we mark World Down Syndrome Day.




HOLMES: Sunday, March 21st, is World Down Syndrome Day, the U.N. choosing the date to signify the condition caused by the triplication of the 21st chromosome, so 321, March 21st. It's a day for raising awareness and advocating for inclusion. Our Arwa Damon visited the only center for children with Down syndrome in wartorn Idlib, Syria.


ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It is hardly what we expected to find but from the moment the children piled off the school bus, we were enchanted. The dingy building, the dark staircase, the tiny classroom, all of it melted away, overtaken by the rare beauty of what is happening there.

As the other children sway and dance to music, Sara keeps her head down. It is her first day.


DAMON (voice-over): She is shy and scared. The other children were like this as well when they first started. Learning tools are shared. It is all they can afford at the center for children with down syndrome, the only one of its kind, in wartorn Idlib. All of the staff here are volunteers, drawn to the center because while Syria's war has eradicated childhood, it has been especially cruel to the most vulnerable.

They finally managed to coax Sarah outside. The isolation, brought on by war, the lack of specific resources meant that many children with Down syndrome regressed while others never learned the basics, like walking, feeding themselves and speaking.

One of the boys plays with our microphone. The children may not be able to articulate what they've been through but they are all well aware of the violence of their surroundings. Abdelkarim (ph) is 6 years old and a total charmer.

DAMON: Apparently, he used to be so shy, he would never come up to people.

(Speaking foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Speaking foreign language).

DAMON: He wasn't even able to say any words. He had lost all of his speech before he came here.

DAMON (voice-over): The center was started by Abdullah Mohammad (ph) seven months ago. He's a pediatric nurse who did a year in a clinic for special needs children before the war. He pays the rent for this tiny space out of his own pocket.

"We are struggling to stay open," his wife and the center's director, says.

But at the same time, we can't let go of the kids, especially not now, not that they have seen the impact they can have, knowing that hundreds more need their help.

Down syndrome is a genetic condition, in which a child has a full or partial extra chromosome. This affects the way the child's brain and body develop. Early intervention can mitigate the majority of the developmental challenges.

But even before the war, that was a struggle.

"One of the many problems is weak muscle development," the physical therapist tells us. She says, "Abdelkarim (ph) should have splints to help his knee joints," but she has to work with the little she has.


DAMON: This is incredible. I mean, we have been here 2 months ago, he wasn't able to walk on his own. They had to carry him through everything. Now intense physical therapy and he's doing so well.

DAMON (voice-over): Years ago, Sarah's parents had put her in school but she was severely bullied. Her mother tried to help her at home and she was doing well until a rocket landed on their house. She was pulled out from under the rubble and hospitalized.

Her parents tell us that, after the strike, she stopped talking. One of the teachers keeps gently urging her to play, comforting her, making her feel safe.

Just 2 hours after she arrived, she is already making friends. She is not alone anymore.

"This is the first time we are seeing her interacting with other kids, bonding," her father said, clearly emotional. "She is still shy with us," he says, "but I'm happy." And then runs off to play outside.

If they were just given the opportunity, these children can grow up to fulfill their potential. War will not stop them. It is what the adults here dream of. It is what they see children with Down syndrome do, in more developed parts of the world. But at least, they have created a space where there is no stigma, a space where there is joy and hope.


HOLMES: And Arwa Damon joins me now live from Turkey.

A powerful story, Arwa. I know you've got your own NGO helping children of war. So you know how hard it can be to get the financial support that's so needed.

How do people help this center if they want to?

DAMON: Yes. It's incredibly difficult to get financial support right now, Michael, especially given the global impact COVID has had on the economy. But for a center like this inside Syria, where the challenge of actually physically getting money are amplified by the fact that this is a region at war. Also the people who started the center, the director and his wife, all the volunteers, they don't know how to navigate the entire nonprofit system.


DAMON: So how to apply for grants, how to create a mechanism to bring in donations online, so they're working on that. They're looking at partnering with another organization that hopefully will have a link set up so people can donate directly.

In the meantime on my Instagram page, @ArwaCNN, in my profile, I've put a link to the organization's Facebook page so people can message them in Arabic but also in English. And what they're hoping is that they will be able to eventually have the funding to reach all of the other children in need and to be able to provide them the sort of quality of education, care, have the resources, where they will be able to grow up and start businesses and basically live to their full potential.

HOLMES: It is depressingly rare to see a positive story, particularly out of that part of the world these days.

Did it give you any sense of hope in that region?

I mean, what's a pretty hopeless environment normally.

DAMON: You know, Michael, I don't know if we walked out of that center with a feeling of hope. But we definitely walked out with an overwhelming emotion. We were all very emotional about what we had witnessed over the course of just two to three hours because of the sheer level of genuine warmth and love that existed among the volunteers, the dedication that they had to what they were doing.

And then also being able to directly witness the impact, I mean, the transformation that Sarah went through, I'm talking about it and I'm still getting goose bumps. To go from that girl with her head down, on the verge of tears, to then blossoming or coming out of her shell to such a degree that she's actually running away from her parents to go outside and play.

It was such a magical experience. And then to think that, if they just had the proper resources, how many other children they could bring into this bubble of safety and warmth and love.

HOLMES: You make that point in the story, that the operators of that center, they have seen the impact that they can have. Hundreds more need their help just in that immediate area. Realistically, we don't want to end on a down note, but, realistically, are they going to get that help, the other kids who aren't at that center?

DAMON: Look, Michael, you know, through the work at my own charity, I've always ended up believing that, if you fight for something hard enough, you will somehow manage to find the resources to access the other children. And my hope is that people who watch this report will realize what's

happening inside this war-torn part of Syria, inside this tiny center, and will be inspired to want to also be a part of the center's journey and of these children's journey.

While on the one hand, it is very hard to find hope when it comes to Syria and trying to get funding in, it's phenomenally, I mean phenomenally more difficult than it is anywhere else in the world, one does have to believe in the kindness of strangers.

I've seen it myself through the reaction to some of the reports that we've done, through the reaction, the response to my own charity. And I do believe, to a certain degree, that people will be so moved by this, that this organization will no longer feel as if it's standing on its own.

HOLMES: Yes, yes. Well, powerful reporting. Important reporting as always. Do check out Arwa Damon's Instagram page there. Good to see you, my friend. Thanks for the report.

We'll be right back.





HOLMES: And welcome back to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world. Appreciate your company. I'm Michael Holmes. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM.

Leaders across the globe are trying to convince as many people as possible, of course, to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Here in the U.S., the White House is having to change its messaging, because of vaccine hesitancy, among Republicans specifically. And that has experts concerned.

CNN has learned that a new PR campaign could launch as early as next week focusing on just that. Now the latest CNN poll found 92 percent of Democrats say they have gotten a dose of the vaccine or plan to get one, while only half of Republicans say the same.

So what is behind all of this?

Well, Gary Tuchman visited an Oklahoma town that overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump and asked the people there why they had doubts about the vaccine.


TUCHMAN (voice-over): It's breakfast time in Boise City, Oklahoma and I have this question.


TUCHMAN (on camera): Does anybody in this restaurant think it's a good idea to take the vaccine?


TUCHMAN: Raise your hand if you think it's a good idea. Anyone here, it's a good idea to take the vaccine, raise your hand if you think it's a good idea.

Not one person here thinks it's a good idea? Complete quiet.


TUCHMAN (voice-over): Boise City is the county seat of sparsely populated Cimarron County, Oklahoma, where 92 percent of the voters chose Donald Trump on Election Day, the highest percentage in a state where all 77 counties went for Trump.


TUCHMAN (on camera): What do you think about the vaccine? Are you going to take the vaccine?


TUCHMAN: Tell me why.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I don't trust the government and I don't trust Biden.


TUCHMAN (voice-over): Chad (ph) and Misty Hughes (ph) are husband and wife, neither of them plan to get the vaccine.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just don't want to.

TUCHMAN (on camera): Why don't you want to, if you don't mind me asking?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because when I take the flu shot, I usually get the flu, so there's no reason to take it.

TUCHMAN: So are you saying you think you'll get COVID by taking the COVID vaccine?


TUCHMAN: Why are you thinking that? The research doesn't show that at all. It shows it keeps people safe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's just my choice.


TUCHMAN (voice-over): These women are sisters and they too are doubters.


TUCHMAN (off camera): Why are you doubtful?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They just started rolling them out.

TUCHMAN: Well, yes, but they - I mean, this has been a worldwide effort by great doctors.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. They claim that the flu can be cured, but still hundreds of thousands of people die from the flu.

TUCHMAN: Well, yes, a lot of people die from the flu but not nearly as much as COVID. This is a horrible pandemic and this is like an amazing vaccine. These vaccines have come out, they're saving lives.


TUCHMAN: Do you believe?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No. I would just agree to disagree on this subject, I guess.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm just not. I'm not going to take it.

TUCHMAN: What if President Trump came out and was very robust and said take the vaccine. I took it even though I didn't tell anybody about it was kind of done secretly, but I think you should take it. He's said it a little bit but he hasn't been robust about it. If he was robust and said take it, would you?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Trump is a liberal New Yorker. Why would we listen to him either?

TUCHMAN: Did you vote for him?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was the best option.


TUCHMAN (voice-over): No matter where we went, enthusiasm for the vaccine wasn't easy to find, despite this front-page pronouncement.


TUCHMAN (on camera): Yes. So this is the Boise City News, your newspaper and here's an article, COVID vaccines are available in your hospital. They want people to get them. Are you going to get one?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I really don't ever get vaccines.


TUCHMAN (voice-over): We did find the boss in the grocery store though who gave us a different answer but with a caveat.


TUCHMAN (off camera): Are you going to take the vaccine?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have taken it.

TUCHMAN: And what made you decide to take it?


(END VIDEO CLIP) TUCHMAN: Gary Tuchman, CNN, Boise City, Oklahoma.



HOLMES: Now there is anecdotal evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine can help coronavirus long haulers. Those are the people who are still suffering symptoms many months after their diagnosis. It's not yet clear exactly how many people developed long COVID but some of them only had mild cases.

Doctors say the condition goes way beyond the standard post viral syndrome.

Let's talk more about this with Amanda Finley, a long hauler herself. She started a digital long haul discussion group that now has more than 12,000 members.

Amanda, you have had such a long and difficult journey with long COVID.

Along with others, you feel getting the vaccine actually helped you deal with it?

AMANDA FINLEY, COVID-19 LONG HAULER: Yes, surprisingly, we have been telling our members, it's a research and science based group. It's moderated by researchers, physicians, public health workers. We have been telling them, the vaccine will not fix your symptoms but when it started to, we were taken aback.

When it happened to me, I had to accept that this is actually happening to about a third of. Us

HOLMES: That's extraordinary. We should point out, it's anecdotal at the moment, we have to say there is not definitive evidence that the vaccine helps with that. We all hope it does and you are by far not the only one that it has

helped. I read you said you carry with you 12,000 stories because of this Facebook group that has 12,000 members. Although you got professionals in it, there are just a lot of ordinary people who seem to be crowdsourcing information while the scientists are getting to the bottom of it.

Tell me how important the group has been to the members.

FINLEY: Well, I thought I was alone at first. And every single person who joins the group, they say the same thing. They just assume that their symptoms are taking longer and it's not until we start comparing notes online that we realize we are not alone.

When I formed the group, I thought maybe I would find 50 people.


FINLEY: I wasn't expecting 12,000. But it's so important because we have been bringing in all these -- and like you said, it is anecdotal at this point. But because we do have researchers in the group, we are now actually applying for grant funding from the National Institutes of Health and other sources so we can have a solid base of research to start from.


HOLMES: Hopefully it is real. And bear with me, for people who don't know about long haul COVID-19, I want to read some quotes from experts.

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, he said this, quote, "I worry that we are really just seeing the tip of the iceberg when we think about long COVID-19, that there is going to be a lot of disability, a lot of suffering that's going to be with us for a long time."

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who everyone knows, he said, quote, "This is real, this is not imaginary, these are people whose symptoms are real, profound fatigue, muscle aches, temperature dysregulation, unexplainable tachycardia and what people refer to as brain fog."

Do you feel now, because on this program, we've covered it from very early when people started to recognize this, do you feel that now the recognition is there for the condition?

Because a lot of people thought they were treated like they were crazy.

FINLEY: Oh, yes. I think we have a certain tagword, that if someone says it, it automatically sends an alert to people. Anxiety it's just -- so many have been told anxiety.

I had to send a message to my own cardiologist when he casually brought up anxiety and I said, well, professionally speaking, you should never use that in reference to a long hauler. Going forward, no, that is not what is going on. I know you don't know

what's going on. But let's keep digging until we figure it out.

HOLMES: It certainly is real. That seems apparent to me. I saw one infectious disease expert saying, we know the questions; we have no answers. The illness, in terms of the long haul, still has so many unknowns.

What more do you want to see done to help long COVID sufferers?

FINLEY: The big thing right now, especially for long COVID sufferers, number one, we really need to re-examine some of the post COVID clinics, many require you to have a positive test to have access to that clinic.

But what about the thousands of us who were sick before there was access to testing?

That was me. I was sick on March 6th of 2020. Here, in Kansas City, we didn't have tests available until March 26th. I had a lot of people who didn't believe me. I shouldn't be happy about having had it a second time, because now I have a positive test. So if I need access to a post COVID clinic, I can get that.

There are thousands who cannot, because they don't have a positive test.


HOLMES: Amanda Finley, who runs a COVID-19 long hauler's group, speaking with me earlier.

Donald Trump's deal with the Taliban causing headaches for the Biden administration. Why critics say a full U.S. troop withdrawal by May 1st as agreed might not be possible.





HOLMES: Welcome back.

Just before leaving office, former U.S. president Donald Trump negotiated with the Taliban to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May the 1st. But that is far from a simple task. Some in Congress don't like the idea. Last week President Biden himself admitted it would be tough to pull all troops out of the country by that date.

While his administration may be considering a new deadline, no decision has been made.


GEN. LLOYD AUSTIN, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I'm aware of the various speculation that the president has made a decision on keeping troops there until November.

I'm a pretty prominent guy in those discussions typically and, to my knowledge, the president has not made a decision or made any announcements about when he will decide to remove the troops.



HOLMES: Now U.S. politicians, military officials and others are chiming in on what a troop drawdown right now in Afghanistan would mean. Some say the country is still too unstable, a criticism supported by one U.S. government watchdog agency. It just released a report showing Taliban attacks are actually increasing.

The report goes on to say security remains the most crucial and enduring high risk area for Afghanistan because the Taliban have not, significantly, changed their tactics, high levels of violence or political objectives. And terrorist groups in Afghanistan, like Islamic State and Al Qaeda, although reduced, do remain in the country.


HOLMES: Lisa Curtis is a senior fellow and director of the Indo- Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. She's also a former CIA analyst, joining me from Washington.

This report by the inspector general for Afghanistan, reconstruction, pretty concerned on a lot of levels, all sorts of concerns about what would happen if the U.S. stuck to that May 1 withdrawal. Now the Biden administration is looking at a 6 month delay.

What do you see are the major risks with a precipitous pullout?

LISA CURTIS, SENIOR FELLOW, CENTER FOR A NEW AMERICAN SECURITY: I think if the U.S. were to go down to zero by the May 1st deadline in the Doha agreement, even though, of course, the Taliban has not lived up to its end of the agreement, which is that they have not reduced violence and they still have links to Al Qaeda.

But if the U.S. were to fully withdraw U.S. troops, we are likely to see the Taliban retake the country, probably within a year's time, and the reemergence of the terror safe haven. The U.S. would lose global credibility, not to mention, the empowerment of a generation of terrorists that would, likely, converge on Afghanistan.

And, we would likely have to send back troops within a few years, just like we had to do in Iraq when ISIS rose in the country in 2014.

HOLMES: You make great points there. When it comes to the Taliban -- and it's all noble to talk of power sharing governments and a continuation of democracy and women's rights and so on.

Correct me if I am wrong, Taliban actions and statements on the ground, giving every indication that they is still committed to sharia law and rule by force.

Why should we have any faith that they would respect the changes made to civil society since their overthrow post 9/11 rather than, as you point, take over again?

CURTIS: I think that is right. We see no indication that the Taliban is interested in a genuine peace process over the last year. In fact, we heard from the special inspector general last week, when he testified before Congress, that violence levels by the Taliban, actually, are higher in 2020 than they were in 2019.

The Taliban has been targeting civilians, human rights workers, journalists; those targeted killings have also increased. As I mentioned, the Taliban have also not broken from Al Qaeda. We can see that Al Qaeda training is still happening in Taliban areas.

So we see no indication that they are living up to any kinds of the commitments that they made in the Doha agreement.

HOLMES: I was in Kabul, just after the Taliban were thrown out post 9/11. I saw firsthand the impacts their rule had on women and children's education, so many other things, from the music, to the film industry.

If there is a pull out, how responsible would the U.S. be for, as you point out, in a year or two or 3, that the country would be run as it was pre-9/11?

CURTIS: I think that is definitely a concern. There have been a lot of changes, as you said. Women are engaged in all parts of society. They are going to school, they are working, they are running NGOs.

But unfortunately, that could quickly change if the Taliban were to come back. I point to the situation a few years ago, when the Taliban were able to take over the provincial capital for 2 weeks. And the first thing they did was target women who were working in the NGOs, women that were working on women's rights, health care issues, etc.

So it tells you something. I don't think we have seen a great deal of change in the Taliban's attitudes towards women and anybody who has been participating in the new Afghanistan, who has been working in the media, who has been part of the legislature, the elected government, even the workers in the government.

So I think this is something that is a real problem and is a real threat.

HOLMES: The Afghan government have become so reliant on outside money and help, the training and security often by U.S. forces but often, the manpower and expertise provided by thousands, literally, of contractors. I remember in the report, they said that if that support went,

Afghanistan's air force would be grounded within months through lack of maintenance and ability. That is one example.

How dependent is the Afghan state on the foreign presence and crucially, money?

There are no good options for the U.S. here.

CURTIS: I think the Afghan security forces have improved their capabilities quite a bit. They are quite an effective force and they could stand up for a while, I think, in the absence of U.S. support. It might be that if the U.S. were to withdraw troops from the country but continue financial support it would, certainly, help the Afghan forces.

But you are right. In terms of maintaining equipment and the air force, that would certainly be a problem. They certainly do rely on U.S. airstrikes, which we have continued to conduct when needed. So that would be a major loss for them.

So that is why, I think, it is important for the U.S. to keep a small force presence there to support the Afghans, to backstop the peace process. There is a chance we can continue to encourage the Taliban to stay in the peace talks. We do have leverage. They would like their leaders to be delisted from the U.N. sanctions list.

And, also, some leaders in Doha have enjoyed the international legitimacy that they have gotten through the talks. So I think there is a way to keep a small force presence in the country but also keep the peace talks going.

HOLMES: A crucial few months ahead for Afghanistan and the gains that have been made. Lisa Curtis, got to leave it there, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

CURTIS: Thank you.


HOLMES: Severe weather warnings in Australia after days of torrential rain, thousands fleeing rising waters. Officials say it won't end soon and is a one in 100 year event. We'll have the latest.





HOLMES: Thousand of people in Australia on the East Coast forced to evacuate due to severe flooding. There's a house that was swept away by floodwaters. This is in New South Wales. A weather system bringing days of torrential widespread rain, several dams in the area already at or above capacity.



HOLMES: Meteorologists in Iceland are closely monitoring volcanic activity after that volcano erupted Friday. Officials say the eruption is limited and lava flows, like what you see there on your screen, are not expected to cause any damage.

Rain in the area also helping to minimize the effects of gas pollutants in the air, according to the Icelandic Meteorology Office. The lava spans less than one square kilometer. The volcano had been dormant for 800 years, until springing to life this weekend.

I'm Michael Holmes. Really appreciate you spending part of your day with me. Follow me on Instagram and Twitter @Holmes CNN. My colleague, Kim Brunhuber, will have more on CNN NEWSROOM in just a moment.