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Sensemaker: Seven year scratch

Friday 5 February 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Denmark and Sweden announced plans for Covid vaccine passports as the Times reported that the UK is working on them too.
  • Donald Trump refused to testify at his impeachment trial, and resigned from the Screen Actors Guild. 
  • Jackie Weaver of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils became an unlikely internet star after trying to keep control of an unruly meeting of the Handforth Parish Council.

Seven year stratch

In one short speech at the State Department, President Biden rebooted American diplomacy, reversed a US military withdrawal from Germany, ended support for Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen and warned Putin’s Russia there would be no more “rolling over” in response to his provocations. 

America is back, he said. Multilateralism is back – except in the small matter of Covid vaccinations. In spite of the WHO’s repeated reminders that no one’s safe till everyone’s safe, the vaccine nationalism ship has sailed, as the Atlantic reports in detail. 

Rich countries including the UK, Canada and Norway have intimated that they will donate or at least distribute surplus doses to needier countries in due course, but they’ll take care of their own first. Any stigma attached to vaccine hoarding appears to have evaporated since the European Commission gave its “all together” approach a bad name by failing to make it work.

By the numbers:

  • High income countries have reserved 60 per cent of the 7.2 billion doses ordered so far even though they only represent 16 per cent of the world’s population.
  • The Covax initiative to deliver vaccines to 145 poorer countries has firm orders for 336 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, enough to vaccinate 3 per cent of those countries’ populations by June. That is similar to current levels in most of Europe but far behind those in the UK and the US (at 15 and 10 per cent respectively).
  • Covax has only 1.2 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine on order now, with the promise of up to 40 million more in the second quarter of the year.
  • Covax has raised $6 billion from rich donor countries but needs $2 billion more for its initial rollout (equivalent to roughly 1 per cent of Jeff Bezos’ net worth).
  • A study by the International Chamber of Commerce estimates that failure to fund vaccine access for developing economies could cost rich ones $4.5 trillion compared with growth projections based on equitable vaccine distribution. That implies a 166-fold return on investment if Covax’s $26 billion long-term plan for all 145 countries were fully funded.

America’s focus on its own vaccination efforts for now is not surprising. For all Biden’s promises to straighten things out and deliver up to 1.5 million jabs a day, the system is still a 50-state patchwork of confusion. So much so that kindly New Yorkers have taken to giving up their time to help elderly people book appointments by setting midnight alarms and waiting online for up to two hours to find a slot. The NYT’s report should be exasperating, but it’s actually quite moving.

Meanwhile Bloomberg’s new vaccine tracker says that at the current rate it will take seven years to get a jab into every arm that needs one.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

The Trump effect
Fox News had a wild and lucrative ride as Trump’s favourite channel for most of his presidency, but it now faces a $2.7 billion lawsuit in which several of its top anchors are named defendants, for allegedly defaming a voting machine manufacturer with false claims it was complicit in vote rigging. On the other side of the media aisle the NYT reported record growth in digital subscription numbers, adding 2.3 million subscribers last year for a total of 7.5 million. The news business did well out of the man who liked to call it fake, and as many have noted it now has a Trump-shaped hole to fill.


New things technology, science, engineering

Nowhere fast
Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Los Angeles and San Francisco. Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo. Toledo and Detroit. What do these pairings have in common? Replace “and” with “to” and you have a clue. They’ve all been linked by high speed rail plans that went nowhere. As we noted in Monday’s Sensemaker Audio, there are protesters in tunnels under London’s Euston station who would love to add London-Birmingham and HS2 to the list. At this stage it’s hard to imagine the project could be cancelled. £10 billion has been spent. Another £11 billion has been promised to contractors. Huge swaths of north London and central Birmingham have been cleared. But the BBC has an interesting analysis of the economics of high speed rail, which almost never paid for itself even before Covid. Will passengers come back? Probably. Is HS3 – which would go beyond Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds – a sure thing? Not so fast.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Paying damages
The collapse of Brazil’s Brumadinho dam killed 270 people, destroyed a village, contaminated water courses and decimated a hundred hectares of forest. Two years on, the mining company responsible – Vale – has agreed to pay $7 billion in compensation ($). But this financial penalty may not be the only recompense the company makes. Last year, criminal charges were brought against 16 employees of Vale and Tüv Süd, a German company that inspected the dam and pronounced it safe despite structural issues. Investigations into the incident found that Vale had been well aware of safety problems with the dam for a long time: they’d been getting warnings about it for over a decade. 


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

PIMS is serious
The Guardian reports that up to 100 children a week are being admitted to paediatric intensive care units in the UK with a rare post-Covid condition. Three quarters of them are from black or ethnic minority backgrounds and some had no symptoms from the original Covid infection. Two are believed to have died from what is being called paediatric inflammatory multi-system syndrome (PIMS), and doctors admit they are some way from fully understanding it. “Genetics may be a player,” says Dr Liz Whittaker of the Royal College of Paediatrics, but she also sees it as another reflection of the way Covid disproportionately attacks those who can’t avoid it because of their work or overcrowded housing.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Notes from Rightland
Marjorie Taylor Greene does a bold line in face mask messaging: “Trump Won” is not seen so frequently nowadays but “Free Speech” remains a favourite, especially when she’s on her feet in the US House of Representatives explaining her past adherence to QAnon and other conspiracy theories. “I was allowed to believe things that weren’t true,” she said. Even so, the House voted to remove her from two committees of which she was a member. Eleven Republicans voted with Democrats against her and, separately, the House Republican caucus voted earlier this week, not to censure Liz Cheney for voting to impeach Trump. Interesting fault lines are emerging, not least between the craven Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, and Mitch McConnell in the Senate – who was the bane of Obama’s presidency but looks less determined to sabotage Biden’s.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Ella Hill
@_EllaHill

Photographs by Getty Images