Saturday, the 29th of February

Talking Points

The man felled by the Arab Spring still received a full state funeral. PHOTO: AFP
  1. Long-term Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak died at 91
  2. Dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed in Syrian regime airstrikes
  3. A study showed ride-hailing has increased emissions and pollution
  4. Dramatic scenes emerged of mass-melting in Antarctica
  5. Canada's Indigenous protest blockades were cleared
  6. Hardliners swept the field in Iran's parliamentary elections
  7. Bernie Sanders swept the Democratic vote in Nevada
  8. The first week of Assange's extradition trial captivated Britain
  9. A locust plague of biblical proportions landed on East Africa
  10. Maria Sharapova bowed out of the tennis world

Deep Dive

Evidently not enough plastic. PHOTO: AFP

Coronavirus continues its inexorable spread around the globe. In January we noted that while virus containment policies are necessary epidemiological tactics, they are largely ineffective. Not even China, the ne plus ultra of surveillance states, could halt its progress. Now it's everywhere.

Pandemic or not?

That's the question on everyone's lips. The death toll from the coronavirus COVID-19 approached 3,000 late in the week, with a further 78,000 confirmed cases. The infection rate is reported to be slowing on mainland China, but is accelerating in half a dozen other countries. A fortnight ago, South Korean President Moon Jae-in assured his compatriots that the threat would "disappear before long" . It is a soundbite that will follow him for the rest of his career: the infection rate has since exploded, and medical authorities are in crisis mode. Meanwhile, Japan is closing all of its schools. While on the other side of the planet, the outbreak in Italy has also prompted drastic action. Piazza San Marco is empty of tourists. Serie A matches have been cancelled. As have Milanese runway shows . And it's not just our earthly pleasures that are being curtailed – Saudi Arabia has banned foreign pilgrims from making the trek to Mecca for the Hajj.

So, does this count as a pandemic? WHO guidelines define a pandemic as 'a pathogen which spreads in two or more distinct geographical regions with evidence of transmission within the regions themselves'. The first of these preconditions has undoubtedly been met: the virus has been borne from Asia to the Middle East, Europe, and beyond. Nearly 6,000 kilometres separate Wuhan from Qom, and another 5,000 separate Qom from Codogno. But even so, WHO officials have not yet seen overwhelming evidence of the second criterion, rampant transmission, within each region. Only 5 of the 40 countries with coronavirus have more than 100 confirmed cases. This is almost certain to change in the coming days and weeks. However, at least for now, the global public health body is trying not to send everyone into a panic.

But some countries aren't waiting for semantic clarity. Australia, for one, has jumped the gun and triggered its own pandemic response . Although skeptics have questioned whether the move was truly about public safety, or an effort to draw attention away from the multiple corruption scandals that are roiling Australia's parliament.

Over in the States, there has been political expedience of a different sort. Having cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control in 2019, Donald Trump has now placed Vice President Mike Pence in charge of America's public health response. Pence does not have a sterling record when it comes to managing health crises, or accepting scientific evidence for that matter. Even so, it is a substantially better response than in Russia, where officials have begun an entirely unscientific cull of stray dogs and cats . In Iran, leaders have steadfastly refused to accept the implications of the local outbreak (which has claimed 26 lives). And that's despite the fact that both Iran's vice-president , and its deputy Health Minister, have contracted the coronavirus.

The next crash

The data coming out of China gives us a good idea of just how bad this outbreak could get. 80% of cases will be mild and manageable, 15% will require hospitalisation, and the last 5% will need intensive care. The mortality rate sits somewhere between 1-3%. Extrapolating from these figures, a significant pandemic would kill millions around the world. And those lives would not be lost in a vacuum – analysts are now predicting an attendant global recession . The credit rating agency Moody's believes it will happen in the first half of the year.

The economic effects are already being felt everywhere: factories remain shuttered in China. Finance workers in London are being told to stay home. But nowhere was this more clear this week, than in the United States. On Thursday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted 1,200 points; the single-largest drop in the history of the index. The S&P 500 shed 4.4% of its value, the Nasdaq even more. Share prices have not looked this depressed since the Global Financial Crisis, and the overall economic hit may be just as bad as 2008 . All of this poses a devilish problem for Donald Trump. A strong economy is central to his re-election bid , and any faltering or downturn will be seized upon by his opponents in the run-up to the November election. If the distrust in Washington that helped win him the Oval Office was encouraged by the disaster of the GFC, what will this economic downturn do?

Editor's note: The International Olympic Committee has assured the world that the Tokyo Games will begin as scheduled in July. Please spare a thought for the Japanese officials who must now contend with the public health challenges that such an event would entail.


Guilty. PHOTO: The Independent

Time is officially up

Harvey Weinstein has been convicted of a criminal sex act in the first degree, and rape in the third. Over 100 women accused Weinstein of sexual assault, and six testified in this trial. But the prosecutor's case revolved around just two plaintiffs: Miriam Haley, and one other (name withheld for privacy reasons). The two women testified that they'd had both non-consensual and consensual sex with Weinstein. His lawyer Donna Torunno used this latter fact, and intimate emails, to weave a narrative of consensual relationships. But as the prosecutor Joan Illuzi-Orbon had argued, sexual assault victims (being human) can be complex and contradictory. Indeed, sexual abuse and consent is more nuanced than “yes” or “no”. Most victims know their perpetrators. Which is why it’s not uncommon for a victim to have had contact, or consensual sex, with their rapist after an attack.

The jury, seven women and five men, exonerated Weinstein on the most serious charge of predatory assault (because they couldn’t agree that he had assaulted more than two women). However they did agree that both plaintiffs had told the truth. This was a watershed finding for several reasons. First, it shifted the legal and social understanding of consent. Second, it showed business leaders that power does not confer immunity. Third, it may prompt more survivors to come forward . And finally, the verdict will continue to fuel the #MeToo movement which has already spurred action from Mexico to Pakistan .

Weinstein faces up to 25 years behind bars, two rape charges in Los Angeles , and a $25m class-action-turned-settlement . Zoë Brock , one of his accusers, pointed out that many more women may yet come forward. Hopefully this case galvanises them, or at least ameliorates their trauma in some way; and that of sexual violence survivors the world over.

Causing trouble. Who, me? PHOTO: AFP

Extrajudicial extradition

The world’s oldest prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, 94, has resigned. But not for the reasons you might expect. The Malaysian PM resigned in order to block the transfer of power to his designated successor, Anwar Ibrahim. It’s the latest salvo in a decades-long power struggle between the two. When Mohamad was serving as PM in the 1990s, Ibrahim (his then-deputy) was ousted by the ruling Barisan National coalition and arrested for sodomy. It was during this period that Mohamad secured his own reputation as Malaysia’s bapa pemodenan , or “father of modernisation”.

When Mohamad retired in 2003, Ibrahim ended up in prison for suspected sodomy. But, in 2018 – united by their opposition to ex-PM Najib Razak – the foes buried the hatchet and formed the Pakatan Harapan coalition to vie for leadership. They won the election and entered a power-sharing deal, agreeing that Mohamad would hand over the reins to Ibrahim after two years. That 20-month-old coalition, and the promises it was built on, disintegrated this week.

Mohamad no longer needs to worry about Razak, who is embroiled in the multi-billion dollar 1MDB corruption trial. But it seems clear that he’s concerned about Ibrahim. Based on the laws of the state, by resigning without a successor Mohamad triggered the entire government’s resignation. Malaysia’s King has scurried to find a replacement, interviewing every MP, but to no avail. Readers may recall that the King himself has been in the job for little more than six months - his own predecessor also resigned, just over a year ago.

So for now, Malaysia is without a government. And Mohamad remains the interim leader at the King’s request. Parliament was scheduled to vote for a new leader on Monday, but the King has declared that he will speak to party leaders himself, and determine whether any can secure majority support. If he determines that they cannot, Malaysia will go to a snap election.

Some believe that Mohamad will use this impasse to consolidate power and return as Malaysia’s eighth PM; his third stint in the role. Whether that's true or not, he is one leader with a long shelf life.

The Best of Times

The long, long shadow of the Khmer Rouge. PHOTO: FAYI / CCF

Separated by war, reunited by charity

In 1973, Cambodian sisters Bun Sen and Bun Chea were separated by the genocidal purges of the Khmer Rouge. Each lived for nearly half a century assuming the other was dead. This week they found one another .

Food comas might be good for you

We repeat: food comas might be good for you .

The Worst of Times

A crowd falls upon a man in Delhi. PHOTO: Danish Siddiqui / Reuters

Delhi erupts

An uneasy calm settled over Delhi's northeastern suburbs yesterday after the capital was rocked by the worst communal violence in decades. At least 38 people were killed , and hundreds more injured, in violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims around Jafrabad and Chand Baud. Mosques, vehicles and homes in these Muslim-majority suburbs were torched. The police failed – through inability or unwillingness – to halt the violence early on Monday. While nowhere near the scale of the 1984 blood-letting, or the pogrom in Gujarat in 2002, these riots bode extremely poorly for India's 200 million Muslims.

Sinking into the depths of history

The extraordinary town of Hasankeyf in Turkey has been submerged by the rising waters of a downstream dam . That Ankara was unable to prevent the destruction of a 12,000-year-old settlement is a travesty. All too often, national progress engenders a type of institutional philistinism.

Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"Temporarily Captured Object."

– No, it's not a flag in a game of paintball or the Elgin Marbles: it's our newest (mini) moon ! This week the Minor Planet Centre of the International Astronomical Union announced that a car-sized asteroid has joined Earth's orbit. We've still got some work to do before we get close to satellite-hog Saturn with its 82 moons.

Headline of the week

''Biggest cosmic explosion ever left huge dent in space." The Guardian (we adore the fact that "dent" can describe both the result of a minor car collision and a hole in the universe 15 times the size of our galaxy).

Special mention

The marauding stock-wielding denizens of r/wallstreetbets . This is a cracking story!

Some choice long-reads

Tom Wharton