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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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After Ukraine: Arming down for lasting Eurasian security

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It is time to start thinking outside the box. A long-term solution requires an institutional design and steps to ensure that front-line states, including Russia, feel safer, proposes Gordon Adams, a political commentator who has created think tanks, worked for Bill Clinton in the White House, taught national security.

Make no mistake: This war is not about democracy versus authoritarianism or the “rules of the international order” as defined by the United States. It is about insecurity and fear on both sides. The fear of invasion and the need for reassurance is an old one. It’s about sovereignty and the inviolability of borders — the right for people to live in safety, be they Ukrainians, Poles, Balts, or Russians.

Fear runs strong on both sides of this conflict. For Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics, the fear is existential; for Russia, the fear is historical.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways nations might alleviate this fear. One is to “arm up” to deter any potential adversary. The other, especially relevant in the space from Brest to Vladivostok, is to “arm down,” lowering security risks through a reduction in tension and reassurance. Both are “realistic” options — but only the first is being pursued today.

The goal of statecraft needs to be security for everyone in the Eurasian region. The Russians need to feel as secure as the NATO members do. In addition, the major powers — the U.S. and China — need to be part of such a regime or its guarantors.

Here are several suggestions to stimulate discussion:

1.) First and foremost, all interested parties need to be included in the regime so all security needs are met. Most important, Russia needs to be an integral member, shaping and participating in the design. This was not done in the 1990s (yes, I was part of the administration that failed to do it). Instead, Russia was marginalized as NATO expanded.

2.) Including everyone means the regime should eventually replace NATO, not make NATO its heart. Otherwise, including Russia is a non-starter.

3.) This might mean putting the European Union at the heart of the regime — a European solution, not an American one. This would be a major challenge for the EU, which has devoted only marginal attention to military capabilities and security strategies for Eurasia. NATO has been Europe’s default.

4.) It means taking Macron seriously when he (like other French presidents before him) calls for “strategic autonomy” for Europe. Europe will need and want independence of action; indeed the caution of France and Germany about confrontation with Russia reflects that reality.

‘Autonomy’ will mean creating a more comprehensive European military capability, one that can work in tandem with the U.S. and others, but also on its own. That would make a significant U.S. military withdrawal from Europe possible, a step that would reassure Russia, too. A European capability would have to reflect the larger security regime being created. The reassurance such an agreement brings could make Europe’s military investment less costly.

5.) Arms control and arms reductions would be a central feature of such an arrangement. Arms control agreements will need to include nuclear weapons — strategic and tactical — and missile defenses. This means a revival of global nuclear arms negotiations, including the U.S. and China, and specifically revived agreements on the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons and missile defenses in the European region. It must include a serious discussion of the role of French (and British) nuclear capabilities.

7.) New institutions will be needed. This is a moment for institutional innovation, as was the moment that led to the UN, the EU, NATO, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Could the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) be redefined to play a central role, since it has a security mission and all European players belong? What changes would have to be made for it to play a serious role?

8.) The U.S. and China would both need to be central partners in shaping this regime. Would they be members? Guarantors? Answering this question could ensure that the U.S. plays a role but is less centrally involved with the decisions. This would mollify those in Washington who want the Europeans to carry more of the burden. It would also recognize China’s growing role in security issues globally. This is about Eurasian security, remember. A U.S.-China confrontation could blow the whole idea up…

Lest this proposal be thought “idealistic;” it is actually realistic. If security is the goal, a Eurasian security arrangement — “arming down” — is a more realistic way of providing long-term security.

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‘Market Fundamentalism’ – is it an obstacle to social progress?

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In a crisis like this, the most important postulates of the Western economy are subject to revision. Some economists began to ask uncomfortable questions, such as: “How efficient the market is?” It seems that we are one step away from how his deification will stop into his curse. An article from “Counter Punch” puts these questions:

Market fundamentalism—invites and deserves criticism as a major obstacle to navigating this time of rapid social change. Market fundamentalism attributes to that particular social institution a level of perfection and “optimality” quite parallel to what fundamentalist religions attribute to prophets and divinities.

The market has thus rationed out the scarce supply. It has determined who gets and who does not. Clearly, the richer a buyer is, the more likely that buyer will welcome, endorse, and celebrate “the market system.” Markets favor rich buyers. Such buyers in turn will more likely support teachers, clerics, politicians, and others who promote arguments that markets are “efficient,” “socially positive,” or “best for everyone.”

Social leaders who have had to deal with actual markets in society have likewise repeatedly intervened in them when and because markets worked in socially unacceptable ways. Thus, we have minimum wage laws, maximum interest-rate laws, price-gouging laws, and tariff and trade wars. Practical people know that “leaving matters to the market” has often yielded disasters (e.g., the crashes of 2000, 2008, and 2020) overcome by massive, sustained governmental regulation of and intervention in markets.

During times of scarcity, markets often reveal to capitalists the possibility of earning higher profits on lower volumes of product and sales. If they prioritize profits and when they can afford to bar others’ entry, they will produce and sell less at higher prices to a richer clientele. We are watching that process unfold in the United States now.

The neoliberal turn in U.S. capitalism since the 1970s yielded big profits from a globalized market system. However, outside the purview of neoliberal ideology, that global market catapulted the Chinese economy forward far faster than the United States and far faster than the United States found acceptable. Thus the United States junked its market celebrations (substituting intense “security” concerns) to justify massive governmental interventions in markets to thwart Chinese development: a trade war, tariff wars, chip subsidies, and sanctions. Awkwardly and unpersuasively, the economic profession keeps teaching about the efficiency of free or pure markets, while students learn from the news all about U.S. protectionism, market management, and the need to turn away from the free market gods previously venerated.

Then too the market-based health care system of the United States challenges market fundamentalism: the United States has 4.3 percent of the world population but accounted for 16.9 percent of the world’s COVID-19 deaths. Might the market system bear a significant share of the blame and fault here?

So dangerous is the potential disruption of ideological consensus that it becomes vital to avoid asking the question, let alone pursuing a serious answer, writes the American magazine.

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Report: Russia adapted arms and tactics ahead of Ukraine offensive

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photo:© Vadim Savitsky/TASS

Widespread perceptions of Russian army weakness are in some cases either out of date or misconceived according to the 30-page report by the UK’s Royal United Services Institute.

While the report described a military which is often dysfunctional, over-reliant on artillery and suffering poor morale, it said the focus on these weaknesses means Russia’s battlefield advances have often been overlooked.

The study was drawn from April-May field interviews with 10 Ukrainian brigades that had fought Russian units across the war.

Russia’s military is far from the spent force often characterized, according to Nick Reynolds, one of the report’s two authors. “There is a lot being thrown around on social media to suggest Russia’s lack of capacity, but social media is awash with propaganda on both sides and at this stage we thought a more sober assessment was needed,” Reynolds said, adding that expectations for Ukraine have been set “very, very high.”

Understanding how Russia has changed its approach matters not just to Ukraine, but also to members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that face an increasingly hostile and evolving rival in Moscow, the report said.

Russia has largely remedied early failures in battlefield air defense by properly connecting missiles systems and their sensors along the invasion’s 1,200 kilometer (750 mile) front, according to the report.

As a result, Russian forces have been able to largely shut down the threat from Ukraine’s radar-seeking HARM missiles, intercept rockets and down a low-flying Ukrainian combat jet from 150 kilometers.

Russia’s electronic warfare capabilities, now deployed from airborne to platoon level, are evolving constantly. That’s costing Ukraine 10,000 drones per month. Russian forces appear able to decipher Ukraine’s encrypted Motorola communications systems in real time, according to the report.

On the ground, Russian combat engineers were able to build pontoon bridges at speed even at the start of the war and are now creating trench defenses and complex minefields that any offensive will have to break through.

Russian command centers, which proved vulnerable to precision attacks by US HIMARS rockets last July, and routinely had their communications hacked, are now dug into hardened bunkers. They’ve commandeered local phone networks in occupied territories, isolating and dedicating them to the war.

Russia’s army made its T-80 and T-72 main battle tanks less vulnerable to Ukraine’s arsenal of Western anti-tank weapons by improving their explosive armor defenses and making them less detectable to heat-seeking missiles.

The much criticized shift to fight in so-called ‘human waves’ around the eastern city of Bakhmut was a rational, if brutal response to the large losses of armor, experienced troops and artillery munitions Russia suffered earlier in the war, the report said.

The shift from attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure could indicate a Russian intent to hit and degrade military targets ahead of the counteroffensive, yet that’s unclear, according to Ben Barry, senior fellow for land forces at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

If the targets are indeed military, “the Ukrainians would not necessarily be telling us,” Barry said.

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