In Ethiopia, Guinea and Mali, Fears Rise Over Losing Duty-Free Access to US Market

For Sammy Abdella, the new year has brought bad tidings: the prospect of a steep drop in sales of scarves, rugs, baskets and other textile goods produced by Sammy Handmade in Ethiopia.

“The U.S. market is our main destination,” said Abdella, who estimates it accounts for nearly two-thirds of sales for his Addis Ababa-based home decor and fashion company. “So, losing that put us in a very, you know, bad situation.”

The source of Abdella’s stress? Effective January 1, Ethiopia was one of three countries — including Guinea and Mali — dropped from a U.S. trade program authorized by the African Growth and Opportunity Act of 2000.  AGOA gives sub-Saharan African countries duty-free access to U.S. markets for 6,500 products — if those countries meet eligibility requirements such as promoting a market-based economy and good governance and eliminating barriers to U.S. trade and investment.

Ethiopia lost its AGOA trade benefits for alleged “gross violations” of human rights in the conflict spreading beyond the northern Tigray region, and the West African nations of Guinea and Mali were disqualified for “unconstitutional change” in their respective governments, the U.S. Trade Representative’s office said.  Guinea experienced a coup d’etat in September. Mali has had two coups since 2020, and its military-led transitional government recently delayed elections. Mali also had been suspended from AGOA for all of 2013 after an earlier coup

A second AGOA delisting will have “serious consequences on the trade in Mali,” Mamadou Fofana, a Mali Chamber of Commerce and Industry spokesman, told VOA.

Mohamed Kaloko, head of Guinea’s Export Promotion Agency, said losing AGOA status raises the duty fee from zero to “at least 35%” for Guinean textiles, which he said were “well sought after on the American market.”

Gracelin Baskaran, a development economist at Cambridge University, predicted the suspensions would have limited impact on Guinea and Mali. Each sends relatively little to U.S. markets — less than 1% of their total exports, based on 2019 trade data.

But Ethiopia likely will feel “much larger effects,” Baskaran said. While the country ranks 88th among U.S. trade partners, its export-driven economic growth model has the American market as a key destination.

“China is the biggest destination,” accounting for 16.6% of Ethiopian exports, “but the U.S. is only one percentage point behind,” at 15.6%, she said, citing data from the Observatory of Economic Complexity.

‘Transformative’ program

Through AGOA, African businesses overall exported $8.4 billion worth of goods to U.S. markets in 2019, according to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office. 

“AGOA has been transformative for the continent,” Baskaran said, noting that textile and apparel imports from Africa to the U.S. “skyrocketed” through the program, “increasing from $356 million in 2001 to $1.6 billion within three years.”

But when a country gets suspended from AGOA, it loses its competitive edge and increases the chance that investors and businesses will seek other, more stable markets. 

“What we’ve seen over and over is that they [countries] don’t necessarily recover,” Baskaran said, “even years after benefits have been reinstated.”

She cited the experience of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland). In 2015, the U.S. government cut AGOA access to the tiny, landlocked southern African nation over labor and human rights violations. Many of the 30 textile and apparel factories established to produce for the American market closed down or moved to nearby Lesotho, and the value of Eswatini textile and apparel exports to the U.S. fell from $73 million in 2011 to just $319,000 in 2017, Baskaran said.

“Uncertainty around AGOA benefits creates long-term effects that undermine growth,” Baskaran said.

Kassahun Follo, president of the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions, estimated that more than 200,000 jobs will be directly affected and more than 1 million indirectly, mostly in textiles, apparel and leather, by the loss of Ethiopia’s AGOA benefits.

Abdella expressed concern for Sammy Handmade and its 57 full-time workers.

“We also outsource to about 135 people,” he said, including weavers and others who produce handicrafts such as ponchos, baskets and leather purses.

The loss will also be felt in the United States, Abdella said. Along with his company’s direct sales to high-end department stores and boutiques, “we’ve had many wholesalers that actually buy from us, and then they in turn sell to retailers. Our wholesale clients are worried. … The market has become so competitive.”

‘People will be scared’

The Ethiopian Economic Association’s executive chairman, Mengistu Ketema, suggested the loss might prompt the Horn of Africa country to turn more to China, already Ethiopia’s top source of direct foreign investment. 

China pays little heed to a trading partner’s internal affairs, in contrast with the U.S. government, Mengistu told VOA.

“They don’t have any conditions attached when they support or do business with you,” he said of Chinese officials. “So, if you see where Ethiopia is now, when the U.S. and so many countries are turning their backs on her, considering China as an alternative is a good move. At least that would help her during her difficult time.”

In an emailed response to VOA, the U.S. State Department called China “a global strategic competitor. We offer alternatives in collaboration with our African and other partners consistent with our shared values.”

The email also said, in part: “The United States promotes democratic governance, respect for human rights, and transparency. Our focus is on strengthening local capacity, creating African jobs, and working with our allies and partners to promote economic growth that is beneficial, sustainable, and inclusive over the long term.”

Trade and statecraft

Trade is a tool of economic statecraft, “one of the best ways of promoting democracy,” said economist Baskaran, noting how economic sanctions effectively pressured South Africa to end apartheid in the 1990s.

Unfortunately, Baskaran said, “there are trade-offs” with sanctions. Businesses and individuals can “fall victim to the drive for large-scale change.”

In Mali’s capital, Bamako, Moussa Bagayoko weaves and dyes cotton fabric for a living. He sees the AGOA delisting as another blow on top of the pandemic, one that will land heavily on tradespeople like him.

“There is no more work for America,” Bagayoko said. “The coronavirus had completely shut us out of everything. … The U.S. government suspends us based on the fact that we do not have a good model of democracy at home. This suspension affects us craftsmen, not authorities.”

Bagayoko has participated in the trade program since 2013. “I earn my living through AGOA,” he said, “but not if it is taken away from me.”

The U.S. Trade Representative’s office has said it would help the governments of each delisted country work toward “clear benchmarks for a pathway to [AGOA] reinstatement.” Each country’s status could be reviewed as soon as it meets the program’s statutory requirements.

The overall AGOA trade program is up for renewal in 2025.

Contributors to this VOA report were Moctar Barry in Bamako, Mali, and Kadiatou Traore for the Bambara Service; and Zakaria Camara in Conakry, Guinea, for the French Service. Dereje Desta of the Horn of Africa Service and Carol Guensburg also reported from Washington.

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Senate Panel Moves Forward With Bill Targeting Big Tech

Legislation that would bar technology companies from favoring their own products in a way that undermines competitiveness moved forward Thursday after a Senate panel voted to move the bill to the Senate floor. 

The American Innovation and Choice Online Act received bipartisan support in a 16-6 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

The bill targets Amazon; Alphabet, the parent company of Google; Apple; and Meta, which was formerly called Facebook. 

The companies had worked strenuously to sink the bill, arguing it could disrupt their services. 

Smaller tech companies that supported the bill argued it will benefit consumers through adding competition. 

“This bill is not meant to break up Big Tech or destroy the products and services they offer,” said Senator Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the judiciary panel. “The goal of the bill is to prevent conduct that stifles competition.” 

Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, was critical of the bill and said he thought it would not pass the full Senate. 

“Antitrust policy should aim to promote consumer welfare — not punish specific companies,” he said in a statement. 

Another bill aimed at Big Tech, which has bipartisan sponsorship, is also working its way through Congress. The Open App Markets Act would prevent the Apple and Google app stores from requiring app makers to use their payment systems. 

The House of Representatives is also considering versions of both bills. 

Some information for this report came from Reuters. 

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Superbugs Deadlier Than AIDS, Malaria, Study Shows

More than 1.2 million people are dying every year directly from bacterial infections that are resistant to several antibiotics, according to a new study, making multiresistant bacteria far deadlier than HIV/AIDS or malaria. A further 4.95 million deaths were associated with these multiresistant bacteria.

“It is estimated that if we don’t find alternatives by 2050, millions of lives will be lost and there will be $100 trillion of lost [economic] output,” Antonia Sagona, an expert on bacterial infections at England’s University of Warwick, said in an interview with VOA. 

The study, published in The Lancet and led by the University of Washington in Seattle, analyzed data from 204 countries and territories. It showed that poorer nations were worst hit by antibiotic resistance, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

“Lower respiratory infections accounted for more than 1.5 million deaths associated with [antibiotic] resistance in 2019, making it the most burdensome infectious syndrome,” the report said.

The authors cautioned there is an urgent need for more research.

“There are serious data gaps in many low-income settings, emphasizing the need to expand microbiology laboratory capacity and data collection systems to improve our understanding of this important human health threat,” they wrote. 

Antibiotic misuse

Scientists say the misuse of antibiotics over decades has encouraged microorganisms to evolve into “superbugs.”

“For example, people have viral infections, and they have been prescribed antibiotics for very many years now. And this over the years has made the problem very severe, so the bacteria have become really resistant to these antibiotics,” Sagona said.

The World Health Organization last year warned that none of the 43 antibiotics in development or recently approved was enough to combat antimicrobial resistance.

New hope? 

So what can be done? Sagona – along with other scientists around the world – is working on new treatments called phages.

“These are viruses that can specifically target bacteria. And they can be used in combination with antibiotics or on their own to clear bacterial infections of multiresistant strains,” she told VOA.

Despite the promising new treatments, scientists say it’s vital that existing antibiotics are not overused – to help slow down the development of the ever-deadlier superbugs.

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Multi-Resistant Superbugs Deadlier Than AIDS and Malaria, Study Shows

Over 1.2 million people are dying every year from bacterial infections that are resistant to antibiotics, according to a new study. That makes multi-resistant bacteria far deadlier than HIV/AIDS or malaria. Henry Ridgwell reports.

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US Air Travel Safety Questions Linger Amid 5G Rollout

An unresolved disagreement between U.S. wireless communications carriers and commercial airlines over the rollout of new 5G networks continues to generate confusion about whether air travel is safe in the United States. 

On Wednesday, AT&T and Verizon, the two largest providers of mobile voice and internet service in the U.S., began turning on new wireless towers across the United States, making the ultra-fast 5G spectrum available to consumers, primarily in the more densely populated parts of the country.

Up until the last moment, there was a dispute between the carriers and major U.S. airlines over whether or not the new service would be deployed near airports. This caused a handful of international carriers, including British Airways, Lufthansa, All Nippon, Japan Airlines and Emirates, to announce that they would suspend some service to the United States until the issue was resolved.

Emirates President Tim Clark described the situation as “utterly irresponsible,” speaking earlier this week on CNN.

By Thursday morning, most of the concern about international flights had been resolved, but lingering questions remain for the United States’ vast system or regional air travel.

Interference with landing instruments possible

The 5G C-band spectrum signal used for mobile communications – for which mobile carriers paid more than $80 billion in an auction last year – is similar to the signal that commercial airlines use to measure the altitude of planes landing during inclement weather. Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration have expressed concern that some aircraft devices, called radar altimeters, could experience interference from the new 5G signals, creating dangerous conditions.

On Wednesday, in a deal brokered by the Biden administration, mobile carriers said they would delay activating 5G towers near airport runways, leaving about 10% of the planned rollout inactive. In addition, the FAA specifically cleared several kinds of radar altimeters, including those commonly used in the Boeing 777, saying the data shows that 5G signals do not interfere with their systems.

In a press release Wednesday, the FAA said its new approvals “allow an estimated 62 percent of the U.S. commercial fleet to perform low-visibility landings at airports where wireless companies deployed 5G C-band.”

Regional airports waiting for answers

While the FAA’s steps to clear large passenger planes for continued use following the 5G rollout have helped prevent problems at large airports, the new technology is causing concern about safety at regional airports across the country, which are served by a wide variety of passenger planes, typically smaller than those that fly into major hub airports.

As of Wednesday, the FAA had not updated guidance for many smaller planes. Because there were relatively few severe weather systems in the U.S. on Wednesday, that did not translate into major delays. However, industry representatives said that it was only a matter of time before challenging weather conditions would begin causing problems.

Faye Malarkey Black, the president and CEO of the regional Airline Association, used Twitter to air her concerns about the situation, saying, “Situational update: 0% of the regional airline fleet has been cleared to perform low visibility landings at #5G impacted airports if/when weather drops below minimums. Today’s fair weather is saving rural America from severe air service disruption.”

Not a new problem

The battle between the airlines and mobile carriers is particularly frustrating to many in the U.S., because it is a problem that has been successfully resolved in other countries around the world. China, the U.K., and France, for example, have managed to roll out 5G service without any significant impact on air travel. That was achieved by agreements between the parties that limited the number of cell towers near airports and the power levels at which they operate.

In a warning to its members, the International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Associations noted that, in the U.S., “The power levels and proximities of the 5G signals are at higher power levels than any other deployment currently in use elsewhere in the world.”

The situation in the U.S. was complicated by the fact that the slice of spectrum being used for 5G services is slightly different here than it is in Europe. In the U.S., mobile carriers bought the rights to the band between 3.7 and 3.98 gigahertz, putting their signals somewhat closer to the 4.2 to 4.4 GHz being used by airlines than the European mobile carriers, which are limited to a range of 3.4 to 3.8 GHz.

The issue was raised during a press conference that U.S.President Joe Biden held at the White House on Wednesday afternoon. After being asked whether his administration bore part of the blame for confusion about flight safety, Biden characterized it as a fight between two private entities, over which the federal government exerts limited control.

“The fact is that you had two enterprises — two private enterprises — that had one promoting 5G and the other one are airlines,” Biden said. “They’re private enterprises. They have government regulation, admittedly.”

“And so, what I’ve done is pushed as hard as I can to have 5G folks hold up and abide by what was being requested by the airlines until they could more modernize over the years so that 5G would not interfere with the potential of the landing,” he said. “So, any tower — any 5G tower within a certain number of miles from the airport should not be operative.”

Bureaucratic dysfunction

The confusion resulting from the 5G rollout this week is at least partly attributable to dysfunction within the federal bureaucracy. Analysts say lines of authority between agencies responsible for auctioning off the rights to the wireless spectrum and those charged with managing conflicts are unclear. 

The Federal Communications Commission is responsible for spectrum auctions, but it is the Federal Aviation Administration, a part of the Department of Transportation, which makes decisions about airline safety. Further complicating matters is that the agency in charge of mediating spectrum disputes, which is located within the Commerce Department, was without a director for two-and-a-half-years, until President Biden’s nominee was confirmed last week.

That situation has led to multiple problems in the rollout of new communications technology over the years, including a recent battle during the Trump administration over whether new spectrum auctions would interfere with the satellite-based Global Positioning System

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US Jobless Benefit Claims Increase Sharply

First-time claims for U.S. unemployment compensation increased sharply last week to their highest level since October 2021, suggesting that some employers may be laying off workers as the omicron variant of the coronavirus surges throughout the country and curtails business operations. 

The Labor Department said Thursday that 286,000 jobless workers filed for benefits, up 55,000 from the week before, surpassing the 256,000 figure recorded in mid-March, 2020, when the coronavirus first swept into the United States and businesses started laying off workers by the hundreds of thousands.

In recent weeks, the U.S. has been recording 750,000 or more new cases of the coronavirus every day, largely because of the highly transmissible omicron variant. In some instances, that has played havoc with sectors of the world’s biggest economy.

For the most part, employers have been retaining their workers and searching for more as the United States continues its rapid economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. The country’s unemployment rate dropped in December to 3.9%, not far above the five-decade low of 3.5% recorded before the pandemic took hold.  

Many employers are looking for more workers, despite about 6.9 million workers remaining unemployed in the United States.  

At the end of November, there were 10.4 million job openings in the U.S., but the skills of available workers often do not match what employers want, or the job openings are not where the unemployed live. In addition, many of the available jobs are low-wage service positions that the jobless are shunning.  

U.S. employers added only 199,000 new jobs in December, a lower-than-expected figure. But overall, 6.3 million jobs were created through 2021 in a much quicker recovery than many economists had originally forecast a year ago.  

The U.S. economic advance is occurring even as President Joe Biden and Washington policymakers, along with consumers, are expressing concerns about the biggest increase in consumer prices in four decades — 7% at an annualized rate in December. 

The surging inflation rate has pushed policymakers at the country’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, to move more quickly to end the asset purchases they had used to boost the country’s economic recovery, by March rather than in mid-2022 as originally planned.  

Minutes of the Fed board’s most recent meeting showed that policymakers are eyeing a faster pace for raising the benchmark interest rate that they have kept at near 0% since the pandemic started. 

The Federal Reserve has said it could raise the rate, which influences the borrowing costs of loans made to businesses and consumers, by a 0.25 percentage point three times this year to tamp down inflationary pressures. 

Meanwhile, government statistics show U.S. consumers are paying sharply higher prices for food, meals at restaurants, gasoline and for new and used vehicles.

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North Korea Expands China Trade, But Wider Pandemic Approach Unclear

North Korea this week resumed railway imports from China for the first time since its lockdown began in 2020, potentially signaling a new phase in its approach to the pandemic. 

Since Sunday, North Korean freight trains have made several round trips across the Yalu River separating the North Korean city of Sinuiju and the Chinese city of Dandong. 

That is a significant relaxation of COVID-19 measures for North Korea, which has taken perhaps the world’s most severe pandemic precautions. 

However, there are more questions than answers about what the move says about North Korea’s future pandemic approach and when it will attempt to fully resume trade with China, its economic lifeline. 

Why did North Korea resume trade now?

It is possible the decision was driven by desperation spurred by shortages of food or other supplies. There could also be far duller explanations, though, said Peter Ward, a Seoul-based specialist on North Korea’s economy. 

“There are loads of reasons why you’d want to reopen it. And those reasons may not be, ‘Well, there’s going to be a revolution next week unless people in north Pyongyang get their food rations,’” he said. 

North Korea, Ward suggested, might be increasing entry options for imports from China, which was already sending some goods to North Korea by ship. It is also possible a well-connected official in Sinuiju, which relies on trade with China and has suffered economically during the pandemic, may have lobbied North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to restart the railway imports. 

Or it could be that North Korea is now confident enough in its import safety measures, following months of preparation.

What goods are North Korea importing so far? 

During the pandemic, North Korea has experienced shortages of food, medicine, fertilizer, and construction supplies. Some of those items appeared to be included in the first shipments from China, according to video broadcast by several Japanese and South Korean media outlets. 

“But I think there is a strong chance Kim Jong Un also used the deliveries to Pyongyang to stock up on the gifts he intends to dole out for upcoming celebrations in order to maintain loyalty to the Kim family,” Jean Lee, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based research organization, said. 

On Thursday, a state media readout of a high-profile Politburo meeting mentioned that North Korea should prepare to “grandly” celebrate the coming birthdays of late leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, which are major public holidays. 

The Daily NK, a Seoul-based publication with a network of sources in North Korea, reported this week at least some of the initial shipments included soybean oil, a cooking staple, which will be distributed as gifts on the holidays, known as the Day of the Sun and the Day of the Shining Star.

“Everything right now is focused on preparations to glorify the Kim family — not necessarily on the well-being of the North Korean people,” Lee said.

What safety precautions is North Korea taking with the import process?

A lot. In fact, North Korea appears to be so cautious that it may not even be allowing any North Koreans to enter China to facilitate the shipments. Video of the transfers appears to show a Chinese locomotive dropping off train cars full of goods to North Korea, before bringing empty cars back to China to reload.

Once in North Korea, the cargo appears to enter a disinfection facility recently constructed at an airport near the border, according to commercial satellite photos reported by NK News, a Seoul-based outlet that covers North Korea. At the facility, the goods will likely be sterilized and quarantined, possibly for weeks, analysts say. 

Many scientific studies conclude it is very difficult for people to be infected with COVID-19 through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects. However, North Korea is taking no chances, Colin Zwirko, senior NK News correspondent, said.

 

“North Korea maintains the most severe ‘zero-COVID’ policy in the world because an outbreak could lead to the collapse of the entire system, they admit this in state media. This means they are willing to prevent infections at all costs, even if it requires quarantining objects for long periods that might stand little chance of transmitting the virus. It’s a better-safe-than-sorry approach,” Zwirko says. 

In the past, North Korean officials have embraced numerous scientifically questionable theories about how COVID-19 spreads. The virus, state media have reported, could spread through migratory birds, snow, air pollution, or anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets sent by South Korean activists.

How much trade will North Korea allow? 

So far, Japanese and South Korean media have reported at least three roundtrips by freight trains from Sunday through Wednesday. South Korean officials said Thursday they have “steadily detected” train activity, but they could not say how long the train service will continue.

On Monday, China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry confirmed that rail traffic between North Korea and China had “resumed operation,” suggesting the activity could become regular. It is not clear, however, how quickly the quarantine and disinfection facilities will fill up. Some analysts speculate that that process could be a choke point limiting a wider resumption in trade. 

So far, it appears that the trains have only sent goods in one direction, to North Korea, but Daily NK reported Thursday that some North Korean trading companies have begun preparing items for export to China, following an order from authorities.

Both sides have a long way to go to restore pre-pandemic trade levels. According to Chinese government data released this week, China’s trade with North Korea in 2021 fell about 90% compared to 2019, the year before the pandemic restrictions began. 

How will North Korea handle the pandemic moving forward?

While many analysts think North Korea’s trade with China will gradually increase this year, others warn there could be setbacks, especially as China calibrates its own “zero-COVID” policy and struggles to keep out the more transmissible omicron variant. 

It is also not clear whether North Korea will loosen other pandemic restrictions, such as its domestic travel restrictions and border security policies. Since the pandemic began, North Korea has dramatically increased patrols along its border with China, reportedly even issuing shoot-to-kill orders for illegal crossers. The measures have led to a drastic reduction in the number of North Korean escapees and cut off virtually all informal trade, such as smuggling and remittance payments.

Pyongyang may not feel comfortable easing many of those restrictions until it has tools, beyond lockdowns, to combat the virus.

North Korea has refused offers of COVID-19 vaccines from other countries and the United Nations-backed COVAX vaccine distribution initiative. According to the World Health Organization, it is one of only two countries yet to begin vaccination campaigns, the other being Eritrea. 

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Will Afghanistan be Polio-Free in 2022?

International health workers say the end of the war in Afghanistan brings new hope to efforts to rid the country of the crippling disease polio. 

For many years, efforts to immunize all Afghan children under five years old were considered unfeasible because of widespread insecurity and threats to health workers. 

But with the end of the war, and Taliban pledges last year to support the polio immunization campaign, aid agencies now say they can access nearly all parts of the country, giving them an opportunity to eradicate poliovirus.  

“If we succeed to implement the planned polio campaigns with high coverage of 95%, we can interrupt the circulation of polio virus by the end of 2022,” Kamal Shah Sayed, a UNICEF spokesman in Afghanistan, told VOA.  

Backed by the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO), a three-day nation-wide polio immunization campaign targeting nearly 10 million children was launched in Afghanistan on January 17. Four additional campaigns are planned for this year.  

Taliban back immunization campaign

Once considered a major obstacle in the way of anti-polio efforts because of their indiscriminate attacks as they fought U.S. and Afghan Government forces, the Taliban are now helping U.N. agencies to eradicate polio, Sayed confirmed. The U.S. withdrew all forces from Afghanistan last August as the Taliban fighters toppled the U.S.-backed Afghan government and declared the country an Islamic Emirate.  

Only four cases of poliovirus were confirmed in 2021 in the landlocked country, down from 56 cases a year before.  

However, there are still several challenges for making a polio-free Afghanistan in 2022.  

Poliovirus is still virulent in the neighboring Pakistan and can easily be transferred through the long and porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border crossings. Polio cases also saw a significant drop in Pakistan from 79 cases in 2020 to only one confirmed case in 2021, according to the Pakistan Polio Eradication Program.  

Poor awareness about poliovirus and how to protect children against it remains another problem, particularly in rural Afghan communities.   

Immunization workers also need to have access to every household across the country, but this has been resisted by some Taliban officials who prefer to conduct immunization campaigns at local mosques.  

“The house-to-house polio campaigns are very important,” said Sayed of the UNICEF adding that such access should be especially ensured in the traditional “key polio reservoir regions of the South and East.”  

The drive to rid Afghanistan from poliovirus is taking place as the country suffers from an economic paralysis and a widespread humanitarian crisis which threatens most of the country’s estimated 35 million population. The U.N. has called for nearly $5 billion to provide life-saving food, health, and shelter assistance to the most vulnerable Afghans in 2022. 

The polio immunization campaigns appear to have no funding shortfalls thanks to some 70,000 Afghan volunteers as well as financial contributions from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rotary International, the Canadian government, United Arab Emirates, and the Japanese government, UNICEF said.

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Explainer: How Sweeping EU Rules Would Curb Tech Companies

Online companies would have to ramp up efforts to keep harmful content off their platforms and take other steps to protect users under rules that European Union lawmakers are set to vote on Thursday.

The 27-nation bloc has gained a reputation as a trendsetter in the growing global push to rein in big tech companies as they face withering criticism over misinformation, hate speech and other harmful content on their platforms.

Here’s a look at the proposed EU rules, known as the Digital Services Act, and why they would make an impact:

WHAT IS THE DIGITAL SERVICES ACT?

The legislation is part of a sweeping overhaul of the European Union’s digital rules aimed at ensuring online companies, including tech giants like Google and Facebook parent Meta, protect users on their platforms and treat rivals fairly. It’s an update of the EU’s two-decade-old e-commerce directive.

“The Digital Services Act could now become the new gold standard for digital regulation, not just in Europe but around the world,” the lead EU lawmaker on the bill, Christel Schaldemose, said during a debate Wednesday. “Big tech nations like the U.S. or China are watching closely to see what we’re now going to agree.”

The proposals are one-half of flagship digital regulations drafted by the bloc. EU lawmakers are also working on a separate proposal, the Digital Markets Act, which is aimed at reining in the power of the biggest online “gatekeepers.” Both still face further negotiations with EU bodies before taking effect.

WHAT WILL IT COVER?

The Digital Services Act includes a raft of measures aimed at better protecting internet users and their “fundamental rights online.” Tech companies will be held more responsible for content on their platforms, with requirements to beef up flagging and removal of illegal content like hate speech or dodgy goods and services sold online like counterfeit sneakers or unsafe toys.

But lawmakers have been battling about the details of such takedowns, including whether court orders would be required.

Online platforms will have to be more transparent about their algorithms that recommend the next video to watch, product to buy or news item at the top of people’s social media feeds. So-called recommender systems have been criticized for leading people to more increasingly extreme or polarizing content.

Some amendments to the legislation proposed giving users the option of turning recommendations off or using third-party systems.

There are also measures to ban platforms from using “dark patterns” — deceptive techniques to nudge users into doing things they didn’t intend to — as well as requiring porn sites to register the identities of users uploading material.

ARE THERE ANY CONTROVERSIAL POINTS?

One of the legislation’s biggest battles is over surveillance-based advertising, also known as targeted or behavioral advertising. Such ads would be banned for children, but digital and consumer rights groups say the proposals don’t go far enough and have called for prohibiting them outright. That idea has faced fierce resistance from the digital ad industry dominated by Google and Meta.

Surveillance ads track online behavior, such as the websites visited or products bought online by a user, to serve them more digital ads based on those interests.

Groups such as Amnesty International say ad tracking undermines the rights that the legislation is supposed to protect, because it involves a massive invasion of privacy and indiscriminate data harvesting as part of a system that manipulates users and encourages ad fraud.

WHAT HAPPENS TO OFFENDERS?

The EU’s single market commissioner, Thierry Breton, took to Twitter on Wednesday to portray the proposed rules as the start of a new era for tough online enforcement.

“It’s time to put some order in the digital ‘Wild West,'” he said. “A new sheriff is in town — and it goes by the name #DSA,” he said, posting a mashup of video clips from a Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western film.

Under the Digital Services Act, violations could be punished with hefty fines of up to 6% of a company’s annual revenue. Some amendments have pushed for raising that amount.

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Security Scanners Across Europe Tied to China Government, Military

At some of the world’s most sensitive spots, authorities have installed security screening devices made by a single Chinese company with deep ties to China’s military and the highest levels of the ruling Communist Party.

The World Economic Forum in Davos. Europe’s largest ports. Airports from Amsterdam to Athens. NATO’s borders with Russia. All depend on equipment manufactured by Nuctech, which has quickly become the world’s leading company, by revenue, for cargo and vehicle scanners.

Nuctech has been frozen out of the U.S. for years due to national security concerns, but it has made deep inroads across Europe, installing its devices in 26 of 27 EU member states, according to public procurement, government and corporate records reviewed by The Associated Press.

The complexity of Nuctech’s ownership structure and its expanding global footprint have raised alarms on both sides of the Atlantic.

A growing number of Western security officials and policymakers fear that China could exploit Nuctech equipment to sabotage key transit points or get illicit access to government, industrial or personal data from the items that pass through its devices.

Nuctech’s critics allege the Chinese government has effectively subsidized the company so it can undercut competitors and give Beijing potential sway over critical infrastructure in the West as China seeks to establish itself as a global technology superpower.

“The data being processed by these devices is very sensitive. It’s personal data, military data, cargo data. It might be trade secrets at stake. You want to make sure it’s in right hands,” said Bart Groothuis, director of cybersecurity at the Dutch Ministry of Defense before becoming a member of the European Parliament. “You’re dependent on a foreign actor which is a geopolitical adversary and strategic rival.”

He and others say Europe doesn’t have tools in place to monitor and resist such potential encroachment. Different member states have taken opposing views on Nuctech’s security risks. No one has even been able to make a comprehensive public tally of where and how many Nuctech devices have been installed across the continent.

Nuctech dismisses those concerns, countering that Nuctech’s European operations comply with local laws, including strict security checks and data privacy rules.

“It’s our equipment, but it’s your data. Our customer decides what happens with the data,” said Robert Bos, deputy general manager of Nuctech in the Netherlands, where the company has a research and development center.

He said Nuctech is a victim of unfounded allegations that have cut its market share in Europe nearly in half since 2019.

“It’s quite frustrating to be honest,” Bos told AP. “In the 20 years we delivered this equipment we never had issues of breaches or data leaks. Till today we never had any proof of it.”

‘It’s not really a company’

As security screening becomes increasingly interconnected and data-driven, Nuctech has found itself on the front lines of the U.S.-China battle for technology dominance now playing out across Europe.

In addition to scanning systems for people, baggage and cargo, the company makes explosives detectors and interconnected devices capable of facial recognition, body temperature measurement and ID card or ticket identification.

On its website, Nuctech’s parent company explains that Nuctech does more than just provide hardware, integrating “cloud computing, big data and Internet of Things with safety inspection technologies and products to supply the clients with hi-tech safety inspection solution.”

Critics fear that under China’s national intelligence laws, which require Chinese companies to surrender data requested by state security agencies, Nuctech would be unable to resist calls from Beijing to hand over sensitive data about the cargo, people and devices that pass through its scanners. They say there is a risk Beijing could use Nuctech’s presence across Europe to gather big data about cross-border trade flows, pull information from local networks, like shipping manifests or passenger information, or sabotage trade flows in a conflict.

A July 2020 Canadian government security review of Nuctech found that X-ray security scanners could potentially be used to covertly collect and transmit information, compromise portable electronic devices as they pass through the scanner or alter results to allow transit of “nefarious” devices.

The European Union put measures in place in late 2020 that can be used to vet Chinese foreign direct investment. But policymakers in Brussels say there are currently no EU-wide systems in place to evaluate Chinese procurement, despite growing concerns about unfair state subsidies, lack of reciprocity, national security and human rights.

“This is becoming more and more dangerous. I wouldn’t mind if one or two airports had Nuctech systems, but with dumping prices a lot of regions are taking it,” said Axel Voss, a German member of the European Parliament who works on data protection. “This is becoming more and more a security question. You might think it’s a strategic investment of the Chinese government.”

The U.S. — home to OSI Systems, one of Nuctech’s most important commercial rivals — has come down hard against Nuctech. The U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the U.S. National Security Council, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, and the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security all have raised concerns about Nuctech.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration told AP in an email that Nuctech was found ineligible to receive sensitive security information. Nuctech products, TSA said, “are not authorized to be used for the screening of passengers, baggage, accessible property or air cargo in the United States.”

In December 2020, the U.S. added Nuctech to the Bureau of Industry and Security Entity List, restricting exports to them on national security grounds.

“It’s not just commercial,” said a U.S. government official who was not authorized to speak on the record. “It’s using state-backed companies, with state subsidies, low-ball bids to get into European critical infrastructure, which is civil airports, passenger screening, seaport and cargo screening.”

 

In Europe, Nuctech’s bids can be 30-50% below their rivals’, according to the company’s competitors, U.S. and European officials and researchers who study China. Sometimes they include other sweeteners like extended maintenance contracts and favorable loans.

In 2009, Nuctech’s main European competitor, Smiths Detection, complained that it was being squeezed out of the market by such practices, and the EU imposed an anti-dumping duty of 36.6% on Nuctech cargo scanners.

“Nuctech comes in with below market bids no one can match. It’s not a normal price, it’s an economic statecraft price,” said Didi Kirsten Tatlow, and co-editor of the book, China’s Quest for Foreign Technology. “It’s not really a company. They are more like a wing of a state development drive.”

Nuctech’s Bos said the company keeps prices low by manufacturing in Europe. “We don’t have to import goods from the U.S. or other countries,” he said. “Our supply chain is very efficient with local suppliers, that’s the main reason we can be very competitive.”

Nuctech’s successes abound. The company, which is opening offices in Brussels, Madrid and Rome, says it has supplied customers in more than 170 countries and regions. Nuctech said in 2019 that it had installed more than 1,000 security check devices in Europe for customs, civil aviation, ports and government organizations.

In November 2020, Norwegian Customs put out a call to buy a new cargo scanner for the Svinesund checkpoint, a complex of squat, grey buildings at the Swedish border. An American rival and two other companies complained that the terms as written gave Nuctech a leg up.

The specifications were rewritten, but Nuctech won the deal anyway. The Chinese company beat its rivals on both price and quality, said Jostein Engen, the customs agency’s director of procurement, and none of Norway’s government ministries raised red flags that would have disqualified Nuctech.

“We in Norwegian Customs must treat Nuctech like everybody else in our competition,” Engen said. “We can’t do anything else following EU rules on public tenders.”

Four of five NATO member states that border Russia — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland — have purchased Nuctech equipment for their border crossings with Russia. So has Finland.

Europe’s two largest ports — Rotterdam and Antwerp, which together handled more than a third of goods, by weight, entering and leaving the EU’s main ports in 2020 — use Nuctech devices, according to parliamentary testimony.

Other key states at the edges of the EU, including the U.K., Turkey, Ukraine, Albania, Belarus and Serbia have also purchased Nuctech scanners, some of which were donated or financed with low-interest loans from Chinese state banks, according to public procurement documents and government announcements.

Airports in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Athens, Florence, Pisa, Venice, Zurich, Geneva and more than a dozen across Spain have all signed deals for Nuctech equipment, procurement and government documents, and corporate announcements show.

Nuctech says it provided security equipment for the Olympics in Brazil in 2016, then President Donald Trump’s visit to China in 2017 and the World Economic Forum in 2020. It has also provided equipment to some U.N. organizations, procurement records show.

Rising concerns

As Nuctech’s market share has grown, so too has skepticism about the company.

Canadian authorities dropped a standing offer from Nuctech to provide X-ray scanning equipment at more than 170 Canadian diplomatic missions around the world after a government assessment found an “elevated threat” of espionage.

Lithuania, which is involved in a diplomatic feud with China over Taiwan, blocked Nuctech from providing airport scanners earlier this year after a national security review found that it wasn’t possible for the equipment to operate in isolation and there was a risk information could leak back to China, according to Margiris Abukevicius, vice minister for international cooperation and cybersecurity at Lithuania’s Ministry of National Defense.

Then, in August, Lithuania approved a deal for a Nuctech scanner on its border with Belarus. There were only two bidders, Nuctech and a Russian company — both of which presented national security concerns — and there wasn’t time to reissue the tender, two Lithuanian officials told AP.

“It’s just an ad hoc decision choosing between bad and worse options,” Abukevicius said. He added that the government is developing a road map to replace all Nuctech scanners currently in use in Lithuania as well as a legal framework to ban purchases of untrusted equipment by government institutions and in critical sectors.

Human rights concerns are also generating headwinds for Nuctech. The company does business with police and other authorities in Western China’s Xinjiang region, where Beijing stands accused of genocide for mass incarceration and abuse of minority Uyghur Muslims.

Despite pressure from U.S. and European policymakers on companies to stop doing business in Xinjiang, European governments have continued to award tens of millions of dollars in contracts — sometimes backed by European Union funds — to Nuctech.

Nuctech says on its Chinese website that China’s western regions, including Xinjiang, are “are important business areas” for the company. It has signed multiple contracts to provide X-ray equipment to Xinjiang’s Department of Transportation and Public Security Department.

It has provided license plate recognition devices for a police checkpoint in Xinjiang, Chinese government records show, and an integrated security system for the subway in Urumqi, the region’s capital city. It regularly showcases its security equipment at trade fairs in Xinjiang.

“Companies like Nuctech directly enable Xinjiang’s high-tech police state and its intrusive ways of suppressing ethnic minorities. This should be taken into account when Western governments and corporations interface with Nuctech,” said Adrian Zenz, a researcher who has documented abuses in Xinjiang and compiled evidence of the company’s activities in the region.

Nuctech’s Bos said he can understand those views, but that the company tries to steer clear of politics. “Our daily goal is to have equipment to secure the world more and better,” he said. “We don’t interfere with politics.”

Complex web of ownership

Nuctech opened a factory in Poland in 2018 with the tagline “Designed in China and manufactured in Europe.” But ultimate responsibility for the company lies far from Warsaw, with the state-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council in Beijing, China’s top governing body.

Nuctech’s ownership structure is so complex that it can be difficult for outsiders to understand the true lines of influence and accountability.

Scott Kennedy, a Chinese economic policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that the ambiguous boundaries between the Communist Party, state companies and financial institutions in China — which have only grown murkier under China’s leader, Xi Jinping — can make it difficult to grasp how companies like Nuctech are structured and operate.

“Consider if the roles were reversed. If the Chinese were acquiring this equipment for their airports they’d want a whole variety of assurances,” Kennedy said. “China has launched a high-tech self-sufficiency drive because they don’t feel safe with foreign technology in their supply chain.”

What is clear is that Nuctech, from its very origins, has been tied to Chinese government, academic and military interests.

Nuctech was founded as an offshoot of Tsinghua University, an elite public research university in Beijing. It grew with backing from the Chinese government and for years was run by the son of China’s former leader, Hu Jintao.

Datenna, a Dutch economic intelligence company focused on China, mapped the ownership structure of Nuctech and found a dozen major entities across four layers of shareholding, including four state-owned enterprises and three government entities.

Today the majority shareholder in Nuctech is Tongfang Co., which has a 71% stake. The largest shareholder in Tongfang, in turn, is the investment arm of the China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC), a state-run energy and defense conglomerate controlled by China’s State Council. The U.S. Defense Department classifies CNNC as a Chinese military company because it shares advanced technologies and expertise with the People’s Liberation Army.

Xi has further blurred the lines between China’s civilian and military activities and deepened the power of the ruling Communist Party within private enterprises. One way: the creation of dozens of government-backed financing vehicles designed to speed the development of technologies that have both military and commercial applications.

In fact, one of those vehicles, the National Military-Civil Fusion Industry Investment Fund, announced in June 2020 that it wanted to take a 4.4% stake in Nuctech’s majority shareholder, along with the right to appoint a director to the Tongfang board. It never happened — “changes in the market environment,” Tongfeng explained in a Chinese stock exchange filing.

But there are other links between Nuctech’s ownership structure and the fusion fund.

CNNC, which has a 21% interest in Nuctech, holds a stake of more than 7% in the fund, according to Qichacha, a Chinese corporate information platform. They also share personnel: Chen Shutang, a member of CNNC’s Party Leadership Group and the company’s chief accountant serves as a director of the fund, records show.

“The question here is whether or not we want to allow Nuctech, which is controlled by the Chinese state and linked to the Chinese military, to be involved in crucial parts of our border security and infrastructure,” said Jaap van Etten, a former Dutch diplomat and CEO of Datenna.

Nuctech maintains that its operations are shaped by market forces, not politics, and says CNNC doesn’t control its corporate management or decision-making.

“We are a normal commercial operator here in Europe which has to obey the laws,” said Nuctech’s Bos. “We work here with local staff members, we pay tax, contribute to the social community and have local suppliers.”

But experts say these touchpoints are further evidence of the government and military interests encircling the company and show its strategic interest to Beijing.

“Under Xi Jinping, the national security elements of the state are being fused with the technological and innovation dimensions of the state,” said Tai Ming Cheung, a professor at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy.

“Military-civil fusion is one of the key battlegrounds between the U.S. and China. The Europeans will have to figure out where they stand.” 

 

 

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Biden: Federal Reserve Should ‘Recalibrate’ Policy as Prices Rise 

U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday said it was appropriate for the Federal Reserve to recalibrate the support it provides to the U.S. economy, in light of fast-rising prices and the strength of recovery. 

“Given the strength of our economy and recent price increases, it’s appropriate, as … Fed Chairman [Jerome] Powell has indicated, to recalibrate the support that is now necessary,” Biden told a news conference. 

“The critical job of making sure that the elevated prices don’t become entrenched rests with the Federal Reserve, which has a dual mandate: full employment and stable prices,” the president said. 

At the same time, he said, the White House and Congress could help contain inflation by moving to fix supply chain failures, encourage competition, and pass his Build Back Better spending bill that he says would cut child care and other costs for families. 

Fed policymakers have signaled they will raise interest rates several times this year, likely starting in March, to try to rein in inflation that’s rising at its fastest pace in nearly 40 years. A reduction in the Fed’s $8 trillion balance sheet could soon follow. 

At his renomination hearing earlier this month, Powell told lawmakers that he would not allow inflation to become entrenched and said a tighter policy stance was necessary to keep the economy growing. 

Biden also called on the U.S. Senate to confirm his recent nominations for key roles on the Federal Reserve Board “without any further delay.” 

Biden earlier this month nominated former Fed Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin for the Fed’s top regulatory post and two Black economists, Lisa Cook and Philip Jefferson, to round out the Fed’s seven-member board. 

Late last year Biden renominated Powell to lead the Fed for another four years and nominated Fed Governor Lael Brainard to serve as Fed vice chair. The picks would remake the Fed Board to be the most diverse in the central bank’s 108-year history.

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Biden: ‘Not There Yet’ on Easing of Tariffs on Chinese Goods 

President Joe Biden on Wednesday said that it was too soon to make commitments on lifting U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods, but that his chief trade negotiator, Katherine Tai, was working on the issue. 

“I’d like to be able to be in a position where I could say they’re meeting their commitments, or more of their commitments, and be able to lift some of them, but we’re not there yet,” Biden told a news conference at the White House. 

He was referring to China’s commitments under a Phase 1 trade deal signed by his predecessor, Donald Trump. 

China has fallen far short of its pledge under the two-year Phase 1 trade agreement to buy $200 billion in additional U.S. goods and services during 2020 and 2021, and it remains unclear how the shortfall will be addressed. 

Chinese purchases reached about 60% of the target through November 2021, according to data compiled by the Peterson Institute for International Economics. The U.S. Census Bureau is expected to release December data next week. 

Biden said he was aware that some business groups were clamoring for him to start unwinding U.S. tariffs of up to 25% imposed by Trump on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese imports, and that was why Tai was working on the issue. 

But he said it was too soon to move forward given China’s failure to boost its purchases. 

China last week said it hopes the United States can create conditions to expand trade cooperation.

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CDC: Prior Infection Plus Vaccines Provide Best COVID Protection

A new study in two states that compares coronavirus protection from a prior infection and vaccination concludes that getting the shots is still the safest way to prevent COVID-19. 

The study examined infections in New York and California last summer and fall and found people who were both vaccinated and had survived a prior bout of COVID-19 had the most protection.

But unvaccinated people with a past infection were a close second. By fall, when the more contagious delta variant had taken over but boosters weren’t yet widespread, that group had a lower case rate than vaccinated people who had no past infection. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which released the study Wednesday, noted several caveats to the research. And some outside experts were cautious of the findings and wary of how they might be interpreted. 

“The bottom-line message is that from symptomatic COVID infection you do generate some immunity,” said immunologist E. John Wherry of the University of Pennsylvania. “But it’s still much safer to get your immunity from vaccination than from infection.”

Vaccination has long been urged even after a case of COVID-19 because both kinds of protection eventually wane — and there are too many unknowns to rely only on a past infection, especially a long-ago one, added immunologist Ali Ellebedy at Washington University in St. Louis. 

“There are so many variables you cannot control that you just cannot use it as a way to say, ‘Oh, I’m infected, then I am protected,’ ” Ellebedy said.

Other studies

The research does fall in line with a small cluster of studies that found unvaccinated people with a previous infection had lower risks of COVID-19 diagnosis or illness than vaccinated people who were never before infected. 

The new study’s findings do make sense, said Christine Petersen, a University of Iowa epidemiologist. She said a vaccine developed against an earlier form of the coronavirus is likely to become less and less effective against newer, mutated versions. 

However, experts said, there are a number of possible other factors at play, including whether the vaccine’s effectiveness simply faded over time in many people and to what extent mask wearing and other behaviors played a part in what happened. 

Another thing to consider: The “staunchly unvaccinated” aren’t likely to get tested and the study only included lab-confirmed cases, Wherry said. 

“It may be that we’re not picking up as many reinfections in the unvaccinated group,” he said. 

CDC officials noted other limitations. The study was done before the omicron variant took over and before many Americans received booster doses, which have been shown to dramatically amplify protection by raising levels of virus-fighting antibodies. The analysis also did not include information on the severity of past infections or address the risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19. 

‘Safest strategy’

The study authors concluded vaccination “remains the safest strategy” to prevent infections and “all eligible persons should be up to date with COVID-19 vaccination.” 

The researchers looked at infections in California and New York, which together account for about 18% of the U.S. population. They also looked at COVID-19 hospitalizations in California. 

Overall, about 70% of the adults in each state were vaccinated; another 5% were vaccinated and had a previous infection. A little less than 20% weren’t vaccinated; and roughly 5% were unvaccinated but had a past infection. 

The researchers looked at COVID-19 cases from the end of last May until mid-November and calculated how often new infections happened in each group. As time went on, vaccine-only protection looked less and less impressive. 

By early October, compared with unvaccinated people who didn’t have a prior infection, case rates were: 

— Sixfold lower in California and 4.5-fold lower in New York in those who were vaccinated but not previously infected. 

— 29-fold lower in California and 15-fold lower in New York in those who had been infected but never vaccinated. 

— 32.5-fold lower in California and 20-fold lower in New York in those who had been infected and vaccinated. 

But the difference in the rates between those last two groups was not statistically significant, the researchers found. 

Hospitalization data, only from California, followed a similar pattern. 

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Global Health Experts Weigh In on Biden’s Pandemic Performance

It’s been a year since U.S. President Joe Biden took the oath of office on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. He inherited a global coronavirus pandemic that, from the campaign trail, he promised to end. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi reports on his handling of the pandemic.

Producer: Arash Arabasadi.

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US Government to Distribute 400 Million High-Quality Face Masks

U.S. news outlets said Wednesday that the Biden administration will distribute 400 million high-quality face masks free of charge to the American people beginning next week.

A White House official, speaking anonymously, said the N95 masks will be shipped to thousands of local pharmacies and community health centers across the United States beginning later this week, with three masks available per adult. The program will be fully operational by early February.

The N95 masks are part of the 750 million masks housed in the federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile, which stores critical medicines and medical supplies for use during a public health emergency. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently advised that N95 masks, which are designed to fit tightly on a person’s face, “offer the highest level of protection” against COVID-19, compared to other face masks.

The officials say the distribution of the N95 masks will be the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history.

Announcement of the free N95 face masks comes on the same day as the official debut of the federal government’s new website that allows Americans to request free rapid coronavirus test kits. Millions of households began placing orders for the test kits Tuesday during a soft launch of Covidtests.gov. The website allows each household to order a maximum of four tests after clicking on a link that connects to a U.S. Postal Service form.

Some occupants of apartments and other multi-unit dwellings, however, complained on social media that the website’s address verification tool was enforcing the four-per-person household, only allowing one family per building to request the tests.

The two programs are part of an aggressive new effort by the Biden administration to combat a surge of new COVID-19 infections largely driven by the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus.

A high-ranking official with the World Health Organization says the world could turn the corner on the COVID-19 pandemic this year through a more equitable distribution of vaccines and treatments.

Dr. Michael Ryan, the director of WHO’s health emergencies program, told the World Economic Forum Tuesday that COVID-19 may never be eradicated, but stressed the current public health emergency could finally come to an end if more vaccines finally reach the world’s poorest countries.

The U.N. health agency has repeatedly criticized the world’s richest countries for building up huge stockpiles of COVID-19 vaccines and using them to administer booster shots to its citizens, while poorer nations have barely received even a first dose of a vaccine.

More than 334,469,000 people around the globe have been sickened since COVID-19 was first detected in Wuhan, China in late 2019, according to figures compiled by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. The center reports more than 5.5. million deaths globally.

Germany announced Wednesday that it had recorded 112,323 new COVID-19 cases, the country’s highest-ever daily figure and the first time it had broken the 100,000 mark for a single day. The Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s disease control and prevention agency, said 70 percent of the new cases were driven by the highly-contagious omicron variant. The surge of new infections has prompted the government of new Chancellor Olaf Scholz to consider imposing mandatory vaccinations.

Tokyo and 12 other Japanese prefectures will be placed under new COVID-19 restrictions effective Friday as Japan struggles with an omicron-driven surge. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters Wednesday in the Japanese capital the new decree will allow local governors to limit the operating hours of bars and restaurants and ban the sale of alcohol. The restrictions will remain in effect until February 13.

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse.

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Mali Textile Artisans Bemoan Loss of AGOA Trade With US

As of January 1, a U.S. trade program that allows African countries to export many items duty-free to the American market delisted Mali because of what the U.S. cited as “unconstitutional” developments in the country. But artisans in Mali’s capital say they’re the ones paying for the bad actions of the country’s leaders. Moctar Barry reports for VOA from Bamako.

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