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Stopping COVID-19 in Its Tracks: Science Gets the Upper Hand

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Science has knocked religion and traditional healing methods out of the ring in the battle between rival approaches towards getting the coronavirus pandemic under control.

Men like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, and Israeli Health Minister Yaakov Litzman have finally joined much of the world in imposing science-driven degrees of lockdowns, social distancing, and the search for medical cures and protections after initially opting for political expediency or advocacy of traditional healing methods and/or religious precepts.

Remarkably, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of a kingdom that was founded and shaped by an ultra-conservative strand of Islam, was one leader who was not held back by religion when he suspended the Umrah (the smaller pilgrimage to Mecca), announced that this year’s Hajj could be cancelled, and locked down the holy city as well as its counterpart, Medina.

“What if this year’s Hajj was under Imran Khan rather than Mohammed bin Salman? Would he have waffled there as indeed he has in Pakistan?” asked Pakistani nuclear scientist, political analyst, and human rights activist Pervez Hoodbhoy.

Mr. Hoodbhoy noted that Pakistan has yet to import Saudi dates touted as cure for all diseases by Maulana Tariq Jameel, Pakistan’s most popular preacher and a staunch ally of Mr. Khan.

Mr. Hoodbhoy also took note of the fact Mr. Modi had not fallen back on Hindutava or Hindu nationalism’s advocacy of the therapeutic powers of cow urine, Ayurveda, a medical system rooted in Indian history, and yoga.

Mr. Khamenei has similarly dropped his resistance to the closure of shrines in the holy cities of Qom and Mashhad. His government has closed schools and universities and urged the public to stay at home while announcing that “low-risk” economic activity would be allowed to resume next week.

The consequences of science-based approaches for civilizationalists who advocate policies inspired by religion or the supremacy of one religious group over another could go far beyond what should shape public health policies.

They could threaten the foundations of their religious support base as well as their discriminatory policies towards religious or ethnic minorities. Israel is a case in point in terms of both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s religious support base as well as his policies towards Israeli nationals of Palestinian descent.

With ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhoods and cities emerging as the communities most affected by the coronavirus, some Israeli commentators argue that the pandemic could undermine rabbinical authority on a scale not seen since the Holocaust when large numbers left ultra-orthodoxy after rabbinical advice to remain in Europe proved devastating.

Ultra-orthodox rabbis, including Mr. Litzman, the health minister, who together with his wife and an ultra-orthodox adviser to Mr. Netanyahu, has tested positive, have had to reverse themselves in recent days as the virus ate its way through their communities in Jerusalem and other Israeli cities.

“Torah no longer saves from death. The coronavirus has dealt an unimaginable blow to the rabbinical authority – and worldview – that ultra-Orthodox Jews previously regarded as infallible and eternal,” said prominent Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer, who authored an acclaimed biography of Mr. Netanyahu.

The non-discriminatory nature of the coronavirus forced the Israeli government last week to ramp up testing in communities of Israeli Palestinians which had been described by public health experts as a ticking time bomb.

The experts warned that Israeli Palestinians were an at-risk group, many of whom suffer from chronic diseases, live in crowded conditions, and are socially and economically disadvantaged.

“In terms of public health, due to the present situation, the Arab communities are likely to become epicenters of the coronavirus outbreak, which will threaten the health of the entire population,” said Dr. Nihaya Daoud, a public health lecturer at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

Increased testing of Israel Palestinians tackles Israel’s immediate problem of attempting to stymie the spread of the virus. It doesn’t, however, address the longer-term structural threat to public health posed by imbalances in health infrastructure in Israeli Jewish and Israeli Palestinian communities, a lesson many Israelis could draw from the coronavirus crisis.

Drawing that lesson would challenge a pillar of Israeli policy with far-reaching consequences.

By the same token, the return home of some 45,000 Palestinian workers to the West Bank for this week’s Passover holiday is likely to create bottlenecks in both Israel and the Palestinian territory after the Israeli government decided that they would not be allowed to return because of health concerns.

The decision threatens to create a labor shortage in Israel, increase economic pressure on an already weakened Palestine Authority, and facilitate the spread of the virus on the West Bank given the administration’s inability to test all returnees.

“Because the two populations are so intertwined, curbing the virus only in one society is impossible,” said Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group.

It’s a lesson that applies universally, not just to Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Israel. That is no truer than in Syrian and Palestinian refugee camps that dot the eastern Mediterranean.

The global pandemic also casts a glaring spotlight on the risks of looking the other way when hospitals and health infrastructure are deliberately destroyed in war-torn countries like in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s forces deliberately targeted hospitals, and in Yemen, where the Saudi-UAE-led coalition did the same.

No doubt, it is a lesson that anti-globalists and civilizationalists prefer not to hear.

Yet, whether anti-globalists and civilizationalists like it or not, the coronavirus is global and universal. So is the science that will ultimately help get control of the pandemic and eventually stop it in its tracks.

Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Business and the State: Together into the Brave “Cyber World”?

Anastasia Tolstukhina

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Traditionally, private companies have advocated minimal government intervention into their activities. Yet, starting in 2019, the situation began to change radically. Today, global business is openly calling for stronger government cyberspace regulation.

 “The government needs to get involved… there will be more regulation of the tech sector”, Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, said in October 2019 to the Bloomberg news agency. A bit earlier, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg publicly voiced the same idea. Tech giants are calling on Western governments to be more actively involved in regulating confidential data protection, suppressing attempted election meddling, dealing with harmful content, and handling data portability.

Let us try to identify the factors that prompt businesses to call for increased regulation and to be willing to work together with governments on creating new technical regulations.

First, tech companies face major user confidence issues. Recently, a series of scandalous leaks rocked Facebook, Google, and other technology companies, including Microsoft. These leaks affected tens of millions of users. Facebook was massively criticized by the government and individuals, which accused the platform of focusing insufficient attention on hate speech on the social network, this having allegedly affected the outcome of the 2016 US presidential elections. Bill Gates believes that government resolutions can help ensure confidence in the information that is being widely disseminated through online platforms.

Second, it is important for tech companies to bring government requirements (particularly in western states) to a single standard: that is, to give easily understandable shape to confidentiality policy, as well as to security and protection standards. For instance, Apple supports global confidentiality rules, while Microsoft proposes restrictions on face recognition technology. A single standard always makes it easier to do business.

Third, if single standards and rules are developed, those companies that fail to comply may be held accountable. This is an excellent way to consolidate one’s market standing and undermine competitors.

Finally, by calling for government regulations, companies will be able not merely to join the process of drafting rules that suit them, but to take the lead in this, especially since they have the groundwork already laid out. Now they only need to advance and legally enshrine it. We should note that, recently, the biggest tech companies have gained sufficient experience in advancing various initiatives for shaping cyberspace rules of conduct and boosting the mechanisms for protecting the Internet against various types of threat, be it dissemination of illegal content or cyberattacks on the digital infrastructure. We may mention the Digital Geneva Convention, the Charter of Trust and the Cybersecurity Tech Accord. One of the latest initiatives launched by major IT corporations and several charitable foundations is the CyberPeace Institute, which aims to help cybercrime victims and encourage responsible conduct in cyberspace.

At the same time, many politicians and experts are wary about business’s active stance in regulating cyberspace. At the 14 th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in November 2019, Germany’s Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized IT giants saying, “This raises the danger that global companies might build up parallel worlds – with their own rules and standards – which they will then try to impose on others.”

Big Tech’s growing influence is the problem broached at the latest World Economic Forum in Davos. Much was said about losing control over infotech giants and the danger of AI’s digital dictatorship. For instance, historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari emphasized in his speech, “What will be the meaning of human life when most decisions are taken by algorithms? We don’t even have philosophical models to understand such an existence. … The twin revolutions of infotech and biotech are now giving politicians the means to create heaven or hell.” The general message of the Forum was the importance of regulating the latest technologies by having all stakeholders establish the rules of the game.

Another example of the regulators’ wary attitude toward initiatives proposed by business is the trip to Brussels by Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg in February 2020. At a meeting with European commissioners, he attempted to propose a package of regulatory initiatives in AI, data and digital services. In particular, Mr Zuckerberg presented a 13-page document on content regulation called “Charting the Way Forward: Online Content Regulation.” It proposed implementing not a national but a global policy on allowed Internet content. The head of Facebook believes that Internet companies should either not be held accountable for the content uploaded thereon or freedom of speech should be curtailed. However, European Commissioner Thierry Breton aptly reminded Mark Zuckerberg that it is the companies that should comply with the EU’s rules and not vice versa. The commissioner also noted that Facebook had been slow in proposing ideas for removing illegal content and warned that the EU was ready to go into action on this.

Certainly, such statements do not mean that European officials do not wish to cooperate with tech companies in information security. For instance, Vera Jourova, Vice-President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency, calls upon such companies as Facebook to make additional efforts and help states protect democracy. She proposes that, for this purpose, “black box” algorithms be opened for “auditing” by researchers and other concerned parties so that the public might have a better understanding of what and how it consumes via the Internet.

If we move to the American continent, we see there some individual proposals on helping business in matters of information security. For instance, the Cyberspace Solarium Commission believes that the US government should prioritize major support for the private sector in ensuring the critical information infrastructure (CII) security. The thing is that, today, infrastructural facilities mostly depend on private companies for their cybersecurity, while the US government plays just a supporting role. The Commission proposes creating a multilevel cyber deterrent strategy involving a reconfiguring of public-private partnership.

Given today’s situation, with states waging true digital wars, carrying out cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, spreading fakes and dangerous content on a mass scale, and using AI technologies more and more often, we can predict a spike in government regulation and cyberspace control in western states. Even so, the major issue is the degree to which the interests of IT giants will be taken into account; in creating a “cyber frontline”, regulators will demand that Silicon Valley leaders be more transparent about how their algorithms work, demonstrate greater accountability and exchange information; governments will also set additional requirements on digital infrastructure protection.

From our partner RIAC

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The shift to online learning and skills training shows promising trends and troubling signs

Jeannette Sanchez

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The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered an abrupt transition to distance education, training and e-learning. The crisis has resulted in massive shifts to online platforms and tools for the continued delivery of learning and skills development, which have shown both promising trends and troubling signs.

Among those signs, the evidence that, while much is being made of digital learning making access more equitable, access to online platforms doesn’t always result in equal quality learning. Women, for example, are being disproportionately cut off from distance learning due to lack of childcare or home help during the pandemic.

These were among some of the main conclusions emerging from a recent E-Discussion on “Continuing online learning and skills development in times of the COVID-19 crisis”, organized by the ILO’s Skills and Employability Branch through its Global Skills for Employment Knowledge Sharing Platform.

For more than two weeks, the virtual discussion drew scores of practitioners, representatives of training institutions and policy-makers from around the world who shared their experiences regarding the impact of the pandemic, highlighted challenges that have emerged for education and training and offered solutions for tackling them.

Challenges included: instructors not properly trained and prepared to deliver online courses. Difficulties in adapting TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) curricula and training to online formats. Lack of access to the internet or ICT (Information and communications technology) equipment to carry out learning or training. Apprentices ready for assessment but who couldn’t be assessed due to COVID-19 issues. Students unable to access the resources necessary to continue their training because they were not familiar with online platforms.

Yet, despite these challenges, students, apprentices, providers of TVET, and policy-makers are making the important changes needed when it comes to learning and acquiring skills in times of crisis.

For example, in Uruguay, INEFOP (Instituto Nacional de Empleo y Formación Profesional) developed a contingency plan calling for proposals from institutions that wanted to work in distance and semi-presence courses. Based on this, a table was created to study the methodology of moving from face-to-face courses to online formats.

In Bangladesh, the Skill 21 project, a joint initiative of the government and the ILO, is developing an e-campus which would be the first online learning management platform for the TVET sector in the country.

In England, the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) is taking steps to ensure that, wherever possible, apprentices can continue and complete their apprenticeship, despite any break they need to take as a result of COVID-19.

New forms of partnerships are also emerging. In Syria, for example, a partnership established with IECD, a development assistance organization, is being repackaged to include e-learning, and to develop videos on recent training programmes in construction, agriculture and manufacturing.

In the future, skills that can easily be acquired and strengthened via distance learning during this pandemic could change the landscape of work for the coming generation.

In the near-term, we need to think about the “new” skills required by industry and employers post-COVID-19 to get people back into employment quickly. These might encompass short courses and/or skill sets that are targeted. In the long-term, hiring remote workers could become more commonplace.

One thing seems clear: Giving informal education a more privileged spot in the lifelong learning concept to ensure better validation of skills will be critically important when we emerge from this crisis.

ILO

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COVID19 and a need for a paradigm shift in the field of academia

Aamna Khan

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Almost four months of 2020 have just been passed till now but all these months went like a  ride on a roller-coaster. From Bush fire in Australia to global pandemic, consecutively, the world is undergoing unprecedented events. On January 2nd, bushfire in New South Wales, Australia came to limelight due to its exceptional effects on the environment and livelihood in Australia. Due to this bushfire, at least 33 people died including 4 firefighters, more than 11 million hectares (110,000 sq. km or 27.2 million acres) of the bush, forest and parks across Australia has burned, more than 2,000 homes destroyed, and almost 1 billion animals died including rare species (Source: BBC and NYT). The second most prominent event was the upsurge of Iran-USA contention that had brought a perilous turn in the global politics and made people predict about the onset of third world war.  The conflict escalated after the killing of Iranian major General Qaseem Soleimani in a drone strike by the US on January 2nd. As a retaliation act, Iran launched ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq. Additionally, a Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 crashed in Tehran, killing all 176 people aboard as collateral damage due to the human error instigated by this panicking situation.

Primarily, the most dramatic and preeminent chapter of 2020 is the outbreak of global pandemic the spread of novel Coronavirus (nCoV-19) commonly known as  Corona Virus or COVID-19.  A respiratory disease whose common symptoms are cold with fever, cough and difficulty in breathing. Believed to be originated from the Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of 2019 but soon it became a nightmare for the whole world. On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. On February 11, the new coronavirus disease was given a name COVID-19 and on March 11, WHO declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. Until now(Data on April 24, 2020, source: WHO official website), there are 2,631,839 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 182,100 deaths, reported to WHO. Owing to the contagious character of the virus the world came under lockdown, businesses closed, events cancelled, tourism terminated, flights suspended making life paralyzed all over the globe. It has affected the whole world without any discrimination of race, colour, religion or nationality leaving all states in the same boat of helplessness and frustration Even the strongest nations having nuclear capabilities and veto powers seem feeble. De-facto, statistics illustrate that most developed nations are the most affected ones. At the moment,  the US, the superpower of the world has the most coronavirus cases. Until now US has more than 830,053 confirmed Covid19 cases and more than 42,000 deaths have been reported (resource: WHO).

Whilst the spread of Coronavirus, multiple controversies have also begun to circulate among masses especially on social media stating this virus manmade, bioterrorism, and a bioweapon. A fresh wave of blame-game among the global powers commenced by accusing each other for generating this virus. Russia and China believe that this is a bioweapon created by the US to halt the Chinese economy as there is already a trade war going on between China and the US. On the contrary, the US and Israel believe that it’s been created by China in a suspected lab of Wuhan. Further, some of the media reports had linked it with the battle between superpowers and 5G internet. As a response to these controversies, scientists condemned rumours and warned people to stay away from misinformation and accusations.

Moreover, there is a debate in all circles about the post-Covid19 world. Several scholars are predicting a new world order and economic recession such as  the former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in his article in Washington Post that “The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order”. However, some experts are foreseeing progress in the field of Artificial intelligence and information technology.     

Putting all the controversies aside as there is yet not sufficient evidence available to prove about the origin of the virus that either it is natural or manmade, plus it’s too early to forecast post-Covid19 scenarios but it’s somewhat clear that it is going to fetch drastic changes in the years to come in terms of social, political, health and even governance system. Furthermore, it emanates questions for the field of academia that what has to be done in future research and is it time for researchers for a paradigm shift in their area of research? Academia is certainly an integral part of the society that can help in reshaping future. The recent episode of Covid19 has revealed the significance of research on non-traditional security(NTS) issues. It has unlocked new horizons for scholars in the field of academia to explore underlying non-traditional security threats and their consequences. Nontraditional security threats can be defined as “ the challenges to the survival and well-being of peoples and states that arise primarily out of non-military sources, such as climate change, resources scarcity, infectious diseases, natural disasters, irregular migration, food shortages, people smuggling, drug trafficking and transnational crime. These dangers are often transnational in scope, defying unilateral remedies and requiring comprehensive – political, economic, social – responses, as well as humanitarian use of military force”.(Source: Caballero-Anthony, M. (ed.). 2016. An Introduction to Non-Traditional Security Studies–A Transnational Approach. Sage Publications, London.). Given the present scenario, It is a high time for researchers to invest their time and energies more towards the non-traditional Security threats as from the existing pandemic, it became evident that non-traditional security threats are real and can be more precarious than traditional security threats. Scholars can play their inevitable role by conducting in-depth research specifically designed for NTS concerns, should determine the possible future threats and devise a plan of action to deal with any such situation in the future so that precious lives can be saved and repercussions could be lessened. It is a prerequisite to find gaps in the existing literature about NTS and fill it by experimenting it under diverse theoretical frameworks and methodologies to discover apt solutions. Exploring NTS doesn’t mean that traditional security threats would be overlooked entirely rather, the purpose is to recognize the justified acceptance of NTS in the international arena to avoid any potential prospect hazards.

Nontraditional threats entail nontraditional methods and solutions to deal with it. Global leaders need to understand that it’s not the right time to play blame-games rather, differences aside, a global joint concerted effort is necessitated to handle such a strenuous challenge. Billions of dollars have been spent every year on military and weapons to safeguard states nevertheless,  the recent pandemic has exposed that all these billion dollars are in vain against such trial. It’s high time to make concessions in the military budget and invest more on public health and research facilities specifically concerning NTS.

The recent pandemic has shunned the world and has brought extraordinary changes notwithstanding, global powers having nuclear weapons and satellites in the space couldn’t be able to save themselves from this global pandemic. Governments need to learn from each other about how to manage and deal with such circumstances to curtail the aftermaths of such pandemics. They also need to devise a collective plan of action with the help of researchers, to deal with any such situation in the future. It has been witnessed that surprisingly nondemocratic governments like China and Russia performed better than democratic ones in tackling the situation.  It needs to be discovered that what were the key factors or procedures that made them more efficient. The global public health policy is indispensable to be formulated to improve the health care system of every country. Regulations concerning public health, bioweapons and governance in times of pandemics and other calamities should inevitably be framed with the help of academics and ought to be implemented through international and regional organizations. Covid19 is truly global and know no borders hence, to fight against it, we need to be united as well. In this war against coronavirus, we are all together and can win only with unity and cooperation. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said “What the world needs now is solidarity. With solidarity, we can defeat the virus and build a better world”.

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