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COVID-19 is not just seasonal, as ‘first wave’ continues

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The COVID-19 virus is likely not impacted by the changing seasons like other respiratory diseases, the UN health agency said on Tuesday, before urging much greater respect for physical distancing measures to stop it spreading.

“The season does not seem to be affecting the transmission of this virus”, said Dr. Margaret Harris, World Health Organization (WHO) spokesperson, highlighting many people’s “fixed” belief to the contrary.

“What is affecting the transmission is mass gatherings, it’s people coming together, and people not social distancing, not taking the precautions to ensure they are not in close contact.”

Globally, WHO has reported as on Tuesday morning Geneva time, 16,301,736 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 650,069 deaths.

Hotspots

The Americas remains the epicentre by region, with more than 8.7 million cases, followed by Europe (3.2 million), South-East Asia (1.8 million), Eastern Mediterranean (1.5 million), Africa (712,920) and Western Pacific (291,993).

During a scheduled virtual press conference, Dr. Harris noted that the biggest outbreak “with the most intense, the highest numbers”, remained the US, where it is the middle of summer.

Brazil had also seen high infection rates, despite being an equatorial country, the WHO spokesperson continued.

‘Later’ flu season in Global South

Turning to countries in the global south, Dr Harris noted that winter was underway there, with samples tested, indicating “high” COVID infection rates but low influenza traces. “Now the interesting thing is we are seeing from those samples, high levels of COVID, but we’re not seeing high levels of influenza at the moment. So, we’re expecting a later flu season in the southern hemisphere.”

The development is in line with WHO’s latest influenza update indicating that globally, influenza activity is currently at lower-than-expected levels.

In temperate areas of the northern hemisphere, influenza activity has “returned to inter-seasonal levels”.

In Caribbean, Central American, South American, tropical African, Southern Asia and South East Asia countries, the WHO bulletin reported that there have been only sporadic or no cases detected.

Assessing the impact on countries finding themselves having to tackle both COVID-19 and influenza at the same time, the WHO spokesperson debated whether a “melange” of respiratory diseases might prove problematic.

“That would be a concern, because if you have an increase in respiratory illness when you already have a very high burden of respiratory illness, that puts even more pressure on the health system,” she said.

‘One big wave’

Dr Harris also pushed back on the perception that a respiratory illness might come and go in several waves.

“It’s going to be one big wave”, she said. “It’s going to go up and down a bit…the best thing is to flatten it and turn it into just something that is lapping at your feet. But at the moment, first, second, third wave, these things don’t really make sense and we’re not really defining it that way.”

Asked about the WHO’s stance on charging for COVID-19 testing, the WHO official explained that this was a decision governed by countries alone. “Now we do everything we can to encourage all countries to test, because testing is absolutely essential,” she said. “You don’t know where your outbreak is if you’re not testing people. And we also encourage all countries to make access to testing wide and available”.

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Environment

Discrimination in the air

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Nine out of 10 people globally breathe polluted air, causing about 7 million premature deaths every year. On 7 September 2020, the United Nations observed the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies. This article is part of UNEP’s continuing coverage of air pollution and its impact globally.

Over 40 per cent of the U.S. population – about 134 million people – face health risks resulting from air pollution, -according to the American Lung Association. The burden is far from evenly shared. Studies show that in the United States, people of color and low-income communities face a significantly higher risk of environmental health effects, highlighting that the impacts of air pollution are experienced unequally throughout the country.

People of color are more likely to live in areas affected by pollution and high road traffic density, increasing risks to their health. As prominent American environmental justice activist and leader Robert D. Bullard emphasizes, race and place matter.

For example, along the Mississippi River in the southern United States, there is an area with some of the worst air pollution in the country. In the stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge Louisiana, many people live right next to several high-polluting industrial plants. Residents, who are predominately Black, have seen significant cancer clusters, with cancer risks in the area reaching up to 50% more than the national average. In St. John the Baptist parish alone, an area of about 2 square miles, the cancer rate is about 800 times higher than the American average.

Similarly, New York City neighborhood Mott Haven, home to mainly LatinX and Black families, has a very high level of air pollution from traffic, warehouses, and industry.  Residents in Mott Haven face some of the highest rates of asthma cases and asthma-related hospitalizations in the country, especially among children.

Often, communities experiencing high levels of air pollution are among the most vulnerable, facing poor access to health services, limited economic opportunity, more polluted work environments and racial injustices.  Comprehensive policies are needed to address these interrelated challenges.

“There is a strong correlation between socioeconomic factors and risk of air pollution,” said Dr. Barbara Hendrie, Regional Director for UN Environment Programme North America. “Recognizing this, and the disproportionate impacts of air pollution throughout the United States is a critical part of developing effective solutions.”

On the first-ever International Day of Clean Air for blue skies in September, the UN Environment Programme called upon governments, corporations, to civil society and individuals, to take action to reduce air pollution and bring about transformative change.

Air pollution does not have to be a part of our collective future. We have the solutions and must take the necessary actions to address this environmental menace and provide #CleanAirForAll.

UN Environment

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ADB Helps Boost Philippine Military’s COVID-19 Testing Capacity

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The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has donated two coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing machines that can each test nearly 100 people per hour to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to support the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The real-time Polymerase Chain Reaction testing machines will be installed in the Philippine Army Molecular Laboratory in Fort Bonifacio, Taguig City. The laboratory will support the COVID-19 testing of AFP personnel in Metro Manila as they continue to play a key role in reducing the spread of the virus.

“ADB supports the Philippine government’s strategy to prevent and control COVID-19 by expanding testing, particularly in hardest-hit Metro Manila and surrounding provinces,” said ADB Director General for Southeast Asia Ramesh Subramaniam. “We have seen military personnel in action on the frontline from the beginning of the pandemic and we hope the new testing machines will help ensure the safety of AFP’s essential workers.”

For more than 7 months, the military has played a key role in implementing official COVID-19 control measures in the Philippines. They operate checkpoints, distribute food, and manage local quarantine regulations. The government is seeking to raise its daily COVID-19 testing capacity to about 50,000 by the end of the year, compared with nearly 31,000 as of 15 August.

Procurement of the testing machines, at $35,000 each, is part of ADB’s $5 million Rapid Emergency Supplies Provision Assistance to the Philippines, approved in March 2020. The program is known locally as Bayan Bayanihan. The program involved ADB working closely with AFP to urgently deliver emergency food assistance to around 162,000 vulnerable households in Metro Manila and nearby provinces in April and May 2020. This innovative program successfully brought in additional resources from private and philanthropic organizations.

On 24 April, ADB approved a $1.5 billion loan to help the Philippine government fund its COVID-19 response program and strengthen the country’s health care system in its fight against the pandemic. Other support includes a $3 million grant on 14 March to build a pandemic laboratory in the Jose B. Lingad Memorial General Hospital in San Fernando, Pampanga that can process 3,000 COVID-19 tests daily. Equipment for the new laboratory was airlifted by the Philippine Air Force from Shenzhen, the People’s Republic of China, in April at the height of the strictest lockdown in Metro Manila due to the pandemic.

On 27 April, ADB approved a $200 million loan to help the government provide emergency cash subsidies to vulnerable households amid the pandemic. A $125 million loan was approved by ADB on 25 August to help the Philippines improve health services across the country through medical equipment and supplies procurement, upgrade, and related training.

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Development

Tech-Driven Changes in Job Markets Threaten Social Contract with Workers

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“Technology has a major, if not the most important, role in shaping the future of work,” said C. Vijayakumar, President and Chief Executive Officer, HCL Technologies, on day two of the World Economic Forum’s Jobs Reset Summit 2020.

In the next five years, machines will displace an estimated 85 million jobs but create around 97 million new jobs across 15 industries and 26 economies, according to the Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020. The global recession driven by COVID-19 has accelerated this trend and created a highly uncertain outlook for global labour markets.

“The fact that technologies potentially allow us to work anywhere, anytime sounds extraordinarily attractive,” said Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO). “But if it similarly would allow someone to tell me that I must work anywhere, anytime, regardless of my own choice, it’s somewhat less attractive.” Ryder added that the gig economy – as revealed by the pandemic – has created “extraordinary vulnerability in the world of work, not just in the developing world, but also “in the attics of Manhattan.” Freelancers are not clear about their employment status and can find themselves falling through the gaps of social protection systems. “The 21st-century employment model…looks a lot like the 19th century,” he said, adding: “it took us a century to build the institutions to put some decency into that business model.”

Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, warned that “Internet-mediated platform jobs are absolutely breaking down wages and conditions.” Burrow called for a new social contract between workers, employers and governments to ensure that every working person enjoys an adequate minimum wage for a maximum number of hours worked, universal social protection and occupational health and safety as a fundamental right. She called for an end to employer impunity, with “mandated due diligence around workers and their rights”, including sufficient grievance procedures and remedies. Collective bargaining has collapsed, with 75% of people reporting that their incomes have stagnated or gone backwards since the late 1980s. Unless we rebuild those commitments, we won’t have a fair economy, said Burrow, concluding: “Flexibility doesn’t mean exploitative work.”

What is needed is massive investment in people, workplaces and jobs in growth industries. People need skilling and reskilling. In particular, governments and companies must “invest in social protection – the most effective lubricant of change,” according to Ryder. He pointed out that change has been bad for too many people, so they are more likely to embrace change if they are reassured they won’t fall through the cracks in the process. Meanwhile, workplaces need re-engineering, by which Ryder means better laws and regulations to protect workers. And more investment needs to go into areas with the greatest potential for job growth, including green technologies, the care economy, infrastructure and the rural economy.

Increasing public investment by 1% of GDP in advanced and developing economies would create up to 33 million new jobs, said Burrow, citing the International Monetary Fund. “We can double that by investing in care,” she added. Vijayakumar embraced the potential of low-carbon technologies, saying: “The 21st century will be marked by the sustainable economy – tech companies have a huge role to play to create these new jobs in the intersection of climate change and public services, as well as consumer products.”

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