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Vaccine inequity posing ‘significant risk’ to global economic recovery: UN report

The World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) mid-year report warned widening inequality is threatening global growth, projected at 5.4 per cent this year. 

Vaccine access critical 

“Vaccine inequity between countries and regions is posing a significant risk to an already uneven and fragile global recovery”, said UN Chief Economist Elliott Harris.  

“Timely and universal access to COVID-19 vaccinations will mean the difference between ending the pandemic promptly and placing the world economy on the trajectory of a resilient recovery, or losing many more years of growth, development and opportunities.” 

The mid-year forecast updates the WESP report published in January by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). 

It examines the performance of the world economy since the pandemic began, as well as the impact of global policy responses and post-crisis recovery scenarios. 

A mixed picture 

The 5.4 per cent in projected global growth this year follows a sharp contraction of 3.6 per cent in 2020, and reflects an upward revision from the original forecast. 

While the world’s two largest economies – China and the United States – are on the road to recovery, growth remains fragile and uncertain in several countries in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean.  

Many countries will not see economic output return to pre-pandemic levels until 2022 or 2023. 

“For a vast majority of developing countries, economic output will remain below 2019 levels for most of 2021”, the authors said.  “Amid insufficient fiscal space to stimulate demand, many of these countries will face low and stagnant growth and the prospect of a lost decade.”  

Trade strong but uneven 

The report also details strong but uneven recovery in global trade, which has already surpassed pre-pandemic levels due to demand for electrical and electronic equipment, personal protective equipment, and other manufactured goods. 

Economies which depend on manufacturing have fared better, however countries which rely on tourism, or commodities, are unlikely to see a quick rebound.  

Tourism services in particular, will remain depressed due to slow lifting of restrictions on international travel, coupled with fears of new waves of COVID-19 infection. 

Women hit hardest 

The pandemic has pushed an estimated 114.4 million people into extreme poverty, with women accounting for around 58 million of that total. 

The report found that while women have been at the forefront of the crisis— 

representing most health workers, caregivers and essential service providers—they have also been the hardest hit in several ways. 

During the pandemic, labour force participation shrunk by two per cent worldwide, compared to only 0.2 per cent during the global financial crisis in 2007-8, but more women than men were forced to leave their jobs to meet family demands. Women-owned businesses have also fared disproportionately worse, according to the report. 

COVID-19 has also dealt sharp blows to services for women’s health, and reproductive health, and the disruption to education has helped undermine global progress towards gender equality.  There has also been a spike in gender-based violence, which UN Women has labelled a “shadow pandemic.” 

Ensure inclusive recovery 

As women are also underrepresented in decision-making surrounding the pandemic, and in economic policy responses, the report highlighted why recovery must be inclusive.  

“The pandemic has pushed nearly 58 million women and girls into extreme poverty, dealing a huge blow to poverty reduction efforts worldwide, and exacerbated gender gaps in income, wealth and education, impeding progress on gender equality”, said Hamid Rashid, Chief of the Global Economic Monitoring Branch at DESA, and the lead author of the report. 

“Fiscal and monetary measures to steer recovery must take into account the differentiated impact of the crisis on different population groups, including women, to ensure an economic recovery that is inclusive and resilient.”

5 things you should know about the state of the global economy

IMF/ Jake Lyell
Dock workers unload fresh fish from a boat in Casablanca, Morocco.

1) US and China bounce back, but a slow recovery for developing countries 

While economic output in the United States and China is expected to grow robustly and lift global growth, many developing economies are not expected to return to pre-pandemic output levels anytime soon. The pandemic is far from over for most developing countries where vaccination is advancing slowly, and fiscal pressures have intensified.

2) The situation of the most vulnerable has become even more precarious

Lockdowns and social distancing measures resulted in large job losses in contact-intensive and labour-intensive service sectors, which predominantly employ women. The pandemic has also exposed the vulnerability of informal employment, which is the main source of jobs in many countries and which offers less job security, social protection and access to healthcare.

IMF/Lisa Marie David
An egg vendor sits in her stall in Quiapo, Philippines.

3) Global trade recovery is strong, particularly in Asia

Merchandise trade has already surpassed pre-pandemic levels, buoyed by strong demand for electrical and electronic equipment, personal protective equipment (PPE) and other manufactured goods. Trade in services remains constrained by restrictions on international travel. While exports from Asian economies have soared, exports from Africa, Western Asia, and the Commonwealth of Independent States has stalled.

4) The COVID-19 crisis has inflicted more harm on women and girls

This crisis disproportionately affected women, who suffered significant job and income losses, contributing to the worsening of gender poverty gaps. Burdened by increased home care duties, many girls and women gave up on schools, and the workforce altogether. Returning to school and work might take longer or may not happen at all for many of them, further widening gender gaps in education, income and wealth.

ILO/Kivanc Ozvardar
Women textile workers perform quality control tests at a factoy in Izmir, Turkey.

5) Countries need to do more to address the uneven impact of the COVID-19 crisis

There is an urgent need for countries to formulate better targeted and gender-sensitive policies to drive a more resilient and inclusive recovery from the crisis. Though on the frontlines of the pandemic, women have been under-represented in pandemic related decision-making and economic policy responses. The severe and disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women and girls call for more targeted policy and support measures for women and girls, not only to accelerate the recovery but also to ensure that the recovery is inclusive and resilient.

UN Women/Piyavit Thongsa-Ard
A rice mill worker fills a sack with rice in Ratchathani province, Thailand.

Free up ‘bottlenecks’ stifling Africa’s agri-food sector, urges FAO chief 

“Let’s unblock the bottlenecks that are holding back potential by increasing coordination and upskilling human capacity in African nations”, urged QU Dongyu, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). 

Speaking at the launch of FAO’s latest report, Public Expenditure on Food and Agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, he added that funds must also be unlocked and public finance systems streamlined, “so that the scarce resources we have do not go unspent”. 

Based on “rigorous analysis over the last 15 years, made possible thanks to strong collaboration with our Members in the region”, the FAO chief explained that the report brings to light a gap between long-standing political commitments and the financial realities facing 13 sub-Saharan countries. 

Penalizing agriculture 

Despite meetings of African Union (AU) Member States, beginning in 2003, where they vowed to fuel social and economic growth by pledging 10 per cent of their national budgets to food and agriculture, this undertaking remains unfulfilled. 

A survey of the Monitoring and Analysing Food and Agricultural Policies (MAFAP) programme, an FAO initiative that tracks public expenditure in Africa, revealed that only Malawi has consistently met that target. 

In some years, Mali has also achieved it, but Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda, have never succeeded in doing so.  

In some cases, food and agriculture hover at only three per cent of national budgets, and on average, little of that is made available for food and agricultural development. Insufficient implementing capacity has also left a fifth of the funding undisbursed.  

According to the report, agriculture is being implicitly penalized.  

Spend better  

Marco Sánchez, Deputy Director of FAO’s Agri-food Economics Division, outlined research showing that technical efficiency in agriculture, increases dramatically as spending nears $80 per capita. And while it begins to taper off after that, most African countries come nowhere near that amount.  

While acknowledging a “narrow fiscal space” to expand public investment in Africa – particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic – he argued that it was possible to generate efficiency gains through better spending.  

According to the report, the lion’s share of national expenditure on food and agriculture in Africa subsidizes fertilizer, tools and other inputs, which Mr. Sánchez said tend to exhibit diminishing returns over time. 

At the same time, FAO Chief Economist Máximo Torero, stressed the importance of generating quality data to guide agricultural investment decisions, with today’s report being a significant step along that path.  

Moreover, public investments should be monitored more closely, and their results used to catalyse private investment.

WHO chief hails ‘monumental moment’ in COVID fight, as US throws support behind vaccine patent waiver

WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, described it on Twitter as a “powerful example of leadership to address global health challenges.”

The UN health chief has for months been urging governments involved in the World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations over intellectual property rights, to suspend patent rules for those vaccines cleared for emergency use, in an effort to boost vaccine production.

The US had resisted lobbying to waive protections, but on Wednesday Katharine Tai, the US Trade Representative, released a detailed statement, outlining why the Biden Administration was changing its mind:

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures”, she said.

“The administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines. We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the WTO, needed to make this happen.”

Safe and effective

She outlined that the aim was to get “as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people, as fast as possible.” The top trade official committed the US to expand manufacturing and distribution, and work to increase the raw materials needed to produce the vaccines.

According to news reports, WTO members are due to hold further discussions in the coming weeks, while India and South Africa – which proposed the waiver – are working on revised plans.

The issue of our time

Speaking before the US announcement, the WTO Director-General, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, said that the issue of equitable access to vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics, was “both the moral and economic issue of our time.”

Addressing members at Wednesday’s meeting of the trade body, she said all members needed to share their vaccines, either through the international equitable mechanism, COVAX, or other means, and remove export restrictions and prohibitions.

Manufacturers needed to be expand capacity, and governments should “invest in additional manufacturing capacity for the future.”

She called on negotiations over the waiver to continue speedily, saying she was convinced a “pragmatic way forward” was possible.

Global e-commerce jumps to $26.7 trillion, fuelled by COVID-19

According to UN trade and development experts UNCTAD, the e-commerce sector saw a “dramatic” rise in its share of all retail sales, from 16 per cent to 19 per cent in 2020.

The digital retail economy experienced most growth in the Republic of Korea, where internet sales increased from around one in five transactions in 2019, to more than one in four last year.

“These statistics show the growing importance of online activities”, said Shamika Sirimanne, UNCTAD’s director of technology and logistics. “They also point to the need for countries, especially developing ones, to have such information as they rebuild their economies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

The UK also saw a spike in online transactions over the same period, from 15.8 to 23.3 per cent; so too did China (from 20.7 to 24.9 per cent), the US (11 to 14 per cent), Australia (6.3 to 9.4 per cent), Singapore (5.9 to 11.7 per cent) and Canada (3.6 to 6.2 per cent).  

Online business-to-consumer (B2C) sales for the world’s top 13 companies stood at $2.9 trillion in 2020, UNCTAD said on Friday.

Source
UNCTAD, based on national statistics offices.

Bumpy ride

UNCTAD also said that among the top 13 e-commerce firms – most being from China and the US – those offering ride-hailing and travel services have suffered.

These include holiday site Expedia, which fell from fifth place in 2019 to 11th in 2020, a slide mirrored by travel aggregator, Booking Holdings, and Airbnb.

By comparison, e-firms offering a wider range of services and goods to online consumers fared better, with the top 13 companies seeing a more than 20 per cent increase in their sales – up from 17.9 per cent in 2019.

These winners include Shopify, whose gains rose more than 95 per cent last year – and Walmart (up 72.4 per cent). 

Cashing-up

Overall, global e-commerce sales jumped to $26.7 trillion in 2019, up four per cent from a year earlier, the UN number-crunchers noted, citing the latest available estimates.

In addition to consumer online purchases, this figure includes “business-to-business” (B2B) trade, which put together was worth 30 per cent of global gross domestic product two years ago.

Europe: COVID must spark rethink to prioritize ‘human lives’ over economic policies 

Speaking ahead of the EU Porto Social Summit on May 7, Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, pointed out that with over 90 million people and almost 20 million children at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the Union, plans to address it are “insufficiently ambitious”. 

The European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan, commits to reducing that number by 15 million and 5 million, respectively, by 2030. 

“It doesn’t come near the pledge of ‘no poverty’ made in Sustainable Development Goal 1 (SDG1)”, he said. 

Moreover, there are no consequences for missing the target or government accountability mechanisms to enforce commitments.  

“The EU must demand that Member States develop realistic, transparent, and accountable national plans to meet these and other targets”, underscored Mr. De Schutter. 

‘Truly strengthen’ resilience  

The EU reacted swiftly to the COVID-19 pandemic, including lifting budgetary rules for Member States to spend above legal maximum levels, providing billions in loans and grants, and making proposals to ensure children’s rights and gender equality. 

But, the UN expert stressed, more is needed to “truly strengthen social resilience.” 

He noted that some 700,000 people sleep on the streets each night, and painted a picture of poverty and social exclusion in the EU faced by 30.1 per cent of people with disabilities, nearly 21 per cent of the general population and 22.5 per cent of the bloc’s children. 

Calling these numbers “unacceptable,” the Special Rapporteur urged for measures to alleviate poverty in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic that are “not superseded by blind economic policies” favouring social and tax competition and imposing stringent deficit controls. 

Institutionalized pullbacks 

Despite being employed, nine million workers remain in poverty because of expanded non-standard forms of employment and low wages, said Mr. De Schutter, calling it an “institutionalized race to the bottom” among Member States, which “in the name of competitiveness” is leading to lower wages and worker protections.  

“The EU must address this harmful competition as part of its efforts to fight poverty and protect social rights”, he said. 

And since 2009, the bloc’s members had decreased social protection, health and education investments, which left them ill-prepared for the pandemic.  

Until very recently the EU itself had recommended many of these budget cuts to ensure compliance with its own budgetary rules, he added.  

EU must use the COVID-19 crisis to rethink its fundamental economic rules — UN expert

Stand up for social rights 

Although these rules have now been relaxed, the UN expert expressed concern that countries that utilize a new EU recovery fund to increase social investments may, in effect, be punished once the Union’s rules on maximum deficits are reinstated.  

“This would be a defeat for social rights”, he said. “The EU must use the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to rethink its fundamental economic rules”.  

Mr. De Schutter hoped that the upcoming summit would generate “a broad consensus for an EU-wide anti-poverty strategy that strengthens public services, combats homelessness, addresses in-work poverty, and ensures greater progressivity in taxation”. 

Appointed as by the UN Human Rights Council on 1st May 2020, Mr. De Schutter and all other human rights experts are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work.

‘Disasters know no borders’ says Guterres, 35 years on from Chernobyl nuclear accident

A 20-second shut down of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on 26 April 1986, created a surge that led to a chemical explosion, which released nearly 520 dangerous radionuclides into the atmosphere. As a result, large parts of the former Soviet Union were contaminated; territory which now lies within the borders of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, according to the UN. 

Marking the 35th anniversary of the accident, Secretary-General António Guterres said that together, “we can work to prevent and contain [disasters]… support all those in need, and build a strong recovery”. 

Never forget 

As one of the most serious nuclear accidents in history, nearly 8.4 million people in the three countries were exposed to radiation, according to the UN. 

Some 350,000 were forced to leave their homes in severely contaminated areas, which left a deeply traumatic and lasting impact on their lives: “Their suffering must not be forgotten”, said the top UN official. 

He also pointed to the anniversary as an occasion to recognize the recovery efforts led by the three governments as well as the work of “scientists who sifted through the evidence” to provide important analysis that has informed emergency planning and reduced risks. 

A legacy of assistance 

While the Organization had helped the people in the areas surrounding Chernobyl at the onset, four years after the accident the Soviet Government acknowledged the need for international assistance.  

That same year, 1990, the General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for “international cooperation to address and mitigate the consequences at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant”. This began the UN’s participation in the recovery effort. 

In 2002, the world body announced a shift in the Chernobyl strategy, with a new focus on a long-term developmental approach. 

And in 2019, a new safety casing over the old shelter was completed and given to the Government of Ukraine. It was achieved with €2.2 billion in donations from over 45 nations.  

The UN said the milestone one of the largest ever seen projects in terms of international cooperation in the field of nuclear safety. 

Working for ‘the common good’ 

UN country teams – working with civil society, international partners and donors – first supported emergency and humanitarian aid, then recovery and finally social and economic development, Mr. Guterres noted, adding that “our joint efforts have enjoyed some success”. 

He cited that the number of small and medium-sized businesses operating in areas directly affected by the disaster has risen from 2,000 in 2002 to 37,000 today.  

And thousands of residents, community leaders and doctors have been trained on health risks and promoting healthy lifestyles. 

The Chernobyl disaster was contained by governments working with academics, civil society and others, “for the common good”, the UN chief said.  

“It holds important lessons for today’s efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic”, he concluded.

National Chernobyl Museum/Anatoliy Rasskazov
The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on 26 April 1986 was one of the most serious nuclear accidents ever.

ECOSOC chief calls for financial support for small island developing states

“Financial liquidity is available today in the world and it is essential in order to enable the SIDs to build back better”, he told a special high-level meeting, held online. 

Caught in ‘a perfect storm’ 

There are roughly 60 SIDS worldwide, located in three geographical regions: the Caribbean, the Pacific, and the Atlantic, Indian Ocean and South China Sea (AIS).  

Although their combined population of 65 million is slightly less than one per cent of the world’s population, the UN recognizes the unique social, economic, and environmental challenges they face. 

While the pandemic has inflicted serious hardship and damage globally, Mr. Akram said it has particularly affected SIDS, impacting every aspect of life in these countries. 

“For the SIDs, this has been a perfect storm – financial, natural, and social,” he said.   

“Their revenues have virtually evaporated with the end of tourism, due to lockdowns, trade impediments, the fall in commodity prices, and supply chain disruptions. High debt overhangs, internally high risk, and short-term maturity debts are creating impossible financial problems for their ability to recover from the crisis.” 

UNDP Comoros/James Stapley
Farmers and fisherfolk in the Comoros Islands are needing to adapt to climate change.

Development threatened 

At the same time, SIDS have also faced the brunt of the climate crisis.  “There has been increasing climate events, hurricanes, and also the recent eruption of the volcano in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines”, he added, referring to the burgeoning crisis in the Caribbean country.   

The ECOSOC chief pointed out that SIDS, however, have largely been ineligible for debt suspension during the pandemic.  They also have received little in the way of international support for climate adaptation, and for loss and damage.  Their sustainable development is at risk, he warned. 

Innovative solutions needed 

“It is said that we must ‘Build Back Better, but in order for the SIDs to revive the path of development, it is essential that they should receive the financial and international support that is required which is commensurate with the challenges they are facing”, he said. 

Mr. Akram called for innovative solutions to enable SIDS to access global financing. 

“The SIDS should be assisted to prepare a pipeline of projects which are suitable for financial investment and this must be an essential part of the transformation in the development modules to decrease their vulnerability to such pandemics and events”, he recommended. 

ILO kicks off Green Week to ‘jump-start’ a sustainable future 

The International Labour Organization event highlighted how a just  transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies can take place while also addressing the imperatives of decent work. 

For a sustainable future, the UN agency stressed the need for a “strong social consensus” on the goals and pathways to move forward, maintaining that social dialogue must be an integral part of institutional frameworks for policymakers, with the inclusion of workers and employers being critical for an equitable transition at all levels. 

“Working together, Governments, workers’ and employers’ organizations can jump-start a just transition to a sustainable future, today”, said ILO. 

Africa’s Sustainable revolution 

Although Africa generates a low share of global carbon emissions, the continent is highly vulnerable to climate change. 

According to ILO, global warming and heat stress will lead to the loss of nearly five per cent of total working hours in western Africa alone – equivalent to losing nine million full-time jobs. 

Climate vulnerability could also reduce yields from rain-fed agriculture, affecting millions of jobs and livelihoods.  

Rich in minerals, such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper and iron – needed for electric vehicles and machinery, the continent has all the elements needed to “win the battle against climate change”, along with the potential to generate some two million additional jobs, ILO said. 

Africa is home to the Congo Basin, the world’s second largest rain forest, which absorbs significant amounts of global carbon dioxide emissions caused by human activity and possess 60 per cent of the world’s arable land, which, the UN agency pointed out “could drive a new green, sustainable agricultural revolution”.  

Moreover, it is home to the Great Green Wall – the world’s largest solar power station, located in the Moroccan desert – and has the potential to use its ocean resources for sustainable economic development.  

“With assets like these, Africa can have a more sustainable future, with more and better jobs”, ILO said, while also cautioning that as a leading producer of oil, coal and natural gas, it must end its dependence on fossil fuels, which could lead to the loss of some two million jobs. 

Green jobs 

In the context of Green Week and this year’s Earth Day, ILO and its partners hosted a regional launch of the Climate Action for Jobs Initiative to showcase how jobs feature at the heart of global action to protect the environment and promote climate-neutral and climate-resilient economies and societies.  

Countries need to adopt clear and comprehensive policies that address income and job losses, skills and enterprise development, and labour mobility to achieve a “human-centred future of work in Africa”, said ILO. 

With its young and dynamic population, vast natural resources, and political and social engagement, the UN agency upheld that “Africa offers solutions to the world”.   

“There is indeed an urgent need to put African young people and women as agents of change, to drive innovation and green job creation”, Cynthisa Samuel-Olonjuwon, ILO Assistant Director-General and Regional Director for Africa, said at the event.  

‘Inequality virus’ threatens ‘catastrophe for all’ unless crisis can be overcome together

Deliberations throughout the four-day long forum highlighted the “full scope” of the COVID impact, said UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed. 

“The worst health and economic downturn in our lifetime has laid bare and exacerbated the vulnerabilities in our economies and societies, leading some to describe COVID-19 as the inequality virus”, she added. 

Alarming problems 

Developing countries have faced “ballooning debt burdens” and constrained fiscal budget, and high borrowing costs, with a limited ability to respond to the pandemic, Ms. Mohammed explained. 

“The diverging world that we are hurtling towards is a catastrophe for all of us”, she spelled out. “It is both morally right and economically rational to help developing countries overcome this crisis”. 

To prevent the risk of a “lost decade for development”, she upheld that extraordinary levels of public spending “continue to be critical to keep vulnerable economies afloat”, as do structural transformations for protecting the global economy against future crises. 

‘Moral blight’  

Rapid access to vaccines for all citizens of the world is a top priority, she said, noting that the average number of people inoculated in Africa remains under one per cent. 

“This is a moral blight on the international community”, she said, calling on governments, development partners and private sector actors to “finance equitable vaccination for all, as a matter of utmost urgency”. 

It is also crucial to alleviate debt and liquidity pressures by continuing and expanding the Debt Suspension Initiative to include vulnerable middle-income countries and small island developing States. 

“Eligibility for debt relief must be based on actual need rather than GDP, especially as the world hurdles towards a climate catastrophe”, she said, adding that governments should not be forced to service debt “at the expense of responding to their own populations”.  

Promoting investment 

Moreover, the pandemic has underscored the importance of front-loading investments in social protection measures, to protect against future shocks. 

“Governments need to prioritize the wellbeing of their populations, including by heavily investing in free education, universal healthcare and strong healthcare systems”, said Ms. Mohammed, also underscoring the importance of “decoupling livelihoods from the volatility of the global economy” and securing a guaranteed income. 

Meeting the goals 

Governments need to prioritize the wellbeing of their populations — Deputy UN chief

To achieve these objectives, the world needs to redirect finance to where it is most needed, “with a strategic eye” to preventing future shocks from mutating into a disasters on the level of COVID-19, warned the deputy UN chief. 

“Governments must strengthen the planning of sustainable investment…and we must address the incentives and bottlenecks to unlock private capital to invest in sustainable development”, she added. 

Getting back on track 

The senior UN official acknowledged that today’s challenges go beyond COVID-19 and include the climate crisis, drought, hunger and heightened insecurity, “all of which are being exacerbated by the long-term economic effects of the inequality virus”.   

Recovery efforts must tackle all these challenges “head-on”, said Ms. Mohammed, urging all participants to take “immediate action for a timely and adequate global response that would put us back on track for a prosperous, sustainable and equal world and the implementation of Agenda 2030”.  

The sixth FfD Forum was convened between 12 to 15 April 2021 in a hybrid (virtual and in-person) format at UN Headquarters in New York.

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