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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Transformative’ program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘People will be scared’

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

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

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

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

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

Trade and statecraft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

your ad here

Superbugs Deadlier Than AIDS, Malaria, Study Shows

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antibiotic misuse

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

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

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

New hope? 

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

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

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

your ad here

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

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

your ad here

US Jobless Benefit Claims Increase Sharply

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

your ad here

North Korea Expands China Trade, But Wider Pandemic Approach Unclear

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

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

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

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

Why did North Korea resume trade now?

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

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

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

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

What goods are North Korea importing so far? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

How much trade will North Korea allow? 

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

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

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

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

How will North Korea handle the pandemic moving forward?

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

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

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

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

your ad here

Will Afghanistan be Polio-Free in 2022?

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

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

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

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

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

Taliban back immunization campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

your ad here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

your ad here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

your ad here

CDC: Prior Infection Plus Vaccines Provide Best COVID Protection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Safest strategy’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

your ad here

Global Health Experts Weigh In on Biden’s Pandemic Performance

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

Producer: Arash Arabasadi.

your ad here

US Government to Distribute 400 Million High-Quality Face Masks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

your ad here

Mali Textile Artisans Bemoan Loss of AGOA Trade With US

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

your ad here

Americans Begin Ordering Free At-Home COVID Tests

The U.S. government quietly conducted a soft launch Tuesday of its website where Americans can request free rapid coronavirus tests — a day ahead of the scheduled rollout.  

Covidtests.gov quickly became the most accessed federal government website as millions of households began placing orders for test kits. 

“COVIDtests.gov is up and running to help prepare for the full launch tomorrow. We have tests for every residential address in the U.S. Please check back tomorrow if you run into any unexpected issues,” said a notice at the top of the government website.  

This reporter mid-Tuesday was able to complete an order within about a minute after clicking on the link that connects to a U.S. Postal Service form.  

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

A member of Congress from the state of New York, Carolyn Maloney, tweeted advice on how apartment residents might avoid the glitch.

“Every website launch, in our view, comes with risk,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters during Tuesday’s White House briefing. “We can’t guarantee there won’t be a bug or two, but the best tech teams across the administration and the Postal Service are working hard to make this a success.”  

An administration official last week promised reporters, “we’re ready for this,” explaining that four individual rapid antigen tests would be shipped in seven to 12 days via the Postal Service after a completed online order.  

“The 650,000 women and men of the United States Postal Service are ready to deliver and proud to play a critical role in supporting the health needs of the American public,” Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said in a statement last week. “We have been working closely with the Administration and are well prepared to accept and deliver test kits on the first day the program launches.” 

President Joe Biden last week announced the government will purchase another 500 million at-home tests for the public, in addition to the order made last month for half a billion tests.  

The Biden administration’s plan is a classic case of big government seeming to be “needed” because it is difficult for private forces to address the problem, according to Jeffrey Miron, director of economic studies at the Cato Institute and a Harvard University economist. 

Americans have the option to purchase tests at pharmacies and other stores. New federal rules went into effect Saturday requiring private medical insurance companies to cover the cost of those at-home tests, but insurers say it could take weeks to sort out the reimbursement procedures, adding another headache to the process.    

“This federal intervention would never have been necessary had the private sector been free to develop, test, and sell test kits without interference from the Food and Drug Administration or Centers for Disease Control,” Miron told VOA. “Other countries had rapid tests widely available many months ago; so, the technology was clearly available.”  

Given the existing rules and regulations about private production and sale of test kits, however, “federal distribution is perhaps a useful step that will reduce the delays and bottlenecks that many people are experiencing in purchasing kits from private suppliers,” Miron said.  

your ad here

Felony Charges Are a First in Fatal Crash Involving Autopilot

California prosecutors have filed two counts of vehicular manslaughter against the driver of a Tesla on Autopilot who ran a red light, slammed into another car and killed two people in 2019.

The defendant appears to be the first person to be charged with a felony in the United States for a fatal crash involving a motorist who was using a partially automated driving system. Los Angeles County prosecutors filed the charges in October, but they came to light only last week. 

The driver, Kevin George Aziz Riad, 27, has pleaded not guilty. Riad, a limousine service driver, is free on bail while the case is pending. 

The misuse of Autopilot, which can control steering, speed and braking, has occurred on numerous occasions and is the subject of investigations by two federal agencies. The filing of charges in the California crash could serve notice to drivers who use systems like Autopilot that they cannot rely on them to control vehicles.

The criminal charges aren’t the first involving an automated driving system, but they are the first to involve a widely used driver technology. Authorities in Arizona filed a charge of negligent homicide in 2020 against a driver Uber had hired to take part in the testing of a fully autonomous vehicle on public roads. The Uber vehicle, an SUV with the human backup driver on board, struck and killed a pedestrian. 

By contrast, Autopilot and other driver-assist systems are widely used on roads across the world. An estimated 765,000 Tesla vehicles are equipped with it in the United States alone.

In the Tesla crash, police said a Model S was moving at a high speed when it left a freeway and ran a red light in the Los Angeles suburb of Gardena and struck a Honda Civic at an intersection on December 29, 2019. Two people who were in the Civic, Gilberto Alcazar Lopez and Maria Guadalupe Nieves-Lopez, died at the scene. Riad and a woman in the Tesla were hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries.

Criminal charging documents do not mention Autopilot. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sent investigators to the crash, confirmed last week that Autopilot was in use in the Tesla at the time of the crash.

Riad’s defense attorney did not respond to requests for comment last week, and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office declined to discuss the case. Riad’s preliminary hearing is scheduled for February 23. 

‘Automation complacency’

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board have been reviewing the widespread misuse of Autopilot by drivers, whose overconfidence and inattention have been blamed for multiple crashes, including fatal ones. In one crash report, the NTSB referred to its misuse as “automation complacency.”

The agency said that in a 2018 crash in Culver City, California, in which a Tesla hit a firetruck, the design of the Autopilot system had “permitted the driver to disengage from the driving task.” No one was hurt in that crash. 

Last May, a California man was arrested after officers noticed his Tesla moving down a freeway with the man in the back seat and no one behind the steering wheel.

Teslas that have had Autopilot in use also have hit a highway barrier or tractor-trailers that were crossing roads. NHTSA has sent investigation teams to 26 crashes involving Autopilot since 2016, involving at least 11 deaths.

Messages have been left seeking comment from Tesla, which has disbanded its media relations department. Since the Autopilot crashes began, Tesla has updated the software to try to make it harder for drivers to abuse it. The company also tried to improve Autopilot’s ability to detect emergency vehicles.

Tesla has said that Autopilot and a more sophisticated Full Self-Driving system cannot drive themselves and that drivers must pay attention and be ready to react at any time. Full Self-Driving is being tested by hundreds of Tesla owners on public roads in the U.S. 

Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who studies automated vehicles, said this is the first U.S. case to his knowledge in which serious criminal charges were filed in a fatal crash involving a partially automated driver-assist system. Tesla, he said, could be “criminally, civilly or morally culpable” if it is found to have put a dangerous technology on the road. 

Donald Slavik, a Colorado lawyer who has served as a consultant in automotive technology lawsuits, including many against Tesla, said he, too, is unaware of any previous felony charges being filed against a U.S. driver who was using partially automated driver technology involved in a fatal crash. 

Lawsuits against Tesla, Riad

The families of Lopez and Nieves-Lopez have sued Tesla and Riad in separate lawsuits. They have alleged negligence by Riad and have accused Tesla of selling defective vehicles that can accelerate suddenly and that lack an effective automatic emergency braking system. A joint trial is scheduled for mid-2023. 

Lopez’s family, in court documents, alleges that the car “suddenly and unintentionally accelerated to an excessive, unsafe and uncontrollable speed.” Nieves-Lopez’s family further asserts that Riad was an unsafe driver, with multiple moving infractions on his record, and couldn’t handle the high-performance Tesla. 

Separately, NHTSA is investigating a dozen crashes in which a Tesla on Autopilot ran into several parked emergency vehicles. In the crashes under investigation, at least 17 people were injured, and one person was killed.

Asked about the manslaughter charges against Riad, the agency issued a statement saying there is no vehicle on sale that can drive itself. And whether or not a car is using a partially automated system, the agency said, “every vehicle requires the human driver to be in control at all times.” 

NHTSA added that all state laws hold human drivers responsible for the operation of their vehicles. Though automated systems can help drivers avoid crashes, the agency said, the technology must be used responsibly.

Rafaela Vasquez, the driver in the Uber autonomous test vehicle, was charged in 2020 with negligent homicide after the SUV fatally struck a pedestrian in suburban Phoenix in 2018. Vasquez has pleaded not guilty. Arizona prosecutors declined to file criminal charges against Uber. 

 

your ad here

US Airlines, Telecom Carriers Feuding Over Rollout of 5G Technology

Major U.S. air carriers are warning that the country’s “commerce will grind to a halt” if Verizon and AT&T go ahead with plans to deploy their new 5G mobile internet technology on Wednesday.

The airlines say the new technology will interfere with safe flight operations. 

The dispute between two major segments of the U.S. economy has been waged for months in Washington regulatory agencies, with the airline industry contending that the mobile carriers’ technology upgrade could disrupt global passenger service and cargo shipping, while the mobile carriers claim the airlines failed to upgrade equipment on their aircraft to prevent flight problems.

The new high-speed 5G mobile service uses a segment of the radio spectrum that is close to that used by altimeters — devices in cockpits that measure the height of aircraft above the ground. 

AT&T and Verizon argue that their equipment will not interfere with aircraft electronics and that the technology is being safely used in many other countries. 

In a letter Monday to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, chief executives at Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, United Airlines and seven other passenger and cargo carriers protested the mobile carriers’ plan to roll out their upgraded service on Wednesday. 

While the Federal Aviation Administration previously said it would not object to deployment of the 5G technology because the mobile carriers said they would address safety concerns, the airline executives said aircraft manufacturers have subsequently warned them that the Verizon and AT&T measures were not sufficient to allay safety concerns.

The mobile companies said they would reduce power at 5G transmitters near airports, but the airlines have asked that the 5G technology not be activated within 3.2 kilometers of 50 major airports. 

The airline executives contended that if the 5G technology is used, “Multiple modern safety systems on aircraft will be deemed unusable. Airplane manufacturers have informed us that there are huge swaths of the operating fleet that may need to be indefinitely grounded.” 

The airline industry executives argued that “immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies.” 

After the airlines’ latest protests, AT&T said Tuesday it would postpone its new wireless service near some airports but did not say at how many or where. Verizon had no immediate comment. 

In a statement Monday, the FAA said it “will continue to keep the traveling public safe as wireless companies deploy 5G” and “continues to work with the aviation industry and wireless companies to try and limit 5G-related flight delays and cancellations.” 

The White House said Tuesday that the Biden administration is continuing discussions with the airline and telecommunications companies about the dispute.

Some material in this report came from The Associated Press. 

 

your ad here

Nigeria Unveils Massive Pile of Rice Marking Production Progress 

 Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is unveiling a massive pyramid of rice harvested by farmers to pay back bank loans they borrowed to expand their production. Nigerian officials say the low-interest loans helped more than double the average yield of rice and maize, ending the country’s dependence on rice imports. The Central Bank of Nigeria plans to sell the rice at below market rates to reduce the high prices that consumers have been paying for the staples.  

The massive pyramid of rice bags stacked one on top of the other was unveiled Tuesday at the chapter office of the Nigerian Chamber of Commerce in Abuja. 

 

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari presided over the ceremony, with top government officials, including from the Central Bank and various state governors, in attendance. 

President Buhari praised the farmers and urged more of them to participate in the loan program.

“It is my desired hope and expectation that other agricultural produce commodities will emulate the rice farmers association of Nigeria in supporting our administration drive for food self-sufficiency,” he said.

 

The Anchor Borrowers Program was launched in 2015 by Nigeria’s Central Bank. The plan provides rice farmers with loans and technical advice so they can expand production and increase yields while limiting the nation’s dependence on imports. 

 

Authorities say more than five years later, the program has yielded the desired result, reducing rice imports significantly, and boosting local production from about 4.5 tons a year to nine. 

 

Central Bank Governor, Godwin Emefiele, says the resilience of farmers has paid off. 

 

“Permit me to commend all our holder farmers and the leadership of their various associations for their diligence, bravery, patriotism and [adaptability],” he said. “The past few years your Excellency has been quite challenging for these people as they have battled with insurgency, banditry, lockdowns and other related setbacks. Indeed, we lost some of our farmers to insurgency attacks nationwide, while some could not access their farms for several months.”  

Nigeria banned rice imports in 2015 with the aim of producing the staple locally. 

 

At Tuesday’s launch, authorities expressed confidence that adequate quantities of rice could be produced locally, saying the trend could affect the domestic price of rice.

 

Meanwhile, the Rice Farmers Association urged Nigeria to leverage this opportunity and export the commodity to other West African nations. 

 

your ad here