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Welcome back to this week’s installment of the all-new What Just Happened?!, a semi-comical weekly digest of the most important news from the UK, US and the World from Will Marshall, and Alistair Simmonds-Yoo. Look out for us every weekend, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

The World

Lion King

Whilst the world has seemingly fallen in love with the hypnotic personality of a psychopath who drove one of his (effectively imprisoned) husbands to kill himself, relentlessly trolled (and allegedly took out a hit on) animal rights activists, and of course very clearly systematically abused big-cats for monetary gain, back in the whatever reality is now, nature is doing what nature does. In the absence of interfering humans, big cats are taking back territory in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Prides of lions have been spotted roaming a golf course and napping peacefully in the middle of a road.

People want to take this to an ethnic place

A McDonald’s franchise in China (a symbol of all that’s great about a globalized economy?) banned black people from their store. There was a paranoia that black people were spreading the virus… I’ll take my McRib (now with 50% less bat meat) with a sense of irony please. When it comes to harassing ethnic minorities, it isn’t just McDonald’s, the significant African population of Guangzhou have been having a rough time

“Last week, hundreds of Africans in Guangzhou were evicted from hotels and apartments after online rumours that coronavirus was spreading among African people, community leaders told the BBC.”

source

Floating a Theory

In contrast to the utter shitshow that has been the United States’ handling of the Covid-19 outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt (see WJH from 4th and 11th April), the French military has ordered an inquiry into how a third of sailors on its Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier contracted the disease. Given the boat hadn’t had contact with the outside world since 15th March, it suggests the coronavirus had spread through more of the country than was known at the time. 

A Grave New World

Is anybody else finding this an incredibly uncomfortable prospect? Five minutes of background reading in epidemiology and you are left with no doubt that testing and contract tracing are two of the most important strategies for tackling this pandemic and lifting restrictions, but… the idea of allowing a government owned app to track my every move and every person I come into contact with is absolutely fucking anathema to every bone in my body. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing to hide (Or do I? It’s private.), I just don’t believe there is the slightest chance that our governments can implement this sort of tool without totally screwing it up on every level and providing swathes of personal data to all sorts of potentially malicious corporate entities, or that Apple and Google would do this without something in it for them.

It’s not just opt-in apps we need to worry about either, countries around the world are combining mobile signal tracking, CCTV facial recognition and even drones to monitor movement, whilst India are considering making the addresses of patients public. One expert on surveillance described the situation as “9/11 on steroids”. South Korea is even combining CCTV tracking with mobile GPS data and credit card purchases. If that doesn’t scream “potential for overreach”, I’m not sure what can!

Okay, so let’s say that we can all put public health above our (reasonable) paranoia for a period of time, digital contract tracing is implemented and lockdowns are lifted. Well, what then? How and when are these surveillance measures rolled back? Many of the changes in law that allow for these measures do not include ‘sunset clauses’, meaning they are indefinite. We may find there’s no coming back from this.

Feeding Western Europe

It’s no secret that the food supply chains in Western Europe are heavily reliant on cheap Eastern European seasonal workers. It’s been an important driving force behind populist anti-immigration movements, the “coming over here and taking our jobs” effect, despite Western Europeans not wanting to do the jobs and farmers preferring Eastern Europeans who will work infinitely harder for less money. In the words of one German farmer: “Romanians and Poles are stronger and they work weekends and public holidays”. We’re so reliant in the UK that in any given year, two thirds of seasonal farm jobs are held by Romanians and Bulgarians alone, with less than 5% held by UK citizens.

So what happens in the face of a pandemic that has closed borders across the world? Wealthier governments lobby less wealthy governments to allow exemptions in their strict quarantine rules, that completely erode public health aims, so that we don’t go without our asparagus or strawberries. Romania had, thus far, done an admirable job of containing the spread of coronavirus by enacting harsh restrictions early on, however, under pressure from the German government it has granted an exemption to allow poor itinerant farm workers to be shipped to other countries for their cheap labour. Meanwhile, the UK government has silently watched this and made no effort to intervene or implement health controls on flights chartered by major UK farming businesses.

And thus, thousands of Romanian labourers, desperate for work, have been crammed onto overnight buses, from Romania’s coronavirus hotspot of Suceava, to board hastily chartered flights, bringing them to Germany and the UK. It has exposed a great inequality in power and wealth: Romania wants to protect its citizens, but cannot provide income support for all, whilst wealthier governments and businesses can afford to pressure desperate workers into fulfilling roles their own citizens don’t want.

What’s more, these jobs were offered to out of work labourers in the UK: 35,000 expressed interest in the roles, but only 16% of these bothered to take up their interview offers.

Seasonal workers arrive on crowded buses at Cluj-Napoca airport Source

Cover it up

“I’ll take two loin cloths, please”. In a perhaps initially counterintuitive implorement, nudists must wear masks. Also the cops in Maryland are reminding residents to not strut around their lawns naked if they can avoid it… another example of prevailing American religious-conservatism and general prudishness. Granted, screwing with mailboxes is a federal offence. Just don’t do anything stupid as you enjoy your fundamental freedom as an animal…

(Nikola) Tesla would be proud

Elon Musk & Tesla have been buying ventilators and donating them. One can hope the communication in private has been better than that in public, having had some slightly unbecoming twitter exchanges with the governor of California and CNN, to name but two. There are various types of ventilator for varying degrees of required intervention and I have sympathy for Musk whilst he’s getting significant flack for making donations to hospitals. 

While hindsight is 2020, he could perhaps help himself by not wading into the limelight to offer unhelpful assistance (we all live in a useless submarine) and act like someone who spent their adolescence swanning around South Africa among some of the last empire builders (i.e. not being super gracious). A curiosity: Musk’s mother spent a decade in search of the Lost City of the Kalahari. Meanwhile in the UK, F1 and Airbus (among a few others) have won the race for regulatory approval on their ventilator design. Remember Dyson was supposed to be leading this charge? That is, when James Dyson isn’t advocating for Brexit before doing-one to a tax haven… Boris Johnson and his peers have seemingly decided to reward this behaviour, for some reason… 

The US

“Nature’s indifference offends the Human Ego”

Pew Research has conducted a poll and reckon that ~30% of Americans think the novel Coronavirus originated in a laboratory. Which, naturally, Trump has been encouraging; that is, when he’s not tweeting encouraging insurrection against governors he doesn’t like, or claiming to have ‘ultimate authority’; which I think can only be explained by Trump’s trying to give a press conference in the midst of a (presumably) syphilis-induced-waking-hallucination upon which he looks down on his mortal subjects from a tower bearing his name, surrounded by a rising tide of uneatable steaks and worthless degrees… 

I digress. 

The cognitive dissonance is real. SARS (and several other similar diseases typically found in bats) didn’t come from a lab and nobody thinks it did, why is this novel coronavirus different? Well, there’s a Chinese virology lab near Wuhan that works with coronaviruses and has very real safety concerns (as do all virology labs, if you think about it). There are also bats. Here’s an article from Nature in 2017 headlined “Bat cave solves mystery of deadly SARS virus — and suggests new outbreak could occur”. However, if you want to blame the Chinese government entirely and not demand universal healthcare or a sensible response from your government, then you do you America. 

If you aren’t persuaded by my being a bit of an arsehole in the above, here’s someone more measured who actually knows what they’re talking about: Trevor Bedford, a researcher at Fred Hutch (a multi Nobel Prize winning research institution), explains the anticipated variance in genetic code from lab-controlled vs. wild viruses. We’ve been able to identify lab-leaked microbes in the past and similar techniques suggest this novel coronavirus is not one of them (novel being the operative word here). 

“This pattern of mutation is most consistent with evolution in an animal intermediate, rather than lab escape. Additionally, the presence of these same 6 mutations in the pangolin virus argues strongly for an animal origin: https://biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.02.13.945485v1

source

So unless a pangolin smuggled it out of the lab, my money is on the market filled with people and exotic animals – you know, the kind of Wet Market professional researchers have been considering a likely risk for severe respiratory infections for decades. As evidenced by this paper https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16940861 published in 2006 (from Department of Microbiology and Research Center of Infection and Immunology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Hong Kong and State Key Laboratory of Emerging Infectious Diseases, Hong Kong, PRC.) entitled, wait for it:

“Infectious diseases emerging from Chinese wet-markets: zoonotic origins of severe respiratory viral infections.”

Definition from Wikipedia: “A zoonosis (plural zoonoses, or zoonotic diseases) is an infectious disease caused by a pathogen (an infectious agent, including bacteria, viruses, parasites, prions, etc) that has jumped from non-human animals (usually vertebrates) to humans.[1][2][3]

Royale With Cheese

In a weird and unprofessional video even by the significantly handicapped standards of the current zeitgeist Trump airs a low-rent propaganda film (one wonders if it was produced by Jared), which I’m sure the rulers of the DPRK and the CPP are completely stunned by. Not in an enviable way but more like ‘wow things are really getting rough over there!’. The film struggles for internal consistency; effectively ignoring the time before February (~ 3 months where the US government knew about the outbreak of a genetically novel virus and did bupkis to prepare) and bragging about sending out tests in February while failing to mention that said tests did not in fact work. 

Trump starts off by describing major papers (The New York Times) will go out of business once he’s gone, since they won’t be able to write about him anymore… “Now, back to why we’re here” he says, presumably as much a reminder for his own benefit as for anyone else’s, before going on to call some of the reporters in the room disgraceful. You know how it goes, typical leader of the free world stuff… Oh no wait that’s Germany! 

Dentally Deranged

We missed this one at the time, but oh boy, it is too good to go unnoticed: conspiracy theorist/shock-jock/bright-red-screaming-cock-for-hire Alex Jones was ordered in March to stop selling his toothpaste. The move comes after he claimed it “kills the whole SARS-corona family at point-blank range”. Perhaps also a distasteful turn of phrase from someone who monetised bullshit claims that the Sandy Hook school massacre never happened.

The not so united States: Part 2

Florida has started to reopen beaches under the misapprehension that the peak of a pandemic is the best time to stop trying to mitigate it; while those in Michigan will never pass up an opportunity to needlessly flaunt deadly weapons in public. It ought go without saying that such gatherings endanger themselves and their extended communities. 

Meanwhile: Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, seems to think $1200 will last families 10 weeks. A charitable reading of this would be that he misheard the question (while influenced by selective hearing) as: “how long will 1,200 bird eggs sustain you?”. Faced with this kind of nonsense it’s understandable that the West Coast is deciding to go their own way. California, Washington and Oregon have signed a mutual pact regarding their approach to reopening their economies and are generally agreeing to be sensible. Governors from East Coast states are also forming coalitions. This begs some serious questions about the raison d’être of the Federal Government, especially as it’s not clear why such collaboration will stop being a good idea moving forward.

The UK

Pony Express

General Aviation pilots in the UK aligned to the Civil Air Patrol have started operating ‘Pony Express’ services using light aircraft to transport urgent medical supplies around the country. It’s rather an ingenious idea; the single-crewed tiny aircraft may be limited on payload and speed, but are extremely cost effective when it comes to moving something small and light, faster than road, closer to where you want it. What’s the point in waiting for a cargo aircraft departure from one major airport to another, when you can fly almost point to point straight away?

Tasty Innovation

The takeaway delivery company Just Eat has proven the adage ‘necessity is the mother of innovation’ by inventing the crazy concept of a ‘lunch break’. Their Chief People Officer came up with the new idea in response to staff who were finding it difficult to tear themselves away from a constant stream of video calls and emails whilst working from home. Of course it’s not called a ‘lunch break’ because that wouldn’t be innovative; it’s called a ‘power hour’. Great.

The Internet

Fear of the Unknown (TV)

Somewhat unsurprisingly, research has shown that whilst everyone cowers shit-scared inside, they don’t like new stuff. Whilst 80% of Americans surveyed had subscribed to at least one additional streaming service, 54% are watching familiar TV they’ve seen before. In times of uncertainty, people don’t want a plot twist, they want something where they already know the ending.

(NB: I thought I’d have a look at Spotify’s charts to see if they also reflected these findings, expecting to see a list of venerable rock and roll alongside the likes of The Beegees and ABBA. Instead I found endless artists I’ve never even heard of with stupid, sometimes unpronouceable names like ‘Powfu’, ‘Playboi Carti’ and ‘SAINt JHN’. What the actual everloving fuck has happened to music?)


Thanks for reading! We’ll be back next week, get in touch with the authors Will Marshall and Alistair Simmonds on Twitter and let us know what you did and didn’t like.

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