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Sensemaker: Johnson MIA

Sensemaker: Johnson MIA

What just happened

Long stories short

  • A senior Taliban figure in Afghanistan said amputations and executions would resume as a “security” deterrent.
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  • Talks began in Moscow between French and Russian officials on whether to lift Russia’s ban on French champagne being labelled with the Russian word for “champagne”.

Johnson MIA

Biden’s vaccine summit on Wednesday was billed as the moment western leaders would finally step up and donate billions of doses to low-income countries, where still only 2 per cent are vaccinated. 

For the crucial session entitled “calling the world to account”, however, one confirmed speaker was nowhere to be seen.

Boris Johnson was set to speak sixth. He didn’t show up. Much of the media, owing to a technical fault that cut streaming of the session for all, believed – and reported – that he had appeared as planned. But he didn’t. 

The explanation? The summit was running late and plans changed. We were told Johnson was “due at a military gig at Arlington Cemetery” after the summit, and he was seen there at around 11.30am. But the summit ran just 15 minutes over schedule, meaning it was always unlikely he’d make both – and that he’d have to choose. 

It was a significant choice, and a conspicuous absence: 

  • The UK has purchased over seven doses per inhabitant – the fourth largest stockpile of spare doses in the world.
  • No other stockpiling nation has delivered fewer of their promised donations: just 9 per cent of the 100 million doses pledged have been shipped.
  • Meanwhile Biden announced the purchase of an additional 500 million Pfizer doses, along with a new partnership with the EU to expedite deliveries. The US has already delivered 160 million doses, more than all other countries combined.
  • Western leaders collectively fell far short of what’s needed. No progress was made on improving deliveries before 2022 (by which point estimates suggest up to 2.8 million avoidable deaths will have occured). 

Now, just six weeks away from hosting Cop 26 in Glasgow, Johnson’s strategy with the international community appears to be one of selective engagement: absent from the critical summit on Wednesday, he’s betting on their support in November.

At the front of his mind on the flight to New York was the $100 billion in climate finance he is asking the world’s richest leaders to find – the same leaders he bailed on ungraciously this week. 

But the problem is about much more than Johnson. The summit failed to deliver the seven billion vaccines needed by the end of this year, with UN secretary-general António Guterres calling the continuing inequality of access an “obscenity”. If the western world can’t address this much simpler crisis – redistributing surplus vaccines – what hope does it have of uniting the world around solutions much more complex and divisive in just a few weeks’ time?

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

In the West Virginia silo
What seems crazy to progressive American Democrats seems common sense to Democrats in West Virginia. Their senator, Joe Manchin, is holding up progress on Biden’s $3.5 trillion social spending package because his majority is razor thin and his supporters don’t hold with government largesse. They constitute a tiny fraction of the American electorate, but because of Manchin’s de facto casting vote in the Senate they could make the difference between a landmark shift in US spending priorities and a ho-hum budget hobbled by localism; between $3.5 trillion and as little as $1 trillion. “There’s a general distrust of DC, there’s a general distrust of Democrats, and a general distrust of the word trillion,” a local political scientist tells the FT (£). What’s happening in West Virginia is an extraordinary collision of local democracy, national democracy and global emergency – the latter being a climate crisis that cuts no ice at all in the coal towns of Appalachia. Biden has a separate $2 trillion plan for that, and an even bigger hill to climb to pass it.

New things technology, science, engineering

Sex in space
It’s 2021. Private citizens are heading to orbit as if on easyJet. We’re told there’ll be a human trip to Mars within a decade, and still no one’s talking seriously about sex in space. Is dealing with sexuality part of an astronaut’s training? “No, but maybe it should be,” Matthias Maurer tells Deutsche Welle before a forthcoming trip to the International Space Station. Is he serious? DW certainly is. It states without sourcing that male ejaculation is important for the health of the prostate and orgasms for mental wellbeing for all. It speculates that orbital sex has already happened, either on an eight-day co-ed Soyuz T-7 mission in 1982 that one author believes was planned for the purpose, or on a space shuttle flight a decade later with a (secretly) married couple part of the crew. But if so, wouldn’t we have heard? Wouldn’t it be a hard secret to keep?

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

Moderna edges it
Moderna’s Covid vaccine provides more and longer-lasting protection than Pfizer’s. Using a decent sample of 5,000 healthcare workers in 25 US states, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine finds that Moderna’s initial effect is to cut the risk of infection by 96.3 per cent compared with 88.8 for Pfizer, and its protection against hospitalisation doesn’t decline after four months, while Pfizer’s does, from 91 to 77 per cent. Moderna’s dose is stronger, and its Covid story is of bold promises kept. Pfizer’s is rather different. Look out for Ceri Thomas’ report in Monday’s Slow Newscast.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Rewilding the Highlands
Half a million acres of the Scottish Highlands will be rewilded as part of a 30-year project that will be a boon to salmon, otters, red grouse, and all sorts of other creatures. It should be great for the climate, too: rewilding can help suck up and store carbon dioxide. (A 2020 study found that rewilding 30 per cent of the world’s land would absorb half of all CO2 emissions.) The barren beauty of Scotland is not a natural feature. Vast swathes of moors and mountains have been stripped of their plant life, mainly by centuries of overgrazing by red deer and sheep. Restoring an area about two-thirds of the size of Yosemite will begin to redress that sad state of affairs.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Storm clouds
Britain’s shortages are real – of foodstuffs but above all labour, especially lorry drivers. UK ministers are asking people not to panic buy petrol as BP and Tesco are forced to close some of their stations. Upward pressure on wages is good for workers but bad for employers, as we noted yesterday, and for consumers as wage costs feed into prices. Inflation is back. It could be at 4 per cent by Christmas, and interest rate hikes are likely to follow even if the Bank of England is sticking with its 0.1 per cent base rate for now. And the politics of all this for Boris Johnson as he returns from what his boosters insist has been broadly a good week for Brexit Britain? Bad. His customary cheerleaders, the Mail and the Telegraph, have splashed with warnings of a second winter of discontent. The last one did for Jim Callaghan’s Labour government in 1979. Johnson looks impregnable for now, but majorities can crumble when voters run out of money.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Lara Spirit

Giles Whittell

Produced by Phoebe Davis and edited by Xavier Greenwood. 

Photographs Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street, Getty Images