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Sensemaker: Freedom Day

Sensemaker: Freedom Day

Monday 19 July 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Authoritarian governments around the world used malware made by the Israeli NSO Group to spy on human rights activists, journalists and lawyers.
  • Indonesia, the fourth most populous country, registered the world’s highest count of new Covid infections: 57,000 new cases. Experts think the number should be up to six times higher.
  • A Tokyo court sentenced Michael and Peter Taylor, the father and son team who helped former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn escape from Japan where he was charged with fraud, to two years and one year and eight months in prison respectively.

Freedom Day

Boris Johnson lifted most Covid restrictions in England. From today, masks aren’t required by law, there are no limits on the size of meetings or events, and table service at pubs and restaurants isn’t necessary. The prime minister urged personal responsibility and caution instead. “We’ve got to remember that this virus is sadly still out there,” Johnson said. “Cases are rising – we can see the extreme contagiousness of the Delta variant.”

The government’s focus on Delta is right, but stops short of stating the real problem. Here’s why:

  • Delta has been circulating widely in England since May. It’s the most transmissible form of the original viral strain, but doesn’t necessarily cause more severe disease. The case fatality rate among those 60 and older, the generally more vulnerable demographic, is around 3.7 per cent – down from 15 per cent in January.
  • The average severity of Covid cases has declined, thanks to the vaccine programme. The vaccines – studies show Pfizer and AstraZeneca are highly effective against Delta – always promised to reduce severe cases more sharply than the total number of cases, which began rising long before today. This makes sense. Evolutionary logic says that a virus will, over time, become more contagious and less severe. 

So why is Johnson worried about Delta?

  • As we know from the first Covid wave, the virus doesn’t need to be additionally severe to kill the unvaccinated elderly and vulnerable. Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi defended the government’s decision to lift restrictions today by saying that 90 per cent of the most vulnerable have been vaccinated. But an important part of this problem is where those people are.
  • Vaccine uptake varies widely by local authority in England – even after adjusting for differences in the age structure of local populations – and hospitals serve their surrounding localities. If Delta spreads to an area of low vaccine uptake, then its local hospital could be overwhelmed with cases that could have been prevented with vaccines.

The latest Public Health England data show that the incidence of Delta is highest in Manchester, Bolton, Leeds, Birmingham, and Blackburn with Darwen: five areas with some of the lowest vaccine uptake rates in England.

Around the world Covid variants are racing ahead of vaccines. That’s why Tortoise launched the Arms Race – our campaign to vaccinate the world by the end of next year.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Egypt ease-up?
Is Egypt having a human rights re-think? Don’t bet on it. Six detainees – three pro-democracy activists and three journalists – were released yesterday, apparently in response to pressure from the Biden administration on the Sisi government, whose appetite for locking people up has made the pre-2011 Mubarak regime look gentle by comparison. The releases came as a surprise, and those now free include Esraa Abdel Fattah, a prominent pro-democracy voice since the Arab Spring a decade ago. But thousands of political prisoners are still in jail in Egypt, many without having been charged or tried. Most are alleged Islamists with no representation or hope of anything like due process. That said, Sisi had a free ride on human rights from the US for the four years of Trump, and that has changed. 

New things technology, science, engineering

Look Waymo, no hands!
We seem to be creeping rather than crashing towards driverlessness. That is to say, the moonshot approach whereby a robotaxi suddenly replaces your friendly Uber driver is proving slow, expensive and uncertain, whereas the incremental approach whereby familiar manufacturers gradually increase the amount of autonomy in their cars is proving slow, cheaper and inexorable. The FT has a revelatory big read (£) on the difference between the two. It also explains the differences between different autonomy levels in terms of feet, hands, eyes and brain (i.e. in terms of not having to use them), and it notes with thinly-disguised schadenfreude that Google (backer of Waymo) and Uber may have blown tens of billions on a bonkers business model. 

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

Long range Gurka aid
Hong Kong-based Gurkhas have sent a truckload of oxygen and Covid test kits on an epic 3,000 km trip across Tibet to help their compatriots in Nepal, where Covid infections are soaring and vaccines are almost non-existent. The story is in the South China Morning Post, which is skewing more and more pro-Beijing these days but at least has the nerve to call out Chinese border guards on the Chinese-Nepal border for closing at 2pm even to life-saving medical supplies. This is a heartening tale of Nepalese solidarity across one of Asia’s great natural frontiers and daunting economic inequality – with one catch. It’s a drop in the ocean. The Hong Kong Gurkhas raised $100,000 for 450 oxygen cylinders and a few thousand test kits, which is great. But Nepal has a population of 29 million and a pandemic roughly following the course of India’s next door, with zero vaccine manufacturing capacity and almost zero vaccine access.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Reef row
The Australian government led by the (conservative) Liberal leader Scott Morrison would like it to be understood that the Great Barrier Reef is not doing too badly after all. The present southern hemisphere winter has lowered water temperatures a little, and there’s been coral regrowth in large areas of the reef. China, by contrast, wants Unesco to list it as officially “in danger”. It seems odd to side with China in an argument about information, but the Great Barrier Reef is very obviously in danger. If parts of it have shown signs of temporary recovery that is wonderful, but water temperature and acidity trends are so overwhelmingly negative that it takes some chutzpah or very efficient tourism lobbying, or both, to pretend otherwise.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Pent-up pounds 
Research by Deloitte forecasts faster growth in the UK over the middle six months of this year than at any point in the four years before the pandemic. According to 3,000 people they’ve polled this will be consumer-led growth fuelled by money not spent since lockdown No. 1. Another poll cited by Patrick Hosking in his Times column (£) (from PwC) suggests people are more eager to go out and spend than at any time since the 2008 crash. But this poll was compiled before the latest Covid infection spike. The urge to spend as an affirmation of life returning to something like normal is plausible. Unfortunately, so is the unnamed minister who told Politico’s London Playbook last night (in relation to today’s reopening): “I just can’t escape the feeling that this is all about to go terribly wrong.” Can both be plausible at once?

The week ahead

– England removes nearly all Covid restrictions; Scotland removes to level 0 which allows indoor gatherings of no more than 10 people; High Court hands down judgment in case of Syrian refugee Jamal Hijazi against English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson, 20/07 – BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg interviews Dominic Cummings; NHS Pay Review Body annual report due, 21/07 – Met Police commissioner Cressida Dick attends London Assembly committee session on Daniel Morgan Independent Panel report, 22/07 – Northern Ireland Executive meets to ratify easing of Covid measures, 23/07 – retired footballer Ryan Giggs appears in court charged with assault and controlling behaviour, 24/07 – 100 days until UK hosts COP 26

19/07 – Muslim Day of Arafat; Game Developers Conference begins virtually, 20/07 – US infectious disease chief Anthony Fauci speaks at Senate committee hearing on Covid response; Amazon boss Jeff Bezos flies to space with octogenarian aviator Wally Funk; Netflix Q2 results, 21/07 – Joe Biden participates in CNN town hall; Johnson & Johnson and Coca-Cola Q2 results, 22/07 – ten years since Oslo and Utoya terrorist attacks in Norway, 23/07 – 2020 Olympics open ceremony held in Tokyo; largest hot-air balloon gathering in the world begins in Metz, France, 24/07 – Donald Trump speaks at Turning Point USA Event; nationwide protests against Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro planned, 25/07 – World Schools Debating Championship begins

Thanks for reading, and please share this around.

Paul Caruana Galizia

Xavier Greenwood

Photographs Mohamed El Raai/picture alliance/ Getty Images

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