Biden Proposes Raising Taxes on Super Wealthy Americans

In his new budget, U.S. President Joe Biden has proposed a 20 percent minimum tax on households with a net worth of more than $100 million. The proposal highlights the debate over what the government should do about the soaring fortunes of the wealthiest Americans. VOA’s Laurel Bowman reports.

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Scientists Finally Finish Decoding Entire Human Genome 

Scientists say they have finally assembled the full genetic blueprint for human life, adding the missing pieces to a puzzle nearly completed two decades ago.

An international team described the first-ever sequencing of a complete human genome – the set of instructions to build and sustain a human being – in research published Thursday in the journal Science. The previous effort, celebrated across the world, was incomplete because DNA sequencing technologies of the day weren’t able to read certain parts of it. Even after updates, it was missing about 8% of the genome.

“Some of the genes that make us uniquely human were actually in this ‘dark matter of the genome’ and they were totally missed,” said Evan Eichler, a University of Washington researcher who participated in the current effort and the original Human Genome Project. “It took 20-plus years, but we finally got it done.”

Many — including Eichler’s own students — thought it had been finished already.

“I was teaching them, and they said, ‘Wait a minute. Isn’t this like the sixth time you guys have declared victory? I said, ‘No, this time we really, really did it!” Eichler said.

Scientists said this full picture of the genome will give humanity a greater understanding of our evolution and biology while also opening the door to medical discoveries in areas like aging, neurodegenerative conditions, cancer and heart disease.

“We’re just broadening our opportunities to understand human disease,” said Karen Miga, an author of one of the six studies published Thursday.

The research caps off decades of work. The first draft of the human genome was announced in a White House ceremony in 2000 by leaders of two competing entities: an international publicly funded project led by an agency of the U.S. National Institutes of Health and a private company, Maryland-based Celera Genomics.

The human genome is made up of about 3.1 billion DNA subunits, pairs of chemical bases known by the letters A, C, G and T. Genes are strings of these lettered pairs that contain instructions for making proteins, the building blocks of life. Humans have about 30,000 genes, organized in 23 groups called chromosomes that are found in the nucleus of every cell.

Before now, there were “large and persistent gaps that have been in our map, and these gaps fall in pretty important regions,” Miga said.

Miga, a genomics researcher at the University of California-Santa Cruz, worked with Adam Phillippy of the National Human Genome Research Institute to organize the team of scientists to start from scratch with a new genome with the aim of sequencing all of it, including previously missing pieces. The group, named after the sections at the very ends of chromosomes, called telomeres, is known as the Telomere-to-Telomere, or T2T, consortium.

Their work adds new genetic information to the human genome, corrects previous errors and reveals long stretches of DNA known to play important roles in both evolution and disease. A version of the research was published last year before being reviewed by scientific peers.

“This is a major improvement, I would say, of the Human Genome Project,” doubling its impact, said geneticist Ting Wang of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who was not involved in the research.

Eichler said some scientists used to think unknown areas contained “junk.”

“Some of us always believed there was gold in those hills,” he said. Eichler is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports The Associated Press’s health and science department.

Turns out that the gold Eichler believed in includes many important genes, he said, such as some integral to making a person’s brain bigger than a chimp’s, with more neurons and connections.

To find such genes, scientists needed new ways to read life’s cryptic genetic language.

Reading genes requires cutting the strands of DNA into pieces hundreds to thousands of letters long. Sequencing machines read the letters in each piece and scientists try to put the pieces in the right order. That’s especially tough in areas where letters repeat.

Scientists said some areas were illegible before improvements in gene sequencing machines that now allow them to, for example, accurately read a million letters of DNA at a time. That allows scientists to see genes with repeated areas as longer strings instead of snippets that they had to later piece together.

Researchers also had to overcome another challenge: Most cells contain genomes from both mother and father, confusing attempts to assemble the pieces correctly. T2T researchers got around this by using a cell line from one “complete hydatidiform mole,” an abnormal fertilized egg containing no fetal tissue that has two copies of the father’s DNA and none of the mother’s.

The next step? Mapping more genomes, including ones that include collections of genes from both parents. This effort did not map one of the 23 chromosomes that is found in males, called the Y chromosome, because the mole contained only an X.

Wang said he’s working with the T2T group on the Human Pangenome Reference Consortium, which is trying to generate reference, or template, genomes for 350 people representing the breadth of human diversity.

“Now we’ve gotten one genome right and we have to do many, many more,” Eichler said. “This is the beginning of something really fantastic for the field of human genetics.”

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Changing of the Guard Aboard International Space Station

A microgravity ceremony ushers in a new commander of the International Space Station. An old space telescope finds something new in the cosmos. And a futuristic helmet to study astronauts’ brain waves. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us The Week in Space.

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DRC Joins EAC Regional Bloc to Facilitate Trade

The Democratic Republic of Congo this week became the seventh country to join the East African Community. The regional trade bloc, which includes Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, now reaches a quarter of Africa’s population, stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic.

The 90 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo will be able to move freely and do business in six other African countries.

The leaders of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda welcomed Congo to the East African Community in a ceremony Monday. 

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta spoke, stressing cooperation as the group’s cornerstone.

“I proudly and warmly welcome our brothers and sisters from the Democratic Republic of Congo to the East African Community. We look forward to joining hands in strengthening our community together. Working together, we have more to gain than when we are separate,” Kenyatta said.

Ezra Munyambonera, an economic researcher at the Economic Policy Research Center, says Congo’s addition to the EAC will benefit all the countries in the bloc.

“It (the DRC) has a lot of resources [and it] joining the East Africa Community adds more to microeconomic conditions and microeconomic stability of the region in terms of foreign earnings and attracting investments in the region for wider economic growth,” Munyambonera said. 

The mineral-rich nation is a member of two more regional blocs, the Southern African Development Community and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, or COMESA. 

Erastus Mwencha, a former secretary-general of COMESA, says the continent needs to scale up its production capabilities to benefit from integration and take advantage of its natural resources. 

“The tradable is not that much and so the region needs to develop trade with production, to really go beyond just looking at trade within but also to cater [to] the production aspect. The economies are not deep enough, we tend to produce primary products and because of that, they are not very much integrated,” Mwencha said.

The countries in the EAC bloc have not been able to fully establish a customs union, and while they are working on having a common currency by 2023, experts say that deadline likely will not be met. 

Mwencha says the DRC technology sector will provide more opportunities for entrepreneurs.   

“Whether you are looking at banking industries, fintech, because it’s a big country, which requires the banks to communicate throughout the country, or other services such as the education sector, health sector, there is a lot, in other words, of e-services,” Mwencha said.

As part of the East African Community, the DRC will enjoy lower tariffs and administrative barriers, something it hasn’t experienced for decades, despite using the ports of Mombasa, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to import most of its goods.

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Key Inflation Gauge Sets 40-year High as Gas and Food Soar in US

An inflation gauge closely monitored by the Federal Reserve jumped 6.4% in February compared with a year ago, with sharply higher prices for food, gasoline and other necessities squeezing Americans’ finances.

The figure reported Thursday by the Commerce Department was the largest year-over-year rise since January 1982. Excluding volatile prices for food and energy, so-called core inflation increased 5.4% in February from 12 months earlier.

Robust consumer demand has combined with shortages of many goods to fuel the sharpest price jumps in four decades. Escalating the inflation pressures, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has disrupted global oil markets and accelerated prices for wheat, nickel and other key commodities.

The inflation spike took a toll on consumers, whose spending in February rose just 0.2%, down from a much larger 2.7% gain in January. Adjusted for inflation, spending actually fell 0.4% last month.

The Federal Reserve responded this month to the inflation surge by raising its benchmark short-term interest rate by a quarter-point from near zero, and it’s likely to keep raising it well into next year. Because its rate affects many consumer and business loans, the Fed’s rate hikes will make borrowing more expensive and could weaken the economy over time.

Michael Feroli of JPMorgan is among economists who now think the Fed will raise its key rate by an aggressive half-point in both May and June. The central bank hasn’t raised its benchmark rate by a half-point in two decades, a sign of how concerned it has become about the persistent surge in inflation.

On a monthly basis, prices rose 0.6% from January to February, up slightly from the previous month’s increase of 0.5%. Core prices rose 0.4%, down from a 0.5% increase in January.

Gas prices have soared in the past month in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion, which led the United Kingdom and the Biden administration to ban Russia’s oil exports. The cost of a gallon of gas shot up to a national average of $4.24 a gallon Wednesday, according to AAA. That’s up 63 cents from a month ago, when it was $3.61.

Thursday’s report follows a more widely monitored inflation gauge, the consumer price index, that was issued earlier this month. The CPI jumped to 7.9% in February from a year ago, the sharpest such increase in four decades.

Many economists still expect inflation to peak in the coming months. In part, that’s because price spikes that occurred last year, when the economy widely reopened, will begin to make the year-over-year price increases appear smaller. Yet Fed officials project that inflation, as measured by its preferred gauge, will still be a comparatively high 4.3% by the end of this year.

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Russia’s Ruble Rebound Raises Questions of Sanctions’ Impact

The ruble is no longer rubble.

The Russian ruble by Wednesday had bounced back from the fall it took after the U.S. and European allies moved to bury the Russian economy under thousands of new sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has resorted to extreme financial measures to blunt the West’s penalties and inflate his currency.

While the West has imposed unprecedented levels of sanctions against the Russian economy, Russia’s Central Bank has jacked up interest rates to 20% and the Kremlin has imposed strict capital controls on those wishing to exchange their rubles for dollars or euros.

It’s a monetary defense Putin may not be able to sustain as long-term sanctions weigh down the Russian economy. But the ruble’s recovery could be a sign that the sanctions in their current form are not working as powerfully as Ukraine’s allies counted on when it comes to pressuring Putin to pull his troops from Ukraine. It also could be a sign that Russia’s efforts to artificially prop up its currency are working by leveraging its oil and gas sector.

The ruble was trading at roughly 85 to the U.S. dollar, roughly where it was before Russia started its invasion a month ago. The ruble had fallen as low as roughly 150 to the dollar on March 7, when news emerged that the Biden administration would ban U.S. imports of Russian oil and gas.

Speaking to Norway’s parliament on Wednesday, Ukraine’s president urged Western allies to inflict still greater financial pain on Russia.

“The only means of urging Russia to look for peace are sanctions,” Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video message from his besieged country. He added: “The stronger the sanctions packages are going to be, the faster we’ll bring back peace.”

Increasingly, European nations’ purchases of Russian oil and natural gas are coming under scrutiny as a loophole and lifeline for the Russian economy.

“For Russia, everything is about their energy revenues. It’s half their federal budget. It’s the thing that props up Putin’s regime and the war,” said Tania Babina, an economist at Columbia University who was born in Ukraine.

Babina is currently working with a group of 200 Ukrainian economists to more accurately document how effective the West’s sanctions are in stymying Putin’s war-making capabilities.

The ruble has also risen amid reports that the Kremlin has been more open to cease-fire talks with Ukraine. U.S. and Western officials have expressed skepticism about Russia’s announcement that it would dial back operations.

President Joe Biden promoted the success of the sanctions — some of the toughest ever imposed on a nation — while he was in Poland last week. “The ruble almost is immediately reduced to rubble,” Biden said.

Sanctions on Russian financial institutions and companies, on trade and on Putin’s power brokers were crushing the country’s economic growth and prompting hundreds of international companies to stop doing business there, Biden noted.

Russian efforts to counter those sanctions by propping up the ruble can only go so far.

Russia’s Central Bank cannot keep raising interest rates because doing so will eventually choke off credit to businesses and borrowers. At some point, individuals and businesses will develop ways to go around Russia’s capital controls by moving money in smaller amounts. As the penalties depress the Russian economy, economists say that will eventually weigh down the ruble. Without these efforts, Russia’s currency would almost certainly be weaker.

But Russia’s oil and gas exports have continued to Europe as well as to China and India. Those exports have acted as an economic floor for the Russian economy, which is dominated by the energy sector. In the European Union, a dependence on Russian gas for electricity and heating has made it significantly more difficult to turn off the spigot, which the Biden administration did when it banned the relatively small amount of petroleum that the U.S. imports from Russia.

“The U.S. has already banned imports of Russian oil and natural gas, and the United Kingdom will phase them out by the end of this year. However, these decisions will not have a meaningful impact unless and until the EU follows suit,” wrote Benjamin Hilgenstock and Elina Ribakova, economists with the Institute of International Finance, in a report released Wednesday.

Hilgenstock and Ribakova estimate that if the EU, Britain and the U.S. were to ban Russian oil and gas, the Russian economy could contract more than 20% this year. That’s compared with projections for up to a 15% contraction, as sanctions stand now.

Knowing this, Putin has greatly leveraged Europe’s dependence on its energy exports to its advantage. Putin has called for Russia’s Central Bank to force foreign gas importers to purchase rubles and use them to pay state-owned gas supplier Gazprom. It’s unclear whether Putin can make good on his threat.

The White House and economists have argued that the impact of sanctions takes time, weeks or months for full effect as industries shut down due to a lack of materials or capital or both. But the administration’s critics say the ruble’s recovery shows the White House needs to do more.

“The ruble’s rebound would seem to indicate that U.S. sanctions haven’t effectively crippled Russia’s economy, which is the price Putin should have to pay for his war,” said Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.

“To give Ukraine a fighting chance, the U.S. must sever Putin’s revenue stream by cutting off Russian oil and gas sales globally,” Toomey said in an email to The Associated Press.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, said Wednesday that lawmakers are considering ways to expand the sanctions Biden recently imposed on members of the Russian parliament “and probably widen that to other political players.” Brown, D-Ohio, said lawmakers also are weighing more penalties against banks.

Western leaders, under Biden’s encouragement, embraced sanctions as their toughest weapon to try to compel Russia to reverse its invasion of Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO and not protected under that bloc’s mutual defense policy.

Some of the allies now acknowledge their governments may need to redouble financial punishment against Russia.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Wednesday that the Group of Seven major industrial nations should “intensify sanctions with a rolling program until every single one of (Putin’s) troops is out of Ukraine.”

But that’s a tougher ask for other European countries such as Germany, which depend on Russia for vital natural gas and oil. The EU overall gets 10% of its oil from Russia and more than one-third of its natural gas.

Many of those countries have pledged to wean themselves off that dependence — but not immediately.

If European nations did move more quickly off Russian petroleum, wrote analyst Charles Lichfield of the Atlantic Council, “a more comprehensive embargo from Europe would threaten Russia’s current account surplus — suddenly making it more difficult to pay public-sector salaries and wage war.”

He noted that “such an outcome may be beyond the reach of Western consensus.”

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South Koreans Flock Overseas for ‘Revenge Travel’ as COVID Rules Ease

After spending two years being socially distanced in his home country of South Korea, Kim Hoe-jun booked a last-minute flight to Hawaii, where he had enjoyed his honeymoon six years ago, giving in to his craving for overseas travel.

“I bought the ticket just a week ago, but it was rather a no-brainer. It felt like I was making up for those two years not being able to go abroad often as I used to before COVID,” he said, before boarding the plane from Incheon International Airport on Friday.

Vaccinated and boosted, Kim and his wife are among South Koreans joining in a rush for “revenge travel” — a term that has been trending on social media as people scramble to book overseas trips that were delayed by coronavirus restrictions.

The boom started after March 21 when South Korea lifted a seven-day mandatory quarantine for fully vaccinated travelers arriving from most countries. The restriction had been eased last year but was reimposed in December as the highly infectious Omicron variant spread.

The country has largely scrapped its once-aggressive tracing and containment efforts despite a record COVID-19 wave, joining a growing list of Asian countries that have eased quarantine rules, including Singapore, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Koreans now appear more ready to travel. Polls showed people are less worried about the implications of catching the virus, and increasingly see its prevention as out of their hands.

Sales of overseas flight tickets on 11st, an e-commerce unit of SK Telecom, South Korea’s top mobile carrier, rose more than eight-fold compared with a year before between March 11, when the lifting of quarantine was announced, and March 27, the company said.

Kim Na-yeon, 27, was excited to return to Hawaii, where she used to live.

“I couldn’t dare to travel even in Korea because of COVID,” she said. “But now I feel a bit freer with the exemption, so I’ve decided to go meet old friends and do some sightseeing.”

Exploding demand

Airlines and travel agencies have reported exploding demand for routes to Hawaii, Saipan and Guam, as well as some destinations in Europe and Southeast Asia where tourists submitting a vaccination certificate or negative test result are exempted from quarantine.

Saipan and Guam, both of which have travel bubble pacts with South Korea, also offer free COVID testing and pay for quarantine expenses if a traveler tests positive. Each South Korean national visiting Saipan receives $100 in “travel bucks” to spend at businesses there.

The tour arm of online retail giant Interpark reported a 324% growth in flight bookings for Oceania between March 11-22 from the same period of 2021, a 268% increase for Southeast Asia and 262% more bookings for Europe.

On Sunday, the company sold a record 5,200 Hawaii tour packages within 70 minutes. CJ Corp’s home shopping unit said it received about 2,800 orders for a Spain and Italy trip in one hour on Sunday, totaling 15 billion won ($12.41 million), days after garnering 9 billion won ($7.4 million) from its sales of a Hawaii package.

“The surge reflects growing customer sentiment that an end of COVID travel curbs might be in the offing after the mandatory quarantine was lifted,” said Lee Jeong-pil, general manager of CJ’s home shopping unit.

Lee Tae-woo, a 36-year-old frequent traveler to Japan, said he has changed some money into yen, taking advantage of the currency’s sharp decline and hoping to jump on the revenge travel bandwagon soon.

Though Japan has yet to allow tourists back in, it has reduced the quarantine period for arrivals for business and other purposes to three days from seven this month and signaled further easing of travel curbs.

“It’s been a long wait, and I’m ready to go back as soon as they finally open up again and visit my favorite coffee roastery and enjoy the night view from Shibuya station,” Lee said, referring to Tokyo’s bustling central district.

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CDC Drops COVID-19 Health Warning for Cruise Ship Travelers

Federal health officials are dropping the warning they have attached to cruising since the beginning of the pandemic, leaving it up to vacationers to decide whether they feel safe getting on a ship.

Cruise-ship operators welcomed Wednesday’s announcement, which came as many people thought about summer vacation plans.

An industry trade group said the move by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention validated measures that ship owners have taken, including requiring crew members and most passengers to be vaccinated against the virus.

The CDC removed the COVID-19 “cruise ship travel health notice” that was first imposed in March 2020, after virus outbreaks on several ships around the world.

However, the agency expressed reservations about cruising.

“While cruising will always pose some risk of COVID-19 transmission, travelers will make their own risk assessment when choosing to travel on a cruise ship, much like they do in all other travel settings,” CDC spokesperson Dave Daigle said in an email.

Daigle said the CDC’s decision was based on “the current state of the pandemic and decreases in COVID-19 cases onboard cruise ships over the past several weeks.”

COVID-19 cases in the United States have been falling since mid-January, although the decline has slowed in recent weeks, and the current seven-day rolling average for daily new cases in the U.S. is roughly unchanged from two weeks ago, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University. States have rolled back mask mandates, putting pressure on federal officials to ease virus-related restrictions.

Outbreaks continue to be reported on cruise ships, which conduct random testing before the end of voyages.

On Sunday, a Princess Cruises ship returning from the Panama Canal had “multiple” passengers who had tested positive for the virus. Princess Cruises said all the affected passengers showed mild symptoms or none at all, and that all crew members and passengers had been vaccinated. About a dozen passengers tested positive before the same boat docked in San Francisco in January.

Operators are required to tell the CDC about virus cases on board ships. The agency has a colored-coded system to classify ships based on the percentage of passengers who test positive. The CDC said that system remains in place.

Cruise-ship operators have complained since the start of the pandemic that their industry has been singled out for a shutdown and then tighter COVID-19 restrictions than others, including airlines.

The Cruise Lines International Association said in a statement that the CDC’s decision to remove its health warning “recognizes the effective public health measures in place on cruise ships and begins to level the playing field between cruise and similarly situated venues on land.”

Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief of Cruise Critic, a site that publishes review of trips, called the CDC decision big news.

“Symbolically it’s a notice of winds of change when it comes to cruising,” she said. “I do think it can convince some of the doubters. What the CDC says does matter to cruisers.”

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Towering Ice Volcanoes Identified on Surprisingly Vibrant Pluto

A batch of dome-shaped ice volcanoes that look unlike anything else known in our solar system and may still be active have been identified on Pluto using data from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, showing that this remote frigid world is more dynamic than previously known.

Scientists said that these cryovolcanoes — numbering perhaps 10 or more — stand anywhere from 1 kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) to 7 kilometers (4-1/2 miles) tall. Unlike Earth volcanoes that spew gases and molten rock, this dwarf planet’s cryovolcanoes extrude large amounts of ice — apparently frozen water rather than some other frozen material — that may have the consistency of toothpaste, they said.

Features on the asteroid belt dwarf planet Ceres, Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan, Jupiter’s moon Europa and Neptune’s moon Triton also have been pegged as cryovolcanoes. But those all differ from Pluto’s, the researchers said, owing to different surface conditions such as temperature and atmospheric pressure, as well as different mixes of icy materials.

“Finding these features does indicate that Pluto is more active, or geologically alive, than we previously thought it would be,” said planetary scientist Kelsi Singer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, lead author of the study published this week in the journal Nature Communications.

“The combination of these features being geologically recent, covering a vast area and most likely being made of water ice is surprising because it requires more internal heat than we thought Pluto would have at this stage of its history,” Singer added.

Pluto, which is smaller than Earth’s moon and has a diameter of about 2,380 kilometers (1,400 miles), orbits about 5.8 billion kilometers (3.6 billion miles) away from the sun, roughly 40 times farther than Earth’s orbit. Its surface features plains, mountains, craters and valleys.

Images and data analyzed in the new study, obtained in 2015 by New Horizons, validated previous hypotheses about cryovolcanism on Pluto.

The study found not only extensive evidence for cryovolcanism but also that it has been long-lived, not a single episode, said Southwest Research Institute planetary scientist Alan Stern, the New Horizons principal investigator and study co-author.

“What’s most fascinating about Pluto is that it’s so complex – as complex as the Earth or Mars despite its smaller size and high distance from the sun,” Stern said. “This was a real surprise from the New Horizons flyby, and the new result about cryovolcanism re-emphasizes this in a dramatic way.”

The researchers analyzed an area southwest of Sputnik Planitia, Pluto’s large heart-shaped basin filled with nitrogen ice. They found large domes 30-100 kilometers (18-60 miles) across, sometimes combining to form more complexly shaped structures.

An elevation called Wright Mons, one of the tallest, may have formed from several volcanic domes merging, yielding a shape unlike any Earth volcanoes. Although shaped differently, it is similar in size to Hawaii’s large volcano Mauna Loa.

Like Earth and our solar system’s other planets, Pluto formed about 4.5 billion years ago. Based on an absence of impact craters that normally would accumulate over time, it appears its cryovolcanoes are relatively recent — formed in the past few hundred million years.

“That is young on a geologic timescale. Because there are almost no impact craters, it is possible these processes are ongoing even in the present day,” Singer said.

Pluto has lots of active geology, including flowing nitrogen ice glaciers and a cycle in which nitrogen ice vaporizes during the day and condenses back to ice at night — a process constantly changing the planetary surface.

“Pluto is a geological wonderland,” Singer said. “Many areas of Pluto are completely different from each other. If you just had a few pieces of a puzzle of Pluto you would have no idea what the other areas looked like.” 

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Kenya Gets Huawei-Linked Chinese Communications Cable

China has connected a high-speed, multimillion-dollar, 15,000-kilometer undersea cable to Kenya, as Beijing advances what’s been dubbed its “digital silk road,” and Africa seeks the infrastructure it badly needs for better internet connectivity.  

Chinese giant Huawei is a shareholder in the $425-million PEACE cable, which stands for “Pakistan and East Africa Connecting Europe.” It stretches from Asia to Africa and then into France, where it terminates. 

It reached the coastal city of Mombasa on Tuesday, with the CEO of local partner company Telekom Kenya, Mugo Kibati, saying the cable would help meet the sharp rise in demand for internet services on a continent where internet adoption has trailed the rest of the world, but which is home to a growing, young and increasingly digital population.   

“This ultra-high-capacity cable will assist Kenya and the region in meeting its current and future broadband capacity requirements, bolster redundancy, minimize transit time of our country’s connectivity to Asia and Europe, as well as assist carriers in providing affordable services to Kenyans,” said Kibati.  

Business development

For his part, the PEACE Cable’s COO, Sun Xiaohua, said in a statement that the new infrastructure would “bring more business development to this region.” From Kenya, the cable will later be extended further down the continent’s east coast to South Africa. 

 

It’s estimated that 95% of international data flows via submarine cables, and in terms of Africa, China dominates, with the most projects aimed at connecting the continent. Aside from the PEACE cable, China’s proposed 2Africa cable will become one of the biggest undersea projects in the world when it goes live in 2024. 

 

But China’s massive digital infrastructure investments in Africa and elsewhere have not been without controversy, and Washington has expressed deep concerns that Beijing is attempting to monopolize networks and possibly use them for espionage.  

Safety concerns

Some analysts are concerned the technology could be misused by authoritarian leaders on the continent, but Cobus van Staden, a senior China-Africa researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said most Africans simply want better internet. 

“I think this PEACE Cable generally plays very positively in Africa. Obviously, the United States has raised … concerns around this, particularly in relation to security, but I think for lot of African countries, the security issue is actually balanced by the wider issue of a lack of connectivity,” van Staden told VOA.  

Huawei was sanctioned by the U.S. under former president Donald Trump, but the company has built about 70% of Africa’s 4G networks, and van Staden said it seems China is winning the race for digital soft power on the continent. 

“I think there’s a space there for competition, but Western actors will have to step up,” he said.  

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Biden Introduces COVID.gov, Urges Congress to Approve Additional Funding

U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday introduced his administration’s new website, COVID.gov, designed to be a clearinghouse for the latest pandemic information, as well as a means of providing access to vaccines, tests, treatments and masks on a single site.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Biden also asked Congress to approve an additional $22 billion in emergency funding to help continue the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Biden said the nation was entering a new moment in the pandemic. He stressed that though the pandemic no longer controlled our lives, it was not over, noting an uptick of new cases in recent weeks — as expected, he said.

Biden added that the U.S. now had the tools to protect all people.

The president said COVID.gov provides access to all the tools available to address COVID-19, including a list of all 90,000 vaccination sites in the United States, links to obtaining masks and tests, and where to obtain COVID-19 treatments. The site also has a search function, which can be used to find the latest information on the status of the pandemic in any region in the country.

‘Test-to-treat’ sites

The website also features a so-called “test-to-treat” locator, designed to allow access to U.S. pharmacies and community health centers where anyone can get tested for COVID-19 and, if required, receive appropriate treatment.

The White House said the administration had launched more than 2,000 such sites across the country, as well as 240 in Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense facilities to serve veterans, military personnel and their families.

The president also urged Congress to approve additional funding to fight the pandemic. He said without it, the U.S. would not be able to sustain its testing capacity beyond June, and vaccines could run out as early as September, leaving the nation vulnerable should another wave of the virus that causes COVID-19 hit.

Biden also noted that the U.S. Food and Drug administration on Tuesday approved a second COVID-19 booster — a fourth shot overall for those receiving the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines — for all people over age 50 and people with compromised immune systems.

He urged all eligible people to get their boosters. To prove his point, following his remarks at the White House, he received his fourth vaccination as reporters watched.

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Solar Panel Technology Boosts Yields for Farmers in Kenya

Scientists in Kenya are testing a project using solar panels to shade crops while generating clean energy. It’s called agrivoltaics. Successful trials have shown that this technology reduces water loss and results in higher yields. Juma Majanga reports from Kajiado, Kenya.

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Malaysian Proposal to Phase Out Smoking Sparks Controversy

Malaysia’s health ministry is proposing a major initiative to prevent young people from smoking. It’s a bold plan but critics say it has flaws. Dave Grunebaum has the story.

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The Global Economic Impact of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine has not only created one of the world’s most tragic humanitarian crises but resulted in economic devastation that will reverberate far beyond Ukraine’s borders.

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Mumbai to Rebuild Century-Old Tenements: Boon or Bane?  

For Mumbai resident Shailesh Kambli a childhood dream is about to translate into reality. The 40-year-old is the third generation of his family living in a cramped, 15-square meter room along with his parents, brother and sister-in-law.

These tenements are housed in dilapidated buildings that stretch across about 37 hectares in the heart of India’s financial capital, where real estate is among the most expensive in the world.

All around the BDD Chawls, as they are called, prime commercial and residential buildings have mushroomed in recent decades as India’s financial capital, home to more than 20 million people, developed at a frenetic pace.

“Whenever I went out, I wanted to own a house, however tiny, in one these buildings,” Kambli recalls. “I even told my uncle that one day I will live in such a place.”

Now that aspiration is within his grasp.

Under a massive $2 billion redevelopment project, the 16,000 dingy settlements built over four floors will be pulled down to make way for high rise buildings in which the occupants will swap their living quarters for a 46-square meter apartment.

It is part of ambitious plans that space-starved Mumbai has long pursued with limited success — clearing up prime land on which old structures, shanties and slums sit to replace them with tall buildings that besides residential units, include office blocks and shopping malls.

Some urban planners however have raised concerns that the project will add enormous pressure in an already crowded city that is short on infrastructure.

The BDD Chawls, where the rooms built by the British a century ago for migrant cotton mill workers stretch on both sides of a corridor, are in urgent need of a revamp.

Inside most homes, a curtain separates the counter at one end that serves as a kitchen from the rest of the space that doubles as a bedroom and a living room. Televisions are mounted over the bed or in a corner. Two bathrooms serve the 20 rooms in each block. The occupants pay a meager rent to the government.

The elderly often spend their day in the corridor between the rooms where clothes hang for drying, or in a courtyard outside as they chat or look after small children, while the young go out to work.

These days, residents sometimes stop by at a sample flat that is showcased opposite one of the blocks to take a peek into what the future may hold.

“I don’t know when my turn will come. It may still take years. But it will be great to have a modern flat,” said 55-year-old Bhagwan Sawant as he proudly points to the neat kitchen, the two bedrooms and two attached toilets.

The new complexes will also have a hospital, hostels, schools, and gyms. “The work has started on the first building and it will be ready in three years,” said Prashant Dhatrak, the executive engineer of the project. “But the entire development will take seven years.”

The redevelopment project took more than two decades to get off the ground after it was first proposed.

However, some urban planners point out that Central Mumbai, where the project is coming up, is already congested with high rise buildings and question how it will bear the additional pressure of more such complexes. They say that in a city with the highest population density in the country, too much of the land is often handed over to developers for residential and commercial complexes instead of making public parks.

“Cities cannot be transformed in this way. Redevelopment is necessary but rebuilding has to be done in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner,” said Sulakshana Mahajan, who as a member of the Mumbai Transformation Support Unit, a state government think-tank set up in 2005, was involved in initial proposals for the redevelopment of the tenements. The think tank was shut down in 2019.

“Our initial idea was not to increase density in the area and to restrict the development for existing residents. But under the new plan, there are too many buildings being constructed,” said Mahajan. “Open spaces available per person will be drastically shrunk and the distance between buildings is too little. It will also create a huge strain on services such as water supply, sanitation and transportation.”

In an island city with little space to grow except vertically, the search for land has intensified in the last two decades. Authorities have also proposed clearing out Asia’s biggest slum, Dharavi, that sits on two square kilometers of prime space to replace it with skyscrapers and shopping malls, but the plan has made little headway so far.

In the BDD Chawls, however the larger question of sustainability is not on the minds of those who have long lived with shared toilets, but only a sense of anticipation. At the same time, there is a creeping sense that a way of life that revolved around the community will end when they eventually move out.

“Here, I never have to worry about my mother. All of us work, but we know that someone will look after her if she is unwell,” said Kambli. “But when we shut the door in the new flat, no one will know what is happening inside.”

“You just give one shout here and everyone gathers,” laughs Ranjana Gurav. “When there are marriages or celebrations or a problem, we are all there to help each other.”

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Botswana Approves Texas-Made COVID Vaccine, Manufacturing Plant

Botswana has become the first country in Africa to approve the use of the Texas-made COVID-19 vaccine Corbevax. Botswana’s president and California biotech company NantWorks made the announcement Monday as they began construction of a plant to produce COVID-vaccines and drugs to fight cancer.

CEO of biotech firm NantWorks Patrick Soon-Shiong announced on Monday that Botswana’s Medicines Regulatory Authority (BOMRA) had approved the Corbevax jab.

He made the announcement at a groundbreaking ceremony for a vaccine and cancer drug production facility, along with Botswana’s President Mokgweetsi Masisi.

“I am pleased to announce, Mr. President, with the incredibly hard work of both the Ministry of Health and BOMRA, today we announce Africa’s first approved vaccine for Africa by Botswana,” Soon-Shiong said.

Corbevax is a patent-free COVID vaccine developed by the Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital in the United States. It has been used in Bangladesh, India, and Indonesia.

Soon-Shiong said the first consignment would be delivered to Botswana for distribution across Africa.

“This vaccine has been tested and shown to be active in every variant including omicron. I got a commitment this morning that Botswana, effective immediately, will have access to 100 million of these vaccines that you can distribute,” Soon-Shiong said.

The plant, which is expected to be operational by 2026, plans to produce vaccines for COVID and other diseases, as well as cancer treatment drugs.

Masisi said the plant heralds a new dawn for the production of pharmaceuticals on the continent.

“This is particularly noteworthy in the Africa region, which bears a disproportionate disease burden exacerbated limitation of resources and capabilities to address these health challenges. We are determined to dictate a new legacy associated with access to medicines, vaccines and other health technologies,” he said.

Masisi said the facility would help address vaccine inequality in Africa, where less than 20% of the population is fully vaccinated against COVID – two years into the pandemic.

“Disparities in the distribution of vaccines across the world resulted in a lopsided vaccination drive that seriously hampered efforts to effectively contain the COVID-19 worldwide. This problem has been aptly defined as vaccine nationalism. It is therefore our intent, our conviction that the opening of this vaccine manufacturing facility, will go a long way in changing this narrative,” Masisi said.

Botswana’s Health Minister Edwin Dikoloti says the project would also help treat chronic diseases.

“This day marks a new level in our scientific development and advancement. It signifies a new technological breakthrough which will see us as not just a consumer but also a manufacturer of vaccines and other medication that will come out of this magnificent project,” Dikoloti said.

Botswana’s vaccine manufacturing facility will be the second in Africa being built by Soon-Shiong.

In January, the South African-born U.S. billionaire opened a similar facility in Cape Town.

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