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Alarming disparity in broadband connectivity within Asia-Pacific

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New findings by the economic and social development arm of the United Nations in the Asia-Pacific have revealed that nearly 75 per cent of the region’s broadband capabilities and access are concentrated in countries in East and North-East Asia while the Pacific subregion accounts for a mere 1.93 per cent.

“As a result of this digital divide, millions of people are shut out from transformative digital opportunities in education, health, business and financial services,” Shamshad Akhtar, Executive Secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), said today in a news release.

She also stressed that broadband connectivity is vital for the digital economy and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the region.

The report, State of ICT in Asia and the Pacific 2016: Uncovering the Widening Broadband Divide, also notes that according to 2015 data, the other three subregions: South and South-West Asia, North and Central Asia, and South-East Asia have a combined 23.19 per cent fixed broadband subscriptions in the region, three times less than the East and North-East subregion.

According to the regional form, the findings confirm that gap between advanced and developing countries in fixed broadband access is indeed widening, and unless targeted policy interventions are put in place, the trend will continue to the detriment of future development opportunities.

“In response to the widening gap, ESCAP is promoting the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway initiative, to increase the availability and affordability of broadband Internet across Asia and the Pacific, by strengthening the underlying Internet infrastructure in the region,” added Ms. Akhtar.

The report also finds that the ESCAP region has witnessed a dramatic increase from 38.1 per cent of the global fixed broadband subscriptions in 2005 to 52.3 per cent in 2015.

However, the report also shows that less than two per cent of the region’s population has adopted fixed broadband in as many as twenty countries, widening the ‘digital divide’ between high-income and low-income countries at an alarming speed.

It further shows that the penetration of e-commerce is directly linked to access to broadband connectivity.

“[This suggests] that enhancing information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure connectivity would increase business-to-business e-commerce in the region,” said ESCAP.

The report also looked at emerging trends in developing online content, differential patterns of mobile broadband expansion and usage, as well as the impact of regulatory quality and investment in broadband adoption.

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EU Politics

Coronavirus: Commission reaches first agreement on a potential vaccine

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Today, the European Commission has reached a first agreement with the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to purchase a potential vaccine against COVID-19 as well as to donate to lower and middle income countries or re-direct to other European countries. This is following the positive steps regarding the conclusion of exploratory talks with Sanofi-GSK announced on 31 July and with Johnson & Johnson on 13 August. Once the vaccine has proven to be safe and effective against COVID-19, the Commission now has agreed the basis for a contractual framework for the purchase of 300 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, with an option to purchase 100 million more, on behalf of EU Member States. The Commission continues discussing similar agreements with other vaccine manufacturers.

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said: “The European Commission’s intense negotiations continue to achieve results. Today’s agreement is the first cornerstone in implementing the European Commission’s Vaccines Strategy. This strategy will enable us to provide future vaccines to Europeans, as well as our partners elsewhere in the world.

Stella Kyriakides, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, said: “Today, after weeks of negotiations, we have the first EU advance purchase agreement for a vaccine candidate. I would like to thank AstraZeneca for its constructive engagement on this important agreement for our citizens. We will continue to work tirelessly to bring more candidates into a broad EU vaccines portfolio. A safe and effective vaccine remains the surest exit strategy to protect our citizens and the rest of the world from the coronavirus.”

The agreement approved today will be financed with the Emergency Support Instrument, which has funds dedicated to the creation of a portfolio of potential vaccines with different profiles and produced by different companies.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine candidate is already in large-scale Phase II/III Clinical Trials after promising results in Phase I/II concerning safety and immunogenicity.

The decision to support the vaccine proposed by AstraZeneca is based on a sound scientific approach and the technology used (a non-replicative recombinant chimpanzee adenovirus-based vaccine ChAdOx1), speed at delivery at scale, cost, risk sharing, liability and the production capacity able to supply the whole of the EU, among others.

The regulatory processes will be flexible but remain robust. Together with the Member States and the European Medicines Agency, the Commission will use existing flexibilities in the EU’s regulatory framework to accelerate the authorisation and availability of successful vaccines against COVID-19. This includes an accelerated procedure for authorisation and flexibility in relation to labelling and packaging.

Background

The European Commission presented on 17 June a European strategy to accelerate the development, manufacturing and deployment of effective and safe vaccines against COVID-19. In return for the right to buy a specified number of vaccine doses in a given timeframe, the Commission would finance part of the upfront costs faced by vaccines producers in the form of Advance Purchase Agreements. Funding provided would be considered as a down-payment on the vaccines that will actually be purchased by Member States.

Since the high cost and high failure rate make investing in a COVID-19 vaccine a high-risk decision for vaccine developers, these agreement will therefore allow investments to be made that otherwise would simply probably not happen.

The European Commission is also committed to ensuring that everyone who needs a vaccine gets it, anywhere in the world and not only at home. No one will be safe until everyone is safe. This is why it has raised almost €16 billion since 4 May 2020 under the Coronavirus Global Response, the global action for universal access to tests, treatments and vaccines against coronavirus and for the global recovery.

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Human Rights

Millions ‘on the edge’ in DR Congo, now in even greater danger of tipping over

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WFP food distribution to Internally Displaced People in Kikuku, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo. WFP/Ben Anguandia

Millions of lives could be lost to hunger in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), amid escalating conflict and worsening COVID-19 transmission, the UN emergency food relief agency has warned, urging the international community to step up support for the African nation.

According to the World Food Programme (WFP), latest national data shows that about four in ten people in the DRC are food insecure, with some 15.6 million suffering “crisis” or “emergency” levels of hunger.

“So many Congolese are on the edge, and in even greater danger now of being tipped over the edge”, said Claude Jibidar, the head of WFP operations in the country.

“The world just can’t let that happen, worried though it understandably is about the huge toll COVID-19 is taking on lives and livelihoods elsewhere.”

Crisis in every direction

Outbreaks of diseases, violence, and fears of a poor harvest, are worsening an already alarming situation.

Malnutrition is particularly pervasive in the east of the country, where decades of brutal conflict has forced millions from their homes – many of them numerous times. In the first half of 2020, almost a million people were uprooted from their homes due to new violence.

Displaced persons across the DRC – numbering more than five million – live in makeshift camps and urban areas with poor sanitation and healthcare, making them especially susceptible to COVID-19.

Adding to this are killer diseases, malaria and cholera, exacerbating the hunger challenge. A new large-scale outbreak of measles in the central Kasai region has significantly increased the risk of fatalities among malnourished children.

The dire health situation is compounded by successive outbreaks of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD). By the time the DRC’s tenth and biggest Ebola epidemic ended in June, having claimed almost 2,300 lives in the east over two years, the eleventh had erupted in the northwest, and continues to spread.

Resources urgently needed

Against this bleak picture, UN agencies, including the WFP have been working to provide life-saving assistance across the nation.

On its part, WFP need another $172 million to be able to fully implement its emergency operation in the country over the next six months. With enough resources, it aims to reach 8.6 million people this year– including almost a million of those hit hardest by the pandemic – up from a record 6.9 million reached in 2019.

However, without the necessary funding, food rations and cash assistance will have to be cut, then the number of people being helped, warned the UN agency.

“Interventions to treat and prevent acute malnutrition – which afflicts 3.4 million Congolese children – are at immediate risk”, it said.

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Coronavirus and schools: Access to handwashing facilities key for safe reopening

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Girls at a school in Cambodia wash their hands using water from a school WASH facility. © UNICEF/Bona Khoy

Nearly 820 million children worldwide do not have basic handwashing facilities at school, putting them at increased risk of COVID-19 and other transmittable diseases, according to a report published on Thursday by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF.

“Access to water, sanitation and hygiene services is essential for effective infection prevention and control in all settings, including schools”, said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director-General.

“It must be a major focus of government strategies for the safe reopening and operation of schools during the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic.”

Historic disruption to education

COVID-19 has created the largest disruption to education ever recorded, affecting nearly 1.6 billion students in more than 190 countries, according to UN data.

The study found that last year, 43 per cent of schools globally lacked access to basic handwashing with soap and water: a key condition for schools to be able to operate safely in the midst of the pandemic.

Of the roughly 818 million children worldwide who lack basic handwashing facilities at school, more than one third are in sub-Saharan Africa.

In the 60 countries at highest risk of health and humanitarian crises due to the virus, three-quarters of children lacked the basic ability to wash their hands at school at the start of the outbreak, while half lacked basic water service.

Balancing act for governments

The report stressed that governments seeking to control coronavirus spread must balance the need for implementing public health measures against the social and economic impacts of lockdown measures.

The partners said evidence of the negative impacts of prolonged school closures on children has been well documented.

“Global school closures since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic have presented an unprecedented challenge to children’s education and wellbeing”, said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. “We must prioritize children’s learning. This means making sure that schools are safe to reopen – including with access to hand hygiene, clean drinking water and safe sanitation.”

Solutions for safe return

The report identifies resources for COVID-19 prevention and control in schools, including 10 immediate actions and safety checklists.

It builds on guidelines on the safe reopening of schools issued in April by UNICEF and partners, geared towards national and local authorities.

The guidelines include several protocols on hygiene measures, use of personal protective equipment, cleaning and disinfection, as well as providing access to clean water, handwashing stations with soap, and safe toilets.

UNICEF and WHO underlined their commitment to achieving equitable access to adequate water, sanitation and hygience services worldwide, including through the Hand Hygiene for All initiative that supports vulnerable communities.

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