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Sensemaker, 22 October 2020

Thursday 22 October 2020

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Trump’s top intelligence official said Iran as well as Russia has been trying to meddle in the US election.
  • Twelve deaths have been confirmed after security forces attacked a demonstration in Nigeria on Tuesday.
  • The Quibi shortform streaming service, which wanted to be the Netflix of your smartphone, has shut down after spending six months and hundreds of millions of dollars failing to find an audience.

Covid collateral. Quibi is merely the latest big idea brought low by Covid. If you’ve been reading our Recession 2021 file you’ll know there will be more. Two surveys put some numbers to the impending gloom and leave us flailing – because we’re only human – for a chink of light. (Don’t worry. There is one. See below.)

Survey one. McKinsey polled 2,200 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) across Europe and found that more than half fear they won’t be in business this time next year. Two other points stand out: even if revenues pick up by 30 per cent, nearly four in ten SMEs still fear insolvency by September 2021; and by five different measures, one country’s businesses are hurting more than any other’s. That country is Spain.

Survey two. The Financial Conduct Authority says 12 million people in the UK will struggle to pay their bills this winter. Nearly a third of adults have taken a hit to their incomes since February, and the number is higher for Black and Minority Ethnic groups (37 per cent), and for young earners. More than four in ten tenants fear falling behind on their rent.

  • Note: this data was collected in July, when the second Covid wave was a distant ripple. The FCA is re-releasing it today to urge lenders to go easy on struggling borrowers and to urge struggling borrowers to ask for help.
  • But there’s less help in prospect than there was. Furlough support, mortgage holiday extensions and the ban on home repossessions all end this month.

So what’s the chink of light? It’s Marcus Rashford’s excellent proposal for the government to continue to fund free school meals for those who need them through the holidays. As the Man Utd No. 10 points out, the number of children eligible for free school meals has risen by 42 per cent this year. That’s 900,000 kids, and the school meals scheme is a cost-effective way of making sure they don’t go hungry. Adopted by Labour, the plan was voted down yesterday in the Commons by 322 to 261.

The right thing to do here is also the smart thing, and as Jeremy Hunt has noted there’s still time. It would be a shame if a good idea died just because it wasn’t invented in Downing Street.

Today in the app… Feast on more downturn data from Chris Cook and Chris Newell. (Feast may be the wrong word, but it’s extraordinary stuff, especially the international national debt chart.) Sign up for our conversation with Elizabeth Day tonight and for our Sensemaker Live ThinkIn on America and Covid tomorrow, when we’ll be joined by Gayle Smith and Dr Nicolette Louissaint.

Please share this Sensemaker with your friends and colleagues.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Getting rich on vaccines
The WSJ reports that Oxford University is getting $10 million upfront from AstraZeneca for its work on their Covid vaccine, plus potentially another $80 million in “milestone” payments as the vaccine is developed, and that excludes any royalties should it succeed. It’s a complicated story involving big brains, big egos and that familiar British anxiety about coming up with a tremendous product that makes other people rich. Oxford has said any royalties will go back into vaccine development work – but they could be substantial (in the nine-figure range), and there will be scientists who wonder if they are being adequately rewarded. Interesting side note: Oxford flirted with Merck before AstraZeneca, but ended talks because it wasn’t convinced the company would distribute the vaccine equitably to poor countries.

New things technology, science, engineering

Asteroid sample coming home
It’s incredibly difficult to pick up rocks or dust from elsewhere in the solar system and bring them back to earth. So far Nasa has found the only truly reliable technique is to send astronauts. So its apparent success in landing a probe with a sampler on the asteroid known as Bennu is already a technical triumph. Bennu is 200 million miles away. The Osiris-Rex robot touched down for six seconds yesterday, sucked up some dust and (possibly) pebbles and returned to orbit around the asteroid. If scientists decide it hasn’t collected enough material, it’ll have another go next year. The idea, eventually, is to get a better sense of what the solar system looked like 4.5 billion years ago.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Decades of harm
Earlier this month we reported on one mining company’s desecration of indigenous heritage in Australia. Now another is accused of blighting the environment and the health of one Zambian town for decades. A group of citizens from Kabwe District have filed a class action lawsuit against Anglo American South Africa – a subsidiary of the UK-based group – claiming it failed to protect the local area from lead contamination in the years it operated there. The plaintiffs are requesting compensation, a clean-up operation and blood screening for pregnant women and children. It remains to be seen if Anglo American will accept responsibility or evade it on the basis that they weren’t the only owners of the mine. It shouldn’t be a hard decision.

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

Opioid settlement
It’s now confirmed that Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, will plead guilty to federal criminal charges as part of an $8.3 billion settlement with the US Department of Justice. Purdue also admits it enabled the supply of the highly addictive painkiller “without a legitimate medical purpose”. The settlement is an attempt to hold a major drugmaker responsible for an opioid crisis linked to at least 450,000 deaths since 2000. Purdue, which is now in bankruptcy protection, will pay the federal government $225 million with the rest of the money directed to communities ravaged by opioid addiction. A criminal investigation into the company’s owners and executives – the wealthy Sackler family – is ongoing.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Holy orders
Pope Francis has lent his voice in support of same-sex civil unions despite official teachings by the Catholic church that homosexual acts are sinful. His support is not equivalent to an official change of stance, and is likely to cause division among Catholic commentators, but by calling for laws to acknowledge same-sex unions Francis is clearly departing from orthodoxy. His actual words, in a feature-length documentary released yesterday: “Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God.” And to think it’s only taken 2000 years.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Ella Hill, Patricia Clarke and Luke Gbedemah.