Biden, Powell Meet to Discuss Taming Inflation

With inflation in the United States at levels not seen in decades, President Joe Biden on Tuesday met with Jerome Powell, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, to discuss the ongoing effort to tame rising prices.

Over the 12 months ending in April, the Consumer Price Index, which tracks what average Americans pay for a broad array of goods and services, increased by 8.3%, down slightly from the month before, but still at a level not seen in 40 years.

The issue is a vital one for Biden, whose party is facing serious challenges in the run-up to November’s midterm elections. Public opinion polling indicates that rising prices are among voters’ biggest concerns at the moment, and high inflation appears to be driving down the president’s approval rating.

Political concerns

Despite political pressures, Biden approached his conversation with Powell cautiously, reluctant to appear to be meddling in the affairs of the central bank, which is meant to operate independently.

In advance of the meeting with Powell, Biden used an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal to signal that he does not want to be seen as pressuring the Fed, contrasting himself with former President Trump, who frequently made public statements critical of Powell and the central bank.

“First, the Federal Reserve has a primary responsibility to control inflation,” Biden wrote. “My predecessor demeaned the Fed, and past presidents have sought to influence its decisions inappropriately during periods of elevated inflation. I won’t do this. I have appointed highly qualified people from both parties to lead that institution. I agree with their assessment that fighting inflation is our top economic challenge right now.”

Responding to inflation

As the central bank of the United States, the Federal Reserve is currently engaged in a very delicate process, attempting to slow price increases without tipping the United States economy into a damaging recession.

The Fed’s main tool in the effort is the ability of the Federal Open Market Committee, a body within the broader central bank, to set benchmark interest rates that affect borrowing costs across the economy.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. economy was plunged into a recession in 2020, and the Fed lowered interest rates to just above zero in order to provide economic stimulus. A recession is typically defined as two or more consecutive quarters in which a nation’s gross domestic product shrinks. However, the National Bureau of Economic Research ruled that a two-month economic downturn at the beginning of the pandemic counted as a recession, making it the shortest on record.

However, low interest rates combined with other government stimulus programs and supply shortages related to the pandemic as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine snowballed to bring higher prices that have strained many Americans’ budgets.

In March of this year, the Fed began raising rates, and it continued with another rate increase in early May. With the “target” interest rate currently between 0.75% and 1%, the Fed has signaled that it will raise rates several more times before the end of the year, probably in increments of one half of a percentage point.

How it works

“Raising interest rates works by restraining demand in the economy and restraining spending,” Kenneth N. Kuttner, a professor of economics at Williams College and a former assistant vice president of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, told VOA. “It’s only through restraining spending that inflationary pressures can be brought down.

“In order to get inflation down, the Fed would have to slow the economy until the level of desired spending can be accommodated by the supply side of the economy, or maybe a little bit lower,” Kuttner said. “The problem is, if it restrains spending too much, then the economy is going to go into a … recession.”

The trouble is that there is a significant lag between the Fed’s decision to raise interest rates and the effect that the increase has on economic activity, Greg McBride, senior vice president and chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com, told VOA.

“By the time today’s actions take effect, the economy may look a lot different than it did,” McBride said. “That’s what makes this complicated and what brings about the risk of the Fed tipping the economy into a recession. They may be raising interest rates at a point where the economy is already slowing, and those rate hikes only serve to slow the economy further.”

McBride said he does not see a recession as likely in the immediate term. “The U.S. economy is growing this year, and the labor market is very strong,” he said. “Yes, growth will certainly slow through the balance of the year, but in terms of outright contraction, I see that more as a 2023 likelihood than 2022.”

Fed’s abilities limited

On Tuesday afternoon, in remarks at the start of his meeting with Powell, Biden reiterated his promise not to pressure the central bank over inflation.

“I’m not going to interfere with their critically important work,” the president said. “They have a laser focus on addressing inflation, just like I am.”

But while Biden may be counting on the Fed to bring down consumer prices, experts warn that many of the factors contributing to higher prices are well beyond the central bank’s control.

“The Fed has a very difficult task at hand,” said McBride. “A lot of that is tied to issues on the supply side, not just the demand side. The Fed cannot fix the supply chain. They can’t open ports in China that are closed. They can’t broker peace in Eastern Europe.”

He added, “What they can do is address the demand side in the U.S. … But without substantive healing of the supply chain, raising interest rates is not likely to be the panacea that it has been in the past, in terms of putting inflation to bed.”

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LogOn: DNA Molecules May Ease Future Data Storage Crunch

Researchers say DNA can replace hard drives to help store the world’s ever-increasing digital output. Matt Dibble has the story   

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Downgraded Agatha Brings Heavy Rain to Southern Mexico

The storm that came ashore in southwestern Mexico as Hurricane Agatha is expected to dissipate late Tuesday, but after dropping more heavy rains over the region.

Oaxaca Governor Alejandro Murat urged people to remain cautious Tuesday with the ongoing threat of rain, but he said there were no reports of any deaths from the storm.

Agatha made landfall Monday near the Oaxaca town of Puerto Angel, bringing flooding rains and strong winds, and triggering several mudslides.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the storm, which was rated a Category Two hurricane, was the strongest to make a May landfall on Mexico’s Pacific coast since record keeping began in 1949.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters

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Australian Indigenous Weather Knowledge on Display in New Documentary Series  

Indigenous Australia’s approach to seasons, based on tens of thousands of years of experience, is explored in a new three-part documentary series. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports

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New WHO Panel to Speed Up Pandemic Response, Address Shortcomings

The World Health Organization’s governing board agreed on Monday to form a new committee to help speed up its response to health emergencies like COVID-19. 

The U.N. Health Agency faced criticism for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the pace of its response to early cases that may have delayed detection and helped the virus to spread. Some disease experts say that governments and WHO must avoid repeating such early missteps with other outbreaks like monkeypox. Read full story. 

The resolution, passed unanimously at the 34-member Executive Board’s annual meeting, will form a new Standing Committee on Health Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response to help address some of the perceived shortcomings.   

Formal WHO meetings are sometimes spaced months apart, and under the new initiative, the new body would meet immediately after the director-general declares a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) — a decision that triggers calls for extra funding, public health measures and a series of recommendations aimed at controlling disease spread. 

“This was probably one of the weakest points during the last pandemic that member states or governing bodies didn’t have the opportunity to have immediate consultations after this PHEIC of the last pandemic was declared,” Austria’s Clemens Martin Auer, who proposed the resolution, told the Executive Board.   

He added that the new committee would also conduct oversight of WHO’s health emergencies program in ordinary times to ensure it is fit to respond. 

“I think the standing committee will be an indispensable part of the new global architecture on health emergency,” he added.  

The United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Japan were among the co-sponsors of the initiative. 

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Ghanaian Lawmaker Abolishes Medical Exam Fees for Sex Victims

In Ghana, sexual assault victims must show medical reports to prove they have been assaulted before a rape suspect can be prosecuted. These medical examinations come at a relatively high cost, and are not covered by the national health insurance, and so can deter a victim from pressing charges. Now, a lawmaker is seeking to abolish the health exam requirement so that more women are able to pursue justice. Senanu Tord reports from Battor, Ghana.

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WHO: Monkeypox Won’t Turn into Pandemic, But Many Unknowns

The World Health Organization’s top monkeypox expert said she doesn’t expect the hundreds of cases reported to date to turn into another pandemic, but acknowledged there are still many unknowns about the disease, including how exactly it’s spreading and whether the suspension of mass smallpox immunization decades ago may somehow be speeding its transmission.

In a public session on Monday, WHO’s Dr. Rosamund Lewis said it was critical to emphasize that the vast majority of cases being seen in dozens of countries globally are in gay, bisexual or men who have sex with men, so that scientists can further study the issue and for populations at risk to take precautions.

“It’s very important to describe this because it appears to be an increase in a mode of transmission that may have been under-recognized in the past,” said Lewis, WHO’s technical lead on monkeypox.

Still, she warned that anyone is at potential risk of the disease, regardless of their sexual orientation. Other experts have pointed out that it may be accidental that the disease was first picked up in gay and bisexual men, saying it could quickly spill over into other groups if it is not curbed. To date, WHO said 23 countries that haven’t previously had monkeypox have reported more than 250 cases.

Lewis said it’s unknown whether monkeypox is being transmitted by sex or just the close contact between people engaging in sexual activity and described the threat to the general population as “low.”

“It is not yet known whether this virus is exploiting a new mode of transmission, but what is clear is that it continues to exploit its well-known mode of transmission, which is close, physical contact,” Lewis said. Monkeypox is known to spread when there is close physical contact with an infected person or their clothing or bedsheets.

She also warned that among the current cases, there is a higher proportion of people with fewer lesions that are more concentrated in the genital region and sometimes nearly impossible to see.

“You may have these lesions for two to four weeks (and) they may not be visible to others, but you may still be infectious,” she said.

Last week, a top adviser to WHO said the outbreak in Europe, U.S., Israel, Australia and beyond was likely linked to sex at two recent raves in Spain and Belgium. That marks a significant departure from the disease’s typical pattern of spread in central and western Africa, where people are mainly infected by animals like wild rodents and primates, and epidemics haven’t spilled across borders.

Most monkeypox patients experience only fever, body aches, chills and fatigue. People with more serious illness may develop a rash and lesions on the face and hands that can spread to other parts of the body. No deaths have been reported in the current outbreak. 

WHO’s Lewis also said that while previous cases of monkeypox in central and western Africa have been relatively contained, it was not clear if people could spread monkeypox without symptoms or if the disease might be airborne, like measles or COVID-19.

Monkeypox is related to smallpox, but has milder symptoms. After smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980, countries suspended their mass immunization programs, a move that some experts believe may be helping monkeypox spread, since there is now little widespread immunity to related diseases; smallpox vaccines are also protective against monkeypox.

Lewis said it would be “unfortunate” if monkeypox were able to “exploit the immunity gap” left by smallpox 40 years ago, saying that there was still a window of opportunity to close down the outbreak so that monkeypox would not become entrenched in new regions.

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2021 Another Record Year for Meth Seizures in Southeast Asia

Methamphetamine seizures across East and Southeast Asia hit yet another record high in 2021, proof of the “staggering” scale and reach the region’s drug gangs have gained after a decade of steady growth that looks set to continue, the United Nations says in a new report.

In Synthetic Drugs in East and Southeast Asia: Latest Development and Challenges, issued Monday in Bangkok, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime says seizures of meth tablets topped 1 billion for the first time last year. While crystal meth, or ice, seizures dipped slightly to 79 metric tons, it says, total meth seizures by weight were a record 171.5 metric tons in 2021, nearly eight times the total seizures a decade ago.

Combined with stable or falling street and wholesale prices across the region, the UNODC says the spiraling drug hauls are evidence of soaring production more than stepped-up law enforcement.

“It is fair to say the region is struggling badly to address meth, and frankly to deal with other synthetic drugs as well,” Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC’s representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, told VOA.

“There needs to be a radical policy shift and rebalancing if the region wants to get to a point of managing the meth problem or making some headway,” he added.

Border battle

With fewer and fewer busts of meth labs across the region, the UNODC says production continues to concentrate in the notorious Golden Triangle, a rugged and remote domain of warlords, drug gangs and gunrunners where the corners of eastern Myanmar, western Laos and northern Thailand meet.

Within that triangle, it says meth production is concentrating further still in eastern Myanmar, where militias backed by the country’s brutal military and rebel armies set against it vie for territory — and a cut of the drug trade.

Most of the meth made there continues to pour into northern Thailand, from where it cascades across the rest of the country, Southeast Asia and as far away as Australia and Japan.

However, beefed-up security by Thai police along the country’s northern border has been pushing a growing share of the traffic through Laos instead. From there, drug gangs can bypass the north of Thailand and push their product into the country across its less-guarded border in the northeast Isaan region, most of which tracks the Mekong River.

 

Of all the ice and meth tablets interdicted in Thailand’s top 10 provinces for seizures last year, northeast provinces accounted for 49% and 39%, respectively.

 

Lt. Gen. Pornchai Charoenwong, an assistant to the Thai police force’s narcotics suppression division, confirmed the trend.

 

“We can point to a couple of factors,” he told VOA. “First is the increased suppression by the government, police and the military in the northern region. With that increased suppression, we’ve seen a change in trafficking routes from the northern part of Thailand to the Isaan region along the Mekong River.”

 

He said COVID-driven border controls have played a part as well.

 

To help Thai authorities plug the gaps, the U.S. State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Office has donated some $670,000 worth of equipment to local police in the northeast this year.

 

Mark Snyder, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s acting head of mission in Thailand, said that represents an increase in U.S. crime-fighting aid to that part of the country, reflecting its growing role in the region’s drug trade.

 

“Thai law enforcement has been doing a lot of work on the northern border,” he said, and “when you have increased law enforcement presence in one area, the criminal organizations will adapt to that.”

 

He declined to say what the equipment consists of. Pornchai said the U.S. donations typically include vehicles, communications gear and drones.

 

From Thailand, much of the meth flows south to, and through, Malaysia, which the UNODC report highlights as an increasingly important springboard to the rest of Southeast Asia and beyond for Golden Triangle drug gangs.

 

Laos, Thailand and Malaysia all saw record seizures of meth tablets in 2021.

 

Growth potential

 

The UNODC says the trade is also getting harder to stop, for a few reasons.

 

Most producers “brand” their packages with distinct codes that help the gangs keep track of them down the line. Variations on “999” and “Y1” are the most common, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Last year, though, the share of meth seized from a host of smaller producers using other codes shot up from 2.8% to 13%.

 

Douglas said the “unprecedented” surge in smaller producers, who buy meth powder from larger groups but press the tablets themselves, is likely adding to the overall rise in supply. He said more producers also means more trafficking networks, which means more players for the authorities to try and uncover, infiltrate and stop.

 

Blocking the flow of the chemicals the larger groups use to make their meth is getting tougher too, the U.N. agency says.

 

Seizures of the most common meth precursors, burdened by import and export controls that force drug gangs to get their hands on much of what they need on the black market, have crashed across Southeast Asia in recent years. The UNODC suspects that means the groups have switched to making those precursors themselves from other chemicals, or pre-precursors, that are not controlled.

 

The new report says authorities in the region seized a number of these other chemicals last year and into 2022 either at or on the way to suspected lab sites.

 

Douglas said pre-precursors “make an already complex situation more difficult.”

 

The U.N. and others are working with local authorities to highlight the problem and help them share intelligence on where and when those chemicals are moving, he added, while talks at the global level on controlling their shipment are also underway.

 

The report also notes the spread of meth from Myanmar westward into northern India, Middle Eastern drug gangs now using Malaysia as a steppingstone for amphetamine shipments, and illicit ketamine producers setting up shop in Cambodia.

 

Douglas said Southeast Asia’s drug gangs “have all the ingredients in place that they need to continue to grow,” and will do so unless local authorities themselves adapt.

 

“The scale and reach of the methamphetamine and synthetic drug trade in East and Southeast Asia is staggering,” he said, “and yet it can continue to expand if the region does not change approach and address the root causes that have allowed it to get to this point, including governance in the Golden Triangle and market demand.”

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Severe Water Shortages Strain Wheat Harvest in Iraq 

Salah Chelab crushed a husk of wheat plucked from his sprawling farmland south of Baghdad and inspected its seeds in the palm of one hand. They were several grams lighter than he hoped.

“It’s because of the water shortages,” he said, the farm machine roaring behind him, cutting and gathering his year’s wheat harvest.

Chelab had planted most of his 10 acres (4 hectares) of land, but he was only able to irrigate a quarter of it after the Agriculture Ministry introduced strict water quotas during the growing season, he said. The produce he was growing on the rest of it, he fears, “will die without water.”

At a time when worldwide prices for wheat have soared due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Iraqi farmers say they are paying the price for a government decision to cut irrigation for agricultural areas by 50%.

The government took the step in the face of severe water shortages arising from high temperatures and drought — believed to be fueled by climate change — and ongoing water extraction by neighboring countries from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. All those factors have heavily strained wheat production.

Wrestling with the water shortage, Iraq’s government has been unable to tackle other long-neglected issues.

Desertification has been blamed as a factor behind this year’s relentless spate of sandstorms. At least 10 have hit the country in the past few months, covering cities with a thick blanket of orange dust, grounding flights and sending thousands to hospitals.

“We need water to solve the problem of desertification, but we also need water to secure our food supplies,” said Essa Fayadh, a senior official at the Environment Ministry. “We don’t have enough for both.”

Iraq relies on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for nearly all of its water needs. Both flow into Iraq from Turkey and Iran. Those countries have constructed dams that have either blocked or diverted water, creating major shortages in Iraq.

Water Resources Minister Mahdi Rasheed told The Associated Press that river levels were down 60% compared to last year.

For Chelab, less water has meant a smaller grain size and lower crop yields.

In 2021, Chelab produced 30,000 tons of wheat, the year before that 32,000, receipts from Trade Ministry silos show. This year, he expects no more than 10,000.

His crops are both rain-fed and irrigated via a channel from the Euphrates. Due to low precipitation levels, he has had to rely on the river water during the growing season, he said.

Government officials say change is necessary.

The current system has been inefficient and unsustainable for decades. Water scarcity is leaving them no choice but to push to modernize antiquated and wasteful farming techniques.

“We have a strategic plan to face drought considering the lack of rain, global warming, and the lack of irrigation coming from neighboring countries as we did not get our share of water entitlements,” said Hamid al-Naif, spokesman at the Agriculture Ministry.

The ministry took measures to devise new types of drought-resistant wheat and introduce methods to increase crop yields.

“We are still dealing with irrigation systems of the 1950s. It has nothing to do with the farmers,” he said. “The state must make it efficient, we must force the farmer to accept it.”

Iraqi farmers have historically been heavily dependent on the state in the production of food, a reliance that policymakers and experts said drains government funds.

The Agriculture Ministry supports farmers by providing everything from harvesting tools, seeds, fertilizers and pesticides at a subsidized rate or for free. Water diverted from rivers for irrigation is given at no cost. The Trade Ministry then stores or buys produce from farmers and distributes it to markets.

Wheat is a key strategic crop, accounting for 70% of total cereal production in the country.

Planting starts in October and harvest typically begins in April and extends to June in some areas. Last year, the Agriculture Ministry slashed subsidies for fertilizers, seeds and pesticides, a move that has angered farmers.

Local demand for the staple is between 5-6 million tons a year. But local production is shrinking with each passing year. In 2021, Iraq produced 4.2 million tons of wheat, according to the Agriculture Ministry. In 2020, it was 6.2 million tons.

“Today we might get 2.5 million tons at best,” said al-Naif. That would require Iraq to drive up imports.

Most of the wheat harvest is usually sold to the Trade Ministry. In a sign of the low harvest, so far there are currently only 373,000 tons of wheat available in Trade Ministry storehouses, al-Naif said.

To meet demands amid the recent global crisis in the grain market, the government recently changed a policy to allow all Iraqi farmers to sell their produce to the Trade Ministry silos. Previously, this was limited to farmers who operated within the government plan.

Back in Chelab’s farm, the wheat is ready to be transported to the silo.

“It’s true we need to develop ourselves,” he said. “But the change should be gradual, not immediate.”

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Shanghai to Lift ‘Unreasonable’ Curbs on Firms, Beijing Eases Restrictions 

Shanghai said on Sunday “unreasonable” curbs on businesses will be removed from June 1 as it looks to lift its COVID-19 lockdown, while Beijing reopened parts of its public transport as well as some malls and other venues as infections stabilized.

The Chinese commercial hub of 25 million people aims to essentially end from Wednesday a two-month lockdown that has severely damaged the economy and seen many residents lose income, struggle to source food and to cope with the isolation.

The painful coronavirus curbs in major Chinese cities run counter to trends seen in the rest of the world, which has largely tried to return to normal life even as infections spread.

Shanghai, China’s most populous city, will end many conditions for businesses to resume work from June 1. The city also launched measures to support its economy, including reducing some taxes on car purchases, accelerating issuance of local government bonds, and speeding up approvals of real estate projects.

Shanghai will ask banks to renew loans to small and medium firms worth a total of $15 billion this year.

“We will fully support and organize the resumption of work and production of enterprises in various industries and fields,” vice mayor Wu Qing told reporters, adding that “unreasonable” COVID restrictions on businesses would be lifted.

Wu did not give details of which restrictions would be cancelled.

Shanghai in April started publishing “white lists” of important manufacturers in the auto industry, life sciences, chemicals and semiconductors allowed to resume operations.

But many of the priority companies had suppliers who were unable to reopen and so they still faced logistical bottlenecks.

Many industry executives also complained about onerous COVID curbs, as they needed to find sleeping quarters for staff trying to isolate and to implement rigorous disinfection. Most businesses in the city are still shut.

All “white lists” would be abolished, Wu said.

Earlier on Sunday, city government spokeswoman Yin Xin said Shanghai would ease testing requirements from Wednesday for people who want to enter public areas, to encourage a return to work.

“The current epidemic situation in the city continues to stabilize and improve,” Yin said, adding Shanghai’s strategy was “pivoting towards normalized prevention and control.”

People entering public venues or taking public transport would need to show a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours, up from 48 hours previously.

Bus services within the Pudong New Area, home to Shanghai’s largest airport and the main financial district, would fully resume by Monday, officials said.

Plaza 66, a mall in central Shanghai that hosts Louis Vuitton and other luxury brands, reopened on Sunday.

Authorities have been slowly relaxing curbs, with a focus on getting manufacturing going again.

More people have been allowed to leave their homes and more businesses can reopen, though many residents remain largely confined to housing compounds, and most shops are only open for delivery service.

Private cars are not allowed out without approval, and most of the city’s public transport is shut. Authorities have yet to announced detailed plans for how the lockdown will be lifted. 

Gyms and libraries

In the capital Beijing, libraries, museums, theatres and gyms were allowed to reopen on Sunday, though with limits on numbers of people, in districts that have seen no community COVID-19 cases for seven consecutive days.

The districts of Fangshan and Shunyi will end work-from-home rules, while public transport will largely resume in the two districts as well as in Chaoyang, the city’s largest. Still, restaurant dining is banned throughout the city.

Shanghai reported just over 100 new COVID cases on Sunday, while Beijing recorded 21, both in line with a falling trend nationwide.

China’s economy has shown signs of recovery this month following an April slump but activity is weaker than last year and many analysts expect a second-quarter contraction. 

The strength and sustainability of any recovery will depend largely on COVID, with the highly transmissible Omicron variant proving hard to wipe out, and prone to comebacks. 

Investors have worried about the lack of a roadmap for exiting the zero-COVID strategy of ending all outbreaks at just about any cost, a signature policy of President Xi Jinping. He is expected to secure an unprecedented third leadership term at a congress of the ruling Communist Party in the autumn.

Markets expect more support for the economy.

“We expect policies to ease further on the fiscal front to boost demand, given downward pressures on growth and the uncertainty of the recovery pace,” Goldman Sachs analysts wrote in a Friday note.

 

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Baby Formula Shortage Highlights US Racial Disparities

Capri Isidoro broke down in tears in the office of a lactation consultant. 

The mother of two had been struggling to breastfeed her 1-month-old daughter ever since she was born, when the hospital gave the baby formula first without consulting her on her desire to breastfeed. 

Now, with massive safety recall and supply disruptions causing formula shortages across the United States, she also can’t find the specific formula that helps with her baby’s gas pains. 

“It is so sad. It shouldn’t be like this,” said Isidoro, who lives in the Baltimore suburb of Ellicott City. “We need formula for our kid, and where is this formula going to come from?” 

As parents across the United States struggle to find formula to feed their children, the pain is particularly acute among Black and Hispanic women. Black women have historically faced obstacles to breastfeeding, including a lack of lactation support in the hospital, more pressure to formula feed and cultural roadblocks. It’s one of many inequalities for Black mothers : They are far more likely to die from pregnancy complications, and less likely to have their concerns about pain taken seriously by doctors. 

Low-income families buy the majority of formula in the U.S., and face a particular struggle: Experts fear small neighborhood grocery stores that serve these vulnerable populations are not replenishing as much as larger retail stores, leaving some of these families without the resources or means to hunt for formula. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 20% of Black women and 23% of Hispanic women exclusively breastfeed through six months, compared to 29% of white women. The overall rate stands at 26%. Hospitals that encourage breastfeeding and overall lactation support are less prevalent in Black neighborhoods, according to the CDC. 

The Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses also says Hispanic and Black women classified as low-wage workers have less access to lactation support in their workplaces. 

The racial disparities reach far back in America’s history. The demands of slave labor prevented mothers from nursing their children, and slave owners separated mothers from their own babies to have them serve as wet nurses, breastfeeding other women’s children. 

In the 1950s, racially targeted commercials falsely advertised formula as a superior source of nutrition for infants. And studies continue to show that the babies of Black mothers are more likely to be introduced to formula in the hospital than the babies of white mothers, which happened to Isidoro after her emergency cesarean section. 

Physicians say introducing formula means the baby will require fewer feedings from the mother, decreasing the milk supply as the breast is not stimulated enough to produce. 

Andrea Freeman, author of the book “Skimmed: Breastfeeding, Race and Injustice,” said these mothers still aren’t getting the support they need when it comes to having the choice of whether to breastfeed or use formula. They also may have jobs that do not accommodate the time and space needed for breastfeeding or pumping milk, Freeman said. 

“Nobody’s taking responsibility for the fact that they’ve steered families of color toward formula for so many years and made people rely on it and taken away choice. And then when it falls apart, there’s not really any recognition or accountability,” Freeman said. 

Breastfeeding practices are often influenced by previous generations, with some studies suggesting better outcomes for mothers who were breastfed when they were babies. 

Kate Bauer, an associate professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, said she began hearing back in February about Black and Latino families in Detroit and Grand Rapids feeling stuck after finding smaller grocery stores running out of formula. 

Some were told to go to the local office of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, better known as WIC, the federal program that supports low-income expectant and new mothers. Between 50% and 65% of the formula in the U.S. is bought through the program. 

“Going to the WIC office is like a full day’s errand for some moms,” Bauer said. 

She fears mothers are getting desperate enough to try foods that are not recommended for babies under 6 months. 

Yury Navas, a Salvadoran immigrant who works at a restaurant and lives in Laurel, Maryland, says she was not able to produce enough breast milk and struggled to find the right formula for her nearly 3-month-old baby Jose Ismael, after others caused vomiting, diarrhea and discomfort. 

One time, they drove half an hour to a store where workers told them they had the type she needed, but it was gone when they got there. Her husband goes out every night to search pharmacies around midnight. 

“It’s so hard to find this type,” she said, adding they sometimes have run out before they can secure more formula. “The baby will cry and cry, so we give him rice water.” 

On a recent day, she was down to her last container and called an advocacy group that had told her it would try to get her some at an appointment in five days. But the group could not guarantee anything. 

Some mothers have turned to social media and even befriended other locals to cast a wider net during shopping trips. 

In Miami, Denise Castro, who owns a construction company, started a virtual group to support new moms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now it’s helping moms get the formula they need as they go back to work. One of them is a Hispanic teacher whose job leaves her with little flexibility to care for her 2-month-old infant, who has been sensitive to a lot of formula brands. 

“Most of the moms we have been helping are Black and Latinas,” Castro said. “These moms really don’t have the time to visit three to four places in their lunch hour.” 

Lisette Fernandez, a 34-year-old Cuban American first-time mother of twins, has relied on friends and family to find the liquid 2-ounce bottles she needs for her boy and girl. Earlier this week, her father went to four different pharmacies before he was able to get her some boxes with the tiny bottles. They run out quickly as the babies grow. 

Fernandez said she wasn’t able to initiate breastfeeding, trying with an electric pump but saying she produced very little. Her mother, who arrived in Miami from Cuba as a 7-year-old girl, had chosen not to breastfeed her children, saying she did not want to, and taken medication to suppress lactation. 

Some studies have attributed changes in breastfeeding behavior among Hispanics to assimilation, saying Latina immigrants perceive formula feeding as an American practice. 

“Over the last three to six weeks it has been insane,” Fernandez said. “I am used to everything that COVID has brought. But worrying about my children not having milk? I did not see that coming.” 

 

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Some UK Companies to Trial 4-Day Workweek

Louis Bloomsfield inspects the kegs of beer at his brewery in north London, eagerly awaiting June, when he will get an extra day off every week.

The 36-year-old brewer plans to use the time to get involved in charity work, start a long-overdue course in particle physics and spend more time with family.

He and colleagues at the Pressure Drop brewery are taking part in a six-month trial of a four-day working week, with 3,000 others from 60 U.K. companies.

The pilot — touted as the world’s biggest so far — aims to help companies shorten their working hours without cutting salaries or sacrificing revenues.

Similar trials have also taken place in Spain, Iceland, the United States and Canada. Australia and New Zealand are scheduled to start theirs in August.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a program manager at 4 Day Week Global, the campaign group behind the trial, said it will give firms “more time” to work through challenges, experiment with new practices and gather data.

Smaller organizations should find it easier to adapt, as they can make big changes more readily, he told AFP.

Pressure Drop, based in Tottenham Hale, is hoping the experiment will not only improve their employees’ productivity but also their well-being.

At the same time, it will reduce their carbon footprint.

The Royal Society of Biology, another participant in the trial, says it wants to give employees “more autonomy over their time and working patterns.”

Both hope a shorter working week could help them retain employees, at a time when U.K. businesses are confronted with severe staff shortages, and job vacancies hitting a record 1.3 million.

Not all rosy

Pressure Drop brewery’s co-founder Sam Smith said the new way of working would be a learning process.

“It will be difficult for a company like us which needs to be kept running all the time, but that’s what we will experiment with in this trial,” he said.

Smith is mulling giving different days off in the week to his employees and deploying them into two teams to keep the brewery functioning throughout.

When Unilever trialed a shorter working week for its 81 employees in New Zealand, it was able to do so only because no manufacturing takes place in its Auckland office and all staff work in sales or marketing.

The service industry plays a huge role in the UK economy, contributing 80% to the country’s GDP.

A shorter working week is therefore easier to adopt, said Jonathan Boys, a labor economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

But for sectors such as retail, food and beverage, health care and education, it’s more problematic.

Boys said the biggest challenge will be how to measure productivity, especially in an economy where a lot of work is qualitative, as opposed to that in a factory.

Indeed, since salaries will stay the same in this trial, for a company to not lose out, employees will have to be as productive in four days as they are five.

Yet Aidan Harper, author of The Case for a Four Day Week, said countries working fewer hours tend to have higher productivity.

“Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands work fewer hours than the U.K., yet have higher levels of productivity,” he told AFP.

“Within Europe, Greece works more hours than anyone, and yet have the lowest levels of productivity.”

‘Hiring superpower’

Employees in the U.K. work roughly 36.5 hours every week, against counterparts in Greece who clock in upward of 40 hours, according to database company Statista.

Phil McParlane, founder of Glasgow-based recruitment company 4dayweek.io, says offering a shorter workweek is a win-win, and even calls it “a hiring superpower.”

His company only advertises four-day week and flexible jobs.

They have seen the number of companies looking to hire through the platform rise from 30 to 120 in the past two years, as many workers reconsidered their priorities and work-life balance in the pandemic.

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Weather’s Unwanted Guest: Nasty La Nina Keeps Popping up

Something weird is up with La Nina, the natural but potent weather event linked to more drought and wildfires in the western United States and more Atlantic hurricanes. It’s becoming the nation’s unwanted weather guest and meteorologists said the U.S. Western states megadrought won’t go away until La Nina does.

The current double-dip La Nina set a record for strength last month and is forecast to likely be around for a rare but not quite unprecedented third straight winter. And it’s not just this one. Scientists are noticing that in the past 25 years the world seems to be getting more La Ninas than it used to and that is just the opposite of what their best computer model simulations say should be happening with human-caused climate change.

“They (La Ninas) don’t know when to leave,” said Michelle L’Heureux, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast office for La Nina and its more famous flip side, El Nino.

An Associated Press statistical analysis of winter La Ninas show that they used to happen about 28% of the time from 1950 to 1999, but in the past 25 winters, they’ve been brewing nearly half the time. There’s a small chance that this effect could be random, but if the La Nina sticks around this winter, as forecast, that would push the trend over the statistically significant line, which is key in science, said L’Heureux. Her own analysis shows that La Nina-like conditions are occurring more often in the last 40 years. Other new studies are showing similar patterns.

What’s bothering many scientists is that their go-to climate simulation models that tend to get conditions right over the rest of the globe predict more El Ninos, not La Ninas, and that’s causing contention in the climate community about what to believe, according to Columbia University climate scientist Richard Seager and MIT hurricane scientist Kerry Emanuel.

What Seager and other scientists said is happening is that the eastern equatorial Atlantic is not warming as fast as the western equatorial Atlantic or even the rest of the world with climate change. And it’s not the amount of warming that matters but the difference between the west and east. The more the difference, the more likely a La Nina, the less the difference, the more likely an El Nino. Scientists speculate it could be related to another natural cycle, called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or it could be caused by human-caused climate change or both.

“At this point we just don’t know,” L’Heureux said. “Scientists are watching and I know, are actively studying. But it’s really important because of regional conditions. We need to get this right.”

La Nina is a natural and cyclical cooling of parts of the equatorial Pacific that changes weather patterns worldwide, as opposed to El Nino’s warming. Often leading to more Atlantic hurricanes, less rain and more wildfires in the West and agricultural losses in the middle of the country, studies have shown La Nina is more expensive to the United States than the El Nino. Together El Nino, La Nina and the neutral condition are called ENSO, which stands for El Nino Southern Oscillation, and they have one of the largest natural effects on climate, at times augmenting and other times dampening the big effects of human-caused climate change from the burning of coal, oil and gas, scientists said.

“They really have a very, very strong” effect, said research scientist Azhar Ehsan, who heads Columbia University’s El Nino/La Nina forecasting. “So a third consecutive La Nina is not at all a welcome thing.”

He said the dangerous heat in India and Pakistan this month and in April is connected to La Nina.

The current La Nina formed in the late summer of 2020 when the Atlantic set a record for the number of named storms. It strengthened in the winter when the U.S. western states drought worsened and in the early summer of 2021 it weakened enough that NOAA said conditions were neutral. But that pause only lasted a few months and by early fall 2021 La Nina was back, making it a double dip.

Normally second years of La Nina tend to be weaker, but in April this La Nina surprised meteorologists by setting a record for intensity in April, which is based on sea surface temperatures, Ehsan said.

“These are very impressive values for April,” L’Heureux said. Still, because La Ninas historically weaken over summer and there are slight signs that this one may be easing a bit, there’s the small but increasing chance that this La Nina could warm just enough to be considered neutral in late summer.

La Nina has its biggest effect in the winter and that’s when it is a problem for the West because it’s the rainy season that is supposed to recharge area reservoirs. But the western states are in a 22-year megadrought, about the same time period of increasing La Nina frequency.

Three factors — ENSO, climate change and randomness — are biggest when it comes to the drought, which is itself a huge trigger for massive wildfires, said UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain. Without climate change, La Nina and bad luck could have made the drought the worst in 300 years but with climate change it’s the worst in at least 1,200 years, said UCLA climate hydrologist Park Williams.

La Nina “is a pretty important player; it may be the dominant player,” said Swain, who has a blog on western weather. “It could be responsible for one-third, maybe one-half of the given conditions if it is pronounced enough.”

“It’s much less likely that the Southwest (U.S.) will see at least even a partial recovery from the megadrought during La Nina,” Swain said.

La Nina “amps up your Atlantic storms” but decreases them in the Pacific, said Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach.

It’s all about winds 10 to 12 kilometers above the water surface. One of the key factors in storm development is whether there is wind shear, which are changes in wind from high to low elevations. Wind shear can decapitate or tip over hurricanes, making them hard to strengthen and at times even stick around. Wind shear can also let dry air into hurricanes that chokes them.

When there’s an El Nino, there’s lots of Atlantic wind shear and it’s hard for hurricanes to get going. But La Nina means little wind shear in the Atlantic, making it easier for storms to intensify and do it quickly, said University of Albany hurricane researcher Kristen Corbosiero.

“That’s a really huge factor,” Corbosiero said.

“Whatever is the cause, the increasing incidence of La Ninas may be behind the increasing hurricanes,” MIT’s Emanuel said.

Some areas like eastern Australia and the arid Sahel region of Africa do better with more rain during La Nina. India and Pakistan, even though they get extra spring heat, also receive more needed rain in La Ninas, Columbia’s Ehsan said.

A 1999 economic study found that drought from La Nina cost United States agriculture between $2.2 billion to $6.5 billion, which is far more than the $1.5 billion cost of El Nino. A neutral ENSO is best for agriculture.

Columbia’s Seager said even though there may be some chance and some natural cycles behind the changes in La Nina, because there’s likely a climate change factor he thinks there will probably be more of them.

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WHO: Nearly 200 Cases of Monkeypox in More Than 20 Countries

The World Health Organization says nearly 200 cases of monkeypox have been reported in more than 20 countries not usually known to have outbreaks of the unusual disease but described the epidemic as “containable” and proposed creating a stockpile to equitably share the limited vaccines and drugs available worldwide.

During a public briefing on Friday, the U.N. health agency said there are still many unanswered questions about what triggered the unprecedented outbreak of monkeypox outside of Africa, but there is no evidence that any genetic changes in the virus are responsible.

“The first sequencing of the virus shows that the strain is not different from the strains we can find in endemic countries and (this outbreak) is probably due more to a change in human behavior,” said Dr. Sylvie Briand, WHO’s director of pandemic and epidemic diseases.

Earlier this week, a top adviser to WHO said the outbreak in Europe, U.S., Israel, Australia and beyond was likely linked to sex at two recent raves in Spain and Belgium. That marks a significant departure from the disease’s typical pattern of spread in central and western Africa, where people are mainly infected by animals like wild rodents and primates, and outbreaks haven’t spilled across borders.

Although WHO said nearly 200 monkeypox cases have been reported, that seemed a likely undercount. On Friday, Spanish authorities said the number of cases there had risen to 98, including one woman, whose infection is “directly related” to a chain of transmission that had been previously limited to men, according to officials in the region of Madrid.

U.K. officials added 16 more cases to their monkeypox tally, making Britain’s total 106. And Portugal said its caseload jumped to 74 cases on Friday.

Doctors in Britain, Spain, Portugal, Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere have noted that the majority of infections to date have been in gay and bisexual men, or men who have sex with men. The disease is no more likely to affect people because of their sexual orientation and scientists warn the virus could infect others if transmission isn’t curbed.

WHO’s Briand said that based on how past outbreaks of the disease in Africa have evolved, the current situation appeared “containable.”

Still, she said WHO expected to see more cases reported in the future, noting “we don’t know if we are just seeing the peak of the iceberg (or) if there are many more cases that are undetected in communities,” she said.

As countries including Britain, Germany, Canada and the U.S. begin evaluating how smallpox vaccines might be used to curb the outbreak, WHO said its expert group was assessing the evidence and would provide guidance soon.

Dr. Rosamund Lewis, head of WHO’s smallpox department, said that “there is no need for mass vaccination,” explaining that monkeypox does not spread easily and typically requires skin-to-skin contact for transmission. No vaccines have been specifically developed against monkeypox, but WHO estimates that smallpox vaccines are about 85% effective.

She said countries with vaccine supplies could consider them for those at high risk of the disease, like close contacts of patients or health workers, but that monkeypox could mostly be controlled by isolating contacts and continued epidemiological investigations.

Given the limited global supply of smallpox vaccines, WHO’s emergencies chief Dr. Mike Ryan said the agency would be working with its member countries to potentially develop a centrally controlled stockpile, similar to the ones it has helped manage to distribute during outbreaks of yellow fever, meningitis, and cholera in countries that can’t afford them.

“We’re talking about providing vaccines for a targeted vaccination campaign, for targeted therapeutics,” Ryan said. “So, the volumes don’t necessarily need to be big, but every country may need access to a small amount of vaccine.”

Most monkeypox patients experience only fever, body aches, chills and fatigue. People with more serious illness may develop a rash and lesions on the face and hands that can spread to other parts of the body.

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Nobel Laureate Denounces Rape as Weapon of War

When asked if he is afraid for his life, Dr. Denis Mukwege responded candidly: “I am human.” Due to the nature of his work, the renowned gynecological surgeon has received death threats for years.

But the Congolese Nobel Peace Prize laureate said he draws his strength from the women he treats. Patients who come to him to heal after going through unimaginable horrors.

“The women I’m treating are so powerful,” Mukwege said in an interview with VOA’s Straight Talk Africa TV program. “What I’m doing is just a small sense if I compare what they [rape survivors have been through] in the situation of conflict where everyone wants to use them.”

He is now honoring the women he says inspired him, including his mother, in a new book titled “The Power of Women: A Doctor’s Journey of Hope and Healing.” In it, he reexamines the agency of women in spaces and platforms where decisions are made and at times despite some patriarchal societies that often fail women, he said, women continue to give back and nurture for a greater good.

Ukraine, Ethiopia rape survivors

Mukwege’s work is particularly relevant today as sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war in conflicts around the globe. He used two examples to illustrate the urgency of the issue: Ukraine and Ethiopia.

Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, his foundation had established contact with women in Donbas who were raped in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. There have been more than 700 reports of rape by Russian forces in Ukraine since the February invasion, the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights ombudsman said May 9. In northern Ethiopia, both government and Tigrayan forces have been accused of sexual violence. Nisha Varia, formerly the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch’s women’s rights division, told VOA that rape in Tigray is being used as a weapon and is accompanied by ethnic slurs and other degradation.

Mukwege said when rape is used during conflicts, it is “used to humiliate, to just make the so-called enemy to feel powerless, to be in a situation that is completely humiliating and you can’t really fight against it. It’s a weapon, but it’s a strategy of war,” he said.

But he said he is heartened by an international outcry about the violence against women in Ukraine. He would like to see the same outcry against atrocities in other parts of the world.

“The international community should react in each conflict because the suffering is universal and the reaction against the suffering or to take care of the suffering people should be also universal,” he said, adding that “the case of Ukraine shows us that if there is a will, we have the capacity to stop atrocities.”

Mukwege said a universal sentiment connects most women who have been raped, whether he speaks to victims in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere. He said perpetrators leave a sense of fear and that you hear victims saying, “they’ll kill me,” he said. “Most of the women have the impression that they don’t exist at all after being raped.”

Mukwege, who met with senior U.S. officials and first lady Jill Biden during his visit to Washington, is also calling for more efforts to prosecute perpetrators so women can receive justice.

 

“I think that justice is very important. It’s not revenge,” he said. “Justice is not only pressure against the perpetrators, but justice is needed for victims because in the process of healing, victims need really to be recognized as a victim. They need really to get someone with this power, this authority, to say you are not guilty. It’s not your fault.”

Justice and resilience

Death threats against Mukwege at times come from unknown sources and he has been forced to live at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the DRC, where he treats rape survivors. “I can’t leave the hospital without an escort. I have the police who are taking care of me,” he said. “To get this kind of life living in the hospital with your patients and my family and so on. This is a terrible thing.”

Since 1999, Mukwege and his team have treated more than 50,000 survivors of sexual violence at the hospital he founded [[ https://panzifoundation.org/dr-denis-mukwege/ ]]. The hospital also treats the psychological trauma of women caught up in the ongoing violence between militia groups in the eastern DRC.

Mukwege said those resilient women are the best hope for some of the world’s war-torn regions. After they have healed, they demand change.

“When women stand up after being treated, they didn’t stand for themselves, they are standing for themselves and for their children, for their family. For me, this is really wonderful. Society can’t protect them, but when they get healing and stand up, they stand up and raise their voice for all the community.”

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Companion Robot Responds to User’s Emotional Cues, Health Needs

The arrival of the pandemic intensified feelings of loneliness and social isolation for millions of older people, many of whom were already battling depression and other health issues. For those struggling, a robot companion might make a difference, and states like New York are starting to provide them to residents free of charge. VOA’s Julie Taboh has more. Camera: Adam Greenbaum

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