Instagram Hides Some Posts That Mention Abortion

Instagram is blocking posts that mention abortion from public view, in some cases requiring its users to confirm their age before letting them view posts that offer up information about the procedure. 

Over the last day, several Instagram accounts run by abortion rights advocacy groups have found their posts or stories hidden with a warning that described the posts as “sensitive content.” Instagram said it was working to fix the problem Tuesday, describing it as a bug. 

In one example, Instagram covered a post on a page with more than 25,000 followers that shared text reading: “Abortion in America How You Can Help.” The post went on to encourage followers to donate money to abortion organizations and to protest the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strip constitutional protections for abortion. 

The post was covered with a warning from Instagram, reading “This photo may contain graphic or violent content.” 

Instagram’s latest snafu follows an Associated Press report that Facebook and Instagram were deleting posts that offered to mail abortion pills to women living in states that now ban abortion procedures. The tech platforms said they were deleting the posts because they violated policies against selling or gifting certain products, including pharmaceuticals, drugs and firearms. 

Yet, the AP’s review found that similar posts offering to mail a gun or marijuana were not removed by Facebook. The company did not respond to questions about the discrepancy. 

Berlin photographer Zoe Noble runs the Instagram page whose post referencing abortion was blocked for viewing. The page, which celebrates women who decide not to have children, has been live for over a year. Monday was the first time a post mentioning abortion was restricted by Instagram, although Noble has mentioned it many times before. 

“I was really confused because we’ve never had this happen before, and we’ve talked about abortion before,” Noble said. “I was really shocked that the word abortion seemed to be flagged.” 

The platform offers no way for users to dispute the restriction. 

The AP identified nearly a dozen other posts that mentioned the word “abortion” and were subsequently covered up by Instagram. All of the posts were informational in nature, and none of the posts featured photos of abortions. An Instagram post by an AP reporter that asked people if they were experiencing the problem was also covered by the company on Tuesday and required users to enter their age in order to view it. 

The AP inquired about the problem on Tuesday morning. Hours later, Instagram’s communication department acknowledged the problem on Twitter, describing it as a glitch. A spokesman for Instagram-owner Meta Platforms Inc. said in an email that the company does not place age restrictions around its abortion content. 

“We’re hearing that people around the world are seeing our ‘sensitivity screens,’ on many different types of content when they shouldn’t be. We’re looking into this bug and working on a fix now,” the company tweeted. 

Tech companies like Meta can hide details about how posts or keywords have been promoted or hidden from view, said Brooke Erin Duffy, a professor at Cornell University who studies social media. 

“This can all take place behind the scenes, and it can be attributed to a glitch,” Duffy said. “We don’t know what happened. That’s what’s chilling about this.

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Scientists’ Model Uses Google Search Data to Forecast COVID Hospitalizations

Future waves of COVID-19 might be predicted using internet search data, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

In the study, researchers watched the number of COVID-related Google searches made across the country and used that information, together with conventional COVID-19 metrics such as confirmed cases, to predict hospital admission rates weeks in advance.

Using the search data provided by Google Trends, scientists were able to build a computational model to forecast COVID-19 hospitalizations. Google Trends is an online portal that provides data on Google search volumes in real time.

“If you have a bunch of people searching for ‘COVID testing sites near me’ … you’re going to still feel the effects of that downstream at the hospital level in terms of admissions,” said data scientist Philip Turk of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, who was not involved in the study. “That gives health care administrators and leaders advance warning to prepare for surges — to stock up on personal protective equipment and staffing and to anticipate a surge coming at them.”

For predictions one or two weeks in advance, the new computer model stacks up well against existing ones. It beats the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “national ensemble” forecast, which combines models made by many research teams — though there are some single models that outperform it.

Different perspective

According to study co-author Shihao Yang, a data scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the new model’s value is its unique perspective — a data source that is independent of conventional metrics. Yang is working to add the new model to the CDC’s COVID-19 forecasting hub.

Watching trends in how often people Google certain terms, like “cough” or “COVID-19 vaccine,” could help fill in the gaps in places with sparse testing or weak health care systems.

Yang also thinks that his model will be especially useful when new variants pop up. It did a good job of predicting spikes in hospitalizations thought to be associated with new variants such as omicron, without the time delays typical of many other models.

“It’s like an earthquake,” Yang said. “Google search will tell me a few hours ahead that a tsunami is hitting. … A few hours is enough for me to get prepared, allocate resources and inform my staff. I think that’s the information that we are providing here. It’s that window from the earthquake to when the tsunami hit the shore where my model really shines.”

The model considers Google search volumes for 256 COVID-19-specific terms, such as “loss of taste,” “COVID-19 vaccine” and “cough,” together with core statistics like case counts and vaccination rates. It also has temporal and spatial components — terms representing the delay between today’s data and the future hospitalizations it predicts, and how closely connected different states are.

Every week, the model retrains itself using the past 56 days’ worth of data. This keeps the model from being weighed down by older data that don’t reflect how the virus acts now.

Turk previously developed a different model to predict COVID-19 hospitalizations on a local level for the Charlotte, North Carolina, metropolitan area. The new model developed by Yang and his colleagues uses a different method and is the first to make state- and national-level predictions using search data.

Turk was surprised by “just how harmonious” the result was with his earlier work.

“I mean, they’re basically looking at two different models, two different paths,” he said. “It’s a great example of science coming together.”

Using Google search data to make public health forecasts has downsides. For one, Google could stop allowing researchers to use the data at any time, something Yang admits is concerning to his colleagues.

‘Noise’ in searches

Additionally, search data are messy, with lots of random behavior that researchers call “noise,” and the quality varies regionally, so the information needs to be smoothed out during analysis using statistical methods.

Local linguistic quirks can introduce problems because people from different regions sometimes use different words to describe the same thing, as can media coverage when it either raises or calms pandemic fears, Yang said. Privacy protections also introduce complications — user data are aggregated and injected with extra noise before publishing, a protection that makes it impossible to fish out individual users’ information from the public dataset.

Running the model with search data alone didn’t work as well as the model with search data and conventional metrics. Taking out search data and using only conventional COVID-19 metrics to make predictions also hurt the new model’s performance. This indicates that, for this model, the magic is in the mix — both conventional COVID-19 metrics and Google Trends data contain information that is useful for predicting hospitalizations.

“The fact that the data is valuable, and [the] data [is] difficult to process are two independent questions. There [is] information in there,” Yang said. “I can talk to my mom about this. It’s very simple, just intuitive. … If we are able to capture that intuition, I think that’s what makes things work.”

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Egyptian Women in Work: Between Barriers and Dreams

In male-dominated Egypt, the workforce participation rate among women and girls ages 15 and older is an estimated 15%, falling below the Middle East-North Africa region’s average of 19%, according to the International Labor Organization. For VOA, photojournalist Hamada Elrasam traces a thread that binds the everyday struggles of mothers and young female professionals across Cairo: dreams of agency amid far-reaching, often gender-based barriers to participation. Words by Elle Kurancid.

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African Continental FTA Challenged by Bureaucracy, Poor Infrastructure

The African Continental Free Trade Area has been operating for more than a year with the aim of cutting red tape to expand inter-African trade and lift millions of people out of poverty. But the largest trade pact in the world, in terms of member countries, has seen slow progress and mixed results. Anne Nzouankeu reports from Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in this report narrated by Moki Edwin Kindzeka.
Videographer: Anne Nzouankeu

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Biden Offers Alternative to China Development Juggernaut at G7 Summit

This week, the Group of Seven leaders launched a $600 billion global infrastructure initiative they say will compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. VOA White House correspondent Anita Powell reports from Telfs, Austria, with reporting from Patsy Widakuswara in Washington.

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NASA Completes Historic Rocket Launch in Outback Australia 

NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has successfully completed its first rocket launch from a commercial space facility outside of the United States. A 13-meter rocket blasted off Monday from a site in the Australian outback.

A 13-meter sub-orbital rocket took off from the newly built Arnhem Space Centre in Australia’s Northern Territory Monday. Lift-off was delayed by about two hours because of strong winds and heavy rain.

The launch was the first of its kind in Australia in more than 25 years and the first of three scheduled NASA missions from the site.

Researchers hope the information gathered from the flights will help them understand how light from a star could affect the habitability of nearby planets. They have said that this type of study can only be carried out in the Southern Hemisphere.

The unmanned flight briefly scanned the Milky Way, measuring X-Ray emissions and analyzing the structure of stars.

Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist at the Australian National University, told Australian television that the launch is part of a project to boost the domestic space industry.

“When you build a satellite you have to go overseas to do it and so the fact that we are now seeing this build-up of launching from Australia this is, kind of, that final piece of the puzzle to having, you know, a really massive industry in this sector of space and then we see that that, kind of, the first group that says, yes, we want to do it, we want to be a part of the story is Nasa, you know, it just, kind of, gives the street cred[ibility] so to speak that you are on the right track from what you are thinking,” he said.

The Arnhem Space Center is the world’s only commercially owned equatorial launch facility.

The center is built on Aboriginal land. Tribal elders hope the project will provide jobs and opportunities for young First Nations people.

Officials said the center combines one of the “oldest cultures in the world with some of the most advanced technology ever.”

The next NASA rocket will be launched in the Northern Territory on July 4, and the third will take off on July 12.

About 75 NASA staff have travelled to northern Australia for all three launches.

Australia is working to increase its capabilities in space. This year, it announced a new defense agency that would work to counter China and Russia’s ambitions in space. Along with the United States, the two countries are reported to have tested weapons that could destroy a satellite.

The Australian Space Agency was created in July 2018 to “support the growth and transformation” of the nation’s space industry.”

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Sri Lanka Runs Out of Fuel

Sri Lanka has run out of fuel, according to a report Monday in the country’s Daily Mirror newspaper. 

The 1,100 tons of petrol and 7,500 tons of diesel the country has would not last a day, the newspaper reported, citing anonymous sources in the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation Trade Union.

According to Reuters, which cited a top government official on Sunday, the country of 22 million people is down to just 15,000 tons of petrol and diesel to keep essential services running in  coming days. 

Without any deliveries of fuel, the newspaper said, Sri Lanka “will come to a complete standstill from this week, as even public transportation will come to a grinding halt.” 

The country’s energy crisis is compounded by a financial crisis. 

The Daily Mirror said Sri Lanka has been “blacklisted by international companies as it has defaulted on its debts and companies now require international bank guarantees for fresh orders.” 

However, Sri Lanka is sending two ministers to Russia, according to The Associated Press, for face-to-face negotiations to try to acquire the much-needed fuel. 

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

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G-7 Summit to Address Global Threats

U.S. President Joe Biden comes to the Group of Seven summit with the war in Ukraine showing no signs of stopping and China’s ambition spreading. The White House says they are committed to countering these issues. VOA White House correspondent Anita Powell reports from Telfs, Austria.

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Despite Strong Summer Start, Europe’s Aviation Industry Frets 

Air traffic is booming this summer, but after European vacations are over will passenger demand hold up?

The question was the focus of the annual congress of the Airports Council International (ACI) Europe in Rome this week, held at the cusp of the approaching peak season.

The summer period is shaping up to be by far the best since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis that has severely affected the airline industry since 2020.

Some airlines, such as Ryanair, and countries, in particular Greece, have already recovered or even exceeded their 2019 daily flight numbers, according to Eurocontrol, a pan-European air traffic agency.

Across the continent, air traffic was last week at 86 percent of the same period in 2019, Eurocontrol said, and expected to reach up to 95 percent in August under its most optimistic estimate.

And companies are filling seats for the coming weeks despite the sharp rise in ticket prices, long lines in various airports from Frankfurt to Dublin to Amsterdam and strikes by flight attendants, pilots or air traffic controllers.

But after that?

“Visibility is low because there is a lot of uncertainty,” said Olivier Jankovec, director general of ACI Europe.

“We’re now in a war economy in Europe, we have the prospect of a quite harsh recession, we have inflation at record levels, so how all of this is going to play into consumer sentiment… the jury’s still out.”

The director general for transport and mobility at the European Commission, Henrik Hololei, echoed that thought.

“We really need to tighten the seatbelt because there’s going to be a lot of turbulence,” he told delegates.

“We are entering… a period of uncertainty which we have never experienced in the last decade. And that of course is the biggest enemy of the business,” he said.

Too many unknowns

Hololei listed the war in Ukraine, high energy prices and shortages of energy, food and labor.

“We have also interest rates which are going up for the first time in a decade,” he said.

The price of jet fuel has doubled over the past year, with a refinery capacity shortage compounding the explosion in crude oil prices.

Fuel accounts for about a quarter of the operating costs of airlines, which have passed them on to consumers in ticket prices as they seek to refill coffers drained by the two-year health crisis.

Still, strong demand has returned, confirmed Eleni Kaloyirou, managing director of Hermes Airports, which manages the airports of Larnaca and Paphos in Cyprus, where the high tourist season extends into November.

“People want to take their holidays,” she said, acknowledging, however, “we do worry about next year.”

The general manager of Athens International Airport, Yiannis Paraschis, similarly expressed fears that “the increase in energy costs and inflation will consume a great part of European households’ disposable income.”

The head of Istanbul International Airport, Kadri Samsunlu, voiced concerns about inflation’s effect in Western Europe.

And if consumer confidence is damaged, “We don’t know what’s going to happen to the demand,” he warned.

The last unknown hanging over European air travel in the medium term is a possible new outbreak of coronavirus.

“COVID has not disappeared, and it is not a seasonal flu either,” Hololei warned.

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US Farmers Welcome Indo-Pacific Economic Framework 

Before the 2016 presidential election, Illinois farmer Brian Duncan looked to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement between the United States and Asian countries, to boost demand for his crops, and in particular, prices for the thousands of hogs he raises annually.

“Pork is very much in demand in Asian countries, the Pacific rim,” he explained to VOA in a recent interview outside one of the sheds where he tends to his animals. “I was really looking forward to what opportunities could come for pork sales to that part of the world.”

But the TPP became politically problematic for both Democrats and Republicans who eventually distanced themselves from a trade agreement some voters believed would negatively affect U.S. manufacturing jobs. When Republican Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, hopes of passing the TPP ended.

“Part of TPP’s role was to counter China’s growing economic influence and position the United States to be a positive force in the region,” Duncan said. “Those countries have gone ahead without us, they left us behind on trade.”

Max Baucus, a former U.S. senator from Montana and former U.S. ambassador to China, agrees.

“When we pulled out of TPP, we really abdicated our leadership and created a huge vacuum in Southeast Asia,” said Baucus, now a co-chairman of the Farmers for Free Trade advocacy group, while attending a recent online meeting about the Biden administration’s efforts to engage Asian nations in new trade talks. “It’s important to establish an economic counterweight to China. That’s important. That was the whole point of TPP.”

Mark Gebhards, executive director of governmental affairs for the Illinois Farm Bureau, said, “We have been strongly encouraging the Biden administration to do more in terms of building true market access.”

Gebhards says Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) with 12 Asian countries — Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — is a welcome development that could boost U.S. agriculture exports.

“The benefit for us is to increase the market access in extremely important countries which are very willing, very interested in our agricultural products. For our farmers, for our members, there is a direct benefit here,” Gebhards told VOA in an interview at the Illinois Farm Bureau headquarters in Bloomington, Illinois.

“It’s great to talk, it’s a great first step, but we really feel that we need more actual trade agreements put in place especially in light of the Ukrainian conflict and all the things that are happening in the world today. The Indo-Pacific Framework, it is important to note, it is not a trade agreement with these 12 countries that are involved in it. It is really along the lines of a framework to sit down and talk about trade issues. It’s not negotiation that you would enter into in a trade agreement, especially in a bilateral approach that we have with many of these countries.”

Duncan said, “Something is better than nothing, that’s where I’m at with it. Sixty percent of … the world’s population is going to be in those Indo-Pacific countries.”

The White House says the 12 nations in the IPEF also account for about 40% of global GDP.

But Duncan is aware of the limitations of the current talks. “It’s just a framework. We hope it provides a mechanism to go forward and build upon. When I see this framework, it at least answers one of the questions — we haven’t given up on a multilateral agreement in the Pacific Rim, and I think that’s good news. So now, we hope that’s a start, we hope there’s dialogue, and we hope we can build upon this and get people to realize that multilateral agreements are not evil, they can work, and they have worked in the past.”

As he waits — and hopes — for trade talks to turn into trade negotiations, Duncan sees the IPEF as meaningful change in U.S. trade policy.

“I think there’s hope again and realization of the importance of international trade.”

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Amid COVID Battle, China Pledges to Bolster Economies of 4 Nations, Including Russia

Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged this week to help advance four economic powers, despite pandemic problems at home and knock-on effects from Russia’s war in Ukraine. Analysts expect the pledges to take time, with no immediate results.

Xi made his remarks Thursday at the virtual BRICS Summit hosted by Beijing.

The other countries are Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa, which together with China make up the grouping known as BRICS. These large emerging economies see themselves as an alternative to the U.S.-led world order.

The leader of China advocated BRICS cooperation in cross-border payments and credit ratings, the official Xinhua News Agency in Beijing reported Thursday. The report says he further recommended “facilitation” of trade, investment and financing.

Xi as host of the group’s 14th summit said he would work with the BRICS countries to support global development that is “stronger, greener and healthier,” Xinhua added.

The leader urged more countries to join the New Development Bank, a concessional lender founded by BRICS countries in 2015. He called, too, for improving the group’s emergency balance-of-payments relief mechanism, the Contingent Reserve Arrangement, Xinhua added.

View toward future deals

Substantive progress on these goals will likely take time, analysts say, as the member countries do not always get along with one another and China’s ambitions may take time to evolve given issues at home and abroad.

“At the highest level, there’s a little bit of a discussion, then that may lead to further opportunities to be further engaged down the road,” said Song Seng Wun, a Singapore-based economist in the private banking unit of Malaysian bank CIMB.

China’s economy has outgrown the others after decades of export manufacturing for much of the world. But the keeper of a $17.5 trillion GDP has teetered this year amid lockdowns to contain a COVID-19 surge — which snarled world supply chains originating in China.

BRICS member Russia faces economic sanctions from the West over its war in Ukraine, which has sparked food shortages and inflation. China still faces tariffs on goods shipped to the United States, fallout from a bilateral trade dispute.

India and China have their own differences. The world’s two most populous countries contest sovereignty over mountain territories between them, and China bristles at India’s geopolitical cooperation with the West.

Developing countries, including those among the BRICS, can easily turn to Japan, the European Union and other alternatives to China for economic support, said Stuart Orr, School of Business head at Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. Those choices will slow China’s ambitions to sow BRICS cooperation as developing states prefer not to over-rely on Beijing, he said.

“There’s a lot of talk but probably not so much real progress in that regard and I suspect things will probably end up sort of getting pushed back to the next BRICS meeting for further progress once the dust has settled,” Orr said.

China still “struggles with health issues” while its historic political rival the United States is finding new suppliers and customers for soy exports, Orr said.

Officials in Beijing want to expand cooperation with other countries as the United States sanctions Russia over the war and China over trade, said Huang Kwei-bo, associate professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University in Taipei.

The BRICS countries might reassure one another over energy and food shortages linked to the war, Song said. Later, he said, they could “flesh out” substantive agreements.

Anti-West position

China regularly offers economic aid, investments and COVID-19 vaccines to friendly developing countries from Africa into Central Asia. Its flagship is the Belt and Road Initiative, a 9-year-old, $1.2 trillion list of foreign infrastructure projects aimed at opening China-linked trade routes.

Chinese officials feel the BRICS nations will welcome their support, and in turn, accept some of their political views, analysts say. Of the BRICS states, only Brazil voted against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations earlier this year. China, India and South Africa abstained.

India, despite its West-leaning political activity and reservations about China’s Belt-and-Road, still takes Russian oil.

“India-China relations are very sensitive, but outside these existing relations, like in the Caribbean and Latin America, those spots are where India and China wouldn’t have clashes of interest,” Huang said.

Brazil in particular is looking for more international support to overcome the “devastating impacts” of COVID-19 in the country, Orr said.

“There should be some other countries that would think about joining this kind of regime,” Huang said. “Then, if a lot of those countries don’t have such good relations with the U.S. side, doesn’t that mean it’s one more thing causing a headache for the United States in terms of geopolitics?”

A declaration issued at the summit Thursday says the five countries support talking further about expanding their group. 

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US Farmers Welcome New Approach to Indo Pacific Trade Policy

President Joe Biden’s proposed Indo Pacific Economic Framework with key Asian nations signals a new approach for U.S. trade policy in the region. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, U.S. farmers are optimistic the Framework will provide new markets for their goods.
Camera: Kane Farabaugh Producer: Kane Farabaugh

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Cameroon Woos Potential Disapora Investors, But Faces Distrust of Government

Cameroon’s President Paul Biya has for the first time sent a delegation to Europe to try to encourage well-off Cameroonians living there to invest back home. But members of Cameroon’s diaspora say undemocratic practices and corruption in Biya’s government put off investors.

Government officials say a delegation led by Youth Affairs and Civic Education Minister Mounouna Foutsou was dispatched to Germany this week to ask Cameroonians there to invest in their country of origin.

Foutsou said his wish is for all Cameroonians in the diaspora to put aside their differences and help develop Cameroon.

“The head of state reiterated his call to the Cameroonian diaspora to come and build Cameroon. We seize this opportunity to come and exchange with the whole Cameroonian diaspora here in Europe so that we can present the different opportunities offered by the president of the republic and his government so that the Cameroonian diaspora can come back and participate in the development of the nation,” said Foutsou.

Foutsou said the government will offer tax exemptions of up to 40 percent for diaspora investments in Cameroon, and loans of up to $10,000 with no interest rates for diaspora youths who return to invest in agriculture and livestock.

Kennedy Tumenta is a Cameroonian investor who lives in Germany. He said many in the diaspora find it hard to trust promises made by their government.

He said corruption, high taxes and a lack of confidence in President Biya, who has been in power for 40 years, scare investors.

“Freedom is restricted and they are afraid to move around in Cameroon and do their businesses and speak freely. Most diasporans believe that there is widespread corruption when it concerns opening businesses in the country or the Northwest-Southwest crisis is not being taken into consideration seriously by the government in place. It makes them frustrated and the only way to express this frustration is either to withdraw their investments in the country or attacking the head of state,” said Tumenta.

Separatists have been fighting to carve out an independent English-speaking state in mainly French-speaking Cameroon, since 2016. The U.N. says 3,300 people have died in the fighting.

Some disgruntled Cameroonians in the diaspora have become hostile to the government, and at least seven Cameroonian embassies have been attacked or ransacked since January 2020.  

Felix Mbayu is a top official with Cameroon’s Ministry of External Relations. He said Cameroonians taking part in such protests are hurting the country’s image.

“Those who left Cameroon unhappy and have not been able to make it there are those who would speak ill of Cameroon. Those who left Cameroon to better their lot in life and have made it there are those who come back to invest in Cameroon. That is why you see medical doctors who have built hospitals, built clinics, who bring back home medical supplies. You don’t see them in the idle marches abroad. In fact, when you talk ill of your own home, you tarnish your own image,” said Mbayu.

An estimated five million Cameroonians live abroad. The government says the largest diaspora population is in Nigeria where about two million live.

There are also high concentrations in Belgium, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States.

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Biden Seeks Gas Tax Relief Amid War-Amplified Price Hikes

The war in Ukraine is causing disruptions around the world, from what President Joe Biden terms a “Putin price hike” for American petroleum consumers to an impending global food crisis. On Wednesday, Biden said he was taking steps to try to offset the effects, something he said he’ll be focusing on ahead of two key summits and a Mideast trip. Anita Powell reports from the White House.

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Tariffs Give US ‘Leverage’ in Talks With China, Top Trade Official Says

U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods offer a key element of leverage over Beijing, something Washington should be reluctant to relinquish, the top American trade official said Wednesday. 

Progress with China’s unfair trade practices has been elusive, which makes the tariffs an important tool, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai told lawmakers. 

“The China tariffs are, in my view, a significant piece of leverage and a trade negotiator never walks away from leverage,” she said in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

“The United States has repeatedly sought and obtained commitments from China, only to find that lasting change remains elusive,” she added. 

President Joe Biden has said he is considering lifting some of the tariffs imposed by his predecessor, Donald Trump, and also plans to talk with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. 

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday that no decision has been made on the tariffs. 

“The president has been discussing this with his team,” she told reporters, adding that there is no timeline for an announcement. 

But any decision would likely have to come soon, as some of the tariffs are to expire starting July 6 unless they are renewed. 

Successive rounds of tariffs imposed by Trump eventually covered about $350 billion in annual imports from China in retaliation for Beijing’s theft of American intellectual property and forced transfer of technology. 

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is among those arguing that removing the tariffs could ease inflation, which has reached a 40-year high and is squeezing American families. 

“The tariffs we inherited; some serve no strategic purpose and raise costs to consumers,” Yellen said on Sunday. 

The administration is looking at “reconfiguring some of those tariffs so they make more sense and reduce some unnecessary burdens,” Yellen said. 

But Tai said there is a limit to what can be done to address rising prices in the short term. 

Meanwhile, U.S. homebuilders issued a statement urging the administration to remove tariffs on Canadian lumber to ease the pressure on homebuyers. 

“If the administration is truly interested in providing U.S. citizens relief from high inflation by removing costly tariffs, it should ensure that Canadian lumber is among the tariffs it targets for elimination,” Jerry Konter, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders, said in a statement. 

Washington lowered lumber tariffs in January to 11.64%, but NAHB calculates the duties have added more than $18,600 to the price of a new home since last August. 

Tai told lawmakers she regularly discusses the issue with her counterparts in Ottawa to try to resolve the issue. 

But she added: “That requires the Canadian government to be willing to address the fundamental challenges that we have with respect to an unlevel playing field for our industry with respect to how they govern their harvesting in their industry.”

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Southeast Asia, Latin America Set to Gain in Post-Pandemic Supply Chains

From multinational makers of clothing to consumer electronics, companies are reassessing their sources of raw materials, parts and factory assembly because of the pandemic, experts say.

That means countries in Southeast Asia and Latin America are becoming key go-to places in the global supply chain as businesses shift away from China post-pandemic.

China had attracted foreign-invested factories since the 1980s for cheap labor and high productivity. But since the pandemic, China’s traditional role as the world’s factory will be reduced, as American and European multinationals look for parts, labor and assembly at home for higher-end goods — nearby or wherever subsidies are available — according to Jayant Menon, a visiting senior fellow with the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s Regional Economic Studies Program in Singapore.

“Countries like China that mismanage COVID will suffer greatly,” Menon told VOA via WhatsApp. “That’s because their zero COVID approach has been very disruptive to supply chains.”

While Southeast Asian countries including Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia have been lifting pandemic restrictions this year, China reinstated lockdowns in two major cities. The lockdowns upset factory orders — and raised consumer prices — because of shipping slowdowns and worker shortages.

Seeking alternatives to China

In addition to pandemic-related disruptions in China, delays caused by worker shortages at major global ports and airports, including South Korea and the United States, have stifled the flow of consumer goods into Europe, North America and parts of Asia.

Taiwan-based PC developer Acer, for example, is addressing lockdown-driven supply chain problems by qualifying “second sources for materials where needed,” a spokesperson told VOA. The world’s No. 5 PC vendor by market share manufactures largely in China. The second sources will “come from various countries,” the spokesperson said without giving details.

American firms intend to stay in China overall but diversify, said Douglas Barry, communications vice president with the U.S.-China Business Council advocacy group in Washington. “We hear over and over that it’s a mistake to put all your eggs in one basket,” Barry said. “China’s response to COVID and growing geopolitical tensions are reminders of this truism.”

Southeast Asia

Nations such as Vietnam and Thailand were taking business from China before 2020, as investors faced rising Chinese labor costs and higher tariffs thanks to the Sino-U.S. trade dispute that began in 2018.

“I think Southeast Asia will clearly be a beneficiary of all this reconfiguration taking place. Countries like Vietnam, and to a lesser extent Thailand and Malaysia, have already seen gains from restructuring of supply chains,” Menon said.

Vietnam, he said, has a lead because of its workforce talent, pro-business reforms and network of free trade agreements. Electronics giant Samsung and American chip developer Intel both operate in Vietnam, as do foreign-invested car factories.

Malaysia is trying to capture more multinational tech, he noted. Last month, a subsidiary of giant Taiwanese electronics assembler Foxconn Technology signed an agreement with its Malaysian partner Dagang NeXchange to set up a factory, possibly for electric vehicles.

Malaysia, along with Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, offer “moderate wages” compared to China, said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist with S&P Global Market Intelligence in Singapore.

Multinationals, he said, are likely to expand industrial capacity in multiple places but stay in China for its market of a billion-plus people.

“They will still continue producing in China, but they will create additional production capacity in other hubs, and because of what we’ve seen during the pandemic when you can see disruptions in multiple locations, the resilience in the supply chain comes from having multiple production facilities, which also, I think, includes producing outside of Asia,” Biswas said.

Latin America

In Latin America, especially its industrial hub Mexico, products have been selling to the all-important U.S. market as a border nation. Mexico stands to benefit more from a trend known as near-shoring, analysts say.

A shared border, common time zones and linguistic similarities bring Mexico especially close to the United States, said Evan Ellis, a research professor of Latin American studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. The workforce is relatively educated, too, he said.

“Mexico is generally more accessible to many businesses in the United States in terms of the language and the culture and things than, for example, setting up shop in some cases in an Asian country or some other country that’s out of the hemisphere,” Ellis said.

Mexico has attracted American firms since the 1990s and retains “strong advantages,” Ellis said, but drug crimes and electricity costs loom as drawbacks.

Mexico is enticing some investors because its goods can enter the United States duty free under trade agreement rules, communications executive Barry said.

Brazil makes sense for companies that need its natural resources, such as ore or petroleum — or that sell cars for example — to its market of 212 million people, many in middle class cities, Ellis said. He noted that costs and regulations, however, challenge investors in Brazil.

“Manufactures are competing for limited supply of key commodities and logistical capacity, leading to consumers experiencing empty shelves and long purchase lead times,” stated professional services firm KPMG on its website. Now, it adds, “industry is evaluating and investing in their long-term supply chain strategies, paving the way for a new post pandemic normal,” which includes finding alternative customers, markets and suppliers to avoid overdependence on just one.

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