Saturday, the 7th of August

Talking Points

A new president, the same old problems. PHOTO: Hussein Malla / AP
  1. Lebanese seek elusive justice a year after the Beirut blast
  2. Israel blamed Iran for a mysterious high seas drone attack
  3. A Belarusian Olympian fled to the safety of Poland
  4. While a Belarursian activist was murdered in Kyiv
  5. Hillsong megachurch founder covered up child abuse
  6. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo due to be impeached
  7. Congress neared approval for a $1tn infrastructure bill
  8. ISIS propaganda spread on a pro-Trump social media network
  9. China unveiled huge 'hog hotels' to combat African swine fever
  10. Malaysia's PM clung to power by the slimmest of threads

Dive deeper

A mass vaccination hub in Bangkok. PHOTO: Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

Masks are back in the United States, Freedom Days are delayed, the coronavirus is sweeping through Wuhan, and Australians are marching against lockdowns. When will we get out of this mess?

200 million reasons to get vaccinated

Another unwanted record beaten: total infections from the coronavirus pandemic have crossed the 200m mark . As many of you will have seen in your home countries – we certainly have in Australia – the delta variant is moving through the community at a clip. We'll let the experts explain why. Here's Dr Monica Gandhi from the University of California in San Francisco - "the mutations of the delta variant enable it to have a shorter incubation period, creating a higher viral load in the nose, and, thereby, making it more transmissible". One study from health authorities in China's Guangdong province found that those infected with the delta variant had a viral load in their respiratory tract up to 1,000 higher than previous strains.

China has taken swift action to slow the growth of the latest delta outbreak. Just 500 cases have been reported so far but alarmingly they are spread across half the country . Internal travel restrictions have been implemented. And in 140 local areas, public transport and taxi services have been halted. Meanwhile, Indonesia remains the hotspot in South East Asia: it's just the fourth country to report 100,000 lives lost due to Covid-19. Thankfully, a strict lockdown implemented on July 1 has curbed the daily infection rate. The same cannot be said for Thailand where a precipitous rise in new cases continues despite the shuttering of bars and restaurants across the country.

But this doesn't mean all our measures are ineffectual against the delta variant. Vaccines are working. Based on a population-level data sample from the United Kingdom, vaccines have reduced symptomatic infections by 88%, and hospitalisations by 96%. As delta became the dominant strain in the UK through June and July, new case numbers soared back to a peak of 53,000 per day, but deaths didn't. Even though the country is still recording 100 deaths a day - an awful toll - this is a fraction of what we saw in 2020. The story is the same across Europe. Spain, France, Germany, and Italy have all fully vaccinated 50% of their populations, and are managing to keep their death rates low.

Vaccines are not 100% effective. Even after two doses there is a risk of breakthrough infections. But as in the case of blood clots, this risk has been overblown and sensationalised. Prof Nir Menachmi from Indiana University stated, "the vast, vast, vast, vast, vast majority of breakthrough cases end up being no more serious than the flu and typically much less than that".

Get vaccinated, be safe. It's hard to state the point more plainly than that.

To boost or not to boost

There is, however, such a thing as being too vaccinated. It's incredibly impressive that we've managed to stick four billion doses of various vaccines in arms around the world. It's just a cruel irony that we are sticking them in the wrong arms. Here's why. The delta strain will continue to circle the globe in this form, and the next. Already there are three sub-types and a new mutation dubbed 'delta plus'. As it spreads, the virus will inevitably mutate into craftier forms. These in turn will cause outsized hospitalisations and deaths, especially among unvaccinated populations. And the cycle will repeat. This is why the World Health Organisation has been arguing since the beginning of the pandemic for equal access to jabs everywhere around the world.

Right now things are well and good in the rich western nations that are well on their way to achieving some form of herd immunity. But the rest of the world has been left to (and the numbers bear this out) die. In May for example, high-income countries administered 50 shots for every 100 people. In low-income countries that figure was closer to just 1.5 doses per 100 people . And now, many wealthier countries are lining up to administer booster shots – third doses - to confer even greater protection to the already vaccinated.

In the face of this narrow-minded and ultimately flawed thinking, the WHO's long-suffering chief Tedros Adhamon Ghebreyesus this week called for a moratorium on booster shots until every country has inoculated at least 10% of its population . He said, "we cannot accept countries that have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it". The United States, Germany, France, and Israel rejected the call out of hand, and are accelerating the roll out of third shots among their more vulnerable communities.

We started above with a question: when will we get out of this mess? A more important question has arisen: is there even a "we" anymore?


Gaming the system. PHOTO: Bloomberg

Beijing: the final boss

First they came for Jack Ma, who had rather imprudently told China's banking regulators they were stifling innovation. To be sure, the only thing that loosens the tongue more than alcohol is a net worth measured in multiples of billions. But in the hybrid state-capitalism of modern China, there is still one thing money can't buy: impunity. Ma's Ant Group Co. had its $35bn IPO yanked , and Alibaba was put under intense antitrust scrutiny. Then they came for Didi - the ride-hailing giant which had the brass to list in New York in June. Beijing pulled the handbrake within days – removing Didi from app stores in China. Now, an online education sector "hijacked by capital" is in the midst of a purge. Food delivery giant Meituan too has shed tens of billions in value after regulators intimated they would ensure all drivers and riders make a minimum local income.

China is in the midst of a fascinating and far-reaching correction : bringing enormous technology companies back under the watchful eye of the government, and reclaiming the ideological purity and health of the youth. Gaming is at the confluence of these drives. Early in the week, an article in the Economic Information Daily called on regulators and companies to combat video game addiction. League of Legends and Honour of Kings are seen as being just as dangerous to Chinese youth as K-pop and Japanese anime. The author of the article, no doubt writing with the acquiescence of higher ups, slammed video games as "spiritual opium". Such loaded language did not go unnoticed. Shenzhen-based Tencent, the world's biggest games manufacturer (and China's most valuable corporation) lost 11% of its value overnight .

There's something else you should know about gaming: it's really fun. One can be armed with all the knowledge in the world of how behavioural psychologists in the employ of game studios are expropriating your synaptic responses, the whole spectrum of concerns from aggrieved parents , and even the tut-tutting from what will soon be the super power on our planet. And, one can still have fun gaming. Right now a generation of millennials and zoomers are embracing the new philosophy of tang ping – "lie down". It encourages young people to push back against capitalist exploitation, eschew the rat race, and live humbler lives. That disillusionment is only going to flourish if they go deprived of their leisure activities.

Some of the Chinese herd stops to rest in Yunnan province. PHOTO: AFP

The elephants' journey

Some people flick to the back of the newspaper to get to sports news. Generations of lewd Britons fixated on Page 3. But at inkl we know you are hanging on for one thing, and one thing only: elephant updates. It's been a fittingly large week for the largest land animals.

First, to China, where a team of forestry firefighters has been dragooned into a new operation: leading a herd of 14 wild elephants home. The troop left their natural habitat near the southern border with Laos over a year ago and have been eating their way through Yunnan's rich croplands ever since. Since reaching the outskirts of the regional capital Kunming in May, these novice elephant herders have been gentling coaxing the lumbering pachyderms back towards more favourable climes. The team track the night-moving elephants from afar, using an elephant-sized trail of breadcrumbs (read: mounds of bananas). In order for the herd to move safely, the firefighters rush ahead to turn off power grids and usher villagers indoors.

Further west, India is having a moment of reckoning with its dwindling population of Asian elephants. The Madras High Court has, at the request of activist petitioners, urged an end to the domestication of elephants. This poses a considerable challenge to the long-standing use of elephants on the grounds of Hindu temples for rituals. Elsewhere in India, the use of elephant rides for tourists is slowly disappearing.

And finally, in Kenya, the first official wildlife census is underway. In order to better protect African savannah elephants – whose numbers have declined by 60% in the last 50 years. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature is flying light aircraft over Kenya's 50 national parks to count them. We hope they've had the good sense to name their plane Dumbo.

The worst of times

The ancient stadia of Olympia. PHOTO: AFP

An Olympic hurdle for Europe

As the final few days of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics wind up, the birthplace of the Games is under threat. Greece is baking through its most severe heatwave in decades. And wildfires are advancing on the southern city of Olympia . The whole region is ablaze, with neighbouring Turkey experiencing its worst fire season. A sign of what is to come. The European Union's Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service revealed that the Mediterranean's high and rising temperatures rendered it a "wildfire hotspot" .

The last thing we wanted to happen

Fires raging in Oregon and Washington have entered carbon offset plantations. These significant forests are bankrolled by the likes of Microsoft to compensate for persistent carbon emissions. There's not much else to do here but sit with the pathos and irony of the situation and try not to weep.

The best of times

Tatjana Schoenmaker is embraced after her record-setting swim. PHOTO: Clive Rose / ABC

The spirit is strong

Despite (or perhaps in spite of) the venality and officiousness of IOC officials, the athletes in Tokyo have come together (largely) in a spirit of international cooperation. From the shared medals of Mutaz Barshim and Giancarlo Tamberi to the spontaneous and unabashed joy for the success of competitors shown above. It's a joy to watch, and a potent reminder of why so many dream of reaching the top flight of their sports.

Old triples

In a shocking challenge to conventional mathematical thinking, a 3,700-year-old cuneiform tablet from Babylon has revealed the earliest known use of applied geometry. An Australian researcher discovered that whoever had inscribed the Si.427 tablet had used what's known as Pythagorean triples (whole numbers in which the sum of the squares of the first two equals the square of the third) to measure a plot of arable land being sold. And they just happen to have done so one thousand years before Pythagoras was born . The more we know now, the more we knew then.

Weekend Reading

The image

A swift retreat as wildfires consume the hills above Antalay, Turkey. Photograph supplied by Anadolu.

The quote

"I wanted to give my mom $30,000 so she can get a food truck. It's her dream... She's going to have a little cooking business. She can cook really, really, really well – barbecue. I don't eat it because I'm a pescatarian now."

– US wrestler Tamyra Mensah-Stock explained how she would spend her winnings after winning gold in the 68kg freestyle category. She is the first Black woman to take any top prize in wrestling at the Olympics. And, this may be less historic but is certainly no less important, she seems an absolutely delightful person.

The numbers

672 goals, 34 trophies, six Ballon d'Or

- The greatest (with apologies to C. Ronaldo fans) modern footballer, Lionel Messi, is leaving Barcelona FC . Signed with the Catalan powerhouse at the age of 13, the Argentinian has gone on to amass a record quite unlike anyone else. It will be fascinating to see how Messi winds down his career after nearly two decades at Camp Nou.


- This week, Venezuela's central bank lopped six zeroes off the end of the bolivar to staunch years of dizzying hyperinflation. The revaluing coincided with the launch of an online currency, Bolivar Digital . Sadly, waving the magic wand and saying "blockchain" does nothing to address the rot in the foundations of the Venezuelan economy.

The headlines

" China's biggest foundry founder founds another foundry " South China Morning Post . A tour de force in sub-editing.

The special mention

Actor Matt Damon wins our special mention this week in the category of Thoughts That Did Not Need To Be Verbalised.

A few choice long-reads

  • "The privacy of individuals in the digital age is fraught with trade-offs". Yes, and it's always the individual playing the losing hand. The Economist with a different view on open source data.
  • A pertinent read in the week the Messi leaves Camp Nou. How FC Bareclona blew a fortune – and got worse. Gorgeous writing from Financial Times.
  • Who is saving us from bushfires? Or, to get to the heart of the matter, who is making money off bushfires? Businessweek with a brilliant long read.

Tom Wharton @trwinwriting