Monday, July 24, 2017

NEWS POST: Japan Launches 'Telework' Campaign To Ease Tokyo 2020 Congestion

The scene at a Tokyo train station as Japan launches an exercise to encourage commuters to work from home in the run-up to the summer Olympics in 2020
Japan on Monday launched a national exercise to encourage tens of thousands of commuters to work from home, in a bid to ease rail and road congestion before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and reform the country's workaholic culture.

About a quarter of the population of 127 million live in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures.
The congested megalopolis thus faces a serious need to ease rush-hour crowds to accommodate tourists for the Olympics.

The public-private "Telework Day" involved some 60,000 workers at more than 900 companies, organizations and government offices, according to the internal affairs ministry.
They worked from home, skipping their usual habit of commuting in notoriously packed trains or driving personal cars to the office.

The ministry had no figures to break down participation by region but most of those involved are believed to be in Tokyo.

The idea followed a teleworking effort at the time of the 2012 London Olympics. Japan will repeat the exercise on the same date over the next two years in the run-up to the opening of the Summer Games on July 24, 2020.

The plan is also part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's efforts to rethink Japan's workaholic tradition, where mostly male workers are routinely expected to spend long hours in the office and have little time with their families.

The government earlier this year unveiled its first-ever initiative to limit overtime in a bid to tackle "karoshi", or death from overwork. It hopes that once the Olympics are over, more people will telecommute as a lasting legacy.

"Teleworking can be one solution" to heavy traffic congestion in the Tokyo metropolitan area, said a government official in charge of the campaign.

"Some people may say they felt some effect (on reducing congestion) this morning, while others say they felt no difference.

"This is a small start but we'd like it to trigger companies as well as workers to start thinking about a different work style," he told AFP.

Image and graphics: VICE News
Japan’s attempt to stop people from working to death may be a publicity stunt

The Japanese government has partnered with the country’s most powerful business lobby to do something that, in theory, shouldn’t be that difficult: make people work less and have more fun. And they’re hoping to save lives in the process.

Karoshi, or death by overwork, has been a part of the Japanese lexicon and a legally recognized cause of death since the 1980s. Despite growing awareness, cases of overwork resulting in illness or death continue to rise at a rapid rate. The number of resulting compensation claims reached a record high in financial year 2015, when the government received 2,310 compensation claims for mental illness, brain disease, and heart disease caused by overwork.

The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare also attributed 93 suicides or suicide attempts that year to working excessive hours.

Claims of karoshi have more than tripled since the government began tracking them in 1999, when 11 suicides or suicide attempts were officially recognized as being work-related. But experts say the real number of karoshi deaths is much higher and accuse the government of trying to downplay the issue.

To much fanfare both abroad and at home, Japan launched its very first “Premium Friday” in February. The idea is simple: companies are encouraged to let their employees off at 3 p.m. on the last Friday of every month. Worried about the country’s economic slowdown, the government hopes that a bit of extra free time will encourage people to shop more and help in the fight against overwork in the process. But the program has many in Japan wondering if the government is serious about changing the national work culture and improving work-life balance — or simply staging an easy publicity stunt.

Noriko Nakahara became an advocate for better working conditions after her husband killed himself 18 years ago. Laurel Chor
The Japanese have reason to be skeptical. In an effort to combat karoshi, the government has introduced overtime regulations, but many companies get around the rules by making employees take their work home or by pressuring them to clock out — and then continue working at the office. This is compounded by a lax labor market in which roughly 40 percent of Japan’s labor force are contract or part-time workers with few legal protections.

Even when workers are entitled to time off, they rarely use it. According to the government, full-time Japanese workers get, on average, 18.4 days of paid leave a year, but most take less than half of that.

The International Labour Organization site lists a few “typical” karoshi cases: a 34-year-old man who died from cardiac arrest after working 110 hours on a weekly basis. A 58-year-old who died of a stroke after working an average of 4,320 hours a year, or 83 hours a week. A 22-year-old nurse who had a fatal heart attack after working 34-hour shifts five times a month.

Noriko Nakahara became an advocate for better working conditions after her husband, a pediatrician, killed himself 18 years ago. She had begged him to quit his job, worried that the long hours were wearing him down. But he insisted that being a doctor was his calling and worried that if he quit, the pediatrics department would suffer to the detriment of the entire community.

In 1999, at the age of 44, he jumped to his death from the roof of the hospital where he worked.

“He did not die because of personal issues,” Nakahara said, “but because of a social issue.”

Two years later, she applied for compensation from the government, claiming her husband’s death was job-related. After she was denied, she took the case to court, and in 2007  a judge ruled that his suicide was indeed caused by his workload.

During the court battle, Nakahara’s lawyer advised her to garner public attention by creating a support group. So she joined the National Family Association for Karoshi Awareness and founded its Tokyo chapter. She’s been an active member ever since.
“More and more new members join every year,” she told VICE News.

Over the last year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pushed for change in Japan’s problematic labour market — a platform he calls “Work Style Reform.”

“He did not die because of personal issues, but because of a social issue,” Nakahara said of her husband. Laurel Chor
Karoshi was traditionally associated with salarymen, as white-collar workers are called in Japan. But recently, work-related suicides have seen a sharp increase in women and young people who make up the majority of Japan’s part-time, freelance, and contract worker force.

The number of non-regular workers in Japan has grown steadily over the past 30 years. Harvard historian Andrew Gordon called the increase “the most important shift in Japanese employment.”

These part-time workers are often college students or recent graduates unwilling or unable to get a regular office job, or mothers attempting to re-enter the workforce. Such workers lack job security as well as the benefits that accompany a regular job, like standardized working hours and health insurance. Japanese companies cut costs by hiring part-time work, often having these employees work overnight shifts or on weekends without overtime compensation.

In an attempt to change the current system, Abe’s administration is proposing guidelines and regulations that will enforce equal compensation for equal work, regardless of whether workers are full- or part-time. And to improve work-life balance, the government has proposed capping the number of overtime an employee can work to 100 hours a month.

But lawmakers and advocates worry the proposed regulations are too lax and full of loopholes, and say more is needed to effectively combat Japan’s karoshi problem.

Many worry the current rules don’t fully appreciate the pressure of the “giving face” work culture, which makes leaving the office early or taking time off a particularly stressful affair. Proving your dedication to the company and putting in face-time with colleagues can be seen as more important than actual performance, and the economy reflects that. According to the latest OECD figures on productivity, which are calculated by dividing GDP per capita by the number of hours worked, Japan is the least productive country in the G7; the U.S. is roughly 59 percent more productive.

“Karoshi,” or death by overwork, has been a part of the Japanese lexicon and a legally recognized cause of death since the 1980s. Laurel Chor
Nakahara thinks that Premium Friday is a good idea in theory but is skeptical about whether companies are prepared to actually help combat long working hours. She points to Itochu, one of Japan’s largest corporations, which turns off its lights at 10 p.m. to prevent people from working any later at the office. Itochu also encourages employees to come to work early in the morning, providing a free and elaborate breakfast buffet as an incentive.

“We’re not learning anything,” Nakahara said. “That’s why we make laws and keep fighting. I sometimes wonder how long we’ll have to do this. We’re all so exhausted. But I hope the people of Japan, and the government, promise to protect our workers and make things better.”

Originally published (STORY 1) on AFP/DAILY MAIL and (STORY 2) on VICE NEWS 

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Obama Presidential Centre Breaks From National Archives Model

In this May 3, 2017 photo, former President Barack Obama speaks at a community event on the Presidential Center at the South Shore Cultural Centre in Chicago. The Obama Presidential Centre will not be a part of the Presidential Library Network operated by the National Archives and Records Administration. The former president has said construction of the centre on Chicago's South Side would take about four years. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
From Boston's John F. Kennedy Library to Southern California's tribute to Ronald Reagan, America's 13 major presidential libraries get about US$65 million a year from the federal government. That opens the facilities, which typically gloss over their namesakes' faults, to criticism that they are taxpayer-funded "centres for presidential spin."

The Obama Presidential Centre in Chicago's Jackson Park will take a different route, opting out of the presidential library network operated by the National Archives and Records Administration —and the millions of dollars in federal support that go along with membership.

Agency officials on Thursday confirmed the split, which was not disclosed last week when former President Barack Obama unveiled conceptual designs for the center. In the months leading up to the announcement, it was widely assumed that the center would have a presidential library, full of documents and artifacts that was part of the NARA system.

"It's surprising," said University of Louisville professor Benjamin Hufbauer, author of a book on presidential libraries. "My short take is that it's good news. Most of [the libraries] are centers for presidential spin. They're propaganda centers run by the federal government. Should the government be doing that for presidents?"

According to the conceptual designs, the Obama centre will be a three-building complex consisting of a high-rise museum tower and two low-slung structures: a "forum" containing an auditorium and a library building. In a break with convention, the latter will not house a collection of presidential documents and artifacts. Those will be stored in existing NARA facilities. Nonclassified documents will be available online.

The break from the National Archives will free up the Obama Foundation, the nonprofit group charged with building the center and raising funds for it, in several ways.

The foundation won't have to amass an endowment equivalent to 60 percent of the construction cost of a NARA-operated presidential library. The foundation also won't have to adhere to the agency's stringent architectural and design standards for presidential libraries. And it won't have to pay NARA to help run an agency-controlled portion of the centre.

All that could save the foundation tens of millions of dollars, more than making up for the loss of federal funds.

Indeed, Hufbauer said, the foundation will be able to channel money that would have gone to the endowment to programs and unconventional features of the center that Obama mused about last week. They include a recording studio that the former president said would be built to host artists like Bruce Springsteen, Chance the Rapper and Spike Lee.

Amy Brundage, a spokesman for the foundation, characterized the new arrangement with NARA as "mutually beneficial."

It "better reflects the way people access information in this digital age. Our goal here was to create, with NARA, a new model for the next generation of presidential centres," Brundage said in an email.

Yet the arrangement confounded expectations previously expressed by NARA officials.

This conceptual drawing released May 3, 2017, by the Obama Foundation, shows plans for the proposed Obama Presidential Center that will be located in Jackson Park on Chicago's South Side. This view looks north showing the Museum, Forum and Library. The Museum is the tallest structure on site. The Obama Presidential Center will not be a part of the presidential library network operated by the National Archives and Records Administration. The move will free the Obama Foundation from amassing an endowment equivalent to 60 percent of the construction cost. (Obama Foundation via AP)
In a 2015 web post, for example, U.S. Archivist David Ferriero said the planned Obama library would increase NARA's presence on Chicago's South Side, "where we already have the National Archives at Chicago and a Federal Records Centre."

The shift also appeared to disrupt the plans of the centre's architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien of New York. A large-scale model of the centre that they displayed last week envisioned the library building as a NARA-type facility, largely devoted to storage.

Questioned about that aspect of the plan, the architects said it was no longer current.

A NARA spokesman, James Pritchett, confirmed Thursday that the Obama centre would not receive funds from the National Archives. However, if NARA lends documents or artifacts to the Obama center's museum for display, the centre would be subject to the agency's regulations regarding those materials.

Brundage did not respond to questions about the estimated cost of the Obama Presidential Centre and the foundation's fundraising goal. The centre is expected to cost at least US$500 million.

On Thursday, the Obama Foundation released a study which estimated that the centre will have an economic impact of US$2.1 billion on Chicago's South Side during construction and its first 10 years of operation.

A groundbreaking is expected to be held in 2018. Foundation leaders have said the centre will open in 2021.

In fiscal 2015, NARA provided a total of about US$65 million to the 13 presidential libraries. The library of the most recently built presidential centre, devoted to the presidency of George W. Bush, received US$6.2 million. Boston's Kennedy library got more than US$7 million, the most of all the facilities. Herbert Hoover's, in Iowa, received the lowest amount, about US$2.2 million.

The modern concept of presidential libraries began in 1939 when President Franklin Roosevelt donated his personal papers to the federal government and formed a nonprofit group to raise money to build the library on his estate in Hyde Park, N.Y.

When President Harry Truman decided he wanted a library, too, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act in 1955, creating the system of privately erected and federally maintained libraries.

As the number of presidential libraries grew, Congress in 1986 required foundations to create a private endowment to offset increasing operating costs. The George W. Bush Foundation, for example, raised more than US$500 million to build the library and cover the endowment.

Obama would have been required to have an endowment equal to 60 percent of the cost of the library portion of the centre under a 2008 law. His most recent predecessors needed to reach only a 20 percent threshold.

Originally published on CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Monday, January 25, 2016

SPECIAL REPORT ON ZIKA VIRUS: WHO Sees Zika Outbreak Spreading Through The Americas; Brazilians Panic As Mosquito-Borne Virus Is Linked To Brain Damage In Thousands Of Babies

Nadja Bezerra, 42, with her two-month old baby, Alice Vitoria, who was born with suspected Zika-related microcephaly, visits her neighbor in Recife, Brazil, on Jan. 10. (Lianne Milton/Panos Pictures for The Washington Post)

The mosquito-borne Zika virus, which is suspected of causing brain damage to babies in Brazil, is likely to spread to all countries in the Americas except for Canada and Chile, the World Health Organization said on Monday.

Reuters reports that Zika has not yet been reported in the continental United States, although a woman who fell ill with Zika in Brazil later gave birth to a brain-damaged baby in Hawaii.

Brazil's Health Ministry in November confirmed the Zika virus was linked to a foetal deformation known as microcephaly, in which infants are born with smaller-than-usual brains.

Brazil has reported 3,893 suspected cases of microcephaly, the WHO said last Friday, over 30 times more than had been reported in any year since 2010.

The disease's rapid spread, to 21 countries and territories of the region since May 2015, is due to a lack of immunity among the population and the prevalence of the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries the virus, the WHO said in a statement.

Evidence about other transmission routes is limited.

"Zika has been isolated in human semen, and one case of possible person-to-person sexual transmission has been described. However, more evidence is needed to confirm whether sexual contact is a means of Zika transmission," it said.

There is currently no evidence of Zika being transmitted to babies through breast milk, the WHO said.

It advised pregnant women planning to travel to areas where Zika is circulating to consult a healthcare provider before travelling and on return.

Zika has historically occurred in parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. But it is normally a mild disease and there is little scientific data on it, so it is unclear why it might be causing microcephaly in Brazil, the WHO has said.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told the WHO executive board that she had asked Carissa Etienne, head of the WHO in the Americas, to brief the board later this week on the WHO's response to the outbreak.

"Although a causal link between Zika infection in pregnancy and microcephaly has not, and I must emphasize, has not been established, the circumstantial evidence is suggestive and extremely worrisome," Chan said.

"An increased occurrence of neurological symptoms, noted in some countries coincident with arrival of the virus, adds to the concern."

Brazilians Panic As Mosquito-Borne Virus Is Linked To Brain Damage In Thousands Of Babies
The Washington Post reports:

Jusikelly da Silva was full of expectations for her baby. This was to be her fourth with her spouse, Josenildo, and the couple had three other children from previous relationships. “All perfect, all normal,” her husband said of their family.

Then, at the six-month mark of her pregnancy, Jusikelly, 32, learned from a scan that her baby had microcephaly, a rare defect that causes infants to have unusually small heads and can lead to learning and motor difficulties.

Parents such as the da Silvas are struggling as South America’s largest country faces an unprecedented outbreak of microcephaly cases. Brazilian officials say the disease is being triggered by Zika — a little-known virus borne by mosquitoes. The government has spent more than US$300 million to battle the mosquito, mobilizing hundreds of soldiers in the effort.

Concern about Zika has grown so strong that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late Friday issued a travel alert urging pregnant women not to visit Brazil or about a dozen other countries in the region where mosquitoes have spread the virus.

In the northeastern city of Recife, Jusikelly wiped away tears as she cuddled and kissed her baby Luhandra, now two months old. “She will have some mental difficulties,” she said. “She does not react like other children. She does not laugh.”

The da Silvas’ lives are on hold, the mother said.

“We stopped everything,” said Jusikelly. After the diagnosis, the couple dropped plans to open a small bakery. “I couldn’t work,” she said.

The rise in microcephaly cases in Brazil has been startling: there were just 147 in 2014. But since October, 3,530 possible cases of Zika-related microcephaly have been reported to the Ministry of Health. Authorities say the real number of cases is almost certainly lower, with some of those misdiagnosed as microcephaly. Still, officials have also reported 46 deaths of babies who had microcephaly that may have been related to Zika.

The Zika virus was first identified in a rhesus monkey in Uganda in 1947, but its initial outbreak in humans was in 2007, on the South Pacific island of Yap. It is typically transmitted to people by infected mosquitoes and can cause flulike symptoms.

But the virus had never been linked to microcephaly before. Instead, microcephaly was thought to be genetic or caused by diseases such as rubella. Researchers say they are now in unchartered territory on the issue.

“The disease in Brazil is behaving in a different way,” said Camila Ventura, an ophthalmologist at Recife’s Altino Ventura Foundation who has found eye damage in babies with microcephaly — another first. “We are running against time.”

South America’s biggest country has seen a rise in cases of a disease triggered by the little-known Zika virus being linked to a spike in birth defects.
Brazilian authorities first confirmed the presence of the Zika virus in May. Some researchers speculate it may have been introduced into the country by a tourist attending the 2014 World Cup. It has now spread to other countries in Latin America, and Puerto Rico recorded its first case in December. A Texas woman who traveled to El Salvador has also been diagnosed with the virus.

The World Health Organization and the CDC have yet to definitively establish a connection between Zika and microcephaly, which has been reported only in Brazil. But the CDC, which is helping to investigate the Brazilian outbreak, has just provided the strongest sign yet of such a link — confirming the presence of Zika in the bodies of two newborns who died and in the placentas of two women who miscarried. All four cases also involved microcephaly.

The Brazilian Health Ministry says 80 percent of those who catch Zika show no symptoms. The rest may suffer fever, muscle pain and rashes for a few days. Most people who come down with it recovery quickly.

“We never paid too much attention to this virus,” said Paulo Zanotto, a microbiology professor at the University of Sao Paulo who is coordinating a network of 42 laboratories studying Zika. “I’m really worried because we have no idea of the amount of spread.” The government estimates that there are between 400,000 and 1.4 million Zika cases in the country.

Brazilian authorities have launched a national plan in response to the outbreak, sending over 100 tons of a biological agent that kills mosquito larvae to affected areas. It has set up headquarters in affected states, staffing them with military, health and education officials.

‘Love, care and patience’
In Recife, mothers impacted by the outbreak are struggling to come to terms with their babies’ conditions.

On a recent morning, Mariana Carvalho, 16, cuddled her six-week-old daughter, Agatha, after a consultation at the local Oswaldo Cruz hospital. Agatha was diagnosed with microcephaly a day before she was born.

“At the time I didn’t believe it. I wanted my daughter to be normal,” she said. But Carvalho said she loves her daughter nonetheless. “It doesn’t change anything,” she said.

Maria Rodrigues, 29, suffered Zika-like symptoms while she was pregnant with Maria Eduarda, her ninth child. When the baby was born on Nov. 22, she was diagnosed with microcephaly.

Rodrigues and the infant’s father, Romero Perreira, 39, scratch out a living recycling garbage they collect on the streets. Romero’s sister Miriam, 40, plans to adopt Maria Eduarda.

Doctors told Miriam the infant could face problems walking, talking and hearing — she already struggles to swallow and see properly. “The only thing we can give her is love, care and patience,” the aunt said, cradling the child in her house in a Recife suburb, next door to the tiny dwelling where the baby’s parents live.

The microcephaly cases have occurred around the country, but the most significant concentrations are in northeastern states such as Pernambuco. The Zika virus may have spread especially quickly there because residents have stored water in tanks during a long-running drought, creating breeding grounds for mosquitoes, said José Iran, health secretary for Pernambuco.

Some doctors in northeastern Brazil have gone so far as to advise women to hold off getting pregnant.

The Brazilian army has provided 750 soldiers to fight the mosquito in Pernambuco. On a recent Saturday morning in Recife, the state’s capital, troops joined health workers going door to door in the Brasilia Teimosa neighborhood to warn residents against leaving water receptacles uncovered. They also spooned a powdered biological agent into tanks and drains in an attempt to kill any mosquito larvae.

Many residents said that either they or relatives had caught Zika or other mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue or chikungunya.

“I would describe this as one of the biggest challenges in public health in Brazil’s recent history,” said Jailson Correa, Recife’s health secretary, referring to the outbreak of those diseases and the microcephaly cases.

In Recife, the rate of new microcephaly cases has diminished in recent weeks, but there are fears of another outbreak if Zika spreads during the summer.

Parents affected by the outbreak are preparing themselves for a difficult future with children who may need constant care.

Nadja Bezerra already had a 15-year-old son when she found herself pregnant last year. Then a scan at seven months revealed that her baby’s head and brain had not grown as they should have.

“The bomb dropped,” she said. “The worst day of my life.”

The 42-year-old cried as she recalled how, after her daughter, Alice, was born two months ago, she lay in the maternity ward and watched other mothers pass by with healthy babies.
Bezerra has decided to give up her job at a call center to care for Alice. The family will depend on the US$173 monthly salary that her husband, João, 54, earns cleaning planes at the nearby airport.

“I am very scared,” she said.

Originally published (STORY 1) in Reuters and (STORY 2) in The Washington Post