MAG – Magazine N. 4

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Libra: Facebook’s cryptocurrency will not help the billions of people currently excluded from banks

Libra: Facebook’s cryptocurrency will not help the billions of people currently excluded from banks

‘It’ll never catch on!’
NIKS ADS
 

Kamini Gupta, King’s College London

When Facebook unveiled its new digital currency libra, it explicitly said the initiative was intended to address the problems faced by the world’s unbanked: the 1.7 billion people without a bank account. As well as facing inconvenience, these people generally pay over the odds for financial services like bank transfers or overdrafts.

This is a pretty big potential market for Facebook so it’s not surprising that it would target the opportunity. But could libra really transform access to financial services for those who are currently excluded? There are reasons to raise serious doubts.

Across the world, the main reasons people give for not holding a bank account is that they don’t have enough money, don’t see the need for an account, find it too expensive, or another family member already has one. Not having the right documentation is also a barrier, as is distrust in the financial system.

Mo’ money mo’ problems.
Zilverlight

But the specific barriers to financial inclusion vary significantly by region and are usually a combination of social and economic factors. For instance, while cost is a big barrier in Latin America, lack of documentation is the big issue in Zimbabwe and Philippines.

This makes it difficult for any one intervention to be a solution to this huge group of people. Worryingly, the Facebook “white paper” that outlines libra does not really engage with these problems or say how it plans to overcome them.

Trust and financial literacy

People’s trust in institutions can be very important in influencing the extent to which they use their services, as I have found from my own work into microfinance, which I have presented at conferences but is yet to be published in an academic journal.

I have found that people are more likely to choose something familiar over something novel. Since libra will be a new currency relying on digital wallets and built on blockchain online ledger technology, it is not short of novelties. Inspiring trust is therefore likely to be a major challenge.

And simply signing someone up to an account – be it a bank account or a digital wallet – is only part of the financial inclusion challenge.

In India, 190m people still do not have bank accounts, but the percentage of the population who do have accounts has steadily increased to 80%. In 2017, however, nearly half of all bank accounts in the country had seen no activity over the whole of the previous year. One of the reasons is financial literacy, which remains low both in India and many other developing countries. Many people in India have said they are simply unaware of the different benefits of a bank account, such as overdraft facilities or credit schemes.

As many as 62% of the world’s unbanked have received only a primary-level education or less, and in poorer countries the proportion is almost certainly going to be higher. Expecting such people to make complex currency conversions into a new virtual currency is asking a lot.

Services rendered.
Riccardo Mayer

In the first place, there is a need for financial literacy measures and initiatives aimed at motivating them to use the services available. Without this additional support, there is a strong risk that Facebook will boast large numbers of sign-ups but very low rates of transactions from the people who are most in need.

Big world

Only a few days since Facebook’s announcement, libra has faced strong pushback from regulators and policymakers around the world. There is much concern about this proposed shift of power from central banks to a private corporation.

But aside from questions about the ethics of data privacy or the creation of a supranational currency, libra faces an important practical question. On the one hand, it is not clear how a model such as libra, where there will presumably be little or no physical presence in many countries, would interact with and adhere to local regulations.

On the other hand, if it does conform to the local standards of each country, it is unclear how it will overcome challenges like signing people up and strict documentation requirements. Will it really be able to serve the unbanked better than local providers who are used to the challenges in that specific market already?

Entrepreneurs and businesses can either start with a problem and think of the best way to solve it; or they can start with a solution and find the biggest and best problem it might solve. I’m not convinced that libra is a good move in either direction. Facebook either has a huge amount of work to do to adapt its solution to fit the problem better, or it needs to redefine the problem that it is trying to fix.The Conversation

Kamini Gupta, Lecturer in International Business and Comparative Management, King’s College London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license..

MAG – Magazine N.3

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Notre Dame: a history of medieval cathedrals and fire

Notre Dame: a history of medieval cathedrals and fire

File 20190417 139084 1qv3hhs.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Zabotnova Inna/Shutterstock

Jenny Alexander, University of Warwick

Many great churches and cathedrals have suffered catastrophic fires over their long histories and medieval chronicles are full of stories of devastation and ruin as a result – but they also tell of how the buildings were reconstructed and made better than ever.

The devastating fire that destroyed the roofs and spire of Notre Dame in Paris demonstrated the vulnerabilities of medieval cathedrals and great churches, but also revealed the skills of their master masons. The lead-covered wooden roof structure burned so fast because the fire was able to take hold under the lead and increase in intensity before it was visible from the outside, and it then spread easily to all the other sections of the roof.

Notre Dame was saved from total destruction because the medieval builders gave it a stone vault over all the main spaces, and also on the tops of the aisles which meant that the burning timbers and molten lead couldn’t break through easily.

But French churches and cathedrals are more at risk than ones in Britain because they don’t usually have a stone tower in the centre to act as a firebreak – this is what saved York Minster in 1984 when the transept roof caught fire but the tower stopped it spreading further.

Turning to Britain, medieval chronicles provide fascinating reading for historians as we can find eyewitness accounts of the unfolding disasters when fires occurred in the past. At Croyland Abbey in Lincolnshire, the monk who found the fire in the 12th century rushed to the cloister to wake the sleeping monks in their dormitory, but was burned by the red-hot lead falling from the roof and had to be taken to the infirmary for treatment.

Swift action by the other monks saved the building, and the next abbot restored it to its former glory, although the loss of precious manuscripts and documents, “caused them much sorrow”.

Master masons were highly skilled.
Sergio Foto/Shutterstock

The canons of the great priory church of Gisborough in north-east England were very unlucky: the masons had just completed a very splendid, and expensive, rebuilding project when they had to start all over again. On May 16, 1289, so the chronicles tell us, a plumber – in medieval times, someone who worked with lead – and his two assistants went up onto the roof to make a few final repairs to the leads. Unfortunately, the plumber left a fire pan on the roof beams when he went down for his lunch, leaving his assistants to put out the fire. This they failed to do, and the whole roof went up in flames, followed by the building and all its contents.

Traces of the fire can still be found at the west end of the church, which is virtually all that they were able to save, and a new building arose from the ashes over the next hundred years. Plumbers had to be very careful, they were the only ones who needed to have fires burning close to where they were working, and at Ely Cathedral you can still see where a plumber used the hollow between two arches high up on the back of the west front as a makeshift chimney for his fire. Fortunately, nothing dreadful happened there.

Lincoln cathedral.
Lebendigger/Shutterstock

At Lincoln cathedral, we can see where the fire in the west front in the 12th century damaged the staircases because these acted as chimneys and spread the fire quickly up into the rest of the building. The building’s limestone turned pink in the extreme heat and it’s clear that the masons had to take down the more damaged parts of the west front to repair the stonework that had been closer to the fire and had cracked. One fascinating detail remains: the masons had to check how deeply the fire damage had penetrated the stone and the marks they cut into the stone are still there.

Detail of one of the Becket Miracle Windows in Canterbury Cathedral, 1180-1220, marking the shrine to St Thomas Becket.
Platslee/Shutterstock

Canterbury Cathedral was struggling to cope with all the pilgrims drawn to the shrine of the murdered Thomas Becket and a fire of 1174 gave the monks the chance to build a fine new building to house his shrine.

The eyewitness account has details of the heroic monks rushing into the building to save all its treasures, and it’s even been suggested that this fire wasn’t an accident and was started by the monks themselves as it brought so many benefits in its wake. The master mason gave them a superb new building in the Gothic style and with all the funds pouring in, the monks were able to move back into their church within five years of the fire, although completing the building work took a little longer.

St Paul’s Cathedral. Originally a medieval church, rebuilt after the Great Fire of London.
George M Hiles/Shutterstock

For Sir Christopher Wren, the Great Fire of London in 1666 gave him the opportunity he’d been waiting for: to give London the cathedral it needed for the modern age. The medieval cathedral had been falling into disrepair for years and various attempts to patch it up had left it weakened and muddled in appearance. Wandering among the ruins after the fire, Wren was handed a piece of stone from a tomb monument with the word “Resurgam” – I will rise again – carved on it, and this encouraged him to press on with his plans for a whole new building. It took 50 years, but it gave us the St Paul’s Cathedral that we know today.

Coventry also rose from the ashes of despair after the firebombing of November 1940 in World War II. The cathedral had been built as one of the city’s great medieval churches and became the city’s cathedral in 1918. It was a fine late-medieval building with a huge timber roof, and this was no match for the fire bombs that rained down on it during Coventry’s blitz.

Burning timbers fell straight down into the building and caused a huge bonfire that cracked the slender stone work supports and brought them crashing down. By morning, the building was a devastated shell. Basil Spence, the architect of the new Coventry Cathedral in the 1950s, sensitively integrated the ruins into the design of his new building where they stand as a memorial to the events of the 1940s.

Illustration of York Minster.
Morphart Creation/Shutterstock

The 20th century has seen a few serious fires. York Minster’s huge 1984 fire was believed to have been caused by either lightning, or an electrical fault. York has been very unlucky over the years, it’s had a succession of fires and without stone vaults over the building, the minster has been very vulnerable. After the last restoration, York had the inspired idea of asking school students to design some of the carvings on the new transept vault.

The threat of fire in historic buildings is a constant one, and the people who look after the buildings, on a day-to-day basis, or in response to disaster, are unsung heroes who deserve gratitude and support. Notre Dame, Paris will be restored and made glorious once again – fires have always been a risk, and restorations have always been a part of church history.The Conversation

Jenny Alexander, Associate Professor, University of Warwick

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

China’s ‘Silk Road urbanism’ is changing cities from London to Kampala – can locals keep control?

China’s ‘Silk Road urbanism’ is changing cities from London to Kampala – can locals keep control?

File 20190327 139380 1qnb43p.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
View of Kampala.
Shutterstock.

Jonathan Silver, University of Sheffield and Alan Wiig, University of Massachusetts Boston

A massive redevelopment of the old Royal Albert Dock in East London is transforming the derelict waterfront to a gleaming business district. The project, which started in June 2017, will create 325,000 square metres of prime office space – a “city within a city”, as it has been dubbed – for Asian finance and tech firms. Then, in 2018, authorities in Kampala, Uganda celebrated as a ferry on Lake Victoria was unloaded with goods from the Indian Ocean, onto a rail service into the city. This transport hub was the final part of the Central Corridor project, aimed at connecting landlocked Uganda to Dar es Salaam and the Indian Ocean.

Both of these huge projects are part of the US$1 trillion global infrastructure investment that is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s ambition to reshape the world economy has sparked massive infrastructure projects spanning all the way from Western Europe to East Africa, and beyond. The nation is engaging in what we, in our research, call “Silk Road urbanism” – reimagining the historic transcontinental trade route as a global project, to bring the cities of South Asia, East Africa, Europe and South America into the orbit of the Chinese economy.

By forging infrastructure within and between key cities, China is changing the everyday lives of millions across the world. The initiative has kicked off a new development race between the US and China, to connect the planet by financing large-scale infrastructure projects.

Silk Road urbanism

Amid this geopolitical competition, Silk Road urbanism will exert significant influence over how cities develop into the 21st century. As the transcontinental trade established by the ancient Silk Road once led to the rise of cities such as Herat (in modern-day Afghanistan) and Samarkand (Uzbekistan), so the BRI will bring new investment, technology, infrastructure and trade relations to certain cities around the globe.

The BRI is still in its early stages – and much remains to be understood about the impact it will have on the urban landscape. What is known, however, is that the project will transform the world system of cities on a scale not witnessed since the end of the Cold War.

Silk Road urbanism is highly selective in its deployment across urban space. It prioritises the far over the near and is orientated toward global trade and the connections and circulations of finance, materials, goods and knowledge. Because of this, the BRI should not only be considered in terms of its investment in infrastructure.

It will also have significance for city dwellers – and urban authorities must recognise the challenges of the BRI and navigate the need to secure investment for infrastructure while ensuring that citizens maintain their right to the city, and their power to shape their own future.

London calling

Developments in both London and Kampala highlight these challenges. In London, Chinese developer Advanced Business Park is rebuilding Royal Albert Dock – now named the Asian Business Port – on a site it acquired for £1 billion in 2013 in a much-criticised deal by former London mayor Boris Johnson. The development is projected to be worth £6 billion to the city’s economy by completion.

Formerly Royal Albert Dock, now Asian Business Port.
Google Earth.

But the development stands in sharp contrast with the surrounding East London communities, which still suffer poverty and deprivation. The challenge will be for authorities and developers to establish trusting relations through open dialogue with locals, in a context where large urban redevelopments such as the 2012 Olympic Park have historically brought few benefits.

The creation of a third financial district, alongside Canary Wharf and the City of London, may benefit the economy. But it remains to be seen if this project will provide opportunities for, and investment in, the surrounding neighbourhoods.

Kampala’s corridor

The Ugandan capital Kampala is part of the Central Corridor project to improve transport and infrastructure links across five countries including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. The project is financed through the government of Tanzania via a US$7.6 billion loan from the Chinese bank Exim.

Under construction: the Chinese-funded Entebbe-Kampala Expressway.
Dylan Patterson/Flickr., CC BY-SA

The growth of the new transport and cargo hub at Port Bell, on the outskirts of Kampala, with standardised technologies and facilities for international trade, is the crucial underlying component for Uganda’s Vision2040.

This national plan alone encompasses a further ten new cities, four international airports, national high speed rail and a multi-lane road network. But as these urban transformations unfold, residents already living precariously in Kampala have faced further uncertainty over their livelihoods, shelter and place in the city.

During fieldwork for our ongoing research into Silk Road urbanism in 2017, we witnessed the demolition of hundreds of informal homes and businesses in the popular Namuwongo district, as a zone was cleared 30 metres either side of a rehabilitated railway track for the Central Corridor required.

As Silk Road urbanism proceeds to reshape global infrastructure and city spaces, existing populations will experience displacement in ways that are likely to reinforce existing inequalities. It is vital people are given democratic involvement in shaping the outcomes.The Conversation

Jonathan Silver, Senior Research Fellow, University of Sheffield and Alan Wiig, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Community Development, University of Massachusetts Boston

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Brexit with brie? Common Market 2.0 proposal explained – through the import and export of cheese

Brexit with brie? Common Market 2.0 proposal explained – through the import and export of cheese

Stuart MacLennan, Coventry University

Amid the ongoing Brexit standoff, one proposal that has been gaining traction and which MPs will now vote on in a series of indicative votes in parliament, has been the cross-party plan for a “Common Market 2.0”.

Superficially, the plan resolves a number of the challenges posed by Brexit, including the thorny issue of the Irish border and the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU. But the plan – also known as Norway+ because it has similarities with the EU’s relationship with Norway – involves the UK compromising on a number of its current red lines, while at the same time requiring a fundamental revision of one of the EU’s existing free trade agreements.

One way to understand how a Common Market 2.0 might work – and how it would differ to other options on the table – is to look at one type of good that might move between countries. Say, cheese.

First, it’s important to establish the difference between a free trade agreement and a customs union. As a rule, tariffs are applied on the basis of where goods originate from. The EU’s free trade agreement with Canada, for example, means that you can import Canadian Avonlea cheese into the EU free from tariffs. However, the EU’s lack of an free trade agreement with the US means that American Monterey Jack cheese is charged at €221.20/100kg. If you first export Monterey Jack to Canada, and then from Canada to the EU it will still be chargeable, as the goods originated in the US. Under a free trade agreement, checks on where good originated – known as “rules of origin” checks – are still required.

A customs union is a more advanced form of trading relationship, where you agree not only to remove any tariffs on each other’s goods, but also to apply the same tariffs on goods originating from third countries. This means, for the purposes of the EU customs union, that Monterey Jack will be treated the same whether it is imported to Belgium or Bulgaria. Within a customs union it’s unnecessary to check from where goods originate when they cross a border as they will already have received the appropriate customs treatment.

Back to the 1990s

The Common Market 2.0 idea is an attempt to reverse engineer the previous 25 years of EU integration, reverting the UK’s participation in the EU to the position before the Maastricht Treaty was agreed in 1992.

Under the plan, the UK would rejoin the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) of which it was a founding member prior to joining the European Economic Community. The UK would also accede to the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement with the EU. This is a two-pillared agreement between the EU, as well as three of the four EFTA members: Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, but not Switzerland. This is often known as the “Norway model”.

Under Common Market 2.0, the UK would be the only state outside of the EU to participate in both the EU customs union and the single market. The lack of a red line bisecting Ireland is the reason why a customs union is so attractive.
Dr Stuart MacLennan

Such an approach would result in the UK adopting EU-EEA measures relating to the internal market, including the free movement of goods and services, and competition law. But the UK would no longer be subject to the direct jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the EU, which would be replaced by the jurisdiction of the EFTA Court.

Under this approach, regulatory alignment is all but guaranteed, as standards would ultimately be agreed by the EU and EEA (of which the UK would be a member) – meaning that all cheese capable of being sold in the EU, be that French brie or Dutch edam, ought to be capable of being sold in the UK and vice versa.

What moves the Common Market 2.0 proposal beyond simply replicating the Norway model, however, is that it also involves the UK entering a customs union directly with the EU, thereby removing the need for rules of origin checks on the Irish border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Checks on cheese moving between Norway and Sweden are rare – but they do happen. By entering into a customs union with the EU such checks along the Northern Irish border would never be necessary.




Read more:
Brexit: why was the Irish border ‘backstop’ so crucial to Brexit deal defeat?


The major stumbling block with Common Market 2.0, however, is that under the EFTA agreement it’s not currently possible for member states to enter into a customs union with other states – whether the EU or otherwise. So Norway cannot enter into a customs union directly with the EU, or the US, for example. If the UK were to seek this, it would require special treatment not only by the EU, but by EFTA as well – the political difficulties of which have been largely overlooked.

Free movement question

The Common Market 2.0 arrangement would also, controversially for many, involve the UK continuing with the free movement of persons. The key piece of legislation providing free movement rights for EU and EEA citizens – directive 2004/38 – was incorporated into EEA law in 2007.

One saving grace for the UK might be the joint declaration attached to that 2007 EEA decision that it cannot be the basis for the creation of political rights, and that the directive does not impinge upon immigration policy. This reflects the fact that the primary focus of EEA law is on economically active migrants, rather than EU citizens.



Read more:
Brexit: a Norwegian view on the Norway-plus model and why it wouldn’t be easy for the UK


The Common Market 2.0 approach is therefore unlikely to be viable. Not only would it enrage the right wing of the Conservative Party, it would require agreement from the EU, the EEA and Switzerland. Given the difficulties the UK has had agreeing a deal with one trading bloc, trying to win over three – the EU, the EEA, and EFTA, as well a domestic audience – looks near-impossible.The Conversation

Stuart MacLennan, Senior Lecturer in Law, Coventry University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license..

Mag – Magazine N. 2

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Privacy, GDPR and Ireland as a one stop shop

THE VIEW FROM GOOGLE: PRIVACY, GDPR AND IRELAND AS A ONE STOP SHOP

In his address, Mr Enright, Google’s Chief Privacy Officer, shares his perspectives on Google’s experiences of GDPR, almost one year on. He discusses lessons learned along the way, as well as sharing perspectives on how Google approaches privacy and data protection, and the importance of Ireland as a One Stop Shop.

About the Speaker:

Mr Enright was appointed as Google’s Chief Privacy Officer last year. He joined Google in March 2011, with nearly 20 years of experience in creating and implementing programs for privacy, data stewardship and information risk management. Prior to joining Google, Mr Enright served as the most senior privacy executive at two Fortune 500 online and offline retail enterprises.

The IIEA is Ireland’s leading European & International Affairs think tank. We are an independent, not-for-profit organisation with charitable status.

Our role is to identify key European and international policy trends, which will inform the work of Ireland’s decision makers and business leaders, and enrich the public debate on Ireland’s role in the EU and on the global stage.

Social media doesn’t need new regulations to make the internet safer – GDPR can do the job

Social media doesn’t need new regulations to make the internet safer – GDPR can do the job

Eerke Boiten, De Montfort University

From concerns about data sharing to the hosting of harmful content, every week seems to bring more clamour for new laws to regulate the technology giants and make the internet “safer”. But what if our existing data protection laws, at least in Europe, could achieve most of the job?

Germany has already started introducing new legislation, enacting a law in 2018 that forces social media firms to remove hateful content. In the UK, the government has proposed a code of practice for social media companies to tackle “abusive content”. And health secretary Matt Hancock has now demanded laws regulating the removal of such content. Meanwhile, deputy opposition leader Tom Watson has suggested a legal duty of care for technology companies, in line with recent proposals by Carnegie UK Trust.

What’s notable about many of these proposals is how much they reference and recall the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Hancock, who led the UK’s introduction of this legislation (though he has also been accused of a limited understanding of it) referred to the control it gives people over the use of their data. Watson recalled the level of fines imposed by GDPR, hinting that similar penalties might apply for those who breach his proposed duty of care.

The Carnegie proposals, developed by former civil servant William Perrin and academic Lorna Woods, were inspired by GDPR’s approach of working out what protective measures are needed on an case-by-case basis. When a process involving data is likely to pose a high risk to people’s rights and freedoms, whoever’s in charge of the process must carry out what’s known as a data protection impact assessment (DPIA). This involves assessing the risks and working out what can be done to mitigate them.

The important thing to note here is that, while earlier data protection laws largely focused on people’s privacy, GDPR is concerned with their broader rights and freedoms. This includes things related to “social protection, public health and humanitarian purposes”. It also applies to anyone whose rights are threatened, not just the people whose data is being processed.

Existing rights and freedoms

Many of the problems we are worried about social media causing can be seen as infringements of rights and freedoms. And that means social media firms could arguably be forced to address these issues by completing data protection impact assessments under the existing GDPR legislation. This includes taking measures to mitigate the risks, such as making the data more secure.

For example, there is evidence that social media may increase the risk of suicide among vulnerable people, and that means social media may pose a risk to those people’s right to life, the first right protected by the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). If social networks use personal data to show people content that could increase this risk to their lives then, under GDPR, the network should reconsider its impact assessment and take appropriate steps to mitigate the risk.

GDPR provides an existing remedy.
Shinonome Production/Shutterstock

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, where Facebook was found to have failed to protect data that was later used to target users in political campaigns, can also be viewed in terms of risk to rights. For example, Protocol 1, Article 3 of the ECHR protects the right to “free elections”.

As part of its investigation into the scandal, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office has asked political parties to carry out impact assessments, based on the concern that profiling people by their political views could violate their rights. But given Facebook’s role in processing the data involved, the company could arguably be asked to do the same to see what risks to free elections its practices pose.

Think about what you might break

From Facebook’s ongoing history of surprise and apology, you might think that the adverse effects of any new feature in social media are entirely unpredictable. But given that the firm’s motto was once “move fast and break things”, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to ask Facebook and the other tech giants to try to anticipate the problems their attempts to break things might cause.

Asking “what could possibly go wrong?” should prompt serious answers instead of being a flippant expression of optimism. It should involve looking not just at how technology is intended to work, but also how it could be abused, how it could go too far, and what might happen if it falls victim to a security breach. This is exactly what the social media companies have been doing too little of.

I would argue that the existing provisions of GDPR, if properly enforced, should be enough to compel tech firms to take action to address much of what’s wrong with the current situation. Using the existing, carefully planned and highly praised legislation is better and more efficient than trying to design, enact and enforce new laws that are likely to have their own problems or create the potential for abuse.

Applying impact assessments in this way would share the risk-based approach of enshrining technology firms with a duty of care. And in practice, it may not be too different but without some of the potential problems, which are many and complex. Using the law in this way would send a clear message: social media companies should own the internet safety risks they help create, and manage them in coordination with regulators.The Conversation

Eerke Boiten, Professor of Cybersecurity, School of Computer Science and Informatics, De Montfort University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Venezuela: region’s infectious crisis is a disaster of hemispheric proportions

Venezuela: region’s infectious crisis is a disaster of hemispheric proportions

Martin Llewellyn, University of Glasgow

Over the last two decades, Venezuela has entered a deep socioeconomic and political crisis. Once recognised as a regional leader for public health and disease control, Venezuela’s healthcare and health research infrastructure has fallen into a state of collapse, creating a severe humanitarian crisis and a major outbreak of infectious disease.

This week, we published the first comprehensive assessment of the vector-borne disease outbreak that is assailing the country. Vector-borne diseases are those spread by insects – mosquitos, sand flies, kissing bugs and others. The “we” is a global consortium of authors, many of whom are Venezuelan doctors and academics working in the country under exceptionally difficult conditions. Others include Colombian, Brazilian and Ecuadorian academics who are witnessing the crisis unfold: Venezuelan refugees on the streets of their cities, diseases (malaria, Chagas disease, measles, diphtheria) spreading through porous land borders, and regional disease outbreaks of unprecedented proportions.

I first travelled to Venezuela in the early 2000s to study Chagas disease, a single-celled parasite spread by the kissing bug, a blood-sucking insect that infests the walls of adobe houses. Chagas disease is a silent killer. Once infected, the parasite can lie dormant for decades in its human host before causing fatal heart disease in middle age.

Kissing bug: spreader of Chagas disease.
schlyx/Shutterstock

You can’t travel to Venezuela, including to the communities where I worked in the Llanos (plains) of the west, without being entranced by the beauty of the landscape and the friendliness of its people. From the laboratory in the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Caracas, where I was taken under the wing of Professor Hernan Carrasco and his team, dancing salsa between the benches on a Friday night, to the villages where we slept under the stars in hammocks while the inhabitants sang joropo music, it is a thoroughly welcoming place.

Venezuela is also a place of extreme inequality. You only have to look up from the glitzy streets of downtown Caracas to the mud and brick ranchos clustered on the hillsides above to appreciate that. It is this inequality that drove the socialist revolution, and while times were good – and oil prices high – much of Venezuela’s wealth found its way into the hands of those who needed it most. Declining oil prices, corruption and mismanagement have changed all that. Alongside economic collapse has come a collapse in basic healthcare, an exodus of medical professionals, and a massive upsurge in disease.

Fragmented information

At the core of the infectious disease crisis in Venezuela is the lack of reliable data. Either through denial, a lack of resource, or both, the Venezuelan state is reneging on its responsibility to report on the extent of current outbreaks. The purpose of our recent review was to draw together fragmented information from Venezuelan civil societies, researchers, international organisations and neighbouring countries to get the best estimate of what is actually going on. Over 400,000 cases of malaria in 2017, 15% of the rural population infected with Chagas disease, surging dengue, Chikungunya and Zika infections. The picture is grim.

Health is highly politicised in Venezuela and working as a researcher is not without risk. My collaborators have been threatened with jail and having their medical licenses suspended simply for reporting outbreaks in the scientific literature. The Institute of Tropical Medicine where I worked has been raided by colectivos (community organisations that supports the Venezuelan government), microscopes smashed, medical records destroyed, hard drives ripped out of computers.

The centre of the current malaria epidemic in southeastern Bolivar state is also the centre of state-sponsored illegal gold mining in Venezuela. The tonnes of gold recently shipped by the Maduro regime to Russia and Turkey is soaked in the sweat and blood of poor Venezuelans, sleeping with their families beside mosquito-infested mining pits. Drawing attention to this malaria epidemic is drawing attention to the ecological and humanitarian disaster in this region where mercury is polluting pristine rivers and thousands are dying for want of antimalarial drugs that the government will not or, more likely, cannot supply.

Illegal gold mining in Bolivar state.
Author provided

Venezuelans are resilient and resourceful people. The Venezuelan researchers still living and working in the country are a testament to that, as is the support they receive from the diaspora of Venezuelans forced to live abroad. In recognising the regional aspect to the crisis, the spillover of disease in the region and the millions of refugees, we hope our review will galvanise international organisations to act. I’m optimistic that we are reaching a turning point in a crisis ten years in the making. I fervently hope the spirit of Venezuelans will break through. I hope that scientists will dance salsa again – and soon.The Conversation

Martin Llewellyn, Senior Lecturer, Institute of Biodiversity Animal Health & Comparative Medicine, University of Glasgow

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.