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Don’t celebrate yet: The end of the pandemic is ‘still a long way off’, WHO chief says

The end of the pandemic is “still a long way off,” the head of the World Health Organization said Thursday, in an attempt to clarify optimistic comments he and other world leaders recently made.

“I have said the pandemic is not over, but the end is in sight,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said at a Thursday virtual news conference, where he appeared from the U.N. General Assembly in New York. 

“Both are true.”

Some world leaders who’ve recently remarked about the state of the pandemic have sounded too positive, experts say. The reality is that new COVID variants are continuously evolving—some with the potential to better evade immunity and perhaps even render the monoclonal antibody therapy ineffective.

What’s more, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington and other experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, predict a fall COVID wave in the U.S. beginning in late October, and peaking in late December or January. It could kill another 20,500 Americans, according to the IHME.

A week of befuddlement

The string of confusing comments began at a news conference on Sept. 14, when Ghebreyesus said the world has “never been in a better position to end the pandemic.”

“We are not there yet,” he said, “but the end is in sight.”

On Sunday President Joe Biden told CBS’s Scott Pelley that “the pandemic is over,” though the country still has a “problem with COVID.”

Then on Monday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, in a Center for Strategic & International Studies talk, said the country is “not where we need to be if we’re going to be able to ‘live with the virus.’”

The U.S. is, however, headed in the right direction when it comes to keeping the virus at levels low enough that it doesn’t disrupt social order, he said. 

But new variants have the potential to reverse that progress, he added.

The combination of comments has left some confused as to where the country, and the world, stands, leading to Ghebreyesus’ Thursday clarification: Though “the end is in sight,” it’s barely visible.

“We have spent two and a half years in a long, dark tunnel, and we’re just now beginning to glimpse the light at the end of that tunnel,” Ghebreyesus said.

But Ghebreyesus contends the world is in a position to succeed against COVID, if countries continue to make vaccines and treatments available, and if people continue to get vaccinated and take other appropriate actions like masking and social distancing.

Global deaths are just 10% of what they were in January 2021, and two-thirds of the world’s population is vaccinated, Ghebreyesus said, calling them noteable benchmarks.

But because the virus thrives and easily mutates in unvaccinated populations, “no one is safe until everyone is safe,” he said, urging the importance of low-income countries obtaining access to the latest and best vaccines and treatments like Paxlovid, as high-income countries have.

No clear definition

Whether or not the pandemic is over depends on whom you talk to.

According to a recent Axios-Ipsos poll, 33% of Americans think COVID is over and done with, while 65% disagree.

The conundrum exists because there’s no clear-cut, agreed upon criteria for declaring the pandemic’s end, Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, recently told Fortune.

Officials who make such proclamations should explain their thinking, he added.

“America is done with the pandemic,” he said, citing the Axios-Ipsos poll. “Unfortunately, the pandemic is not done with them yet. That’s a challenge.”

“We need to live our lives and move forward. But when you have a disease that is the No. 4 cause of death in the country and is still evolving, is it okay just to say things are done and over?”

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Kwasi Kwarteng vows ‘no more distractions’ after scrapping key U.K. tax provision

U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng sought to reassure jangled nerves in his ruling Conservative party with a pledge to deliver on the government’s economic strategy just hours after making a humiliating U-turn on a plan to cut taxes for top earners.

“No more distractions,” he told the Conservative party conference in Birmingham on Monday. “We have a plan and we need to get on with it.”

Kwarteng’s keynote speech to the Tory faithful came after he backtracked on a plan to scrap the 45% rate of income tax in order to head off the growing threat of a party rebellion. He began the speech remarking: “What a day. It has been tough but we need to focus on the job in hand.”

The policy reversal—just 10 days after first announcing the measure—is a major embarrassment for Kwarteng and Prime Minister Liz Truss. The abolition of the top rate was a signature part of their “plan for growth”, as they unveiled the biggest set of unfunded tax cuts in half a century in a dramatic fiscal statement on Sept. 23.

The package sparked a market rout, sending the pound to an all-time low against the dollar and forcing the Bank of England into a dramatic intervention to stave off a gilt market crash. 

‘A Little Turbulence’

“I know the plan from 10 days ago has caused a little turbulence,” Kwarteng said. “We are listening and have listened and now I want to focus on delivering major parts of our growth package.” 

Kwarteng said he planned to push ahead with other elements of his fiscal strategy, including reversing an increase in the National Insurance payroll tax brought in earlier this year by former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, bringing forward a 1 percentage-point cut in the basic rate of income tax, and canceling Sunak’s plan to raise corporation tax to 25% from 19%. 

“This government will always be on the side of those who need help the most,” he said.

That was an attempt to undo the damage of the original plan on the 45% tax rate, which had triggered dismay among some Conservative MPs over the apparent unfairness of a tax cut for the rich while poorer Britons struggle during a cost-of-living crisis. 

Benefits

At the same time, government ministers have been laying the ground for more public spending cuts including on welfare payments. Earlier in the year, Sunak said benefits would increase in line with inflation later in the year, but on Monday, Work and Pensions Secretary Chloe Smith told Bloomberg TV that no decision had yet been taken.

That’s sparked concern among some ex-ministers, who warned they could not support any real-term cuts in welfare payments. Esther McVey, a former holder of Smith’s post, told a side event at the conference it would be “a huge mistake not to give a cost of living increase in benefits.”

Michael Gove, the former minister who has become an unofficial recruiting sergeant for unhappy Tories, told Times Radio he also would “need a lot of persuading” to back benefits not being uprated in line with inflation.

But Gove did indicate he would support the government’s tax measures now the abolition of the top tax rate had been shelved.

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Elon Musk’s ‘peace’ plan for Russia and Ukraine met with backlash

Elon Musk took a break from his day job of leading carmaker Tesla and space cargo company SpaceX to post a “peace” plan for ending the war in Ukraine. But his proposal was quickly met with backlash—including from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

On Monday, Musk posted a poll on Twitter with four suggestions to ending the war. The first: Enlist the United Nations to supervise a redo of the recent sham elections by Russia of four Ukrainian regions that it formally annexed last week. Next, he called for Crimea—invaded by Russia in 2014 and currently occupied by it—to formally become part of Russia. Then, he said Crimea’s water supply should be assured. And lastly, he argued, Ukraine should remain neutral rather than joining NATO. 

“This is highly likely to be the outcome in the end – just a question of how many die before then,” Musk wrote, as a follow up. “Also worth noting that a possible, albeit unlikely, outcome from this conflict is nuclear war.” 

Less than three hours after his first tweet, Zelensky responded to Musk with his own poll, mocking Musk’s plan. 

“Which @elonmusk do you like more?” Zelensky asked. The two choices? One who supports Ukraine, and one who supports Russia. 

Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Andrij Melnyk, also piled on Musk in atypical fashion for a diplomat. “Fuck off is my very diplomatic reply to you,” he wrote. Melnyk later added that no Ukrainian would ever buy a Tesla, telling Musk “good luck.”

Musk, however, persisted. 

“Let’s try this then: the will of the people who live in the Donbas & Crimea should decide whether they’re part of Russia or Ukraine,” he wrote—asking his Twitter followers to answer either “yes” or “no.”

Financial Times correspondent Christopher Miller replied to Musk’s tweet, referring to the Ukrainian Independence Referendum, when Ukrainians were asked to vote on the country’s independence.

“Let’s not try that, @elonmusk,” he wrote. “The people of Donbas & Crimea made their decision in 1991, when Ukrainians from those areas & all others voted freely & unanimously to be in Ukraine.” 

Donbas, a region in Eastern Ukraine, is now nearly fully occupied by Russia. But Ukraine has vowed to liberate it. 

In suggesting Crimea—a peninsula that’s been at the center of Russia and Ukraine’s conflicts—should formally become part of Russia, Musk made clear his belief that the region belongs to Russia, adding that Crimea’s being transferred to Ukraine from Russia by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was a “mistake.” 

A top advisor to Zelensky responded sarcastically to Musk’s Twitter diplomacy  by saying there was a “better peace plan”—including Ukraine liberating its territories, Russia demilitarizing and denuclearizing so it can no longer threaten others, and war criminals be put on trial. 

It’s not just Ukrainian officials who pushed back against Musk. Many of his Twitter followers sounded off in the comments, calling him a “disappointment” and asking that he refrain from weighing in on a topic so outside of his expertise.  

Despite the often hostile response, Musk gave his peace plan one more push on Twitter. 

“Russia is doing partial mobilization. They go to full war mobilization if Crimea is at risk. Death on both sides will be devastating,” the tweet said. “Russia has >3 times population of Ukraine, so victory for Ukraine is unlikely in total war. If you care about the people of Ukraine, seek peace.”

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Global recession could happen because of wealthy nations raising interest rates, United Nations says

Governments around the world are determined to bring down inflation whatever the cost, but a growing chorus of voices is pointing out that aggressive monetary policies could have some serious and long-lasting consequences on the world economy.

Central banks in the U.S., Europe, and the U.K. have pursued relentless monetary tightening policies this year to reduce domestic inflation, but transnational institutions including the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund have warned that this approach could push the world into a long period of low economic growth and persistently high prices, according to a Monday report.

“The world is headed towards a global recession and prolonged stagnation unless we quickly change the current policy course of monetary and fiscal tightening in advanced economies,” the UN Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) cautioned in an annual global trade forecast report released on Monday.

The report predicted that current monetary policies in wealthy nations could spark an economic downturn worldwide, with growth slipping from 2.5% in 2022 to 2.2% next year. The UN says that such a slowdown would leave global GDP well below its pre-pandemic norm, and cost the world economy around $17 trillion, or 20% of the world’s income. And developing nations will be the most negatively impacted, according to the report, and many might be facing a recession worse than any financial crisis in the past 20 years.

“The policy moves that we have seen in advanced economies are affecting economic, social, and climate goals. They are hitting the poorest the hardest,” Unctad director Rebeca Grynspan said in a statement accompanying the report’s release.

“They could inflict worse damage than the financial crisis in 2008,” Grynspan said.

A ‘policy-induced’ recession

The UN agency made clear it will hold central banks around the world responsible for causing the next global recession.

“Excessive monetary tightening and inadequate financial support” in advanced economies could backfire spectacularly, resulting in high levels of public and private debt in the developing world, the report says.

Rising interest rates and fears of a coming recession have sent the value of the U.S. dollar soaring against all other currencies this year. And while this has been great news for American tourists traveling abroad, it’s a fiscal nightmare for developing countries, where import prices are rising fast and servicing dollar-denominated debt is becoming untenably expensive.

Debt levels in emerging markets have been hitting record highs for months, but the strong dollar has exacerbated uneven balances and raised inflation in developing nations as well, according to a separate economic report from the UN published on Monday.

With debt becoming more expensive to service, emerging economies have fewer funds available to invest in health care, climate resilience, and other critical infrastructure, the Unctad report warned, which could lead to a prolonged period of economic stagnation.

“We may be on the edge of a policy-induced global recession,” Grynspan said. 

The report urged advanced economies to consider ways to reduce inflation other than raising interest rates. Grynspan insisted that inflation in every country today is because of a “distributional crisis,” caused by supply-chain bottlenecks unresolved from the pandemic-era, and recommended wealthy nations invest more in developing nations and optimizing supply chains around the world.

Grynspan also called for more debt relief and restructuring packages for emerging economies that are struggling to service their debt.

Unctad joins a growing number of transnational institutions calling on wealthy nations to consider what their efforts to reduce inflation at home is doing to the global economy. Last week, World Bank president David Malpass urged wealthy countries to focus on the supply side of the inflation problem by investing more in production in developing nations and in optimizing supply chains.

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