Saturday, the 28th of March

Talking Points

The pandemic has a new capital. PHOTO: AFP
  1. America overtook China and Italy in coronavirus cases
  2. The Christchurch mosque attacker made a surprise guilty plea
  3. Turkey indicted 20 Saudis over Jamal Khashoggi's murder
  4. The Standing Rock Sioux won a significant pipeline court ruling
  5. Benny Gantz appeared to strike a deal for Israel's presidency
  6. The lockdown dramatically slowed global internet speeds
  7. SoftBank put $41b of assets up for sale to weather the storm
  8. The true oil price fell as low as $10 per barrel this week
  9. Apple's CarPlay was found to be a greater driving risk than drinking
  10. Researchers discovered a fossilised 555m-year-old ancestor

Deep Dive

Get ready for a jab. PHOTO: Reuters

You already know that almost half the humans alive today are under lockdown. The headlines this week from Germany and South Korea were faintly hopeful; those from the United States faintly horrifying. But let's sidestep all of that. This week – though admittedly not in this order – we're doing a Jared Diamond special: guns, germs, and stimulus.

Germophiles unite

From Osaka to Boston, the world's biggest race is underway – to find a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2. (Editor's note : SARS-CoV-2 is the virus. COVID-19 is the illness. Just as HIV is to AIDS.) Human trials are about to start in China. Likewise in the United States, where the usual animal-testing phase has been skipped in the name of urgency. And in Australia, where up to 4,000 frontline medical workers will be given a repurposed tuberculosis vaccine. Researchers everywhere also got a much-needed shot of good news this week – that the virus is barely mutating . This buys them precious time.

There are at least 35 companies and organisations developing a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine at this point. The large number hints at the surprising plurality of scientific opinions on how the virus can be stopped. The most conservative approach is to build upon existing vaccines from earlier coronavirus epidemics (the current virus shares more than 80% of its genetic material with SARS and MERS). Some experiments are reaching deeper into the toolkit to test whether vaccines for unrelated diseases might provide an answer. Meanwhile, the tried-and-true method (of receiving a small dose of the virus to strengthen your antibody response) is facing threats of its own. Companies such as Moderna are working at a genetic level – creating vaccines by hijacking RNA .

It may seem counterintuitive to have dozens of groups haring off in different directions, but this is in fact the key to success. The world needs as many smart and well-funded scientists making as many mistakes as possible. The right combination of failures will produce the intended results. The head of the Oslo-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) describes the process as 'stumbling'.

So when will we get one? Six months at the earliest . Even that would be a stunning achievement – largely owed to China successfully mapping the genome of the virus in January and sharing it with the world. But the speed of vaccine distribution around the world will depend on who discovers it. Behind every scientific inquiry lies the hand that guides it: money. Pharmaceutical giants can devote a small country's worth of resources towards a vaccine, but they will need to recoup that cost. Meanwhile, national research institutes have received funding beyond all expectation from governments eager to claim the win. So you can expect a very different rollout if Gilead beats CEPI to the punch .

External stimuli

While some of our brightest minds were carefully extracting slivers of genetic material from the spikes that SARS-CoV-2 uses to cling to our own cells, powerful institutions have been preparing for the next crisis. It goes without saying that we are heading into a global recession . The chief of the International Monetary Fund Kristalina Georgieva expects "a recession at least as bad as during the global financial crisis or worse". That must've pricked ears on Capitol Hill because the stimulus package making its way through Congress contains twice as much relief as that of the last recession.

Sure, countries all over the world have planned or enacted significant stimulus packages. But at $2tn, the bill that passed 96-0 in the US Senate is the largest of its kind. Ever. It contains $500b for businesses of all sizes, and targeted support for grounded airlines and struggling hospitals. But the central measure is targeted at those who've lost their jobs: a family of four can expect up to $3,400 in direct cash payment. Given that a record 3.3mn Americans applied for unemployment benefits this week, it couldn't come soon enough. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell chipped in with the statement that the Fed would continue fostering liquidity in the markets on top of the current trillions (read: he's got money to burn). If the eye-watering sum was intended as a confidence booster, it's certainly worked in the short-term. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, which was rising all week, shot up 6% on Thursday .

But for all the helpful liquidity and income support, international trade is coming apart. No crisis – not even the Second World War – has precipitated a sharper drop in world trade than this coronavirus pandemic. The world's largest port at Shanghai has experienced a 20% drop in container traffic. In Australia it's closer to 30%. The supply and demand sides of the equation have been crunched in most regions, leaving nothing but empty warehouses and idling container ships.

No rest for the wicked

We'll tell you who hasn't remained idle: just about everyone involved in insurgencies and civil wars around the world. A plea from the United Nations for a total global ceasefire fell on deaf ears in Libya, Afghanistan, and Mozambique. Though that was hardly due to a lack of rhetorical prowess from Antonio Guterres ("The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war"). No, the business-as-usual attitude reveals far narrower priorities than the sweep of the UN. The war in Libya has continued apace – Khalifa Haftar's insurgent Libyan National Army shelled Tripoli during the week. ISIS reared its head in Kabul, massacring 25 hostages at a Sikh shrine . It also claimed an attack in an oil-rich province of Mozambique which left dozens dead .

What's clear is that this coronavirus pandemic has not put everything on hold. Aid groups have warned that the slow-down in trade, the closure of borders and the withdrawal of aid may have a disastrous effect on preexisting crises. And that's before taking into account the impact that the virus itself will have on countries with inadequate healthcare systems. As the G20 of leading economies promises to throw $5tn at the problem, please keep in mind the people for whom vaccines and stimulus are but distant hopes.


Resetting the countdown. PHOTO: AFP

No-kyo 2020

On Tuesday the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at last voted to postpone the Tokyo 2020 games due to the coronavirus pandemic. It did not come easy. Indeed, the IOC and its Japanese offshoot had spent the previous six or so weeks studiously denying some fundamental realities about the world. It's been quite something to behold . Right now there are fewer answers than there are questions. When will the games be rescheduled? What will happen to the athletes' village? Will the age-bracket of the Olympic U-23 football be raised? What kind of training regimen must the athletes move on to? Who is going to pay for all this?

IOC President Thomas Bach is right about one thing: everyone will be required to make "sacrifices and compromises". Hitting the delay button just four months out from the world's largest sporting event is certain to cause some lasting damage. Pity those officials in Japan who must now put the pieces back together.

In a genuinely perplexing example of life imitating art, the ill-fated Tokyo 2020 Olympics was presaged by the ill-fated Tokyo 2020 Olympics in a 32-year-old anime. Katsuhiro Otomo's searing film Akira is set in the lead-up to an abortive Olympic Games in Tokyo. The plans for it collapse, and the message "just cancel it" is daubed on walls. It's got it all, right down to the Olympics countdown clock obscured by a sign "under consideration" (see: above). If you're looking for something to do in lieu of the High Jump, watch Akira .

Named and shamed. PHOTO: Yonhap

South Korea's dark underbelly

The alleged leader of a South Korean online sexual blackmail ring has been publicly named, after a staggering five million people petitioned for justice. Cho Ju-bin allegedly coerced dozens of women and underage girls into sending him sexual images. He allegedly sold the images for cryptocurrency over the encrypted messaging service, Telegram.

This illegal trade is rife in South Korea. Virtual nth rooms – where men congregate online to watch sexual content of often-enslaved women – are one symptom of a culture of predatory voyeurism. Molka (spycams) are also planted in female bathrooms and changing rooms; the videos are similarly sold online. These practices are exacerbated by South Korea’s patriarchal culture, and the criminalisation of pornography . This is felt in the centre of popular culture: last year a handful of K-pop stars retired over sex scandals. Even a former presidential hopeful, Ahn Hee-jung, was imprisoned for sexual abuse.

Aside from the sexual abuse and exploitation of women, these cases carry another common thread. Many have been brought to justice due to public outcry from women. In recent years, women across the publishing, entertainment, and legal industries started sharing their stories of abuse online, and encouraging others to speak out. It has challenged the culture of voyeurism and prompted everyone from students on up, to call out abuse. This is a far cry from 2000, when a female singer was publicly shamed for having sex outside of marriage, after a non-consensually filmed video of her having sex was leaked. She fronted the public in tears, apologising for “causing trouble” .

In turn, these acts of radical vulnerability have forced the bureaucracy to act: president Moon Jae-in has called for an investigation into, and severe punishment of, those involved in the most recent case.

The Best of Times

The Last Ent of Affric. PHOTO: Niall Benvie

We know that there is a good chance that you, dear reader, are cooped up at home. So are almost half of the homo sapiens sapiens alive today. We'd encourage you do your bit to keep our species extant by staying indoors for the foreseeable future. This should keep you occupied for at least a few hours:

Would you like to look at Europe's five best trees?

Yes, as a matter of fact. You would.

How about some swanky museums?

Keep 'em coming.

Do you know how to bake?

You've officially run out of excuses!

Fancy running a marathon?

Didn't think so...

The Worst of Times

USS McCampbell looking tough. PHOTO: AFP

Read the room

The US Navy sailed a guided missile destroyer through the Taiwan Strait to provoke Beijing in a show of... well sometimes it's simply folly to assume that people are acting with any kind of rationality.

Guyana struck by black gold

Guyana is suspended in time: the March 2 election has no confirmed winner and no declaration is forthcoming. There are similar patterns here: unlawfully tabulated election , ethnic grievances, disenfranchised opposition parties. But they've taken on a dangerous tone in this country of less than 800,000. 8bn barrels of oil were recently discovered off the Guyanese coast, and a dirty race is on to control it. We're watching the oil curse play out in real time.

Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"[It's a] little flu."

– Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro gives his appraisal of COVID-19. Who's taking bets as to whether this eye-rolling display of machoism leads directly to his death?

Headlines of the week

''Birds smarter in city than the countryside because they think more and have more sex, study finds" The Telegraph plays to its largely metropolitan base.

''British vicar catches fire waiting for God's answer" Reuters . An alternative may've read "God's answer: British vicar catches fire" .

Special mention

Trail- and note-blazing Cameroonian saxophonist Emmanuel N'Djoké Dibango died this week. We implore you to listen to this , this , and this . Vale, Manu.

Some choice long-reads

EDITOR'S NOTE: An unfortunate side-effect of coronavirus has been the overuse of military terminology. It's regrettable enough as is, but this week we read that the Fed fired a "bazooka" at the economy, which hardly sounds like a sensible thing to do. Please write in to us with any other egregious bombast you've come across.

Tom Wharton