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Sensemaker, 5 October 2020

Monday 5 October 2020

What just happened

Long stories short

  • In a 45,000 word document outlining his blueprint for a post-pandemic world, Pope Francis criticised free-market capitalism – and removed the last exceptions and caveats in the church’s opposition to the death penalty.
  • Kenzo Takada, the Japanese designer and founder of fashion house Kenzo, died aged 81 from complications related to the novel coronavirus.
  • The football transfer window slams shut this evening: former PSG striker Edinson Cavani is set to go to Manchester United, but a move from Jaden Sancho looks less close.

Donald Trump has spent the weekend being treated for Covid-19 in the presidential suite of the Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. A series of conflicting accounts about the state of Trump’s health, and when he was diagnosed, has left journalists and the wider public struggling to unpick what’s actually going on.

Here’s what we know:

  • Trump has received oxygen twice, according to his doctor Sean Conley. Conley didn’t report this initially because he wanted to “reflect the upbeat attitude” of the president. Trump has also received dexamethasone, a steroid normally given to seriously ill Covid patients.
  • Yesterday Trump defied public health advice to greet supporters outside Walter Reed in a car which also contained several Secret Service agents, after reportedly growing bored in hospital.
  • At least eight attendees of the White House nomination ceremony for Judge Amy Coney Barrett have now tested positive for Covid-19, including Trump’s wife Melania and former governor of New Jersey Chris Christie. Photographs have captured an event where guests mingled inside and outside, and where very few practiced social distancing or wore masks.
  • Joe Biden has now tested negative three times for Covid-19. Biden stood 13 feet away from Trump for 90 minutes during last Tuesday’s presidential debate; neither wore a mask.

Pretty much everything else is up in the air. Trump is receiving aggressive treatment which suggests that he is seriously ill, but he could be released as soon as today. The president said that he had tested positive on late Thursday evening, but, oh no, maybe it was actually Wednesday, the day before he attended a fundraising event of 100 people. (The Wall Street Journal timeline is that Trump received a first positive result on Thursday evening which he declined to mention in a Fox News appearance, and then later tested positive a second time.)

As for the conspiracy theory that Trump is pretending to have Covid-19: that’s for the birds. Trump’s illness is stalling his campaign when he has a huge, growing polling deficit to narrow. It’s drawing attention to his health, a stick he has used to beat Biden with. It’s refocusing the election on a pandemic which Trump has mismanaged outside and inside the White House, up to and including his own diagnosis. It’s symptomatic of our broken information ecosystem that people even entertain the possibility that he isn’t ill. He is and it’s no good for him.

In the app today… We’ve published an audio essay, the first chapter of this week’s file on the UK’s failed test and trace system, in which Matt d’Ancona tells the inside story of a national disaster. Plus Paul Caruana Galizia and Chris Newell look at the data behind the tests and their results (more on which below).

This evening at 6.30pm BST, Stephanie Yeboah joins us in our virtual newsroom to discuss the history of the black body positivity movement, and share her experiences of fetishisation, online dating, fast fashion and loneliness.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

Testing shambles
On Saturday the UK reported 12,872 cases of coronavirus. On Sunday that number jumped to 22,961. Not the result this time of an sudden uptick in infections but the type of testing-related error all-too-familiar throughout the pandemic. According to Public Health England the test results for nearly 16,000 positive cases went unregistered between 25 September and 2 October because a glitch in the central system meant the relevant data files exceeded the maximum file size. It might sound like an excuse for late homework but this could have a real impact, particularly regarding Test and Trace: the 16,000 people who tested positive were individually notified as usual but their contacts were not. Labour has called it “shambolic”. Expect more from Matt Hancock in the Commons later this afternoon, and – again – do listen to Matt d’Ancona’s audio investigation into the UK’s “world beating” testing system while you wait.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Lights, camera, nothing
Cineworld has this morning confirmed that it will suspend all operations in the UK and the US as early as this Thursday, with some 45,000 employees (5,500 in the UK) impacted by the closures. In the first half of 2020 revenues for the world’s second biggest cinema operator fell by a staggering two-thirds to $1.58bn. And Cineworld’s not alone: globally cinemas have faced a double blow from the pandemic, with audiences banned or limited due to social distancing rules and crowd-drawing films delayed or premiered on streaming sites. Friday’s announcement that No Time To Die, the latest James Bond film, won’t be released until 2021 might yet prove a death knell not just for Cineworld, but the whole industry.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Climate cash
Is clean energy beginning to pay? On Friday NextEra Energy, the world’s largest solar and wind power generator, momentarily leapfrogged ExxonMobil to become the largest energy company in the US. According to Forbes, if you’d invested in Florida’s NextEra a decade ago, last week you’d have seen a total return of 600 per cent. If you’d opted for ExxonMobil, the Texas-based oil and gas producer, you’d have been down 25 per cent (including dividends). This isn’t just about demand for renewables: oil consumption has collapsed during the pandemic and ExxonMobil, once the world’s biggest public company, lost $1.7bn in the first six months of 2020. Shares fell 2 per cent on Friday as Brent crude prices fell to a four-month low. If investors are anything to go by – fortunes are changing.

New things technology, science, engineering

Throwing the book
Facebook has hit back at the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, publishing a seven-point rebuttal which accuses the film of burying “the substance” (namely the impact of social media on individuals and society) “in sensationalism”. The film tells us little we don’t know. It stresses that we are the product. It outlines the existential threats posed by online platforms. But its novelty is in its messaging. Its interviewees are an all-star cast of tech apostates, including Tristan Harris, Roger McNamee, and Justin Rosenstein. And interwoven with these voices is a fictional storyline of a household which falls victim to social media – hammy but believable. It has caused three people we know to publicly reevaluate their relationship with social media, so it’s doing something right. But it still feels likely to be as Blue Planet II was to plastics: a great way to increase awareness but ineffective at changing our behaviour at scale.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Together again
Two brothers separated as young children in a Baghdad jail cell in 1980 have been reunited four decades later. Haidar, aged 4, and Ahmed, aged 2, were arrested with their parents as part of the political crackdown ordered by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Haidar was smuggled out of prison by his grandmother, but long believed that his younger brother had been executed. Last week Haidar posted a photo of his brother on Facebook to mark 40 years since his death. The photo made its way through Iraqi WhatsApp groups, and eventually reached a woman who recognised Ahmed as her adopted brother. On Saturday, Haidar flew to Sweden to see his sibling, still very much alive, after forty years apart. It isn’t a movie yet, but surely it will be.

the week ahead

– Delayed A-Level exams to take place; chancellor Rishi Sunak to address the Conservative party conference virtually; trial begins at the Old Bailey for the four people charged over Essex lorry deaths in October last year, 06/10 – Prime Minister Boris Johnson to address the Conservative Party; expert hearings to begin in the infected blood inquiry, 07/10 – Michael Gove and David Frost to appear before select committee on the future relationship with the EU; FT to hold its annual Women at the Top Summit, 08/10 – Cineworld to begin closing its cinemas; court hearing in Preston for three charged with perverting the course of justice over the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, 10/10 – Queen’s Birthday Honours list to be published; Co-operative Party Annual Conference to begin virtually

05/10 – New Covid restrictions in Paris to come into force, 06/10 – Angela Merkel to meet with Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya; hearing takes place in Hong Kong for the first man to be put on trial over the new security law; auction to be held for T-Rex skeleton in New York, 07/10 – hearing to be held in Tampa, Florida for teenager charged over major Twitter hack; vice presidential debate to be held between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris in Salt Lake City, Utah, 08/10 – International Monetary Fund to release the analytical chapter of its World Economic Outlook, titled The Great Lockdown: Dissecting the Economic Impact; Nobel Literature Prize winner to be announced; Global Summit of Women to begin in Bangkok, 09/10 – court hearing for teenager charged with Kenosha shootings, as part of extradition proceedings to have him sent to Wisconsin; Nobel Peace Prize winner to be announced, 10/10 – World Day Against the Death Penalty; French Open women’s tennis final to be held in Paris, 11/10 – England to play Belgium in the UEFA Nations League; legislative elections to be held in Lithuania; French Open men’s final to be held in Paris

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Xavier Greenwood

Claudia Williams