WHO Calls for Governments to Fund Mental Health Treatment

The World Health Organization is calling on governments to allocate the money needed to increase access to mental health treatment. WHO has published a new Mental Health Atlas marking World Mental Health Day Sunday.

Data collected from 171 countries show none of the World Health Assembly targets for the provision of mental health care by 2020 has been achieved. Therefore, WHO says it is extending its Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan to 2030.

Fahmy Hanna is a technical officer in WHO’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Use. He says lack of money is a major reason these goals have been missed. He says governments allocate just 2.1% of their overall health budgets to mental health services.

“And in the majority of the countries, most of this budget goes to psychiatric hospitals—long-stay, in-patient facilities instead of being spent on community-based mental health services, which are more human-rights-oriented and less decentralized and more accessible to the population,” Hanna said.

The WHO reports more than a billion people globally suffer from mental health illness. The most common such illnesses include anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar and eating disorders, as well as psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia.

The data in the atlas was collected in 2019 and reflects the status of pre-pandemic mental health services. However, health officials agree COVID-19 is having a major impact on people’s mental health and more investments must be made in treating them.

Hanna says WHO has carried out two surveys during the pandemic. He says the findings show major disruptions in services offered to people suffering from neurological illnesses and substance abuse.

“At the time, where there was cause for scaling up mental health services around the world, we found from data of the surveys that were conducted in 2021 that actually 23% of countries have reported scaling back their community-based mental health services,” he added.

Besides the human costs, WHO says skimping on investing in mental health makes no economic sense. It says lost productivity from depression and anxiety alone, two of the most common mental health disorders, costs the global economy $1 trillion each year. However, it notes there is a return of $5 for every dollar invested in treating these conditions.

Source: Voice of America

In a Rocky Israeli Crater, Scientists Simulate Life on Mars

From the door of the expedition base, a few small steps to the left an autonomous rover passes by. A few giant leaps to the right is an array of solar panels. The landscape is rocky, hilly, tinged with red. Purposefully it resembles Mars.

Here, in the Ramon Crater in the desert of southern Israel, a team of six – five men and one woman – has begun simulating what it will be like to live for about a month on the red planet.

Their AMADEE-20 habitat is tucked beneath a rocky outcrop. Inside they sleep, eat and conduct experiments. Outside they wear mock space suits fitted with cameras, microphones and self-contained breathing systems.

“We have the motto of fail fast, fail cheap, and have a steep learning curve. Because for every mistake we make here on Earth, we hope we don’t repeat it on Mars,” said Gernot Gromer, director of the Austrian Space Forum.

The Austrian association is running the project together with the Israel Space Agency and local group D-MARS.

A number of recent Mars probes have captivated astronomy fans across the world with robotic rovers like NASA’s Perseverance and, for the first time, the helicopter Ingenuity, offering a glance of the planet’s surface. But a manned mission is likely more than a decade off.

With AMADEE-20, which was supposed to happen in 2020 but was postponed due to COVID-19, the team hopes to bring new insight that will help prepare for that mission, when it comes.

“The habitat, right now, is the most complex, the most modern analog research station on this planet,” said Gromer, standing beside the 120-square meter structure shaped like two large, connected yurts.

The six team members are constantly on camera. Their vital signs monitored, their movements inside are tracked to analyze favorite spots for congregating. All this to better understand the human factor, Gromer said.

Outside, other engineers and specialists work with a drone and rover to improve autonomous navigation and mapping on a world where GPS is not available.

Altogether they will carry out more than 20 experiments in fields including geology, biology and medicine and hope to publish some of the results when finished.

“We are six people working in a tight space under a lot of pressure to do a lot of tests. There are bound to be challenges,” said Alon Tenzer, 36, wearing the space suit that carries some 50 kilograms of equipment. “But I trust my crew that we are able to overcome those challenges.”

Source: Voice of America

What Is the Global Minimum Tax Deal and What Will It Mean?

A global deal to ensure big companies pay a minimum tax rate of 15% and make it harder for them to avoid taxation has been agreed upon by 136 countries, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said Friday.

The OECD said four countries — Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — had not yet joined the agreement, but that the countries behind the accord together accounted for over 90% of the global economy.

Here are the main points of the accord:

Why a global minimum tax?

With budgets strained after the COVID-19 crisis, many governments want more than ever to discourage multinationals from shifting profits — and tax revenues — to low-tax countries regardless of where their sales are made.

Increasingly, income from intangible sources such as drug patents, software and royalties on intellectual property has migrated to these jurisdictions, allowing companies to avoid paying higher taxes in their traditional home countries.

The minimum tax and other provisions aim to end decades of tax competition between governments to attract foreign investment.

How would a deal work?

The global minimum tax rate would apply to overseas profits of multinational firms with 750 million euros ($868 million) in sales globally.

Governments could still set whatever local corporate tax rate they want, but if companies pay lower rates in a particular country, their home governments could “top up” their taxes to the 15% minimum, eliminating the advantage of shifting profits.

A second track of the overhaul would allow countries where revenues are earned to tax 25% of the largest multinationals’ so-called excess profit — defined as profit in excess of 10% of revenue.

What happens next?

Following Friday’s agreement on the technical details, the next step is for finance ministers from the Group of 20 economic powers to formally endorse the deal, paving the way for adoption by G-20 leaders at a summit at the end of this month.

Nonetheless, questions remain about the U.S. position, which hangs in part on a domestic tax reform the Biden administration wants to push through the U.S. Congress.

The agreement calls for countries to bring it into law in 2022 so that it can take effect by 2023, an extremely tight timeframe given that previous international tax deals took years to implement.

Countries that have in recent years created national digital services taxes will have to repeal them.

What will be the economic impact?

The OECD, which has steered the negotiations, estimates the minimum tax will generate $150 billion in additional global tax revenues annually.

Taxing rights on more than $125 billion of profit will be additionally shifted to the countries were they are earned from the low tax countries where they are currently booked.

Economists expect that the deal will encourage multinationals to repatriate capital to their country of headquarters, giving a boost to those economies.

However, various deductions and exceptions baked into the deal are at the same time designed to limit the impact on low tax countries like Ireland, where many U.S. groups base their European operations.

Source: Voice of America

Summer Storms Were a Climate-Change Wake-Up Call for Subways

When the remnants of Hurricane Ida dumped record-breaking rain on the East Coast this month, staircases into New York City’s subway tunnels turned into waterfalls and train tracks became canals.

In Philadelphia, a commuter line along the Schuylkill River was washed out for miles, and the nation’s busiest rail line, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor running from Boston to Washington, was shut down for an entire day.

Nearly a decade after Superstorm Sandy spurred billions of dollars in investment in coastal flooding protection up and down the East Coast — some of which remains unfinished — Hurricane Ida and other storms this summer provided a stark reminder that more needs to be done — and quickly — as climate change brings stronger, more unpredictable weather to a region with some of the nation’s oldest and busiest transit systems, say transit experts and officials.

“This is our moment to make sure our transit system is prepared,” said Sanjay Seth, Boston’s “climate resilience” program manager. “There’s a lot that we need to do in the next 10 years, and we have to do it right. There’s no need to build it twice.”

In New York, where some 75 million gallons (285 million liters) of water were pumped out of the subways during Ida, ambitious solutions have been floated, such as building canals through the city.

But relatively easy, short-term fixes to the transit system could also be made in the meantime, suggests Janno Lieber, acting CEO of the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Installing curbs at subway entrances, for example, could prevent water from cascading down steps into the tunnels, as was seen in countless viral videos this summer.

More than 400 subway entrances could be affected by extreme rains from climate change in coming decades, according to projections from the Regional Plan Association, a think tank that plans to put forth the idea for a canal system.

“The subway system is not a submarine. It can’t be made impervious to water,” Lieber said. “We just need to limit how quickly it can get into the system.”

In Boston, climate change efforts have focused largely on the Blue Line, which runs beneath Boston Harbor and straddles the shoreline north of the city.

This summer’s storms were the first real test of some of the newest measures to buffer the vulnerable line.

Flood barriers at a key downtown waterfront stop were activated for the first time when Tropical Storm Henri made landfall in New England in August. No major damage was reported at the station.

Officials are next seeking federal funds to build a seawall to prevent flooding at another crucial Blue Line subway stop, says Joe Pesaturo, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. The agency has also budgeted for upgrading harbor tunnel pumps and is weighing building a berm around an expansive marsh the Blue Line runs along, he said.

In Philadelphia, some flood protection measures completed in Superstorm Sandy’s wake proved their worth this summer, while others fell short.

Signal huts that house critical control equipment were raised post-Sandy along the hard-hit Manayunk/Norristown commuter line, but it wasn’t high enough to avoid damage during Ida, said Bob Lund, deputy general manager of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.

On the bright side, shoreline “armoring” efforts prevented damaging erosion in what was the highest flooding in the area since the mid-1800s. That has buoyed plans to continue armoring more stretches along the river with the cable-reinforced concrete blocks, Lund said.

If anything, he said, this year’s storms showed that flood projections haven’t kept up with the pace of environmental change.

“We’re seeing more frequent storms and higher water level events,” Lund said. “We have to be even more conservative than our own projections are showing.”

In Washington, where the Red Line’s flood-prone Cleveland Park station was closed twice during Hurricane Ida, transit officials have begun developing a climate resiliency plan to identify vulnerabilities and prioritize investments, said Sherrie Ly, spokesperson for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

That’s on top of the work WMATA has undertaken the last two decades to mitigate flood risks, she said, such as raising ventilation shafts, upgrading the drainage systems and installing dozens of high-capacity pumping stations.

On balance, East Coast transit systems have taken laudable steps such as sketching out climate change plans and hiring experts, said Jesse Keenan, an associate professor at Tulane University in New Orleans who co-authored a recent study examining climate change risks to Boston’s T.

But it’s an open question whether they’re planning ambitiously enough, he said, pointing to Washington, where subway lines along the Anacostia and Potomac rivers into Maryland and Virginia are particularly vulnerable.

Similar concerns remain in other global cities that saw bad flooding this year.

In China, Premier Li Keqiang has pledged to hold officials accountable after 14 people died and hundreds of others were trapped in a flooded subway line in Zhengzhou in July. But there are no concrete proposals yet for what might be done to prevent deadly subway flooding.

In London, efforts to address Victorian-age sewer and drainage systems are too piecemeal to dent citywide struggles with flooding, says Bob Ward, a climate change expert at the London School of Economics.

The city saw a monsoon-like drenching in July that prompted tube station closures.

“There just isn’t the level of urgency required,” Ward said. “We know these rain events will get worse, and flooding will get worse, unless we significantly step up investment.”

Other cities, meanwhile, have moved more swiftly to shore up their infrastructure.

Tokyo completed an underground system for diverting floodwater back in 2006 with chambers large enough to fit a space shuttle or the Statue of Liberty.

Copenhagen’s underground City Circle Line, which was completed in 2019, features heavy flood gates, raised entryways and other climate change adaptations.

How to pay for more ambitious climate change projects remains another major question mark for East Coast cities, said Michael Martello, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher who co-authored the Boston study with Keenan.

Despite an infusion of federal stimulus dollars during the pandemic, Boston’s T and other transit agencies still face staggering budget shortfalls as ridership hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels.

The stunning images of flooding this summer briefly gave momentum to efforts to pass President Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion infrastructure plan. But that mammoth spending bill, which includes money for climate change preparedness, is still being negotiated in Congress.

“It’s great to have these plans,” Martello said. “But has to get built and funded somehow.”

Source: Voice of America

Facebook Messenger, Instagram Service Disrupted for Second Time in a Week

Facebook confirmed on Friday that some users were having trouble accessing its apps and services, days after the social media giant suffered a six-hour outage triggered by an error during routine maintenance on its network of data centers.

Some users were unable to load their Instagram feeds, while others were not able to send messages on Facebook Messenger.

“We’re aware that some people are having trouble accessing our apps and products. We’re working to get things back to normal as quickly as possible and we apologize for any inconvenience,” Facebook said in a tweet.

People swiftly took to Twitter to share memes about the second Instagram disruption this week.

Web monitoring group Downdetector showed there were more than 36,000 incidents of people reporting issues with photo-sharing platform Instagram on Friday. There were also more than 800 reported issues with Facebook’s messaging platform.

Downdetector only tracks outages by collating status reports from a series of sources, including user-submitted errors on its platform. The outage might have affected a larger number of users.

The outage on Monday was the largest Downdetector had ever seen and blocked access to apps for billions of users of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

Source: Voice of America

Chinese Cyber Operations Scoop Up Data for Political, Economic Aims

Mustang Panda is a Chinese hacking group that is suspected of attempting to infiltrate the Indonesian government last month.

The reported breach, which the Indonesians denied, fits the pattern of China’s recent cyberespionage campaigns. These attacks have been increasing over the past year, experts say, in search of social, economic and political intelligence from Asian countries and other nations across the globe.

“There’s been an upswing,” said Ben Read, director of cyberespionage analysis at Mandiant, a cybersecurity firm, in an interview with VOA. Cyber operations stemming from China are “pretty extensive campaigns that haven’t seemed to be restrained at all,” he said.

‘Large-scale and indiscriminate’

For years, China was considered the United States’ main cyber adversary, having coordinated teams both inside and outside the government conducting cyberespionage campaigns that were “large-scale and indiscriminate,” Josephine Wolff, an associate professor of cybersecurity policy at Tufts University, told VOA.

The 2014-15 hack on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, in which the personnel records of 22 million federal workers were compromised, was a case in point — a “big grab,” she said.

After a 2015 cybersecurity agreement between then-U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, attacks from China declined, at least against the West, experts say.

Hacking rising with rhetoric

But as tensions rose between Beijing and Washington during the Trump presidency, Chinese cyberespionage also increased. Over the past year, experts have attributed notable hacks in the U.S., Europe and Asia to China’s Ministry of State Security, the nation’s civilian intelligence agency, which has taken the lead in Beijing’s cyberespionage, consolidating efforts by the People’s Liberation Army.

TAG-28, a Chinese state-sponsored hacking team focused on the Indian subcontinent, reportedly infiltrated targets that included the Indian government agency in charge of a database of biometric and digital identity information for more than 1 billion people, according to The Record, a media site focused on cybersecurity.

A Microsoft report released in October accuses the Chinese hacking group Chromium of targeting universities in Hong Kong and Taiwan and going after other countries’ governments and telecommunication providers.

Hafnium, the name Microsoft gave to a Chinese hacking group, was behind the Microsoft Exchange hack earlier this year, according to the company and the Biden administration. Chinese hacking teams, Microsoft reported, took advantage of a weakness in the software to grab what they could before an emergency patch could be issued.

Scooping up data

A National Public Radio investigation asserted that the Microsoft Exchange hack may have been, in part, an information scoop aimed at acquiring large amounts of data to train China’s artificial intelligence assets.

Hafnium also targets higher education, defense industry firms, think tanks, law firms and nongovernmental organizations, the Microsoft report said. Another group from China, Nickel — also known as APT15 and Vixen Panda — targets governments in Central and South America and Europe, Microsoft said.

“What you are seeing now is this realization that Chinese espionage never disappeared and has become more technologically sophisticated,” Wolff said.

White House response

The Biden administration has stepped up its response to Chinese hacking. Over the summer, the U.S. and its allies, including the European Union, NATO and the United Kingdom, accused China of being behind the Microsoft hack and called on Beijing to cease the activity.

The Biden administration has not indicted anyone related to the Microsoft Exchange hack, nor has it instituted economic or other sanctions against China.

However, the U.S. unsealed in July an indictment against four members of China’s Ministry of State Security in a separate attack conducted by a group that security researchers call Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) 40, Bronze, Mohawk and other names.

A Chinese government spokesman demanded that the U.S. drop the charges and denied the nation was behind the Microsoft Exchange hack.

“The United States ganged up with its allies to make unwarranted accusations against Chinese cybersecurity,” said Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, in a July statement. “This was made up out of thin air and confused right and wrong. It is purely a smear and suppression with political motives.”

Pushing back

While China has stepped up its use of hacking, it has not crossed what some cyber experts say is a bright line in cyberespionage: public, overt hacks, such as the Russian disinformation campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election and, in May, the Colonial Pipeline ransomware hack, which was attributed to Russian-based cybercriminals.

China’s aims appear to be long term and both economic and strategic, such as shoring up its capabilities “so they are not only well defended but surpass capacities,” Philip Reiner, the CEO of the Institute for Security and Technology, told VOA.

A collective push from world leaders that cyberespionage is unacceptable might resonate with Chinese leaders in Beijing, who want to be accepted on the world stage, he said. Detailing clear consequences for state-sponsored hacks is also critical, he said.

Without a strong push from the U.S. and its allies, experts say, China’s state-sponsored cyberattacks will continue.

Source: Voice of America

Kenya Researchers Confident Population Will Embrace Malaria Vaccine

More than 260,000 African children under the age of five die from malaria each year, including more than 10,000 in Kenya, according to the World Health Organization. The WHO’s backing of a malaria vaccine, Mosquirix, for children in sub-Saharan Africa has raised hopes of preventing those deaths. The vaccine proved effective in a pilot program in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization gave the green light for the use of the vaccine for children between five and 24 months of age in Africa and other regions prone to a high level of malaria transmission.

This follows trials of the vaccine in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi. The four-dose shot was administered to 800,000 African children.

Thirty-year-old Salome Awuor allowed her son, now three years old, to take part in the malaria vaccine trials in Kisumu County, western Kenya.

The mother of four said previously she would visit her nearest clinic four times a month to get malaria treatment for him. At the time, he was 12 months old.

“My son was given three jabs, and malaria went down. I never went back to the clinic seeking malaria treatment. I feel so good my children no longer get sick most of the time. That’s why whenever I hear about vaccines, I run to get them because it helps a lot,” she said.

WHO chief Tedros Ghebreyesus described the malaria vaccine breakthrough as historic and one that could save the lives of tens of thousands of young people each year.

According to the WHO, malaria affects more than 229 million people each year and kills more than 400,000.

In Africa, more than a quarter of a million children die from the mosquito-borne disease.

Earlier trials in 2015 showed the vaccine could prevent 40 percent of malaria cases and about 30 percent of severe cases.

Bernhards Ogutu is a chief researcher at Kenya Medical Research Institute. He said Kenya’s participation in the study proves the vaccine will work on the country’s population.

“If it’s safe you know it was done in your population and you know it’s good for you. You are not relying on data from another population but from your own population. So that you can confidently advise the government this is safe for us, it works and its approved and it was done by us and we contributed to this development,” he said.

The first three vaccine doses are given a month apart when children are babies, and a final booster is given when the child is one-and-a-half years old.

Ogutu has voiced confidence that Kenyan parents will vaccinate their children from malaria.

“People have been asking where it is now that we have been given the go ahead, we can now go for the rollout. I think it’s time to get to our people and tell them now it’s available and now it’s a matter of procuring the vaccine and ensuring it’s available and start getting it to those who need it,” said Ogutu.

So far, there is no word on when the vaccine will become available to the general public.

Source: Voice of America

German Health Minister Says Vaccinations Further Along Than Thought

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said Thursday the nation has vaccinated millions more people than previously thought, thanks to some unreported vaccination numbers discovered by the Robert Koch Institute for Disease Control.

The institute says nearly 80% of adults in Germany are fully vaccinated, and about 84% have received at least one shot. Previous official reports were about 5% lower — meaning there are about 3.5 million more people vaccinated than had been reported.

Speaking to reporters in Berlin, Spahn said the discrepancy was discovered in surveys conducted by the RKI that revealed additional vaccinations. He believes some big companies’ employee vaccination programs and mobile vaccination teams in nursing centers and elsewhere may account for those initially unreported.

The new RKI figures are based on surveys and do not include people under the age of 18, which is why the agency has yet to give a new overall number of vaccinated people in Germany.

Spahn said these new numbers are good news in terms of any new COVID-19 restrictions that might be contemplated in the coming months, barring any unforeseen new variants or surges of cases.

“From today’s perspective, we will not need any further restrictions in autumn and winter to get through this time well without overburdening the health system,” he said.

Source: Voice of America