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Understanding the Debate about Cryptocurrencies in Central Asia



In February 2020, the World Bank Group released a report entitled “FinTech in Europe and Central Asia: Maximizing Benefits and Managing Risks” highlighting the opportunities associated with the development of FinTech in countries torn between a desire for more regulation and a growing need to catch up in this sector, currently dominated by Nigeria, Vietnam, Turkey and the United States (by total number of users).

According to the report, cryptocurrencies offer a unique opportunity to address the unmet needs in traditional financial services by empowering citizens in Central Asia, being especially suited for countries with a diaspora sending income from abroad, which is the case of the five post-Soviet republics—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Despite all advantages, the Central Asian governments are remaining reluctant to adopt cryptocurrencies at a national scale, as El Salvador did, while regional differences are remaining when it comes to legislations as underlined by the recent “Regulation of Cryptocurrency Around the World” report issued by the American Library of Congress.

On March 30, 2018, Daniyar Akishev, head of the Kazakhstan National Bank, stated that the National Bank had a very conservative position on the issue of cryptocurrencies and welcomed only strict restrictions because of multiple issues related to consumer protection, money laundering, and tax avoidance. He also added that legislative amendments had already been prepared to prohibit the purchase and sale of cryptocurrencies for national currency, ban the activity of exchanges, and ban any type of mining.

In contrast, on January 17, 2018, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s National Bank, Tolkunbek Abdygulov, stated that the Bank did not plan to impede the development of the cryptocurrency market. He concluded that it is very difficult to ban something that the Central Bank does not issue and that citizens investing in cryptocurrency do so at “their own risk and peril.” In October of 2017 the Central Bank reportedly stated that it was not considering introducing any restrictive measures regarding the mining of such asset.

In contrast, increasing worries regarding the adoption of cryptocurrencies and terrorism have emerged and impacted the Uzbek and Tadjik approaches. In September of 2017, the Central Bank expressed the opinion that it was not advisable to allow operations with cryptocurrencies because of the possibility of terrorism financing and other criminal activities. While the Bank of Tajikistan clarified that cryptocurrency cannot be considered an official means of exchange or savings, or a unit of account.

These debates in Central Asian states arises because a number of factors have propelled the adoption of online services among the public, driven by ubiquitous and increasingly fast connectivity, massive data storage, advances in cloud computing, and changing expectations of citizens regarding investments in various currencies offered by digital banks.

Nonetheless, this conservative approach is difficult to understand because families depend on remittances from members living abroad as an additional source of income, while remitters often incur considerable costs when using traditional channels—in Q1 2019, the average cost of remittance services in Central Asia, excluding Russia, was 7.18% (6.67% including Russia) according to the World Bank Group.

By leveraging digital technology, advanced data analytics and, in some cases, distributed ledger technology, FinTech players can offer fees that are almost half those of traditional players. If sending charges were effectively halved, senders of funds to Eastern Europe and Central Asian beneficiaries could save an estimated US$1.59 billion per year.

The arguments behind the lack of initiative to support crypto-currencies in Central Asia

Cryptocurrencies not only bring advantages such as fast transfers and no fees, but also introduce new risks and exacerbate existing ones. Cyber-attacks, money laundering and terrorist financing, as well as threats to data privacy and consumer protection are examples of such enhanced threats.

On this account, while cryptocurrencies users can avoid relying on printed physical banknotes and counterfeit money, they can be easily hacked if citizens and institutions are not well prepared to deal with these challenges. Hacking of financial services are increasing as was the case in Bangladesh when unidentified hackers stole $81 million from Bangladesh’s central bank at the New York Fed in February 2016, using fraudulent orders on the SWIFT payment system.

In addition to cyber-security issues, cryptocurrency adoption by citizens is also linked to looming concerns such as the rise of drug trafficking and illegal activities on the dark-web, which require higher standards in policing and cross-border cooperation to ensure that the opportunities offered are matched by regulatory oversight.

An example of this risk was highlighted by the online platform “Silk Road,” which was operating on the dark-net before the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) managed to arrest the owner. In summary, FinTech services and cryptocurrencies, like many other developments, will require adaptability and technical capacity building for both state institutions and citizens using them.

Due to the proximity of conflict areas such as Afghanistan, Central Asian states will require strengthening police and military training in cyber-security, and possibly cooperation with countries that have expertise in this area such as the United States, Russia, China or even Estonia.

The direct relation between cryptocurrencies and citizen empowerment

While education in the FinTech area will need to be strengthened, both in financial institutions and in law enforcement agencies, the benefits can exceed the costs, as it can empower citizens.

The Central Asian diasporas are used to sending back part of their income to support their relatives, and the received income is exchanged from one currency to another one at a certain price. To that exchange rate is then added the cost of sending the income from one bank to another. As a result, the diaspora loses between 5-15% of its income in bank transfers.

In consequence, the national adoption of national digital currencies or an already existing crypto-currencies could empower citizens as the transfer from one account to another is anonymous, free of charges, and transactions are done almost immediately. Moreover, the blockchain technology ensures the reliability of peer-to-peer network with publicly distributed larger and avoids as such abuses and fake transactions, which is a major concern in emerging economies.

Based on El Salvador experience, two distinct strategies could be adopted in Central Asia:

· The development of national digital currency/currencies by governments like in China,

· To give citizens the opportunity to adopt one or several already existing crypto-currencies.

In the first option, national blockchain technology could be developed in partnership with companies that have an extensive experience in this area. This approach is similar to what Egypt is doing in 2021.

The second option is to do such as El Salvador and let people use Bitcoin on a daily basis. As such, taxes will be paid in what the authorities are interested in as a currency (e.g. Bitcoin for El Salvador). In this scenario, governments would decide citizens are in charge of their assets and central banks will step-back. This last option would solve problems such as upgrading national financial capabilities as the transition will be from banks to citizens.

Blue Ocean strategy for cryptocurrencies in Central Asia

When we mention crypto-currencies, the two main concerns that are often raised are the volatility and the lack of state involvement, i.e. the transition from a central bank based economy to a decentralized digital economy.

Both of these questions are fundamental in stable and large size economic areas such as the Eurozone but are not as relevant in Central Asian states due to the existing volatility of national currencies.

Volatility is a major concern in countries such as El Salvador, Venezuela and Nigeria, where over 30% of the population uses crypto-currencies for payments on a daily basis. As such, citizens have found an interest in using cryptocurrencies instead of relying on the national currency because it has proven to be more stable, especially some that have a fix rate such as Tether.

The adoption of another currency is no news, and historically economies such as Kosovo and Montenegro, two non-EU member states, have de facto adopted the Euro because of the advantages offered by large scale economies, the same applies to Latin American countries relying on the USD which has proven to be more convenient to citizens. As such, adopting a crypto-currency with a fix rate (e.g. Tether) or with less volatility would have in fine the same advantages as relying on a foreign currency such as the Russian rubble.

Small size countries are not the only example, and Macau (Macao Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China) uses two currencies – the Chinese yuan and Hong-Kong dollar instead of the Pataca. The Macanese Pataca, although stable, is less used due to the geographic proximity with mainland China and Hong-Hong.

Similarities between Central Asian states and Nigeria or Macao are prevalent, and in some cases the national currencies of Central Asian states are very volatile, or simply the proximity to Russia and China makes it more pragmatic to use the Russian ruble or the Chinese yuan for transactions, or at least a mix of currencies. Overall, it is a question of pragmatism.

In Central Asia, it would be beneficial for citizens to pay with crypto-currencies as this will prevent counterfeit notes, theft and volatility, and through the use of smartphones, citizens can purchase goods and services on the internet instead of having to transfer physical money to a bank account and then purchase online.

Digital payment for small businesses is now a reality thanks to innovations such as Square. The adoption of such technologies combined with the availability of smartphones will ensure that service providers in Central Asia can accept digital payment and that any citizen can pay with national currency, national digital currency or crypto-currencies, thus solving payment problems and providing more flexibility to locals and businesses.

As mentioned above, governments will have to consider the adoption of national digital currencies or move to crypto-currencies, as they will have two options: adopt an existing crypto-currency that is already available in the market, or develop their own.

By developing their own digital currency, Central Asian states could offer citizens to exchange all available currencies, from existing to digital, similar to what was done in China with the transition to the digital renminbi (e-CNY). The main question will be whether to adopt a similar attitude to that of Beijing, with central banks in charge of the new digital currency, or to let citizens handle the transactions through the adoption of blockchain and mining.

An economy relying on the central banks will have advantages and disadvantages, but it seems relevant considering to opt for blockchain and crypto-currencies, as it will ensure that citizens are in charge of the economy and will not require the central banks to strengthen their cybersecurity capabilities, as a cyber-attack is unlikely to weigh too heavily on citizens using blockchain to check transactions.

FinTech and the adoption of cryptocurrencies are subject to risks, the main one being volatility, but this applies to everything. A concrete example is the United States housing bubble where prices of the house were based on speculation.

Overall, what makes a medium of payment valuable, whether it is diamonds, gold or printed paper money (e.g. Transnistria rubble), is not what you can do with it, but the value people place on it.

It worth noting that the adoption of cryptocurrencies will depend on the willingness of governments to allow them, such as El Salvador in 2021, and that some divergence will remain between urban and rural areas.

As such, a KPMG report “Overview of FinTech Development in Central Asia,” published in November 2020, shows discrepancies between Central Asian states and indicates that financial technology is more advanced in Kazakhstan than in the other three countries. While Kazakhstan has an internet penetration rate of 79%, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have 26%, 47% and 55% respectively.

According to KPMG, the main barriers to FinTech and cryptocurrency adoption in Kazakhstan are unfavorable government policy, low mobile and internet penetration in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and poor infrastructure as well as the monopoly of state-owned telecom providers in Tajikistan. In short, the debate is not just about crypto-currencies but about the ability of Central Asian governments to provide the means for citizens to use this innovative technology.

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D. in History of Europe & International Relations, Sorbonne University - INSEAD Business School, (Geo)political scientist working on Sino-European/Russian relations and soft power in the 21st century

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An Uneven Recovery: the Impact of COVID-19 on Latin America and the Caribbean



Employment rates in some Latin American and Caribbean countries have experienced a relative recovery, although in most, rates fall short of pre-pandemic levels. The quality of available jobs has also declined, as has the number of hours of paid work per week, according to data from a new survey by the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

The High-frequency Phone Surveys, the second phase of which was implemented this year in 24 countries of the region, provides a snapshot of families’ well-being and their perceptions regarding the crisis. The goal is to take the pulse of the region and measure the impacts of the pandemic in key areas such as the labor market, income and food security, gender equality, and household access to basic services, such as education, health (including the COVID-19 vaccine), Internet connectivity and digital finance. The survey took a representative sample of the population aged 18 and over with access to a telephone in each country.

“The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the pre-existing inequalities in the region, where the most vulnerable and poorest groups have been disproportionately affected,” said Luis Felipe López-Calva, UNDP Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “This survey allows us to take the pulse of the region and propose evidence-based solutions.”

“The pandemic severely impacted millions of families in the region,” said Carlos Felipe Jaramillo, World Bank Vice-president for Latin America and the Caribbean. “These surveys we present today are crucial for obtaining current data on the scope of the crisis and for recommending informed measures to help improve the quality of life in our countries.”

Survey results demonstrate that the crisis particularly affected women, both because of the stronger initial impact on them and their slower labor market recovery. Mothers of young children (aged 0 to 5 years) have been most affected. In fact, a year and a half after the onset of the crisis, women are twice as likely as men to be unemployed owing to the pandemic. This situation is exacerbated by an increase in women’s household responsibilities, including supervision of children in remote education, and a higher incidence of mental health problems.

For the region as a whole, the employment rate stood at around 62 percent, almost 11 percentage points below the pre-pandemic level. Employment rates surpassed pre-crisis levels only in Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Moreover, formal employment fell 5.3 percent in the region while self-employment grew 5.7 percent, and the proportion of workers employed in small businesses (maximum of four workers) increased by 8 percent. These figures point to a deterioration in the quality of available employment. Even among the employed population, regional survey results identified a decrease in weekly hours of paid work, from 43 to 37, confirming this negative trend.

The survey data found that 28 percent of people employed before the pandemic lost their jobs, and more than half (17 percent) of those with a job before the pandemic have left the labor force. These impacts disproportionately affected women with young children: 40 percent of female workers over 18 with children aged 0 to 5 years lost their pre-pandemic job, compared to 39 percent of women in general and 18 percent of men.

The pandemic had a greater impact on less educated workers (both men and women). Thirty-five percent of those with a primary education or less lost their job during the pandemic, as did 28 percent of employees with a secondary education. Approximately 19 percent of individuals with a tertiary education became unemployed.

Survey data revealed that as a consequence of labor market setbacks, just over half of the households in the region have not yet managed to recover their pre-pandemic income levels. This situation occurred despite government efforts to help families through direct transfer programs and other benefits. Approximately 38 percent of survey respondents had received emergency cash transfers.

The survey demonstrated that food insecurity still affects 23.9 percent of households in Latin America and the Caribbean. This figure is almost double that reported by households prior to the pandemic — 12.8 percent. However, most countries have improved in this area with respect to the levels observed in June 2020.

Results also demonstrated that more than a year after the onset of the crisis, 86 percent of school-age children and youth receive some type of education (face-to-face or remote). However, figures vary widely across countries: in Guyana and Guatemala, it is 64 percent while in Peru and Chile, it reaches 95 and 97 percent, respectively. Additionally, education coverage falls below pre-pandemic levels in the countries surveyed. Just under a quarter of students in the region attended face-to-face classes.

Access to health services improved significantly. However, the percentage of unvaccinated people remains high in some countries. Eight percent of the regional population has not been vaccinated or is not willing to receive a vaccine. This percentage is especially high in the Caribbean: 60 percent in Haiti, 49 percent in Jamaica and 43 percent in Saint Lucia and Dominica.

Finally, according to the survey results, the use of mobile banking and online transactions (e-commerce) rose sharply during the pandemic. The use of digital payments also increased — currently, 26 percent of survey respondents said they used mobile wallets. The highest increases were among the rural population, the population over age 55 and those with low levels of education (primary or less).

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Gender-based violence in Bangladesh: Economic Implications



Violence against women is one of the most heinous crimes perpetrated in today’s   world. However, despite the gravity of the violence perpetrated against women, it is still the pervading reality in the world. Bangladesh is also afflicted with this malaise of violence against women which is manifested in the deluge of news across the media about the violence against women in various  form .While Bangladesh has made commendable strides in the economic front, the  perennial subjugation of the women who account  for virtually half of its population remains a hurdle. Against this backdrop, this article investigates the economic toll incurred to the economy owing to the entrenched culture of systemic violence in our country.

Women constitute nearly half of the population of Bangladesh. As such, their innate potentials have considerable bearing on the socio-economic progress of the country. Admittedly, advancement of a country in socio-cultural indicators presupposes the simultaneous improvement of  women from the subjugated position culturally attributed to them. It is impossible  to envisage a prosperous thriving economy without the contribution and participation of the women equally. Therefore, the lack of women’s participation commensurate with their capabilities   hinders the development of the country.

One of the obstacles women confront in their journey of transforming into human capital is perhaps the retrograde views that society harbor about the traditional gender role of the women which fetter their contribution to the economy and society by bestowing them only  the  circumscribed role of  looking after the domestic affairs and rearing and educating child. The pastoral as well as urban culture   perpetuate these traditional gender roles and deny women a free rein over their fate. Whenever  women   disavow the preordained and predictable roles  provided by the society, they  have  to face mounting pressure from society so as to conform to the prevailing norms .Failing to  conform to the  regressive gender role will spell grave consequences for the women .When the society fails to cower the woman with the threats that are at its disposal ,it resort to the egregious path of violence. While   violence against women is one of the most reprehensible crime one can ever commit, it however is normalized through a power dynamics that  reinforces the overbearing male role and relegate women to the subjugation. Therefore, the culture of violence against women isn’t anomalous rather is embedded in the prevailing  patriarchal power dynamics which deem chastising women for their  rebellious attitude is solicited and  invoke often contrived and distorted religious edicts in order to legitimize their deplorable crime. Moreover, the culture of violence against women which has been  aptly termed as a epidemic by the United Nations  is rooted in the prevailing socio-economic  structure of the country that  systematically condone the browbeating of women into submission to patriarchal  norms and wield violent measures when the woman stubbornly gainsay their patriarchal hegemony.

While the social, cultural and health toll of the violence perpetrated against women is undoubtedly strenuous, the economic losses incurred by the violence and the opportunities nipped in the bud owing to violence against women also need to be taken into account in order to the adequately discern the deleterious ramifications of the violence against women .However, despite profound economic toll that are inflicted due to the violence against women, it is still unaddressed in the economic literature worldwide and discussion and cognizance about this momentous issue and its economic implications still scant.

As has been mentioned earlier, women constitute the lynchpin of the economy of Bangladesh which has been adequately manifested in the participation of women in Bangladesh’s much-heralded RMG sector and other productive sectors. However, this success of the economy   overshadows the plight and perils  this working class women confront in their bid to become economically productive. The violence against women is systemically entrenched in the country and women’s engagement in the economic activities are frowned upon by the society and culture .Therefore ,the this patriarchal fetter women behind the door of their  houses  and worst women are inflicted  physical and mental violence in event of questioning the dictates of the elders and the male custodians. Therefore , the fundamental impact of violence against women on the economy of the country related to the untapped opportunities due to the constrains imposed by the patriarchal society on women under the pretext of social, religious and cultural norm. This threat alone or normalization of the gender role of the women as a care-giver hinder women in taking part in the economy on a par with their male counterparts  .

Beside the lost  opportunities that can be tapped, the violence against women has numerous other implications on the economy. Firstly, the violence against women inevitably  results in the physical damage and mental trauma of the victim which has enduring toll on her. Therefore ,violence against women translate to toll on the health of the victim and therefore the cost incurred on the victim due to medical fees  as a result of the violence is also included in the economic cost of violence against women. Secondly, the violence against women also leads to diminished productivity of the victim due to the health hazards. Therefore, violence against women has implicit economic cost on the economy as a result of the lost productivity.

Thirdly,the cycle of the violence against women negatively sensitize women in not challenging the sacrosanct patriarchal norms and therefore women fit themselves with the prevailing adverse society and they themselves reproduce and reinforce these norms .Therefore, a vicious cycle set in which prevents women to actualize their potential and stymie them in their path of realizing their goal .This result a sense of apathy in women with regards to education and other means of social mobility and they deliberately avoid the economically productive activities that are deemed taboo by the prevailing social norms and cultural ethos.

Moreover, violence against women is an egregious form of crime perpetrated by a   patriarchal agent while the society has entrenched roles, norms and ethos that condone and encourage such outrageous violence .Moreover, a vicious cycle is at play in the gender based violence. The economic repercussions of the violence committed against women is considerable. Violence against women hinder the development  of the women commensurate with their inherent potential which nip the dreams of women in the bud. Besides, gender based violence also deter women in challenging the prevailing patriarchal norms and undertaking productive economic activities that are frowned by the patriarchal society and are deemed taboo. Moreover, a widespread sensitization in societal level as well as a drastic  overhaul of the patriarchal structure is necessary in order to avert the adverse socio-economic consequences of gender-based violence and extirpate the heinous root of this deplorable crime.

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Omicron Variant: Implications on Global Economy



The prolonged battering of the Covid-19 has been considerably hitting the world economy. While vaccination and a receding in the cases of the cases in virus transmission has provided   brief respite to   the countries that are grappling with the recurring surge of the virus, the resurfacing of another virulent   mutation termed as  Omicron sounds ominous for the future of the world economy .Against this backdrop, this article projects the plausible economic ramifications of the new strand of the virus on the global economy.

The economic downward trajectory occasioned by the Covid-19 has been unprecedented in recent global history. While the economic depression of 2007-08 proved disastrous for the world economy, the toll   emanating from Covid-19 pandemic and consequent   economic stagnation has surpassed all the previous   economic plunge .In fact, some analysts have gone to the extent of   comparing the Covid-19 induced economic depression with the great depression of the 1920s.However, whether the far reaching repercussions of the Covid-19 on the global economy will be as momentous is still remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the   profound   economic jolt triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic is poised to reverberate across the world through shaping socio-economic and political events

The scar inflicted by a protracted economic recession owing to Covid-19 is apparent in the arduous path of economic rejuvenation in the western countries and eastern countries alike. Virtually every country is grappling with the toll that Covid-19 has incurred in the economy. The western countries are finding it   difficult to retrieve the losses that Covid-19 has precipitated. Although the swift vaccination of the western countries at the expense of the developing countries has provided a fleeting lull in their battle against Covid-19,it seem however the virus has resurfaced with increasing virulence in order to offset whatever gain these embattled countries managed to garner in their fight against Covid-19.

The skyrocketing and unprecedented inflation of the western countries coupled with a plummeted consumer confidence has meant a prolonged period of stagnation of their economies. However, in the wake of vaccination induced temporary respite in the viral cases, the economies rebounded strongly from the pits of economic recession. However, these hard-earned   gains will be reversed in the event of the advent of any new strand of the virus. Already, the delta variant which originated in India had triggered a spate of Covid-19 flare-ups in the United   States and United Kingdom. Against this backdrop, the Omicron variant is set to aggravate the   economic woes of the western countries and in turn the world.

While the western countries are reeling from economic stagnation, the developing and underdeveloped countries are confronting many abysmal realities due to their prevailing economic backwardness. Their economic plight has been lingering in want of adequate vaccination due to the apathetic stance of the western countries and global governance institutions .Therefore, while the western countries has rebounded from the Covid-19 induces economic predicaments, the difficulties confronted by the developing countries has continued unabated. While the influence of advanced countries and their less advanced counterparts in world-economy is inextricably tied, the callous attitude of the developed countries to the vaccination of countries in Asia and South Asia turn out to   be sheer lack of economic prudence.

While western countries are considered as the economic hub of the world, it is however the developing countries on which the vital supply chains of the world economy hinges on. Therefore, the tardy pace of vaccination in these countries is prejudicial to the global economic stability. The economic ramification of the slow pace of vaccination is twofold for the world economy. Firstly, the slow vaccination hinders the revival of the economic activities in the developing countries thereby obstructing the supply chain of the commodities .This supply chain crisis has ripple effect in the western economies. The recent predicament of inflation and attending macroeconomic woes in countries like the United States and United Kingdom is manifestation of the supply chain crisis plaguing the world economy. Due to the paucity of commodities and raw materials, the prices of necessary goods has escalated in the western countries which has plummeted consumer confidence and triggered a vicious cycle of stagflation in the economy that is reminiscent of the 1970s when a similar crisis in oil supply has  precipitated economic downturn in the western economies.

Secondly, the slow rate of vaccination also run the risk of allowing the virus to mutating to newer and much virulent variants and due to the unfettered communication as a result of globalization the emergence of any new variant doesn’t remain in the confines of any border rather proliferate like wildfire and precipitate global crisis. Therefore, the lack of vaccination or slack pace therefore has global repercussions. Therefore, it is judicious of the developed countries to concentrate efforts in contributing to the vaccination of the less developed countries which will yield good results for their economy.

The ubiquitous mechanism in battling Covid-19 remains one of containment that entails halting economic and other activities and insulating the countries from other countries through imposing border controls, curbs on air communication and other stringent measures echoing protectionist attitude. However, these measures are antithetical to the spirit of the globalization and global trade. While lockdowns and other protectionist measures yield temporary improvement in the Covid  cases, it is not viable in the longer term. Besides, lockdowns have deleterious ramifications on the economy and further aggravate economic rebounding of the developed countries and developing countries alike. Therefore, efforts should be aimed at preventing the Covid cases rather than grappling with the Covid with a knee-jerk policy of improvisation. .

Moreover,Covid-19 has already occasioned far-reaching economic fallout in the world economy. Indications abound regarding the fact that the world economy is verging on profound and prolonged recession. Against the backdrop of ominous predictions and slackening growth and painful inflation of the world economy, the prospects of the world economy due the advent of a new variant remain mired in obscurity. It can be concluded that the economic repercussions of yet another novel variant will be momentous and will offset hard-earned growth of the countries .Unlike previous precedent of haphazard policy and knee-jerk policy solutions, this time around the countries need to undertake challenge much prudently and should concentrate all of their efforts aiming at universal vaccination of all countries so as to prevent the resurfacing of similar virulent viral strands.

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