Talking Points

Extradition denied. PHOTO: Dominic Lipinski / PA
  1. A British judge denied the US request to extradite Julian Assange
  2. The US pinned the SolarWinds security breach on Russia
  3. No charges brought against the police officer who shot Jacob Blake
  4. Japan assured the world the Olympics will go ahead in 200 days
  5. World Health Organisation staff were blocked from visiting China
  6. The banker behind China's Belt and Road project was jailed for life
  7. Intense speculation followed Jack Ma's no-show in reality TV role
  8. Bitcoin soared from $30,000 to $40,000 in eight days
  9. Elon Musk became the world's richest man with $186b fortune
  10. Boeing agreed to a $2.5b settlement over 737 MAX crashes

Deep Dive

Trump supporters occupy the Capitol Building. PHOTO: AFP

It’s a New Year, but don’t expect you can escape the death throes of the Trump presidency just because a 16th century pope wanted a new calendar. This week almost feels like a year in itself - we’ve seen a pair of the most decisive Senate races in recent memory, early indications that the president intends on pardoning himself, Trump being temporarily banned from Twitter and Facebook, and the Speaker of the House threatening him with impeachment. And, of course, the storming of Capitol Hill .

"Total war" on Capitol Hill

Of all the schemes dreamt up to sway the election in favour of the incumbent (some hare-brained; others distressingly legal), demanding that lawmakers not confirm the electoral college vote is unique in its brazenness and menace. It goes without saying that it would never work, though this did not deter thousands of Trump supporters from gathering in the capital. On Wednesday morning the president lamented the ‘stolen’ election before the clamouring crowd at the “Save America” rally. His talking points were regurgitated with added bile by others: Rudy Giuliani called for “trial by combat” and Donald Trump, Jr. demanded “total war”.

And so the motley army, suitably exercised, marched on the Capitol Building and started a riot. The Proud Boys (a movement that had began as anti-masturbation activists but morphed into outright fascism) were there. A cohort of keyboard warriors, resplendent in wearable memes, brandished shields and pipes. There were survivalists in bear skins and some very confused elderly people in MAGA hats. Zionists waved the Israeli flags and elsewhere in the mob actual neo-Nazis sported clothing with swastikas and the name “Camp Auschwitz”. An unknown, but undoubtedly sizeable percentage of the attendants were adherents to the QAnon conspiracy (some believed that January 6 was the date of ‘The Storm’ – the long-awaited date in which Trump would unmask the cabal of billionaire paedophiles running the deep state). It was a mess of the misunderstood, the rabid, and the racist.

The night (stick) of the long knives

They swarmed Capitol Hill – clambering up walls and over barriers. The US Capitol Police department was overwhelmed within two hours by this moderate-sized riot (the USCP chief resigned the following day). Hundreds of rioters simply walked into the heart of the legislative branch of the United State government and had their way with it. But the most extraordinary images were not of the mob reclining in Nancy Pelosi’s office or lawmakers being hurried out of underground passages by the Secret Service. As disturbing as this footage is, if people are surprised by seeing right-wing militias crawling all over public buildings they weren't paying attention to what happened at state houses in Michigan, Ohio, and Oregon in 2020. What was most alarming is the footage of some US Capitol Police officers taking selfies with those adorned in fascist symbols in the crowd. Or on-duty police giving protesters the directions to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office. Or news reports of USCP officers opening barricades for the rioters to gain access to the building.

After a year of blinding Black Lives Matter protesters with rubber-tipped bullets and shattering their bones with truncheons, the camaraderie between mob and police was in plain sight. Exit-polls in the last two elections showed a clear majority of police, soldiers, and veterans support Trump over his opponents – the question is can America afford to ignore that voting pattern much longer? Next time, the outcome could be much worse.

But for all the deaths (one veteran and QAnon fan shot by police, one policeman bludgeoned to death, and three unrelated medical emergencies) and injuries, the tear gas floating about Capitol Hill, and the general chaos – this wasn’t quite the storming of the winter palace, nor Bastille. It does tell a tragic and important tale of American decline .

Georgia on all our minds

Dealing with the aftermath of this is just one of many challenges for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, who will be inaugurated as the president and vice-president on January 20. Yes, it is happening and, after the madness on Capitol Hill, Trump gave a televised address in which he struck a far more conciliatory tone and proclaimed his hopes for a smooth transition! Thanks to the kerfuffle in Washington DC, the world almost entirely overlooked the decisive Senate run-offs in Georgia. Donor poured half a billion dollars into the races (a grotesque sum given that 19% of Georgians live below the poverty line) that were narrowly won by Jon Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock . Notably, the latter is the first Black senator in the state's history.

The Democratic Party has control over the White House and both chambers of the legislature. Now is a time for that side of politics to dream big. Beyond an institutional lack of imagination and a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, there is nothing stopping Biden and Harris from immediately delivering massive pandemic relief stimulus (forget a single measly $600 payment – try $600 per month backdated to the beginning of the pandemic). If the party is dedicated to exercising power – rather than simply accumulating it – then we can expect drastic action to reel in the US Gini coefficient (a formula that uses distribution of income across a population to describe wealth inequality) which is currently accelerating in the wrong direction.

Restored checks and balances – and stimulus cheques – are eagerly awaited. However, it would be a mistake to assume that social and economic problems have political solutions. The Biden administration will be a welcome foil to the antics of the outgoing president for countless Americans. But millions of voters – tens of millions – believe Trump has fallen victim to a vast conspiracy of the establishment. Behind the trifling few thousand that clambered over Capitol Hill there is a sea of like-minded Americans. Bringing them back into the fold is going to take more than some well-meaning pleas for national unity.


Worldlywise

A vaccine trial clinic in Johannesburg. PHOTO: AP

South Africa v England

Who had "even more coronavirus" on their 2021 bingo card? Global health authorities must now contend with two dangerous strains of the novel coronavirus during this lap of the sun. The first emerged in England some weeks ago now and is running virtually unchecked through the population. Research shows that lockdowns have a negligible impact on slowing the spread of the mutant strain which is 50% more transmissible than the original. This strain, VUI 202012/01 has different shaped protein spikes on its surface to the strain which vaccines have been designed for. It emerged in the week leading up to Christmas and has pushed daily new case numbers up 50% to nearly 60,000 per day. Deaths and admissions are rising – though only 20% since the holiday.

It has prompted a helplessly conflicted government to accept the advice of its scientific advisory council and lock down for a third time ; though not without an agonising series of equivocations. Now this British strain is colonising the rest of the world (just as welcome as last time). It's cropped up in New York , Bogota , and Brisbane . The heightened infection risk from international travellers has prompted some countries to consider moving airline staff and quarantine hotel workers up the queue for a vaccine.

But if you were to take the Britain's Secretary for Health at face value, we'd all be far more worried about the mutated coronavirus variant that has emerged from overseas. Matt Hancock this week described the South African variant as both more dangerous and more concerning that their homegrown version. This strain, known as 501.V2, has shown a far higher rate of transmission (with patients showing a larger viral load) though thankfully does not appear to be more severe. What does Matt Hancock know that epidemiologists don't? Nothing, according to South Africa's own health authorities. It looks like political theatre to distract from the fact that post-Brexit Britain appears to be lining up diseases amongst its chief exports.

The assault on Hong Kong democrats intensifies. PHOTO: AFP

Primary suspects

While the rest of the world was transfixed by the permissive behaviour of some police in Washington DC, another security service was displaying total control. A mass raid in Hong Kong saw 1,000 police snatch 53 pro-democracy activists across the city. Lawyers and opposition politicians were arrested. Teenage activists were taken in, as were the older social workers. Up until now just 30 arrests had been made under the new Security Laws – the scale of this operation marks a dramatic escalation, and the list of targets reveal just how comprehensive the crackdown is. There is no position in Hong Kong's social hierarchy – lauded or meagre – that is beyond the reach of the security apparatus.

Those nabbed stand accused of the nebulously defined charge of 'subversion' for organising an unofficial primary campaign. Only 35 out of the 70 seats in Hong Kong's legislature are elected – the rest are appointed under the watchful eye of Beijing. As a way to capitalise on attention following the 2019 protest movement, pro-democrats staged their own campaign to choose their representatives. It has proved to be a costly stunt. While many of those arrested were bailed the following day, many believe that the Security Laws effectively criminalise dissent. World leaders responded with strident criticism, though such proclamations have not had any discernible impact on the slow asphyxiation of Hong Kong's democracy.


The best of times

The young engineers from Herat Province. PHOTO: AFP

Slaking Gaza's thirst

An device developed by an Israeli company can create drinkable water from nothing but humid air. In Gaza, the technology is helping to ease the city’s water crisis: just 3% of it meets international standards, forcing residents to import bottled aqua. The process works through heating humid air into water and then purifying it — and can produce up to 6,000 litres of H 2 O per day. Worldwide, 3.2b people live in areas of high water scarcity.

No humidity? Reach for the ocean

Up until recently, desalination engineers have been using devices without understanding the science that underpins their operation. How water actually passes through membranes has quite astoundingly not been studied in great depth. But consider all that water under the bridge. Using an electron microscope, researchers discovered that inconsistencies in the density and mass distribution of reverse osmosis membranes hold back their performance. Through this understanding, the desalination method can be boosted to clean more water using significantly less energy.


The worst of times

Heightened security in the capital, Niamey. PHOTO: AFP

Islamic State strikes Niger

At least 100 people were massacred in two villages western Niger villages as the country emerged from a fraught presidential election. The attacks were carried out by a group linked to the Islamic State, which acts increasing confidence across the Sahel. Local authorities say the strikes were retaliation for the villages lynching two of the group‘s members. The recurring violence in the country threatens to derail its first democratic transition of power since Niger gained independence in 1960.

An unsavoury supply chain

Cattle farm workers supplying meat to JBS, one of the world’s largest beef producers, are being kept in slave-like conditions . A new report exposed workers being paid £8 per day, with no access to running water, toilets, bathrooms or kitchens. While JBS has vowed to remove slave labor from its supply chains, farm workers are often moved between properties, making the conditions hard to track. A similar connection was made in July of last year, when JBS was found to have bought cattle from farms under sanction for illegal deforestation in the Amazon.


Weekend Reading

The image

156 years after the Civil War ended in favour of the Union – the Confederate Battle Flag is carried through the halls of power in Washington. Photograph supplied by The Independent.

The quote

"I'm not that dumb."

A Capitol Hill rioter declined to give reporters his last name after describing his role in the attack on Capitol Hill. He did the smart thing and only told them that he was a 40-year-old Indianapolis construction worker whose first name is Aaron .

The numbers

50%

- Sometime in 20201 our planet will breach the limit of 50% more CO2 in the atmosphere than it did in the pre-industrial era. Sit with that for a moment (or a year).

3964 deaths

- The US ticks well passed "9/11 every day" figures in its coronavirus death toll . We're running out of mass casualty events to compare it to.

The headline

" China uses blankets to prevent glaciers melting as temperatures rise " The Independent . Get knitting.

The special mention

This novel update to the Drake equation which posits that the Milky Way is likely brimming with alien civilisations but there is a good chance they've been dead for five billion years . File this under the most interesting and deflating piece of information you'll read this week.

A few choice long-reads

  • Time is running out if you are in the market for a last-minute pardon from President Trump. Bloomberg Businessweek finds out who is after some extra-time presidential clemency.
  • It's a simple question with devilish answers: who should get the jab? The Economist weighs up the arguments.
  • QAnon is a dark and nebulous force that has captured the minds of so many around the world. The Atlantic explores how it infected an online betting program for low-stakes future predictions?

Tom Wharton @trwinwriting