Talking Points

An unwelcome deposit. PHOTO: The Independent
  1. Banks burned as Lebanon's economic state worsened
  2. Positive COVID news was reported in New Zealand, Korea, and Wuhan
  3. Kim Jong-un, likely infirm, took a much-needed holiday
  4. Bollywood mourned the loss of two beloved stars in 24 hours
  5. Genoans celebrated their new bridge two years after a deadly collapse
  6. Joe Biden was trailed by Tara Reade's sexual assault allegation
  7. The UN urged nations to not bail out high-polluting industries
  8. Russia, the world's largest wheat grower, halted exports
  9. Armed anti-quarantine protesters stormed Michigan's capitol building
  10. Trump continued to air conspiracy theories about the coronavirus

Deep Dive

Pack animals. PHOTO: Axios

America's insatiable appetite for meat is known the world over. It is central to the US diet, economy, and psyche. The average annual consumption for an adult is 220 pounds of pork, chicken, and beef (two kilos a week, for the metrically-inclined). And now the entire system that fuels this diet is imperilled.

"It's a death sentence"

Most people do not pay mind to meatpacking, nor meatpackers. Indeed, many are fairly repulsed by the industrial-scale slaughter from which vacuum-sealed and colourfully-marketed meat products are apparated. There is a veiled dissonance about non-vegetarianism – both cognitive and ethical. It's one that animal-rights campaigners have been poking at for decades. That shroud, which obscures how our meat is made, was ripped open this week by an unlikely individual: Donald Trump. As usual, it was inadvertent.

Meat is big business. You can accurately summarise the attractiveness of the meatpacking industry by drawing a line from the bottom-left to the top-right of a profit-over-time graph. The North American Meat Industry (the peak body group) calculated that it contributes $890b to the US economy annually. There are 100 million acres of corn fields in the US, and 80 per cent of the cobs they produce go straight to cattle feed (along with 90 per cent of the oats).

Now there are potentially disastrous ripples running up and down these supply chains. Severe coronavirus outbreaks in multiple meatpacking facilities have led to widespread closures over the last month. Some estimates put the number of sick meatpackers at over 5,000. It turns out that meat production lines pose a serious infection risk. As one Pennsylvanian union official put it, "in these environments it is impossible for workers to adhere to safe-distancing protocols". And, although some plants have temporarily increased pay and installed barriers, many workers have simply stopped going to work. John Tyson 's name adorns the second-largest meatpacking company on the planet. He did not mince his words: "the food supply chain is breaking".

So, on Tuesday, the president announced that he would use the Defence Protection Act to designate meatpacking as critical infrastructure; compelling plants to stay in operation. But Trump's allies now face another issue: the meatpackers simply refuse to return to work .

An industry in decline

Once upon a time there were thousands of meat packing factories across the continental United States. Smaller, rural sites were typically family-run affairs, while larger ones serviced metropolitan areas. The latter, as was typical in many blue-collar industries not too long ago, paid quite well. Then came the 1980s, and technological advancements and economic rationalisation filled America's sails. For meatpackers they arrived as a gale, blowing away higher-wages and shuttering smaller, less-profitable plants. Today the consolidation is nearly complete: a handful of corporates (Cargill Meat Solutions, Tyson Foods, JBS USA) comprise what is effectively an oligopoly.

The meatpacking plants of 2020 are industrial complexes employing thousands – most of whom are on low wages and zero-hour contracts. And rights organisations regularly highlight their exploitation of illegal immigrants and underage labour. These are physically dangerous jobs; meatpackers are three times more likely to suffer injury at work than the national average. Here's a difficult statistic to swallow: Tyson Foods averages one finger-loss or amputation every month. For those involved in the slaughter it can also be psychologically damaging; PTSD, substance abuse and physical abuse are not uncommon among those whose jobs consist of killing animals all day, every day.

Up until now the calculus was uncomplicated: 10 billion animal lives, traded for the meat-heavy diet of most Americans. But now we must also add human lives to that equation (at least 20, if you were wondering). And don't think for a second that the animals destined for the slaughterhouses are being emancipated – they're being euthanised. En masse .


Worldlywise

The 'business-friendly' president we were warned about. PHOTO: Adriano Machado / Reuters

"So what?"

Anti-corruption was a cornerstone of the campaign that brought Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro to power in 2019. Now, a corruption probe is closing in on him. It started when Bolsonaro fired police chief, Mauricio Valeixo. Brazilian media attributed the firing to the criminal probes surrounding Bolsonaro’s three sons, who are also involved in politics. Carlos and Eduardo have allegedly disseminated fake news; while Flavio faces his own set of corruption allegations and mafia-links. The police chief firing prompted Justice Minister Sérgio Moro to resign in protest, which triggered a supreme court investigation into Bolsonaro. The despotic president – a former army general who surrounds himself with political allies – then attempted to instate a family friend as police chief, but later backed down . The saga has set off a political crisis and much pot-banging in Brazil. And it has reaffirmed how divisive Bolsonaro, who now faces potential impeachment, has been. A recent poll showed that 45% of Brazilians support his impeachment, while 48% oppose it.

Meanwhile, the nation has a few more pressing matters to deal with. It is fast becoming Latin America’s coronavirus epicentre, with at least 5,900 deaths so far. Intensive care units and mass graves are filling up . This crisis is the yardstick with which Bolsonaro will carve his legacy. So far, he has responded by sacking his health minister and sabotaging social distancing measures. When asking about the rising death toll this week, he responded: “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?” . Meanwhile, the virus is racking Latin America’s biggest economy, which economists say is set for its worst ever recession . Bolsonaro looks set to continue campaigning against social distancing from his political mantle, brewing a perfect storm for a nation of 290 million.

People are actually buying these. PHOTO: Aly Song / Reuters

Earnings season

Facebook led a handful of major tech companies' earning reports on Friday. The March quarter was a healthy one for everyone's favourite data vacuum. Mark Zuckerberg could happily report $4.9b in profit on a rising revenue pool of $17.4b. But that happy bump in Facebook's share-price is unlikely to be replicated when a line is drawn under the current quarter. There are significant questions surrounding Facebook's vulnerability (and Google's for that matter) to a long-term downturn in advertising. Zuckerberg was keen to underscore the societal risks posed by this pandemic, not just those to his bottom line .

Zuck's dour sentiment juxtaposed nicely with that of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who tweeted that the lockdown is "fascist" and did his best Trump impression with, "FREE AMERICA NOW". And it wasn't a clumsy attempt at misdirection from bad news – Tesla reported a surprise Q1 profit . The modest $16m in the black is a notable turnaround from the $700m loss this time last year. Also on the winner's roll were old hands Microsoft ($10.8b profit) and Apple ($11.6b profit on a whopping $58.3b in revenue).

The biggest surprise, though, came from Amazon. Revenue was up a quarter year-on-year (thanks to all of that extra time spent on the couch) but profits were down by nearly a third . CEO Jeff Bezos outlined that shareholders would have to "take a seat" as Amazon's entire expected second quarter profit (and then some) would be redirected to coronavirus-related costs. But before you sell your shares, take note: AMZN is still trading at $2,474 – up $1,000 since the start of the year.


The Best of Times

Cannes in your pocket. PHOTO: The Independent

Cannes heat

Since noone is going to the cinemas anytime soon, the world's premier film festivals have joined forces with YouTube to create a virtual one . Officials from the festivals held across Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Sundance, Tribeca, and many more will use the world's original streaming platform to screen films, talks and host workshops. The online spectacle will run for ten days from the 29th of March, and help raise money for the World Health Organisation's pandemic response fund. It sure beats lining up all day just to get onto one of the lesser yachts at Cannes.

What have the Romans ever done for us?

Add recycling to the list .


The Worst of Times

The Southern Transitional Council presses their point. PHOTO: Fawaz Salman / Reuters

All chaos on the southern front

Having successfully shattered Yemen and created the world's most-pressing humanitarian emergency, the ruling elite of Saudi Arabia are making noises about an exit strategy . The news comes in the same week that UAE-backed southern separatists in Aden effectively seceded from the Saudi-backed state. While returning to a two-state solution in Yemen may actually solve quite a few problems, one wonders why the Gulf princelings had to kill quite so many innocent people in the process.

Any news from the home front?

Yes, and it's all bad. The coronavirus- and hubris-driven oil-price crunch has given the Saudi treasury a whack. The Kingdom is leaning heavily on its foreign currency reserves – so heavily that the $27b it spent in March has reduced the cash pile to its lowest level in a decade. Nothing depletes military morale quite like an endangered pay-check. Especially if, as in this case, you are already losing.


Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"Bella ciao, ciao, ciao!"

– Italians sung the famous anti-fascist marching tune from their balconies this week to mark the 75th anniversary of the country's liberation from homegrown and German fascism. The message to Europe's modern-day fascists is simple: we'll kill you and do it singing.

Headline of the week

"What do your tweets say about your happiness?" Inverse . Judging by most people: lots – and none of it's any good.

Special mention

Aliens exist. Just ask the Pentagon .

Some choice long-reads

Tom Wharton

@trwinwriting