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Migrants: A Glimpse of the Future

Turkey has opened the floodgates, and soon Europe will be drowning in immigrants. “Hundreds of thousands have crossed,” Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed on television, “and soon it will reach millions.” And it must be true, because you can see it live on your medium of choice.

Look at this clip of Greek frontier guards firing tear gas canisters into angry, stone-throwing crowds of refugees who are right up against the border fence. Look at this shot of other Greek paramilitary troops shooting into the water right beside a rubber raft filled with refugees. Millions and millions of refugees. The migrant Armageddon is at hand.

It’s ugly, but it’s not really what it seems. Erdogan says he has opened Turkey’s border with the west because the country has already taken in 3.6 million refugees, mostly from Syria. There’s just no room for the several million more now trying to get out of Idlib, the last Syrian province held by jihadi rebels. So he’s sending them west.

That is, at best, an over-simplification. There are no more Syrian refugees coming into Turkey from Idlib, because Turkey has closed the border against them. Indeed, most of the people now trying to storm the borders of Greece and Bulgaria – 13,000 at last count, not “hundreds of thousands” – are not Syrians at all.

They are Afghans, Eritreans, Iraqis, West Africans, some genuine refugees and others ‘economic migrants’, who are already living safely in Turkey, but would rather be in some country in the European Union.

They didn’t walk 600 km from Idlib, either. The Turkish government is bussing them to Greece’s land and sea frontiers from wherever they have been living in Turkey, telling them (falsely) that the Europeans will let them in. Erdogan just wants to put pressure on the EU.

Pressure to do what? Good question. He may not know himself, but he’s desperate because his bluff in Syria has been called and he’s facing a potential military confrontation with Russia. It’s not clear how putting the Europeans into play will change that, but he’s definitely at the ‘Do something! Anything!’ stage of desperation.

Erdogan’s problem is that for the past three months the Syrian army, with strong Russian air support, has been taking Idlib province back from Turkey’s Syrian jihadi allies, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly an al-Qaeda franchise) , in a slow, grinding offensive.

Turkey has troops in Idlib, and has gradually been committing them to combat to help the jihadis, but still the Syrian-Russian advance continues. Erdogan has threatened to go to full-scale war, and the Syrian regime and the Russians haven’t even blinked. More than fifty Turkish soldiers have already been killed, so what does he do now?

I don’t know, and I suspect he doesn’t know either. The whole refugee thing may just be a displacement activity, not part of a cunning plan. We’ll probably know more in a week’s time – but in the meantime, look at those clips again, because that’s what the future, or at least a big part of it, will look like.

This is the first time that we have documented evidence of European border guards shooting at, or at least very near, illegal migrants. Yes, there are special circumstances, the migrants are being sent as part of a political ploy – but it will not be the last time.

The Syrian civil war is stumbling to an end, but migrants from all the other countries south and east from Europe will keep coming, and their numbers will swell.

All of the Middle East and West Africa is going to be hit early and very hard by global heating, which will cause a steady fall in food production. The rule of thumb is that you lose 10% of food production for every rise in average temperature of one degree C.

To make matters worse, these regions also have the highest population growth rates in the world: doubling times for most countries are 25 years or less. Now it’s poverty and war that drives the migrants; in the future it will be actual hunger (and war, of course).

They will head for Europe in ever-increasing numbers, because there’s no other safe haven in reach, but it will not remain a safe haven. There will never be another year like 2016, when the European Union, led by Germany, let more than a million refugees in out of sheer pity for their plight. In fact, the political backlash to that act of generosity has already driven politics sharply to the right all over the continent.

Europe’s external borders are already closing down, but in years to come the dirty little secret that everybody refuses to acknowledge will finally become public knowledge. It’s quite easy to shut borders, really. You just have to be willing to kill people who try to cross them without permission.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 15. (“The Syrian…swell”; and “They will…continent”)

British Roulette

“I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose their loved ones before their time.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, 11 March 2020

“Just stay calm. It will go away.”
President Donald Trump, 10 March 2020

The contrast between the two major populist leaders of the English-speaking world could not have been greater. Trump, who spent two months dismissing the Covid-19 virus as a “hoax” cooked up by his opponents to crash the market and scupper his re-election chances, finally did an about-face on 13 March and declared a “National Emergency”. But on Sunday he was still fantasizing that “we have tremendous control” over the virus.

Johnson, on the other hand, assumed a grave manner as he delivered the bad news. It’s serious, many people will die, but we do have a plan. The problem is that the plan may kill a great many Britons for nothing if he is wrong – which most experts think he is.

“When I heard about Britain’s ‘herd immunity’ coronavirus plan, I thought it was satire,” epidemiologist William Hanage of Harvard University told the Guardian on Sunday. But it is deadly serious. Boris Johnson, unlike Donald Trump, listens to scientists, but the ones he listens to most, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical adviser Chris Whitty, have a plan that most other experts think is crazy.

‘Herd immunity’ occurs when a large majority of the community has acquired immunity to a disease. That breaks the chain of transmission for the virus in question, and even those without immunity are fairly safe so long as their numbers stay low. So this is Boris’s cunning plan.

Let the coronavirus spread until around 60 percent of the population has acquired and survived it. Then the dreaded ‘second wave’ of the epidemic will not happen, because herd immunity will protect everybody. Alas, there are a few flaws in this plan.

Sixty percent of the British population is about 40 million people. Only 0.2% of adults under 40 who contract Covid-19 die from it (and those under 10 don’t get sick at all). The death rate goes up steeply for older age groups, but even for those in their 60s it’s only 3.6%. So for all the under-70s it’s only – hang on a minute, that’s 445,000 deaths. More than British military deaths in World War Two.

That’s assuming that Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) can give intensive care to all the severe cases of Covid-19. If the UK follows the pattern in China, around one in five coronavirus patients will need intensive care to recover. One in five of 40 million people is eight million.

The number of beds in intensive care units (ICUs) in British hospitals is 4,300. Maybe the NHS can improvise 10,000 more, but it still wouldn’t go far if up to 8 million severely ill patients need ICU beds this year, each for weeks at a time. Many more than 445,000 would die. The whole scheme is lunacy – and we still haven’t got to the plan for the over-70s.

The death rate from Covid-19 for people in their 70s is 8%. For 80 and over, it’s at least 15 %. So while everybody under 70 takes their chances with the virus, all those over 70 must self-isolate for four months. Those who venture out can be fined up to £1,000 (US$ 1,230) or even jailed.

Moreover, there may be unknown after-effects of having Covid-19, like getting shingles decades after you had chickenpox. There are reports of lung damage in many survivors. Re-infection may be possible: infected people have tested positive again after being discharged negative. Why don’t we give Covid-19 to 40 million people and see what happens?

Now, it’s possible that Boris Johnson’s advisers are right and everybody else is wrong. Maybe there is a devastating ‘second wave’ coming next winter, and this bizarre plan is the only way to stop it. But we don’t even know if Covid-19 will have a second wave. There wasn’t with SARS, a similar coronavirus. As William Hanage said, “vulnerable people should not be exposed to a virus right now in the service of a hypothetical future.”

Elsewhere, there’s a dramatic fall in the number of new infections in Asian countries that started testing, contact tracing and social distancing early on. China has had 81,000 cases, but on Monday reported only seven new cases. No official will say this aloud, but Britain is deliberately neglecting all that and letting the infections rip.

Testing, contact tracing and social distancing may turn out to be ineffective: infections may pick up again in other countries when the rules are finally relaxed. (280 million Chinese went back to work on Monday after two months of lockdown). But that strategy is certainly worth a try, whereas Johnson, in the words of Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of leading British medical journal ‘The Lancet’, is “playing roulette with the public.”

Why is he doing it? Perhaps it’s just arrogance (aka the ‘Brexit spirit’): Britain knows best, and should always steer its own course. But he probably just prefers a policy that does not cripple the economy, and doesn’t understand the implications.

So not all that much difference between the mini-Trump and the real thing after all. And the ‘herd immunity’ nonsense probably won’t last long once the British public realises what Johnson’s government is actually planning.
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THIS ARTICLE is a bit longer than usual. To shorten it to 850 words, omit paragraph 12 (“Moreover…happens”). To shorten further to 750 words, omit also paragraphs 14 and 16. (“There has…rip”; and “Why…implications”)

Bibi, Benny and Ruvi: the Future of Israel

Binyamin Netanyahu, or ‘Bibi’ as everyone calls him, is the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, and still in office although he has failed to win three elections in a row. Last June, last September, and again early this month, Israeli voters split their votes in ways that made it almost impossible to put together a new government.

Bibi declared a victory, but he has already failed to form a coalition with a majority in the 120-member Knesset (parliament). He failed despite promising to annex all the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Even the unstinting support of US President Donald Trump, whose ‘vision’ for a permanent peace settlement reads like a check-list of the territorial demands of the Israeli far right, didn’t do the trick.

The ‘two-state solution’ – Jews and Arabs living peacefully side-by-side in separate sovereign states – has been dead for a long time, and Trump’s ‘peace plan’ just drove a stake through its heart. But the only alternative is the one-state solution, where the Arabs who are Israeli citizens and the considerably larger number who live in the occupied territories form a Palestinian near-majority within the expanded single state of Israel.

That Israel could be a democratic state where every citizen has an equal say or an apartheid state where most Arabs are subjects, not citizens, but it can’t be both.

The major obstacle to forming a majority coalition is the fact that Bibi goes on trial later this month on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Even if he is found guilty, he could technically stay in office until his last appeal is exhausted, a process that could take years.

This prospect is understandably unattractive to the leading opposition party, Benny Ganz’s Blue and White Party. Ganz will only consider a power-sharing left-right coalition with Bibi’s Likud party (which would command a majority) if Ganz gets to be prime minister for the first two years. Then Netanyahu could take his turn if he is absolved by the courts; otherwise not.

This deal is equally unattractive to Bibi: the safest place for him to be at the moment is in the prime minister’s office. Stalemate. A fourth election looms, because Bibi can go on calling them, and meanwhile the Israeli state drifts aimlessly: no legislation, not even a proper budget. What is to be done?

So a few days ago Benny Ganz broke the rules of Israeli politics by asking for the support of the Joint List, the umbrella organisation of all of Israel’s Arab political parties.

The Joint List wouldn’t actually be in the coalition government, but the votes of its fifteen Knesset members would put the Jewish opposition parties over the top and make Benny prime minister. Presumably they would expect some concessions in return, which alarms those Jewish Israelis who see their Arab fellow-citizens as traitors and potential terrorists, but talks between the parties started on Wednesday.

This ground-breaking deal may never be consummated – the odds are against it – but it is nevertheless a turning point. For the first time, the real Israel of today is showing through the cracks in its hidebound politics.

Five years ago President Reuven Rivlin – ‘Ruvi’ to his friends – made a startling speech in which he pointed out that barely half the children now in Israeli primary schools will grow up to be Zionists. Right down to the end of the 20th century a large majority of the population was secular Zionists, mostly of Eastern European origin, and everybody else was ‘minorities’, but that time is gone.

Only 38% of the children in primary school today are secular Zionists. Another 15% are ‘national-religious’: observant Jews who nevertheless share the Zionist vision. But a quarter of the children are Haredim: ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not recognise the legitimacy of the Jewish state, regarding it as a rebellion against God – and another quarter are Arab and mostly Muslim. Few people in the latter two groups will even serve in the army.

These four very different ‘tribes’, as Ruvi calls them, have to share Israel, like it or not. Moreover, the ‘one-state’ Israel that implies, extending from the Jordan Valley to the Mediterranean, will have to include all the Arabs in the occupied territories as well. Learning to live together, given all the bitter history, may be well-nigh impossible, but there are no other options.

This certainly not a vision that Benny Ganz shares: his willingness to admit Israeli Arabs to the country’s coalition politics is grudging at best. “This is not the government we wanted,” he said.

And yet, it might be the government that Israel needs.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“The two-state…both”)

Pangolin Balls Erectile Dysfunction Chinese Wet Market Virus

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has run afoul of the language police. Last Thursday he publicly called the ‘coronavirus’ that has already killed 0.000013% of the world’s population the ‘Wuhan virus’. When challenged about this criminal violation of linguistic propriety on Friday he just said it again. The World Health Organisation (WHO) was shocked.

I know how Pompeo must feel, because my innocent suggestion that we call it the ‘Pangolin Balls Erectile Dysfunction Chinese Wet Market Virus’ got an equally hostile reception. It broke the WHO’s rules on naming new human infectious diseases.

The WHO guidelines, issued in 2015, say that names must avoid geographic locations (e.g. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), people’s names (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease), species of animal or food (swine flu, monkey pox), cultural or occupational references (legionnaires’ disease), and terms that incite fear (e.g. ‘fatal’ or ‘epidemic’).

So you may die of it, but nobody’s feelings will be hurt. COVID-19 may be boring, but at least nobody will think it has anything to do with China. In reality, however, everybody knows that China made a mess of this.

First of all, the age-old Chinese cultural tradition of blaming the messenger, reinforced by the Communist Party’s very hierarchical structure, delayed public acknowledgement that there was a dangerous virus active in Wuhan for several crucial weeks.

Dr Li Wenliang, the first person to raise the alarm about a viral outbreak on social media, was warned by the police not to spread rumors. (He died recently after being infected with COVID-19.)

The mayor of Wuhan, Zhou Xianwang, admitted last month that he had delayed taking public action to slow the spread of the virus – like banning Wuhan residents from travelling elsewhere for Chinese New Year, for example. Why? Because local government had to get permission (from Communist Party headquarters) before fully disclosing information about the virus.

Secondly, the Chinese version of the internet is now seething with stories about how the United States developed the virus in its secret labs and deliberately planted it in China. There are conspiracy theorists everywhere, but in China the hundreds of thousands of censors who man the Great Firewall instantly take down posts that deviate from the official line. They aren’t doing it this time, which tells you all you need to know.

Indeed, while the Chinese Communist Party initially accepted that the outbreak began in China, denial is growing even in official statements. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian complained last week that by calling the outbreak ‘China virus’ or ‘Wuhan virus’ “and thus suggesting its origin without any supporting facts or evidence, some media clearly want China to take the blame and their ulterior motives are laid bare.”

Zhao insisted that no conclusion has been reached on whether the coronavirus originated in China, and the Chinese military’s online portal Xilu.com recently published an article claiming that the virus is “a biochemical weapon produced by the US to target China.” But behind all the bluster and denial, China is actually doing the right thing.

Folklore, superstitions and ‘old wives’ tales’ abound in every culture, but beliefs about the power of’jinbu’ are unique to China, and explain why eating specific wild animals plays a major role in traditional Chinese medicine. The exotic meat ‘fills the void’, allegedly enhancing sexual performance in men and beauty and fertility in women.

Yi-Zheng Lian, former chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal, noted in a recent Washington Post article that eating bats, thought to be the original source of both the current coronavirus and the SARS virus, is said to be good for restoring eyesight. Bile and gallbladders harvested from live bears are good for treating jaundice; tiger bone, or snakes and bulls’ penises for the impecunious, are for erections.

Small wild animals are often the intermediaries that transmit the new coronaviruses to people. The ground-up scales of pangolins supposedly cure cancer and asthma, but are also implicated in passing the Wuhan virus to human beings. Palm civets, suspected of having transmitted the SARS virus to humans, are said to cure insomnia when stewed with snake meat.

China’s ‘wet markets’ sell a wide variety of these animals– and they often sell them live, because that supposedly makes the ‘jinbu’ stronger. China is not the only source of new viral diseases, but it certainly produces more than anywhere else. Yet in all the previous epidemics, the Chinese regime did not dare to shut down the trade in wild animals. Popular belief in jinbu was just too strong.

Now it has finally done it. Late last month all the enterprises breeding wild animals were shut down permanently, markets have been forbidden to sell them, and even eating them has been banned. They’re closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, you might say, but it will help a great deal in the future.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“Dr Li…COVID-19″; and “Yi-Zheng…erections”)