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Sensemaker: Holes in the head, shots in the arm

Sensemaker: Holes in the head, shots in the arm

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, made plans to resign in the hope of forming a new government and redoubling efforts to contain the pandemic.
  • Janet Yellen became the first woman confirmed to the post of US treasury secretary.
  • The UK was expected to start quarantining new arrivals in hotels.

Holes in the head, shots in the arm

A few slightly alarming stories on the vaccine race have emerged as the EU’s limp vaccine roll-out continues to stumble. At the moment, the most vaccinated EU member state is Malta, at 4.5 jabs per 100 people. Even Scotland, the worst-served part of the UK, is up at 7.7. The US – where the incoming Biden administration said there was no vaccine plan – is at 6.8. England is at 11 and Israel is way out in front at 44 vaccinations per 100 people. 

Whatever European states did better in the early pandemic, the vaccine roll-out has been a disaster. And more problems are on the way.

  • First, AstraZeneca seems unlikely to be able to meet its contractual obligations on making enough doses for the EU. According to Politico, the Anglo-Swedish company told the EU that they had problems “related to materials sourcing and manufacturing problems at a plant in Belgium”. This is causing a 60 per cent drop in deliveries of the main vaccine the EU is relying on during the first quarter of this year – an 80 million dose order. Given that the EU went big on AstraZeneca’s vaccine (and spent a lot on pre-ordering to prevent precisely this), there is a lot of fury in Brussels.
  • Second, the Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said the EU “will take any action required to protect its citizens and its rights”. We may be seeing the start of vaccine nationalism. “In the future, all companies producing vaccines against Covid-19 in the EU will have to provide early notification whenever they want to export vaccines to third countries.”
  • Third, Handelsblatt, the German business newspaper, reported that German official estimates find that the AstraZeneca vaccine (which has yet to get final sign-off for use in the EU) only has 8 per cent effectiveness among older people, according to analysis by German officials. After some hard-to-understand equivocating, the German government has now formally denied the report – saying Handelsblatt had confused two not-very-similar numbers. They are alleging a huge reporting blunder by Handelsblatt – one which the newspaper will need to respond to.

Still, there is clearly joyous news from Israel, where hospital admissions among older people are falling through the floor after their roll-out of the Pfizer vaccine. And the news that the Moderna vaccine definitely works against the South African variant. Do worry about Europe’s supply. Not the effectiveness (just yet).

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Dutch trouble
The Netherlands is struggling with the latest pandemic restrictions: violence has erupted in towns and cities. You have to wonder if it’s basically boredom. Self-described “football fans” decided to “protect their towns” against looting and unrest. It probably does not help that the current government is introducing curfews and dissolving itself at the same time: Mark Rutte, the prime minister, is interim leader at the moment until an election can be held in March. It is unusual as a case of the much-warned-about civil unrest finally materialising: the Dutch have been under severe restrictions for a while.

New things technology, science, engineering

Switching horses
One of the tedious elements of being a reporter in 2021 is the sheer volume of messaging apps I have ended up accruing in order to communicate with different people. This week, the Observer published an FAQ on whether it is time to give up on WhatsApp. My own chain of notifications is testament to just how damaging Facebook’s integration with WhatsApp is proving; after a notification started appearing on WhatsApp informing users of changes to the terms of use, there has been a great migration from WhatsApp to other messengers – Signal, Telegram, Threema and so on. There may have been nothing in the notification that deserved such a response – but it has become clear, as Alex Hern put it a fortnight ago, that WhatsApp is Facebook, and you cannot really hide from it anymore.

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

Non-student loans?
Sam Bowman, a long-term think-tanker, has written a proposal for repurposing the UK’s student loan system to enable people to take out loans for… whatever. “This would mean that, in practice, you could borrow £27,000 or more at the age of 18 to spend on whatever you wanted, to be repaid as you started earning more as you got older on the same terms as university loans are repaid.” This is more in the realms of thought experiment than the politically possible, but it raises two good questions: first, how do we help young people whose journeys into adulthood have been screwed up royally by the pandemic? What would a modern GI Bill look like to assist today’s 16-24 year-olds? Second, can we remove some of the privilege that we give to universities? (Bowman is, by the way, the editor of an excellent new primer on the pandemic.)

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Clean the air
Some really striking research has emerged showing that small increases in air pollution are linked to an increased risk of irreversible sight loss from age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of age-related blindness. The enormously high blood flow demanded through the eye means inhaling micro-particles can do real damage. It does seem that public policy needs to take the evidence on cleaner air more seriously – and think about what the right balance of regulation should look like.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

GameStop squeeze
The single funniest finance story of the moment is about GameStop. The story is, broadly speaking, about three things. First, GameStop. This is the Blockbuster Video of video games (ie – doomed if it can’t become Netflix). So short-sellers are betting that the price of its stock will plummet. Second, GameStop has new board members who have drummed up some support from ordinary retail investors. Third, posters on WallStreetBets, a community on the website Reddit, started encouraging people to bet against the short-sellers, making this into nihilistic fun. And… the short-sellers lost. GameStop closed up 51 per cent on Friday, leading a lot of small investors who made big leveraged bets on WallStreetBets to make a lot of money. Matt Levine has written typically thoughtfully about it, musing that some “stocks these days are driven not by rational calculations about their expected future cash flows but by the fact that people are bored at home due to the pandemic and have nothing better to do but trade stocks with their buddies on Reddit”.

Stay safe, wash your hands, open windows when you can.

Chris Cook

Photographs by Getty Images