Worldwide coronavirus cases hit 100 million, passing another grim milestone



The number of confirmed coronavirus cases around the world has surpassed 100 million, with an accelerated pace of infection, a tally by Johns Hopkins University showed on Tuesday.The figure has doubled in less than three months since reaching 50 million in early November. The death toll from Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has already exceeded 2.1 million around the globe.While some countries are now in the midst of distributing coronavirus vaccines, it remains uncertain…

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Investors give $200m boost to Hong Kong travel startup Klook


HONG KONG — Travel booking platform Klook has raised $200 million in a new funding round, underscoring investor confidence in the ability of the tourism industry to eventually recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

The latest fundraising was led by new investor Aspex Management, a Hong Kong-based investment fund, with participation from existing backers SoftBank Vision Fund 1, Chinese private equity fund Boyu Capital and the China arms of U.S. groups Matrix Partners and Sequoia Capital.

“The travel industry has undoubtedly been hit hard by the pandemic, but Klook has shown resilience and adaptability despite the market headwinds,” said Hermes Li, chief investment officer and founder of Aspex, in a statement released by Klook. Li added that he remains confident about post-COVID demand for digital bookings and Klook’s ability to maintain a leading market position in travel experiences and services.

In some key markets, including Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, bookings for local activities, staycations and car rentals are “reaching near pre-COVID levels,” Klook company said. Founded in 2014, the Hong Kong-based company has 28 offices worldwide, mainly in Asia.

“We have observed over the past year that consumers have a pent-up desire to explore and enjoy themselves, despite international travel being paused,” said Ethan Lin, co-founder and chief executive. “Instead, they are turning inwards — exploring new and unique experiences right in their backyard.”


Chief Operating Officer Eric Gnock Fah, left, with CEO Ethan Lin and Chief Technology Officer Bernie Xiong. (Courtesy Klook)

The latest financing round lifts Klook’s total funding to date to $720 million but the company declined to reveal the valuation basis of the new investments. Startup data service CB Insights valued the company at $1.35 billion before the latest infusion.

Klook said it “remains in strong financial health” and that it has not pared back its growth ambitions. The fresh funding will be used to accelerate development of software-based services to help travel experience providers with managing ticketing, distribution, inventory management and marketing.

“With this new funding, we have additional ammunition to accelerate our technology innovation and truly transform and empower this space for future growth,” said Eric Gnock Fah, Klook co-founder and chief operating officer, who added that the company already had more than 2,500 global clients for its “software as a service” offerings.

“We are confident that our industry is a resilient one,” said a spokesperson. “Recovery is certain, but it would boil down to a matter of when. There is good news on our horizon with the vaccine rollout across multiple countries. [But] so while we are optimistic, it is prudent for us to enter the year with some caution.”

Despite general pessimism over the tourism sector amid the pandemic, investors have given new backing to a number of travel startups. Taipei-based KKday, Klook’s major regional rival, closed a $75 million funding last September to fund development of a new booking management platform.



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Turning to the Pharmacopeia in Indian Colleges


By: Ruhi Soni

Bhavika Bhatia was in the last semester of design school three years ago when she first learned that drugs could help her be more productive. Struggling with a plethora of deadlines, including a backlog from the previous semester, the then-23-year-old studying in Pune, a small city in southern India, was barely inching towards the finish line of her college education. During this time, a friend of hers, who was also in a similar situation mentioned a tablet that could help them stay awake all night.

“And I was like, I hit the jackpot!” she recalls. “It was like I’ve been looking for it all my life.”

That night, Bhatia and her friend took 200 mg of the pill — modafinil, a pharmaceutical drug also known by its brand name Modalert in India, or Provigil in the west. Normally, modafinil is prescribed to patients who have been diagnosed with sleep disorders, which make it difficult for them to stay awake. They are prescribed the drug in much lower doses. Bhavika and her friend took the medicine with no prescription or medical advice. She ended up staying awake, alert, and productive for about 30 hours.

Bhavika was part of a group of Indian students who go above and beyond the usual coffee and energy drinks that are typically a staple in student lives, taking a variety of substances that may help improve their brains and their grades. The substances are called by various names such as ‘nootropics’, ‘smart drugs’ or ‘cognitive enhancers’ and purport to help people with concentration, alertness, memory, and other brain functions. But these students might be gambling with their health and the law, given that the off-label use of these chemicals is poorly researched and illegal.

Data and information about drug use in Indian colleges are sparse, let alone specifically about nootropics use. For example, one study of 283 students across India showed that about 18 percent of them reported having tried drugs in college – but the study was only limited to medical and paramedical students.

Vinod Kumar, a consultant psychiatrist at MPower, a mental health clinic in India, tries to estimate its prevalence. In his practice of about two decades, he has encountered about a dozen students who have tried to trick him into prescribing them drugs like modafinil by faking symptoms of out-of-hand poor sleep. Anecdotally, he speculates that nootropics are much less prevalent in Indian campuses than marijuana (Marijuana use in Indian colleges is also poorly researched, but there is a strong ‘weed culture’ consisting of ganja, charas, bhang, and more).

There isn’t even consensus on what a nootropic is, considering it’s a category that might include certain allopathic drugs taken without prescription as well as certain Ayurvedic medicines, which are less stringently regulated than modern drugs.

Defining nootropics is a challenge that Shiv Issar had to grapple with. Issar, currently a 30-year-old doctoral student and lecturer in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the United States, first dealt with this question when he was completing his Master’s degree thesis in India on the topic of nootropics used by medical students in his college.

“Some people see caffeine or nicotine as nootropics,” he explained. “It makes you question how does one even define a nootropic? Is the definition more ‘socially constructed’ than pharmaceutical?”

Kumar agrees. “It’s a notion more than anything, a loose term,” he says. That being said, “we haven’t found anything proven to be safe and efficacious so far.”

Legally speaking, modafinil is a Schedule H drug in India – it cannot be sold without a prescription. Schedule H drugs are only one level lower than Schedule X drugs, whose sale requires pharmacists to have even more certifications before they can stock it and sell it. However, that doesn’t stop students from walking up to their nearest local pharmacists and buying a strip of 10 100 mg modafinil tablets for INR120 (US$1.63), no questions asked.

This ease of access is a symptom of a problem that plagues much of Indian regulation, including medical regulation – rules are easy to define but hard to implement. “Most of the pharmacies here are corner shop pharmacies run by non-pharmacists,” Kumar said. “They are mostly concerned with meeting sales targets and paying rent, and the government doesn’t give a rat’s ass.”

The lack of information and regulatory advice are some reasons why students taking these pills find accurate, up-to-date information not in Indian government documents or scientific journals, but on online forums such as Reddit. A quick scroll through such anecdotal sources throws up some names more than others among Indian users. While modafinil appears to be the most popular drug of choice, other options include armodafinil (a milder version of modafinil), a class of drugs called racetams and their variants (which gives students a bit of a mental ‘pick-me-up’) and ashwagandha, a centuries-old Ayurvedic medicine (whose effects are supposedly more long-term than the other options and may help students relax).

Issar himself used modafinil when he was completing his thesis in 2018, partly to immerse himself first-hand in the very topic he was writing about, and partly to break into a tight-lipped community of drug users. He learned more about the types of students who would resort to these drugs.

“Mostly, they wanted to get ahead. They were burned out by the system, the long hours in classes, by long hospital rounds,” he said.

“I’ve bought it three or four times but they [the pharmacists] didn’t seem to care,” said Kovida Mehra, a 21-year-old fresh graduate in communications, who first used modafinil when she was a 17-year-old studying for the final exams of her high school.

However, Mehra had other issues with modafinil – it didn’t work on her. She tried it in isolation, and after combining it with coffee and tea. “My friends who took way lesser doses than me were able to pull two nights in a row with intense focus. For me, I had pretty much no change except a little bit of appetite suppression.”

Instead, her productivity got much better after she was diagnosed with ADHD in October this year and prescribed inspiral – a common Indian counterpart to Adderall and Ritalin in the West. There was an immediate improvement even at low doses. She is less easily distracted when working now and reacts less impulsively to difficult situations.

“It makes me slow down,” she said.”So I can think a little better while working, or catch myself before I react to something in a way I’ll regret.”

ADHD medicines taken with or without prescription seem to be the most popular nootropic of choice among Western students. In India, however, ADHD medication like Mehra’s inspiral often fall under Schedule X drugs – those which are monitored much more stringently than Schedule H drugs like modafinil. Pharmacies selling Schedule X drugs cannot jump through the bureaucratic loopholes and apathetic regulation that is associated with Schedule H drugs.

Mehra’s monthly ritual for getting her ADHD pills involves going to one of the only two government-run pharmacies in India, who take her prescription after providing her the required pills. This pharmacy also cross-checks her name, address and past purchases. Such steps are a far cry from most day-to-day purchases at other pharmacies, where one keeps their prescription, and their personal details and past purchases are never investigated.

In other words, Mehra finds it more difficult and time-consuming to get her hands on prescribed ADHD pills than unprescribed modafinil ones. Interestingly, she wasn’t. Interestingly, She was not the only interviewee who had a run-in with nootropics and was also diagnosed with mental health issues. Bhatia was also diagnosed with ADHD this year.

“When I look back at it, the signs have been there all my life,” she said. After all, her inability to focus on tasks is what drew her to modafinil in college in the first place. “I was never dependent on modafinil. I was addicted to that feeling that, for the first time in my life, I could actually work without being distracted all the time.”

“If someone comes into my clinic trying to dupe me into giving them a [modafinil] prescription, I try to learn more about their mental health. More often than not, I end up discovering they have ADHD or anxiety or such things. They are more productive and healthier if they get the right help for those underlying issues instead.”

His caution is not without good reason – modafinil taken without medical supervision can have its drawbacks. It gave Bhatia the ability to work with intense concentration for long periods of time. But if she didn’t have her work lined up before taking the pill, she could end up intensely focusing on trivial tasks instead.

She had other challenges with modafinil too. During finals week during her college years, she had been taking modafinil repeatedly. During this time, “it’s like my body was asleep but my mind was awake.”

She recounts the last exam of her college career. “I revised for it. I went to the exam hall, got the paper, and completely blanked out. My eyes were open, but my mind was just shut,” she recounts. “The questions were straightforward, but I stared at that paper like I was expected to write high-level theoretical formulas. I knew right there that I was failing it.”

On the other hand, Arushi Tandon, a 24-year-old assistant manager for Ashoka University’s entrepreneurship department, turned to a nootropic to improve her mental state after her prescribed pills couldn’t. She had been prescribed a concoction of psychiatric medicines to manage her mental health. She was a type-A personality since childhood and had burned herself out on academic work so much that her immune system had given up and she had developed lupus in college. She could not continue taking her psychiatric medicines as they caused her lupus symptoms to flare up.

“And that’s when I turned to homeopathic and Ayurvedic medicines, including ashwagandha and brahmi,” she says, referring to two medicines that are frequently taken by nootropics users and praised on online forums. While she hadn’t taken these medicines specifically to seek out their cognitive boost, she felt the improvement anyway.

“It was a slow and gradual process, like over a couple of months,” she says. “But when it kicked in, I felt the most relaxed and in control of my work than I had since high school, since I started taking antidepressants and stuff.”

Bhatia sums it up best. She was diagnosed with ADHD after she moved out of India. Once abroad, she had more awareness and access to psychological resources. “Had I known I had ADHD all along, I could have saved so many situations throughout my life. I might not have turned to modafinil in the first place.”

Looking at her, it is easy to wonder how many other students might be like her, students who turned to poorly understood and illegal ‘smart drugs’ when what they really needed was psychological support.

Ruhi Soni lives in Bangalore, India. She is a recent graduate in journalism at Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Center, which made the article available to Asia Sentinel. She also studied biology and is pursuing science journalism. She can be reached through Twitter at @rookarmeremanko.

This article is among the stories we choose to make widely available. If you wish to get the full Asia Sentinel experience and access more exclusive content, please do subscribe to us.



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Shinzo Abe, SP Balasubramaniam, Paswan among Padma award winners


This year the President has approved 119 Padma awards. The list comprises seven Padma Vibhushan, 10 Padma Bhushan and 102 Padma Shri Awards

New Delhi: Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, singer S.P. Balasubramaniam (posthumously), sculptor Sudarshan Sahoo and archaeologist B.B. Lal are among this year’s seven recipients of the Padma Vibhushan, the country’s second-highest civilian award, the government announced on Monday while releasing the list of winners of the Padma Awards.

Former Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, former principal secretary to PM Nripendra Misra, former Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan (posthumous), former Assam CM Tarun Gogoi (posthumous), Gujarat CM Keshubhai Patel (posthumous) and religious leader Kalbe Sadiq (posthumous) are among this year’s 10 recipients of the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award.

 

Archaeologist B.B. Lal had floated the “pillar base theory” at the disputed Babri Masjid site, claiming that they had identifications similar to those found in Hindu temples.

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan has also been given Padma Vibhushan. He first shot to limelight when he gave a clarion call to Muslims to relinquish claims over the disputed Babri Masjid site, one the first community leaders to do so.

Former governor of Goa, Mridula Sinha, has been awarded the Padma Shri posthumously.

The 1971 Bangladesh war veteran Lt Col Quazi Sajjad Ali Zahid and Bangladeshi artist Sanjida Khatun have been awarded the Padma Shri. Other Padma Shri awardees include P. Anitha for sports, Rajni Bector for trade and industry, Peter Brook from the United Kingdom for art, Nicholas Kazanas from Greece for literature and education.

 

This year the President has approved 119 Padma awards. The list comprises seven Padma Vibhushan, 10 Padma Bhushan and 102 Padma Shri Awards. Of these awardees, 29 are women and 10 foreigners/NRI/PIO/OCI. There are 16 posthumous awardees and one transgender awardee.

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Better Products By Design | Asian Scientist Magazine


AsianScientist (Jan. 25, 2021) – Long before the zero-waste movement gained popularity, retailers had already begun focusing on various ways to minimise consumer waste, from providing incentives for returning packaging to adopting innovative designs like paper packaging that can be eaten or re-purposed.

As the threat of climate change intensifies, consumers are increasingly choosing to purchase products from companies that commit to better sustainability practices. One such company is Coca-Cola, which hopes to redesign their packaging to reduce waste. They are embracing the wisdom of the crowd as one of four companies crowdsourcing for solutions to their challenge statements through the inaugural Design Think-Tank Challenge, an open innovation call ending on 31 January 2021.

In their challenge statement, Coca-Cola calls for unique packaging ideas that will transform how they get products to consumers. Typical plastic bottles can take up to 450 years to decompose, posing a serious threat to our environment. To play their part in protecting the planet, Coca-Cola aims to achieve their goal of 100 percent recyclable packaging by 2025.

Organized by the DesignSingapore Council and IPI, the Design Think-Tank Challenge connects industry players with innovative design consultancies who provide solutions to their problems in new, effective and exciting ways. Firms that are shortlisted can look to gain fruitful partnerships through the co-development of innovative ideas and products.

Coca-Cola joins Procter & Gamble (P&G), Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and Danone in sharing problem statements ranging from the need for sustainable packaging to fresh ideas for new environmentally-friendly products. All six challenge statements are available online for potential participants.

Total commitment to zero-waste

As manufacturers of a wide range of personal health, personal care, beauty and baby products, P&G has been a household name for generations. Nonetheless, the company has been quick to adapt to changing market demands, recognizing the importance of sustainable business practices and launching a set of goals to reduce their environmental footprint in 2010. Looking ahead to 2030, P&G has launched initiatives like a Pampers diaper waste collection pilot in Amsterdam, increasing the recycled content in its Ariel liquid detergent, and sourcing all their wood pulp from responsibly managed forests.

P&G has also set its sights on zero-waste haircare solutions across liquid, cream, solid or gel products. With the ultimate goal for no trash to be sent to landfills, incinerators or the ocean, the company is seeking renewably sourced materials, sustainable business models, and biodegradable product and packaging design. Not forgetting the customer experience, the proposed solution should still maintain high quality beauty products that P&G customers have come to expect.

Reimagining packaging for re-using and re-purposing

Instead of completely eliminating waste, global food and beverage company, Danone, is looking for ways to re-use existing packaging, particularly in Southeast Asia and India where 4,000 tons of packaging waste are produced annually. Currently, infant milk formula—one of the company’s leading products—is sold in disposable pouches for food safety reasons. Hence, Danone is hoping to move to a circular model where packaging is re-used or re-purposed, instead of being discarded.

As sustainable packaging could potentially account for up to 30 percent of product cost compared to its current seven to 11 percent, the company is looking for creative design solutions that incorporate quality materials that protect the milk powder for at least 18 months, while minimizing the disposal of used packaging.

Monitoring health at home

Apart from ensuring that their infants are well-fed, parents are also deeply concerned whether their babies get enough sleep—and with good reason. Poor sleep in babies does not just deprive their parents of rest, it could also lead to health issues and impaired development in the child. Despite the recognised importance of sleep, 50 percent of infants in Asia are reported to have sleep quality issues.

J&J, a leader in medical devices, pharmaceutical and consumer goods, wants to make a difference. Hoping to bridge the gap between home solutions and advanced medical care, one of the problem statements that J&J hopes to address is in looking for a simple and easy-to-use diagnostics solution that will allow parents to monitor babies’ sleep quality and glean actionable insights. It is also important that the solutions are affordable, accurate and reliable.

If you have a creative solution to any of these problems, head over to https://design.innovation-challenge.sg/ to find out more and submit your proposals by 31 January 2021, 12.00pm (GMT +8).
Please note that this challenge is not meant to be a free design consultancy service. DesignSingapore Council does not support free pitching and this has been shared with the participating companies. Interested consultancies are advised to share their points of view or a brief description of an ongoing innovation project that could address a specific design challenge. If the company is keen, it will directly arrange with the designer or consultancy to further discuss how they can work together and formalize a partnership.

Asian Scientist Magazine is a media partner of Intellectual Property Intermediary (IPI) Singapore.

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Copyright: IPI Singapore. Read the original article here.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.


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Parler website temporarily resuscitated in Russia


  • Parler was booted from AWS after its alleged use to incite insurrection at the US capitol
  • The site has set up shop with a Russian hosting and cybersecurity company
  • But the government of Russia has laws that compel tech companies to comply with its requests, including surveillance

Cloud services are increasingly dominated by fewer, bigger companies that can provide the web infrastructure and cybersecurity services social media services require. 

Just recently, this was made apparent when AWS booted the right-wing-leaning social media site Parler, after its alleged facilitative role in insighting violence and insurrection at the Capitol earlier in January.

Parler’s CEO John Matze in a legal filing said Parler did not have “the technical and security expertise to host the Parler environment on its own,” adding, “Nor is it feasible for Parler to do so.” 

He said the computers and other equipment needed to host Parler’s site would cost more than US$6 million and take weeks to arrive. “Simply put, it would not be possible for Parler itself to acquire the necessary servers and related security infrastructure in a commercially reasonable time frame,” he said.

As Parler went offline last week, the platform said it tried to register with six potential providers, all of which failed. Parler’s COO Jeffrey Wernick told The New York Times that the social network would prefer US-based providers and is working to find them. The platform registered its domain through Seattle-based Epik, a company that has supported other websites that tech companies have rejected, including Gab, another social network popular in right-wing circles.

While Parler has been shunned by the US tech industry’s biggest names, it purports to have more than 12 million users, Reuters report claimed, making the platform too big for most small hosts. 

Russia – rescuer or opportunist?

With domestic options sparse, Parler is looking overseas. And Russian-owned web security service, DDoS-Guard agreed to host Parler for a mere bare-bones web presence. So far, that amounts to a message under the heading “Technical Difficulties” that says it plans to resolve its challenges and welcome visitors back soon.

Russia has passed laws that compel tech companies to comply with government requests. The surveillance system, known as the System for Operative Investigative Activities, “basically allows the Russian government to intercept any data on Russian territory and provide that data to the F.S.B.,” Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, said Alina Polyakova, head of the Center for European Policy Analysis, a foreign policy think tank in Washington.

Parler could expose its users to Russian surveillance if the site someday does relaunch in full with DDoS-Guard. By embracing DDoS-Guard, even as a quick-fix solution, Parler joins a growing list of far-right sites like 8kun and the Daily Stormer that US infrastructure companies have knocked offline, only to see companies in countries with limited internet freedom — like DDoS-Guard — enable their reemergence. 

According to Bloomberg, a spokeswoman for DDoS-Guard said the company was not hosting Parler and declined to comment on what services it was providing to the social media app. It confirmed it did store customer data as part of its offering.

In another separate report, DDoS-Guard told WIRED it is only providing defense against denial-of-service attacks, not hosting Parler’s site. But even that level of support requires access to all the traffic that flows through Parler so that it can “scrub” out malicious traffic aimed at overwhelming the site.



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Taiwan Tightens COVID-19 Regulations Amid String of Hospital Infections – The Diplomat


China Power | Society | East Asia

Taiwan is working to contain a domestic outbreak and maintain its remarkable success in containing the coronavirus.

People wearing face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus go through gates of a metro in Taipei, Taiwan, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying

Taiwan has reported 12 total cases of COVID-19 linked to a cluster of infections at a northern hospital, leading the country to stiffen some regulations to prevent further community spread.

Health Minister Chen Shih-chung announced two new domestically transmitted cases on January 22, both linked to the cluster infection at Taoyuan General Hospital.

Taiwan went over eight months without a locally transmitted case of COVID-19 before a pilot for Taiwan’s EVA Air infected a Taiwanese woman in December. It has reported 12 cases in the hospital cluster since January 12.

On January 19, Taiwan’s government canceled celebrations for the Taiwan Lantern Festival, held annually to celebrate the Lunar New Year. The presidential office has also canceled its Lunar New Year reception, while some city governments have canceled their own lantern festival events.

The Taiwan Railway Administration said it would stop leasing main halls in the country’s train station. It also installed partitions in food court areas and positioned tables further apart.

Taoyuan Mayor Cheng Wen-tsang said on January 21 that Taoyuan General Hospital had completed a mass evacuation of patients so that hospital buildings could be disinfected by a team of government workers and members of the army’s “chemical warfare” group.

Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center said the next day that all discharged or transferred patients listed as high risk from the hospital must go into quarantine.

The hospital cluster has jolted Taiwan, especially as some of the infections occurred outside the hospital when workers infected their family members.

The country has largely existed in a COVID-free bubble due to a speedy, efficient, and transparent early response, which has led to a high level of trust between government and the population.

The new cluster showed signs of testing this trust. Chen, the health minister, did not initially reveal the location of the cluster, leading to days of speculation among citizens and the media.

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) spokesman Liu Kang-yen on Thursday ripped the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) for “political maneuvering” after KMT magistrates warned against unnecessary travel to Taoyuan, the location of the hospital cluster.

Taoyuan, which is home to around 2.2 million people along with the nation’s primary international airport, has become enveloped in fear of the virus, even as the total case count remains low. “Chemical warfare” army troops have been seen disinfecting the city on a regular basis throughout the week.

KMT spokesperson Chen Wei-chieh said the magistrates were only speaking on behalf of public health and noted Taiwan’s defense ministry has asked military service people to avoid visiting Taoyuan.

Taiwan has reported a total of 881 cases of COVID-19 and seven deaths as of January 22. Only 93 of those cases have been classified as community infections, most of which occurred before April 12, 2020.

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Serum Institute of India: Blaze at facility of world’s biggest vaccine maker kills 5 people


The blaze at the Serum Institute of India (SII) in the western city of Pune was brought under control on Thursday though the cause is still under investigation, according to Murlidhar Mohol, the city’s mayor.

Four people were rescued from the six-floor building but five others died, Mohol said. They are believed to have been construction workers as the building was still under construction at the time of the fire.

Videos and images showed black smoke billowing out of the building at the company’s complex. Fifteen units of the municipal corporation and fire department worked to douse the fire, Mohol said.

Preliminary investigations suggest that “during the building’s construction, some welding work could have led to the fire,” he added.

Pune’s fire brigade chief Prashant Ranpise said Friday that the fire started on the second floor. As firefighters worked to put out the flames, the blaze reigned in another spot. The second fire was extinguished at 4:15 p.m. local time by 50 firefighters and personnel. Ranpise said they are still investigating the cause of the fire.

“We have learnt that there has unfortunately been some loss of life at the incident. We are deeply saddened and offer our deepest condolences to the family members of the departed,” SII CEO Adar Poonawalla tweeted Thursday.

SII, the world’s biggest vaccine maker, is in partnership with Oxford University and AstraZeneca to produce the Covishield vaccine. In December, the company said it was producing 50 to 60 million doses of Covishield per month, with production to be scaled up to 100 million doses in January or February.

A family business started by Poonawalla’s father 50 years ago to bring cheaper vaccines to the masses, the Serum Institute of India is aiming to produce hundreds of millions of coronavirus vaccines for not only India, but also other developing countries.

In a tweet, Poonawalla said that despite a “few floors being destroyed,” production of the Covishield vaccine would not be affected.

“I would like to reassure all governments and the public that there would be no loss of COVISHIELD production due to multiple production buildings that I had kept in reserve to deal with such contingencies,” he said.

Cyrus S. Poonawalla, SII’s chairman and managing director, said in a statement that the fire broke out at a facility that was under constriction in the Special Economic Zone at Manjri. He said it was an “extremely sorrowful day” and the company would offer INR 2.5 million ($34,000) to each of the victims’ families.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his condolences Thursday: “Anguished by the loss of lives due to an unfortunate fire … In this sad hour, my thoughts are with the families of those who lost their lives. I pray that those injured recover at the earliest.”



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Banyan – Mongolians are chafing at the government’s anti-covid curbs | Asia


VAST, POOR, and landlocked, Mongolia is hard to defend against covid-19. Yet its record fighting the plague had looked quite good until recently. Its first documented case of domestic transmission came only in November. Infections have since spread across the capital, Ulaanbaatar, home to nearly half the country’s 3.2m people. The government claims, improbably, there have been no deaths.

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A full-blown epidemic would completely unravel the threadbare health system. Yet a protest by thousands of mainly young Mongolians in Ulaanbaatar’s main square on January 20th highlights resistance to the government’s oppressive approach. They were decrying the way a mother, diagnosed with covid-19, and her newborn baby were hustled out into the cold to a coronavirus unit. The health minister and a deputy prime minister offered to resign.

Mongolia’s initial success came at a high price, says Sumati Luvsandendev of the Sant Maral Foundation, a polling outfit. The ruling Mongolian People’s Party, which strengthened its hold in a landslide parliamentary win in June, has shown a heavy hand—after all, it is the successor to the party that ruled when Mongolia was a Soviet satellite. As the pandemic spread from China a year ago, it closed the borders even to the many Mongolians who work abroad. Most have still not managed to return.

At home, schools have been shut for nearly a year. The livelihoods of many Mongolians vanished when street stalls, beauty salons and other small businesses shut down. The government provided little support, says Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, a former minister from the opposition Democratic Party who runs an NGO encouraging better sanitation in the districts of canvas and felt gers (yurts) in which 60% of the capital’s population live.

Hunger stalks the ger districts, which house migrants from the countryside looking for a more prosperous life. Mongolia’s herders are helping out their urban cousins. A recent campaign urged herding families to donate a sheep to city folk. They gave enough to feed 15,000 families.

Not all is gloom. The banning of coal in favour of smoke-free briquettes for heating and cooking in the ger districts is improving Ulaanbaatar’s pea-soup pollution. Businesses are starting to reopen, if haphazardly. The mining industry is booming again, with coal as well as copper from Oyu Tolgoi, a flagship mine, pouring across the border to China. Four years ago Mongolia faced twin fiscal and balance-of-payments crises. Today, mining revenue can stave off the worst. But that still leaves the government heavily in debt, and the economy ever more in thrall to its giant southern neighbour, a situation that worries nearly all Mongolians.

Yet Mongolia remains a land of frustratingly untapped potential. With 20 times more livestock—sheep, cattle, horses, goats, yaks and camels—than people, it could make much more of its cashmere as well as its intrinsically organic meat. But, says Julian Dierkes of the University of British Columbia, that takes much better branding, quality control and, in the case of meat, logistical dexterity than the government and business have managed so far.

Politics suddenly looks brittle. The disciplinarian prime minister, Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh, perhaps afraid his luck curbing the pandemic is running out, appears to fancy the relatively cushy post of president, for which an election takes place in June. The incumbent, Khaltmaagiin Battulga of the Democratic Party, exemplifies the best way into Mongolia’s macho politics: winning fame as a wrestler. His presidency is notable for its dearth of foreign-policy initiatives. Rather than vigorously strengthen ties with “third” neighbours such as America, Australia, Japan and South Korea as a counterweight to Mongolia’s two actual ones, China and Russia, he has instead befriended that other muscly martial-arts fan, Vladimir Putin.

The Democratic Party’s old guard, resistant to fresh blood, was punished in the parliamentary elections. Yet both main parties lack programmes and policies. Some modernisers, including Ms Oyungerel, lament a quasi-militarist flourish in politics—all salutes, medal-pinning and uniforms even for the civil service. She says she will challenge Mr Battulga for her party’s presidential nomination. Liberal and, worse, a woman, the odds are against her. Yet her call for a new politics resonates with younger Mongolians. Right now the stage seems to be theirs. Mr Khurelsukh apparently refused to accept his ministers’ resignations. That led to behind-the-scenes objections from members of his own party. On January 21st the prime minister resigned, leaving the future of the MPP government in confusion.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Pastoral care”

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Voices From China’s Covid Crisis, One Year After Wuhan Lockdown


They are survivors, essential workers and specialists still trying to understand the physical and emotional effects of the coronavirus. They make up a tapestry of people, offering a view of the first months of the pandemic, and of what China’s recovery means.

A year after the Covid-19 lockdown in the Chinese city of Wuhan — the first in the world, and still one of the harshest — we asked six people, some of whom we spoke to at the height of the outbreak, to describe what they have been through.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

One day in August, our manager reminded us that drivers always had to wear masks, no matter how much the situation had improved. Personally, I don’t know if it’s PTSD, but I always wear a mask. I’m probably the only driver in our company who still always carries hand sanitizer in my pocket and uses it regularly.

I always thought I wasn’t afraid of death. But I found out during the epidemic that I’m terrified of it. I missed my wife, my 5-year-old twin boys, my father, so much. I thought, if I survive this, what will I do?

So after the lockdown lifted, my first thought was going home. I stayed two months. In the past, I would stay two or three days, maybe a week, then hurry back. I don’t make a lot of money, and my mind was always on making more. But now, my thinking has changed. If I make a little more money, what’s the use?

I never thought that this sudden epidemic would create a situation where everyone said thank you. I was shocked. Wasn’t respect for people like experts, academics, celebrities? How could it go to a delivery worker? It made me so happy.

Now, things have gone back to the way they were last year. This is human nature.

Zhang Yongzhen, a virologist, came under immense official pressure after he released the full sequence of the new coronavirus on Jan. 11 of last year, in defiance of Chinese government orders. He remains absent from Beijing’s narrative of how the country beat the virus, in contrast with Zhong Nanshan, the government-appointed doctor celebrated for announcing what many experts had already figured out: that the virus could be transmitted by humans.

At that time, I made four findings about the virus. One, it was like SARS. Two, it was a new coronavirus. Most important, the virus was transmitted through the respiratory tract. I also thought it was more infectious than the flu virus. Even then, I thought it must be able to spread from humans to humans.

If more experts had shared my opinion from the beginning, then we may not have needed Zhong Nanshan to say something.

Whether in the United States or in China, we need to cultivate a group of critics — real scientists in the field. China really needs it. Zhong Nanshan is old. Who will be the next to dare to speak the truth? You must have enough courage to speak the truth.

I have since encountered some difficulties in terms of my work and funding for my programs. But I don’t regret anything I did. I trusted myself. I have so much experience, my team has made so many discoveries over the years, that we were able to make accurate judgments.

I hope you can mention one thing. My wife passed away on Oct. 13, 2019. We got married in 1989 and we were together for 30 years. If I have made any contribution to society, it is because of the support of my wife.

Blair Zong, 34, was one of hundreds of Americans who were evacuated from Wuhan, and she published a visual diary in February chronicling her quarantine on a military base in California. She is now in Austin, Texas, working as an event planner and a nanny.

After Wuhan locked down, I was nervous and anxious. I heard rumors about people dying and things got really scary. Someone sent me a report that said America was evacuating citizens, so I called the consulate. I made the decision to go and said goodbye to my mom and grandparents.

The day I left quarantine, there was a lady behind me in line in the San Diego airport who was coughing nonstop. I remember thinking at the time that it was a bad sign, but I also felt like there was no way the virus could spread here that badly. Everything was normal again.

But then starting in March, people here started buying up toilet paper, and the panic came back. The situation had stabilized in China, so my friends there started to mock me, asking: “Do you regret going back now?” One of my college friends in Wuhan sent me a package of goggles and masks.

I have become more calm and more careful about life. I accept everything as it comes. I’m trying to be more eco-friendly.

As Wuhan focused on fighting the coronavirus, Zhao Qian, 29, struggled to get medical treatment for her newborn daughter, who had a life-threatening heart condition.

At the time, hospitals weren’t taking in any patients, including our daughter. We tried so hard, we tapped every possible resource and connection, and it was only through our efforts that we were able to save our daughter’s life. All of the doctors had gone to the frontline.

Overall, though, the country’s policies were quite good. I remember when all the supermarkets were closed, some volunteers were still helping me buy food. No matter what unpleasant hearsay or rumors there may have been, I think the country was very powerful. Wuhan people are now very safe. It’s very reassuring.

Any Chinese person should feel very proud. No matter how great the hardship, even with an outbreak that was so serious that other countries couldn’t control it, as long as the people are unified, I think we can get through anything.

Lei Wuming, 50, a psychology professor at the Wuhan University of Technology, began hosting funerals over WeChat, a popular messaging app, to give grieving families a way to mourn.

Back then, I was like a priest hosting these funerals. I was also a psychologist. I helped create an atmosphere for families to express their grief. First, to express their grief, and second, to cherish the memories.

It brought families closer. They recalled the same memories and the same person and it made their relationship closer. They were huddling together to keep warm.

The families would set up a chat group. Then I would join. I would play some funeral music and then make a speech. Then I would name each person who would talk, one by one. They could choose to talk, type or even send emojis.

It was social support, so the family would feel, “I am not alone here. I have families and friends who are there for me.”

In retrospect, our death toll compared to Western countries — if it is truthfully reported — ours is quite low. But at the time of the pandemic, we didn’t think like that. We thought we were done for.

After Liu Pei’en’s father died from the coronavirus last January, he vowed to pressure the authorities to take responsibility for initially concealing the outbreak.

Looking back at the first half of last year, I was so angry. The local officials threatened me. I left Wuhan, and they still wouldn’t let it go. They harassed my relatives. They wanted to make it seem like I had a mental illness.

But in the second half of the year, I began to change. I devoted myself to studying Buddhism. Faith allows you to understand life and truth. I could see that retribution and killing have been a part of humanity from ancient times to the present.

My heart began to calm down. I am no longer angry and full of hate. Still, the pain is raw and I cry a lot.

I spend a lot of time praying. I try to donate as much money as I can to temples and other charity organizations for the poor and elderly around Wuhan. I have given more than 100,000 yuan ($15,000) in my father’s name, to help him earn merit.

Any dreams I had for making money before have now faded. Because what is the use of money anyway? Money can’t buy back life.

I realized I was ignorant when I thought I could sue the government. Nothing will come of it. And if you take a step back, everyone is guilty and will face karmic retribution.

I only care about the people around me, about being myself. I’m planning to take my mother to Sanya for Chinese New Year. That’s where we were going to go last year before my father was infected.

Reporting and research was contributed by Keith Bradsher, Albee Zhangand Coral Yang.

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