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Sensemaker: Way out

Wednesday 17 February 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • South Africa started a delayed Covid vaccination rollout after receiving shipments of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which works against the South African variant. 
  • Paul Rusesabagina, a hero of the Rwandan genocide and critic of Rwandan president Paul Kagame, went on trial in Kigali charged with terrorism offences. 
  • The UN said it would ask the UAE what’s happened to Princess Latifa of Dubai after the BBC aired footage in which she says she has been kidnapped by her father. 

Way out

How does a rich, open country get out from under Covid when social and civic factors rule out mandatory vaccinations and variants mean vaccines aren’t a silver bullet anyway? On the basis of 2020 you would not have looked to Britain for an answer, but now you just might. The outlines of a three-pronged UK Covid exit strategy are emerging:

  • Vaccinate even faster. Having met the goal of 15 million first doses by mid-February the idea now is to speed up vaccination of the next 17 million and invite 820,000 people from newly-identified vulnerable groups (including those from poorer and some ethnic minority households) to the front of the queue.
  • Test like crazy. Eleven months after the WHO first said “test, test, test,” the message seems to have got through. The Times says there’s a plan to send out 400,000 lateral flow tests a day to spot asymptomatic carriers early, so get ready for routine pregnancy-style testing – twice a week for you and your children if they’re at school – despite the risk of false negatives giving a false sense of security. 
  • No jab, no job, but on the QT. Ministers are neuralgic about anything that might be called a vaccine passport for fear of being seen to discriminate against the vaccine-wary, which if MMR is any guide could swiftly backfire in the form of worse rather than better uptake. But Nadhim Zahawi, vaccines minister, has told the BBC “it’s up to businesses what they do” – and it’s hard to see employers whose staff don’t work from home not adopting some form of vaccine certification. Ditto airlines with passengers.

And then? Reopen the economy, but slowly. Today’s Mail splashes with a week-by-week timetable that Number Ten quickly dissed as over-excited. What’s clear is that schools will reopen first, then non-essential shops. Hospitality will be sub-divided so that relatively low-risk hotels reopen first and old-fashioned no-rules indoor drinking in pubs resumes by late summer only in a best-case scenario.

What’s new politically is the effort to reverse the 2020 pattern of over-promising and under-delivering. For instance: the official vaccination target is for all over 50s to have their first dose by May, but ministers are quietly hoping to be able to declare that done by Easter – a month early. That would be something. Whether other countries will adopt the UK exit strategy is another matter. Without the UK’s oversupply of vaccines, they can’t.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Ma Ma Black Sheep
So it was personal. Xi Jinping brought down the hammer on Jack Ma, China’s foremost entrepreneur, because he was about to enormously enrich a prominent “princeling” who happens to be the grandson of Jiang Zemin, the former Chinese leader now associated with a (marginally) gentler sort of authoritarianism. The WSJ has done some top-class digging into the real story behind the suspension of last year’s Alipay IPO – which was going to be Ma’s second record-breaker – and while a general wish on Xi’s part to take Ma down a peg or two is part of it, another part is a more specific wish to show Ma’s friends who’s really in charge. Along with Jiang’s Harvard-educated grandson, Jiang Zhicheng, others who missed out on a bonanza include Li Botan, son-in-law of another former politburo member and co-founder of an exclusive Beijing club known for its “lavish banquets and harems of mistresses”. The WSJ’s Lingling Wei suggests Jiang et al represented a potential challenge to Xi and his circle. Less so now?

New things technology, science, engineering

Bag bottleneck?
You can make vaccines in steel vats, or you can make them in huge, sterile 2,000-litre plastic bags. The bags are thrown out after one use and the FT says there’s a risk that vaccine-makers will run out of them. In the same story we learn that supplies of lipid nanoparticles, essential for the new generation of mRNA vaccines, are also running low. Both are made by, among other firms, Merck. Genuine question: couldn’t Merck have foreseen skyrocketing demand for both products last year, and met it?

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Old viruses, new frontiers
As if the modern disease landscape wasn’t enough to be getting on with, a Russian state laboratory has announced that it’s researching ancient viruses by taking samples from the frozen carcasses of very old Siberian fauna. The oldest is thought to be a 50,000 year-old lemming, but the prehistoric menu also includes dogs, horses, hares and a woolly mammoth. Paleovirology is exciting. It’s relatively new – genetic sequencing has got much faster and very much cheaper since the turn of the millennium. And it could help us understand modern-day diseases and how they might continue to evolve. 

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

Rescue gone wrong

Two men who broke lockdown rules to go on a snowbound camping trip to the English Lake District had to be extracted by a mountain rescue team which included a 60-year-old volunteer, Chris Lewis. Lewis slipped and fell 150 metres down a ravine, damaging his spine, and yesterday it emerged he may never walk again. The mountain rescue team – staffed with forty volunteers who respond to around 70 calls for help a year – has so far responded with complete equanimity. “We are there to help,” said one of its members. “We all love the fells, we are all mountaineers, we go out there because we think we can help people in difficulty. Trying to judge is wrong.” A JustGiving page for Lewis has already raised more than £400,000.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Chloé Zhao, supernova
“I believe some people were just born to move,” says Chloé Zhao, who seems to be one of those people you are about to see everywhere. She is the 38 year-old Chinese-born director of Nomadland, hotly tipped for Oscars and profiled in this week’s New York Magazine as Hollywood’s most sought-after director. That is not an official accolade, but it’s not bad for someone who until last year had only made low-budget indie films likely to appeal more to critics than punters. And it’s not an exaggeration either. After Nomadland (about grinding out a living in an Amazon fulfillment centre), she made Eternals, the next Marvel movie, which will feature the franchise’s first gay superhero. Coming, eventually, to a screen near you.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around. 

Giles Whittell


Xavier Greenwood

Photographs by Getty Images