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Infographic: 5 Things to Know About Europe’s Scorching Heatwave

See large image . . . . . .

Source : Visual Capitalist

EXPLAINER: What’s in Biden’s Proposed New Asia Trade Pact?

Josh Boak and Aamer Madhani wrote . . . . . . . . .

President Joe Biden faced a dilemma on trade in Asia: He couldn’t just rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership that his predecessor had pulled the U.S. out of in 2017. Many related trade deals, regardless of their content, had become politically toxic for U.S. voters, who associated them with job losses.

So Biden came up with a replacement. During Biden’s visit to Tokyo, the U.S. on Monday announced the countries that are joining the new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. In the tradition of trade deals, it’s best known by its initials: IPEF. (Pronounced EYE-pef.)

WHO’S IN?

The framework has 13 members, including the U.S., that account for 40% of global gross domestic product: Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

WHAT WOULD IPEF DO?

That’s still to be figured out. Monday’s announcement signals the start of talks among participating countries to decide what will ultimately be in the framework, so the descriptions for now are largely aspirational. In a broad sense, it’s a way for the U.S. to lay down a marker signaling its commitment to remain a leading force in Asia.

“We’re writing the new rules for the 21st century economy,” Biden said at the announcement. “They’re going to help all our countries’ economies grow faster and fairer. We’ll do that by taking on some of the most acute challenges that drag down growth.”

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said IPEF is “focused around the further integration of Indo-Pacific economies, setting of standards and rules, particularly in new areas like the digital economy, and also trying to ensure that there are secure and resilient supply chains.”

The idea that new standards for world trade are needed isn’t just about discontent among U.S. voters. It’s a recognition of how the pandemic disrupted the entire scope of supply chains, shuttering factories, delaying cargo ships, clogging ports and causing higher inflation globally. Those vulnerabilities became even clearer in late February after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, causing dangerously high jumps in food and energy costs in parts of the world.

WHO’S GOING TO FIRM UP THE DETAILS?

The negotiations with partner countries will revolve around four pillars, or topics, with the work split between the U.S. trade representative and the Commerce Department.

The U.S. trade representative will handle talks on the “fair” trade pillar. This would likely include efforts to shield U.S. workers from job losses as China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization in 2001 led to severe manufacturing layoffs. Those job losses gutted parts of the U.S., angered voters and helped power the political rise of Donald Trump, who, as president, pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership almost as soon as he took the oath of office in 2017.

The Commerce Department will oversee negotiations on the other three pillars: supply chain resiliency, infrastructure and climate change, and tax and anti-corruption. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo flew with Biden on Air Force One to Japan. She was also by the president’s side during his time in South Korea, where he highlighted investments in U.S. factories by automaker Hyundai and the electronics behemoth Samsung.

An added wrinkle is that countries can choose which pillars they want to belong to, according to an administration official. They are not required to back all four.

WHO ELSE CAN JOIN THE CLUB?

The White House has said IPEF will be an open platform. But it has faced criticism from the Chinese government that any agreement could be an “exclusive” clique that would lead to greater turmoil in the region.

And there are sensitivities to China, the world’s second-largest economy, in setting up IPEF. The self-ruled island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own, is being excluded from the pact. This exclusion is noteworthy since Taiwan is also a leading manufacturer of computer chips, a key element of the digital economy that will be part of IPEF negotiations.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday that any trade talks with Taiwan would be done one to one.

HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE?

Once talks start, negotiations are expected to go 12 to 18 months, an aggressive timeline for a global trade deal, according to an administration official. The official insisted on anonymity to discuss plans and added that building consensus inside the U.S. will also be key.


Source : AP

What Twitter’s ‘Poison Pill’ Is Supposed to Do

Michael Liedtke wrote . . . . . . . . .

Twitter is trying to thwart billionaire Elon Musk’s takeover attempt with a “poison pill” — a financial device that companies have been wielding against unwelcome suitors for decades.

WHAT ARE POISON PILLS SUPPOSED TO DO?

The ingredients of each poison pill vary, but they’re all designed to give corporate boards an option to flood the market with so much newly created stock that a takeover becomes prohibitively expensive. The strategy was popularized back in the 1980s when publicly held companies were being stalked by corporate raiders such as Carl Icahn — now more frequently described as “activist investors.”

Twitter didn’t disclose the details of its poison pill Friday, but said it would provide more information in a forthcoming filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which the company delayed because public markets were closed Friday.

The San Francisco company’s plan will be triggered if a shareholder accumulates a stake of 15% or more. Musk, best known as CEO of electric car maker Tesla, currently holds a roughly 9% stake.

CAN A POISON PILL BE A NEGOTIATING PLOY?

Although they are supposed to help prevent an unsolicited takeover, poison pills also often open the door to further negotiations that can force a bidder to sweeten the deal. If a higher price makes sense to the board, a poison pill can simply be cast aside along with the acrimony it provoked, clearing the way for a sale to completed.

True to form, Twitter left its door open by emphasizing that its poison pill won’t prevent its board from “engaging with parties or accepting an acquisition proposal” at a higher price.

Adopting a poison pill also frequently results in lawsuits alleging that a corporate board and management team is using the tactic to keep their jobs against the best interests of shareholders. These complaints are sometimes filed by shareholders who think a takeover offer is fair and want to cash out at that price or by the bidder vying to make the purchase.

HOW DID ELON MUSK REACT TO TWITTER’S ANNOUNCEMENT?

Musk, a prolific tweeter with 82 million followers on Twitter, had no immediate reaction to the company’s poison pill. But on Thursday he indicated he was ready to wage a legal battle.

“If the current Twitter board takes actions contrary to shareholder interests, they would be breaching their fiduciary duty,” Musk tweeted. “The liability they would thereby assume would be titanic in scale.”

Musk has publicly said that its $43 billion bid is his best and final offer for Twitter, but other corporate suitors have made similar statements before ultimately upping the ante. With an estimated fortune of $265 billion, Musk would seem to have deep enough pockets to raise his offer, although he is still working out how to finance the proposed purchase.

HOW HAS THIS DEFENSE WORKED IN THE PAST?

Takeover tussles often dissolve into gamesmanship that include poison pills and other maneuvers designed to make a buyout more difficult. That’s what happened in one of the biggest and most drawn out takeover dances in Silicon Valley history..

After business software maker Oracle made an unsolicited $5.1 billion offer for its smaller rival PeopleSoft in June 2003, the two companies spent the next 18 months fighting with each other.

As part of its defense, PeopleSoft not only adopted a poison pill that authorized the board to flood the market with more shares, it also created what it called a “customer assurance program.” That plan promised to pay customers five times the cost of their software licenses if PeopleSoft was sold within the next two years, creating an estimated liability of up to $800 million for an acquiring company.

PeopleSoft also got another helping hand when the U.S. Department of Justice filed an antitrust lawsuit seek to block a takeover, although a judge ruled in Oracle’s favor.

Even though the company ended up selling to Oracle, PeopleSoft’s defense strategy paid off for its shareholders. Oracle’s final purchase price was $11.1 billion — more than twice its original bid.


Source : AP

Omicron BA.2 Variant Takes Over. What’s Known About It?

Laura Ungar wrote . . . . . . . . .

In the latest battle of the coronavirus mutants, an extra-contagious version of omicron has taken over the world.

The coronavirus version known as BA.2 is now dominant in at least 68 countries, including the United States.

The World Health Organization says it makes up about 94% of sequenced omicron cases submitted to an international coronavirus database in the most recent week. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it was responsible for 72% of new U.S. infections last week.

Dr. Wesley Long, a pathologist at Houston Methodist in Texas, said he’s seen BA.2 quickly become dominant in his medical system. At the end of last week, the variant was responsible for more than three-quarters of cases in Houston Methodist hospitals. Less than two weeks earlier, 1% to 3% of cases were caused by BA.2.

“It’s not terribly surprising because it is more contagious” than the original omicron, Long said.

As the variant advances, scientists are learning more about it. But they still don’t know exactly how it will affect the trajectory of the pandemic.

WHAT’S KNOWN

BA.2 has lots of mutations. It’s been dubbed “stealth omicron” because it lacks a genetic quirk of the original omicron that allowed health officials to rapidly differentiate it from the delta variant using a certain PCR test.

One reason BA.2 has gained ground, scientists say, is that it’s about 30% more contagious than the original omicron. In rare cases, research shows it can sicken people even if they’ve already had an omicron infection — although it doesn’t seem to cause more severe disease.

Vaccines appear equally effective against both types of omicron. For both, vaccination plus a booster offers strong protection against severe illness and death.

HAS THE VARIANT PUSHED UP CASES?

Coronavirus cases rose in parts of Europe and Asia when BA.2 became dominant, and some scientists are concerned that the variant could also push up cases across the U.S.

Besides being more contagious, it’s spreading at a time when governments are relaxing restrictions designed to control COVID-19. Also, people are taking off their masks and getting back to activities such as traveling, eating indoors at restaurants and attending crowded events.

At this point, overall coronavirus cases in the U.S. are still on the decline. But there have been upticks in some places, including New York, Arizona and Illinois. Health officials have also noted that case counts are getting more unreliable because of the wide availability of home tests and the fact some people are no longer getting tested.

“We’re entering a phase where increasing cases or waves may be very regional and it may depend a lot on vaccination levels in the community — and not just vaccination levels but timing of the vaccinations,” Long said. “How long ago were they? Did people get boosters? Because we know the immunity to the vaccine wanes a little bit over time.”

Long said he feels “very certain” that cases will eventually go back up in the U.S., whether that’s because of BA.2 or some future variant. “If it’s BA.2,” he said, “it may be more of a wave or a speed bump than a surge.”

For now, COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are still trending down nationally.

ARE THERE ANY OTHER VARIANTS TO BE CONCERNED ABOUT?

As the coronavirus continues to evolve, the WHO is tracking other mutants, including hybrids known as “recombinants.”

These include combinations of delta and omicron and hybrids of BA.2 and the original omicron, also known as BA.1.

One recombinant that health authorities are tracking closely is a BA.1-BA.2 hybrid called XE, which was first detected in the United Kingdom in January. About 600 cases have been reported, and scientists believe it may be about 10% more contagious than BA.2.

WHAT SHOULD PEOPLE DO?

The advice from experts remains the same: Take precautions to avoid getting COVID-19.

“The virus is still out there circulating,” Long said. “Vaccination is still your best defense.”

Get the shots if you haven’t already, he said, and get the second booster if you’re eligible because you are 50 or older or have a compromised immune system.

“If cases start going up in your community, think about assessing your risk level,” Long said. “If you stopped masking and stopped worrying about distancing and things … that’s the time to reinstitute those protective measures.”


Source : AP

Explainer: How Plausible Is Chinese Military Aid for Russia?

The U.S. says Russia has asked China to provide military assistance for its war in Ukraine, and that China has responded affirmatively. Both Moscow and Beijing have denied the allegation, with a Chinese spokesperson dismissing it as “disinformation.”

Still, the claims have generated conjecture over how far Beijing would be willing to go in backing its “most important strategic partner,” as China’s foreign minister recently described Russia.

WHAT DID THE U.S. SAY?

Following initial reports that Russia had asked China for military aid, unnamed U.S. officials said that Washington had determined that China had sent a signal to Russia: Beijing would be willing to provide both military support for the campaign in Ukraine and financial backing to help stave off the impact of severe sanctions imposed by the West.

At a meeting in Rome on Monday, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan warned senior Chinese foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi against providing such support, even as the Kremlin denied requesting military equipment.

The U.S. is wary of China’s intentions because the government of President Xi Jinping has refused to criticize the Russian invasion, even as it seeks to distance itself from the Kremlin’s war by calling for dialogue and reiterating its position that a nation’s territory must be respected.

WHAT MIGHT CHINA OFFER?

If anything, smaller items such as bullets and meals are more likely than fighter jets and tanks, experts said.

China “probably wants to avoid high-profile or big-ticket arms sales to Russia in the midst of a conflict which would expose Beijing to international sanctions,” said Drew Thompson, a former U.S. Defense Department official currently at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

Beijing would be more willing to provide spare parts, consumables, ammunition, and dual-use items that don’t contravene sanctions and could fall below the threshold of international reprisals, Thompson said.

For example, Russian helicopters are likely using up their flares to counter portable short-range missiles like the Stinger. China could conceivably sell Russia some of its flares, if they are compatible with Russian systems, Thompson said. China might also share surveillance and intelligence, he said.

Given Washington’s warnings, any Chinese aid would likely involve “very basic stuff,” such as ration packs for soldiers, said Sam Roggeveen, director of the International Security Program at Australia’s Lowy Institute.

He added that Russia would find it virtually impossible to integrate Chinese armaments into its armed forces on such short notice.

WOULD CHINA DO IT?

While not impossible, both Chinese and non-Chinese experts say there are several factors working against it. For starters, it could look bad.

“China will be very careful trying its best to avoid its aid and other assistance being used on the battlefields of Ukraine,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.

He added that China “has no motive to provide any assistance to Russia’s operation in Ukraine.”

Roggeveen concurred that there is no “obvious upside” for China in aiding Moscow, adding that a weakened Russia could work to China’s strategic and economic advantage.

Chinese officials have also said throughout the crisis that the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all countries should be respected — though critics say its refusal to criticize Russia’s invasion is in fundamental contradiction to that position.

“Russia’s military operation in Ukraine has in nature become an invasion, and China will never provide arms to help a country attack another sovereign county and that is not in accordance with international law,” said Li Xin, director of the Institute of European and Asian Studies at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

China also does not want to see the conflict worsen or be dragged in as a co-belligerent, so any Chinese support “would be measured and carefully calibrated,” Thompson said.


Source : AP

Ukraine Crisis Tests China-Russia Partnership

Russia’s military buildup along its border with Ukraine is testing the possibility of a Moscow-Beijing axis lining up against the U.S. and its allies.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing this month fed speculation that a new alliance could form between the two great powers as they face off with the U.S. over a range of issues.

Russia and China have backed each other’s positions on opposing a NATO expansion in former Soviet republics and buttressing China’s claim to the self-governing island of Taiwan.

But the relationship remains lopsided. China’s confident rise as an economic and political force contrasts with Russia’s growing isolation and reversion to Cold War tactics of intimidation and bullying.

China also remains opposed to actions that could damage its territorial ambitions, from the South China Sea and Taiwan to the Indian border.

Here are some of the main factors driving, and blocking Russo-Chinese relations:

WHERE DOES CHINA STAND ON THE UKRAINE CRISIS?

China has not criticized Russia over its moves against Ukraine, and has joined in verbal attacks on Washington and its allies. Addressing the Munich Security Conference over the weekend, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi lashed out against the U.S., accusing “a certain power” of “stirring-up antagonism.”

However, in response to a question from conference Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger, Wang said the “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of any country should be respected and safeguarded, because this is a basic norm of international relations.”

“Ukraine is no exception,” Wang added.

He also stated that major powers should act in defense of global peace and no country should “repeat the past mistake of forging rival alliances.”

That chimes with China’s longstanding opposition to military alliances and often invoked — but often breached in practice — policy of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs.

The comments were also in keeping with Beijing’s quest to replace a global order underpinned by alliances it considers threatening to its own development. Those include NATO and newer groupings joining the U.S. with Japan, India, Australia and other states with which China has substantial foreign policy disputes.

WHAT DID THE XI-PUTIN SUMMIT ACHIEVE?

Xi and Putin met ahead of the opening ceremony of the recently concluded Winter Olympics in Beijing, after which they issued a lengthy joint communique seen as announcing a new and closer relationship.

The two sides said they “strongly support each other” in confronting what Xi called “regional security threats” and “international strategic stability,” without directly naming the U.S.

The meeting between the leaders marked their 38th contact in person and by phone, a number touted by Beijing as a sign of closeness between the countries that had been rivals for leadership in the Cold War’s socialist bloc.

The fall of the Soviet Union remains an obsession among Chinese Communist leaders, along with Putin, a former officer in the Soviet KGB who shares Xi’s authoritarian leanings and has aligned his foreign policies with those of Beijing while courting China’s market for Russian energy resources and military hardware.

In its own readout of the Xi-Putin meeting, however, China held back on making a full-throated endorsement of Russia’s strategy of attacking alleged Western threats to its security.

IS THERE A LINK BETWEEN UKRAINE AND TAIWAN?

China’s Communist Party leadership is believed to be watching the U.S. response to Russia’s actions closely for signs of how Washington would behave if Beijing were to move against Taiwan.

China has been dispatching military aircraft and holding threatening war games in hopes of undermining support in Taiwan for the self-governing island’s de facto independence.

Washington provides Taiwan with fighter jets, warships and other arms and is legally required to consider threats to the island as matters of “grave concern.” That doesn’t obligate the U.S. to intervene militarily on Taiwan’s behalf, but the possibility has not been ruled out, with allies such as Australia and Japan potentially joining in a conflict.

WHERE IS AMERICA LEFT IN THE DEBATE?

China is not putting its weight behind Russia’s foreign policy gambits, but the frostiness in relations with Washington shows no sign of thawing, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations and director of the Center on American Studies at Beijing’s Renmin University of China.

“I believe that the Chinese government will continue to take care of China itself in the first place rather than take care of Russia,” Shi said. In the meantime, relations with Washington will remain fraught, particularly over the issue of Taiwan.

Beijing blames heightened tensions with the U.S. on what it calls a false depiction of China as a strategic rival.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s visit to China that led to the establishment of formal diplomatic ties in 1979 and a new era of trade and economic relations. No joint celebrations have been announced.


Source : AP

What Are the Key Parts of Ukraine’s Peace Deal?

Vladimir Isachenkov wrote . . . . . . . . .

A peace agreement for the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine that has never quite ended is back in the spotlight amid a Russian military buildup near the country’s borders and rising tensions about whether Moscow will invade.

Top officials from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany are meeting Thursday in Berlin to discuss ways of implementing the deal that was signed in Belarusian capital Minsk in 2015.

Here is a look at the document’s key points and the contested issues regarding its implementation:

CONFLICT IN THE EAST

Russia responded to the February 2014 ouster in Kyiv of a Kremlin-friendly president by annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backing a separatist insurgency in the country’s mostly Russian-speaking eastern industrial region known as the Donbas.

Ukrainian troops and volunteer battalions engaged in ferocious and devastating battles with the rebels involving heavy artillery, armor and combat aircraft.

Ukraine and the West accused Russia of backing separatists with troops and weapons. Moscow rejected the accusations, saying that any Russians who fought in the east were volunteers.

Amid the fighting, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 people aboard. An international investigation concluded the jetliner was destroyed by a missile fired from a rebel-controlled area. It said the weapon was brought into Ukraine from a military base in Russia, but Moscow categorically denied any involvement.

Leaders of France and Germany began efforts to negotiate a truce in talks with Russia and Ukraine when they met in Normandy, France, in June 2014, in what became known as the Normandy format.

FIGHTING AND NEGOTIATIONS

After a massive defeat of Ukrainian troops in August 2014, representatives from Kyiv and the rebels signed a truce in Minsk in September 2014.

The document, dubbed Minsk I, envisaged a cease-fire monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a pullback of foreign fighters, an exchange of prisoners and hostages, an amnesty for the insurgents and a promise that rebel regions could have a degree of self-government.

The agreement collapsed quickly and large-scale battles resumed. In January and February of 2015, Ukrainian troops suffered another major defeat in the battle of Debaltseve.

France and Germany moved quickly to help broker another peace agreement, and on Feb. 12, 2015, representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the rebels signed a deal that envisaged a new cease-fire, a pullback of heavy weapons from the line of contact between the troops and the rebels, and provisions for a political settlement. A declaration in support of the deal was signed by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany.

MINSK DEAL PROVISIONS

The deal, dubbed Minsk II, included an OSCE-monitored cease-fire, a pullback of heavy weapons and foreign fighters from the line of contact and an exchange of prisoners.

In a major diplomatic coup for Russia, the document obliged Ukraine to grant special status to the separatist regions, allowing them to create their own police force and have a say in appointing local prosecutors and judges. It also required Kyiv to offer a sweeping amnesty for the separatists and negotiate details of holding local elections with rebel leaders.

It stipulated that Ukraine could only regain control over the border with Russia in rebel regions after they get self-rule and hold OSCE-monitored local elections — balloting that would almost certainly keep pro-Moscow rebels in power there.

In another gain for the Kremlin, the document didn’t contain any obligations on the part of Russia, which insisted it’s not a party to the conflict and cast it as part of Ukraine’s internal affairs.

Many in Ukraine resented the deal, seeing it as a betrayal of national interests and a blow to the country’s integrity. The widespread public dismay has effectively blocked the deal’s implementation.

MOSCOW AND KYIV TRADE BLAME

While the Minsk deal helped end large-scale battles, frequent skirmishes have continued, with both sides blaming each other. The parties have negotiated a long series of renewed cease-fires, but all have been quickly violated.

Ukraine has accused Russia of failing to withdraw its troops from the conflict areas. Moscow has staunchly denied their presence there and pointed to the deployment of Western military instructors in Ukraine.

While denying any military involvement in eastern Ukraine, Russia has offered political and economic support to the rebels and granted citizenship to more than 700,000 residents of the region.

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany pledged adherence to the Minsk agreement when they last met in Paris in December 2019 but made no visible progress.

MORE TALKS

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pushed for another four-way summit, but the Kremlin said it would serve no purpose until Ukraine agrees to abide by the deal’s obligations.

Amid soaring tensions over the Russian military buildup near Ukraine, France and Germany have intensified their efforts to broker more four-way talks on the conflict in the east, seeing that as a possible way to ease tensions in the larger crisis.

Representatives from the four countries met in Paris on Jan. 26, securing no progress but they agreed to hold the session in Berlin on Thursday, with a goal to agree on a common interpretation of the Minsk agreements.

French President Emmanuel Macron sought to revive the Minsk deal during his visits to Moscow and Kyiv this week, describing it as “the only path allowing to build peace … and find a sustainable political solution.”

THE PRESSURE ON UKRAINE

Facing Western calls for the implementation of the Minsk deal, Ukrainian officials have become increasingly critical of the document.

Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told The Associated Press last week the deal was signed “under a Russian gun barrel,” and warned that “the fulfillment of the Minsk agreement means the country’s destruction.”

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba argued that Moscow aims to use the deal to have the rebel regions reintegrated into Ukraine and use them to block the country’s pro-Western aspirations, vowing: “This is not going to happen.”

Zelenskyy was more diplomatic but noted that he dislikes every point of the Minsk document, a comment that drew a taunting and crude remark from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Like it or not, you have to bear with it, my beauty,” Putin quipped, using a coarse verse from Russian folklore. “You have to fulfill it. It will not work otherwise.”


Source : AP

What Is Hong Kong’s Dynamic Zero-infection Strategy

Lilian Cheng wrote . . . . . . . . .

Hong Kong’s adoption of the dynamic zero-infection strategy has drawn heated debate as the city struggles to contain a fifth wave of coronavirus infections.

However, Hong Kong has yet to carry out massive containment measures such as a citywide lockdown, universal screening or large-scale quarantine, unlike other mainland Chinese cities.

The Post compares the containment approaches taken by some mainland cities and Hong Kong.

1. What is the dynamic zero-infection strategy?

The mainland adopted the strategy in August last year in its fight against the Delta variant.

It refers to a slew of measures, such as mass testing, stringent border controls, extensive contact tracing and snap lockdowns, aimed at swiftly stamping out new outbreaks when they happen.

A national directive issued in September, for example, suggested local health authorities were required to define their scope of testing based on how an outbreak spread and its risks.

Cities with more than 5 million people are required to finish a round of testing within three days, while smaller cities have two days to do the job. Local authorities are required to test large populations by dividing them into smaller units – such as residential buildings, villages, schools and companies – so that no one is missed.

2. How is the strategy applied on the mainland?

Mainland cities handled the outbreak in different ways under the same national directives.

The northwestern city of Xian – home to about 12.95 million people – was under lockdown for 32 days after reporting more than 150 cases daily at one point last December.

At least 50,000 people were sent to quarantine, while authorities launched several rounds of mass testing involving more than 90 million Covid-19 tests.

Other cities have opted for swift and abrupt lockdowns on a smaller scale.

Shanghai shoppers were trapped in a milk tea store and a branch of a popular Japanese clothing chain, Uniqlo, for two days last month until all staff and visitors tested negative.

Beijing authorities also locked down some housing compounds and tested residents when more than 20 new cases were reported days before the Winter Olympics began.

Analysts said these first-tier cities adopted a different approach as they had more disease management experience and were better equipped, with more medical staff.

For example, Shanghai had about 3,000 full-time epidemiological investigators, 10 times more than Xian. The municipality’s contact-tracing was also more “comprehensive”.

Shanghai did impose “lockdown management” in early February 2020 on 13,000 residential communities and compounds, including stricter controls on the movement of people and vehicles. The measures were gradually relaxed at the end of the month.

3. What about the situation in Hong Kong?

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has repeatedly stressed Hong Kong will stand by the dynamic zero-infection strategy, which is more targeted and on a smaller scale.

Tens of thousands of residents have been screened daily for Covid-19 during the fifth wave of infections, after sewage samples in their districts tested positive, or they had visited or lived in places found to have infections.
Instead of universal testing, rapid antigen tests will be distributed to all residents as a supplementary tool for early detection.

A week-long lockdown took place only once on a Kwai Chung public housing estate, involving 2700 households. Other such operations were shorter even if Covid-19 cases were detected.

Close contacts of Covid-19 patients are now allowed to quarantine at home to ease pressure on quarantine facilities.

Flights from nine countries, including the United States and Britain, are banned until March 4.

4. Why does Hong Kong employ a more ‘targeted’ approach?

Hong Kong’s daily coronavirus screening capacity only reached 100,000 in January, and a further 200,000 will be added when a laboratory in Ma On Shan is ready later this month.

Large numbers of residents ordered to undergo compulsory testing have been seen outside testing centres across the city on a daily basis, with some complaining of possible infection due to the long wait. The government has since reduced the number of mandatory tests for residents from three to two, citing the short incubation period for the Omicron variant.

Unlike mainland cities, Hong Kong does not have a system that can track residents’ whereabouts due to privacy concerns. Residents will only be prosecuted if epidemiological investigations reveal they have lied about their whereabouts for contact-tracing purposes.

Use of the “Leave Home Safe” risk-exposure app, introduced in late 2020, is now mandatory to enter a growing list of premises, including restaurants and government facilities. The app does not have a tracking function.

Users now have to upload vaccination records to the app so staff at “high-risk premises” such as restaurants and gyms can scan and keep a record for 31 days.

Stringent social-distancing curbs and travel limitations imposed amid the fifth wave have already drawn criticism from the business sector and are expected to hammer the economy in the first quarter of this year.

5. Can Hong Kong practise ‘mainland-style lockdowns’?

Professor Gabriel Leung, dean of the University of Hong Kong’s faculty of medicine, on Thursday urged the government to consider the feasibility of a longer “lockdown” on a bigger scale, and implement more stringent measures.

Leung had predicted daily case counts could hit 28,000 at their peak, and related deaths could total 1,000 by June, even if current strict social-distancing rules were maintained.

But Anthony Wu Ting-yuk, chairman of Sunrise Diagnostic Centre and a former Hospital Authority chief, brushed aside such a call.

“A citywide lockdown is unnecessary as long as people are working from home and large-scale testing is implemented district by district,” Wu said. “The government will not have enough resources to implement a lockdown on the whole city. But if we have enough manpower, we can lock down a dozen buildings for three days.”

Ip Kwok-him, a member of the Executive Council, Lam’s de facto cabinet, said there were cultural and social differences which made it difficult for Hong Kong to take radical measures.

The city also lacked a tracking system for close contacts that was similar to the mainland’s, he added.
Executive Council convenor Bernard Chan, a top adviser to Lam, said on Thursday he doubted whether a full lockdown was possible.

“We just can’t do it in Hong Kong. We cannot have the same sort of lockdown as in the mainland,” he said.
“We will try to contain the outbreak through quarantine and isolation, and try to bring the number down. We are pretty much buying enough time to get the rest of Hong Kong, especially the most vulnerable group, vaccinated because until then, I don’t think we can afford to overwhelm our health care system.”

6. What’s next?

Beijing officials and state media have warned Hong Kong not to deviate from the dynamic zero-Covid strategy, as any shift towards “living with the virus” would result in disaster for the city, and delay resumption of quarantine-free travel with the mainland.

Mainland officials will meet their Hong Kong counterparts on Saturday to discuss how to help the city fight the fifth wave of infections. The construction of another makeshift hospital of the kind erected in Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic will be among the topics of discussion, according to sources.

Meanwhile, a Guangdong health official said on Friday that hundreds of Cantonese-speaking medical and lab personnel from Guangzhou and Shenzhen had already been dispatched to Hong Kong to lend a hand in laboratories and testing stations, with more set to follow.

Hong Kong’s sole delegate to the nation’s top legislative body, Tam Yiu-chung, said it would be best if Beijing agreed to send 1,000 professionals to the city to help boost testing and quarantine capacities.

Tam said he believed the mainland experts would be able to provide suggestions on whether universal testing or larger-scale lockdowns were needed.


Source : SCMP

What Does It Mean for COVID-19 to be Endemic?

Maria Cheng wrote . . . . . . . . .

Some European countries such as Spain are making tentative plans for when they might start treating COVID-19 as an “endemic” disease, but the World Health Organization and other officials have warned that the world is nowhere close to declaring the pandemic over. A look at what endemic means and the implications for the future.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR A DISEASE TO BE ENDEMIC AS OPPOSED TO PANDEMIC?

Diseases are endemic when they occur regularly in certain areas according to established patterns, while a pandemic refers to a global outbreak that causes unpredictable waves of illness.

The World Health Organization has said that redefining the coronavirus as an endemic disease is still “a ways off,” according to Catherine Smallwood, an infectious diseases expert in the agency’s European headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark. “We still have a huge amount of uncertainty and a virus that is evolving quickly,” she said earlier this month.

For many countries, designating a disease as endemic means that fewer resources will be available to combat it, since it will likely no longer be considered a public health emergency.

WHO WILL DECIDE WHEN COVID-19 IS ENDEMIC?

Most wealthy countries will probably make that decision themselves depending on how the virus is circulating within their borders and on the potential for new cases to cause big outbreaks. The COVID-19 vaccines, medicines and other measures widely available in rich countries will likely help them curb outbreaks long before the virus is brought under control globally.

The WHO does not technically declare pandemics. Its highest alert level is a global health emergency, and COVID-19 has warranted that distinction since January 2020. The U.N. health agency has convened an expert committee every three months since then to reassess the situation.

It’s likely the pandemic will be over when the WHO’s experts declare that COVID-19 no longer qualifies as a global emergency, but the criteria for that decision are not precisely defined.

“It’s somewhat a subjective judgment because it’s not just about the number of cases. It’s about severity and it’s about impact,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief.

Others have pointed out that designating COVID-19 as endemic is arguably a political question rather than a scientific one, and it speaks to how much disease and death national authorities and their citizens are willing to tolerate.

WHAT IS SPAIN PROPOSING?

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said last week that falling death rates for COVID-19 suggest that it’s time for European officials to start considering whether the disease should be considered endemic. That means Spanish officials would no longer need to record every COVID-19 infection and that people with symptoms would not necessarily be tested, but they would continue to be treated if they are sick. The proposal has been discussed with some EU officials, but no decisions have been made.

In October, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control issued advice on how countries might transition to more routine surveillance of COVID-19 after the acute phase of the pandemic. Among its recommendations, the agency said countries should integrate their monitoring of the coronavirus with other diseases like flu and test a representative sample of COVID-19 cases, rather than attempting to test every person with symptoms.

DOES ENDEMIC MEAN THE PROBLEM IS OVER?

No. Many serious diseases, including tuberculosis and HIV, are considered endemic in parts of the world and continue to kill hundreds of thousands of people every year. Malaria, for example, is considered endemic in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa and is estimated to cause more than 200 million cases every year, including about 600,000 deaths.

“Endemic in itself does not mean good,” Ryan said. “Endemic just means it’s here forever.”

Health officials warn that even after COVID-19 becomes an established respiratory virus like seasonal flu, the virus will continue to be fatal for some.

Even after the pandemic ends, “COVID will still be with us,” said Dr. Chris Woods, an infectious disease expert at Duke University. “The difference is people won’t be dying indiscriminately because of it, and it will be so routine that we will have much better and fairer access to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics for all.”


Source : AP

What Are Stablecoins?

Stephen McKeon wrote . . . . . . . . .

Stablecoins are a type of cryptocurrency linked to an asset like the U.S. dollar that doesn’t change much in value.

The majority of the dozens of stablecoins that currently exist use the dollar as their benchmark asset, but many are also pegged to other fiat currencies issued by governments like the euro and yen. As a result, the price of stablecoins fluctuates very little, unlike high-profile cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ethereum that are prone to sudden ups and downs.

The first stablecoin, created in 2014, was Tether, which many other stablecoins are modeled after. Users receive one token for every dollar they deposit. In theory, the tokens can then be converted back into the original currency at any time, also at a one-for-one exchange rate.

As of July 28, 2021, there were about US$62 billion in Tether outstanding, or a bit more than half of the $117 billion market capitalization of all stablecoins worldwide. The next-largest is known as USD Coin, which has a market cap of about $27 billion.

Why stablecoins matter

Originally, stablecoins were primarily used to buy other cryptocurrencies, like bitcoin, because many cryptocurrency exchanges didn’t have access to traditional banking. They are more useful than country-issued currencies because you can use them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, anywhere in the world – without relying on banks. Money transfers take seconds to complete.

Another useful feature of stablecoins is that they can work with so-called smart contracts on blockchains, which, unlike conventional contracts, require no legal authority to be executed. The code in the software automatically dictates the terms of the agreement and how and when money will be transferred. This makes stablecoins programmable in ways that dollars can’t be.

Smart contracts have given rise to the use of stablecoins not only in seamless trading but also lending, payments, insurance, prediction markets and decentralized autonomous organizations – businesses that operate with limited human intervention.

Collectively, these software-based financial services are known as decentralized finance, or DeFi.

Proponents hold that moving money via stablecoins is faster, cheaper and easier to integrate into software compared with fiat currency.

Others say the lack of regulation creates big risks for the financial systems. In a recent paper, economists Gary B. Gorton and Jeffery Zhang draw an analogy to the middle of the 19th century era when banks issued their own private currencies. They say stablecoins could lead to the same problems observed in that era, when there were frequent runs because people couldn’t agree on the value of privately issued currencies.

Worried that stablecoins could pose risks to the financial system, regulators have also taken greater interest in them recently.


Source : The Conversation