Welcome to Thursday, where Libya’s prime minister survives an assassination attempt, Belarus and Russia start joint military drills and a Republican congresswoman spills her gazpacho. Fasten your seatbelts, we’re also looking at the world of private jet travel, a means of transportation that soared during the pandemic.
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• Russia military drills with Belarus: Belarus and Russia started ten days of joint military drills on Thursday, as tensions remain high over the Kremlin’s buildup of forces along Ukraine’s borders. Moscow has said the aim of the exercises is to “practice suppressing and repelling external aggression.” Around 3,000 Russian troops are believed to be in Belarus, which according to NATO marks the biggest Russian deployment to the ex-Soviet territory since the Cold War. On a visit to NATO’s headquarters, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that the Ukraine crisis has entered its “most dangerous moment” as the threat of a war looms.
• COVID update: The U.S. plans to begin the distribution of COVID-19 shots for children under the age of 5, as early as Feb. 21, according to the U.S. Centers for DIsease Control and Prevention. Paris banned a French “Freedom Convoy” of hundreds of motorists protesting against COVID-19 restrictions from entering the capital city. Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Jonhson outlined plans to lift all domestic COVID-19 restrictions in England within weeks, including the legal requirement to self-isolate.
• Libyan Prime Minister survives assassination attempt: Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah survived an assassination attempt in Tripoli, after gunmen fired on his car as we was returning home early Thursday. The attack came amid intense rival factions over control of the government.
• Church sex abuse panel in Portugal reports first 200+ cases: A lay committee investigating historic child sex abuse in the Portuguese Catholic Church announced it had received allegations from 214 people throughout its first month of work.
• Olympics drug controversy: The 15-year-old Russian superstar figure skater Kamila Valieva has turned up for training as usual Thursday morning at the Winter Olympics, despite having tested positive for a banned substance. The International Olympic Committee had announced that the medal ceremony for the figure skating event had been suspended. Meanwhile, Austrian Johannes Strolz bounced back from being dropped from his team to winning the gold medal in the men's Alpine combined event on Thursday, following in his father’s footsteps.
• Space storm destroys 40 of Space X’s Starlink satellites: Elon Musk's company SpaceX confirmed that a solar storm had destroyed most of the Starlink satellites it launched last Friday, with 40 of its 49 satellites expected to fall back to earth.
• Pro Trump representative confuses the Gestapo with gazpacho soup: Controversial Republican U.S. congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene triggered a wave of viral jokes on Wednesday as she accused Democratic leaders of “gazpacho” tactics on Capitol Hill. She apparently confused Hitler’s secret police with the popular Spanish cold tomato soup …
Canadian daily Ottawa Citizen devotes its front page to the “Freedom Convoy” protests that have paralyzed Ottawa’s city center for more than a week. What started as demonstrations against mandatory vaccinations for truckers crossing the U.S.-Canada border has grown into broader dissent against the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The leader is demanding an end to the protests, which have forced some factories to shut down due to the blockade of Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge on the border.
The South Korean curling team known as the “Garlic Girls” (마늘 소녀들, maneul sonyeodeul), a nod to the iconic produce of their region, starts competing at the Beijing Winter Olympics today in a round-robin match against Canada. The team had gained fame with its first Olympic gold medal at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Games, before prompting debates about the mistreatment of athletes in South Korea, when its members denounced their coaches’ harsh training and abuse nine months later.
How the pandemic spread private jet travel beyond the super-rich and powerful
Once the reserve of the super-rich and famous, private jet travel soared during the pandemic. Amid border closures and travel restrictions, private charter flights are sometimes the only option to get people — and their pets!? — home.
✈️ During the pandemic, a surprisingly wide demographic have turned to private jets not because it was a luxury they could afford, but out of desperation, trying to reach a destination in the face of border closures and widespread flight cancellations. Last year, private jet hours were close to 50% higher than in 2020, according to the Global Business Aviation Outlook. While some of the increase can be attributed to more travel in 2021 because of COVID-19 vaccination, it still amounts to 5% more hours than before the pandemic.
🐶 More than just saving time through skipping security lines and long waits at airports, flying private jets also lets the super wealthy, and those desperate enough to break the bank, sidestep other regulations. As part of its zero-COVID policy, Hong Kong has severely limited flights. High cargo rates for animals and flight cancellations are making it very hard for pet owners to leave the island taking their furry friends along. Those desperate enough are spending upwards of $25,665 to privately charter themselves and their pets. Many are pooling their resources to share in the cost.
🧳 In Morocco, private jets were the only way for many to enter the North African kingdom after it suspended all air travel from Nov. 29 until Feb. 7 due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant. Close to 6,000 Moroccans were stuck abroad. In this case, many weren’t looking for a luxurious travel experience but were just desperate to return to their home country. Traveling in groups was one way to decrease the expense, to as low as $1,400 per passenger for a flight from Europe, but for some this still means relying on family support or finding other ways to raise money.
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“I didn't kill anyone, and I didn't hurt anyone. Not even a scratch.”
— Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving member of the ISIS cell that targeted Paris in the 2015 attacks, has denied killing or hurting anybody during the trial of the attacks that left 130 people dead. Adbeslam said he supported the Islamic State of Iraq but chose at the last minute not to detonate his explosives, though prosecutors believe his suicide belt malfunctioned. The French-Moroccan is the only defendant, among 20, to be directly accused of murder and hostage taking.
The Enigma, a 555.55 carat black gem believed to be the world's largest cut diamond, has sold for $4.3 million in an online auction. The gem, known as a “carbonado,” is an extremely rare billion-year-old black diamond which contain osbonite, a mineral found only in meteors — meaning it could originate from space.
✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet and Jane Herbelin
Garlic curling and gazpacho on the menu? Let us know what’s happening in your corner of the world!
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Too much has been put in to the state-sponsored truth that minimal spread of the virus is the at-all-cost objective. But if the Chinese economy continues to suffer, Xi Jinping may have no choice but to second guess himself.
The tragic bus accident in Guiyang last month — in which 27 people being sent to quarantine were killed — was one of the worst examples of collateral damage since the COVID-19 pandemic began in China nearly three years ago. While the crash can ultimately be traced back to bad government policy, the local authorities did not register it as a Zero COVID related casualty. It was, for them, a simple traffic accident.
The officials in the southern Chinese province of Guizhou, of course, had no alternative. Drawing a link between the deadly crash and the strict policy of Zero COVID, touted by President Xi Jinping, would have revealed the absurdity of the government's choices.
Objectively speaking, Zero COVID may not necessarily be a bad policy in itself, as it is based on good intentions: to protect the health and lives of the public. During the first phase of the pandemic, and the onslaught of the Delta virus, Zero COVID did serve to protect the population, bringing the spread under control to the greatest extent possible, and allowing the economy to recover quickly.
The starting point
In mainland China, there have been just over 5,000 deaths from COVID-19, most of them were in Wuhan at the beginning of the pandemic, a low proportion compared to the country's total population. This can be credited to the “Zero Covid” policy, even if it has also caused a number of humanitarian disasters, such as the lockdown of Wuhan. Ultimately, we can conclude that Zero COVID had remained successful until the emergence of the Omicron variant.
Zero COVID has had the inverse effect of the stated purpose.
Its destructive side has emerged the longer it's been held in place. Since Omicron, Zero COVID has kept China's infection rate low, but the collateral damage and social cost has long since surpassed its benefits.
The crude and brutal nature of the policy, and the harm to people's individual interests and even their own life can be seen in the strict lockdowns, large-scale COVID testing and social isolation. As witnessed in Shanghai, Xi’ An and other cities, Zero COVID has proven to ultimately have the inverse effect of the stated purpose of protecting people's lives and health.
What concerns the public most now is how Zero COVID will change in the future
The examples of the harm of Zero COVID are too many to list. So the question now is, with the population extremely resentful and local officials struggling to maintain this policy, why is Xi sticking with Zero COVID? Hasn't he always taught officials to measure their governance by whether or not the people are satisfied? It shouldn't be based on sticking to a promise. Why is this criterion invalid for Zero COVID?
The answer lies in two factors: first, Xi's one-man leadership system prevents his personal will from being effectively corrected; second, his knowledge of Zero COVID's direct effectiveness in preventing the spread has kept him fixated on that goal.
During his visit to Wuhan in June, Xi declared: "If you see the overall picture, our measures to prevent the pandemic are the most economical and the most effective ... With the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the important grassroots base of local communities, we have the ability and strength to implement the Zero COVID policy until we achieve final victory."
Economic growth goals
The official party line and propaganda states that "the practice of the pandemic control in the past three years has proven that Zero COVID is scientific and in line with China's national context. This path is right and effective, and is the best option for China."
This is likely the extent of Xi's understanding of Zero COVID, which is based on the fact that China was able to contain the spread and maintain economic growth during the first phase of the pandemic. For Xi, since the approach proved to be correct back then, it is all the more important to stick to Zero COVID in the face of the Omicron virus, rather than changing or abolishing it.
The government doesn't trust the Chinese vaccine.
In addition, vaccination rates have not yet formed a sufficient barrier against the pandemic in a vast country like China with differences in local healthcare conditions. It was thought that if China followed the West's example of "mass vaccination," it would cause a spike in infections, resulting in a run on medical resources and ultimately causing unbearable losses to people's lives and property, with unthinkable consequences."
What the official media say is what officials think. The Chinese government, and probably Xi himself, don't trust the efficacy of the Chinese vaccine. But for reasons of so-called "vaccine nationalism," he is unwilling to approve the purchase of American and Western mRNA vaccines. Thus the policy of harsh lockdowns and mass testing had to be continued.
There will be an end to the pandemic at some point, and with it a way out of Zero COVID. But when?
When will Zero COVID be over?
What concerns the public most now is how Zero COVID will change in the future, and whether China will remain closed after three years of control. Some worry that China's Zero COVID could become a permanent policy.
However, there will be an end to the pandemic at some point, and with it a way out of Zero COVID. But when?
The scenario most likely to end the harsh lockdowns are more signs that the economy simply can longer sustain it. Now considered a consensus, China's economy is living through its worst period in more than a decade. If we don't see significant signs of growth, despite various stimulus measures, then Zero COVID might be abandoned sooner rather than later, though nothing would happen before the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party on October 16.
There is also a scenario of the pandemic lingering, the economy adjusting and the controls of Zero COVID never quite going away.
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