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Sensemaker: Still Covid

Sensemaker: Still Covid

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Biden prepared to leave Washington for an emergency Nato summit as Ukraine said it was running out of weapons.
  • The pro-Kremlin Komsomolskaya Pravda published, then deleted, a new Russian defence ministry tally of 9,861 Russian combat deaths in Ukraine.
  • Morad Tahbaz, a British-Iranian national still held hostage in Iran, went on hunger strike.
  • Ash Barty, the world tennis number one, retired from the sport saying she was “spent” at 25.

Invaded: Voicemails from Ukraine

“My grandparents live in a small village and I couldn’t reach them for a few days because they had no electricity because of the Russian artillery attacks in the area. The bridge connection from their village no longer exists. Meaning, they cannot leave. The war is challenging and exhausting especially when you do not know when you can come back home, if you will have a home and if you can ever see your family again.” Listen to Viktoria and others today and every day in Invaded: Voicemails from Ukraine

Still Covid

Today marks two years since Boris Johnson gave what he called a “simple instruction”: stay at home. But dealing with a pandemic was never going to be simple. 

By that Monday in 2020, 937 people were reported as dying from Covid. Since then, another 162,992 have died in the UK. Mercifully, that number is lower than it could have been. Lockdowns and mask-wearing have played their part, but vaccines have been a lifesaver. They have not cut infection rates as dramatically as hoped, but the case fatality rate for those with Covid in the US is 20 times higher for the unvaccinated than the fully vaccinated. 

As dose four is being rolled out for the most vulnerable, 91.7 per cent of UK residents have had at least one jab and 62.7 per cent have had a booster. The most dominant variant is the relatively-mild Omicron, the economy has fully reopened and the government’s preferred narrative of “living with Covid” can seem plausible, even though case numbers are rising steeply again and the seven-day rolling average of deaths hovers close to 100.

Not every country has the luxury of even imagining such a narrative. Efforts to vaccinate the world on an equitable basis have fallen short from day one. Covax, conceived in January 2020 at the Hard Rock Hotel bar in Davos by Richard Hatchett, who runs the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi the Vaccine Alliance, was set up as a platform to coordinate global vaccination efforts.  

Berkley called it “the only truly global solution to this pandemic” because, he said, “it is the only effort to ensure that people in all corners of the world will get access to vaccines once they are available”. But the road has been bumpy – and still is. 

The goal. The targets set by the World Health Organisation for global vaccinations were/are: 

  • 10 per cent coverage in all countries by September 2021
  • 40 per cent by December 2021 
  • 70 per cent by the end of June this year
  • The US, currently the biggest donor to global vaccination efforts, has set a separate goal of 70 per cent coverage by September this year. 

From the outset, Tortoise’s Arms Race campaign has championed efforts to vaccinate the world on the basis of need rather than means, and as the best available defence against new variants. We’ve tracked those efforts here

The reality: 

  • 19 countries, according to the Global Covid-19 Access Tracker, still achieved the basic goal of 10 per cent coverage. Most are in the central belt of Africa. 
  • 84 countries still haven’t met the 40 per cent target. 24 of those are low-income countries. 
  • Only one high-income country – the Bahamas – still hasn’t reached the 40 per cent goal. 
  • 174 countries haven’t hit the 70 per cent target. 
  • Of those, 128 including the US are not on track to reach that goal. 
  • Unicef predicts 16.8 billion vaccine doses will be produced by the end of this year, and current production rates average 1.5 billion doses per month. There are 7.9 billion people on the planet. 

What next? Producing vaccines is one thing; getting them where they are needed is another. The Washington Post has a scathing report on the failures of Covax as a mechanism for global vaccination. It says Unicef, which handles Covax’s logistics, stated that 80 million doses were rejected in December largely due to “limited capacity” on the ground as well as limited shelf life. Insiders also reported an initial “badmouthing” of mRNA vaccines because of their cost and concerns they wouldn’t be authorised by health authorities. mRNA vaccines have since been found to be the most effective, especially against Omicron. 

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS said bluntly: “Covax has disappointed Africa.” Instead of relying on a drip-feed of donations from Covax, countries have instead turned to their own procurement routes, making it hard for international organisations to coordinate vaccination drives. 

Future variants. The more Covid spreads, in both vaccinated and unvaccinated groups, the greater the likelihood of new variants. Whether they become “variants of concern” is a separate question and Robert Bollinger of John Hopkins University cautions against overreacting. The important thing is to manage what is in our control: testing, treatment, vaccines. 


Renault resumes
Renault has resumed manufacturing in Moscow even though there is no end in sight to the war and all sanctions remain in place. A spokesperson confirmed the decision to Reuters and said it had the backing of the French state (which is Renault’s biggest shareholder) but bafflingly didn’t address the invasion, which Ukraine argues leaves those continuing to do business with Russia with blood on their hands. The Yale School of Management’s list of big international companies’ responses to the war places Renault sixth in terms of Russian revenue, behind only Philip Morris, Leroy Merlin (a French home improvement and gardening chain), VW and Japan Tobacco International. Renault, Leroy Merlin, Decathlon and Société Générale, all French, are among 33 companies Yale gives an “F”, its lowest grade for sanctions compliance and solidarity with Ukraine, for “Digging in – defying demands for exit or reduction of activities”. Macron has made a point while campaigning, ever since 2017, of not dictating strategy to the private sector. But still, what on earth are they all thinking?


What the West misses
The WaPo has what feels like an important interview with a Russian-American filmmaker who says the West has completely underestimated the impact and significance of ten years of Kremlin propaganda on most Russians’ world view. Here’s the money quote from Maxim Pozdorovkin, when asked for examples of how Russians now tend to explain western actions towards their country: “The Western sanctions back in 2014 over the war in the Donbas? An attempt to destroy the Russian way of life. The backlash to the Russian disinformation campaign in the 2016 U.S. election? An attempt to destroy the Russian way of life. Russian-doping punishments at the Olympics? Same thing. You name it, if it has involved Russia and the West, it was the West trying to destroy the Russian way of life.” Ditto sanctions and weapons supplies to Ukraine now. Rewiring this thought process will take time, if it’s even possible.


Dogfights are back
Fighter jets from the Ukrainian and Russian air forces are engaged in nightly dogfights over Ukraine that are unprecedented in the modern era. The gap for fighter pilots between Top Gun fiction and wary mutual respect in real life has been wide since the first Iraq war in 1991. That changed on 24 February when, without a Nato guarantee of its airspace or territorial integrity, Ukraine had to send an air force of about 55 operational jets up against several hundred Russian ones. Ukraine is flying up to 10 combat sorties a day compared with 200 by Russian planes, but is holding its own in terms of shootdowns (97 are claimed). Surface-to-air missiles account for many of these, but a pilot interviewed by the NYT said kills are often a joint effort in which Ukrainian planes lure Russian ones into air defence traps where ground crews shoot them down. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Taiwan service
Taiwan’s defence minister has floated a plan to extend compulsory military service beyond its current four months. “We must consider the enemy situation and our defensive operations in terms of military strength,” he said. The enemy is China, which claims Taiwan as its own, has stepped up intimidation flights close to Taiwanese airspace and is studying the world’s response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with great interest. Military service in Taiwan used to last two years but was cut back to four months in deference to young voters’ wishes in 2013, when Xi Jinping’s tenure in power was only a year old and his megalomania had not yet come into focus. Xi has said he’ll take Taiwan by force if necessary. Taiwan’s military hopes it could fight off an invasion, compensating for overwhelming Chinese strength in numbers with better kit and training. To note, because so many businesses and governments that should know better tend to forget: Communist China has only existed since 1949 and has never controlled Taiwan, which is an independent, sovereign democracy. 

world by numbers

132 – people who were on board the China Eastern Airlines when it crashed yesterday in China’s southern Guangxi province.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

War and warming
A general rush to make up for shortfalls in Russian hydrocarbons by any means possible is liable to saddle the world with excess fossil fuel power capacity just when said capacity should be shut down, the UN says. “Short-term measures might create long-term fossil fuel dependence,” António Guterres, the UN’s secretary-general, told an Economist sustainability conference yesterday. Those were among his more measured words. He also said the world was sleepwalking to climate catastrophe; that limiting warming to 1.5 or even 2 degrees was slipping out of reach; and that the “naive optimism” of Cop26 was a distant memory. Maybe catastrophe is precisely what it will take to shake humanity out of its climate indifference.

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Phoebe Davis

With additional reporting by Giles Whittell.

Photographs Emin Sansar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images, Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images, Osman Uras/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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