Climate Change Poses Grave Threat to a Healthy Planet

An expert group of 270 climate scientists warns the dire impacts of climate change soon will be irreversible unless governments act decisively to tackle these imminent global threats.

Hoesung Lee, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, does not mince words. He said the stakes of our planet have never been higher.

“Human activities have warmed the planet at a rate not seen in at least the past 2,000 years. We are on course to reaching global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next two decades and temperatures will continue to rise unless the world takes much bolder action,” said Lee.

He said the action governments take today will shape how people will be able to adapt to climate change and how nature will respond to increasing climate risks.

Debra Roberts is co-chair of the IPCC Working Group II, which produced the report. She said the scientific evidence that climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet is unequivocal.

“Climate change combines with unsustainable use of natural resources. Habitat destruction, deforestation, and growing urbanization as well as inequity and marginalization … 3.3 to 3.6 billion people live in global hotspots of high vulnerability to climate change,” said Roberts.

These include parts of Africa, as well as South Asia, Central and South America, small islands, and the Arctic. The report warns that people living in these hotspots will likely experience severe food shortages, leading to malnutrition, should global temperatures rise by two degrees Celsius by 2050.

Despite these dire predictions, scientists say the report presents a reality check on what has been done to stem global warming and what remains to be done. They say the report offers solutions on how to adapt to climate change and mitigate their worst effects.

Scientists say some challenges can be addressed by creating a more equitable and sustainable world, by moving away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and by using indigenous knowledge to protect nature.

These steps, along with adaptation and mitigation projects, can help create change, but poorer countries will need wealthier countries to help finance them.

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Twitter to Reduce Visibility of Russian State Media Content 

Twitter announced Monday that it will start labeling and making it harder for users to see tweets about the invasion of Ukraine that contain information from Russian state media outlets like RT and Sputnik.

“For years we’ve provided more context about state-affiliated media while not accepting ad $ or amplifying accounts,” Twitter said in a tweet. “With many looking for credible info due to the conflict in Ukraine, we’re now adding labels on Tweets linking to state media & reducing the content’s visibility.”

 

Twitter said it had seen over 45,000 tweets a day from people sharing links to Russian state media, much more than coming from state-sponsored accounts.

Twitter began to de-amplify Russian state media accounts in 2020 and had earlier banned Russian state media from advertising.

The announcement Monday will impact individuals sharing links from those entities.

The move is the latest spat between U.S. social media companies and Russia.

Twitter has been slowed down in Russia several times, most recently on Saturday, and last week, Russia said it would limit Russians’ access to some features of Facebook, saying the company was involved in censorship.

Google and Facebook have also banned Russian state media from monetizing their accounts.

Some information in this report comes from Reuters.

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Ukraine Crisis: Will African Oil Producers Take Advantage of Increasing Oil Prices? 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the sanctions that followed, has pushed the price of oil to over $100 per barrel, the highest level in eight years. But, it’s also opened an opportunity for African oil producers like Nigeria, Angola, Libya, and Algeria to cash in with more crude oil exports. But a lack of refineries in Africa means crude oil exporters will also have to pay more for imported fuels.

The Brent crude oil prices hit $105 per barrel last week, it’s highest mark since 2014 and up by 47% since December, amid fears that supplies from Russia may be impacted by crisis.

Russia accounts for a significant amount of the world’s total crude oil output between 25-30% making it the second highest producer globally.

But experts say the crisis and sanctions slammed on Russia by Europe and America could significantly impact demand for Russian products and tip the odds in Africa’s favor.

“For Africa it’s a gain, it’s an opportunity, it presents that window of opportunity for African countries to see how they can increase their production capacity and meet the need of global demands of crude oil,” says Isaac Botti, a public finance expert.

However, Africa’s production combined accounts for less than a tenth of total global output. Nigeria is Africa’s largest producer of oil followed by Libya. Other notable producers are Algeria and Angola.

Experts predict oil prices will rise further but worry Nigeria could be facing a backlash.

“At the end of the day it’s going to hit on our economy. We may think that we’ll gain but remember we don’t refine out crude oil,” said economic analyst Paul Enyim.

Nigerian refineries have been shut down for about one year. The country depends on imports to meet it’s energy needs. Experts say prices paid for imported will also increase.

Authorities are also grappling with huge subsidies to keep pump price of oil products within affordable limits.

Last week Nigeria’s minister of state for Petroleum said authorities were not comfortable with the surge in prices of crude oil.

But this week, Algerian state-owned oil and gas giant said it would supply Europe if Russian exports dwindled as a result of the crisis.

Botti says it’s a good example for other African nations.

“We need to develop our capacity to produce locally, we need to look at various trade agreements that are existing,” he said.

For years African oil producers including Nigeria have been struggling to meet required daily output levels.

Experts however worry African producers may struggle to fit into the big market with increasing global demands for crude oil.

For weeks, Nigeria has been battling to normalize fuel supply in the country after authorities recalled millions of liters of adulterated petrol from circulation causing a major shortage in West Africa’s most populous nation.

As the crises between Russia and Ukraine lingers, experts say the shifting focus on Africa could be both a blessing and a burden.

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Rapid Testing for Malaria and COVID Set to Roll Out in Kenya

Kenya has ramped up its efforts to control the twin challenges of the coronavirus and malaria by introducing locally made testing kits for the two diseases. Kenya’s Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) says the kits offer quicker detection and will soon be exported to the region. Brenda Mulinya reports from Nairobi. Videographer and producer: Amos Wangwa

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Ruble Plummets as Sanctions Bite, Sending Russians to Banks

Ordinary Russians faced the prospect of higher prices and crimped foreign travel as Western sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine sent the ruble plummeting, leading uneasy people to line up at banks and ATMs on Monday in a country that has seen more than one currency disaster in the post-Soviet era.

The Russian currency plunged about 30% against the U.S. dollar Monday after Western nations announced moves to block some Russian banks from the SWIFT international payment system and to restrict Russia’s use of its massive foreign currency reserves. The exchange rate later recovered ground after swift action by Russia’s central bank.  

People wary that sanctions would deal a crippling blow to the economy have been flocking to banks and ATMs for days, with reports in social media of long lines and machines running out.  

Moscow’s department of public transport warned city residents over the weekend that they might experience problems with using Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay to pay fares because VTB, one of the Russian banks facing sanctions, handles card payments in Moscow’s metro, buses and trams.  

A sharp devaluation of the ruble would mean a drop in the standard of living for the average Russian, economists and analysts said. Russians are still reliant on a multitude of imported goods and the prices for those items are likely to skyrocket. Foreign travel would become more expensive as their rubles buy less currency abroad. And the deeper economic turmoil will come in the coming weeks if price shocks and supply-chain issues cause Russian factories to shut down due to lower demand.  

“It’s going to ripple through their economy really fast,” said David Feldman, a professor of economics at William & Mary in Virginia. “Anything that is imported is going to see the local cost in currency surge. The only way to stop it will be heavy subsidization.”

The Russian government will have to step in to support declining industries, banks and economic sectors, but without access to hard currencies like the U.S. dollar and euro, they may have to result to printing more rubles. It’s a move that could quickly spiral into hyperinflation.  

The ruble slide recalled previous crises. The currency lost much of its value in the early 1990s after the end of the Soviet Union, with inflation and loss of value leading the government to lop three zeros off ruble notes in 1997. Then came a further drop after a 1998 financial crisis in which many depositors lost savings and yet another plunge in 2014 due to falling oil prices and sanctions imposed after Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

Russia’s central bank immediately stepped in to try to halt the slide of the ruble. It sharply raised its key interest rate Monday in a desperate attempt to shore up the currency and prevent a run on banks.  

The bank hiked the benchmark rate to 20% from 9.5%. That followed a Western decision Sunday to freeze Russia’s hard currency reserves, an unprecedented move that could have devastating consequences for the country’s financial stability.  

It was unclear exactly what share of Russia’s estimated $640 billion hard currency pile, some of which is held outside Russia, would be paralyzed by the decision. European officials said that at least half of it will be affected.

That dramatically raised pressure on the ruble by undermining financial authorities’ ability to support it by using reserves to purchase rubles.  

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the new sanctions that included a freeze on Russia’s hard currency reserves as “heavy,” but argued Monday that “Russia has the necessary potential to compensate the damage.”

The central bank ordered other measures to help banks cope with the crisis by infusing more cash into the financial system and easing restrictions for banking operations. At the same time, it temporarily barred non-residents from selling the government obligations to help ease the pressure on the ruble from panicky foreign investors trying to cash out of such investments.  

The steps taken to support the ruble are themselves painful since raising interest rates can hold back growth by making it more expensive for companies to get credit.

The ruble sank about 30% against the U.S. dollar early Monday but steadied after the central bank’s move. Earlier, it traded at a record low of 105.27 per dollar, down from about 84 per dollar late Friday, before recovering to 98.22.

Sanctions announced last week had taken the Russian currency to its lowest level against the dollar in history. 

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Britain Widens Russian ‘Dirty Money’ Crackdown With New Law 

Britain will intensify a crackdown on what Prime Minister Boris Johnson called “dirty money” by introducing the government’s Economic Crime Bill to parliament on Monday, a step brought forward in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The much-delayed legislation comes as many opposition lawmakers and those in the governing Conservative party have called on Johnson’s government to do more to stop the flow of Russian cash into London, dubbed by some as “Londongrad.”

“There is no place for dirty money in the UK. We are going faster and harder to tear back the facade that those supporting [Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign of destruction have been hiding behind for so long,” Johnson said.

“Those backing Putin have been put on notice: there will be nowhere to hide your ill-gotten gains,” he said in a statement.

Earlier measures have done little to dissuade many Russian oligarchs from using London as their Western capital of choice to spend large sums on property, education and luxury goods.

The government said the new bill would help the National Crime Agency prevent foreign owners from laundering their money in British property and to ensure more “corrupt oligarchs” could be handed an Unexplained Wealth Order (UWOs).

Those orders, introduced in 2018 to help authorities target the illicit wealth of foreign officials suspected of corruption and those involved in serious crime, have rarely been used because of the often high legal costs.

New laws will introduce a Register of Overseas Entities, requiring anonymous foreign owners of property in Britain to reveal their real identities.

Those entities which do not declare their beneficial owner will face restrictions on selling their property and those who break the rules could face up to five years in prison, the government said.

UWOs will also be reformed to prevent people from hiding behind shell companies, hand law enforcement agencies more time to review material and to protect them from substantial legal costs if cases are unsuccessful.

Included in the legislation is a move to allow the Register of Overseas Entities to apply retrospectively to property bought by overseas owners up to 20 years ago in England and Wales and since December 2014 in Scotland, it added.

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BP Exiting Stake in Russian Oil and Gas Company Rosneft

BP said Sunday it is exiting its share in Rosneft, a state-controlled Russian oil and gas company, in reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

BP has held a 19.75% stake in Rosneft since 2013. That stake is currently valued at $14 billion.

London-based BP also said its CEO, Bernard Looney, and former BP executive Bob Dudley will immediately resign from Rosneft’s board.

“Like so many, I have been deeply shocked and saddened by the situation unfolding in Ukraine and my heart goes out to everyone affected. It has caused us to fundamentally rethink BP’s position with Rosneft,” Looney said in a statement.

Rosneft said it was informed of BP’s decision Sunday. 

“BP has come under unprecedented pressure from both the regulator and its shareholders. BP’s decision was preceded by a Western media campaign full of false reports and conclusions,” Rosneft said in a statement on its website that was translated by The Associated Press. “The decision of the largest minority shareholder of Rosneft destroys the successful, 30-year-long cooperation of the two companies.”

BP Chairman Helge Lund praised the “brilliant Russian colleagues” BP has worked with for decades, but said Russia’s military action “represents a fundamental change.”

“The Rosneft holding is no longer aligned with BP’s business and strategy and it is now the board’s decision to exit BP’s shareholding in Rosneft,” Lund said in a statement.

BP’s action was an abrupt turnaround from earlier this month. During a conference call with investors on Feb. 8, Looney downplayed concerns and said there were no changes to the company’s business in Russia.

“Let’s not worry about things until they happen. And who knows what’s going to happen?” Looney said.

Kwasi Kwarteng, the U.K.’s secretary of state for business and energy, said he welcomed BP’s decision.

“Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine must be a wake up call for British businesses with commercial interests in Putin’s Russia,” Kwarteng said in a tweet.

BP said it will take two non-cash charges in the first quarter to reflect the change, including an $11 billion charge for foreign exchange losses that have accumulated since 2013.

It is not clear exactly how BP will unwind its holdings, or who might step up to buy them. 

Rosneft’s partnerships with Western oil and gas companies have been stymied before.

In 2011, Exxon Mobil, led at the time by future U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, signed a deal with Rosneft to potentially drill in the oil-rich Russian Arctic. But Exxon ended that partnership in 2017, citing U.S. and European sanctions against Russia.

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EU Closes its Airspace to Russian Planes 

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen says the European Union will close its airspace to Russian airlines and private jets due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The ban was decided on Sunday by the bloc’s foreign ministers. The decision is among several actions announced by the foreign ministers after their meeting in Brussels.

“We are shutting down the EU airspace for Russians. We are proposing a prohibition on all Russian-owned, Russian registered, or Russian-controlled aircraft. These aircraft will no more be able to land in, take off, or overfly the territory of the EU,” von der Leyen told a news conference.

 

Many European countries had already announced they would close their airspace to Russian planes.

Finland and Belgium were among the most recent to take the step, saying earlier they would join other European countries in ramping up sanctions against Moscow, officials said.

Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometer border with Russia, “is preparing to close its airspace to Russian air traffic,” Transport Minister Timo Harakka said on Twitter on February 26.

He did not state when the measure would take effect.

Belgian Prime Minster Alexander De Croo said on February 27 that the country “has decided to close its airspace to all Russian airlines.”

De Croo said on Twitter that “our European skies are open skies. They’re open for those who connect people, not for those who seek to brutally aggress.”

Several other countries, including Germany, France, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Britain, Romania, and Poland, had already closed their airspace to Russian flights, forcing westbound Russian planes to make enormous diversions.

 

“France is shutting its airspace to all Russian aircraft and airlines from this evening on,” French Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said on Twitter.

Air France-KLM said it is suspending flights to and from Russia as well as the overflight of Russian airspace until further notice as of February 27.

Canada also said on February 27 it had shut its airspace to Russian aircraft effective immediately, Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra said on Twitter.

 

Germany’s Transport Ministry said it would close its airspace to Russian planes and airlines for three months from February 27, with the exception of humanitarian aid flights.

Baltic countries Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are also closing their airspace to Russian airliners.

Moscow, for its part, has also banned planes from those countries from flying over its territory.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters.

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YouTube Blocks RT, Other Russian Channels From Earning Ad Dollars

YouTube on Saturday barred Russian state-owned media outlet RT and other Russian channels from receiving money for advertisements that run with their videos, similar to a move by Facebook, after the invasion of Ukraine.

Citing “extraordinary circumstances,” YouTube said in a statement that it was “pausing a number of channels’ ability to monetize on YouTube, including several Russian channels affiliated with recent sanctions.” Ad placement is largely controlled by YouTube.

Videos from the affected channels also will come up less often in recommendations, YouTube spokesperson Farshad Shadloo said. He added that RT and several other channels would no longer be accessible in Ukraine due to “a government request.”

Ukraine Digital Minister Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted earlier on Saturday that he contacted YouTube “to block the propagandist Russian channels such as Russia 24, TASS, RIA Novosti.”

RT did not immediately respond to a request for comment. YouTube did not name the other channels it had restricted.

For years, lawmakers and some users have called on YouTube, which is owned by Alphabet Inc’s Google, to take greater action against channels with ties to the Russian government out of concern that they spread misinformation and should not profit from that.

Russia received an estimated $7 million to $32 million over the two-year period ended December 2018 from ads across 26 YouTube channels it backed, digital researcher Omelas told Reuters at the time.

YouTube previously has said that it does not treat state-funded media channels that comply with its rules any differently than other channels when it comes to sharing ad revenue.

Meta Platforms Inc, owner of Facebook, on Friday barred Russian state media from running ads or generating revenue from ads on its services anywhere in the world.

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World’s Oldest Known Stone Structures Discovered in Jordan

Archaeologists in Jordan’s southeast desert have discovered a 9,000-year-old ritualistic complex. It’s the earliest known large human-built structure involving Neolithic hunting communities. Experts say it points to civilization in the Middle East much earlier than originally thought.

Jordan’s antiquities ministry recently announced the discovery of huge human stone structures believed to be the oldest known to date from 9,000 years ago in its southeastern desert plateau area of Jabal Khashabiyeh. 

Jordanian archaeologist Wael Abu Aziza told reporters that “they’re the oldest huge human structures known to date.” He said Neolithic hunters living 9,000 years ago used huge stone enclosures to trap wild animals en masse. Also, one structure, thought to be a shrine, contained objects the experts believe to be related to ancient rituals. 

Commenting on the discovery, archeologist Pearce Paul Creasman of the American Center of Research in Amman said it was likely older than other similar structures, also found in Jordan, known as the Ain Ghazal statues.  

“Absolutely, no question that this is a significant find. The Ain Ghazal statues have been traditionally considered some of the oldest and the most significant of human occupation and so this could possibly be pushing that back, a little bit older,” Creasman said.  

A team of international archaeologists—including those from the United States—say the discoveries show how hunting communities in Neolithic times, predating Iraq’s sophisticated Assyrians by several thousand years and who were far less developed, displayed early signs of civilization. At the site were also found children’s toys made by these hunters who etched human faces in stone between hunting trips in the Arabian Desert.  

“This is absolutely evidence of complex activity from a date doing a level organization that we don’t see all over the place at that time and is kind of a predecessor to what we would generally think of as civilization today,” Creasman.   

Archaeologists said this major find could change perceptions of early human civilization in the Middle East.

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Momentum Grows to Cut Russia From SWIFT Global Banking System

The U.S. is revisiting cutting Russia from the global bank-to-bank payment system known as SWIFT, as the next step in a series of escalating sanctions punishing Moscow for the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden initially held back on this crucial step that would isolate Russia on the world stage and have a serious impact on its economy, due to the concerns of European allies. But those concerns appeared to be eroding Saturday as Russian forces moved to encircle the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

Ukraine has lobbied for a SWIFT ban on Russia, urging Europe to act more forcefully in imposing sanctions against Moscow. However, some European nations, including Germany, are hesitant to take that step.

 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called Friday for nations to cut off Russia from the SWIFT international bank transfer system “to inflict maximum pain.”

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said “the debate about SWIFT is not off the table, it will continue.”

Putin, Lavrov sanctioned

The United States announced Friday that it would freeze the assets of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, following similar steps taken by the European Union and Britain, as nations around the world sought to tighten sanctions against Russia’s government over its invasion of Ukraine.

The U.S. Treasury Department announced the action Friday after EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels unanimously agreed to freeze the property and bank accounts of the top Russian officials.

Britain’s government took the same action Friday, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss writing on Twitter, “We will not stop inflicting economic pain on the Kremlin until Ukrainian sovereignty is restored.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the move by the U.S., the European Union and Britain sends “a clear message about the strength of the opposition to the actions” by Putin.

Juan González, the National Security Council Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, told VOA, the sanctions were designed to apply global pressure on Russia.

“If you see the sanctions on 13 financial institutions, among the largest in Russia, that will have an impact with any government or business that has agreements with these institutions. But also, a lot of this money laundering and governments that operate outside the financial system international will feel the squeeze,” Gonzalez said.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the sanctions against Putin and Lavrov reflect the West’s “absolute impotence” when it comes to foreign policy, according to the RIA news agency.

World leaders are rarely the target of direct sanctions. The only other leaders currently under EU sanctions are Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to Agence France-Presse.

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said the move is “a unique step in history” toward a country that has a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council but said it shows how united EU countries are in countering Russia’s actions.

The EU sanctions against Putin and Lavrov are part of a broader sanctions package that targets Russian banks, oil refineries and Russia’s defense industry.

EU leaders agreed, however, it was premature to impose a travel ban on Putin and Lavrov because negotiating channels need to be kept open.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Friday the package of banking sanctions the EU has passed would hit Putin’s government harder than excluding Russia from the SWIFT payments system.

“The sword that looks hardest isn’t always the cleverest one,” she said, adding, “the sharper sword at the moment is listing [the] banks.”

In response to the sanctions, Russia has taken its own measures, including banning British flights over its territory, after Britain imposed a similar ban on Aeroflot flights.  

The United States and several allies had imposed a first tranche of sanctions Tuesday, after Putin declared the disputed eastern Ukraine regions of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent states, much as he appropriated Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

President Biden added another round of sanctions on Russia Thursday, hours after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, declaring at the White House after meeting virtually with leaders of the G-7 nations and NATO that “Putin chose this war, and now he and his country will bear the consequences.”

Biden said the new U.S. sanctions, which target Russian banks, oligarchs and high-tech sectors and include export controls, will “squeeze Russia’s access to finance and technology for strategic sectors of its economy and degrade its industrial capacity for years to come.”

NATO allies, including Britain and the European Union, also imposed more sanctions Thursday, and the effects were felt almost immediately when global security prices plunged and commodity prices surged. Biden acknowledged that Americans would see higher gasoline prices.

Also Friday, an International Criminal Court prosecutor warned that the court may investigate whether Russia has committed any possible war crimes, following its invasion of Ukraine.

“I remind all sides conducting hostilities on the territory of Ukraine that my office may exercise its jurisdiction and investigate any act of genocide, crime against humanity or war crime committed within Ukraine,” ICC prosecutor Karim Khan said Friday in a statement.

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

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Are COVID-19 Restrictions Stunting Children’s Immune Systems?

Some medical experts have expressed concern that COVID-19 preventative measures, like masking and remote schooling, are potentially weakening children’s immune systems by shielding them from the usual childhood illnesses.

“There’s a lot of reasons to believe that kids need to be exposed to things to keep their immunity complex, so that should they encounter something very dangerous, they have aspects of their immunity that might cross over and help protect them against those things,” says Sara Sawyer, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado Boulder.

At birth, vulnerable infants get antibodies from their mother’s breast milk, which helps protect them until they can build their own immunity. It’s no accident that babies start putting things in their mouths as soon as they gain enough dexterity to pick things up.

“They’re doing that because they’re sampling the environment and building their immunity. That’s an evolutionary trait,” Sawyer says. “They’re exposing their body to germs in a certain, level way to build their immunity. So, some people would argue that childhood illnesses, like colds and stomach bugs, build our immunity so that when more dangerous things come along, we’re prepared and we don’t get as sick from those more dangerous things.”

Even before the pandemic, epidemiological evidence suggested that children in more developed countries, where handwashing and the use of sanitizer are more prevalent, might have less-developed immune systems compared to kids in developing nations who are routinely exposed to more bacteria, viruses and allergens. This makes kids in more industrialized countries more vulnerable to developing autoimmune diseases, according to what’s known as the “hygiene hypothesis.”

“The hygiene hypothesis is actually quite controversial because it’s thought that our exposure to microbes isn’t the only factor,” says Cody Warren, a virologist and immunologist who is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder. “A lot of this could also be dictated by genetics, diet, and the environment that we live in. That also shapes our immune system… it’s a real multifactorial thing that we can’t fully account for just by wearing masks. There are other things that go into that equation.”

Warren, the father of three young children, says spending lots of time outdoors is one way to balance the negatives of isolation.

“Just exploring microbes in the environment also is benefiting [and] training our immune system,” Warren says. “Our immune systems get trained through the foods that we eat, which also have microorganisms on them. And so, despite the fact that we’ve kind of been hunkered down a little bit, I do feel that our immune systems will catch up.”

There are other things parents can do, he says, to boost their children’s immune systems during pandemic times.

“One of the most important things you can do is just to stay up to date on vaccines. That’s one of the best ways that we have to train our immune systems,” Warren says. “But also, equally important is making sure our children have a good diet and they regulate stress. It’s been well documented that both of those — having a good diet, a less stressful environment — can have a positive impact on our immune system.”

Once public health officials say masks are no longer necessary, Sawyer thinks pointing out the positives of putting our masks away could reassure hesitant parents who worry about their children getting sick.

“Maybe we should have a public conversation about the possible reasons to take that mask off, if they are in school, and get back to the normal repertoire of relatively safe childhood illnesses,” she says. “The plus side of childhood illnesses is that they can build up that hornet’s nest of immunity that could protect kids against new things that then come along.”

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Thousands Could Die From COVID in Hong Kong, Study Shows 

Hong Kong’s fifth wave of coronavirus could see thousands of deaths, a new study said.

Slammed by the city’s fifth wave of COVID-19, Hong Kong is facing its worst health period since the pandemic began two years ago. It has forced the city’s government to implement strict measures, including compulsory tests for all Hong Kong residents.

February has seen thousands of new cases, mostly from the omicron variant. A new daily high of 10,010 infections was recorded Friday.

A study by the University of Hong Kong considered the potential outcomes from the current wave of coronavirus cases. One of the worst scenarios outlined that if the hospitals were to be overburdened, Hong Kong could see 7,000 COVID-19-related deaths by the end of June.

“The infection fatality risk may increase by 50% when the health care system becomes overburdened, in which case the cumulative number of deaths could further increase to 4,231 – 6,993,” the study said.

But it also said deaths could be half that number, about 3,200 by mid-May, if health measures remained.

‘Zero-COVID’ plan

Hong Kong had adopted a “zero-COVID” strategy, aligned with Beijing’s effort to control the pandemic across China. It had some success, with authorities quickly clamping down on rare outbreaks by contact tracing, social restrictions, mass testing and quarantine.

Fan Hung-ling, chairman of the Hong Kong Hospital Authority, told the Chinese state’s Global Times that the strategy was “our country’s basic policy” and “won’t change.”

Earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered the city’s authorities to get the fifth wave under control. Xi is due to visit Hong Kong July 1, marking the 25th anniversary of the city’s return to China from Britain.

Last week, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam unveiled new measures for the city, including a requirement that residents have proof of vaccination against COVID-19 to enter various premises.

On Wednesday, Lam also announced compulsory testing for all residents by March, with a goal of boosting the city’s vaccination rate to 90%.

Dr. David Owens, an honorary assistant clinical professor at Hong Kong University, had hoped for a different plan of action.

“I would have preferred we would have shifted all of our energies that would effectively [be focused on] things that would save lives,” Owens told VOA. “That would be mitigation, to roll out vaccinations to the elderly and vulnerable. I have also argued we should move to rapid testing so we can break the transmission chains quickly.”

Need for home isolation

Dr. Karen Grepin, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, responded to the mass strategy campaign.

“It is likely it will happen at a time very close to the peak of the outbreak and thus it will likely identify literally hundreds of thousands of cases, including likely many who are no longer infectious. It is unlikely that we will be able to isolate even a fraction of these cases, so unless it is coupled with a comprehensive home isolation strategy, it will have little impact on transmission,” Grepin told VOA.

According to data from the Hong Kong Hospital Authority, public hospitals are averaging an occupancy rate of 89%.

One health worker at Hong Kong’s United Christian Hospital, who chose to remain anonymous, admitted she was “afraid” of the pending testing program.

“Patients were crying,” she said. “A male patient said he had not eaten for 12 hours. And another patient said he wanted to commit suicide. And I started to cry. I cannot offer any more for them.

“I am so afraid of the universal testing program. We don’t have enough manpower for that. The government is so keen on a zero-COVID strategy. To me, it is a zero-medical staff strategy. The morale is worsened every day in the frontline.”

She described her job’s current conditions as like “working in a market.”

“It was so difficult to pass through the waiting hall,” she said. “We have to shout out to search the patients.”

Patients in beds outdoors

Last week, Hong Kong’s Caritas Hospital saw dozens of patients lying in hospital beds outside in cold weather, waiting to be admitted. But occupancy is was at 102%, the Hospital Authority said.

A nurse working at the hospital, who also chose to remain anonymous, said elderly patients “have nowhere to turn.”

“Patients are not severely sick from my ward, but [have a] lack of self-care ability. The virus is widely breaking out in elderly care homes and homes for disabilities. They cannot do self-isolation, as they are from the same care center. The staff [are] probably infected. Therefore, the patients literally have nowhere to go even if they turn negative,” she told VOA.

Hong Kong residents have also spoken to VOA about pandemic fatigue, venting their frustrations at the government’s new health measures.

And some expatriates are also looking to leave the city altogether. A Facebook group aimed at helping expatriates leave Hong Kong has already gained over 3,000 members, only days after being created.

Singapore for some

British citizen Niall Trimble, a job recruitment director at Ethos BeathChapman, an executive recruitment firm in Hong Kong, has decided to move elsewhere in Asia.

“I would say the reason for leaving is the lack of flexibility compared to other places on the COVID situation,” he told VOA. “As a recruiter across technology and financial services I am already seeing a huge influx of candidates looking to move to Singapore and also clients looking to move operations to Singapore.”

Hong Kong’s economy fell into a two-year recession in 2019 and 2020. But last year the city saw growth of 6.4% as coronavirus cases remained low.

But Hong Kong has now recorded at least 84,000 cases, with 2022 alone seeing more infections than the last two years combined.

Hong Kong’s finance chief unveiled a budget of over $20 billion to cope with the outbreak, which will include an electronic spending voucher for each resident.

Hong Kong authorities are set to loosen the strategy on rapid testing and allow home isolation for positive cases, the South China Morning Post reported Friday.

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US Drugmaker, Distributors Finalize $26B Opioid Settlement

Drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and three major distributors finalized nationwide settlements over their role in the opioid addiction crisis Friday, an announcement that clears the way for $26 billion to flow to nearly every state and local government in the U.S.

Taken together, the settlements are the largest to date among the many opioid-related cases that have been playing out across the country. They’re expected to provide a significant boost to efforts aimed at reversing the crisis in places that have been devastated by it, including many parts of rural America.

Johnson & Johnson, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson announced the settlement plan last year, but the deal was contingent on getting participation from a critical mass of state and local governments.

Friday was the deadline for the companies to announce whether they felt enough governments had committed to participate in the settlement and relinquish the right to sue. The four companies notified lawyers for the governments in the case that their thresholds were met, meaning money could start flowing to communities by April.

“We’re never going to have enough money to immediately cure this problem,” said Joe Rice, one of the lead lawyers who represented local governments in the litigation that led to the settlement. “What we’re trying to do is give a lot of small communities a chance to try to change some of their problems.”

While none of the settlement money will go directly to victims of opioid addiction or their survivors, the vast majority of it is required to be used to deal with the epidemic. The need for the funding runs deep.

Kathleen Noonan, CEO of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, said a portion of the settlement money should be used to provide housing to people with addictions who are homeless.

“We have clients who have a hard time staying clean to make it in a shelter,” she said. “We would like to stabilize them so we can help them recover.”

Dan Keashen, a spokesman for Camden County government, said officials are thinking about using settlement money for a public education campaign to warn about the dangers of fentanyl. They also want to send more drug counselors into the streets, put additional social workers in municipal courts and pay for anti-addiction medications in the county jail.

Officials across the country are considering pumping the money into similar priorities.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget calls for using $50 million of the state’s expected $86 million share this year for youth opioid education and to train treatment providers, improve data collection and distribute naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses.

In Florida’s Broward County, home to Fort Lauderdale, the number of beds in a county-run detoxification facility could be expanded from 50 to 70 or 75, said Danielle Wang French, a lawyer for the county.

“It’s not enough, but it’s a good start,” she said of the settlement.

With fatal overdoses continuing to rage across the U.S., largely because of the spread of fentanyl and other illicitly produced synthetic opioids, public health experts are urging governments to use the money to ensure access to drug treatment for people with addictions. They also emphasize the need to fund programs that are proven to work, collect data on their efforts and launch prevention efforts aimed at young people, all while focusing on racial equity.

“It shouldn’t be: ready, set spend,” said Joshua Sharfstein, a former secretary of the Maryland Department of Health who is now a vice dean of public health at Johns Hopkins University. “It should be: think, strategize, spend.”

In a separate deal that also is included in the $26 billion, the four companies reached a $590 million settlement with the nation’s federally recognized Native American tribes. About $2 billion is being set aside for fees and expenses for the lawyers who have spent years working on the case.

New Brunswick, New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson has nine years to pay its $5 billion share. The distributors — Conshohocken, Pennsylvania-based AmerisourceBergen; Columbus, Ohio-based Cardinal Health; and Irving, Texas-based McKesson — agreed to pay their combined $21 billion over 18 years. To reach the maximum amounts, states have to get local governments to sign on.

The settlements go beyond money. J&J, which has stopped selling prescription opioids, agrees not to resume. The distributors agree to send data to a clearinghouse intended to help flag when prescription drugs are diverted to the black market.

The companies are not admitting wrongdoing and are continuing to defend themselves against claims that they helped cause the opioid crisis that were brought by entities that are not involved in the settlements.

In a joint statement, the distributors called the implementation of the settlement “a key milestone toward achieving broad resolution of governmental opioid claims and delivering meaningful relief to communities across the United States.”

The requirement that most of the money be used to address the opioid crisis contrasts with a series of public health settlements in the 1990s with tobacco companies. In those cases, states used big chunks of the settlement money to fill budget gaps and fund other priorities.

The amount sent to each state under the opioid settlement depends on a formula that takes into account the severity of the crisis and the population. County and local governments also get shares of the money. A handful of states — Alabama, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Washington and West Virginia — have not joined all or part of the settlement, mostly because they have their own deals or are preparing for trial.

In Camden, Lisa Davey, a recovery specialist for Maryville Addiction treatment Center, was at a needle exchange this week handing out naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses, and asking people if they wanted to start treatment.

Davey said she wants to see detoxification and treatment programs receive more funding to keep people in them for longer. As it is, she said, users can detox and be back out on the streets in search of drugs within days.

“They need more time to work their recovery,” she said.

A man picking up clean needles who asked to be identified only as Anthony P. said he was 46 and had struggled with addiction since he was a teenager. He said he’d like to see an effort to cut off fentanyl and related synthetic opioids that are driving overdose death rates from the drug supply.

“Fentanyl’s got to go,” he said.

Martha Chavis, president and CEO of Camden Area Health Education Center, which runs the needle exchange, said one need is offering services like hers in more places. Now, users from far-flung suburbs travel into Camden to get clean needles and kits to test their drugs for fentanyl.

The settlement with J&J and the three distributors marks a major step toward resolving the vast constellation of lawsuits in the U.S. over liability for an epidemic that has been linked to the deaths of more than 500,000 Americans over the past two decades.

Other companies, including business consultant McKinsey and drugmakers Endo, Mallinckrodt and Teva, have reached national settlements or a series of local ones. OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and a group of states are in mediation through U.S. Bankruptcy Court to try to reach a nationwide settlement.

The crisis has deepened during the coronavirus pandemic, with U.S. opioid-related deaths reaching a high of more than 76,000 in the 12 months that ended in April 2021, largely because of the spread of fentanyl and other lab-made drugs. A recent report from a commission by The Lancet medical journal projected that 1.2 million Americans could die of opioid overdose between 2020 and 2029 without policy changes.

John F. Kelly, a professor of psychiatry in addiction medicine at Harvard Medical School, said he wants to see money from the settlements go not just for treatment, recovery and support efforts but also to build systems designed to prevent this sort of epidemic from happening again.

“Some kind of national board or organization could be set up … to prevent this kind of lack of oversight from happening again — where industry is allowed to create a public health hazard,” he said.

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CDC: Many Healthy Americans Can Take a Break From Masks 

Most Americans live in places where healthy people, including students in schools, can safely take a break from wearing masks under new U.S. guidelines released Friday. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlined the new set of measures for communities where COVID-19 is easing its grip, with less of a focus on positive test results and more on what’s happening at hospitals. 

The new system greatly changes the look of the CDC’s risk map and puts more than 70% of the U.S. population in counties where the coronavirus is posing a low or medium threat to hospitals. Those are the people who can stop wearing masks, the agency said. 

The agency is still advising that people, including schoolchildren, wear masks where the risk of COVID-19 is high. That’s the situation in about 37% of U.S. counties, where about 28% of Americans reside.  

The new recommendations do not change the requirement to wear masks on public transportation and indoors in airports, train stations and bus stations.  

The CDC guidelines for other indoor spaces aren’t binding, meaning cities and institutions even in areas of low risk may set their own rules. And the agency says people with COVID-19 symptoms or who test positive should wear masks.

Risk is generally lower 

But with protection from immunity rising — both from vaccination and infection — the overall risk of severe disease is now generally lower, the CDC said. 

“Anybody is certainly welcome to wear a mask at any time if they feel safer wearing a mask,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a news briefing. “We want to make sure our hospitals are OK and people are not coming in with severe disease. … Anyone can go to the CDC website, find out the volume of disease in their community and make that decision.” 

Since July, CDC’s transmission-prevention guidance to communities has focused on two measures: the rate of new COVID-19 cases and the percentage of positive test results over the previous week.  

Based on those measures, agency officials advised people to wear masks indoors in counties where the spread of the virus was deemed substantial or high. This week, more than 3,000 of the nation’s more than 3,200 counties — greater than 95% — were listed as having substantial or high transmission.  

That guidance has increasingly been ignored, however, with states, cities, counties and school districts across the U.S. announcing plans to drop mask mandates amid declining COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. 

With many Americans already taking off their masks, the CDC’s shift won’t make much practical difference for now, said Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California-Irvine. But it will help when the next wave of infection — a likelihood in the fall or winter — starts threatening hospital capacity again, he said. 

“There will be more waves of COVID. And so I think it makes sense to give people a break from masking,” Noymer said. “If we have continual masking orders, they might become a total joke by the time we really need them again.” 

Color-coded information

The CDC is also offering a color-coded map — with counties designated as orange, yellow or green — to help guide local officials and residents. In green counties, local officials can drop any indoor masking rules. Yellow means people at high risk for severe disease should be cautious. Orange designates places where the CDC suggests masking should be universal. 

How a county comes to be designated green, yellow or orange will depend on its rate of new COVID-19 hospital admissions, the share of staffed hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients and the rate of new cases in the community. 

Mask requirements have ended in most of the U.S. in recent weeks. Los Angeles on Friday began allowing people to remove their masks while indoors if they are vaccinated, and indoor mask mandates in Washington state and Oregon will be lifted in March. 

State health officials are generally pleased with the new guidance and “excited with how this is being rolled out,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. 

“This is the way we need to go. I think this is taking us forward with a new direction going on in the pandemic,” Plescia said. “But we’re still focusing on safety. We’re still focusing on preventing death and illness.” 

The CDC said the new system will be useful in predicting future surges and urged communities with wastewater surveillance systems to use that data, too.

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Key US Inflation Gauge Hit 6.1% in January, Highest Since 1982

An inflation gauge that is closely monitored by the Federal Reserve jumped 6.1% in January compared with a year ago, the latest evidence that Americans are enduring sharp price increases that will likely worsen after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The figure reported Friday by the Commerce Department was the largest year-over-year rise since 1982. Excluding volatile food and energy prices, core inflation increased 5.2% in January from a year earlier.

Robust consumer spending has combined with widespread product and worker shortages to create the highest inflation in four decades — a heavy burden for U.S. households, especially lower-income families faced with elevated costs for food, fuel and rent.

At the same time, consumers as a whole largely shrugged off the higher prices last month and boosted their spending 2.1% from December to January, Friday’s report said, an encouraging sign for the economy and the job market. That was a sharp improvement from December, when spending fell. Americans across the income scale have been receiving pay raises and have amassed more savings than they had before the pandemic struck two years ago. That expanded pool of savings provides fuel for future spending.

Inflation, though, is expected to remain high and perhaps accelerate in the coming months, especially with Russia’s invasion likely disrupting oil and gas exports. The costs of other commodities that are produced in Ukraine, such as wheat and aluminum, have also increased.

President Joe Biden said Thursday that he would do “everything I can” to keep gas prices in check. Biden did not spell out details, though he mentioned the possibility of releasing more oil from the nation’s strategic reserves. He also warned that oil and gas companies “should not exploit this moment” by raising prices at the pump.

A separate report Friday showed that orders for long-lasting factory goods rose sharply in January, led by a rise in demand for airplanes. The figures indicate that many companies are willing to invest more in industrial equipment and other goods, a sign of confidence in the economy.

“Overall, the real economy appears to be in stronger health than we feared,” said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, a forecasting firm.

Russia’s invasion and the likely resulting rise in inflation have increased pressure on the Federal Reserve, which is expected to raise interest rates by a quarter-point as many as five or six times this year beginning in March. The Fed’s delicate task — to raise rates enough to restrain inflation, without going so far as to tip the economy into recession — has now become more difficult.

Fed officials are acknowledging that the invasion of Ukraine has complicated the economic outlook, but say that so far they are sticking with their plans for rate hikes.

Loretta Mester, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, said Thursday that she supported a series of rate hikes beginning in March. But she said the Fed should remain flexible: Faster rate hikes might be needed, she said, if inflation hasn’t begun to fade by mid-year, or more gradual increases if inflation is slowing.

“The implications of the unfolding situation in Ukraine for the medium-run economic outlook in the U.S. will also be a consideration,” she said. Other Fed officials have offered similar remarks this week.

Late Thursday, however, Fed governor Christopher Waller said he would support a half-point rate hike in March if inflation remains high.

Fed officials want inflation to fall back to its 2% target, as measured by the Commerce Department’s gauge, released Friday. A separate measure, the consumer price index, released two weeks ago, showed that inflation reached 7.5% in January from a year earlier, also a four-decade high.

In December, Fed officials projected that inflation would decline to just 2.7%, according to their preferred measure, by the end of this year, which most economists see as increasingly unlikely. The Fed will release updated projections at its March meeting.

January’s data show inflation was already picking up before the invasion. From December to January, prices rose 0.6%, up from 0.5% in the previous month.

There are early indications that consumer spending has stayed healthy, boosted by the rapid fading of the omicron wave of the coronavirus. JPMorgan Chase said that spending on its credit cards for airline tickets, hotel rooms, and restaurant meals rose in the first half of this month.

The JPMorgan Chase Institute also recently released data showing that cash balances remain elevated among their customers, including those with lower incomes. Bank account balances for Americans with less than $26,000 in income were 65% higher at the end of last year than they were two years before.

Americans’ paychecks are rising steadily. Average hourly earnings rose 5.7% in January compared with a year ago. Unless companies can offset their higher labor costs with greater efficiencies, most of them will likely charge their customers more. This would send inflation higher.

The combination of higher pay and enhanced savings suggests that Americans may be able to keep spending at a solid pace in the coming months, thereby sustaining the economy’s inflationary pressures.

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