Twitter to Reduce Visibility of Russian State Media Content 

Twitter announced Monday that it will start labeling and making it harder for users to see tweets about the invasion of Ukraine that contain information from Russian state media outlets like RT and Sputnik.

“For years we’ve provided more context about state-affiliated media while not accepting ad $ or amplifying accounts,” Twitter said in a tweet. “With many looking for credible info due to the conflict in Ukraine, we’re now adding labels on Tweets linking to state media & reducing the content’s visibility.”

 

Twitter said it had seen over 45,000 tweets a day from people sharing links to Russian state media, much more than coming from state-sponsored accounts.

Twitter began to de-amplify Russian state media accounts in 2020 and had earlier banned Russian state media from advertising.

The announcement Monday will impact individuals sharing links from those entities.

The move is the latest spat between U.S. social media companies and Russia.

Twitter has been slowed down in Russia several times, most recently on Saturday, and last week, Russia said it would limit Russians’ access to some features of Facebook, saying the company was involved in censorship.

Google and Facebook have also banned Russian state media from monetizing their accounts.

Some information in this report comes from Reuters.


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Ukraine Crisis: Will African Oil Producers Take Advantage of Increasing Oil Prices? 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the sanctions that followed, has pushed the price of oil to over $100 per barrel, the highest level in eight years. But, it’s also opened an opportunity for African oil producers like Nigeria, Angola, Libya, and Algeria to cash in with more crude oil exports. But a lack of refineries in Africa means crude oil exporters will also have to pay more for imported fuels.

The Brent crude oil prices hit $105 per barrel last week, it’s highest mark since 2014 and up by 47% since December, amid fears that supplies from Russia may be impacted by crisis.

Russia accounts for a significant amount of the world’s total crude oil output between 25-30% making it the second highest producer globally.

But experts say the crisis and sanctions slammed on Russia by Europe and America could significantly impact demand for Russian products and tip the odds in Africa’s favor.

“For Africa it’s a gain, it’s an opportunity, it presents that window of opportunity for African countries to see how they can increase their production capacity and meet the need of global demands of crude oil,” says Isaac Botti, a public finance expert.

However, Africa’s production combined accounts for less than a tenth of total global output. Nigeria is Africa’s largest producer of oil followed by Libya. Other notable producers are Algeria and Angola.

Experts predict oil prices will rise further but worry Nigeria could be facing a backlash.

“At the end of the day it’s going to hit on our economy. We may think that we’ll gain but remember we don’t refine out crude oil,” said economic analyst Paul Enyim.

Nigerian refineries have been shut down for about one year. The country depends on imports to meet it’s energy needs. Experts say prices paid for imported will also increase.

Authorities are also grappling with huge subsidies to keep pump price of oil products within affordable limits.

Last week Nigeria’s minister of state for Petroleum said authorities were not comfortable with the surge in prices of crude oil.

But this week, Algerian state-owned oil and gas giant said it would supply Europe if Russian exports dwindled as a result of the crisis.

Botti says it’s a good example for other African nations.

“We need to develop our capacity to produce locally, we need to look at various trade agreements that are existing,” he said.

For years African oil producers including Nigeria have been struggling to meet required daily output levels.

Experts however worry African producers may struggle to fit into the big market with increasing global demands for crude oil.

For weeks, Nigeria has been battling to normalize fuel supply in the country after authorities recalled millions of liters of adulterated petrol from circulation causing a major shortage in West Africa’s most populous nation.

As the crises between Russia and Ukraine lingers, experts say the shifting focus on Africa could be both a blessing and a burden.


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Ruble Plummets as Sanctions Bite, Sending Russians to Banks

Ordinary Russians faced the prospect of higher prices and crimped foreign travel as Western sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine sent the ruble plummeting, leading uneasy people to line up at banks and ATMs on Monday in a country that has seen more than one currency disaster in the post-Soviet era.

The Russian currency plunged about 30% against the U.S. dollar Monday after Western nations announced moves to block some Russian banks from the SWIFT international payment system and to restrict Russia’s use of its massive foreign currency reserves. The exchange rate later recovered ground after swift action by Russia’s central bank.  

People wary that sanctions would deal a crippling blow to the economy have been flocking to banks and ATMs for days, with reports in social media of long lines and machines running out.  

Moscow’s department of public transport warned city residents over the weekend that they might experience problems with using Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay to pay fares because VTB, one of the Russian banks facing sanctions, handles card payments in Moscow’s metro, buses and trams.  

A sharp devaluation of the ruble would mean a drop in the standard of living for the average Russian, economists and analysts said. Russians are still reliant on a multitude of imported goods and the prices for those items are likely to skyrocket. Foreign travel would become more expensive as their rubles buy less currency abroad. And the deeper economic turmoil will come in the coming weeks if price shocks and supply-chain issues cause Russian factories to shut down due to lower demand.  

“It’s going to ripple through their economy really fast,” said David Feldman, a professor of economics at William & Mary in Virginia. “Anything that is imported is going to see the local cost in currency surge. The only way to stop it will be heavy subsidization.”

The Russian government will have to step in to support declining industries, banks and economic sectors, but without access to hard currencies like the U.S. dollar and euro, they may have to result to printing more rubles. It’s a move that could quickly spiral into hyperinflation.  

The ruble slide recalled previous crises. The currency lost much of its value in the early 1990s after the end of the Soviet Union, with inflation and loss of value leading the government to lop three zeros off ruble notes in 1997. Then came a further drop after a 1998 financial crisis in which many depositors lost savings and yet another plunge in 2014 due to falling oil prices and sanctions imposed after Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

Russia’s central bank immediately stepped in to try to halt the slide of the ruble. It sharply raised its key interest rate Monday in a desperate attempt to shore up the currency and prevent a run on banks.  

The bank hiked the benchmark rate to 20% from 9.5%. That followed a Western decision Sunday to freeze Russia’s hard currency reserves, an unprecedented move that could have devastating consequences for the country’s financial stability.  

It was unclear exactly what share of Russia’s estimated $640 billion hard currency pile, some of which is held outside Russia, would be paralyzed by the decision. European officials said that at least half of it will be affected.

That dramatically raised pressure on the ruble by undermining financial authorities’ ability to support it by using reserves to purchase rubles.  

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the new sanctions that included a freeze on Russia’s hard currency reserves as “heavy,” but argued Monday that “Russia has the necessary potential to compensate the damage.”

The central bank ordered other measures to help banks cope with the crisis by infusing more cash into the financial system and easing restrictions for banking operations. At the same time, it temporarily barred non-residents from selling the government obligations to help ease the pressure on the ruble from panicky foreign investors trying to cash out of such investments.  

The steps taken to support the ruble are themselves painful since raising interest rates can hold back growth by making it more expensive for companies to get credit.

The ruble sank about 30% against the U.S. dollar early Monday but steadied after the central bank’s move. Earlier, it traded at a record low of 105.27 per dollar, down from about 84 per dollar late Friday, before recovering to 98.22.

Sanctions announced last week had taken the Russian currency to its lowest level against the dollar in history. 


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Britain Widens Russian ‘Dirty Money’ Crackdown With New Law 

Britain will intensify a crackdown on what Prime Minister Boris Johnson called “dirty money” by introducing the government’s Economic Crime Bill to parliament on Monday, a step brought forward in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The much-delayed legislation comes as many opposition lawmakers and those in the governing Conservative party have called on Johnson’s government to do more to stop the flow of Russian cash into London, dubbed by some as “Londongrad.”

“There is no place for dirty money in the UK. We are going faster and harder to tear back the facade that those supporting [Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign of destruction have been hiding behind for so long,” Johnson said.

“Those backing Putin have been put on notice: there will be nowhere to hide your ill-gotten gains,” he said in a statement.

Earlier measures have done little to dissuade many Russian oligarchs from using London as their Western capital of choice to spend large sums on property, education and luxury goods.

The government said the new bill would help the National Crime Agency prevent foreign owners from laundering their money in British property and to ensure more “corrupt oligarchs” could be handed an Unexplained Wealth Order (UWOs).

Those orders, introduced in 2018 to help authorities target the illicit wealth of foreign officials suspected of corruption and those involved in serious crime, have rarely been used because of the often high legal costs.

New laws will introduce a Register of Overseas Entities, requiring anonymous foreign owners of property in Britain to reveal their real identities.

Those entities which do not declare their beneficial owner will face restrictions on selling their property and those who break the rules could face up to five years in prison, the government said.

UWOs will also be reformed to prevent people from hiding behind shell companies, hand law enforcement agencies more time to review material and to protect them from substantial legal costs if cases are unsuccessful.

Included in the legislation is a move to allow the Register of Overseas Entities to apply retrospectively to property bought by overseas owners up to 20 years ago in England and Wales and since December 2014 in Scotland, it added.


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BP Exiting Stake in Russian Oil and Gas Company Rosneft

BP said Sunday it is exiting its share in Rosneft, a state-controlled Russian oil and gas company, in reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

BP has held a 19.75% stake in Rosneft since 2013. That stake is currently valued at $14 billion.

London-based BP also said its CEO, Bernard Looney, and former BP executive Bob Dudley will immediately resign from Rosneft’s board.

“Like so many, I have been deeply shocked and saddened by the situation unfolding in Ukraine and my heart goes out to everyone affected. It has caused us to fundamentally rethink BP’s position with Rosneft,” Looney said in a statement.

Rosneft said it was informed of BP’s decision Sunday. 

“BP has come under unprecedented pressure from both the regulator and its shareholders. BP’s decision was preceded by a Western media campaign full of false reports and conclusions,” Rosneft said in a statement on its website that was translated by The Associated Press. “The decision of the largest minority shareholder of Rosneft destroys the successful, 30-year-long cooperation of the two companies.”

BP Chairman Helge Lund praised the “brilliant Russian colleagues” BP has worked with for decades, but said Russia’s military action “represents a fundamental change.”

“The Rosneft holding is no longer aligned with BP’s business and strategy and it is now the board’s decision to exit BP’s shareholding in Rosneft,” Lund said in a statement.

BP’s action was an abrupt turnaround from earlier this month. During a conference call with investors on Feb. 8, Looney downplayed concerns and said there were no changes to the company’s business in Russia.

“Let’s not worry about things until they happen. And who knows what’s going to happen?” Looney said.

Kwasi Kwarteng, the U.K.’s secretary of state for business and energy, said he welcomed BP’s decision.

“Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine must be a wake up call for British businesses with commercial interests in Putin’s Russia,” Kwarteng said in a tweet.

BP said it will take two non-cash charges in the first quarter to reflect the change, including an $11 billion charge for foreign exchange losses that have accumulated since 2013.

It is not clear exactly how BP will unwind its holdings, or who might step up to buy them. 

Rosneft’s partnerships with Western oil and gas companies have been stymied before.

In 2011, Exxon Mobil, led at the time by future U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, signed a deal with Rosneft to potentially drill in the oil-rich Russian Arctic. But Exxon ended that partnership in 2017, citing U.S. and European sanctions against Russia.


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EU Closes its Airspace to Russian Planes 

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen says the European Union will close its airspace to Russian airlines and private jets due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The ban was decided on Sunday by the bloc’s foreign ministers. The decision is among several actions announced by the foreign ministers after their meeting in Brussels.

“We are shutting down the EU airspace for Russians. We are proposing a prohibition on all Russian-owned, Russian registered, or Russian-controlled aircraft. These aircraft will no more be able to land in, take off, or overfly the territory of the EU,” von der Leyen told a news conference.

 

Many European countries had already announced they would close their airspace to Russian planes.

Finland and Belgium were among the most recent to take the step, saying earlier they would join other European countries in ramping up sanctions against Moscow, officials said.

Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometer border with Russia, “is preparing to close its airspace to Russian air traffic,” Transport Minister Timo Harakka said on Twitter on February 26.

He did not state when the measure would take effect.

Belgian Prime Minster Alexander De Croo said on February 27 that the country “has decided to close its airspace to all Russian airlines.”

De Croo said on Twitter that “our European skies are open skies. They’re open for those who connect people, not for those who seek to brutally aggress.”

Several other countries, including Germany, France, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Britain, Romania, and Poland, had already closed their airspace to Russian flights, forcing westbound Russian planes to make enormous diversions.

 

“France is shutting its airspace to all Russian aircraft and airlines from this evening on,” French Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said on Twitter.

Air France-KLM said it is suspending flights to and from Russia as well as the overflight of Russian airspace until further notice as of February 27.

Canada also said on February 27 it had shut its airspace to Russian aircraft effective immediately, Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra said on Twitter.

 

Germany’s Transport Ministry said it would close its airspace to Russian planes and airlines for three months from February 27, with the exception of humanitarian aid flights.

Baltic countries Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are also closing their airspace to Russian airliners.

Moscow, for its part, has also banned planes from those countries from flying over its territory.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters.


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YouTube Blocks RT, Other Russian Channels From Earning Ad Dollars

YouTube on Saturday barred Russian state-owned media outlet RT and other Russian channels from receiving money for advertisements that run with their videos, similar to a move by Facebook, after the invasion of Ukraine.

Citing “extraordinary circumstances,” YouTube said in a statement that it was “pausing a number of channels’ ability to monetize on YouTube, including several Russian channels affiliated with recent sanctions.” Ad placement is largely controlled by YouTube.

Videos from the affected channels also will come up less often in recommendations, YouTube spokesperson Farshad Shadloo said. He added that RT and several other channels would no longer be accessible in Ukraine due to “a government request.”

Ukraine Digital Minister Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted earlier on Saturday that he contacted YouTube “to block the propagandist Russian channels such as Russia 24, TASS, RIA Novosti.”

RT did not immediately respond to a request for comment. YouTube did not name the other channels it had restricted.

For years, lawmakers and some users have called on YouTube, which is owned by Alphabet Inc’s Google, to take greater action against channels with ties to the Russian government out of concern that they spread misinformation and should not profit from that.

Russia received an estimated $7 million to $32 million over the two-year period ended December 2018 from ads across 26 YouTube channels it backed, digital researcher Omelas told Reuters at the time.

YouTube previously has said that it does not treat state-funded media channels that comply with its rules any differently than other channels when it comes to sharing ad revenue.

Meta Platforms Inc, owner of Facebook, on Friday barred Russian state media from running ads or generating revenue from ads on its services anywhere in the world.


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Momentum Grows to Cut Russia From SWIFT Global Banking System

The U.S. is revisiting cutting Russia from the global bank-to-bank payment system known as SWIFT, as the next step in a series of escalating sanctions punishing Moscow for the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden initially held back on this crucial step that would isolate Russia on the world stage and have a serious impact on its economy, due to the concerns of European allies. But those concerns appeared to be eroding Saturday as Russian forces moved to encircle the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

Ukraine has lobbied for a SWIFT ban on Russia, urging Europe to act more forcefully in imposing sanctions against Moscow. However, some European nations, including Germany, are hesitant to take that step.

 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called Friday for nations to cut off Russia from the SWIFT international bank transfer system “to inflict maximum pain.”

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said “the debate about SWIFT is not off the table, it will continue.”

Putin, Lavrov sanctioned

The United States announced Friday that it would freeze the assets of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, following similar steps taken by the European Union and Britain, as nations around the world sought to tighten sanctions against Russia’s government over its invasion of Ukraine.

The U.S. Treasury Department announced the action Friday after EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels unanimously agreed to freeze the property and bank accounts of the top Russian officials.

Britain’s government took the same action Friday, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss writing on Twitter, “We will not stop inflicting economic pain on the Kremlin until Ukrainian sovereignty is restored.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the move by the U.S., the European Union and Britain sends “a clear message about the strength of the opposition to the actions” by Putin.

Juan González, the National Security Council Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, told VOA, the sanctions were designed to apply global pressure on Russia.

“If you see the sanctions on 13 financial institutions, among the largest in Russia, that will have an impact with any government or business that has agreements with these institutions. But also, a lot of this money laundering and governments that operate outside the financial system international will feel the squeeze,” Gonzalez said.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the sanctions against Putin and Lavrov reflect the West’s “absolute impotence” when it comes to foreign policy, according to the RIA news agency.

World leaders are rarely the target of direct sanctions. The only other leaders currently under EU sanctions are Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to Agence France-Presse.

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said the move is “a unique step in history” toward a country that has a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council but said it shows how united EU countries are in countering Russia’s actions.

The EU sanctions against Putin and Lavrov are part of a broader sanctions package that targets Russian banks, oil refineries and Russia’s defense industry.

EU leaders agreed, however, it was premature to impose a travel ban on Putin and Lavrov because negotiating channels need to be kept open.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Friday the package of banking sanctions the EU has passed would hit Putin’s government harder than excluding Russia from the SWIFT payments system.

“The sword that looks hardest isn’t always the cleverest one,” she said, adding, “the sharper sword at the moment is listing [the] banks.”

In response to the sanctions, Russia has taken its own measures, including banning British flights over its territory, after Britain imposed a similar ban on Aeroflot flights.  

The United States and several allies had imposed a first tranche of sanctions Tuesday, after Putin declared the disputed eastern Ukraine regions of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent states, much as he appropriated Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

President Biden added another round of sanctions on Russia Thursday, hours after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, declaring at the White House after meeting virtually with leaders of the G-7 nations and NATO that “Putin chose this war, and now he and his country will bear the consequences.”

Biden said the new U.S. sanctions, which target Russian banks, oligarchs and high-tech sectors and include export controls, will “squeeze Russia’s access to finance and technology for strategic sectors of its economy and degrade its industrial capacity for years to come.”

NATO allies, including Britain and the European Union, also imposed more sanctions Thursday, and the effects were felt almost immediately when global security prices plunged and commodity prices surged. Biden acknowledged that Americans would see higher gasoline prices.

Also Friday, an International Criminal Court prosecutor warned that the court may investigate whether Russia has committed any possible war crimes, following its invasion of Ukraine.

“I remind all sides conducting hostilities on the territory of Ukraine that my office may exercise its jurisdiction and investigate any act of genocide, crime against humanity or war crime committed within Ukraine,” ICC prosecutor Karim Khan said Friday in a statement.

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.


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Key US Inflation Gauge Hit 6.1% in January, Highest Since 1982

An inflation gauge that is closely monitored by the Federal Reserve jumped 6.1% in January compared with a year ago, the latest evidence that Americans are enduring sharp price increases that will likely worsen after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The figure reported Friday by the Commerce Department was the largest year-over-year rise since 1982. Excluding volatile food and energy prices, core inflation increased 5.2% in January from a year earlier.

Robust consumer spending has combined with widespread product and worker shortages to create the highest inflation in four decades — a heavy burden for U.S. households, especially lower-income families faced with elevated costs for food, fuel and rent.

At the same time, consumers as a whole largely shrugged off the higher prices last month and boosted their spending 2.1% from December to January, Friday’s report said, an encouraging sign for the economy and the job market. That was a sharp improvement from December, when spending fell. Americans across the income scale have been receiving pay raises and have amassed more savings than they had before the pandemic struck two years ago. That expanded pool of savings provides fuel for future spending.

Inflation, though, is expected to remain high and perhaps accelerate in the coming months, especially with Russia’s invasion likely disrupting oil and gas exports. The costs of other commodities that are produced in Ukraine, such as wheat and aluminum, have also increased.

President Joe Biden said Thursday that he would do “everything I can” to keep gas prices in check. Biden did not spell out details, though he mentioned the possibility of releasing more oil from the nation’s strategic reserves. He also warned that oil and gas companies “should not exploit this moment” by raising prices at the pump.

A separate report Friday showed that orders for long-lasting factory goods rose sharply in January, led by a rise in demand for airplanes. The figures indicate that many companies are willing to invest more in industrial equipment and other goods, a sign of confidence in the economy.

“Overall, the real economy appears to be in stronger health than we feared,” said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, a forecasting firm.

Russia’s invasion and the likely resulting rise in inflation have increased pressure on the Federal Reserve, which is expected to raise interest rates by a quarter-point as many as five or six times this year beginning in March. The Fed’s delicate task — to raise rates enough to restrain inflation, without going so far as to tip the economy into recession — has now become more difficult.

Fed officials are acknowledging that the invasion of Ukraine has complicated the economic outlook, but say that so far they are sticking with their plans for rate hikes.

Loretta Mester, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, said Thursday that she supported a series of rate hikes beginning in March. But she said the Fed should remain flexible: Faster rate hikes might be needed, she said, if inflation hasn’t begun to fade by mid-year, or more gradual increases if inflation is slowing.

“The implications of the unfolding situation in Ukraine for the medium-run economic outlook in the U.S. will also be a consideration,” she said. Other Fed officials have offered similar remarks this week.

Late Thursday, however, Fed governor Christopher Waller said he would support a half-point rate hike in March if inflation remains high.

Fed officials want inflation to fall back to its 2% target, as measured by the Commerce Department’s gauge, released Friday. A separate measure, the consumer price index, released two weeks ago, showed that inflation reached 7.5% in January from a year earlier, also a four-decade high.

In December, Fed officials projected that inflation would decline to just 2.7%, according to their preferred measure, by the end of this year, which most economists see as increasingly unlikely. The Fed will release updated projections at its March meeting.

January’s data show inflation was already picking up before the invasion. From December to January, prices rose 0.6%, up from 0.5% in the previous month.

There are early indications that consumer spending has stayed healthy, boosted by the rapid fading of the omicron wave of the coronavirus. JPMorgan Chase said that spending on its credit cards for airline tickets, hotel rooms, and restaurant meals rose in the first half of this month.

The JPMorgan Chase Institute also recently released data showing that cash balances remain elevated among their customers, including those with lower incomes. Bank account balances for Americans with less than $26,000 in income were 65% higher at the end of last year than they were two years before.

Americans’ paychecks are rising steadily. Average hourly earnings rose 5.7% in January compared with a year ago. Unless companies can offset their higher labor costs with greater efficiencies, most of them will likely charge their customers more. This would send inflation higher.

The combination of higher pay and enhanced savings suggests that Americans may be able to keep spending at a solid pace in the coming months, thereby sustaining the economy’s inflationary pressures.


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Thailand at ‘Crossroads’ as COVID-19 Surges Amid Tourism, Economy Rebound

Thailand’s economy has seen growth in its recovery amid the global pandemic, but rising COVID-19 cases concern health experts.

Heavily reliant on international tourism to boost its economy, Thailand dropped its quarantine requirement for fully vaccinated visitors in November, with thousands of arrivals flocking to the country since.

But along with the renewal of tourism in Thailand, new COVID-19 infections have also begun to accelerate throughout the country.

Dr. Anan Jongkaewwattana, a virologist and researcher at the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Thailand, has said the country is at a “crossroads” over what to do next.

“We are experiencing rising in omicron cases — a very rapid one. The question should be how long we can expect it to slow down … it can be days or weeks or even months,” he told VOA.

“In my opinion, we are at the crossroads at the moment. The number of cases are rising but, to many doctors, the majority of them are still considered mild when compared to the delta wave,” he added.

Data show that the omicron variant is highly transmissible, has an incubation period of about five days and causes less severe symptoms than earlier variants.

Thailand saw a new daily record high on Friday, with 24,932 cases.

Last year saw strict curfews and social restrictions enforced throughout the country for months. However, after a speedy vaccination rollout – sometimes reaching one million doses administered per day – measures were eventually relaxed toward the end of the year.

Officials said on Monday that the economy rebounded in the fourth quarter of 2021, with rising exports and the return of tourists. Year on year, Thailand saw a 1.9% increase in its economy, aided by the late wave of tourism. Nearly 500,000 people have visited since November.

With rapidly rising infection in the country, though, foreign tourists may think twice about entering, according to Stuart McDonald, founder of travel guide Travelfish.org.

“Should that be concerning for tourists? I would say yes. It is a rapidly changing situation and the Thai administration has a history of chopping and changing rules in an ad hoc, short notice, manner, and not always in a manner clearly informed by concerns for public health,” McDonald told VOA.

Thai authorities have changed entry requirements for tourists several times in recent months, including pausing its Test & Go plan in December following a rise in omicron cases.

The Thai government made further changes Wednesday to the plan, allowing fully vaccinated visitors to skip the quarantine period that is required by unvaccinated air arrivals.

As of March 1, fully vaccinated arrivals are now only required to take one PCR test instead of two when entering the country. Travelers must then wait for their results for up to 24 hours in a health-approved hotel before being allowed to travel elsewhere. Visitors must also take a self-administered rapid antigen test on the fifth day.

Tourism is crucial to the Thai economy. In 2019, tourism accounted for approximately 11% of Thailand’s gross domestic product, and around 20% of Thais were employed in tourism, according to the Bank of Thailand.

Tourism businesses had previously asked the government to relax entry restrictions.

Authorities have recently ruled out any imminent new restrictions, including lockdown, despite recently raising the country’s COVID-19 alert to Level 4, the second-highest level. Masks are still required in public, while people are encouraged to work from home, cancel nonessential travel and avoid large gatherings.

Thailand now must focus on a plan to live with the virus, according to Pravit Rojanaphruk of Thai news site Khaosod English.

“The government can ill afford to impose another semi-lockdown as it has spent a lot of money over the past two years to remedy and contain COVID-19. It is hesitant because further restrictions would adversely affect the latest Test & Go scheme for arrivals from abroad and further harm the tourism and related industries.

“Increasing vaccination is the way ahead as the government has enough vaccines now for a booster shot. Children will be a particular target group in the weeks ahead but some parents are still reluctant. It’s time to focus on normalising coexistence with COVID-19,” he told VOA.

Last month health officials began vaccinating 5- to 11-year-olds. According to Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health, this age group includes 5 million children in Thailand.

But Jongkaewwattana raised his concerns still, “I’m quite worried in the increasing number of children who are infected and getting sick. Those kids are not vaccinated and they are more likely afflicted by the Omicron infection compared to the fully vaccinated adults.”

The head of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University’s Centre of Excellence in Clinical Virology, Dr Yong Poovorawan, warned that Thailand could soon see 100,000 people test positive per day.

Jongkaewwattana believes more can be done to mitigate the risks of infection.

“I believe in the use of technology to help the vaccine to slow down the spread of the virus. I suggest the government provide test kits to people so that they can monitor their risk. The use of masks in public must be emphasized and the activities that promote virus spreading should be prohibited.”

An increase in the daily death rate could force the government into further action, he said. Thursday and Friday also saw 38 and 41 COVID-19 deaths respectively.

“The death case is now slowly rising and if the number reaches 50 or more the government may start something to bring the number down. If the number of COVID patients in the hospitals nationwide are at a certain limit, they will implement some restrictions. But I don’t see a complete lock down or curfews coming very soon.”

Thailand’s health authorities have administered approximately 122 million doses, including first, second and booster doses. The country has recorded nearly 2.8 million COVID-19 cases with nearly 23,000 deaths since the pandemic began.


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Millions in Nigeria Struggle for Affordable Housing Amid Real Estate Boom

Nigeria’s real estate market has been expanding rapidly, but so has the number of people in need of housing in Africa’s most populous country. Nigeria’s Central Bank says the country has a growing deficit of at least 22 million homes.

Fashion designer Precious Nwajiaku moved to Abuja in late January in search of better opportunities. Without much money, she settled for a one-room apartment in a sandy village on the outskirts of Abuja.

She said she paid $300 for one year’s rent.

For that budget, Nwajiaku said, the house does not even have basic comforts such as water and electricity.

“You pay for water, there’s no water inside,” she said. “As you can see there’s no light, there’s nothing, there’s no good road.”

Nigeria’s real estate market grew by 3.85% in the second quarter of last year, its highest rate in six years.

Experts say cities such as Lagos and Abuja have the kind of buildings and architecture that are in high demand.

As demand for higher-priced real estate increases, though, access to affordable housing is more difficult for millions of citizens.

Nigeria’s housing disparity reflects the country’s huge economic divide.

The World Bank says 22 million people in Nigeria do not have the housing they need, the highest number in the world.

For years Nigerian authorities have been pledging to address the issue but without much result. In 2019, government officials pledged to supply 1 million affordable houses each year to help meet the demand.

Housing development advocate, Festus Adebayo said the housing programs are not keeping up with Nigeria’s population growth each year, though.

“If Nigeria is producing to the rate of 5 million every year, how many units of houses has the government or private sector produced in a year?” he said.

Adebayo runs an advocacy campaign for affordable houses and hosts an annual gathering and housing show in Abuja. The show aims to bring government and industry together to address the lack of affordable housing.

He said through the show, hundreds of citizens have been given suitable homes at affordable prices.

He warned that housing gaps will worsen by the time Nigeria’s population doubles to 400 million, as it is estimated to do by experts in 2050.

Property developer Banji Adeyemo cites several factors for the high cost of building homes.

“This is an era where foreign exchange has taken a new toll entirely and most of the construction materials have foreign input,” he said. “Governments needs to bring down the cost of land and it will reflect on the cost of production by developers for houses. Because other materials you don’t have control over them.”

Nigerian lawmakers this month began considering a bill that calls for rent to be paid monthly instead of once a year to ease the financial burden on tenants.

Experts say unless more houses are built, the gap will only widen, and millions will lack affordable shelter.


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Shares Dive, Oil Soars After Russian Action in Ukraine

Stocks plunged and oil prices surged by more than $5 per barrel Thursday after President Vladimir Putin launched military action in Ukraine, prompting Washington and Europe to vow sanctions on Moscow that may roil the global economy.

Market benchmarks in Europe and Asia fell by as much as 4% as traders tried to figure out how large Putin’s incursion would be and the scale of Western retaliation. Wall Street futures retreated by an unusually wide daily margin of 2.5%.

Brent crude oil briefly jumped above $100 per barrel in London for the first time since 2014 on unease about possible disruption of supplies from Russia, the No. 3 producer. Benchmark U.S. crude briefly surpassed $98 per barrel. Prices of wheat and corn also jumped.

The ruble sank 7.5% against the dollar.

Financial markets are in a “flight to safety and may have to price in slower growth” due to high energy costs, Chris Turner and Francesco Pesole of ING said in a report.

In Brussels, the president of the European Commission said Thursday the 27-nation European Union planned “massive and targeted sanctions” on Russia.

“We will hold President Putin accountable,” Ursula von der Leyen said.

In early trading, the FTSE 100 in London fell 2.5% to 7,311.69 as Europe awakened to news of explosions in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the major city of Kharkiv and other areas. The DAX in Frankfurt plunged 4% to 14,047.18 and the CAC in Paris lost 3.6% to 6,537.32.

The futures for Wall Street’s benchmark S&P 500 index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average were off 2%.

That was on top of Wednesday’s 1.8% slide for the S&P 500 to an eight-month low after the Kremlin said rebels in eastern Ukraine had asked for military assistance. Moscow had sent soldiers to some rebel-held areas after recognizing them as independent.

Putin said Russia had to protect civilians in eastern Ukraine, a claim Washington had predicted he would make to justify an invasion.

President Joe Biden denounced the attack as “unprovoked and unjustified” and said Moscow would be held accountable, which many took to mean Washington and its allies would impose additional sanctions. Putin accused them of ignoring Russia’s demand to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and to offer Moscow security guarantees.

Washington, Britain, Japan and the EU earlier imposed sanctions on Russian banks, officials and business leaders. Additional options include barring Russia from the global system for bank transactions.

Prices of benchmark U.S. and international oils hovered near $100 per barrel.

West Texas Intermediate soared $5.86 to $97.96 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell 25 cents to $92.10 on Wednesday.

Brent crude advanced $5.57 to $99.62 per barrel in London after spiking above $100. It lost 20 cents to $94.05 the previous session.

In Asia, the Nikkei 225 in Tokyo fell 1.8% to 25,970.82 and the Hang Seng in Hong Kong lost 3.2% to 22,901.56. The Shanghai Composite Index shed 1.7% to 3,429.96.

Asian economies face lower risks than Europe does, but those that need imported oil might be hit by higher prices if Russian supplies are disrupted, forecasters say.

The Kospi in Seoul lost 2.6% to 2,648.80 and Sydney’s S&P-ASX 200 fell 3% to 6,990.60.

India’s Sensex fell 3.4% to 55,283.65. New Zealand lost 3.3% and Southeast Asian markets also fell.

Investors already were uneasy about the possible impact of the Federal Reserve’s plans to try to cool inflation by withdrawing ultra-low interest rates and other stimulus that boosted share prices.

The dollar weakened to 114.68 yen from Wednesday’s 114.98 yen. The euro fell to $1.1243 from $1.1306.


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China Expands Influence in Central America

With a library here, a power station there, China is using aid and investment to increase its presence in Central America, posing a challenge to the United States’ 2-century-old diplomatic dominance in the region.

China’s interest is driven in part by its rivalry for diplomatic recognition with Taiwan, a self-governing island which has claimed to be the legitimate government of China since the communist victory on the mainland in 1949. But Beijing is also open about its ambition to supplant the United States as the world’s dominant power.

Swayed by Beijing’s dollar diplomacy, three Central American countries — Panama, El Salvador and Nicaragua — have switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China since 2017. So too has the nearby Caribbean island nation of Dominican Republic.

Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize round out the nations of the isthmus connecting North and South America, a region first claimed as part of the U.S. sphere of influence with the enunciation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823.

Luis G. Solis, interim director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University, told VOA Mandarin that the U.S. still enjoys an advantage in the region in terms of military, economic, trade, and cultural affairs.

“If these advantages are adequately handled through a proactive diplomacy and a solid developmental agenda, China’s space will be greatly diminished,” he said. “But this entails creativity, the investment of time and goodwill, and a permanent and productive dialogue on sensitive issues such as migrations, corruption and transnational organized crime.”

China’s most recent investment occurred in El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele thanked China for funding of the country’s new national library as construction began Feb. 6.

The $40 million cultural center, located in the capital city of San Salvador, resulted from Bukele’s visit to China in 2019, according to Evan Ellis, a senior associate at the Americas Program of CSIS. The president also secured $500 million for projects including a sports stadium, a new tourist pier, improvement of its water treatment facilities as well as backing for his Surf City project to turn the country’s Pacific coast into a beach vacation destination, according to the 2021 CSIS article, China and El Salvador: An Update.

Also in 2019, El Salvador signed on with China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative, (BRI) a global infrastructure plan consisting of a “belt” of overland corridors and a maritime “road” of shipping lanes.

Bukele’s efforts came after El Salvador severed its ties with Taiwan in 2018 under his predecessor, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who led the fight against a U.S.-backed regime during a civil war that lasted from 1979-92.

China’s buildup in Central America has grown since management of the Panama Canal transferred from the joint U.S.-Panamanian Panama Canal Commission to the Republic of Panama in 1999, according to an article by Daniel Runde, director of the Americas Program at CSIS.

In November 1999, the Panamanian government awarded the Hong-Kong based firm Hutchison-Whampoa concessions to operate ports on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the canal, according to the website DialogoChino.

Since then, “Chinese companies have been heavily involved in infrastructure-related contracts in and around the canal, in Panama’s logistics, electricity, and construction sectors,” according to DialogoChino.

By 2017, Panama had shifted diplomatic relations from Taiwan to Beijing and five months later became the first country in the region to join BRI. Since then, China has invested in over 20 infrastructure projects in the country, including bridges, railways and power stations. As of January, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras are not BRI partners with China.

China’s state-back media Global Times published an opinion piece on December 13, 2021, by Pan Deng, executive director of the Latin American and Caribbean Region Law Center of China University of Political Science and Law. He suggested that the U.S. views Central American nations as “sources of cheap labor and low-end industrial raw materials, but also the dumping ground for outmoded American industries.”

The piece continued to say, “Previously, these countries had no other choices but to turn to the U.S. However, as China has developed rapidly in recent years, a reference model is being provided for how developing countries can develop from backward agricultural countries to industrialized ones while achieving long-term social stability.”

Analysts say that Beijing is using aid in various guises to persuade more Central American and Caribbean countries to establish formal relationships with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Benjamin Gedan, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, told VOA Mandarin that Beijing has an economic agenda in Central America and the Caribbean, but the effort is driven largely by geopolitical considerations, “including its bitter rivalry with Taiwan and its desire for support in multilateral institutions.”

“Given the Chinese Communist Party’s intense focus on isolating Taiwan, it is likely to continue investing in Central America and the Caribbean. After all, Beijing likely sees these countries as relatively cheap to buy off, and it has enjoyed a string of diplomatic victories,” Gedan added.

Another goal for China’s efforts in the region is to expand the BRI to Central America, as a push to play a bigger role on the global stage.

In December 2021, Cuba became the latest country to join China’s Belt and Road initiative. Jamaica joined in 2019, as did six other island nations in the Caribbean, and Costa Rica joined in 2018.

China has also increased its investment in natural resources in Central America and the Caribbean Basin. According to the Congressional Research Service, in 2020, China’s imports from Latin America and Caribbean countries amounted to $165 billion, consisting primarily of natural resources, such as ores (35%), mineral fuels (12%) and copper (6%).

Rebecca Ray, a senior academic researcher at the Boston University Global Development Policy Center, told VOA Mandarin that she’s not surprised to see China’s interest in infrastructure cooperation with Central America and productive investments in the Caribbean.

She pointed out that the Central American region has suffered from weak economic growth for decades. It is also vulnerable to climate change, which is bringing more natural disasters to low-lying islands and coastal areas. As a result, according to Ray, these countries have a greater need for new inbound investment.

“At the same time, Western investors have not shown interest in starting new projects or being exposed to developing country economies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, any new potential source of investment will naturally be taken seriously,” she added.

Despite the need for infrastructure investment in Central America and the Caribbean, the biggest obstacle to maintaining economic growth may be poor governance, according to online magazine Dialogo.

“Partnership with China might bring in new foreign investments, but it only deepens governance challenges, given China’s disinterest in corruption, its lack of transparency, and its export of technologies that enable Central American governments to curtail civil liberties,” said Gedan.

Microsoft said in December 2021 that it believed Beijing-backed hackers were targeting organizations in both the private and public sectors in five Central American nations: Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, and Panama.


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US Offshore Wind Rights Auction Generates Record Bids

The use of wind to generate electricity for the United States was thrust forward Wednesday with the largest-ever offering by the federal government of offshore development rights.

Bidding for the 197,000 hectares of the New York Bight — an area of shallow waters between the coasts of Long Island (in New York state) and the state of New Jersey — attracted record-setting prices, according to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

“This auction today is a testament to how attractive the U.S. market is,” said Fred Zalcman, director of the New York Offshore Wind Alliance.

Europe is much further along than North America in developing lease areas for offshore wind farms.

There are two small offshore wind facilities in the United States off the coasts of the states of Rhode Island and Virginia. Two more commercial-scale projects were recently approved for development.

“We’re really just at the beginning of a process here. We hope to apply the lessons learned from Europe and take advantage of the cost savings achieved in Europe,” Zalcman told VOA.

Officials say turbines erected in the set of six leases that went up for bidding Wednesday, the first auction conducted during the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, could eventually provide power for nearly 2 million residences.

Wednesday’s top bids totaled more than $1.5 billion. The largest single lease area offered — totaling nearly 51,000 hectares and located about 50 kilometers off the New Jersey coast — had attracted a record-busting $410 million, with bidding to resume Thursday morning.

The previous auction was held in 2018 during the administration of former President Donald Trump. It was considered a success, with three leases off the coast of the state of Massachusetts bringing in a collective record-breaking $405 million for rights to develop 158,000 hectares south of Martha’s Vineyard, with a potential generating capacity of more than 4.1 gigawatts, enough to supply power to about 1.5 million homes.

Trump, a Republican, repeatedly expressed, at best, skepticism toward wind as a viable renewable source to supply America’s energy needs. He derided “windmills,” saying he had been told the noise from their blades “causes cancer” and “it’s like a graveyard for birds.”

Biden, a Democrat, has veered in a different direction, embracing wind as part of his clean energy ambitions and setting a goal of 30 gigawatts of capacity in the United States by the year 2030.

In his first week in office in 2021, Biden signed an executive order to expand opportunities for the offshore wind industry, predicting, according to the White House, the projects “will create good-paying union jobs” and “spawn new supply chains that stretch into America’s heartland.”

The area included in the ongoing auction, which began with 25 qualified bidders, was cut back by about one-fourth from what was initially proposed last year due to concerns about the potential impact on commercial fishing and military interests.

State and federal officials, according to Zalcman, have been addressing concerns of other ocean users, including recreational and commercial fishers, navigators and the shipping industry, and taking into consideration visual impacts to coastal communities, and concerns of environmental groups about migratory species, such as the North Atlantic right whale.

A group of residents of the New Jersey summer colony of Long Beach last month sued BOEM over the New York Bight leasing plans, contending the massive wind farm would permanently mar their beautiful view from the beach, hurt the area’s tourism economy and harm property values.

Bob Stern, the president of Save Long Beach Island, told VOA on Wednesday that the organization “is not opposed to offshore wind energy but believes that the federal government’s process of selecting ocean areas for turbine placement is flawed.”

Stern explained that the group’s lawsuit challenges the federal government agency’s selection of “wind energy areas” for offshore wind turbines which “should have been preceded and supported by a structured regional environmental impact statement process with full disclosure of impacts and public input.”

The Sierra Club is terming the New York Bight auction a historic major stride forward for clean energy.

“This lease sale is the first to include stipulations setting out responsibilities for project developers to report on their engagement with stakeholders to minimize conflicting uses, negotiation of project labor agreements, and the development of offshore wind-related manufacturing and supply chain services,” said Allison Considine, a senior campaign representative of the national environmental organization.

A preeminent concern is ensuring that these projects are done responsibly, said Zalcman of the New York Offshore Wind Alliance, of which the Sierra Club is a member.

How developers configure the wind farms will be subject to another rigorous round of environmental review before they are able to erect the huge structures.


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US Truckers Plan Pandemic Protest, Inspired by Canadian Counterparts 

Taking a cue from demonstrations that paralyzed Canada’s capital city for weeks, U.S. truckers on Wednesday plan to embark on a 2,500-mile (4,000-km) cross-country drive toward Washington D.C. to protest coronavirus restrictions.

Organizers of the “People’s Convoy” say they want to “jumpstart the economy” and reopen the country. Their 11-day trek will approach the Beltway around the U.S. capital on March 5 “but will not be going into D.C. proper,” according to a statement.

The Pentagon said on Tuesday it had approved 400 D.C. National Guard troops to “provide support at designated traffic posts, provide command and control, and cover sustainment requirements” from Feb. 26 through March 7.

About 50 large tactical vehicles were also approved to be placed at traffic posts.

Brian Brase, a truck driver who is one of the organizers, said regardless of where the trucks stop “we’re not going anywhere” until the group’s demands are met. Those demands include an end to COVID-19 vaccine and mask requirements.

Most U.S. states are already easing some restrictions. In California, where the convoy begins, universal mask requirements were lifted last week while masks for vaccinated people are required only in high-risk areas such as public transit, schools and healthcare settings.

Another convoy was expected to leave Scranton, Pennsylvania – President Joe Biden’s hometown – on Wednesday morning and arrive on the 495 Beltway (highway) in Washington sometime during the afternoon.

Organizer Bob Bolus told WJLA news, an ABC affiliate in Washington, that his convoy has no intention to break laws or block traffic, but warned this could happen if their demands regarding pandemic mandates and the cost of fuel are not meant.

“They are not going to intimidate us and they are not going to threaten us. We’re the power, not them,” he said.

In Canada, pandemic-related protests choked streets in the capital Ottawa for more than three weeks and blocked the busiest land crossing between Canada and the United States – the Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario – for six days.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked rarely used emergency powers to end the protests, and Canadian police restored a sense of normalcy in Ottawa over the weekend.

“We plan to stay a while and hope they don’t escalate it the way Trudeau did with his disgusting government overreach,” Brase said from Adelanto, California, where the convoy will begin, about 80 miles (130 km) northeast of Los Angeles.

Brase said he expected thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, would participate. Organizers bill the convoy as nonpartisan, trucker-led, and supported by a wide range of ethnic minorities and religious faiths.

Economic growth in the United States – as in other countries – was brought to a juddering halt by the imposition of lockdowns in 2020 to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The economy has boomed since the federal government pumped in trillions of dollars in relief, growing 5.7% in 2021, the strongest since 1984 albeit from a low ebb in 2020, the Commerce Department reported in January.

Meanwhile, unemployment stands at 4%, close to the 3.5% rate of February 2020, just before the pandemic took hold, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But headwinds related to strained supply chains and inflation remain.

“It is now time to reopen the country,” the protest organizers said in a statement.

Among other demands, the protesters want an immediate end to the state of emergency in California – the most populous U.S. state with one of the world’s largest economies -that Governor Gavin Newsom has extended.

Nationwide, new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations due to the coronavirus have plummeted from all-time highs hit a month ago, though nearly 2,000 people per day are still dying from the disease and the number of total deaths is closing in on 1 million since the pandemic began. 


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US Announces Steps to Bolster Critical Mineral Supply Chain US China Materials

The Biden administration announced on Tuesday actions taken by the federal government and private industry that it says will bolster the supply chain of rare earths and other critical minerals used in technologies from household appliances and electronics to defense systems. They say these steps will reduce the nation’s dependence on China, a major producer of these elements. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara has this report.


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