The Weekly Wrap for Saturday, 19 December 2020

By Tom Wharton

Talking Points

Reaching Warp Speed. PHOTO: AP
  1. The US began the rollout of the much-needed Pfizer vaccine
  2. 14 accomplices in the 2014 Charlie Hebdo attack were found guilty
  3. Paris city hall was fined for hiring too many women (?)
  4. A deal on fisheries eluded the net of UK-EU negotiators
  5. Europe grappled with how much Christmas cheer to allow
  6. Facebook and Google got slammed for alleged market rigging
  7. The shocking extent of forced Uyghur labour in textiles was revealed
  8. Mackenzie Scott - formerly Bezos - gave away $4.2b
  9. Bitcoin hit an all-time high of more than $20,000
  10. The world's largest porn site purged 10m videos after criticism

Deep Dive

A physician gets her jab in Glendale, California. PHOTO: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

EDITOR'S NOTE: It has been a difficult year. Not quite as bad as 1347 AD, or 541 AD, but challenging nonetheless. Given [gestures broadly] we've decided to diverge from our usual programming and sample some of the stories most worth celebrating this year. There's been quite a few more than you may have come across in the regular doom scroll of 2020 news. We'll start, of course, with the vaccine.

The right stuff

Over the course of this year we have covered the vaccines but always in relation to the pandemic itself. You likely know just as much about the ethical and medical quandaries, delays, and financial incentives as you do about the vaccines themselves. They are now no longer a hedged bet or a hopeful afterthought, but a reality in several countries. So it's a good time to step back and admire these stupendous accomplishments. Take the design of one vaccine as an example. On January 11, Chinese scientist Yong-Zhen Zhang posted a 'draft' sequenced genome of novel coronavirus that was running rampant through Wuhan. On January 13, the Moderna lab in Massachusetts had completed the design of mRNA-1273 . It would undergo nearly a year of scrupulous testing, and one month ago it sailed through stage 3 clinical trials with an efficacy rate of 94.5%. Two days.

Those responsible for the vaccines have been lauded greatly. The husband and wife team behind BioNTech, Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci , have been awarded Financial Times' People of the Year. Their partner in development, Pfizer, will enjoy a different kind of award (somewhere north of the $13b mark).

But the focus on sprawling, cashed-up pharmaceutical giants misses a bigger picture: the fight against the coronavirus has been a truly global effort - including help from some very surprising quarters. Neuroscientists and physicists the world over refashioned their expertise to explore one problem or another posed by Covid-19. In their desire to help, nothing separated Nobel prize winners from community college lecturers. The virus forced disciplines that rarely overlap to become enmeshed, almost overnight. The thinking power of the world's most powerful supercomputers (one of the most fought-over resources on the planet) was given freely to researchers.

Science has been changed immeasurably for the better.

At its core, the coronavirus was a series of problems to be solved. Infectious disease experts leaned into controlling the spread. Front-line doctors and nurses became indispensable utilities in trialling a myriad of treatments – old and new – to treat the disease. Public and community health experts explored new ways to prevent spread through the public. Logisticians and politicians were tasked with organising the world's most extensive virus testing regimen. And we're not done yet. There remain significant challenges in distribution. As we've mentioned repeatedly, the Titanic lifeboat approach to vaccine distribution will also compound pre-existing crises. And there are drug patent laws yet to be navigated. But even so, it's impossible to not feel pride for our collective success in confronting and beating this enemy.

Even before the first fully-trialled jabs were delivered, the benefits had already spilled into other areas of health. Oncologists are preparing for massively increased funding and research in the use of mRNA therapeutics . Likewise, the technology is or will soon be used to tackle regular flu vaccines, heart failure treatments, cystic fibrosis, and the most elusive of all – HIV.

Onwards to the sunlit uplands

By concentrating the world's resources, we've proven we can make the sort of radical changes that will be required to ameliorate the worst effects of climate change . Stringent lockdowns in India and China offered the world's most-polluted cities a glimpse of blue skies. In fact, as the French economy minister recently observed, the economic damage has furnished us with an opportunity to "reinvent our model of economic development to ensure it is more respectful to the environment". France is already putting this into action by attaching environmental targets to cash bailouts for key industries.

Shy of a vaccine, the best weapon our species has against a rampant virus is community-mindedness. There is simply no substitute for altruism. The good thing for our species is that – despite what Thomas Hobbes and a handful of heavily-frocked zealots had to say – this impulse is reflexive. In Kunduz , one of the most scarred cities in Afghanistan, shopkeepers set up soapy basins outside their stores to cleanse those passing by; in Kabul junior sports teams delivered food to the needy. Canadians coined the term 'caremongering' for the groundswell of community support. And while a great many have suffered grievously, prolonged crises are the only source of what psychologists term 'adversarial growth' . It is not an ability to withstand pressure in contradistinction to others, but a more profound sense of empathy for the hardships that are visited at random upon those around us. The pandemic has prompted a marked increase in philanthropy .

Lastly, its also clear that well-funded and accountable public institutions are golden . The countries that have fared best are those that had resisted the hollowing out of community housing, public health teams, multi-language broadcasters, and welfare programs.


(Out of this) Worldlywise

The 'cosmic reef'. PHOTO: AFP / Hubble

The circus of stars respond

We had good reason to look up to the heavens in 2020, and thankfully its been a fruitful year up there in the cosmos. On its 30th birthday, the venerable Hubble Space Telescope snapped an absolute beauty of NGC 2014 and NGC 2020, a pair of nebulae showing off out in the Large Magellanic Cloud. It is, even compressed into the little image above, simply breathtaking. A fine closing note for one of the great scientific implements of modern astronomy (it will be replaced by the dazzling James Webb Space Telescope next year).

The United States, China, and the United Arab Emirates each launched missions to Mars . At last, the healthy scientific competition of the space race is being reinvigorated, and with a noticeably lower chance of nuclear annihilation. Each of these probes and rovers will contribute to the eventual crewed mission there. China's Chang'e-5 Moon lander has only just returned to Earth with the first rock samples collected since the 1970s. It landed just a week after Japan's Hayabusa2 touched back down with asteroid samples from Ryugu (and hopefully some signs of the building blocks of life). Similarly, NASA's Osiris-Rex hoovered up material from its own asteroid back in October.

Scientists got excited about phosphine on Venus , an 11-billion-year-old cosmic ring of fire , and the most-complete 3D map of the known universe yet. Somehow they also found molecular oxygen in a galaxy 500m light years away. And humans blasted off from Cape Canaveral (albeit on a branded rocket) for the first time in nine years.

Savour all of these. An interest in what is happening out there is no lofty folly, it is a yearning for understanding in – as Ursula K. Le Guin termed it – "this vast sack, this belly of the universe, this womb of things to be and tomb of things that were, this unending story".


The young achievers

The young engineers from Herat Province. PHOTO: Jalil Ahmad / Reuters

The young and the peerless

If journalism is the first draft of history we can lament that it has thus far avoided the scrutiny that a second draft receives. Critical historiography has reduced its focus on leaders, but a great deal of current affairs journalism still remains preoccupied with the utterances of middle-aged politicians. Forget them for now, and enjoy the achievements of the youngest among us. It's a good thing that people keep growing throughout the natural course of their lives because if we didn't, we adults would have no hope against these kids.

As the pandemic took hold in Afghanistan early in the year it became apparent that the country had just a handful of working ventilators. While studying may be a death sentence for girls in some parts of the country, an all-female team from Herat designed and constructed a low-cost ventilator . The portable devices were produced at a fraction of the cost of hospital equivalents and can run on a car battery for 10 hours. From Dakar to Frisco , students have built robots to take temperatures, and even designed a molecule to bind to SARS-CoV-2 proteins and render them useless.

In India, a pair of 14-year-old girls in a citizen science program identified an Earth-bound asteroid (which may be of some concern to whoever or whatever inhabits this planet in a million years). Then there are those protecting the planet against nearer-term threats, like the Balinese sisters Melati and Isabel Wijsen, who've been leading a campaign to reduce waste and clean up the idyllic island since they were 12 and 10 respectively. Or the Dutch engineering team who built a functioning electric car almost entirely out of discarded waste materials.

And, last but not least, this Brazilian 11-year-old landed a 1080 on a vertical ramp . If you know, you know.


The old achievers

. PHOTO: Gemma Handy / AFP

It's really just a number

The old English saying goes "children should be seen and not heard" and it's best not to imagine what they think of the elderly. In a culture that valorises and romanticises youth, we miss the manifold ways in which success, passion, and achievement can be striven for in those autumn years.

We'll preface this first story by saying, yes, we know that with the gains in longevity 72 isn't that old any more but it still is beyond what most people would consider their peak physical fitness. With that in mind: get a load of Graham Walters. In May he landed in Antigua, completing a three-month solo row across the Atlantic. The septuagenerian from Leicester took the crown as the oldest person to row any ocean solo, and the oldest person to row any ocean more than once. He celebrated with a burger and chips, coke, and a bottle of Veuve.

Also consider the 96-year-old Giuseppe Paternò, who undertook a figurative rather than literal odyssey, and this year graduated from the University of Palermo with a philosophy degree . The former railway worker had this to say, "knowledge is like a suitcase that I carry around with me, it is a treasure". You'll know doubt recall the efforts of British centenarian veteran Tom Moore , whose laps of the garden to raise £1,000 for the NHS would eventually raise £32m. For it he received both a knighthood from the Queen, and a cover from GQ magazine. Dame Judi Dench became the oldest Vogue cover star - for being Dame Judi Dench.

And surely the most satisfying achievement – if only a brief one – is to snatch life from the jaws of death and to laugh in the face of our own biology. To wit, the 113-year-old Spaniard who recovered from coronavirus. Maria Branyas , who shares a birth year with Frida Kahlo and Joseph Stalin, not only overcame the deadly condition, but did so with great understatement, ("I would have preferred not to have to live this unfortunate situation of nonsense").


Weekend Reading

The image

Rangers rescue a marooned Rothschild's giraffe from the flood-tides on Lake Baringo. It, along with the nearby alkaline Lake Bogoria are expanding every year, prompting concern that they may merge. Photograph supplied by The Guardian.

The quote

"I have in my time sold bath towels, washed elephants, run away from school, decimated a flock of Welsh sheep with a 25-pound shell because I was too stupid to understand the gunnery officer's instructions, and taught children at a special school."

John le Carré , finest spy-writer in the English language, on his life before MI5 and literary stardom . At home in the space between moral certainty, he saved his best barbs for the English establishment (the school mentioned above is Eton).

The numbers

2,845 kilometres

- The distance that a single discarded plastic water bottle travelled down the Ganges. Indian researchers repurposed the satellite trackers commonly used by marine biologists to see just how far their rubbish travels. A lot further than the few metres to the bin.

50 years

- The date-range of the dataset used in the paper that finally turns off the faucet on 'trickle-down' economics. This work from the Bolshies at the London School of Economics analysed the impact of upper-income tax cuts in 18 countries over five decades: zero impact on productivity, a substantial rise in wealth inequality, and no benefit derived by anyone other than the recipients of the tax cut.

The headline

"An enormous bird has a real estate problem" The Atlantic . Impossible to scroll past – a masterpiece.

The special mention

We may not be able to hang this week's medal around an actual neck (and God only knows what would happen if we did), but we're shouting out the Law of Unintended Consequences. This week, China's strong-arm tactics and Canberra's amateurish diplomacy resulted in a semi-official ban on Australian thermal coal imports . It may just hasten the latter's lagging shift away from this antiquated fuel source.

A few choice long-reads

  • In any functioning civil society you turn to law enforcement to help in any number of situations. But what happens when far-right ideology infiltrates the police force? Foreign Affairs investigates.
  • In a year of chaos (and, as you will have read, some green shoots) is there any country that truly ascended? The Economist picks its Country of the Year for 2020... Spoiler: It's not the United States.
  • Modern buildings are hermetically-sealed, climate-controlled monoliths. Now more than ever they are pumped full of sanitiser. Bloomberg Businessweek discovers a healthy building may just be the opposite of that.

Tom Wharton @trwinwriting


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