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Sensemaker: Covid

Friday 18 December 2020

What just happened


Long stories short

  • 344 boys were freed in northern Nigeria after negotiations between their Boko Haram kidnappers and security forces.
  • The US Food and Drug Administration gave emergency approval for public use of the Moderna Covid vaccine.
  • Russia learned it remains barred from next year’s postponed Tokyo Olympics after the Court of Arbitration for Sport reduced its drug ban from international competition, but only by two years.
  • Snow watch: 41 inches (104cm) in Binghamton, New York, in under 12 hours.

Covid. It’s not possible to make sense of 2020 in a few paragraphs but a good place to start is with an under-reported aspect of the origins of Covid. Here is UCL’s Professor Hugh Montgomery, speaking last month at our Covid Inquiry (my italics): “This really is an environmental crisis. To a large degree it’s humans going where they shouldn’t be in large numbers, destroying habitats, forcing animals closer together in fewer numbers so they predate where they wouldn’t otherwise.” As noted in our long read this week, Montgomery said there are 5,200 more coronaviruses out there waiting to jump from the natural world to humans. We need to give the natural world more space.

Trump. He’s passing into history but his followers are not. A large majority of the 74,222,957 people who voted for him still believe he won. How to make sense of that? We know social media serves as rocket fuel for fundamental differences on what America is for. We know about echo chambers and the destruction of an “information commons” that once gave Americans a more-or-less agreed-on set of facts. Does any of that explain so many people’s embrace of an alternative information universe? Seth Abramson, a cultural theorist at the University of New Hampshire, thinks not. He points to game theory – video game theory; the “gamification of reality”. Hardline Trumpists aren’t interested in facts, he argued in a Twitter thread this week. “They’re interested in tailored escapism, and in redefining reality as a mythology they can live with.” It sounds crazy and makes a lot of sense at the same time. 

Brexit. No sense on offer here. I’ll just note one last time that when the transition ends in 13 days, deal or no deal, 67,886,004 Britons will lose their EU citizenship and the unfettered freedom to move, live, work, train and learn in 27 EU countries. British businesses will cease to enjoy the benefits of the 41 trade deals negotiated by the EU with 72 countries, although some of these have been rolled over into new bilateral deals with the UK. Why is this happening? Forty-seven years of integration on the one hand and resentment on the other left a slim majority of UK voters uninspired by European ideals, unimpressed by the benefits of EU membership or unaware of either. Which reflects badly on both sides.

The talks have gone quiet. The negotiators are in “the tunnel”. Both sides say important differences remain on fisheries and the level playing field but Michael Gove has mentioned the theoretical possibility of a deal enacted on 1 January and ratified by the European Parliament later. Lorries are backed up for 20km on the M20 and Tortoise is building a live truck tracker so we can keep an eye on that vital hard shoulder over the Christmas break.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Thanks Rishi
Rishi Sunak has extended the UK government’s emergency business loans schemes from January to March. Furlough payments to keep people in work despite Covid will be extended by a month, to April. The FT says (£) the Treasury is also working on a successor to its three existing Covid loan schemes, to pick up where they leave off in March. The message: the heck with prudence, we will go on propping up the entire economy until vaccination allows it reopen safely. The hope: to avoid the surge in unemployment everyone has forecast the moment furlough ends.


New things technology, science, engineering

Beam reach
It is almost inconceivable that intelligent life exists on Proxima b, a rocky planet orbiting the nearest star to the sun. Even so, a signal picked up by a giant Australian radio telescope during a 30-hour observation period last year has not yet been accounted for with a conventional explanation, and will be the subject of a paper to be published shortly by the Breakthrough Listen project, which looks for alien life. The signal arrived on a beam named BLC1 by astronomers, at around 980MHz, the Guardian reports. The reasons it’s unlikely to have been sent by aliens are that the star Proxima b orbits, Proxima Centauri, is a hostile red dwarf; and the odds against life existing on our nearest non-sun star when it hasn’t been found anywhere else in the universe are slim to vanishing anyway.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Deb Haaland
Joe Biden will nominate Deb Haaland as his interior secretary. If approved she would be the first Native American to lead a department that manages 500 million acres of public lands where the Trump administration championed virtually unlimited fracking, drilling and logging. Her first task would be to reimpose protections for these lands. Her next would be to join Jennifer Granholm, the prospective energy secretary mentioned here yesterday, in making a reality of Biden’s $2 trillion green infrastructure plan. Both nominations may depend on which party controls the Senate from next month, which will in turn depend on the outcome of Georgia’s two special elections on 5 January. 


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

Ella’s legacy
Ella Kissi-Debrah died aged nine in February 2013 after a long struggle with asthma – and South London’s bad air. An inquest the following year gave the cause of death as acute respiratory failure, but a landmark coroner’s ruling this week said her asthma was “contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution”. It’s thought to be the first ruling of its kind anywhere in the world. Kissi-Debrah’s mother, who has campaigned for better London air quality since her daughter’s death, said on Wednesday she did not want to enter into a blame game but would welcome a public awareness campaign in her daughter’s memory. Since 2013 environmental lawyers have halted Heathrow’s expansion on air quality grounds and London has introduced an expanding ultra-low emission zone. The question now is whether Kissi-Debrah’s legacy goes global and helps children forced to stay indoors rather than choke outside in smog-shrouded cities such as Delhi and Beijing.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Hungary ruled wrong 
Five years after it forced migrants into camps and made it virtually impossible for them to file asylum applications, Hungary has been found to have violated EU law. The ruling was handed down this week by the European Court of Justice two years after a case was brought by the European Commission. Hungary’s government began a climb-down by dismantling its camps earlier this year, but it remains to be seen whether Viktor Orbán’s avowedly anti-immigrant stance will soften by 2022 when Hungary next holds parliamentary elections. The context is a determined EU effort to persuade Hungary and Poland to stick to their undertakings on the rule of law. There is a moral hazard problem here because the bloc’s most effective inducement is money, and it has earmarked large sums in its latest seven-year budget to reward better behaviour on its eastern flank. Happy Christmas.

Opinion: Rachael Revesz
How not to bring up baby

The government’s shared parental leave scheme was meant to be revolutionary. Instead, it’s a mess.

Read the rest of this article here.


Thanks for reading, and do share this around. 

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Photographs Getty Images, Ella Roberta Family Foundation