Social Distance, Science and Fantasy

By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM / ROME, Dec 3 2021 – In these times of COVID isolation, social distance get on the nerves of several of us and the effects may be long-lasting, even endemic. Many schoolchildren have interacted and still meet with their teachers through computer networks, while the same phenomenon applies to their contact with others. Technical devices are with an ever-increasing scope becoming an integral part of all communication, teaching, and entertainment, in short – of social interaction. When it comes to education, given all the poor and even harmful educators we are forced to encounter during our lifetime, mechanization of education might be perceived as a step forward. Nevertheless, too much dependence on the internet might undoubtedly have its pitfalls; contributing to an abstraction of our existence where real adventures and life-changing encounters with other human beings become all the rarer. The world may be demystified, losing its wonder and magic.

A past closeness between storytellers and listeners is being forgotten and the spellbinding experience of listening to a good storyteller within a fascinating environment is something that many children currently are being denied. Even storytelling in the form of books and movies are becoming rarer, being replaced by video chats, podcasts, twitter and Instagram. Admittedly some video games offer a certain degree of excitement, imagination and storytelling, though most of them provide a one-way communication, which unfortunately is characterized by unbound commercialism, questionable role modeling, crude violence, nutty conspiracy theories and a glamourization of luxury and greed. Dependency on electronic “entertainment” may be even be more mind-numbing than that, for example by inducing its users to sit hour after hour trying to complete a meaningless puzzle, directing a ball through a maze, or ride a virtual motorbike across artificial hills and vales.

I came to think about this while remembering evenings I spent in isolated places. Some of the communities found there lacked electricity and within a circle lightened by a fire, or a kerosene lamp, with darkness around and the starry sky above, I had the pleasure listening to old women and men telling stories about their surroundings and way of life. Such places might by an outsider be perceived as confined and desolate, far as they are from the big city lights, crowds of strangers, stress, hustle and bustle. Nevertheless, locals may feel they are surrounded by strange creatures, by domains of powerful, spiritual forces. After days of hard work in fields and garden plots, or roaming through jungles and mountains in search of prey and food, families and friends gather on porches of ramshackle huts, or under a tree in the middle of the village, where stories are told about otherworldly inhabitants of mountains and jungles, deserts and oceans.

Narrators convey the vastness of another, though still present world, which occasionally may be manifested in what we are accustomed to call “reality”. Discrete and gentle spirits rise from springs, caves and streams to dance in the moonlight, or sinister forces sneak upon lonesome wanderers, whispering in their ears to lure them astray, to kill and devour them, or to take them away to graves and abodes of the dead, the realms of ghosts, monsters and demons.

Of course, as an educated, modern person you do not believe in those stories, but … among believers, in worlds which in spite of mundane worries seem to be alive with uncanny creatures and unknown mysteries, it may anyway be hard to remain unaffected. Old people tell us about their world and before they reminisce marvelous tales that once were told to them, they might look around and state:

“Listen to the dog howling out there in the dark. I tell you, that is no dog. Oh no, it is a human who has been turned into a dog, or maybe … a Loup Garou, a werewolf. The butterfly you saw in your room last night, that was no butterfly … it was your beloved who dreamt about you, far away in another land, while her dream turned her thoughts into a butterfly. The fireflies you see over there are no flies, they are souls of dead ancestors. All around us; up in the air, in the earth below us, in the springs and the trees are mysteries alive, creatures of the night and our dreams. All around us are living beings that are commonly unknown, most of us cannot see them, nor touch, nor understand them… at least not when we are awake. In our dreams, when our soul leaves our mind behind, when we in the spirit are visiting an unknown world, we might see and experience, but not understand the uncanny. What we believe to be our world is only a fraction of something else, something much, much bigger.”

Participating in such enchanted moments make us feel alive. Even if it all might be lore and illusion we feel amazingly present, the world comes closer. The realms conjured up by storytellers, the myths, legends, and fairy tales enchant and scare us in an engrossing manner. A child listening stories about and thus enters fantastic dimensions realizes how vast the world is, how it includes both fiction and reality.

A computer programmer might call this immensity the “Cyber World”, an astronomer the “Universe”, a biologist the “Biosphere”. These scientists are actually knowledgeable of only a fraction of human existence and the laws of nature governing it. Realizing this does not mean that you are a science denier. That you are not abhorred by flat earthers, anti-vaxxers, coronavirus truthers, literalists, chauvinists, misogynists and other zealots who do not believe in climate change, empathy, love and solidarity, but cling to unfounded myths and conspiracy theories as if they were the “plain truth”. People like that live in a bubble, a delusive environment in which they want others to join them. They assume they know the truth, while they actually defy reason.

In the16th and 17th centuries modern science developed in Europe A process during which a notion was created that might be described as a realization that the world is governed by natural laws and forces can be perceptible, even understandable and possibly controlled. All phenomena are part of nature and can thus be explained by natural causes. A conviction meaning that also human cognitive, social and moral phenomena are part of a comprehensible world where human and social problems can find solutions if supported by a cosmopolitan worldview that revere science and reason, eschews magic and the supernatural, while rejecting dogma and repressive authorities.

However it was far from being a unified movement. Many scientists defended the reality of supernatural phenomena, while skeptical humanists, inspired by ancient authors, mounted a critique not only of orthodox religion, magic and other forms of superstition, but also demonstrated their skepticism of hard-line “experts” who simplified human existence to a set of “natural laws”. Even if the religious heterodoxy of such men tarnished their reputation and postponed a general acceptance of anti-magical views, change came about. This “enlightening” revolution in human notions actually owed less to the scientific testing of magic notions, than to the growth of confidence in a stable world in which magic no longer had a place.

Since then, in almost every realm of human existence, progress has been breathtaking, principally by a scientific naturalism which has been used to solve problems, from engineering bridges and eradicating diseases, to extending life spans and establishing human rights. However, this does not have to mean that a” scientific thinking and approach” unilaterally ought to dominate all human reasoning and be allowed to despise, forbid and deny the right to make things up, to dream, fantasize, telling about and creating wonderful things. We have to make room for music, art and literature and allow ourselves and others to be entertained and stimulated by these human expressions. We need to provide depth and relief to our short life spans, our human existence.

These reflections emerged when I as a teacher experienced how art, music, philosophy, history, and comparative religion, as well as gymnastics and handicraft became limited or entirely disappeared from curricula. This was done in favour of more practical purpose-oriented subjects like math, physics, chemistry, business administration and computer science. Of course, these topics are essential for obtaining a solid education and be attractive for the labour market. However, humans do not live on bread alone, our brains are stimulated by inputs like art, music and entertainment. Humanities enrich human interaction and allow us to take part of the dreams, visions and fantasies of others. Let us not deny our children the pleasure of becoming familiar with storytelling; with fairy tales, fantasies, myths and legends, preferably told in communion with others and in harmony with our surrounding world. Not only within realms that is electronically created, but a real world consisting of tangible, impressionable and caring individuals.

The stimulus and pleasure of partaking in storytelling might learn us to look at and perceive human existence from several angles and thus develop into critical thinking individuals able to avoid falling into traps set by Pied Pipers who through the World Wide Web invoke narrow-mindedness, cold-heartedness, prejudices, and greed.


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Act to Save Children Living Precarious Lives in Cameroon’s Forgotten and Neglected Conflict

Yasmine Sherif, Director of Education Cannot Wait and Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council meet students at the Souza Gare school in the Littoral region, Cameroon. The school hosts displaced children who have fled the violence in the North-West and South-West regions.
Credit: ECW/Daniel Beloumou

By Joyce Chimbi
Yaoundé, Cameroon, Dec 3 2021 – Education is under attack in Cameroon. As one of the most complex humanitarian crises in the world unfolds, Education Cannot Wait’s director Yasmine Sherif and the Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Jan Egeland, say the children are pawns for grown men in a political conflict.

In an exclusive interview with IPS from Cameroon, where Sherif and Egeland are on a four-day visit, they told of the impact of this ongoing conflict between armed groups and government forces in this central African country.

“The situation in Cameroon is devastating, and education is under attack. Only last week, an attack in a school killed four children and one teacher. A girl had their fingers chopped off for attending school. The result is fear. Fear of going to school,” says Sherif.

Egeland agrees that children are the victims of violence that has nothing to do with them.

“Conflict between grown-ups on political, cultural, and governance issues that are very real and very important to settle are not being settled in negotiations. They are being settled by armed violence against children and life-threatening attacks on their places of learning,” he says.

In the face of threats, harassment, violence, kidnapping, and death targeted at teachers and school-going children, two out of three schools are closed in the North-West and South-West regions, the epicenter of the ongoing conflict between armed groups and government forces in this Central African country.

There is heightened alarm that the situation has placed an entire generation of children in Cameroon’s North-West and South-West regions at risk of losing lifelong learning opportunities.

Girl writing on a blackboard at the Souza Gare school in the Littoral region, Cameroon. The school hosts displaced children who have fled the violence in the North-West and South-West regions. Credit: ECW/Daniel Beloumou

Sherif, who heads ECW, the global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises, and Egeland have urged all involved to end violence against children.

Hundreds of civilians, including children, have been killed since January 2020 in the North-West and South-West regions. Armed groups and government forces are in violent conflict, and the risks and needs of children impacted by the conflict have increased.

“This is among the most complex humanitarian crises in the world today. Children and youth are having to flee their homes and schools, are threatened with violence and kidnapping, and are being forced into early childhood marriage and recruited into armed groups,” says Sherif.

“We call for urgent support from donors to respond to this forgotten crisis. We call for the respect of human rights and adherence to the principles of international humanitarian law and the Safe Schools Declaration – and for partners to redouble efforts so all children and adolescents can get back to the safety, protection, and hope that quality learning environments provide.”

Sherif says nine out of 10 regions of Cameroon continue to be impacted by one of three complex humanitarian crises, including the North-West and South-West crisis, conflict in the Far North, and a refugee crisis of those fleeing Cameroon.

Children are devastatingly affected as over one million children need urgent education support. While impressed by their resilience, courage, and hunger for education, Sherif says this is not enough to keep them in school.

“The children will need protection, school meals, health and psychosocial support, and tools for teachers to do their job,” she says.

To address these multiple emergencies, made worse by COVID-19 and climate change, Sherif says ECW is working hand-in-hand with organizations in Cameroon, the Ministry of Basic Education, Ministry of Secondary Education and UN agencies, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and civil society education partners to build a multi-year resilience programme in Cameroon.

Egeland tells IPS that the partnerships are timely and critical because what is happening in North-West and South-West regions in Cameroon deserves international outrage.

Yasmine Sherif, Director of Education Cannot Wait and Jan Egeland, Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council meet with Joseph Dion NGute, Prime Minister of Cameroon. Credit: Cameroon, Prime Minister’s Office

He says more than 700,000 children in Cameroon are “either completely out of school because they lost their school at gunpoint or because they ended up with 90 others in cramped classrooms in the few remaining schools. Children should never be pawns for grown men in political conflict.”

Sherif fears that even more children will exit the education system and not return.

“I feel very strongly about improving and reinforcing the education rights of all children in Cameroon. Just because you live in Cameroon does not mean that you cannot go to school. Legal provisions for children impacted by conflict must be activated,” she says.

With many schools remaining closed or non-operational, Sherif says there is cause for worry. In the absence of urgent, timely, and practical risk management interventions such as building walls around schools and reinforcing on-school security, an entire generation of children in Cameroon could become illiterate.

For schools to reopen, Egeland says that children must be exempted from political grievances. Keeping with international law, he says safe zones or areas established in armed conflict for the protection of civilians must be declared, and genuine negotiation between warring groups activated.

He says negotiations are much needed as the situation is now out of hand – five years since renewed tensions between the government and armed groups imploded into an emergency crisis.

On his visit to Cameroon three years ago, Egeland says an estimated 500,000 people were displaced. Today, the figure has risen to over 700,000 people.

“Then, hundreds of thousands of children were out of school for a second year running. Today, the children are out of school for the fifth year running,” he says.

Sherif says the situation is untenable and that a resilient, safe and secure learning environment is the most pressing need for children in Cameroon.

“ECW is contributing US$25 million over three years and calls for other donors to fill the gap, which is estimated at US$50 million. When fully funded, the programme will provide approximately 250,000 children and adolescents with access to safe and protective learning environments in the most-affected areas,” she says.

Egeland says such investments are much needed.

He told IPS the turmoil had not dimmed the children’s dreams of a bright future in nursing, medicine, and law.

There is an urgent need for the international community to focus on Cameroon – a forgotten and neglected conflict.

“Cameroon should no longer be the most neglected in terms of funding per person in need. The country is significantly underfunded despite the ongoing humanitarian crisis and increasing vulnerabilities for children,” he cautioned.

He further says that warring groups must be encouraged to reach compromises because the end of the ongoing conflict will be a beginning full of immense opportunities for Cameroonian children.

Meanwhile, Sherif says the situation is so dire that school-going children dress in camouflage, so violent armed groups do not target them. They need secure environments now – their education cannot wait.


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Zero-Leprosy in Pandemic: Experts, Advocates Discuss New Strategies

Yohei Sasakawa – WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination and Chairman of Sasakawa Health Foundation speaking at the 3rd of the “Don’t Forget Leprosy” webinar series organized by Sasakawa Health Foundation on Dec 2. Credit: Stella Paul

By Stella Paul
Hyderabad, Dec 3 2021 – As 2021 nears its end, public health systems worldwide remain severely strained by COVID 19, which is showing no sign of ending. But even as countries battle to control the deadly pandemic, they must also maintain the progress made against other diseases, including leprosy, global leprosy experts and advocates have urged.

On Thursday, at a webinar organized by the Sasakawa Health Foundation, the World Health Organization (WHO) and over 150 members of several leprosy-affected people’s organizations expressed their concerns of leprosy resurgence as new cases continue to come to light. In Comoros, in East Africa, hundreds of new cases had been detected in the smaller islands, and many of the affected are children.

“We have carried out case-finding mini-campaigns in targeted areas of Anjouan and Mohéli (islands in Comoros) with the help of community health workers and have detected new cases including in children aged 15 and above,” said Dr. Aboubacar Mzembaba, National Programme Manager, Leprosy & Tuberculosis in the Ministry of Health, Comoros.

Data shared by Mzembaba shows that in 2020, there were 217 new cases, which increased to 239 in 2021. He said about 33 percent of children are affected by leprosy, and the government aims to bring this down to 10%.

The growing number of cases among children was “a concern,” said Pemmaraju V Rao, Acting Team Leader, Global Leprosy Programme, WHO.

Rao, who also facilitated the webinar, said that since cases continued to be unreported in many regions of the world, it was essential to continue with the current strategies of detecting and managing leprosy cases, including door-to-door visits, strengthening local health facilities, regular training, and supervision of health workers.

Tesfaye Tadesse, the Managing Director of Ethiopian National Association of Persons Affected by Leprosy (ENAPAL), said the organization has been at the forefront of Ethiopia’s battle for leprosy eradication. It was also concerned with protecting the dignity and rights of leprosy-effected people.

At the webinar, Tesfaye highlighted how COVID undermined leprosy in Ethiopia even though new cases have continued to grow. Also, fear of social exclusion drove people to seek alternative cures, like faith-healing.

“This year, we have detected 21 new cases, many of them in the holy water areas of the Amhara region. People are so scared of social stigma, instead of seeking medical treatment, they are going to collect holy water for their cure,” said Tadesse.

As stigma and discrimination remain a challenge across countries and cultures, people affected by leprosy have emerged as a tight-knit community. They take the opportunity to come together at any community event and share each other’s struggles and wins. In Thursday’s webinar, the third of a series of virtual seminars in the ‘Don’t Forget Leprosy’ campaign, participants and speakers could be seen encouraging each other and sharing their thoughts freely.

When Kofi Nyarko – a leprosy-affected person from Ghana, stressed the importance of early detection and appropriate treatment without stigma for preventing disabilities in leprosy, participants from other countries were quick to express their support and cheer him on.

Yohei Sasakawa – WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination and Chairman of Sasakawa Health Foundation responds to a question from IPS News correspondent at a webinar organized by Sasakawa Health Foundation on Dec 2. Credit: Stella Paul

However, to win their fight in a post-pandemic era, the leprosy-affected community would need more external support as well, said Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination and Chairman of the Sasakawa Health Foundation.

According to Sasakawa, whose foundation has been instrumental in providing financial, technical, and moral support to leprosy-affected organizations worldwide, achieving a zero-leprosy world cannot be accomplished through a technocratic approach alone. A rights-based, human-centered approach that stresses full dignity and equality for the leprosy-affected community is crucial to achieving the goal.

For that, support of new allies would be vital – and Sasakawa advised the participants to seek more partners for their campaigns, including youth and media.

“The young generation is not aware of the struggle of the leprosy-affected people, especially of the older generation. We should therefore find ways to engage with them, make them aware,” Sasakawa told IPS.

“Designing educational programs is a good way to do this. Taking a human-rights approach, sharing your personal stories with the youth can help. It is also important to engage with media who can help highlight the causes.”

All the speakers and participants at the webinar agreed that the best way to achieve the aims of the “towards zero-leprosy” drive is to strengthen their campaign by increasing its global visibility.

Observation of the World Leprosy Day on January 30 presented an opportunity toward that and, the participants agreed to utilize it with renewed passion and a broader outreach plan.

“Engage with the media, utilize the radio networks in your country. COVID is there, but we must continue with our campaign,” Sasakawa advised.


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Partnering with Persons with Disabilities Toward an Inclusive, Accessible and Sustainable Post-COVID-19 World

By Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana
BANGKOK, Thailand, Dec 3 2021 – As the world observes the International Day of Persons with Disabilities today, we honour the leadership of persons with disabilities and their tireless efforts to build a more inclusive, accessible and sustainable world. At the same time, we resolve to work harder to ensure a society that is open and accommodating of all.

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana

An estimated 690 million persons with disabilities, around 15 per cent of the total population, live in the Asia-Pacific region. Many of them continue to be excluded from socio-economic and political participation. Available data suggests that persons with disabilities are almost half as likely to be employed as persons without disabilities. They are also half as likely to have voted in an election and are underrepresented in government decision-making bodies. Just about 0.5 per cent of parliamentarians in the region are persons with disabilities. Women with disabilities are even less likely to be employed and hold only 0.1 per cent of national parliament positions.

One of the main reasons behind these exclusions is a lack of accessibility. Public transportation and the built environment in general — including public offices, polling stations, workplaces, markets and other essential structures — lack ramps, walkways and basic accessibility features. Accessibility, however, goes beyond the commonly thought of physical structures. Barriers to access to services and information and communication technology must also be removed, to allow for the participation of persons with diverse types of disabilities, including persons with intellectual disabilities and hearing and vision impairments.

The COVID-19 pandemic and related lockdowns has exacerbated existing inequalities. Many persons with disabilities face increased health concerns due to comorbidities and were left without access to their personal assistants and essential goods and services. As much of society moved online during lockdowns, inaccessible digital infrastructure meant persons with disabilities could not access public health information or online employment opportunities.

Despite these challenges, persons with disabilities and their organizations were among the first to respond to the immediate needs of their communities for food and supplies during lockdowns in addition to continuing their long-term work to support vulnerable groups.

ESCAP partnered with several of these organizations to support their work during the pandemic. Samarthyam, a civil society organization in India led by a woman with disabilities, has trained many men and women with disabilities to conduct accessibility audits in their home districts. With these skills, they are becoming leaders and advocates in their communities, working towards improving the accessibility of essential buildings everywhere.

Another ESCAP partner, the National Council for the Blind of Malaysia (NCBM), is working to improve digital accessibility by training a group with diverse disabilities in web access auditing, accessible e-publishing and strategic advocacy. NCBM hopes to support participants in forming a social enterprise for web auditing and accessible publishing, creating employment opportunities and enabling persons with disabilities to lead efforts to improve online accessibility.

Women and men with disabilities have been leaders and champions to break barriers to make a difference in Asia and the Pacific. Today, ESCAP launches the report “Disability at a Glance 2021: The Shaping of Disability-inclusive Employment in Asia and the Pacific.” The report highlights some innovative approaches to making employment more inclusive, as well as recommendations on how to further reduce employment gaps.

Adjusting to a post-COVID-19 world presents an opportunity for governments to reassess and implement policies to increase the inclusion of persons with disabilities in employment, decision making bodies and all aspects of society. Accessibility issues impact not only persons with disabilities but also other people in need of assistance, including older persons, pregnant women or those with injuries. Implementing policies with universal design, which creates environments and services that are useable by all people, benefits the whole of society. Governments should mainstream universal design principles into national development plans, not only in disability-specific laws and policies.

As a global leader in disability-inclusive development for over 30 years, the Asia-Pacific region has set an example by adopting the world’s first set of disability-specific development goals in the Incheon Strategy to “Make the Right Real.” Meeting the Incheon Strategy goals will require governments to intensify their efforts to reduce barriers to education, employment and political participation.

At ESCAP, we know that achieving an inclusive and sustainable post-COVID-19 world will only be possible with increased leadership and participation of persons with disabilities. To build back better — and fairer — we will continue to strengthen partnerships with all stakeholders so together we can “Make the Right Real” for all persons with disabilities.

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of ESCAP


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Big Tobacco Industry Rides COVID-19 Pandemic as Countries Grapple for a Response

By Jennie Lyn Reyes
BANGKOK, Thailand, Dec 3 2021 – Almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries in the developing world continue to grapple with basic issues such as securing sufficient vaccines and providing essential medical care for their sick. Many economies are in recovery mode as governments scramble to resuscitate them with recovery packages and build back better plans.

In this mix, COVID-19 did not dent Big Tobacco’s profits as it exploited the pandemic and persuaded governments to treat cigarettes as “essential,” accept its charity, obtain perks such as tax breaks and treat new tobacco products more favorably. These were the main findings of the 2021 Asian Tobacco Industry Interference Index.

Although many countries in Asia, a target for Big Tobacco to grow its business, already reject tobacco industry gift-giving, health and non-health frontliners fell prey to its corporate social responsibility activities at the height of the pandemic. The industry doled out emergency medical equipment, hospital supplies, and cash and food provisions in areas under lockdowns.

As many governments limited the movement of non-essential tobacco to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the governments of Bangladesh and the Philippines caved in to industry pressure and exempted the manufacture and sale of tobacco products.

In Bangladesh, British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco International received special permission from business-friendly departments to continue purchasing tobacco leaf, manufacturing, and distributing finished goods while the country was under a nationwide lockdown.

The Philippines classified tobacco as non-essential and restricted its transport and delivery in areas under lockdown in March 2020, but eventually lifted the restrictions and announced that the tobacco industry could fully operate in areas under general community quarantine.

The Asian index shows that although nearly all countries included in the report are Parties to the global health treaty, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), many governments still deem the tobacco industry’s business as fiscally beneficial even at the expense of public health.

In Thailand, the date of repealing the ineffective two-tier cigarette tax rate was also extended for another year, while in India, Korea, Malaysia, and Nepal, no tax increase was announced for 2021.

In Indonesia, the government eased the tobacco excise tax scheme by extending the payment deadline, which allowed the industry to sell at old market prices, deprived the government of additional revenues, and sustained rather than discouraged tobacco use.

In Japan, where cigarette tax rates are already low, heated tobacco products introduced by Big Tobacco are taxed significantly lower. Similarly, in the Philippines, the excise tax rate on electronic smoking products is substantially lower than that for cigarettes.

The index quantifies industry meddling in 19 Asian countries and ranks governments according to their efforts in shielding public policies. While a few countries show marginal progress, many showed deterioration in addressing tobacco industry influence, primarily due to the industry’s more aggressive tactics that capitalized on the COVID-19 situation.

Key findings:

    • Protective measures in tobacco control are still needed. Eight (8) countries are still unprotected from tobacco industry influence, while other countries still have room to strengthen enforcement of their protective measures.
    • Tobacco industry continued rebuilding its image through CSR activities. The tobacco industry targets socio-economically vulnerable groups as CSR beneficiaries to disassociate its corporate image from its toxic products and irresponsible business practices. Brunei, Lao PDR, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, and Thailand have banned these activities as fake charities.
    • Tobacco industry enjoyed government benefits such as waived duties, tax breaks, and subsidies. These deprived government of potential revenues for pandemic response or social services.
    • Even when most social events and physical gatherings were banned, many government officials interacted unnecessarily with the tobacco industry.
    • There is a systemic lack of transparency in disclosing government interactions with the tobacco industry. None of the countries have a registry to publicly disclose the tobacco industry’s affiliate organizations, individuals, or lobbyists acting on its behalf.

There is hope as some governments move to protect public policy from undue influence of the tobacco industry, such as India, whose Ministry of Health and Family Welfare adopted a code of conduct for its officials when interacting with the tobacco industry.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Education also introduced tobacco-free policies in educational facilities and banned any sponsorship or collaboration with the tobacco industry.

Although COVID-19 figures have now surpassed 250 million infections and 5 million deaths globally, tobacco continues to kill 8 million people annually. As the pandemic lingers, Big Tobacco continues to expand its business simultaneously.

Philip Morris International reported pre-tax earnings of almost $11 billion for 2020, while British American Tobacco reported revenues of about $12 billion, primarily from cigarette sales. These figures are far more than the health budgets of poor countries and what they spend on tackling the pandemic.

Governments must strengthen their efforts to protect public health policy in the spirit of anti-corruption and good governance, as civil society continues to do its part to monitor, expose, and de-normalize this harmful industry and its products.

Jennie Lyn Reyes is the author of the 2021 Asian Tobacco Industry Interference Index and the Monitoring and Evaluation Manager of SEATCA

SEATCA is a multi-sectoral non-governmental alliance promoting health and saving lives by assisting ASEAN countries to accelerate and effectively implement the tobacco control measures contained in the WHO FCTC. Acknowledged by governments, academic institutions, and civil society for its advancement of tobacco control in Southeast Asia, the WHO bestowed on SEATCA the World No Tobacco Day Award in 2004 and the WHO Director-General’s Special Recognition Award in 2014.


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