How the pandemic has impacted the world’s most vulnerable populations in low- and middle-income economies

 Freetown, Sierra Leone
In Sierra Leone, 87% of rural households reported food insecurity, nearly double the median value.

  • Northwestern researchers asked 30,000 people on three continents how the pandemic affected them.
  • Households reported drops in income, as well as increases in food insecurity, and little support.
  • One of the most promising tactics for moving past the pandemic’s effects is mobile money transfers.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The COVID-19 crisis has been devastating for much of the global economy. Yet while the effects on established markets have been well-documented, less is known about the pandemic’s impacts on low- and middle-income countries, which account for the majority of the world’s population. This is partly because official statistics generally fail to capture the impact on informal markets, such as street-vendor sales, in which large sections of those economies participate.

So Kellogg finance professor Dean Karlan and Northwestern professor of economics Chris Udry, along with more than 20 collaborators, set out to measure the pandemic’s economic impact in low- and middle-income countries.

“These are the world’s most vulnerable people,” said Karlan, who along with Udry codirects Kellogg’s Global Poverty Research Lab. “The level of vulnerability is just fundamentally different in developing countries versus US and Europe, where even if someone is really low-income, they’re still better off than the poorest of the poor in developing countries, where the safety nets simply aren’t as strong.”

Read more: How to make sense of the COVID economic crisis, explained by a former US Treasury official

“We wanted to know the effect of the pandemic, and government policies to combat it, on individuals who rely on informal markets to sustain themselves and don’t have access to formal support mechanisms like social security or unemployment insurance,” Udry said.

Based on a phone survey of more than 30,000 people on three continents, the researchers found the pandemic’s impacts on developing regions to be deep, widespread, and negative: households across geographies and economic status reported significant drops in income and employment, as well as increases in food insecurity. And, crucially, few of these households reported receiving any kind of financial support.

As the authors write, for low- and middle-income countries, “the economic crisis precipitated by COVID-19 may become as much a public health and societal disaster as the pandemic itself.”

A global phone survey

While it’s not their normal method of data gathering, the researchers landed on a phone survey as the best method to use in a pandemic.

“It was like, ‘You want some data? This is the only way you can get it,'” Karlan said.

The method introduced a number of challenges for the researchers.

“We had to learn very quickly about how to conduct surveys by phone. You lose the trust and comfort that a face-to-face conversation engenders,” said Karlan.

To mitigate that loss, the researchers partnered with Innovations for Poverty Action to recruit local interviewers in each country, and took care to match languages, dialects, and accents between interviewers and respondents.

Another challenge: not everyone owns, or can easily borrow, a phone. “It meant we weren’t able to reach people without access to mobile phones,” Udry said. “That’s a whole set of vulnerable people we can’t get to until we’re able to go in person again.”

Due to this limitation, the study’s results likely represent a “best-case” scenario, as the interviews didn’t include those at the economic pyramid’s very bottom.

Ultimately the researchers conducted 16 surveys that were statistically representative of households in nine countries across Africa (Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Sierra Leone), Asia (Bangladesh, Nepal, Philippines), and Latin America (Colombia), starting in April 2020. Most of the surveys were coordinated by Innovations for Poverty Action.

In total, they surveyed 30,000 people living in both urban and rural areas, as well as in or near refugee camps. The researchers asked about changes in employment, income, food insecurity, access to markets (such as for purchasing groceries), receipt of government support, and domestic violence.

Bad news across the board

The study found that the negative impacts of the pandemic on developing regions are large and broad.

For example, income dropped for households in all settings during the pandemic. Across the 16 surveys, the median share of households that reported an income drop was a “staggering 70%,” the authors write, compared with a median of 7% reporting an income increase. The median share of households that experienced job loss was 30%.

In general, similar proportions of households across all socioeconomic levels reported drops in income and employment.

Moreover, the median share of households that reported food insecurity was 45%, with wide variability within and between countries. In Sierra Leone, for example, 87% of rural households reported food insecurity, nearly double the median value.

The crisis may have also contributed to increased domestic violence. In Kenya, for example, violence against women and children rose 4% and 13%, respectively, during the early months of the pandemic.

And, for the most part, people were on their own to weather the storm. Overall, the median share of households receiving government or NGO crisis support was only 11%.

The authors note that the scale of disruption seems to eclipse those of other global crises like the 2008 Great Recession and the 2014 Ebola outbreak. “The biggest take-home for me is the spread of the effect,” Udry said. “I expected the effects to be serious but didn’t realize it was going to reach almost everyone.”

“What we found makes clear the kind of calamity low-income households in developing countries are facing,” Karlan agreed.

To make matters worse, if other historical events are any guide, COVID’s impact will be long-reaching. For example, children in the US born soon after the 1918 influenza pandemic experienced lifelong declines in education and earnings compared with baseline expectations.

“One of the main messages of modern economics is that even relatively short-run shocks can have long-term effects,” Udry said. “Long after the pandemic is gone, there are likely consequences for the growth of kids’ knowledge and declines in the asset holdings of the poor.”

The impact, unfortunately, is likely to be felt for generations.

The best way forward

The research also points to policies that could help address the pandemic’s dire economic impacts – and mitigate the effects of future crises.

One of the most promising tactics is mobile money transfers from the government or NGOs, which are fast and require no risky face-to-face transaction. “We can reach a lot of people quickly with these innovative payment mechanisms,” Udry said.

Indeed, Karlan and Udry worked on this type of transfer with the government of Togo during the pandemic.

“We’ve helped them rapid-fire implement a targeted program of cash transfers to low-income households that were in the informal market,” Karlan said. “Now we’re helping the government use cell-phone data to refine and improve targeting methods, to help find low-income households and transfer them cash.” They’re exploring expansion of the strategy to Nigeria and Bangladesh.

Furthermore, the researchers say, governments and NGOs must build robust social support systems – with short-term components like Togo’s cash-transfer system and longer-term ones like skills training programs – to anticipate the next pandemic or economic crisis.

Granted, this wouldn’t be easy for the already cash-strapped governments of the countries studied here. But richer countries have an important role to play, partly for humanitarian reasons, but also because “disease transmission does not respect national borders,” as the authors write.

“We need some multinational players, like the World Bank, to help establish the methods, procedures, and technical knowledge for doing this,” Karlan said.

In general, the researchers agree that a more proactive, preventive approach is the right way forward.

“This crisis has been disastrous and widespread, with long-term effects,” Udry said. “We do have mechanisms that can help a lot of people, but we need to strengthen social security systems to provide greater resilience and support in the future. That’s the lesson to learn here.”

Karlan agrees. “We want our work to serve as a call to arms to groups,” Karlan said, “to do things like what Togo has done, to prepare for the next crisis.”

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Biden pushes G7 to get tough on China, calling out forced labor, human rights abuses, and ‘non-market’ practices

President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel talk with in England.
President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a bilateral meeting on Saturday.

  • President Biden urged G7 leaders to collectively rebuke China over forced labor.
  • “And more than just speaking out, taking action,” a senior US administration official said.
  • Some G7 leaders with trade ties to Beijing expressed concern about calling out human-rights abuses.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

President Joe Biden this weekend worked to rally the Group of Seven to offer a collective rebuke to China over forced labor, human-rights abuses, and other “non-market” practices.

The leaders on Saturday found they had a “very strong and shared foundation” for a joint approach to China, a senior US administration official said in a press briefing.

“And more than just speaking out, taking action, responding to forced-labor in supply chains, again, including from Xinjiang,” the official said, referencing a region where human rights groups say China has committed crimes against humanity.

Biden has made slowing China’s growing economic power and international reach the centerpiece of his foreign policy agenda for his first overseas summit. The G7 nations – US, UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the EU – yesterday announced a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure plan to rival the international spending of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

President Joe Biden leaves Sunday mass in St. Ives, England.
President Joe Biden on Sunday morning in St. Ives, England.

Senior US officials, who spoke to the press on the condition of anonymity, detailed areas where the US and its allies were seeing “convergence” during Saturday’s talks in Carbis Bay, England.

The administration said Biden had urged other G7 members to speak out about China’s “practices that are harmful and distorted to the global economy.”

Biden spoke about China in his breakout one-on-one sessions with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and French President Emmanuel Macron, according to official readouts.

But it was unclear whether Biden would be able to steer the group to include the type of strong, disapproving language the US favors in the official G7 communiqué, which is expected after the summit wraps on Sunday.

Some senior UK officials, for example, have sought to keep human-rights abuses in China off the table, partly because the UK has worked to build up trade with China, Politico reported.

Officials from Italy, Germany, and the EU also each expressed concern on Saturday about putting stress on their economic ties to China, The New York Times reported.

Japan in April expressed similar concern during a White House visit, The Washington Post reported.

A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in London told Reuters that the “days when global decisions were dictated by a small group of countries are long gone.”

The spokesperson said: “We always believe that countries, big or small, strong or weak, poor or rich, are equals, and that world affairs should be handled through consultation by all countries.”

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Ketchup originated in Asia as a thin soy sauce made from fermented fish

  • Ketchup, one of America’s favorite condiments made famous by Heinz, originated in Asia.
  • We typically think of ketchup as a thick, tomato-based sauce, but it actually started as a thin soy sauce made from fermented fish.
  • Andrew Smith, author of “Pure Ketchup” and a professor of food studies at The New School, explains how ketchup evolved into the red sauce it is today.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Ketchup, it’s everywhere in the US. 97% of Americans have a bottle in their fridge. It’s the sauce we put on our hamburgers, our hot dogs, and our french fries. But the story of ketchup actually begins in Asia.

We think of ketchup as a thick red sauce, but it was something pretty different in the beginning. It originated as a thin soy sauce made from fermented fish most likely from a region called Tonkin, or in what we call Vietnam today. It was common throughout Southeast Asia in the 17th century. Ketchup was called kêtsiap, a Chinese word from the Amoy dialect that translates to “brine of pickled fish.”

Andrew Smith: I look at that and say, “How is it possible that this little product that starts in Indonesia goes to UK, comes to the US, and then, all of a sudden spread across this world.” The British had a colony in what is today Indonesia, and it is there that they first ran into the word kêtsiap, which meant to them soy sauce. Many other people visited them, they fell in love with soy sauce, and they would like to take the idea back to England. The problem was there were no soybeans growing in England at the time, so they began to experiment. “So rather than soybeans, let’s do mushrooms.” So they had mushroom ketchup. “Let’s do fish.” And so they had fish ketchup. And they said, “Let’s do beans, so let’s have bean ketchup.” So it became a long series of products that did not include tomatoes. So it really was something that was common and did not have a specific meaning other than it was a main product that was spiced.

Narrator: There are no rules for how the spell the word ketchup or for what defines it, so cooks experimented with a variety of ingredients to season meat, fish, bread, whatever needed flavor. Andrew Smith’s book, “Pure Ketchup,” contains 50 different historical ketchup recipes including Eliza Smith’s 1727 recipe which was the first one published in English. Some of the listed ingredients are anchovies, shallots, white wine vinegar, white wine, mace, ginger, cloves, peppers, a nutmeg, a lemon peel, and horseradish. So what happened to all those varieties of ketchup? Tomatoes. The 1812 recipe from James Mease is the first appearance of tomatoes in ketchup. But wait, what about Heinz, the ketchup we know and love?

Smith: H.J. Heinz was in the right place at the right time with the right product. So in one sense, it was just pure luck that he had a good product at the time that french fries came in, at the time that hot dogs came in, at the time that hamburgers came in. And it very quickly took over the market and it has dominated the market for the last 100 years.

Narrator: While tomato-based ketchup is the most common now, there are still specialty versions with spinach, carrots and butternut squash, cinnamon and cloves, jalapenos, Vindaloo spices, bacon, and truffles. So the next time you grab that bottle of ketchup, remember it wasn’t always tomato-based, and it traveled the world before it got to you.

Smith: Oh, look at that. It sticks. It doesn’t drip off. Let me have another one here to make sure the quality is as good as it should be.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in October 2018.

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These countries will get 25 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine from the US

Covid Vaccine
COVID-19 vaccine

  • The US will send 25 million vaccine doses to countries in Central and South America, Asia and Africa.
  • “This is just the beginning,” White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said.
  • Shipments will take place over the next several weeks.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The United States will send 25 million excess COVID-19 vaccine doses to countries all over the world, the White House announced Thursday.

Nearly 19 million of the doses will be given through COVAX, the UN-backed global vaccine sharing program that helps vulnerable countries.

In total, 7 million of those doses will be donated to nations in South and Southeast Asia, including India, Nepal, Afghanistan, Philippines, and Vietnam. Another 6 million doses will be shipped across Central and South America, including to Brazil, Honduras, Guatemala, Haiti, and El Salvador. Approximately 5 million doses will be delivered to countries in Africa, coordinated through the African Union.

The remaining 6 million doses will be given directly to allies and countries seeing surges in COVID-19 cases, including Canada, Mexico, South Korea, Egypt, Iraq, and the West Bank and Gaza, the White House said.

“As long as this pandemic is raging anywhere in the world, the American people will still be vulnerable,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “And the United States is committed to bringing the same urgency to international vaccination efforts that we have demonstrated at home.”

“This is just the beginning,” White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said during a Thursday briefing. The doses will consist of Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, Zients confirmed.

Vaccine shipments will take place over the next several weeks. The US plans to share a total of 80 million excess doses with the rest of the world by the end of June – five times the amount any other country has committed to donating, according to the White House.

“A number of those are even going to go out as soon as today,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a news conference Thursday.

The White House reiterated that the US has secured enough supply to fully vaccinate Americans and the doses that will be shipped come from a surplus in the US stockpile.

The announcement comes ahead of Biden’s meeting in the United Kingdom with the Group of Seven nations next week. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan noted on Thursday that the US plans to work with those countries to help end the pandemic.

“Our goal in sharing our vaccines is in service of ending the pandemic globally,” Sullivan said during a White House coronavirus task force briefing Thursday. “Our overarching aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible.”

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A fast-food toy collector explains how he managed to amass a stockpile of 20,000 items – the largest in the world – which he stores in his ‘Happy Meal house’

Percival R. Lugue posing with his Guinness World Record title for the most number of fast-food toys won in 2014.

  • Percival R. Lugue, holds the world record for owning the biggest collection of fast-food toys.
  • To accommodate them he bought a home that resembled a familiar shape: a McDonald’s Happy Meal box.
  • Insider spoke to Lugue about his toy collection and the drawbacks he faced as a result of COVID-19.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In 2014, Percival R. Lugue became the first person to receive a Guinness World Record title for having the largest collection of fast-food restaurant toys, having amassed a mammoth 10,000 items.

Nearly seven years later, Lugue, who is based in the Philippines, told Insider his collection has likely doubled: “My rough estimate of the total fast food toys at hand would be more than 20,000.”

Some of the fast-food restaurant toys collected by Percival R. Lugue.

Collecting toys, for Lugue, is nothing new, since his profound interest dates to when he was five years old.

During the 80s, various fast-food restaurants started popping up all over the Philippines, including in his home province.

Lugue explained: “This paved the opportunity for me to continue with my toy collection without putting a strain in my pocket.” Being a college student at the time, Lugue said he had a very limited budget “but when I saw the set Popeye toys from Jollibee, I took a plunge, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Since then, Lugue has “religiously collected” all the fast-food toys that come out from fast-food chains including but not limited to Jollibee, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King.

When asked how he stores 20,000 toys while living with his parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews, Lugue said he took a joint decision with his family to build another house. I

It became increasingly difficult for Lugue and his family to tread a path around the house because “every nook and cranny of [his ancestral home] was packed with fast food toys.”

But now, all the toys are strategically displayed on the walls of Lugue and his family’s new home, so as to not hinder traffic in the household.

A photo displaying Percival R. Lugue’s toys hanging on the walls of his new home.

Commenting on the outer appearance of the new house, Lugue said he saw a familiar silhouette in its architecture. “Although it was never intentional, the house turned out to look like a gigantic Happy Meal Box except for the Golden arches on top, when it was finished.” Since then, Lugue said he always endearingly refers to that house as a “Happy Meal house.”

“I said to myself, ‘what a perfect receptacle for these fast food toys,'” he added.

The ‘Happy Meal house.’

As for why he collects toys, Lugue explained that each piece would represent a vivid story in his life.

“They are like mementos of very special meals I shared with people who are very important to me.” One such toy is the Hetty Spaghetti, which Lugue bought with his mother way back in the 80s. “My mother passed on a couple of years ago and seeing and touching this same Hetty toy transported me to the place and time where both my mom and I shared a special happy moment.”

For Lugue, his collectibles are an “awesome tapestry” of his life, where each toy has a happy story to tell. And now, acquiring a toy from every visit to a fast-food restaurant has become “non-negotiable” for Lugue. “I have to buy a toy just so I may be able to encapsulate or immortalize that fun rendezvous in a fast food restaurant with friends and family,” he added.

Over the years, Lugue developed a methodical way to obtain toys that is not only easy on his wallet but also his diet. First, he would go with his family to Jollibee once a month to complete the set of toys that were on offer. This would be followed by a monthly visit to McDonald’s by Lugue and his friends, where they would collect toys to complete the set of Happy Meal Toys.

“Basically, it’s just two visits to fast-food restaurants per month. With a little help from my friends and family, we get to enjoy a meal together which is in no way detrimental to our health and I get to keep all the toys from all the Happy Meals and Jolly Meals.”

When asked whether the COVID-19 pandemic affected the growth of his toy collection, Lugue said he wasn’t stopped from acquiring more pieces. In fact, his immense love for toys allowed him to work around a global pandemic to add to his stash.

He made the best out of the situation by ordering food deliveries to his office and getting his colleagues into buying meals with toys on offer. “I was able to convince my colleagues into buying Happy Meals in one of our dinners. In just one delivery, I was able to complete the set of Doraemon toys, which are currently being offered here in McDonald’s,” he said.

“It was a most unusual set-up but a happy one nonetheless.”

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Grab, the food-delivery giant backed by Softbank, is going public in the US via the largest-ever SPAC merger, valuing it at $40 billion

Tan Hooi Ling
Tan Hooi Ling, chief operating officer and cofounder of Grab.

  • “Superapp” Grab is going public in the US via a SPAC merger with Altimeter Growth.
  • The deal is set to value Grab, backed by Softbank, at $39.6 billion.
  • The Singapore-based app offers services ranging from deliveries to financial services.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Southeast Asian ride-hailing and food delivery giant Grab, whose backers include SoftBank and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, announced Tuesday that it planned to go public in the US via a merger with blank-check company Altimeter Growth.

The deal is set to value Grab at $39.6 billion, and would be the biggest-ever special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) merger.

A SPAC is a company created solely to merge with, or acquire, another business and take it public, making it a cheaper, faster alternative to an IPO, Insider’s Martin Daks reported.

Singapore-based Grab said it expected its securities be traded on Nasdaq under the symbol GRAB “in the coming months.”

Read more: Grab’s cofounders took a $10,000 business school prize and turned it into a ‘super app’ worth $40 billion as part of the largest SPAC deal ever

Grab describes itself as a “superapp.” It offers services ranging from deliveries to financial services.

Grab started as a ride-hailing venture in Malaysia in 2012 and is now the region’s most valuable startup.

Grab said that it decided to go public because of its strong financial performance in 2020. It posted a gross merchandise volume (GMV) of $12.5 billion, which is more than double its 2018 figure, despite the pandemic.

The company added that it accounted for about 72% of Southest Asia’s GMV for ride-hailing, and 50% for online food delivery, as well as 23% of regional total payment volume for digital wallet payments in 2020.

Shares in Altimeter Group were last up around 9% at $15.16 in US pre-market trading.

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Alibaba Group hit with record $2.8 billion fine amid increased government scrutiny of billionaire Jack Ma’s tech empire

Jack Ma Alibaba Founder China
Jack Ma, executive chairman of the Alibaba Group.

  • Alibaba Group has been hit with a record $2.8 billion fine in China.
  • Billionaire founder Jack Ma’s tech empire has come under increased scrutiny from regulators.
  • “Alibaba accepts the penalty with sincerity,” the company said in a statement.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

China on Saturday fined Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group a record $2.8 billion for abusing its leading market position.

Alibaba Group said in a statement that the penalty came from the State Administration for Market Regulation, which had been investigating it since December.

The fine was yet another sign that Chinese regulators have taken a more critical stance towards the tech empire built by Ma, one of the country’s wealthiest moguls.

Speaking at a conference last fall, Ma made negative comments about international financial regulations. Chinese President Xi Jinping then reportedly halted a planned $37 billion initial public offering by Ant Group, another Ma company.

After the clash, Ma disappeared from public view for months. It was later reported by The Financial Times that he’d spent some of that time meeting with regulators.

The government on Saturday said Alibaba had used anti-competitive practices in its online retail market.

The fine was equal to about 4% of Alibaba’s annual sales in China, according to Xinhua News, a quasi-state media outlet. Local news reports said the company would be required for three years to complete “self-inspection” reports that it would then submit to the watchdog.

“Alibaba accepts the penalty with sincerity and will ensure its compliance with determination,” the company said Saturday in a press release.

It added: “To serve its responsibility to society, Alibaba will operate in accordance with the law with utmost diligence, continue to strengthen its compliance systems and build on growth through innovation.”

The company also published an open letter to customers, saying it had “fully cooperated” with the investigation.

“Alibaba would not have achieved our growth without sound government regulation and service, and the critical oversight, tolerance and support from all of our constituencies have been crucial to our development,” the company said.

The 18 billion yuan fine was a record for China, surpassing the $975 million fine issued to Qualcomm in 2015, as Reuters reported at the time.

Alibaba will hold a conference call on Monday to discuss the penalty.

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Amtrak is being offered $80 billion for upgrades, as part of Biden’s infrastructure plan, but experts say modernizing America’s railways may cost far more

President Joe Biden boarding an Amtrak train with a mask on
President Joe Biden boards his train at Amtrak’s station in Pittsburgh.

  • As Amtrak readies a spending spree, experts say it may cost more to modernize the US system.
  • Biden last week announced $80 billion in Amtrak funding as part of his $2 trillion plan.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As President Joe Biden last week outlined the $80 billion in funding for Amtrak in his $2 trillion infrastructure package, the railway operator published a map showing all the changes it plans to make in the next 14 years.

There were high-profile new routes to Las Vegas and Phoenix in the west, and Nashville and Montgomery in the south. But experts said the most important part of the plan was the modernization of routes already in place – the ones that have been crumbling for years.

There are few who wouldn’t acknowledge that the country’s railways, both Amtrak and local ones, have fallen on hard times. The US is consistently ranked lower than other countries on its rail infrastructure. China, Japan, and other countries invested in high-speed trains in the last decades that are more efficient than anything in the US.

The most notable high-speed rail project in the US, for example, a train expected to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles, has repeatedly had its budget trimmed. That route was included in the map released by Amtrak this week, which detailed what it expected US routes to look like by 2035.

Amtrak Connect US Map 2021 March
Amtrak Connects US, the railway’s vision for train travel in the US in 2035.

The US hasn’t historically put as much funding into its rail system as its European or Asian counterparts, said Allan Zarembski, a professor and director of the Railroad Engineering and Safety Program at the University of Delaware.

“This bill will certainly help – but may not be enough by itself, since it does not address the long-term issue of ongoing funding for public passenger systems,” Zarembski said on Thursday.

Biden’s plan is certain to face opposition from conservatives in congress. Senator Mitch McConnell and Rep. Kevin McCarthy both said last week that the bill was full of wasteful spending.

The bill “[f]ast-tracks $80 billion in new subsidies for Amtrak and its unions, even though Congress provided billions in aid to Amtrak last year,” McCarthy said in a statement denouncing “Bidenomics.”

McConnell said Biden’s plan was full of “sweeping far-left priorities.”

Amtrak New Jersey Tunnel Project
Amtrak workers perform tunnel repairs to a partially flooded train track bed, Saturday, March 20, 2021, in Weehawken, N.J. With a new rail tunnel into New York years away at best, Amtrak is embarking on an aggressive and expensive program to fix a 110-year-old tunnel in the interim.

Over the years, academics and researchers have published a range of reports on the US rail system, most of which came to the same conclusion: More funding would be needed to modernize them to the new global standard.

A team of researchers at George Mason University, for example, in 2019 published an analysis of trains in the Northeast US, compared with their counterparts around the world.

To make the Northeast Corridor between Washington, DC, and New York City as reliable, energy-efficient, and safe as French Alstom trains, Amtrak would have to invest $164 million per mile, the researchers wrote.

That would total $37 billion for a single US route, which wouldn’t include its yearly operating cost of $570 million. That would be almost half the spending allocated as part of Biden’s bill.

Comparing country-to-country rail networks is a difficult task, in part because good systems are dependent on geographies. Even within the US, the rail corridors have varied uses. Commuters pile into the Acela in the northeast corridor, while site-seers relax in the glass-roofed cars that wind through Glacier National Park in the northwest.

But most of the US railway routes were “legacy” systems created by 19th-century railroads that went bankrupt, said Murray Rowden, global head of infrastructure at Turner & Townsend, a New York firm.

There’s a growing investment gap between what states are willing to pay and what the railways need. A plan like Biden’s can start to make up for those budget shortfalls.

“States always have their ups and downs with their budget cycles when trying to balance their priorities, with the main focus for most transit agencies being to their infrastructure in a ‘state of good repair,'” Rowden added.

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Facebook and Google are funding two new undersea internet cables running from the West Coast to Singapore and Indonesia

Google Curie undersea cable
The new Facebook and Google cable joins the companies’ other cable projects, like Google’s Curie cable, pictured being laid here.

  • Facebook and Google announced plans to fund two new transpacific internet cables.
  • The cables, called Bifrost and Echo, will link the US West Coast with Indonesia and Singapore.
  • Both Facebook and Google have been forced to abandon cable projects linking the US and Hong Kong.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Facebook and Google are pouring more money into internet cables that could span the Pacific Ocean.

The tech giants announced Monday they’re funding two new cables called Bifrost and Echo. The cables will link America’s west coast with Indonesia and Singapore, with a stop-over in Guam, the US island territory in the western Pacific.

Facebook is investing in both cables, while Google is only funding Echo.

In a press release on Monday, Facebook said the cables would increase transpacific internet capacity by 70%. CNBC reported Echo was slated to be completed by late 2023, and Bifrost by late 2024.

Facebook and Google are partnering with Indonesian companies Telin and XL Axiata, as well as Singaporean company Keppel.

Read more: We identified the 195 most powerful people at Google under CEO Sundar Pichai. Explore our exclusive org chart.

This comes after both Facebook and Google have abandoned plans to lay transpacific cables linking the US and Hong Kong.

Facebook announced on March 10 it was withdrawing from a plan called the Hong Kong-Americas (HKA) project, following political pressure from the US government.

In September 2020, a joint Facebook and Google cable project was abandoned because of the Trump administration’s national security concerns around laying cables to China. In the same month, Facebook deserted a project to link San Francisco with Hong Kong.

Facebook is currently also working on a project laying an enormous undersea cable around the African continent, while Google is working on cables linking the US with Europe, as well as Europe with the west coast of Africa.

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HSBC has closed its main office in Hong Kong after an outbreak of COVID-19 at a gym

A worker wearing PPE guards the entrance of HSBC bank main Hong Kong office after it was closed until further notice after three people tested positive for Covid-19 amid a recent wave of infections among the citys business and expatriate community in Hong Kong on March 17, 2021.
A worker wearing PPE guards the entrance of HSBC bank main Hong Kong office after it was closed until further notice after three people tested positive for Covid-19 amid a recent wave of infections among the city’s business and expatriate community in Hong Kong on March 17, 2021.

  • HSBC has temporarily shut its main Hong Kong office after three workers tested positive for COVID-19.
  • There has been a wave of infections in the city following an outbreak at a local gym.
  • In an internal memo seen by Bloomberg, HSBC said the bank can reopen when staff have been tested.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

HSBC closed its main office in Hong Kong until further notice on Tuesday after three people working there tested positive for COVID-19.

The region’s Centre for Health Protection (CHP) published a formal notice asking people who spent more than two hours in the building between March 3 and 16 to be tested at a government-approved center by March 19, according to an internal memo HSBC sent to staff on Wednesday seen by Bloomberg.

The new infections followed a COVID-19 outbreak last Thursday at a gym in Sai Ying Pun, which has spread to the region’s financial district.

The CHP said Tuesday it was investigating 18 additional confirmed infections of the virus, taking the total number of cases in Hong Kong to date to 11,340.

The CHP also extended the current social distancing measures until March 31.

“It is our understanding that HMB can return to normal business when virus testing of colleagues and deep cleaning of the facility are complete,” HSBC said in the memo. “The exact timing is yet to be confirmed.”

Around 30,000 HSBC employees now have no access to the lender’s flagship office, located at 1 Queen’s Road Central, in the center of Hong Kong’s business district.

Guards wearing masks, face shields and protective clothing were standing in front of the building’s entrances and a poster stuck on the door told customers to visit another HSBC branch in the local area, Bloomberg reported.

Insider approached HSBC for comment but did not immediately receive a reply.

A spokeswoman from the bank told Bloomberg that HSBC was following advice from health authorities and taking the necessary steps so the building can reopen when it’s safe.

“For banking services, we have well-developed contingency measures that ensure our services and critical processes continue to be maintained,” she said.

Hong Kong, with a population of 7.5 million, has kept coronavirus cases low thanks to strict contact tracing, testing and quarantine measures. There have been 203 deaths in the city, according to the CHP data.

With a total of 292 cases between March 2 to March 15, the latest outbreak is the second largest since a surge in November.

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