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COVID-19, Waging War On A Still Unknown Enemy

Eight months after the initial warning signs, we still know very little about how the coronavirus works. Decision-makers will have to play by ear for many more months.

Street scene in Paris
Street scene in Paris
Jean-Marc Vittori


In March 2020, as in August 1914, we set out for the battlefield. We knew the fight would be hard; there would be casualties, but we trusted it would all be over in three months. What a terrible illusion. A century ago, the Great War lasted four years. Today, five months after the lockdown of Europe and eight months after anxiety started to rise in China, it is hard to say when the COVID-19 epidemic will be behind us.

We know that the virus that causes the disease has a crown-like shape, hence its name. But it also looks very much like a maze — and while epidemiologists have imagined many scenarios, the pandemic isn't following any of them. The number of sick people has again been on the rise for several weeks following a continuing slump, with no parallel uptick in the number of deaths.

Europe, for example, is registering 15 times fewer deaths every day than four months ago. While the virus seemed to prefer older people, it is now being detected mainly in young people. It seemed to thrive in damp coolness, but it has done enormous damage in Brazil. Children are getting sick less often, but scientists still don't know if they are less contagious.

The mysteries of COVID-19 don't end there. While the virus has a perfectly identified genome, how it circulates is still poorly understood. It seems to survive better in the air than we thought. And the mechanisms of immunity remain elusive. Researchers are now investigating the possibility that protection may be provided not only by antibodies, but also by white blood cells.

Governments are forced to fly by the seat of their pants.

The only certainty we have right now is that we're not done with this virus. Even though Donald Trump promised a vaccine before the U.S. presidential election in early November, it is difficult to know when this decisive tool in the fight against an epidemic will be available, or even how effective and long-lasting it will be.

In this dense fog, governments are forced to fly by the seat of their pants, between the risk of inaction and the risk of appearing to cry wolf. Business leaders, for their part, have no choice but to be hyper-agile to adapt to a constantly changing health situation. And it's not just a matter of weeks. According to Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who is now devoting part of his immense fortune to vaccine manufacturing, "for the rich world, we should largely be able to end this thing by the end of 2021, and for the world at large by the end of 2022."

This prognosis seems reasonable today. Even if, like the First World War, the virus has demonstrated a formidable ability to beat the prognosis.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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