Saturday, the 21st of March

Talking Points

A distressed Wall St trader. PHOTO: Getty
  1. Volatility erased all gains on the Dow since Trump's inauguration
  2. The greenback soared as other major currencies declined
  3. International airlines faced the prospect of annihilation
  4. Car manufacturers shut factories across the United States
  5. As did the factories that employ millions of Asia's garment workers
  6. Oil dived towards $20 on Saudi-Russian price war tensions
  7. Biden trumped Sanders in yet more Democratic primaries
  8. Netanyahu rival Benny Gantz was given a chance to form government
  9. Google announced that its translation function works in real-time
  10. A pair of Pixar animators won the vaunted Turing Award

Deep Dive

China shifts gear quickly from victim to saviour. PHOTO: Reuters

250,000 confirmed cases worldwide. 10,000 deaths. 3 countries in focus. Let's dive into the numbers emerging from China, Italy and Iran. It seems the phrase "the numbers don't lie" counts for little when the people sharing the numbers do.

Mission accomplished?

A total of 3,250 deaths from COVID-19 have been recorded in China since patient zero was treated in November 2019. But this week Chinese authorities reported that for the first time no new cases have resulted from local transmission. In other words, all new cases were imported by citizens returning home, or by foreigners. This was a startling and laudable achievement for a country that was on course for tens of thousands of deaths just a few short weeks ago. And the good news from China didn't stop there: deaths in Hubei province have slowed to a single-digit trickle. Some of China's medical professionals have returned home from ground zero of the outbreak, others have been whisked away on flights to countries in dire need of international medical aid.

But not everyone is convinced by China's abrupt pivot from hapless victim to international doyen of pandemics. There are lingering questions about the veracity of the figures being proffered by Beijing's spokespeople. It's clear the global narrative has shifted. Instead of banging the civil rights drum we're all now talking about emulating China's actions . But the use of fear and ruthlessness are not weapons the West could wield with ease. In any case, the reports of zero new local transmissions beggar belief. The fact that the official line fits neatly with a rise in local media stories about infected foreigners breaking quarantine seems a little too convenient .

Giuseppe Contemplating ruin

This week Italy met a less welcome milestone: it overtook China's death toll and became the centre of the global pandemic. 3,405 deaths in a country with a population that's barely 5% of China's. It's painfully clear that Giuseppe Conte's nation-wide lockdown started well after the horse had bolted. Conte's cura Italia might help alleviate the economic hardship of the coming recession. But that will be of little comfort to those most at risk – the 30% of the country who are over the age of 60. Thousands of potentially-infected Italians fled South in early March, before the badly-hit northern provinces were quarantined. In doing so, they've almost certainly spread an enormous number of cases into areas less-equipped to handle the coming 'tsunami' .

There's another number that we ought to interrogate in Italy: 2. Italy is ranked as having the second-best healthcare system in the world, behind France. But the notion of world-class healthcare does not sit easily with that eye-watering death toll. So what went wrong? First, the healthcare system can only perform as well as regional governments allow. Bergamese officials dragged their feet on implementing a lockdown. As of this week, two-thirds of the deaths in Italy have occurred in their province, and the mortality rate there is double that of surrounding regions. Second, the coronavirus pandemic has prised open the fault-lines that societies have been allowing ourselves to ignore. This is certainly true in Italy's under-resourced southern provinces. There, at the margins of modern Italy, sits Naples and Sicily, where in some hospitals clinicians are treating coronavirus patients without face-masks of their own. As elsewhere, the prospects and outcomes for the wealthy are vastly different from those of the rest.

An information vacuum

The first signs of disaster in Iran came in late February, when satellite images showed mass grave in Qom. Then, the government had claimed that only 12 people had died. The World Health Organisation begged to differ. This week, international pressure and the grim reality of the pandemic prompted Iranian health officials to lift the veil of secrecy. Is is now evident that coronavirus is claiming one Iranian life every ten minutes . The official toll at time of writing is 1,284. But WHO warns it may be five times higher, due to limited testing and the spectre of falsified death certificates .

Tehran has finally implemented measures to limit the spread; shutting down holy sites, deploying the Revolutionary Guard to disinfect streets , enforcing strict rules around burial rituals, and barring grieving families from cemeteries (read: mass graves). The health ministry has ordered two “golden weeks” in which citizens must avoid travel and crowds. Given the political backdrop to this crisis – Iran's strategy may well be fool's gold.

Decades of swingeing US sanctions have left Iran's economy on life support. Inflation is pushing food and drug prices out of reach. In fact, many drug manufacturers are banned, on threat of US retaliation, from selling into Iran. Were a vaccine to materialise in the near future, there is no guarantee it would be made available to Iran under the current sanctions. Widespread shortages are also forcing medics to treat the infected without medical gear, amplifying the spread.

The virus has swept Iran’s upper echelons: infecting parliamentarians and religious leaders. But as with all catastrophes, it is the everyday citizens who will suffer most. Russia and the UK have pressed the US to ease sanctions - to no avail.


After the deluge: a tent and nothing more. PHOTO: Al Jazeera

Three anniversaries...

The coronavirus has overwhelmed the media, and our attention, just as ably as it has our immune systems. But three anniversaries were marked this week. They may seem small in comparison, but each deserves a moment of your time.

A year ago this week, Africa's south-east was visited by the worst tropical cyclone in that continents history. Over the course of nearly two weeks Cyclone Idai bounced across the channel between Madagascar and the mainland, dropping a deluge on the island nation, before charging inland through Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. At best guess, some 1,300 were killed and another 2.6 million were displaced by Idai. On its first anniversary, entire regions of these countries are still living in tents. And there are no signs of meaningful recovery. Amnesty International is calling for hundreds of millions in aid, but donations have slowed to a trickle.

In New Zealand, the coronavirus interrupted memorial services for the 2019 mosque massacre. But it could not detract from the grief, and love, of the occasion. In the year since an Australian white supremacist gunned down 51 people, the city of Christchurch has mourned . But bare for all to see in gatherings outside the site of the shooting was an interfaith and communal solidarity. The coming recession will offer white supremacists and fascists fertile ground to strengthen their claims. Look to Christchurch for the counterpoint.

And finally, as we've noted before in this column. On March 15th, Syria entered its tenth year at war . Unlike coronavirus, the international community stopped counting this death toll years ago. The last count was half a million. That shames all of us.

The Best of Times

They're helping it, we promise! PHOTO: Kyle de Nobrega

It's been an alarming and distressing week for, well, just about everyone on Earth. Let's try something new...

Chalking up one for the good guys

Africa's black rhinos are making a slow but steady recovery in conservation parks and protected wilderness areas. There are several hundred more today than there were last year, bringing the total to over 5,000. This turnaround was not due to reduced demand for the body parts of this extraordinary species; but rather the commitment and bravery of veterinarians, local conservationists, and anti-poaching soldiers. Concerted international action is possible when there is hunger for it. Sometimes only animals can spark that in us.

Add this to your vocabulary

Caremongering . It's cropped up in recent days as tens of thousands of Canadians (typical) have organised themselves into impromptu charity groups that will cook, shop, and provide for those unable to do so in self-isolation. Not the most aesthetically pleasing word but semantically beautiful.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

How did our forebears make it through the last Ice Age 20 millennia ago? By robbing mammoth (noun, not adjective) graveyards for their now-unused bones and tusks. The skeletal remains of these mighty land-walkers were shaped into huge circular structures to protect early humans from the freezing and hostile environment of the last Ice Age. Look at these images and ponder for a moment the level of cooperation required to survive. Could we achieve this today?

A cure for the ages

Most of us run for fitness. These women in Somaliland run for freedom . A fine and rather moving insight into the lives of young women who've carved out a place for themselves in the Horn of Africa.

And without further ado: the world's best bird

The endlessly-entertaining kākāpō was back in the news this week. Yes, this buxom bird is back from the brink of extinction. This is the inside story of how a team of scientists in New Zealand worked under quarantine conditions for a year to find the cure for a fungal infection that had decimated the ranks of this plump parrot. It will give you more than a dash of hope .

The Worst of Times

Everyday Madrilene pan the king's speech. PHOTO: Juan Medina / Reuters

A royal cacerolazo

Thousands of Spaniards banged on pots and pans from the confinement of their homes this week. But not for the same reasons as their musical Italian neighbours . The Spanish were protesting, and trying to drown out, King Felipe VI’s coronavirus speech. It was recently revealed that Felipe’s now-abdicated father, Juan Carlos received $100mn in bribes from the Saudi royal family. Felipe has renounced his father’s inheritance and severed his royal stipend. But Spaniards remain enraged, and are calling for the funds to be funnelled out of a Swiss bank account and into the nation’s healthcare system.

A monolithic melt-off

Humans are far more likely to heed threats that they can directly hear and see. Perhaps that is why the quiet news that Greenland lost 600 billion tonnes of ice last summer has sailed under the radar this week. That melt is enough to raise global sea levels by 2.2mm in just two months. If the current state of panic is anything to go by, we won’t face the implications of that revelation until it is lapping at our doorstep .

Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"[Amazon provides] customers with access to a variety of viewpoints."

– A spokesperson for the online retailing giant tries to explain why the platform was selling copies of Mein Kampf . Before you take a position on the issue, you should know that the preservation of fascist texts is an extremely complex issue facing publishers, historians, and teachers everywhere. To understand why, consider this question. Which is the more just: remembering or forgetting?

Headline of the week

''The incompetence pandemic'" The South China Morning Post calls it how it sees it.

Special mention

The stylish tapir of Brazil caught our eye. This zebra-pig mix-up faces all the regular threats in the Rio's Atlantic Forest. But a conservation program has witnessed a great success: it's first birth in the wild.

Some choice long-reads

Tom Wharton