Talking Points

The covers are out at Wimbledon. PHOTO: Philip Toscano / PA
  1. Wimbledon was cancelled for the first time since WWII
  2. A new date for the Tokyo Games was announced: July 23 2021
  3. India experienced its largest population transfer since Partition
  4. Millions of Muslim pilgrims dwelled on the fate of the Hajj
  5. America proposed a transition plan for Venezuela's Maduro
  6. Fallout from Korea's Telegram porn scandal reached China
  7. Fears grew for the effect of stalled polio and measles programs
  8. Iran accused the US of enforcing sanctions that are costing lives
  9. A £5m van Gogh was stolen from a Dutch museum
  10. Global album sales stooped to their lowest ebb in history

Deep Dive

Viktor Orbán addresses a now-obsolete parliament. PHOTO: EPA

All matter of unwelcome milestones were reached this week: 50,000 dead, 1,000,000 confirmed cases. And all such numbers should come laden with appropriate caveats and cautions. But this week let's dive deep into another matter for caution: who's in charge right now?

Dicto, dictare, dictavi, dictatus

Before we begin, a short detour. In years of crisis, Rome would vote to suspend the function of its republican organs and elect a dictator to wield absolute power over the state. It was widely understood, even then, that you don't want too many cooks in the kitchen. But notably, after standing at the helm of the largest empire on the planet, these men would then cede power back once the storm passed. Cincinnatus was elected dictator and retired to his farm afterwards on at least two occasions. Then again, this was all before Julius Caesar decided use a crisis of his own making to name himself dictator perpetuo . And so we must wonder which of those men today's leaders will emulate.

Viktor Orbán ascended to power in Hungary for a second time in 2010 when his Fidesz party claimed a two-thirds majority in parliament (and with it, the power to alter the Constitution). The interceding years have seen Hungary's democracy reduced to a useful fiction. On Monday, the fiction was dispensed with. Hungary's parliament passed a law allowing Prime Minister Orbán to rule by decree for the duration of the coronavirus emergency. Guess who is the only person with the power to declare the emergency over ? To no one's surprise, the conservative leader's first diktat had little to do with the pandemic – it was to strip the legal recognition of transgender Hungarians . Yes, the punishment for spreading disinformation has been strengthened, but it has also been left conveniently broad so it can catch just about anyone who may decide to criticise the government.

Elsewhere in Europe, in Poland to be specific, the ruling Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) party is clinging to an old political axiom: never let a good crisis go to waste. Defying all advice – both epidemiological and plain-logical – the government is pushing ahead with a presidential election scheduled for May 10. This is despite polling showing that as few as one in five Poles would turn out to vote. If this sounds patently undemocratic then perhaps President Andrzej Duda's recent policy will put you at ease: mail-ballots will be allowed. But there's a catch. The absentee ballots are only applicable for those over the age of 65 – the base of support for this regressive theocratic government. Naturally, younger Poles are aware of the coming spike in coronavirus cases , and will be unlikely to risk themselves standing in line at polling stations.

The Law and Justice party knows full well that anything can pass for justice when you make the laws. There is growing support amongst Poles for the vote to be postponed a year; this would mirror recent decisions from Bolivia to Ethiopia . All of these votes are important in their own way, but none come close to the gravity of the United States presidential election.

Election fraught

The coronavirus has upended both the process and ideological timbre of this year's presidential election. If you're scandalised by a Polish government that would endanger the health of its own citizens by sending them to voting stations, allow us to introduce the US Democrats. On March 17, the party held its primaries in Arizona, Florida, and Illinois (all thumping wins for Joe Biden). This was nearly two months after America's first confirmed coronavirus infection, and at a time when cases were increasing by 1,000 per day. Younger Democrat voters followed the advice of health authorities and avoided visiting confined spaces with crowds. Illinois witnessed a 25% drop in voter turnout . In all three states reports emerged of polling stations being abandoned by staff or not opening at all.

But there's been barely any time to meditate on the implications of an incomplete primary because the entire race has ground to a halt. No door-knocks, no stadium rallies, no whistle-stop tours, no bustling campaign offices. New York has postponed its primary until late June, though it's hard to imagine the city at ground zero of the pandemic will be fit to make that date. 14 states followed suit , and now the Democratic National Convention itself has been kicked down the road until August. The DNC typically coronates the frontrunner (this year: Joe Biden) and launches them into the general election with a blast of rapid-fire endorsements and glitzy VIP speeches. Who knows what kind of convention August will bring: look at how much has changed in a fortnight!

As state and federal authorities rush to implement absentee mail ballot systems that would withstand scrutiny, the White House is moving to upend the race itself. Conventional wisdom holds that a tanking economy will cost Donald Trump the election. And that, with every passing week, the president's chances narrow. But conventional wisdom wasn't worth a dime in 2016. Indeed, Trump has embraced the mantle of 'war-time president' and his mammoth $2t investment in businesses and workers has raised the prospect of claiming the high ground of massive direct stimulus. This is not just any old high ground: it's a highly strategic position that would allow the Republican incumbent to attack the Democrats on their left flank. Yes, it sounds wild – but we learned our lesson in 2016. We'll be keeping our minds open to all possibilities.


Worldlywise

A quarter to forget. PHOTO: AFP

Economic turmoil

Global markets experienced the worst quarter since 1987 amid selloffs, shutdowns and widespread job losses. In the US, the Dow, S&P 500, and Nasdaq plunged 23%, 20%, and 14% respectively, marking the worst month since 2008 for all three indices. Other markets around the world mirrored the losses: the FTSE, DAX and Hang Seng dropped 23%, 25% and 16% respectively. The Shanghai Composite, which dropped 10%, is the only major index not in a bear market .

Volatility defined the first quarter, as noted by Oaktree Capital’s Howard Marks . As Marks highlighted, 18 out of 21 trading days experienced more than a 2% swing. In that period, markets had their biggest daily percentage gains since 1933, and their second-biggest percentage loss since 1940 (exceeded only by Black Monday). This volatility is hastening the arrival of a deep and lasting global recession. It is disproportionately impacting businesses, notably airlines (who are negotiating monolithic bailouts), and is driving increased short-selling – prompting calls to ban the practice .

And it is wreaking havoc on jobs – more of which have been lost in the US and Europe in recent weeks than throughout the GFC . 6.6m individuals filed for jobless aid in the US last week , notching a total of 10m in March, and erasing almost all the jobs created over the last five years . The US is already in a recession . While France, Denmark, Austria and the UK are paying companies directly to prevent job losses and company closures , the unemployment numbers are still catastrophic: 4m in France, 1m in the UK, and 900,000 in Spain . These numbers show that wage subsidies, low-interest loans and tax relief cannot shield an economy from COVID-19. And are harbingers of a deep and unprecedented global recession.

Saudi Arabia is playing chicken with Russia. PHOTO: Marwan Naamani

A world without oil

With every passing day, the timing of Saudi Arabia and Russia's oil price war gets funnier and funnier. Both countries have deflated the oil price by ramping up production but there's just no market left to buy it. Saudi Arabia's long-term viability as a state requires an oil price of at least $70 a barrel. It's well under half of that right now. All that extra oil is sitting idle in over-full stockpiles on the shores of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. But it's not just a case of laughably bad timing; both countries may be accelerating the global shift away from oil. Analysts are now predicting that the oil and gas industry will never fully recover from this downturn.

If this pandemic has indeed hastened the realisation of peak oil – well, you've got to take the good with the bad sometimes. The more swiftly our species dispenses with fossil-fuels, the better: our atmosphere continues to warm at a rate that should frighten lawmakers in the same way COVID-19 has. It's a cruel turn of fate that crucial climate conferences like COP26 are being postponed when we have few years left to avert catastrophic warming. If the intermingling of the two crises of our generation has left you morose, consider this positive environmental news from the week. Humans can reverse the shocking damage done to our polluted and over-fished marine ecosystems within three decades if radical action is taken to curb what we dump in the seas and what we pull out.


The Best of Times

Don't lean in too close. PHOTO: Mic

Every star twinkling in the darkness

As it turns out, black holes are not just impossibly dense and powerful forces tearing unsuspecting solar systems asunder. They're also quite beautiful . While you may not be able to make it out from the above photo – the first image we've generated of the phenomena – black holes reflect the light from galaxies around them. A mirror to the universe.

British museum returns sacred artefacts to Canadian tribe

Great – now do the Elgin Marbles.


The Worst of Times

This is not a beach holiday destination. PHOTO: Reuters

Antarctica experienced a heatwave

We shouldn't need to elaborate on why this is not an ideal scenario . Sure, you may've seen the articles this week about how Antarctica was warm enough for a temperate rainforest 90m years ago – we enjoyed them too. But what was good for the world 90m years ago may not be good for us.

Dementia risk factors

A Swedish study into the effects of PM2.5 particulate matter on human health has found that even low levels of pollution increase the likelihood of dementia . The fact that the pollution within the European Union's 'safe levels' has a deleterious effect has terrible implications.


Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

" Right now we have two versions of the internet — a market-led capitalist version based on surveillance, which is exploitative; and an authoritarian version also based on surveillance ."

Shoshana Zuboff outlines the battle for dominance over the internet.

Headlines of the week

''Man 'teaching dog how to drive' arrested after high-speed chase" – Another cracker from The Telegraph .

Special mention

Multiple special mentions winner Kim Jong-un is back on the podium for injecting some normalcy into our crisis-stricken world with a nostalgic series of missile tests.

Some choice long-reads

Tom Wharton

@trwinwriting