WHO’s Tedros warns against over-reaction to Omicron

GENEVA, Nov 30 (Reuters) – The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) voiced concern on Tuesday that some countries were introducing blanket measures against the Omicron coronavirus variant that may not be necessary and penalised African nations unfairly.

“I well understand the concern of all countries to protect their citizens against a variant that we don’t yet fully understand,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“But I am equally concerned that several Member States are introducing blunt, blanket measures that are not evidence-based or effective on their own, and which will only worsen inequities.”

First reported in southern Africa a week ago, the variant has brought global alarm, led to travel bans, and highlighted the disparity between massive vaccination pushes in rich nations and sparse inoculation in the developing world

In remarks to a closed-door meeting posted on its website, the WHO’s Ethiopian head urged the 194 member states to stick to “rational, proportional” measures.

There were still more questions than answers, Tedros said, about Omicron’s severity and the effectiveness of vaccines.

No Omicron-linked deaths have yet been reported though the WHO has said it poses a high risk of infection surges. read more

“Once again, I thank Botswana and South Africa for detecting, sequencing and reporting this variant so rapidly,” added Tedros. “It is deeply concerning to me that those countries are now being penalized by others for doing the right thing.”

‘KNEE-JERK REACTION’

Mid-way through a three-day WHO meeting of health ministers, Namibia’s delegation on Tuesday expressed disappointment towards those states imposing travel bans on southern Africa.

This travel ban is a knee-jerk reaction grounded in politics, not in science or guidance from the WHO Constitution,” it said. “We therefore ask why is it that other states that (detected) the variant in persons who have no travel history to southern Africa are exempted from this travel ban?”

Tanzania called for an immediate lifting of the travel curbs, which are hurting tourism in the region, while Canada voiced gratitude for regional transparency.

“Transparent international collaboration, as demonstrated by the leadership of South Africa and the South African scientists who swiftly and openly shared information on this new variant, is what is needed now more than ever,” said Leslie Norton, Canada’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva.

“Through your actions you bought the world time.”

Jobs of future’ in focus as Biden visits Minnesota technical college

WASHINGTON, Nov 30 (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden, racing to stay ahead of a new COVID-19 variant and rising inflation, travels to Minnesota on Tuesday to highlight the benefits of his $1-trillion infrastructure law and push for passage of a separate $1.75-trillion spending measure.

Biden will visit Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, a suburb near Minneapolis and St. Paul, which has programs to train workers to build, operate, and maintain infrastructure supported by the infrastructure law.null

He will focus on how the law will “deliver concrete results for communities, create good-paying union jobs, and position America to compete and win the 21st century,” press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.

She said Dakota County Tech, which serves 2,900 credit students and 10,000 non-credit students, offered an example of institutions nationwide that will train the next generation of workers and rebuild America’s infrastructure.null

The infrastructure law, coupled with $24 billion

The infrastructure law, coupled with $24 billion in investments in the $1.75-trillion “Build Back Better” spending measure, will prepare millions of workers for high-quality jobs in growing economic sectors, the White House said.

Biden had pushed to include two years of free community college in the massive spending package, but that funding was cut in a compromise with moderate Democrats concerned about the bill’s steep price tag.null

It still includes $5 billion for community colleges to expand workforce training programs in partnership with employers, unions, public systems and community bodies, with $5 billion for large-scale training for jobs in high-demand sectors such as clean energy, manufacturing, education and caregiving.

Under the infrastructure law, Minnesota will receive $4.5 billion in federal aid to rebuild highways, about $302 million for bridges, and $818 million to improve public infrastructure, the White House said.null

It will also fund expansion of a network to charge electric vehicles and measures to give state residents access to high-speed internet.

Pakistan expects $3 billion reserves deposit from Saudi in days

Reza Baqir, Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), gestures during a news conference at the head office in Karachi, Pakistan January 22, 2021. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

ISLAMABAD, Nov 30 (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia will deposit $3 billion in Pakistan’s foreign reserves in a week or so for one year at 4% interest under a support package signed on Monday, Pakistan’s finance ministry spokesman said on Tuesday.

The South Asian nation has faced growing economic challenges with sliding foreign reserves, a widening current account deficit, a depreciating currency and high inflation.

Pakistan’s total liquid foreign reserves stand at $22.77 billion, according to the central bank.

The Saudi support package that included a $1.2 billion oil loan facility was agreed during Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Riyadh last month.

Asked when the Saudi deposit would land in Pakistan’s foreign reserves, Finance Ministry spokesman Muzammil Aslam told Reuters: “Hopefully this week or early next week.”

He said it was a “one year demand deposit” with 4% interest.

Chief Executive Officer Sultan Bin Abdul Rahman Al-Marshad of the Saudi Fund for Development (SFD) and Pakistan’s State Bank Governor Reza Baqir signed the agreement in Karachi on Monday, the central bank said in statement.

“Under this deposit agreement, SFD shall place a deposit of USD 3 billion with SBP. The deposit amount under the agreement shall become part of SBP’s Foreign Exchange Reserves,” it said.

The Saudi facility has come a week after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed with Pakistan on measures needed to revive a stalled $6 billion funding programme. 

The completion of the review, pending since earlier this year, would make available 750 million in IMF special drawing rights, or around $1 billion, bringing total disbursements so far to about $3 billion, the statement said.

The central bank has raised its benchmark interest rate by 150 basis points to 8.75% to counter inflationary pressures and preserve stability with growth.

Headline inflation had reached 9.2% in October, up from 8.4% two months earlier, and the Pakistani rupee that closed at 175.72 at inter-bank against a dollar has depreciated over 11% since the start of this year.

Dhabeji Industrial Zone project hits impediments.

• Award of contract challenged in Sindh High Court
• Provincial govt says the project does not have SEZ status

ISLAMABAD: The recently awarded contract for the Dhabeji Industrial Zone (DIZ) project that falls under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is in the doldrums after being challenged before a court of law.

The Sindh High Court will take up on Monday (today) a petition submitted to it challenging that the rules of Special Economic Zones (SEZ) had not been followed in the award of the contract.

The provincial government claims that since DIZ has not been given the status of SEZ so far, the rules of special economic zones do not apply to it. The CPEC Authority also had submitted an official statement to the high court, expressing satisfaction over the bidding process and claiming that no irregularity had been committed in the award of the contract.

According to a document of the Sindh Economic Zones Management Company (SEZMC), however, the DIZ will be declared a special economic zone (SEZ).

The multibillion DIZ, which will be developed under Public-Private Partnership by the successful bidder Zahir Khan & Brothers (ZKB) and the Sindh government, is part of CPEC and may be given the status of a special economic zone later.

The project, spread over 1,500 acres, is being executed jointly by the Centre, Sindh government, and CPEC Authority with an aim to make it a hub of major economic activities in the province.

The Sindh government received bids for the project in February this year. However, after a two-month evaluation, one of the bids was declared ‘technically unfit’. The provincial government then went for re-bidding in which ZKB emerged successfully. Subsequently, the government issued a Letter of Award (LoA) to the winning firm.

However, the award of the contract was challenged before the court that would take up the matter on Nov 29 (today).

Earlier at a meeting held on Nov 23, Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed the hope that all economic zones, including Dhabeji Industrial Zone, would be completed at the earliest and economic activity started there.

He, however, lashed out at the Sindh government for the slow pace of development work in the province.

When contacted, the Sindh government’s spokesman Saeed Ghani said he was not fully aware of the project’s details, but believed that there was nothing wrong with the award of the contract.

Meanwhile, a senior SEZMC official said the provincial government had ensured transparency and fair play in the award as the successful bidder had quoted Rs16.25 billion while the second-lowest bid was Rs13.75bn.

He said the total income to be generated from the project was Rs32bn and the successful bidder would have to pay Rs16bn to the provincial government in five to seven years. The remaining amount would be paid to the provincial government by selling plots in the economic zone, he added.

The official believed that like 17 other industrial zones in the country, the DIZ had so far not attained the status of SEZ but the provincial government would apply for it later.

“Allama Iqbal Economic Zone in Lahore was established in 2006 but got the SEZ status in 2016,” he said, explaining that economic zones did not get the SEZ status right away.

The official said unfortunately the court had been misled by the petitioner, who was claiming that rules of SEZs had not been followed while awarding the contract for DIZ.

Meanwhile, it has been learned that due to litigation, the DIZ project is being delayed as the successful bidder has still not signed the agreement with the Sindh government even a month after the issuance of the LoA.

Under the contract, the successful firm will undertake designing, financing, construction, operation, and maintenance of DIZ on a build, own, operate and transfer basis.

The DIZ is located on the N-5 National Highway, close to Bin Qasim and Karachi ports as well as about 700km from Gwadar Port, which connects the Central Asia Republics, Middle East, Europe, and Africa. According to the layout plan, the DIZ will have 130 heavy, 145 medium, and 211 light industries, 82 warehouses, commercial areas, office areas, grid stations, roads, lanes, mosques, recreation areas, captive power generation facilities, and PTCL/SSGC/K-Electric intake points.