ExplainSpeaking-Economy is a weekly newsletter by Udit Misra, delivered in your inbox every Monday morning. Click here to subscribeDear Readers,From the perspective of the global economy, the year 2023 started off on a mildly optimistic note. As top policymakers and CEOs met in Davos, there was a sense that the global economy might be able to dodge the chances of a recession in 2023. The IMF’s World Economic Outlook in January provided a salutary stamp to that notion. However, the recent collapses in the banking sector had yet again ratcheted up the apprehensions of a recession.In this context, a new research publication by the World Bank, titled “Falling Long-Term Growth Prospects”, argues that the current decade (2020-2030) “could be a lost decade in the making—not just for some countries or regions as has occurred in the past—but for the whole world.”Simply put, the World Bank has found that the overlapping crises of the past few years — Covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resultant spike in inflation as well as monetary tightening — have ended a span of nearly three decades of sustained economic growth.“Starting in 1990, productivity surged, incomes rose, and inflation fell. Within a generation, about one out of four developing economies leaped to high-income status. Today nearly all the economic forces that drove economic progress are in retreat,” writes David Malpass, President, The World Bank Group.He further warns that without a big and broad policy push to rejuvenate it, the global average potential GDP growth rate—the theoretical growth rate an economy can sustain over the medium term based on investment and productivity rates without risking excess inflation— is expected to fall to a three-decade low of 2.2% a year between now and 2030, down from 2.6% in 2011-21 and 3.5% during the first decade of this century.The important thing to understand here is that while the report talks about global growth slowdown, the main hurt will be felt by emerging economies such as India. “A persistent and broad-based decline in long-term growth prospects imperils the ability of emerging market and developing economies (EMDEs) to combat poverty, tackle climate change, and meet other key development objectives,” states the World Bank.The World Bank report recounts a 2015 research request by Kaushik Basu, the World Bank Group’s Chief Economist at the time, to assess the long-term growth prospects of emerging market and developing economies (EMDEs).While the World Bank came up with a preliminary study (titled “Slowdown in Emerging Markets: Rough Patch or Prolonged Weakness?”), the latest publication provides “a definitive answer” to the question. And the answer is: These economies are in the midst of a prolonged period of weakness.Look at the data for actual GDP growth and per capita GDP growth in the two tables (A.1 and A.3) below. It shows a broad-based decline over the past two decades whether a country belongs to EMDEs or the middle-income countries (MICs) or the low-income countries (LICs).The World Bank has looked at a whole set of fundamental drivers that determine economic growth and found that all of them have been losing power. The six charts below capture the weakness.These fundamental drivers include things like capital accumulation (through investment growth), labour force growth, and the growth of total factor productivity (which is the part of economic growth that results from more efficient use of inputs and which is often the result of technological changes) etc.Not surprisingly then, the potential growth rate is expected to decelerate further (see Table A.3).What about India?Even though India has also lost its growth momentum over the past two decades, it is and will likely remain a global leader when it comes to growth rates. India falls under the South Asia Region (SAR), which is expected to be fastest growing among emerging market and developing economies (EMDEs) for the remainder of this decade. To be sure, India accounts for three-fourths of the SAR output. SAR includes countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh etc.“Economic activity in the South Asia region (SAR) rebounded strongly from the recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, expanding by 7.9 percent in 2021 after a drop of 4.5 percent in 2020. Output in the region is on track to grow by about 6.0 percent a year between 2022 and 2030, faster than the 2010s annual average of 5.5 percent and only moderately slower than growth in the 2000s,” states World Bank.According to the World Bank, if all countries make a strong push, potential global GDP growth can be boosted by 0.7 percentage point—to an annual average rate of 2.9%; this would be faster than the preceding decade (when the global economy grew by 2.6%) but still slower than the first decade of 2000s (when the growth clocked 3.5% per annum).There are six priority interventions suggested by the report: incentivise investments into the economy, boost labour force participation rates (especially for women), cut trade costs, capitalise on service exports, improve global cooperation, ensure that fiscal policies and monetary policies don’t run against each other (for instance, government expenditures raising deficits at a time when central banks are trying to contain inflation).Until next week,Udit
PSL success, continuing political chaos and rising Covid numbersThe three prominent domestic issues in the news in Pakistan are the delayed elections, rising Covid numbers and a the successful Pakistan Super League cricket tournament.The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has decided to delay the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa elections until October. The Nation (March 24) is sympathetic to the ECP: “The ECP also finds itself in a tough spot given that the Army has said that it will not be available for poll-related duties in light of the security situation.” Express Tribune (March 24) says, “the top court will strike down the electoral watchdog’s decision to postpone election as ‘constitutional overreach’.” Dawn (March 24) heavily condemns this decision saying, “If the ECP does not reverse its decision, the precedents being set are going to damage Pakistani democracy, perhaps irrevocably so.Dawn (March 25) welcomes the WHO’s announcement that “the virus… won’t be viewed any longer as one that is ‘disrupting society and hospital systems’”. But they caution the public saying, “in a country like Pakistan, which has one of the world’s highest rates of diabetes, officials must continue to urge vigilance.” The Nation (March 25) says, “a new wave… is bound to cause irrecoverable damage” for Pakistan, which is “already suffering from a never-ending political crisis and economic turmoil”.The Lahore Qalandars made history by becoming the first team to win the tournament for their second consecutive year. Express Tribune (March 20) began by comparing the PSL to the IPL saying, “It was comforting to learn that the PSL had surpassed the Indian Premier League on digital rating”. News International discussed the highlights — recounting the contribution of particular players and said, “The series was a precursor for a PSL-style women’s T20 league which Pakistan plans to launch next year.” Dawn (March 20) added that the “PSL went on despite the unrest in Lahore, not only showcasing Pakistan’s ability as a cricket host but also helping to divert people’s minds from cantankerous politics.”The ‘elusive’ IMF dealIn economic news this week, the IMF deal and food and fuel crisis — especially during Ramazan – were discussed.On the cost-cutting measures that have caused severe hardship for ordinary Pakistanis, Daily Times (March 25) said, “It is more crucial than ever before to think long-term and establish institutions that can protect vulnerable groups amid all the brutal belt-tightening measures we’ve seen this year”. The IMF has added another measure before signing the deal, which is increasing the interest rate to the recommended 4 per cent. The Nation (March 24) calls the IMF programme a “necessary evil” and says “it is clear that the government is trying its hardest to retain some control over monetary and fiscal decisions… but we are running out of options”. Dawn (March 25) says, “the decision-makers sitting in Islamabad… remain unable to convince the IMF… to bail the country out of its present crisis”. It adds that the IMF too seems to be “acting in bad faith… cynically using the delays in reaching an agreement for political mileage”.The prevailing narrative around the petrol subsidy is that this is a “last-ditch effort” and that “populist solutions to the problems faced by the people always prove untenably expensive for the economy” (Dawn, March 21). News International (March 22) talks about it keeping in mind the general elections right around the corner saying it may be to “sweeten the ballot box” but that “canvassing for votes based on dubious conspiracy theories or ill-conceived schemes masquerading as pro-poor subsidies is a no-no.” Express Tribune (March 21) says, “the desire to come up with subsidies and relief to the neglected and low income segments of the society is appreciated” but the lack of “quantified data to estimate the needful requirement” makes it less effective.The Nation (March 25) says, “With gas in short supply, residents have a hard time preparing for sehri and iftar”. They attribute this shortage to a “lack of care in using our gas reserves”. Daily Times (March 24) says, “purchasing power of the average Pakistani has gone down by 40 per cent this year” and so, Ramazan “this year is less festive”.Amritpal, defamation and Rahul GandhiOn India this week, there was much said about the Amritpal matter, on defamation and Rahul Gandhi.Express Tribune commented on both the Amritpal case (March 22) as well the defamation issue (March 25). It cautioned India against a “return to the 1980s Sikh militancy era” and “the fundamentalist Hindutva movement’s assault on Indian secularism has bred fundamentalist sentiment in minorities” and “if not addressed, the hateful ideology will end up tearing India apart.”On the Rahul defamation issue, Express Tribune says, “the law appears to have been applied vindictively in this case” but it offers “food for thought regarding Pakistan… if prominent leaders actually had to think twice before accusing their opponents”, they “would have to speak on policy strengths and weaknesses, rather than scandal and slander”.Daily Times (March 26) commented on Rahul Gandhi’s case saying, “for a mainstream politician having his career overwhelmed by a conviction that has sent shockwaves in all quarters over its regressive nature… we, at Daily Times, could only offer profound regrets”. It adds that “Modi’s administration has gained considerable notoriety… for using the law to silence its dissidents.” The editorial concludes by saying, “the writing on the wall asks of everyone: beware, beware, for the colonial boogeyman is here.”firstname.lastname@example.org
The Supreme Court on Friday directed all convicts and undertrial prisoners released during the Covid-19 pandemic to surrender within 15 days.A bench of Justices MR Shah and CT Ravikumar said undertrial prisoners, who were released on emergency bail during the pandemic, can move for regular bail before competent courts after their surrender.The bench added that all the convicts who were released can move competent courts for suspension of their sentence after their surrender.Several convicts and undertrial prisoners, mostly those who were booked for non-heinous offences, were released during the pandemic in an effort to decongest jails. This move happened in various states on the recommendations of high-powered committee set up in pursuant to directions of the apex court.(With PTI inputs)
The recent rise in Covid-19 cases reminds us that the pandemic is not yet over. It has added some more concern to the ongoing influenza outbreaks. On the global stage, countries and a range of institutions are negotiating the “pandemic treaty” — a global accord on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.As is reasonably well known now, the Covid XBB 1.16 variant seems to be fuelling the surge, nearly a three-fold rise in cases over the last fortnight. So far, it has not caused any mortality in India. With more than 6,000 currently active cases, 76 samples of XBB 1.16 have tested positive from eight states, the most so far from Karnataka and Maharashtra. XBB.1.5 has been reported from 38 countries and declared a variant of interest (VOI) by the WHO. It is expected to emerge as a dominant strain in the UK and Europe and is rapidly spreading in the US as well. Even individuals who had received three or four doses of an mRNA vaccine (such as Moderna or Pfizer), plus suffered a BA.5 infection, were not immune to this variant. There is no evidence of any potential change in severity though. The growth advantage of XBB 1.16 is nearly one-and-a-half times of XBB.1.5, making it a rather aggressive variant, and with immune escape properties too.Another potential worry from Israel is the identification of a combination of the BA.1 (Omicron) and infectious BA.2 variants. The virus was detected in the parents of an infant boy, in whom two viruses linked up and exchanged genetic materials. The current test positivity rate is 10 per cent, a worrying metric by all accounts.This current landscape of Covid-19 is layered with a huge surge of H3N2 Influenza A cases, with at least nine reported deaths. Influenza B has also been identified. Both these are seasonal influenzas, driving up the hospital — including intensive care — admissions. Much like Covid-19, the high-risk groups are pregnant women, the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions and immunosuppressive conditions. Healthcare workers are at particularly high risk of getting affected and in turn spread to vulnerable persons.The limitations of the International Health Regulations (IHR) 2005 were exposed during the Covid-19 pandemic — both in countries not reporting in time and the international agencies not responding adequately. Local, national and global governance is increasingly being recognised as an important determinant of the emergence and re-emergence of diseases of animal origin. To re-emphasise, both Covid-19 and the influenza viruses have animal origins — “spill over” in technical jargon — when a virus is able to overcome several barriers to “jump” and become feasible in another species.It is in this context that the World Health Assembly set off a global process in December 2021, at its second-ever special session, to draft and negotiate a convention agreement to strengthen pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. An intergovernmental negotiating body (INB) that includes WHO’s 194 countries is steering this process. At the same time, more than 300 amendments to the IHR are also being discussed. The World Health Assembly in 2024 is expected to ratify these, ushering in a “comprehensive, complementary and synergistic set of global health agreements”. The WHO Director-General referred to this initiative as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to strengthen the global health architecture to protect and promote the well-being of all people.The G20 group of countries, with the Indian presidency, has a significant role to play. This is particularly so in light of the One Health Mission that India is working on and is expected to be rolled out in the near future. The G20 is already engaged with One Health (OH) issues and pandemic preparedness is one of the current focus areas.India, representing the Global South, is expected to play a role in integrating equity considerations in the ongoing negotiations. Scholars have enunciated three key equity considerations. First, the appropriate use, recognition, and protection of indigenous knowledge, which has traditionally recognised the interconnectedness of human, non-human and ecosystem health. Second, the substantive and equitable inclusion of women and minority groups, including racial, ethnic and sexual minorities – traditionally under-represented groups in treaty design and implementation. Third, the use of health equity impact and gender-based analysis to identify and develop mitigation plans for the potentially inequitable impact of epidemics.On the domestic front, the tasks include promoting the establishment of OH infrastructure. This will need an integrated OH surveillance system, building and nurturing partnerships to connect and share data on infectious pathogens in wildlife, companion animals, livestock, humans, the environment, and related risk factors. India will also need to build OH capacity and pandemic preparedness monitoring and assessment into the state and district governance architecture that will draw upon an inter-/ transdisciplinary OH evaluation framework and methodology, including metrics for measuring success.The writer is chairperson, Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and co-investigator at the UKRI-GCRF One Health Poultry Hub
My father passed away on March 7, 2023. He was almost 96. Like many in his generation, he had been involved in the freedom movement. He recalled that in his speech on 15 August 1947, as the office secretary of the Sub-Divisional Congress Committee in Alipurduar, he said, “Although we have got independence no doubt, it’s only political independence. We have a long way to go. We are still not economically free. We have to now get real freedom through our own efforts.”After 75 years, it would perhaps be good to take stock of whether the dreams of independence that my father and others like him had, have been realised. Is India shining equally on all its young citizens who constitute close to 40 per cent of the population?In these 75 years, there have been plenty of laws, policies, plans, and schemes set up to protect children and their rights. The Eleventh Five Year Plan, for the first time, even had a separate chapter with child rights. Child budgeting has been adopted nationally, and in several states. Almost every child is now enrolled in school, including more girls. Many more children are immunised, there is greater reporting of violence against children, the silence and stigma around child sexual violence is breaking down, and incidences of child marriage have decreased.But some old challenges remain, while others have intensified, and new ones have emerged. Inequities persist due to social norms, caste, religion, gender identity, disabilities, region, or ethnicity. While there continues to be a rural-urban divide, many children are growing up in unplanned and poor living conditions in under-resourced habitations, with the constant threat of eviction. There is better enrolment in schools, but retention rates are not optimal. Forced migration, human smuggling and trafficking, abuse and exploitation remain realities. There is increasing violence based on religion and ethnicity. India still has one of the worst rates of child malnutrition in the world, and is home to the highest number of child labourers. There are children who remain hungry despite an increase in food production. Infant mortality rates may have reduced but access to healthcare is unaffordable in the wake of increasing privatisation of services.Children and young people are a part of the ecosystem that we as adults provide them. Unfortunately, we find that children are aggressive, intolerant, and discriminatory — all because of what they see around them.Internet-based communications and social media offer innumerable possibilities, but have also brought hitherto unknown forms of exploitation. Young people find themselves increasingly lost in the new market economy that cuts back on job security and welfare. They are also grappling with mental health issues, addictive behaviour, and substance abuse.The numerous challenges posed by the Covid-19 lockdowns have reversed many of the gains made over the years. That is why when the Union Budget 2023-24 was announced, we were not just concerned but shocked. An analysis by HAQ: Centre for Child Rights’ shows that the budget allocation for children was the lowest in the last 12 years, down from an average 5 per cent to 2.30 per cent, despite the impact of Covid. The budget allocations for key ministries too have reduced — for the Ministry of Women and Child Development, it dropped by 2.54 per cent, for the Ministry of Labour and Employment, which deals with child labour, by 33 per cent, and for the Ministry of Minority Affairs, it fell by 37.81 per cent.Divided as they are by gender, caste, religion, ethnicity, region or (dis)ability, it is critical that no child is excluded from accessing services. This needs a sound data collection and monitoring mechanism that tracks those who are left out. The government must remember that it has committed to “Leave No One Behind” (LNOB), a basic principle of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). This means guaranteeing inclusion and non-discrimination. More stringent laws may appease public demand for retribution, but cannot be the solution to complex social problems. That lies in investment in social change behaviour, in better access to justice and basic services. What we need is a 360 degree approach focused on creating an enabling environment that is safe and empowering.The dreams and aspirations of our children and young people are changing. We need to listen to them and encourage them to speak freely without fear. But that can only happen when we as adults value constructive criticism. We need an environment that will breed an independent-thinking, fearless generation to take forward the democracy we wish to be. These are the dreams I have for children in the 75th year of India’s independence.The writer is the Co-Founder and former director of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights. Views are personal. This article is part of an ongoing series, which began on August 15, by women who have made a mark, across sectors
The World Happiness Report is out, and once again, Finland has been crowned as the world’s happiest nation. At the top spot for the sixth year in a row, The World Happiness Report –published by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network — ranks countries on happiness which is, further, based on three preceding years’ data of their average life evaluations. Released on International day of Happiness, observed on March 20, the report ranks global happiness basis survey data from people in over 150 countries.According to the ranking, which is based on data from sources like the Gallup World Poll, like in previous years, many of the same Nordic countries are in the top spots. Denmark is at number two, followed by Iceland at number three. The ranking uses six key factors to measure happiness — social support, income, health, freedom, generosity, and absence of corruption.The authors of the report noted that Nordic countries merit special attention in light of their generally high levels of both personal and institutional trust. “They also had COVID-19 death rates only one-third as high as elsewhere in Western Europe during 2020 and 2021–27 per 100,000 in the Nordic countries compared to 80 in the rest of Western Europe,” they said.Interestingly, unlike previous years, where same countries tend appear in the top 20, there’s a new entrant this year — Lithuania (at the 20th spot).According to the report, India ranks at 125th position out of 136 countries, making it one of the least happy countries in the world. It even lags behind its neighbouring nations like Nepal, China, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. At the very bottom of list is Afghanistan at 137th position.Besides ranking the countries, the report also looks at the state of the world in 2023. Lara Aknin, one of the coauthors of the report said in a press release, “This year’s report features many interesting insights. But one that I find particularly interesting and heartening has to do with pro-sociality. For a second year, we see that various forms of everyday kindness, such as helping a stranger, donating to charity and volunteering, are above pre-pandemic levels.”Stating that global happiness has not taken a hit in the three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the report added that life evaluations from 2020 to 2022 have been “remarkably resilient”, with global averages in line with the years preceding the pandemic.Additionally, “Benevolence to others, especially the helping of strangers, which went up dramatically in 2021, stayed high in 2022,” said John Helliwell, one of the authors of the report.Helliwell further noted that “even during these difficult years, positive emotions have remained twice as prevalent as negative ones, and feelings of positive social support twice as strong as those of loneliness.”📣 For more lifestyle news, follow us on Instagram | Twitter | Facebook and don’t miss out on the latest updates!
The health and family welfare department of the Karnataka government Saturday issued a nutrition advisory for the general public in the wake of a spike in infectious diseases like influenza and Covid-19 with the onset of summer.The office of the state health commissioner issued the nutrition advisory stating that “Covid-19 has imposed a new set of challenges for the individual to maintain a strong immune system against the virus through healthy dietary and lifestyle practices”.Bengaluru reported 661 active but mild Covid-19 cases Sunday, compared to 278 active cases at the end of February. There are also widespread reports of the flu affecting people across the city with mild illnesses.“Appropriate nutrition and hydration are vital in the fight against Covid-19. People must consume a well-balanced diet to have a stronger immune system and lower risk of chronic illnesses and infectious diseases,” the health department stated.“Ingestion of a variety of fresh and unprocessed foods every day is imperative to get the vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, protein, and antioxidants for the body. Water intake should be sufficient to hydrate the body. Sugar, fat, and salt should be avoided to significantly lower the risk of being overweight, obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain types of cancer,” it said.“Fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes (eg lentils, beans), nuts, and whole grains (eg maize, millets, oats, brown rice, or starchy tubers or roots such as potato, yam), and foods from animal sources (meat, fish, eggs, and milk) can be consumed,” the department said.According to the advisory, meat, fish, eggs, and milk can be consumed as per the habits of a family in moderation. Fresh fruit juice is the best choice for a drink, while snacks in the form of fresh fruits and raw vegetables are better than food high in sugar, fat, or salt.“Eat moderate amounts of fats and oil every day. Consume unsaturated fats (found in fish, avocados, nuts, olive oil, soy, canola, and sunflower oil) instead of saturated fats (found in fatty meat, butter, coconut oil, cream, cheese, ghee, and lard),” said the advisory.Another piece of advice was to choose white meat and fish rather than red meat. “Avoid processed meats. Opt for low-fat versions of milk and dairy products. Avoid industrially produced trans fats found in processed food, fast food, snack food, fried food, frozen pizza, pies, cookies, margarine, spreads, and avoid eating out by cooking at home,” the advisory said.The health department has set up a tele-counselling facility on 14416/18008914416.
Genetic material collected at a Chinese market near where the first human cases of Covid-19 were identified show raccoon dog DNA comingled with the virus, adding evidence to the theory that the virus originated from animals, not from a lab, international experts say.“These data do not provide a definitive answer to how the pandemic began, but every piece of data is important to moving us closer to that answer,” World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Friday.How the coronavirus emerged remains unclear. Many scientists believe it most likely jumped from animals to people, as many other viruses have in the past, at a wildlife market in Wuhan, China.But Wuhan is home to several labs involved in collecting and studying coronaviruses, fuelling theories scientists say are plausible that the virus may have leaked from one.The new findings do not settle the question, and they have not been formally reviewed by other experts or published in a peer-reviewed journal.Tedros criticised China for not sharing the genetic information earlier, telling a press briefing that “this data could have and should have been shared three years ago.” The samples were collected from surfaces at the Huanan seafood market in early 2020 in Wuhan, where the first human cases of Covid-19 were found in late 2019.Tedros said the genetic sequences were recently uploaded to the world’s biggest public virus database by scientists at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.They were then removed, but not before a French biologist spotted the information by chance and shared it with a group of scientists based outside China that’s looking into the origins of the coronavirus.The data show that some of the Covid-positive samples collected from a stall known to be involved in the wildlife trade also contained raccoon dog genes, indicating the animals may have been infected by the virus, according to the scientists. Their analysis was first reported in The Atlantic.“There’s a good chance that the animals that deposited that DNA also deposited the virus,” said Stephen Goldstein, a virologist at the University of Utah who was involved in analyzing the data. “If you were to go and do environmental sampling in the aftermath of a zoonotic spillover event … this is basically exactly what you would expect to find.” The canines, named for their raccoon-like faces, are often bred for their fur and sold for meat in animal markets across China.Ray Yip, an epidemiologist and founding member of the US Centers for Disease Control office in China, said the findings are significant, even though they aren’t definitive.“The market environmental sampling data published by China CDC is by far the strongest evidence to support animal origins,” Yip told the AP in an email. He was not connected to the new analysis.WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, Maria Van Kerkhove, cautioned that the analysis did not find the virus within any animal, nor did it find any hard evidence that any animals infected humans.“What this does provide is clues to help us understand what may have happened,” she said. The international group also told WHO they found DNA from other animals as well as raccoon dogs in the samples from the seafood market, she added.The coronavirus’ genetic code is strikingly similar to that of bat coronaviruses, and many scientists suspect Covid-19 jumped into humans either directly from a bat or via an intermediary animal like pangolins, ferrets or racoon dogs.Efforts to determine the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic have been complicated by factors including the massive surge of human infections in the pandemic’s first two years and an increasingly bitter political dispute.It took virus experts more than a dozen years to pinpoint the animal origin of SARS, a related virus.Goldstein and his colleagues say their analysis is the first solid indication that there may have been wildlife infected with the coronavirus at the market. But it is also possible that humans brought the virus to the market and infected the raccoon dogs, or that infected humans simply happened to leave traces of the virus near the animals.After scientists in the group contacted the China CDC, they say, the sequences were removed from the global virus database. Researchers are puzzled as to why data on the samples collected over three years ago wasn’t made public sooner. Tedros has pleaded with China to share more of its Covid-19 research data.Gao Fu, the former head of the Chinese CDC and lead author of the Chinese paper, didn’t immediately respond to an Associated Press email requesting comment.But he told Science magazine the sequences are “nothing new. It had been known there was illegal animal dealing and this is why the market was immediately shut down.” Goldstein said his group presented its findings this week to a WHO advisory panel investigating Covid-19’s origins.Michael Imperiale of the University of Michigan, a microbiology and immunology expert who was not involved in the data analysis, said finding a sample with sequences from the virus and a raccoon dog “places the virus and the dog in very close proximity. But it doesn’t necessarily say that the dog was infected with the virus; it just says that they were in the same very small area.” He said the bulk of the scientific evidence at this point supports a natural exposure at the market, and pointed to research published last summer showing the market was likely the early epicenter of the scourge and concluding that the virus spilled from animals into people two separate times. “What’s the chance that there were two different lab leaks?” he asked.Mark Woolhouse, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Edinburgh, said it will be crucial to see how the raccoon dogs’ genetic sequences match up to what’s known about the historic evolution of the Covid-19 virus. If the dogs are shown to have Covid and those viruses prove to have earlier origins than the ones that infected people, “that’s probably as good evidence as we can expect to get that this was a spillover event in the market.” After a weeks-long visit to China to study the pandemic’s origins, WHO released a report in 2021 concluding that Covid-19 most probably jumped into humans from animals, dismissing the possibility of a lab origin as “extremely unlikely.” But the UN health agency backtracked the following year, saying “key pieces of data” were still missing.And Tedros has said all hypotheses remain on the table.The China CDC scientists who previously analyzed the Huanan market samples published a paper as a preprint in February suggesting that humans brought the virus to the market, not animals, implying that the virus originated elsewhere. Their paper didn’t mention that animal genes were found in the samples that tested positive.In February, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US Department of Energy had assessed “with low confidence” that the virus had leaked from a lab.But others in the US intelligence community disagree, believing it more likely it first came from animals. Experts say the true origin of the pandemic may not be known for many years — if ever.
Written by Benjamin MuellerThe World Health Organisation rebuked Chinese officials Friday for withholding research that may link Covid-19’s origin to wild animals, asking why the data had not been made available three years ago and why it is now missing.Before the Chinese data disappeared, an international team of virus experts downloaded and began analysing the research, which appeared online in January. They say it supports the idea that the pandemic could have begun when illegally traded raccoon dogs infected humans at a Wuhan seafood market.But the gene sequences were removed from a scientific database once the experts offered to collaborate on the analysis with their Chinese counterparts.“These data could have — and should have — been shared three years ago,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. The missing evidence now “needs to be shared with the international community immediately,” he said.According to the experts who are reviewing it, the research offers evidence that raccoon dogs — foxlike animals known to spread coronaviruses — had left behind DNA in the same place in the Wuhan market that genetic signatures of the new coronavirus also were discovered.To some experts, that finding suggests that the animals may have been infected and may have transmitted the virus to humans.With huge amounts of genetic information drawn from swabs of animal cages, carts and other surfaces at the Wuhan market in early 2020, the genetic data had been the focus of restless anticipation among virus experts since they learned of it a year ago in a paper by Chinese scientists.A French biologist discovered the genetic sequences in the database last week, and she and a team of colleagues began mining them for clues about the origins of the pandemic.That team has not yet released a paper outlining the findings. But the researchers delivered an analysis of the material to a WHO advisory group studying Covid’s origins this week in a meeting that also included a presentation by Chinese researchers regarding the same data.The analysis seemed to clash with earlier contentions by Chinese scientists that samples taken in the market that were positive for the coronavirus had been ferried in by sick people alone, said Sarah Cobey, an epidemiologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago who was not involved in recent research.“It’s just very unlikely to be seeing this much animal DNA, especially raccoon dog DNA, mixed in with viral samples, if it’s simply mostly human contamination,” Cobey said.Questions remain about how the samples were collected, what precisely they contained and why the evidence had disappeared. In light of the ambiguities, many scientists reacted cautiously, saying that it was difficult to assess the research without seeing a complete report.The idea that a lab accident could have accidentally set off the pandemic has become the focus of renewed interest in recent weeks, thanks in part to a fresh intelligence assessment from the Department of Energy and hearings held by the new Republican House leadership.But a number of virus experts not involved with the latest analysis said that what was known about the swabs gathered in the market buttressed the case that animals sold there had sparked the pandemic.“It’s exactly what you’d expect if the virus was emerging from an intermediate or multiple intermediate hosts in the market,” Cobey said. “I think ecologically, this is close to a closed case.”Cobey was one of 18 scientists who signed an influential letter in the journal Science in May 2021 urging serious consideration of a scenario in which the virus could have spilled out of a laboratory in Wuhan.On Friday, she said lab leaks continued to pose enormous risks and that more oversight of research into dangerous pathogens was needed. But Cobey added that an accumulation of evidence — relating to the clustering of human cases around the Wuhan market, the genetic diversity of viruses there and now the raccoon dog data — strengthened the case for a market origin.The new genetic data does not appear to prove that a raccoon dog was infected with the coronavirus. Even if it had been, the possibility would remain that another animal could have passed that virus to people, or even that someone infected with the virus could have transmitted it to a raccoon dog.Some scientists stressed those points Friday, saying that the new genetic data did not appreciably shift the discussion about the pandemic’s origins.“We know it’s a promiscuous virus that infects a bunch of species,” said David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, who also signed the May 2021 letter in Science.Chinese scientists had released a study in February 2022 looking at the market samples. Some scientists speculated that the Chinese researchers might have posted the data in January because they were required to make them available as part of a review of their study by a scientific journal.The Chinese study had suggested that samples that were positive for the virus had come from infected people, rather than from animals sold in the market. That fit with a narrative long promulgated by Chinese officials: that the virus sprang not only from outside the market but from outside the country altogether.But the Chinese report had left clues that viral material at the market had been jumbled together with genetic material from animals. And scientists said the new analysis by the international team illustrated an even stronger link with animals.“Scientifically, it doesn’t prove that raccoon dogs were the source, but it sure smells like infected raccoon dogs were at the market,” said Jeremy Kamil, a virologist at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center Shreveport.He added: “It raises more questions about what the Chinese government really knows.”Scientists cautioned that it was not clear that the genetic material from the virus and from raccoon dogs had been deposited at the same time.Depending on the stability of genetic material from the virus and the animals, said Michael Imperiale, a virologist at the University of Michigan, “they could have been deposited there at potentially widely different times.”Still, Dr. Arturo Casadevall, an immunologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who co-authored a recent study with Imperiale examining the origin of the coronavirus, said that linking animal and viral material nevertheless added to the evidence of a natural spillover event.“I would say it strengthens the zoonotic idea,” he said, “that is, the idea that it came from an animal at the market.”In the absence of the actual animal that first spread the virus to people, Casadevall said, assessing the origins of an outbreak would always involve weighing probabilities. In this case, animals sold at the market were removed before researchers began taking samples in early 2020, making it impossible to find a culprit.Tim Stearns, dean of graduate and postgraduate studies at the Rockefeller University in New York, said the latest finding was “an interesting piece of the puzzle,” although he said it was “not in itself definitive and highlights the need for a more thorough investigation.”For all the missing elements, some scientists said the new findings highlighted just how much information scientists had managed to assemble about the beginnings of the pandemic, including home addresses for early patients and sequence data from the market.Theodora Hatziioannou, a virologist at the Rockefeller University, said it was critical that the raw data be released. But, she said, “I think the evidence is overwhelming at the moment toward a market origin.”And the latest data, she said, “makes it even more unlikely that this started somewhere else.”Felicia Goodrum, an immunobiologist at the University of Arizona, said that finding the virus in an actual animal would be the strongest evidence of a market origin. But finding virus and animal material in the same swab was close.“To me,” she said, “this is the next best thing.”
These days we are barraged with a bewildering array of alphanumerics: H3N2, H2N2, H1N1 and of course the unforgettable SARS-CoV-2. These combinations are complex enough to serve as highly secure passwords to enter our bodies’ operating systems, lull us into complacency, terrorise us with déjà vu or possibly even all of the above. Should we be worried?Influenza viruses have co-existed with humanity at least since 6,000 BC in China, with Greek writings of fifth century BC indicating illness descriptions that match influenza. However, the influenza virus was first discovered only in 1931 by Richard Shope as a cause for swine influenza, a new disease among pigs at the time. By 1933, influenza A viruses were identified as being responsible for human infection, with multiple subtypes being discovered in subsequent years. Influenza B was discovered in 1940, and Influenza C and D were identified thereafter.The mother of all pandemics, The Spanish Influenza of 1918-1919, was caused by one such virus. It resulted in over 100 million deaths, the equivalent of 480 million deaths today. The 1957-58 Asian flu pandemic caused by the H2N2 virus resulted in over two million deaths, the equivalent of about 7.5 million deaths today. The 1968 Hong Kong Flu pandemic caused by the H3N2 virus resulted in over a million deaths. The 2009 Swine Flu pandemic caused by the H1N1 virus resulted in half a million deaths. We are all too familiar with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus which has already resulted in approximately eight million deaths. All these viruses have mutated into less lethal avatars, which are gallivanting across the globe, resulting in several million infections and more than a million deaths every year. So, why shouldn’t we be worried?First, these are all weakened viruses with varying degrees of infectivity but very low rates of lethality. Next, the RT-PCR test has now become sophisticated enough to detect these viruses. Third, we have effective vaccines. Fourth, we’ve learnt a few things from experience.In late December 2022 and early January 2023, an outbreak of a respiratory infection with symptoms of a cold, sore throat, fever, and weariness was noticed within India. On March 4, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) announced that the disease had been caused by influenza virus subtype H3N2, a virus made of the N2 from the 1957 H2N2 virus and the H3 from the Avian Influenza A virus.COVID-19, as we know only too well, is brought on by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The symptoms of all flu variants and those of COVID-19 are fairly similar. They include fever, stuffy nose, sore throat, fatigue, and headache. There are minor variations in predominance of symptoms and in recovery periods ranging from one to two weeks. Laboratory testing with the new RT-PCR tests is necessary for a precise diagnosis in order to pinpoint the genetic or molecular elements of the virus. Testing certainly helps on an epidemiological level to track and monitor disease prevalence but is of minimal significance in formulating an individual’s treatment plan.We are currently dealing with at least four, possibly more influenza viruses in addition to SARS-CoV-2. All of them are contagious and spread through droplets. Hence the prevention of all of them is similar. Precautions that reverberated as slogans during the COVID-19 pandemic plead to be re-established. Use of masks, hand and respiratory hygiene and social distancing are the best measures to curb the spread of all four viruses. I haven’t given up yet on masking and hand hygiene much to the amusement of many of my friends and some colleagues. Then again, call it luck, genes, vaccination, appropriate protocols, or combinations thereof but I have been spared COVID-19 and flu in all these years.What does one do if ill other than the obvious medical consultation? Bed rest, isolation, hydration, ventilation and symptomatic treatment for fever, sore throat, body ache, cough and other symptoms. Hospitalisation may be considered if not better in 7-10 days and deemed necessary by one’s physician. But unless there is secondary bacterial infection, absolutely no antibiotics. Certainly not the ones recommended by the friendly neighbourhood chemist! Antibiotics do not work on viruses. On the other hand, they do an incredibly sinister job of fostering antibiotic resistance which is growing to become a monumental problem in healthcare. Please avoid them unless deemed necessary by your physician. If indicated, antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu are known to facilitate recovery.One cannot help wondering if Lord Gautam Buddha might have anticipated the romp of multiple viruses when he advocated the golden middle path? Between recklessness and excessive caution, untampered bravado and paralytic anxiety, audacity and timidity lies our salvation.
Amid a surge in Covid cases, India’s single-day tally of cases crossed 800 for the first time in 126 days on Saturday, while the number of active cases climbed to 5,389, according to data released by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.With 843 fresh infections, the country’s caseload increased to 4.46 crore (4,46,94,349). The death toll rose to 5,30,799 with four fatalities, the data showed.While Jharkhand and Maharashtra reported one death each, two were reconciled by Kerala.At 5,839, the active cases now comprise 0.01 per cent of the total infections. The national COVID-19 recovery rate was recorded at 98.80 per cent, according to the health ministry website.Amidst the flu season, an uptick in Covid cases has been observed in India.With PTI inputs
With cases of influenza on the rise, the Centre took a review meeting last week. States are on alert, readying hospitals to treat patients with the viral infection. The Union Health Ministry in March confirmed at least two deaths – one in Haryana and one in Karnataka – due to the H3N2 subtype of influenza virus.Data from the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme, however, suggests that flu killed at least nine persons in just the month of January.As many as 3,038 laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza were reported across the country till March 9, according to data provided by the Union Health ministry. This is not unusually high. For reference, a total of 13,202 cases had been reported last year. The actual numbers, however, are likely to be higher because not everyone gets tested for flu and the result of everyone who does isn’t always reported to the government.Officials and experts have attributed the current increase in cases to a number of reasons.One, this is the flu season. India usually sees two peaks every year – once between January and March and again post-monsoon between August and October. Changing seasons create the perfect environment for the virus to spread. But it is not just flu that is circulating at the moment. An increase in cases of other respiratory infections like adenovirus and Covid-19 has also been reported.A senior government official said on condition of anonymity, “In Delhi alone, when the patients hospitalised with respiratory symptoms were tested, only 10% were found to have the flu (H3N2). Another 15% actually had Covid-19.” The official said there has been an increase in Covid-19 cases across the five southern states and Gujarat over the past couple of weeks.Two, fewer flu infections during the pandemic have left large sections of the population with lowered immunity. “Every year, there is a sub-clinical spread of influenza and people acquire some immunity to it. And, unlike the West, we do not see high mortality due to it. But during the pandemic, people masked up, stayed away from crowded areas, and avoided gatherings, so this spread could not occur. Hence, there is an increase this year,” said Dr Sujeet Singh, former director and advisor at National Centre for Disease Control. There were fewer flu cases reported in 2020 and 2021, 2,752 and 778 respectively.Three, the flu virus is very prone to changing its structure. “This change means that we see an increase in flu cases usually every other year,” said Singh.Four, India has a huge burden of chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease even among the young, which are risk factors for severe disease. And, unlike Covid-19, the yearly flu shot is not readily available in government set-ups and not many take it.It is actually not.Just like Covid-19, it causes mild symptoms like fever, cough, and runny nose in most, but can lead to complications like pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome that can kill.Very young children, old people, people with co-morbidities such as heart disease, diabetes, and kidney disease, pregnant women, and those with a weakened immune system, like people who have undergone transplants, are at a higher risk of getting severe disease.Last year, there were 410 deaths due to the infection. While most of the cases were caused by the more common sub-type H1N1 during the surge in respiratory infections in August, the ICMR network of viral diagnostic laboratories started detecting increasing numbers of H3N2 cases by December.No, it is one of the sub-types of Influenza virus and has been known to cause seasonal infections, just like the 2009 pandemic sub-type H1N1 that has been in circulation since. In fact, the sub-type H3N2 had caused a flu pandemic in 1968.“The sub-type was first detected in India in 1996 and has since caused outbreaks too. The only difference this year is that the disease seems to be more severe than we would usually see with H3N2,” said the senior government official.It was the second most commonly found virus in respiratory samples in 2021 during the August-September surge – the most common being the Victoria sub-type. There are two main sub-types of Influenza viruses – Type A and Type B. Influenza A encompasses sub-types such as H1N1 and H3N2, while there are two lineages of Influenza B called Victoria and Yamagata. Usually, Influenza A is associated with more severe disease and deaths than type B.The sub-types to be included in the yearly flu shot are updated by the World Health Organisation twice a year depending on the types in circulation.The ICMR network of viral laboratories test respiratory samples throughout the year from sentinel sites to keep an eye on the ups and downs in the numbers of flu cases, but more importantly to track the sub-types in circulation. There is a need to continuously update the vaccine because of the constantly evolving nature of influenza viruses.It can undergo an “antigenic drift” to acquire mutations that change the part that cause the body to illicit an immune response. The Covid-19 equivalent would be the spike protein – which has changed but not enough that a vaccine using the original virus is useless.It can also undergo “antigenic shift”, where there is an abrupt, major change that leads to a new protein structure of the virus. This results in a new virus from the same family infecting humans or a virus that infects animals to jump over to humans. These shifts can lead to pandemics such as the one in 2009 or even the Spanish flu of 1918.The flu vaccine usually contains four sub-types – two influenza A (with H1N1 and H3N2 recommended for 2022-23) and two Influenza B.Influenza spreads when people inhale infected droplets released by a patient when they cough or sneeze. These droplets can also survive on surfaces and can spread if a person touches the surface and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth.The transmission can be prevented by ensuring that the mouth and nose are covered when you sneeze or cough and washing your hands frequently. It is best to remain home when sick and drink plenty of fluids. Masks may also be used in crowded places to prevent infection.
Almost overnight, artificial intelligence (AI) has broken out of techie talk circles and registered with regular humans. Thanks to that awkwardly named, “generative AI”, ChatGPT, we now know that anyone with access to the internet can turn in a B-grade machine-generated essay, the jobs of teachers or admissions officers have become harder, other jobs may become redundant, and the age of disinformation-at-scale is upon us. Many are experiencing this sudden arrival of AI into public view with a degree of discomfort.It is one thing for regular humans to fret over new technology, but the discomfort is also being felt by tech overlords responsible for ushering in this artificial reality. When companies like Microsoft and Google, with some of the world’s smartest on their payrolls, rush out half-baked products, one thing becomes clear: Instead of enhancing it, AI may be testing — and laying bare — the fault lines of human intelligence. Let me offer some examples.Faultline one — move fast and do stupid things: As soon as ChatGPT became the tech sensation of 2022, Microsoft was chomping at the bit to capitalise on its early investment in it and add some of that ChatGPT zing to its flagging search engine, Bing. The first outing was problematic: It confessed its desire to hack computers and spread misinformation and professed love for a New York Times journalist, while comparing another reporter to Hitler. For good measure, it said the reporter was “too short, with an ugly face and bad teeth”.In parallel, Google rushed out its own response to ChatGPT, called Bard. While Bard’s answers to queries were less entertaining than those of Bing, a single mistake in responding to a question about the James Webb Space Telescope sent Google’s parent Alphabet’s shares plummeting, costing the company $100 billion in lost market value.Why would Microsoft and Google — ordinarily, hyper-cautious, and slow-moving colossi — put their reputations and stock prices at risk? Microsoft may have seen it as a chance to appear nimble, for a change, inject some competition into the search business. At the very minimum, they were trying to get the reigning king of search, Google, to — in Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s words – “come out and show that they can dance”. Is coaxing Google onto the dance floor worth putting your market value on the line? Of course, even without Microsoft’s coaxing, as the world’s biggest spender on AI, Google clearly felt pressure to do something — anything — to respond to the explosive interest in ChatGPT. They came out to dance with Bard, clearly, reluctantly and, clearly, without practised dance moves.Faultline two — detract from more meaningful issues: The limits of human intelligence are evident not only in the fumbles of tech giants. The frothy coverage of ChatGPT in the media has shown its myopic understanding of the AI landscape. With their incessant chatter about chatbots, reporters and commentators (present company included) may be adding to public unease about it and it comes at the cost of insufficient coverage of more societally meaningful uses of AI. This has consequences: Media narratives in buzzy tech areas drive attention, and misallocate scarce resources.What would be an example of a more societally meaningful area of AI? How about AI that affects human health, where its contributions could be a matter of life and death?With far less fanfare than that accompanying ChatGPT, health-related AI crossed a major milestone last year: An AI system, Alphafold, showed it could predict the structure of almost every protein catalogued by science. This could open the door to breakthroughs in the discoveries of medicines and bring efficiencies to processes that cost billions, take decades and deny treatment to so many people.Why didn’t Alphfold merit the wall-to-wall media coverage that accompanied ChatGPT, Bing and Bard? For one, its implications are harder for readers to grasp. Second, it hasn’t delivered immediately usable results. Finally, since we are programmed to appreciate the end-products, it is easy to look past the many breakthroughs and technological miracles, such as AI, that go into making the end-product a reality.The end-products of AI in healthcare take time and require consistent focus and dedication of resources. Alphafold, for example, is a predictive tool. To make meaningful advances, the predictions must be paired with numerous other approaches, such as painstaking experiments and modelling of protein interactions. AI algorithms for drug design need lots of data to train on and the data must be released from disparate sources and from different formats owned by different institutions.Opening the troves of data, providing the appropriate privacy protections and regulatory oversight will be critical to unlocking other AI advances in human health — algorithms for identifying patients at risk of opioid overuse, remotely gauging mental health symptoms or catching signs of breast cancer on mammograms.Faultline three — short attention and shorter memories: Yet another limitation of human intelligence is our attention is ephemeral and we have short memories. A case in point is the Covid-19 pandemic, marking only its third anniversary.Few of us paid attention to the fact that the first alert of a mysterious new virus out of Wuhan, China, came through AI. Data scraping systems raised a red flag before the humans at the WHO got wind of the impending disaster. At the other end, the search for a vaccine was accelerated by algorithms: Researchers got help from AI in understanding the SARS-CoV-2 virus better and predicting how to elicit an immune response. AI was key to determining clinical trial sites and analysing the vast amounts of trial data. In the thick of the pandemic, there were scores of AI experiments to diagnose Covid from symptoms, but those attempts, while noble in intent, failed. Meanwhile, if you ask most people today if there was a connection between AI and the beginning and end of the acute pandemic, you’ll probably get a blank stare.AI’s salespeople are aware of the limits of human intelligence as they try to get our attention. Sundar Pichai declared that AI will be more profound than fire. Not to be outdone, his colleague, ex-Chief Business Officer for Google X, Mo Gawdat, said, “We’re creating God.” Always the contrarian, Elon Musk said, “We’re summoning the demon.”It is time we paid attention to the right uses of AI and applied more intelligence to how to direct money, talent, data access and regulatory and ethical resources so that we end up with less demon, more god and usher in a technology that can set the world on fire — and, if we aren’t careful — burn us all down.The writer is Dean of Global Business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, founding executive director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context. He is author of The Slow Pace of Fast Change
Xi Jinping assumed the post of president for a third term with the overwhelming support of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s parliament. The NPC met this week to implement the decisions of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), held in October 2022. The Party had endorsed Xi as General Secretary of the CCP and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and also inscribed ‘Xi Jinping Thought‘ in the Constitution for its guiding role in China’s rejuvenation.For decades after Mao Zedong’s death, China was guided by the strategy crafted by Deng Xiaoping and his comrades, participants in the glories and tribulations of the Mao era. Having witnessed the remarkable economic and technological growth of the capitalist west and the collapse of socialism in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Deng felt that only the strong hand of the CCP could shape China’s destiny and avoid chaos. The economic policy of “reform and opening up” (gaige kaifang) established SEZs in coastal regions, encouraged FDI, supported export-led growth, freed up private enterprise and permitted the generation of wealth. On the political front, the Party was cautious but agreed on collective leadership and orderly transitions of power between generations (leadership positions lasted two terms or a decade and retirement by the age of 70). China experienced rapid economic growth and its integration into the global community increased its comprehensive national strength.Deng advocated the 24-character strategy for China after the turbulence of the Tiananmen Square events. The six maxims of “observe calmly; secure positions; cope with affairs calmly; hide capabilities and bide time; maintain a low profile; and never claim leadership” called for internal capacity building but cautious external expression. It guided China during the tenures of Jiang Zemin-Li Peng and Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao and its “peaceful rise” (heping jueqi). The Deng ideology receded thereafter, as political dynamics changed and some felt China had already become a great power.Xi came to power, with Premier Li Keqiang, representing the fifth generation of the Party. He was raised in the chaotic Cultural Revolution (wenhua dageming) and served briefly with the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). To strengthen and unify the Party, he supported the PLA, reformed economic activity and promoted common prosperity. His anti-corruption campaign targeted even prominent figures in the CCP and clipped the wings of high-profile entrepreneurs. His strict Zero Covid policy led to an economic slowdown, angst and deaths. Unlike the Deng era, these campaigns purged many in the system, affected economic activity and prompted public protests, but consolidated the power of the Party.Externally, China’s quest to secure resources, markets and influence for its continued growth, faced headwinds. There was competition and friction with the US over trade, human rights, security and Taiwan; and security concerns with Europe while economic engagement continued. China’s activities in the South China Sea brought it into direct competition with the core priorities of ASEAN, Japan and Taiwan. The One Belt One Road or Belt and Road Initiative expanded China’s footprint but led many countries into debt traps through poor investments and negatively affected China’s image. As China’s profile grew, it adopted proactive and unilateral postures, often unlike Deng’s pragmatic and cautious approach and often violating even its own agreements with partners.Three key issues emerged as significant in the recent NPC session — leadership changes; structural relations between Party and government; and foreign policy.Xi (69) was elected unanimously, without a single dissenting vote, to a third term as President. The consolidation of Party, military and state power at his command has not been seen since the times of Mao. Xi’s ally and Shanghai boss, Li Qiang (63) took over as Premier of the State Council to revive the flagging economy, deal with the Covid pandemic and restore trust among entrepreneurs. Han Zheng (68), former Vice Premier, was elected as Vice President while Zhao Leji (66), former head of Anti-Corruption, became Chairman of NPC. The new appointments revealed that persons close to Xi were promoted and indicated their strong support for Xi.The NPC introduced reforms to government institutions, as approved in the second meeting of the 20th CCP Plenum, held last month. There were steps to dilute the separation that existed in Party-government relations. The new State Council would improve coordination with Leading Groups of the CCP, adding to the oversight exercised by Party Secretaries. The north-south divide between the wings hosting CCP and State Council offices, in Zhongnanhai, may also diminish with the new appointments. New structures were established in security, science and technology and financial sectors to enhance the role of the Party in rule-making. It was unclear whether centralised policy-making would effectively respond to the needs of a complex economy with diverse stakeholder interests. Outgoing Premier Li Keqiang, who announced a modest growth target of 5 per cent during his Work Report at NPC, told his State Council colleagues at his farewell in Zhongnanhai to listen to citizen concerns and coordinate with economic entities; then he added mysteriously that the eyes of heaven were watching!China sought to be a global power and participated actively on global issues. Its rise coincided with interdependence and competition with the west, its primary source of technology and its principal destination for trade and capital reserves. At the NPC, Xi was critical of the US’s attempts to “contain, suppress and encircle China” as the two moved towards economic decoupling, which would be painful. China has been under pressure with the emergence of the Indo-Pacific. On Ukraine, China had to balance its support for Russia with its global aspirations, but it also could not allow long-term stress on Russia.At the same time, the sceptre of conflict over Taiwan and tensions in its neighbourhood grew, primarily due to its unilateral advances, aggressive diplomacy and unproductive investments. Interestingly, the military delegates at NPC initiated a discussion on Taiwan (in the context of the Anti-Secession Law), called for a legal framework for overseas military deployments and proposed wartime legislation. China’s heft in global affairs has grown over time. However, it no longer follows the cautious Deng approach but is more transactional and active, including the “willingness to fight”.A new red star has ascended over the Chinese sky, bringing a constellation and orbit that its citizens and the global community may engage with for some time to come.The writer was Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs and an Ambassador
AHMEDABAD: In absolute terms, out of 5.4 crore persons who are fully vaccinated for Covid in Gujarat, only 1.96 crore have taken the third or booster dose, giving the percentage of 36% for the covered population. However, with national average only at 24%, the state stands among top five, indicated a data tabled in the Lok Sabha recently.According to the data, Telangana had the highest coverage at 43%, followed by 40% in Odisha, 39% in Andhra Pradesh, 37% each in Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh. Gujarat ranked fifth with 36%.The state health department officials said that December saw the last major boost amid the fears of rise in Covid cases. "The COWIN portal data indicate that weekly booster dose coverage is about 20,000 to 30,000. The figure is also driven by non-urban areas where there is a relatively higher tendency to get the booster shots," said a health department official.All-time low active Covid cases also have to do with the trend, indicated experts. They said that the initial drive saw huge uptake due to high mortality and hospitalization in the first and second waves of the infection. With cases going down, nearly 100% of the eligible 18+ years population covered with both doses along with herd immunity has further made citizens lazy in getting the jab, they added.
AHMEDABAD: The Gujarat high court on Monday admitted a petition seeking Rs 25 lakh ex gratia for a kerosene vendor who died of Covid during the second wave. The petition was filed by one Gita Bhavsar, who stated that her husband Mayankbhai, had to work during the pandemic according to the guidelines issued by the government to render essential services. She stated that on July 28, 2020, the state government's food, civil supplies and consumer affairs department had launched an ex gratia compensation scheme for deaths due to Covid-19 for those engaged in essential services. The government resolution had specified that those operating the fair price shops would be covered under the scheme and a compensation of Rs 25 lakh will be paid to the kin of the deceased. Since the state government refused compensation in her husband's case, the woman filed a petition in the high court contending that he was a retail kerosene vendor covered under the department's Covid death compensation scheme. She urged the HC to direct the state government to pay the compensation. During the hearing on Monday, the state government's counsel informed the high court that the scheme does not cover Bhavsar's case. She pointed out the exceptions made in the list and said that retail vendors are not covered in the compensation scheme, and that the deceased cannot be called a fair price shop owner. After the preliminary hearing, Justice Biren Vaishnav said, "I am not just convinced with this. You (the government lawyer) show me what the purpose of the resolution (of July 28, 2020) is. There must be something in the records to show why the resolution was brought in." The court admitted Gita Bhavsar's petition and posted further hearing of the matter on March 17.
Gujarat is slowly but surely ingraining its lostand-found millet way of life. With the United Nations declaring 2023 the International Year of the Millet, primarily to provide affordable and nutritious superfood to billions, pearl millet (bajri), sorghum (jowar), finger millet (nagli, ragi) etc. , are returning in their GenNextfriendly avatars.At environmental activist Mahesh Pandya’s Ahmedabad residence, chapatis made of ragi, or flour mixed with bajri and little millet (bavto) are most preferred. “We are diet conscious people and have been using an entire range of millet grains at home for the past 12-odd years. We even fry bhajiyas in batter made of different millets. However, for wider acceptance of the grains, they have to be supplied through the public distribution system,” he says.While millet lovers like Pandya were in the minority till a few years ago, the humble grain, once considered the staple of the lower strata of society, is making a comeback, riding on increased awareness after Covid. A slew of reimagined millet food products, ranging from khakhra and flakes on one end of the spectrum to brownies and gulab jamuns on the other, are gaining popularity.Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority, a central government body, has declared Gujarat as a major producer of millet varieties , especially bajra, in India. Different regions of the state grow different varieties which include kodo millet (gajro), proso millet (cheno), little millet (kuri), foxtail millet (kang) and barnyard millet (sama).Dieticians and nutritionists say while millet grains have been around for a long time, the urban population caught on to the quinoaragi trend around the Covid period. Those with hypertension and diabetes were advised to include millet in their diet and nouveau recipes found their way from the internet to the kitchens.Jinal Parmar, a dietician with Apollo Hospitals, said, “Earlier, particular varieties of millet were associated with specific regions or communities, but with wider availability, they are becoming part of the urban platter. Millet is good for all age groups, primarily to prevent non-communicable diseases (NCDs). ”Himanshu Banker, a resident of Vejalpur, said his family has reduced rice and wheat consumption by about 70%. “We make porridge, khichdi and vadas out of kodri, jowar and bajri. We also mix wheat and millet flour to make chapatis,” said Banker.But all is not well with millet. The People’s Biodiversity Register (PBR), maintained by the villages, indicates a drop in the cultivation area and crop diversity in several areas of the state. In Rajkot’s Jasdan, foxtail, barnyard and proso millet disappeared between 2017 and 2022. Several farmershave taken to cash crops or switched to hybrid varieties that need less water and are resilient to climate change.Shruti Bhrdwaj, a clinical dietician with a hospital in Ahmedabad, said, “While multigrain flour is better, its composition should factor in a person’s health condition,” she said.In the end though, it’s about what appeals to every palate. Tushar Pancholi, a resident of Rajkot, said while a ragi chapati may not entice many, Gujarati snacks out of millet varieties that are lapped up by all in the family.—Inputs by Paul John
AHMEDABAD: Gujarat on Saturday reported the deaths of two Covid patients, both from Banaskantha district. The last time the state recorded two deaths in a day was on September 23, four months ago. Since then Gujarat has witnessed the deaths of 12 patients.While active cases fell to an all-time low in the first two weeks of January, new cases picked up again in the third week with eight on Friday and four on Saturday. In all, Gujarat had 25 active cases on Sunday evening. Of these, 12 are in Ahmedabad and seven in Vadodara."Covid cases are very much under control, and there has been no major change in the sub-variants - as of today, BL, BA, XBB and BN are found in samples collected in the state. The state is carrying out 15,000 tests a day to find new cases," said a senior health department official.
AHMEDABAD: After popping antivirals, antibiotics and vitamins to survive the Covid pandemic, people in Gujarat appear to have taken their pill boxes to the bedroom. The state recorded the highest 34% growth in sales of sex stimulants last year as against 2021, according to the All India Organisation of Chemists and Druggists (AIOCD)-AWACS.Medical practitioners and chemists attribute this rise to indiscriminate use of these medicines and also rising incidents of weakened libido and erectile dysfunction. On one end are youngsters who are buying PDE-5 inhibitors over the counter and, on the other are those with a reduced sex drive as a fallout of Covid-19 infection, rising stress and duress, and even poor lifestyle choices.'Stress driving sales of sex stimulants' It isn't just the increase in episodes of stress and anxiety among people since the pandemic. In fact, a lot of people who have suffered from Covid-19 have come with complaints of a weak libido and erectile dysfunction. The number of such patients is increasing by the day," said Dr Paras Shah, a sexual health expert based in Ahmedabad.Medical practitioners also underlined the increasing trend of people, especially youngsters, getting addicted to smoking tobacco and even marijuana, which also impacts their sexual health. Another key reason cited for the rising sales is reckless consumption of these medicines."Youngsters, particularly in the age group of 18 to 30 years, tend to buy these medicines over the counter or even order online, plainly out of curiosity and not out of health concerns. Eventually, they become habituated to these drugs. Even though most of these people are well-read and aware of the consequences of indiscriminately consuming PDE5 inhibitors, they continue to consume them recklessly," Shah added. The moving annual turnover (MAT) for drugs used for sexual stimulation and rejuvenation, largely sildenafil citrate and tadalafil along with herbal and ayurvedic medicines in December 2022 increased to Rs 43.4 crore as against the MAT of Rs 32.5 crore in December 2021, according to AIOCD-AWACS. Chemists and druggists attribute this spike in sales to unrelenting stress people continue to experience since the pandemic.Other categories of medicines which showed growth in sales during the year include dermatology (9%), Otologicals (9%), Neuro and Central Nervous System (8%) and gynaecology (6%), among others.
BJP leaders have said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address at the concluding session of the party’s national executive meeting had a clear message — focus on creating a “soft power” and “goodwill” to expand the party and increase its tally in the 2024 general elections to take the BJP’s journey of electoral victories to the next level.In the address, which emphasised on reaching out to more of the marginalised, minorities and small communities, Modi urged the BJP cadre to embrace the fact that the BJP is the ruling party at the Centre and many key states, and “think beyond conventional politics and electoral politics”.“To me, Prime Minister Modi was saying that the BJP should adopt a new style of politics to create soft power and goodwill among all sections of the people. He wants the BJP to create a positive atmosphere. The goodwill and soft power should help increase the BJP’s tally in the next Lok Sabha elections,” said a senior BJP leader.Modi’s reference to the age group of 18-25 in his speech also indicated that the party would also focus on that age group — youths in that age group are keen on development and a corruption-free government, according to Modi — to turn it into a strong loyal BJP support base.Party sources said the prime minister’s speech had given a clear signal that both the government and the party would take several initiatives in the coming days to see that the BJP gets more seats in the Lok Sabha elections. “Every step in the coming days, including the Budget, would keep that in mind,” said a party MP.In his speech to the national executive, Modi asked party members to reach out to every section of society, including the marginalised and minority communities, “without electoral considerations”. He wants BJP workers to reach out to Pasmandas, Bohras, Muslim professionals, and educated Muslims as a confidence-building measure and without expecting votes in return.Modi, who had a notebook with points scribbled on it while speaking, reiterated his message of reaching out to marginalised groups among the minorities at the Hyderbad National Executive meeting too. He also spoke about the Sikh community that, according to him, has a positive feeling about the BJP. He pointed out that the Sikh community is present in many districts outside Punjab too and the BJP cadre “should not ignore them” thinking they are too small to make any electoral difference.Recalling what the PM spoke about, a BJP leader said, “He said don’t always think about votes only. He also mentioned the small groups of backward communities and said they always stood by the BJP since the Jana Sangh days. He said there are small communities like Bohras, among whom there are several educated Muslims. They do not vote for the BJP but cooperate with the party in many activities. The Prime Minister specifically said Muslims would not vote for the BJP, but that should not stop us from reaching out to them.”A party leader said, “The target is to increase the BJP’s tally from 303 and return to power with more glory. Because the positive atmosphere will create a favourable situation for us — to talk about development work and to expand our base.”Another significant point the Prime Minister harped on was India’s global positioning. According to Modi, the global situation post Covid has a “lot of prospects and chances” and India should let them pass by. Even the national executive statement on the G-20 presidency mentioned the changed world order in the last nine years. According to BJP vice president Baijayant Panda who briefed the media on the statement, the G-20 and, in general, the world is “full of admiration” as India not only dealt with the Covid crisis but also reached out with help to other countries.Panda said BJP workers, in their individual capacity, would work to connect society as the country hosts over 200 G20-related events in more than 50 places. He added it was an opportunity to connect the society and showcase India’s progress and its rich heritage as delegates from not only the elite bloc of 20 leading economies but also many multilateral bodies such as the International Monetary Fund would visit India.
Written by Damien CaveJacinda Ardern explained her decision to step down as New Zealand’s prime minister Thursday with a plea for understanding and rare political directness — the same attributes that helped make her a global emblem of anti-Trump liberalism, then a target of the toxic divisions amplified by the coronavirus pandemic.Ardern, 42, fought back tears as she announced at a news conference that she would resign in early February before New Zealand’s election in October.“I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice,” she said. “It is that simple.”Ardern’s sudden departure before the end of her second term came as a surprise to the country and the world. New Zealand’s youngest prime minister in 150 years, she was a leader of a small nation who reached celebrity status with the speed of a pop star.Her youth, pronounced feminism and emphasis on a “politics of kindness” made her look to many like a welcome alternative to bombastic male leaders, creating a phenomenon known as “Jacindamania.”Her time in office, however, was mostly shaped by crisis management, including the 2019 terrorist attack in Christchurch, the deadly White Island volcanic eruption a few months later and COVID-19 soon after that.The pandemic in particular seemed to play to her strengths as a clear and unifying communicator — until extended lockdowns and vaccine mandates hurt the economy, fueled conspiracy theories and spurred a backlash. In a part of the world where COVID restrictions lingered, Ardern has struggled to get beyond her association with pandemic policy.“People personally invested in her; that has always been a part of her appeal,” said Richard Shaw, a politics professor at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand.“She became a totem,” he added. “She became the personification of a particular response to the pandemic, which people in the far-flung margins of the internet and the not so far-flung margins used against her.”The country’s initial goal was audacious: Ardern and a handful of prominent public health researchers who were advising the government held out hope for eliminating the virus and keeping it entirely out of New Zealand. In early 2020, she helped coax the country — “our team of 5 million,” she said — to go along with shuttered international borders and a lockdown so severe that even retrieving a lost cricket ball from a neighbor’s yard was banned.When new, more transmissible variants made that impossible, Ardern’s team pivoted but struggled to get vaccines quickly. Strict vaccination mandates then kept people from activities like work, eating out and getting haircuts.Dr. Simon Thornley, a public health researcher at the University of Auckland and a frequent and controversial critic of the government’s COVID response, said many New Zealanders were surprised by what they saw as her willingness to pit the vaccinated against the unvaccinated.“The disillusionment around the vaccine mandates was important,” Thornley said. “The creation of a two-class society and that predictions didn’t come out as they were meant to be, or as they were forecast to be in terms of elimination — that was a turning point.”Ardern became a target, internally and abroad, for those who saw vaccine mandates as a violation of individual rights. Online, conspiracy theories, misinformation and personal attacks bloomed. Threats against Ardern have increased greatly over the past few years, especially from anti-vaccination groups.The tension escalated in February. Inspired in part by protests in the United States and Canada, a crowd of protesters camped on the Parliament grounds in Wellington for more than three weeks, pitching tents and using parked cars to block traffic.The police eventually forced out the demonstrators, clashing violently with many of them, leading to more than 120 arrests.The scenes shocked a nation unaccustomed to such violence. Some blamed demonstrators, others the police and the government.“It certainly was a dark day in New Zealand history,” Thornley said.Dylan Reeve, a New Zealand author and journalist who wrote a book on the spread of misinformation in the country, said the prime minister’s international profile probably played a role in the conspiracist narratives about her.“The fact that she suddenly had such a large international profile and was widely hailed for her reaction really seemed to provide a boost for local conspiracy theorists,” he said. “They found support for the anti-Ardern ideas from like-minded individuals globally at a level that was probably out of scale with New Zealand’s typical prominence internationally.”The attacks did not cease even as the worst of the pandemic receded. This month, Roger Stone, the former Trump adviser, condemned Ardern for her COVID approach, which he described as “the jackboot of authoritarianism.”In her speech Thursday, Ardern did not mention any particular group of critics, nor did she name a replacement, but she did acknowledge that she could not help but be affected by the strain of her job and the difficult era when she governed.“I know there will be much discussion in the aftermath of this decision as to what the so-called real reason was,” she said, adding: “The only interesting angle you will find is that after going on six years of some big challenges, that I am human. Politicians are human. We give all that we can, for as long as we can, and then it’s time. And for me, it’s time.”Suze Wilson, a leadership scholar at Massey University in New Zealand, said Ardern should be taken at her word. She said that the abuse could not and should not be separated from her gender.“She’s talking about not really having anything left in the tank, and I think part of what’s probably contributed to that is just the disgusting level of sexist and misogynistic abuse to what she has been subjected,” Wilson said.In the pubs and parks of Christchurch on Thursday, New Zealanders seemed divided. In a city where Ardern was widely praised for her unifying response to the mass murder of 51 people at two mosques by a white supremacist, there were complaints about unfulfilled promises around nuts-and-bolts issues such as the cost of housing.Tony McPherson, 72, who lives near one of the mosques that was attacked nearly four years ago, described the departing prime minister as someone who had “a very good talk, but not enough walk.”He said she fell short on “housing, health care” and had “made an absolute hash on immigration,” arguing that many businesses had large staff shortages because of a delayed reopening of borders after the lockdowns.Economic issues are front and center for many voters. Polls show that Ardern’s Labour Party has been trailing the center-right National Party, led by Christopher Luxon, a former aviation executive.On the deck of Wilson’s Sports Bar, a Christchurch pub, Shelley Smith, 52, a motel manager, said she was “surprised” at the news of Ardern’s resignation. She praised her for suppressing the community spread of the coronavirus in 2020, despite the effects on the New Zealand economy. Asked how she would remember Ardern, she replied: “As a person’s person.”That appeal may have faded, but many New Zealanders do not expect Ardern to disappear for long. Helen Clark, a former prime minister who was a mentor to Ardern, followed up her time in office by focusing on international issues with many global organizations.“I don’t know she’ll be lost to the world,” Shaw said of Ardern. “She may get a bigger platform.”
Search for the word “climate” on Twitter and the first automatic recommendation isn’t “climate crisis” or “climate jobs” or even “climate change” but instead “climate scam.” Clicking on the recommendation yields dozens of posts denying the reality of climate change and making misleading claims about efforts to mitigate it.Such misinformation has flourished on Twitter since it was bought by Elon Musk last year, but the site isn’t the only one promoting content that scientists and environmental advocates say undercuts public support for policies intended to respond to a changing climate.“What’s happening in the information ecosystem poses a direct threat to action,” said Jennie King, head of climate research and response at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based nonprofit.“It plants those seeds of doubt and makes people think maybe there isn’t scientific consensus.” The institute is part of a coalition of environmental advocacy groups that on Thursday released a report tracking climate change disinformation in the months before, during and after the U.N. climate summit in November. The report faulted social media platforms for, among other things, failing to enforce their own policies prohibiting climate change misinformation.It is only the latest to highlight the growing problem of climate misinformation on Twitter. Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, allowed nearly 4,000 advertisements on its site — most bought by fossil fuel companies — that dismissed the scientific consensus behind climate change and criticized efforts to respond to it, the researchers found.In some cases, the ads and the posts cited inflation and economic fears as reasons to oppose climate policies, while ignoring the costs of inaction. Researchers also found that a significant number of the accounts posting false claims about climate change also spread misinformation about U.S. elections, COVID-19 and vaccines.Twitter did not respond to questions from The Associated Press. A spokesperson for Meta cited the company’s policy prohibiting ads that have been proven false by its fact-checking partners, a group that includes the AP. The ads identified in the report had not been fact-checked.Under Musk, Twitter laid off thousands of employees and made changes to its content moderation that its critics said undercut the effort. In November, the company announced it would no longer enforce its policy against COVID-19 misinformation. Musk also reinstated many formerly banned users, including several who had spread misleading claims about climate change. Instances of hate speech and attacks on LGBTQ people soared.Tweets containing “climate scam” or other terms linked to climate change denial rose 300% in 2022, according to a report released last week by the nonprofit Advance Democracy. While Twitter had labeled some of the content as misinformation, many of the popular posts were not labeled. Musk’s new verification system could be part of the problem, according to a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, another organization that tracks online misinformation.Previously, the blue checkmarks were held by people in the public eye such as journalists, government officials or celebrities. Now, anyone willing to pay $8 a month can seek a checkmark. Posts and replies from verified accounts are given an automatic boost on the platform, making them more visible than content from users who don’t pay.When researchers at the Center for Countering Digital Hate analyzed accounts verified after Musk took over, they found they spread four times the amount of climate change misinformation compared with users verified before Musk’s purchase.Verification systems are typically created to assure users that the accounts they follow are legitimate. Twitter’s new system, however, makes no distinction between authoritative sources on climate change and anyone with $8 and an opinion, according to Imran Ahmed, the center’s chief executive.“We found,” Ahmed said, “it has in fact put rocket boosters on the spread of lies and disinformation.”
Serum Institute of India has written to the Union Health Ministry seeking the inclusion of its Covid vaccine Covovax in the CoWIN portal as a heterologous booster dose for adults, official sources said on Wednesday.The letter was written by Prakash Kumar Singh, Director, Government and Regulatory Affairs at Serum Institute of India (SII), they said.National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI) is likely to hold a meeting soon to decide on the matter.The Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) on January 16 approved market authorisation for Covovax as a heterologous booster dose for adults who have been administered two doses of either Covishield or Covaxin.Its approval was based on recommendations by the subject expert committee (SEC) of the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation.The DCGI approved Covovax for restricted use in emergency situations in adults on December 28, 2021, in the 12-17 age group on March 9, 2022, and also in children aged seven to 11 years on June 28 last year subject to certain conditions.Covovax is manufactured through technology transfer from Novavax.It has been approved by the European Medicines Agency for conditional marketing authorization and was granted emergency-use listing by the World Health Organization (WHO) on December 17, 2021.In August 2020, US-based vaccine maker Novavax Inc. had earlier announced a licence agreement with the SII for the development and commercialization of NVX-CoV2373, its COVID-19 vaccine candidate in India and low-and-middle-income countries.
FROM the pandemic and the “tumbling” we took right when we had thought we understood our immune system, to why science lacks rock stars, to the “new humans” that science has created, oncologist and author Siddhartha Mukherjee spoke on a range of subjects at the Express Adda in New Delhi on Monday.Author of Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (2010), and The Gene: An Intimate History (2016), New York-based Mukherjee is also a noted haematologist and oncologist, whose recently published work of non-fiction, The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human (Allen Lane), takes off from the study of the fundamental unit of life — the cell — and leads readers through the integral role it plays in medical science.Speaking on what he means by “new humans”, Mukherjee said, “I think that in many ways — including the creation of organs, organoids, and the interface between cells and devices… we are creating humans that we haven’t encountered before… In fact, there are people walking amongst us here who may have had a bone marrow transplant and are living chimeras — so their body is their own body, but their blood is being made from someone else’s body.”Giving the example of artificial pancreas in the making, people who undergo neural stimulation to alleviate symptoms of diseases such as depression, and of Louise Brown, the first child conceived in a petri dish, Mukherjee said, “We might as well be creating what in science fiction is a cyborg.”“We are creating people who, in some old technologies, will be called cyborgs. Although they are not really cyborgs, they are cellborgs. They are interfaces between cellular therapies and human beings. And, in so being, really sit at the borderlands of the limits of our current technologies… They are amongst us; they are much more real than the science-fictional new humans. And, they raise many, many questions about who we are, what we do, and what our future looks like,” said Mukherjee.In his new book, Mukherjee, who has demystified and humanised public discourse on medicine and health with his empathetic writing, also explores the pandemic, how it upended our lives and the interaction of the Sars-CoV-2 with our cells that enabled the virus to unleash the global pandemic. Even with his deep knowledge of the immune system – he has been working on immunological cures for cancers – Sars-CoV-2 took him, much like other scientists, by surprise, challenging the understanding of how the immune system tackles a bacterial or viral infection. “The tumbling that happened, I think, is very important. There was a moment of time in which we as a scientific community thought that we understood vaccination, virology, and immunology. And then, all of a sudden, here comes a virus that really challenges very fundamental things that we know and don’t know about how the immune system works.”Talking about why some people tend to get severe Covid-19 while others don’t, he said we have learnt a lot of surprising things through the pandemic. Surprise number one, he said, was that apparently healthy people, men more than women, have a pre-existing auto-immune disease that invisibly affects their capacity to respond to viruses. It’s only when Covid-19 strikes, that previously invisible incapacity to respond to the virus becomes visible. Surprise number two, he said, was that some people carry mutations in genes connected to the immune system – totally invisible for most parts, until Covid-19 hits. Citing the example of long Covid, he wondered whether other viral infections like influenza or Epstein-Barr also lead to such long duration syndromes. “It’s because Covid-19 was such a global pandemic that we have learned to understand the autoimmune consequences of Covid-19 in the long run,” said Mukherjee, who disclosed his voice had changed as a consequence of Covid-19.Replying to a question on whether the pandemic was a result of bio-warfare, Mukherjee said he didn’t think it was but he did not dismiss a lab leak theory completely. The author also spoke on the anti-vax movement in the United States and on the paradox of this being an anti-science moment in an era of medical breakthroughs. The anti-vax movement, he pointed out, was largely driven by three sets of people – the libertarians who say that my body is my body; those who have an anti-science stance; and those who are facing vaccine exhaustion. As for the disdain for medicine, he says, it is driven by medical men not being able to convey their full power and politics that scapegoats it. It is medicine and larger social changes driven by it that has led to child-birth becoming non-fatal and people living up to the ages of 80 and more.Big pharma and pricing of drugs came up for discussion, too. Mukherjee’s recent initiative in Bengaluru, Immuneel Therapeutic Ltd, in collaboration with biotech entrepreneur Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, has been rolling out a crucial clinical trial on the treatment of cancer, called the Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, already in use in several countries, that will significantly bring down the cost of therapy for patients in India. He said pharma companies should not be pricing products based on what failed in the valley of death – the phase between an encouraging find and a final product. Developing medicines costs money, he acknowledged, but most large pharma companies he said were surviving by gobbling up highly successful start-ups.The author was in conversation with the Anant Goenka, Executive Director, Indian Express Group, and Devyani Onial, National Features Editor, The Indian Express.A question-answer session with the audience was followed by rapid-fire round with Goenka in which the author revealed that he did not believe in a predetermined destiny, that he believes in life on other planets and named Albert Einstein as his favourite scientist. When asked whether people should “use, reduce, or stop” the following objects, he said yes to microwaves, 5 G and cellphones, and no to hair dyes and artificial sweeteners.The Express Adda is a series of informal interactions organised by the Indian Express Group and features those at the centre of change. Previous guests at the Adda include Union Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar, Union Minister of Health Mansukh Mandaviya, Union Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs and Petroleum and Natural Gas Hardeep Singh Puri, election strategist Prashant Kishor, Union Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change Bhupender Yadav and Union Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari.
Union Minister of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) Narayan Rane could not have chosen a worse timing or venue for his statement on Monday that India might see recession towards mid-year.The minister who often courts controversy with his statements said this at a time that the Centre is readying for the Union Budget, and the government has been pains to stress that India has beaten the trend of global economic downturn. Besides, Rane was speaking after delivering the inaugural speech at a programme related to G20 – the Modi government is celebrating the annual G20 presidency that has come to India as a showpiece event.“There is a global recession and it is in many countries. This is what I have gathered from discussions at meetings of the Union government. The recession is expected to hit India after June,” Rane said, while speaking to the media after the G20 event in Pune, adding that the government was working towards lessening its impact.On Tuesday, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh shot back on Twitter: “Narayan Rane, Union Cabinet Minister of MSMEs – that have been destroyed since 2014 — forecasts recession in India after 6 months. He said this in Pune to a G20 gathering. What are the PM & FM hiding from the country?”Narayan Rane, Union Cabinet Minister of MSMEs – that have been destroyed since 2014 – forecasts recession in India after 6 months. He said this in Pune to a G20 gathering.What are the PM & FM hiding from the country?https://t.co/iphinhA6D7— Jairam Ramesh (@Jairam_Ramesh) January 17, 2023A senior BJP leader requesting anonymity said Rane’s remarks are also embarrassing for the party as they coincide with the BJP national executive meeting in Delhi. On Tuesday, the socio-economic resolution passed by the party at the meeting celebrated India emerging as “the fifth largest economy in the world”. “By revealing that the Cabinet has concerns over the economic situation, Rane has given the Opposition a major issue to question the government,” the BJP leader said.Besides, Rane’s recession remarks coincide with the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos, Switzerland. Among those attending from India is Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde, trying to sell the state as an investment destination.While saying that he would not speak of politics as it was not his forte, Dalit Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industries Chairperson Milind Kamble told The Indian Express, “As a member of G20, I can confidently state that global recession is not going to cast an adverse shadow on India. This is evident from the parameters where we have majored. Our inflation index is under control at 4-4.5%. We have already returned to the pre-Covid situation, which has given a big boost to the economy… While China is confronting the Covid pandemic still and Europe is facing an energy crisis, India is steady and on the march,” Kamble said.He added that rather than a downturn, India might profit now due to the problems plaguing Europe and China.Rane’s colleagues in the BJP said that while his aggressiveness was his strength when fighting the Opposition, “his remarks on the economic situation may land him in a soup” now.A Shiv Sena leader who was considered a confidant of Bal Thackeray, Rane, now 70, was chosen to head the Sena-BJP coalition government in Maharashtra in 1999. In 2005, after he was expelled from the Sena on charges of anti-party activities, he joined the Congress and became a Cabinet minister in 2005. In 2017, Rane quit the Congress, and a year later, joined the BJP.A Rajya Sabha MP, he was inducted as Union MSME Minister in July 2021.As one of the most aggressive voices in the BJP-Shinde Sena camp, Rane has been in the forefront attacking Uddhav Sena president Uddhav Thackeray and his son Aaditya.Recently, he has been caught in an ugly war of words with Uddhav Sena MP and an equally aggressive leader, Sanjay Raut. Threatening to “expose” Raut, Rane said: “I will meet and tell Uddhav Thackeray what Raut speaks about him and his wife Rashmi Thackeray in private. Uddhav Thackeray will beat Raut with chappals.” Raut dismissed Rane’s threat as ramblings of a mad man, and claimed that he was set to lose his Cabinet berth.With a Union Cabinet reshuffle expected soon, some believe Raut may not have been off the mark. According to sources, the BJP leadership is not too happy with his work as MSME minister. With many having opposed his induction in the BJP as well, a leader said: “In the Modi-Shah government, performance matters. Whether in party or government, everybody has to complete their given task.”
Written by Alyson KruegerJulie Vadnal was visiting family in Michigan over Christmas when everyone “started to drop like flies,” she said. “The day we left, my mom had gotten a fever, and my sister had gotten a fever, and it was like, we have to get out of here.”Vadnal, 37, an editor who lives in New York, succumbed to what she described as a “flulike cold,” a few days before New Year’s Eve.Turns out, it wasn’t the worst time to be sick.It gave her an out for the holiday. “I do not like making New Year’s Eve plans,” she said. “I love sitting on the couch and watching Andy Cohen and Anderson Cooper, and this year I got to do it guilt free.”And she wasn’t the only one who was sick: When she returned to work on Jan. 2, she learned that three of her colleagues were sick, as well as someone’s husband. So there weren’t many disruptions to her social life. “I don’t feel like I am missing out on any events, because there aren’t any,” she said.January is normally a quiet month, as people return home from holiday celebrations. But this year it has been even quieter, as many of them were too sick to head back into offices or classrooms. Those who are well enough may find they are one of just a few not coughing or sneezing.Public health officials have warned of a “tripledemic,” a convergence of COVID-19, the flu and RSV. While peaking at different times, these three respiratory illnesses have made the last month difficult for many families.Holiday parties and family gatherings were probably somewhat responsible for the spread of diseases. As of Dec. 31, most of the country had a very high or high level of influenza, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the new year, COVID hospitalizations rose to levels not seen since last winter.In the pandemic era, the first two weeks of January seem to have become the time for getting sick.Those who have fallen ill are taking solace in the fact that at least they are not alone. Some say their offices are empty after the holidays with people calling in sick. Many people who haven’t yet become ill are expecting to. Some feel that it is so inevitable that they are hesitant to make plans for the foreseeable future.A 36-year-old woman who works in luxury fashion in New York — and didn’t want to be named for fear of insulting colleagues — has been booking conference rooms to escape the germs in her office.“I would rather be huddled around my laptop in a conference room than be out in our open working space with my monitor,” she said.She said she noticed the coughing and sneezing the second she stepped foot into her office after a two-week hiatus. “The sounds started at 9 a.m. on Tuesday during the coffee hour,” she said. “I wasn’t sure why these sick people didn’t stay home. It was pretty gross.”She believes many people are sick because if they test negative for COVID-19, they decide it is safe to go out, even if they have cold or flu symptoms.Others have been playing the now familiar “Is the tickle in my throat COVID?” game. Except now it could be the flu or another illness, too.“As of right now all I have is this weird tickle in my throat,” said Jaimie Caiazzo, 30, a New York resident who works remotely in public relations. “Every time I do something like take a nap or need to close my eyes I think, am I sick or am I being delusional?”“I am feeling like I am waiting for the shoe to drop,” she added.Her fiance, whom she lives with, came down with the flu (he tested positive at the doctor’s office) on Jan. 2, the day he was supposed to return to work. So far she’s managed to avoid it, but she doesn’t know how long she’ll be able to. For now, she is trying to lay low.She has mixed feelings about getting sick this time of year. “I think it helps that the weather is so in and out right now, so if you do get sick you can rest and relax and save yourself for bigger plans later in the year,” she said.But it’s also a busy time for her line of work, and she doesn’t want to use sick days so early in the year. She added: “But if I do get sick I know people will understand because there seems to be this expectation that people will get sick now.”Some people have started to question if groups should gather in-person in the first few weeks of the year at all.Jerald Stiedaman, 47, who works for a creative agency and lives in Evanston, Illinois, is thrilled his daughter, who is in fifth grade, didn’t start school until this week. “Our local school district set it up this way for the first time this year,” he said. “It kind of gives a little bit more separation and space if people are going to get sick from the holiday gatherings.”He knows many of his daughter’s friends were traveling over the holidays. He knows at least some of them will bring home bugs, and he’s relieved that they probably won’t reach his daughter — at least for now.“Our daughter has not yet tested positive for COVID,” he said. “We would like to keep it that way.”(This article originally appeared in The New York Times.)📣 For more lifestyle news, follow us on Instagram | Twitter | Facebook and don’t miss out on the latest updates!