Talking Points

In swanky Gangnam, a North Korean defector wins office. PHOTO: AFP
  1. South Korea's incumbent Democratic Party won an electoral landslide
  2. Ireland's centrist parties neared unity after a challenging election
  3. Obama and Warren endorsed presumptive nominee Joe Biden
  4. Trump-branded cheques arrived as US jobless figures hit 22m
  5. The IMF warned of an economic downturn worse than the Depression
  6. G20 member states froze $20b of debt for the world's poorest nations
  7. OPEC attempted to ward off 'historic shock' with a historic output cut
  8. Ukraine battled multiple wildfires within the Chernobyl exclusion zone
  9. Bobcats, bears, and coyotes reclaimed Yosemite National Park
  10. The US experienced its first school-shooting-free March since 2001

Deep Dive

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has come under fire. PHOTO: AFP

The United States of America has withdrawn support and funding for the World Health Organisation (WHO), for which it is the major donor. 15% of its budget, some $400m, has been cut in the midst of a pandemic . What could the United Nations' health authority have done to provoke such drastic action?

Turning off the ventilator

When announcing the decision this week, US President Donald Trump reasoned that organisation had "failed in its basic duty and must be held accountable". The purported dereliction of responsibility was this: WHO officials had spread Chinese disinformation and worsened the global pandemic. The language used was identical to Trump's earlier sorties against the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and the United Nations in toto. It's the same old narrative: American interests damaged by the international community's incompetence, mean-spiritedness, or some combination of the two. The message from the US President was clear: there had been a cover-up. And the UN was just as guilty as China. Catnip for the America First bumper-sticker crowd.

Let's give Trump the benefit of the doubt. Let's see just what that alleged complicity consisted of. It is true that WHO inspectors only arrived in Wuhan on the 20th of January; up until that point they had been relying on and republishing figures from China's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is also true that effusive praise was heaped on Beijing for implementing its radical quarantine policies. But WHO may well argue that these were necessary evils. In fact, we could spend an entire day exploring the necessary evils that plague all such international organisations. To wit, the still-unfolding debacle of Taiwan's warnings , or its recommendations on traditional Chinese medicine . On their own demerit, or in relation to the transgressions of other organisations, it's hard to see justification for Trump's dire action. Perhaps that's because the transgressions aren't the reason why he cut WHO funding.

Earlier this year, well before the coronavirus had spread across the globe, Trump had already floated the idea of halving America's contribution to the WHO, from $123m this year to $58m next. It was part of a planned $3b cut to global health. A hard-nosed negotiating tactic to force institutional change at the headquarters in Geneva – a desire shared by many on Capitol Hill. This may be offensive, but at least it's understandable. Like any waning power, Washington is sensitive to losing influence. And the negotiating stratagem is straight out of Trump's book, 'The Art of the Deal'. But w hat's galling about his statements this week is the rank hypocrisy. Trump, after all, also swallowed and parroted China's figures in January and February, despite being counselled not to. In fact, he had actively downplayed the threat. As late as March 6, Trump called the WHO's estimation of the mortality rate (of 3.4%) a "false number" , and said that he believed it to be a third as high. So, his about-face now seems a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.

A crime against humanity

The editor-in-chief of the esteemed medical journal Lancet described Trump's decision as, "a crime against humanity". This may sound overblown until one learns that the WHO's goal is to foster "the highest attainable level of health for all people". It responds to acute emergencies by sending officials to monitor outbreaks, providing guidance to other countries, and coordinating international action. It was instrumental in managing the West Africa Ebola epidemic of 2014, and the Zika outbreak in 2016.

As an advisory body , the WHO has no power to compel member states to act. But despite this enormous limitation it is perhaps the most valuable resource our species has in times of medical crises. It effectively eradicated smallpox. It's close to eradicating polio . We don't just need it in an abstract sense. Its imprimatur and connections are a practical necessity right now in the Democratic Republic of Congo where Ebola has again reared its ugly head.

In early 2018, the WHO raised eyebrows when it added an unknown 'Disease X' to a list of viruses that could cause a global pandemic. In its own words, "history tells us that it is likely the next big outbreak will be something we have not seen before". That statement (and the cartoonish description of the mystery disease) were not borne out by this pandemic; despite the name coronaviruses are not novel. But when prompted by journalists back in 2018, WHO spokesperson John-Arne Rottingen had this to say of 'Disease X', "as the ecosystem and human habitats change there is always the risk of disease jumping from animals to humans... It's probably the greatest risk." This was spot on.

Which is a long way of saying this: we don't fund the WHO because it's always right about everything. We fund it so it's there – especially when things go disastrously wrong.


Worldlywise

Merkel eases Germany's lockdown. PHOTO: Reuters

The dust settles in Europe

Europe is still in the eye of the COVID-19 storm, with 50% of the world’s confirmed cases concentrated there. Despite this, its nations are looking to partially reopen (read: save) their economies without triggering a new wave of infections. After weeks of strict lockdowns, Austria , Denmark , Spain , Switzerland and Germany are looking to reopen some businesses and schools. Though in most cases, this is not without maintaining strict 1.5m social distancing or, as in Germany , a ban on public gatherings of more than two people.

This partial reopening is a glimpse of the months and years ahead of us, and how our social interactions and the way we move through the world will be fundamentally altered. Indeed, A Harvard study published in Nature suggests prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022, or until vaccinations and treatments are available. This is ultimately to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. The same study predicts that the virus is not going anywhere: it will likely become seasonal (with higher transmission in colder months), and another outbreak may occur as late as 2024.

In many ways, humans – innately social beings – will adapt. We will elbow bump, move our group celebrations online, have socially distant exercise buddies, and date in grocery aisles . But great social turmoil lies ahead. One study published in Lancet Psychiatry predicts a ‘profound’ mental health fallout from widespread social isolation and increased anxiety. Further, increased alcohol consumption, widespread joblessness and increased domestic violence will bring their own sets of complications. Beyond the economic and health implications, we will be seeing the social and mental impact of this new normal for years to come.

Bone-dry rice paddies in Vietnam's Ben Tre Province. PHOTO: VnExpress

Asia's food bowl withers

In the countries of the lower Mekong basin El Niño years are known for their feeble rainfall. Last year was one, and its wet season failed to bring nourishment to this usually-fecund corner of the earth. In fact, last year produced the worst drought in a generation. But this was not the case upriver, where China's Upper Mekong dams were brimming with higher-than-average flows from the Tibetan Plateau. The inevitable conclusion reached by a group of American climatologists was that Chinese dams withheld water and in doing so exacerbated the drought downstream.

The one-two punch of reduced rainfall and dam projects have left communities in the Mekong Delta reeling. In Vietnam, brackish water has advanced up from the estuaries and into the river proper. The salty water has been discovered 50km upstream of where it ought to be.

Some 60 million people live and rely on the Lower Mekong in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. And yet, these countries are all minnows beside China. They're left with no good options when negotiating with a global power which controls 70% of the Mekong's flow in a dry season. What else can be done than use the meagre bureaucratic tools at hand to eke out a small concession or conciliatory statement from Beijing. The river system will undoubtedly benefit from the increased rainfall of a La Niña climate event, but there will be no respite from China's hydroelectric designs.


The Best of Times

The tide has turned. PHOTO: Steve Parsons / PA

So much we don't know...

This siphonphore, discovered minding its own business off the coast of Western Australia, may well be the longest animal on the planet . It's 46 florious metres of cloned cells that act as an enormous paralysing jellyfish tentacle. We think it ought to be left in peace.

And so much to learn...

Flamingos form social bonds for a variety of non-sexual reasons and choose to "hang out" with one another according to this five-year study. Imagine that: birds of a feather, flocking together.


The Worst of Times

A bent-toed gecko of northern Cambodia. PHOTO: Thy Neang

If you're a faces person

The good news is that we just discovered this sweet gecko . The bad news is that it's automatically at risk of extinction .

If you're a numbers person

Yet another study, this one published in Nature , has brought forward our timeline of ecological collapse . Short of global and radical action to halt greenhouse gas emissions, we can expect deadly collapses in the population of nearly all species in nearly every region of the planet. Something to ponder as you read about the record methane levels in our atmosphere.


Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"I don't like what I do professionally."

– This week Chris Cuomo (yes, brother of the other one) came to an existential truth concerning his often combative and rarely informative cable television show.

Headlines of the week

"Republican governor defends classifying WWE as essential service because people are 'starved of content'" The Independent .

Special mention

This man . Don't guess, just read his story.

Some choice long-reads

Tom Wharton

@trwinwriting