News, December 22nd

Stimulus bill”: Congress gives working class the middle finger

Democrat and Republican leaders in Congress announced a new $900 billion stimulus bill over the weekend for a second round of “relief” in the face of the worsening pandemic and related economic crisis. The bill comes after months of Congressional gridlock while millions of workers face worsening conditions with unemployment spikes, skyrocketing rates of hunger and an impending avalanche of evictions during new waves of COVID-19 spread. Both houses of Congress are expected to have passed the bill by the end of Tuesday.

Dr. Jack Rasmus, an economist at St. Mary’s College of California, called the bill making its way through Congress “a travesty”. “This proposal is an insult. It’s throwing crumbs at the unemployed, and throwing crumbs at renters facing eviction,” Rasmus told Liberation News.

While the bill promises a second round of checks, this consists of a one-time $600 payment to adults making less than $75,000 a year, half of the still-inadequate checks that went out earlier this year. Many countries around the world, even capitalist ones, have fully or partially guaranteed the income of all workers for the duration of the pandemic. But the most that “the richest country on earth” can offer is less than 2 percent of the median income for an individual.

The bill includes a provision enhancing unemployment benefits by a meager $300 weekly, again half of what was offered by the CARES Act earlier this year. Similarly, the stimulus bill offers only a one month extension of the federal eviction moratorium without rent cancellation — a measure completely out of step with the widespread housing crisis that has put tens of millions at risk of being thrown out into the streets.

The bill includes no aid for state and local government, setting the stage for public sector worker layoffs and massive cuts to social services. On the other hand, Congress allocated $15 billion for the airline industry and ridiculously a tax break for corporate meal expenses while leaving out much needed aid for food service workers. While of course massive intervention is needed to save the jobs of thousands of airline workers, this bill leaves the corporate bosses completely in control of the industry despite enjoying the benefits of enormous public support.

Rasmus was blunt in his assessment that the deal on the stimulus package represented a complete victory for Republicans, “It’s [Senate Majority Leader] McConnell’s proposal. since last May he’s been saying he won’t pay more than $500 billion. McConnell’s proposal was $500 billion for six months. Then [Treasury Secretary] Mnuchin stole back $400 billion from the Federal Reserve. If you add that with McConnell’s proposal then that’s the deal.”

Taking a real stand for more generous relief measures would have been wildly popular. If the Democratic Party elite were willing to consider any tactic other than backroom negotiations for which they have very little leverage, the Republican-controlled Senate could have been compelled to give in on much more. But instead as Rasmus puts it, “The Republican Party pressured [Speaker of the House] Pelosi to cave in and that’s what she did.”

The new stimulus bill is a clear marker of how vastly out of touch Congress and the corporate elite are with the dire reality for working class people. Even when hundreds of thousands of Americans have died and continue to die in the middle of a raging pandemic, corporate interests come first for both Democrat and Republican politicians alike.

Barbaric killings, amputations, ruthless extortion: The alarming rise of Mexico’s Jalisco New Generation

At least three people – including a pregnant woman in her early 20s – languish in critical condition in Guanajuato, Mexico, after their hands were chopped off and their bleeding bodies were thrown from the back of a truck last week.

“This happened to me for being a thief, and because I didn’t respect hard-working people and continued to rob them,” the chilling note strapped to their bodies read. “Anyone who does the same will suffer. Signed Elite Group.”

The Elite Group is the top tier enforcement wing of the Jalisco New General Cartel, often referred to as CJNG. And the lifelong, medieval punishment of physical disability is one that has become synonymous with both state and non-state actors over the years, from ISIS and Al-Qaeda to the Iranian regime.

The incident is only one of many deeds of bloodshed to have been carried out by the CJNG, whose barbarity is said to be on ascendance in recent weeks and months — spilling on to US. soil and livelihoods.

CJNG remains the domineering force in its namesake state of Jalisco – where the former governor was gunned down on Friday, in what many believe to have been the work of the cartel – and its trail of terror is steadily proliferating.

Much of the violence is attributed to the battle for territorial surface and thus the control of the illicit drug flow into the United States. CJNG, which routinely faces off with its No. 1 nemesis, the Sinaloa Cartel, dominates the majority supply of everything from methamphetamine and heroin to the devastating synthetic opioid fentanyl into its northern border and beyond.

“The tug of war between CJNG and Sinaloa is getting more violent, likely driven by a stronger CJNG, which managed to make several territorial gains while Sinaloa saw bouts of infighting after El Chapo’s capture,” Ines Echeagaray, a Mexico-based Senior Analyst at Global Risk Analysis, told Fox News.

2020 has been an especially savage year in the border city of Tijuana, racking up almost 2,000 murders almost on par with 2019 — and once again earning the label of having the highest murder rate per capita of any city in Mexico.

Since the arrest and extradition to the US of Sinaloa front-man Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in 2016, analysts say that the CJNG has steadily encroached on new terrain – including Tijuana – bringing with it a recipe for bloodletting and groups waging a war of dominance.

Signs have also pointed to CJNG widening its footprint in the capital, Mexico City, aligning itself with the Fuerza Anti-Union gang to tackle the city’s most extensive criminal enterprise, La Unión Tepito.

Evan Ellis, a research professor of Latin American studies at the US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, underscored that as the criminal environment has become more fragmented with many groups and affiliated gangs, the amount of killing and its unpredictability has become more generalized.

“Once ‘safe’ areas such as Mexico City and Puebla State and the tourist zones of the Yucatan Peninsula are now contested. Moreover, the spread of crime by gangs ‘affiliated’ with the cartels increases the number of Mexicans who are victimized by crime indirectly related to cartels,” he said. “As well as those who suffer from a lack of economic opportunity because businesses cannot thrive, and a lack of quality of life because public services, in some ways, do not function well.”

The CJNG has also been accused of directly extorting businesses in the capital. In June, operatives attempted to assassinate Mexico City’s police chief, Omar Garcia Harfuch – hammering his body with at least three bullets and slaying two of his bodyguards. A young woman en route to selling street food was also fatally struck by a stray bullet through a car window.

But wrestling for land jurisdiction is only a piece of the CJNG puzzle. The group has also upped the ante for sea and air authority too – fighting the likes of Sinaloa and the vestiges of Los Zetas and Los Pelones to take heed over the vital port of Chetumal and the Yucatan Peninsula, according to an analysis by InSight Crime. Both serve as popular entry ports for the precursor chemicals in synthetic drugs, mostly brought in from China.

“Drug cartels generally do not control territory in the same way that governments or even gangs do, but traditionally exert influence over certain activities in certain areas or routes,” Ellis explained. “Different groups are active in virtually all Mexican territory, with the Sinaloa federation being concentrated in the north/west portion of the country, and CJNG being concentrated in the south/central but extending across Mexico to Veracruz.”

With a fast-swelling arsenal of advanced weapons – from stolen cars converted into armored vehicles to drones and high-powered machine guns – it’s a force to be reckoned.

“The CJNG is one of the most powerful (cartels) and in a short time may become the dominating force in Mexico if not restrained. The CJNG could take on the Sinaloa area, Baja California and the Golden Triangle, which it currently does not have in its control, but it’s trying,” said Wesley Tabor, a retired assistant special agent in charge of Los Angeles Field Division of the DEA. “They are also very adept at using social media, such as Facebook and even Tik Tok, to show their strength and aggressiveness.”

Unlike most cartels and affiliated crime units that permeate Mexico, the CJNG has long posted its most extreme real-life horror films on display for the world to see across social media — beheaded bodies left to hang and rot on bridges in broad daylight and beatings so brutal that the sound of bones cracking can be heard.

It is a tactic later mimicked by the likes of ISIS, a digital bid to intimidate and inflict anxiety on enemy factions and send a warning to government law enforcement who dare to meddle in their monetary schemes. Furthermore, it’s part of their propaganda drive to recruit the many youths seeking that “narco”-glamorized life, flashed and filtered by images of beautiful women, mounds of money and a depository of deadly arms.

“You ask almost any young boy in Jalisco what they want to be when they grow up,” one former intel officer, now based in Mexico City, lamented. “And it is a football (soccer) player of a narco.”

While the CJNG makes no efforts to hide its beef with adverse cartels and Mexican military and law enforcement, civilians are all too often caught in the cryptic crossfire.

Echeagaray pointed out that CJNG, although very violent, does not target civilians systematically.

“They are, however, big on extortion and can turn to violence if victims refuse to cooperate,” she asserted. “That said, shootouts and attacks on authorities have happened in cities like Guadalajara in the middle of the day with no regard to innocent civilians’ lives.”

In the past, student filmmakers have been kidnapped and tortured to death, journalists frequently killed before they can even begin to probe a likely CJNG crime, dozens of lawmakers and judges have been butchered and death threats have haunted scores of Mexican officials. According to Mexico News Daily, more than 500 people in communities around the municipalities of Aguililla and Buenavista have deserted their homes and fled in fear for their lives as the fighting soars.

And for those who make the gut-wrenching decision to stay, life has been reduced to the desperate, defensive gambit of digging trenches across highways in western Michoacán. It is a forsaken endeavor to deter CJNG hit-men from infiltrating their neighborhoods. Observers and anti-trafficking personnel who closely monitor the CJNG, which emerged around 2009 after splintering from the Sinaloa cartel, broadly conclude that much of its bloody approach can be attributed to its ruthless leader, Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera. The 56-year-old rose from the humble roots of an avocado growing family, dropped out of primary school to work in the fields, to become one of the most potent drug lords on the planet.

“El Mencho, a former police officer, knows that violence and fear are what keep these cartels in power within Mexico. He isn’t your typical cartel leader. He doesn’t make wild errors; he doesn’t hesitate; one word for el Mecho is ‘calculated,'” Wesley said. “If one wants to gain power, control and territory, it’s a must that they conquer non-alliance cartels and gain the assistance of police and government entities to assist them in their global success.”

According to US officials, the CJNG is now the primary drug trafficking outfit in 24 of Mexico’s 32 states. In addition, the US. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has a $10 million bounty on El Mencho’s head, given that his rule and his rapid rise to power also bears a devastating impact across the US.

“While the distribution in US markets is principally through affiliated gangs and proxy groups, the CJNG is thus indirectly responsible for the production of illicit drugs that kill thousands of Americans,” Ellis said. “As well as the violence and corruption that puts at risk the neighbor with which the United States shares an enormous land border, and in which thousands of US companies operate, and US citizens live.”

Experts estimate that the CJNG also brings in the millions in a multitude of methods aside from the drug trade – including illegal mining, human trafficking, money laundering, and the extortion of farmers and their families for a cut in avocado exports and the forced protection payment – or else meet a premature death.

“Police and civilians are dying, and the CJNG continues unfettered, flooding the US with methamphetamine and other drugs,” Tabor added. “The violence in Mexico and elsewhere is something that doesn’t stop at the border. Think of this violence extending into every facet of their global operations.”

Brain cell that can help track distance discovered

Scientists have discovered that there is a type of brain cell that can track how far we have traveled and remember where things are, which are added to our memory map of the places we have been.

The existence of GPS-like brain cells, which can store maps of the places we’ve been, like our kitchen or holiday destination, was already widely known, but this discovery shows there is also a type of brain cell sensitive to the distance and direction of objects that can store their locations on these maps.

The findings, detailing these cells called vector trace cells (VTC), were published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

“The discovery of vector trace cells is particularly important as the area of the brain they are found in is one of the first to be attacked by brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, which could explain why a common symptom and key early ‘warning sign’ is the losing or misplacement of objects,” said lead researcher Steven Poulter from Durham University in Britain.

According to Colin Lever from Durham University, these cells appear to connect to creative brain networks which help us to plan our actions and imagine complex scenarios in our mind’s eye.

“Vector trace cells acting together likely allow us to recreate the spatial relationships between ourselves and objects, and between the objects in a scene, even when those objects are not directly visible to us,” Lever said.

France relaxes its ban on trucks entering from Britain

France relaxed its corona-virus-related ban on trucks from Britain on Tuesday after a two-day standoff that had stranded thousands of drivers and raised fears of Christmastime food shortages in the UK.

French authorities, who had imposed the ban to try to protect the continent from a new variant of the virus that is circulating in London and southeast England, said delivery drivers could enter by ferry or tunnel provided they showed proof of a negative test for the virus. Select passengers will be allowed back on the continent, too.

After two days of intense talks with British and European Union partners, French Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said in a statement that the coming hours would be dedicated to setting up testing sites so that British truckers could make it to the continent and back in time for Christmas. Quick tests will be accepted if they are able to detect the new virus variant, Djebbari said.

At least 2,800 truck drivers had been anxiously waiting near the England Channel port of Dover for word they could cross over to the continent. French and British authorities urged them to avoid ports until they can get tested.

France also said it would allow EU travelers, along with British citizens with EU residency, back into the country if they had a negative virus test in the preceding 72 hours. British tourists remain barred.

Some 40 countries imposed travel bans on Britain, leaving the island nation increasingly isolated, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned over the weekend that the new variant of the virus might be 70% more contagious.

But the French restrictions were particularly worrisome, given that Britain relies heavily on its cross-Channel commercial links to the continent for food this time of year.

At the same time, Britain is witnessing an alarming rise in infections, with a record 36,800 reported Tuesday, and is facing deep uncertainty over its final exit from the European Union in less than two weeks. Despite the looming deadline, the country has yet to work out its post-Brexit trade arrangements with the EU.

“What is so bad to me, is not just this new mutation, but the fact that we have been so bad at dealing with the pandemic, and it now looks like we’re heading for what’s called a perfect storm with the mutation 70% more infectious and Brexit all at the same time,” 73-year-old Jim Gibson of London said during the standoff.

“People are really struggling to get their heads round one of these, let alone both — and now we’re being told we may have eaten our last lettuce for three months, too, probably.”

For the drivers, it was a grim couple of days, with some complaining about the lack of toilet facilities and food.

“My family is waiting for me, my children, my daughter, my son, my wife,” said Greg Mazurek of Poland. “It was supposed to be a very quick trip, three to four days max. I spent in the UK 10 minutes in the gas station and 20 minutes unloading, and now I need to wait two days here in the port in Dover.”

British retailers had become increasingly concerned about the blockage at the ports, given that 10,000 trucks pass through Dover every day, accounting for about 20% of the country’s trade in goods.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, warned of potential shortages of fresh vegetables and fruit after Christmas if the borders are not “running pretty much freely” by Wednesday.

The problem, he explained, is that the empty trucks sitting in England can’t reach the continent to pick up deliveries for Britain.

“They need to get back to places like Spain to pick up the next consignment of raspberries and strawberries, and they need to get back within the next day or so, otherwise we will see disruption,” he said.

The virus is blamed for 1.7 million deaths worldwide, including more than 68,000 in Britain, the second-highest death toll in Europe, behind Italy’s 69,000.

Over the weekend, Johnson imposed strict lock-down measures in London and neighboring areas amid mounting concerns over the new variant. He scrapped a planned relaxation of rules over Christmastime for millions of people and banned indoor mixing of households. Only essential travel will be permitted.

In Switzerland, meanwhile, authorities are trying to track an estimated 10,000 people who have arrived by plane from Britain since Dec. 14, and has ordered them to quarantine for 10 days. Switzerland was one of the 40-odd countries to ban flights from Britain over the new variant.

The quarantine order is likely to affect thousands of Britons who may have already headed to Swiss ski resorts. Unlike many of its neighbors, Switzerland has left most of its slopes open, attracting enthusiasts from around Europe.

“Do not leave your room or residence and avoid all contacts,” Switzerland’s public health agency urged vacationing Britons and South Africans. It warned they face potential fines of 10,000 Swiss francs ($11,250).

IMF Executive Board Concludes 2020 Discussions on Common Euro Area Policies with Member Countries

On December 18, 2020, the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) concluded the 2020 discussions on common euro area policies with member countries.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a significant human and economic toll. Euro area real GDP declined sharply in the first half of the year, though the unprecedented policy responses at the national and EU levels helped cushion the impact of the crisis—including by effectively limiting increases in unemployment and insolvencies—and supported a strong rebound in the third quarter. Going forward, the recent second wave and necessary measures to contain it are expected to weigh on economic activity in the near term. Unless pandemic dynamics change significantly in the coming months, economic activity is set to recover more gradually than forecast in the October 2020 World Economic Outlook. Inflation, which has descended into negative territory in recent months, mainly reflecting temporary factors, is expected to only gradually increase and remain below the ECB’s medium-term aim throughout most of the forecast horizon.

The outlook is subject to extreme uncertainty. Risks remain to the downside through early 2021, but the recent promising news on vaccine development provide a significant upside further out. While rapid and widespread delivery of safe and effective vaccines would likely spur a faster recovery, a prolonged health crisis and slower recovery could depress investment and increase private and public sector vulnerabilities. In such a downside scenario, significant labor market hysteresis could also take place, increasing inequality and poverty. Taken together, these “scarring” effects could weigh on the growth potential of the euro area. The ongoing negotiations regarding the UK.’s future relationship with the EU and a potential escalation of trade tensions add to the uncertainty.

Directors commended the authorities’ unprecedented policy response to cushion the pandemic’s severe socioeconomic impact. Directors noted that the pandemic’s second wave has slowed the economic recovery and concurred that the outlook remains extremely uncertain, subject to both significant downside and upside risks from pandemic dynamics, including those related to recent vaccine developments.

Directors praised the Next Generation EU package, which aims to accelerate Europe’s green and digital transformations. They stressed that its effectiveness will hinge on a quick implementation, the quality of spending, and its capacity to catalyze structural reforms. To meet EU emission reduction goals, more comprehensive carbon pricing and non-price policies would be needed.

Directors emphasized that the pandemic’s resurgence requires further national fiscal support and warned against its premature withdrawal. They concurred that any further deterioration in the outlook would require additional fiscal support. Once the recovery gets underway, Directors recommended policies that facilitate resource reallocation, support sustainable growth, and achieve sound medium-term fiscal positions. They favored maintaining the fiscal rules’ escape clause active until the recovery is firmly entrenched. More generally, Directors encouraged the authorities to explore options to enhance the current fiscal rules.

Directors commended the ECB’s monetary policy response, including this month’s re-calibration of measures. Yet, they noted that further accommodation could prove necessary, especially if downside risks materialized. As prolonged accommodation could raise financial stability risks, Directors called for continued monitoring and appropriate use of macro-prudential tools to address emerging vulnerabilities. Directors welcomed the ECB’s Strategy Review and broadly agreed with staff’s recommendation to adopt a well-communicated symmetric point inflation target.

Directors welcomed recent financial sector measures. They recommended that capital relief and conservation measures for banks be maintained until the recovery is well underway. Should it stall, more targeted borrower support should be made available. Directors noted that credible medium-term strategies to reduce nonperforming loans and stronger insolvency regimes would support swift balance sheet repair. They also favored expanding the macro-prudential perimeter to include non-bank financial institutions. Directors called for closing gaps in the EU’s crisis management framework and advancing the financial sector architecture reforms.

Directors agreed that, as the recovery takes hold, policies should facilitate labor and capital reallocation toward viable firms and sectors. Noting the pandemic’s pernicious distributional effects, they also called for targeted policies to safeguard vulnerable regions and address rising inequality. Directors praised the European authorities for their continued support and promotion of a global rules-based trading system and for their leadership in fighting climate change.

Iran nuclear deal: ‘Heated rhetoric and the heightened risk of miscalculation’ widen differences

Although the landmark Iran nuclear deal could improve regional stability if fully implemented, increased tensions have highlighted the risks posed by escalation, the UN’s Political and Peace-building Affairs chief told the Security Council on Tuesday.

Under-Secretary-General Rosemary DiCarlo was speaking during a virtual meeting on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the July 2015 accord that set out rules for monitoring Iran’s nuclear program and a pathway to easing sanctions.

The JCPOA was signed by Iran alongside the European Union and five permanent members of the Security Council: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. However, Washington withdrew in May 2018.

Ms. DiCarlo noted that recent years have been characterized by “attacks on critical infrastructure, heated rhetoric and heightened risk of miscalculation.

“Such actions deepen the differences related to the Plan and render efforts to address other regional conflicts more difficult”, she said. “We call on all concerned to avoid any actions that may result in further escalation of tensions.”

Last August, the US announced it would reinstate sanctions lifted following the deal.

Ms. DiCarlo described the move as contrary to the goals of the JCPOA and Security Council Resolution 2231 on its implementation.

“We regret the steps taken by the United States when it withdrew from the Plan, as well as the steps taken by Iran to reduce some of its nuclear-related commitments under the Plan”, she told ambassadors.

The JCPOA guarantees that the UN-backed international nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), will have regular access to sites in Iran and information about its nuclear program.

While the country had complied with some provisions, the IAEA reported it had surpassed stipulated limits for enriched uranium, a critical component in nuclear power generation.

“Iran has stated its intention to remain in the Plan, and that the steps that they have taken are reversible. It is essential that Iran refrains from further steps to reduce its commitments and returns to full implementation of the Plan”, she said.

Addressing other measures under Resolution 2231, Ms. DiCarlo updated the Council on two arms-related cases, one of which concerned Israeli information about four alleged Iranian anti-tank guided missiles in Libya.

The UN was able to ascertain that one of the missiles “has characteristics consistent with the Iranian-produced Dehlavieh”, it could not determine if the missile was transferred to Libya “and/or whether its transfer was inconsistent with the resolution.”

Furthermore, the UN determined that weapons seized by Australia off the Gulf of Oman in June 2019 were not manufactured in Iran. However, details about documents collected during the incident have been shared with Iran “and the other concerned Member State” to verify their authenticity.

Iran also informed the UN of the killing of top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who had been “assassinated in a terrorist attack” on 27 November. Mr. Fakhrizadeh was among individuals listed in the resolution.

Ms. DiCarlo began her briefing by upholding the UN’s efforts in non-proliferation, aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and related technology, with the goal of achieving a nuclear-free world.

The UN Secretary-General has underscored the importance of the JCPOA, she said, and has encouraged all countries to support it.

“The Iranian nuclear issue is an important non-proliferation subject, with consequences for regional and global peace and security”, said Ms. DiCarlo.

“In achieving the JCPOA, the concerned countries had shown that their dialogue and diplomacy, supported by a united Security Council, could forge a path to resolving this issue. We hope that these countries and the Council can do so again.”

Iran starts registration of volunteers for human trial of COVID-19 vaccine

Iran started registration of volunteers for the first phase of human trial of its COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, the official IRNA news agency reported.

“By the license of the Ministry of Health and after the successful stages of vaccine testing, the registration of people who wish to participate in the (human) testing phase of the Iranian novel corona-virus vaccine begins today,” Mohammad Mokhber, chief of the Executive Staff of Imam Command, was quoted as saying.

“Those people who are interested and have the required age and physical condition can register in this national project,” Mokhber added.

On Tuesday, Iran, one of the worst-hit countries by the corona-virus in the Middle East, reported a total of 1,170,743 COVID-19 cases, including 54,003 deaths.

Iran announced its first cases of COVID-19 on Feb. 19.

Spain’s ‘El Gordo’ Christmas lottery doles out big prizes

Fortune shined Tuesday on the lucky holders of tickets with the number 72897 that took top prize in the Spain’s huge Christmas lottery, known as “El Gordo” (The Fat One).

The prize shelled out 400,000 euros ($489,000), or some 325,000 euros after tax, to holders of 20-euro tickets bearing the number. The lucky tickets were sold in more than 20 towns across Spain.

In keeping with tradition, the number was called out by children from Madrid’s San Ildefonso school in a nationally televised draw at Madrid’s Teatro Real opera house, although this year the event was held under tight restrictions owing to the corona-virus.

The incredibly popular lottery will dish out a total of 2.4 billion euros ($2.9 billion) in prizes, much of it in hundreds of smaller prizes.

Families, friends and co-workers traditionally buy the 20-euro tickets — or “decimos (tenths)” — together as part of a winter holiday tradition. They then wait in hope that fortune may come their way.

Normally, jubilant street and bar scenes follow of winners laughing, dancing and singing with uncorked bottles of sparkling wine. But this year, the celebrations seemed tamer with everyone wearing masks after authorities had urged much caution because of the virus.

Other lotteries have bigger individual top prizes but Spain’s Christmas lottery, held each year on Dec. 22, is ranked as the world’s richest for the total prize money involved.

The lottery was held without an audience this year. Organizers and participants on the theater’s stage donned masks and took PCR tests beforehand. The children were allowed to remove the masks briefly as they sang out the numbers and prizes.

Spain established its national lottery as a charity in 1763 during the reign of King Carlos III. Its objective later became to shore up state coffers. It also helps several charities.

Thai authorities brace for new lock-down

Thai authorities have been told to be prepared for a new Covid-19 lock-down in the event that the pandemic spirals out of control.

Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan o Cha told the Public Health Ministry to be ready, even as health officials were randomly testing migrant workers at virus hot-spots.

This comes as 382 people tested positive for the virus on Monday, 360 of who were migrant workers, as the spread of infection from the Samut Sakhon shrimp wholesale market continued. The number of confirmed Covid-19 patients from the Samut Sakhon cluster was 821 on Monday night, with only 33 Thais involved.

Prayuth said everyone should cooperate with the government and the health authorities in containing the spread of Covid-19 among migrant workers “or else a lock-down will become unavoidable”.

The Bangkok Post reported Prayuth as saying that he needed seven days to assess the Covid-19 situation before deciding whether the New Year countdown should be held.

He urged the public not to panic and hoped that the situation would improve. He said the Public Health Ministry had assured him that the situation was under control.

Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration spokesman Dr Taweesilp Visanuyothin said the ministry would present its proposals at the next meeting with the prime minister.

He said the information compiled over the past two to three days on the outbreak in Samut Sakhon was not adequate to predict the situation during the holiday season.

“It will probably take seven days to tell, around Dec 28, so it’s hard to say at this point if celebrations should still be held or not.”

The health authorities have also sped up the screening of migrant workers in Samut Sakhon.

Dr Taweesilp warned that the number of infections linked to the Samut Sakhon outbreak would likely keep rising, as most Myanmar workers lived together in the same apartments.

He said the Public Health Ministry had adopted the measures that proved to be successful among migrant workers in Singapore, with the apartments where they lived being turned into makeshift quarantine centers.

“This approach should contain the spread of the virus.”

Labor Minister Suchart Chomklin said more funds were being sought from the government so that Thai and foreign migrant workers in registered factories and workplaces in Samut Sakhon could be tested.

He said the budget would cover 160,000 tests and targeted workers in the province and legal migrant workers who had social security cards. The cost is estimated at 3,000 baht per person.

He said his ministry would stop bringing in migrant labor from neighboring countries and that this won’t affect companies as there were 2.3 million legal migrant workers in the country.

Meanwhile, the Thai army admitted that it was impossible to completely seal Thailand’s borders from illegal migrants.

“Our border is 5,526 km long,” said deputy army chief of staff Lieutenant-General Santipong Thammapiya.

He said illegal migrants were sneaking into Thailand from Myanmar, especially at highly porous locations in Tak, Chiang Rai and Kanchanaburi.

Troubleshooting crisis in Middle East and North Africa

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has witnessed many fluctuations in 2020 with the extremely tense relations between Iran vs the United States and allies, as well as the continued conflicts in many countries. However, the “light at the end of the tunnel” has also emerged on the journey to seek peace and clear deadlocks for regional crises.

Yet, it remains a difficult problem to maintain stability and development in such a region with many hot spots.

Iran-US tensions have escalated since early 2020. A US drone strike near Baghdad International Airport (Iraq) killing Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC’s) Quds Force, kick-started a series of tit-for-tat moves between the two countries. Tehran retaliated by launching missiles at Iraqi bases hosting US troops aiming to destroy the Pentagon’s “military machine”. These incidents triggered an escalation in bilateral tensions and led to an unexpected aviation disaster when Iran mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane thinking it was a potential threat to national security. In order to protect its forces more effectively, the US deployed Patriot air defense systems to military bases in Iraq, while Iran protested the move and argued that Washington pushed the Middle East deeper into security uncertainty.

As for the “Iranian nuclear record”, US President Donald Trump’s administration launched a campaign of “maximum pressure” on the Islamic country through increasing economic sanctions and deterrent actions, pushing US-Iran relations into a dangerous confrontation. US sanctions caused Iran’s domestic currency to be devalued at a record level (over 60%), its inflation to increase dramatically, and its oil exports to plummet, thus seriously affecting Tehran’s revenue. US sanctions dealt a strong blow on the oil sector – the “backbone” of Iran’s economy – causing the Islamic nation’s revenue from “black gold” to decline by 80%. Following the unsuccessful efforts to prevent the United Nations from lifting the arms embargo against Iran, President Trump’s administration activated the “reverse process” to re-impose UN sanctions, a unilateral step damaging the nuclear deal that Israel signed with the P5+1 powers, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In response to the US’s moves, Iran reduced its commitments to the nuclear accord and increased the amount of enriched uranium, pushing talks over Tehran’s nuclear program into a standstill. In addition, the Islamic country repeatedly took moves to display its military power, such as planning to build nuclear submarines and announcing the successful launch of its first military satellite.

Most recently, the murder of Iran’s leading nuclear scientist “added fuel to the fire” in Iran’s confrontation with the West. With the accusation that Israel, a close US ally in the Middle East, “played a role” in this case, Israel prepared measures in response. The incidents wrapped up a turbulent year for the “Iranian nuclear record”, pushing US-Iran relations to peak tension and bringing the region to the brink of a hot war. In an effort to ease US-Iran confrontation, the UN Security Council’s vote not to extend arms embargo against Iran was aimed at ensuring the implementation of commitments under the JCPOA, the only document that is considered the main pillar of the global non-proliferation structure and should be enforced to maintain regional stability.

In the gloomy picture of the MENA region, “bright spots” appeared in cooperation between some Arab countries and Israel, as well as in the efforts to remove deadlocks in the prolonged crises in Syria and Libya. Brokered by the US, Israel signed agreements to normalize ties with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Sudan. This is the biggest breakthrough in Israel’s relations with the Arab bloc in the past 26 years, since the country’s signing of a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. The new deals have paved the way for the enhancement of cooperation between Israel and some Arab nations, helping the Jewish state to step by step break isolation in the region while creating a motivation to promote the necessary trend of cooperation and reconciliation in the Middle East.

However, these agreements have yet to resolve the thorniest problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even causing skepticism among Arab countries on the fulfillment of commitments to promoting the Middle East peace process and steadfastness towards the two-state solution. Palestine strongly opposed Arab nations’ signing of normalization deals with Israel in the context that a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is yet to be worked out. Meanwhile, the Middle East peace process has been negatively affected after US President Donald Trump announced his controversial “Middle East peace plan” allowing Israel to annex Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories. Palestine and many countries around the world objected to the US document, claiming that the US favored its ally Israel and this was not a peaceful solution for the Middle East. Although the US President called Israel’s normalization agreements with Arab countries the “dawn of a new Middle East” and these documents open a new page for economic, trade, technology, security and defense cooperation between the two sides, they will still be unable to bring long-term peace to the region unless a more urgent issue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is resolved. Furthermore, Israel’s peaceful relations with Arab nations are even said to become a foundation for the US to create a new power alliance to counter and curb Iran’s influence in the region.

The situation in Libya has also witnessed positive changes with the deadlock in the prolonged crisis being initially cleared. Under the UN’s mediation and international diplomatic efforts, the warring parties in Libya have reached a long-term cease-fire agreement and conducted political dialogue towards elections. After falling into the civil war since 2011, Libya had been deeply engulfed in profound divisions between factions, with two governments co-existing. This created conditions for increased external intervention in the North African nation. The Libyan situation became complicated when opposing factions in the country received support and weapons from the outside, which “fueled” the escalation of conflicts and turned Libya into a battlefield and a “terrorist training furnace”, thus destabilizing the region. Given this fact, the newly reached ceasefire deal has helped put an end to the conflict, allowing oil facilities and domestic transport routes in Libya to resume operations, while facilitating the country to gradually revive the economy and conduct the next political dialogues. The UN, the European Union (EU) and the international community have committed to assisting Libya in protecting the fragile peace process, towards bringing the North African country back to a trajectory of stability and development.

The developments related to the MENA crises show that this region of strategic geopolitical position continues to be strongly influenced by the US’s strategic calculations. With the policy “America First” and the ambition to “make America great again”, policies of President Trump’s administration in the Middle East have maximized the US’s interests regardless of the moves causing controversy and “heating up” hot spots.

In that context, the relentless mediation efforts made by the UN, especially members of the UN Security Council, along with many countries in the region, have brought about positive progress, helping to remove the deadlock for the crises and triggering hopes of “light at the end of the tunnel” for peace in the MENA “fire-span”.

WTO paper explores role of trade policy in the rapid roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines

The WTO Secretariat has published a new information note on trade-related issues for COVID-19 vaccine production, manufacturing and deployment. The note, entitled “Developing and delivering COVID-19 vaccines around the world,” explores how trade policy can play its part in ensuring the rapid roll-out of vaccines against COVID-19.

The paper goes into further detail on key topics included in two documents previously published on the WTO website: “Info-graphic: Developing & delivering COVID-19 vaccines around the world” and “Developing & delivering COVID-19 vaccines around the world: A checklist of issues with trade impact”.

The new information note comprises three sections. Section A provides background information on immunization and the urgent search for vaccines against COVID-19. This section points to immunization as a key component of primary health care and highlights the ambitious national and global targets that have been set for COVID-19 vaccines. According to the World Health Organization and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, two billion COVID-19 vaccine doses are to be distributed by the end of 2021, with an allocation for every country equal to 20 per cent of the population so as to cover prioritized target groups.

Section B provides an overview of the development and delivery of vaccines in the form of an info-graphic listing seven steps in this process: vaccine development, domestic approval (manufacture), vaccine manufacture, domestic approval (importer), international distribution, border clearance, and domestic distribution and surveillance.

Finally, Section C identifies where key decisions with trade impact may need to be made along the vaccine value chain and provides a non-exhaustive list of useful resources to help inform decision-making. This section includes a checklist of trade issues to consider along with the COVID-19 vaccine value chain, as well as a world map of clinical trials and partnerships on COVID-19 treatments.

Published by jim

Curator of things...

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