The News Editorial Analysis 25th Dec 2021

The News Editorial Analysis 25th Dec 2021

The News Editorial Analysis 25th Dec 2021

Simple ways to better counts of Omicron in India

While the media seems to be getting it wrong, combining data by the Health Ministry and INSACOG could be better

In the last three weeks it has been impossible to miss the slow building of tension over the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The news from Europe is not good with regard to the rise in cases and also the severity of the disease. Every day, the national news has reports of case numbers that are slowly rising: 100 last week, 200 this week. So, is there any indication of the actual number of cases in India? Should one be worried about a virus which has infected about 200 people in a land of over 1.3 billion, and when many are vaccinated?

Cause of error

Let me attempt to put the numbers in perspective. The reported cases of identified Omicron infections come from a genomic surveillance which is mounted by the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG). Genome sequencing is complex, andonly 38 laboratories across the country ( have the ability to sequence a virus which is as infectious as this. As a result, only a small fraction of infected individuals contribute virus samples for sequencing. The numbers reported by the media are the number out of this small sample which show infection by the Omicron variant. So, the media makes an error when it reports this as the number of cases in the country.

A calculation

How can we do better? Let us think in terms of fractions or percentages. The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) reports that in December, India performed about 12 lakh RT-PCR tests a day, and about 0.5% of the test results were positive. So, in the first two weeks of December, about 1.7 crore tests were performed nationally, and about 80,000 people tested positive during this time. The number of genomes sequenced by INSACOG is perhaps 1% of these.

This means that of the 800 or so samples taken, about 200 tested positive by the end of the second week of December. If the sample of the virus genomes to be sequenced was drawn randomly from the newly infected, then one would be forced to conclude that there are about 20,000 Omicron positive cases in India.

However, all public health agencies around the world have proceeded on the assumption that the Omicron variant arose recently and is still being transported around the world. So, the sequencing effort has been biased towards international travellers.

This means that the incidence of Omicron infections would be somewhat smaller. Could it be that only about 2,000 people are infected, i.e., about 2.5% of cases? If the numbers were really that low, then about 80% of the virus samples would have been taken from travellers. The remaining 20% of the samples is then likely to give no Omicron positive results at all. But we know from news reports that at least about 10 cases are from people without a history of recent international travel.

Just based on the numbers that we know from the media and from other public sources, we realise that more than 5% and definitely less than 25% of the cases seen in the first two weeks of December are due to the Omicron variant. The number of cases is then closer to being somewhere between 5,000 and 25,000 in this period. Now that the total number of cases per day is beginning to rise, the lower number has become less likely.

Improving the estimates

Of course, these are very rough numbers. The agencies which handle the data and the scientists who run statistical models would be able to refine these estimates immensely and narrow the range of uncertainty. If the number of genomes sequenced from infected travellers and others are separately given by INSACOG, and tagged by the date on which the sample was collected, it would be much easier for you and me to make these estimates. However, there might be concerns about medical privacy which prevent the Government and its agencies from making public such details about the data.

One should also be wary of other mistakes that the intentional bias in sampling virus genomes could lead to. If international travellers arrive more often in Delhi and Mumbai, then could the bias in sampling wrongly lead us to underestimate the speed of the spread of Omicron in the rest of India?

The numbers will change every week. Is Omicron spreading faster than Delta, the variant which gave India its second wave? If yes, then week by week, the fraction of Omicron cases would increase, as it out-competes the Delta variant in infecting people. This has happened in other parts of the world, and it could happen here too.

I have indicated here the kind of logic that an interested mediaperson or a layman can use. If you make informed judgments about whether to invest your savings in fixed deposits or in shares, then you make more sophisticated numerical estimates quite regularly. Given the numbers made available by the MoHFW and INSACOG, it is possible for you to estimate your personal health risks from COVID-19, whether you stay at home or travel on work or on vacation.

‘Monetary policy is financially inclusive’

The News Editorial Analysis 25th Dec 2021

Financial inclusion empowers policymaking by dampening inflation, output volatility, says RBI’s Patra

India’s monetary policy is by design financially inclusive, the evidence of which is still coalescing, and increased inclusion will over time enhance policy effectiveness by fostering societal intolerance to inflation, said Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Deputy Governor Michael D. Patra.

“Although it is empirically observed that there is a two-way relationship between monetary policy and financial inclusion, it is unambiguous that financial inclusion is able to dampen inflation and output volatility,” he said, addressing a meet on financial inclusion on Friday.

“This is achieved by smoothing consumption by enabling people to draw down financial savings in difficult times for everyday needs. In the process, it makes people interest-sensitive. Moreover, inflation targeting monetary policy ensures that even those at the fringe of financial inclusion are secured from adverse income shocks that hit them when prices rise unconscionably,” Dr. Patra added.

Observing that financial inclusion appeared to have increased, with the level of the RBI’s financial inclusion index rising from 49.9 in March 2019, to 53.1 in March 2020, and further to 53.9 in March 2021, he said: “The evidence is still forming and strong conclusions from its analysis may be premature, but India’s monetary policy is by design” inclusive.

Financial inclusion appeared to be the lowest in rural, agriculture-dependent areas where food was the main source of income.

“Recent work in the tradition of dualistic models shows that in the presence of financial frictions – in this case, financially excluded or credit-constrained consumers existing alongside those that have full access to formal finance – flexibly determined food prices have a critical role to play in influencing the real wages and incomes of the excluded and hence their aggregate demand,” he said.

“Interest rate change don’t matter so much. When food prices rise, the extra income earned by the financially excluded is not saved but instead consumption is increased, leading to higher aggregate demand,” he said.

Price stability target

In this kind of a situation, the efficacy of monetary policy in achieving its stabilisation objective increases by targeting a measure of prices that includes food prices rather than one that excludes them such as core inflation, Dr. Patra noted.

In India, food accounts for 46% of the CPI, among the highest shares globally.

“The lower the level of financial inclusion, therefore, the stronger is the case for price stability being defined in terms of headline inflation rather than any measure of core inflation that strips out food and fuel,” the RBI Deputy Governor emphasised.

‘Reverse GST increase on textiles and apparel or risk job losses’

High tax rates can lead to units shutting down, warns Mitra

The Union Finance Minister should call for an urgent meeting of the GST Council, which must reverse its decision to raise the GST rate on several textile and apparel products to 12% from January 1, Amit Mitra, Principal Chief Adviser to the Chief Minister of West Bengal, urged on Friday.

Citing a study conducted by a national level body of the textile and clothing sector, Dr. Mitra told reporters at a virtual press meet that it was estimated that one lakh small-scale units would be forced to close down and almost 15 lakh people rendered jobless if the GST rate increases took effect.

The apparel textile market at a retail level was said to be worth ₹5.4 lakh crore. Moving to 12 % GST for several products meant manufacturers would need more working capital.

When funds were not available, the units would either shut down or shift to the informal sector. It could also lead to higher imports. And, if the prices rose because of higher GST, consumer demand would drop.

Even the textile units in Surat and Ludhiana, which were major clusters of manmade fibre, had demanded reversal of the decision.

Given the inflationary pressure, high unemployment, rise in cotton and apparel prices and the pandemic, there ought to be status quo on the GST rates for the textiles and clothing sector, he added.

‘GDP to grow 8.2% in FY23 with more downside risks’

BofA flags inflation, policy shift risks

Warning that the new year would be riskier than the previous two in terms of growth, inflation and the perils of monetary policy normalisation on consumption demand in particular, along with other external risks, a Wall Street brokerage has pencilled in an 8.2% GDP growth next fiscal, with more downside risks to the projection.

Consumption demand

The biggest risk to the projection is a derailed consumption demand that has been the main growth driver in the past many years, said the Bank of America Securities India house economists who still believe that consumption demand will remain the key driver of growth next fiscal as well.

The economists expect higher growth next fiscal on the back of higher overall gross value add (GVA) growth due to the lower outgo on subsidies, along with stable agriculture sector growth at about 4% and robust services growth, adding up to an overall GVA growth of 7%, down from a likely 8.5% in FY22. FY23 GDP growth is seen at 8.2%, down from 9.3% in FY22.

AFSPA to continue in Assam, to be withdrawn if peace lasts: Himanta

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on Monday said the state will continue to be under Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 and a decision on withdrawing it will be taken only if the present peace prevails for a longer term.

He expressed apprehension that the militant groups might not reciprocate the same way if the AFSPA is withdrawn from Assam.

Sarma, however, said that no state government wants to continue with AFSPA if the law and order situation is peaceful and conducive.

“The Assam government is of the view that if this kind of peaceful situation continues at a later date we will be able to take a call on whether we need AFSPA in entire Assam or we need it only in some parts,” Sarma told reporters here.

He cited the example of Arunachal Pradesh, which decided to withdraw the Act in consultation with the central home ministry from many parts of the state, except in three districts.

“AFSPA or not cannot be a call of the government. It has to depend on the overall situation, law and order situation of the state. Now suppose I withdraw, will that be reciprocated by the militant organisations? “If they do not withdraw and we do, the Army will not be able to carry out any operation meaning thereby you are inviting chaos.

So I think AFSPA withdrawal is linked to the peace and stability of the state,” Sarma said.

Stating that no state government will want to continue with AFSPA if the law and order situation is peaceful and conducive, he said “I am only saying this in the context of our state and not Nagaland because I have no jurisdiction to do so. On Nagaland I do not have any assessment. I do not want to comment on the situation that exists in that state,” he added.

Nagaland Assembly on Monday unanimously adopted a resolution demanding that the Centre repeal AFSPA from the North East and specially from the state “so as to strengthen the ongoing efforts to find a peaceful political settlement to the Naga political issue”.

Thirteen civilians were gunned down by security foces at Oting village of Mon district on December 4 in a botched anti-insurgency operation leading to cries by civil groups and rights activists for repeal of the “draconian law”.

The chief ministers of Nagaland and Meghalaya had also sought the revocation of the Act.

The Assam government had extended the existing “Disturbed Area” status of the state for another six months with effect from August 28, thereby continuing AFSPA in the state.

The Act was imposed in Assam in November 1990 and has been extended every six months since then after a review by the state government.

AFSPA empowers security forces to conduct operations anywhere and arrest anyone without any prior warrant.

It also gives a certain level of immunity to the security forces in case of an operation going wrong.

US bans Xinjiang imports, forcing firms to navigate sticky diplomacy

President Joe Biden signed a law Thursday virtually banning all imports from the Chinese region of Xinjiang in response to concerns over forced labor, as US companies find themselves caught in the diplomatic fray.

The bill, which was approved by Congress last week, bans the import of all goods from the region unless companies offer verifiable proof that production did not involve forced labor.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act sets its sights on three products in particular: cotton, of which Xinjiang is one of the world’s major producers; tomatoes; and polysilicon, a material used to produce solar panels.

In a rare bipartisan move, the Senate last week unanimously voted to make the United States the first country to ban virtually all imports from the region.

The vote came despite lobbying by US firms, many of which are heavily dependent on Chinese suppliers and already facing massive disruption due to trade disturbances caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The law gives the government “new tools to prevent goods made with forced labor in Xinjiang from entering US markets and to further promote accountability for persons and entities responsible for these abuses,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement, calling on China to end “genocide and crimes against humanity.”

The law also requires the US president to impose sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses in the region.

Beijing on Friday slammed the measure, accusing the United States of “violating international law” and “maliciously slandering” China.

China’s foreign ministry urged the United States to “immediately correct its mistakes,” threatening to “make a further response,” in a statement.

An estimated 20 percent of garments imported into the United States each year include some cotton from Xinjiang.

Rights experts, witnesses and the US government say more than one million Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking Muslims are incarcerated in camps in an effort to root out their Islamic cultural traditions and forcibly assimilate them into China’s Han majority.

Washington has described the campaign as genocide.

– ‘Weaponizing’ of markets –

Republican opposition has criticized the White House for slow movement on the matter.

On Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about the relative discretion with which Biden signed the text, despite having made countering China a major axis of his foreign policy.

The White House released only a photo of the signing on Twitter, while Biden signed a law — with cameras rolling — intended to support research against a rare neurodegenerative disease.

He signs bills “off camera sometimes (and) sometimes on camera. We support the bill and obviously we’ve been leading the effort in the world to call out human rights abuses,” Psaki said.

Washington has already hit some Chinese officials and businesses with sanctions and announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics in protest of the conditions in Xinjiang.

Beijing describes the sites as vocational training centers and says it is seeking to reduce the allure of radical Islam following deadly attacks.

Implementation of the law and the US offensive against certain Chinese economic interests is causing friction for some companies, such as US semiconductor giant Intel, which on Thursday issued an apology over a letter to its suppliers.

In the wake of the US bill’s passage in the Senate, the company had asked suppliers to avoid sourcing in the region.

Following public outcry in China, the chipmaker expressed its regret for the comments in a statement posted on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform.

“We believe the private sector and the international community should oppose the PRC’s weaponizing of its markets to stifle support for human rights,” Psaki said, using an acronym for the People’s Republic of China.

“We also think that American companies should never feel the need to apologize for standing up for fundamental human rights or opposing repression,” she added.

A Worrisome Discovery in High Arctic Snowfall

When Melanie Bergmann, an ecologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, collected snow and ice samples for her new study, she had to work extra hard not to contaminate them. She and her colleagues always looked for the freshest snow. They always stood with their backs to the wind. They picked up the ice with unorthodox metal tools—including, at one point, a household soup ladle—and deposited it in glassware.

And—most unusually—they always worked with their bare hands, never touching the plastic gloves that most scientists automatically don in the field. “Plastic gloves,” Bergmann told me, “are not the best if you want to sample microplastics.”

In just the past decade, scientists have discovered that microplastics—defined as any plastic detritus that’s about the size of a sesame seed or smaller—are a major new pollutant, the spread of which we’re only now understanding. Microplastics are present in 94 percent of tap water in the United States, according to one study. They form as larger plastic items—toys, clothing, paint chips, car tires—get worn down and torn to shreds.

In a new study, published today in Science Advances, Bergmann and her colleagues looked at whether microplastics collect in the air, as well. They looked for microplastics trapped in snow from the Alps, sea ice from the Arctic Ocean, and snow from the High Arctic island of Svalbard. Snow tends to be good at shaking out particles hanging in the air, so any microplastics in the snow would likely have come from the air, especially in the remote Arctic locations.

Not only did they find microplastics; the “sheer number” the team uncovered shocked Bergmann. “We did expect to find microplastics, but the numbers that we found were a big surprise,” she said. Thousands of particles of microplastic were in nearly every sample from the Arctic; a single liter of snow contained 14,000 grains of the stuff. Microplastics were even more abundant in Europe, where there were as many as 150,000 grains of microplastic per liter of snow.

To translate: If you melted down enough Arctic ice to fill a one-gallon milk jug, it might contain as many as 53,000 shreds of microplastic.

Those microplastics may have fallen as snow, but they arrived in the Arctic through the atmosphere. The study shows that microplastics, shorn from human products and carried by global trade winds, are now accumulating in some of the harshest, most remote places on Earth.

The study also offers some of the strongest evidence so far that microplastics—for which human health risks are still very poorly understood—might be virtually ubiquitous in the air, water, and human environment. Tiny shreds of plastic might enter your lungs when you sniff a spring breeze, the study suggests, and they might slosh around your stomach when you drink a glass of water. Yet we still have little grasp on what, if anything, microplastics do once inside the human body.

In the animal world, microplastics seem to already be causing harm. They can block the digestive tracts of fish and insects. Some chemicals present in plastic might affect animal endocrine systems. In April, a dead sperm whale with 48 pounds of plastic in its system washed ashore in Sardinia.

Microplastics may pose a particular threat to Arctic life because the Arctic serves as a meeting point for ocean currents and trade winds from across the Northern Hemisphere. A recent study found that the Arctic Ocean contains more plastic waste than any other ocean, with roughly 300 billion pieces of detritus. When Bergmann and her colleagues combed the deep-sea floor, they found roughly 6,000 pieces of microplastic per kilogram of dry sediment. “That’s a lot,” she said.

The new study makes for “interesting and terrifying stuff,” said Joe McConnell, a professor at the Desert Research Institute, in an email. He studies how Arctic snow collects other forms of air pollution, and he was not connected to the microplastic research. “The Arctic has been contaminated by mid-latitude industrial emissions for most of the past three millennia—starting as early as the Romans and likely even earlier—so I don’t find it too surprising that very small [microplastic] particles are transported to and deposited in remote regions such as the Arctic or the Alps,” he said.

What was worrying, he said, was that Bergmann and her colleagues found the most particles at the smallest range they looked for. (The new paper could not detect microplastics smaller than 11 micrometers across, which is about the same width as cling wrap.) Since pollution particles are generally more harmful at smaller sizes, it suggests that the study doesn’t capture the most dangerous risks. “The very, very small particles—which likely have the most serious health risks—may be even more ubiquitous in the remote environment, which is especially troubling,” McConnell said.

Bergmann, meanwhile, found herself most surprised by the origin of the microplastics. When she and her colleagues analyzed their samples, they imagined they might find a lot of polyethylene, the most common plastic in the world, which makes up kids’ toys and single-use plastic bags. And they did. But far and away the most common type of plastic was from varnish. It occurred in every sample, in many different sizes, “even in the Arctic,” she said.

It seemed weird. “I’ve seen [varnish microplastic] in deep-sea sediment, but there you can assume it’s from ship paint,” she told me. But how does varnish get into the air? “I started thinking, and it occurred to me how many of our surfaces are actually coated in polymer-based varnish these days,” she said. “Many buildings, offshore construction, cars, ships. [Then] it’s exposed to sunlight, wind, wear and tear, and smaller fragments become loose and get transported with the air.”

And the second-most-common type of microplastic in their samples was rubber, like the kind used to make car tires. Bergmann, with admirable understatement, called these results “kind of problematic.”

“With our current political and economic system, we find it difficult to reduce single-use plastic, but that’s actually the easy part,” she said. “Reducing varnish or the use of car tires … that’s a lot more difficult.”


The News Editorial Analysis 24th Dec 2021


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