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Coronavirus emergency: Here’s what we know so far

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Flight attendants wear face masks at Shenzhen Bao'an International Airport in China., by Man Yi

A new strain of coronavirus (officially named 2019-nCoV), which has caused respiratory diseases in China, and spread to at least 23 other countries, has been declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) by the World Health Organization (WHO). Here are the basic facts you need to know about the virus (figures correct as of February 3 2020).

At least 361 people have died from the novel coronavirus, which first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. More than 17,200 cases have been confirmed in China, and experts say they expect the numbers to rise in the coming weeks.

Although the vast majority of cases have been in China, the virus, which can cause pneumonia, is worrying global health authorities. Some 151 cases have been confirmed in 23 countries, and the first death outside of China was recorded in the Philippines. Most of those affected by the virus had travelled from Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak.

This is only the fifth time that the World Health Organization has declared a public health emergency of international concern.

What is a public health emergency of international concern?

A public health emergency of international concern is declared by the WHO in cases of “an extraordinary event” which constitutes “a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease” and potentially requires a coordinated international response”. 

This definition implies a situation that is “serious, unusual or unexpected; carries implications for public health beyond the affected State’s national border; and may require immediate international action”.

Speaking at a meeting of the WHO Executive Board on Monday, the agency’s chief, Tedros Gebreyesus, explained that the decision to announce a PHEIC was made because of signs of human-to-human transmission outside China, and WHO’s concern regarding what might happen if the virus were to spread in a country with a weaker health system.

International solidarity, preparedness, not panic

Ghebreyesus also noted the importance of containing the virus in China: “if we invest in fighting at the source, then the spread to other countries is minimal and also slow. If it’s minimal and slow, what is going outside can also be controlled easily. It can get even worse. But if we give it our best, the outcome could be even better”.

Several countries have already put travel restrictions in place, but Mr. Ghebreyesus pointed out that WHO is not recommending measures that “unnecessarily interfere with travel and commerce”. 

The WHO chief called on all countries to implement decisions that are “evidence-based and consistent”, support nations with weaker health care systems, accelerate the development of effective vaccines, and “invest in preparedness, not panic”. 

With the virus now present in some 23 countries, international solidarity is of utmost importance, said Mr. Tedros, because “we are all in this together, and we can only stop it together”.

What is a coronavirus?

Coronaviruses consist of a core of genetic material, enclosed within an envelope of protein spikes, which resembles a crown (or, in Latin, corona). They are a large group of viruses that cause respiratory diseases and, sometimes gastrointestinal symptoms. 

Diseases can range from the common cold to pneumonia, which can be fatal. In most people symptoms are mild, but some types can cause severe disease.

These include severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), first discovered in China in 2003, or Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which originated in Saudi Arabia in 2012. MERS caused more than 2,400 cases and 850 deaths, and more than 800 people were killed by SARS.

It has been estimated that 20 per cent of patients infected with the novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV have severe symptoms. People who have other health problems (such as asthma, diabetes and cardiovascular disease) are particularly vulnerable.

How deadly is novel coronavirus?

As of Monday February 3, 361 people had died from novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). This represents about 2 per cent of cases. By comparison, around 25 per cent of MERS cases resulted in the death of the patient.

However, at this stage it is still too early to determine how deadly the virus is: thousands of patients are being tested, with around 2,110 in a serious condition, and it is not yet known how these cases will evolve.

Where does the virus come from?The first cases of novel coronavirus occurred in a group of people with pneumonia, linked to a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, where many fish, reptiles, bats and other live and dead animals were traded. The disease then spread from those who were sick, to family members and healthcare workers.

Coronaviruses circulate in a range of animals and can sometimes make the jump from animals to humans, via process known as a “spillover”, which can occur due to a mutation in the virus, or increased contact between animals and humans.

It is not yet known how novel coronavirus was first transmitted to humans: in the case of MERS, it is known that people caught the virus via direct or indirect contact with infected camels, and SARS originated in civet cats. 

Is the virus transmitted from person to person?

The exact way that the disease is transmitted is yet to be determined but, in general, respiratory diseases are spread via drops of fluids when someone coughs or sneezes, or by touching a surface infected with the virus.

According to Chinese scientists, people who get the virus are contagious even before they show symptoms. The incubation period –  the period from when the infection occurs until symptoms develop – is between 1 and 14 days.

How fast is the virus spreading?

A large number of new cases are being reported on a daily basis (in the 24 hours period between February 1 and February 2, for example, over 2,590 new cases were confirmed in China), but this is not surprising, as more and more controls are being put in place to detect and confirm infections.

The total number of cases is expected to be much greater in the coming weeks. 

What can I do to protect myself?

There is no vaccine currently available to treat novel coronavirus, but WHO is recommending several precautionary and hygienic measures. For example:
•    Avoid direct contact with people suffering from acute respiratory infections,
•    Wash your hands frequently, especially after direct contact with sick people or their surroundings,
•    Avoid direct contact with farm animals or wild animals, living or dead,
•    People with symptoms of a severe respiratory infection should try to keep their distance from other people, and cover their nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing.

Detailed information on novel coronavirus, including daily situation reports, can be found on the WHO website.

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Most countries failing to protect women from COVID-19 economic and social fallout

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Photo: ILO

The COVID-19 pandemic is “hitting women hard”, but most nations are failing to provide sufficient social and economic protection for them, the head of the UN gender empowerment agency said on Monday.

And women have often become victims of domestic violence “locked down with their abusers, as unpaid caregivers in families and communities, and as workers in jobs that lack social protection”, adds the Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.

New data released by gender agency and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) taken from the COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker, reveal that most countries are not doing enough to protect women and girls from the economic and social fallout being caused by the virus.

Lacking support

The analysis signals that one-fifth of the 206 countries analyzed, or 42 States, had no gender-sensitive measures in place to respond to the pandemic.

And only 25 countries have introduced measures aimed at tackling violence against women and girls (VAWG), support unpaid care and strengthen women’s economic security. 

These may include helplines, shelters or legal support to counter the surge in violence; cash transfers directly targeted at women; or childcare services and paid sick leave.

“The COVID-19 crisis provides an opportunity for countries to transform existing economic models towards a renewed social contract that prioritizes social justice and gender equality”, said UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner. “This new gender response tracker can help accelerate policy reform by guiding on gaps in national efforts and funding and highlighting best practices”.

Breakdown

Across 135 countries, the tracker identified 704 measures to prevent and/or respond to VAWG. Of these, 63 per cent focused on strengthening essential services, such as shelters, helplines and other reporting mechanisms. 

However, only 48 countries, less than a quarter of those analyzed, treated VAWG-related services as an integral part of their national and local COVID-19 response plans – with very few adequately funding these measures.

At the same time, social protection, care crisis and jobs response has been largely blind to women’s needs, with only 177 measures in 85 countries explicitly aimed at strengthening women’s economic security, and just 60 taking action to support unpaid care and strengthen care services for children, older persons or persons with disabilities.

Varying responses

The tracker also shows that gender actions vary widely across countries and regions. 

According to the analysis, Europe is leading the response on addressing VAWG and unpaid care – accounting for almost 32 per cent of all violence measures and 49 per cent of all unpaid care measures. 

Meanwhile, the Americas has the largest number of measures aimed at strengthening women’s economic security, followed by Africa.

“The Global Tracker supports Governments in making the right policy decisions by sharing good practices and monitoring progress in care policies and measures to address violence against women”, said UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. 

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Technological Revolution Accelerated by Coronavirus Crisis in Latin America

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Latin America and the Caribbean is in the midst of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” of technological innovation which requires enhancing the productivity of the services sector, investing in human capital and rethinking labor regulations and social protection policies, according to a new World Bank report.

These policy priorities have become all the more urgent now that the COVID-19 pandemic is fueling the biggest contraction in economic activity since the great depression. Digitization has become more important to support economic activity at a time of social distancing and is accelerating this technological transformation, potentially putting jobs at risk across Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC).

According to Going Viral: COVID-19 and the Accelerated Transformation of Jobs in Latin America and the Caribbean employment transformations that were already apparent in the last few decades are bound to deepen, and the question in this context is how to recover from the crisis and build back better.

We need to rethink the future and not just try to get back to where we were before the pandemic,” said World Bank Vice President for Latin America and the Caribbean Carlos Felipe Jaramillo. “Governments need to find ways to support the creation of new jobs, train workers to be ready for these new jobs and support their citizens through this disruptive transformation.”

Premature deindustrialization and rapid technological innovation will require policies to support a smooth transformation of jobs that is socially acceptable. The region was already struggling with the end of the so-called “Golden Decade” (2003-2013) of rapid development and strong improvements in social indicators. Economic growth and poverty reduction had stalled. The pandemic has only made things worse.

While fears of mass “technological unemployment” are largely unfounded, many jobs are at risk due to lower external demand, a protracted period of quarantines and lockdowns, solvency problems for firms, and financial crises in some cases. In addition, the social unrest seen in 2019 is a warning. It is urgent to restore economic growth and create more and better jobs.

However, this “Fourth Industrial Revolution” of technological innovation means that further industrialization or re-industrialization will be limited in many developing countries. Low-paid, uneducated workers and those in high-contact activities typical of the informal sector are at highest risk of being replaced by machines. In addition, informal workers are harder to reach with essential social protection programs. The COVID-19 crisis could accelerate these changes, bringing the future much closer than anticipated.

With limited scope for employment growth in manufacturing, modernizing the services sector is a priority. This calls for  an emphasis on removing the distortions that prevent competition and innovation from occurring at a rapid pace.

Preparing workers for the changes is also fundamental. “Education offers the best insurance against the risks of automation,” said the report’s lead author Guillermo Beylis, Research Economist in the World Bank’s Office of the Chief Economist for Latin America and the Caribbean. “Workers will have to adapt to demand for cognitive or analytical skills, as well as interpersonal skills.”

Adult learning and re-training will be key as new automation technologies are adopted in LAC countries. The focus should be on policy reforms to increase productivity in the services sector, which already employs 60% of the workforce and will play an increasingly important role in the future.

Finally, a rethinking of labor regulations and social protection policies is needed. This involves flexible regulation of the emerging forms of work in a way that encourages employment and supports formalization, thereby expanding the coverage of social protection to larger segments of the population.

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Progress on Sudan political transition, but challenges remain

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UN peacekeepers from Pakistan engage the local population in North Darfur, Sudan. Photo: UNAMID

Political developments in Sudan continue to move along a positive trajectory, while planning for a UN mission to assist the transitional government is progressing, the UN Security Council heard on Friday. 

Ambassadors met in person in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Chamber at UN Headquarters in New York, where they were briefed by UN political affairs chief Rosemary DiCarlo, and the head of UN Peacekeeping, Jean-Pierre Lacroix. 

“As the Secretary-General highlights in his report, Sudan’s political transition continues to move in the right direction”, said Ms. DiCarlo, speaking via video link.  

Developments on the political front 

After nearly a year of talks, the transitional Government of Sudan and two key armed movements from Darfur – the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) alliance and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Minni Minnawi (SLM/MM) – initialed a peace agreement at the end of August.   

Signing is scheduled for 3 October, and the parties have agreed to a 39-month transitional period effective from that date.   

A faction from another group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), has also signed a declaration of principles agreement. 

Significant work ahead 

Ms. DiCarlo outlined other recent developments in Sudan, including the appointment of interim civilian governors in all 18 states, two of whom are women.   

She said the parties should be commended for persevering with the peace process, adding that “it is not too late” for others to join. 

“As we embrace the recent progress in the peace process, we are also mindful of the significant work ahead”, she cautioned.  

“The various accords and respective peace agreements on regional issues must be moulded into a single, coherent framework. Additionally, the parties and the Government must form a joint vision on the way forward and to uphold their respective commitments.” 

Goodwill into action 

For the UN’s peacekeeping chief, the initialling of the agreement marked an important milestone for Darfur, where years of brutal fighting have left some 300,000 people dead and millions of others displaced, according to UN estimates. 

Mr. Lacroix hoped the goodwill expressed by the parties will translate into lasting change on the ground, although some “key players” have yet to join the peace process.  

He urged the international community to work to bring all stakeholders on board. 

“Furthermore, the implementation phase which is now beginning will be just as crucial as the drafting of the agreement itself”, said Mr. Lacroix, who also briefed ambassadors via video-link. 

Among the key provisions is a 12,000-strong joint security force for Darfur, to be deployed within 90 days of the signing.  It will be made up of equal numbers of members of the Sudanese security forces and from the signatory armed groups. 

“As forces are deployed and resources are mobilized in support of the implementation, it is essential to ensure that local Darfuri communities feel ownership of the agreement and fully participate in the implementation,” he stressed. 

Progress on new UN mission 

Meanwhile, planning continues for the new UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), Ms. DiCarlo told the Council. 

UNITAMS will assist the political transition, and support implementation of peace accords in conflict areas, national-led peacebuilding efforts, and strengthening of human rights, among other tasks. 

“Gender issues are mainstreamed throughout the mandate of the mission, which will have dedicated gender expertise, including at the senior level, to implement our commitments to advance gender equality and the women, peace and security agenda”, said Ms. DiCarlo. 

UNITAMS is a follow-on to the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID).  The Security Council authorized the establishment of the new mission in June and the start-up team is set to deploy to Sudan next month. 

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