- Kazakhstan’s vicious circle of strongmen
- COVID school chaos around the world
- The truth behind why we lie to ourselves
- … and much more!
What do you remember from the news this week?
1. What extreme measure did the Canadian province of Quebec take to encourage people to get vaccinated?
2. What caused a massive power outage in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, leaving 700,000 in the dark for hours?
3. Norwegian soldiers were asked to return what piece of clothing at the end of their military service, so that future recruits can reuse them?
4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? ❤️ 🐖 🏥 👨 👍
[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]
Djokovic, BoJo, Xi Jinping: rules & power in pandemic times
It was the phrase of the week down on Fleet Street, the historic HQ of the London press corps: “Bring your own booze” — BYOB — the instructions secretly sent around for the garden party held at 10 Downing Street in blatant violation of the first coronavirus lockdown, back in May 2020.The revelations of the event (the second such scandal to emerge in the past two months) has left British Prime Minister Boris Johnson barely holding on to his job after his admission to Parliament this week that he was there … and he was, well, quite sorry.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the former British empire, Australians are following how their public representatives will resolve the latest twist in pandemic policy that has captured the sporting world’s attention. Back and forth, like a tennis match. By the end of the week, Australia had reversed a Monday court decision, and canceled Novak Djokovic’s visa that would have allowed him to defend his Australian Open title. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the visa was revoked on the grounds that the presence of the unvaccinated Serbian star risks fueling anti-vax sentiment on home soil.
This is high-stakes political gamesmanship indeed. The unprecedented health crisis, and associated restrictions to limit the spread of the virus, requires our elected leaders to react to ever-changing information and a chain of lose-lose public policy choices. COVID continues to make the hard job of being a public representative that much harder. The best, we can agree, are doing the best they can. The worst, well … are the worst.
The British public has rightly taken offense to the idea that the very people charged with making and enforcing COVID rules, were also busy breaking them. In the Djokovic saga, skeptics of vaccination mandates — in Australia, Serbia and beyond — will have new ammunition if the world’s top tennis player is kicked out of both tournament and country.
The good news is that in our eternally flawed democracies, the public eventually (though not always!) finds out what goes wrong, and ultimately has the final say of who’s in charge. The same can’t be said everywhere, including the country that has been cited for having the most successful methods for controlling the virus and limiting death tolls. That is, of course, China … where it all began.
Yet the authoritarian regime's “Zero COVID policy” comes with deeper questions that largely mirror the downside of authoritarianism in general: ruthless enforcement, quelled dissent and the sometimes blind following of the masses. It’s hard to imagine that Xi Jinping has had any “BYOB parties” in the past two years. But if he did, you can be sure we’d never know.
— Jeff Israely
• Makar Sankranti 2022: The Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti is celebrated on January 14 and 15 in almost all parts of India and Nepal in a myriad of cultural forms. The festival marks the end of winter, the beginning of a new harvest season, and has ancient religious significance.
• Parthenon fragment returns to Greece: A marble fragment from the Parthenon temple has been returned to Athens from a museum in Sicily. Authorities hope the move will rekindle efforts to force the British Museum to send back ancient sculptures from Greece's most renowned ancient landmark.
• 400 years of Molière: France honors its seminal playwright on the 400th anniversary of his birth. His influence, comparable to that of Shakespeare in the anglophone world, is such that French is often referred to as the "language of Molière."
• Vinyl surpassed CDs sales for the first time in 30 years: For the first time since 1991, annual sales of vinyl records surpassed those of CDs in the U.S, according to MRC Data and Billboard, with an estimated 41.72 million vinyl records sold in 2021 (up 51.4% from 27.55 million in 2020). This means that vinyl is now the leading format for all album purchases in the U.S.
• Kendrick Lamar teams up with South Park creators: Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar and his former longtime manager Dave Free are working with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to produce a live-action comedy for Paramount Pictures.
The decisions to close schools have been some of the toughest choices made during the pandemic, with students suffering both academically and socially from online learning or no education at all. It’s universally acknowledged that children most succeed with in-person classes, but the question still remains whether the health risk to students and those around them is worth it.
The Omicron wave has only caused this debate to heighten, with teacher strikes in France, rising drop-out rates in Argentina and shortages of staff in South Africa. But there are signs of hope: Uganda has finally reopened schools, ending the world’s longest shutdown, and some American parents have decided to offer more personalized education with homeschooling.
Read the full story: COVID School Chaos, Snapshots From 10 Countries Around The World
The real transition of power in Kazakhstan was supposed to have taken place in 2019. Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled the former Soviet Republic with an iron first since its independence in 1991, finally stepped aside to allow his successor, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, to take power.
However, Nazarbayev retained enormous influence behind the scenes. The real transfer of power is in fact happening only now, following large-scale unrest and protests around the country. Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev promises a new way of doing things, but his methods are strikingly similar to his predecessor. For Russian daily
Kommersant, Vladimir Soloviev and Alexander Konstantinov ponder why strongmen are able to keep power in Kazakhstan — but can't ensure its peaceful transfer.
Read the full story: Kazakhstan, When One Strongman Replaces Another
Things are getting fishy over Nordic fishing regulations, as the Danish government has banned further growth in sea-based fish farming, claiming the country had reached the limit without endangering the environment. In Danish newspaper Politiken, marine biologist Johan Wedel Nielsen explained why Demark’s policy has given Norway a de facto monopoly on the lucrative salmon industry. This is particularly significant as changing diet habits are increasing demand for the nutritious pink fish, and Norway has taken advantage, accounting for about half of the world’s salmon production.
Nielsen argues that environmental concerns aren’t warranted, as fish have an inherently small impact on the environment. Denmark has the potential to establish 150 salmonid (a family of fish including salmon and trout) farms in the Baltic Sea, producing some 500,000 tons of trout per year with a value of 2.7 billion euros and employing tens of thousands. But the Danish government has so far given no indication of allowing any addition to Denmark’s 19 existing farms.
Read the full story: Norwegian Salmon v. Danish Trout: Lessons On Ecology And Economics
French start-up Airxôm has unveiled its unique respiratory device at Las Vegas’ CES tech event. Their plastic and silicon face mask is the first capable of destroying particles of all sizes and has inbuilt decontamination properties, hence protecting against pollution, bacteria and viruses including COVID-19. Oh and, as a bonus, it also prevents your glasses from fogging.
Boris Johnson memes flooded social networks this week, mocking the UK’s prime minister's excuse for attending what was quite obviously a party at the height of the pandemic: “I believed implicitly that this was a work event.” The quote was shared alongside a toe-curlingly bad 2013 video of BoJo dancing to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” which resurfaced on Instagram, while Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair puts its own spin on the lame explanation.
A Belgian national was intercepted by the French police while riding his e-scooter on a highway in eastern France. The confused trottinette user said it was his first time riding in France, and that he’d failed to select the “no toll roads” option on his GPS.
Climate, COVID, Costa Concordia: why humans are wired for denial
This past week marked 10 years since the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Tuscany. Writing in Italian daily La Stampa, Guido Maria Brera sees connections between the way passengers and crew reacted in the minutes and hours after the ship ran aground to other calamities we face that may seem to be moving more slowly:
In 2012, the same year the Costa Concordia cruise ship sank off of Giglio Island, David Quammen published his book Spillover, which predicted that somewhere in Asia a virus would be attacking the human respiratory tract on its way to becoming a global pandemic. And so it was. This terrible shipwreck, which the world watched in slow-motion exactly ten years ago on January 13, 2012, now appears to us — just like the COVID-19 pandemic, like the trailer of a horror film we are now all living for real.
Millions dead, ten of millions sick, and the psychological collapse of entire generations, the youngest and most defenseless. In the meantime, climate change is spiraling out of control: sea levels are rising, land is drying out, ice caps are melting, not to mention hurricanes, storms, floods, droughts, famines, wars, migration.
The correlation between climate change and the pandemic has been demonstrated countless times by scientists. Soaring temperatures, intensive livestock farming, deforestation and the devastation of the natural animal kingdoms have led to zoonosis: Species-hopping, in which a bacterium or virus escapes from its host and spreads to another, creating a chain reaction with devastating results.
Finding the correlation between the sinking of the Costa Concordia and the current situation is more a subtle exercise: by looking at the decisions we made to respond to the disaster — or rather, how we failed to take action.
"The Concordia has become a maze of choices in the dark, deciding whether to open a door or not, whether to move or stay put, can be the difference between life and death,” Pablo Trincia said recently in his podcast “Il Dito di Dio.” (The Finger of God). A cruise ship with more than 4,000 people, including passengers, crew and ship personnel, is a microcosm in itself: it contains everything. And indeed, in these very long and slow moments, when time seems suspended, a tragedy was in the making.
There were reported many notable demonstrations of solidarity, as strangers helped each other. There were also those who fled as quickly as possible, seeking their personal safety at the expense of others. There were those who, between the ship crashing into the rocks and the dropping of the first lifeboats, seemed not to care.
If it is true that there are lessons to learn even from the worst tragedies, then we must make sure that the terrible wreckage of this small world can help us understand and identify the rocks we are heading towards today: the climate crisis and the pandemic. Time is the discriminating factor, as always. Director Adam McKay explains it well in his movie Don't Look Up, showing us how people react as they face slow-motioned tragedies.
In this scenario, the slowness of the film is the central narrative choice: there is initially plenty of time before the comet would hit the earth, ineluctably ending human life, and there remains plenty of time to live and love and enjoy.
Hence, we also have time to expect that the asteroid is still far away, to imagine that it will deviate from its course. We even have time to forget that the impact is inevitable, and to continue to live as if nothing is happening.
This is the most common reaction to pandemics and environmental disasters. Turn your head away, pretend you don't see, don't look up.
Denial is the work of politicians incapable of questioning the only development model they know, of the billionaires who built bunkers to survive in New Zealand, (where it seems that the crisis will have less impact), of the Silicon Valley gurus have already bought coolers to preserve their bodies for eternity by cryogenics.
On the Costa Concordia, refusal to look the disaster in the eye wasn’t just the work of those who were supposed to give the alert and manage the evacuation: we are all in the same boat when it comes to denial. When a disaster happens in slow motion, it feels as though there is still too much time to bother rushing for solutions now.
We tend to think about the time we have left, about the costs and benefits to our tiny lives, without even realizing that never has the need for salvation been more collective.
Ten years ago, as today, we convinced ourselves that we are absolved of responsibility precisely because we know that everyone shares the same responsibility.
• Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov set next week as the ultimatum for a confirmation that NATO will neither expand nor deploy forces to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations.
• Next Sunday will mark two years since the World Health Organization declared during an emergency meeting that COVID-19 was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
• On Tuesday, a 3,400-foot-wide asteroid will make a safe flyby of Earth, whooshing by our planet at the equivalent of five Earth-Moon distances (still pretty close from a cosmic point of view).
• Monday is Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day, so you still have a few more hours to decide whether that gym membership really was a good idea.
News quiz answers:
1. Quebec announced plans to charge a health tax to unvaccinated residents, who represent 12.8% of the Canadian province but make up nearly half of hospital cases.
2. A heat wave scorched Argentina's capital Buenos Aires on Tuesday, bringing temperatures to 41.5 °C (106.7 °F) and causing a lengthy power outage.
3. Norway has ordered members of its military to return underwear, bras and socks after the end of their military service amid a shortage of supplies that the army partly blamed on the pandemic.
4. ❤️ 🐖 🏥 👨 👍 A 57-year-old American man became the first person to get a heart transplant from a genetically-modified pig, a potentially major breakthrough that scientists hope could help alleviate shortages of donor organs.
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*Photo: Frank Molter/dpa/ZUMA
Death rates are down, masks are off, but many who have been infected by COVID have still not recovered. Long COVID continues to be hard to diagnose and treatments are still in the developmental stage.
PARIS — The medical examination took longer than expected in the Parc de Castelnau-le-Lez clinic, near the southern French city of Montpellier. Jocelyne had come to see a specialist for long COVID-19, and exits the appointment slowly with help from her son. The meeting lasted more than an hour, twice as long as planned.
“I’m a fighter, you know, I’ve done a lot of things in my life, I’ve been around the world twice… I’m not saying this to brag, but to tell you my background," says the 40-year-old. "These days, I’m exhausted, I’m not hungry, I no longer drive, I can’t work anymore, I have restless legs syndrome.” She pauses before adding sadly: “I can’t read anymore either.”
For Jocelyne, the “descent into hell” happened in two stages. After initially getting the Sars-CoV-2 in December 2020, she spent an “exhausting” year. “I was very tired, I had trouble concentrating. Although I’m usually a positive, cheerful, dynamic, hyperactive person, I didn’t feel like anything anymore. It was impossible for me to do sports again, even though I used to do it for six hours a week,” she explains.
Difficult to diagnose
In spite of it all, she was still working, saw doctors who wrongly put her condition down to perimenopause. She started 2022 hopeful she would get better, but she got COVID a second time in January, despite two doses of the vaccine.
“I spent four awful days, and on the fifth, when I woke up, my mind went blank. I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t stand up, every nerve in my body was burning,” she says. She urgently got an appointment with a neuropsychiatrist. “She told me that a viral infection could cause neurological problems and that since I had had COVID twice, it was probably a long one.”
The diagnosis was later confirmed by an infectious disease specialist. “I did a lot of exams that showed that the virus had activated or reactivated several past infections, such as the Epstein-Barr virus, the dengue fever, and the Lyme disease, she adds. For the past three weeks, I have been taking a neuroleptic and a nerve medication usually given to patients suffering severe burns. I’m only able to speak to you thanks to this treatment.”
More than 200 possible symptoms
Doctor Yasmina Bensahli regularly faces such complex clinical cases since the opening of long COVID appointments in her clinic, in early 2022. With vaccines and emergency treatment helping to bring down the death rate, it is the effects of long COVID that is increasingly the focus of the medical community — and the patients, of course.
It is my only lingering symptom, but it is really crippling.
Specialized in internal medicine, Bensahli explains that “they are often desperate people, who have not been heard by their referring doctor and that have a range of symptoms altering their quality of life. Last week, I saw a 17-year-old girl who is in intensive foundation degree but can no longer study. She was very tired and had trouble concentrating.”
Doctor Bensahli also faces less complex cases. A 23-year-old patient’s sense of smell never returned after getting tested positive for coronavirus more than a year ago. “It is my only lingering symptom, but it is really crippling.”
The French National Authority for Health made the list of the most common long COVID symptoms: extreme tiredness, neurological disorders (cognitive, sensorial, headache), cardiac-chest problems (chest pain and tightness, tachycardia, dyspnea, cough), loss of smell or taste, as well as stomach pain and issues. But so far, more than 200 lingering symptoms have been listed, making diagnosis and care particularly complex. Doctor Bensahli explains, “It is a new disease for which we make a diagnosis of exclusion: We rule out all other options that could explain the symptoms before concluding it is a long COVID."
Painful and prolonged
Therefore, most of the people coming to the clinic for a consultation are then treated for one or two days as day patients. "The clinic has a very large technical platform with a lot of specialists, meaning that all the necessary examinations can be carried out in one place. The patients then see the referring doctor again for a report. This is a major step because they finally feel like they have been heard," emphasizes Director of Care Cathy Christmann.
Another pathology, like cancer, is sometimes detected. If the diagnosis of long Covid is finally established, patients are redirected, depending on the complexity of their condition, to their doctor, to specialists or to a specialized care center.
In Occitania, in the South of France, one of the three pioneering regions along with Ile-de-France and Brittany, 18 specialized centers have been accredited by the French regional health agency (ARS) for the management of long COVID, as well as six medical centers. Each department also has a post-COVID unit. "The objective is to improve the supply of care, quantitatively and qualitatively, for these patients whose journey has been painful and prolonged until now," explains Dr. Jérôme Larché, charged by the ARS to coordinate this action.
The long COVID's many symptoms can leave patients incacipated.
The most important thing in structuring care is the training of primary care health care professionals. "The training of attending physicians in this new unknown pathology is essential. Many people suffering from post-COVID syndrome have suffered long months of imprecise diagnosis because they were not heard by their GP or by the occupational medicine. "If I agree to testify, confides Jocelyne, it is because there are many people who suffer and who are told that it is in their head. But it's not an invented disease!"
Doctors are helpless in front of this “unsettling” disease. “My doctor couldn’t do anything except telling me to take paracetamol. The last time I went to see her, she told me ‘Listen, you have long COVID, but I don’t know how to help,” Anik recalls.
The 42-year-old press secretary got COVID in October 2020. “I was weak, but not as if I had the flu. I recovered in ten days, and I didn't think I would suffer from any after-effects. But my smell didn't return and at Christmas, I started to detect very strong smells of rotten garlic, garbage, and tailpipes. I consulted an ENT specialist who confirmed that I was not hallucinating, that it was phantosmia. He prescribed olfactory rehabilitation."
A chronic illness
For Anik, phantosmia also marked the beginning of what she calls “COVID comebacks.” “Every two or three weeks, it was as if I got COVID again. I had stomach issues, chest tightness, joint pain, I had to take naps and go to bed at 8 p.m. with my son because I was so exhausted. My whole body was affected, as if I had been hit by a truck," she recalls. In between these episodes, Anik regained her shape and abilities, slept well, and was hopeful that she had put the disease behind her. "When it came back overnight, I was down, even morally, because I knew I had 10 days of fighting ahead of me."
There are many people who suffer and who are told that it is in their head.
Eventually, her "COVID comebacks" spaced out until July 2021. "In August, I met a woman in the Alps who gave me a traditional Chinese belly massage for almost two hours. It was as if she had freed me from all the pain with a deep cleansing and that was the end of the long COVID for me. Anyway, I haven't had COVID symptoms ever since. The only thing left is my smell, which I think I recovered at 70%," says Anik. "COVID took a year off my life," she retrospectively says. "Now that I'm better, I'm so happy to be able to wake up in the morning without any pain. I realized how valuable it is to be in good health."
Unfortunately, Dr. Larché has not seen many healings among his patients. "This is just my experience, but a study recently published in Nature Communications shows that after one year of follow-up, only 15% of patients are symptom-free. I think we're facing a new chronic disease," he laments. "But my experience also shows that an adapted treatment in a specialized center allows an improvement of the symptoms, a reduction of their intensity and a beginning of professional reintegration," he adds.
But she was deterred by the intensity of the program. "The days start with a one-hour walk, that's barely what I do in a week," she sighs. " Long COVID patients are on a rollercoaster ride, they can be off for two weeks, three weeks, a month … Every time, exhaustion is the issue. In this center, the program includes an hour of outdoor walking, exercise training, relaxation, pool activity and stretching, all interspersed with rest periods, check-ups with the nurses and lunch. This is obviously the theory, in practice everyone does its best," says Gilles Vallat, head of the rehabilitation staff.
"Each patient is different, and we always have to adapt, but with these long COVID, this is even more so. There is no norm, no standard protocol, it is a very complicated care," underlines Gilles Vallat. At the Pic Saint-Loup clinic, the composition of the team (pneumologist, cardiologist, physiotherapist, psychiatrist, psychologist, occupational therapist, dietician …) enables to take care of the patient "in his or her entirety," he insists. More than any other pathology, long COVID requires this multidisciplinary approach, due to its various symptoms.
This journalist, himself infected with long COVID for 18 months, laments the "persistent gap between theory and practice" while a bill was passed on Jan. 13, 2022 and a road map was launched on March 17, 2022. "France is one of the last countries not to have identified the long COVID patients. England has done it: 1,300,000 are recognized, classified according to their symptoms, taken care of … Between 10% and 30% of people who have had COVID are likely to develop a long one, but we want to stop with the statistics.”
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