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Thursday, 18 April 2024

The Corona Coronation (Part 5)

Opinions

Stored and leaked pathogens could give rise to a Covid-19-like scourge

The February 2020 events in China vis-à-vis the novel coronavirus were as frenetic as they were eyebrow-raising.

First, Chen Wei, the Chinese army’s 54-year-old chief biochemical weapons defence expert, was redeployed to head the Institute of Virology’s P4 laboratory with a team of top military scientists in tow. Second, the country’s legislative assembly set about the process of enacting a biosafety law.

Talking to The Beijing News in the context of both the coronavirus and the desirability and necessity of such a law, a law professor at Beihang University had this to say: “Scientists’ instinct is to explore the unknown world. But they should also follow the ethical principles of scientific research, remembering their responsibility to protect society.

Many biotechnology issues (in China) lack legislative restriction, such as the development and utilisation of biological gene statistics, the protection of genetic resources and genome manipulation, as well as laboratory management and norms for scientists. Without such regulations, operators at laboratories are left vulnerable to infections and toxic viruses that can leak out during experiments. So it is necessary to build scientific ethics in laboratories.”

Although the professor did not hit the nail squarely on the head, what she was trying to convey was obvious enough – that the coronavirus inadvertently escaped from a laboratory before it achieved, as was the official, blame-deflecting narrative, a natural zoonotic transmission to humans at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.

Sometime toward the end of January, the controversial Chinese billionaire dissident and high-profile fugitive, Miles Guo, who has been tucked away in the US since 2015, sketched out a link between the P4 laboratory and the novel coronavirus.  He fingered out a certain Gu Devin as the creator of the virus on the orders of Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan.

Doubting Thomases may dismiss Guo’s take as no more than the rantings of a fugitive from Chinese justice, but what about the likes of Xu Bo, the chairman of Duoyi network, the 25th of China’s Top 100 Internet companies? This is what he said on his personal website on February 4 without a care in the world as to the backlash he might provoke from Beijing:  “In light of the importance of epidemic prevention, I suspect that the mismanagement of experimental animals and the outflow of viral experimental animals at the Wuhan Institute of Virology caused the novel coronavirus outbreak in 2019 based on the following facts and evidences.

I decided to report the Institute of Virology to Wuhan (government) in the hope that the country will thoroughly investigate the management of experimental animals in the institute and the research on the transmission of related bat coronaviruses into humans.”

What were Xu’s “following facts”?

CHINA NOTORIOUS FOR LETTING LOOSE DEADLY PATHOGENS

Let us first appreciate that the notion of lab-grown pathogens wreaking pathological havoc on laboratory staff and even well beyond through the multiplier infection effect is not confined to the realm of sci-fi movies. Although such hazards are not widely documented being atypical, they are far from the stuff of conspiracy theory.

The scientific art of creating new, transmissible versions of deadly viruses in laboratories for preemptive reasons continues apace even if it is frowned upon in case the virus was   introduced into the population either by accident or by evil design with results too ghastly to contemplate. Accidental leaks have been known to happen, for instance, by way of failures in respiratory equipment or workers touching the most vulnerable parts of their bodies with a contaminated glove.

The Scripps Institute, a California-based biomedical research organisation, has warned of just such a scenario on more than one occasion. An article by a Harvard University professor and a scholarly colleague in the May 20, 2014 edition of PLOS Medicine, a weekly medical journal,  served up the same warning too, citing the ebola and Marburg viruses as just two of the pathogens that have infected workers and brought them to the brink.

Nowhere are such pathogen-associated hazards a more regular occurrence than in China itself. Even as the coronavirus was laying siege in that country in December last year, said an article in Nature magazine, more than 100 staff and students at two agricultural research institutes 2600 km removed, namely the Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute and Harbin Veterinary Research Institute, tested positive for the bacterium Brucella, which triggers potentially fatal complications in several of the body’s vital organs.

Another magazine called The Scientist reported that the SARS virus had escaped multiple times from high-level containment facilities at the Beijing Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. The last known SARS cases, reported in 2004, related to people who worked in a Chinese laboratory.

THE US AND OTHERS ARE CULPRITS TOO

In all fairness though, China is not the sole perpetrator of these accidents. Said an article in a May 2016 edition of The Atlantic: “A Singaporean lab worker was inadvertently infected with SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003. In 2004, a Russian scientist died after accidentally sticking herself with a needle contaminated with Ebola at a Siberian lab.

In April, Paris Pasteur Institute lost 2,000 vials containing the SARS virus. And in March, the Galveston National Laboratory in Texas lost a vial containing Guanarito virus, which causes bleeding under the skin, in internal organs or from body orifices like the mouth, eyes, or ears.”

The tendency on the part of the medical establishment of some developed countries to retain samples of age-old viruses in their professedly “high-security” laboratory vaults can be a recipe for a pathological disaster. For instance, smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980 but disease control and prevention centres in Russia and the US retain samples of the virus.

Six such sealed vials, which dated from the 1950s, were in July 2014 found in a government laboratory storeroom in the US state of Maryland. It seems the medical world is perpetually torn between the desire to eliminate horrific diseases entirely and the need to preserve them for future study. But with the kind of carelessness the custodians of such dangerous viruses seem to exhibit, the odds that the samples could come in the hands of rogues and be used in bio-terrorism are higher than low.

Meanwhile, there is simply no letup on scientists creating new incurable diseases in laboratories. Said The Atlantic: “Swine flu, or H1N1, had been dead for 20 years when it suddenly re-emerged in 1977 with a curious twist.

The new strain was genetically similar to one from the 1950s, almost as though it had been sitting frozen in a lab since then. Indeed, it eventually became clear that the late 70s-flu outbreak was likely the result of a lowly lab worker’s snafu …

“In recent years, scientists have found a way to make H5N1 jump between ferrets, the best animal model for flu viruses in humans. They say they need to create a transmissible version in order to better understand the disease and to prepare potential vaccines. The concern is that you’re making something that doesn’t exist in nature and combines high virulence for people with the ability to transmit efficiently.”

The Harvard University team referenced above estimate that there was a 20 percent chance for a lab worker who took part in pathogen manipulation experiments for ten years continuously to get infected and pass it on to others.

This brings us back to the question we posed in the first section of this piece: when the Duoyi network supremo Xu Bo talked about unearthing certain facts regarding how Covid-19 arose in China, what did he mean?

For a detailed unpacking, make a date with us next week.

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Opinions

IEC Disrespects Batswana: A Critical Analysis

10th November 2023

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has recently faced significant criticism for its handling of the voter registration exercise. In this prose I aim to shed light on the various instances where the IEC has demonstrated a lack of respect towards the citizens of Botswana, leading to a loss of credibility. By examining the postponements of the registration exercise and the IEC’s failure to communicate effectively, it becomes evident that the institution has disregarded its core mandate and the importance of its role in ensuring fair and transparent elections.

Incompetence or Disrespect?

One possible explanation for the IEC’s behavior is sheer incompetence. It is alarming to consider that the leadership of such a critical institution may lack the understanding of the importance of their mandate. The failure to communicate the reasons for the postponements in a timely manner raises questions about their ability to handle their responsibilities effectively. Furthermore, if the issue lies with government processes, it calls into question whether the IEC has the courage to stand up to the country’s leadership.

Another possibility is that the IEC lacks respect for its core clients, the voters of Botswana. Respect for stakeholders is crucial in building trust, and clear communication is a key component of this. The IEC’s failure to communicate accurate and complete information, despite having access to it, has fueled speculation and mistrust. Additionally, the IEC’s disregard for engaging with political parties, such as the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), further highlights this disrespect. By ignoring the UDC’s request to observe the registration process, the IEC demonstrates a lack of regard for its partners in the electoral exercise.

Rebuilding Trust and Credibility:

While allegations of political interference and security services involvement cannot be ignored, the IEC has a greater responsibility to ensure its own credibility. The institution did manage to refute claims by the DISS Director that the IEC database had been compromised, which is a positive step towards rebuilding trust. However, this remains a small glimmer of hope in the midst of the IEC’s overall disregard for the citizens of Botswana.

To regain the trust of Batswana, the IEC must prioritize respect for its stakeholders. Clear and timely communication is essential in this process. By engaging with political parties and addressing their concerns, the IEC can demonstrate a commitment to transparency and fairness. It is crucial for the IEC to recognize that its credibility is directly linked to the trust it garners from the voters.

Conclusion:

The IEC’s recent actions have raised serious concerns about its credibility and respect for the citizens of Botswana. Whether due to incompetence or a lack of respect for stakeholders, the IEC’s failure to communicate effectively and handle its responsibilities has damaged its reputation. To regain trust and maintain relevance, the IEC must prioritize clear and timely communication, engage with political parties, and demonstrate a commitment to transparency and fairness. Only by respecting the voters of Botswana can the IEC fulfill its crucial role in ensuring free and fair elections.

 

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Opinions

Fuelling Change: The Evolving Dynamics of the Oil and Gas Industry

4th April 2023

The Oil and Gas industry has undergone several significant developments and changes over the last few years. Understanding these developments and trends is crucial towards better appreciating how to navigate the engagement in this space, whether directly in the energy space or in associated value chain roles such as financing.

Here, we explore some of the most notable global events and trends and the potential impact or bearing they have on the local and global market.

Governments and companies around the world have been increasingly focused on transitioning towards renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. This shift is motivated by concerns about climate change and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Africa, including Botswana, is part of these discussions, as we work to collectively ensure a greener and more sustainable future. Indeed, this is now a greater priority the world over. It aligns closely with the increase in Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) investing being observed. ESG investing has become increasingly popular, and many investors are now looking for companies that are focused on sustainability and reducing their carbon footprint. This trend could have significant implications for the oil and fuel industry, which is often viewed as environmentally unsustainable. Relatedly and equally key are the evolving government policies. Government policies and regulations related to the Oil and Gas industry are likely to continue evolving with discussions including incentives for renewable energy and potentially imposing stricter regulations on emissions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also played a strong role. Over the last two years, the pandemic had a profound impact on the Oil and Gas industry (and fuel generally), leading to a significant drop in demand as travel and economic activity slowed down. As a result, oil prices plummeted, with crude oil prices briefly turning negative in April 2020. Most economies have now vaccinated their populations and are in recovery mode, and with the recovery of the economies, there has been recovery of oil prices; however, the pace and sustainability of recovery continues to be dependent on factors such as emergence of new variants of the virus.

This period, which saw increased digital transformation on the whole, also saw accelerated and increased investment in technology. The Oil and Gas industry is expected to continue investing in new digital technologies to increase efficiency and reduce costs. This also means a necessary understanding and subsequent action to address the impacts from the rise of electric vehicles. The growing popularity of electric vehicles is expected to reduce demand for traditional gasoline-powered cars. This has, in turn, had an impact on the demand for oil.

Last but not least, geopolitical tensions have played a tremendous role. Geopolitical tensions between major oil-producing countries can and has impacted the supply of oil and fuel. Ongoing tensions in the Middle East and between the US and Russia could have an impact on global oil prices further, and we must be mindful of this.

On the home front in Botswana, all these discussions are relevant and the subject of discussion in many corporate and even public sector boardrooms. Stanbic Bank Botswana continues to take a lead in supporting the Oil and Gas industry in its current state and as it evolves and navigates these dynamics. This is through providing financing to support Oil and Gas companies’ operations, including investments in new technologies. The Bank offers risk management services to help oil and gas companies to manage risks associated with price fluctuations, supply chain disruptions and regulatory changes. This includes offering hedging products and providing advice on risk management strategies.

Advisory and support for sustainability initiatives that the industry undertakes is also key to ensuring that, as companies navigate complex market conditions, they are more empowered to make informed business decisions. It is important to work with Oil and Gas companies to develop and implement sustainability strategies, such as reducing emissions and increasing the use of renewable energy. This is key to how partners such as Stanbic Bank work to support the sector.

Last but not least, Stanbic Bank stands firmly in support of Botswana’s drive in the development of the sector with the view to attain better fuel security and reduce dependence risk on imported fuel. This is crucial towards ensuring a stronger, stabler market, and a core aspect to how we can play a role in helping drive Botswana’s growth.  Continued understanding, learning, and sustainable action are what will help ensure the Oil and Gas sector is supported towards positive, sustainable and impactful growth in a manner that brings social, environmental and economic benefit.

Loago Tshomane is Manager, Client Coverage, Corporate and Investment Banking (CIB), Stanbic Bank Botswana

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Opinions

Brands are important

27th March 2023

So, the conclusion is brands are important. I start by concluding because one hopes this is a foregone conclusion given the furore that erupts over a botched brand. If a fast food chef bungles a food order, there’d be possibly some isolated complaint thrown. However, if the same company’s marketing expert or agency cooks up a tasteless brand there is a country-wide outcry. Why?  Perhaps this is because brands affect us more deeply than we care to understand or admit. The fact that the uproar might be equal parts of schadenfreude, black twitter-esque criticism and, disappointment does not take away from the decibel of concern raised.

A good place to start our understanding of a brand is naturally by defining what a brand is. Marty Neumier, the genius who authored The Brand Gap, offers this instructive definition – “A brand is a person’s gut feel about a product or service”. In other words, a brand is not what the company says it is. It is what the people feel it is. It is the sum total of what it means to them. Brands are perceptions. So, brands are defined by individuals not companies. But brands are owned by companies not individuals. Brands are crafted in privacy but consumed publicly. Brands are communal. Granted, you say. But that doesn’t still explain why everybody and their pet dog feel entitled to jump in feet first into a brand slug-fest armed with a hot opinion. True. But consider the following truism.

 

Brands are living. They act as milestones in our past. They are signposts of our identity. Beacons of our triumphs. Indexes of our consumption. Most importantly, they have invaded our very words and world view. Try going for just 24 hours without mentioning a single brand name. Quite difficult, right? Because they live among us they have become one of us. And we have therefore built ‘brand bonds’ with them. For example, iPhone owners gather here. You love your iPhone. It goes everywhere. You turn to it in moments of joy and when we need a quick mood boost. Notice how that ‘relationship’ started with desire as you longingly gazed upon it in a glossy brochure. That quickly progressed to asking other people what they thought about it. Followed by the zero moment of truth were you committed and voted your approval through a purchase. Does that sound like a romantic relationship timeline. You bet it does. Because it is. When we conduct brand workshops we run the Brand Loyalty ™ exercise wherein we test people’s loyalty to their favourite brand(s). The results are always quite intriguing. Most people are willing to pay a 40% premium over the standard price for ‘their’ brand. They simply won’t easily ‘breakup’ with it. Doing so can cause brand ‘heart ache’. There is strong brand elasticity for loved brands.

 

Now that we know brands are communal and endeared, then companies armed with this knowledge, must exercise caution and practise reverence when approaching the subject of rebranding. It’s fragile. The question marketers ought to ask themselves before gleefully jumping into the hot rebranding cauldron is – Do we go for an Evolution (partial rebrand) or a Revolution(full rebrand)? An evolution is incremental. It introduces small but significant changes or additions to the existing visual brand. Here, think of the subtle changes you’ve seen in financial or FMCG brands over the decades. Evolution allows you to redirect the brand without alienating its horde of faithful followers. As humans we love the familiar and certain. Change scares us. Especially if we’ve not been privy to the important but probably blinkered ‘strategy sessions’ ongoing behind the scenes. Revolutions are often messy. They are often hard reset about-turns aiming for a total new look and ‘feel’.

 

 

Hard rebranding is risky business. History is littered with the agony of brands large and small who felt the heat of public disfavour. In January 2009, PepsiCo rebranded the Tropicana. When the newly designed package hit the shelves, consumers were not having it. The New York Times reports that ‘some of the commenting described the new packaging as ‘ugly’ ‘stupid’. They wanted their old one back that showed a ripe orange with a straw in it. Sales dipped 20%. PepsiCo reverted to the old logo and packaging within a month. In 2006 Mastercard had to backtrack away from it’s new logo after public criticism, as did Leeds United, and the clothing brand Gap. AdAge magazine reports that critics most common sentiment about the Gap logo was that it looked like something a child had created using a clip-art gallery. Botswana is no different. University of Botswana had to retreat into the comfort of the known and accepted heritage strong brand.  Sir Ketumile Masire Teaching Hospital was badgered with complaints till it ‘adjusted’ its logo.

 

 

So if the landscape of rebranding is so treacherous then whey take the risk? Companies need to soberly assess they need for a rebrand. According to the fellows at Ignyte Branding a rebrand is ignited by the following admissions :

Our brand name no longer reflects our company’s vision.
We’re embarrassed to hand out our business cards.

Our competitive advantage is vague or poorly articulated.
Our brand has lost focus and become too complex to understand. Our business model or strategy has changed.
Our business has outgrown its current brand.
We’re undergoing or recently underwent a merger or acquisition. Our business has moved or expanded its geographic reach.
We need to disassociate our brand from a negative image.
We’re struggling to raise our prices and increase our profit margins. We want to expand our influence and connect to new audiences. We’re not attracting top talent for the positions we need to fill. All the above are good reasons to rebrand.

The downside to this debacle is that companies genuinely needing to rebrand might be hesitant or delay it altogether. The silver lining I guess is that marketing often mocked for its charlatans, is briefly transformed from being the Archilles heel into Thanos’ glove in an instant.

So what does a company need to do to safely navigate the rebranding terrain? Companies need to interrogate their brand purpose thoroughly. Not what they think they stand for but what they authentically represent when seen through the lens of their team members. In our Brand Workshop we use a number of tools to tease out the compelling brand truth. This section always draws amusing insights. Unfailingly, the top management (CEO & CFO)always has a vastly different picture of their brand to the rest of their ExCo and middle management, as do they to the customer-facing officer. We have only come across one company that had good internal alignment. Needless to say that brand is doing superbly well.

There is need a for brand strategies to guide the brand. One observes that most brands ‘make a plan’ as they go along. Little or no deliberate position on Brand audit, Customer research, Brand positioning and purpose, Architecture, Messaging, Naming, Tagline, Brand Training and may more. A brand strategy distils why your business exists beyond making money – its ‘why’. It defines what makes your brand what it is, what differentiates it from the competition and how you want your customers to perceive it. Lacking a brand strategy disadvantages the company in that it appears soul-less and lacking in personality. Naturally, people do not like to hang around humans with nothing to say. A brand strategy understands the value proposition. People don’t buy nails for the nails sake. They buy nails to hammer into the wall to hang pictures of their loved ones. People don’t buy make up because of its several hues and shades. Make up is self-expression. Understanding this arms a brand with an iron clad clad strategy on the brand battlefield.

But perhaps you’ve done the important research and strategy work. It’s still possible to bungle the final look and feel.  A few years ago one large brand had an extensive strategy done. Hopes were high for a top tier brand reveal. The eventual proposed brand was lack-lustre. I distinctly remember, being tasked as local agency to ‘land’ the brand and we outright refused. We could see this was a disaster of epic proportions begging to happen. The brand consultants were summoned to revise the logo. After a several tweaks and compromises the brand landed. It currently exists as one of the country’s largest brands. Getting the logo and visual look right is important. But how does one know if they are on the right path? Using the simile of a brand being a person – The answer is how do you know your outfit is right? It must serve a function, be the right fit and cut, it must be coordinated and lastly it must say something about you. So it is possible to bath in a luxurious bath gel, apply exotic lotion, be facebeat and still somehow wear a faux pas outfit. Avoid that.

Another suggestion is to do the obvious. Pre-test the logo and its look and feel on a cross section of your existing and prospective audience. There are tools to do this. Their feedback can save you money, time and pain. Additionally one must do another obvious check – use Google Image to verify the visual outcome and plain Google search to verify the name. These are so obvious they are hopefully for gone conclusions. But for the brands that have gone ahead without them, I hope you have not concluded your brand journeys as there is a world of opportunity waiting to be unlocked with the right brand strategy key.

Cliff Mada is Head of ArmourGetOn Brand Consultancy, based in Gaborone and Cape Town.

cliff@armourgeton.com

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