World Inside

Omicron COVID-19 variant raises new fears for pandemic-hit world economy

Publish: 10:59 AM, 30 Nov, 2021


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WASHINGTON: Just as it was recovering from the body blow of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global economy has taken yet another hit from the Omicron variant of the virus, which has led to a raft of new travel restrictions.

First reported to the World Health Organization in South Africa less than a week ago, the new strain has rapidly spread everywhere from Africa to the Pacific, and from Europe to Canada, causing dozens of countries to announce travel restrictions.

The severity of the economic impact will depend on how dangerous the variant proves to be, and how well existing vaccinations stand up to it.

That has meant that even with the most favorable scenarios in mind, economists are already revising their 2022 forecasts downwards.

The International Monetary Fund, which expects growth of 4.9 percent for the next year, has been insisting for months that the coronavirus and its variants remain the main threat.

The economic impact could be "modest," in the order of 0.25 percentage points on global growth in 2022 if Omicron causes "relatively mild symptoms" and the vaccines are "effective", said Gregory Daco, chief economist at Oxford Economics.

In the worst-case scenario, in which Omicron proves extremely dangerous and large swaths of the world are in lockdown again, 2022 growth could fall to around 2.3 percent, as compared to the 4.5 percent expected by Oxford Economics before the variant emerged.

And in such a scenario it is not certain that governments, which have stumped up trillions of dollars in aid since the start of the pandemic, would be willing to put in place further fiscal stimulus packages, especially if vaccines are available, Daco said.

Those aspects "are going to be really key to how it affects the global economy and people's behavior," said Erik Lundh, an economist at The Conference Board.

SELF-ISOLATION

Beyond government measures to contain the new strain, fear of infection could lead people to limit their own travel and economic activities, such as going to restaurants and reducing consumption, which will in turn impact growth, Lundh said.

Another risk is the exacerbation of the global supply chain crunch. Lundh pointed out that "a lot of air cargo is stored basically in the belly of passenger planes ... It's not just all sorts of FedEx planes".

"So if there are cancellations, if there's a lapse in demand for commercial flights for passengers, it does run the risk of limiting the route of trade," which could, in turn, worsen inflationary pressures as goods become more scarce.

In addition, a wave of Omicron infections "could cause some workers to temporarily exit the workforce, and deter others from returning, making current labor shortages worse," said Neil Shearing, chief economist at Capital Economics in a note.

Omicron has sparked more anxiety than any other variant since the emergence of Delta, itself already much more contagious than previous strains.

US President Joe Biden, however, said on Monday (Nov 29) that there was "not a cause for panic," even if the United States has closed its borders to travelers from the southern African region where the variant was first detected.

As for vaccine manufacturers, AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Novavax have expressed confidence in their ability to combat the variant.



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World Inside

NATO sends reinforcements and US puts troops on alert as Ukraine tensions rise

Publish: 09:02 AM, 25 Jan, 2022


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NATO said on Monday it was putting forces on standby and reinforcing eastern Europe with more ships and fighter jets, in what Russia denounced as Western "hysteria" in response to its build-up of troops on the Ukraine border.

The US Department of Defense in Washington said about 8,500 American troops were put on heightened alert and were awaiting orders to deploy to the region, should Russia invade Ukraine.

Tensions are high after Russia massed an estimated 100,000 troops in reach of its neighbour's border, surrounding Ukraine with forces from the north, east and south.

Russia denies planning an invasion and Moscow is citing the Western response as evidence that Russia is the target, not the instigator, of aggression.

President Joe Biden, pushing for transatlantic unity, held an 80-minute secure video call with a number of European leaders on Monday from the White House Situation Room to discuss the Ukraine crisis.

Biden told reporters "I had a very, very, very good meeting" with the Europeans, which included the leaders of Germany, France, Italy, Britain and Poland. He said there was "total unanimity."

A White House statement said the leaders "discussed their joint efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine, including preparations to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia for such actions as well as to reinforce security on NATO's eastern flank."

Welcoming a series of deployments announced by alliance members in recent days, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg earlier said NATO would take "all necessary measures."

"We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defence," Stoltenberg said in a statement.

He told a news conference that the enhanced presence on NATO's eastern flank could also include the deployment of battlegroups in the southeast of the alliance.

So far, NATO has about 4,000 troops in multinational battalions in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, backed by tanks, air defences and intelligence and surveillance units.

US officials said the Pentagon was finalising efforts to identify specific units that it could deploy to NATO's eastern flank.

One of the officials said up to 5,000 could be deployed, while a NATO diplomat said Washington was considering gradually transferring some troops stationed in western Europe to eastern Europe in the coming weeks.

Denmark, Spain, France and the Netherlands were all planning or considering sending troops, planes or ships to eastern Europe, NATO said. Ukraine shares borders with four NATO countries: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania.

A Polish official said Warsaw would draw the line at sending troops to Ukraine.

 

GROWING TENSIONS

 As tensions grow, Britain said it was withdrawing some staff and dependents from its embassy in Ukraine, a day after the United States said it was ordering diplomats' family members to leave. US diplomats are being allowed to leave voluntarily.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused the West of "hysteria" and putting out information "laced with lies".

"As for specific actions, we see statements by the North Atlantic Alliance about reinforcement, pulling forces and resources to the eastern flank. All this leads to the fact that tensions are growing," he said.

"This is not happening because of what we, Russia, are doing. This is all happening because of what NATO and the US are doing and due to the information they are spreading."

Global stock markets skidded as the prospect of a Russian attack quashed demand for riskier assets such as bitcoin, and bolstered the dollar and oil. The rouble hit a 14-month low against the dollar, and Russian stocks and bonds tumbled.

Russia has used its troop build-up to draw the West into discussions after presenting demands to redraw Europe's security map. It wants never to admit Ukraine and to pull back troops and weapons from former Communist countries in eastern Europe that joined it after the Cold War.

Washington says those demands are non-starters but it is ready to discuss other ideas on arms control, missile deployments and confidence-building measures.

Russia is awaiting a written US response this week after talks last Friday - the fourth round this month - produced no breakthrough.

 

'PAINFUL, VIOLENT AND BLOODY'

 Asked whether he thought an invasion was imminent, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told broadcasters that intelligence was "pretty gloomy on this point" but that "sense can still prevail."

He repeated Western warnings that invading Ukraine would be "a painful, violent and bloody business" for Russia.

The United States and the European Union, wary of Russia's intentions since it seized Crimea and backed separatists fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine in 2014, have told Russia it will face crippling penalties if it attacks again.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels warned Russia it would face "massive" consequences, but are divided over how tough to be on Moscow and did not say what the consequences might be.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told EU President Charles Michel, who was also on the call with Biden, that it was important for Kyiv that the EU showed unity.

"Ukraine will not fall for provocations, and together with its partners, will remain calm and restrained," his office said.

The European Commission, the EU executive body, proposed a 1.2-billion euro ($1.36-billion) financial aid package to help Ukraine mitigate the effects of the conflict.

A Russian delegation source said political advisers from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany would meet in Paris on Wednesday for talks on resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine, in which some 15,000 people have been killed since 2014. Previous efforts have failed to yield any breakthrough.


NATO   Ukraine   USA  


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World Inside

NATO sends ships and jets to eastern Europe in Ukraine crisis

Publish: 05:41 PM, 24 Jan, 2022


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NATO said on Monday it was putting forces on standby and reinforcing eastern Europe with more ships and fighter jets in response to Russia's military build-up at Ukraine's borders.

The move added to a flurry of signals that the West is bracing for an aggressive Russian move against Ukraine, though Moscow denies any plan to invade.

"I welcome allies contributing additional forces to NATO," the Western military alliance's Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement. "NATO will continue to take all necessary measures to protect and defend all allies, including by reinforcing the eastern part of the alliance."

Britain said it was withdrawing some staff and dependants from its embassy in Ukraine in response to "a growing threat from Russia", a day after the United States said it was ordering diplomats' family members to leave.

"Military action by Russia could come at any time," the US Embassy said in a statement. Officials "will not be in a position to evacuate American citizens in such a contingency, so US citizens currently present in Ukraine should plan accordingly," it added.

US diplomats at the embassy in Kyiv were being allowed to leave voluntarily.

The tensions over Ukraine have contributed to a rise in oil, with the latest Russia-US talks on Friday failing to produce any big breakthrough.

Russia is demanding that NATO withdraw a promise to let Ukraine join one day, and that the alliance pull back troops and weaponry from former Communist countries in eastern Europe that joined it after the Cold War.

Washington says those demands are non-starters but it is ready to discuss other ideas on arms control, missile deployments and confidence-building measures.

The United States and the European Union have warned Russia not to invade Ukraine. Denmark said the EU was ready to impose "never-seen-before" economic sanctions and EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels said they would send a unified warning to Moscow.

 

Troop build-up

 

An estimated 100,000 Russian troops remain poised within reach of the Ukrainian border. Russia is awaiting a written response to its demands this week.

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it considered the US embassy move as "premature and a manifestation of excessive caution."

"In fact, there have been no cardinal changes in the security situation recently: the threat of new waves of Russian aggression has remained constant since 2014 and the buildup of Russian troops near the state border began in April last year," it said.

Britain said at the weekend it had information the Russian government was considering a former Ukrainian lawmaker as a potential candidate to head a pro-Russian puppet leadership in Kyiv.

The Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed the British allegation as "disinformation," accusing NATO of escalating tensions over Ukraine.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the EU did not plan to withdraw diplomats' families from Ukraine at the moment. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Germany would remain present in Ukraine for now but was evaluating the situation continuously.

Latvia warned its citizens not to travel to Ukraine except in cases of "urgent necessity". Lithuania's foreign minister said the West must make sanctions for Russia "unbearable" if it attacked Ukraine.


NATO   Ukraine  


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World Inside

Global Covid cases near 350 million

Publish: 12:09 PM, 24 Jan, 2022


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The overall number of Covid cases has surpassed 350 million amid the rise in Omicron infections across the global.

According to Johns Hopkins University (JHU), the total case count mounted to 350,970,885 while the death toll from the virus reached 5,595,929 Monday morning.

The US has recorded 70,699,416 cases so far and 866,540 people have died from the virus in the country, the university data shows.

India's COVID-19 tally rose to 39,237,264 on Sunday, as 333,533 new cases were registered during the past 24 hours across the country, showed the federal health ministry's latest data.

This is the fourth consecutive day when over 300,000 new cases were registered in a day in the country in more than eight months.

Besides, as many as 525 deaths were recorded since Saturday morning, taking the death toll to 489,409.

Meanwhile, the country's Omicron tally has reached 10,050. Most of the Omicron cases have been reported from the states of Maharashtra, West Bengal, Rajasthan and Delhi.

Brazil, which has been experiencing a new wave of cases since last January, registered 24,054,405 cases as of Monday, while its Covid death toll rose to 623,370.


Global Covid cases   Covid-19   Coronavirus  


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World Inside

US orders departure of Ukraine embassy staff family members

Publish: 09:40 AM, 24 Jan, 2022


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The United States on Sunday ordered the departure of family members of staff at its embassy in Ukraine, citing the continuing threat of military action from Russia.

The US State Department also authorized the voluntary departure of US government employees and said Americans should consider departing immediately.

"We have been in consultation with the Ukrainian government about this step and are coordinating with Allied and partner embassies in Kyiv as they determine their posture," the US Embassy said.

Russia has massed troops near the border with Ukraine prompting tensions with Western powers. Moscow has insisted it has no plans to invade.

The US Embassy in Kyiv warned in a statement that "military action by Russia could come at any time and the United States government will not be in a position to evacuate American citizens in such a contingency, so US citizens currently present in Ukraine should plan accordingly."

The State Department also said it was authorizing the "voluntary departure of US direct hire employees."

The New York Times reported late Sunday that President Joe Biden was considering deploying several thousand US troops to NATO allies in Eastern Europe and the Baltics.

The Pentagon declined to comment on the New York Times report but noted that Pentagon spokesman John Kirby on Friday said, "we're going to make sure that we have options ready to reassure our allies, particularly on -- on NATO's Eastern Flank."

"If there's another incursion and if they need that reassurance, if they need the capabilities to be bolstered, we're going to do that and we're going to make sure that we're -- that we're ready to do that," Kirby said.

US and Russian diplomats made no major breakthrough at talks on Friday.

On Sunday, Britain accused the Kremlin of seeking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv.

The State Department late Sunday also reissued its advisory for Russia warning Americans not to travel, citing "ongoing tension along the border with Ukraine." It also added "given the on-going volatility of the situation, US citizens are strongly advised against traveling by land from Russia to Ukraine through this region."

State Department officials declined to say how many Americans are currently believed to be in Ukraine.

The US Embassy in Ukraine said the decision was made "out of an abundance of caution due to continued Russian efforts to destabilize the country and undermine the security of Ukrainian citizens and others visiting or residing in Ukraine."

The US Embassy in Kyiv is continuing to operate and its Chargé d'Affaires Kristina Kvien remains in Ukraine, State Department officials said.


US   Ukraine  


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World Inside

Britain says Russia seeking to replace Ukraine government

Publish: 10:38 AM, 23 Jan, 2022


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The British government on Saturday accused Russia of seeking to replace Ukraine’s government with a pro-Moscow administration, and said former Ukrainian lawmaker Yevheniy Murayev is being considered as a potential candidate.

Murayev is head of the small pro-Russian Party Nashi, which currently has no seats in Ukraine’s parliament.

Britain’s Foreign Office named several other Ukrainian politicians it said had links with Russian intelligence services.

It’s unclear what means Britain believes Russia might use to install a friendly government in Kyiv.

The U.K. government made the claim based on an intelligence assessment, without providing evidence to back it up. It comes amid a war of words between Moscow and the West over Russia’s designs on Ukraine.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the information “shines a light on the extent of Russian activity designed to subvert Ukraine, and is an insight into Kremlin thinking.”

Truss urged Russia to “de-escalate, end its campaigns of aggression and disinformation, and pursue a path of diplomacy,” and reiterated Britain’s view that “any Russian military incursion into Ukraine would be a massive strategic mistake with severe costs.”

Britain has sent anti-tank weapons to Ukraine as part of efforts to bolster its defenses against a potential Russian attack.

Amid diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis, U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace is expected to meet Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu for talks in Moscow. No timing has been given for the meeting, which would be the first U.K.-Russia bilateral defense talks since 2013.

The U.S. has mounted an aggressive campaign in recent months to unify its European allies against a new Russian invasion of Ukraine. The White House called the U.K. government assessment “deeply concerning” and said it stands with the duly elected Ukrainian government.

“This kind of plotting is deeply concerning,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne. “The Ukrainian people have the sovereign right to determine their own future, and we stand with our democratically-elected partners in Ukraine.”

The assessment came as President Joe Biden spent Saturday at the presidential retreat Camp David outside of Washington huddling with his senior national security team about the Ukraine situation. A White House official said the discussions included efforts to de-escalate the situation with diplomacy and deterrence measures being coordinated closely with allies and partners, including security assistance to Ukraine.

In another development, the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania plan to send U.S.-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, a move that the United States fully endorsed Saturday amid Kyiv’s escalating tensions with Russia.

The defense ministers of the three Baltic states said in a joint statement that they “stand united in our commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in face of continued Russian aggression.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a tweet that Washington saluted the NATO nations and former Soviet republics “for their longstanding support to Ukraine.”

“I expedited and authorized and we fully endorse transfers of defensive equipment @NATO Allies Estonia Latvia Lithuania are providing to Ukraine to strengthen its ability to defend itself against Russia’s unprovoked and irresponsible aggression,” Blinken said in another tweet.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov earlier this week described the West supplying arms to Ukraine as extremely dangerous and said the shipments “do nothing to reduce tensions.”

Moscow has massed tens of thousands of troops near the Russia-Ukraine border, leading to fears of an invasion. The West has rejected Moscow’s main demands — promises from NATO that Ukraine will never be added as a member, that no alliance weapons will be deployed near Russian borders, and that it will pull back its forces from Central and Eastern Europe.

A meeting Friday between Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov ended with no breakthrough. Amid the uncertain security situation, the U.S. State Department has been considering a range of options to ensure the safety and security of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv and its employees by moving to reduce its diplomatic presence there.

The defense ministers of the Baltic states said in their statement that Estonia would provide Javelin anti-tank weapons while Latvia and Lithuania were sending Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and other related equipment to bolster Kyiv’s defensive military capabilities. It wasn’t immediately clear when the weapons and equipment would be sent to Ukraine.

“Today, Ukraine is at the forefront of separating Europe from the military conflict with Russia. Let´s face it, the war in Ukraine is ongoing and it is important to support Ukraine in every way we can so that they can resist the aggressor,” Estonian Defense Minister Kalle Laanet said.

Estonia also is seeking Germany’s approval to send Soviet-made howitzers, which once belonged to East Germany, to Ukraine. Estonia acquired the howitzers from non-NATO member Finland, which in turn had bought them from Germany’s military surplus supply in the 1990s.

The German government said Friday that it was considering Estonia’s request to pass the howitzers on to Ukraine but gave no timeline for a decision. Berlin said it planned to coordinate the issue with Finland, which has received a similar approval request from Estonia.

Berlin routinely demands a say when German-sold weapons are transferred to third countries. But some recent media reports suggested German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Cabinet could block Estonia’s transfer of weapons to Kyiv, highlighting divisions in the West’s response to the Ukraine crisis.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba alleged Saturday that Germany was not showing adequate support for Ukraine.

Kuleba said in a Twitter post that the weapons transfer issue and remarks by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock expressing skepticism about cutting off Russia from the SWIFT global payments system “do not correspond to the level of our relations and the current security situation.”

Also Saturday, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry summoned the German ambassador to object to recently circulated video in which the head of the German navy said that Ukraine would not regain the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014, and that Russian President Vladimir Putin deserved “respect.”

The comments by vice admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach sparked consternation and a swift rebuke back in Berlin. By late Saturday, the German navy chief had tendered his resignation, saying he wanted to prevent further damage resulting from his “ill-considered statements” in India.

The U.S. State Department is currently warning U.S. citizens not to visit Ukraine due to the coronavirus pandemic but is also advising them to reconsider travel there due to potential Russian aggression.

Speculation that an announcement about the U.S. diplomatic presence in Ukraine may be imminent has increased since the embassy in Kyiv announced it would hold a virtual town hall meeting about the security situation with U.S. citizens in Ukraine on Tuesday.

Discussions on the matter have been underway for some time, but Blinken went over the contingency plans with the embassy’s security team when he visited Kyiv on Wednesday, officials said.

The officials stressed that no decisions had yet been made and that an outright evacuation is not being considered. One possible scenario would be to order the families of American personnel to leave the country while allowing non-essential staffers to depart voluntarily at government expense, they said.


Russia   Ukraine   UK  


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