Saturday, the 24th of July

Talking Points

Siberian cities are choked with smoke as the forests disappear. PHOTO: The Guardian
  1. "Everything is on fire" in Siberia's worst-ever fire season
  2. Russia and America made peace over the Nord Storm 2 pipeline
  3. OPEC, the world's most damaging cartel, agreed to up production
  4. Britain's "Freedom Day" was met with mixed feelings, soaring cases
  5. Hopes faded for survivors in German flood zones
  6. The US slammed China over the deep Microsoft Exchange hack
  7. Uber and Lyft drivers joined a nationwide strike for union rights
  8. Protests and slayings rock Haiti ahead of ex-president's funeral
  9. Indonesia's Joko Widodo under fire for his anti-lockdown stance
  10. Another billionaire went on an expensive but brief joyride

Dive deeper

Good luck – you'll all need it. PHOTO: Martin Meissner / AP

What can we say about the Tokyo 2020 Olympics? It's here. It's happening in one form or another mostly another. Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga argued, "the simplest thing and the easiest thing is to quit". Now we'll see what the difficult path costs.

The Covid Games

Can you hear the roar of excitement and feel the Olympic spirit in the air? Neither can we. Nevertheless, the delayed Tokyo 2020 Games is underway. The Opening Ceremony was watched by just a few hundred spectators – a meagre audience, dwarfed by a purpose-built stadium designed to fit 70,000. For this empty spectacle, Japan has shelled a fortune and can expect no windfall. The original forecast of a $7.4b investment (why do we even pay attention to initial bid projections?) nearly doubled to $15.4b. And that's just Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's official figure – government auditors put the unofficial price-tag at $25b. Every Olympics runs over budget, often by a factor of 2, but this is laughable.

It's a wonder that the Opening Ceremony went ahead at all. One creative director was fired earlier in the year for making sexist comments. His replacement was also fired, two days ago, after footage emerged of him making jokes about the Holocaust. The score to accompany the ceremony was scrapped at the last minute because the composer was revealed to have rejoiced in bullying disabled children in his youth. Nearly everything that can go wrong has: there was even a bear on the loose at the softball venue before the first match on Wednesday.

But, it's sad to say, things will likely get worse. Those who postponed the games in March 2020 did so in the hope that the epidemic would be brought to heel by the following northern summer. But case numbers outside the gleaming, empty stadia have tripled in this month to nearly 5,000 per day. A fourth wave, galvanised by the ultra-transmissible delta variant, has Japan in its fever grip. Given that just 35% of the population is vaccinated, the death rate is expected to track the case spike in the coming weeks.

There is Covid outside the bubble, and within. Athletes have arrived and instantly fallen ill. 91 athletes, coaches, trainers, and officials with Olympic accreditation have tested positive. Hundreds of their close contacts are isolating. They'll still be able to compete in practice and events if they return a negative PCR test result six hours before competing. The much-vaunted "manual" to overcome the risks has not delivered. The "sealed" hotels and transports are very much not sealed, with reports emerging of journalists, officials and even athletes sharing elevators and passages with the public. Indeed, one former IOC director described the rules as "fluid, not properly understood by everyone, and probably not yet thought through". It's not à la mode in the newsletter world to punctuate using multiple exclamation marks so you'll just have to use your imagination.

Luckily, for the Tokyo Olympic Committee, the first event was only on Wednesday. So they may yet have a chance to finalise protocols before the closing ceremony. And going by this possible indicator of future bubble breaches, they'll need them: the denizens of Tokyo have found their dating apps full of profiles from the United States and the United Kingdom. The natural inclination of athletes to spread the, ah, feeling of international cooperation, may prove difficult to restrain. To make matters worse, one athlete has already debunked the theory that the (sex-inhibitory) single-person recycled cardboard beds in the Olympic village would collapse under duress.

The Olympic Spirit

The mood is febrile: this week a group of prominent academics and public figures signed an open letter decrying the "insanity" of going ahead with the Games. And it's not just coming from the ivory towers. Corporate sponsors, who collectively coughed up over $3b to have their names associated with Tokyo 2020, are pulling ads and distancing themselves. Toyota, Japan's most valuable company, has deemed any link to the games as too sensitive; CEO Akio Toyoda won't attend the Opening Ceremony. Similarly, Panasonic, Nomura, Asics, and Asahi have watched their investment in sponsorships explode.

International Olympics Committee President Thomas Bach let us in on the world's worst-kept secret this week: that even he was worried about Tokyo going ahead. "Imagine for a moment would it would have meant if the leader of the Olympic movement, the IOC, would have added to the already many doubts... [it] could have fallen to pieces. This is why we had to keep these doubts to ourselves". And despite the need to keep the less-than-rosy outlook sub rosa, Bach was still happy to throw around an Olympian categorical, specifically that cancelling the games was "never an option". This utterance is of a similar tenor to senior IOC official Dick Pound's eyebrow-raising assertion, namely that Tokyo 2020 would go ahead even if Suga tried to cancel it. The clear implication of these comments is that the Olympics movement is entitled to bend wayward nations to its will.

Bach and Pound seem to be drawing their ethos from Mount Olympus and its prideful, arrogant deities, rather than the Peloponnese town Olympia where the games were first held. A common mistake. This week Bach said, "we are very well aware of the skepticism that a number of people have here in Japan". This is a delightful example of an attempt to conceal a truth that only draws more attention to it. The "number" he is referring to, according to poll after poll after poll, is two-thirds of the country. A clear majority of Japanese, somewhere in the range of 70-80%, do not want the Tokyo Games to go ahead. Why would they?


BYO intelligence service. PHOTO: AFP

Cyber guns for hire

Last week we touched on Afghanistan losing its territorial integrity – a key predicate of statehood. Another necessary ingredient is the government maintaining a monopoly on violence. In Haiti, just a fortnight ago, we saw that predicate dissolve. The option to hire military-grade violence has been around since Xerxes invaded Greece in 484BCE, but never before has it been so fully commoditised. With the right sum of money, we can buy violence, yes, but so much more. Today, we can purchase all the accoutrement of modern warfare: cyber-weapons, hacking tools, and surveillance software.

The Israeli spyware firm NSO Group is just one purveyor – its premier product is a remote surveillance tool called Pegasus . The spyware installs itself on the target's phone through zero-click SMS, WhatsApp, or iMessages, or through vulnerabilities in the operating system itself. Once in, it can harvest every iota of data on the phone and send it back to whoever employed the tool. It can also activate the camera and microphone, or record calls. It is a powerful weapon, one which NSO Group insists is only sold to 60 clients (governments, police forces, and militaries) in 40 countries, and only to track criminals and terrorists. The countries are apparently vetted by the Israeli government , and include Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Hungary, and Saudi Arabia. Presumably the vetting process is meant to ensure that only the most repressive governments get their hands on Pegasus?

So is Pegasus really being used only to track criminals and terrorists? Of course not. A joint investigation by a global reporting consortium and Amnesty International found that many of the 50,000 'at-risk' phone numbers (those who NSO Group's client states want to snoop on) show traces of Pegasus. The potential targets include journalists, activists, political figures, several prime ministers, and even a king. Emmanuel Macron's own phone may have been hacked. So too the King of Morocco, and apparently by his own security forces. India is snooping on the Dalai Lama's Tibetan government-in-exile , and on Rahul Gandhi . The UAE is spying on Britons. Even Pavel Durov, who founded the encrypted messaging service Telegram , couldn't defend himself from Pegasus.

Spyware everywhere – some of you may be old enough to recall the global dragnet surveillance of the 2000s when the NSA tapped, well, everyone's phones. At least back then it wasn't all available for hire . It's a paranoid new world.

The price is in. PHOTO: AFP

The price of a life

America's drug distributors and manufacturers have agreed to pay $26b to the states to clear their liability over the opioid crisis. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Johnson & Johnson will pay $5b over nine years, while the distributors McKesson, Cardinal Health, and Amerisource Bergen will contribute $21b over 18 years. The current agreement doesn't cover pharmacies, or Teva and Allergan. It's a significant offer, and the result of two years of legal wrangling, but is it enough? The proposal has been met with widespread (but not universal) approval. And the reality of the situation is that most states will likely accept the deal because they desperately need the cash . But the deal came under fire from politicians in West Virginia , the state with arguably the most-traumatic experience of the crisis. WV's state attorney general had already settled with the distributors, but a separate suit still stands against J&J.

It's easier, with time and distance, to view the opioid crisis as an abstract issue. Legal negotiations, and the art of managed outcomes, stamp the affair with the language of officialdom. It's just another series of unfortunate and regrettable corporate misdemeanours. But it's not. When someone snorts or smokes opioids – drugs which are orders of magnitude more powerful than the opium plant from which it they derive their name – the drug rides the bloodstream into the brain. There it binds to mu-opioid receptors in the brain, triggering feelings of total euphoria. It also has a depressive effect on the respiratory system. The opioid user's breath becomes shallower and shallower. They begin rasping softly and go blue in the face. Over the course of minutes – long, painful minutes – that individual will choke to death, unable to expand and contract their diaphragm enough to fill their lungs with the oxygen needed to feed their organs.

This happened at least 500,000 times in the last two decades. 500,000 mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters choking to death while surrounded by oxygen. The drug distributors intentionally overlooked massive shipments of opioids. Sometimes millions of pills landing in a town of a few thousand. The manufacturers aggressively marketed these drugs knowing full well their addictiveness. And continued to do so for nearly twenty years. Do not forget what this $26b is: blood money.

The worst of times

Henan inundated just days after Western Europe's deadly floods. PHOTO: Axios

A harrowing glimpse of our future

Over three days this week, the Chinese province of Henan was hit with 15 months worth of rain . The 31 inches of rainfall seen in the city of Zhengzhou broke the national record. Some three million people have so far been affected as homes, roads, and power lines are destroyed. 33 have died. 12 of these deaths came after flooding trapped people in Zhengzhou’s subway system. Official estimates suggest the rainfall has caused 1.2b yuan or $190m worth of damage in a matter of days.

Another harrowing glimpse of our future

Madagascar’s famine is the world’s first to be solely caused by climate change . 1.14m people are now facing food insecurity as the country suffers from its worst drought in four decades. Accessing food has become increasingly difficult with some families walking hours to reach food distribution points. Others are eating wild leaves, raw red cactus fruits, and locusts just to survive. The level of malnutrition among children under five has almost doubled in the past four months - to 16.5%.

The best of times

Fossils via Google Earth. PHOTO: Andrew Matthews / PA

Subterranean lockdown hobbies

Some people spend lockdowns baking bread, others spend them doing yoga. One English couple has spent theirs discovering the country’s largest collection of Jurassic echinoderms , including starfish, brittle stars, and feather stars. The amateur paleontologists scanned satellite images on Google Earth of a Cotswolds quarry, where other fossils have been found. More than 1,000 specimens were found in their search, including three new species. Once lockdown restrictions were lifted, the collection was verified by experts and moved to the Natural History Museum.

Amnesty buys more than ransoms

This week 100 Nigerians were freed after spending almost two months in captivity. The group had been abducted from the village of Manawa in early June and taken to a nearby forest by a local gang. Their rescue was achieved by authorities offering the bandits amnesty, instead of paying the ransom money. In order to prevent further kidnappings, the government has also increased a military presence in the region . It's a rare positive result in a region where many kidnappings are never resolved.

Weekend Reading

The image

Giannis Antetokounmpo rises. The 26-year-old scored 50 points in the deciding game six, leading the Milwaukee Bucks to their first NBA title in half a century. He won with brute strength and force of will on the court, then with humility and charm off it. All hail, the Greek Freak. Photograph supplied by USA Today Sports Media Group.

The quote

"The results of this retesting suggest that what we previously reported in asymptomatic patients is a plausible signal of early circulation of the virus in Italy. If this is confirmed, this would explain the explosion of symptomatic cases observed in Italy [in 2020]. Sars-Cov-2, or an earlier version, circulated silently, under the surface."

Italian researcher Giovanni Apolone throws another twist into the Covid origins saga: it may have been present in Italy as early as October 2019!

The numbers

75 million MAGAcoins

- A consultant with links to Donald Trump has launched a cryptocurrency for the MAGA community . Over 1,000 people have signed up so far. This may supersede the fundraised section of the US-Mexico border wall as the biggest Trump-adjacent scam in recent memory.


- Bitcoin's price nudged back up after Elon Musk insisted that he pumps but doesn't dump : the car salesman still holds his Bitcoins despite earlier criticism. This ride is getting old, when can we get off?

The headline

" The Trash Parrots of Australia Are Very Annoying but Very Clever. " The Atlantic . That's right.

The special mention

Free Maxi !

A few choice long-reads

  • We are experiencing the hottest years in recorded human history. They'll likely be the coolest of the 21st century. The Economist with a pressing read.
  • The casual online pornographer turned victim turned sleuth turned enforcer... Businessweek with a rollicking tale of the vigilante programmer of OnlyFans.
  • It's South Sudan's 'dismal' 10th birthday. Foreign Affairs on the curses afflicting the world's youngest country.

Tom Wharton @trwinwriting