• Why are Western countries like the US and Britain still not learning from Asia’s success?

    While the French and English are barred from leaving their homes except for essential work, medical reasons, grocery shopping and exercise, South Koreans frequent restaurants, sing karaoke and drink at bars.

    As the United States watches daily Covid-19 cases near 200,000, Vietnam reports infections in the single digits.

    And as one Western country after another struggles to recover from its worst recession on record, Taiwan expects to exit 2020 without experiencing any economic contraction at all.

    After failing to handle the initial stages of the pandemic as well as many of their East Asian peers, Western authorities are again struggling to handle the virus as it returns in its second wave, seemingly resigning themselves to soaring cases or imposing lockdowns they had previously ruled out due to their heavy economic and social costs.

    Almost a year since the virus was first reported in Wuhan, China, setting off a global experiment in pandemic response, Western governments remain unable or unwilling to emulate the experiences of Asian jurisdictions that kept deaths low while also minimising economic carnage and social isolation.

    “Most countries seem to be following their own approach, with little learning and adapting from the success of other countries,” said Jeremy Rossman, a senior lecturer in virology at the University of Kent.

    “As to why a change in policy is not being considered now, that is hard to say,” Rossman said.

    “There appears to be some political will in following the approach they have set in motion. It is also possible that changing approaches would require both admitting that the current approach is not working and that the situation is serious enough to require considerable reinvestment.”

    Although many Western countries belatedly adopted measures embraced in Asia, such as mask-wearing and mass testing, authorities have been slow or reluctant to embrace other strategies such as invasive technological solutions that have bolstered contact tracing and quarantine efforts in South Korea and Taiwan.

    After vowing to avoid a repeat of shutdowns that paralysed economies earlier in the year, leaders in countries such as France and England have in recent weeks imposed strict lockdowns amid soaring case counts that have dwarfed peaks seen in March and April.

    In the US, where daily cases haven’t dropped below 10,000 since March, some states are pausing or reversing the reopening of their economies, while others are staying the course despite rising infections.

    Peter Collignon, an infectious disease expert at Australian National University Medical School, said many Western nations had failed to use the time bought by earlier lockdowns to implement more sustainable measures for the medium and long term.

    Although Pfizer and BioNTech’s recent announcement of interim findings that its vaccine is 90 per cent effective has raised hopes the end of the pandemic could be in sight, experts do not expect widespread immunisation among the general public until the latter part of next year.

    “You look at New York, at Spain, at a lot of countries that had really hard lockdowns, it gives them relief in the short term, but unless they put all those other things into place, like Korea … and Taiwan and Singapore , then basically you waste the effort almost,” Collignon said.

    In South Korea, health officials use warrantless access to phone records, credit card transactions and CCTV footage to track down close contacts of suspect cases.

    Text-message alerts tell members of the general public of the past movements of anonymised patients – even down to specific businesses and restaurants.

    Pedestrians in face masks cross a street, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), in Seoul, South Korea, May 28, 2020.
    PHOTO: Reuters 

    The tech-heavy strategy, combined with strict quarantine, mass testing and widespread public adherence to mask-wearing and social distancing, has been credited with bringing a major outbreak in February under control and preventing a large-scale resurgence since then.

    Even with 100-plus daily cases in recent weeks, South Koreans have been able to go about their lives largely as normal, while businesses have continued to trade.

    With just over 500 deaths, the country’s per capita fatality rate is about 77 times lower than that of the US. And in comparison with Britain’s predicted 10 per cent GDP decline, the East Asian economy is expected to contract by only about 1 per cent in 2020.

    In Taiwan, authorities have used phone tracking, data analytics and travel histories to quickly identify cases and enforce quarantine procedures in a strategy that has eschewed strict lockdown measures.

    The self-ruled island, which introduced border controls early in the pandemic, has recorded just seven deaths and is expected to avoid recession entirely this year.

    “Completeness of contact tracing is important,” said Cho Sung-il, a professor of epidemiology at Seoul National University. “The effect of containing the spread depends on whether completeness is achieved up to the critical level. Relying only on voluntary cooperation will not achieve sufficient completeness.”

    Some observers have pointed to culture as a factor in South Korea and Taiwan’s handling of the pandemic, suggesting individualistic Westerners have been less conscientious about not spreading the virus and are more concerned about the privacy implications of technological solutions.

    Leslie A. Saxon, a professor of medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, was sceptical that Americans would readily accept some of the measures implemented in Asia, but said the country had suffered due to a “federated, chaotic response that became highly politicised”.

    “We didn’t rationally, systematically or centrally leverage the enormous talent that exists in the Western world to fight this other than probably the race for the vaccine, which will probably be historic,” Saxon said.

    Others suggest the distinction lies not in values, but the lack of political will and decisive leadership, especially considering Western populations’ general acceptance of unprecedented curtailments of personal freedoms in the form of lockdowns and curfews.

    A person is seen at a hand sanitiser station in Oxford Street, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), London, Britain, June 11, 2020.
    PHOTO: Reuters

    “I personally feel that it is more of the latter than the former,” said Hsu Li Yang, an infectious diseases expert at the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

    “There is also perhaps a bias in the general public that conflates the differences between countries, for instance certain countries are able to be rapidly successful because their societies are more collectivist in nature, although these should not influence public health and policy experts that much with regard to careful examination of specific policies and interventions.”

    Even now, there still could be a “lack of awareness, both by the public and the press – and probably even among the experts – of successful interventions” outside the West, Hsu said.

    “Perhaps this is a blind spot common to high and upper-middle income countries,” he said. “Within Asia, have policymakers learned as much from the successes of the Mekong countries as we might have?”

    Raina MacIntyre, head of the biosecurity research programme at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales, suggested arrogance could be at play.

    “I think Western countries are used to patronising low- and middle-income countries and perceive themselves as superior in every way, including disease control,” MacIntyre said.

    Others say the privacy trade-off is a false choice to begin with.

    Effy Vayena, a professor of bioethics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, said contact-tracing options developed in Europe to better address privacy concerns had been let down by poor roll-out and a reliance on outdated systems and equipment like fax machines.

    “It is technically feasible,” Vayena said. “We’ve seen the systems, we’ve seen that their effectiveness is actually good, the early data shows that they’re working. But we’re missing the other pieces.”

    Not all Western countries have been similarly ravaged by the pandemic. Australia and New Zealand have notably kept cases and deaths low.

    Both countries, however, suffered major economic shocks after implementing strict lockdowns, with restrictions in Melbourne and the surrounding state of Victoria ranking among the toughest and most prolonged in the world.

    Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said he remained unsure how significant digital solutions had been in Asian jurisdictions, but said the “dedicated and swift response of government investigators and public health investigators was really, really important”.

    Osterholm said the examples of Australia and New Zealand put paid to the argument that controlling the virus was just too difficult for Western countries to achieve.

    “There is no reason,” he said. “It’s about leadership, it’s about bringing the resources to bear, and it’s about bringing the numbers down.”

    Collignon, the infectious diseases expert at ANU, said Australia and New Zealand’s experiences, while largely positive, nevertheless showed the limitations of the lockdown model. Not only would the harshest restrictions not be sustainable over time, he said, some measures – such as curbs on activities outdoors, where the risk of transmission is relatively low – did not “even make biological sense”.

    “What is actually fairly obvious to me is that the success within Australia and New Zealand is not proportionate to the lockdown intensity. I think what it is proportionate to is the contact tracing, people following rules when they are infected, having good isolation quarantine and good infrastructure to do it, and a reasonably compliant population,” Collignon said.

    “We’re going to have to work out how we stop the spread in as practical a way as possible – but sustainable over a long period of time.”

    Vayena, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology professor, warned that countries would continue to bounce in and out of lockdowns where their governments had failed to institute more sustainable and systematic alternatives over the past year.

    “Right now even if you look at Europe as a whole, there is no plan,” she said. “There’s no strategy. Lockdowns are not a strategy. Small lockdowns every two or three months is not a strategy – it’s not a sustainable strategy, it’s a catastrophic strategy.”

    This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

  • US hits Russia with sanctions over nerve agent attack in Britain

    The United States said Wednesday it was imposing new sanctions on Russia over Moscow’s involvement in the use of a “lethal” nerve agent in the attempted killing of a former spy in Britain.


    The State Department said the sanctions were in response to “the use of a ‘Novichok’ nerve agent in an attempt to assassinate UK citizen Sergei Skripal” — who was a double agent — and his daughter Yulia in March.

    The action is aimed at punishing President Vladimir Putin’s government for having “used chemical or biological weapons in violation of international law,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

    The new sanctions were to take effect following a 15-day Congressional notification period, she said.

    Another senior State Department official told reporters that the administration decided to impose a “presumption of denial” for the sale to Russia of “national security sensitive” US technologies that require federal government approval.

    Such technologies have often been used in items including electronic devices as well as calibration equipment. The exports were previously allowed on a case-by-case basis.

    The move could cut off hundreds of millions of dollars worth of exports to Russia, said the official, who requested anonymity in order to speak about the sanctions.

    House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce, who had pushed months ago for Trump to take action over Russia’s use of banned weapons, applauded the move as “key to increasing pressure on Russia.”

    “Vladimir Putin must know that we will not tolerate his deadly acts, or his ongoing attacks on our democratic process,” Royce said.

    Sanctions waivers are in place for certain key sectors, including space flight activities and commercial aviation safety, the official said.

    The action follows the US Treasury’s imposition of sanctions in March against 19 Russian citizens and five entities for interfering in the 2016 US election — the toughest steps against Moscow since President Donald Trump took office.

    Also in March, Washington ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats, and the closure of Russia’s consulate general in Seattle.

    Moscow ordered 60 American diplomats expelled in a tit-for-tat response.

    Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found unconscious on a bench in Salisbury, England, on March 4, having been poisoned by Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

    They were critically ill, but survived after spending weeks in the hospital.

    Russia has strongly denied playing a role in the attack.

    On June 30, a British couple were poisoned by Novichok in a nearby town — 44-year-old mother-of-three Dawn Sturgess subsequently died.

    London and its allies have accused Moscow of trying to kill the Skripals and says the two cases are likely linked.

    Tougher sanctions loom

    The new announcement could bolster Trump’s claim that his administration is taking a tough stance on Moscow, even as he denounces special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe as a “witch hunt” that ought to be halted immediately.

    Trump caught flak from Democrats and Republicans alike for what many saw as his unsettling embrace of Putin last month at their Helsinki summit, when Trump appeared to disavow his own intelligence agencies’ assessment on Moscow’s election interference.

    The new US sanctions come amid increasing frustration with Trump’s handling of Russia, and how he apparently needed congressional prodding to impose the new penalties.

    The sanctions are mandated under the Chemical and Biological Weapons and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991, which says the US president shall tighten the penalties within 90 days unless Moscow provides “reliable assurances” that it no longer engages in such activities, and allows on-site inspections by United Nations observers.

    The second round of sanctions could cut far deeper, including blocking all American bank loans to Russian entities, an outright ban on US exports to Russia, and suspension of diplomatic relations.

    The announcement in Washington was likely to intensify troubles for the ruble, which took a hit Wednesday along with the stock market over rumors of separate new tough US sanctions over election meddling.

    But the Russian finance ministry, quoted by Ria-Novosti news agency, sought to allay fears, saying the measures ultimately might not be put in place, though it acknowledged that markets were “once again under pressure.”

    The latest mixed messages over Russia involve a letter from Trump that Republican US Senator Rand Paul delivered to Putin during a visit to Moscow this week.

    Paul said the letter “emphasized the importance of further engagement in various areas including countering terrorism, enhancing legislative dialogue and resuming cultural exchanges.”

    The White House said Trump provided “a letter of introduction” at Paul’s request, and that the president “mentioned topics of interest that Senator Paul wanted to discuss with President Putin.”

    Source :The Nation

  • Met Office warns that the UK heatwave might keep going until OCTOBER!

    • Festivalgoers were pictured making the most of the hot weather as number of questionable outfits on show
    • People descended on the Dorset-based festival to make the most of the third day, with temperature of 30C 
    • Elsewhere, hundreds headed to Brighton beach to lay in the basking heat of 85F in front of the iconic pier 

    Met Office warns hotter than normal temperatures thanks to continuing high pressure continuing into the autumn months.

    The heatwave could last until October, the Meteorological Office has said.

    Festivalgoers in Dorset have been pictured making the most of the hot weather as a number of questionable outfits were on display for the third day of Bestival.

    Revellers danced in heats of the low 80s as they waited for London Grammar’s headlining performance tonight.

    Elsewhere, hundreds headed to Brighton beach to lay in the basking heat of 85F in front of the iconic pier.

    met office heat wave united kingdom england britain pattaya news pattayatoday international

    The Met Office has issued a ‘yellow’ heat warning for South east England which will remain in place until 9am tomorrow morning.

    Meteorologist Dean Hall said: ‘We could see temperatures of 84-86F in London tomorrow, probably somewhere like Kew Gardens or St James’s Park. There will be plenty of fine weather around.’

    He added: ‘Temperatures will creep up again through Monday, so we could see 88F in the south east.

    ‘The peak of the heat is really on Tuesday. We could see 88F, with a low probability we could see 90F around Cambridgeshire, towards Norfolk and into Lincolnshire.

    ‘In general, around London it will be 86F. Then, really, it’s a dramatic drop in temperatures. By the time we get to Wednesday, it will be 73.4F in London.’

    But the Met Office says the probability that overall temperatures in the next three months will remain in the warmest category is 55 per cent, while the likelihood that they will be in the coldest is only five per cent.

    Offering a tiny glimmer of hope for heat sufferers, its long-range report for August, September and October, adds: ‘The likelihood of above-average temperatures is greater than normal, but while the chances of below-average temperatures are considerably smaller, they remain a realistic possibility.’

    met office heat wave united kingdom england britain pattaya news pattayatoday international

    Source: Dailymail

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