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The flagship publication of the Gannett local newspaper chain, USA Today was founded by Al Neuharth in 1982, as an accessible nationwide alternative to both local papers and such titles as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
Economy
Anne Sophie Goninet

How COVID-19 Has Changed Payments — And Could Kill Cash

The coronavirus outbreak has changed our relationship with work, health and… cash. The fear of contamination while handling coins and banknotes has accelerated a trend that had already been growing for years: contactless payments. Both consumers and businesses that may have been previously reluctant to go digital are changing their preferred payment methods. Does this mean the end of cash?

Digital payments on the rise: The adoption of digital and contactless payments has seen significant growth all around the world, be it through websites, mobile phones or credit cards.

  • In India, a poll conducted by Mastercard on digital payments revealed a 19% increase in the actual contactless cards issued in the first quarter of 2020, the Financial Express reports. The corporation also found that contactless transactions were particularly high for purchases below $10 and in four types of establishments (supermarkets, restaurants, bars and gas stations), which registered more than 1 million contactless transactions each month at the beginning of 2020.

  • Malaysia is also one of the fastest-growing countries in Asia Pacific to adopt contactless payments, according to The Malaysian Reserve. A study conducted by Visa revealed three out of five Malaysians prefer using digital payments compared to cash before the pandemic while another report by Mastercard found that 40% of Malaysian consumers have reported increasing the use of their mobile and digital wallets.

  • With businesses closed during the lockdown and many consumers feeling uncomfortable returning to stores post-confinement, online shopping has been soaring in many countries. According to Adobe's Digital Economy Index, which analyzes global digital commerce trends, online shopping reached $66.3 billion in July 2020 — a 55% increase compared to last year. Several e-commerce companies reported very high figures: Amazon's net income increased to $5.2 billion in the second quarter of 2020, compared with $2.6 billion last year, while Argentina's MercadoLibre registered revenues that increased 123% compared with 2019. In China, the online sale of physical goods grew by 25% in June 2020 while e-commerce accounted for a quarter of the country's total retail for the same period, with categories such as cosmetics and beverages on the rise.

Multiplying cashless options: Governments and private companies alike are encouraging contactless transactions by offering new payment options for consumers in various sectors.

  • The French government, in collaboration with Visa and MasterCard, raised the contactless transaction limit of credit cards from €30 to €50 on May 11th as the country started to ease lockdown measures. French citizens immediately took advantage of the new measure: Les Echos reports that a mere three days later, three million transactions between €30 to €50 were made — raising contactless transactions by an additional 15%.

Someone using a credit card on a white POS machine. — Photo: Clay Banks/Unsplash

  • Shops and businesses are also adapting to the new trend. In the United States, a National Retail Federation survey found that 58% of retailer respondents were now accepting contactless cards, an increase from 40% compared with 2019. Big retail companies such as Walmart have expanded contactless options for both payment and delivery, such as using QR codes for purchases via smartphone apps.

  • Some companies are also trying to offer completely new contactless solutions. KEB Hana Bank, one of the biggest commercial banks in South Korea, has partnered with the Korea Expressway Corporation to create a blockchain-based toll payment system across the country's highways. D Daily reports that the project, expected to be launched before the end of 2020, will help remove cash and credit card payments as motorists use their smartphone banking apps to pay for tolls. Both parties stated that the pandemic is helped spur them to create this new system.

  • In the Philippines, GCash, the country's largest mobile wallet app with 20 million registered users, is working with the government to equip taxis with scan-to-pay systems where users pay via QR codes from their smartphones, Nikkei Asia Review reports. In parallel, the government has been promoting digital currency through an online payment platform for administrative services called EGov Pay. By the end of March, the country had increased the number of government institutions that accept digital payment via the platform by 56%.

No more cash? As more and more payments are made digitally, cash seems to be in short supply in some countries — but maybe not for reasons you would think.

  • It is now common in the United States to see signs in restaurants and stores that ask customers to pay with credit cards or exact change. Why? Because the country is facing a national coin shortage this summer. This is an unusual result of the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic. The Federal Reserve explained in a statement that the shortage was caused by a "slower pace of circulation" of coins during the lockdown. As businesses reopen across the U.S., demand for coins exceeds the available supply — to the point where banks are asking customers to bring spare change, USA Today reports. To address these disruptions, the Federal Reserve has established a "Coin Task Force," which recently released a first set of recommendations.

  • Further north, a similar deficit has arisen from a resistance to the cashless trend. The Bank of Canada is currently facing a shortage of $50 bills due to citizens hoarding cash during the pandemic. A report indicates that the increase in consumer demand for banknotes was "significant," with withdrawals concentrated in major cities such as Toronto and Montreal. The bank registered a spike in demand for all bank notes in April and May compared with the past five years. However, the hoarders may not be able to spend their banknotes at all as many businesses ask customers to avoid cash payments while others even refuse them.

Geopolitics

The Latest: Peru Election Too Close To Call, Pakistan Train Collision, Turkey Sea Snot

Welcome to Monday, where two Latin American countries await the results of key elections, a deadly train collision rocks Pakistan, and Turkey faces a worrying — not to say pretty yucky — sea of snot. We also look at some of the most creative vaccine incentives around the world. (Spoiler alert: They involve free food. And a cow.)

• Pakistan train collision kills 33: Two trains collided early this morning in southern Pakistan, killing at least 33 and injuring more than 120. Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted he was "ordering comprehensive investigation into railway safety fault lines."

• Boko Haram leader dead: According to a rival militant group, the leader of Nigerian-based Islamist group Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, has killed himself by detonating an explosive. Although his death has not yet been confirmed by authorities, the Nigerian army has announced plans to investigate the allegations.

• Key elections in Latin America: Both Peru and Mexico went to the polls this weekend. In Mexico, after being largely overshadowed by spates of violence, President López Obrador and his coalition are set to maintain a simple majority in the lower house of Congress, despite losing several seats. In Peru, the presidential election between Leftist Pedro Castillo and right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori is still too close to call.

• G7 vs. tech giants: G7 countries reached a historic deal on the taxation of multinational corporations, such as Amazon and Microsoft, over the weekend. Large corporations may now be subject to a global minimum corporation tax rate of 15%, in an effort to dissuade the use of offshore tax havens.

• Hungarians protest new Chinese University: Thousands of Hungarians gathered to protest the planned construction of a Budapest campus for the Chinese University, Fudan. Many left-leaning Hungarians are critical of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's close relationship with Beijing, and see the project as a misuse of funds that could go toward improving the state of the country's education.

• Last Auschwitz liberator dies: David Dushman, the last surviving soldier who took part in the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, has died at 98. The Red Army soldier had used his tank to mow down the electric fence of the camp.

• President Lili?: After Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced the birth of Lilibet "Lili" Diana Mountbatten-Windsor (named in honor of both Queen Elizabeth and Lady Diana), born on Friday morning in Santa Barbara, California, some were quick to point out that being born on U.S. soil, Lilibet will also be able to run for U.S. president.

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Geopolitics

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Welcome to Thursday, where Joe Biden calls for a deeper investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, France recognizes its responsibility in the Rwandan genocide and six famous friends are reunited after 17 years. Persian-language magazine Kayhan-London also reports on how the pandemic, combined with dire economic conditions and government repression, has had a profound impact on Iranian's mental health.

• Biden orders investigation into coronavirus origin: U.S. President Joe Biden has ordered intelligence officials to "redouble" efforts to determine the origins of COVID-19, including the theory that it came from a Chinese laboratory. China has already rejected this theory, accusing the U.S. government of politicizing the pandemic.

• Macron recognizes French "responsibility" in Rwanda genocide: On a symbolic visit to Rwanda on Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron recognized France's "political" responsibility in the 1994 genocide, though adding that France was not complicit in the genocide.

• Azerbaijan captures six Armenian troops: Azeri troops have captured six Armenian soldiers near the border, the latest incident in continuing tensions since war reignited last year in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh.

• Eight killed in San Jose mass shooting: At least eight people were killed when a gunman opened fire at a California rail yard before taking his own life, the latest mass shooting as Congress debates legislation to curb gun violence.

• Dozens missing after Nigeria boat sinks: Dozens of people are missing in northwest Nigeria after an overloaded boat carrying around 160 passengers sank in the Niger River.

• Manhunt in Belgium for suspect who threatened to kill COVID expert: A manhunt for career soldier Jürgen Conings, 46, has entered its second week in Belgium, after the suspect allegedly stole an arsenal of deadly weapons from a military barracks and threatened to kill one of the country's most famous virologists.

• Hello, old Friends: The long-awaited Friends reunion special will be aired today, 17 years after the final episode and featuring such acquaintances as Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga.

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Geopolitics
Worldcrunch

Face Masks: Conflicting Science, Laws, Attitudes Around The World

After Italy, Spain was one of the first countries in Europe to feel the full, crushing weight of the coronavirus pandemic, and is currently approaching 30,000 deaths. Now, as governments around the continent lift their lockdown restrictions, Spain has also become a reference point for its stringent policy on the use of face masks: starting Thursday, they are mandatory for nearly everyone, and just about everywhere.

The new policy excludes children under the age of six, but applies to everyone else, Spanish daily El País reports. That means that approximately 45 million Spaniards are now required to cover their mouths and noses whenever they're in public spaces — indoors or outdoors — where maintaining a distance of two meters isn't possible.

So far it's not clear how the requirements will be enforced, or what precisely the sanctions will be for people who ignore the rule. What is clear is that Spain is going all in on face masks as a necessary tool to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The government order also highlights a shift in both the science and the way people around the world feel about face masks, which have been something of a "moving target" since the pandemic began. Not only has there been cultural resistance, in some cases, to face coverings, but they've also been the subject of conflicting national and international medical guidelines.

The World Health Organization (WHO) advises people to wear a mask only if they are coughing or sneezing or taking care of someone with the virus. But a report by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control recommends the use of medical face masks in busy and closed spaces even for people without symptoms. So should we wear them or not? Here's what they're saying around the world:

  • France flip-flop: Initially following the WHO advice, France began the pandemic by recommending people wear a mask only if they were sick or work in the medical sector. But in April, the country shifted its position abruptly, encouraging all citizens to wear masks in public, Le Monde reports. The government also announced the manufacture of "alternative" masks for the public would expand and that France had ordered 2 billion masks from China. For now the use of face masks isn't compulsory, though that could change after May 11, when the country starts to loosen its lockdown measures.

  • U.S. culture clash: The rules in the United States vary from state to state — and store to store, and has become politically charged in a nation sometimes obsessed with the notion of individual freedom. As USA Today reports, video was captured of a recent showdown at a Costco retailer between an employee who forced out a shopper refusing to wear a mask, as per store rules. The shopper retorted: "I woke up this morning in a free country."

  • Singapore reversal: Similarly, healthy Singaporians were initially instructed to stay clear of masks, but as the death toll crossed the 1,000 mark in early April, authorities flipped and have since fined hundreds of people for not wearing masks in public, reports daily The Straits Times.

  • South Korea all-in: In South Korea, where face masks were seen as a key part of the national strategy to curb the spread, the government intervened in early February to solve the mask shortage, buying up half of all KF-94 masks (the equivalent of the American N95) from the nation's 130 or so manufacturers and sold them at discount to 23,000 pharmacies, reports South Korean Broadcaster TBS.

  • Sweden says Nej: Swedish health authorities have kept a straight line from the start: No, masks don't protect healthy people. Rather, according to state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, they are likely to increase the risk of spread as the virus leaks and accumulates on the inside of the mask, to then be transferred to the hands whenever put on or taken off, reports Swedish National Television.

  • Czech model: The Czech Republic made it compulsory early on to wear a mask or other mouth and nose-covering apparel when in public, with fines of up to 10.000CZK (363 euros). Despite the global shortage, Czechs have mobilized to sew and distribute homemade masks, in a movement spearheaded by celebrities on social media. A government-sponsored video in English, intended mainly to inspire other countries, explains that it is not so much about face masks protecting the ones who wear them, but everyone else – with a catchword "my mask protects you, your mask protects me."

Geopolitics

The Latest: Good News On Vaccines, Italian Envoy Killed, Djokovic's 18th

Welcome to Monday, where we have very good news on vaccine effectiveness, Myanmar protesters won't back down after police open fire and Edvard Munch turns out to be a different kind of scream. We also find out how AI is helping to preserve dying languages.

• COVID-19 latest: The U.S. death toll is approaching the 500,000 mark, the UK unveils plan to cautiously loosen its lockdown and Argentina authorizes emergency use of Chinese-made vaccine. A new study offers very good news about the effectiveness of vaccines to reduce serious illness from COVID.

• Myanmar coup protests: Massive protests continued Monday across Myanmar against the military coup despite increasingly deadly response from authorities.

• Beijing olive branch: A top Chinese official urged American counterparts to work together with Beijing to mend the damaged bilateral relationship between the world's two most powerful countries.

• Italian envoy killed: The Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo and a military policeman have been killed in an attack on a United Nations convoy.

• Boeing 777 grounded: Dozens of Boeing 777 aircraft have been grounded in the U.S. and Japan after the dramatic engine failure of a United Airlines flight near Denver this past weekend.

• Bitcoin dips: Trading was down as much as 6% in opening hours on the cryptocurrency after a record-shattering week that saw Bitcoin rise above $58,000. Elon Musk, who has bet big on bitcoin, said on Saturday that prices "seem high."

• Madman Munch: The National Museum of Norway has confirmed that the mysterious graffiti on Edvard Munch's painting The Scream that read "Can only have been painted by a madman" was written by the artist himself.

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Geopolitics

Worldcrunch Today, Dec. 23: COVID In Antarctica, Trump Vs. Stimulus, Messi Record

Welcome to Wednesday, where Trump blocks U.S. stimulus package, the last continent gets its first COVID cases and Messi breaks Pele's record. We also discover the different ways the world's teachers kept 1.5 billion students learning through the pandemic's lockdowns.

SPOTLIGHT: A HUMAN MUTATION: PANDEMIC TRIALS, TRANS SPECIES VISIONS

Seeing Manel de Aguas can prompt a range of reactions. The connected artificial "fins' implanted in his skull might look silly to some, inspiring to others, or just very disturbing. "I don't feel 100% human," the 27-year-old Catalan told the La Razón daily last week.

On his Instagram page, de Aguas describes himself as a Trans Species Artist. Those fins protruding from his head help him "feel" the weather, and as such are for him both aesthetic and prosthetic. They are as much a part of what he claims as a genuine cyborg identity as they are part of his creative image and business model. Is this a kind of 21st-century circus act? A role model for all those who have ever felt deeply connected to other species on the planet? Or are we witnessing a walking preview of the hybrid future of the human race?

That's the future of "transhumanism," predicted by more and more respected thinkers, including renowned author Yuval Harari (Sapiens, Homos Deus), where advances in biotechnology, genetics and artificial intelligence may reorder what we consider to be human.

Building machines and scientific technology into our bodies is of course nothing new, though until now it's been the almost exclusive purview of the medical sector for those seeking to fix or replace something that has somehow been lost, broken or deficient. We're crossing another boundary when we fuse tech and flesh for less purely practical reasons: whether its de Aguas' apparent attempt to better connect to nature (or boost his Instagram following) — or for more nefarious ends.

"The reality is that the human species will become immortal. In 100 or 500 or 1,000 years, it doesn't matter," Laurent Alexandre, a leading French medical technologist, told Le Figaro. "The real question is at what price. The Faustian pact with technology is heavy with consequences."

Most recently, the rising interest in transhumanism has also sparked a growing number of conspiracy theories triggered by 5G technology and COVID-19 vaccines, with claims that we will soon carry, unwillingly, electronic chips in our bodies and brains.

But of course, the current pandemic is warning not only about the risks of human advancement but also about our weaknesses in the face of nature. While transhumanism opens the door to the physical enhancement of our very selves — and the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines is a testament to our technological prowess — we are still in the dark about how the virus may have been first transmitted from other species. The human condition, it seems, is still very much driven by our mortality.

— Laure Gautherin

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