Saturday, the 11th of July

Talking Points

Kyushu has experienced a deluge and there is more on the way. PHOTO: AP
  1. Torrential rains, floods, and landslides left 61 dead in Japan
  2. The sudden death of its Prime Minister sent the Ivory Coast reeling
  3. A brief search for Seoul's missing mayor ended in tragedy
  4. Another critic of Chechnya's strongman was assassinated in Europe
  5. The US Supreme Court ruled that Trump's tax returns are fair game
  6. And that nearly half of Oklahoma is Native American tribal land
  7. The UAE, US, and China all prepared to launch Mars probes
  8. Siberia's historic heatwave is expected to continue through July
  9. Scientists began the lofty task of listing every species on Earth
  10. An HIV treatment breakthrough raised hopes of a cure

Deep Dive

A drive-through testing centre in Houston. PHOTO: Adrees Latif / Reuters

Donald Trump has set the ball rolling on the US formally withdrawing from the World Health Organisation. In the middle of a global pandemic. Just as America's own prospects have worsened.

Mask off

What reduced the Director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) to tears this week? Was it the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases, which have now eclipsed the 12m mark ? Or that COVID-19 is beginning to take hold in the vulnerable population centres of sub-Saharan Africa ? Neither. Dr Tedros Adhanom was left visibly upset during a press conference, his voice wracked with emotion , by America's decision to formally withdraw from the WHO. US President Donald Trump had made good on his promise to punish the organisation for its perceived alignment with China. The withdrawal will take a year to complete and will deprive the WHO of its largest source of funding (roughly $400m per annum). Exasperated, Tedros was left to plead, "Are we unable to distinguish or identify the common enemy? Can't we understand that the divisions or the cracks between us actually are the advantage for the virus?" At a time when the coronavirus is accelerating in many parts of the world, apparently not.

This is not to say that the WHO has covered itself in glory this year. There have been political missteps aplenty. And even some questionable scientific positions. Of utmost importance is identifying how coronavirus spreads from person to person. Until now the official guidelines stated that the virus was spread by small virus-laden droplets expelled from one's nose and mouth ending up coating nearby surfaces. But an open letter from 200 scientists has encouraged WHO to review evidence that even smaller droplets, microscopic aerosols, can hang in the air for hours . The letter has prompted ire since it now seems the guidelines developed by WHO may have been insufficient all this time. But the signatories of the open letter have also stressed that this is a scientific debate, not an attack on WHO.

Mask on

Funnily enough, these new developments have come in the same week that the WHO launched a probe – led by New Zealand's Helen Clarke and Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – to examine what went wrong with its global coronavirus response. The findings of the probe will be presented in May 2021. That will leave the occupant of the White House, whoever it may be by that point, just two months to change their minds and remain a part of this lynchpin of global health.

And there may well be another good reason for America to stay in the group - the coronavirus outbreak in the United States is not going anywhere anytime soon. On Wednesday there were over 60,000 new coronavirus infections easily the worst toll of any country. That's 12,000 more than just a day earlier.

Incredibly, even now, the use of face-masks in some communities remains dangerously low. But, granted that not even the WHO had considered the aerosol threat until this week, the need for masks to lower transmission was far from a no-brainer. Now, evidence of the opposite is adding up: Tulsa's health department believes that a significant spike in cases was "more than likely" linked to the recent Trump rally, the attendants of which gleefully mocked the idea of wearing a mask. And yet, even this wasn't even the most unequivocal example of what happens when pridefulness meets antipathy to science. In Brazil, the country with the second worst outbreak, the irksome Jair Bolsonaro had derided face masks as something "for fairies" (a homophobic slur). He now has coronavirus. Really, you couldn't make this stuff up.


Enjoy it while you can. PHOTO: Bloomberg

TikTok: we're all bark and no Byte

Gen Z wanted the rest of us to take TikTok seriously, though perhaps not this seriously. ByteDance's video-sharing social-network amalgam has found itself on the frontline of a global technology war. It's been banned in India – an action prompted by the Galwan Valley border clash – and has lost all 200m users there. Now there are efforts in the United States to halt the rise of an app that has captured the world's attention and earned ByteDance a valuation somewhere in the vicinity of $100b. If you are not of a generation easily swayed by the allure of TikTok, consider this: banning it would turn all of America into the town from Footloose .

But isn't TikTok just a mesmerising onslaught of choreographed teenaged dancers, instructional cooking videos, dubious life hacks, and ubiquitous thirst traps? No, as with all open platforms, the content ranges from pleasantly educational fare, right through to Holocaust revisionism. And, like all open platforms, TikTok has mostly tried to wriggle out of investing in costly content moderation. But in recent months the company has begun providing details on its efforts to maintain some standard of decorum. Another area of concern (particularly for regulators in the US and Europe) has been TikTok's light-touch approach to protecting the data privacy of minors .

Some of these issues are quick fixes, others are critical stumbling blocks. But all must be viewed through the prism of the unfurling US-China technology war . US President Donald Trump made that explicit by suggesting a ban of TikTok in retaliation to Beijing's handling of coronavirus. The company responded by swiftly pulling out of Hong Kong (to show it would not comply with the new security laws) and touting a corporate restructure to distance itself from Beijing-based ByteDance. Whether that is enough to deter Trump from hitting delete is yet to be seen.

Government forces on patrol in Burkina Faso. PHOTO: AFP

Extrajudicial slayings in Burkina Faso

There is a bloody war being fought in the desert scrub of the Sahel. Long after the Islamic State was mostly (although, as the last few weeks in Homs province has shown, not completely) defeated in Syria, the brand is being upheld in a conflict that is slowing eating Burkina Faso.

In regions long-neglected by the decision makers (who've often won power with the barrel of the gun), like Ouagadougou, islamist militants have found a receptive audience. A simmering insurgency is underway, far from the capital, in which Islamic State and Al Qaeda are competing with each other, and with the central government. The local presence of state security forces ebbs and flows. Towns are cleared, only to be reclaimed as soon as forces leave. Violence is a constant.

The northern town of Djibo is close enough to Burkina Faso's porous borders for Islamic State to cross regularly, and yet far enough from its capital, Burkinabé, for the state security forces – militias really – to act with bloody impunity. Reports have emerged that this year alone some 180 corpses have been found - blind-folded and bound - along highways in and out of town. The corpses belong to the nomadic Fulani cattle-herding minority who are often blamed for harbouring militants across many countries of the region. As elsewhere, islamist terror groups are playing on and exacerbating pre-existing ethnic divisions in order to entrench themselves. This pattern of massacre and counter-massacre is sadly the tempo of most wars, and one that both Islamic State and Al Qaeda have been adept at drawing governments into.

The Best of Times

Anybody? Yes? Dust. PHOTO: Mic

Basalt bae

We'd suggest that you generally avoid any website that claims "this one simple trick will..." because failure to do so will likely see your computer surreptitiously hijacked to mine bitcoin for teenagers in Eastern Europe. But you may make an exception for this story, in which this one simple trick can actually save the world. Spreading rock dust (preferably basalt) on farmland – a process called enhanced rock weathering – helps the land lock greenhouse gases into carbonates over a period of months . If the practice is taken up widely it could remove two billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere each year!

Fad cow disease

If there is one small positive that we can take from the coronavirus pandemic, it's that we are all eating less meat. Per-capita consumption of flesh is set to fall to its lowest level in a decade. The reasons are plentiful: meat is expensive and consumers are tightening their belts, and the meatier dishes that are enjoyed at restaurants are now beyond the fork-reach of diners in many countries. Given that meat and dairy accounts for 18% of all global emissions , this is an opportunity to reorder our societies along more sustainable lines (and healthier) lines.

The Worst of Times

MAGA no more. PHOTO: AFP

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Presidency

Kanye West's late tilt at the White House has run into some early hurdles after he expressed his views on abortion (anti-) and vaccines (anti-). Give this stunt as much, or as little, attention as you deem appropriate – it's just so perfectly piquant that in the midst of the largest protest movement in American history, and a historic global pandemic, there are many who would vote to put Yeezy in the White House.

Ethiopian wounds opened

The death toll from intercommunal fighting – typified by violent crackdowns against the protesting Oromo people – in Ethiopia has risen to 239 . The presidency of Abiy Ahmed has gained plaudits the world over, but we should watch carefully to see how he manages the historic discontent his own Oromo people feel against the Amhara and Tigrinya. With mass crackdowns and thousands of arrests, Abiy is showing a similarity to his heavy-handed predecessors – far more than his international supporters would like.

Weekend Reading

The image

Surreal scenes in Belgrade as angry Serbians stormed their own parliament over incoming coronavirus restrictions. Photograph supplied by the Independent.

The quote

"I was wandering around my house, as traumatised as many other people but in a more personal way: it felt as though 62,979,636 voters had chosen to turn this country into a macro version of my malignantly dysfunctional family."

Mary Trump , niece of Donald, describes the catalyst that led her to publish a scathing family history. Its contents are both shocking, and shockingly familiar. It details the vulgarity, vanity, greed, and potential undiagnosed psychiatric conditions that run through the family. An immediate best-seller, obviously.

The numbers


- In the next five years we have a one-in-five chance of the global temperature average being 1.5Cº hotter than in the pre-industrial era. Reaching that milestone so soon in the century would represent an utter failure of our species to address an existential threat.


- The chance that Donald Trump has of winning re-election according to a statistical model that has correctly predicted five of the six presidential elections since 1996. Food for thought!

The headline

"'Slave Monkey' Scandal Forces Thailand to Rethink Coconut Trade" Bloomberg (The what now?)

The special mention

You know who it is: Ennio Morricone . Your homework is sticking on a Spaghetti Western this weekend.

A few choice long-reads

Tom Wharton