The Failure of the International Community to address the Russian Oil Spill

On the 29th of May, 20,000 tonnes of diesel were spilled into the Ambarnaya river near the city of Norsilk in Russia. The oil drifted 12 km and contaminated an estimated 350 square km of the surrounding ecosystem. While environmental organisations and news agencies were quick to report the spill, the international community has remained relatively quiet about this environmental catastrophe, inadvertently and mistakenly considering it a domestic issue.

Russia cited deteriorating ground subsidence due to melting permafrost as the reason for the collapse of the fuel tank, declaring a State of Emergency in an attempt to give the incident priority in necessary resources and attention. In addition, Russia’s chief prosecutor has ordered further checks in the hope of preventing future catastrophes. As 55% of Russia’s territory is covered in permafrost and home to most of its oil and gas fields, their lack of strategy mirrors the lack of international preparation in combatting climate change.

The Paris climate agreement was an unprecedented example of global cooperation to formulate an international response to climate change. Despite the agreement being ratified by 189 countries, Russia’s oil spill has not been addressed officially or through social media by any heads of state, with the exception of Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who offered the assistance and expertise of the United States. 

While the international community is preoccupied with tackling other issues such as coronavirus and protests, this is not just a Russian problem. It is estimated that ¼ of the Northern hemisphere is permafrost, a number which is quickly decreasing and this issue must be addressed. If the international community fails to learn from Russia’s incident and prepare an international response to the issue, this will not be the last of environmental disasters we see at the hands of an unprepared government. 

 

Stagnation or Recovery: What is the Situation in Syria’s Rebel-Controlled Areas?

It wasn’t just the “availability of olive oil” that led Mahmoud Dalati to settle in Afrin. He was fleeing eastern Ghouta, re-taken by the Assad Government with the help of Russian fighters. However, in the new city, he has opened a successful soap workshop, continuing the trade of his forefathers. In North-Eastern Syria, controlled by Turkish-backed rebels since 2018, actions such as these are a collective attempt to return to a stable existence. In late February 2020, a piece in Asharq Al-Awsat reported that the “stability” of the city of Afrin has “attracted Syrians from different parts of the country […] in search of permanent employment.” The article highlights the boom in local business caused by this lull in the conflict. New establishments are springing up in the city, from a newly opened cake factory (with “20 job opportunities”) to “currency exchange shops, jewelry [sic] stores, bookstores and factories,” all exchanging Turkish liras for “local and Turkish goods.”

However, Karim Mahmoud, of the ICRC, reported on May 21st that the region has seen “shortages of water, food and medicine, a lack of electricity” and “job losses and price hikes” caused by “the economic downturn.” Mahmoud stated that these issues are likely more pressing even than the threat of Coronavirus in the area. Save the Children also highlighted reports of “hostilities along the North East Syrian border” that necessitate “an increased need for immediate humanitarian assistance” in displacement camps. The European Council on Foreign Relations has commented that “Turkey faces the risk of the ‘Gazafication’ of the area – the emergence of a militarily controlled territory that is perennially poverty-stricken and unstable.”

The problem likely stems from Turkey’s control of the region. A thriving local economy is necessary for a proper recovery to occur. Despite the admirable steps taken by citizens to start businesses and accommodate those fleeing conflict areas, if Turkey does not guarantee “citizen security” (as the UNDP calls it) then it will be hard for the area not to find itself in a Gaza-esque rut. But is any outside nation involved in the conflict willing to act for reasons other than personal point scoring? Turkey has, of course, attempted to stamp out the Kurds in the region – another brutal step in their long-running conflict. It seems likely that the Turkey is not in a position to keep peace and enable those in the region to flourish. 

Yet maybe national and humanitarian interests can coincide. If Turkey could set a successful example of post-conflict recovery in the area, it could improve lives and command global respect. The chance is there. It remains to be seen whether it will be taken.

Image – The City of Afrin in 2009: Bertramz / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

 

Citizens trapped between war and COVID 19 in Libya

Covid 19 is the nowadays issue, and family meetings and conversations among friends aren’t free of it. You cannot fail to think about the extent of its impact on everything that surrounds us, our social life, our mental health, and certainly, economic conditions.

For some people it’s a subject for contemplation. Who among us hasn’t given a thought to how this tiny thing, that one cannot see with the naked eye, could make the world stand on one finger, make the world stand still. A “sick leave for the environment”, an environment which has been functioning day and night for thousands of years, so that we may live the life we ​​aspire to. I don’t deny the negative aspects, but it’s also important that we do not exclude the bright side of the existence of this pandemic.

Admittedly, one of the things that I’m always thinking about – particularly after we saw  the response of the developed countries to this disease, which did not satisfy many of their citizens, especially with the large number of deaths and infected people that increases daily in high proportions – is how the developing countries, especially those facing internal conflict, will deal with this pandemic?

We will shed little light on Libya, which, after having a revolution against an authoritarian and dictatorial government, that was part of a series of so-called “Arab Spring revolutions” that started in the sister country of Libya, Tunisia in 2011. “Arab Spring” is a meaningless name, as after these revolutions, these countries are now living an autumn that hasn’t come to an end. The fall of its fallen leaves is represented in many human lives lost. Libya is passing through civil war that targeted all Libyan cities and towns, until fighting eventually moved to its capital, Tripoli.

Tripoli has been facing conflicts that lasted for more than a year now, which led to a population over stacking at its center; as many citizens living in its suburbs were forced to leave their homes in the search for security in the city center, in addition to a previous presence of many other displaced people from other cities that had also come in search of security in the capital.

On March 14, 2020, Mr. Fayez Al-Sarraj, the head of the Presidential Council of Libya,  announced “the state of emergency” after the outbreak of the disease in the world, especially in neighboring countries, and took many measures, including closing borders and airports, suspending studying in schools and universities, closing all restaurants and shops, and imposing some regulation in grocery stores and bakeries to limit the spread of the disease. A lot of people have made the attempt to adhere to the new regulations and commitment to social distancing, which included not gathering in mosques and holding prayers at home. However, there were no sufficient medical preparations (in terms of medical staff, emergency teams, sterilization teams, and availability of PPE) to receive cases. Consequently, on March 24, 2020, when the first case was recorded in Tripoli, there was an obvious confusion among the medical staff, after the symptoms and travel history of that patient were confirmed with the diagnosis of Corona virus infection. This confusion continued, and was made worse by the security situation and the state of war the city is passing through and that included targeting the Khadra Public Hospital, where a health isolation center was supposed to be established.

Nearly two weeks after registering the first case, a medical committee and a sterilization team were formed and transformed one of the health centers into a center to detect suspicious cases, and set up a health isolation center to receive critical cases in a hospital in Tripoli, and provided medical personnel and care staff to deal with moderate and non-critical cases at their homes, and of course, supplied the hospitals with the personal protective equipment needed. In addition awareness programs have been established targeting all media and social media, and training courses for medical staff and volunteers, and all of that under the supervision of the CDC in Tripoli.

Also, Libyan embassies in most countries took care of the Libyan community abroad, and one of the procedures they use is to test people wishing to return home, and in cases where the sample was positive, they would be isolated in hotels paid by the Libyan authority, and if it was negative, they’d be allowed to return home on condition that they isolate themselves in their homes and refrain from mixing with their families and friends for two weeks.

All of these procedures maintained a low rate of infections and also very low mortality rate. The total registered case was 70 infections and 3 deaths in two months, and the cause of death of these three people was the presence of underlying health problems in addition to infection with coronavirus, and the percentage of cases that were cured was very high. According to reports from Tripoli CDC, it’s likely that the reason behind the low infection rate is probably the genetic factor of the patients and the strain that infected this region is different from the strains that infected Asia, Europe and America.

From my point of view, what was the main reason behind these numbers were the measures that the state launched and the people’s commitment to it. Whereas, as soon as there is a little easing off from from both the state and the citizens, especially since the return of the Libyans from abroad, and the entry of travelers in legal and illegal ways, and their lack of commitment to the self-isolation imposed on them, the number of infections have reached 90 cases in the last week of May alone. The question now is: Is this because of the state’s negligence and corruption or misbehavior and irresponsibility of the people? I want to place the blame on the citizens, but is it possible to put the blame on them in this very bad security situation in which homes are not completely safe, where the death rate of people as a result of shells falling over their homes is much higher than the death rate as a result of corona virus?

 

Black Lives Matter protests force Britain to take a look in the mirror

Last weekend thousands took to the streets of Britain to protest the killing of George Floyd and voice their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Critics have suggested that Brits joining arms with the American struggle is unfounded and merely stokes tensions that don’t exist in the UK. However, these protests have larger ambitions than simply to avenge the victim of one injustice. Many feel it is time Britain came to terms with it’s own dark history, both old and new.

Across the Atlantic, Floyd’s death has precipitated the burning of American cities and illuminated once again the archaic nature of American institutions. Meanwhile in the UK, there has been an establishment effort to distance ourselves from facing similar hostility. Government minister Kemi Badenoch sought to throw cold water on the issue, saying in the Commons: ‘This is one of the best countries in the world to be a black person.’

These comments follow hard on the heels of the news that black men and women are twice as likely as their white counterparts to die from coronavirus. Someone who falls under such a statistic is Belly Mujinga, who was spat at while on duty as a railway ticket officer, and later lost her life to Covid-19. The police have faced backlash for the premature closure of Ms. Mujinga’s case, but thanks to a vociferous campaign, this is to be reviewed by the Crown Prosecution Service.

The close proximity of Ms. Mujinga’s case to that of missing (now presumed murdered) Madeleine McCann has drawn stark contrast. While both cases are tragic in their own right, there is a notable chasm in effort and attention, paid by the police and media alike, to one over the other. McCann’s case has received police funding since she went missing thirteen years ago, while Mujinga’s was closed barely two months after her death.

Of course, this is not the first time the police have been accused of racial apathy. It is a little over twenty years since the Metropolitan Police were found to be ‘institutionally racist’ following the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Since then it is often suggested, as in Kemi Badenoch’s comments, that Britain has taken heed and is now a ‘post-racial’ society.

The numbers, however, tell a different story. Black people are nine times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched for drugs, despite using illegal substances at a lower rate. Black people are also far more likely to be victims of the use of force by the police. Around 12% of all instances of police force can be attributed to incidents involving Black people, despite their only constituting around 3% of the population of England and Wales.

The police, however, are just one institution – albeit a particularly powerful one – that seems to have a blinkered view of Britain’s racial history.

The current demonstrations have catalysed already substantial support for education reform in British schools. Proprietors of such ideas attest that schoolchildren are purposefully made unaware of the realities of colonialism and empire. A petition regarding this issue, directed toward the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson, has 180,000 signatures at the time of writing.

Education reform is not without its brick-and-mortar relevance. In fact, following the Windrush scandal, an independent review recommended, among other things, that Home Office staff be educated on the country’s colonial past.

Such a past is one worthy of comparison with the United States, given that America was born from the thirteen British colonies. In many ways, American history is British history. BBC journalist Emily Maitlis, however, had this to say on the current protests: ‘Our police don’t have guns, [Britain’s] legacy of slavery is not the same … it’s not the same is it?’

While Maitlis was likely playing devil’s advocate, she was appeasing those who seek to whitewash history and paint the British empire without foibles and as an evergreen ‘good-guy’. Such language fails to consider that like America, Britain acquired it’s riches through resource extraction and large-scale exploitation. Until we have come to terms with this reality, cases such as Windrush – aided and abetted by top-down ‘hostile environment’ policies – are doomed to be repeated.

Those at Black Lives Matter protests in London, Manchester and Bristol have stood in solidarity with those facing oppression in places as far and foreign as Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington DC. This, however, is not the first time Britain and America have occupied common ground with regard to racial injustice.

The Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 – where a state-owned bus company was held to account for racist hiring policy – marked a certain synchronicity with the struggles taking place in the U.S. That same year, American civil rights leaders began to make headway too; most notably the march on Washington, and an iconic Martin Luther King speech that scarcely needs mentioning.  It is a shame that the leader of the Bus Boycott, Paul Stephenson, is yet to be celebrated in the UK as King and Malcolm X are in the States.

The parallels in history and progress between the two nations are evident. Therefore to turn a blind eye could be considered a break with tradition – one of standing together against systemic racism, in spirit if not geography. Just as in ’63, the Black Lives Matter protests seek broadly to unravel our privileged conceptions of race and power.

Aside from solidarity with George Floyd, the British public should be aware that it has many ingrained racial injustices on its own doorstep. Moving forward, the momentum of the Black Lives Matter protests can and should be used incisively to uncover them. A diversion in efforts toward the governments new discriminatory immigration bill might be a good place to start. 

المواطنون المحاصرون بين الحرب و covid-19: ليبيا

حديث الساعه الذي لا تخلو الاجتماعات العائلية ومحادثات الاصدقاء منه، بل انه يكاد ألا يكون إلا حديث النفس، اقل ما يفكر به الواحد منا هو مدى تأثيره على كل ما يحيط بنا في حياتنا الاجتماعية، وعلى صحتنا النفسية، وبالتأكيد الأوضاع الاقتصادية.

انه موضوع للتأمل بالنسبة لبعض الاشخاص، من منا لم يفكر في كيف لهذا الشي الصغير الذي لا يرى بالعين المجردة أن يجعل العالم يقف على اصبع واحد، بل أن يجعل العالم يقف. “اجازة مرضية للبيئة” التي تعمل ليل نهار منذ الاف السنين لكي نحضى نحن بالحياة التي نطمح لها. لا انكر الجوانب السلبيه ولكن من المهم ايضا ان لا نستثني الجانب المضيئ من وجود هذا الوباء.

من الاشياء التي لم تغيب عن تفكيري، لا سيما بعد ما رأينا كيف كانت استجابة الدول المتقدمه لهذا المرض، والتي لم تلقى رضى الكثير من المواطنين خصوصا مع هذا العدد الهائل من الاصابات والموتى التي تزداد بنسبه كبيرة يوميا، هو كيف ستستطيع الدول النامية ،وبالاخص تلك التي تواجه العديد من المشاكل والصراعات داخلها، مواجهة هذا الوباء.

سنسلط قليل من الضوء على ليبيا والتي بعد أن قامت بها ثورة ضد النظام السائد المتسلط والدكتاتوري، ضمن سلسة من ما يطلق عليه “ثورات الربيع العربي” التي بدأت في الدولة الشقيقه لليبيا، تونس في عام 2011،  والتي لم تأخد من اسمها شي؛ فقد دخلت تلك الدول من بعد هذه الثورات في خريف لم تظهر له نهاية، خريف اوراقه المتساقطه تتمثل في العديد من الخسائر البشرية. ليبيا التي تمر خلال حروب اهلية استهدفت كل مدنها نهاية في عاصمتها طرابلس.

طرابلس الان تواجه مرحلة من الصراع دامت اكثر من عام، مما ادى الى تكدس للسكان في مركزها؛ حيث ان الكثير من المواطنين القانطين في ضواحيها اضطروا إلى أن يتركو منازلهم بحثا عن الامن وسط المدينة، بالاضافه إلي وجود سابق للعديد من المهجرين من مدن اخرى ايضا كانوا قد قدموا اليها بحثا عن الامن في العاصمة.

في يوم 14 مارس 2020 خرج رئيس المجلس الرئاسي السيد فايز السراج ليعلن حالة الطوارئ بعد تفشي المرض في العالم و خصوصا في البلدان المجاورة، واتخدت العديد من الاجراءات منها اغلاق الحدود والمطارات، وتعليق الدراسة في المدارس والجامعات، واغلاق كافة المطاعم والمحلات التجارية، وفرض بعض الاجراءات على محلات المواد الغدائة والمخابز للحد من انتشار المرض. وكان هناك اقبال للعديد من الناس على الالتزام بالقوانين والالتزام بالمسافات الاجتماعية، والتي كان من ضمنها عدم التجمع في المساجد واقامة الصلوات في المنزل، ولكن لم يكن هناك استعداد طبي (من ناحية الكادر الطبي وفرق الطوارئ وفرق التعقيم وتوفر معددات الحماية الشخصية) لاستقبال الحالات. في يوم 24 مارس 2020 سجلت اول حالة في مدينة طرابلس، وكان هناك ارتباك ملحوظ للطاقم الطبي بعد ماتوافقت اعراض وتاريخ السفر للمريض مع تشخيص عدوى فيروس كورونا، استمر هذا الارتباك والذي زاد من سوءه الوضع الامني وحالة الحرب التي تمر بها المدينه والتي كان من ضمنها استهداف مستشفى الهضبة الخضراء العام والذي كان من المقرر انشاء مركز عزل صحي داخله.

بعد مايقارب اسبوعين من تسجيل اول حالة، تم تكوين لجنة طبية وفريق تعقيم، وتحويل احد المراكز الصحية الى مركز للكشف عن الحالات المشبوهة، واقامة مركز عزل صحي لاستقبال الحالات الحرجة في احد مستشفيات طرابلس، وتوفير كادر طبي للعناية بالحالات المعتدلة وغير الحرجة في منازلهم، وتوفير كافة المعدات الطبية ومعدات الحماية الشخصية. كما اقيمت ايضا برامج توعيه استهدفت كل وسائل الاعلام ووسائل التواصل الاجتماعي، ودورات تدريب للكوادر الطبية والمتطوعين، جميعها تحت اشراف مركز مكافحة الامراض في طرابلس.

واهتمت السفارات الليبية في اغلب الدول بالجالية الليبية بالخارج، ومن الاجراءات المتبعة هو اخد عينة من الاشخاص الراغبين بالعودة، وفي حال ان العينة كانت موجبة يتم عزل المريض في فنادق مدفوعة التكاليف من الحكومة الليبية، اما اذا كانت سالبة فيسمح لهم بالعودة، ولكن يجب عليهم عزل انفسهم في منازلهم والامتناع عن الاختلاط بعائلاتهم وذويهم لمدة اسبوعين.

كل هذه الاجراءات حافظت على نسب منخفضه من الاصابات وايضا نسب قليلة جدا من الوفيات، حيث وصلت عدد الاصابات 70 اصابة وعدد حالات الوفاة 3 حالات خلال شهرين، وكانت سبب وفاة الحالات الثلاثه هو وجود مشاكل صحية مسبقة بالاضافه للاصابة بعدوى فايروس الكورونا، وكانت نسبة الحالات المتماثله للشفاء مرتفعة جدا، ويرجح السبب وراء ذلك الى العامل الجيني للمرضى و كذلك السلالة التي اصابت هذه المنطقة والتي يمكن ان تكون مختلفة عن السلالات التي اصابت اسيا واوروبا وامريكا. من وجهة نظري ان ما كان سبب رئيسي وراء هذه الارقام هو الاجراءات التي اطلقتها الدولة والتزام الناس بها. حيث أن ما إن حصل القليل من التسيب من الدولة ومن المواطنين، خصوصا  منذ رجوع الجالية الليبية من الخارج، ودخول المسافرين باشكال قانونية وغير قانوينه، وعدم التزامهم بالحجر المنزلي المفروض عليهم، حتى وصل عدد الاصابات في الاسبوع الاخير فقط من شهر مايو الى 90 حالة. يضل السؤال الان: هل هذا بسبب تقصير من الدولة وفسادها او تسيب واستهتار من الناس؟ اريد وضع اللوم على المواطنين، ولكن هل يمكن وضع اللوم عليهم في هذا الوضع الامني السيء للغاية الذي تعتبر فيه المنازل ليست امنة تماما، حيث نسبة وفاة الناس جراء قذائف تتساقط على منازلهم اعلى بكثير من نسبة الوفاة نتيجة الكورونا ؟

Thinking again about Israel and Palestine

Annexation does what?

Next Century Foundation Secretary General William Morris writes:

I was not so happy with my last podcast on Israel and Palestine. It was not respectful enough of the Mid East Peace Process issue – and though it covers all the bases in detail – it misses the point when it comes to the heart of the matter. This is perhaps more honest to the actual situation these two great nations living cheek by jowl now find themselves in:

To listen to William’s thoughts on the subject click here.

UK’s false-start contact tracing has fatal consequences

The UK now has a worse death rate than any other comparable nation, bar Spain, according to the World’s Press. A Financial Times report released last week gives Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent assertion – that the upcoming track-and-trace system is ‘world beating’ – something of a grim irony. Such technology has proved effective in other countries, most notably South Korea, who contrarily have one of the lowest Covid-19 mortality rates in the world.

For South Korea, aside from being quick off the draw with regards to testing (by mid-March they had tested more than 270,000 people), they had realised the benefits of prudent use of mobile technology early. People who had tested positive were asked to input data with regard to their movements, aided by GPS and credit-card transaction tracing.

Such an approach has caused a collective skin crawl in the West, who’s leaders and populations alike lazily ascribe notions of totalitarian surveillance to the Asian continent as a whole. It is worth noting that such technology has struggled to get off the ground not only in the U.K, but in the U.S too. The latter nation has seen many citizens insisting that lockdown impinged upon their freedom. There have been demonstrations in as many as 18 U.S. states, while the number of Covid-19 cases sky-rocketed, giving the U.S. the largest case count globally.

It is not just the U.S. who are guilty of patriotic exceptionalism, however. A number of critics have painted Mr. Johnson and his government as having a lackadaisical approach to the virus from the off. Back in February, a leaked government report suggested that coronavirus could claim as many as 500,000 British lives in a worst case scenario. The next week, after chairing his first COBRA emergency meeting, Mr. Johnson assured the public that while the spread of the virus was likely, the British people should ‘go about business as usual’.

Later, the Sunday Times would report that Mr. Johnson had in fact missed five previous COBRA emergency meetings regarding the status of the pandemic, and thus suggested a marked failure on part of the Prime Minister to take the virus seriously. On March 3rd, one day after the his first chaired COBRA meeting, Mr. Johnson said, ‘I was at a hospital the other night where I think a few there were actually coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody. I continue to shake hands.’ The Prime Minister’s previously unshakeable confidence has since been rattled by his contracting the virus himself.

Two days later, on the 5th March, the Prime Minister appears on ITV’s This Morning where he introduced the public to the idea of herd immunity. He said, ‘One theory is that you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go, and allow the disease, as it were to move through the population.’ But in reality the NHS simply didn’t and arguably still doesn’t hold the required capacity. To be fair to Johnson, it was his chief aide Dominic Cummings who was largely reported as the original proprietor of the herd immunity strategy – a man who later embroiled himself in scandal after breaking the ‘Stay At Home’ rules he helped to create.

Granted, after heeding warnings from scientists, Cummings distanced himself from the herd immunity approach, in favour of a policy of strict social distancing. However, this does not contradict the thesis of the Sunday Times piece, which suggested five weeks of battle-planning were lost due to government floundering.

It is true that while the government were juggling with herd immunity, another approach was considered: that of developing test-and-trace technology. This strategy, however, was abandoned in mid-March. One senior Tory was quoted in the Financial Times as saying, ‘There is a belief here that the things being done in Korea were too intrusive and wouldn’t be acceptable.’ He continues, ‘No one believed you could be totalitarian about this.’ Thus it seems we have more in common with the U.S. than we would care to admit.

Later, critics accused the government of missing an opportunity to deploy 5,000 contact tracing experts who were sitting pretty at local councils across the country. In fact, the Guardian reported in early April that such people were expecting to be called to action: ‘We are pretty good at infection control and contact tracing, it’s part of the job. We thought we’d be asked and we were shelving other work’ said one environmental health worker at a council in the north west.

This brings us to the first week of June, with Mr. Johnson’s ‘world beating’ contact tracing technology being resuscitated and made available to the public, two and a half months after it was initially buried. The only evidence available as to why it was buried in the first place, points to government paranoia and a need to maintain favourable polling amongst the public. Indeed this shows a willingness to place party priorities over public health.

Perhaps this too is the reason why the government is itching to unravel lockdown procedures when as many as 324 people died just last Friday. As of Monday the 1st June, Brits are able to mingle with up to five other people, and elite sport is to return behind closed doors. This is despite warnings from scientific advisers that it is too soon to lift lockdown.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and formerly of the World Health Organisation, has said this of lockdown easing: ‘Test, trace and isolate has to be in place, fully working, capable of dealing with any surge immediately, locally responsive, rapid results, and infection rates have to be lower.’ Whether the track-and-trace technology will be effective is yet to be seen, but the UK’s infection rate remains high.

The UK government would do well to consider that both Germany and South Korea have seen an upsurge in cases since public life has resumed. Spain, the only nation with a higher death-rate than the UK, extended their state of emergency after a rise in the death toll was caused by easing lockdown measures. Britain, like the U.S., has so far acted with a crisis strategy largely informed by isolationism and exception. Critics will therefore continue to be suspicious of the UK’s ability to follow the example of other nations.

The consistent evocation of war-time rhetoric and Churchill-like stoicism by the UK government has done little to quell something as faceless and apolitical as an airborne virus. This is mirrored in the U.S, with the virus being personified as an affront to individual freedom – an idea further perpetuated by the twitter ramblings of President Trump. With the U.S and the U.K topping the Covid-19 death-charts, and both proving to have ineffective crisis strategies, it is worth asking, what makes us so special?

 

The Foreign Policy of Joseph Biden Jr.

For many, the attraction of Joseph Biden Jr. as a presidential candidate has less to do with what he is, but more to do with what he isn’t. He is not a fire breathing, fire wielding, populist, he is not fond of lambasting enemies on Twitter, nor is he going to be the one to upset the establishment applecart of Washington D.C.

He is a restorationist, someone who wants to ensure that Donald Trump’s tale is told as an aberration in the grander story of the United States. His presidency would likely not be characterized by great leaps forward, but rather by careful steps back and by attempts to reverse his predecessor’s path.

This is perhaps most true upon the international stage, a place that captured little of President Trump’s interest. There, Mr. Biden promises to “once more have America lead the world,” a phrase happily received by many, both in his country and beyond.

Though certainly evocative of a happier pre-Trumpian time, Biden’s pronouncement requires a more detailed look. What would a world molded in the image of the former Vice President look like?

A consultation of his campaign website provides some more clarity. It explains that Biden wishes to “lead by example” and “rally the world to meet [its] common challenges.” In practice, that would see Biden rebuild the American State Department, restoring and increasing American spending on diplomacy and development. Also, he’d like to host a “global Summit for Democracy” within his first year in office, bringing together the world’s democracies and civil society organizations to create a collective focus around “fighting corruption; defending against authoritarianism; and advancing human rights.”

A far cry from ‘America First’, Biden is less likely to go it alone and more likely to use America’s network of friends and allies to address the issues of the day. For example — as Biden is equally unhappy with China’s “abusive trade practices” as its “suppression of Uyghurs” — he would rather the US put pressure and apply sanctions on Beijing alongside a broad coalition, similar to the way American Presidents past tried to target the Soviet Union.

A President Biden would also seek to “restore [American] moral leadership”, a phrase that by turns elicits consent or contempt, depending on where in the world it is received. In any case, ‘moral leadership’ would see Biden end American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and, more broadly, a reassessment of the partnership with Riyadh. This courtesy would likely be extended to more of America’s less liberal allies, including Egypt, Hungary, and Turkey, as Biden and a number of his key foreign policy advisors appear less willing to hold hands with autocrats.

Though altering alliances with Turkey and Saudi Arabia would certainly set Biden apart from his predecessors, the longstanding American support for Israel would not end during his tenure. He is, after all, a self-proclaimed “Zionist” and though he backs a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, he would not move the American Embassy back to Tel Aviv or ever withhold military aid in order to force the Israelis to play ball.

Mr. Biden would also maintain, rather than reinvent, the American wheel when facing Iran or Russia. With the latter, he would be no great friend but still would maintain cordiality — renewing, for example, the New START arms treaty set to expire in early February 2021. Regarding the former, especially several key advisers, including Tony Blinken and Jack Sullivan, were instrumental in crafting the Iran nuclear deal, he would re-enter it, so long as Tehran returns to compliance.

All in all, Joseph Biden sees the United States as becoming less damned if they do than if they don’t. Donald Trump’s foreign policy was characterized less by global leadership as it was by frenetic attempts at having a ‘win’ to show for, but a President Biden would be happier as Leader of the Free World. He would work with fellow democracies to try to shape or rebuild the international order, from climate change to trade, from cyber-security to nuclear non-proliferation. Tasked with restoring ‘normalcy,’ Biden sees there to be little to lose, but a whole world to win.

Did China manufacture Covid-19?

The 73rd World Health Assembly began on May 18th – and it soon became yet another battleground between the US and China. Back in March, the Trump administration started repeatedly addressing the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus”, causing huge offence in Beijing. Since then, the two countries have been engaging in a mediatic war over who is responsible for the pandemic. The underlying assumption of this blame-shifting is that the virus has been bioengineered to serve as a weapon.

This conversation has proved dangerous on both sides: it not only provoked several attacks in regard to China and Chinese communities abroad, but it also injected a renewed sense of nationalistic pride in the Chinese and eventually reinforced an “East versus West” paradigm and the idea of an inevitable conflict between the two.

Narratives of this kind are as ominous as they are misleading. In the US, it is mainly conservative politicians who speculate that China created their virus out of their biosafety level-four laboratory located in Wuhan, where they suggest the outbreak originated. The first raising questions as to the possibility of a manufactured Covid-19 was American social scientist Steve Mosher, who published an opinion piece on February 22 entitled ‘Don’t buy China’s story: The coronavirus may have leaked from a lab’. Mosher, the president of the Population Research Institute, has also written a book entitled Bully of Asia: Why China’s ‘Dream’ Is the New Threat to World Order, which sheds a bit of light on his stance on the country.

Chinese criticism has been equally sharp but quite different in nature: allegations of a US-manufactured virus were framed more as a (not very) diplomatic response than as an actual inquiry into the American medical research. Xinhua, China State News Agency, has instead released a video advertisement that mocks the U.S. government and blames it for having underestimated the virus and having poorly handled the crisis causing many people to die. A type of criticism that may somehow be more constructive than blaming a government to have deliberately released a new-type disease as a weapon.

What is more important, however, is that none of this is backed by science. Experts worldwide have been debunking theories that Covid-19 originated in a lab. According to a study recently published on the biomedical journal Nature Medicine the molecular features of SARS-CoV-2 that are essential to initiate infection are so perfect that they can only be the result of natural selection and not the product of a genetic engineering process, even if performed by very clever scientists.

In interviews published on Business Insider and Scientific American, Jonna Mazet, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Davis, who has worked with and trained Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers in the past and Wuhan-based virologist Shi Zhengli warn that there are at least four reasons why a leak would be unlikely. Besides the rigorous safety protocols implemented by the lab, it appears that the lab’s samples simply don’t match the new-type corona-virus.

The most likely explanation for the appearance of Sars-Cov-2 may be instead that it was transmitted to humans after a process of natural selection in an animal host – probably bats – that were sold in Wuhan wet-market. This theory has been leading many to mistrust or mock the Chinese for their backwardness and unusual alimentary habits. While part of this criticism is justified – as China grows it should start taking responsibility both over its society and its engagement with the world – it is not reasonable for other countries to assume that China should just abandon its culinary traditions however strange they might sound. At the origin of the pandemic is the problem of unregulated animal markets anyway, not the ingredients of a Chinese soup.

One last consideration: it may be worthwhile to engage in a mental exercise for a second and imagine what would have happened if the virus originated, let’s say, in Italy. Would have the conversation been any different? It suddenly becomes harder to picture anybody accusing the Italian government of having evil plans to conquer the world. A sign that most of the current discourse on Covid-19 might have more to do with politics than with health.

 

 

Post-coronavirus recession will test Starmer’s allegiances

The adults are back in the room was the phrase being used by the Westminster commentariat following the return of Prime Minister’s questions in the last week of April. Britain’s new opposition leader, Keir Starmer, has since been lauded by those on the Right and Centre-Left alike for his amiable demeanour and oratorical flair. Most frequently, however, he is branded with a label that reads electable. Regardless of the condescension that aims to paint his predecessor (as well as the popular movement that came with him) as unworthy of the hallowed halls of Westminster, there appears an obvious blind-spot on the part of the media as to what Starmer represents.

It is hardly a secret that for large swathes of the population, the elite have come to be perceived as purveyors of inequality. The suggestion being that after the events of the 2008 banking crisis, the establishment were at least complicit in allowing certain communities to wallow in destitution while financial hubs such as London thrived. In the decade following that recession, Britain’s billionaires saw their net worth double, while the income of many of the rest stagnated or even decreased. Thus, the notion that austerity is ultimately a political decision with consequences from which some are exempt begins to hold traction.

But not all establishment figures are billionaires, so why have our technocrats been moulded into political scarecrows? In his book Nervous StatesWilliam Davies speaks of the way knowledge and wealth have become more intertwined. He says: ‘Under industrial capitalism, there were those who got rich and there were those claimed to know best. Today, the privilege of knowledge and wealth reinforce each other: highly educated consultants, lawyers and investment analysts are also the main beneficiaries of capitalism.’ For much of the nation, Keir Starmer is seen as a continuation of such ideas, and lacks the impetus for real change.

The Brexit vote can in part be considered a revolt against technocratic rule. The mantra advocated by the remain campaign can largely be reduced to – ‘things can get worse’. For those who had seen their wages fall in real terms, while their communities were stripped bare by austerity, the Brexit vote was a way of re-entering the conversation. Similar discordance can be seen in the tendency to explain economic well-being through the use of aggregate statistics. For many years GDP (gross domestic product) statistics have implied that the UK is a prosperous nation, without ascribing nuance to the regions that have fallen behind.

The use of statistics as a way of assessing the health of a nation doesn’t hold water when the nation itself is split along economic lines. Average wealth statistics have long been used by those who seek to signpost the supposed success of unabashed free-marketeering. When a BBC newsreader tells a resident of Tilbury in Essex (among the top 1% of Brexit voting regions) that they are getting richer, they are forced to take stock of their reality and conclude they are being lied to. Thus, a narrative that people have been able to weave for themselves, that explains their situation more accurately, is one of nationalism. In the moments following his 2019 election win, with some justification Boris Johnson thanked his new supporters for ‘lending’ him their vote.

On the horizon sits another recession, forecast to be of even greater stature than the 2008 banking crisis – and it is how Labour seeks to pull the UK out of it that will illuminate their desire, if any, to win back their traditional voters. Replicating the approach to economic recuperation seen post-2008 will only pry open the cultural chasm further, leaving a space to be filled by charlatans and demagogues who seek to abet people’s resentment. In the aftermath of the virus, there will likely be those who try to convince us that the antidote for economic ill health is to free the economy of red tape and to bail out the multinationals. In this case, Starmer’s response should be uncompromising. Whether it is or it isn’t, his true character will at last become apparent.

 

 

The Uncertain Future of Vladimir V. Putin

If Otto von Bismarck was right when he said, “politics is not a science, but an art,” then Vladimir Putin is a virtuoso whose great works deserve to hang in the halls of the Hermitage. 

Since acceding to the presidency in 1999, initially as a temporary replacement for a declining Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Putin has spent the opening 20 years of the 21st century at the head of the Russian Federation, a considerable, if crumbling global power. 

Over the years, the President, then Prime Minister, then President (again and again), has remained at the top. He defeated the Communist Party in a 2000 election, won essentially uncontested in 2004, then — due to a clause in the Russian Constitution not allowing Presidents more than two consecutive terms — spent four years as Prime Minister, theoretically subordinate to Dmitry Medvedev. Never losing his influence or sway over his country’s politics however, Putin completed his ‘castling’ move with Medvedev and again became President in 2012, this time for six years as his predecessor had helpfully extended the office’s term limits during the period of Putin’s interregnum. And so, the game continued, with Putin at the helm until March 2018, at which point another illiberal election renewed his lease on the Kremlin until 2024. 

2020 began with what was perceived at the time to be either an overture to the finale, or merely a prelude to an era of renewed Putinism. In January, the State Duma and Federation Council (the Russian houses of parliament) passed bills that strengthened the legislature and prime minister at the presidency’s expense, while imbuing a previously inconsequential body called the State Council with new powers. The shakeup, so the theories went, would allow Putin in 2024 to either become Prime Minister again, this time with expanded influence, or discreetly exercise control through the new levers available to him as chairman of the State Council. 

In March, however, amidst the background of COVID-19’s beginnings in Russia, Putin changed track. On March 11th, he pushed more amendments through the Duma and Federation Council that would reset his number of presidential limits to zero, thereby allowing him to run for the presidency anew in 2024, as well as ostensibly in 2030, should the then-septuagenarian wish to do so. But before these changes could be finalized as the law of the land, they had to be given popular assent via a national referendum, the date of which Putin set for April 22nd. 

Even without factoring in the effects of COVID-19, Putin’s planned political arithmetic was this time not going to be simply executed. The social contract in place, one requiring sufficient enough economic prosperity to make up for an absence of political rights, was already increasingly tenuous. Putin’s approval took a hit in 2019 after he raised the retirement age, and tough Western sanctions imposed after the seizure of Crimea in 2014 have helped keep Russian disposable incomes below their 2013 levels. 

With the advent of the coronavirus, though, Putin’s position has become more fragile than ever. The first cases arrived on January 31st, when two Chinese tourists were diagnosed with the virus, but initially, it seemed that Russia may have been able to escape the worst. According to government figures, no Russian nationals were infected until February 17th and throughout March, Putin’s air was collected and confident. At the beginning of the month, on the 1st, he declared the situation “entirely under control” and towards the end, on the 25th, he still maintained that Russia had the ability “to restrain both the wide and rapid spread of the disease.” He closed national borders to protect his citizens and their “sovereignty”— one of Putin’s common rallying cries— and declared on March 27th a week-long nationwide ‘holiday’, accompanied by tax deferments for medium and small-sized businesses. 

Putin Graph

If at the beginning of April, the worse had yet to come, over the course of the month the situation in Russia rapidly deteriorated. Cases skyrocketed, and even government officials, including the Prime Minister, were diagnosed with COVID-19. At the same time, Putin’s two-pronged political strategy — that of distancing and deception — became apparent. He began avoiding publicly commenting on the virus and declared that regional governors would have to make difficult decisions themselves. 

This allowed Putin to criticize local leaders from afar for ‘sloppiness’ when the coronavirus became particularly problematic in a certain region, as happened in Komi, Central Russia. Additionally, as legal activist Ernest Mezak pointed out, the fact that local officials lie, because “this is what they have always have done… as a habit” in order to please Putin, helped keep the number of confirmed cases and COVID-19 fatalities at a minimum. 

Still, however, Putin’s efforts to avoid being blamed have not been successful. His public approval was recently measured at 59% by Levada, a pollster thought to be independent of the state. Even putting to one side the well-documented fact that citizens of an authoritarian, or at least highly illiberal, government like that in Russia are likely to overstate their support so as to project loyalty, the May rating was the lowest recorded since Putin took office in 1999. 

Because of the virus and / or his unpopularity, Putin’s all-important national referendum on the constitutional amendments has been delayed. While on March 11th, 64% of voters were recorded to support the changes, by April 17th only 50% of Russians said they would vote their approval. With real incomes expected to fall by at least 5% according to Alfa bank (one of the largest private banks in Russia), and with unemployment forecast to skyrocket, it would seem support for the amendments will likely fall further. 

In a democracy as opaque as Russia, an absence of popular support may not seem overly consequential for Vladimir Putin. But for all his maneuvering, he has largely been popularly supported throughout his 21st-century reign. Still, if the situation in Russia remains dire with oil prices low, regular employment absent, and government aid paltry, then Mr. Putin may face his greatest challenge yet: a truly democratic one.