Race for jabs in India’s vaccination drive exposes digital divide

India
A health worker inoculates a woman with a dose of the Covishield Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine at a vaccination centre in New Delhi on May 13, 2021.
Image Credit: AFP

New Delhi: It’s 2am and Ananya Maskara’s face is lit up by her smartphone as she nervously scrolls through a list – looking for a green or yellow tab indicating that a COVID-19 vaccination slot is available in India’s capital, New Delhi.

For anyone aged between 18 and 44, getting a slot in India’s expanded vaccination drive – already plagued by shortages and political squabbles – has been like buying tickets for a rock concert where popular bands sell out in minutes.

“It was… a rollercoaster of emotions,” the 19-year-old told AFP of her frantic, multi-day search to find a slot on India’s online or app vaccination portals.

“It was really difficult… A lot of my friends haven’t gotten a slot until now and they are still waiting.”

Maskara, like millions of younger Indians terrified by the current surge in infections, is rushing to get vaccinated against the coronavirus after the country this month opened up its inoculation drive to all adults.

But the expansion came with restrictions, including only online registrations for the 18-44-year-olds, locking out up to half of India’s population, particularly in poor and rural areas, who don’t have smartphones or internet access.

Numerous Indian states are also struggling with vaccine shortages, meaning there are limited slots available for the up to 600 million people in the 18-44 cohort now eligible for jabs.

Maskara was eventually successful in finding a slot, but many others are still desperately searching.

“I have better chances of winning the lottery than getting a vaccination shot,” grumbled one Mumbai-based Twitter user.

So far, only 3 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion people – or 39.5 million – are fully vaccinated with both doses. An additional 10.6 percent have received just their first shot.

Hackathon 

Techies have developed workarounds to help users in some cities where slots have been opening up at random times of day and are filled within one or two minutes.

Berty Thomas, 35, a Chennai-based hobbyist programmer and business analyst, created a tool that alerts users via the Telegram messaging app when slots in their district open. It’s already gotten more than 400,000 subscribers.

“My focus right now is to expand these alerts to multiple small towns and villages across the country,” Thomas told AFP, adding that some users wanted to book for relatives in regional and rural areas.

“(Getting slots) has been an issue, particularly in the villages where internet is scarce. So the only way is… for people who have access to internet to help those who don’t.”

Local media say some families have even travelled long distances to secure slots for their younger members.

Devang Bhatt, 28, told AFP that after days of scouring the vaccine portal for a slot in Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat, he found one on the outskirts of the city.

“It was tiring, but worth it,” Bhatt said of his vaccine trip.

No internet, no vaccination 

But for Seema, a domestic helper working in the northern city of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh state – which has been ravaged by the virus – getting vaccinated seems unlikely.

“I don’t have access to the internet… A few boys in my neighbourhood do have smartphones but they don’t know how to use it for this (registration),” the 40-year-old who goes by one name told AFP.

“(The government) should think about people like us. Every day I run the risk of exposing myself to the disease as I work for three households. I wish I could get myself vaccinated.”

Experts say that the government should allow walk-ins at vaccination centres – a measure already introduced for people above 45 years old.

Authorities should also consider “taking vaccines to the people rather than having people coming to the vaccines”, Ashoka University physics and biology professor Gautam Menon told AFP. He suggested steps like mobile vaccination clinics in remote areas.

For Mohendra Sharma, who doesn’t own a mobile phone, such changes can’t come soon enough.

“There needs to be a system for door-to-door vaccination. Those who don’t have a smartphone – what will they do?,” the 26-year-old told AFP at a milk store in Delhi where he works.

“I am worried for my family and for myself if we don’t get the vaccination.”

UN raises global economic forecast to 5.4% growth in 2021


The United Nations on Tuesday responded to the rebounding Chinese and U.S. economies by revising its global economic forecast upward to 5.4% growth for 2021.
Image Credit: iStockphoto

New York: The United Nations on Tuesday responded to the rebounding Chinese and U.S. economies by revising its global economic forecast upward to 5.4% growth for 2021, but it warned that surging COVID-19 cases and inadequate availability of vaccines in many countries threaten a broad-based recovery.

In raising its projection from January of 4.7% growth, the U.N.’s mid-2021 World Economic Situation and Prospects report pointed to the rapid vaccine rollout in a few large economies led by the U.S. and China and an increase in global trade in merchandise and manufactured goods that has already reached its pre-pandemic level.

But the U.N. cautioned that “this will unlikely be sufficient to lift the rest of the world’s economies,” and “the economic outlook for the countries in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean remains fragile and uncertain.”

Lead author Hamid Rashid, chief of the Global Economic Monitoring Branch in the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, told a news conference that “Europe’s outlook is not as bright as we expected” because of signs of second and third waves of COVID-19 infections.

“The key challenge we face in the world right now is that infections are still rising in many parts of the world, and we are seeing new variants and new mutations affecting large populations in South Asia, also in Latin America,” he said. “That poses a significant challenge in terms of the recovery and world economic growth.”

Rashid said: “Vaccination is probably right now the number one issue to put the world economy on a steady path of recovery.” He noted, however, that “vaccine inequity is a serious challenge.”

In normal times, he said, 5.4% would be considered a very high economic growth rate, but this year it is barely offsetting last year’s losses and growth is “very uneven and also very uncertain.”

He said the U.N. expects the U.S. economy, which is very strong, to grow about 6.2% this year, “the fastest growth of the U.S. economy since 1966,” and it expects the Chinese economy to grow by about 8.2%.

But he called India, Brazil, South Africa and many other developing countries “weak spots.”

Rashid said that in the past the growth rate of developing countries would be higher than the global average, but this year the average growth rate of many developing countries and regions is lower because of the pandemic.

One of the key drivers of economic recovery has been investment, he said, with some countries like the U.S. seeing only a 1.7% drop in investment last year while some developed countries saw investment drop by 4% of GDP or even more.

The $16 trillion in stimulus to counter the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic “was much needed to avoid a complete meltdown of the global economy,” Rashid said, “but that has not led to massive increase in investment.”

He warned that the “massive surges in stock market prices globally” are creating “something of a financial stability risk worldwide, and we have to be vigilant about that risk as that could also derail the recovery efforts going forward.”

Rashid said the U.N.’s forecast of 5.4% growth this year is far more cautious than other international organizations, including the International Monetary Fund, which last month revised its 2021 projection upward to 6%.

“We’re still optimistic about the global economy,” Rashid said, but “there are a lot of uncertainties that we underscored in our report, especially the spread of vaccination and coverage that needs to happen in the next six months to achieve that kind of growth rate that we project here.”

For 2022, the U.N. forecast that the global economy will grow by about 4.7% is higher than the IMF’s projection of 4.4%.

Sudan: IMF announces financing plan aimed at debt relief

Washington: The IMF executive board on Monday approved a financing plan “to cover its share of debt relief to Sudan,” Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva announced.

“This marks a critical step in helping Sudan advance the process of normalizing relations with the international community,” Georgieva said, adding that the “plan relies on a broad effort of IMF member countries, including cash grants and contributions derived from IMF internal resources.”

DP World to start development of Banana Port in the Democratic Republic of Congo

DP World,  Jebel Ali Free Zone
DP World is set to start the development of the deep sea port at Banana in Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Image Credit: Supplied

Kinshasa: DP World, a leading global provider of end-to-end logistics solutions, is set to start the development of the deep sea port at Banana, following agreement on amendments to the initial contract between the company and the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

A term sheet summarizing the amendments to the contract, which was signed in Kinshasa by Guylain Nyembo Mbwizya, Chief of Staff to the Head of State, and Suhail Al Banna, CEO and Managing Director of DP World, Middle East and Africa region, follows part of a review by the parties of some of the existing contractual document clauses signed in March 2018, when DP World was awarded the 30-year concession to develop and manage the Banana Port.

The objective of the amendments was to readjust the different obligations of the two parties under the project, to better support the vision of His Excellency, President Félix Tshisekedi, to develop the country’s trade and logistic sector. The port will be the DRC’s first deep sea port along its 37km coastline on the Atlantic ocean.

“This signature materializes the promise of His Excellency the President of the Republic to make the construction of the deep-water port of Banana one of the priorities of his mandate. And, he wished for a contract that takes into account the interests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is now the case,” said André Wameso, Deputy Chief of Staff to the Head of State in charge of economic and financial matters.

The development of the Banana Port, which is expected to take two years, will bring significant cost and time savings for the country’s trade, as it will attract more direct calls from larger vessels from Asia and Europe, and will boost not only the growth the country’s economy, but also the region.

“The signing of the term sheet is a key milestone in the partnership between DP World and the Government of the DRC, in moving forward with the project and the firm desire of DP World to be part of the President’s vision that will give the country strong, efficient and affordable access to international markets that will enhance its export capabilities,” said Suhail AlBanna, CEO and Managing Director of DP World, Middle East and Africa region

Tough US jobs report shows Biden’s rocky road to full economic recovery

US Jobs
US nonfarm payrolls increased by only 266,000 jobs, well below the nearly 1 million jobs economists expected and a sharp contrast to steady increases in growth from January to March.
Image Credit: Agency

Washington: President Joe Biden reacted on Friday to a disappointing April jobs report by saying the US economy has a “long way to go” before recovering from its pandemic slump, and he urged Washington to do more to help the American people.

US job growth unexpectedly slowed last month, likely restrained by shortages of workers and raw materials. Nonfarm payrolls increased by only 266,000 jobs, well below the nearly 1 million jobs economists expected and a sharp contrast to steady increases in growth from January to March.

Biden and his team have said his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, the Democratic president’s first major legislative accomplishment, is helping to bring the economy back from its pandemic plummet, and they are pushing for another $4 trillion in new investments.

“Today’s report just underscores in my view how vital the actions we’re taking are,” Biden said in remarks at the White House. “Our efforts are starting to work. But the climb is steep and we still have a long way to go.” Stock indexes still climbed to record highs despite the news, as fewer investors feared the Federal Reserve would reduce its massive stimulus program anytime soon, and bet Biden’s investment plans would succeed.

Political divide

The jobs report highlighted an intractable political divide in Washington over government spending. Republicans and business groups blasted generous unemployment benefits in the relief package, contending they were stopping lower-wage Americans from going back to work. Critics object to the high price tag of Biden’s plans and warn they could bring inflation.

Biden said he did not believe government benefits were hindering a return to work, and his economists backed him up.

“It’s clear that there are people who are not ready and able to go back into the labor force,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told reporters, citing parents whose children are still learning remotely. “I dont think the addition to unemployment compensation is really the factor that is making a difference. Jared Bernstein, a member of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, told Reuters that Biden’s COVID relief and stimulus, known as the American Rescue Plan, had helped generate an average of more than half a million jobs per month, April not withstanding.

“Those are big numbers, and the fingerprints of the American Rescue Plan are all over those additions,” he said.

Bernstein and other officials said no course correction is required from the White House. But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce business lobby said the government should end the $300 weekly supplemental unemployment benefits to ease a labor shortage.

Some states, including Arkansas, Montana and South Carolina, have decided on their own to end the special federal unemployment payments for their residents, refusing federal cash in the hope that helps businesses find workers faster.

Google says 20% of workers will be remote, many more hybrid

Google
A woman walks below a Google sign on the campus in Mountain View, California.
Image Credit: AP

Mountain View, California: Google says it expects about 20% of its workforce to still work remotely after its offices reopen this fall, while some 60% will work a hybrid schedule that includes about three days in the office and two days “wherever they work best.”

The remaining 20% can change their location to a different Google office.

The policy announced Wednesday relaxes the company’s stricter earlier stance.

“The future of work is flexibility,” CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in an email to employees that was also posted on Google’s website. “The changes above are a starting point to help us do our very best work and have fun doing it.”

Most of Google’s 135,000 employees can continue to work from home through September of this year.

For up to 20 days per year, Google employees will also be able to work from any location other than their main office. That’s up from a previous allotment of 10 days.

The company based in Mountain View, California, will also continue offering extra “reset” days – days off to help cope with the pandemic.

Google was among the first major technology companies last year to tell its employees to work from home at the onset of the pandemic. Other tech giants, such as Facebook and Twitter, have announced that people can work from home permanently after the pandemic if their jobs allow for it.

Dubai Airport Freezone Authority’s non-oil foreign trade exceeds Dh119b in 2020

dafza1
Dubai Airport Freezone Authority (DAFZA) has announced that its foreign non-oil trade reached more than Dh119 billion in 2020.
Image Credit: File photo

Dubai: Dubai Airport Freezone Authority (DAFZA) has announced that its foreign non-oil trade reached more than Dh119 billion in 2020.

The free zone contributed 10 per cent to Dubai’s non-oil foreign trade and 25 per cent to the total trade in free zones in the emirate of Dubai. This affirms the free zone’s capability in overcoming the challenges and consequences of the pandemic. The results demonstrate DAFZA’s integrated ecosystem that ensures continuity of global trade despite various economic conditions and fluctuations.

DAFZA’s trade witnessed exceptional growth compared to the same period last year during the third and fourth quarters in 2020 by 36.4 per cent and 23 per cent, respectively. The free zone also achieved a trade surplus of Dh15.8 billion, which accounted for Dh8.5 billion in the first half and Dh7.4 billion in the second half of the year.

In the second half of 2020, DAFZA witnessed growth in total trade by 7.1 per cent compared to the first half of the year. This is due to the increase in imports of all types of goods by 10.7 per cent and exports by 7 per cent, and re-exports by 4.5 per cent.

“The continuous accomplishments reflect Dubai’s role in sustaining economic activities and enhancing trade on a regional and global scale in the face of crises and unprecedented events. DAFZA consistently contributes to the enhancement and continuity of trade activities. The free zone will continue to provide the necessary capabilities to allow the emirate’s economic landscape to flourish and further expand its reach within crucial industries and regions,” said Dr. Mohammed Al Zarooni, Director General of DAFZA.

In terms of goods – machinery and electrical equipment ranked first for DAFZA’s trade in 2020, making up 76.7 per cent and a value of Dh51.7 billion for exports and re-exports, and 74.8 per cent and a value of Dh38.6 billion for imports.

Pearls, semi-precious stones and metals followed this with 16.2 per cent and a value of Dh10.9 billion for exports and re-exports, and 17.7 per cent and a value of Dh9.1 billion for imports. Both sectors represent 93 per cent of DAFZA’s total trade.

Asia ranked first in terms of major trading partners with a percentage of 42.6 per cent share in total DAFZA trade, followed by MENA countries with 37.9 per cent, in which the GCC countries accounted for 17.8 per cent. Europe ranked third with a rate of 13.6 per cent in total DAFZA trade. China was DAFZA’s biggest trade partner in 2020, with 27 per cent of a trade valued at Dh32.3 billion, followed by Iraq with 10 per cent at AED11.8 billion. India was third with 7 per cent at Dh8.6 billion.

In terms of imports, China ranked first with 62.6 per cent, followed by India with 15.5 per cent and USA with 5 per cent. Iraq ranked first in exports and accounted for 17.5 per cent, followed by Switzerland with 7.5 per cent and Saudi Arabia with 6.2 per cent.

Huawei deepens dive into electric vehicles

auto huawei
A Seres Huawei Smart Selection SF5 electric vehicle displayed during the Auto Shanghai show in Shanghai, China April 19, 2021.
Image Credit: Reuters

China’s Huawei Technologies is in talks to take control of a small domestic automaker’s electric vehicle unit, two people with direct knowledge of the matter said, a move that would be a strategic shift for the world’s largest telecom equipment maker.

A company spokesman denied such a step, however.

Huawei, which has been battered by U.S. sanctions, is in talks with Chongqing Sokon to acquire a controlling stake in the latter’s Chongqing Jinkang New Energy Automobile, said the sources.

The move will allow Huawei to make intelligent cars bearing its own nameplate, they added. Jinkang counts U.S. EV brand Seres, formerly known as SF Motors, as its main asset.

It would also provide the first evidence that Huawei is looking to go beyond just offering auto operating systems and have an end-to-end presence in the EV business.

However, the Huawei spokesman said, “Huawei is not making cars,” and added that it was not looking to acquire controlling stakes, although without specifying where.

Sokon did not respond to requests for comment.

The push into smart cars, if finalised, would signal a major shift in business focus for Huawei after two years of U.S. sanctions that have cut its access to key supply chains, forcing it to sell a part of its smartphone business.

Underscoring the shift, the company’s rotating chairman Eric Xu announced pacts with three state-owned Chinese carmakers, including BAIC Group, to supply “Huawei Inside”, a smart vehicle operating system, at the Shanghai Auto Show earlier this month.

auto huawei
The Arcfox Alpha-S electric sedan, manufactured by BAIC Group’s BAIC Motor Electric Vehicle Co. and equipped with Huawei Technologies Co.’s HI smart car platform.
Image Credit: Bloomberg

Huawei’s foray into EVs comes as technology firms such as Xiaomi Corp have been stepping up efforts in the world’s biggest market for such vehicles, as Beijing heavily promotes greener vehicles to reduce carbon emissions.

“As individual consumer demand for smart EVs has been picking up notably since mid-last year, the track is now clear and solid in front of the tech giants,” said Yale Zhang, managing director of Automotive Foresight.

“Despite of their years of success and experience in smartphone markets, it will still take a few years for them to build a car brand acceptable in the EV sector.” As part of the deal, Huawei also plans to buy an undetermined stake in privately-owed Chongqing Sokon Holdings, the biggest shareholder of Shanghai-listed Sokon, said one of the sources.

Richard Yu, head of Huawei’s consumer business group who led the company to become one of the world’s largest smartphone makers and has recently shifted his focus to EVs, is leading the talks with Sokon, said the two people.

The telecom giant looks to finalise the deal as soon as July, said the other source.

Huawei is also seeking to control the EV brand ArcFox of BAIC’s BluePark New Energy Technology, which recently launched its Alpha S model equipped with the “Huawei Inside” system, said the two people and another person with direct knowledge.

But BAIC is more keen to have Huawei just as a minority shareholder in ArcFox, they added.

A BAIC representative referred the query to BluePark which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

All the sources declined to be named.

In February, Reuters reported that Huawei plans to make EVs under its own brand and could launch some models this year.

Sales of new energy vehicles, including pure battery electric vehicles as well as plug-in hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, are expected to make up 20% of China’s overall annual auto sales by 2025.

For months, Huawei has been deeply involved in the operation and manufacturing of the little-known Sokon and its loss-making Seres unit.

auto huawei
The company aims to launch the first intelligent car under its own brand for mass production at the earliest by the end of this year.
Image Credit: Reuters

Under the tie-up, Seres’s first model, “Huawei Smart Selection” SF5, debuted at the Shanghai Auto Show and received over 3,000 orders within two days after the pre-sale started last week, according to Seres.

Huawei is selling SF5 vehicles in its stores across China including its online store VMall.com.

The company aims to launch the first intelligent car under its own brand for mass production at the earliest by the end of this year, said one of them.

Huawei has high expectations for the model, which is under development based on the Seres SF5, but the existing supply chain of Sokon is struggling to meet such expectations, said the same person.

“The supply chain for the auto industry is very long and complicated,” said the person. “Huawei does have its strength in software and platform but its ideas can’t be realized without solid technology improvements in the supply chain.”

COVID-19: EU eyes letting fully vaccinated travellers into bloc

Germany Pariser Platz square in front of Berlin's landmark Brandenburg Gate
The near-empty Pariser Platz square in front of Berlin’s landmark Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor) is reflected in a shop window on January 22, 2021, during the ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Image Credit: AFP

Brussels: The European Union’s executive on Monday proposed that travellers who are fully vaccinated with EU-approved jabs be able to enter the bloc, a statement said.

The European Commission urged the EU’s 27 member countries – which make their own decisions on health matters – to “lift restrictions on non-essential travel for vaccinated persons travelling to the EU”.

It also wants to see travellers from countries that have done a good job in keeping COVID-19 at bay to be able to enter, based on how many infections they register per 100,000 people averaged over a two-week period.

The proposal would see that infection threshold raised from the “very severe” bar of 25 cases per 100,000 decided nearly a year ago to 100 cases, an EU official involved with drafting the proposal told journalists on condition of not being identified.

“So we will no longer have the choice among, let’s say, 10 to 15 countries around the world, but member states will be able to pick up countries, international countries in a list of up to 100 countries, if the situation continues to develop in a positive way,” he said.

Proof that an individual was fully vaccinated – at least two weeks before arriving in the EU, for full immunity to kick in – would not exclude member states also requiring COVID-19 tests either before or after arrival, or quarantine if authorities deemed them warranted, he added.

The proposal also says an “emergency brake” option should be kept in reserve to allow member states to quickly close travel from countries where a “variant of concern or interest is detected”.

EU-approved vaccines

The EU currently has four vaccines currently authorised by its European Medicines Agency: from BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

Others may be added later. The EMA is beginning to look at Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. So far, however, no assessment is being made of China’s jabs, which are used in several countries.

The statement said other vaccines may later be added to the list for approved EU travel if they feature on a World Health Organisation emergency use list of jabs.

The EU at the moment recommends a general ban on travellers entering the bloc, except for those on essential business, and most member states are respecting this rule.

Just six countries – Australia, New Zealand, Rwanda, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand – are on an EU list permitting member states to “gradually” lift travel restrictions on travellers coming from them. Their figures show COVID-19 infections are under control.

China is on that list too, but travel restrictions will be eased only if it reciprocates and permits arrivals from the EU, which is not the case at the moment.

The European Commission is keen to see Europe open its borders soon to travellers meeting its criteria, to save the continent’s important summer tourism season.

A key component of that is a planned “digital green certificate” to prove that the bearer has been vaccinated, has recent negative Covid test results, or has immunity after recovering from a Covid infection.

It plans to launch that certificate next month for travel within the EU, with the aim of eventually relying on such a document for travellers from countries outside the bloc.