The Weekly Wrap for Saturday, 28 November 2020

By Tom Wharton

Talking Points

"America is back". PHOTO: Chandan Khanna / AFP
  1. Donald Trump (sort of) conceded, and the Biden transition began
  2. Purdue Pharma plead guilty to federal charges in the opioid crisis
  3. Hundreds of thousands of desperate farmers marched on Delhi
  4. China launched the first probe to collect lunar rocks in decades
  5. Thailand wielded draconian lèse majesté laws against protesters
  6. Korean online sex abuse architect Cho Ju-bin was handed 40 years
  7. French ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy faced historic corruption case
  8. Current French leader Emmanuel Macron veered to the right
  9. Turkey delivered more life-sentences over the 2016 putsch
  10. Ethiopian security forces launched a 'final assault' on Tigray capital

Deep Dive

Thankstaking lives. PHOTO: Kamil Krzaczynski / Reuters

The traditional greeting is "Happy Thanksgiving", although this year's iteration is anything but . Coronavirus new cases and hospitalisations are breaching hitherto unimaginable heights. A survey found that one quarter of Americans planned on spending Thanksgiving with more than one household. Everyone will bear the costs associated.

Turkeys voting for Thanksgiving

For the entirety of the Covid-19 pandemic, in most corners of the planet, public health officials have struggled to dissuade religious groups from gathering. This is true of Korean mega-churches, Hindu pilgrimages, and Israeli orthodox kibbutzim. The clash of temporal and higher laws have produced some startling displays of hubris: Iranian Shia kissing and licking shrines in Qom, US evangelist preachers succumbing to Covid-19 after preaching it was inconsequential. For some, choosing between the advice of the health minister versus a universe-spanning deity is a no-brainer. There's been plenty of finger-wagging at the Orthodox Jewish community in New York, the Mormons in Utah, and the sect-defying lunacy in Florida. But now, at this most vulnerable new peak in America's coronavirus pandemic, it's the Protestants who may have just pushed the country off a cliff.

Yes, those Pilgrims and Puritans who broke bread with Native Americans at Plymouth Colony in 1621 started a tradition of Thanksgiving that is today one of the most significant holidays – for religious and secular folk alike. Pumpkin pie, candied yams, mashed tubers, and, at the centre of it all, a stuffed and roasted turkey. The holiday is an excuse for Americans to gather as a family, and given that nearly a third of them have moved far afield from their home town or city, the tradition entails a great deal of domestic travel.This week, millions upon millions of Americans crowded into airport terminals and bus depots to begin their journeys home. They gathered in large family groups, bringing an influx of people from urban environments into rural ones, and vice versa. On arrival they drank, they ate, and they sang. And now a great many will die.

This hyper-spreader ("A surge superimposed on a surge" – Anthony Fauci) event is exactly what health officials had been trying desperately to avoid. It risks fuelling an outbreak that has already dragged the country to horrifying new lows. The case count has reached 12 million, with an average of one million cases in each of the last two weeks. And that number was already rising exponentially before Americans returned home to give thanks. In some hard-hit counties one in every two hospital admitees is turning up carrying the novel coronavirus. There are simply not enough Intensive Care Unit nurses and doctors to manage this spike, and the death count is ticking up sharply again. 2,300 died on Monday. 2,200 on Tuesday. These gruesome tallies will easily pass the April peak this week or next.

One interstate traveller , on her way to visit her 90-year-old grandmother, put it thus, "And absolutely, I know that I'm taking a risk by flying. I know that, but sometimes it's necessary".

The political economy

The peril the US faces has dampened the excitement around a month of positive vaccine news. 270,000 Americans have died all up. And tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands more may die before the mRNA shots can be distributed en masse. The combined efforts of the world's governments, universities, and pharmaceutical giants created workable vaccines in under a year. But even this titanic effort may be too little, too late for the United States. And, as we've highlighted in earlier columns, they are not alone. Europe too is feeling the effect of fatigue, conspiracy theories, and wilful ignorance.

A strict tiered system of restrictions in the United Kingdom is expected to depress the new case numbers (which continue to hover stubbornly around 20,000 per day). But a five-day restriction amnesty over Christmas threatens to undo all that work. It is mind-boggling that this needs to be stated, but the virus doesn't stop for Christmas. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Over in Germany, new restrictions continue to be heaped on as numbers begin to rise above 22,000 per day. Belgium continues to mark the worst mortality rate anywhere in the world. And Sweden has had no luck – none – with its policy of herd immunity . France is in slightly better shape, just, but is also easing some restrictions for Christmas. Three weeks of strict lockdowns have broken the back of its rampant second wave . Now it is risking those gains again.

While the response of most European countries has been significantly more cohesive than the United States, their leaders now face the same test: will they have the courage to take the unpopular actions needed to safeguard their countries? We wouldn't bet on it. The same also goes for the people themselves. Holiday traditions don't appear to make it on the list of sacrifices they would consider - for their own health, or that of their communities.

Elsewhere, on vaccine watch, AstraZeneca revealed that they stumbled, rather serendipitously, on the more effective of their two vaccine results. Some test participants were accidentally given a lower first dose and a full second one. In the world of medical ethics such mistakes sit somewhere between appalling and unconscionable; but luckily for them the regime turned out to be even more potent than two full doses!


Worldlywise

Get rich quick schemes / get poor quick schemes. PHOTO: Getty

30,046 reasons to own (certain) shares

For the first time ever, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has risen above 30,000 points . It appears that at the very least, markets have responded favourably to the multiple vaccine breakthroughs, the Fed slashing its short-term interest rates, and the General Services Administration green-lighting the Biden transition. The prolonged rally has helped the index rise by 18,600 points (61.5% of its total value) since its March nadir. And while the Dow remains an inadequate totem for the health of the economy (thirty corporations with the highest individual share prices do not an economy make), it is moving in tandem with the broader S&P 500 and the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite. Interestingly, a point of criticism against the DJIA (that its rubric excludes tech giants Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet) has been turned on its head. It could be argued that without the gravitational pull of gargantuan tech stocks, the Dow actually represents the blended health of the economy more accurately than other indices do.

And it's not just traditional markets that are on a staggering trajectory: Bitcoin too rose to within a few hundred dollars of its all-time peak this week. It pulled back late in the week, but still sits above US$17,000 . At the close of 2017 the cryptocurrency soared to US$19,650 – only to crater in the first months of the new year. When the bubble burst, so too did the enthusiasm for what was heralded as the future of money. But over the last two years it has limped back into contention: trades are up, digital wallets and trading apps are flourishing, and more players are entering the market than ever before. For those that hung in there, a significant reward is being realised. Bitcoin has inflated. Its proponents' sense of vindication has inflated. But as the new money rushes in once again, keep an ear out for that distinctive pop. Given the opacity of the crypto world, you might hear it before you see the signs.

A final note: for a country with a knee-jerk rejection on redistributive wealth, America's economy increasingly resembles a finely-tuned instrument for redistribution - low- and middle-class upwards. In the words of inequality scholar Chuck Collins , "The economy is now wired 'heads you win, tails I lose' to funnel wealth to the top". Since the onset of the pandemic America's 650 billionaires have increased their net worth by over $1tr. As millions of out-of-work Americans took out loans to cover their expenses, the chair of Quicken Loans made $36b. This is what is meant by the phrase "monetise the rot".

Know what's in your iPhone. PHOTO: Axios

Pinkertons and concentration camps in the 21st century

There we were thinking that the weekly award for corporate expediency would go to Amazon hiring the actual Pinkertons to crush any unionisation attempts in its Polish warehouses. But no, the accolade was snatched late in the week by another household name: Apple. As with most device manufacturers, Apple's supply chain stretches across the world. But it is particularly concentrated in China, where its suppliers have a chequered history on labour rights. One had hoped that the suicide nets outside Foxconn factories would do for Apple what footage of children stitching soccer balls did for Nike. But now the Californian tech giant has shed labour rights controversies by diving head-first into a full-blown human rights quagmire.

China's forced labour camps for Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang are amongst the most brazen and nauseating examples of mass human rights abuse in the world today. They are concentration camps. And as multiple reports have confirmed this year, hundreds of Western companies from fashion to tech benefit from suppliers that use this forced labour. Apple is one of these companies. And despite CEO Tim Cook's condemnation of these "abhorrent" camps, his company is not only retaining but actively defending the arrangement . US papers have reported that Apple lobbyists are trying to sink the Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act which would force companies (on pain of prosecution) to cut ties to suppliers in Xinjiang.

Globalisation and capitalism can make for a hellish cocktail.


The Best of Times

Staying cool is harder in poorer suburbs. PHOTO: Mic

Leafing inequality behind

We all know most of the benefits of planting trees, now here’s one more: they can help combat racial inequality. An American conservation group gave a handful of cities a ‘tree equity score’ to indicate how many trees would be needed for the entire population of a city to enjoy the benefits of tree cover.

This work builds on research that exposes a lack of trees in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities — the same communities that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and air pollution. So, let’s get planting.

Saying nae to period poverty

Scotland has become the first country in the world to provide free and universal access to period products. The legislation passed unanimously following four years of campaigning to end period poverty . In 2017, the movement was boosted by a requirement for educational institutions to provide free sanitary products. Coronavirus restrictions have exacerbated the struggle, with 30% of 14-21 year old girls in the UK struggling to access or afford period products. This will help.


The Worst of Times

Not cool. PHOTO: DTU Space Denmark

One gap, many consequences

1% of the world’s farms operate 70% of farmland, affecting the livelihoods of 2.5b people, says the most comprehensive report on land inequality to date. It found that the disparity has been widening since the 1980s and has been linked to greater unemployment and gender inequality, and contributed to climate change. Indigenous and rural communities, as well as women, are particularly affected by this disparity as they are squeezed into smaller pockets of land.

The new era of fire

As a result of changed fire activity, 4,400 species are threatened with extinction globally. More specifically, 19% of birds, and 16% of mammals are threatened by fires such as those seen in Australia, the Arctic Circle, and the United States. The changes to the fire activity are caused by, you guessed it, humans. As with many other climate-change-related problems, solutions are possible — we just have to do them.


Weekend Reading

The image

Another politically-motivated pardon by America's lame-duck president. Rumour has it that Corn (the turkey) was offered a seven-figure book deal for a tell-all memoir of its time in the Trump White House. Photograph supplied by Bloomberg.

The quote

"It is illegal to install structures or art without authorisation on federally managed public lands, no matter what planet you're from."

– The Utah Department of Public Safety issued a terse warning to whoever, or whatever, stuck a gleaming metallic monolith in Red Rock County. You know the rule: never attribute to interstellar contact that which is adequately explained by viral marketing for the remake of a Kubrick film .

The numbers

10-12°Celsius

- The Arctic is experiencing a shocking heat fluctuation with its November temperature 10-12°C higher than the winter average in 1990 . Vast swathes of the Arctic have yet to refreeze, leaving sea ice at historic lows.

70 million songs

- Music and podcast streaming giant Spotify announced that it has added 15 million tracks to its library since the close of 2019. As the tyranny of choice grows, we yearn for the simple brilliance of the compilation CD ( So Fresh: Summer 2002, to be precise).

The headline

"Facebook could make a nicer news feed, but it would hurt revenue" Input .

The special mention

Abbreviated accounts of Diego Maradona's life are wholly inappropriate for the kind of figure he struck in his 60 years on the planet. Blessed and cursed in equal measure, El Pibe d'Oro was the greatest footballer of his generation, perhaps of any generation. It's imperative that you reacquaint yourself with his goals – yes, even our readers in England – but don't leave it there. Know his life, politics, and struggle . Later in life, he would reflect on what it was like to debut in Argentina's professional league at the age of 15, "That day I felt I had the sky in my hands". That day, and every one hence.

A few choice long-reads

  • Belarus wants it, as does Hong Kong. Thailand wants more of it. Democratic movements span the planet, so why is the West having such a hard time with it? The Economist looks to the heart of the concept.
  • Anti-trust cases aimed at Google's untrammelled global dominance are proliferating. So why aren't Google's competitors rejoicing? Bloomberg Businessweek prises open the politics of search dominance.
  • Nothing has changed the modern battlefield more drastically than the proliferation of weaponised drones. From the sophisticated weapons platforms with national flags to the homemade kamikaze drones built by the Islamic State – they are here to stay. Foreign Affairs looks at the economics that underpins this industry.

Tom Wharton

@trwinwriting


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