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Sensemaker: Happy New Year?

Sensemaker: Happy New Year?

What just happened

Long stories short

  • All five permanent members of the UN Security Council signed a statement agreeing “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”.
  • Jurors reached a guilty verdict on four of eleven counts in the California trial of Elizabeth Holmes, accused of promoting a bogus new blood-testing technology.
  • Apple briefly became the world’s first $3 trillion company but Lech Walesa, the former Polish president, said Covid has left him broke.

Happy New Year?

As a wish, absolutely. As a statement, not so much. We are of course delighted to welcome you back to the world of good sense, but just because we’re paranoid doesn’t mean a lot of things we used to take for granted aren’t going wrong. 

Public health. Covid has won. The pandemic is endemic. One in 25 people have it in England. France is registering more than 150,000 new cases a day despite saturation vaccination. Omicron looks less severe than Delta and that is unequivocally good news, but very high case numbers mean very busy hospitals. The cliché is accurate: having failed to defeat this virus, humanity must learn to live with it. 

Climate. The summer heatwave in British Columbia was followed by a winter one. New Year’s Eve in the UK was the warmest on record. Big snows on the US East and West coasts are welcome – and likely attributable at least in part to climate change. The same is unfortunately true of bare slopes and unseasonable wildfires after an exceptionally dry autumn in Colorado. 

Democracy. Lithuania’s president says his country is under coordinated economic attack from China for daring to speak up for Taiwan as an independent democracy. In Hong Kong, Citizen News, the third independent news outlet to cease publishing since June, closes today because of what its editors called “hurricanes” of pressure from Beijing. In Myanmar the military junta is crushing residual democratic opposition with death squads and arson, according to the AP

Truth. Most – though not all – opinion polls suggest about 70 per cent of registered Republicans still believe Trump was the real winner of last year’s US election. 

There are reasons to be cheerful, too. The risk of hospitalisation with the Omicron Covid variant is about a third that of Delta, according to a UK Health Security Agency analysis of more than a million cases. Excess deaths are flat or falling in most of the developed world, and in South Africa, where Omicron was first identified. Putin has not invaded Ukraine – yet – and Adele is finding she can get more house for her money in Beverly Hills than in London, including 18,500 square feet that used to be occupied by Sylvester Stallone; a snip at $58 million.

But Sensemaker makes no apology for starting the year in Eeyore mode. Sometimes the best thing to do with bad news is to face it. 

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Death threats
France is finding it hard to hold a civil debate on whether to make vaccine passes mandatory for access to restaurants, cinemas and trains. There’s a bill in the works that would force the issue from 15 January, but deputies who back it have been getting death threats from anti-vaxxers and members of the lower house of parliament suspended a session last night after it got tense. In a sense the question has already been decided: employers who have insisted on vaccination as a condition of coming to work have seen vaccination rates spike, and many restaurants are already requiring proof of vaccination at the door. None of which prevented daily Omicron case numbers peaking at over 200,000 last month. At least they’re falling now.  

New things technology, science, engineering

Off Twitter
Trump is permanently banned from Twitter and now his ardent acolyte Marjorie Taylor Greene is too. Greene is the congresswoman from Georgia who has blamed space lasers for forest fires and believes Big Tech is fomenting a socialist revolution in America. Twitter banned her at the weekend for spreading misinformation about Covid vaccines, which she claims are dangerous and failing. She’s also been temporarily suspended from Facebook. “Who appointed Twitter and Facebook to be the authorities of information and misinformation?” she asked on Telegram, one platform she can still use. To which there’s an answer. They appointed themselves. They’re private entities that can make their own rules, like nightclubs. 

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

Vax boom
Last year the rich world failed to get vaccines to poorer countries at scale, and Omicron was one result. This year there’s no excuse. Covid vaccine inequity is still acute: on average in low-income countries fewer than 10 per cent of people have had even one dose while third doses are becoming the norm in the rich North and Israel is offering fourth doses to over-60s. What has changed since this time last year is vaccine manufacturing capacity. The WHO says 1.5 billion doses are now being produced each month. That is more than enough for boosters for those who need them and a radically expanded vaccine programme for the rest of the world. Covax stumbled as a distributor last year. In 2022 it gets a second chance.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Volga down
Soviet damming of the Volga has left it an almost entirely dysfunctional river, according to the MIT Technology Review. It drains much of European Russian and used to sweep grandly for 2,300 miles from north of Moscow to the Caspian, but along most of its length the water is now dirty, silted up and barely moving. There are 11 major hydropower dams on the river and its main tributaries, and contaminated waste water from farmland along their lengths flows largely unhindered into the vast reservoirs they created. Since 2018 a government-funded Healthy Volga programme has been trying to clean it up but the programme’s funding ($2.9 billion over six years) is inadequate and it’s still cheaper to pollute the river and pay fines than not to pollute. So there’s a solution: raise the fines, enforce them and gradually take down the dams. 

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Big Apple
For a few minutes yesterday Apple was worth more than $3 trillion. Its share price slipped back late in the trading day but if 2021 was any guide the trend is on up and it’ll be fuelled not just by iPhone sales but also – and perhaps mainly – by Tim Cook’s less heralded success: subscriptions that require no shipping of hardware and are therefore immune from supply chain crises. It took Apple nearly four decades to reach a $1 trillion valuation; two years to double that; and 18 months to add another trillion. As the NYT notes, the company is now worth more than Walmart, Disney, Netflix, Nike, Exxon, Coca-Cola, Morgan Stanley, McDonald’s, Boeing, IBM and Ford, combined

The week ahead


4/1  Sir Keir Starmer speaks in Birmingham on Labour party ambitions; man charged with common assault of Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, 5/1 – Review of England Plan B coronavirus restrictions due; second reading of Nationality and Borders Bill in House of Lords, 6/1 – European Elvis Championships and Convention kicks off in Birmingham, 7/1 – six months of weekend industrial action on London Underground begins; Lee Peacock appears charged with Westminster murders of Sharon Pickles and Clinton Ashmore


4/1  World Braille Day, EU high representative Josep Borell pays three-day visit to Ukraine, 5/1 US Senate hearing on oversight of Capitol Police on January 6, 6/1  Donald Trump to give press conference on anniversary of Capitol insurrection; Alexei Nalvany’s spokeswoman’s house arrest ends, 7/1 former New York governor Andrew Cuomo appears in court charged with forcible touching; two year anniversary of Covid-19 first being identified and isolated in China, 9/1 – Golden Globe Awards 

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

Phoebe Davis

Edited and produced by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images