Friday 17 April, 2020

Emmanuel Macron says it is time to think the unthinkable

Today’s Financial Times has a very interesting, wide-ranging interview with the French President. One segment in particular stood out for me:

There is a realisation, Mr Macron says, that if people could do the unthinkable to their economies to slow a pandemic, they could do the same to arrest catastrophic climate change. People have come to understand “that no one hesitates to make very profound, brutal choices when it’s a matter of saving lives. It’s the same for climate risk,” he says. “Great pandemics of respiratory distress syndromes like those we are living through now used to seem very far away, because they always stopped in Asia. Well, climate risk seems very far away because it affects Africa and the Pacific. But when it reaches you, it’s wake-up time.”

“Mr Macron likened the fear of suffocating that comes with Covid-19 to the effects of air pollution. “When we get out of this crisis people will no longer accept breathing dirty air,” he says. “People will say . . . ‘I do not agree with the choices of societies where I’ll breathe such air, where my baby will have bronchitis because of it. And remember you stopped everything for this Covid thing but now you want to make me breathe bad air!’”

This is the top story today IMHO. One way of looking at the Coronavirus crisis is as a dry run for the really existential crisis that’s on its way further down the line — catastrophic climate change. And the question is: will the trauma of the pandemic persuade publics worldwide that we can’t go on as before?

Just now, though, the yearning is for the current crisis to be over. Alas, that moment might be some way off. So it’s worth thinking trying to figure out what a realistic scenario might look like, and what needs to be prioritised as we make the transition into that new future.

In that context, a recent YouGov survey of British public opinion is interesting. According to one report, the survey found that:

  • Only 9% of Britons want life to return to “normal” after the coronavirus outbreak is over.

  • People have noticed significant changes during the lockdown, including cleaner air, more wildlife and stronger communities.

  • More than half (54%) of 4,343 people who took part in the poll hope they will make some changes in their own lives and for the country as a whole to learn from the crisis.

  • 42% of participants said they value food and other essentials more since the pandemic, with 38% cooking from scratch more.

  • 61% of people are spending less money and 51% noticed cleaner air outdoors, while 27% think there is more wildlife.

  • Two-fifths said there is a stronger sense of community in their area since the outbreak began and 39% say they are catching up with friends and family more.

A global poll conducted by Ipsos/Mori found wide divergences of views when people were asked if they believed that things would get back to normal soon.

Personally, I don’t take this poll seriously simply because the question it was asking (“do you expect things to return to normal by June?”) is daft. But it does suggest wide cultural divergence in expectations on how long this crisis will last.

The YouGov poll was commissioned by a number of organisations, one of which was the Royal Society of Arts. Matthew Taylor, its Chief Executive, has an interesting essay on what comes next. “It is natural to think about the next few months of the pandemic as ‘the crisis’ and ‘the world afterwards’”, he writes. “But it may be more useful to think of three stages:”

  • the immediate crisis
  • the transitional period
  • the emergence of a new normal.

The transition period may last some time and it is important to start exploring the principles that could and should govern it. Emergency powers and measures aren’t right for an extended period of time.

Democracy, transparency, devolution, protecting health, and protecting the most vulnerable should be some of our priority principles for transition.

Taylor’s essay spells some of this out in more detail.

The WHO shouldn’t be a plaything for great powers

Just because Trump is scapegoating it doesn’t mean the WHO hasn’t made mistakes. Trump’s ploy to de-fund the WHO is a transparent effort to distract from his administration’s failure to prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic. It would also be disastrous because many countries, especially poor ones, currently depend on the WHO for medical help and supplies. However, writes Zeyney Tufecki, it is also true that in the run-up to this pandemic, the WHO failed the world in significant ways.

It failed, she argues, because it’s unduly attentive to the whims of the nations that fund it and choose its leader. In July 2017, China moved aggressively to elect its current leadership, for example. Instead of fixing any of the problems with the way the WHO operates, though, Trump seems to merely want the United States to be the bigger bully than China.

Tufecki’s argument is that one can see the desire not to offend China in the WHO’s initial response to the outbreak in Wuhan. The organisation, she continues, should

not have brazenly tweeted, as late as January 14, that “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China.” That claim was false, and known by the authorities in Wuhan to be false.. Taiwan had already told the WHO of the truth too. On top of that, the day before that tweet was sent, there had been a case in Thailand: a woman from Wuhan who had traveled to Thailand, but who had never been to the seafood market associated with the outbreak—which strongly suggested that the virus was already spreading within Wuhan.

The trouble with the WHO is the problem that every major UN organisation has — it’s dominated by the countries that fund it. And ever since China has begun to become more involved in international organisations — and stumping up funding for them — they have become more attentive. Much the same seems to be happening to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) which is being pushed by China and a number of other authoritarian states to change Internet protocols to make the network more susceptible to central control — using as a rationale the need to update the network to be able to serve the Internet of Things.

Still, Facebook hasn’t yet caught up with Trump’s disapproval of the WHO. It will will steer users who interact with coronavirus misinformation to the WHO!

Libra turns out to be a feeble duck, but, sadly, one that is not yet dead.

When Facebook unveiled its Libra cryptocurrency project last June, the company described it as a futuristic global money that could serve as the foundation for a new kind of financial system. But on Thursday it rolled out a feebler design for Libra after the effort encountered numerous hurdles and heavy regulatory scrutiny. It’ll basically be just another PayPal. Couldn’t happen to nastier people.

Twitter, masks and expertise.

So, it turns out that the medical establishment is no longer quite so sure that wearing masks in public is not necessary. That, at any rate, is my reading of this editorial in the British Medical Journal, a pukka source if ever there was one.

“Covid-19: should the public wear face masks?”, it asks. And the answer: “Yes — population benefits are plausible and harms unlikely”. This is really interesting because the “expert” advice relied upon by the government was dismissive of the importance of masks except in clinical settings, and the only places where the case for wearing masks was consistently argued were social media, and especially Twitter.

This makes uncomfortable reading for those of us — including me — who are deeply suspicious of much of the stuff that circulates on those media. What it highlights — as Ben Thompson has been pointing out in his (paywalled) newsletter — is that the abundance of information on social media has both a good and a bad side: there’s a lot of crap but there’s a lot of good stuff too. And in a situation like the current pandemic, where so much is unknown (for example the mortality rate and the proportion of the population that is asymptomatically infected) then mainstream media has been too dependent on ‘expert’ opinion — that has been shown to be faulty.

The tech giants are here to stay

One of the few certainties about the post-pandemic world is that the dominance of the big five tech giants we be further enhanced. See Farhad Manjoo’s piece in the NYT for a fuller exposition. This will change the regulatory landscape; and the debate about what to do about this kind of corporate power.

“It’ll be all over by Christmas”

No it won’t. But if you want a real dystopian take on the next phase of this, then Charlie Stross’s blog post should see you right.

Quarantine diary — Day 27


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