1. What is the ‘food emergency’ in Sri Lanka?

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper II; International Issues

On August 30, 2021, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, using powers vested in the country’s Public Security Ordinance, declared Emergency regulations pertaining to the distribution of essential food items. The regulations sought to empower authorities to provide essential food items at a “concessionary rate” to the public by purchasing stocks of essential food items, including paddy, rice and sugar, at government-guaranteed prices, and prevent market irregularities and hoarding.

President Rajapaksa has appointed Major General N.D.S.P. Niwunhella as the Commissioner General of Essential Services to coordinate and ensure that people have access to essential supplies, a statement from the Presidential Media Division said. On Monday, the Proclamation on the Emergency Regulations for the Supply of Essential Foods enacted by President Rajapaksa was passed in Parliament. In the week since the regulations were promulgated, several questions have risen on their legal ambit, and their likely impact on the country’s larger economic crisis persisting for two years now.

Is there a precedent?

According to Austin Fernando, a retired civil servant who served as Commissioner General of Essential Services in the 1980s, the post came into prominence after the 1983 ‘Black July’ riots to ensure that affected families — Tamils who were targeted and attacked — had food supplies and other essentials; to facilitate their movement and return to their homes. “I held the post from 1986 to 1988 and was also tasked to look after the requirements of thousands of displaced in the North and East affected by the conflict,” he told The Hindu.

Sri Lanka denies food shortage: govt

Speaking on the recently promulgated Emergency regulations, Mr. Fernando said: “There is criticism. That is because our country has experienced Emergency regulations for more than 40 years. We know that the laws were used by successive governments for alleged disappearances, killings of journalists; and to violate freedom of expression, movement, etc. There is a lot of baggage in there, and criticisms are made based on the past experiences, even though the contents of these regulations appear different.”

What is the criticism?

Criticism of the Emergency regulations has largely been over the government’s legal choices, and their political implications.

In a commentary on the regulations published in Sri Lankan media, senior constitutional lawyer, and former parliamentarian Jayampathy Wickramaratne argued that the government — with a comfortable parliamentary majority — “had all the time in the world” to bring in any legislation needed to deal with the crisis but opted not to do so.

In April this year, Tamil National Alliance legislator M.A. Sumanthiran presented a Private Member’s Bill for legislation needed to declare a public health emergency, deeming current legal regimes “inadequate”.

Instead of bringing in an urgent Bill to help its pandemic response, the government has brought the country under a “fully-fledged State of Emergency”, Mr. Wickramaratne argued, although the current regulations “look innocuous”. “The danger is that given the present government’s propensity to stifle dissent, emergency regulations would be used to curb protests and other democratic action”, he wrote in The Island newspaper.

Is there a food shortage?

There is fear of one. The possibility has grabbed international headlines, with the government’s drastic measures against hoarding, triggering speculation over food security in Sri Lanka that is home to 21 million people. Fuelling the speculation are different factors, including the country’s known reliance on imports for essentials — such as petroleum, sugar, dairy products, wheat, medical supplies — its fast-dwindling foreign reserves, from $7.5 billion in November 2019 to $2.8 billion in July 2021, and the daunting foreign debt repayment schedule in the coming years.

The pandemic’s lethal blow since early 2020, to all major sources of foreign exchange earnings — exports, worker remittances and tourism — has further compounded the economic stress.

Sri Lanka’s economy contracted by 3.6 % last year. According to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan rupee depreciated by 10.1% against the dollar this year. It hovered around 200 against a dollar last week.

The fear of a possible food shortage also stems from the Rajapaksa administration’s decision in April to ban import of chemical fertilizers and adopting an “organic only” approach. Farmers who resisted the move have warned that the dramatic, overnight shift to organic fertilizers could impact production severely. Producers of tea have warned of a 50 % drop in production.

Meanwhile, many, especially daily-wage earners, and low-income families, are complaining about being unable to afford, and in many cases access, essentials such as milk, sugar, and rice during the current lockdown, imposed on August 20 following a rapid surge in daily Covid-19 cases and fatalities, and extended twice since.

Prices of essential commodities — including rice, dhal, bread, sugar, vegetables, fish — have risen several times during the pandemic, and more rapidly in recent weeks. Local varieties of rice — a staple item — currently cost about LKR 120 (₹44) a kg, while common vegetables such as onion and potato are priced over LKR 200 (₹73) per kg. A kilo of fish costs nearly LKR 700 (₹255).

What is the government’s response?

The government has denied reports of a food shortage. In a statement responding to international media reports, the Department of Government Information accused traders of creating an “artificial shortage”. With the recent Emergency regulations, the government has “dealt with the situation,” it said.

On the country’s foreign reserves, the statement attributed the drop to a settlement of $ 2 billion worth sovereign bonds during the last year. Reserves have since increased to $ 3.8 billion, it said. If Sri Lanka accessed a $1.5 billion swap extended by the People’s Bank of China, reserves would increase to $ 5.3 billion, it added, while remaining silent on the foreign debt repayment deadlines coming up in the next few years.

Will the government’s strategy help Sri Lanka cope with the persisting crisis?

Few outside the government think so. “These Emergency regulations are not sustainable,” said K. Amirthalingam, Professor of Economics at the University of Colombo. “Sri Lanka does not have a universal public distribution system or ration cards that can ensure essential goods reach all consumers. The current regulations do not address our fundamental economic problem, and instead pose the risk of creating black markets,” he told The Hindu.

In his view, the recent measures, coupled with the government’s move last year to restrict import of non-essential goods, are taking Sri Lanka back in time. “After four decades since our economy was liberalised, we are going back to 1970s,” he said, referring to the time when then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike promoted import substitution, a policy that her critics associate with food shortage and long queues of people waiting outside shops to buy essentials.

Commenting on the government’s “ill-timed” decision to switch from chemical to organic fertilizer, Prof. Amirthalingam said: “That transition ought to have been staggered, not dramatic like this. Tea producers and paddy farmers say there could be a sharp fall in production because of the chemical fertilizer ban. And that could lead to a food crisis.”

At the heart of the current crisis is the strain on foreign exchange available for imports, that is disrupting the market, particularly for imported food items, according to Ahilan Kadirgamar, a senior lecturer at the University of Jaffna.

He contrasted the current economic situation with the foreign exchange crisis of the 1970s, pointing to some differences in the government’s responses then and now. “In the 1970s, the government initiated or empowered expansive institutions such as the Paddy Marketing Board, Multi-Purpose Co-operative Societies, the Cooperative Wholesale Enterprise and the Food Commissioners Department. However, those institutions were undermined and disempowered with liberalisation after 1977.”

On the government’s apparent policy ambivalence, the political economist said: “The government must either allow the market mechanism to work or, take charge of distribution of essential foods. It needs to either find the foreign exchange for importers to continue sourcing adequate supplies so that shortages or hoarding do not take place or, rapidly empower public institutions and take charge of importing food items and their distribution.”

As the availability of imported foods fluctuates or falls, public distribution mechanisms are necessary to avoid price disruptions and unequal access to food, Dr. Kadirgamar observed. “What will not work is the current sham of claiming that the market mechanism can work amidst unstable and dwindling supplies, and drastic interventions by the state such as price controls and raids on hoarded foods.”

Source: The Hindu

2. Why Apple is delaying its software that scans for child abuse photos

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Science & Technology

Following criticism from privacy advocates and industry peers, Apple has delayed the launch of its software that would detect photographs depicting child abuse on iPhones. The programme was announced last month and was slated for launch in the US later this year.

What is Apple’s software and how would it have worked?

Apple last month said it would roll out a two-pronged mechanism that scans photographs on its devices to check for content that could be classified as Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM). As part of the mechanism, Apple’s tool neuralMatch would check for photos before they are uploaded to iCloud — its cloud storage service — and examine the content of messages sent on its end-to-end encrypted iMessage app. “The Messages app will use on-device machine learning to warn about sensitive content while keeping private communications unreadable by Apple,” the company had said.

neuralMatch compares the pictures with a database of child abuse imagery, and when there is a flag, Apple’s staff will manually review the images. Once confirmed for child abuse, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in the US will be notified.

What were the concerns?

While the move is being welcomed by child protection agencies, advocates of digital privacy, and industry peers, are raising red flags suggesting that the technology could have broad-based ramifications on user privacy. It is believed that it’s nearly impossible to build a client-side scanning system that is only used for sexually explicit images sent or received by children, without such a software being tweaked for other uses. The announcement had put the spotlight once again on governments and law enforcement authorities seeking a backdoor into encrypted services. Will Cathcart, Head of end-to-end encrypted messaging service WhatsApp, had said: “This is an Apple-built and operated surveillance system that could very easily be used to scan private content for anything they or a government decides it wants to control. Countries, where iPhones are sold, will have different definitions on what is acceptable”.

Why has Apple backtracked?

In a statement, Apple said it would take more time to collect feedback and improve proposed child safety features after the criticism of the system on privacy and other grounds both inside and outside the company.

“Based on feedback from customers, advocacy groups, researchers and others, we have decided to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features,” it said.

According to Reuters, Apple had been playing defense on the plan for weeks and had already offered a series of explanations and documents to show that the risks of false detections were low.

Source: The Indian Express

3. Why Moderna’s mRNA candidate brings new hope for an HIV vaccine

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Science & Technology

Forty years since the HIV global epidemic began, new hope has arisen in the hunt for the so-far-elusive vaccine. The US pharmaceutical and biotech company Moderna, which rolled out the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine, recently announced human trials for two HIV vaccines. These are based on the same platform — mRNA — as Moderna’s Covid vaccine.

The human trials

Moderna will be trialling two versions of its vaccine candidate. This is the first mRNA vaccine against HIV to be trialled in humans. According to the US National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) clinical trials registry, 56 HIV-negative people between the ages of 18-50 have been recruited in the phase-1 trial.

There will be four groups in the first phase, with two receiving a mix of the mRNA vaccine versions and two receiving one or the other. The trial is not blind: Participants will know which group they are in.

The two mRNA vaccines will eventually be used alongside another vaccine, developed by the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and Scripps Research.

The hypothesis is that the two Moderna vaccines have the potential to prime a specific type of B-Cell to produce effective neutralising antibodies, and the other vaccine will stimulate them to do so. The study sponsored by IAVI and others is expected to run until May 2023, with the first phase lasting around 10 months.

HIV burden

HIV has claimed 36.3 million lives so far, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). There were an estimated 37.7 million living with HIV at the end of 2020.

There is still no cure. However, with increasing access to effective prevention, diagnosis and care, including for opportunistic infections, HIV infection has become a manageable chronic health condition in recent years.

According to the National AIDS Control Organization’s India HIV Estimation 2019 report, there were an estimated 23.48 lakh people living with HIV in 2019. Overall, the estimated adult (15-49) HIV prevalence trend has been declining in India since the peak in 2000, and has been stabilising in recent years.

The elusive vaccine

HIV tends to change its envelope so rapidly that it is difficult to provide any antibody cover. Additionally, the envelope proteins are covered by a sugar coating that affects generation of an immune response. said Dr R R Gangakhedkar, former director of National AIDS Research Institute, and former Head, Division of the Epidemiology and Communicable Diseases division of Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

“An anti-HIV vaccine has been a challenge given the fact that it is a fast replicating virus and tends to mutate rapidly… Escape mutants are generated rapidly due to the high replication rate of HIV,” said Gangakhedkar, who is also a C G Pandit national chair, ICMR.

Even when antibodies are made, by the time they are produced, the virus rapidly evolves and the antibodies do not neutralise the virus. This rapid mutation allows the virus to escape the antibody response, said leading vaccine scientist Dr Gagandeep Kang. For example, the virus sequences of an untreated individual with HIV tested three months apart would show differences between the later and earlier viruses, she said.

Previous attempts

Dr Kang said previously inactivated forms of the virus and adenovirus vector-based vaccines have been tried, but have not worked. A handful of HIV clinical trials were very carefully set up and conducted, but were halted either for futility when vaccines did not work, or in the case of adenovirus vectored vaccine where there was a signal that participants were more susceptible to HIV, instead of being protected, she said.

“The most important challenges in HIV vaccine development has been the inability to identify the exact correlates of immune response that need to be stimulated to protect against HIV and the enormous diversity potential of the virus. Inducing broadly neutralising antibodies against HIV envelope protein and CD8 T cell responses has been the major focus,” said Dr Sanjay Pujari, infectious diseases consultant and expert member of the national Covid 19 task force.

mRNA: way forward

The Moderna trial is different as it allows one to use technology to design and develop a vaccine really fast, Dr Kang said. It is similar to the Covid-19 vaccine development work so that the body’s cells can produce the virus’s spike envelope to trigger an immune response.

In the HIV context, the mRNA platform has shown promising results in vitro and monkey studies, and it would be useful to test it in human clinical trials, Dr Pujari said. The hope is that this platform has the ability to tweak the RNA to address emerging variants and their potential to escape immune response. “Until now the major challenge for the development of mRNA vaccines was lack of efficient delivery technologies. This has been overcome successfully with Covid-19 mRNA vaccines,” Dr Pujari said.

Preventive & therapeutic

Experts say two approaches can be considered for an HIV vaccine — a preventive and therapeutic one.

A preventive approach would have to check how many vaccinated people develop HIV post-vaccination, or whether the vaccinated ones can resist infection. A therapeutic approach would result in an immune response that would attack the infected cells and prevent further replication, Dr Kang said.

Therapeutic vaccines have been tried without success to achieve a functional cure. It would be interesting to study the performance of the mRNA platform in this context, Dr Pujari said.

For a therapeutic vaccine to work, it has to stimulate cells to generate broadly neutralising antibodies, Dr Gangakhedkar said. “While antiretroviral therapy controls the infection, one has to take drugs lifelong and there are side effects. A curative modality with a therapeutic vaccine and medicine can cure HIV. However, this has to be tested over a period of time, to assess whether the immune response is sustained,” Dr Gangakhedkar.

With HIV incidence having gone down, it reduces the risk of exposure to HIV. Moreover, use of other preventive measures adds to reduction in HIV incidence. These factors pose challenges in undertaking these trials and finding out whether or not the vaccine producing broadly neutralising antibodies actually prevents HIV infection, Dr Gangakhedkar said.

Source: The Indian Express

4. Why health journals have called for climate action

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Environment

In a first-of-its-kind effort, editors of more than 220 leading health journals from all over the world have published a joint editorial asking governments to take immediate and more ambitious climate action to hold global temperatures from rising beyond 1.5°C from pre-industrial times. The editors have urged governments to treat climate change with the same kind of urgency that was shown in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The science is unequivocal: a global increase of 1.5°C above the pre-industrial average and the continued loss of biodiversity risk catastrophic harm to health that will be impossible to reverse,” the editors have said.

The concerns raised

The editorial highlighted the escalating health impacts of climate change, and pointed out that these impacts “disproportionately affect the most vulnerable, including children, older populations, ethnic minorities, poorer communities, and those with underlying health problems”.

“Concern is growing that temperature rises above 1.5°C are beginning to be seen as inevitable, or even acceptable, to powerful members of the global community… Insufficient action means that temperature increases are likely to be well in excess of 2°C, a catastrophic outcome for health and environmental stability… More can, and must be done now… and in the immediate years that follow,” it said.

“Many governments met the threat of Covid-19 pandemic with unprecedented funding. The environmental crisis demands a similar emergency response,” it said.

Why health journals

Climate change has several adverse health impacts, both direct and indirect. Heat-related diseases triggered by extreme heat events, which are on the rise because of changing climate, are an example of direct health impacts of climate change. Changing crop patterns, declining yields, water scarcity, and extreme precipitation are expected to have health consequences as well. Food shortages and resultant malnutrition are considered major side-effects of rising temperatures.

The World Health Organization estimates that about 250,000 excess deaths are likely to be caused by climate change-induced factors — malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea, and heat stress — between 2030 and 2050.

Indeed, the joint editorial points out that higher temperatures have led to “increased dehydration and renal function loss, dermatological malignancies, tropical infections, adverse mental health outcomes, pregnancy complications, allergies, and cardiovascular and pulmonary morbidity and mortality”.

Why now

The joint editorial in health journals comes weeks ahead of COP26, the 26th edition of the annual UN climate conference, in Glasgow. Before that, a similar UN meeting on biodiversity is scheduled in Kunming, China. The editorial is part of the exercise to create momentum for concrete and ambitious decisions at these meetings.

Such exercises are normal in the run-up to these big meetings. In the weeks and months leading up to the climate summit, there is usually a lot of activity. Countries unveil new plans and pledges, NGOs and research institutions release several reports and studies, protests and demonstrations take place, all aimed towards creating sufficient pressure on negotiators to come to more ambitious agreements.

All these do feed into the decision-making process and, to some extent, also influence the final outcome of these meetings.

The editorial’s emphasis on the need to hold global rise in temperatures to 1.5°C — not just 2°C — is in line with growing clamour to put pressure on the governments not to abandon the 1.5°C. The recent IPCC report had mentioned that the 1.5°C target was likely to be reached in less than two decades.

Source: The Indian Express