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Sensemaker: Tunisian crisis

Sensemaker: Tunisian crisis

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Apple, Microsoft and Google reported combined after-tax profits of $56.8 billion during the last quarter, double the year before, as Covid pandemic restrictions pushed more people to use their services and products.
  • The UK announced it will deliver nine million AstraZeneca Covid vaccines around the world, including 300,000 to Jamaica, 600,000 to Indonesia and 817,000 to Kenya.
  • French authorities detained two suspects over Tuesday’s armed robbery of a Chaumet jewellery shop in central Paris and recovered most of the €2 million worth of stolen goods. Fast work, given many potential witnesses were distracted by Jean-Claude Van Damme, one-time screen action man, at a nearby optician’s.

Tunisian Crisis

President Kais Saied, who days ago dissolved parliament, is moving quickly. He’s purging senior officials – judges and prosecutors are the latest to be deposed – and undoing the fragile democratic progress that Tunisia, North Africa’s only democracy, has made since the Arab Spring.

The country’s nascent institutions are now on the brink of collapse, but those concerned with saving them must first contend with a devastating and spiralling Covid crisis:

  • It was the government’s chaotic vaccination programme that proved the final straw in a long line of policy failures. Only 8 per cent of Tunisians are fully vaccinated. Last Tuesday, the health minister was sacked and the army put in charge of pandemic efforts. The minister had announced mass vaccination walk-ins during Eid al-Adha; after thousands travelled miles and queued for hours, supplies quickly ran out and violence erupted.
  • But the roots of the past days’ events predate the pandemic. This was the country’s ninth government since the 2011 revolution, and merely the latest to fail to bring stability and prosperity to the Tunisian people. The Covid crisis laid bare the extent of these failings. Take the health sector: it receives only six percent of the budget, compared with the third which still goes to debt repayment.
  • The government said the health system has already collapsed, with reports of full hospitals, rationed or exhausted oxygen supplies and violence against medical staff. Tunisia’s Covid death rate – 13.5 deaths per million people – is now second only to Namibia’s – 17.3 deaths per million people. In its population of 12 million, there have been 19,027 deaths and 578,962 cases, with the majority infected since March this year.

Western leaders profess support for Tunisian democracy, and are pleading with Saied to respect the rule of law. All would agree with his remark on Sunday that “we are navigating the most delicate moments in the history of Tunisia”. 

Whether Saied will extend his 30-day autocracy remains to be seen. What seems inevitable is that, without a rapid injection of vaccines and other urgently needed supplies, Tunisia’s will remain among the worst Covid crises in the world. 

Two million doses, according to Unicef, should arrive in Tunisia tomorrow. So far, only a quarter of those have been officially received via COVAX, the international vaccine delivery system.

Mass vaccination, a reality for advanced economies, is years away for others. The consequences, as Tunisia shows, can include mass fatality and the collapse of democracy. In Tortoise’s Arms Race campaign, we’re pushing rich countries to share their surplus doses and pharmaceutical companies to send more doses to the poorest countries, and you can help us

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

The Money Hunt
Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein has sued ex-King Juan Carlos of Spain, her former lover, in the High Court in London. She filed her claim in December, but the court has now made it public. It alleges that Juan Carlos and the Spanish secret service put her under illegal surveillance in the UK, and threatened, defamed, and harassed her “from 2012 until the present time”. She wants substantial damages and a restraining order. Juan Carlos hasn’t filed a defence. At the centre of this case is what Sayn-Wittgenstein called an “unsolicited gift” of €65 million that Juan Carlos gave her in 2012 and which came, ultimately, from Saudi Arabia. Tortoise investigated the money trail and interviewed Sayn-Wittgenstein at her Belgravia apartment and Shropshire estate for its podcast The Money Hunt.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Mosquito experiment
Researchers have found a way to spread a genetic modification that blocks female reproduction in the most common malaria-carrying mosquito, Anopheles gambiae, in order to suppress their populations. The year-long experiment, led by Imperial College London, was conducted first in a lab and then in a more natural setting – large cages that mimic the mosquito’s natural habitat – with the hope of using the “gene drive” technology in real life malaria zones. Almost all malaria cases are in sub-Saharan Africa where it killed more than 400,000 people in 2019 alone. If successful, mosquitos carrying the gene drive would spread the modification, impair overall female fertility, reduce the total number of malaria-carrying mosquitos, and ultimately prevent malaria transmission. “Gene drive is a self-sustaining and fast acting technology that can work alongside existing tools such as bed nets, insecticides and vaccines – and could be a game-changer in bringing about malaria elimination”, said the co-lead author of the study. It’s hard to overstate how urgently a game-changer is needed. There were 219 million cases of malaria in 2019, and it targets under-5s especially.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Hate crime law
An unprecedented collaboration among American advocacy organisations: 16 civil rights groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, released a report that found hate crime laws across the US are failing to address root causes of violence and widespread bias (the majority of hate crimes are committed by white people); failing to correct data collection and reporting errors; and are changing the intent of law (by, for example, attempting to add police officers as a protected class at law). The report found Black people are disproportionately listed as offenders in law enforcement-recorded hate crimes. How to improve the picture? The report recommends revising the laws and investing in the social safety net to reduce poverty caused by systemic racism.

New things technology, science, engineering

Children of Instagram
Instagram has made new under-16s’ accounts private by default. This means that only approved followers can view posts, “like”, or comment on content from those accounts. There wasn’t much resistance among users: Instagram said only one in five users opted for a public account when private was set as the default. But there is strong resistance from outside the company regarding its handling of children’s accounts in general. Instagram, which is owned by Facebook and relies on the age listed on accounts, has been criticised in the past by NSPCC for failing to remove content about suicide and self-harm, and was investigated by Ireland’s data protection commissioner over its processing of children’s data. Still, the company is going ahead with plans to build new apps for under-13s. Is that too young? Facebook says the reality is that they are already online and there’s no foolproof way to stop people misrepresenting their age. Not a great reality. 

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

Young and ill
In 1970, the British Cohort Study began tracking the lives of about 17,000 people born in England, Scotland, and Wales within a single week. The latest results show that, of 8,000 of the participants, 34 per cent had two or more chronic health problems at age 46-48. The most frequently reported problems were high-risk drinking (26 per cent), recurrent back problems (21 per cent), mental-health problems (19 per cent), and high blood pressure (16 per cent). “A substantial proportion of the population are already suffering from multiple long-term physical and mental-health problems in their late 40s”, lead researcher Dr Dawid Gondek at University College London told the BBC. “It is not a good prospect for an aging population that you can expect to live longer but many in poor health.” And then came Covid. 

Emily Benn’s Olympic fact of the day

On Monday morning, in a gruelling women’s triathlon, Flora Duffy became the first ever gold medallist from Bermuda – which in turn became the smallest country ever to win a gold medal at a summer Olympic Games. The record for smallest country for any medal colour, however, was broken this morning, as Alessandra Perilli of San Marino took bronze in the women’s trap shooting. The country first competed in the Rome 1960 games, and has a population of just 32,000. It is not the only country to win its first ever summer medal this games – there are also celebrations in Turkmenistan, as Polina Guryeva won a silver medal in weightlifting. 

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Lara Spirit

Paul Caruana Galizia

Photographs by Jay Allen/Royal Navy/MOD, Getty Images

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