Sunday, September 22, 2019

Recent Editorials

Here are some recent Editorials I wrote for The Gulf Today. (Posted for my records):
Protect planet or be ready to pay the price
Hundreds of thousands of young people taking to the streets across the globe sends a loud and clear message that decision-makers do not anymore have the luxury of dilly-dallying when it comes to taking effective measures against global warming.
The planet has been facing the heat, there is no planet B and the time is running out.
Global leaders gathering for a UN climate summit next week should take a serious note of the worldwide rallies and initiate measures to avert an environmental catastrophe.
The global climate strike on Friday kicked off in the Pacific islands — some of the nations most threatened by rising sea levels — and followed the rising sun through Australia, Japan, Southeast Asia and into Europe, Africa, Middle East and the Americas.
Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist who has inspired the movement, noted in a tweet the "huge crowd" in Sydney, which she said would set the standard for strikes and protests planned in about 150 countries.
The climate challenge comes on multiple fronts. Ocean heat hit a record high in 2018 raising concerns about the threat global warming poses to marine life.
The world has already witnessed temperature records smashed from Europe to the Arctic Circle. The last four years had been the hottest on record.
The first half of 2019 saw intense heat waves in Australia, India, Pakistan and parts of the Middle East, according to the World Meterological Organisation (WMO).
Soaring temperatures broke records in Germany, France, Britain and the Netherlands.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report spells out that by the end of the 21st century temperatures must not exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius. Not enough is being done to achieve that.
Besides the heat waves in Europe, drought and storms in Africa, melting glaciers, bleaching corals, the Arctic ice melting are all indications of the danger lurking on the climate front.
Fortunately, there are also some positive signals. Some countries and leaders are showing willingness to address the issue.
The German government, for example, has presented a far-reaching 50 billion euro package of measures to curb carbon emissions, including a new carbon dioxide (CO2) pricing system and a higher air traffic tax.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stated that the deal agreed by the country's governing parties after all-night talks represented a major boost for Germany's efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Europe's biggest economy aims to cut its emissions by 55% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels.
Separately, growth in the renewable electricity generation sector has returned to a double-digit pace thanks to a surge in the installation of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, as per the International Energy Agency.
The IEA expects renewable capacity additions to grow by almost 12 per cent this year, the fastest pace since 2015, to reach almost 200 gigawatts (GW), mostly thanks to solar PV and wind power.
Poland's President Andrzej Duda and first lady Agata Kornhauser-Duda joined school students in Poland's Puszcza Biala forest to pick up trash, saying the forest cleanup was a way to care for the environment.
Africa is the most vulnerable continent to climate change and the least equipped to deal with it.
The harmful effects of manmade climate change need to be tackled.
Climate action concerns each and every individual on the planet. It will be irresponsible on the part of the present generation to leave a much more inhospitable planet for the future generations to inherit.
Resurgence of measles a cause for concern
The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that measles cases are skyrocketing in Europe and the disease is surging in four countries previously considered to have eliminated it, including the UK, and this is a matter of huge concern.
Laxity cannot be an option and countries across the world need to step up vaccination efforts.
If high immunisation coverage is not achieved and sustained in every community, both children and adults will suffer unnecessarily and some will tragically die, as G√ľnter Pfaff, Chair of the European Regional Verification Commission for Measles and Rubella Elimination (RVC) has cautioned.
As per WHO, there were 89,994 cases of measles in 48 European countries in the first six months of 2019, more than double the number in the same period in 2018 when there were 44,175 cases, and already more than the 84,462 cases reported for all of 2018.
Based on 2018 data, the disease is no longer considered eliminated in the UK, Greece, the Czech Republic and Albania.
Measles is considered eliminated when there is no endemic disease transmission for 12 months or more in a specific geographic area.
It should not be forgotten that measles is a highly contagious viral disease. It remains an important cause of death among young children globally, despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine.
Measles is transmitted via droplets from the nose, mouth or throat of infected persons. Initial symptoms, which usually appear 10–12 days after infection, include high fever, a runny nose, bloodshot eyes, and tiny white spots on the inside of the mouth.
Several days later, a rash develops, starting on the face and upper neck and gradually spreading downwards.
Adding to the anxiety is the fact that measles is currently spreading in outbreaks in many parts of the world, including in the United States, the Philippines, Tunisia and Thailand. Tens of thousands of cases have been reported in Africa. Ukraine alone has had more than 30,000 cases.
The UK reported 953 cases in 2018 and 489 for the first six months of 2019. In the same periods Greece reported 2,193 and 28 cases, Albania 1,466 and 475, and the Czech Republic 217 and 569.
Some 60 per cent of patients in Europe in the first half of 2019 were under the age of 19.
Between 2010 and 2017, an average of 21.1 million children missed their first dose of the measles vaccine, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) had indicated earlier.
Widening pockets of unvaccinated children have created a pathway to the measles outbreaks currently spreading around the world.
The growing so-called anti-vax movement in richer nations is also being cited as a major reason for the resurgence of the once-eradicated disease. This needs to be effectively countered.
The movement — driven by fraudulent claims linking the MMR vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella, to a risk of autism in children — has increasingly gained traction.
Social media has compounded the problems in this case. The anti-vax phenomenon has adherents across Western countries but is said to be particularly high profile in the US.
Prevention is any time better than cure.
As well stated earlier by Henrietta Fore, Unicef Executive Director, the measles virus will always find unvaccinated children. If we are serious about averting the spread of this dangerous but preventable disease, we need to vaccinate every child, in rich and poor countries alike.
Better strategy needed to curb suicides
Nearly 800,000 people commit suicide each year — more than those killed by war and homicide or breast cancer — according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and it is a clear indication that a concerted, swift global action is essential to avert the avoidable tragedies.
The UN health agency’s assertion that the global suicide rate had fallen somewhat between 2010 and 2016 offers little consolation, as the number of deaths has remained stable because of a growing global population.
It is tragic that despite progress, one person still dies every 40 seconds from suicide. As WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus points out, every death is a tragedy for family, friends and colleagues.
The global suicide rate in 2016 -- the last year for which data was available — stood at 10.5 per 100,000 people.
Since WHO’s first report on the issue was filed in 2014, the number of countries with national suicide prevention strategies has increased, and now stands at 38. However, this participation is still far too few and governments need to commit to establishing them.
Distressingly, for every suicide there are many more people who attempt suicide every year. A prior suicide attempt is said to be the single most important risk factor for suicide in the general population.
Stigma, particularly surrounding mental disorders and suicide, means many people thinking of taking their own life or who have attempted suicide are not seeking help and are therefore not getting the help they need.
The prevention of suicide has not been adequately addressed due to a lack of awareness of suicide as a major public health problem and the taboo in many societies to openly discuss it.
Early identification and management of mental and substance use disorders in communities and by health workers in particular will go a long way in tackling the serious problem.
Available data reflects the global trend. The most common methods of suicide are hanging, gunshots and — especially in rural areas — the ingestion of poisonous pesticides.
Most suicides happen in low- and middle-income countries, where most of the global population lives, but rates are higher in wealthier countries.
After Guyana, Russia registered the world's second-highest rate, with 26.5 suicides per 100,000 people.
Also figuring high on the list were Lithuania, Lesotho, Uganda, Sri Lanka, South Korea, India and Japan, as well as the United States, which registered 13.7 suicides per 100,000 people.
It is also sad to note that young people are especially vulnerable: More than half of all those who commit suicide are under the age of 45.
Limiting access to pesticides can be hugely helpful. As per the WHO report, in Sri Lanka, regulations and bans on pesticides led to a 70 per cent fall in suicides between 1995 and 2015, resulting in 93,000 lives saved.
WHO rightly recognises suicide as a public health priority. As experts emphasise, though suicide is a serious public health problem, they are preventable with timely, evidence-based and often low-cost interventions. For national responses to be effective, a comprehensive multi-sectoral suicide prevention strategy is needed.
In addition to limiting access to means of suicide, experts suggest that other effective measures to reduce deaths include responsible reporting of suicide in the media, such as avoiding language that sensationalises suicide and avoiding explicit description of methods used.
Raising community awareness and breaking down the taboo is important for countries to make progress in preventing suicide.
Political solution best option for Syria
The long-sought agreement reached by the United Nations on the composition of a committee to draft a new constitution for Syria is a positive development.
The Syrian people have suffered for too long. Since the conflict erupted in 2011, more than 400,000 people have been killed and over 11 million forced to flee their homes. The country has witnessed unprecedented devastation and displacement.
The worst affected have been children. In 2018 alone, 1,106 children were said to have been killed in fighting in the country – the highest ever number of children killed in a single year since the start of the war.
This important step on the constitution panel can help the country leave the conflict behind and look forward to a new path of peace and progress.
Billions of dollars in US and European reconstruction aid are conditioned on the government taking concrete steps towards a political settlement.
When at a Russian-hosted Syrian peace conference in January 2018 an agreement was reached to form a 150-member committee to draft a new constitution, it was looked at as a key step towards elections and a political settlement to the Syrian conflict.
The task has not been easy.
There was an early agreement on 50-member lists from the Syrian government and the opposition. But it has taken nearly 20 months to agree on the list the United Nations was authorised to put together representing experts, independents, tribal leaders and women.
It is a moral obligation for the international community to support Syrians to unite around a vision that addresses the root causes of the conflict and forges a negotiated political solution.
In July, Senior Humanitarian Adviser to the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Najat Rochdi, revealed that an estimated 11.7 million people across Syria needed humanitarian assistance, five million of which were in acute need.
The UAE, on its part, has spared no efforts to contribute to international endeavours aimed at alleviating the suffering of the people of Syria.
Delivering the UAE's statement before the UNHRC as part of the interactive dialogue held by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Jamal Azzam, of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, clearly expressed the UAE's appreciation of the efforts played by the Commission to brief the members on the latest developments in the war-ravaged country in line with UNHRC Resolution 40/17.
Azzam underlined the UAE's appreciation of the efforts made by Geir O. Pedersen, Special Envoy of UN Secretary-General for Syria, and his efforts to effect a comprehensive truce in accordance with UNSC Resolution No. 2254 and to revive political efforts, including the formation of a constitutional committee.
He rightly called on the international community to continue efforts in support of the brotherly people of Syria to ensure affected populations' access to assistance and services.
Since 2012, the UAE has spent as much as $1.01 billion in humanitarian and developmental aid for Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Greece as well as on the internally displaced people. Part of the aid has been allocated to financing projects in areas of public health, development and drinking water.
As Azzam pointed out, the re-opening the UAE embassy in Damascus goes in line with the Emirati call for activating the Arab role in the current developments in Syria.
The move also fits within the UAE's keenness to invigorate the joint Arab action in a way that supports pan-Arab interest.