Current Affairs 5th May

Foreign aid channelled to Central facilities #GS2 #IR

Around 40 lakh items, comprising medicines, oxygen cylinders and masks, among others received in foreign aid have been distributed to 38 institutions and hospitals, mostly run by the Central government in 31 States and Union Territories.

Amid the second wave of COVID-19, with over 3 lakh cases being reported daily, India for the first time in 17 years decided to accept foreign aid.

Emergency aid continued coming into the country from various countries. Seven tankers with 20 metric tonnes of liquid medical oxygen (LMO) each arrived at the Mundra port in Gujarat from the United Arab Emirates, the first such shipment of LMO to India, according to the Ministry of External Affairs.

In a joint effort by the U.K. with the Indian Air Force, 450 oxygen cylinders were ferried to Chennai. The fifth in a series of consignments carrying medical equipment — 545 oxygen concentrators — arrived from the U.S.

Also, a shipment from Kuwait arrived in India with 282 oxygen cylinders, 60 oxygen concentrators, ventilators and other medical supplies.

Govt. gives nod for 5G trials; Chinese tech giants left out #GS3 #SnT #Economy

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) gave permission to Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) to conduct trials for the use and application of 5G technology. This formally leaves out Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE from the 5G race in India.

“The applicant TSPs include Bharti Airtel Ltd., Reliance JioInfocomm Ltd., Vodafone Idea Ltd. and MTNL. These TSPs have tied up with original equipment manufacturers and technology providers, which are Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung and C-DOT. In addition, Reliance JioInfocomm Ltd. will also be conducting trials using its own indigenous technology.

The duration of the trials is for six months, which includes a time period of two months for the procurement and setting up of the equipment. The permissions have been given by DoT as per the priorities and technology partners identified by the TSPs themselves.

Each TSP will have to conduct trials in rural and semi-urban settings also, in addition to urban settings, so that the benefit of 5G technology proliferates across the country and is not confined to the urban areas.

Stating that TSPs are encouraged to conduct trials using 5Gi technology in addition to the already known 5G technology, the statement said the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has also approved the 5Gi technology, which was advocated by India, as it facilitates much larger reach of the 5G towers and radio networks.

The 5Gi technology has been developed by the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M), Centre of Excellence in Wireless Technology (CEWiT) and IIT Hyderabad.

With 5G technology data, download rates are expected to be 10 times that of 4G while giving up to three times greater spectrum efficiency. The trials will be on a non-commercial basis.

86 caught in Sri Lankan waters #GS2 #IR

As many as 86 persons from India, travelling on 11 boats, were on Tuesday caught in Sri Lankan waters as they tried to enter the island nation, possibly fleeing the raging pandemic.

They were intercepted mid-sea and held there by the Navy. We immediately informed the Indian High Commission, asking them to make arrangements for the Indian Coast Guard or the Navy to take them back.

When contacted, an official at the Indian High Commission here said there were “a few boats with Indian fishermen near the IMBL [International Maritime Boundary Line], which were stopped by the Sri Lankan Navy when they inadvertently drifted towards Sri Lanka”.

While the Sri Lankan Navy said it prevented “illegal immigrants” from entering Sri Lankan waters, the Indian mission referred to them as “fishermen”. “After they were told to return, they have gone back towards India. We continue to believe that the matters related to the fishermen of both countries should be dealt with in a humanitarian manner.

Details of where the 86 fishermen came from were not made available. Tamil Nadu is observing the annual 61-day ban on fisheries to allow for breeding in the Palk Strait. During this time, mechanised boats from Tamil Nadu, which are accused of fishing in Sri Lankan waters, are usually off sea.

The Sri Lankan Navy said it has increased patrol along the island’s north and north-western coasts to prevent “illegal migration”.

The development comes days after two women and two children from India were arrested in Sri Lanka for entering the island nation illegally by boat, Captain De Silva said. “One of them was a Sri Lankan refugee who was living in India, and another was a Sri Lankan woman who was undergoing treatment there.” Similar cases of refugees attempting to return to Sri Lanka by boat were also reported during India’s first wave of COVID-19 last year.

In the past two weeks, the Sri Lankan Navy apprehended four Indian dhows with 21 people, carrying “smuggled dried turmeric, cardamom, other consumer goods”, a press release said. “The Indian nationals and the dhows held in these operations were repatriated back to Indian waters, taking into consideration the prevailing spike in the transmission of COVID-19

Clear message from Supreme Court #GS2 #Governance

A series of decisions within a week since Justice N.V. Ramana took over as the 48th Chief Justice of India shows a rejuvenation happening within the Supreme Court in its role as the guardian of rights of ordinary people.

The court has not flinched while ordering a reluctant Uttar Pradesh government to shift journalist Siddique Kappan to Delhi for medical treatment. It has talked straight and true to the Centre about the lapses in managing a devastating second COVID-19 wave that has cost precious lives, especially in the national capital.

The court has also decided to revisit the legality of the law of sedition. The intervention would bring into spotlight the use of sedition as a tool to incarcerate activists, lawyers, students and journalists who voice their dissent against the government. The court’s decision to relook the Section comes hardly three months after it had rejected a similar plea filed by some lawyers.

In Mr. Kappan’s case, a three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice Ramana brushed aside Uttar Pradesh government’s submission that he did not require any special treatment. The Bench held that “the most precious fundamental ‘right to life’ unconditionally embraces even an undertrial”.

The Bench went on to author a detailed order and put on record how the earlier medical reports on Mr. Kappan submitted by the Uttar Pradesh government revealed that he had “multiple health issues like diabetes, heart ailment, blood pressure and bodily injury”. “However, the next set of medical reports and additional affidavit circulated by the State this morning show that he has tested COVID-19 negative.

Chief Justice Ramana, days before his swearing in on April 24, had sent a clear message in a public address that the legal community was obliged to protect the vulnerable sections of society from human rights atrocities perpetrated by the State or any anti-social elements.

The suo motu hearings in ‘ In re: distribution of essential supplies and services during COVID-19 ’ before Justice Sharad A. Bobde had begun by drawing criticism. Senior lawyers went public to say that the Supreme Court’s intervention may interfere with the efforts of various High Courts.

Following Justice Bobde’s exit, the suo motu case went to a new Bench led by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud. The court immediately set the record straight by saying that it did not want to interfere with the High Courts’ work, but wanted to supplement it.

The following days saw the court put the Centre on a clock. Most important, the Bench warned States of contempt if they tried to punish people for airing grievances. The court also made it clear to a “hurt” Election Commission that it would not stop the media from reporting judges’ oral remarks.

Scientists see flaws in SUTRA’s approach to modelling pandemic #GS3 #SnT

With close to 4,00,000 cases being added every day, questions are being raised by some scientists on whether a government-backed model, called SUTRA, to forecast the rise and ebb of the COVID-19 pandemic, may have had an outsize role in creating the perception that a catastrophic second wave of the pandemic was unlikely in India.

An official connected with the COVID-19 management exercise said, on condition of anonymity, that the SUTRA model input was “an important one, but not unique or determining”.

The SUTRA group had presented their views to V.K. Paul, who chaired a committee that got inputs from several modellers and sources. “The worst-case predictions from this ensemble were used by the National Empowered Group on Vaccines and the groups headed by Dr. Paul to take measures. However, the surge was several times what any of the modellers had predicted.

On May 2, the SUTRA group put out a statement, carried by the Press Information Bureau, that the government had solicited its inputs where they said a “second wave” would peak by the third week of April and stay at around 1 lakh cases. “Clearly the model predictions in this instance were incorrect,”

Past its peak

SUTRA (Susceptible, Undetected, Tested (positive), and Removed Approach) first came into public attention when one of its expert members announced in October that India was “past its peak”.

After new cases reached 97,000 a day in September, there was a steady decline and one of the scientists associated with the model development, M. Vidyasagar, said at a press conference then that the model showed the COVID burden was expected to be capped at 10.6 million symptomatic infections by early 2021, with fewer than 50,000 active cases from December. In October, at that time, there were 7.4 million confirmed cases of which about 7,80,000 were active infections.

Computational biologist Mukund Thattai, of the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, in a Twitter thread on May 1 summarised instances of the SUTRA forecasts being far out of bounds of the actual case load.

“The so-called Covid ‘supermodel’ commissioned by the Govt of India is fundamentally flawed,” he tweeted. “Based on Prof. Agrawal’s [Manindra Agrawal of IIT-Kanpur] own posts, it was quite clear that the predictions of the SUTRA model were too variable to guide government policy. Many models got things wrong but the question is why the government continued to rely on this model, than consult epidemiologists and public health experts,” Mr. Thattai told The Hindu .

Mr. Agrawal was among the mathematicians involved in developing the model. In an email to The Hindu , Mr. Agrawal said that the model, which had multiple purposes, didn’t work well on a metric of “predicting the future under different scenarios”.

He said unlike many epidemiological models that extrapolated cases based on the existing number of cases, the behaviour of the virus and manner of spread, the SUTRA model chose a “data centric approach”.

The equation that gave out estimates of what the number of future infections might be and the likelihood of when a peak might occur, needed certain ‘constants’. These numbers kept changing and their values relied on the number of infections being reported at various intervals. However, the equation couldn’t tell when a constant changed. A rapid acceleration of cases couldn’t be predicted in advance.

‘Danger of overfitting’

Rahul Siddharthan, a computational biologist at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, in an email said no model, without external input from real-world data, could have predicted the second wave. However, the SUTRA model was problematic as it relied on too many parameters, and recalibrated those parameters whenever its predictions “broke down”.

“The more parameters you have, the more you are in danger of ‘overfitting’. You can fit any curve over a short time window with 3 or 4 parameters. If you keep resetting those parameters, you can literally fit anything,” he said.

According to Mr. Agrawal, one of the main reasons for the model not gauging an impending, exponential rise was that a constant indicating contact between people and populations went wrong. “We assumed it can at best go up to pre-lockdown value. However, it went well above that due to new strains of virus.”

Further the model was ‘calibrated’ incorrectly. The model relied on a serosurvey conducted by the ICMR in May that said 0.73% of India’s population may have been infected at that time. “ I have strong reasons to believe now that the results of the first survey were not correct (actual infected population was much lower than reported).

This calibration led our model to the conclusion that more than 50% population was immune by January. In addition, there is also the possibility that a good percentage of immune population lost immunity with time,” Mr. Agrawal said.

India reiterates need for global cooperation to beat COVID-19 #GS2 #IR

India on Tuesday reiterated the need for international partnership to deal with the pandemic and called for stronger trade cooperation with the United Kingdom. This intent was expressed during the virtual summit meeting conducted between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his British counterpart Boris Johnson, which came hours after a number of Indian companies, including the Serum Institute of India, pledged major investment in post-Brexit U.K.

“Both leaders emphasised that global cooperation and solidarity are key to fighting the pandemic and achieving sustainable and inclusive recovery. They agreed to expand and enhance the existing U.K.-India vaccines partnership, highlighting the successful collaboration between Oxford University, Astra Zeneca and the Serum Institute of India on an effective COVID-19 vaccine that is ‘developed in UK’, ‘Made in India’ and ‘distributed globally’’.

The declaration to “expand” the vaccine partnership came hours after several major Indian companies pledged to commit major financial investment in the U.K. Prime Minister Johnson on Monday announced a series of commercial trade and investment deals to create 6,500 jobs in his country.

The biggest of the announced deals is by the SII, which pledged £240 million investment to expand its vaccine business. In all, Mr. Johnson declared £1 billion worth trade and investment deals between the two sides that also included software giant Infosys.

The Prime Ministers announced that both sides will negotiate a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that will double bilateral trade by 2030. The two sides also discussed concluding an Interim Trade Agreement to ensure “early gains” of trade.

They agreed to deepen defence ties with a focus on the Indo-Pacific region under the the India-UK Defence and International Security Partnership framework. They also firmed up plans for the new logistics MoU.

How does a concentrator help? #GS3 #SnT

With the demand for medical oxygen continuing unabated and several States struggling to keep pace with demand, the oxygen concentrator has emerged as a sought after device. Unlike medical oxygen sourced from industrial units, which are supplied via cylinders, concentrators are devices that can be operated at home.

When is an oxygen concentrator needed?

When blood saturation levels drop below 94%, it could be a sign of respiratory distress. Usually this merits hospitalisation, but due to the surge in COVID-19 cases and oxygen beds in short supply, the device could help those whose saturation levels range between 88 and 92 if they can’t access hospital services. Any lower would require more intensive oxygenation and any higher would mean that an improvement in lung function can obviate the need for such a device.

What does a concentrator do?

An oxygen concentrator takes in air and separates the oxygen and delivers it into a person via a nasal cannula. Air is 79% nitrogen and 21% oxygen and a concentrator that works by plugging into a source of electricity delivers air that is upto 95% oxygen. In respiratory infections that causes oxygen saturation levels to dip below 90%, having an external device supply pure oxygen eases the burden on the lungs. However in cases of severe respiratory distress, it may be necessary to provide oxygen that is almost 99% pure and an oxygen concentrator is not up to that job,

How does it work?

A concentrator consists of a compressor and sieve bed filter. The former squeezes atmospheric air and also adjusts the pressure at which it is delivered. The sieve bed is made of a material called Zeolite that separates the nitrogen. There are two sieve beds that work to both release oxygen into a tank that’s connected to the cannula as well as release the separated nitrogen and form a continuous loop that keeps producing fresh oxygen.

Are all concentrators the same?

These products come with a variety of specifications. There are those with varying oxygen outputs. For COVID-19 patients, a device with a 5L-10 L output is recommended. What’s important though is that it delivers air that contains at least 90% pure oxygen. The cost of these devices can range from Rs. 40,000 to Rs. 90,000. There are also pulse and continuous flow concentrators where the latter delivers oxygen at a constant rate and the other uses a sensor to deliver a puff of oxygen when a user is about to inhale.

Don’t repeat RT-PCR tests on those positive: ICMR #GS3 #SnT

Citing the increased load on laboratories, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) on Tuesday issued an advisory on testing during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The recommendations advise against repeating of RT-PCR tests on those who have tested positive.

RT-PCR testing on healthy individuals undertaking inter-State travel may be completely stopped to reduce the load on laboratories. The ICMR said India had 2,506 molecular testing laboratories with the daily capacity “close to 15 lakh tests”. At present, the laboratories are facing challenges to meet the expected testing target due to extraordinary case load and staff getting infected with COVID-19.

The ICMR recommended that RT-PCR tests should not be repeated on individuals who have tested positive once through Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) or RT-PCR. It said no testing was required once a COVID-19 patient recovered and is discharged from hospital.

The ICMR suggested that States set up mobile testing systems. The advisory also said RAT should be upscaled to meet the demand and that States should decide on the payment modalities.

The advisory said all those showing symptoms of fever with or without cough, headache, sore throat, breathlessness, body ache, recent loss of taste or smell, fatigue and diarrhoea during the current wave of COVID-19 should be treated as suspected cases of COVID-19 unless proven otherwise.

G7 seeks common front on China #GS2 #IR

The Group of Seven wealthy democracies on Tuesday discussed how to form a common front towards an increasingly assertive China in the Foreign Ministers’ first in-person talks in two years.

Backing U.S. President Joe Biden’s calls for a deeper alliance of democracies, host Britain invited guests, including India, South Korea and Australia, for talks in central London stretched out over three days.

After a welcome dinner on Monday focused on the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea, the Foreign Ministers opened formal talks at Lancaster House, a West End mansion, welcoming one another with COVID-friendly elbow-bumps and minimal staff.

The G7 devoted its first session on Tuesday to China, whose growing military and economic clout and willingness to exert its influence at home and abroad have increasingly unnerved Western democracies.

“It is not our purpose to try to contain China or to hold China down,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Monday. “What we are trying to do is to uphold the international rules-based order that our countries have invested so much in over so many decades to the benefit, I would argue, not just of our own citizens, but of people around the world — including, by the way, China.”

Mr. Blinken pledged “robust cooperation” with Britain in pressuring China over the Xinjiang region, where Beijing’s incarceration of one million Uighurs and other Muslims has been labelled genocide by Washington, and over a clampdown against civil rights in Hong Kong.

‘Respect commitments’

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called for “holding Beijing to the commitments that they’ve made”, including on Hong Kong, which was promised a separate system before London handed over the colony in 1997.

But in line with the Biden administration, which has shifted the tone if not substance of former President Donald Trump’s hawkish stance on China, Mr. Raab also called for “finding constructive ways to work with China in a sensible and positive manner where that’s possible” — including on climate change. “We want to see China stepping up to the plate and playing its full role,” Mr. Raab said.

The nations of the G7 — which also include Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan — mostly share concerns about China but some have different approaches. Japan has historic tensions with China but has held off on joining Western nations with sanctions, wary of inflaming relations with its trading partner.

Italy has been seen as one of the most Beijing-friendly nations in the West, in 2019 signing up for the Belt and Road Initiative. But Rome joined EU peers in March in summoning the Chinese Ambassador in a row triggered by concerns over treatment of the Uighurs.

The Ministers later held a session on the spiralling crisis in Myanmar and were also due to discuss Russia, Libya, Syria, and climate change among other topics.

MFIs flag rural borrower distress to RBI #GS3 #Economy

The pandemic’s second wave is affecting rural households far more than last year, with a large number of microfinance staffers, borrowers and their families hit by COVID-19, impacting many more livelihoods than during the first wave.

The trend, which poses a higher risk of loan delinquencies if the rising infections don’t taper off by the end of May along with mobility restrictions, was flagged by microfinance institutions (MFIs) to the Reserve Bank of India Governor Shaktikanta Das.

Urging the central bank to grant forbearance for borrowers unable to pay instalments with some flexibility for the MFIs to restructure affected loans, industry representatives observed that while collections had been normal till early April — in the wake of the gradual recovery — they had slowed down since then.

“A larger proportion of borrowers and their families are affected by the illness, even in rural areas, in contrast to last year,” an industry executive said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Many of our borrowers’ livelihoods are getting affected and they intend to conserve cash to tide through this phase,” he added.

The official said that a significant section of MFI staff working with borrowers had also been infected, triggering fear among employees.

“Instead of an across-the-board moratorium… it would be better to give MFIs freedom to restructure loans based on requests without attracting the provisioning norms,” said another MFI official. “We have suggested to the RBI to consider this, while invoking relief provisions that are applied for natural calamities,” he said.

In a statement after Monday’s meeting, the RBI said that the Governor had discussed the current economic situation and the outlook on potential stress on MFIs’ balance sheets, as well as credit flows to their borrowers.

ICRA cautioned on Tuesday that MFIs face a ‘high risk’ perception amid the sharp surge in infections. Though some States have classified the industry as an essential activity, borrowers’ cash flows may be affected due to restrictions.

“Rapidly rising infections and mobility restrictions are… impacting MFIs’ field operations,” noted Sachin Sachdeva, sector head, financial sector ratings at ICRA. “Consequently, the industry is witnessing a reduction in collections,” he said.

“We estimate a sequential drop of 8%-10% in collections in April 2021 and the same may dip further,

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