Covid-19 in 2020

The year when everything changed

Why the pandemic will be remembered as a turning-point

Warren harding built a campaign for the presidential election in 1920 around his new word “normalcy”. 

It was an appeal to Americans’ supposed urge to forget the horrors of the first world war and the Spanish flu and turn back to the certainties of the Golden Age. 

And yet, instead of embracing Harding’s normalcy, the Roaring Twenties became a ferment of forward-looking, risk-taking social, industrial and artistic novelty.

War had something to do with the Jazz Age’s lack of inhibition. So did the flu pandemic, which killed six times as many Americans and left survivors with an appetite to live the 1920s at speed. 

That spirit will also animate the 2020s. The sheer scale of the suffering from covid-19, the injustices and dangers the pandemic has revealed, and the promise of innovation mean that it will be remembered as the year when everything changed.

The pandemic has been a once-in-a-century event (see Graphic detail). sars-cov-2 has been found in over 70m people and possibly infected another 500m or more who were never diagnosed. 

It has caused 1.6m recorded deaths; many hundreds of thousands have gone unrecorded. Millions of survivors are living with the exhaustion and infirmities of “long covid”. 

World economic output is at least 7% lower than it would otherwise have been, the biggest slump since the second world war. 

Out of the ashes of all that suffering will emerge the sense that life is not to be hoarded, but lived.

Another reason to expect change—or, at least, to wish for it—is that covid-19 has served as a warning. 

The 80bn animals slaughtered for food and fur each year are Petri dishes for the viruses and bacteria that evolve into a lethal human pathogen every decade or so. 

This year the bill came due and it was astronomical. The clear blue skies that appeared as the economy went into lockdown were a powerful symbol of how covid-19 is a fast-moving crisis within a slow-moving one that it in some ways resembles. 

Like the pandemic, climate change is impervious to populist denials, global in the disruption it causes and will be far more costly to deal with in the future if it is neglected now.

And a third reason to expect change is that the pandemic has highlighted injustice. 

Children have fallen behind in their lessons—and too often gone hungry. School leavers and graduates have once again seen their prospects recede. People of all ages have endured loneliness or violence at home. 

Migrant workers have been cast adrift, or sent back to their villages, taking the disease with them. The suffering has been skewed by race. A 40-year-old Hispanic-American is 12 times more likely to die from covid-19 than a white American of the same age. In São Paulo black Brazilians under 20 are twice as likely to die as whites.

As the world has adapted some of these iniquities have got worse. 

Studies suggest that about 60% of jobs in America paying over $100,000 can be done from home, compared with 10% of jobs paying under $40,000. 

As unemployment has soared this year, the MSCI index of world stockmarkets has risen by 11%. 

In the worst case, the UN reckons, the pandemic could force over 200m people into extreme poverty. 

Their plight will be exacerbated by authoritarians and would-be tyrants who have exploited the virus to tighten their stranglehold on power.

Perhaps that is why pandemics have led to social upheaval in the past. 

The IMF looked at 133 countries in 2001-18 and found that unrest surged about 14 months after the onset of disease, peaking after 24 months. 

The more unequal a society, the more upheaval. Indeed, the fund warns of a vicious circle in which protest further increases hardship which, in turn, feeds protest.

Fortunately, covid-19 has not just brought about the need for change, it also points a way forward. That is partly because it has served as an engine of innovation. 

Under lockdown, e-commerce as a share of American retail sales increased as much in eight weeks as it had in the previous five years. 

As people worked from home, travel on the New York subway fell by over 90%. Almost overnight, businesses like this newspaper began to be run from spare rooms and kitchen tables—an experiment that would otherwise have taken years to unfold, if ever.

This disruption is in its infancy. The pandemic is proof that change is possible even in conservative industries like health care. Fuelled by cheap capital and new technology, including artificial intelligence and, possibly, quantum computing, innovation will burn through industry after industry. 

For example, costs at American colleges and universities have increased almost five times faster than consumer prices in the past 40 years, even as teaching has barely changed, making it tempting to disrupters. 

Further technological progress in renewable sources of energy, smart grids and battery storage are all vital steps on the path to replacing fossil fuels.

The coronavirus has also revealed something profound about the way societies should treat knowledge. Consider how Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of sars-cov-2 within weeks and shared it with the world. 

The new vaccines that resulted are just one stop in the light-speed progress that has elucidated where the virus came from, whom it affects, how it kills, and what might treat it.

It is a remarkable demonstration of what science can achieve. At a time when conspiracies run wild, this research stands as a rebuke to the know-nothings and zealots in dictatorships and democracies who behave as if the evidence for a claim is as nothing next to the identity of the person asserting it.

And the pandemic has led to a burst of innovative government. Those which can afford it—and some, like Brazil’s, that cannot—have suppressed inequality by spending over $10trn on covid-19, three times more in real terms than in the financial crisis. 

That will dramatically reset citizens’ expectations about what governments can do for them.

Many people under lockdown have asked themselves what matters most in life. 

Governments should take that as their inspiration, focusing on policies that promote individual dignity, self-reliance and civic pride. 

They should recast welfare and education and take on concentrations of entrenched power so as to open up new thresholds for their citizens. 

Something good can come from the misery of the plague year. 

It should include a new social contract fit for the 21st century. 

The Utility and Morality of Assassination

By: George Friedman

The head of the Iranian nuclear weapons program was killed Friday near Tehran. The assumption is that he was killed by the Israelis, whose motive was to cripple the Iranian nuclear weapons program by killing the one man who was most critical to its success. 

It might well have been the Israelis, but there are a significant number of other countries that do not want to see Iran with nuclear weapons. The United States is one such country, but several Arab countries feel the same. 

The Russians might not be thrilled with a nuclear-armed Iran to their south; Tehran and Moscow are friendly now, but adversaries change and nuclear weapons are essentially forever. 

That said, it is reasonable to assume it was the Israelis, since, given Iran’s views, they had the most at stake.

Assassination is not easy. It carries the risk of failure and of retaliation. It is a rational move only in two cases: as a deterrent to frighten an organization or state into changing policy, or when the killing of one person would be decisive in blocking an unwanted development. 

I will focus on the second category, which appears to describe the attack in Iran. The head of a nuclear weapons program might be a genius, or he might simply be a placeholder, shuffling papers, and his death might achieve nothing. 

To be a worthwhile target, he must in some sense be irreplaceable. There should not be a cohort of young geniuses the target has nurtured over the years, ready to take his place. The assassination must have a significant impact on a threat to be worth the effort, the risks and the consequences of failure and retaliation.

The strategically significant individual is rare enough, but correctly identifying him is rarer still. To find him, intelligence operatives must collect elusive information, and analysts must determine whether the information is valid, not just a glorious legend concocted by the individual or others. Identifying the indispensable person is not easy, since he may not exist.

Assuming a suitable target is found, his movements must then be tracked. With cellphones, such tracking may be easier, but there are other devices that might, with difficulty and danger, be used for tracking. A pattern must be uncovered so that the assassination team can attack. 

Most important, it is future movements that must be identified, not past ones. In addition, the target must not be massively and effectively guarded at all times. Ideally, he is minimally protected and follows a highly predictable routine of movement through areas where assassins might wait without being detected. 

The assailants need enough notice to be able to plan where the target will be most vulnerable.

Another challenge inherent in assassination is the threat of revenge. Iran cannot invade Israel, and bombing Israel opens the door to intense retaliation. The proportional step, if indeed it was Israel that carried out the killing, is counter-assassination – or, more likely in this case, a terrorist attack. A terrorist attack is indifferent to who is killed so long as someone is killed, and it is therefore easier to carry out.

The danger now, however, is that the assassinations and counter-assassinations could spiral out of control. Once that happens, anything – even all-out war – is possible. It is not even important whether the first attack was carried out by Israel or some other country – perhaps a country hoping to prompt a military showdown by putting Iran in a position where it feels it must take military action. 

At this point what is important is who Iran believes to be responsible.

The “what ifs” are endless. The point is that while assassination is meant to be a self-contained event, its permutations are endless and potentially unexpected. Therefore, the only circumstance under which assassination can be rationally used is when its use is decisive against an extremely significant program. 

The Iranian nuclear weapons program would seem to fit this condition, but it’s not yet clear that the scientist who was killed was truly significant or that his death won’t create massive collateral damage.

The moral question is, in my mind, simpler than the practical difficulties. It is true that killing the citizen of a country with whom there is no declaration of war is problematic. But declarations of war have gone by the wayside since 1945. There have been many wars and few have had formal declarations. 

So this feature of international law has become meaningless, which I regard as a pity but a reality. If there are going to be wars, I cannot imagine why it is more legitimate to kill thousands of people than it is to kill one, just because you formally stated your intention in advance. Indeed, if killing one might prevent thousands from dying, then it is not only moral but a moral imperative. 

So if Israel legitimately feared the annihilation of its nation if Iran built nuclear weapons, then the choices are submission to Israel’s own destruction, a preemptive strike on Iran, or the death of the indispensable person. 

There is a strong moral case that can be made against war, but over the millennia such arguments have been made without effect A moral claim can stand as a marker, but persistently ignored, it cannot guide the action of nations. 

Nations fear each other, frequently with very good reason. The fears are usually mutual.

I have difficulty understanding the moral argument against assassination, or the practical purpose of pacifism. But I can understand why assassination is rare: It is very difficult to do and has potential consequences that are dizzying. 

But when a surgical strike against one person can increase the security of the nation that assassinates, it would seem to be at least as legitimate as an invasion. But the circumstances under which you can identify the indispensable figure and kill him are both rare and enormously difficult. 

The problem is not moral but practical. 

China Won 2020

After a rocky start, China has clearly ended 2020 on a high note, having brought the pandemic under control and strengthened its position both in Asia and on the global stage. Though the world has been spared another four years of Donald Trump, America and its allies will have their work cut out for them.

Joschka Fischer

BERLIN – In future history books, 2020 will be known as the year of the great COVID-19 pandemic, and rightly so. But it will also be remembered as the year when US President Donald Trump’s vile tenure was brought to an end. 

Both episodes are closely connected and will leave lasting traces, partly because they unfolded during a broader global transition from the US-dominated twentieth century to a Chinese-dominated twenty-first century.

Against this backdrop, 2020 proved to be a highly successful year for China. To be sure, things didn’t look that way at its start, when a novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, was rampaging through the metropolis of Wuhan. 

Serious failures by Chinese authorities permitted that outbreak to grow into a pandemic that has now killed almost 1.5 million people and brought the global economy to a standstill. Earlier in the year, it looked as though China’s central leadership was facing a deep crisis of confidence. Coming on the back of a trade war with the United States, COVID-19 momentarily brought the country to its knees.

Since then, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s forceful suppression of the democracy movement in Hong Kong has further increased Western distrust. The administrative clampdown under a draconian new national-security law ends the era of “one country, two systems,” and raises grave questions about the future of Taiwan.1

In any case, China’s position looks much improved at the end of 2020. Its failures at the beginning of the pandemic seem to have been largely forgotten, particularly within China. 

There is no longer any trace of a loss of public confidence in the central leadership. 

Employing radical measures, China’s authoritarian one-party state quickly contained COVID-19 and put the economy back on track, enabling a near-complete return to normal life.

In the trade war with the US, China has given little ground (mainly a promise to buy $200 billion in US goods). The crackdown in Hong Kong seems to be working precisely as Xi had hoped it would. 

And in November, China mounted something of a geopolitical coup with the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a new trade agreement that will put it at the center of the world’s largest free-trade area. 

The RCEP will connect China’s huge market to those of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – from Indonesia and Singapore to Vietnam – and will include important US allies such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. 

For the time being, India is not participating, but it might join later. The only regional player to be left out of the RCEP is America.

The creation of a new, China-centered economic bloc illustrates the difference between reality and reality TV. When Trump arrived in the White House in January 2017, one of his first official acts was to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement negotiated by President Barack Obama that would have created something like the RCEP, only with America at the center and China left out. 

Witnessing this US act of self-harm, China’s leaders presumably couldn’t believe their luck, and Xi’s government has been working hard to exploit Trump’s generous gift ever since.

These efforts are now bearing fruit. With a new free-trade zone will come new geopolitical realities. A web of dependencies will arise around China, strengthening its position across the Indo-Pacific region.

While China emerges stronger from this year of crisis, America has come out weaker. Because of Trump, COVID-19 is running riot in the US, and the country remains focused on itself, seeming to others to be floundering in division, chaos, and weakness. 

This perception has far-reaching geopolitical consequences. 

Following a contentious election that Trump has tried to discredit, many around the world are wondering if President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration will be in any position to lead the US out of its downward spiral. 

The current post-election phase does not inspire confidence that the two warring political camps will find common ground.

In these turbulent times of pandemic and escalating economic and geopolitical rivalries, America needs its friends more than ever, and America’s friends need it. 

Without a restoration of US global leadership under Biden, China will be well on its way to becoming the dominant force in the world, and that is not a comforting prospect for US partners and allies in Europe, the Indo-Pacific, and elsewhere.

The world got a glimpse of what Chinese hegemony might look like this month when Xi’s regime issued a 14-point diktat to Australia demanding that it “correct mistakes” it has made in the bilateral relationship. 

Following Australia’s call for an international investigation of the origins of SARS-CoV-2, its exclusion of two Chinese companies (ZTE and Huawei) from its 5G network, and negative reporting about China in the Australian media, China has unashamedly singled out Australia with new trade barriers.

Europeans, in particular, should take note of this behavior. America’s allies will soon be rid of Trump and his nationalistic foreign policy. But if “America First” is simply replaced with “China First,” little will have been gained. 

Europeans and others will still be looking down the barrel of endless tributes and kowtowing. Europeans must wake up. 

This is the last chance to shore up the “benevolent” hegemon and the promise of liberty in the twenty-first century.

Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years.

DeepMind claims major breakthrough in understanding proteins

Discovery may dramatically speed up discovery of new drugs

Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan in London

DeepMind’s AlphaFold program can predict how proteins fold into three dimensions. © DeepMind

DeepMind, the UK-based artificial intelligence company owned by Alphabet, has said it can predict the structure of proteins, a breakthrough that could dramatically speed up the discovery of new drugs.

Scientists have spent decades trying to work out how proteins, which begin as strings of chemical compounds, fold into three-dimensional shapes, which then define their behaviour.

Identifying the shape of even a single protein can take years, but DeepMind said its AlphaFold system was able to provide accurate results, to within the width of an atom, within days.

“This advance is our first major breakthrough in a longstanding grand challenge in science,” said Demis Hassabis, founder and chief executive of DeepMind, adding that he hoped it would have “a big impact on our ability to understand disease and the biology of life”. 

DeepMind was acquired by Google in 2014 for £400m.

An understanding of proteins and the ways in which they behave could help researchers with their work on almost all diseases, including Covid-19.

Demis Hassabis, DeepMind founder and chief executive, said he hoped the breakthrough would have ‘a big impact on our ability to understand disease and the biology of life’

“Even tiny rearrangements of these vital molecules can have catastrophic effects on our health, so one of the most efficient ways to understand disease and find new treatments is to study the proteins involved,” said John Moult, the organiser of a global competition to solve protein folding.

There are also practical uses for DeepMind’s program in other scientific fields, such as finding enzymes that can be used to break down waste.

AlphaFold was trained on around 170,000 known structures over a few weeks. “To see DeepMind produce a solution for this, having worked personally on this problem for so long and after so many stops and starts wondering if we would ever get there, is a very special moment,” said Mr Moult.

“It will be exciting to see the many ways in which it will fundamentally change biological research,” said Professor Venki Ramakrishnan, Nobel laureate and president of the Royal Society, dubbing it a “stunning advance”.

viernes, diciembre 18, 2020


Why WhatsApp matters

By Shira Ovide

WhatsApp is being remodeled in front of our eyes. 

Watch what happens because even if you don’t use the messaging app, the changes could reshape the direction of the internet.

Perhaps never before has an online property been so popular and made such little money. 

More than two billion people worldwide use WhatsApp regularly to text or make phone calls, but it scarcely generates any money for Facebook, which has owned WhatsApp since 2014.

That’s because WhatsApp is mostly a personal communications app, and Facebook doesn’t make money from that group chat with your cousins. 

This looks set to change. 

Haltingly, including by agreeing to buy a customer service start-up on Monday, Facebook is trying to use its trademark playbook to remake WhatsApp into an inescapable way for businesses to interact with us.

If Facebook figures it out, WhatsApp could change how we shop and use the internet forever — as the company’s main social network and Instagram did. If not, Facebook will own a spectacularly popular failure. 

The outcome will set trends for our digital lives and determine which businesses thrive or don’t.

To understand WhatsApp, you need to know about Facebook’s three-step playbook and why it’s breaking down.

First, Facebook makes a nice space for people to hang out with one another. That was the original Facebook social network, then it bought spots like Instagram and WhatsApp.

Once lots of people are there and comfy, Facebook lets businesses in to mingle with people and maybe try to sell running shoes or bedsheets. 

Step three, the company finds ways to make those businesses pay to reach people. 

That’s the ticket to riches.

With its main social network and Instagram, businesses pay Facebook by buying ads. 

Facebook’s other messaging app, Messenger, has started down this path, too. 

But Facebook has decided that advertisements probably aren’t the way to go for WhatsApp. And it doesn’t exactly know what else to do when it has to deviate from its three-step plan.

The first two steps have gone swimmingly with WhatsApp. The app isn’t widely used in the United States, but in many countries it’s the go-to way to stay in touch with friends and family. 

And businesses are using WhatsApp to take product orders or respond to customer questions.

It’s just that Facebook hasn’t quite figured out how to hone these habits, refine them, spread them to more companies and make money from it. 

That third step is tricky. 

It’s heartening, really, to see the big and mighty Facebook fumbling in the dark a little.

With the planned purchase of Kustomer, a (ridiculously named) start-up that helps businesses do customer service by chat apps, you can see that Facebook wants WhatsApp to be a version of customer call centers. 

It’s also trying to make WhatsApp a 21st-century Sears catalog, or maybe a digital currency.

It all seems plausible. 

Sure, WhatsApp could be the best forum for airlines to rebook your flights and for you to check out Levi’s jeans and buy a pair in the chat app. 

WhatsApp could be the only online presence for many companies. Or maybe none of this will catch on widely. I don’t know, and maybe for the first time in its history, Facebook doesn’t know, either.

The direction of WhatsApp matters because it’s about us.

Think about how Facebook and Instagram changed how many of us interact with one another and find information, influenced how businesses get us interested in their products and maybe rewired our brains.

WhatsApp is that all over again, but potentially more profound because the app is most popular in countries where internet habits are relatively new. 

WhatsApp in India could change the entire retail industry in ways we can’t imagine. 

It could influence how governments plan their currencies.

Or, again, WhatsApp could stay wildly popular but never fulfill the hopes Facebook has for it. 

I’m not sure which outcome we want, but I’ll be paying close attention either way.