The World This Week

Our editors give us a breakdown of this week’s current affairs

United Kingdom: Harry Street 

Over Christmas, the term ‘partygate’ was coined by British tabloids to describe the large number of illegal gatherings held by government officials throughout the pandemic. This week, more fuel has been added to the fire, with many backbenchers submitting letters to the chair of the 1922 committee, emphasising their lack of confidence in Johnson to lead the Conservative Party. Additionally, Johnson suffered another blow when Tory MP Christian Wakeford defected to Labour, minutes before PMQs took place. Wakeford’s reasoning was that the Prime Minister is “incapable of offering leadership the party and this country deserves”. This leaves the country waiting for the long-anticipated report by Sue Gray: A recent celebrity in the world of politics. The report is scheduled to be released next week, which could seal the fate of Johnson and his party.

The British government has once again eased COVID-19 restrictions; Sajid Javid, the current Health Secretary, announced the ending of masks in schools, only weeks after it was introduced. Additionally, other Plan-B restrictions, including working from home guidance and masks in indoor spaces, will be scrapped from 26 January. Scotland has followed in a similar fashion, as the First Minister announced that their restrictions will ease from Monday, allowing for greater liberties in the hospitality sector. This comes following a recent fall in COVID-19 cases across the country; however, many scientists and healthcare experts fear these adjustments could lead to a second surge in cases, which could strain the NHS in subsequent months.

Asia Pacific: Sophie Evans 

The eruption of an underwater volcano near the pacific islands of Tonga last Saturday is said to be one of the largest recorded anywhere in the world in over 30 years. The eruption and subsequent tsunami have caused “significant damage” on the main island of Tongatapu. The eruption sent a massive plume of ash, gas and steam of 20 kilometers (about twice the height of Mount Everest) into the atmosphere, and caused tsunami waves to come crashing across the pacific. The tsunami is reported to have left at least three dead, including a British national. Additionally, the wreckage caused has severed communication systems, affecting international phone links. Tonga has therefore been largely cut off from the outside world, and little is known about the true scale of this destruction. Recent images, however, show Pacific islands blanketed in a layer of volcanic ash. This ash has hampered the ability for relief planes to land and deliver food and drinking water, critical for the population. Aerial images taken by the New Zealand Air Force also indicate that several villages have been wiped out on islands from the aftermath of the tsunami. As of Wednesday (19th January), the Red Cross has been able to make contact with its team in Tonga for the first time since the eruption. Aid ships from New Zealand and Australia are also expected to arrive on Friday, bringing fresh water and desalination equipment.  

Protests and rioting have left Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, with burnt-out buildings, a destroyed central square and at least 149 people dead. On January 4th peaceful protests over fuel prices quickly turned violent as thousands took to the streets and the demonstration was co-opted by those who witnesses believe were armed criminals or coup plotters. Indeed, what began as a riot over a lifted price cap on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), swiftly became politically charged as rioters chanted the name of ex-president Nursultan Nazarbayev and attempted to tear down his statue. Nazarbayev stepped down in 2019 in the face of anti-government protests towards his authoritarian leadership. The protests led to high scale destruction, as shops and banks were looted, media buildings attacked, and the mayor’s building burnt down. Almaty residents now face food shortages, with many big supermarkets closed and it has reportedly been difficult to find places to withdraw money for the few cash-only shops that remain open. The internet and phone connectivity has also been affected, inhibiting the ability for sources to find out whether the protests have spread to this scale outside of the city. In response to the unrest, the government has been accused of using excessive force to restore order. Some 10,000 people have been detained in the wake of the disturbances. Heavy armed forces’ presence remains around the city, as families continue to look for missing relatives, lost to the disruption.  

India: Rudra Sen

The Election Commission of India has extended its ban on poll rallies and roadshows ahead of five state elections that are scheduled to take place soon. The ban comes at a time when most states in the country are reporting a significant surge in coronavirus cases. The decision to ban physical rallies was taken by the Election Commission of India after a series of meetings with the Union Ministry of Health and chief electoral officers of the five states scheduled to hold elections. The Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra has urged political parties to adhere to Covid norms and warned officials that they could face action or penalties if they fail to act against violations. 

The Supreme Court of India in a recent judgment held that daughters of Hindu men who have died without making a will would be entitled to inherit all self-acquired and other properties obtained by their father. This comes as a huge win for women’s property rights in India as women often face a significant number of social and legal hurdles when it comes to inheritance. However, many states in India still have regressive inheritance provisions that are patriarchal in nature. For instance, in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, married daughters are not considered primary heirs since 2016. 

China: Tommy Pigatto 

The Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics are still due to take place this February and March, despite COVID worries, environmental concerns, and diplomatic boycotts over government censorship and Xinjiang human rights abuses. The games, currently scheduled to take place between February 4th to February 20th, have become the topic of much controversy, with countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Lithuania refusing to send any government officials to attend the games. British politician Iain Duncan Smith made clear the point of this diplomatic boycott is to not “lend any legitimacy to China’s despotic regime”, while the United States stated that their boycott is a direct response to ongoing “human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang”. In response to the boycott, China’s foreign ministry has stated that the United States and its diplomatic allies had “violated the Olympic spirit”, and threatened that they would “pay a price for their erroneous actions”. The games will take place without an audience, while the athletes will be methodically isolated from one another in between events. Because there will be no snow in China at this time, the government plans to create 1.2 million cubic meters of artificial snow prior to the games, which has prompted environmental concerns over the sustainability of these games as well. Furthermore, Olympic athletes from around the world have been urged to use burner phones while in China for fear of government spying and censorship.

Africa: Laura da Silva 

Africa will only accept COVID-19 vaccines with longer-term shelf lives, as the continent struggles to deliver surprise donated doses before expiration. Africa’s top health organisations have called for donated doses to have a shelf life of at least three to six months to enable African countries enough time to plan and execute an efficient rollout. The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that about 2.8 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have expired on the continent which is about 0.5% of total donated vaccine doses. John Nkengasong, director of Africa CDC, emphasised in a news briefing on Thursday that “any dose of vaccine that expires…is a life that can potentially be saved”. Last week Uganda announced plans to destroy 400,000 doses that will expire before they reach mass vaccination schemes, while Nigeria had to destroy over one million expired doses in December. These expired doses are usually among those donated by individual countries or via the COVAX scheme and so arrive with “very short notice”. Consequently, some African countries have complained that these donations of fast-expiring vaccines have created a damaging narrative about African rollout schemes as they add to the proportion of doses that have expired in African countries.

A huge electricity price hike is expected in South Africa despite ongoing rolling blackouts. Eskom, a state-owned enterprise and the sole South African electricity provider, has applied for an electricity price increase of 20.5% for its 2023 financial year set to take effect from 1 April 2022. However, analysts have raised concerns about this projection, and Nersa, the national electricity regulator, estimates an increase as high as 40% depending on how much outstanding debt Eskom manages to ‘claw back’. Eskom has defended this enormous increase as necessary to service its debt as well as to allow maintenance to power plants which “the pandemic prevented us from doing”. Meanwhile, South Africans have been experiencing daily rolling blackouts on and off, mind the pun, for the past few years as the state-owned enterprise has struggled with cases of corruption, mismanagement, and insufficient maintenance. 

North America: Amelia Brown 

Thursday marked one year of President Biden in office. Biden sat at just over a 40% approval rating that day, according to FiveThirtyEight, reflecting the frustration both sides of the aisle have been feeling lately. From failing to control the pandemic, to stalling on pushing through his ambitious Build Back Better plan, to enduring inflation, Biden has faced many setbacks his first year. Perhaps in an effort to amend some of these shortcomings, the administration has this week also made at home covid tests free and available to all Americans, as well as committing to giving N95 masks out.  There are concerns over the United States Postal Service’s ability to deliver all households’ orders, which will not even start shipping until late January. Supply chain concerns over the distribution of so many N95 masks have also been raised—the more protective masks had previously been left for medical professionals only. But omicron has caused the US to reach over 850,000 covid deaths this week, so a new response from the federal government is also welcomed by many. 

With cases and hospitalizations skyrocking this month all over the continent, Canada and the US have both put pressure on truck drivers to get vaccinated. Last week Canada stopped the exemption for Canadian freight truck drivers that allowed them to not be fully vaccinated and still cross the border back into the country from the US. Similarly, the US has this week enacted a ban on unvaccinated freight drivers coming from Canada and Mexico to deliver in the US. Meanwhile, Mexico continues to have some of the loosest travel restrictions, with no vaccine, testing, or quarantine requirements, despite reaching almost a 50,000 new daily cases average this week. 

Latin America: Leo Le Borgne 

Chile’s president-elect Gabriel Boric announced his women-majority cabinet selection earlier this week. The announcement comes after the socialist political neophyte defeated far-right politician Jose Antonio Kast during the 2021 Chilean presidential election. Boric’s cabinet selection is reflective of the progressive standard which he campaigned for during one of Chile’s most polarized elections. Emerging from a state of political and civil turmoil, Chile is still reeling from the military dictatorship that took place under Agusto Pinochet’s command during the late 20th century. With many Chileans, either resenting Pinochet’s brutal rule or yearning for his political era that kept socialism at bay to return, Boric will have to navigate the hyperpolarized Andean nation that suffered massive protests and riots in recent years. Boric’s political mission entails the rewriting of Chile’s constitution and political institutions, which still hold many fragments that date back to Pinochet’s rule. Chile’s civil and political system has been in an institutional limbo since Pinochet’s fall, stuck between a past authoritarian junta and the future democratic government it hopes to become.

Peru has entered a state of ecological crisis following a major oil spill last week. The spill, which occurred at La Pampilla Refinery, was caused by the tsunami waves that emerged from the underwater volcanic eruption near Tonga thousands of miles away. With 6000 barrels of crude oil having already spilled into the ocean, Respol, the Spanish owner of La Pampilla, may be subject to fines up to $36 million among other criminal and civil pursuits- Peru’s environment minister announced.

Science & Technolgoy: Abi Byrne

The largest study to date on bacterial antimicrobial resistance has estimated that 1.27 million deaths can be attributed to drug-resistant bacterial infections in 2019. Another 5 million deaths in 2019 were found to be from diseases where antibiotic-resistant bacteria had a role. For comparison, in 2019 860,000 people died of AIDS, and 640,000 of malaria. The study, published in the Lancet, analysed data from 204 countries. It found that the burden of antimicrobial resistance is highest in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The historic overuse of antibiotics for trivial infections means that people are now dying from previously treatable infections, as they become resistant to treatment. This data only substantiates fears that antimicrobial resistance is a “hidden pandemic” that may emerge in the aftermath of COVID-19, if precautions are not taken to ensure antibiotics are prescribed responsibly. The study concludes that urgent investment into new drug development, as well as responsible use of currently available drugs, is essential to prevent further worsening of the already grave situation. 

A paper published in Environmental Science and Technology has concluded that global pollution has crossed the ‘safe operating space of the planetary boundary’. Meaning that chemical pollution has now passed what could be considered a safe limit for humanity. The study found that the production of plastics and other pollutants has surpassed our ability to monitor it, threatening global ecosystems. Scientists involved in the review used the concept of a ‘planetary boundary’ which was first termed in 2009 to describe a boundary point in the Earth system, which if crossed could result in a tipping point that would harm human life. co-author of the study and ecotoxicologist, Bethanie Carney Almroth has said, “There’s evidence that things are pointing in the wrong direction every step of the way. For example, the total mass of plastics now exceeds the total mass of all living mammals. That to me is a pretty clear indication that we’ve crossed a boundary. We’re in trouble, but there are things we can do to reverse some of this.”
A study on US vaccine clinical trials has found that more than two-thirds of common side-effects experienced by patients after their COVID-19 vaccinations can be explained by a ‘nocebo effect’. It has been reported that adverse side-effects experienced in placebo arms (nocebo responses) during the COVID-19 vaccine trials were substantial. This suggests that a large proportion of mild reported side-effects of the vaccine such as headaches, short-term fatigue and arm pain are not due to the contents of the vaccine, but instead by other nocebo responses such as increased anxiety and misattribution of unrelated ailments to having received the jab. This is particularly important as concern about side-effects has been consistently reported as a cause for vaccine uptake hesitancy during the pandemic. The researchers argue that better public understanding of these nocebo effects could improve vaccine uptake. Senior author of the study and professor of global health and medicine at Harvard Ted Kaptchuk has said, “Telling patients that the intervention they are taking has side-effects that are similar to placebo treatments for the condition in randomised controlled trials actually reduces anxiety and makes patients take a moment to consider the side-effect,”. However, he does admit that more research is needed, and the study did not look at the more severe and rare reported side-effects such as blood clots and heart inflammation.

Image Source: Flickr

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