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    A man in a Myanmar village advocates against men battering their wives

    Ko Aung Lin, a father of three boys, knows exactly what violence against women is because he has committed it himself. Now, he has set out to persuade other men about just how wrong it is.

    Ko Aung Lin, a father of three boys, knows exactly what violence against women is because he has committed it himself. “I once hit my wife when we quarreled, and I never thought it was wrong,” he said.

    Now Ko Aung Lin has volunteered to try to persuade other men that it is indeed wrong, that the domineering-male tradition and culture that they grew up in needs to be changed.

    Ko Aung Lin, a 36-year-old famer and a member of the Mro ethnic group, lives in Ah Htet Myat Lay village, Ponnagyun Township, in Sittwe of Rakhine state in Myanmar’s far west. He is the only man among the 10 volunteers chosen in Rakhine for a joint project by UN Women and United Nations Population Fund to prevent violence against women and girls and help survivors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Following a training he received, Ko Aung Lin and the nine women volunteers set out to speak to some 400 people in 20 villages in Ponnagyun township about respecting their partners and to abhor violence.

    The project also involves helping 740 survivors of violence get work and earn incomes and giving cash transfers to another 420 survivors and women at risk of violence so they can be better protected. In addition, the project will refer survivors to legal counsel and psycho-social support services.

    Violence against women deeply entrenched in men’s minds

    Violence against women appears to be an all-too-common problem in Myanmar. At least 21 per cent of ever-married women have experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence from their spouses, according to the Myanmar Demographic and Health survey of 2015-2016. The survey said only 7.8 per cent of survivors 15-19 years old had sought help.

    Ko Aung Lin said the volunteers’ training made him think more about on his own actions and attitudes. He said that he will focus on men and boys when he does the outreach sessions in his village..

    “Being a man myself, I think it will be easier to organize and facilitate this session, and they can also relate to me,” he said.

    “Men think that once you marry a woman, you own her, and that if she doesn’t listen to you, you can blame her and hit her,” he said. “This thinking needs to change. It will be challenging, but to advocate to men and boys to change their perception needs a consistent long-term approach.”

    Customs and cultures

    Ko Aung Lin said his culture sees a woman’s role as being a wife who bears and cares for the children. He said that violence between married couples is common in his village but “men do not think that gender-based violence issues need to be brought up for discussion.”

    He described instances in which husbands could not control their tempers or drank too much, broke the doors when they came home, and beat their wives. In one case, a man beat his wife unconscious.

    And conflicts over gender-based violence are still resolved through customary means, Ko Aung Lin said.

    “Rather than reporting the cases, people pay money or offer livestock to the survivors to solve the issues,” he said. “These practices need to change because the survivors do not get justice through this traditional solution.”

    “My sons are very young, but I will teach them to respect women and girls,” Ko Aung Lin said. “As their father, I have to make myself a good example for them and show respect to my wife and to them, and not use violent means.”

    WHO funding model ‘left world ill-prepared’ for COVID

    Two letters, both signed by global health leaders and non-profits have called on the WHO leadership to review its funding strategy. The signatories have urged member states to pay higher contributions to safeguard global health and have asked for a consensus on this to be reached before the world health assembly in May.

    By Ruth Douglas / SciDev.Net

    A key meeting of the WHO’s executive board has spawned an upswell of calls to overhaul the UN agency’s funding, with leaders saying failure to invest in global health left the world ill-prepared for the COVID-19 “tsunami of suffering”.

    A letter signed by a host of leaders including Helen Clark and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, co-chairs of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, and Gordon Brown, WHO Ambassador for Global Health Financing, decried the world’s “ailing approach to investing in global public health, and universal health coverage”, laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic.

    They said repeated warnings to strengthen defences against pandemics had been ignored, “leaving the world dreadfully ill-prepared almost two years ago for the tsunami of suffering to come”.

    “The funding problems of the WHO are not new, but rather have been playing out over decades,” they wrote in the widely published letter. “They are symptomatic of an overall failure to invest sufficiently in global public health. This must stop now.”

    Advocates for change say the health body is currently both underfunded and financially constrained. Only 16 per cent of the WHO’s finances currently derive from governments’ membership dues, with “no strings attached”, the letter explains.

    “The overwhelming remainder is provided as voluntary contributions, often with tight and sometimes restrictive conditions.”

    Limited, unpredictable financing

    The issue of financing was being discussed at the 150th meeting of the executive board running from 24-29 January.

    A separate letter, sent to board members on 22 January and undersigned by more than 50 non-profit organisations, said: “Every major international review panel that has assessed the COVID-19 pandemic has identified WHO’s limited and unpredictable financing as a needed area for reform.

    “The world needs a strong, sustainably financed WHO that is not subject to the political influence of its donors or the whims of funding flows.”

    However, the WHO’s biggest funder, the United States, has been cautious of calls to increase the “no strings attached” funding, instead preferring to continue most of its funding through voluntary contributions, allowing it to check the money was used for the purposes it was given.

    After panic, comes neglect

    It comes against a backdrop of longstanding US wariness over the WHO, which culminated in President Donald Trump announcing his intention to withdraw from the WHO in 2020 due to concerns over Chinese influence during the pandemic, a move reversed by his successor Joe Biden.

    However, Kate Dodson, vice president for global health strategy at the UN Foundation, who delivered this letter on behalf of signatories, told SciDev.Net that the “vast majority” of WHO member states were keen to progress improvements to the way the WHO is financed.

    “But member states need to act on full consensus on this,” she added. “Majority won’t alone prevail. If they don’t act by May 2022’s World Health Assembly, this agenda may succumb to the common maxim: after panic, comes neglect. We may miss this window.”

    The executive board meeting saw WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus nominated uncontested for a second term in a procedural vote on Tuesday. He will almost certainly be re-elected at the World Health Assembly in May.

    Need a formula that will sustain WHO capacities

    Congratulating him on Twitter, WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said the WHO, as the only global health agency, needed sustainable finance “to deliver on its huge mandate”.

    Lawrence Gostin, director of the WHO Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, in the US, told SciDev.Net that the WHO’s budget was “wholly incommensurate with its global responsibilities”.

    “Its budget is less than the size of many US teaching hospitals and one-fourth the funding that CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) gets,” he explained.

    “The funding WHO needs isn’t a lot for rich countries like the US and European countries,” he added. “We currently have the WHO we deserve because we give it so little funding. We need a formula that will sustain WHO capacities to fight this pandemic and for future health emergencies.”

    Lawrence Gostin, director of the WHO Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, in the US, told SciDev.Net that the WHO’s budget was “wholly incommensurate with its global responsibilities”.

    “Its budget is less than the size of many US teaching hospitals and one-fourth the funding that CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] gets,” he explained.

    “The funding WHO needs isn’t a lot for rich countries like the US and European countries,” he added. “We currently have the WHO we deserve because we give it so little funding. We need a formula that will sustain WHO capacities to fight this pandemic and for future health emergencies.”

    Donations appeal

    WHO Member States leading on the sustainable finance agenda came up with a set of recommendations in November. These include stepwise increases in assessed contributions from Member States to 50 per cent of the base budget by 2029 – roughly doubling most members’ contributions.

    Voluntary contributions should also have a higher degree of flexibility, the draft report of the Working Group on Sustainable Financing suggested.

    Additionally, improvements in transparency around budget setting and prioritisation by the WHO Secretariat is needed, believes Dodson, as well as a close look at budget efficiencies.

    “The blueprint is there,” she said. “And … the vast majority of Member States support it. But there are some fence-sitters and some detractors … who need to continue to be persuaded this is the path toward a stronger, higher performing World Health Organization.”

     

    This piece has been sourced from SciDev.Net

     

    Image: WHO

    When will countries ever learn how well to do fuel subsidy reforms?

    For resource rich countries like Kazakhstan, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nigeria, subsidized energy, especially from fossil fuels, is one of the few tangible ways by which citizens can feel that they have a claim to a national resource.

    By Anit Mukherjee and Alan Gelb / IPS

    Consider the situation. Faced with growing fiscal stress, the government of an energy exporting country decides to cut generous subsidies, doubling the fuel price overnight.

    Protesters are out on the streets, clashing violently with security forces called in to maintain law and order. They vent their frustration not only with rising fuel prices but also with living costs, lack of social services, crumbling infrastructure, corruption and political repression.

    Faced with the prospect of a popular uprising, the government backtracks on reforms and re-institutes subsidies, postponing the hard decisions for a later date.

    This is Kazakhstan in 2022. It is also Ecuador in 2019, Nigeria in 2012, Bolivia in 2010, Indonesia in 2005 and several other energy exporters which have tried to end, or at least reduce, fuel subsidies over the last two decades.

    The list will grow significantly if we include importers who are more exposed to the vagaries of international energy prices. What is interesting is that the story plays out in almost exactly the same way, and the consequences of both action – and inaction – are very similar as well.

    For resource rich countries like Kazakhstan, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nigeria, subsidized energy, especially from fossil fuels, is one of the few tangible ways by which citizens can feel that they have a claim to a national resource.

    While the level of subsidies varies, at some $228 dollars per head or 2.6% of GDP in 2020, those of Kazakhstan are high but not the highest among exporters. In a situation where the government is generally perceived to be repressive, incompetent and corrupt, food and fuel subsidies keep a lid on deeper grievances. It is economically damaging but politically expedient, a delicate equilibrium that many countries have sought to manage over the last several decades – with little success.

    Arbitrage between subsidized and market prices

    Our research has shown that there is a better way to do energy subsidy reform. Providing direct cash transfers to compensate for the rise in energy prices can be a “win-win” solution. To put it simply, energy compensatory transfers (ECT) enable households, especially the poor and the vulnerable, to absorb the shock and reallocate resources as per their needs.

    By removing the arbitrage between subsidized and market prices, ECTs can also reduce corruption, improve distribution and incentivize efficient use of energy. Countries like Iran, India, Jordan and the Dominican Republic have been relatively successful in this type of reform, and their experience holds lessons for other countries that choose to embark on this path.

    Digital technology can help significantly to identify beneficiaries, provide them necessary guidance and information, and transfer payments directly to individuals and households. Three key enablers of ECTs are an identification system with universal coverage of the population, strong communications and wide access to financial accounts.

    Multiple databases can be cross-checked to verify eligibility norms and grievance redressal systems can help reduce exclusion of genuine beneficiaries. As shown, for example, by India’s LPG subsidy reform, countries can progressively tighten the eligibility criteria over time to target the poorest sections of the population.

    Finally, ECTs can provide the impetus for a more transparent and accountable system of subsidy management, helping improve public confidence and support to the government’s reform agenda over the long run.

    Direct compensation are more transparent

    So, why don’t more countries follow this approach? For one, most energy subsidy reforms are pushed forward in times of economic crisis. ECTs require political commitment, openness to engage in public dialogue, building consensus among stakeholders and powerful vested interests, setting up implementation systems and working across different government ministries, departments and agencies.

    Direct compensation is also more transparent than the frequently opaque systems of price subsidization that favor the rich, with their higher energy consumption, even if justified by the need to protect the poor.

    ECTs are not simple solutions and often require time to be put in place. On the surface, it may seem simpler to just raise energy prices overnight through an administrative order. But the payoffs are significant in terms of sustainability, economic outcomes, social cohesion and political stability.

    The sooner countries can take a longer term approach, the better will they be able to manage the transition to a more sustainable system that supports those who need it most.

    Kazakhstan is the first country in 2022 to see popular unrest due to fuel price hike. It almost certainly would not be the last.

    Anit Mukherjee is a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. Alan Gelb is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.

     

    This piece has been sourced from Inter Press Service

    Image: World Bank/Shynar Jetpissova

    Budget 2022: Renewable energy sector seeks duty cuts, expanded PLI scheme

    Apart from supporting India’s nascent renewable energy sector, Budget 2022 will seek to create a fiscal roadmap for achieving the country’s net zero commitment and emission targets.

    By Shashwat Kumar and Amitanshu Saxena

    At the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) held in Paris, India had committed to achieve 40 per cent of its installed electricity capacity from non-fossil energy sources by 2030. This was also one of India’s nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. India successfully achieved this renewable energy target in December 2021, which is an impressive nine years ahead of the deadline.

    Keeping in line with its plan to become a global leader in energy transition drive, India made five major commitments at the recently held COP26 in Glasgow which include an undertaking to achieve net-zero emissions by 2070 and to increase its non-fossil energy capacity to 500 GW by 2030.

    Keeping these targets and NDCs in sight, the Budget 2022 can set up a fiscal framework for achieving these targets. The Budget has to address certain issues that are necessary for the growth of the renewable energy sector. For example, this year’s budget is critical as clarifications are needed on the imposition of the basic customs duty on imports of solar cells and modules, as there appears to be a lot of apprehension around the same since the announcement made in the last budget.

    Customs burden on renewable energy sector

    On March 9 2021, the ministry of new and renewable energy stated that its proposal of 40 per cent customs duty on solar modules and 25 per cent on solar cells has been accepted by the Union government. It is now expected that the customs rates may be finalised and introduced in Budget 2022.

    While this may be of some support to the domestic solar module and cell manufacturers after the withdrawal of safeguard duty on solar cells and modules, this new duty will result in the rise of project costs and consequently, increase in tariffs. The only positive is that with firmed up customs duty rates, renewable energy developers and procurers can plan accordingly.

    In addition to the above, a clarification on the imposition of customs duty on procurement of cells/modules from manufacturers located in special economic zones (SEZs) will be helpful for solar project developers. A substantial chunk of manufacturing units in India (63 per cent of solar cell and 43 per cent of solar panel) are located in SEZs. If the duty is imposed, it will undermine its very purpose as the price advantage offered to the domestic manufacturers will not be available to units located in SEZs.

    Production linked incentives

    It will also be interesting to see what steps the government will take in the Budget to ensure a balanced approach. One possible way can be by expanding the production linked incentives (PLI) scheme for high-efficiency solar module manufacturing to encourage an increase in production capacities of the domestic industry and thereby reducing dependence on imports.

    In November 2021, the ministry had proposed an additional allocation of Rs 19,500 crore under the PLI scheme to the already approved amount of Rs 4,500 crore. As per the initial outlay of Rs 4,500 crore, the selected companies will establish around 12 GW of manufacturing capacity in the country. In the PLI scheme, the incentive amount is awarded post commissioning of the manufacturing facility for a period of five years.

    The PLI incentive amount is based on several factors including the actual sales of solar modules, the maximum capacity awarded to the bidder (limited to the lesser of the two) and efficiency of the solar modules produced. Moreover, if the bidder sources its raw materials from the domestic market it will be eligible for a further increase in the incentive amount for the increased local value addition.

    The PLI scheme has been a huge success in the electronics manufacturing industry and if the proposal to expand the scheme is accepted in Budget 2022, it will strengthen India’s efforts to support the domestic industry in line with government’s Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative.

    In other important and upcoming sub-sectors related to energy, the Union government must consider (a) introduction of incentives that will promote domestic manufacturers of solar raw materials to build a strong and self-dependent domestic ecosystem; (b) a substantial allocation for research and development to help the national hydrogen mission; and (c) a significant decision on electric vehicles as the industry is in a nascent stage and has potential for exponential growth.

     

    Shashwat Kumar is Partner and Amitanshu Saxena Associate at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co.

    This piece has been sourced from Policy Circle — policycircle.org

    Image: Hippopx. Licensed under Creative Commons Zero – CC0

    Transforming a ghost village with hill-centric livelihood and tourism opportunities

    An Uttarakhand government scheme to create employment opportunities for returning migrants during the pandemic did not benefit many. Climate-resilient livelihood options are needed for the sustainable development and to stop distress migration.

    By Archana Singh

    India’s northern state of Uttarakhand, known as the Land of Gods, is facing the dual challenge of climate change and migration. The incidence of glacier bursts, flash floods, unseasonal torrential rains, forest fires, and landslides have swelled in the state. The dwindling population is another crisis that is making life harder for the residents.

    Climate change is driving temperatures up dramatically, especially in the higher elevations. As per a recent study conducted by the Germany-based Potsdam Institute for Climate Research (PIK) and The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), Uttarakhand’s annual average maximum temperature may increase by 1.6-1.9 degrees Celsius between 2021 and 2050. The residents of Uttarakhand are already experiencing the effects of climate change such as changing seasons, less snowfall during winters, disappearing glaciers, upward-moving snowlines, and unpredictable rainfall, as mentioned in the state government’s action plan on climate change.

    A combination of these factors has increased the intensity of landslides, avalanches, rockfall and has amplified water shortage, changed the crop cycles, shifted cultivation zones for specific crops and decreased the crop yields. A state where most of the population is agrarian and depends solely on rainfed agriculture, Uttarakhand finds it difficult to control distress migration.

    According to India’s census from 2011, more than four million people – about 40 per cent of the population of Uttarakhand – have migrated from the hilly state, due to which an increasing number of villages in Uttarakhand have become uninhabited, and some districts such as Pauri, Garhwal and Almora are witnessing negative population growth. According to a 2018 survey by the Uttarakhand Migration Commission, 734 villages in the state have become uninhabited since 2011, and are often referred to as ghost villages. This dual crisis of climate change and distress migration is likely to worsen for Uttarakhand over the next 30 years.

    Over a lakh returnd to cities

    The COVID-19 pandemic brought a temporary respite from distress migration by catalysing the reverse migration trend. According to the data released by Uttarakhand Migration Commission in September 2020, around 327,000 migrants returned to the state in 2020. The Uttarakhand State Government launched Mukhyamantri Swarojgar Yojana in May 2020 to create employment opportunities for returning migrants. The scheme aimed to provide 15-25 per cent investment subsidies to returning migrants who wanted to start new services, businesses, and micro industries for self-employment. However, despite the state government’s initiative, more than one lakh (100,000) migrants returned to cities after the pandemic situation improved.

    Mongabay-India interacted with some migrants who returned to their villages in the recent past. Dheeraj Rawat, a resident of Pauri says, “I returned to Pauri last year in October, after 15 years, to set up my own business. But after trying for months, I gave up the idea. Getting a loan sanctioned under the Mukhyamantri Swarojgar Yojana, was very tough, involved too much paperwork, never-ending bureaucracy and the banks required collateral to disburse a loan. It seemed easier to find a job in metros than to go through all the hassle.”

    Rakesh Rawat, a returning migrant of Satyakhal village in Pauri who set up his own poultry business availing the scheme however, could not reap any benefits. He shares his experience, “The scheme is short-sighted and good on paper, as it provides only subsidised loans, that too, to a select few – mostly the economically well-off. The government doesn’t provide any on-ground support, and small businesses like us cannot survive against established players. I learnt it the hard way.” Nonetheless, not all Uttarakhandi people left the state. Some have restarted their life without the help of the government.

    Reviving an abandoned village

    Four years back, Major Gorki Chandola left his city life to settle down permanently in his ancestorial village – Rawat gaon in Pauri Garhwal. Ironically, Pauri is both the most educated and the most abandoned district in Uttarakhand.

    Sharing his reason for return, Major Chandola narrates, “Having grown up in a village, I knew that my kids would miss clean air, healthy organic food and an active lifestyle, if we lived in the city. So, we decided to move to Rawat gaon, where there were hardly 10-15 people but huge acres of land available for their holistic growth.” His 12-year-old daughter is enrolled in the same school where he studied, and his six-year-old son treks for hours without complaining. The family has adopted the village’s self-sustenance model, where they grow what they eat and eat what they produce. While they have all city comforts in their house, including a Wi-Fi connection and a Netflix subscription, they prefer to spend more time outdoors, than indoors.

    Thanks to Major Chandola’s efforts, the locality that once looked like a ghost town, now looks lively. The road that leads to the village has been properly laid, and the crumbling houses have been restored. Abandoned farms are being used for farming, and outgrown tree branches have been pruned. A rainwater harvesting plant has been installed and new water channels are being created for irrigation. Employment and recreation centres have been set up for youth and migrants of neighbouring villages.

    But this transformation didn’t come easy. The biggest challenge for Major Chandola was to attract the migrants back to the village. “I know migration is a big issue and I can’t solve it, but I can play a part by creating hill-centric and climate-resilient livelihood options. It’s straightforward – if you provide people opportunities to work, they will not not migrate. So, I started looking at traditional practices in agriculture, construction, and tourism,” explains Major Chandola.

    Hill-centric livelihood options – construction, agriculture and tourism

    Chandola started by restoring his own house made of stone and mud which was centuries-old and reviving his abandoned fields. A former army officer doubled overnight as a farmer, a plumber, a mason, and anything that came with the job. Four years of disciplined efforts resulted in a bumper crop of over thirty varieties of fruit and vegetable – onions, garlic, lemongrass, pulses, peas, beans, ladyfinger, guavas, mangoes and more. Using scientific methods, he started growing fruit and vegetables, like lychee, tangerine, apples, and plum, that had almost vanished from the area due to rising temperatures in the last 10-15 years. Using traditional farming practices and scientific solutions, he has set up many poly houses to grow vegetables and medicinal herbs in the pollution-free environment. He doesn’t use any fertilisers and adds only cow dung manure.

    Major Chandola plans to experiment more with the crops and provide employment to the local community, with the business Pathaal Agro in the coming years through which he plans to grow and sell 100% organic food products. He has also set up ‘Pathaal Homestay’ to give city dwellers a taste of the village life in an entirely offbeat area where tourism is almost non-existent. The materials used in the construction of the homestay are completely sustainable with the rooms made of stone, mud, and wood. His wife, Deepti Chandola, an interior designer, painter, and gardener, has helped him and together, they have restored over four ancestorial houses and revived the lost practices in construction.

    “When we arrived here four years back, we realised that the old construction practice of building stone-mud-wood houses that sustain even earthquakes was being forfeited for modern cement-and-brick houses. We couldn’t find masons who still used old techniques. So, we had to train them to employ traditional practices that are no longer in use; such as using urad daal (split black lentils) for binding instead of cement. Urad dal is a natural binding agent and keeps the house warm during winters and cold during summers. All the paintings that we’ve hung on the walls of the homestay are painted by me using traditional dyes and designs,” expounds Deepti Chandola.

    Omprakash Chandola, 56, a native of Rawatgaon, voices the collective opinion of all villagers saying, “We have seen a lot of villagers return to the village for a few days and talk about settling here permanently, but they never do so. They visit for a few days in a year and return to their life in the city. So, when Gorki started showing interest, we felt the same, but what he has done is commendable, and within four to five years, he has become the most important member of the village. He is the first one to help whenever anyone is sick or in need of any help.”

    Dinesh Kathait, 56, hailing from Thailisain village in the Pauri Garhwal district, who has supported Major Chandola for the last five years, credits the latter’s efforts to reverse migration and for inspiring many people to return to Pauri for good.

    However, it is vital to note that while Major Gorki Chandola had the will and means to turn his dream into a reality, not everyone has the access and capacity. The Uttarakhand Government must invest in the capacity building of people and create climate-resilient livelihood options for the sustainable development of villages, to stop distress migration.

     

    This article was first published on Mongabay-India 

    Child asthma cases linked to cities’ dirty air

    A study published in this month’s issue of The Lancet Planertary Health says that nitrogen dioxide pollution is the cause of 1.85 million child asthma cases a year and is increasing in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Researchers say that air pollution reduction must be integrated into child health policies.

    By Sanjeet Bagcchi / SciDev.Net

    Reducing air pollution should be a crucial part of health strategies for children, as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) — a harmful pollutant emitted from burning fossil fuels — may lead to nearly 2 million new child asthma cases a year, research suggests.

    The study, published this month in The Lancet Planetary Health, highlights rising NO2 pollution levels in urban areas in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, where it suggests child asthma is a serious health concern.

    Researchers from George Washington University in the US say it is the first study to estimate the global burden of asthma cases in children resulting from NO2 emissions in more than 13,000 cities.

    “Our study found that nitrogen dioxide puts children at risk of developing asthma and the problem is especially acute in urban areas,” said Susan Anenberg, study co-author and a professor of environmental and occupational health at the university, in Washington DC.

    Asthma affects around 262 million people worldwide, according to the 2019 Global Burden of Disease study, and is the most common chronic disease among children, causing inflammation of the lung’s airways.

    However, reliable data is still lacking on the condition. Most asthma-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries where it is often under-diagnosed and under-treated, according to the World Health Organization.

    SouthAsia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Middle East

    NO2 is formed by the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and gas and is mainly emitted by vehicles, industry, agricultural machinery, and power plants.

    By analysing ground concentration of NO2 and new cases of asthma in children from 2000 to 2019, researchers observed that, in 2019, an estimated 1.85 million new cases of childhood asthma were attributable to NO2 worldwide, and two thirds of these cases (1.22 million) were in urban areas.

    NO2 pollution has been increasing in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East, the researchers found, while air quality has shown improvements in Europe and the US.

    Explaining the connection between NO2 and childhood asthma, the researchers said: “NO2 itself has been associated with adverse health outcomes including asthma exacerbation. Epidemiological studies have also found associations between transportation-related air pollutants [such as NO2] and new onset asthma in children.”

    According to the researchers, some studies indicated that pollutants such as NO2 cause inflammation and changes in airways due to oxidative stress, sometimes resulting in asthma.

    “The findings suggest that clean air must be a critical part of strategies aimed at keeping children healthy,” said Anenberg.

    Reinforcing role of pollution on paediatric asthma

    A review published in 2019 in the journal Environment International highlights possible measures to combat NO2 pollution, such as “a ventilation strategy with suitable filters…ventilating windows or intakes; traffic planning (location and density); and reducing the use of NO2-releasing indoor sources.”

    Stanley Szefler, director of the Pediatric Asthma Research Program at the Breathing Institute of Children’s Hospital Colorado, US, who was not involved in the Washington DC study, told SciDev.Net: “The report by Anenberg and colleagues reinforces the role of air pollution on paediatric asthma incidence and supports the role of public health and environmental control stakeholders…to speak for clean air measures.

    “Furthermore, the report suggests that monitoring environmental levels of nitric dioxide could serve as a surrogate marker [an indicator of a disease state] for regions of high risk for increased childhood asthma incidence as well as an indicator of the efficacy of mitigation measures for air pollution.”

    Szefler was the lead author of a study published in 2020 in the journal Pediatric Pulmonology. It advocated for “a worldwide charter” on child asthma that would act as a roadmap for “better education and training”.

    “The charter indicated that asthma guidelines alone are insufficient and need supplementing by government support, changes in policy, access to diagnosis and effective therapy for all children, with research to improve implementation,” Szefler added.

    Sushmita Roychowdhury, director of pulmonology at Fortis Hospital, in Kolkata, India, says that paediatric asthma is becoming more common in highly populated cities.

    “Children living in high-rises close to the main busy arterial roads are found to have more symptoms early on,” she said. “Most children in urban India waiting for school buses in the morning or those taking public transport are exposed to high concentrations of pollutants.”

     

    This piece has been sourced from SciDev.Net

    Image: Wikimedia 16 May 2011 by Tradimus

    DCGI approval for Bharat Biotech’s nasal booster dose trials

    The producer of India’s indigenous vaccine, Covaxin, will now be able to conduct trials of its nasal vaccine as a booster dose at nine locations in the country.

    The Drug Controller General of India today gave its approval to Indian biotechnology-pharma company, Bharat Biotech, to conduct Phase-III clinical trials of a nasal vaccine it has developed. The trials of the intranasal booster dose will be conducted on people who have received both doses of Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin.

    Covaxin producer will now be able to conduct trials of its nasal vaccine as a booster dose at nine locations in the country.

    An intranasal vaccine has logistical advantages and will be easier to administer in mass vaccination drives. The company claims that the BBV154 vaccine stimulates a broad immune response, especially at the site of infection (in the nasal mucosa that lines the nasal cavity) – essential for blocking both infection and transmission of COVID-19.

    Besides ease of administration – as it does not require trained health care workers, the nasal vaccine also eliminates risks of injuries and infections that might be associated with a needle administered jab. It can elicit a high degree of compliance, especially as it suits children and adults.

    The non-invasive and needle-free nasal route has excellent potential for vaccination due to the organised immune systems of the nasal mucosa.

    Biotechnology feat

    The biotechnology company has applied to the Drug Controller General of India for approval for phase-III trials of the BBV154 vaccine in December 2021.

    If given the green signal following the trials, Bharat Biotech claims it will be able to undertake large-scale to meet global demands.

    The attenuated avirulant vaccine comes from a modified chimpanzee adenovirus. (This is a harmless, weakened adenovirus that usually causes the common cold in chimpanzees.) In this respect, the operative biologicals of this vaccine are somewhat like the AstraZeneca vaccine that also uses a chimpanzee adenovirus vaccine vector that has been genetically changed to stop it from adversely affecting humans.

    According to the company, mice, hamsters and macaques immunized with a single dose of the vaccine “conferred superior protection against SARS-CoV-2 challenge”.

    It claims that intranasal immunization “can create an immune response in the nose, which is the point of entry for the virus—thereby protecting against disease, infection, and transmission.”

    Multilateralism as India’s climate mantra

    The current pace and scale of climate finance and technology support from developed countries are not matching the global aspiration to combat climate change, Bhupender Yadav said at a meeting of the major economies forum.

    Reiterating India’s commitments to the ambitious targets at the Glasgow COP 26 summit last November, Bhupender Yadav, India’s minister for environment, forest and climate change, today reiterated that India has embarked on one of the most ambitious energy transition programmes in the world.

    At Glasgow, Prime Minister Modi had envisioned India’s contribution to the global efforts to combat climate change hinge on installing a 500 GW non fossil energy capacity by 2030, reduction in emissions intensity of GDP by 45 per cent over 2005 levels, 50 per cent electric installed capacity coming from non-fossil sources by 2030, 1 billion tonnes reduction in carbon emissions till 2030 and India to become net-zero by 2070.

    The environment minister was addressing a virtual ministerial meeting of major economies forum hosted by the US Special Envoy for Climate Change Mr John Kerry on Thursday. He expressed India’s appreciation for the collective efforts of the parties to the UNFCCC for the outcomes of COP26, especially on the outstanding matters related to the Paris agreement rule book. Simultaneously, he called for a continued commitment to keep the momentum of climate action in 2022, including in COP 27, and work together to further pursue the efforts building on the COP26 outcomes.

    Honour multilateralism and its rules-based order

    The environment minister called for action and implementation of commitments, but also stressed that current pace and scale of climate finance and technology support from developed countries are not matching the global aspiration to combat climate change and there is a need for upscaling the delivery and targets of implementation support including finance and technologies.

    He emphasised and reiterated India’s call to the world community to embrace the mantra of lifestyle for environment. He said that a mass movement on sustainable lifestyles for combating climate change will help the global community accelerate climate actions and bridge the gaps in global climate resilient transition.

    “Further, multilateralism and its rules-based order should be honoured by all without resorting to unilateral measures which would harm other countries”, Yadav said, emphasizing that the principles and provisions of UNFCCC including equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities should continue to be the guiding pillars of global efforts to combat climate change.

    How the COVID-19 pandemic impacted Asia’s indigenous women

    Lockdown measures and restrictive policies in the wake of COVID-19 have led to shrinkage of livelihood options for indigenous women and severely affected household food security. Restrictions have prevented Indigenous women in Asia from gathering traditional medicines and foods.

    By Pragyaa Rai, Richa Pradhan and Pradeep Baisakh

    There are approximately 410 million indigenous people in the world. They, together account for about 5 per cent of the global population. There are 260 million indigenous people in Asia, with 2,000 distinct civilizations and languages. The majority of indigenous peoples in Asia have experienced historical suppression, marginalization, socio-economic and political discrimination.

    In some cases, the indigenous people lack legal or constitutional recognition. Indigenous people are generally poor and constitute majority section of the informal work force. Existing policies limits their access to social protection benefits and deny them full and effective participation in society. Their rights as indigenous peoples are repeatedly violated and there is hardly any respect to their collectivism, self-governance, identities and culture. Incursions into their lands in most Asian nations in the name of ‘development’ have expelled them from their ancestral lands and territories and deprived them of their resources.

    COVID-19 exacerbates vulnerabilities

    The onset of COVID-19 has reinforced the existing inequalities and marginalisation of indigenous peoples, with most negative impacts felt by indigenous women and girls, persons with disabilities and older people.

    The vulnerability of indigenous communities to COVID-19 has been exacerbated by their limited access to health services and information regarding the virus and relief packages. It has been further aggravated by restrictions on mobility, lack of transportation and testing services and failure to provide information in their native languages. Indigenous women migrant workers have fared worst of all, losing their jobs. They also experienced violence and torture. Indigenous women and children in some Asian countries could not access social protection assistance and relief packages because they did not have the required legal documentation.

    Despite the spread of the virus, development projects and military operations have continued in the Philippines, Myanmar, India and Bangladesh, with severe negative consequences for indigenous communities including women.

    Land grabbing of indigenous territories by development projects continued during lockdown. Human rights of indigenous leaders and women were violated through vilification, illegal arrest, detention, killings and sexual assaults. Attacks by State forces on indigenous human right defenders, among whom there are many indigenous women, were reported during the lockdowns.

    Northeast Indian women in particular have experienced ethnicity-based discrimination and stigmatisation during COVID-19 because they have central Asian features. Indigenous women with disabilities also faced the additional risk of abuse and violence from their own family members and care takers during the lockdowns and shutdowns.

    Need to amend continued exclusion

    Official COVID-19 containment and humanitarian packages across Asia excluded indigenous people in general and had a particularly harsh impact on indigenous persons with disabilities.

    Lockdown measures and restrictive policies led to shrinkage of the livelihood options and severely affected food security of indigenous people and communities. Restrictions have prevented Indigenous women in Asia from gathering traditional medicines and foods. The deployment of military personnel in the indigenous territories has prevented them from harvesting food crops and, even when they have had something to sell, they have had to throw it away because there are no buyers for their produce.

    The governments and development partners need to focus on addressing these gaps by adopting inclusive recovery policies and programmes that prioritise the needs of the indigenous communities, including the women and person with disabilities.

    To begin with, gathering disaggregated data should be initiated and made publicly available to permit monitoring of access to basic health services and recovery packages. Indigenous women’s knowledge of herbal remedies and traditional foodstuffs should be valued and encouraged to create their livelihood opportunities. Special priority attention should be given to the health and needs of women and persons with disabilities, especially in conflict zones and militarised regions.

     

    The piece has been sourced from GCAP’s “Global Report on Leave No Woman Behind” published in 2021.

    Pragyaa Rai and Richa Pradhan work with Asia Indigenous People’s Pact (AIPP) and Network of Indigenous Women in Asia (NIWA) and Pradeep Baisakh is associated with Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP). (Email id: [email protected] )

     

    Image: Living Farms, Rayagada, Odisha

    India, Central Asia to form working group on Afghanistan

    The first India-Central Asia Summit coincided with the 30th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Central Asian countries.

    A virtual summit organised by India hosting Central Asian leaders discussed the evolving situation in Afghanistan with the Central Asian leaders. The leaders reiterated their strong support for a peaceful, secure and stable Afghanistan with a truly representative and inclusive government. Prime Minister conveyed India’s continued commitment to provide humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people.

    A comprehensive Joint Declaration was adopted by the leaders that enumerates their common vision for an enduring and comprehensive India-Central Asia partnership. During the Summit, Prime Minister Modi and the Central Asian Leaders discussed the next steps in taking India-Central Asia relations to new heights. They decided to hold such a summit every two years and also agreed on regular meetings between ministers of the two countries.

    Besides India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the summit was also attended by Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon, Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow and Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov.

    India sees this summit as a reflection of India’s growing engagement with the Central Asian countries, which are a part of India’s “Extended Neighborhood.” The participating countries have decided to establish a joint working group on Afghanistan, an official statement released on Thursday said.

    Delhi Declaration

    A Delhi Declaration issued soon after the virtual summit said spoke of a broad “regional consensus” on the issues related to Afghanistan. The declaration alluded to the need for the formation of a truly representative and inclusive government, combating terrorism and drug trafficking, the central role of the UN, providing immediate humanitarian assistance for the people of Afghanistan and preserving the rights of women, children and other national ethnic groups and minorities.

    The leaders also discussed the current situation in Afghanistan and its impact on the security and stability of the region. They reiterated their strong support for a peaceful, secure and stable Afghanistan while also referring to the current humanitarian situation and decided to continue to provide immediate humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.

    The leaders discussed far-reaching proposals to further cooperation in areas of trade and connectivity, development cooperation, defence and security and, in particular, on cultural and people to people contacts. These included a round-table on energy and connectivity; joint working groups at senior official level on Afghanistan and use of the Chabahar Port. There was also agreement on India showcasing Buddhist exhibitions in Central Asian countries and commissioning of an India-Central Asia dictionary of common words, joint counter-terrorism exercises, visit of 100-member youth delegation annually from Central Asian countries to India and special courses for Central Asian diplomats.

    The leaders decided to hold such a summit every two years. An “India – Central Asia Centre” will be established in New Delhi to act as the secretariat for future India-Central Asia summits.

    NACO has discontinued producing its annual reports since 2016

    NACO has not published an annual report since 2016. Annual reports since 2016-17 appear as part of the annual reports of the ministry of health and family welfare.

    Khushi Malhotra

    The National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), India’s nodal organisation for implementation of programmes for prevention and control of HIV/AIDS in India has discontinued publication of its independent annual report since 2016.

    The last NACO annual report published in 2016 provided a comprehensive account of NACO’s annual proceedings.

    A consultant OWSA spoke to on the matter said that NACO’s affairs were covered in the annual report of the ministry of health and family welfare.

    However, reports from NACO were covered as part of the annual reports of the ministry of health and family welfare earlier as well.

    But while the annual reports of the ministry of health and family welfare since 2016 have devoted more pages to the affairs of NACO, there is hardly any mention of NACO’s accounts (the organisation’s funding for NACP-IV alone is to the tune of Rs. 13,415.05 crores). Moreover, there is a passing mention of the accounts and there are no audit reports.

    Interestingly, the finance section of the NACO website has a mention of the annual releases until the budget year 2016-2017. (The financial releases to the state AIDS prevention and control societies are not downloadable.)

    The NACO website also has statutory audit reports from states and union territories until the year 2018-19. But there is no comprehensive audit report that also accounts for the work of NACO’s headquarters.

    Civil society groups working on HIV/AIDS are concerned and they say that they have hardly any information on why the organisation has discontinued publishing it annual report.

    A representative of UNAIDS did not wish to speak on the matter. She said that the annual report was the government’s responsibility and not the responsibility of the UN agency.

    Five years’ accounts in five rows and three columns

    The chapter on NACO in the health ministry’s annual report for 2019-20 has only provided a table with three columns and five rows with expenditures over the past five years. The organisation’s incomes and the expenditures do not find any further mention in the ministry’s annual report.

    According to information provided on the organisation’s website, funds and expenditures earmarked to the organisation sum up to Rs. 2064.65 crores (it is not clearly mentioned if this is the latest budget earmarked for the organisation). Besides government funds, this money also includes funds received by NACO from the world bank, USAID, CIDA, UNDP, AusAID, DFID and the global fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria (GFATM).

    Dr Rajesh Rana of PLAN India that has partnered with the health ministry on the GFATM projects agreed that the data on the NACO site was old data.

    Previous annual reports provided detailed accounts of the organisation’s finances. For instance, the annual report for the year 2015-16 devoted over three pages to its financial matters. The report had detailed the work of NACO’s financial division, including budgeting, accounting, auditing and internal financial advisory functions. It also dwelled on donor coordination. Besides, it also provided a year-wise tabulation of expenditures during for the years between 2013 and 2016 under the fourth phase of the National AIDS Control Programme.

    Though the 2015-16 annual report did not have an auditor’s statement on the accounts and expenditures incurred by the organisation, it did provide details of the budgetary support of Rs. 13,415.05 crores.

    The 2015-16 annual report also mentioned how financial systems were established to release sanctioned amount of money and how cash flow to peripheral units in states were being closely monitored to save the last users from facing a shortage of resources.

    In the absence of an annual report for 2016-17 or the year 2017-18, there is no clarity of how the fourth phase of the NACP fared (NACP-IV was phase out in 2017).

    Omicron dominates, says health ministry

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    Data indicates that India is now seeing a plateau in the number of COVID-19 cases. But there is concern that over three-fourths of the cases come from 10 states.

    Omicron is now the dominant variant of the COVID-19 virus in India, the health ministry has said. The statement is based on data that indicates that the country is now seeing a plateau in the number of COVID-19 cases, according to the health ministry.

    10 states alone contribute to over three-fourths of the total active cases in the country presently, according to the health ministry.

    It is the transmissibility of the virus that makes it a concern and has led to the Omicron variant dominating all COVID-19 cases.

    The transmissibility of a virus is measured in terms of doubling time. Omicron takes up to three days to double its numbers – this, according to community health specialists, makes Omicron highly transmissible.

    This has public health implications as it can overwhelm healthcare capacities. Apart from exposing those staffing the healthcare system, this can also strain the healthcare system by diverting resource and attention away from non-COVID functions.

    The transmissibility also shows that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is more transmissible than Delta.

    Earlier in the day, today, the Delhi Disaster Management Authority decided to remove weekend curfew and odd-even rule for shops in the national capital while still keeping night curfews and closure of schools.

    This government announcements follow from the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG) declaring on Sunday that Omicron has reached community transmission levels in the country.

    While most Omicron cases so far have been asymptomatic or mild, INSACOG said that global data shows that the majority of severe cases and deaths have been in unvaccinated people.

     

    Image: WIkipedia commons

    Pfizer, BioNTech initiate study to evaluate Omicron vaccine in adults

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    First participants enrolled in clinical trial received Omicron-based vaccine candidate as a two-dose primary series and as a booster dose.

    Drugs and pharma giants Pfizer and BioNTech have announced initiation of a clinical study to evaluate the safety, tolerability and immunogenicity of an Omicron-based vaccine candidate in healthy adults aged between 18 and 55 years.

    The study will compare the original shot of the vaccine with a version tweaked to recognize the highly contagious Omicron strain.

    Participants of the study will come from the companies’ Phase 3 COVID-19 booster study. This study is part of the two companies’ ongoing efforts to address Omicron and determine the potential need for variant-based vaccines.

    “While current research and real-world data show that boosters continue to provide a high level of protection against severe disease and hospitalization with Omicron, we recognize the need to be prepared in the event this protection wanes over time and to potentially help address Omicron and new variants in the future,” said Kathrin U. Jansen, Pfizer’s senior vice president and head of vaccine research and development.

    “Vaccines continue to offer strong protection against severe disease caused by Omicron. Yet, emerging data indicate vaccine-induced protection against infection and mild to moderate disease wanes more rapidly than was observed with prior strains,” said Prof. Ugur Sahin, CEO and Co-founder of BioNTech.

    The study will evaluate up to 1,420 participants across the three cohorts and the trial will involve 1,420 people in the 18 to 55 year age group across the United States and South Africa. First participants enrolled in clinical trial received Omicron-based vaccine candidate as a two-dose primary series and as a booster dose.

    Spreading fast

    Vaccine manufacturers said new versions of their vaccines to target the highly infectious Omicron variant could be ready within 100 days, in the immediate days after the new strain of COVID-19 was detected. But there were doubts.

    Omicron has spread at neck-break speed. Andrew Pollard, who led the development of the Oxford-AZ vaccine said that it was “quite difficult to make and deploy an updated vaccine quickly enough” to make a difference.

    Clinical and real-world data continue to find people who are vaccinated, particularly those that have received a booster, maintain a high level of protection against Omicron, particularly against severe disease and hospitalization.

     

    Image: Hippox — licenses to use under Creative Commons Zero – CC0

    ICRC still clueless on data breach

    ICRC’s “deep data drive” into the hacking of its servers does not seem to have yielded much, except the knowledge that hackers had been inside these systems and had access to the data on them.

    The International Committee of Red Cross is still searching for answers, 10 days since it determined that servers hosting personal information of more than 500,000 people receiving Red Cross services were compromised in a cyber-security attack.

    An ICRC cyber partner detected an anomaly on the servers that contained information relating to the Red Cross’ restoring family links (RFL) services. RFL provides a unique service, reconnecting people separated by war, violence, migration and other causes. Every day, Red Cross societies all over the world, with help from ICRC, reunite 12 people with their families, ICRC claims.

    But ICRC’s “deep data drive” does not seem to have yielded much, except the knowledge that hackers had been inside these systems and had access to the data on them. For a start, there is no clarity on when the data breach first happened for how long it had been going on. Reports say that the breach was “determined” on 18 January.

    The breach included personal data such as names, locations, and contact information of more than 515,000 people from across the world. But so far, the ICRC only presumes that the data sets were copied and exported.

    “We must presume so. We know that the hackers were inside our systems and therefore had the capacity to copy and export it,” The organisation has said in a statement.

    No dark web clues; no ransom demands, yet

    As a global network, ICRC has access to various levels of hierarchies within entities that even the most powerful governments often fail to establish. Yet, its statement, now 10 days on since the attack happened, says, “We do not know who is behind this attack.”

    It says that the ICRC hasn’t so far had any contact with the hackers and that no ransom has been asked for. “In line with our standing practice to engage with any actor who can facilitate or impede our humanitarian work, we are willing to communicate directly and confidentially with whoever may be responsible for this operation to impress upon them the need to respect our humanitarian action,” the statement reads.

    On reports that the information had been put up for sale on the dark web, the statement says that the organisation has “a dedicated team who are following any reports we receive of data being available on the dark web.”

    ICRC says that it does not wish to speculate on any possible misuse of this data. ICRC says, “If misused or in the wrong hands, it could potentially be used by States, non-state groups, or individuals to contact or find people to cause harm.”

    Yet, going by the statement put out by the organisation’s headquarters in Geneva, the world’s largest humanitarian organisation could see this coming.

    As it says in its statement, “We have been long aware of the danger that our data could one day be the target of an attack.” It says that the organisation has “invested substantially in cyber security and work with trusted partners to maintain high standards of data protection and systems.”

    Strong brand

    People connected with the Red Cross in SouthAsia doubt that this event will have long-term impacts on ICRC’s work, especially because RFL is not ICRC’s most resource intensive work.

    “ICRC is a preferred organisation for humanitarian funding in situations of wars and conflicts by many governments,” says a senior official who has closely observed the working of the highly privileged Swiss private organisation. “It is a brand and this latest happening will not disturb its reputation very much,” he said.

    Micro-estimates of wealth data ‘can help tackle poverty’

    Around 97 million people were pushed into extreme poverty in 2021. Now, researchers at the University of California and the Data for Good programme say new wealth data set can help policymakers tackle poverty.

    By Neena Bhandari / SciDev.Net

    A data project charting poverty levels in detail across the global South could help policymakers better target social assistance and humanitarian aid, researchers say.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened poverty globally, with an estimated 97 million more people, most of them in low and middle-income countries (LMICs), pushed into extreme poverty in 2021, according to the World Bank.

    But a dearth of reliable and up-to-date poverty data in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) poses a major challenge for governments and civil society.

    To bridge this data gap, researchers at the University of California and the Data for Good programme, which collates data from Meta platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, have developed a public data set of Relative Wealth Index (RWI), which provides micro-estimates of wealth of all populated areas in the 135 LMICs. The study was published in PNAS on 18 January.

    Joshua Blumenstock, chancellor’s associate professor at the University of California School of Information and one of the lead authors of the study, said: “The estimates of absolute and relative wealth are very fine-grained, with one for every 2.4-kilometre square grid cell, which is small enough to satisfy the needs of most policymakers, but also large enough to respect the privacy of individual households.”

    “In essence, this makes it feasible for policymakers to determine the relative wealth of small villages and neighbourhoods. For example, Nigeria has used these micro-estimates to identify the poorest urban wards (a neighbourhood) in the country and then prioritise those wards to receive social assistance from the government,” he adds.

    Constructing estimates by combining data

    The estimates are constructed by combining data from nearly 1.5 million in-person Demographic and Health S with massive quantities of “big data” from satellites, mobile phone networks, and other sources, including aggregated and de-identified connectivity data — with personal information removed to protect privacy — from Facebook.

    “In rough terms, the algorithms use the big data to interpolate wealth estimates into areas where surveys have not been conducted,” said Blumenstock, who is also director of the Data-Intensive Development Lab, and co-director of the Center for Effective Global Action.

    To check the accuracy of these micro-estimates, the researchers worked with data gathered by several different independent organisations to compare estimates from their algorithm with objective estimates from third party .

    “For instance, we compared what our algorithm-generated estimates say about the wealth of people in village X to what an independent survey firm says about the wealth of people in village X. We found that — across four independent data sources from 18 different countries — our new micro-estimates provide remarkably accurate measurements of relative wealth and poverty in LMICs,” Blumenstock told SciDev.Net.

    Need more qualitative local data

    Hoa Thi Minh Nguyen, senior lecturer at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, who was not involved in the study, said its breadth across the global South made it a helpful resource for policymakers.

    “However, further information is needed in validating the accuracy of the estimates,” she told SciDev.Net. “The research uses the information on income and expenditure from about 4,000 microregions in total to validate their prediction for 19.1 million (presumably highly heterogeneous) microregions in the world. […] more qualitative local data is needed in targeting the poor, especially when resources are constrained.”

    This public data set of the RWI is available via the Humanitarian Data Exchange and can be explored using an interactive interface. Researchers are hopeful that it will facilitate targeted policy responses to the pandemic and help countries in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

    Deborah Hardoon, is poverty and inequality lead for Development Initiatives, an organisation which aims to use data to tackle poverty, told SciDev.Net: “The data used in these studies can make an important contribution to our understanding of poverty and inequality. However, it is important that these studies do not distract from, or purport to override, the more fundamental need to get the foundational data right in complex country settings, in a way that is locally owned and enables disaggregation (e.g. by gender or ethnicity) and an understanding of local context.”

     

    This piece has been sourced from SciDev.Net

    Image: Hippopx licensed to use under Creative Commons Zero – CC0

    Traditional Chinese medicine stirs a concoction in Asia, Africa and the Americas

    Animal rights groups are voicing concern as the China’s traditional medicine business is leading to the harvesting of animals, besides plants, thus threatening biodiversity.

    On 18 January, a Canada-based Chinese herbal medicine company pleaded guilty to charges of being in possession of 20,000 fins from a protected shark species. Hand Hing Medicine Ltd. was fined $75,000 by the Vancouver provincial court.

    On 20 January, officials of Assam’s Kaziranga national park reported finding an adult female rhinoceros’ carcass. Its horn was missing and park officials suspected this to be the work of poachers. Rhino horn occupies a place of pride in traditional Chinese medicine (TMC).

    A global Chinese medicine boom has sparked fears for endangered species from Asia, Africa and even the Americas. Rising exports of traditional Chinese medicine products, rising on the crest of the Belt and Road initiative, is accelerating the harvest of rare and endangered plant produce and animal body parts.

    Animal rights groups are alarmed and accuse Chinese medicine companies of plundering bio-diversity for short-term pecuniary interests.

    Recent years have seen the rise of chains of traditional Chinese medicine suppliers and clinics across Africa, according to a report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

    “The aggressive expansion of traditional Chinese medicine in many African countries is posing a direct threat to the future of some endangered species,” the group said in a statement.

    While the majority of Chinese medicinal treatments are plant-based, there is also a distinct animal and wildlife component to the Chinese pharma practices. The profit motive has led many pharmaceutical companies to source ingredients from threatened animals, aggravating the pressure on the survival of these species, EIA explains.

    “Any utilization of threatened species in traditional Chinese medicine could potentially stimulate further demand, incentivise wildlife crime and ultimately lead to over-exploitation,” EIA campaigner Ceres Kam warned.

    Missing Indian donkeys

    On 21 December 2021, a senior official of the department of animal husbandry in New Delhi, wrote to the home ministry, voicing concern over the sharp drop in India’s population of donkeys following the last animal census. The donkeys and donkey hides, he said in his communication, were being smuggled to Nepal.

    The official based his letter on a research by Brooke India, a NGO working on equines that points to donkeys and donkey hide smuggled through the porous Indo-Nepal border to supply ejiao, a gelatinous compound obtained from donkey hide for Chinese medicinal use for virility and longevity.

    Brooke India communication officer Amit Kumar says that the insatiable Chinese demand for ejiao is an important factor in the ugly race leading donkeys in the region to extinction. He cites the example of neighbouring Pakistan where, he says, donkeys are on the verge of extinction.

    In November 2019, UK-based Donkey Sanctuary reported that 4.8 million donkey hides were required to satisfy the global demand for ejiao, resulting in steep declines of donkey populations around the world.

    “The ejiao industry has experienced significant growth over the past six years,” Amit Kumar says. “In the three years between 2013 and 2016, the annual production of ejiao increased from 3,200 to 5,600 tonnes, a growth of over 20 per cent.”

    EIA’s Kam is concerned that the dependence on animals will have the knock-on effect of drastically increasing demand for treatments containing wildlife and, in turn, cause more species to become threatened or extinct.

    She says, “Ultimately, the unfettered growth of traditional Chinese medicine poses a serious threat to the biodiversity found in many African countries, all in the name of short-term profit.

    “Any utilisation of threatened species could potentially stimulate further demand, incentivise wildlife crime and ultimately lead to over-exploitation.”

     

    Image: Hippopx Creative Commons Zero – CC0

    No takers for COVID-19 booster vials in Sri Lanka

    There is a rise in COVID-19 hospitalisations in Sri Lanka. Yet, people are reluctant to take the vaccine booster.

    Over 5000 cases of COVID-19 were reported from across Sri Lanka last week. 82 people had died. Almost 65 per cent of the people in the island nation have been fully vaccinated.

    But Sri Lanka has another, and a very different problem on its hands.

    There are no takers for the millions of unused booster doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in the country. Health authorities say they would hate to see the vaccines expire.

    State minister of pharmaceutical production Channa Jayasumana said the booster dose stock in store will expire by July 2022. The stock is around nine million.

    “We purchased around 14 million booster doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and only close to five million have been distributed so far,” he said. “If the public refuses to take the booster dose now, it will expire by July 2022.”

    From urging people to contemplating legal action

    Health officials have been urging people to get the initial vaccines and if eligible to take the booster dose without delay.

    “Please take it, because data indicates that the number of patients are increasing,” said Deputy Director of the Colombo National Hospital Dr Chandana Gajanayaka.

    The lack of enthusiasm flies in the face of the island nation’s strong record of a highly functional immunisation programme.

    “Legal action against those responsible for the spread of communicable diseases can be taken under the Penal Code”, said Senal Fernando, secretary of the government medical officers association.

    Fernando said that “provisions of the quarantine ordinance can be used against persons who do not comply with directions given by the proper authorities under the quarantine ordinance.”

    Health officials on Monday started to administer the second dose for children between 16-19 years of age.

    Spate of hospitalisations and sick staff

    COVID-19 admissions to the hospital in the country have increased over the past week and public health inspectors union chairman Upul Rohana said, adding that the number of symptomatic cases and hospitalisations have increased throughout the country.

    He spoke of hospital staff too falling sick and said that there has been an increase in the number of COVID-19 patients requiring oxygen.

    Rohana’s warning was clear: the numbers will continue to rise and likely lead to a situation similar to the second wave of the pandemic.

     

    Image courtesy: Sri Lanka Red Cross Society

    21 million COVID-19 cases globally reported last week is highest ever

    21 million cases reported from across the world represent the highest number of weekly cases recorded by the World Health Organisation since the beginning of the pandemic.

    In its weekly report on the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organisation has said that 21 million cases were reported from across the organisation’s six regions across the globe during the last week ending Saturday 23 January 2022. Nearly 50,000 new deaths were reported.

    This represents a five per cent increase during the week, while the number of deaths remained similar to that reported during the previous week.

    This is the highest number of weekly cases recorded by the world body since the beginning of the pandemic two years ago.

    “Across the six WHO regions, over 21 million new cases were reported this week, representing the highest number of weekly cases recorded since the beginning of the pandemic,” the WHO said in its weekly update.

    As of 23 January 2022, over 346 million confirmed cases and over 5.5 million deaths have been reported worldwide.

    A slower increase in case incidence was observed at the global level, with only half of the regions reporting an increase in the number of new weekly cases, as compared to five out of six regions in the previous week.

    The Eastern Mediterranean Region reported the largest increase in the number of new cases (39 per cent), followed by the South-East Asia Region (36 per cent) and the European Region (13 per cent).

    WHO’s South-East Asia region includes SouthAsian countries, but not Pakistan and Afghanistan.

    The number of new weekly deaths increased in the South-East Asia Region (44 per cent), the Eastern Mediterranean Region (15 per cent) and the Region of the Americas (seven per cent), while the other Regions all reported declines in new weekly deaths.

    Community transmission levels in India

    In the meantime, the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG) declared that Omicron has reached community transmission levels in the country.

    According to INSACOG’s statement released on Sunday, “Omicron is now in community transmission stage in India and has become dominant in multiple metros, where new cases have been rising exponentially.”

    While most Omicron cases so far have been asymptomatic or mild, INSACOG said that global data shows that the majority of severe cases and deaths have been in unvaccinated people.

    The INSACOG reports includes its study from genomic surveillance across the country.

    Nepal faces trade deficit as COVID-19 rules

    High cost of petroleum imports, lower exports and crashing in-home remittances together with a collapse of the tourism sector due to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a widening of the country’s trade deficit in the first six months of the current financial year.

    Nepal’s trade deficit has increased by 46.64 per cent and currently stands at Nepali Rs. 880.49 billion in the first six months of the current financial year. Nepal’s financial year begins on 15 July and this report covers the six months ending mid-January 2022.

    According to the foreign trade statistics division of Nepal’s Department of Customs, the export trade has increased by 95.48 per cent to Rs. 118.85 billion during the first six months (mid-July 2021 to mid-January 2022) of the current financial year. Nepal’s exports were worth Nepali Rs. 60.79 billion in over the same period during the last financial year.

    But this huge leap in exports was not enough because the country’s import trade too increased by 51.13 per cent to Rs. 999.34 billion during these six months. That led to high trade deficits.

    COVID-19 impact on the economy

    Petroleum products account for Nepal’s single largest chunk of import expenses. But COVID-19 did not stop the landlocked country from importing petroleum products worth Nepali Rs. 96.71 billion (including diesel, petrol and aviation fuel). Besides, the country also spent Nepali Rs. 29.2343 billion on importing liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) over the past six months.

    Nepal’s export earnings come mainly from exports of agricultural commodities – palm oil, cardamom, tea and coffee.

    The other major source of income is remittances from migrant Nepali nationals working overseas. That has come crashing in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent days, Nepal has worked overtime with foreign diplomatic missions to promote its labour exports. Newspapers gave space to pictures of out-going workers queuing up to leave the country and the government announced that it would monitor the seat allocations for subsidised travel on the country’s loss-incurring national carrier.

    But the pandemic hurt most when tourists to the Himalayan country stopped arriving. Again, that was due to COVID-19.

    Not unexpected

    The swollen state of current trade deficits was not unforeseen. In November, the Nepal Rastra Bank (the country’s central bank) stepped in to reverse a foreseeable trend by discouraging the import of what it felt were non-essential goods.

    Then, the central bank’s quarterly review of the of the monetary policy had mandated importers to deposit a cash margin to be able to open and operate a letter of credit for goods it categorised as non-essential goods. This was a departure from the previous practices of the lending banks deciding on the cash margins, depending on their assessment of the creditworthiness of the borrowers.

    The swelling forex reserves were also anticipated after a review of the first quarter of the financial year that showed that the country’s gross foreign exchange reserves decreased by 6.5 per cent. This, the Nepal Rastriya Bank had said, was due to for three consecutive months to surging imports and a constant fall in the inflow of remittances.

    With India at 85 among 180 nations, Transparency International says Asia a case of ‘grand corruption’

    The 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) released today Transparency International by shows that corruption levels remain at a standstill worldwide – with 86 per cent of countries making little to no progress in the last 10 years. With the exception of Bhutan, the index gives reason for worry in SouthAsia.

    India’s ranks 85th (up from rank 86 in 2020) among 180 countries in corruption perception index (CPI) in 2021 released by Transparency International today.

    The index ranks 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public sector corruption according to experts and business people. It uses a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 is highly corrupt and 100 is very clean.

    India’s score on the index this year, however remains unchanged at 40.

    The 2021 corruption perceptions index (CPI) shows that corruption levels remain at a standstill worldwide, with 86 per cent of countries making little to no progress in the last 10 years.

    Transparency International found countries that violate civil liberties consistently score lower on the CPI. Complacency in fighting corruption exacerbates human rights abuses and undermines democracy, setting off a vicious spiral, the global watchdog organisation says. As these rights and freedoms erode and democracy declines, authoritarianism takes its place, contributing to even higher levels of corruption.

    While countries in Asia Pacific have made great strides in controlling bribery for public services, an average score of 45 out of 100 on the 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) shows much more needs to be done to solve the region’s corruption problems.

    Even some higher-scoring countries are experiencing a decline as governments fail to address grand corruption, uphold rights and consult citizens.

    “Among those with weak scores are some of the world’s most populous countries, such as China (45) and India (40), and other large economies such as Indonesia (38), Pakistan (28) and Bangladesh (26),” Transparency International says. “A concerning trend across some of these nations is a weakening of anti-corruption institutions or, in some cases, absence of an agency to coordinate action against corruption.”

    Erosion of rights in Asia

    Asia has witnessed 10 years of mass movements calling for action against corruption, but sadly little has changed, Transparency International notes. Public outrage has instead been co-opted by strongmen – in the form of populist leaders in democratic countries and authoritarians elsewhere.

    “From India to the Philippines (33) to China, such leaders have been able to portray themselves as more effective than state institutions and win mandates to gain and stay in power,” the organisation says. “Furthermore, in most countries, corruption is spreading through severe restrictions on the very civil liberties – like freedom of association and speech – which allowed people to take to the streets and call for action.”

    The watchdog organisation says that the case of India is particularly worrying. While the country’s score has remained stagnant over the past decade, some of the mechanisms that could help reign in corruption are weakening, it says.

    “There are concerns over the country’s democratic status, as fundamental freedoms and institutional checks and balances decay. Journalists and activists are particularly at risk and have been victims of attacks by the police, political militants, criminal gangs and corrupt local officials,” the reports says.

    “Civil society organisations that speak up against the government have been targeted with security, defamation, sedition, hate speech and contempt-of-court charges, and with regulations on foreign funding.”

    Furthermore, the lowest scorers in the region, Afghanistan (16) and North Korea (16), have dropped even further (from 19 and 18, respectively) since last year. These two fragile states do not have the basic institutional infrastructure – such as mechanisms for administration and rule of law – to form an integrity system. They also repress citizens who speak out against corruption.

    Petty corruption down, but grand corruption persists

    An encouraging development is the relatively low occurrence of petty corruption in many Asian countries. Tackling bribe-seeking for basic services lightens the economic burden on the poor, improving their standard of living.

    Those countries stuck in the middle of the index, like Malaysia (48), Indonesia (38) and the Maldives (40) face a more complex challenge: grand corruption. This is the abuse of high-level power that benefits the few at the expense of the many, and which can destroy whole sectors, create recessions and end democracies. In such cases mere technical interventions, useful in addressing petty corruption, are not enough.

    Addressing grand corruption requires the systematic dismantling of rent-seeking structures and dishonest cultures that public officials use to pocket public funds. This needs to be driven by political leaders who hold power to account, for the common good.

    COVID-19 opening a door to corruption and repression

    Alongside a massive public health mobilisation, Asian governments responded to the pandemic by rolling out some of the world’s biggest economic recovery plans. But such large-scale responses, conducted without adequate checks and balances, inevitably lead to corruption.

    Wrongdoing in emergency procurement has led to price inflating, the theft of medical supplies and sales of counterfeit medicines and materials. This left many citizens more vulnerable to COVID-19 – and almost certainly cost lives.

    Despite the fact that whistle-blowers, journalists and a vigilant public can help safeguard funds from corruption, COVID-19 has also been used as an excuse to suppress criticism. Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cambodia and Singapore are just a few countries that have increased digital surveillance to silence those trying to hold governments accountable during the pandemic.

    The report highlights another facet of public discourse that direct impacts corruption. It says, “as authoritarian regimes refine their cyber-surveillance technologies, vicious online harassment by government-backed trolls is further restricting freedom of speech.”

    Study points at US role in illegal tiger trade

    Data from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, revealed 292 seizures of tiger parts illegally entering the United States between 2003 and 2012.

    By Sarah Fecht

    A new study hints at a major role of the United States in the trafficking of tiger parts. The research points to San Francisco, Dallas, and Atlanta as the main entry hotspots for these illegal products and says that the role of the US has for long been has underestimated. The research.

    Previously, studies on tiger trafficking patterns primarily focused on 13 Asian countries where tigers still roam free, with very little research on the United States. The new study, published in Conservation Science and Practice, investigated the extent and attributes of tiger parts entering the United States from 2003 to 2012.

    Data from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, revealed 292 seizures of tiger parts illegally entering the United States during those years, indicating that the scale of trade may have been underestimated. A 2019 study, for example, covering the more recent period of 2000 to 2018, documented 624 seizures of illegal tiger products, but estimated that only 6 happened in the U.S., based on media reports.

    “People in the U.S. have this false notion that the illegal trade in tiger parts is half a world away. In reality, we in the US are involved in and driving a large portion of the illegal trade,” said lead author Sarika Khanwilkar, a PhD candidate at Columbia University and the founder of the non-profit Wild Tiger. “This research is a step to better understand the role of the U.S. in the global tiger trade, which will improve policy and enforcement and direct future research efforts.”

    Tigers are endangered, with less than 5,000 individuals estimated to remain in the wild. Illegal trade in tiger parts, mostly for medicinal purposes, contributes to the species’ decline.

    Trade over digital platforms

    Tigers are endangered, with less than 5,000 individuals estimated to remain in the wild. Illegal trade in tiger parts, mostly for medicinal purposes, contributes to the species’ decline.

    China has been and remains the main destination and largest consumer of tiger parts, but the new data shows that U.S. import seizures represent almost half (46.8%) of global seizures.

    Khanwilkar and her coauthors caution that their study may also underestimate the scale of tiger trafficking in the United States, because the use of digital platforms to trade and pay for illegal wildlife products has increased, and economic prosperity has expanded demand. The data also doesn’t reflect the most recent trends; after the team’s original FOIA request in 2013, regulations around FOIA requests to the Fish and Wildlife Service limited the quality of data that was available.

    DNA analysis to help trace origins

    The researchers found that, of the 65.8 per cent of seized parts with a known origin, 99.5 per cent came from wild tigers. The majority of seized products were imported from China and Vietnam (34.2 per cent and 29.5 per cent, respectively). However, a lack of data about the country of origin (which can be different to the country of export) made it difficult to determine trafficking routes or understand where wild tigers were poached to supply the trade.

    The authors propose several ways to better monitor the source and trafficking routes to improve policy, enforcement, and ultimately contribute to conserving wild tigers.

    For example, they suggest enhancing detection efforts in San Francisco, Dallas, and Atlanta, which were the main hot-spots for illegal tiger imports.

    They also recommend using forensic DNA analysis to determine the origin and source (wild versus captive) of the illegally traded tiger parts. Finding out where these tiger parts came from would provide guidance as to where to focus conservation and enforcement efforts.

     

    Image: Hippox Creative Commons Zero – CC0 license 

    US, French gas majors withdraw from Myanmar. Cite human rights abuse as reason

    Gas production deals were untouched, although the US, EU, UK and Canada imposed a number of sanctions on sources of income for the Burmese military for almost a year since the 1 February military coup in Myanmar.

    TotalÉnergies of France and the US’ Chevron Oil have announced their withdrawal from Myanmar. The two companies hold major stakes in the petroleum-rich Yadana gas fields of Myanmar.

    The two companies have come for criticism for doing business with Myanmar’s ruling junta that has been accused by rights group for brutalities against its own citizens. Rights groups feel that the oil and gas companies have been complicit in propping up the violent regime.

    Total and Chevron have become the latest Western corporations to exit the country after the February 2021 coup by the military.

    Citing the steady erosion of human rights and “more generally the rule of law,”

    Total released a statement saying that financial considerations were not crucial in this matter. It said that its Myanmar operations generated less than one per cent of its annual revenues.

    Chevron too said that it had “reviewed” its interest in the Yadana natural gas project.

    Rohingya groups had questioned US and France

    The announcements have come with resounding political notes. Last week, the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK) had said that the continuance of the two companies work in the military-ruled country was putting a question mark on the policy to protect the profits of American and French companies. BROUK, an umbrella group of Rohingya rights organizations, had pleaded for this to change urgently. They had urged on the Presidents Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron to impose sanctions on gas revenue in Myanmar, arguing that the money earned from the trade of Myanmar’s natural resources helped pay for the Myanmar military’s crimes.

    BROUK said that gas production deals were untouched, although the US, EU, UK and Canada imposed a number of sanctions on sources of income for the Burmese military for almost a year since the 1 February military coup in Myanmar. Gas production, the Mynmar-refugee group sai, is one of the military’s biggest revenue sources.

    For instance, Total and the military-controlled Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) hold stakes in Moattama Gas Transportation Company (MGTC) which carries gas from the Yadana gas field, 60 kilometres off Myanmar’s south-western coast in the Andaman Sea to the country’s border along Thailand.

    Crimes against humanity

    Western rights groups are less than impressed by Total and Chevron’s exits. Environmental law non-profit EarthRights International said in a release, “Since the beginning of the coup, Total and Chevron have facilitated the transfer of around half a billion US dollars in revenue payments to the military junta.”

    These payments are the military’s largest source of foreign funds and fuel its human rights atrocities.”

    EarthRights said that these actions follow “many months after international observers highlighted that crimes against humanity were taking place.

    Total and Chevron will remain complicit for as long as they make or facilitate payments to accounts controlled by the junta.”

    TotalÉnergies holds the biggest stake (31.24%) in Yadana.

     

    Wikimedia Image: Student Union and teachers protest against military coup in front of state government office on 9 February 2021

    Picture by: Ninjastrikers

    Antimicrobial resistance killing more than HIV and malaria

    Antibiotic-resistant infections led to more than 1.2 million deaths in 2019. The true picture could be much worse, with added impact of COVID-19, researchers warn and urge for urgent policy measures in developing countries.

    By Sanjeet Bagcchi / SciDev.Net

    Antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections resulted in more than 1.2 million deaths worldwide in 2019, exceeding the number caused by HIV/AIDS and malaria, says a study spanning 204 countries and territories.

    One in five of the deaths occurred in children under the age of five, with low- and middle-income countries bearing the highest burden, according to the analysis published in The Lancet, titled Global burden of bacterial antimicrobial resistance in 2019: a systematic analysis.

    The researchers say gaps in data in lower-income countries mean the full picture could be even worse, while other experts say the pandemic is also likely to have exacerbated the problem due to COVID-19 patients receiving antibiotics for secondary bacterial infections.

    Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is the development of resistance by various bacteria and other microbes against antimicrobial agents or antibiotics, including those used against common infections like lower respiratory tract and bloodstream infections.

    The analysis in The Lancet points to an immediate need to scale up action on AMR and recommends urgent measures for policymakers, such as optimising existing antibiotic use, and improving infection monitoring and control.

    “This is the most comprehensive study on the global burden of bacterial drug-resistant infections ever conducted,” said Christiane Dolecek, a co-author of the study and a professor who leads on global AMR research at Oxford University’s Centre for Tropical Medicine and Global Health and the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit.

    “We hope that this report makes clear the impact now and future threat of this 21st century pandemic, and that it energises political leaders and the global community to implement the necessary measures to keep communities and patients safe and reduce this preventable burden,” she told Scidev.Net.

    AMR’s global footprint

    According to the study, AMR played a part in an estimated 4.95 million deaths and was directly responsible for an estimated 1.27 million deaths in 2019. This compares to 860,000 and 640,000 deaths respectively from HIV/AIDS and malaria in the same year.

    Sub-Saharan Africa faced the highest burden, with 24 deaths per 100,000 people resulting directly from AMR, while the figure was 22 per 100,000 in South Asia. The number of AMR-linked deaths in those regions numbered 99 and 77 per 100,000, respectively.

    The analysis also showed that of the 23 pathogens studied in the research, six bacteria – including Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Klebsiella pneumoniae – directly caused the deaths of 929,000 people and were associated with 3.57 million deaths.

    In Sub-Saharan Africa, deaths attributable to AMR mainly resulted from Streptococcus pneumoniae (16 per cent) or Klebsiella pneumoniae (20 per cent), while in high-income countries nearly 50 per cent of the deaths attributable to AMR were due to Escherichia coli (23 per cent) or Staphylococcus aureus (26 per cent).

    Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in the US, told Scidev.Net that antimicrobial resistance was one of the major public health threats of our time. “It threatens to pull us back to the pre-penicillin era,” he said.

    To fight the scourge, says Dolecek, good vaccination coverage, especially of pneumococcal conjugate and flu vaccines, is needed, along with improved water and sanitation and better access to health services. “We need high quality, affordable and accessible simple rapid tests to reliably distinguish bacterial from viral infections on the spot in clinics,” she added.

    Dolecek also recommended antibiotic stewardship initiatives to assess and improve how clinicians prescribe antibiotics and patients use them, and to curb inappropriate use.

    According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “improving antibiotic prescribing and use is critical to effectively treat infections, protect patients from harms caused by unnecessary antibiotic use, and combat antibiotic resistance.”

    COVID-19 impact ‘not captured’

    Madhukar Pai, Canada research chair in epidemiology and global health, and a professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, told SciDev.Net: “This is an important study that underscores the importance of antimicrobial resistance. But the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is not captured.

    “I hope it will be addressed in future updates of this study, because antimicrobial abuse has dramatically increased during the pandemic, with very high use of antimicrobial drugs such as azithromycin, doxycycline, ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.”

    COVID-19 patients admitted to hospital are often administered antibiotics to treat secondary infections, despite only a minority of cases having bacterial co-infections, according to a report in the BMJ.

    “While these drugs are not effective for COVID-19, their widespread abuse makes me worried about antimicrobial resistance in the coming years,” added Pai.

    The study says investment in the development pipeline for new antibiotics and access to second-line antibiotics where required are “essential” measures to counter this threat.

    Diptendra Sarkar, a public health analyst and professor at the Institute of Post Graduate Medical Education and Research, in Kolkata, India, believes that irrational, non-evidence-based antibiotic use is responsible for the AMR crisis in developing countries.

    “Immediate global action is necessary,” he told SciDev.Net. “All stakeholders, which include government regulatory authorities, medical professional bodies and the pharmaceutical industry, must initiate dialogues and draft a national, evidence-based, antibiotic policy.
    Regulatory bodies in developing countries must prepare a roadmap for community and hospital infection audits, he said, adding: “Educating health care providers and strong surveillance is the way forward.”

     

    This piece has been sourced from SciDev.Net

    Image: Hippox Creative Commons Zero – CC0 license

    Convicts freed, hound victims. Victims in prison

    A research by Amnesty International points to survivors of gender-based violence being abandoned following Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and their husbands are on the prowl.

    Sina (name changed) would be battered by her husband almost daily. There was no way she could protest or seek comfort – her own family supported her violent husband. The only place open to her was a shelter managed and run with government funds. But, when the Taliban arrived, she and the other woman inmates and their children had to flee the shelter.

    Now in hiding, Sina says, “We left with nothing by the clothes we had on our persons. We have no food. My husband is looking for me and he knows that the shelter has closed.

    All essential services for women and girl survivors of domestic violence have come to a stand-still in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over the country, says the human rights NGO, Amnesty International.

    Amnesty’s researchers conducted 26 interviews with survivors and service providers who spoke of the risks of violence and death they face. The Taliban has closed shelters. Worse, many of the men jailed for beating their wives were released by the Taliban and they are looking for their spouses against whom they hold a grudge.

    A legal professional who specializes in gender-based violence said told Amnesty that she had been involved in the conviction of more than 3,000 perpetrators of gender-based violence in the year preceding the Taliban’s takeover.

    She said: “Wherever [the Taliban] went, they freed the prisoners… Can you imagine? More than 3,000 released, in all the provinces of Afghanistan, in one month.”

    Amnesty International says that survivors have also been transferred by the Taliban into the detention system, including to the Pul-e-Charkhi prison, near Kabul.

    Women abandoned

    Even people staffing shelters for women escaping violent homes, prosecutors and judges who worked to deliver justice and others providing protective services are now at risk.

    Afghanistan has abandoned women like Sina.

    Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International Secretary General recognises this when she says, “Women and girl survivors of gender-based violence have essentially been abandoned in Afghanistan. Their network of support has been dismantled, and their places of refuge have all but disappeared.”

    “To protect women and girls from further violence, the Taliban must allow and support the reopening of shelters and the restoration of other protective services for survivors, reinstate the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and ensure that service providers can work freely and without fear of retaliation.”

    Instead, the Taliban has reinstated the ministry of vice and virtue, only ensuring that its name is furthermore commensurate with their beliefs – it is now called the ministry for the propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice.

    The new government or its ministry charged with the propagation of virtue is not bothered about releasing wife-battering men from prisons. At best, this ministry remained a spectator to the Taliban’s rampaging foot soldiers throwing open prison doors, unmindful of the risks that convicted perpetrators pose to the women and girls they victimized. At worst, they were accomplices.

    Protective services are as important as evacuating survivors and those who served them from the imminently dangerous situation they find themselves in. There are only two ways. Either donors stick to long-term funding; or evacuate the women out of Afghanistan.

    Collapse of the system

    Amnesty International interviewed survivors and protective service providers in the provinces of Badghis, Bamiyan, Daikundi, Herat, Kabul, Kunduz, Nangarhar, Paktika, Sar-e Pul, and Takhar. The interviews led to one conclusion: The system had collapsed.

    Women and girls spoke of how, before the Taliban’s takeover, many of them accessed a nationwide network of shelters and services, including pro-bono legal representation, medical treatment, and psycho-social support.

    Thousands of women would be referred by the ministry of women’s and the national human rights commission. Many would even be referred by managements of the shelters they took refuge in or from hospitals where they were undergoing treatment, and in some case, by the police.

    Thousands is no exaggeration, knowing that Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of violence against women globally. Nine of every 10 Afghan women have experienced at least one form of intimate partner violence in their lifetime, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

    Amnesty researchers quote a service provider from the eastern province of Nangargar who said, “[The cases] were very extreme. We had a case where a man took the nails off his wife’s fingers… [One] man took a crowbar and peeled off his wife’s skin… There was one woman who faced a lot of abuse from her family. She couldn’t even use the bathroom anymore.”

    With protective services collapsing and people staffing these services left to fend for themselves, and women like Sina in hiding for and her children’s own safety, it is not surprising that the people involved are desperate.

    As a shelter director, currently in hiding with some survivors said, “We don’t have a proper place. We can’t go out. We are so scared… Please bring us out of here. If not, then you can wait for us to be killed.”

     

    Image: UNMA

    The UN’s Vital Role in Afghanistan

    The UN can help to place Afghanistan on a new development and political path with the backing of major global and regional powers and the cooperation of both Taliban and non-Taliban factions alike.

    By Sultan Barakat and Richard Ponzio

    On December 22, 2021, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to allow for more humanitarian assistance to reach vulnerable Afghans, while preventing the abuse of these funds by their Taliban rulers.

    With more than half of Afghanistan’s 39 million citizens — afflicted by drought, disease, and decades of war — depending upon critical life-saving aid to survive the harsh winter months, the decision to carve out an exception in UN sanctions against the ruling regime is timely.

    All the more so as Afghanistan quickly becomes ground zero for United Nations humanitarian operations worldwide.

    At the same time, addressing the underlying political, cultural, and socioeconomic challenges that continue to fuel widespread deprivation, violence, and corruption in Afghanistan requires a strategy and targeted investments in development and peace-building too.

    Fortunately, these are also areas where the UN maintains a decades-long track record in Afghanistan (including from 1996-2001, the last period of Taliban rule) and elsewhere.

    Moreover, the Security Council’s recent request to Secretary-General António Guterres to provide “strategic and operational recommendations” on the future of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), by January 31, 2022, offers an opportunity to adapt the world body to the country’s fast-changing political, security, social, and economic context.

    Need diverse mechanisms

    First, the United Nations should aid in negotiating some conditionalities put forward by Western powers. Whilst a step-by-step roadmap for cooperation is needed, vital life-saving humanitarian aid should never be made conditional on the Taliban taking certain actions.

    Given the acute differences between the Taliban and the international community, diverse mechanisms are needed for addressing distinct humanitarian and non-humanitarian issues alike. Both sides have made opposing demands that essentially negate one another, while the needs of millions of innocent, vulnerable Afghans continue to grow.

    In direct immediate support of malnutrition, urgent health services, and other kinds of emergency, life-saving support detailed in a new Humanitarian Response Plan, donor countries should take careful heed of the UN’s largest-ever humanitarian appeal for a single country, announced on 11 January 2022, requesting more than USD $5 billion this year for Afghanistan.

    Humanitarian, developmental and peace challenges

    Second, there is a need to remain focused on the intersections of humanitarian, developmental, and peace challenges, rather than roll-out humanitarian-only models of response in Afghanistan. To advance more integrated approaches that break down the traditional silos of the international aid system in responding to the Afghan crisis, the humanitarian-development-peace nexus offers a powerful framework.

    The United Nations and other actors have implemented Triple Nexus programming in Afghanistan in recent years, including refugee return and reintegration, asset creation, and social safety net programming.

    The world body can play a vital role as a convening power and knowledge broker, facilitating local-international and whole-of-society dialogue on how to adapt nexus programming concepts and approaches in the uncharted territories of Afghanistan’s fast evolving and highly challenging operating environment.

    As bilateral aid likely recedes among most major donors, the UN could also serve as a chief oversight body and conduit of international assistance through multiple emergency trust funds. In doing so, it will provide de facto international development coordination assistance, with an eye to maintaining for all Afghan citizens the delivery of basic public services in such critical areas as healthcare, education, and power generation.

    Get beyond the blame game

    Third, durable peace in Afghanistan can only be reached through high-level political will that is best expressed through an empowered mandate and sufficient resources for UNAMA (ideally led by a Muslim diplomat with the gravitas and skills demonstrated by the UN trouble-shooter Lakhdar Brahimi).

    For the UN to be truly catalytic, it is vital that it is entrusted with a comprehensive mandate to perform its full suite of well-known and field-tested functions, including in the areas of reconciliation, development coordination, and humanitarian action.

    To get beyond the blame game and build trust between the Taliban and other Afghan parties, the world body must be allowed to provide its good offices and other peaceful settlement of dispute tools to resuscitate an intra-Afghan dialogue toward reconciliation and political reform.

    At the same time, the Afghan Future Thought Forum, chaired by Fatima Gailani, continues to be the only independent platform that brings together influential and diverse Afghan stakeholders (men and women), including Taliban and former government officials, to produce practical solutions for long-term peace and recovery in Afghanistan.

    Need a multi-faceted strategy

    Finally, the greatest obstacle to functioning relations between the Taliban and international community is the non-recognition of the new ruling regime in Kabul, which requires a medium to long-term vision to resolve. Although the Taliban are publicly seeking international recognition, these efforts are unlikely to bear fruit immediately.

    To avoid Afghanistan becoming once again an operating base for international terrorist groups or an even greater source of refugees — both vital interests of the international community, including the Western powers — a multi-faceted strategy that also deploys targeted resources beyond solely humanitarian aid is needed urgently.

    With thousands of staff dedicated to alleviating human suffering across Afghanistan, coupled with the West’s almost non-existent political leverage with the Taliban regime, the United Nations must resume its central development and peace-building roles, in addition to delivering and coordinating immediate life-saving humanitarian aid.

    With the backing of major global and regional powers and the cooperation of both Taliban and non-Taliban factions alike, the UN can help to place Afghanistan on a new development and political path toward a more stable country that, over time, improves the prospects for all Afghan citizens.

     

    Sultan Barakat is Director of the Centre for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies in Doha, Qatar and Honorary Professor of Politics at the University of York.

    Richard Ponzio is Senior Fellow and Director of the Global Governance, Justice & Security Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

     

    This piece has been sourced from Inter Press Service

    Image: UNICEF

    WHO chief says COVID pandemic disrupted WHO’s five-year work

    0

    The poor progress on the triple billion health targets will weigh heavily as WHO’s current chief readies for a second term.

    In his opening remarks at the 150th session of the executive board of the World Health Organisation today, director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, stressed on the need “to urgently strengthen the systems and tools for epidemic and pandemic preparedness and response at all levels.”

    Over two years, almost 350 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported together with over 5.5 million deaths.

    On the cusp of the third year since the spread of COVID-19 was declared a public health emergency of international concern – the highest level of alarm under international law, he said that while the world will be living with COVID for the foreseeable future, “learning to live with COVID cannot mean that we give this virus a free ride. It cannot mean that we accept almost 50,000 deaths a week, from a preventable and treatable disease.”

    He reiterated the set of strategies proposed by the world organisation and said that “If countries use all of these strategies and tools in a comprehensive way, we can end the acute phase of the pandemic this year.”

    The strategies rest mainly on achieving 70 per cent vaccinations in all countries, boosting testing and sequencing rates globally to track the virus and monitor the emergence of new variants and restoring and sustaining essential health services.

    WHO achievements

    But besides COVID-19, there have been achievements on the communicable diseases front, especially with the world’s first malaria vaccine ready for use. Eight countries achieved the 90–90–90 targets for testing, treatment access, and viral suppression of HIV by the end of 2020 and 15 countries have eliminated mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

    “Despite the disruptions of the pandemic, 86 countries globally achieved the end-TB strategy milestone for 2020 of reducing TB incidence,” he said.

    But he also said that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted work to advance towards the “triple billion” targets of WHO’s thirteenth general programme of work (GPW defines WHO’s five-year strategy).

    Crucial plans off target

    The WHO director general proposed a two-year extension of the GPW to 2025, to be able to achieve the organisation’s triple billion targets – ensuring a billion people each benefit from universal health coverage; are better protected from health emergencies; and enjoy better health and well-being.

    He admitted that “the world was off track for the “triple billion” targets,” even before the pandemic. “Now, we’re even further behind,” he said.

    Today, the WHO also got new members countries on its board. These include Colombia, Guinea Bissau, India, Madagascar, Malaysia, Peru, India, Tonga and Tunisia.

    In the run up to the agency’s annual assembly meeting, 28 countries have already written letter of nominations for a second five-year term for Tedros Adhanom. This is to come up at the current session of WHO’s executive board. He will stand uncontested for the position.

    However, The United States, United Kingdom and China haven’t expressed support, though they haven’t nominated anyone else either.

    “This could be a modest vote of confidence in Tedros, an acknowledgement that a competitor would not prevail, or a matter of pandemic practicality,” wrote the science journal Nature.

     

    Image courtesy: YMCA.int

    Budget 2022: Government faces Hamletian dilemma on subsidies

    The government would like to cut subsidies in Budget 2022, but the question is whether it can afford to do it just ahead of the crucial assembly elections in five states.

    Prachi Gupta

    The economy continues to reel under the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The last two years have been especially tough for the government as it had to leave the path of fiscal prudence in the face of an unprecedented economic crisis triggered by the pandemic. The subsidy bill for the current fiscal year ending March 31 could be around Rs 5.35-5.45 lakh crore.

    Newspaper reports say the government plans to peg food and fertiliser subsidies at Rs 2.6 lakh crore and Rs 90,000 crore respectively in the upcoming Budget 2022. The question is if it can afford to cut subsidies in a situation where people are highly dependent on agriculture jobs and the public distribution system. Cutting food and fertiliser subsidies may affect growth and aggravate poverty.

    India is an agriculture dominated economy with more than half of the population depending on farming directly or indirectly for their livelihood. Farm subsidies form an important part of the government’s budget. While in developed countries, the agricultural or farm subsidies compose nearly 40 per cent of the total budgetary outlay, it is much lower in India which offers direct and indirect subsidies.

    Subsidies necessary despite flaws

    These subsidies have always been a target of criticism. Firstly, the indirect subsidy has been blamed for benefiting big farmers more than small and medium farmers as the bulk of the subsidised fertilisers is picked up by rich farmers. The small and marginal farmers own just 37 per cent of the farm land.

    Secondly, indirect subsidy has also been a disincentive to improvements in production processes since manufacturers have no compulsion to raise efficiency. Cash subsidies are considered more beneficial to farmers as they will free up the distribution system and allow people who receive the subsidy to choose where they buy their goods from.

    The complexity lies in the identification of beneficiaries as opposed to the transfer of funds. Looking at the success of direct cash transfer in various countries across the globe, the Indian government started a pan-India scheme to disburse all forms of subsidies directly, through the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) in 2015–16.

    The food subsidy also provides cover to the marginalised and poor sections of society apart from farmers. To sum up, food subsidies not only ensure remunerative prices to farmers, encouraging them to increase production and improve access to food for economically vulnerable people, but also stabilises food grain prices and availability in the country.

    The PDS assures beneficiaries that they will receive food grains, and insulates them against price volatility. The government also provides food grains via fair price shops in villages which are easy to access. The system is not without its demerits as huge leakages have been observed in it, both during transportation and distribution. These include pilferage and errors of inclusion and exclusion from the beneficiary list. At times, beneficiaries have also reported receiving poor quality food grains.

    Budget 2022 may see financial jugglery

    The government also spends a large amount on fertiliser subsidy, compensating manufacturers for selling their product below cost. The subsidy bill for the current year is likely to be in the vicinity of 1.3 lakh crore.

    Fertiliser is a critical and expensive input in improving agricultural output. Since the Green Revolution in the mid-1960s, there has been a sharp increase in the use of fertilisers in the country. Today, fertiliser subsidies stand at around 10% of the total agricultural GDP as the government looks to incentivise its usage.

    Earlier, the government had to substantially increase the fertiliser subsidy amid farmer protests. In the budget unveiled in February 2021, this was pegged at nearly Rs 80,000 crore. Additional funds were provided twice due to increase in prices of fertiliser and supply side disruptions. Newspaper reports have quoted finance ministry officials saying that the allocation towards the fertiliser subsidy for FY23 could be lower than the revised estimates.

    The Union Budget 2022 will be presented by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on February 1. Despite the assembly elections in Goa, Manipur, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, the government is expected to maintain the momentum of agriculture reforms. The budgetary allocation of the agriculture ministry has shot up substantially after the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014.

    Elections to the state assemblies could influence the final subsidy figures of Budget 2022 as the BJP looks to woo farmers after the massive protests from the agrarian community against the three farm laws that forced the government to withdraw them.

     

    This piece has been sourced from Policy Circle – policycircle.org

    Image: Hippox – under CC0 license 

    Farms stretched, water sources stressed and polluted, and forests shrinking, says FAO report

    As climate stresses the world and water sources get depleted and polluted, scientists around feel the need to shift to sustainable agricultural practices to feed an additional two billion mouths by 2050.

    Today, the world is home to eight billion people. This number will have swelled to 10 billion in less than 30 years from now – or simply, a child born today will very likely become a parent in 2050.

    How will all of tomorrow’s parents feed their children?

    A possible answer to this question is that today’s governments, policy makers and farmers work to reverse water degradation, smartly plan for sustainable farming practices and harness new innovative technologies.

    Because, existing agricultural practices will not be able to feed 10 billion people populating planet earth by 2050, warns a new report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Today, one in every 10 persons on planet earth is undernourished. Three of eight people lack healthy diets.

    The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture report 2021 builds upon the concepts and conclusions given in the 2011 report.

    But it also recognises that much has happened since then. It alludes to the recent assessments, projections and scenarios to paint an alarming picture of the planet’s natural resources – highlighting depletion of land and water resources, loss of biodiversity, associated degradation and pollution and scarcity of primary natural resources.

    Climate change

    But the FAO report’s warning is too dire for solutions to hinge on just that prescription. Far reaching changes will be necessary to avoid widespread hunger and other catastrophes, it says.

    It says that climate change “may bring opportunities for multiple rainfed cropping, particularly in the tropics and subtropics.”

    For instance, farmers might need to grow crops they never did before. For example, farmers in Canada and northern Eurasia might need to farm more cereals in the coming couple of decades than they do today.

    For areas “where the climate becomes marginal for current staple and niche crops, there are alternative annual and perennial tree crops, livestock, and soil and water management options available.”

    It says there will be a need to shift to sustainable agricultural practices to feed an additional two billion mouths by 2050 as climate stresses the world and water sources get depleted and polluted.

    Scientists might be able to work on new varieties of crops with seed and germplasm exchanged globally and among regions to create breeds that can withstand changes in temperature, salinity, wind, and evaporation. This of course, will require investments from governments.

    Need sustainable agriculture practices as never before

    So, why have things come to such a pass?

    Complicated as the question might be, part of the answer is the limited land on earth to grow food. Forests cannot be thrashed any further and food has been hugely linked to fuel, fertilisers and pesticides.

    None of these are sustainable. As the report points out, “Human-induced degradation affects 34 per cent of agricultural land.”

    “The treatment of soils with inorganic fertilizers to increase or sustain yields has had significant adverse effects on soil health, and has contributed to freshwater pollution induced by run-off and drainage,” it says.

    Extensive degradation due to irrigation of farmlands has harsh consequences as irrigation causes a runoff of fertilizers and pesticides that eventually contaminate soil and groundwater.

    The FAO report notes that agricultural irrigation needs are depleting groundwater aquifers in many regions.

    Similarly, it notes that the quality of 13 per cent of global soil, including 34 per cent of agricultural land, is now degraded by the use of fertilisers, overgrazing by cattle and livestock, erosion, deforestation and decreasing water availability.

    The report emphaises that climate change is further stressing agricultural systems and amplifying global food production challenges as it discusses the changing climate: erratic rainfall patterns, the unsuitability of land for certain crops, increasing spread of insects and pests and shorter growing seasons in parts of the globe due to intense droughts.

    Drought-like conditions

    As it exacerbates agricultural challenges, climate change is also exaggerating water demands and resulting in drought-like conditions. Extreme heat conditions stress crops. While agricultural productivity might increase in relatively colder regions, productivity will decrease in places that are already heating and drying up.

    Climate adaptation can be painful and costly, it says, offering the example of farmers in California tearing up their lucrative almond orchards.

    However, there is one spot in the report that holds hope. It says that deforestation trends have been partly arrested. The rate of decline of global forested areas over the past decade has halved from where it was in the 1990’s.

     

    Image: Hippox – under CC0 license

    Cops might not like this gaming app

    Rights Arcade, an Amnesty International gaming app will make human rights learning accessible, and possibly, interesting.

    Amnesty International has launched Rights Arcade, a free human rights game app which aims to educate the next generation of human rights defenders about rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly. The launch coincides with the international day of education.

    Amnesty International has developed the app to make human rights learning accessible.  The Amnesty gaming app is designed to strengthen the human rights movement through action-oriented education. The games will boost players’ knowledge about human rights and encourage people to take action on human rights issues.

    One of Rights Arcade’s key features is a self-paced approach that allows players to learn, reflect and take action at their own pace while navigating through the game’s stories.

    “This game has been designed to empower and encourage people everywhere, but especially younger audiences, to learn about human rights in an engaging manner,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary general.

    Real life characters

    “Young people are pivotal in setting the human rights agenda, today and for the future. Reaching them in the spaces they inhabit, or with which they engage regularly, is key to enabling new generations of activists and empowering them to fight for, and protect, human rights – now and in the future.”

    Players can take a human rights journey through the experiences of three real-life people: Ahmed Kabir Kishor, a cartoonist unjustly charged under the Digital Security Act in Bangladesh; Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist sentenced to four years in prison for reporting about COVID-19 in China; and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a student activist facing more than 25 charges for protesting in Thailand.

    The game’s stories, which are fictionalized experiences inspired by real world events, are driven by a player’s choices.

    The player gets to play the role and navigate the experiences of the three central characters, making decisions based on their own understanding of human rights and unpacking how human rights concepts apply in daily life.

    People around the world will be able to access a collection of three games currently available in four languages: English, Simplified Chinese, Thai and Korean. Rights Arcade can be downloaded on iOS and Android devices, ensuring its accessibility in regions with poor internet connectivity.

    Rights Arcade will be regularly updated to accommodate learning in more languages, and with new game offerings in the months and years to come.

    Education and gaming in the times of COVID-19

    Gaming and education have become unique partners. This abstract partnership has blossomed through the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Statistical evidence suggests a significant increase in the use of video-games during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers are gathering evidences on the pedagogical effectiveness of edu-games as mediators to enhance cognitive skills of students.

    Omicron has a growth advantage over Delta: WHO

    Omicron has a substantial growth advantage over the Delta strain of COVID-19 and is rapidly replacing Delta globally, particularly because it is able to evade the human immune system, says WHO’s technical briefing paper for member states.

    COVID-19, and particularly its Omicron strain, continues to spread, says a technical brief produced by the World Health Organisation. It says that available evidence suggest that the overall risk related to Omicron remains very high.

    As of 20 January 2022, the Omicron variant had been identified in 171 countries across all six WHO regions. The briefing paper says that there has been a four per cent increase in the number of new deaths globally in the week between 10 and 16 January 2022 compared to the previous week. The highest increases of 12 per cent has been reported from WHO’s South-East Asia Region that includes India. The Americas region has reported a seven per cent increase.

    “The large increase in the South-East Asia Region is mainly driven by the increase in the number of cases in India which reported 1,594,160 million new cases compared to 638 872 cases the previous week (a 150% increase),” the paper says.

    The paper says that Omicron has a substantial growth advantage over Delta, and it is rapidly replacing Delta globally, particularly because it is able to evade the human immune system. “There is now significant evidence that immune evasion contributes to the rapid spread of Omicron,” the WHO paper says.

    Higher levels of incidence

    Experts point out the Omicron has a significant growth advantage over Delta and is leading to rapid spread in the community with higher levels of incidence than previously seen in this pandemic.

    “Despite a lower risk of severe disease and death following infection than previous SARS-CoV-2 variants, the very high levels of transmission nevertheless have resulted in significant increases in hospitalization, continue to pose overwhelming demands on health care systems in most countries, and may lead to significant morbidity, particularly in vulnerable populations” says the WHO.

    On the question of the effectiveness of vaccines, the paper reiterates that “there is a growing body of evidence on vaccine effectiveness for Omicron, with data available from 15 observational studies from five countries.”

    In addition, increased risk of reinfection has been reported by South Africa, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Israel.

    Priority actions suggested by the group for member states (governments) include surveillance and testing, vaccination (with particular focus among populations designated as high priority and prioritising those yet to be vaccinated or incompletely vaccinated), infection prevention and control, public health and social measures, contact tracing and quarantine and risk communication and community engagement.

    The WHO group of experts has also recommended travel-related measures that will adjust international travel measures in a timely manner. Simultaneously, it has cautioned against blanket travel bans, saying that this “can adversely impact global health efforts during a pandemic by disincentivizing countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data.”

    How COVID-19 has shattered a family’s dreams

    A Bangladeshi family’s dreams of a good future life for their two young children is proving to be elusive as incomes come to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic and they find it difficult to pay for their schooling.

    Struck by the COVID-19 pandemic, Bangladesh families are struggling to pay for their children’s education.

    Rafiq Islam (name changed), a handloom trader living in Tangail would earn about 45,000 Bangladeshi Takas a month. His family would somehow see the month through. That is not the case any longer. Rafiq says that the economic crisis means that he and his wife Shabnam (name changed) have to stop dreaming.

    “The looms are silent and there are no buyers these days,” he says. “My income has dropped to a trickle and I realise how lucky I am to have my own ancestral house. But even buying rations is difficult these days.”

    Earlier, the family managed to save some money. That is no longer the case.

    The young couple had dreams for their two young sons aged eight and ten years. They wanted to give them good education. For this, they sent them to the best school they could pay for.

    The best school in Bangladesh, as elsewhere in SouthAsia, is often a private school – and not necessarily the best. Teachers are untrained and children return home with loads of homework. Students in these best schools are under pressure to cope with the best in the class. This gap in education is served by private tutors.

    Parents insist that the quality of education in government schools is poor. This is not without reason. A USAID report, for instance, says that 44 per cent of students completing their first grade education in a government-funded school struggle to read a word and the rate of dropouts is high.

    Expensive private schools are an option for the aspiring parent. But this needs to be complemented with private tutions that cost parents like Rafiq and Shabnam a fortune. 67 per cent of the urban households, most often like theirs, pay for their children’s private tutions, up from 48 per cent in 2000, according to UNESCO’s global education monitoring report.

    Bangladesh’s low investment on public education

    There is little influence that the government has in this regard. “Government schools are no good,” Shabnam says. “The teachers don’t come to school and they don’t teach if they come.”

    But the family can no longer pay for the private tution fees for their two young children.

    The UNESCO report that was released in December 2021 has been the subject of an intense discussion in the Bangladeshi media and parents like Rafiq and Shabnam are aware of its import.

    They say how they identify with what the report has to say – that seven per cent of Bangladeshi families have to borrow to pay for their children’s schooling. They say, in hushed, hesitation-filled tones, that they too have to borrow money for educating their children. “It is tough to pay the school fees and the tution fees,” says Rafiq. “But both must be paid.”

    The share of urban households in Bangladesh paying a private tution fee increased from 48 per cent in 2000 to 67 per cent in 2010.

    Overall, the average expenditure increased by 80 per cent in real terms, according to the report.

    Private schools have also been charging during the pandemic and thousands of families like Rafiq and Shabnam’s feel the strain. Rafiq complains that there is no income and what he is paying is not justified. But the schools have their own reasons and so do the private tutors.

    The government introduced classrooms over televisions, mobile phones, the good old radio and over internet – but the reach has been limited because internet penetration in communities like Tangail is poor and has taken a further hit during the pandemic.

    According to a World Bank study, pre-pandemic estimates showed 58 per cent of Bangladeshi children did not achieve minimum reading proficiency by grade 5. It is estimated this figure will increase to 76 per cent during school closures.

    The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to translate into a substantial long-term economic cost, the World Bank study says. Researchers have estimated that the average Bangladeshi student will face a reduction around US$ 335 in yearly earnings, or almost 6.8 per cent of their annual income by the time they grow up.

    Such is the story of Rafiq and Shabnam’s shattered dreams.

     

    Image: UNICEF

    Human rights violations and culture of impunity in SouthAsia

    South Asian countries are grappling with the erosion of democratic norms, growing authoritarianism, the crackdown on freedom of press, speech and dissent, a report by Human Rights Watch says.

    By Sania Farooqui / Inter Press Service

    As countries across South Asia continue to battle the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, causing serious public health and economic crisis, this region, which is home to almost two billion people, is also grappling with the erosion of democratic norms, growing authoritarianism, the crackdown on freedom of press, speech and dissent.

    Despite the committed efforts of human rights defenders across South Asia, achieving human rights objectives remains a challenging task. Almost all countries in the region – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – face a common trend of human rights violations and a culture of impunity.

    Afghanistan

    In Afghanistan, the Taliban rule has had a devastating impact on the lives of Afghan women, girls, journalists and human rights defenders. “The crisis for women and girls in Afghanistan is escalating with no end in sight. Taliban policies have rapidly turned many women and girls into virtual prisoners in their homes, depriving the country of one of its most precious resources, the skills and talents of the female half of the populations,” said Heather Barr, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch in this report.

    This report states, “the Taliban’s return to power has made members of some ethnic and religious minorities feel more vulnerable to threats even from those not affiliated with the Taliban. Taliban authorities have also used intimidation to extract money, food, and services. Fighting has mostly ended in the country, but people expressed fear of violence and arbitrary arrests by the Taliban and lack of the rule of law and reported increased crime in some areas.”

    A group of three dozen Human Rights Council appointed experts in this report said, “waves of measures such as barring women from returning to their jobs, requiring a male relative to accompany them in public spaces, prohibiting women from using public transport on their own, as well as imposing a strict dress code on women and girls. Taken together, these policies constitute a collective punishment of women and girls, grounded in gender-based bias and harmful practices.”

    The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, has urged the UN security council to hold all perpetrators of human rights violations accountable, “I ask the security council to ensure that the perpetrators of these violations are accountable, I ask all states to use their influence with the Taliban to encourage respect for fundamental human rights.”

    Bangladesh

    While Bangladesh, despite making economic progress and getting upgraded by the United Nations from the category of least developed country to developing country last November, the country continues to be in the news for enforced disappearances, abductions, torture and extrajudicial killings by its security forces with impunity.

    In this letter written by 12 organizations to Under-Secretary-General Jean-Pierre Lacroix, urging the United Nations Department of Peace Operations to ban Bangladesh’s notoriously abusive paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) from UN deployment.

    As many as 600 people, including opposition leaders, activists, journalists, business people, and others, have been subjected to enforced disappearance since 2009. In this report, Dhaka–based rights organization Odhikar said that “some of the disappeared persons resurfaced in government’s custody after being arrested under the draconian Digital Security Act 2018.”

    “Human rights defenders, journalists, and others critical of the government continue to be targeted with surveillance, politically motivated charges and arbitrary detention,” says this report. Earlier in November 2021, the United States slapped sanctions on elite Bangladeshi paramilitary force, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), stating it threatens US national security interests by undermining the rule of law and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the economic prosperity of the people of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is the only South Asian country other than Afghanistan to receive US sanctions since 1998.

    India

    In 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in India was downgraded from a free democracy to a “partially free democracy” by global political rights and liberties US-based nonprofit Freedom House. Following this, a Sweden based V-Dem institute said, India had become an “electoral autocracy”. The country has slid from No. 35 in 2006 to No. 53 today on The Economist’s list.

    The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended India be designated as a “country of particular concern, or CPC, for engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing and egregious religious freedom violations, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act in its report.

    In its World Report 2022, Human Rights Watch said, “Indian authorities intensified their crackdown on activists, journalists, and other critics of the government using politically motivated prosecutions in 2021. “Attacks against religious minorities were carried out with impunity under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Hindu nationalist government.”

    Indian authorities have continued to press charges against students, activities, journalists, including counter-terrorism and sedition laws.

    The ongoing harassment of journalists, including particularly those reporting from and in Kashmir, including the recent crackdown on Kashmir’s independent press club being shut down, arbitrary detention of journalists, alleged custodial killings, and a broader pattern of systematic infringement of fundamental rights used against the local population,” the report said.

    According to this report, calls for genocide have become more common than ever, “where Hindu extremists organized 12 events over 24 months in four states, calling for genocide of Muslims, attacks on Christian minority and insurrection against the government.

    Nepal

    In Nepal, lack of effective government leadership, inadequate and unequal access to health care, and a ‘pervasive culture of impunity’ continue to undermine the country’s fundamental human rights. “A lack of effective government leadership in Nepal means that little is done to uphold citizens’ rights, leaving millions to fend for themselves without adequate services such as for health or education, said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director, Human Rights Watch.

    “Systemic impunity for human rights abuses extends to ongoing violations, undermining the principles of accountability and the rule of law in post-conflict Nepal. The report states that the authorities routinely fail to investigate or prosecute killings or torture allegedly carried by security forces,” the report states.

    In October 2020, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) published 20 years of data, naming 286 people, mostly police officials, military personnel, and former Maoist insurgents, “as suspects in serious crimes, including torture, enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings”.

    Along with this, the situation of women’s and girls’ human rights continues to be alarming in the country. According to this report, Nepal has the highest rate of child marriages in Asia, with 33 percent of girls marrying before 18 years and 8 percent by 15. Reports also indicate there has been an increase in cases of rape in 2021, with widespread impunity for sexual violence.

    Pakistan

    The Pakistan government, on the other hand, “harassed and at times persecuted human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists for criticizing government officials and policies,” said this report by Human Rights Watch. Significant human rights issues include freedom of expression, attacks on civil society groups, freedom of religion and belief, forced disappearances by governments and their agents, unlawful or arbitrary killings, extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary detentions, terrorism, counter-terrorism and law enforcement abuses.

    “Pakistan failed to enact a law criminalizing torture despite Pakistan’s obligation to do so under the Convention against Torture,” the report said. The country’s regressive blasphemy law provides a pretext for violence against religious minorities, leaving them vulnerable to arbitrary arrests and prosecution.

    According to this report by Human Rights Without Frontiers, 1,865 people have been charged with blasphemy laws, with a significant spike in 2020, when 200 cases were registered.

    This piece highlights the plight of thousands of Pakistan’s Baloch who security forces have abducted. A bill about enforced disappearances, which the National Assembly passed, mysteriously went missing after it was sent to the Senate.

    The continued attack on journalists and activists for violations of the Electronic Crimes Act, the use of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), an anti-corruption agency to target critics, attacks and well-coordinated campaigns and attacks on women journalists on social media, and reported intimidation of nongovernmental organizations, including harassment and surveillance are all crackdowns which are only getting worse.

    Sri Lanka

    In Sri Lanka, the government continued to ‘suppress minority communities and harassed activists, and undermined democratic institutions.’ According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2022, “President Gotabaya Rajapaksha seems determined to reverse past rights improvements and protect those implicated in serious abuses. While promising reforms and justice to deflate international criticism, his administration has stepped up suppression of minority communities,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said.

    The report highlights the harassment of security forces towards human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and the families of victims of past abuses and suppression of peaceful protests. As COVID-19 cases surged in the country, military-controlled response to the pandemic “led to serious right violations”.

    A major concern from the minority Muslim and Christian communities in Sri Lanka was the government’s order not to allow the bodies of COVID-19 victims to be buried. According to this report, “several bodies were forcibly cremated, despite experts saying that bodies could be buried with proper safety measures.” This order, which rights activists said was intended to target minorities and did not respect religions, after much criticism was reversed.

    A leading British religious freedom advocacy group, CSW, in its report titled, “A Nation Divided: The state of freedom of religious or belief in Sri Lanka,” said the Muslim community experiences “severe” religious freedom violations. A key factor in the violations is the perception by Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalists that Muslims are a threat to both Buddhism and the Sinhalese. The report also noted attempts to “reduce the visibility of Islam through the destruction of mosques and restrictive stances on religious clothing.

     

    This piece has been sourced from Inter Press Service

    Image: Paula Bronstein for Human Rights Watch 2017

    Inequality doesn’t kill. Destitution kills.

    From the perspectives of developmental economics, economic equality is not the greatest of virtues; neither is economic inequality the worst of vices.

    By Anuj Kumar Vaksha

    On 17 January 2022, Oxfam International published a briefing paper titled Inequality Kills, and called for unparalleled action to combat unprecedented inequality in the wake of COVID-19. It also published, on the same day, an India-specific report on the same subject titled, Inequality kills: India Supplement 2022. The report, particularly, the India supplement received wide coverage in print and social media. Most of the media coverage were captioned with alarmist headlines relating to the rise of economic inequality in India.

    There is no denying the fact that economic inequality is bad – greater the economic inequality, the worse it is for the poor. This undeniable fact, however, is not the complete truth. From the perspectives of developmental economics, economic equality is not the greatest of virtues; neither is economic inequality the worst of vices. The general economic impoverishment and destitution arising out of the failing economic processes are far greater vices than the economic inequality of some degree persisting with sound economic processes.

    It is now almost a settled proposition that an open, free and competitive economy brings general prosperity in society, though with inequality which follows the former as a byproduct.  Most modern economies thus, on the one hand seek to build an open, free and competitive economy, while on the other hand, the seek to control inequality. India has embraced economic reforms since 1991 as a resolute decision to shake off socialist biases from the Indian economy and structure it to evolve as a free, open and competitive economy.

    Complex nuances

    By 2022, India has moved far ahead on the path of economic reforms with almost irreversible political gusto. In the new India, economic inequality is not an unpardonable sin. It is an undesirable feature of a rapidly developing economy that needs to be appropriately managed. In a socialist or a communist polity, the most stringent and even repressive measures are used to remove inequality. In a democratic polity like India, the control of economic inequality involves complex economic, policy and political nuances.

    Irrespective of the fact that India has moved far ahead, almost irreversibly, on the path of economic reforms, the socialist and communist brigades have repeatedly attempted to mud-sling the economic reform processes through rhetorical, propagandist and emotive reports on one or other aspect of the Indian economy. The recent Inequality Kills report from Oxfam on India is one such attempt to put in grisly state the issue of economic inequality, particularly in the context of untold human sufferings of the poor during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Billionaires bitterly targeted

    The report particularly targets the government of the day and the billionaires who are the key participants in the economic growth of the country. The billionaires have been targeted so bitterly that, one with soft heart would possibly get sick, if he or she hears the sins attributed to them.

    The report ignores the fact the wealth of the richest people in an open, competitive and free economy are not kept in their safe vaults in hard currencies. The substantive part of their wealth is invested in running enterprises. Thus, except for the numerical value of the notional wealth, the wealth that makes them billionaire does not live with them.

    The Oxfam report completely ignores the herculean measures undertaken by government to address the economic depravity of the poor from time to time and particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this sense, the Oxfam report is biased, misleading and motivated by left philosophical distortions.

    The report does make some good, practical solutions to address the sufferings of the poor during COVID-19 pandemic. To this limited extent, it is appreciated. But it also advocates for radical changes based on the left ideological constructs, against which the people need to be guarded.

     

    Anuj Kumar Vaksha is a Professor with the Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, Delhi.

    As a platform, OneWorld SouthAsia is obliged to carry all shades of opinions. We respect diversity of views and encourage contributions from readers.

    Image: Wikimedia Commons / Indrajit Das

     

    New tea law brews dissent

    Trade unions are up in arms against the draft Tea (Development and Promotion) Bill, 2022 mooted by the ministry of commerce and industry to replace the 1953 Tea Act. The unions say that this will impact the livelihoods of over a million tea workers and small tea growers.

    Manan Kumar

    A government move to replace the Tea Act of 1953 is stirring a hornet’s nest in India’s tea growing regions. Lakhs of tea workers and others associated with the tea business fear that their future is threatened by the new law.

    The government is in a hurry to throw open its tea party. The ministry of commerce and industry that handles all matters related to the morning brew came up with a brief 11-day window to record public response to the draft Tea (Development and Promotion) Bill, 2022 that is intended to replace the 1953 Tea Act.

    Oddly, the government did not invite representatives of tea workers and the trade unions to give their suggestions in the draft bill. The last date for recording public response to the draft was 21 January.

    Ten trade unions – AITUC, INTUC, HMS, CITU, AIUTUC, TUCC, SEWA, AICCTU, LPF and UTUC – managed to rush a missive to the ministry on the last day citing grave concerns on certain provisions of the draft bill that can have huge ramifications on the tea industry, its workers, tea estates and gardens and the tea board that currently controls the industry. The BMS (linked to the ruling BJP government) is not part of the body of trade unions representing to the ministry.

    These trade unions have asked the ministry “not to take any unilateral move without appropriately addressing the concerns” of key stakeholders. For this, they have demanded that the government extend the date to record public response and, also to discuss provisions of the bill across the table with stakeholders.

    The new law is replete with disturbing elements, much like the farm laws withdrawn by the government recently, a trade union leader told OWSA. The farm laws had provoked a farmers’ agitation.

    The trade unions see a red herring in the provision of the draft bill that put an end to the regulatory role of the tea board, ostensibly due to the emergence of competitive and open international market and growth of the small tea grower.

    The unions denounce the move as totally unjust and unacceptable. They argue that “India being a major producer of tea in global market, the Tea Board has got a definite and regulatory role to play in national interests and, also in the interests of this highly labour-intensive as well as land-intensive industry, fetching huge foreign exchange earnings for the country.”

    Tea workers’ rights

    The trade union also point out the exclusion of Chapter 3 (Control over the extension of tea cultivation) and Chapter 4 (Control over the export of tea and tea seed) of the Tea Act, 1953 in the draft Bill. This, the unions say, is a ploy to make over 4.2 lakh hectares of land available for unrestricted commercial use. Such a move will adversely impact the livelihood of 1.2 million tea workers and their families besides damaging the fragile ecology comprising of forest cover and water bodies.

    Specifically mentioning the complete exclusion of Chapter 3A, the trade unions point out that this is “tantamount to complete abdication of responsibility by the Government for protecting the interest of the industry, the huge land resources deployed in it and its huge workforce, much to the detriment of national interests.”

    In their letter to the ministry, the trade unions have said that “while the exclusion of Chapter 3A opens, potentially, 4.2 lakh hectares of land under tea plantation for competitive commercial avenues, the Tea Bill, 2022 is completely silent on the rights of workers and worker communities dependent exclusively on these plantations. We find this unacceptable and apprehend that it creates a situation for gross labour rights and human rights violations.”

    The fall guys of Afghanistan’s Sharia legal system

    Former prosecutors are unemployed have to hide to save their families and themselves from the very criminals against whom they fought in the courts since the Taliban took over.

    Within days of the Taliban takeover, people running the cogs and wheels of the country’s judicial system lost their jobs. There is no place for them in the Sharia legal system.

    Many of them, now unemployed, are struggling to provide for their families.

    “We have been living in misery for several months,” Moshtari Danesh told Radio Azadi, a radio being run by Afghan journalists in exile. Moshtari has been unable to pay the rent for her home.

    Moshtari Danesh is disabled and a woman. She grew up in deeply conservative Afghanistan and overcame great odds to become a prosecutor.

    Afghanistan’s former prosecutors like Danesh who worked with the judicial system are reeling from a devastating economic crisis triggered by the Taliban takeover.

    Not just that, they have to hide to save their families and themselves from the very criminals against whom they fought in the courts. The murderers and drug dealers were freed from prisons by the Taliban as soon as they unseated the elected government and took office.

    Another such person was Humayun (who only goes by his first name). For years before the collapse of the Afghan government, Humayun was tasked with investigating serious crimes in the southern province of Helmand. Working in a region where most of the world’s opium is grown and processed into heroin, his job often focused on those in Afghanistan’s illegal narcotics trade.

    But now, Humayun says he is receiving threats from the criminals he helped to convict. He says they are demanding that he reimburse them for fines they’d paid and property that was confiscated from them as part of their sentencing.

    Humayun recently received a call from a former convict from Helmand’s Nad-e Ali district who held him responsible for the dismantling of his drug business. “He told me (that) I am responsible for the confiscation of his car and that I should return it now,” Humayun told Radio Azadi.

    Humayun is not the lone one facing such demands

    Humanyun is not the only one facing such demands from criminals set free by the Taliban.

    “Many former inmates are now threatening me and my colleagues to demand that we return their money,” he said. “A responsible court imposed penalties or ordered their properties confiscated. Yet they are insisting that we are personally responsible for what happened to them.”

    Several prosecutors, judges, and lawyers have been killed in recent months. Others have been attacked or threatened.

    Western nations have evacuated and granted asylum to hundreds of judicial workers from Afghanistan. But for the thousands who remain trapped in Afghanistan, particularly women, the future is bleak.

    “He shot at me”

    Fatana Mohammadi, a lawyer, was attacked by an unidentified man in broad daylight in her home in Kabul last month.

    “He shot at me once, but I was able to dodge the bullet by throwing a blanket over him,” Mohammadi told Radio Azadi. “After that, his gun jammed,” she said, adding that the attacker then beat her.

    “My cries for help attracted the attention of my neighbors,” who took hold of the attacker and handed him over to the Taliban, she said.

    “I still do not know who he was or why he wanted to kill me,” added Mohammadi.

    Inamullah Samagani, a Taliban spokesman, told journalists in November that the militant group was not targeting former prosecutors. “There is no arbitrary or prejudiced treatment of (former) prosecutors,” he said.

    Taliban tightens grip on justice system

    Afghanistan’s judiciary has undergone a swift and complete overhaul since the Taliban seized power. There is no place for lawyers trained through the pedagogical tools of modern law education under the Sharia legal system that the Taliban have brought with them. The modern way of dispensing justice does not appeal to the Taliban, who feel it is too slow and ineffective.

    In November, the Taliban’s justice minister, Mullah Abdul Hakim, declared that only Taliban-approved lawyers can work in their Islamic courts, effectively revoking the licenses of some 2,500 lawyers and banning women from working in law.

    Dozens of Taliban gunmen also stormed the offices of Afghanistan’s Independent Bar Association (AIBA) in Kabul that month and ordered its employees to stop their work. The Taliban has put the AIBA under the control of its Justice Ministry, stripping the organization of its independence.

    The moves have raised deep concerns about the impartiality and fairness of criminal trials under the Taliban that will be dominated by insurgents and clerics.

    During its earlier rule over Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban courts used their tribal interpretations of Shari’a law to prescribe extreme public punishments, including executions, floggings, and amputations.

    Since returning to power, the Taliban has signalled a return to some of its past methods.

    “There’s no indication that the Taliban are thinking about incorporating the institutional setup of the previous government’s judicial and legal system,” Haroun Rahimi, a self-exiled assistant law professor for the Kabul-based American University of Afghanistan told Radio Azadi.

    “They view that system with disdain,” he added. “They’d like to continue what they perceive as a more Islamic – authentically Islamic – simple version of the adjudication that they were doing with their shadow courts.”

     

    Image: Jan Chipchase, Oxfam

     

    Rohingya rights group urge Biden, Macron to announce sanctions on Myanmar gas revenue

    The Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK has said that the policy to protect the profits of American and French companies needs to change urgently.

    An umbrella group of Rohingya rights organizations today urged on the United States and France to impose sanctions on gas revenue in Myanmar. They said that the money earned from the trade of Myanmar’s natural resources helped pay for the Myanmar military’s crimes.

    “We… urge President Biden of the United States of America and President Macron of France to urgently introduce sanctions on gas revenue in Burma (Myanmar),” the group said in a statement released by the London-based Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK). The statement further said, “Gas extraction projects which involve American Chevron and French Total provide hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to the Burmese military annually.”

    BROUK is an umbrella organisation of 21 rights groups worldwide.

    It said gas extraction projects, involving American firm Chevron and French Total, provide hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to the Myanmar military annually.

    February 1 will mark a year since the military coup in Myanmar. The US, EU, UK and Canada have imposed a number of sanctions on sources of income for the Burmese military, include on timber and gems. “But gas production, which is one of the military’s biggest revenue sources, has so far gone untouched,” the statement read.

    Funding Myanmar army

    Both, President Joe Biden and President Emmanuel Macron have blocked sanctions on the gas industry, the BROUK affiliates said in their statement. In doing so, they are “protecting the profits of American and French companies ahead of the lives of Burmese people,” they said. “This urgently needs to change.”

    Arguing that the two leaders were tacitly funding the war the Myanmar army was waging against its own people, the statement released by the Rohingya organisations said that “sanctions on gas revenue would stop the military getting their hands on hundreds of millions of dollars which currently help fund their crimes against the Burmese people.”

    According to a report by the Ontario International Development Agency, more than 24,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed since 25 August 2017 and over 34,000 have been thrown into fires, says the Ontario International Development Agency. Over 114,000 Rohingya Muslims have been beaten and up to 18,000 Rohingya women and girls have been raped, the organisation says.

    Nearly a million Rohingya Muslims are currently living as refugees in Bangladesh’s southern district of Cox’s Bazar after fleeing the August 2017 military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

    The statement added that the Myanmar military are now “attacking people all over Burma, killing children, burning villages and torturing with impunity.”

    Researchers stumble upon a beautiful, large and rare coral reef

    An UNESCO supported research mission has discovered one of the largest coral reefs in the world off the coast of Tahiti. The pristine condition of the corals, together with the extensive area these cover makes these rose-shaped corals a highly valuable discovery.

    A team of oceanography researchers have stumbled upon one of the largest coral reefs in the world on the seabed off the coast of Tahiti, the South Pacific archipelago in French Polynesia.

    The rose-shaped coral reefs are in pristine condition, as if untouched by the ravages of time. Each one of the giant rose-shaped corals are up to 2 metres in diameter.

    The highly unusual discovery is invaluable. And it is not news for the mainstream media.

    The reef is located at depths of between 30 and 65 metres. It is approximately 3 kilometres in length and between 30 metres and 60 to 65 metres wide. The dimensions the scientists have provided makes this yet-to-be-named coral reefs one of the most extensive, healthy coral reefs on record.

    “It was magical to witness giant, beautiful rose corals which stretch for as far as the eye can see. It was like a work of art,” says French photographer Alexis Rosenfeld who leads the campaign for the decade of ocean science for sustainable development.

    Ocean mapping is coordinated by UNESCO’s 150-country membership intergovernmental oceanographic commission that claims to be the guardian of unique ocean places, including 232 marine biosphere reserves and 50 marine world heritage sites of outstanding universal value.

    A step forward for science

    This is highly unusual because, up to now, the vast majority of the world’s known coral reefs sit at depths of up to 25 metres. This discovery suggests that there are many more large reefs out there, at depths of more than 30 metres, in what is known as the ocean’s ‘twilight zone’. The world is only now begining to learn about these.

    “To date, we know the surface of the moon better than the deep ocean. Only 20 per cent of the entire seabed has been mapped. This remarkable discovery in Tahiti demonstrates the incredible work of scientists who further the extent of our knowledge about what lies beneath,” says Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General.

    This expedition is part of UNESCO’s global approach to mapping the ocean. Coral reefs are an important food source for other organisms so locating them can aid research around biodiversity. The organisms that live on reefs can be important for medicinal research and reefs can also provide protection from coastal erosion and even tsunamis.

    “French Polynesia suffered a significant bleaching event back in 2019 — however this reef does not appear to have been significantly affected,” says Dr. Laetitia Hedouin, France’s National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS).

    “The discovery of this reef in such a pristine condition is good news and can inspire future conservation,” she says. “We think that deeper reefs may be better protected from global warming.”

    Very few scientists have so far been able to locate, investigate and study coral reefs at depths of more than 30 metres. However, technology now means longer dives at these depths are possible. In total the team carried out dives totalling around 200 hours to study the reef and were able to witness the coral spawning. Further dives are planned in the coming months to continue investigations around the reef.

    Does Sinovac help fend off Omicron?

    Relying solely on the Chinese-manufactured Sinovac inactive vaccine is not enough to reduce transmission rates of COVID-19. Millions of people in 48 countries around the globe have been vaccinated by the mRNA vaccine.

    Results from a new study by researchers at Yale and the Dominican Republic published in the journal Nature Medicine say that vaccinations with the Chinese-manufactured Sinovac inactive vaccine alone are of no help against the widely circulating Omicron variant.

    The research is based on an analysis of blood serum from 101 individuals from the Dominican Republic. The analysis showed that Omicron infection produced no neutralizing antibodies among those who received the standard two-shot regimen of the Sinovac vaccine.

    However, antibody levels against Omicron rose among individuals who had also received a booster shot of the mRNA vaccine made by Pfizer-BioNTech.

    Yet, when scientists compared these samples with blood serum samples stored at Yale, they discovered that even samples from individuals who had received two shots of Sinovac and a booster had antibody levels that were only about the same as those who had received just the two shots of the mRNA vaccines, sans any booster shot.

    Also, the researchers found that individuals who had been infected by earlier strains of the SARS-Cov-2 virus saw little immune protection against Omicron.

    Complicating global efforts

    These findings can complicate global efforts to combat the Omicron strain, which, though less dangerous than the Delta strain, is highly transmissible and is the dominant COVID-19 strain circulating in much of the world.

    An additional booster shot — and possibly two — will be needed in areas where the Sinovac shot has been the chief source of vaccination, said the paper’s senior author, Akiko Iwasaki.

    “Booster shots are clearly needed in this population because we know that even two doses of mRNA vaccines do not offer sufficient protection against infection with Omicron,” she said.

    Omicron has proven particularly problematic to combat because it possesses 36 mutations on the spike proteins on its surface. The virus uses these surface spike proteins to enter cells. The mRNA vaccines available today have been designed to trigger antibody response when the body recognises the spike proteins.

    Iwasaki stressed, however, that the human immune system still has other weapons it can use against COVID-19, such as T cells that can attack and kill infected cells and prevent severe disease.

    “But we need antibodies to prevent infection and slow transmission of the virus,” she said.

    The Chinese-manufactured Sinovac inactive vaccine is used in 48 countries to help reduce transmission rates of COVID-19.

     

    Image Credit: Pixabay/Creative Commons CC0 Public Domain

    A wee bit of seed money ushers in big time change

    From tending to a kitchen garden or rearing a cow, to making handicraft items or running a small village shop, some 800-plus women, all homemakers, made it big with a fistful of aid and loads of motivation.

    By Sajid Hasan

    The past year has been a roller coaster ride of discovery for Rashida Begum.

    It was a special year; Rashida, 60, set up a plant nursery in her village in Nilphamari, in northern Bangladesh, bordering India. In this past year, Rashida is proud to be earning an income to meet the needs of her family.

    “My family and I faced a lot of poverty in the past years. We could not manage enough food for ourselves and my children also struggled a lot to continue their education. Now we are well off,” says she with a smile.

    More than 840 women like Rashida have turned their lives around in the rural areas of Bangladesh.

    For the first time in their lives, the women have been in a position to start their own business and earn a reliable income, with support from Bangladesh Red Crescent and the International Federation of Red Cross.

    A longer-term programme, economic empowerment of rural women, is offering women access to cash assistance and skills training so that they can develop sustainable livelihoods and independence.

    The women say it’s reducing inequality in their villages and helping to prevent sexual and gender-based violence.

    The village’s only woman shopkeeper

    A few years ago, Monnuja Begum, faced big financial difficulties for her family after her husband passed away. Monnuja started a small grocery shop, but it was not enough to support her son and daughter.

    Monnuja, 40, agreed to her daughter marrying, typical in rural Bangladesh, to reduce the daily cost of an impoverished family. Yet she still needed to find ways to boost her income to provide enough for her family, including her son’s education.

    Mannuja received 10,000 Bangladeshi Taka (120 US dollars) from Bangladesh Red Crescent and the IFRC to start a bigger grocery shop.

    “I now earn around 5,000 Bangladeshi Taka (60 US dollars) per month from the shop which helps me lead my life smoothly and support my son’s education,” says Monnuja.

    In rural parts of Bangladesh, 60 US dollars a month is just enough to run her small family.

    For a widow like Monnuja, this income is a lifesaver, she explains, as women are not typically able to find a job or another way to support their family. Women are asked to stay inside the house and men do jobs outside.

    “I am, as a matter of fact, the only female shopkeeper in this village,” Mannuja adds, indicating a positive change in her community.

    Vegetable garden pays for schooling

    It seem like months ago when this land was full of weeds. Sudha Rani Roy, smiles with joy as she explains that now, she has transformed this patch of paradise into a big vegetable garden near her house.

    Sudha says this has been one of the best years of her life. She loves growing organic vegetables, as she shows off her bountiful brinjal, gourd and spinach.

    The garden is laden with colourful fruits, papaya bursting from beneath big green leaves, surrounded by spices, ginger and turmeric and leafy greens.

    During recent months, Sudha has earnt 6,000 Bangladeshi Taka (70 US dollars) a month, by selling her winter vegetables, which are in high demand.

    “I hope to earn more during the rest of the winter as there is a huge demand for vegetables in this area,” says Sudha Rani. This has all been made possible with special financial support and training in recent months.

    She has two daughters, one of them goes to school; and she is extremely happy to be able to spend her earning to support her family and her daughter’s education with her vegetable garden.

    A training on handicrafts and cash assistance enabled Momota Banu, 35, to earn more than 9,000 Bangladeshi Taka (105 US dollars) per month that helped her become financially independent and support her family.

    “Now I have the capacity to make customized dresses by pasting batik and I sell those in my own community and in the local market.

    “I invest the earnings in household matters such as for repairing my home, latrine and tube-well and for my daughter’s education,” says Momota.

    Her daughter Jui, 12, is a school student and happily helps her mother in her work.

    Milking a cow and other opportunities

    Parmina Begum, 45, has a large family that used to depend entirely on the income of her husband coming from agricultural work and crop production.

    If the production is hampered any year due to adverse weather, the family used to go through a lot of hardship as they could barely save money for such times.

    Parmina received 17,000 Bangladeshi Taka (200 US dollars) which she spent to buy a cow.

    She also received training on cow rearing and now she can think of supporting her family.

    “As my cow has given birth to a calf, I will have some extra money now by selling milk. I am cheerful and have no worries for the coming days,” she says.

    Women and climate change mitigation

    The impact of climate change is severe in northern Bangladesh resulting in the destruction of rivers, changing the agricultural patterns and affecting typical livelihoods.

    Women are particularly vulnerable in these areas due to the compounding effects of climate change and other socio-economic causes such as early marriage, dowry system, and gender-based violence.

    The women targetted under this programme, including widows and female-headed households, have been supported to strengthen economic capabilities which have ultimately increased their adaptation capacity in facing the impacts of disasters caused by climate change as well as reduced gender inequality in the community.

    Modi’s PMCARES and Gotabaya’s COVID–19 fund: Two similar kitties?

    Beginning with a lack of accountability, there are a number of interesting similarities between the Sri Lankan president’s COVID–19 Healthcare and Social Security Fund and the PM-CARES fund of India.

    The COVID–19 Healthcare and Social Security Fund established by Sri Lanka’s President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to strengthen the mitigation activities aimed at controlling the spread of COVID-19 virus in the country and related social welfare programme, have been vested with a set of wide responsibilities.

    The fund has many similarities with the PMCARES fund mooted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with a prominent sole departure. While the PMCARES fund will be audited by a certified auditor, the Sri Lankan president’s Healthcare and Social Security Fund will be audited by the country’s auditor general. “Fund activities and accounts are subjected to audit by the Auditor General,” a summary statement on the functioning of the stated.

    Only financial contributions

    Like in India’s PM-CARES, the Healthcare and Social Security Fund too welcomes  contributions from local as well as foreign donors. The only provision in both case is to make the donation a “financial contributions” to the COVID–19 Healthcare and Social Security Fund. There is no scope to make donations in kind or services.

    In yet another similarity, the donations will be exempted from tax and foreign exchange regulations. Deposits could be made through cheques or telegraphic transfers.

    Furthermore, the Sri Lankan President’s fund will be managed by a 17-member committee headed by the central bank Governor. The Secretary to the Committee is the Chief Financial Officer at Presidential Secretariat. Among the office bearers are also Secretary to the Treasury, Defense Secretary, Director General Health Services, Acting IGP, Director General Sri Lanka Customs and Lanka Sathosa Chairman.

    The Fund has been set up to provide immediate funding requirement of director general of the island nation’s health services to meet all expenditure connected with COVID-19 related healthcare facilities including drugs, testing equipment and capacity expenses.

    The notification says the the fund will help meet expenses connected to healthcare and safety of health sector employees and all logistic providers working to provide essential public delivery services and to provide basic essentials to children, women, low income, elderly, differently abled and vulnerable people.

    Not accountable to Parliament

    The fund will be managed by a committee tasked to “invest this fund in and securing the necessary purchasing in medicines and testing kits as well as increasing the healthcare capacities; ensuring the health and safety of those in the health sector and in the essential services; financial needs of children, women, low income earners, elders, physically challenged and other vulnerable sectors; integrating public health systems, rural and remote dispensaries, testing and treatment centers and health care systems to reduce the risk of infectious diseases.”

    The government will mobilize the required funding to strengthen public healthcare systems, including village and remote area dispensaries, testing and treatment centers, family healthcare system, to further consolidate Sri Lanka’s public healthcare system to reduce country risks to communicable diseases.

    It will also assist indigenous medicine, sanitary product manufacturing and distribution, promote research to use resources, knowledge and skills to innovate new health and sanitation products based on local raw materials.

    More similarities

    Like in PMCARES, the Sri Lankan fund too is aimed at promoting research and innovation using Sri Lanka’s medical and scientific knowledge and experience to develop protective dresses and sanitation products to global market.

    In keeping with the present Sri Lankan dispensation’s prioritising organic farming, this fund will also be used “to promote healthy living with organic food consumption, valuing traditional, yet rich living styles, through media and educational programmes.”

    It will also coordinate fund raising with WHO, UNICEF, UNDP, World Bank, ADB and Sri Lanka’s major development partner community and agencies based on best guidelines for resource allocations, harmonized national procurement system and governance practices.

    Fund expenditures remain low

    So far, the fund has collected Sri Lankan Rupees 1,827,314,924.65. Of this amount, LKR 100 crore each have been allocated to the PCR testing and advocacy programming. So far, only a sum of 42,605,812 has been spent by the ministry of helath and the university grants commission. On the other had, the advocacy programme has used a mere 24,364,800 from the LKR 100 crore allocated to the ministry of health for this.

    The ministry of health and the ministry of defence together could only spend LKR 38,031,065 on quarantine facilities.

    There has been no confirmation of the expenditures as yet against a fund of LKR 112,140,000. The chart says, “Confirmation is anticipated”. Similarly, “Confirmation is anticipated” also for the meagre amount of 3,522,000 set aside end-October for procuring rapid test kits.

    Afghanistan’s prime minister calls for international recognition for his government

    A massive job crisis that threatens to grow further, lack of food and medicines and frozen overseas assets prompted today’s press conference.

    Afghanistan’s acting prime minister, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, today pleaded the international community to recognize his administration. He was speaking at a press conference called to convey his message to governments across the world for recognizing the Taliban government.

    A financial crisis, together with soaring inflation, unemployment, and cash shortages is impacting access to food, water, shelter, and health care.

    The acting prime minister said that the country is presently passing through a humanitarian crisis. Millions of people have been pushed into poverty and there is a shortage of food while people have no means to keep themselves warm in the middle of the freezing Afghan winter.

    “I ask all governments, especially Islamic countries, that they should start recognition,” Radio Azadi, a radio run by Afghan journalists in exile quoted him as saying. He assured that the Taliban government he heads has restored peace and security.

    Poverty has been aggravated by joblessness. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) predicts that 900,000 people might lose their livelihoods by mid-2022.

    “Economic recovery and a return to stability in the labor market is largely contingent upon the continued support of the international community, which at this point remains unclear, as well as policy decisions of the new administration,” the ILO report said.

    Already, over half a million people in the country are jobless. International humanitarian organisations have spoken of how 22 million people are resorting to negative coping mechanisms this winter by burning their clothes and furniture in order to keep themselves warm.

    Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund also called for the unfreezing of Afghanistan’s assets held overseas. He was referring to the United States and other western nations freezing billions of dollars worth of Afghan banking assets, besides cutting off development funding to the war-torn nation.

    The prime minister’s pleas for official recognition are significant, since the present Taliban rulers have been accused of serious violations of human rights, particularly of women and the country’s ethnic minorities.

    So far, no country has recognized the country’s new rulers, though Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan are sizing up the situation after they seized power in 2021.

    Even during their earlier stint in power between 1996 and 2001, only three widely recognized countries – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) declared the Islamic Emirate to be Afghanistan’s rightful government.

    According to Mansoor Ahmed, Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, the banking system in Afghanistan is not operating and this is adding to the problems of the new Afghan government.

    Earlier this month, Pakistan had called a meeting of foreign ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Countries to discuss Afghan issues and to engage the world community to support the Afghan government.

     

    Image: Children use the heat from a firewood stove to keep themselves warm in the hard Afghan winter.
    Credit: Sayed Bidel / UNICEF

    Sophisticated cyber-attack targets Red Cross data on 500,000 people

    A cyber-attack targetted an external company in Switzerland that the ICRC contracts to store data. It has compromised personal data and confidential information on more than 515,000 highly vulnerable people.

    A sophisticated cyber security attack against computer servers hosting information held by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was detected this week.

    The attack compromised personal data and confidential information on more than 515,000 highly vulnerable people, including those separated from their families due to conflict, migration and disaster, missing persons and their families, and people in detention. The data originated from at least 60 countries around the world.

    The ICRC’s most pressing concern following this attack, the organisation said, is the potential risks that come with this breach – including confidential information being shared publicly – for people that the Red Cross and Red Crescent network seeks to protect and assist, as well as their families. “When people go missing, the anguish and uncertainty for their families and friends is intense.”

    “An attack on the data of people who are missing makes the anguish and suffering for families even more difficult to endure. We are all appalled and perplexed that this humanitarian information would be targeted and compromised,” said Robert Mardini, ICRC’s director-general. “This cyber-attack puts vulnerable people, those already in need of humanitarian services, at further risk.”

    The ICRC has no immediate indications as to who carried out this cyber-attack, which targeted an external company in Switzerland the ICRC contracts to store data. There is not yet any indication that the compromised information has been leaked or shared publicly.

    “While we don’t know who is responsible for this attack, or why they carried it out, we do have this appeal to make to them,” said Mr Mardini.

    “Your actions could potentially cause yet more harm and pain to those who have already endured untold suffering. The real people, the real families behind the information you now have are among the world’s least powerful. Please do the right thing. Do not share, sell, leak or otherwise use this data.”

    The ICRC along with the wider Red Cross and Red Crescent network jointly runs a program called Restoring Family Links that seeks to reunite family members separated by conflict, disaster or migration.

    “Because of the attack, we have been obliged to shut down the systems underpinning our Restoring Family Links work, affecting the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement’s ability to reunite separated family members,” the ICRC said in a press release. “We are working as quickly as possible to identify workarounds to continue this vital work.”

    “Every day, the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement helps reunite on average 12 missing people with their families. That’s a dozen joyful family re-unifications every day. Cyber-attacks like this jeopardise that essential work,” Mr Mardini said. “We are taking this breach extremely seriously.

    We are working closely with our humanitarian partners worldwide to understand the scope of the attack and take the appropriate measures to safeguard our data in the future.”

     

    Image: Wikipedia

    Students, faculties from centres of excellence raises voice; attempt breaking silence of the past

    Protests against the communal hatred and misogyny in both, online and offline spaces are now coming from unexpected quarters.

    The Haridwar dharam sansad (religious parliament) and the floating of apps purporting to auction Indian Muslim women have elicited demands for action against those voicing hate from some of India’s premier institutions of higher education.

    Earlier this month, students and faculty from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad and Bangalore wrote to the Prime Minister, saying that his silence was emboldening voices of hate.

    Next came a letter from a number of alumni of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), demanding action against the “deep communal hatred and misogyny” expressed by people with “close ties” to the ruling BJP.

    Worried by the Prime Minister’s silence, the IIT alumni wrote, “As the country valiantly battles the challenges from the never ending COVID-19, the sharply rising unemployment and masses of people being pushed into poverty, we are now faced with the grave danger from rising calls for genocide of one community.”

    The letter from the IIT alumni also makes mention of reports of the Tek Fog app saying, “Reports suggest that this is a Psychological Ops military grade weapon and in the hands of mal-intentioned actors, it can have serious security implications. Your condemnation of this alleged weapon is still awaited.”

    This is worrying for the government and the ruling BJP. Both, the IIMs and the IITs are respected for the education they provide and the value they have added to business and industry, especially for the aspirational sections of the country.

    Not the fringe any more

    One IIM faculty member said the group took the initiative after realising that silence was not an option any more. “For far too long, the mainstream discourse has dismissed the voices of hate as the fringe. That’s how we are here,” the Indian Express newspaper quoted him as saying.

    Now, the two leading institutions of learning have been joined by alumni from the Institute of Rural Management Anand, and other institutions of learning, including New Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College and Miranda House, the National Institute of Design and the Xavier’s School of Management (XLRI).

    The letter emphasises on the unsafe environment for women in the country with the threat of physical harm, sexual violence and outright violation of dignity and rights becoming commonplace.

    “They are manifestations of the culture that target women, for daring to have a voice of their own,” the alumni of these institutions have said in their open letter addressed to the President, the Prime Minister and Members of Parliament.

    Urging leaders to break their silence, the letter says, “In this atmosphere of silence not only do the perpetrators of such crimes often go scot-free, they are getting emboldened by the increasing atmosphere of hate and divisiveness in the country and barely show any remorse for hate filled misogynistic crimes.”

    For China, charity begins in SouthAsia

    China has undertaken more projects in SouthAsian countries than anywhere else in the world. Even India figures prominently in terms of the number of projects China has aided between 2000-2017.

    Rahul Karan

    China’s development aid and assistance in SouthAsia between 2000-2017 has been a multifaceted story. It is distributed across multiple sectors of the domestic economies across SouthAsian countries.

    SouthAsia is an important region for China’s diplomatic activity, given especially the gradual expansion of Beijing’s footprint in the region since 2000.

    These engagements are the substance of Beijing’s relationship with countries in SouthAsia, allowing China to cultivate goodwill and enhance its image as a viable development partner. The scale of Chinese development finance in SouthAsia highlights the economic potential of the region and its strategic importance to China. Beijing’s ‘development-diplomacy’ reveals a pattern of close engagement between institutions and elites in China and the recipient countries.

    As study of data from the Aid Data project reveals, SouthAsia occupies a significant place in China’s development engagements between 2000 and 2017. During this period, China’s diplomacy in SouthAsia took the form of loans, aid and development projects extended to recipient governments.

    The dataset reveals that China initiated over 600 development finance projects in Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Maldives and India. These came in the form of loans, grants, export/supplier credits, technical assistance programs.

    Interestingly, while China’s outreach to South Asia mainly involved infrastructure investments, humanitarian assistance and budgetary support, debt forgiveness initiatives were an important feature of the Chinese projects.

    The datasets show that Chinese projects in five key areas of China’s engagement with SouthAsia. The tale accompanying the following graphs is an evidence that the Beijing’s interest in the region predates its belt and road initiative.

    South Asia is the preferred destination for China’s development finance

    Five out of the six largest recipients of loans and aid from China between 2000 to 2017 were SouthAsian countries – Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. As is evident from the chart above, China has undertaken more projects in SouthAsian countries than anywhere else in the world, indicating the importance of the region for Beijing’s diplomatic priorities. Even India and Maldives figure prominently in terms of the number of projects between 2000-2017. 

    Pakistan is the largest recipient of Chinese development finance. India the smallest

    China’s outreach to SouthAsia between 2000-2017 mainly targeted Pakistan, followed by Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Given China’s close relationship with Pakistan and its economic interests like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) corridor, Pakistan leads all SouthAsian countries receiving China’s development financing. India on the other hand, receives the least amount of loans and aid from China. 

     

    China’s outreach to South Asia is on the rise

    Besides being the largest recipients of Chinese development finance and assistance, SouthAsian countries have also witnessed an increase in Chinese financial aid and investments since 2000. The number of projects undertaken per year in 2017 is slightly higher than the number of projects in 2000 for most countries in South Asia with the exception of India. 

    Chinese development financing focused on infrastructure investments and humanitarian assistance

    China financial diplomacy between 2000 to 2017 was mainly channeled into infrastructure investments and humanitarian assistance. Infrastructure investments include a broad range of donations, loans and grants: from donating supplies worth 10 million RMB for Nepal’s general elections in 2013 to an 80 million RMB grant to Afghanistan for post-war reconstruction in 2006.

    China has also provided humanitarian assistance to countries in SouthAsia on numerous occasions between 2000 and 2017. As the graph below shows, Chinese contribution towards emergency response in the region was one single largest chunk of money, as compared to other areas like transport and storage, energy, education and health. Indeed, Chinese contributions also went to civil society, possibly meaning civil society organisations. Here, China also provided financial aid and loans for the social sector including those engaged in education, health and social infrastructure.  

    China financed capacity building projects and provided emergency relief

     

    China’s financial assistance was focused mainly on emergency and disaster assistance programs, supplying material goods and supplies to recipient governments during a crisis. China also invested in building capacity: transport and storage facilities like ports and energy projects like coal plants.

    To reiterate, the importance of SouthAsia is not new to the thinking of Chinese policymakers engaged in crafting Beijing’s ‘development-diplomacy’. The multifaceted story of Chinese assistance to the region has allowed China to cultivate goodwill while enhancing its image in the region.

     

    Image: Wikimedia

    Hunger strike by New York prison inmates

    Inmates complain of human rights abuse and indifference by prison officials regarding the risk of COVID-19, inadequate heating during winter, lack of proper hygiene and rising violence in the prison.

    As many as 200 prisoners held at the Rikers Island correctional institution (jail) went on a hunger strike on 8 January 2022, decrying their inhuman living conditions. They said they were hungry and cited cold temperatures, vermin infestations, filthy living spaces, rising violence inside the prison and lack of medical attention during the COVID-19 outbreak as the reasons for their protest. The virus sickened more than 370 inmates and has taken 15 lives thus far.

    Detainees have refused food to protest the deteriorating living conditions inside the prison complex.

    The inmates say they have been subject to deplorable living conditions and are demanding fulfilment of basic human rights – including access to medical care, clean living spaces, mental health support and working toilets.

    An overwhelming majority of the detainees are being held in pre-trial detention, which is also common for most of the city’s prison systems. Data published by the Vera Institute for Justice from the New York City Open Data Website, 81.8 per cent of jailed people in the city happened to be pre-trial detained (as of October 8, 2021).

    The island houses some of the key prison complexes of New York City, with a combined capacity of holding anywhere between 10,000 to 15,000 detainees a day. But as the crises spiralled since the outbreak of the pandemic, the numbers have come down to about 5,400 prisoners.

    An array of abolitionists, legal activists and human rights organisations, including T’ruah, a Rabbinic Human Rights organisation and The Fortune Society have joined the cause of the prisoners. While some of the organisations are demanding improved living conditions, others believe the correctional facility should be shut down.

    Not the first protest

    According to creative commons platform, Peoples Dispatch, the prison complex has for long been ridden with issues such as staffing shortages, high levels of violence, and harsh living conditions. The pandemic only exacerbated the situation. “Despite early release of hundreds of inmates in 2020 and 2021 under consideration of the pandemic, thousands of unvaccinated and at-risk people continue to be admitted and detained in the island,” Peoples Dispatch said.

    NYC’s recently elected mayor Eric Adams is silent on the matter. The city administration’s department of corrections released a statement last week arguing that there was no hunger strike. It said that the detainees were only refusing food from services run by the department.

    This is not the first battle against inhumane living conditions in the Rikers Islands prison. Back in the 1980s, a dozen inmates voiced solidarity against the abominable treatment of people living with HIV/AIDS at the facility. While the country was focused on providing life-extending healthcare outside, the subhuman treatment inside Rikers Island was taking one life every two weeks. Akin to today, the correctional facility had failed to provide appropriate diet, prescribed medicines or even clean beds for the sick.

     

    Edited by Khushi Malhotra

    Image: Rikers Islands of Queens New York from Wikimedia
    Author Sfoskett

    Study says Taliban deprive women of livelihoods, identity

    A study by Human Rights Watch and and San Jose State University reveals that Afghan women and girls are severely restricted, harassed and frightened and have become “virtual prisoners” in their own homes since the Taliban came to power.

    A new research finds that Taliban rule has had a devastating impact on Afghan women and girls. The study conducted jointly by Human Rights Watch and the San Jose State University (SJSU) says that since taking control of the city of Ghazni on 12 August 2021, days before entering Kabul, the Taliban imposed rights-violating policies that have created huge barriers to women’s and girls’ health and education.

    The researchers shared their findings Tuesday, detailing how the current rulers have curtailed freedom of movement, expression, and association, and deprived many of earned income. The interviews for the study of the interviews using secure communications with women.

    Ghazni province, in southeastern Afghanistan, has a population of about 1.3 million people, predominantly ethnic Pashtun and Hazara. The provincial capital, Ghazni, is on the road from Kabul to Kandahar, and was often attacked during the fighting of the past 20 years.

    Afghanistan’s rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis exacerbates these abuses, the researchers say. Following the Taliban takeover, millions of dollars in lost income, spiking prices, aid cut-offs, a liquidity crisis, and cash shortages triggered by former donor countries, especially the United States, have deprived much of the population of access to food, water, shelter, and health care.

    “Afghan women and girls are facing both the collapse of their rights and dreams and risks to their basic survival,” said SJSU’s scholar on Afghanistan, Halima Kazem-Stojanovic. “They are caught between Taliban abuses and actions by the international community that are pushing Afghans further into desperation every day.”

    Dark future

    The women interviewed included those who had worked in education, health care, social services, and business, and former students.

    They described spiraling prices for food staples, transportation, and schoolbooks, coupled with an abrupt and often total income loss. Many had been the sole or primary wage earner for their family, but most lost their employment due to Taliban policies restricting women’s access to work.

    “The future looks dark,” said one woman who had worked in the government. “I had many dreams, wanted to continue studying and working. I was thinking of doing my master’s. At the moment, they (the Taliban) don’t even allow girls to finish high school.”

    The women said they had acute feelings of insecurity because the Taliban have dismantled the formal police force and the Women’s Affairs Ministry, are extorting money and food from communities, and are targeting for intimidation women they see as enemies, such as those who worked for foreign organizations and the previous Afghan government.

    “The crisis for women and girls in Afghanistan is escalating with no end in sight,” said Heather Barr, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Taliban policies have rapidly turned many women and girls into virtual prisoners in their homes, depriving the country of one of its most precious resources, the skills and talents of the female half of the population.”

     

    Image: From Wikipedia.

    Caption: A member of the Taliban’s religious police beating an Afghan woman in Kabul in  2001.

    COVID-19, food shortage and inflation could bankrupt Sri Lanka

    Food shortage and inflation are causing distress and the government has barely any foreign exchange reserves to import food – especially as agricultural productivity has fallen.

    Sri Lankan writer Basil Fernando today shared two poignant tales. The first from Anuradhapura is about a man asking the owner of a small shop for two raw papayas from the shop owner’s garden to feed his starving children.

    In another instance, a family used up their last savings to purchase 200 grams of flour. The family’s breadwinner is bedridden they have no money to buy medicines.

    The Sri Lankan media is not telling any of these stories.

    On Monday, thousands, led by the country’s main opposition political party, the United People’s Force demonstrated in Colombo, blaming President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government for the economic crisis.

    “Reports of how people, particularly those from the lowest income groups, are coping with the present situation are not brought to the surface,” Fernando says.

    Sri Lanka is staring at bankruptcy and a widespread food crisis is engulfing the country together with a steady rise in inflation. Consumer prices reached 12.1 per cent year-on-year in December of 2021. This has been the highest inflation rate the country has witnessed since 2008 due to a record 22.1 per cent rise in price of food products in the space of one month.

    Food price inflation in December touched 22.1 per cent, up from 17.5 per cent in November.

    Foreign exchange reserves too have been dwindling. With just $1.5 billion in foreign reserves, the country will only be able to pay for a month’s imports. Sri Lanka is negotiating with China, its largest international lender for help. Simultaneously, a US$ 787 million of special drawing rights (SDR) from the IMF and a currency swap arrangement to the tune of US$ 150 million from Bangladesh’s Central Bank has not helped ease the price of food essentials, either.

    Sri Lanka finance minister Basil Rajapaksa has also held discussion with S Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister over a virtual meeting on Saturday.

    Crisis precipitated by COVID-19

    According to the US-based Trading Economics, “The cash-strapped economy is struggling to finance urgent imports to tackle an acute shortage of essentials in the country leading to rationing of food by supermarkets for quite a few months now.”

    End-August 2021, Sri Lanka had declared a food emergency as banks reported that their foreign funds had depleted.

    The crisis is the result of a cocktail of mishaps, primarily COVID-19 that hit its tourism economy. The economy diminished, shrinking by 3.6 per cent in 2020. This was the worst in 73 years.

    As agricultural input prices went through the roof, the government mandated an overnight shift to organic agriculture without consulting farmer groups. This has led to a bad harvest, resulting in run-away inflation. The country’s agricultural sector too has been experiencing the effects of changing climate and natural disasters.

    Besides, the garment manufactures too have been hit hard by COVID-19 and there are hardly any export orders.

    In 2020, IMF predicted a negative growth of 0.5 per cent for Sri Lanka and the government faced the challenges of reducing the fiscal deficit even as there were domestic and foreign debts to be serviced.

    In the meanwhile, 30-something Fathima Aroos tells her two young children that this is the month of Ramadan and that they are supposed to fast.

    She can’t feed the children three meals a day due to galloping food price.

    “This way, we can manage with a plain porridge after we break our fast and rice soaked in water and onion for suhoor (the early morning meal),” she says. “It keeps the children quiet.”

    Scientists explain why the sun has been quieter over the past decade

    A team of Indian astrophysicists are finding out the reason why the sun has been weakening decade over decade. This impacts daily life on earth because it can disturb Global Positioning Signals (GPS), long-distance radio communications, and power grids.

     

    Scientists have been tracing the intensity of solar activity during the last 100 years. Now, a team of Indian astrophysicists say that the sun has been much quieter between 2008 and 2019 than it was between 1996 and 2007. This quietness over the past 10 years is an area of interest for scientists, astrophysicists in particular.

    While there is agreement that the sun is hushing up itself with its solar storms getting smaller, there is a curiosity among scientists to know why exactly this is happening.

    Now, a joint team of Indian researchers is studying this phenomenon through the lens of the sun’s coronal mass ejections or CMEs. The scientists come from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, the M P Birla Institute of Fundamental Research and the Udaipur Solar Observatory.

    What are coronal mass ejections?

    The sun has a magnetic field of its own. All planets and stars in our solar system have their own magnetic fields. (The magnetic fields of Venus and Mars is too small to measure though. At least one star out there has a magnetic field larger than the sun’s – the Tiny Red Dwarf Star.)

    The sun is active with sunspots, solar flares and CMEs. The sun’s magnetic field causes instabilities on its surface. Coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, are giant expanding bubbles of magnetized plasma erupting from the surface of the sun out into the space from time to time due to instabilities in the its magnetic field.

    CMEs can launch a billions of tons of super-heated gas into space, most of which drifts harmlessly across the solar system. Occasionally one of these is directed at the earth.

    The intensity of such solar activity is known to vary in decade-plus periodic cycles. Understanding the propagation of CMEs is important since these disturb earth’s magnetosphere.

    Are the CMSs getting smaller?

    The answer to the question is an emphatic yes! And finding out why is the astonishing discovery of the Indian scientists.

    The team has concluded that the size of CMEs between 2008 and 2019 is only two-thirds their size in the previous decade. They are startled by this decrease in the mass, size and the internal pressure of the explosive gurgling bubbles.

    The scientists did not expect this decrease in the size of the CMEs. On the contrary, astrophysicists had surmised that the decrease in the pressure in the (CMEs’) outer world would increase in radial size of CMEs. As one scientist explained: “Just imagine you have a bubble of gas in a vacuum that will not stop it from growing larger. That is the type of space the effervescent CMEs live in – but they have defied this logic.”

    Explaining how and why this logic has been defied, Dr. Wageesh Mishra suggests: “The reduced pressure in the interplanetary space (or the CMEs outside world) is compensated by a reduced magnetic content inside CMEs. This did not allow the CMEs to expand enough”. Mishra is from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics.

    The team also established that the gas pressure in the interplanetary space in the last decade they were studying was only 40 per cent of the pressure in the previous decade. Solar activities are measured by the number of sun spots. One would expect that the ejections would also reduce. In terms of CMEs, the rate at which the Sun has been losing its mass through these episodic ejections had also reduced by 15 per cent.

    Why is the study of CMEs so vital?

    The sun is known to be very active with sunspots, solar flares, and CMEs. Mishra says that understanding this is important because this solar activity effects life on earth.

    CMEs dictate a host of taken-for-granted modern day necessities because they disturb the near-earth space environment, in turn disturbing the orbit of satellites in low-earth orbits. This further disturbs global positioning signals (GPS), long-distance radio communications, and power grids are dependent on the CMEs, Dr Mishra says.

    The intensity of such solar activity is known to vary in decade-plus periodic cycles. It had earlier been traced that the last cycle (cycle 24 between 2008 and 2019) was weaker than the previous one (cycle 23 between 1996 and 2007), and the sun was weakest in 2019 during the last 100 years.

    All hands on the deck as Omicron stalks Nepal

    As the Omicron virus spreads across the country, the government of Nepal isn’t taking chances. The government today took a series of decisions from banning worship in temples to procuring COVID-19 testing kits to importing vaccines.

    Nepal is staring at a likely third wave of COVID-19 and the government has brought forth a slew of measures. Since the detection of the first Omicron infection in the country in December 2021, the virus is now at its infectious worst, infecting health personnel, media persons, bankers, sportspersons, employees, professionals, shopkeepers or homemakers.

    8,730 new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed on Tuesday. These include 35 employees of the Supreme Court of Nepal tested positive for COVID-19.

    117 doctors and health workers of different hospitals in Chitwan district have tested positive for coronavirus. 30 doctors from the Nuwakot district are also infected.

    Nuwakot district’s medical superintendent, Dipendra Pande said nurses, paramedics and lab technicians too have been found positive for coronavirus.” Gynaecology and obstetrics services too have been halted and the hospital has issued a notice and informing people of the closure of services, he said.

    According to reports, the infection rate per 15,000 tests has touched over 4,000 on Sunday. Active cases have crossed 25,500 on the WHO COVID-19 dashboard and seven people have been reported to have died.

    Lockdowns, vaccines and testing kits

    The sharp increase in disease today compelled the government to further impose lockdowns.

    All the three district administration in the Kathmandu valley have banned all worship till the middle of February. It is now mandatory for people entering premises of government offices to display their vaccination cards.

    The government began work today to procure 900,000 COVID-19 testing kits.
    Addressing the ninth meeting of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council on Monday, Prime Minister Deuba expressed his worry about Omicron’s rapid spread through the country.

    Sources say that the government is wary of any repeat of the flack it faced for its handling of the pandemic’s second wave in April 2021. Hospitals and medical personnel were then overwhelmed as people died for want of oxygen.

    Deuba directed the Ministry of Health and Population to immediately import enough COVID-19 vaccines to inoculate all Nepali citizens.

    So far, only 39 per cent have received both doses of the vaccine, according to the WHO COVID-19 dashboard.

    Earthquake kills dozens; tears down homes in distant Afghanistan province

    The Badghis province has been hit by an earthquake that has killed at least 26 people and damaged over 700 houses. Badghis is impoverished and particularly vulnerable to earthquakes as it sits in the Hindu Kush mountain range.

    How vulnerable is Afghanistan to even a shallow earthquake? Very much so, say aid workers in the country, pointing to an earthquake measuring a mere 5.3 on the Richter scale that killed at least 26 people and brought down homes in the Qadis district of Badghis province bordering Turkmenistan. north-east of Kabul on Monday.

    Provincial spokesman Baz Mohammad Sarwary said that several people were injured while more than 700 homes were damaged. He warned that the number of casualties could increase. Rescuers are working to remove debris even as it is raining heavily, he said.

    “Buildings and homes that have had very little maintenance over decades just crumbled,” an aid worker attached to the Afghan Red Crescent Society told OWSA over a phone call. “Many homes are just poorly constructed,” he said. The aid worker did not want to be identified and said that he was not authorised to give out numbers of casualties.

    The Hindu Kush mountain range encompassing Afghanistan has seen many earthquakes and Badghis is in a particularly seismic region.

    The Red Crescent aid worker said that Badghis is a distant, neglected place. The mountainous province is about 900 kilometres from Kabul and is poorly connected. The province has reported drought since 2018. Together with the conflict in the country, the drought has impoverished people in the province.

    “Nobody cares because it is so far away. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) provided 7,800 families with some seeds and fertilisers and hardly anybody came returned to see what happened to the people,” he said.

    “Farmers asked for onion seeds during the drought as that is what generations of farmers here have been producing. Onion can be stored after harvest, especially because the roads are so bad.”

     

    Image: For representational purposes only.

    Why is the National Health Authority so focused on the for-profit medical sector?

    India’s health system needs transformative reforms. An institutional arrangement like the NHA legitimises the role of the “for-profit” private sector in government. Commercial or market-based health services are contradictory to the idea of health as a public good and a right.

    By Sulakshana Nandi

    Constituted as an autonomous entity through a decision of the union cabinet, the National Health Authority (NHA) was set up to implement Ayushman Bharat-Pradhan Mantri Jan ArogyaYojana (PMJAY) the publicly funded health insurance scheme. NHA is currently also the implementing agency for the Ayushman Bharat Digital Health Mission.

    Serious questions have emerged regarding the legitimacy and extent of public oversight of the NHA. NHA’s legality remains questionable since it was not passed by an Act of Parliament but through a cabinet decision. This institutional arrangement has enabled direct participation and influence of the healthcare industry and for-profit private players in various roles.

    All major health schemes and programmes in our country are implemented by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Strangely, however, the NHA was set up as an implementer and regulatory arrangement for PMJAY bypassing the Health Ministry. It answers to a board which includes private (corporate) sector players.

    The involvement of for-profit private players such as hospitals, insurance companies, third party administrators or TPAs, software and IT companies etc. has increased manifold under the NHA. The NHA even outsources its own functions such as monitoring (medical audits), grievance redressal (Aarogya Mitra) and research and technical support to private agencies, multinational consultancies and the World Bank. Private players, therefore, have a vested interest in the continuation of the NHA.

    Public funds diverted to the private sector

    A defining feature of NHA is the lack of transparency and public accountability. Though PMJAY runs on public money, the data generated is treated as NHA’s private property and there is hardly any public disclosure of information. Despite a significant emphasis on and showcasing of IT systems, the public data on PMJAY available on the NHA website is extremely limited and difficult to access. However this data has been made available to select institutions like the World Bank to write policy briefs on behalf of the NHA.

    The involvement of the for-profit private players in the scheme (PMJAY) itself has led to negative consequences for people and the government health system. PMJAY is considered the government’s largest ever public private partnerships (PPP) in healthcare. Studies and reports show that PMJAY has not been able to ensure cashless health services in the private sector to all those who are eligible. A large proportion of eligible patients accessing private sector hospitals empaneled with PMJAY are forced to pay additional money out of pocket, incurring catastrophic health expenditure.

    Through PMJAY, public funds that should have gone into strengthening government hospitals are instead being diverted to the private sector. On the other hand, critical health programmes under the health ministry remain under-funded. The public sector and government hospitals cater to the more vulnerable groups, such as the poor, rural communities, tribal communities, women and other marginalized groups. The private sector on the other hand is concentrated in the urban areas and there have been several reports of unethical practices. Therefore, under-funding and neglect of the government health system has serious consequences for people’s health and their access to health services.

    Profiteering in times of COVID-19

    PMJAY and private players failed to provide the much needed support even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Government hospitals provided the major portion of free healthcare and free testing for COVID-19.Very few for-profit private players came forward to provide free services for COVID-19 patients needing hospitalisation, though it was widely publicised that testing and treatment would be free even in the private sector for those eligible under PMJAY.

    Hospitals that came forward also forced patients to pay additional money. Excessive billing, extortion and flouting of price ceilings by the private players increased the misery of people being treated for COVID-19 and pushed many families into poverty. During the vaccination drive too, the private sector flouted price regulations and also failed to deliver the number of vaccinations expected of them.

    The Digital Health Mission similarly opens the possibility for enhancing corporate profits from government coffers as its main beneficiaries would be IT companies, digital healthcare companies, insurance companies and other private players. In the absence of adequate data protection and consent procedures, private players can greatly benefit from data mining and commercialization of personal and aggregate health data, while the lack of public accountability and oversight continues. Moreover, mandating a digital health identity for being eligible to receive health services will lead to exclusion of the most vulnerable groups who need public healthcare the most.

    Need regulate private sector

    There is a clear need for transformative reforms in India’s health system. An institutional arrangement such as the NHA legitimises the role of the “for-profit” private sector in government, from decision-making to implementation to monitoring. This creates a possibility for conflict of interest and raises concerns whether public interest or interests of the healthcare industry will be the primary guiding force.

    The NITI Aayog that is responsible for conceptualising and operationalising the NHA has also been promoting a plethora of initiatives for healthcare privatization. Commercial or market-based health services are contradictory to the idea of health as a public good and a right.

    Therefore instead of diverting public funds to private players through NHA and PMJAY, the public sector must be strengthened to provide primary, secondary and tertiary level health services. The government must recruit adequate health workforce, expand public health infrastructure, and improve availability of medicines and diagnostics in the public sector. Regulation of the private sector in healthcare needs to be strengthened. Transparency of data, public accountability and public scrutiny of all health programmes must be improved. Experiences of states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu that have improved government health system and public hospitals must be replicated.

     

    Sulakshana Nandi is a public health researcher and National Joint-Convener of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan

    “Let us now praise brave women and men”: The Nobel Peace Prize 2021

    Communication technology connects people, allows sharing ideas and spreading awareness about human rights abuses. However, the web also spreads a virus of lies that incites people against one-another and sets the stage for the rise of authoritarians and dictators all over the world.

    By Jan Lundius 

    In several countries around the globe, telling the truth is according to its rulers and other influential, generally wealthy, persons a serious crime that might be punished by muzzling the truth-tellers, slandering and humiliating them, and threatening their families and friends. If that does not make them shut up and repent they might be tortured, imprisoned and even killed.

    Novaya Gazeta was founded in 1993 with the self-imposed task of acting as “an honest, independent, and rich source of information benefiting Russian citizens.” However, to provide a critical and investigative coverage of Russian political and social affairs is a precarious venture and Novaya Gazeta’s 60 journalists, divided between ten major Russian cities, are all living dangerously.

    Series of deaths. Or assassinations?

    In 2000, Igor Domnikov, who in Novaya Gazeta wrote witty essays about business corruption, had his skull crushed by a hammer blow by the door to his apartment . In 2001,Victor Popkov died after being wounded in a gunfight while on Novaya Gazeta’s behalf reporting about the Chechnyan war.

    In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, human rights activist and Novaya Gazeta reporter, was in the elevator of her block of flats shot twice at point-blank range, in the chest and the head. In 2009, a human rights lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, was shot to death while leaving a news conference in Moscow, less than 800 metres from the Kremlin, while Anastasia Baburova, a journalist from Novaya Gazeta who tried to come to his assistance was shot and killed as well.

    The same year, the Novaya Gazeta reporter Natalia Estemitrova had been seen screaming while she was forced into a car just outside her house in the Chechnyan capital Grozny. Two hours later she was found dead from one shot to the head and one to the chest.

    Shchekochikin, a member of the Parliament, was in Novaya Gazeta writing articles about criminal activities and corruption among officers of FSB RF, Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, the main successor agency to KGB. Shchekochikin died suddenly on 3 July 2003 from a mysterious illness, a few days before his scheduled departure to the U.S., where he was going to meet with FBI agents investigating U.S. contacts with Russian oligarchs and FSB agents. Shchekochikin’s medical records were lost, though physicians who had treated him explained that their patient’s symptoms indicated poisoning from “radioactive materials”.

    True journalism

    It was not the first time KGB/FSB used radioactive substances to poison defectors and detractors. The first recorded incident was in 1957 when Nikolai Khoklov was poisoned by radioactive Thallium-201, suffering symptoms similar to those of Roman Tsepov, a corrupt businessman who in 2004 after drinking a cup of tea at a local FSB office experienced a sudden drop of white blood cells and died after two weeks. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenkov, a defector and former FSB agent died in London after being poisoned with polonium-210. In 2018, another defector and former military intelligence officer, Sergei Skripal, was in Salisbury with his daughter poisoned by a Novichok Nerve Agent and in 2020, anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny was poisoned by a similar substance.

    When Novaya Gazeta’s editor-in-chief, Dmitry Muratov, in Oslo was awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize he lamented Russian limitations to free speech, adding that he was not the rightful receiver of the prestigious prize. Worthier men and women had lost their lives while defending the truth: “It’s just that the Nobel Peace Prize isn’t awarded posthumously, it’s awarded to living people.” Accordingly, in his Nobel speech Muratov stated that:

    “…this award is for all true journalism. This award is to my colleagues from Novaya Gazeta, who have lost their lives – Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekotschikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Anastasija Baburova, Stas Markelov and Natasha Estemirova. This award is also to the colleagues who are alive, to the professional community who perform their professional duty.”

    Free Media in the Philippines

    The Philippine journalist Maria Angelita Ressa shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Dmitry Muratov. The prize was awarded for “their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”

    In her speech, Maria Ressa mentioned that “in the Philippines, more lawyers have been killed – at least 63 compared to the 22 journalists murdered after President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016.” Just the day before she was giving her Nobel speech, Maria Ressa’s colleague, Jesus “Jess” Malabanan, was killed in a street in Manila.

    Rodrigo Duterte remains popular among the majority of the Philippine population. After his election victory in 2016 something called DuterteNomics was introduced, including tax reforms, infrastructure development, social protection programs, a shift to a federal system of Government and strengthened relations with China and Russia. The infrastructure initiative was promoted through the slogan: “Build! Build! Build!” In 2021, 214 airport projects, 451 commercial social and tourism port projects, 29,264 kilometres of roads, 5,950 bridges, 11,340 flood control projects, 11,340 evacuation centres, and 150,149 classrooms were completed under the infrastructure program.

    In spite of this progress Duterte has from some quarters been severely criticized for his obvious authoritarianism, self-glorification, and rampant populism, expressed through callous and vulgar rhetoric, for example his trivialization of rape and the murderous activities of vigilante groups. Duterte has repeatedly confirmed to personally having killed suspected criminals during his term as mayor of Davao and he is the only Philippine president who has refused to declare his assets and liabilities. Furthermore, he has by human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, been directly linked to extrajudicial killings of over 1,400 alleged criminals and street children, while the International Criminal Court in The Hague currently is investigating his administration’s crackdown on narcotics, said to have left as many as 30,000 dead, while the administration listed the toll at around 8,000.

    Watchdog versus troll army

    Duterte’s image of being a strong-willed, controversial but highly efficient leader has been actively supported by a docile propaganda machinery which, among other means, allegedly is supported by a pro-Duterte online “troll army” that is pushing out fake news stories and manipulating the narrative around his presidency. Such misuse of the web was lamented by both Markelov and Ressa, who emphasized that one of the main tasks of journalism is to distinguish between facts and fiction, meaning that a reporter must patiently and objectively investigate as many angles as possible of an issue at large. Markelov quoted the famous war photographer Robert Capa: “If your picture isn’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”

    Both Markelov and Ressa declared that the immense power of a constantly and increasingly advanced communication technology is both beneficiary and harmful for upholding the truth. It connects people from all over the world, allows for sharing ideas and the spreading of awareness about human rights abuses. However, the web also spreads a virus of lies that incites us against each other, brings out our fears, anger and hate, and sets the stage for the rise of authoritarians and dictators all over the world. Journalists have to contradict that kind of hate and violence, which by Ressa is defined as:

    “the toxic sludge that’s coursing through our information ecosystem, prioritized by American internet companies that make more money by spreading that hate and triggering the worst in us. […] What happens on social media doesn’t stay on social media. Online violence is real world violence. Social media is a deadly game for power and money. […] Our personal experiences are sucked into a database, organized by Artificial Intelligence, then sold to the highest bidder. Highly profitable micro-targeting operations are engineered to structurally undermine human will – a behavior modification system in which we are Pavlov’s dogs, experimented on in real time with disastrous consequences in countries like mine….”

    Markelov stated that much of the unfounded and manipulated information that spreads its poison through the web have dimmed our conscience and even worse, making people believe that:

    “… politicians who avoid bloodshed are weak. While threatening the world with violence and war is the duty of true patriots. Aggressive marketing of war affects people and they start thinking that war is acceptable.”

    In such a poisoned environment truth-telling journalists are suffering. In may countries they live under a real threat of being slandered and tortured, of spending the rest of their lives in jail, or being brutally murdered. They have no idea what the future holds for them. Nevertheless, these heroes of the free word assume that their sacrifices are worth the risks they are taking. They believe in their mission to bring the truth to people and thus support empathy, peace and critical thinking. In the words of Markelov:

    “Yes, we growl and bite. Yes, we have sharp teeth and strong grip. But we are the prerequisite for progress. We are the antidote against tyranny. […] I want journalists to die old.”

    Source: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2021/ceremony-speech/ 

    This piece has been sourced from Inter Press Service

    Image: Hippopx

    Sourced from hippox.com and licensed under Creative Commons Zero – CC0

    Richest 98 Indians own the same wealth as the bottom 55.2 crore people: Oxfam

    The richest 98 Indians own the same wealth as the bottom 552 million people, the India supplement of Oxfam’s Inequality Kills report of 2022 says. India added 40 billionaires last year, but the number of its poor doubled.

    The India supplement of Oxfam’s Inequality Kills report reveals that the number of Indian billionaires grew from 102 to 142, while 84 per cent of households in the country suffered a decline in their income in the past year. India now has more billionaires than France, Sweden and Switzerland combined.

    The supplement centered on the impact of the pandemic on India’s poor also states that just a one per cent wealth tax on 98 richest billionaire families in India can finance Ayushman Bharat, the national public health insurance fund of the Government of India for more than seven years.

    The briefing was published Sunday, ahead of the of the World Economic Forum’s Davos Agenda. The briefing indicates that the collective wealth of India’s 100 richest people hit a record high of INR 57.3 lakh crore (USD 775 billion) in 2021. It discusses India’s governance structures that promote the accumulation of wealth by a few, while failing to provide safety nets to the rest of the population.

    While the report hinges on the tremendous loss of life and livelihoods during 2021, it cites the recent Pandora Papers investigation highlighting the loopholes that India’s rich exploit to conceal their assets and evade taxes.

    Stark inequalities

    According to the report, the wealth of Indian billionaires increased from INR 23.14 lakh crore (USD 313 billion) to INR 53.16 lakh crore (USD 719 billion) during the pandemic (since March 2020, through to 30 November 2021).

    In the meanwhile, more than 4.6 crore Indians have been estimated to have fallen into extreme poverty in 2020 (nearly half of the global new poor according to the United Nations).

    India added 40 billionaires during the last year but the number of poor doubled. The level of this inequality is so stark that the wealth of India’s 10 richest is enough to fund the school, higher education of every child for 25 years, say the authors of the report.

    Interestingly, a fifth of the increase in the wealth of India’s richest 100 families was accounted for by the surge in the fortunes of a single individual and business house – Adani. Gautam Adani’s net worth multiplied eight times in the space of one year, the Oxfam report says.

    Offering solutions

    The wealth inequality in India is a result of an economic system rigged in favour of the super-rich over the poor and marginalised, the report says, arguing that the richest 98 Indians own the same wealth as the bottom 552 million people, the report says.

    In this context, the report alludes to the abolition of ‘wealth tax’ in 2016. This abolition accompanied with steep cuts in corporate taxes and an increase in indirect taxation has removed the rich from being the primary source of tax revenue.

    The briefing advocates a one percent surcharge on the richest 10 percent of the Indian population to fund inequality combating measures such as higher investments in school education, universal healthcare, and social security benefits like maternity leaves, paid leaves and pension for all Indians.

    A 2021 OECD report for G-20 countries highlighted an inherent need to move beyond just improving individual taxes and looking at reformulating ‘tax systems’ to promote inclusive, sustainable, and equitable growth. “Unfortunately, not only has the taxation policy of the Indian government been pro-rich, it has also deprived India’s states of important fiscal resources—both particularly damaging in the context of the COVID-19 crisis,” the Oxfam report says.

    Sri Lankan fishermen restless

    Inflation has added to the woes of fishing communities, already anguished by a series of environmental and business developments.

    Rising fuel prices have Sri Lanka’s fishermen up in arms. They say that this will cripple the fishing sector along with the damage done over the past years to the marine ecosystem.

    “We consider the continuous price revisions of fuel and even other essential commodities as a move to destablise the fisheries sector,” says Aruna Roshantha Fernando, president of the All-Ceylon Fisher-Folks Trade Union. “This will enable global companies to expand their territories making use of the port city to exploit the marine resources of the country,” he said.

    Sri Lanka’s runaway inflation has led to a huge hike in the price of essential foods. The fishermen say that families will not be able to purchase fish, an essential for Sri Lankan households, if they factor in the price of the fuel costs. “Selling a catch without considering the hike in fuel prices is not viable,” said a fisher trade union leader, emphasising that the present situation was exceptionally difficult.

    An alliance of Sri Lankan fishermen trade unions is scheduled to meet this week to map out plans.

    “We have been battered for nearly two years with a meagre income due to the (COVID-19) pandemic which has shattered the hopes of the community for a better living,” local media quoted Fernando as saying.

    The rise in the cost of fuel that they need to run their fishing boat engines deep into the waters of the Indian ocean is the latest in a series of setbacks that the fishing communities of the island nation have faced in the past five years.

    2021 oil spill

    Oil spilling from a sinking ship off the coast in June 2021 impacted their living together with the COVID-19 pandemic at that time. The had to venture out in the deep sea to get a catch, spending more fuel and yet, unable to find buyers for their catch. “People were then scared to buy the fish because they thought it was contaminated.”

    The oil has had its share of environmental damages.

    An UN Environment Programme (UNEP) official described the event as “the biggest environmental catastrophe to hit Sri Lanka since the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.”

    According to the UNEP, the ship’s cargo included 25 tonnes of nitric acid, 348 tonnes of oil and up to 75 billion small plastic pellets. “The crisis could plague Sri Lanka for years,’ UNEP has said.

    The Sri Lankan government had then granted Sri Lankan Rs. 5,000 as a compensation to fisher families to tide over the crisis. That was at the height of the pandemic. Fernando feels that the offering was a pittance and an insult to the sector which is a vital cog of the country’s economy.

    Foreign fishing companies

    Fisher society representatives say that they have never been consulted on government plans to make new harbours. On the other hand, they allege, larger fishing companies from outside the country have had a say in the planning process for the new harbours that will need draft up to 40 feet, which they say, is an evidence of the government accommodating larger fishing vessels.

    They fear that this will pave the way for foreign entities to grab land along the coastal belt and establish their businesses in Sri Lanka.

    Fernando feels that such plans will turn the fishermen into cheap labourers of the owners of larger fishing vessels belonging to foreign companies to in the businesses.
    The fisher community has been calling on lawmakers to formulate a national policy for the fisheries sector which has been a major need to develop the sector.

    “We have been clamouring for a national policy to streamline and upgrade the sector which has enormous potential to promote and expand nautical tourism which is a dynamic and lucrative industry globally,” Fernando says.

    “The need to use new technology for precision and risk mitigation has been a long-felt need for the fisheries sector,” Fernando opines. “Law makers talk high about the country being surrounded by the seas and marine resources but have done pretty little to support the sector especially during tough times.”

     

    Image: Hippopx

    Sourced from hippox.com and licensed under Creative Commons Zero – CC0 

    One in two families in drought-affected Iraq need food assistance

    Families in rural parts of the war-torn country say their only source of living is vanishing in front of their eyes as their lands are drying up and there is nothing they can do about it. This is all rooted in a water shortage crisis, says a research report from the Norwegian Refugee Council.

    The scale of suffering inflicted by drought on Iraq’s populations in the past year has been laid bare in new research by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

    The study shows that one in two families in drought-affected regions require food assistance because of drought, while one in five do not have sufficient food for everyone in the family.

    Communities across Iraq have faced damaging losses to their crops, livestock, and income. Children are eating less, and farmers and displaced populations are hit hardest.

    Key findings

    According to NRC’s research, which surveyed 2,800 households in drought-affected areas across the country. The study found that 37 per cent of wheat farmers and 30 per cent of barley farmers have suffered crop failure. Another 37 per cent of households have lost cattle, sheep or goats in the last six months, mainly due to insufficient water, inadequate feed or disease.

    The researchers have documented that harvests were at least 90 per cent below expectations and the average monthly income in six out of seven governorates surveyed has dropped lower than the monthly survival threshold.

    Samira (name changed), 46, has returned from displacement to Mosul to farm her land with two of her five children, but has already seen reductions in produce. “Our production has decreased due to water shortage recently, which also led to a decrease in our income… I can’t afford the necessary food for my family so I borrow money from my relatives or buy food on credit,” she said.

    Over the past few years, drought conditions, rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall have reflected the growing threat of climate change in the country. Water flow from upstream countries has also receded.

    “Our harvest has dropped due to drought. Our land was thriving but now it is losing its value day after day and no one seems to care about what farmers are facing. Our land used to produce 20 tonnes each season, now it’s no more than 10 or 11 tonnes,” said Osama, a 27-year-old farmer from Hawija.

    Water shortages

    Such extreme circumstances have forced people to leave their home, compounding the displacement crisis in Iraq. Of those surveyed, one in 15 households told NRC researchers that a family member had migrated in the last 30 days in search of work and income. Many of those had been in displacement at least once before, or had just returned home.

    Young people are particularly vulnerable. The research shows that 45 per cent of people aged 15-24 had left their farming communities to find a job in towns and cities, while 38 per cent have lost a job.

    The outlook for 2022 is worrying, with continued water shortages and drought conditions likely to devastate the coming farming season. This may increase families’ reliance on purchased water as well as poor hygiene practices, which could lead to disease outbreaks. There are signs of waves of displacement already taking place amid water scarcity, income losses, and rising food prices within farming communities.

    “Families are telling us they have to borrow money to eat amid soaring prices and dwindling savings. They say their only source of living is vanishing in front of their eyes. Their lands are drying up and there is nothing they can do about it. This is all rooted in a water shortage crisis,” said Maithree Abeyrathna, NRC’s Head of Programmes in Iraq.

    “We want to see solid water management plans to support communities badly hit and prevent future shocks, and these plans must be informed by farmers themselves.”

    The refugee aid organisation is also calling for international assistance to support livestock farmers and provide irrigation rehabilitation and drought tolerant seeds to reduce crop failure and crop losses. The Governments of Iraq and Kurdish Regional Government are encouraged to incorporate climate-mitigation strategies within national job creation efforts and advocate for water-sharing agreements to be upheld by upstream countries to prepare for the future effects of climate change in Iraq and continued drought conditions.

    ‘Nepal must scrap ageing diesel buses and trucks’

    0

    Kathmandu ranks among the world’s most polluted cities, with the main source of pollution being its diesel-powered vehicles such as trucks and buses. Experts suggest Nepal must upgrade the diesel vehicles and put into place stricter laws to curb pollution in the country’s capital city.

    By Ranjit Devraj / SciDev.Net

    The rapidly deteriorating air quality in Nepal demands an overhaul of its over a quarter million diesel-powered buses and trucks as well as a drastic revision of the country’s vehicles mass emission standards, says a new study.

    On the morning of 5 January, the capital, Kathmandu, registered 438 on the Air Quality Index (AQI) — 12 times more than the WHO’s suggested maximum limit of 35. The composite measurement takes into account particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulphur, nitrogen dioxide and ozone.

    “Using experiment-based emission factors measured on the roadside, we were able to build a comprehensive diesel vehicle emission inventory for the country (Nepal) covering the period from 1989 to 2018,” said Bhupendra Das, main study author and researcher at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, in Potsdam, Germany, and at Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu.

    During that period, Nepal’s diesel consumption in the transport sector went up 13 times to 892,770 kilolitres annually, according to the study published online last month in Science of the Total Environment.

    In building an emissions inventory for Kathmandu, Das and his team encountered large uncertainties due to differing emission factors based on vehicle category, fuel quality and maintenance. “We took into account factors like total distance travelled, fuel consumed, mileage, driving conditions, climatic factors, load and the age of the diesel-powered vehicles that were studied,” he said.

    Scrapping old diesel vehicles is the way

    The team focused on four major pollutants — carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, black carbon and PM2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns). The researchers found most diesel-powered buses and other public transport vehicles deployed in Kathmandu are old and poorly maintained. Low vehicle speeds, below 20 kilometres per hour, old vehicles with high mileage, the narrow and hilly roads of the Kathmandu Valley, and poor fuel quality were significant contributors to carbon monoxide and other pollutants.

    Fuel quality tests showed that 80 per cent of the diesel sampled exceeded the sulphur limits of 350 milligrams per litre as laid down by the public sector Nepal Oil Corporation.
    Alok Sagar Gautam, assistant professor at the physics department of the HNB Garhwal University in Uttarakhand state, India, said that while landlocked Nepal imports diesel and other petroleum products from India, “the origins of sulphur and other contaminants in retail fuel are totally different in India and Nepal”.

    India has ordered the scrapping of all diesel vehicles older than 10 years from the start of the year. Such a drastic move may be difficult for Nepal to follow. But Das suggests a lowering of the present upper limit of 20 years to 15 with emphasis on strict monitoring of older vehicles for emissions.

    “Because this study covers both the historical emission factors as well as recent ones, it is valuable for the development of an emission inventory for India and other countries in the SouthAsia region,” Gautam said. “What is needed is a scaled-up project covering the whole region.”

    Previous research

    Previous studies, such as one published in 2020 in Aerosol and Atmospheric Chemistry, had also shown that poor quality fuel, high traffic congestion, old and poorly maintained diesel vehicles were responsible for a large increase in transport-related emissions in recent years.

    The 2020 study found that timely servicing and maintenance of diesel vehicles could lower black carbon emission by 1.4 times and PM 2.5 by almost three times. It recommended a policy of mandatory, routine maintenance of the diesel fleet to systematically reduce emissions in the Kathmandu Valley.

    Das suggests a different approach, however. “The present scenario in Kathmandu and in the rest of Nepal, a least-developed country, demands practical, cost-effective solutions to quickly cut emissions. These could start with repair and maintenance of roads, improvement of fuel quality and switching the ageing diesel fleet to at least Euro IV standards,” he said.

    Nepal’s nationally determined contribution submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change envisages promotion of advanced, electric, hybrid, hydrogen-powered, and other types of vehicles running on clean fuels. By 2025 at least 25 per cent of all private passenger vehicles sales and 20 per cent of all public transport vehicles will be electric-powered, the commitments say.

    “The concept of climate-resilient economic growth through an improved transport sector is being taken seriously,” said Das. “It is now inescapable that highly polluting and obsolete transport vehicles burning diesel be phased out through scrappage policies that involve compensations or other schemes with incentives for vehicle owners.”

     

    This piece has been sourced from SciDev.Net

     

    Representative image from Wikimedia: Black smoke emissions from a vehicle’s exhaust are a key contributing factor to air pollution and climate change.

    Photograph by: Emmanuel Kwizera

    Ecological concerns emerge as Nepal’s bird census gets underway

    Emerging global problems like climate change, urbanization and pollution are causing changes to bird migratory patterns and their arrival in Nepal.

    The endangered woolly neck stork, called Lovipapi Garud in Nepali, has been spotted in the Mini Kositappu wetland area in Bhaktapur, Kathmandu.

    A team led by wildlife photographer and bird watcher Sanjay Tha Shrestha sighted the bird during the mid-winter water bird-count and searched it across the area from the Shalinadi River area in Kathmandu to Bhaktapur.

    A total of 25 Steppe Eagles, known as Gomayu Mahachil in Nepali, were also sighted during the census. This is another endangered bird species.

    The team counted the native birds found in the area, prominent among which is the winter waterfowl arriving to Nepal’s wetlands from Siberia.

    The team led by Tha Shrestha included bird watchers and wildlife photographers counted the birds in collaboration with the Nepal Ornithologists Association, Wetland International, Himalayan Nature, Zoological Society of London, Bird Conservation Association, Pokhara Bird Society and various other organisations.

    Water-birds arrive in Nepal on their annual flight every year from Mongolia, Siberia, Tibet and Europe to avoid freezing winter in their native land and in search for food.

    Climate change, pollution, urbanisation and hunting

    Climate change, which has emerged as a global problem, has also affected bird migration.

    According to Shrestha, the birds have been counted to document the recent migration of birds to various wetland and coastal areas of Nepal.

    Shrestha noticed that some bird species observed in previous years have not been seen this year while some new species of birds have also been spotted during the census.

    “Bird habitats are becoming endangered. In such a situation, the birds seen this year may not be seen in the next year,” Tha Shrestha said.

    Sugam Tamrakar, another wildlife photographer involved in the census exercise spoke of urbanization and pollution causing changes in bird migration, besides climate change.

    Hunting birds for game, though prohibited, is rampant in the country and so is the damage to their habitats due to urbanisation. Local government bodies have yet to come up with conservation policy, though Nepal receives respectable funding for wildlife conservation.

    “Due to the rapid urbanization around the river and the pollution it has caused, there has been a shortage of fish, frogs and other aquatic animals that the birds feed on,” Tha Shrestha said. “These are the reasons for the reduction in the number of migrating birds,”

    The pace of urbanisation has not been matched with regulation, he said, citing how the illegal exploitation of riverine products, including sand was leading to a decline in the declining number of water-birds.

    According to Tha Shrestha, the habitat of waterfowl is also at risk due to dumping of garbage in the riverside, water pollution and destruction of bird habitat in the Manohara River.

    Bird watchers’ delight

    Altogether, 106 different species of birds were also found in the area, Tha Shrestha said.
    Nepal lies at the confluence of four eco-biological domains, and its vast altitude difference invites a large variety of birds from over the world. The country is a bird-watcher’s delight.

    Ornithologists and bird watchers across the globe have documented upwards of 9,000 different species of bird species. But there are varying claims on the numbers of bird species found in the country.

    More than 150 bird species have gone extinct over the last five centuries across the globe and over 1,400 bird species are threatened with extinction. 43 bird species have been classified as threatened, though Nepal alone has put 168 bird species on the list of nationally threatened bird species.

    While some put the number at 880, there is also another estimation based on sightings over the years that puts the total numbers at 915 bird species – which is far more that in the United States. This is largely attributed to Nepal’s diverse terrain that soars from 70 metres to nearly 8,850 metres above sea level within a distance of barely 100 km as the bird flies!

    Surviving on a diet of rice, oil and beans – and hunger, insecurities and COVID-19

    Squatters on the outskirts of Myanmar’s capital city, Yangon, juggle their need for food with the fear of eviction. Their existence get yet further complex as they manage their lives under strict curfew-conditions in these times of COVID-19.

    By Swe Zin Myo Win

    Aung Ko Ko and his wife Ni Ni Lin have faced hard times since COVID-19 struck Myanmar last year. The couple live as squatters in the township of Shwepyithar on the outskirts of Myanmar’s capital, Yangon. Aung Ko Ko runs a small shop selling petrol and other fuel.

    “Because of COVID, business is not going so well these days. Before COVID we could make around 20,000 Kyats (USD$12) profit per day,” said the 42-year-old man. “Now we barely make 7,000 or 8,000 Kyats. It is still not enough to feed ourselves, and we are in a debt.”

    “For someone my age, it is very hard to find a job during these difficult times. I could probably only find work as a security guard,” Aung Ko Ko says.

    To make matters worse the couple heard that the houses of squatters were being demolished in Shwepyithar. This has fuelled fears that they could lose their home.

    Over one million people live in the township, many of them families like Aung Ko Ko’s who came to Yangon from other states around Myanmar, looking for opportunities to earn a living in the city.

    Shwepyithar was one of six townships in the Yangon region placed under martial law since March 2021, which includes a night-time curfew imposed from 8 PM until 4 AM.

    A struggle for a living

    At the beginning of the pandemic it was difficult for Aung Ko Ko to go out because of lockdowns and movement restrictions. Some of his family members fell sick making it even more difficult. He and Ni Ni Lin have been supporting their parents financially.

    “Our business is struggling terribly and the price of edible oil, rice and almost every commodity has skyrocketed. Everyone in the family and community are in deep financial trouble,” says Ni Ni Lin.

    There is little variety in the family’s daily diet these days. It now comprises of white rice with oil and beans.

    “It costs around 200,000 Kyats (US $110) monthly to support our family. This includes food and other costs such as medical expenses,” says Aung Ko Ko. The money Aung Ko Ko speaks of is much below the current internationally accepted poverty line of US $1.90 a day for one person.

    As critical humanitarian needs rise in many parts of Myanmar, the Myanmar Red Cross Society has stepped in to support families facing great hardships.

    In partnership with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), Red Cross has been targeting specific townships in areas on the outskirts of Yangon and Mandalay, where the city meets the more rural areas, providing 50 kilogram sacks of rice, which serve as the main monthly food ration for most households.

    Between July and September 2021, families received food for just over one million people. In Yangon, more relief was distributed in Dagon Seikkan and Shwepyithar townships in November, providing food for around 740,000 people within the month.

    Aye Myint Kyi moved to Yangon after a fire razed her country home

    56-year-old Aye Myint Kyi moved to Yangon five years ago having lost all her possessions in a fire which destroyed her home in Pwint Phyu Township in Magway region, central Myanmar.

    “We lost our livelihood and home in the fire and so I decided to move to Yangon to support my children’s education and future.”

    “Working in the village, we could only make 2000 Kyats (US $1.5) per day which isn’t enough to live on. Here in Yangon, we could earn enough to feed ourselves, but we also have debts. We are just able to make ends meet,” says Aye Myint Kyi.

    Aye Myint Kyi’s husband and son remained in their village in Magway. She is financially dependent on her 19-year-old daughter who works in a local garment factory. They live together in a 3-metre square single room.

    “We eat and sleep in this one room. The bathroom and toilets are downstairs which we share with other tenants in the building. We mainly eat rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We cannot afford any other types food.”

    “The rice provided by the Red Cross means so much to us. Between two of us we can make it last for a couple of months,” says Aye Myint Kyi, who is struggling to cover her monthly rent and living expenses.

    Many impoverished families living in urban areas of Myanmar are struggling to put food on the table for their families. A large proportion of people work in the informal labour market with no regular income.

    Volunteering in the middle of a crisis

    COVID-19 has dealt a bitter blow to the livelihoods of millions of people in Myanmar and the state of emergency imposed by the military authorities since February, has caused further hardship.

    As the day’s distribution of rice bags gets underway in Shwepyithar, 17 Red Cross volunteers are shepherding the waiting crowd into an orderly queue.

    Mindful of COVID-19 restrictions, the volunteers stagger the number of people at the distribution point, ensuring that everyone is physically distanced. Priority is given to the elderly and disabled people.

    The volunteers also help to carry the heavy rice sacks and organise carriers for those who need help to get their rice home.

    Min Thu, one of the volunteers says, “Some people have to go to work, so they send someone to collect their rice ration on their behalf. We have to manage such situations carefully in case they mistakenly take other people’s rice.”

    “Even though the work is tiring, we are just happy that we can be of help to people in dire need”.

    Slowdown due to COVID-19 expected to carry on into next year says UN report

    A UN report alludes to the 240,000 lives stolen by the COVID-19 delta wave in India and warns that the global economic recovery is losing steam in the face of new waves of COVID-19 infections. 

    A key report on the global economy released by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) today says that galloping spread of COVID-19 has put the brakes on a rapid recovery, counteracting signs of solid growth till the end of last year.

    The slowdown is expected to carry on into next year. After an encouraging expansion of 5.5 per cent in 2021 — driven by strong consumer spending and some uptake in investment, with trade in goods surpassing pre-pandemic levels — global output is projected to grow by only 4.0 per cent in 2022 and 3.5 per cent in 2023.

    Besides COVID-19, DEAS’s 2022 World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) report cites a cocktail of problems slowing the economy accruing from the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “Global economic recovery hinges on a delicate balance amid new waves of COVID-19 infections, persistent labour market challenges, lingering supply-chain constraints and rising inflationary pressures,” the report says.

    But, it has devoted space to the toll on India during during the COVID-19 Delta variant pandemic.

    “In India a deadly wave of infection with the Delta variant stole 240,000 lives between April and June and disrupted economic recovery”

    “Similar episodes could take place in the near term,” the report has cautioned.

    Inequality gap

    The DESA top boss, Liu Zhenmin drew attention to the importance of a coordinated, sustained global approach to containing COVID-19 that includes universal access to vaccines. In the spirit of goal 10 of the sustainable development goals (SDG), he warned that, without it, “the pandemic will continue to pose the greatest risk to an inclusive and sustainable recovery of the world economy”.

    The number of people living in extreme poverty is projected to remain well-above pre-pandemic levels, with poverty projected to increase further in the most vulnerable economies.

    Optimistic about SouthAsia and East Asia

    Output losses relative to pre-pandemic projections will remain substantial in most developing countries, the report says with half of the world’s economies expected to exceed pre-pandemic levels of output by at least seven per cent in 2023.

    “In East Asia and South Asia, average gross domestic product (GDP) in 2023 is projected to be 18.4 per cent above its 2019 level, compared to only 3.4 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean.”

    But there is a word of caution too, as the report’s authors warn that this rise in GDP does not necessarily mean that countries will fully regain their output relative to trend output growth before the pandemic.

    “Despite a robust recovery, East Asia and South Asia’s GDP in 2023 is projected to remain 1.7 per cent below the levels forecast prior to the pandemic,” they say in the report.

    But SDGs will be impacted

    Global poverty is projected to remain at record highs, the report says, impacting the poorest the most and hindering nations’ progress towards achieving SDG Goal 1. “Adverse impacts of the pandemic on growth and employment have significantly undermined progress on global poverty reduction, dashing hopes of achieving the Sustainable Development Goal of ending extreme poverty.”

    “The number of people living in extreme poverty globally is projected to decrease slightly to 876 million in 2022 but is expected to remain well above pre-pandemic levels. Fast-developing economies in East Asia and South Asia and developed economies are expected to experience some poverty reduction.”

    Once again, there is optimism around South Asia. The region’s recovery continues to gather momentum even as COVID-19 stays put thick in the air. But DESA researchers see more constrained policy space and downside risks lying ahead.

    The recovery continues to gain momentum in South Asia even amid contained COVID-19 infections and higher mobility, robust remittance inflows and broadly supportive macroeconomic policy stances. the report says.

    After an estimated expansion of 7.4 per cent in 2021, SouthAsia’s GDP is projected to grow at a more moderate pace of 5.9 per cent in 2022, according to the report. “The recovery, however, is still fragile, uneven and subject to pandemic-related uncertainties and downside risks. Labour market recovery is lagging, indicating severe socioeconomic challenges for large segments of the population.”

    The prescription? “Policymakers will need to maintain critical support for recovery and job creation such as by prioritizing public infrastructure and green investments that crowd-in private finance.”

    UN chief: ‘Babies being sold to feed their siblings’ in Afghanistan

    Describing a “nightmare unfolding in Afghanistan”, the UN Chief has warned of “a race against time to help the Afghan people.”

    United Nations’ Secretary-General António Guterres on Thursday warned that the economic situation in Afghanistan will worsen and urged a rapid injection of liquidity into its economy. He spoke of the need to act immediately to prevent an economic and social collapse in the war-ravaged country.

    Speaking to journalists in New York, the UN chief said the scale of the appeal “reflects the scale of the despair.”

    Currently, over half of Afghanistan’s population depends on life-saving assistance. On Tuesday, the UN launched its largest-ever humanitarian appeal for a single country, requiring more than $5 billion this year.

    “Babies being sold to feed their siblings. Freezing health facilities overflowing with malnourished children. People burning their possessions to keep warm. Livelihoods across the country have been lost.”

    Currently, more than half the population of Afghanistan depends on life-saving assistance.

    Without a more concerted effort from the international community, Mr. Guterres argued, “virtually every man, woman and child in Afghanistan could face acute poverty.”

    Amazing results

    According to Guterres, when properly funded, the aid operation has the capacity to achieve “amazing results.”

    Last year, the UN and its humanitarian partners reached 18 million people across the country, over 60 per cent more than the year before.

    These workers now have access to areas and communities that have been off-limits for years, but humanitarian operations need more money and more flexibility.

    “Freezing temperatures and frozen assets are a lethal combination for the people of Afghanistan”, António Guterres said.

    The UN chief also pointed to rules and conditions that prevent money from being used to save lives and the economy, arguing that they should be suspended.

    “International funding should be allowed to pay the salaries of public-sector workers, and to help Afghan institutions deliver healthcare, education and other vital services,” he said.

    Creative arrangements

    The UN secretary general also welcomed the security council’s decision in December to adopt a humanitarian exception to the sanctions regime for Afghanistan.

    He believes the decision provides financial institutions and commercial actors with legal assurances to engage with humanitarian operators, without fear of breaching sanctions.

    To avoid economic collapse, he said the function of Afghanistan’s central bank must be preserved together with identifying a path for conditional release of foreign currency reserves.

    According to him, the UN is taking steps to inject cash into the economy “through creative authorized arrangements”, but it is “a drop in the bucket.”

    He highlighted one positive example, the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), created by the World Bank. Just last month, the institution transferred $280 million from that fund to finance the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Food Programme (WFP) operations.

    “I hope the remaining resources, more than $1.2 billion, will become available to help Afghanistan’s people survive the winter”, he said.

    Appeal

    As he appealed to the international community, the Secretary-General made an “equally urgent plea” to the Taliban leadership, asking them to recognize and protect the fundamental human rights of women and girls.

    “Across Afghanistan, women and girls are missing from offices and classrooms. A generation of girls is seeing its hopes and dreams shattered. Women scientists, lawyers and teachers are locked out, wasting skills and talents that will benefit the entire country and, indeed, the world.”

    “No country can thrive while denying the rights of half its population,” he concluded.

     

    Image: Children use the heat from a firewood stove to keep themselves warm in the hard Afghan winter.
    Credit: Sayed Bidel / UNICEF

    Disabled, jobless and vulnerable: The story of a woman Afghan prosecutor

    The former Afghan prosecutor is today jobless and is living in fear and in penury. That she is a woman and is disabled only add to her woes.

    Moshtari Danesh’s continues to struggle to live the life she has dreamt of – to live with her head held high. She is having to pay a huge price for that.

    The Afghan war has punctuated every turn of her life. As municipalities crumbled for lack of maintenance in the Afghanistan she grew up in, and as water supplies became unreliable, the country saw the arrival of the deadly polio virus that hurt the youngest of its people. As a child, Moshtari would be counted one of these young Afghans children. Her legs could no longer help her play like other children her age did. The disability hurt.

    As years rolled by, Moshtari Danesh got herself an education, difficult in the circumstances for a growing girl in Afghanistan those days. She worked hard to write and pass an examination that would make her part of the attorney general’s office or get her a position with the country’s election commission or else, a career in academics.

    She went on to become a public prosecutor in 2015 in the office of the attorney general in the country’s capital, Kabul. A woman public prosecutor in a deeply conservative and patriarchal country, for effect.

    For a brief window of her life, Moshtari Danesh held her head high. She believed there was no need to fear for what her work entailed. She thought that the Taliban that she had heard of and seen in her growing years was history. In a new Afghanistan, the clock would move, even if slowly, to herald another dawn.

    A prosthetic leg she got with aid from the International Committee of the Red Cross, together with her crutches and a degree in law was all she needed to move on.

    It was a struggle against all odds. For many a young girl, Moshtari Danesh was the star of the Parwan province.

    Then came the Taliban

    In 2021, days before the Taliban took over the country, Moshtari was promoted to oversee cases involving violence against women. She fought for women and she fought hard for something she strongly felt for.

    But no sooner than the Taliban toppled the elected government and seized power in August, Danesh’s dream turned into a nightmare.

    She has seen before her very eyes how the hard fought rights women had acquired have been thrown out of the window in the past few months.

    The job she so cherished was lost and today, the life she struggled for is on the line.

    Moshtari is now unemployed and her life has been overtaken by penury.

    “We have been living in misery for several months,” Moshtari Danesh told Radio Azadi, a radio service run by Afghan journalists in exile. The family has no money to even pay the rent for the house they live in and winter is proving to be tough.

    Like many Afghans, Moshtari is reeling from a devastating economic crisis triggered by the Taliban takeover and the sudden halt in international assistance. “We are suffering from poverty.”

    Within days after the Taliban took over, the gates of the Kabul jail were thrown open to hardened criminals to walk out of. Those men are now looking for the people who sent them to prison.

    So deepening poverty is not her only worry. Prosecutors who made the wheels of the country’s legal system are now being threatened by the criminals who hold them accountable for interrupting their criminal way of life.

    “Prosecutors have had to change residences so that the convicts the Taliban freed could not find us,” said Moshtari. “We are now permanently living in hiding, and even our families cannot move freely.”

    Life has now become a game of hide and seek as the thugs and criminals she had helped convict are now baying for her blood.

    More than fighting off poverty and her disability, Moshtari is fighting to hold her head high. Because that has always been her dream.

     

    Image: Radio Azadi

    Authorities in Pakistan harassed, detained those critical of government, says Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2022

    Authorities expanded their use of draconian sedition and counter terrorism laws to stifle dissent, control media, and strictly regulated civil society groups critical of government actions or policies.

    In 2021, the Pakistan government intensified its efforts to control the media and curtail dissent. Authorities harassed, and at times detained, journalists and other members of civil society for criticizing government officials and policies. Violent attacks on members of the media also continued.

    The authorities expanded their use of draconian sedition and counter terrorism laws to stifle dissent, and strictly regulated civil society groups critical of government actions or policies. Authorities also cracked down on members and supporters of opposition political parties.

    Women, religious minorities, and transgender people continue to face violence, discrimination, and persecution, with authorities failing to provide adequate protection or hold perpetrators to account. The government continues to do little to hold law enforcement agencies accountable for torture and other serious abuses.

    Freedom of expression and attacks on civil society groups

    A climate of fear impedes media coverage of abuses by both government security forces and militant groups. Journalists who face threats and attacks have increasingly resorted to self-censorship. Media outlets have come under pressure from authorities not to criticize government institutions or the judiciary. In several cases in 2021, government regulatory agencies blocked cable operators and television channels that had aired critical programs.

    Several journalists suffered violent attacks in 2021. On April 20, an unidentified assailant shot and wounded Absar Alam, a television journalist, outside his house in Islamabad. Alam has been a prominent critic of the government. On May 25, Asad Ali Toor, a journalist, was assaulted by three unidentified men who forcibly entered his apartment in Islamabad, bound and gagged him and severely beat him. A few days later, on May 29, the Geo news channel “suspended” its talk show host Hamid Mir after he spoke at a protest in solidarity with Toor.

    Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported intimidation, harassment, and surveillance of various by government authorities. The government used the “Regulation of INGOs in Pakistan” policy to impede the registration and functioning of international humanitarian and human rights groups.

    Freedom of religion and belief

    Members of the Ahmadiyya religious community continue to be a major target for prosecutions under blasphemy laws as well as specific anti-Ahmadi laws. Militant groups and the Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) accuse Ahmadis of “posing as Muslims” that the Pakistan penal code also treats as a criminal offense.

    According to a Pakistani human rights organization, the Centre for Social Justice, at least 1,855 people were charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws between 1987 and February 2021.

    On May 17, dozens of people attacked a police station in Islamabad to lynch two brothers charged with blasphemy, breaking into the facility and battling with police officers before the station was brought under control. No one was prosecuted.

    On June 4, the Lahore High Court acquitted a Christian couple, Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar, of blasphemy after spending seven years on death row. The couple was convicted in 2014 of sending “blasphemous” texts to a mosque cleric.

    In August, an 8-year-old Hindu boy in Rahim Yar Khan, Punjab, became the youngest person to ever be charged with blasphemy in Pakistan after he was accused of defiling a carpet at a religious seminary. Following his release on bail, a mob attacked a Hindu temple, causing damage. All charges against the child were subsequently dropped.

    Police and Security Forces Abuses

    Pakistan law enforcement agencies were responsible for numerous human rights violations, including detention without charge and extrajudicial killings.

    Pakistan has still not enacted a law criminalizing torture despite Pakistan’s obligation to do so under the UN Convention against Torture. In July, the Pakistan Senate unanimously approved a critically important bill outlawing police torture and otherwise seeking to prevent deaths in police custody.

    Pakistan has more than 4,600 prisoners on death row, one of the world’s largest populations facing execution. Those on death row are often from the most marginalized sections of society.

    WHO recommends two new drugs to treat patients with COVID-19

    A guideline development group of international experts have made the recommendation based on new evidence from seven trials involving over 4,000 patients with non-severe, severe, and critical COVID-19 infection.

    The World Health Organisation has strongly recommended the use of the drug baricitinib (a drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis) for patients with severe or critical COVID-19 in combination with corticosteroids. This recommendation by a WHO Guideline Development Group of international experts in has been reported in The BMJ today.

    Their strong recommendation is based on moderate certainty evidence that it improves survival and reduces the need for ventilation, with no observed increase in adverse effects.

    The WHO experts note that baricitinib has similar effects to other arthritis drugs called interleukin-6 (IL-6) inhibitors so, when both are available, they suggest choosing one based on cost, availability, and clinician experience. It is not recommended to use both drugs at the same time.

    However, the experts advise against the use of two other JAK inhibitors (ruxolitinib and tofacitinib) for patients with severe or critical COVID-19 because low certainty evidence from small trials failed to show benefit and suggests a possible increase in serious side effects with tofacitinib.

    In the same guideline update, WHO also makes a conditional recommendation for the use of the monoclonal antibody sotrovimab in patients with non-severe COVID-19, but only in those at highest risk of hospitalisation, reflecting trivial benefits in those at lower risk.

    A similar recommendation has been made by WHO for another monoclonal antibody drug (casirivimab-imdevimab). The experts also note that there were insufficient data to recommend one monoclonal antibody treatment over another – and they acknowledge that their effectiveness against new variants like omicron is still uncertain.

    As such, they say guidelines for monoclonal antibodies will be updated when additional data become available.

    Living guidelines

    Today’s recommendations are based on new evidence from seven trials involving over 4,000 patients with non-severe, severe, and critical COVID-19 infection.

    They are part of a living guideline, developed by the World Health Organization with the methodological support of MAGIC Evidence Ecosystem Foundation, to provide trustworthy guidance on the management of COVID-19 and help doctors make better decisions with their patients.

    Living guidelines are useful in fast moving research areas like COVID-19 because they allow researchers to update previously vetted and peer reviewed evidence summaries as new information becomes available.

    To make their recommendations, the panel considered a combination of evidence assessing relative benefits and harms, values and preferences, and feasibility issues.

    Today’s guidance adds to previous recommendations for the use of interleukin-6 receptor blockers and systemic corticosteroids for patients with severe or critical COVID-19; conditional recommendations for the use of casirivimab-imdevimab (another monoclonal antibody treatment) in selected patients; and against the use of convalescent plasma, ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine in patients with covid-19 regardless of disease severity.

     

    Image: Illustration of the Novel Coronavirus, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

    Omicron threatens to overwhelm health systems in SouthAsia

    The Omicron variant is fueling a rapid surge of COVID-19 across South Asia that threatens to overwhelm health systems still reeling from a deadly wave of the Delta variant last year.

    Countries across South Asia from India to Nepal and Bangladesh are reporting alarming increases in COVID-19 infections, with India alone reporting a 2,013 per cent increase in COVID-19 infections in the past month, with cases now nearing 180,000 in a day.

    In India, over 30 million youngsters in the 15 to 18 years age bracket have received the first dose of their COVID-19 vaccination, according to a statement by country’s health minister, Mansukh Mandaviya.

    In the state of Maharashtra and the country’s business capital, Mumbai, the state health minister Rajesh Tope said that the COVID-19 curve is not flattening and that there will be no relaxation in the restriction on movement at least until the middle of February. The Indian cricket control board, BCCI too is said to be considering to move the crowd-gathering IPL cricket matches in 2022 to either South Africa or Sri Lanka amidst rising COVID-19 cases in the country.

    Nepal has also put restrictions on movements in place. Entry have been banned to the Singha Durbar, the palace of the erstwhile royals which is a gathering place for people, especially on weekends. The country’s interior ministry has revoked the temporary and permanent passes and temporary identity cards of all except the sanitation workers entering Singha Durbar, citing the increasing number of COVID-19 cases.

    Today, Bangladesh imposed an set of restrictions on overall activities and movements in the country for an indefinate period. The use of masks has been made mandatory in shops, shopping malls, bazaars, hotels and restaurants and all public gatherings, the government has said.

    Imams across the country have been asked to make people aware of the health safety guidelines and the use of masks during their Jummah prayers sermons tomorrow.

    The new wave is causing further misery for hundreds of millions of people across South Asia, already living in difficult conditions, exacerbated by COVID-19 over the past two years.

    Last year, health systems were boosted with support from international governments and donors with increased supplies of oxygen equipment across SouthAsia, helping health authorities to be prepared for this latest COVID-19 surge.

    In SouthAsia, a majority of countries have vaccinated less than 50 per cent of their population, putting people at greater risk of developing severe illness and requiring hospitalisation. Over 61 per cent of India’s population have received both doses of COVID-19, Indian Prime Minister said end-December. In the meanwhile, Pakistan has 32.8 per cent and Bangladesh 33 per cent who have received two jabs, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data.

    WHO and Red Cross react

    Fueled by Omicron, more than 15 million new cases of COVID-19 were reported around the world last week, by far the most cases reported in a single seven day period, the World Health Organization (WHO) informed on Wednesday.

    But despite the huge number of cases, the weekly reported deaths have “remained stable” since October last year at an average of 48,000, said WHO director general Adhanom Ghebreyesus Tedros. The number of patients being hospitalized is also increasing in most countries, but it is not at the level seen in previous waves.

    Abhishek Rimal, the Asia Pacific Emergency Health Coordinator with the International Federation of Red Cross said, “The Omicron variant appears to have milder symptoms than the Delta variant, but it is more infectious, so high case numbers are still leading to thousands of people being hospitalised.

    “To avoid endless waves of this deadly virus, we need vaccines to be available to everyone, in every country, especially for people who have not yet had their first dose and those most at risk, including older people and healthcare workers.”

     

    Image: Sri Lanka Red Cross health workers attend to a throng of people queueing outside a local hospital, waiting for treatment or vaccinations.

    The straw that broke Kazakhstan’s back

    The three-day reign of terror in Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan, is one of the darkest pages in the country’s three decades since independence. Afraid of even uttering the word, most people referred to the killing of oil workers as ‘the events’.

    By Paolo Sorbello / Inter Press Service

    The most violent protests of the past 30 years have erupted across Kazakhstan — exposing decades of inequality, injustice, and corruption. The protests of an unprecedented scale have rocked cities across Kazakhstan for days, as the population grew increasingly dissatisfied with the country’s leadership.

    The government initially tried a carrot-and-stick approach to the unrest, but later was pushed to call a state of emergency and ultimately to request military help from former Soviet allies.

    On 6 January, foreign troops landed in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, with a mandate from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a NATO-like military alliance that includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. This marked the first official deployment of CSTO forces in the organisation’s so-far unassertive existence.

    Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called for CSTO countries to send in military help and aid the country’s army and special forces in restoring public order. Although temporary and limited in its remit, the CSTO operation could be a cautionary tale regarding the capacity of the Kazakhstani leadership to maintain law and order in the country.

    So far, official sources say there are hundreds of casualties, both among law enforcement agents and protesters, thousands were injured in clashes resulting in up to 164 deaths (the number of deaths is currently disputed by the authorities), that lasted multiple days in several cities. More than 6,044 were arrested during the violent confrontation.

    The explosive mix of inflation and poverty

    The spark that generated such a massive wave of protest originated in the sharp increase of the price of liquified petroleum gas (LPG), a type of fuel that is commonly used in the western regions of the vast Central Asian country.

    Initially justified by the government as the unintended consequence of a decision to enhance competition in the fuel market, the price inflation was met with street protests in Aktau and Zhanaozen, major cities in the Mangistau region, on 2 and 3 January.
    Importantly, Mangistau is also one of the main hydrocarbon-producing regions in the country and oil workers often take to the streets when they feel wronged by the companies or the government.

    In 2011, for example, an eight-month strike in Zhanaozen was dispersed violently by special forces and police. Unarmed oil workers were shot and the government declared a state of emergency. In the aftermath, the regime did not allow an independent investigation of the matter and jailed three-dozen civilians, calling them guilty for the clashes that officially resulted in 16 deaths.

    Up until the first days of January, ‘Zhanaozen’ was synonymous with ‘tragedy’ in Kazakhstan. And it is one of the darkest pages in the country’s three decades since independence. Afraid of even uttering the word, most people referred to the killing of oil workers as ‘the events’.

    This time, however, the protests quickly spread to other urban centres across the country, reaching a peak on 4 January in Almaty, where thousands gathered near a sports arena before moving to the main square. Unsurprisingly, the protesters were met by a mass of special police forces that used tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.

    The protest continued the next morning with a more belligerent crowd, which set ablaze the city government building and the presidential residence. Fires were reported in other cities as well.

    Blind eye towards long-lasting discontent

    Drivers in Almaty or the capital Nur-Sultan, however, do not use LPG to fuel their cars, which begs the question: Why did they protest? The answer is political dissatisfaction, which can be summarised in three words: inequality, injustice, and corruption.

    After two years of hardship also caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Kazakhstan’s socio-economic texture was damaged beyond repair. Inflation and a weak currency accompanied by worsening employment statistics is a recipe for disaster.

    Four million people lost their jobs during the pandemic, a weaker oil price negatively influenced the Kazakh tenge/US dollar exchange rate, which saw the tenge weaken by 16 per cent in two years.

    While the poor were getting poorer, the rich were getting richer. The Forbes list of billionaires grew from four to seven in 2021. And this does not include the riches accumulated by Tokayev’s predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled the country from its independence until his resignation in 2019.

    Under Nazarbayev and Tokayev, political reforms lagged behind the people’s demands. Rule of law was an arbitrary concept and was considered a systemic cost by trans-national companies who were willing to invest.

    A weak set of rules opened a significant space for corruption. The Kazakhstani elite is known for having used offshore vehicles to launder money, for having taking bribes, and for curbing competition in certain market sectors. The LPG market in the west of the country, for example, was rigged, and this was well known.

    In 2019 and 2020, the promise of reform that came with the new leader was disattended, and the population reacted with a wave of protests that were once again brutally repressed. Already in 2021, an incessant wave of labour protests demonstrated how the government was unable to keep most sectors of the population satisfied.

    The geopolitical angle

    On 5 January, as tensions grew into urban violence in Almaty, to the south, and Aktobe, in the north of the country, Tokayev sacked and arrested long-time Nazarbayev loyalist Karim Massimov from his post as the chief of the KNB, the successor of the KGB. Tokayev also took charge of the position of head of the National Security Council, a post previously held by Nazarbayev.

    In the meantime, the world had turned its eyes to Central Asia. When Tokayev asked for a deployment of CSTO troops, his legitimacy within the domestic power apparatus fell. It became clear that he needed both the material help and the approval of his neighbours and allies to stay in power.

    This scenario seemed to be reasonable for Russia, which sent the first military contingent and equipment to the south of the border. After taking control of strategic logistics assets, such as the Almaty airport, which had been previously seized by protesters, the CSTO soldiers moved into the city and took part in the local army’s ‘special operation’ to quell the protests.

    While the official explanation rests on the infiltration of ‘foreign-trained terrorists’, it is more likely that Russia decided to nudge the CSTO towards an intervention given the weakness of the Tokayev regime.

    Speculations of a confrontation between great powers, with Russia and China as the neighbouring interested parties, and the West as the herald of democracy and business interests, seem to be premature.

    It is yet unclear if and how Tokayev would retain power, what kind of concession will he or his successor be willing to make for the people – who still feel dissatisfied, marginalised, and betrayed – and what long-term reforms would be planned to make sure that the violence of January 2022 does not repeat.

     

    This piece has been sourced from Inter Press Service

     

    Image: View of downtown Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan.
    Credit: World Bank/Shynar Jetpissova

    New union-employer agreement in Sri Lanka addresses key worker rights

    In a historic victory for the workers and their unions, the MoU establishes a bipartite dispute resolution mechanism by the unions and the forum of apparel manufacturers. An additional agreement also covers workers entitlements in case they are affected by COVID-19.

    Sri Lanka’s apparel sector and key industry trade unions have signed a historic agreement to ensure that business owners and employees work together to maintain continued vigilance on pandemic prevention, discuss issues of mutual interest and stay open to participation in addressing grievances.

    Besides providing safeguard to employees during the COVID-19 pandemic, the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between the Joint Apparel Association Forum Sri Lanka (JAAF) and the Union Collective will help the apparel industry to elevate its human resource practices.

    JAAF is the apex body of Sri Lanka’s apparel industry. The Union Collective, on the other hand, comprises of three of the prominent trade unions of the apparel sector in the country – the Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Union, Sri Lanka Nidahas Sewaka Sangamaya and the National Union of Seafarers.

    A joint statement of the unions said: “This is the first time an industrial sector is represented in a bi-partite agreement with worker representatives (in Sri Lanka). This is also the first time both employer and employee representatives have agreed on workplace health management through bi-partite health committees.”

    Bipartite mechanisms

    According to the MoU, trade unions will be represented in the bipartite health committees established in each apparel factory. These committees ensure that guidelines issued by Sri Lanka’s ministry of health are strictly adhered to at each production plant.

    In addition, the Mou assures that JAAF and the unions will establish a bipartite dispute resolution mechanism to collaboratively address worker grievances in a transparent manner. Any grievance raised by the unions will be forwarded to the executive committee of JAAF and the trade union collective for review. JAAF and the respective union will discuss every valid complaint and resolve the issue in a period of one month, unless it is mutually agreed to extend that timeline.

    Importantly, the MoU also recognises employees’ freedom of association and their rights to collective bargaining.

    Beyond being an important development for the apparel unions, this agreement has the potential to provide a fresh lease of life to the apparel industry in the island nation as it can lend a credible label of worker participation to global brands.

    Ineke Zeldenrust, International Coordinator at Clean Clothes Campaign, said: “This agreement goes some way towards redressing the power imbalance between workers and employers. It gives joint support for the bipartite health committees, and a bipartite dispute resolution mechanism, all of which have been key asks of the Sri Lankan trade unions to factory owners during the pandemic.”

    Agreement on managing impact of COVID-19 pandemic

    In another landmark move, JAAF and the Union Collective signed a second agreement, which lays out how employers and the unions will collaborate to assess and coordinate their efforts to manage the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on all stakeholders, co-operating as partners to address identified issues and challenges the pandemic may create.

    “Collaborations between the employers and trade unions have been critical in elevating Sri Lanka’s human resource practices above many of its peers in the sector and in ensuring business continuity following the pandemic,” JAAF Secretary General Tuli Cooray said.

    The partnership compliments the ‘better work’ programme of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC). Through this partnership, the two entities representing employers and the trade unions contribute to addressing issues related to the improvement of economic performance and competitiveness of enterprises.

    “The protection of employees and their wellbeing is a foremost priority of both the industry and the trade unions. Our interests are strongly aligned,” Cooray said. “These agreements will formalise our cooperation and lay the foundation for further collaboration to the benefit of our employees.”

    The unions and JAAF have signed a second agreement ensuring that workers will receive 50 per cent of their monthly wage or Sri Lankan Rs. 14,500 (US$71), whichever is higher, if having to take time off for Covid-19.

    “The organisations which form the Union Collective have demonstrated their strong and enduring commitment to health, wellbeing and upholding the rights of apparel sector employees,” said General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Nidahas Sewaka Sangamaya Leslie Devendra.

    The MoU also covers gender dynamics, workplace cooperation with a lens on occupational safety and health and advances common interests, especially the emerging challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

    As Devendra said, “We welcome this agreement, which paves the way for employees to be represented in the decision-making process in matters of vital importance to them and increases transparency in the handling of grievances.”

     

    Image: IndusriAll Global Union

    American Red Cross declares a first-ever blood crisis amid Omicron surge

    Dire blood shortage has forced doctors to delay critical blood transfusions for people in need. The Red Cross and the National Football League have teamed up to offer those who come to give a chance to win a trip to super bowl.

    There is a blood shortage in the United States of America as the Omicron virus lays siege across homes and hospitals throughout the country.

    The American Red Cross Society has urgently called for people to donate blood, calling all donors to donate blood in a ‘Blood Crisis’ on its home page. Alongside the call is a droplet, less than a quarter of which is in red, to illustrate the shortage.

    The blood appeal cries aloud ‘national blood crisis’ on the home page of the American Red Cross. It says, “the Red Cross is experiencing the worst blood shortage in over a decade. The dangerously low blood supply levels have forced some hospitals to defer patients from major surgery, including organ transplants. Your donation is desperately needed.”

    “Doctors have been forced to make difficult decisions about who receives blood transfusions and who will need to wait,” the American Red Cross has said.

    Red Cross blood banks rely on voluntary blood donations. To incentivise and encourage people to come forward, the Red Cross has teamed up with the National Football League to offer donors a chance to win a trip to the NFL super bowl.

    According to American Red Cross, there has been a 10 per cent decline in overall blood donation since March 2020. A principal driver of this decline is a 62 per cent drop in college and high school blood drives due to the pandemic. Student donors, who have accounted for about a fourth of all donors in 2019, accounted for just around 10 per cent during the pandemic.

    January blood donations are usually low – but is lower this year.

    Ongoing blood drive have also faced cancellations due to illness, weather-related closures and staffing limitations, the Red Cross has said.

    Additional factors like a surge of COVID-19 cases and an active flu season may have compounded the already bad situation.

    American Red Cross, which supplies 40 per cent of the nation’s blood supply, has had to limit blood product distributions to hospitals as a result of the shortage. In fact, some hospitals may not receive one in four blood products they need.

    Blood shortages in January are not unusual. Blood donation dips because people are vacationing and this is also when potential donors have a bout of common flu. People also tend to remain indoors during the winter months. But this year’s shortage is critical.

    January is also observed as the national blood donation month throughout the US.

     

    Image: Screen from American Red Cross home page

    The last seven years have been the warmest since records were maintained. The slugfest between farm and fossil-fuel guzzling industry goes on.

    With its report on the heightening of temperatures over the past seven years, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service report tends to put more emphasis on combating methane than carbon-di-oxide.

    2021 was the fifth warmest year in recorded history, globally, and the past seven years have been the hottest, despite the cooling effect of the natural La Nina, the ocean-atmospheric weather phenomenon. This was revealed by the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S).

    The upwards shooting of the mercury has been ascribed to carbon and methane emissions.

    Annual average temperatures were up to 1.2 degrees Celsius higher than what was recorded in the pre-industrial era, measured between 1850 onwards, C3S said. Accurate temperature measurements go back to 1850.

    Methane is the conundrum for business and scientists. Politicians have been reluctant to take action. Farming communities have had little, if any, say.

    C3S said that a number of causes accounted for the increase in the increase in methane and carbon-di-oxide in recent years. But the experts have engaged in pointing more fingers towards the heightening of methane concentration in the atmosphere and say that it is about two-and-a-half times more than it should be.

    Indeed, the C3S report tends to put more emphasis on combating methane than carbon-di-oxide.

    Methane, agriculture and livestock farming take the brunt

    Methane, has a shorter life that carbon-di-oxide, scientists say. But, they also say that it has a far more detrimental than carbon-di-oxide.

    Natural sources include wetlands. But there is a long list of human-induced sources – from natural gas and oil production to coal mining and landfills and agriculture and livestock farming.

    Indeed, the rural economy has often been the fall guy – the blame for methane emissions is often put on farmers, especially dairymen, in the North.

    In the meanwhile, the discourse on high levels of carbon emissions, mainly in the form of fossil fuel extractions, have resulted in extending the calendar term to meet targets.

    Scientists argue that reducing the amount of methane leaking into the atmosphere will have a faster impact on steadying rising temperatures. They say this is an easier way to arrive at the Paris Agreement target of a 1.5 Celsius cap on warming.

    The petrochemicals industry, especially the core oil and gas industry, can make the single largest and fastest reductions by controlling leaks. But few global leaders seem to be willing to speak about this. Former American president Donald Trump in fact walked away from climate negotiations, often defending the oil and gas industry.

     

    Representative image: Bandipur fires 2019 – Wikimedia Commons

    Another US$308 million towards UN’s Afghan emergency humanitarian aid appeal from US

    The UN appeal for US$5 billion in aid for Afghanistan to avert a humanitarian catastrophe has got US$308 million from the US.

    The US on Tuesday earmarked US$308 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. The US said that this was an additional contribution with which, the US’ total contribution to Afghanistan reaches about US$782. This tranche of aid also makes the US the first country to pledge assistance to the latest UN appeal for Afghanistan.

    United Nations and its partner organisations launched an appeal on Tuesday, asking for more than $5 billion in aid for Afghanistan in the hope of shoring up collapsing basic services in the country wrecked by years of war. The UN has warned that a humanitarian catastrophe will befall Afghanistan if the world community does come to its aid.

    UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths said, “A full-blown humanitarian catastrophe looms. My message is urgent: Don’t shut the door on the people of Afghanistan.”

    Griffiths said that $4.4 billion was needed for the Afghanistan humanitarian response plan alone. It would go directly into the pockets of “nurses and health officials in the field” so that these services can continue, not as support for State structures (meaning the present-day de facto authorities).

    Largest ever UN appeal for aid

    This is the largest-ever single-country appeal in the history of the UN.

    US$4.4 billion of the money appealed for by the UN will go towards meeting needs within Afghanistan. A further US$623 million will be used to provide support the millions of Afghans sheltering beyond the war-torn country’s borders.

    The US money will be routed through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The money is meant to provide shelter, health care, winterization assistance, emergency food aid, water, sanitation, and hygiene services. White House conveyed that the money will reach Afghan people through independent humanitarian organizations.

    Afghanistan’s economy is in a bad shape since the Taliban seized power in August as US-led forces were withdrawing from the country following their 20-year occupation.

    USAID funding reaches people with a ‘From the American people’ tagline.

    This aid is independent of another COVID-19 intervention in the form of 4.3 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to Afghanistan.

    The UN appeal document says that up to 23 million people, or 55 percent of the country’s population – are facing extreme levels of hunger. Nearly 9 million of them are at risk of famine as winter takes hold.

    According to Griffiths, “This is a stop-gap, an absolutely essential stop-gap measure that we are putting in front of the international community today. Without this being funded, there won’t be a future, we need this to be done, otherwise there will be outflow, there will be suffering.”

     

    Image: UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

    Bangladesh government mulls introducing green tax to meet its environment goals

    The carrot and stick policy to impose of green taxes on the one hand and incentivise green service providers on the other hand is meant to increase investments in the environment-friendly technology sector.

    The government of Bangladesh is considering investment tax exemption for environment-friendly equipment and resources, and income tax exemption for green service providers with a view to checking environmental pollution. This was stated by the country’s Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Md Shahab Uddin on Tuesday at an award ceremony for green inclusive business champions.

    “At the same time, the imposition of green tax to discourage pollution is also under consideration,” the minister said.

    The carrot and stick policy to impose of green taxes on the one hand and incentivise green service providers on the other hand is meant to increase investments in the environment-friendly technology sector by encouraging business and industry to mobilise green technology resources. The government hopes this will help discourage polluting activities,” the minister said.

    The minister said that the government’s is adopting specific policies for environmental protection and pollution control to achieve the sustainable development goals by 2030.

    Earlier, the Bangladesh government had set up a fund of Taka 200 crore through the country’s central bank for the use of clean technologies.

    The government’s drive to fine polluting industrial establishments or projects for environmental and environmental damage as so far yielded about Taka 190 crores since 2010.

    Refinancing has helped investments in over 50 green products and a special fund has been set up by the government for the development and dissemination of environment-friendly green technologies and conducting research.

    The minister claimed that the department of environment has brought polluting industrial establishments under compliance through strict enforcement of the environmental laws.

    Environmental stress

    The global environment performance index brought out by the Yale University’s center for environmental law and policy ranks Bangladesh at 162 among 180 countries. The environmental performance index is a data-driven summary of the state of sustainability around the world. It uses 32 performance indicators across 11 issue categories.

    The environment is under stress in one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Writing a lament in the country’s leading newspaper, The Daily Star on the state of Bangladesh’s environment, businessman Abu Afsarul Haider spoke of the country’s urban centres growing in an unsustainable manner, with open spaces and water bodies gradually disappearing.

    “Pollution and encroachment are the major culprits,” he wrote, stressing that Dhaka has consistently been ranked among the world’s most polluted cities.

    Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) says that 175 of the country’s 310 rivers are in a miserable state. 65 are almost dead. 80 per cent of Bangladesh’s rivers lack proper depth.

     

    Image: UNICEF

    WHO says it will consider a change in vaccine composition

    The team of experts say that there is a need to develop COVID-19 vaccines that have high impact on prevention of infection and transmission.

    The technical advisory group on COVID-19 vaccine composition (TAG-CO-VAC) of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that the composition of current COVID-19 vaccines may need to be updated.

    The group said this in an interim statement on COVID-19 vaccines in the context of the circulation of the Omicron SARS-CoV-2 variant.

    The WHO team of experts says that this is needed “to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines continue to provide WHO-recommended levels of protection against infection and disease by variants of concern, including Omicron and future variants.”

    The technical advisory group also considers that there is a need to develop COVID-19 vaccines that have high impact on prevention of infection and transmission, in addition to the prevention of severe disease and death.

    The TAG-CO-VAC said that it will consider a change in vaccine composition to ensure that vaccines continue to meet the criteria established in WHO’s Target Product Profile for COVID-19 vaccines, including protection against severe disease and, to improve vaccine-induced protection.

    WHO has established TAG-CO-VAC to review and assess the public health implications of emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern on the performance of COVID-19 vaccines and to provide recommendations to WHO on COVID-19 vaccine composition.
    Repeated booster doses of the original vaccine unlikely to be appropriate

    In the context of the circulation of the Omicron variant, currently sweeping across the world, the TAG-CO-VAC has urged for a broader access of the existing COVID-19 vaccines for primary and booster doses across the globe. This, it hopes, will help mitigate the emergence and impact of new variants of concern.

    TAG-CO-VAC was established by the WHO in September 2021 as a multidisciplinary group of 18 experts to review and assess the public health implications of emerging variants of concern on the performance of COVID-19 vaccines and provide recommendations on COVID-19 vaccine composition.

    Since its emergence, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has continued to evolve and WHO has designated five variants as SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern to date – namely Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Omicron – due to their impact on transmission, disease severity, or capacity for immune escape.

    “While the Omicron variant is spreading rapidly across the world, the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 is expected to continue and Omicron is unlikely to be the last variant of concern,” says the interim statement of the WHO group of experts.

    On the oft-iterated issues of vaccine equity, the experts have argued that “a vaccination strategy based on repeated booster doses of the original vaccine composition is unlikely to be appropriate or sustainable.”

    It argues that equity in vaccine distribution is necessary to achieve global public health goals. It says that steps towards distributing the vaccine to developing nations is also necessary bearing in mind the evolution of the virus.

    In the interim, the TAG-CO-VAC encourages COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers to generate and provide data on performance of current and Omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccines.

    “These data will be considered in the context of the framework mentioned above to inform the TAG-CO-VAC decisions when changes to vaccine composition may be required,” the technical advisory group says in its statement.

     

    Image: WHO – who.int 

    Canada becomes fifth country to ban conversion therapy

    Canada outlaws attempts to use any form of therapy to convert lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders.

    Canada last week became the fifth country after Brazil, Ecuador, Germany and Malta to ban the practice of conversion therapy — supposed treatment that claims to be able to change an individual’s sexual orientation.

    The new law provides for punishing anyone engaged in conversion therapy with up to five years in prison. Additionally, anyone found to be promoting, advertising, or profiting from providing such conversion therapy can face up to two years in prison.

    The ban became official on Friday, weeks after Canadian lawmakers passed a law in the country’s parliament to this effect.

    Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau announced the law on Twitter Saturday, saying that the Canadian bill makes the provision, promotion and the advertisement of conversion therapy a criminal offence.

    “As of today, it’s official: Conversion therapy is banned in Canada. Our government’s legislation has come into force — which means it is now illegal to promote, advertise, benefit from, or subject someone to this hateful and harmful practice. LGBTQ2 rights are human rights,” Trudeau’s tweet read.

    The US, Australia and Spain have provencial or state laws that make conversion therapy an offence. Argentina, Uruguay, Samoa, Fiji and Naura have indirect bans.

    What is conversion therapy?

    Conversion therapy is a set of supposed treatments claiming to influence or change the sexual orientation of an individual. It has been documented to include cruel practices, including torture.

    International LGBTQ organisation ILGA World describes it as a pseudo-scientific practice that has a “destructive effect on people’s lives from a very early age”.

    The practice is also discredited by the World Health Organization (WHO) and dozens of health professional associations from over 20 countries.

    Religion and conversion therapy

    The conversion therapies are often performed by religious leaders and even by licensed clinicians.

    People who have endured conversion therapy recount that besides torture, the conversion therapy also includes being talked to, being embarrassed and also being subjected to medical or drug-induced treatments. Many practitioners also prescribe aversion therapy.

    Religion plays a big part in the prevalence of conversion therapy, says Lucas Ramón Mendos of ILGA World.

    “Our research shows that today, the main driving forces behind these harmful practices are religious leaders and prejudice. Many have ended up seeking ‘conversion therapy’ for themselves as they perceived their sexual orientation and gender identity in conflict with their religion,” Mendos says.

     

    Wikimedia Image: Dublin LGBTQ Pride Parade 2019 [Photograaphed at City Quay] by William Murphy from Dublin, Ireland
    Licensing:Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike2.0 Generic

     

    Time for Public Conversation, Justice after ‘Blasphemy’ killing in Pakistan, say Rights Activists

    People from all walks of life have been shocked and condemned the lynching of Priyantha Kumara Diyawadana, a Sri Lankan factor manager working in Sialkot, Pakistan.

    By Zofeen Ebrahim / IPS

    Mukhtiar’s heart sank when he saw the grisly incident of lynching of a man in the industrial city of Sialkot, in Punjab province.

    The videos, taken on cell phones and put online, showed 49-year-old Priyantha Kumara Diyawadanage, a Sri Lankan national and manager of a garment factory, showing him being punched, kicked, hit with stones and iron rods, and killed. Not content, they then dragged his dead body out of the factory and set it on fire.

    It was the same city which 11 years ago, had witnessed mob lynching two brothers, 22-year-old Hafiz Muhammad Mughees Sajjad and Mohammad Muneeb Sajjad, 16, in 2010, with support of the local police, on charges of theft. Later their bodies were hung upside down in the city square.

    “There must have been no less than 2,000, men, mostly young, charged and in a frenzy, chanting ‘Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah’ (Here I am at your service, O Messenger of Allah), a slogan used by a far-right Islamic extremist political party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP),” said Sakhawat Mughal, a reporter working for Hum News, a private television channel, recalling what he saw.

    “Many men had batons in hand. The police looked on and waited for backup,” he said, adding: “Had the handful of the law enforcers reacted, many more lives would have been lost.”

    Middle class disenchanted with mainstream political parties

    People from all walks of life have been shocked and condemned the incident.

    “The Sialkot incident is a horrible example of the growth of extremism and violent mob lawlessness,” said the National Commission for Human Rights chairperson, Rabiya Javeri Agha. “The government should ensure speedy and equitable justice, and perpetrators must face the full force of law.”

    According to rights activist Usama Khilji, director of Bolo Bhi, a civil society organisation geared towards advocacy, policy, and research in civic responsibility and digital rights, the TLP has managed to infiltrate the middle class disenchanted with mainstream political parties. The party stirred up ordinary people’s sentiments using tools of “religious passion and hatred towards any perceived act of anti-Islam” to drum support for itself and respond with violence when called upon to cause mischief.

    What was even more disturbing was that not only did the people join in throngs to watch the horrendous incident, but they also filmed it and even took selfies showing Diyawadanage body burning in the background.

    “Today, sections of the middle-class youth feel proud of lynching on a genocidal level, believing killing alleged blasphemers is an act of valour,” lamented Khilji.

    Criminal act

    Sitting 130 kilometres away in Lahore, the capital city of the Punjab province, and belonging to the Christian community, the breaking news from Punjab, for Mukhtiar, who goes by one name, was even more disturbing.

    Along with the footage of the mob and burning of Diyawadanage body, the various television channels also showed archival photos of his late daughter Shama, and her husband, Shahzad. They were lynched by a mob in 2014 and pushed into a burning brick kiln where the husband worked, in Kot Radha Krishan’s village of Chak 59, near the city of Kasur, also in Punjab. They were punished for allegedly burning pages of the Holy Quran.

    “Her three kids who are living with me were disturbed and cried a lot on seeing their parents’ faces plastered on the screen, as the older two remember the incident quite clearly,” said the grandfather.

    “The incident was a criminal act, as was my daughter’s and son-in-law’s lynching,” he said, adding: “Do you think any civilised person would want to carry out a sacrilegious act against any faith?”

    “Nothing that happened on the part of Diyawadanage constitutes the offence of blasphemy as is the case in nearly all cases prosecuted under these laws,” pointed out Peter Jacob, executive director of Centre for Social Justice. Initial investigations by police suggest the manager had removed posters of a religious moot, as the factory would be whitewashed.

    Mukhtiar further pointed out the consequences of committing blasphemy against Islam in Pakistan were “far too grave” for anyone to dare.

    Numbers tell another story

    Statistics also point that one does not have to belong to a religious minority to be accused of blasphemy and face vigilante violence. The majority of the accused are Muslims.

    At least 1,890 persons have been accused of committing blasphemy, under various clauses of the blasphemy law, from 1987 to 2021, said Jacob, who has been collecting data for the last 30 years, adding: “The year 2020 saw the highest number of accused.”

    Of the 75 per cent Muslims accused this year, 70 per cent belonged to the Shia sect, he said, and 20 per cent belonged to the Ahmadi community, 5 per cent were Sunni, 3.5 per cent were Christians and 1 per cent Hindus. Religions of 0.5 per cent could not be ascertained, Jacob told IPS over the phone from Lahore.

    From 1992 till December 4, 2021, there have been 81 extrajudicial killings on suspicion of blasphemy and apostasy, 45 were Muslims, 23 Christians, nine Ahmadis, two Hindus and two persons whose religious identity could not be ascertained, Jacob noted.

    In 2017, Mashal Khan, a Muslim student studying at Abdul Wali Khan University, in Mardan, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was killed by his peers for allegedly posting blasphemous content online. The accusation was later proved to be fabricated.

    Even in Shama and Shahzad’s murder, rights activists later found the attack was instigated by the brick kiln owner who had an altercation with Shahzad over a money dispute.

    Horrific vigilante attack

    The Prime Minister terming the incident a “horrific vigilante attack” promised that all those responsible would be punished with “full severity of the law”. News reports say police have arrested over a hundred, including 19 who played a “central role” in the brutal killing.

    For Mukhtiar, these promises ring hollow.

    “There will be a lot of promises for a few weeks, and then when the public’s attention is diverted, the perpetrators will be released, you wait and see,” he said.

    “Of the five men charged with murder and sentenced to death, two have been released,” he said. After seven years, he was tired of doing the court rounds or seeking justice. “I’m old and a heart patient, and I have the responsibility of these three kids too!”

    Government must provide an enabling environment for a conversation

    Khilji also remained sceptical whether justice will be “dispensed to the mob” given Pakistan’s “dismal track record” in such cases.

    “Entire police stations have been burnt down for perceived inaction towards blasphemy-accused people by the TLP,” he said, giving the example of the state caving into this group that exudes “massive street power”.

    And this “capitulation” to those demanding, inciting, encouraging, and perpetuating violence, pointed out Saroop Ijaz, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, has reinforced the “legitimacy of violence” in the public consciousness.

    A December 5 editorial in Dawn said: “… on the last day of his life, Mr Diyawadanage came face-to-face with the consequences of the Pakistani state’s decades-long policy of appeasing religious extremists.”

    “The Sialkot incidence is yet another reminder that violence and impunity are now embedded in society on the issue of blasphemy,” Ijaz told IPS, emphasising the urgent need for holding a “national conversation on violence” and, in particular, on how religion is often used to incite violence.

    But, he was not sure if the government was “ready and willing to provide an enabling environment for such a conversation” to be had.

     

    This story has been sourced from Inter Press Service.

    Greenland’s ice sheet lost some 166 billion tonnes in 12-months

    It is now raining in a place that saw only snowfall. Though this is happening in another far corner of the earth, the shrinking of the ice sheets is an evidence of global warming and climate change and is a matter of concern.

    The latest report on the Polar Portal portrays a grim situation. The cyber observatory run by Danish research institutions engaged in monitoring Greenland’s ice sheet and the sea ice in the Arctic say that the past quarter century has been particularly dreary.

    “2021 is the twenty-fifth year in a row in which Greenland’s ice sheet lost more mass during the course of the melting season than it gained during the winter,” the latest report from the portal says.

    The report explains that while the early part of the summer was cold and wet with unusually heavy and late snowfall in June, delaying the onset of the melting season, the month of July saw a heatwave that “led to a considerable loss of ice.”

    In a 12-month period ending August 2021, the Greenland Ice Sheet lost about 166 billion tonnes of ice, says the report compiled by the scientists. That has been close to the annual average since the mid-1980s. Overall, in the 25 years between September 1986 and August 2021, Greenland has lost about 5,500 billion tonnes of its ice sheet. This has in turn, contributed to 1.5 cm to the average global rise in sea levels of about 12 cm.

    The report explains unusual weather during the 2021 Arctic summer, extreme melting periods despite average temperatures, and sea ice dropping to its second-lowest level last July.

    Notably, the report says, “precipitation at Summit Station, which is located at the ‘top’ of the ice sheet at an altitude of 3,200 meters above sea level, was registered in the form of rain.”

    When the rain was recorded in August, the US National Snow and Ice Data Center noted that “there is no previous report of rainfall at this location (72.58°N 38.46°W), which reaches 3,216 meters (10,551 feet) in elevation.”

    Reiterating previous research

    This paper comes on the heels after another research from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research that “found evidence that the central-western part of the Greenland ice sheet has been destabilizing and is now close to a critical transition.”

    “We’re at the brink, and every year with CO2 emissions continuing as usual exponentially increases the probability of crossing the tipping point,” the researchers warned. “Our results suggest there will be substantially enhanced melting in the near future, which is worrying,” the scientists concluded.

    Another previous observation on Arctic rainfall reported in November by scientists says, “The fact that we’re getting rainfall on the summit of Greenland right now, and that we’re maybe going to get more rainfall into the future—it kind of staggers me,” she said.

    Researchers say that “the transition from a snow- to rain-dominated Arctic in the summer and autumn is projected to occur decades earlier and at a lower level of global warming, potentially under 1.5°C, with profound climatic, ecosystem, and socioeconomic impacts.”

    This report follows on an earlier piece on OWSA on the World Meteorological Organisation recognising the record increase of temperature in the Arctic.

     

    Image obtained from the Nordic Co-operation website (norden.org); http://www.norden.org/en/news-and-events/images/places/greenland/groenland-1/view
    Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Denmark.

    Banners in Kabul order women to cover themselves

    Posters have come up all over Kabul city conveying the Taliban’s message to women instructing them to wear the all-encompassing burqa and the black chador.

    Taliban’s religious police have erected banners and pasted posters on walls in Kabul mandating that women must wear the Islamic hijab. This follows orders from ministry for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice.

    The posters, that came up overnight, bear images of covered women. One image shows a woman clad in an all-encompassing burqa and a second one on the same poster shows a woman wearing the black chador. The text on the poster proclaims: “according to Shari’a law, a Muslim woman must observe the hijab.”

    The Taliban-led government’s ministry for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice says the posters were installed in Kabul to advise and encourage women to cover themselves in public.

    Akef Mohajer, a spokesman for the ministry, attempted to clarify that this was not being thrust upon people unwilling to cover themselves. He said that the warnings on the posters notwithstanding, the rule will not be enforced.

    He explained the banners as “just an incentive for our sisters to be encouraged to wear the hijab.”

    Mohajer added that the posters depict the burqa and the black veil because they are commonly seen in Afghanistan.

    Afghan women react

    The posters have provoked an angry reaction from women. They say the black veil is not the culture of Afghanistan and the black chador is commonly worn by in Iran.

    Radio Azadi, a radio station run by a Afghan journalists in exile quoted a woman from the Nangarhar Province as saying that Afghan women only cover their faces. “We do not wear chadors and hijabs. This is not our custom.”

    Amina Mayar of Wardak Province, another woman quoted on the radio, also argued that the hijab and chador are not part of the culture of Afghan women and girls.

    Lina, a resident of Kabul who spoke to Radio Azadi, said she was horrified when she saw the new posters from Taliban ministry.

    “The Taliban want to instill fear in the hearts of the people,” Lina said. “They can rule by force and impose a foreign culture on the people. I am scared to thing of the day when the Taliban will whip women.”

    Old story repeating itself

    During its earlier rule over Afghanistan from September 1996 to October 2001, The Taliban regime had made it mandatory for women to wear an Islamic headscarf. Those who violated the rule were often whipped in public.

    Turpiki, an activist and deputy head of the Afghanistan Women’s Peace and Freedom Organization, says that the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan “should not think that their previous actions can be repeated now.”

    “Chador and hijab are not the custom of our women,” Turpiki told boradcasters. “The Taliban should not think that they can once again impose what they want on Afghan women. They will stand up against such actions.”

    Earlier, the Taliban-led government had ordered bus drivers and taxi drivers not to seat women unless they are wearing an Islamic veil. Drivers were also not allowed to transport unmarried women in their vehicles for a distance exceeding 70 km.

    Ageing dams are ‘ticking time bombs’

    China, the US and India top the list of countries with a significant number of large dams. China alone hosts 40 per cent of the of the world’s large dams (numbering 23,841), their average age being 45 years. According to official records, India has 209 dams that are over 100 years old.

    By Ranjit Devraj / SciDev.Net

    Perched high up in the Western Ghats, adjacent to Kerala’s famed Periyar wildlife sanctuary, is a 126-year-old dam that has dangerously outlived the 50 years of life intended for it by colonial British engineers.

    N.K. Premachandran, a member of parliament from Kerala, describes the 53.6 metre-high Mullaperiyar dam on the Periyar river as “a ticking timebomb waiting to explode, not only because of its antiquity but also because it is located on an acknowledged seismic zone”.

    “As Kerala’s water resources minister (from 2006 to 2011), I commissioned studies on the safety of the dam by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Roorkee, which specialises in dams and irrigation, and IIT-Delhi. Both institutes had deemed Mullaperiyar fit to be decommissioned but the issue got bogged down in political wrangling and litigation in the Supreme Court,” Premachandran tells SciDev.Net.

    Premachandran is happy to see Mullaperiyar listed among the world’s big dams that need to be decommissioned in a report released 22 January by the UN University – Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH). “Let’s hope the UN study will encourage authorities, including the Supreme Court, to decide early to decommission this dam that threatens the lives of millions,” he adds.

    Duminda Perera, an author of the study and an expert on water resources and water-related disasters, says: “We selected Mullaperiyar dam as a good example of an aged but still functioning dam in a seismically active area amidst structural flaws, political stresses, and environmental issues —as recorded in published literature.”

    Opposition to decommissioning

    Decommissioning Mullaperiyar is strongly opposed by Tamil Nadu state, which inherited a lease agreement between the former princely state of Travancore (now Kerala) and the British government. The lease allows Tamil Nadu to operate the dam and divert 640 million cubic metres of water annually for irrigation and power generation through a tunnel bored into the Western Ghat mountains that form a wall between the two states.

    But Mullaperiyar ticks all the boxes that the UNU-INWEH study identifies for decommissioning — public safety, growing maintenance costs, reservoir sedimentation and environmental restoration. Large dams, even if structurally sound, are regarded as ‘high hazard’ infrastructure because of the potential for massive loss of human lives, livelihoods and destruction in the event of failure, the study said.

    “Our study discusses the dam ageing issue globally, bringing the topic to the surface and hoping to get the national level policymakers’ attention,” Perera tells SciDev.Net. “The decommissioning decision should be taken after a careful and in-depth analysis of a dam and its links with the economy and society.”

    “There are many strong advocates for increasing safety-related investment in dams. For example, the World Bank, in just the last few years, has invested over US$1 billion in a dam rehabilitation improvement programme in India,” says Perera.

    Ageing dams globally

    China, the US and India top the list of countries with a significant number of large dams. China alone hosts 40 per cent of the of the world’s large dams (numbering 23,841), their average age being 45 years. According to official records, India has 209 dams that are over 100 years old, built when design practices and safety were far below current norms.

    Africa has far fewer large dams than other continents, though there are notable structures like the Akosombo Dam in Ghana, Kariba Dam in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and Egypt’s Aswan Dam. While Africa increasingly relies on hydropower, the average age of Africa’s dams is less than 50 years, the study said.

    Latin America’s large dams are also yet to face the widespread ageing seen in other regions, although the average age in some functional categories is close to 50 years. More than half of all large dams in South America are found in Brazil, with a handful over 50 years.

    The study lists well-documented cases of failure of dams aged between 50 and 100 years. These include the Panjshir Valley Dam (Afghanistan, 2018), Ivanovo Dam (Bulgaria, 2012), Situ Gintung Dam (Indonesia, 2009) and Kantale Dam (Sri Lanka, 1986).

    Whether from excessive seepage, cracking, overtopping, or structural flaws, dam failures are frequently the result of poor design or construction, lack of maintenance, or operational mismanagement, the study said.

    Experts in India cite the catastrophic 1979 failure of the Machchu II Dam in Gujarat state, 20 years after it was commissioned, as an example of mismanagement. Following heavy rains, the dam, which had filled up four times its capacity, collapsed, resulting in the deaths of more than 15,000 people and destruction of the low-lying industrial town of Morbi, five kilometres downstream.

    The Machchu II Dam collapse figures among the world’s worst dam disasters and is second only to China’s 1975 Banqiao dam failure which is estimated to have taken the lives of 240,000 residents of Henan province. China never released official figures of casualties or damage.

    Unrealised risks

    C.P. Rajendran, a top geologist at India’s National Institute of Advanced Studies and member of an expert committee appointed by the Kerala government to study the stability of the Mullaperiyar dam, says that the “lower bound of life-expectancy being 50 years combined with siltation problems means that most of India’s dams are reaching the end of functional life”.

    Additionally, says Rajendran, India and China have fast-forwarded their dam-building activities, ignoring the ecological and seismological vulnerability of the Himalayan regions, especially in the backdrop of climate change that accentuates glacier melting and the flood situations. “Dams as a means of water security are passé, as pointed out by the UN-sponsored study.”

    The dangers of building dams in ecologically sensitive areas were highlighted on Sunday (7 February) when a Himalayan glacier fell into the Dhauli Ganga river in the Uttarakhand region. It triggered huge floods, swept away a small dam and damaged a bigger one downstream leaving a trail of destruction. More than 100 people are missing and feared dead after being caught in the torrent, including more than 50 workers of the smaller dam.

    For the Mullaperiyar, IIT- Roorkee estimated in its report to Premachandran that it would fail if an earthquake of 6.5 magnitude occurs in a radius of 16 kilometres when the water level in the dam is at 41 meters. According to the UN study, such an event would endanger the lives of 3.5 million people in Kerala.

    “By 2050, most people on Earth will live downstream of tens of thousands of large dams built in the 20th century, many of them already operating at or beyond their design life,” the study said.

    This piece has been sourced from SciDev.Net

    Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazaar hit by second fire in 10 days

    2022’s second big fire incident in a Rohingya refugee camp has destroyed almost 600 temporary shelters.

    A massive fire broke out in housing camp 16, home to about 800 Rohingya refugee families in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar at about 5 PM local time on Sunday. The fire swept through the refugee camp. No casualties have been reported. Though the flames were contained, the damage was extensive.

    Local authorities say that over 3,600 Rohingya refugees have lost their homes. Almost 600 shelters have been burnt to the ground. Among the homes destroyed are 30 homes of the host Bangladeshi community. All 34 camps put together hold nearly 1 million people.

    Initial reports point to the accident starting off from a wood-fired household kitchen. Some of the aid workers at the camp dispute this because all families have been provided a cooking gas connection. “This was a conscious decision of the government of Bangladesh,” an aid worker said. “Refugees, the world over, tend to cut down wood from nearby areas to cook their food. This is why the government decided to provide the refugees with a cooking gas connection.”

    Second fire in 10 days

    “This is the second fire in the camps in 2022 and we are only in the second week of January. Our fear is not only about what happened this time, but that future fires will cause even greater destruction and cost lives,” says Roberto Vila-Sexto, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) Country Director in Bangladesh.

    The Bangladesh government and the camp managements only allow temporary shelters in the camps. These are often made of highly inflammable material, predominantly bamboo and tarpaulin.

    In overcrowded settlements fenced in by barbed wire, the risk of the next disaster is always high, said a NRC representative. Refugees told aid workers that they had to cut through the wire fencing to escape from the fire.

    NRC has been lobbying and advocating for the removal of the barbed wire fences, saying that these were both, dangerous and undignified for the refugees.

    “We need to provide safe, dignified shelter for refugees using fire-retardant material, and the dangerous barbed wire fencing should be removed that divides the camps and slows the escape of people fleeing the flames,” said NRC’s Roberto Vila-Sexto.

    An earlier blaze occurred last Sunday at the site of a COVID-19 treatment centre managed by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in the Cox’s Bazar refugees camp area.

    In urgent need of aid

    Asma, a single refugee mother of three living in the camps, barely escaped with her children, and had to spend the night under the open winter sky. “Everything is gone, we barely escaped with only the clothes on our back,” she said.

    As camp lead, an assessment of the damage and the response to the fire is being led by the IOM.

    BRAC Bangladesh’s leading NGO, together with Bangladesh Red Crescent are leading the work on fixing tented camps for people to spend their nights in. Volunteers had pitched 40 tents till the evening.

    The World Food Programme has distributed fortified biscuits to affected families in the immediate aftermath. WFP will also be providing the affected families with hot meals until they are a position to receive regular food supplies, said WFP spokesperson Antoine Vallas.

     

    Image courtesy : Norwegian Refugee Council

    India gets a step closer to allow GM foods

    Anti GM food campaigners say that FSSAI is trying to allow genetically modified foods through the backdoor by putting out a set of weak draft regulations. Activists object to FSSAI soliciting industry views even before asking citizens to provide their feedback on the draft rules.

    India’s country’s apex food safety regulator, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), has introduced a set of draft regulations called the Food Safety and Standards (Genetically Modified or Engineered Foods) Regulations 2021 for objections and suggestions.

    The regulations proposed by FSSAI will be applicable to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or genetically engineered organisms (GEOs) or living modified organisms (LMOs) intended for direct use as food or for processing. FSSAI also proposes to set standards for food or processed foods containing other genetically modified ingredients.

    Food safety campaigners opposing genetic food say that FSSAI is trying to allow genetically modified foods through the backdoor by putting out a set of weak draft regulations.

    For example, they say, FSSAI has not specified any testing regime that will allow the regulator to know whether some food is safe or not. Neither, they say, has FSSAI specified how it will keep out industry interests and other conflict of interest elements from creeping into decision-making.

    Are GM foods safe?

    “There is still no conclusive study establishing the safety of GM foods,” say Ananthoo, Rajesh Krishnan and Usha Soolapani, a trio describing themselves as sustainable agriculture and safe food enthusiasts. On the other hand, there are a number of studies on the adverse impacts on health and food safety.

    Some studies have found GM foods caused health problems like allergies, immune system impairment, stunted growth and development, organ damage, reproductive health impacts and even pre-cancerous growths etc.

    Once introduced, the standards will make India among a small handful of countries to have accepted GM food.
    Have GM organisms entered the food chain in India?

    So far, the only genetically modified crop allowed in India is Bt cotton, a GM pest resistant plant cotton variety that seed marketing companies claim combats the bollworm pest. Interestingly, cotton-seed oil obtained after ginning GM cotton is available in the market for human consumption, even though this is not allowed by law. Similarly, oilcake obtained as a by-product from the process of cottonseed oil production, is fed to milk-producing dairy cattle.

    There has been resistance to cultivation of GM food crops in the country even though transnational seed marketing companies (and their Indian partners) have been knocking on the government’s doors for introducing Bt Brinjal and GM mustard for over a decade.

    “This is about our health and the health of our children,” say Ananthoo, Rajesh and Usha who have also put up a petition on the subject on change.org.

    In a separate letter to the FSSAI, the activists have objected to industry being asked to give its views even before citizens were asked to provide their feedback on the draft rules. All GM foods are unauthorised as of now, they say, citing FSSAI’s position in the Supreme Court.

     

    Image for representative purposes only from Wikimedia.
    By Feeuwai Nalmchonri Lami

    A fast-spreading pandemic has reduced an additional 100 million people into poverty

    Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals will be a challenge as the COVID-19 pandemic has been singled out as the primary reason for a rise in global poverty.  

    By Thalif Deen / Inter Press Service

    The UN’s highly-ambitious goal of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030 has been severely undermined by a rash of problems worldwide, including an escalating coronavirus pandemic, continued widespread military conflicts and the devastating impact of climate change.

    According to published estimates, more than 700 million people have been living in poverty around the world, surviving on less than $1.90 a day.

    But the fast-spreading pandemic, whose origins go back to December 2019, has been singled out as the primary reason for a rise in global poverty – for the first time in 20 years.

    A World Bank report, which was updated last October, says about 100 million additional people are now living in poverty as a direct result of the pandemic.

    For almost 25 years, extreme poverty — the first of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — was steadily declining. Now, for the first time in a generation, the quest to end poverty has suffered a setback, says the report.

    Sir Richard Jolly, Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, UK, told IPS the World Bank is emphasizing that world poverty has been rising — after many years where in countries with positive economic per capita growth, it suggested that poverty had fallen, or soon would.

    Admitting he was “a fan” of the UNDP’s annual Human Development Report (HDR), he said: “So, for me, multi- dimensional poverty is a more realistic and relevant indicator”.

    “I want to know what’s been happening to life expectancy, access to education and incomes of the poorer sections of society, those below a poverty measure or median income”

    For instance, the numbers and percentages of the population below $10,000 in many countries, lower for some, especially in Africa. Even if by income measures poverty is rising, a multi-dimensional measure is much better, he said.

    “What are those in UNDP’s HDR office saying about recent poverty trends?” asked Sir Richard, who was a former Trustee of Oxfam and chairman of the UN Association of the UK.

    Deepening poverty and worsening inequality

    UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says the pandemic has “laid bare” challenges –such as structural inequalities, inadequate healthcare, and the lack of universal social protection – and the heavy price societies are paying as a result.

    Ending poverty sits at the heart of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and is the first of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Despite this, poverty and hunger, Guterres said, are on the rise, following decades of progress.

    In his New Year message last week, he said the world welcomes 2022 “with our hopes for the future being tested”: by deepening poverty and worsening inequality, by an unequal distribution of COVID vaccines, by climate commitments that fall short of their goals and by ongoing conflicts, divisions, and misinformation.

    “These are not just policy tests. These are moral and real-life tests. And they are tests humanity can pass — if we commit to making 2022 a year of recovery for everyone,” he declared.

    Need major policy changes to reduce poverty by 2030

    In an interview with IPS, Roberto Bissio, Coordinator of Social Watch, an international network of citizen organizations that monitor how governments meet internationally-agreed commitments, pointed out that the World Bank once again underestimates poverty by measuring it with the extremely low benchmark of $1.90 a day.

    Further, by assuming that the tide lifts all boats equally it claims that the COVID-induced poverty “tsunami” of 2020 is being turned around by economic growth in 2021.

    “This ignores the conclusion of the World Inequality Report 2022, showing that inequalities have been exacerbated, particularly in the South, where states don’t have deep pockets to fund emergency social protection”.

    The Bank is right that SDG1 on reducing poverty won’t be achieved by 2030 without major policy changes, but neither will SDG10 on reducing inequalities, said Bissio, who was also a former member of the Civil Society Advisory Committee to the Administrator of the UN Development Programme, and has covered development issues as a journalist since 1973.

    “And it shamefully ignores that World Bank promoted policies of privatization and deregulation make the inequalities worse,” he argued.

    “Instead, the policies recommended by the infamous and now discontinued “Doing Business” report of the World Bank, are still part of the conditions imposed on countries to receive emergency from the Bank”.

    The institution that claims to have poverty reduction as its main mandate is part of the problem, not of the solution, said Bissio, who is also international representative of the Uruguay-based Third World Institute.
    The past is part of our present that shapes our future

    Vicente Paolo Yu, Senior Legal Adviser at the Third World Network, told IPS the setback in 2020 to the fight against global poverty due to the Covid pandemic exacerbates the impact of other crises such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and the development gap on the global poor, particularly those in developing countries.

    “Global poverty and inequality among and in all countries, climate change, biodiversity loss, and unequal pandemic responses are among the present-day results of historical injustices on the Global South committed in the name of Western civilization and globalization,” he said.

    “The past is part of our present that shapes our future. These crises are linked and cannot be fought effectively through piecemeal efforts or in silos.”

    Global poverty and inequality exist not because people are not hard working in their own homes and communities but because the way that the global economic, financial, and trade system is set up makes it difficult for poor peoples and countries to get out of poverty, he argued.

    Developing countries that have recently managed to succeed in cutting poverty have been those that have implemented diverse development policies, said Yu, who is a former Deputy Executive Director of the South Centre in Geneva.

    Hence, poverty and inequality are not natural phenomena but are borne out of the actions and decisions taken by human societies. They can also be reversed by human decisions, he noted.

    “Failing to act together as a common human community on all fronts on poverty and inequality and their various manifestations in the root causes and impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pandemic responses leads to the denial of human choices and opportunities, violations of human rights, and increased human insecurity, powerlessness, and exclusion for peoples, their communities, and their countries,” declared Yu.

    Fighting these must be through a broad and systemic effort across the world founded on a deep sense of urgency and understanding of equity and justice as public goods in undertaking interlinked actions in the economic, social, and environmental fields. It is about choosing to create the conditions for human dignity and a decent life for all rather hoping for charity from the wealthy, he added.

    “The continued existence of deep poverty and inequality for many peoples across the globe, compounded by the climate, biodiversity and pandemic crises, is injustice writ large — particularly when seen against the technological and industrial advances and capital accumulation of a relative few”.

    “It is against the tenets of all faiths and human goodwill to refuse to act against the injustice of poverty. We should not simply look away and call for charity. We need to act with courage and conviction to correct injustice, redress wrongs, and achieve liberation from poverty and inequality.”

    The year 2022, he predicted, should be the year when all peoples come together to set each other free from the shackles of global poverty and inequality.

     

    This piece has been sourced from Inter Press Service

    Image: In India, five out of six people in multidimensional poverty were from lower castes.
    Credit: UNDP India/Dhiraj Singh

    Taliban feel a bath in a hammam is not a good idea. Ban women from using public bathhouses

    Afghanistan’s Taliban, known for their strict observance of Islamic codes, have banned women and men from using hammams, or public bathhouses, in the Balkh province.

    Authorities in the Balkh province, north of Afghanistan, have banned women from using public bathhouses.

    “Women can only bathe in their private settings with a hijab on,” said Sardar Mohammad Haidari, the provincial head of the ministry of propagation of virtue and prevention of vice in Balkh.

    Attempting not to be perceived as being discriminatory towards women, the Taliban leader added that men baths too would be controlled.

    What are the public bathhouses?

    The public bathhouses or hammams as they are called by local people, are used by the poor for cleaning. Each hammam accommodates up to 100 people. The people use the public bathhouses because the parts of the city they come from lacks running water – and because they need to have a bath.

    Municipalities in the war-torn country have been unable to provide water. Bathers do not necessarily like the hammams, but they use these private infrastructures to bathe in the absence of any alternative.

    Even big cities like Kabul were not spared of the broken down water system for lack of funds. While much of that is restored over the years, areas in the fringe of the cities still are not supplied with water.

    Much of the pipeline was restored over the years. But there are still parts of Afghanistan where the water pipe network is deficient.

    Three in every five people in the cities do not have access to running water, a humanitarian worker working with a global relief organisation told OWSA. “While most of it was damaged in the decades of fighting, much has also been lost to the lack of maintenance over time,” he said. “And we mustn’t forget that the recurring droughts are also contributing to the water pipes drying up.”

    The public bathhouses are also a necessity in Afghanistan’s winter because people living on the cities’ outer rims often do not have the resources to spend on fuel to heat water for a bath. On a large scale, a hammam is affordable. It costs up to 25 Afghani to have a bath. Some bathers follow up the bath with a vigorous massage for another 25 Afghani.

    Taliban’s discomfort with hammams

    A bath in a hammam is not a very private thing. Men and women – in separate sections – wash themselves in the hammams’ large marble-floored steam rooms.

    The Taliban has its own strict interpretation of Islam and Talibs consider the custom decadent. Even earlier in 1996, the vice and virtue police had clamped down on the hammams. Women were banned from exposing their bodies, even in the exclusive company of women, as it is in the case of the hammams.

    The commune bathhouses were also banned by the Taliban during their earlier stint in power. At that time, hammams had become essential also because the municipal water supply system had broken down.

    But one aid worker with years of experience in Afghanistan says that there is more to the closure of the hammams. “The hammams in Balkh will open up once they negotiate a deal,” he told OWSA. The deal would, in all likelihood, be in the shape of a monetary benefit for local Taliban leaders, he said.

    Taliban officials appeared to disagree over the closures of the bathhouses. Mohammad Sadiq Akif, a spokesman for the ministry of propagation of virtue and prevention of vice, denied that any order had been issued to the effect from Kabul.

    Public outcry

    Radio Azadi, run by Afghans in exile, quoted a woman who called herself as Rabia as saying that the Taliban was directing its resources into controlling the lives of citizens rather than addressing the myriad of problems facing the country. The Taliban “needs to pay attention to many more important issues we are grappling with,” she said.

    Criticising the Taliban’s closure of public bathhouses, Tamana Siddiqi, a women’s rights activist from Mazar-e Sharif told Radio Azadi, “People are dealing with growing economic pains, which means that not everyone can afford a hot bath inside their house.”

     

    Representative image (Royal bath or hammam shahi qila Burhanpur);
    Source: Wikimedia; Author Md iet

    Activism will be key to overcoming the COVID-19 crisis

    As the Omicron surge overwhelms the world, it is clear to people everywhere that the actions which leaders so far have taken in response to the COVID-19 crisis have not been sufficient to overcome it.

    By Ben Phillips

    We are not beating COVID-19. It looks rather like COVID-19 is beating us. What is to be done?

    Crucially, they are two key dimensions to what is needed now which, though related, are distinct. The first dimension is what policies are required to get us out of the crisis. The second dimension is how to get those policies put into place.

    In other words, the first key question is “what do leaders need to do?”, and the second key question is “how do we make them do it?”

    On the first question, the world is fortunate that we are not short of excellent public health expertise. Whilst there are no quick fixes, the contours of the policies required are not a mystery, and have been set out, to leaders and to media, repeatedly, by the World Health Organisation, by leading academics, and by health practitioners.

    They come down essentially to this: in a pandemic emergency, leaders need to deploy the whole range of tools that have been shown to help. The key here is the whole range.

    Importantly, in terms of how these approaches can be realized, this requires that they are realized for the whole world. Until they do, none of us will get out of the crisis. When Desmond Tutu said that “I am because you are, I am because we are”, that was not only true ethically, but, it turns out, true epidemiologically too.

    The approaches required include vaccines, treatments, and also, as the WHO’s Peter Singer has noted, “public health measures that encourage spending time outdoors, physical distancing, wearing masks, rapid testing, limiting gatherings and staying home when sick”.

    None of these alone is enough. Any approach that only does one of these, however well, would fail – all of them are needed, together.

    It requires the application of the whole range of policy tools. For example, rich countries, and Foundations based in rich countries, have emphasized the importance of sharing doses as a solution (even whilst they have comprehensively failed to deliver on their promises to do so).

    India and South Africa proposal for TRIPS waiver at the WTO

    In contrast, developing countries, the World Health Organisation and civil society have all highlighted that sharing doses alone cannot ensure enough for everyone, and that it is essential also to share the technology so that multiple producers across the world can simultaneously manufacture enough to vaccinate the world.

    This requires rapid agreement and implementation of the TRIPS Waiver proposed by South Africa and India at the WTO, and it also requires that rich country governments use their huge leverage (as procurers, investors and regulators) over the companies they host to make them share knowledge, know-how and material. Furthermore, this requirement to share COVID-19 technologies needs to apply to vaccines, medicines and diagnostics.

    As public health professors Madhukar Pai of McGill and Manu Prakash of Stanford have noted, “Science has delivered many tools that work against COVID-19. But equitable distribution of these tools is where we are failing.

    If we can find a way to share effective tools equitably and increase their production across the world, then we have a real shot at ending this pandemic.

    If we hoard these tools, block TRIPS waiver, and think we can boost our way out of this pandemic in the global North, we will begin 2023 by playing whack-a-mole with the rho, sigma, tau or Omega variants.”

    Not a new lesson

    The challenge then, is not that we don’t know what leaders need to do. The challenge is that they are not doing it. We like to believe that our leaders are led by the evidence. But evidence alone is not enough.

    The brilliant and essential reports of scientists will not be enough to shift the much harsher world of political interests. Getting leaders to do what is needed to overcome the COVID-19 crisis – in particular getting leaders to force the big pharmaceutical companies to share the rights and recipes for the vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics so the world can produce the billions needed – will depend on pressure from ordinary people.

    This is not a new lesson. We saw it in the late 1990s and early 2000s with antiretrovirals for HIV. Then, as now, a monopoly hold on production was preventing people in developing countries from accessing life-saving help.

    Then, as now, the big pharmaceutical companies worked aggressively to block other producers from manufacturing what would save millions of lives. Then, as now, rich country governments sided with the big pharmaceutical companies. Twelve million people died. Finally, massive global public pressure, together with assertive action by developing countries, ensured that production was opened up and lives could be saved.

    It was not a coincidence that when the Covid-19 crisis erupted the first groups to call for the sharing of medical technologies, and to start to organise for it, were groups of people living with HIV. They are the heart of the movement for a People’s Vaccine because, from painful experience, they know what it takes. Health, like justice, is never given; it is only ever won.

    Some people are inspired by activism. Others, understandably, just want to get on with their lives. Activism feels like another burden. They’re ready to do their part by wearing a mask when available and getting vaccinated when offered. But they want to leave the leadership to our leaders.

    The thing is, that’s not enough. Our leaders are not leading. They are not doing all they can to end the crisis. They are not forcing the big pharmaceutical companies to share technologies so that enough can be produced. They are not ensuring access to health care as right. They are not protecting the vulnerable from the shock of the crisis.

    The past two years can best be summed up like this: the science is working, but the politics is failing.

    It is only through bold action by political leaders that the Covid-19 crisis will be ended. It is only through people’s organising that we’ll make leaders take that bold action. As the great novelist Alice Walker once put it so powerfully, “activism is the rent we pay for living on the planet”.

     

    Ben Phillips is the author of ‘How to Fight Inequality’ and an advisor to the United Nations, governments and civil society organisations.

    This piece has been sourced from Inter Press Service

    Image: People’s Vaccine Alliance

    Syrians turn war missiles into heaters as winter grips

    Blacksmiths in Syria are converting missiles into heaters that the people of Syria can afford. The low-cost heaters can use any fuel, but the often toxic fumes and combustion by-products lead to serious health problems.

    By Sonia el-Ali / SciDev.Net

    Amid a shortage of humanitarian aid and increased fuel prices, Syrians have discovered a cheap way to get warm in the harsh winter — by recycling missiles.

    Humanitarian aid covers only 45 per cent of the population’s needs and poverty rates have reached an unprecedented 90 per cent in northwest Syria, according to the Syrian Response Coordination Group, leaving many people to resort to makeshift heaters, run on toxic fuels.

    As’ad al-Obaid, sitting around one of the repurposed weapons with his children in their home city of Jisr al-Shughur, in Idlib province, tells SciDev.Net: “I couldn’t afford a heater, so got a missile I found nearby, gave it to the blacksmith and got this heater”.

    During the country’s decade-long conflict, getting warm has become a luxury that al-Obaid’s family and others like them in the northwest Syrian city cannot afford. The alternative here is to rely on whatever is available, including cheap fuel — regardless of the health risks.

    This fledgling recycling industry sees blacksmiths hurry out to gather missiles with a radius of between 28 and 32 cm, and take them to their workshops. Or sometimes they even buy the missiles at a low price.

    Ahmed Hussein al-Othman is a blacksmith in Idlib who has ventured into this line of business. He says: “The big increase in iron prices made it difficult for many residents to purchase expensive heaters, so people turned to this new option.”

    Describing the manufacturing process, he says: “The first stage is using the fragments of missiles found, or taking the un-exploded ones and breaking them down into pieces. (You need to) get experts to take out (any remaining) explosives and eventually sell these to quarries to be used in blowing out rocks.”

    Then, the missile is carried to the workshop where the upper part is removed and a side crack is made to release fumes, al-Othman explains.

    He says that the strong metal used in manufacturing the missiles makes them more resilient to sustained high temperatures. They are also cost-effective, he says, at only US$ 15, compared to around US$ 100 for a new heater.

    Heaters flexible with fuel

    The missile-turned-heater can work with coal, wood, pyrene or nylon, al-Othman adds.

    Al-Obaid obtains pyrene from olive oil press machines in northern Syria, as a by-product that is then compressed, dried and sold in the form of cylinders.

    He believes that, despite its bad smell and health risks, pyrene is still a good option as it includes oils that make it combust more easily than wood. Being cheap, coal is also seen as a perfect fit.

    Jalal al-Shardoub, a resident of Kelli refugee camp, north of Idlib and a father-of-five, says he uses coal to fuel his heater, despite its bad smell and negative effect on his children. The coal used is a by-product of primitive oil refining procedures, with a kilo of coal costing about US$ 1.5.

    Toxic fumes can cause respiratory problems

    Other residents cannot even afford these rudimentary and dangerous heat sources. Instead, they head to landfill sites to sift through piles of waste until they find something to burn to generate heat.

    Fatima Al-Terzi lives with her six children in an unfinished house with no doors or windows on the outskirts of Idlib, after losing her husband in a shelling by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. She tells SciDev.Net, about her daily ritual of going with her children to landfill sites and collecting plastic bags and cardboard to burn. Despite their bad smell, she says this is her only choice.

    Abdelkhaliq al-Sheikh, a petrochemical engineer and director of water quality and standards for Idlib, explains the damage caused by these alternative heat sources: “When using diesel oil or domestic gas to generate heat, combustion is complete and carbon dioxide is generated, which is less damaging due to the release of water vapour.”

    However, if combustion is incomplete — as with burning wood, coal and pyrene — a mixture of gases are emitted, he says. The main one of these is carbon monoxide, which is highly toxic, causes respiratory diseases, and can even lead to asphyxia.

    If nylon is burned, sulphur dioxide or hydrogen sulphide is released, says Al-Sheikh, which are both highly toxic gases that can get into the lungs and absorb water from them.

    Mohammed al-Khaled, director of primary health care in the town of Selqin, in northern Idlib, says: “Garbage and shabby clothes and shoes became a normal way of generating warmth for many residents and displaced people in Idlib, as they are handy and low-cost when compared to traditional ones like wood or fuel.”

    He stresses that these methods are very dangerous and might even lead to death when used in enclosed spaces.

    Al-Khaled tells SciDev.Net that 50 per cent of the children who visit his health care centre have respiratory diseases, due to these unhealthy ways of generating heat. Diseases such as bronchial asthma, chronic bronchitis, respiratory failure and hypoxia, which affect children’s growth and development, could accompany them for the rest of their lives.

    This piece has been sourced from SciDev.Net

    Image: A father and his children sitting around a repurposed missile in their home city of Jisr al-Shughur, in Idlib province of Syria. Copyright: Sonia el-Ali / SciDev.Net.

    As millions remain affected, experts warn a health crisis awaits cyclone-hit Philippine

    The cyclone that hit Philippines has affected millions and could give rise to a medical emergency. Now, people are having to depend on a local river to do their daily chores since the cyclone has disrupted essential services. 

    After counting the dead and the injured and the loss of housing, Philippines is now realising the long-term impact of Super Typhoon Rai.

    7.3 million people have been affected by the cyclone and of these, the international aid organisation Oxfam says that over 3 million people had been affected directly affected by the cyclone. 208 people died in the disaster, according to the Philippine National Police.

    Locally named Odette, the cyclone hit the Philippines on 16 December 2021, ravaging islands and coastal communities in the east and flooding towns and cities across the country.

    “It is our first time to experience such strong winds brought by the typhoon and it devastated almost all of the households,” said Maas in City Mayor Nacional Mercado.

    Pictures of the community posted by Oxfam showed residents have resorted to bathing and doing laundry in the river because electricity and water supply have been severely disrupted.

    Mayor Mercado said their city only had one casualty since most residents evacuated before the typhoon made landfall but 1,677 houses were totally destroyed and 2,182 were partially damaged.

    Oxfam and its partner humanitarian groups distributed Philippine Peso 4 million to 2,650 families in the province of Eastern Samar as a pre-disaster financial aid before the cylone struck. This was meant to help families prepare food, water, medicine and transportation to evacuation centres.

    International donors have rushed in, but the resources available is just a fraction of what is actually required.

    A health crisis in the making 

    Another organisation, the Red Cross, is ramping up urgently required emergency healthcare and also working to provide clean water to prevent severe illness and death from diseases like gastroenteritis and diarrhoea.

    The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has warned of a mounting health crisis in the eastern Philippines after Super Typhoon Rai destroyed hospitals.

    Oxfam and the Red Cross and various other organisations warn that waterborne diseases like gastroenteritis and acute watery diarrhoea can follow the cyclone if water and sanitation facilities are not restored immediately.

    There have been more than 400 cases of diarrhoea and gastroenteritis in typhoon-affected areas, with 141 health facilities damaged by the storm, according to Philippine Government agencies.

    But the needs are huge, given the scale of the disaster. Richard Gordon, chairman of the Philippine Red Cross told OWSA, “We are urgently sending more health teams, hygiene kits and resources, including safe water supplies and water filtration systems to Siargao island, Cebu, Palawan and Bohol, to prevent the further spread of disease.”

    Is a food crisis unfolding

    Leah Payud, Oxfam Pilipinas’ Resilience Portfolio Manager, likened the impact of Super Typhoon Rai to that of Super Typhoon Haiyan (also called  Yolanda locally) in 2013. That cyclone had caused especially widespread damage agriculture, in turn affected the lives, livelihood and the food security of the people.

    Payud spoke of her memory racing back to 2013 when many areas were unable to receive adequate resources.

    “Many areas here in Leyte and Southern Leyte are badly hit by the typhoon and need immediate attention. People are struggling to find food, water, and other necessities. People who had cash had to line up for more than three hours to withdraw,” Payud said.

    COVID-19: The world can end vaccine inequity firstly by effectively sharing the doses, says WHO chief

    The week gone past saw the highest number of COVID-19 cases reported from across the globe, the head of the World Health Organization told journalists over an online press briefing on Thursday. The numbers are expected to increase in the coming week.

    World Health Organization Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus reiterated his longstanding call for vaccine equity and solidarity to defeat the COVID-19 crisis, now reaching into its third year.

    “The dawn of a new year offers an opportunity to renew our collective response to a shared threat,” he said.

    “I hope global leaders who have shown such resolve in protecting their own populations will extend that resolve, to make sure that the whole world is safe and protected.”

    WHO’s latest weekly epidemiological report shows that COVID-19 case numbers increased at a global level by 71 per cent over the past seven days as some 9.5 million cases were reported.

    “We know that that is an underestimate,” Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the agency’s technical lead on COVID-19 said, adding that “next week will be higher, because in the last 24 hours, more than 2.2 million cases were reported.”

    Inequity kills

    Tedros described vaccine inequity as “a killer of people and jobs”, which is also undermining global economic recovery. Low vaccination rates have also created the perfect conditions for virus variants to emerge.

    He said the “tsunami” of cases has been overwhelming health systems across the world.

    “While Omicron does appear to be less severe compared to Delta, especially in those vaccinated, it does not mean it should be categorized as ‘mild’,” he cautioned.

    Although first-generation vaccines may not stop all COVID-19 infections and transmission, Tedros stressed that they remain highly effective in reducing hospitalizations and deaths.

    Falling short

    WHO has been advocating for countries to vaccinate 70 per cent of their populations by the middle of 2022. Tedros warned that at the current pace, some 109 countries could miss this target.

    “The essence of the disparity is that some countries are moving toward vaccinating citizens a fourth time, while others haven’t even had enough regular supply to vaccinate their health workers and those at most risk,” he said.

    “Booster after booster in a small number of countries will not end a pandemic while billions remain completely unprotected.”

    Share and invest

    The world can end vaccine inequity firstly by effectively sharing the doses that are being produced, he said.

    “Second, let’s take a ‘never again’ approach to pandemic preparedness and vaccine manufacturing so that as soon as the next generation of COVID-19 vaccines become available, they are produced equitably and countries don’t have to beg for scarce resources,” he advised.

    For its part, he assured that WHO will continue to invest in vaccine manufacturing hubs and work with any and all manufacturers willing to share know-how, technology and licenses.

     

    Image: COVID vaccines are being administered at a village clinic in Kohima, India.
    Photo by Tiatemjen Jamir, UNICEF

    No infrastructure planning can match civil society led collective action

    Policy makers and planners must acknowledge people’s action and take these into account in their planning efforts. People’s action can do wonders. The case of rivers being rejuvenated is an example.

    By Manoj Rai

    Acknowledgement is sweet. It is sweeter when it comes from none less than the Prime Minister of India.

    Recently Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised the collective efforts of people in rejuvenating the Noon river in Uttar Pradesh’s Jalaun district.

    “Noon river was on the verge of extinction. The river had virtually turned into a drain causing an irrigation crisis in the area. It was then that people made the resolution to restore it,” said the Prime Minister said.

    Alluding to his oft-repeated theme of sabka-prayas (collective effort), he added, “Noon river has been rejuvenated in very little time and at little cost with people’s effort. It is a brilliant example of how people’s will can do wonders. When we protect nature, it also protects us.”

    Like most man-made problems, water scarcities trouble the poor the most. As a result, many civil-society organisations began working towards revival of rivers and wells. In doing this, they reached help to the poor and marginalized by giving them access to water, so essential for a dignified life, and also to aid in their livelihoods (mostly agriculture).

    Communities are central to action

    Almost fifty years ago, Rajendra Singh established the Tarun Bharat Sangh to work to bring water to people in arid Rajasthan. People called him the waterman of India for the example he set. River rejuvenation became a popular subject of discourse in civil society and government circles. Planners had to look at it as the default way of avoiding massive irrigation canal infrastructure.

    What started as simple and small experiment by a handful of NGOs has become an important development sector in the country. Now, the government even has a separate ministry to facilitate the management of water issues in the country.

    Rivers are nature’s own infrastructure projects. A river benefits people as a lifeline. Life on planet earth would not be possible without water and rivers bring us water in many seen and unseen ways.

    Many individuals, groups and organizations are working tirelessly in different parts of the country for revivals of local rivers. Two factors are common to all such efforts for river revival. First, it is important to engage people and communi