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December 27, 2020


Global COVID-19 cases surpass 80 mln: Johns Hopkins University

Global COVID-19 cases surpassed 80 million on Saturday, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University.

The global case count reached 80,070,327, with a total of 1,753,839 deaths worldwide as of 12:22 p.m. local time (1722 GMT), the CSSE data showed.

The United States reported the most cases and deaths around the world, which stood at 18,794,545 and 330,509, respectively. India recorded 10,169,118 cases, ranking second in the world. Brazil followed India with 7,448,560 cases and the world’s second largest death toll of 190,488.

Countries with more than 2 million cases also include Russia, France, Britain, Turkey and Italy, while other countries with over 50,000 deaths include India, Mexico, Italy, Britain, France, Iran and Russia, according to the CSSE tally.

Global cases hit 50 million on Nov. 8, topped 60 million on Nov. 25 and surpassed 70 million on Dec. 11. It took 17 days for the global caseload to jump from 50 million to 60 million, 16 days from 60 million to 70 million and only 15 days from 70 million to 80 million.

The United States remains the worst-hit nation, accounting for more than 23 percent of the global cases.

U.S. experts warned there could be a post-holiday surge given the considerable amount of travelers nationwide in the midst of the Christmas season.

World must be ready for the next pandemic, UN says on first International Day of Epidemic Preparedness

The United Nations is commemorating the first International Day of Epidemic Preparedness on Sunday, underscoring the need to learn lessons from the coronavirus pandemic, and urging greater solidarity within and among countries, to deal with future health emergencies.

“This first observance of the International Day of Epidemic Preparedness falls at the end of a year in which a scenario many had feared came tragically true … As we strive to control and recover from the current pandemic, we must think about the next,” Secretary-General António Guterres said in a message.

He also highlighted the need for strong health systems and social protection, support for communities on the frontlines, and technical cooperation for countries.

“Across this work, science must be our guide. Solidarity and coordination are crucial, within and among countries; no one is safe unless all of us are safe,” the Secretary-General added.

Mr. Guterres also honoured medical professionals, front-line personnel and essential workers globally for their “remarkable commitment” in face of the coronavirus pandemic.

“As we recover from the pandemic, let us resolve to build up our prevention capacities so that we are ready when the world faces the next outbreak,” he urged.

Similarly, Volkan Bozkir, President of the General Assembly, underscored that the “devastating experience” of the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear, the benefits of tackling epidemics.

“If we ready ourselves, then we can save lives and stop epidemics from developing into pandemics,” he said, adding that COVID-19 “must be our final warning.”

“We cannot afford to be complacent, and we must learn from our mistakes.”

Mr. Bozkir urged everyone to join him in trusting science, supporting early warning mechanisms, and standing together in solidarity.

“We will prepare as we have never prepared before – so that epidemics and pandemics can no longer cause the kind of suffering we have seen across the globe this year,” the President of the General Assembly urged.

In a separate message, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the UN World Health Organization (WHO) highlighted the importance of a “One Health Approach”, which integrates human health, animal health and plant health, as well as environmental factors.

This is all the more important given that 75 per cent of new and emerging human infectious diseases are zoonotic, caused by germs that spread between animals and people.

“Any efforts to improve human health are doomed unless they address the critical interface between human and animals,” said Dr. Tedros.

The head of WHO also urged countries to invest in preparedness capacity to prevent, detect and mitigate emergencies, and reiterated the importance of strong primary health systems as the foundation of universal health coverage as well as the “eyes and ears” of health systems everywhere.

“True preparedness is not just a job of the health sector, it requires an all-of-government and all-of-society approach,” he added.

The International Day of Epidemic Preparedness, to be marked on 27 December annually, was proclaimed earlier this month by the General Assembly, to advocate the importance of the prevention of, preparedness for, and partnership against epidemics.

The General Assembly also recognized the role of the UN system, in particular WHO, in coordinating responses to epidemics, and supporting efforts to prevent, mitigate and address the impacts of infectious diseases.

This International Day falls on the birthdate of Louis Pasteur, the French chemist and microbiologist, responsible for ground-breaking work on vaccinations.


December 25, 2020


The virus that shut down the world: The yawning gulf between rich and poor

Inequality between the rich and poor worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic and poverty increased, for the first time in decades. In part two of our series on how the virus has changed the world, we look at the ways the pandemic has pushed back efforts to create more equitable societies.

Over the past 12 months, COVID-19 has deepened those inequalities, a view highlighted in February, by the UN’s labour-focused agency, ILO, which declared that the two billion people working in the informal sector were particularly exposed.

In March, the agency followed up with projections which suggested that millions could be pushed into unemployment, underemployment, or the grinding condition of working poverty.

“This is no longer only a global health crisis, it is also a major labour market and economic crisis that is having a huge impact on people”, said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder. The agency published recommendations on ways to mitigate the damage to livelihoods, which included employee protection in the workplace, economic and employment stimulus programmes, and income and job support.

By April, the scale of global suffering became apparent, with a UN-backed report showing that poverty and hunger were getting worse, and that countries already affected by food crises were highly vulnerable to the pandemic. “We must keep critical food supply chains operating, so people have access to life sustaining food”, the study said, stressing the urgency of maintaining the delivery of humanitarian assistance “to keep people in crisis fed and alive”.

From using public transport as food hubs, traditional forms of home delivery, and mobile markets, communities have had to find innovative ways to feed the poor and vulnerable, whilst coping with COVID-19 restrictions on movement.

These are all examples of the ways that cities in Latin America rallied to support their populations, and reflect warnings from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), that the health risk for many urban citizens is high during the pandemic, particularly the 1.2 billion who live in slums, and other informal settlements.

“Women are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis as they are more likely to lose their source of income and less likely to be covered by social protection measures”. That was Achim Steiner, head of the UN’s development agency UNDP, noting the effect that the pandemic is having on women, pointing to data released in September.

It revealed that the poverty rate for women has increased by more than nine per cent, equivalent to some 47 million women: this represents a reversal of decades of progress to eradicate extreme poverty over the last few decades.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women Executive Director, said that the increases in women’s extreme poverty are a “stark indictment of deep flaws” in the ways that society and the economy are structured.

Nevertheless, Mr. Steiner insisted that the tools exist to create a huge improvement to women’s lives, even during the current crisis. For example, more than 100 million women and girls could be lifted out of poverty if governments improve access to education and family planning, and ensure that wages are fair and equal to those of men.

Progress in reducing child poverty also took a hit this year. The UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, and the World Bank reported in October that some 365 million children were living in poverty before the pandemic began, and predicted that those figures were set to rise considerably as a result of the crisis.

Extreme poverty deprives hundreds of millions of children of the opportunity to reach their real potential, in terms of physical and cognitive development, and threatens their ability to get good jobs in adulthood.

“These numbers alone should shock anyone”, said Sanjay Wijesekera, UNICEF Director of Programmes: “Governments urgently need a children’s recovery plan to prevent countless more children and their families from reaching levels of poverty unseen for many, many years.”

By December, the UN was predicting that a record 235 million people would require humanitarian assistance in 2021, an increase of some 40 per cent on 2020 which is almost entirely a consequence of the pandemic.

“The picture we are presenting is the bleakest and darkest perspective on humanitarian needs in the period ahead that we have ever set out”, said the UN’s emergency relief chief, Mark Lowcock. “That is a reflection of the fact that the COVID pandemic has wreaked carnage across the whole of the most fragile and vulnerable countries on the planet.”

Mr. Lowcock warned that the scale of the challenges facing humanitarians next year are massive – and growing. “If we get through 2021 without major famines that will be a significant achievement,” he said. “The red lights are flashing, and the alarm bells are ringing.”

At the end of the year, the UN chief issued a reminder that the levels of poverty and inequality seen this year are far from inevitable, and that a more equitable world is still possible, regardless of acute shocks such as the pandemic.

Speaking in December, Mr. Guterres expressed his hope that the pandemic could spark the transformations needed to achieve stronger social protection systems worldwide.

Reflecting on his comments on inequality made a year earlier, before the pandemic was on the horizon, the UN chief said that the world needs a new Global Deal, “where power, resources and opportunities are better shared at international decision-making tables, and governance mechanisms better reflect the realities of today”.

Unforgettable in 2020: Infection curves, COVID-19 dashboards  

Back in January 2020, Lauren Gardner, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering, was tracking measles data when a couple of her PhD students began talking about a new coronavirus in China.

Many of these students were Chinese and they were already tracking it closely. In a few hours over one evening, one of Gardner’s students built an original COVID-19 dashboard from scratch.

By the end of February, the Johns Hopkins global dashboard was getting a billion hits a day. By the summer, it was 4.5 billion hits a day and more than a billion “feature requests” to access the underlying data.

2020 has been a breakout year for visualizations at the intersection of data science, epidemiology and predictive models, focusing the energies of large groups of data scientists coming together to

build tools for population scale access.

In the US, the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed on January 20, 2020. By January 22, Johns Hopkins shared its Covid-19 dashboard publicly, loaded with the location and number

of confirmed cases, deaths, and recoveries for all affected countries.

All data collected and displayed was made public, initially through Google Sheets and later through a GitHub repository, along with the feature layers of the dashboard.

Gardner was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME for her work developing a free and open website that has become a global go-to resource.

In parallel, predictive models took off, providing more than just 101 tracking.

These plunged into infection projections, hospital bed availability, lockdown, scenario planning, mandates for easing restrictions and so on. Many of these models have open sourced access to the documentation and the code.

When the White House coronavirus task force nudged us in the direction of one such from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, we never stopped checking in, even after the White House briefings ended abruptly.

Task force member Deborah Birx pointed to the scary infection curves to tell Americans to mask up, Trump told Americans masks are optional and in the spaces in between, all hell broke loose.

By December 10, the virus was killing one American every 30 seconds, and 150 cases were being reported in the same minute. The country is home to the world’s highest coronavirus caseload and deaths. More than 18 million infected since January and more than 328,000 dead and there’s no sign of easing off.

The math was deadly from the time this exploded in China. We don’t need complicated math to comprehend its rampage and yet infection curves based on imagined futures are splashed on the world’s screens, a roller coaster trajectory of utter chaos.

Do models play a critical role?

“Absolutely, models provide a visibility into possible impacts and allow the common man an ability to view this and do the required needful planning,” says an open source and Community Data Scientist. “This is indeed a new high for models seeing visibility,” he told IANS.

Data scientists everywhere agree that data accuracy, its collection and the maintenance of predictive models have been incredibly complex and problematic, although evolving.

Now that vaccines are arriving, a lot of developers are taking a hard look at the sunset clause for the models they created to serve as digital public goods during a health care emergency.

It’s not just about the time-cost of maintaining models that’s on their mind, it’s also the traffic.

Not all models enjoy the wild popularity that the Johns Hopkins tracker does and when public use dwindles, engineers say it’s hard to just keep going. Initially, the sense of “control” they got over “things we can’t control” fuelled their energy; but eventually, real world application won out.

Also, models have had a hard time in the public square.

Briefly, during Spring, the reliability of one model versus another was front page news and very quickly, the mood swung to the other extreme.

In many countries, editors at leading news publications were often wary of publishing model projections because they feared government pushback. People stopped sharing predictive model links with their friends and relatives when they got messages saying things like “it looks bad, I don’t want to see this stuff.”

The combination of lack of trust in the source data and pandemic fatigue wasn’t just at the household level. Even governments jabbed hard. In fact, in the US, those who did not trust the IHME model bet on far gloomier infection curves from the University of Pennsylvania model.

Politics too got in the way, big time. The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, America’s premier public health agency, was effectively sidelined by March.

With zero consensus on viable streams of data, state governors went all in local universities and developers for do-it-yourself models. New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, who won an Emmy for his daily press briefings during the state’s worst phase of the outbreak, described as “maddening” the range of estimates from predictive models.

In America, the cultural flashpoints turned out to be even more so, which made predictive models that much more slippery.

Despite all the skepticism around how models can be used effectively and governments’ reluctance to endorse these algorithmically mediated projections, data science-led use cases from the 2020 pandemic have already revved up action around the next big thing in digital public goods: Community models.

WHO chief: Don’t squander sacrifices of 2020

The sacrifices made to protect people during the coronavirus pandemic must not be squandered over the festive period, the World Health Organisation’s chief said in a Christmas message.

Millions were making “heart-wrenching sacrifices” by staying away from loved ones on Christmas Day, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a video clip posted to Twitter late Thursday, while others will have a missing face at the family table.

He said vaccines, now beginning to be deployed in countries around the world, were starting to offer a way out of the crisis that has engulfed the planet this year.

“As 2020 draws to an end, a pandemic of historic proportions is preventing many of us from celebrating in the ways we would like,” Tedros said.

“Instead, hundreds of millions of people are today making great, heart-wrenching sacrifices by staying apart to stay safe.

“But in doing so, they are giving the most precious gifts: the gifts of life and health.”

The novel coronavirus has killed at least 1.7 million people since the outbreak emerged in China last December, while almost 78.7 million cases have been registered, according to a tally from official sources compiled by AFP.

“All around the world, throughout this most trying of years, we have seen over and over again the sacrifices of so many people to protect and preserve life,” said Tedros.

“We must not squander their sacrifices, nor those made by so many families who, this holiday season, will sit at family tables missing a familiar face.

“Despite so much loss, we have built so much hope. Vaccines are offering the world a way out of this tragedy. But it will take time for the whole world to be vaccinated.”

According to the WHO’s overview of different candidate vaccines, 61 have entered human trials, 16 of which have reached final-stage mass testing.

A further 172 candidate vaccines are being developed in laboratories with a view to eventual human testing.

Tedros said: “We must continue taking comfort in the fact that by caring for others, through acts of solidarity and safety, we can share the greatest gift of all: the gift of life.”


December 24, 2020


World readies for lockdown Christmas

Coronavirus misery hung over Christmas preparations worldwide on Thursday, with countless millions forced to cancel plans or limit festivities under fresh virus lockdowns.

After a grinding pandemic year that has seen more than 1.7 million people die from Covid-19, a slew of new outbreaks are a stark reminder that despite emergency vaccine roll-outs, life is unlikely to return to normal quickly.

In Australia — often a rare bright spot in keeping the virus in check — a growing cluster of cases in northern Sydney has confined residents to seaside suburbs and prompted a ban on all but the smallest Christmas family gatherings.

Jimmy Arslan, who owns two cafes at the epicentre of the city’s outbreak, said trade was down 75 percent and his Canberra-based family had been forced to cancel their Christmas visit.

“It’s heartbreaking. It’s a very, very sour ending for a sour year,” the 46-year-old told AFP.

“Let’s just say we all should welcome 2021 and kick 2020 in its arse.”

In Europe, much of the continent is enduring a dark winter of resurgent outbreaks.

Germany has been forced to cancel its famous Christmas markets and Pope Francis plans to bring the Vatican’s Christmas midnight mass forward by two hours to meet Italy’s curfew rules.

In Bethlehem — which Christians believe is the birthplace of Jesus Christ — mass will be held without worshippers and broadcast online.

Nicolas al-Zoghbi, who visited Bethlehem’s Chapel of Saint Catherine in the lead-up to Christmas, said the joyfulness of the season had been replaced by “depression”.

“We hope the Lord will destroy corona, just get rid of it so we can return to our previous life,” he said.

But for many, the isolation that has defined the past year will continue into Christmas Day and beyond — such as in Belgium, where residents are largely limited to welcoming a single visitor.

In the Catholic-majority Philippines some are choosing to spend the holidays alone because of the risk of catching the virus on public transport, as well as quarantine rules making travelling time-consuming and expensive.

“I am ordering food in, re-watching old movies, and catching up with my family by video,” said Kim Patria, 31, who lives alone in Manila.

Britons, meanwhile, were cut off from swathes of the world on their Sceptred Isle, due to the emergence of a new Covid-19 strain.

Some UK border restrictions have been temporarily relaxed for the holidays, but thousands from other European countries are still stranded in England.

“Home for Christmas? Forget it,” said Laurent Beghin, a French truck driver who delivered his cargo but was still stuck days later.

In the United States, more than one million people have now been vaccinated, but the country’s coronavirus response remained chaotic as Donald Trump helicoptered off the White House lawn for one of the last times in his presidency.

The Republican and his wife Melania were bound for a vacation at his glitzy Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida after his shock rejection of a massive coronavirus relief package passed by Congress.

New Year’s celebrations are looking downbeat globally, with lockdowns looming for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Austria through the post-Christmas period, while Portugal has imposed a New Year’s Eve curfew.

For now, Sydney still plans to ring in 2021 with its famous Harbour Bridge fireworks display, with New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian pledging the seven-minute spectacle will go ahead “no matter what”.

But as with most of 2020, people are being encouraged to watch on television from their sofas.

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