Welcome to Thursday, where severe flooding in Germany and Belgium has left dozens dead, Brazil's Bolsonaro is in the hospital and a gun that looks like a children's toy sparks backlash. Independent Egyptian media Mada Masr also tells us about a high-end supermarket that's transforming Egypt's grocery lists.
• Dozens feared dead in European floods: After days of heavy rain, intense flooding in Germany and Belgium has left dozens of people dead and several others missing. The worst of the deluge has taken place in Germany's western Rhineland-Palatinate state, while the Liège province of Belgium has also reported two casualties.
• Cuba lifts import duties following unrest: Starting Monday, there will be no limits or custom duties on food, medicine and other essentials visitors bring into the country. The measure is an attempt to quell the public anger that led to recent protests, the largest Cuba has seen in decades.
• Bolsonaro hospitalized for chronic hiccups: After experiencing chronic hiccups for ten days, President Bolsonaro was transferred to a hospital in São Paulo to undergo tests for an obstructed intestine. The president, who blames the issue on a 2018 assassination attempt that severely wounded him, may need to undergo emergency surgery.
• New EU climate plan announced: The European Union will continue efforts toward becoming carbon neutral by 2050, namely via several draft proposals announced Wednesday that intend to tax aviation and maritime fuel, as well as effectively ban the sale of petrol and diesel powered cars within 20 years. Car manufacturers and airlines have already responded, warning the proposals will "imperil innovation."
• US to evacuate endangered Afghani translators: As US forces withdraw from Afghanistan well ahead of the original September 11 target, several Afghanis who offered assistance to the US military fear retaliation as the Taliban gains territory throughout the country. "Operation Allies Refuge" will begin the final week of July to evacuate those deemed at-risk.
• Amazon rainforest emits more CO2 than it absorbs: Known as a ‘carbon sink," the Amazon rainforest was previously reputed for its important role in absorbing harmful emissions. However, deforestation and forest fires have now made the Amazon a source of carbon dioxide rather than a relief, with the forest emitting 1.5bn tonnes of CO2 a year.
• Backlash over ‘Lego" themed weapon: The Danish toymaker, Lego, has sent a cease and desist letter to US gun company, Culper Precision, after it created a custom glock weapon, which appears to be covered in colorful Lego bricks. Both the toymaker and gun control activists have highlighted the danger of producing a pistol that strongly resembles a children's toy.
Buenos Aires daily Clarin features Argentina's COVID-19 death toll on its Thursday front page, after the count surpassed 100,000 — the fifth Latin American country to reach that grim mark after Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Colombia.
Grocery Shopping In Egypt: Local Ingredients Meet Global Trends
Egypt's most prominent high-end grocery chain, Gourmet, has earned a reputation for stocking ingredients that were hard to find anywhere else, opening the door to previously inaccessible recipes. Osman El Sharnoubi of Egyptian independent media Mada Masr explains how the famous supermarket heralds shifting consumption habits:
Gourmet's path to success was anything but straightforward. The company's revenues were severely impacted by the 2011 revolution, with disruptions in supply and new duties imposed on luxury goods. In November 2016, the government devalued the currency as part of an economic reform program put in place to secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund. The cost of imported goods doubled overnight and disrupted the supply of many imports.
In order to deal with the import crisis, Gourmet began offering a new type of product: locally produced ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat meals. The move proved remarkably successful and Gourmet's own food products have become one of the main lures for customers and a major source of revenue.
As a leading retailer in both specialized groceries and prepared foods, Gourmet represents Egypt's latest stage in a decades-long, worldwide trend toward the increased centralization of food shopping, the globalized availability of ingredients and food products, and of the trading of home cooking for so-called convenience. Yet Egyptian supermarkets haven't reached total domination just yet, as 80% of retail foods are sold in smaller, traditional grocery stores.
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Pandemic-related hard times or not, CEOs are doing just fine. Corporate bosses in the U.S. made 299 times more than their average workers last year, according to AFL-CIO's annual Executive Paywatch report. On average, executives received $15.5 million in total compensation while the average production and nonsupervisory worker earned $43,512. The growing difference has been highlighted since 2008, when it was mandated that U.S. companies publicly disclose this data.
"Their goal is to make me feel like I'm crazy.
— Britney Spears has won the right to choose her own lawyer to help her end a 13-year-long conservatorship. Spears said that her father, who has been in charge of her conservatorship since her mental health breakdown in 2008, made her feel afraid. "I'm not a perfect person," she tearfully told the court. "But their goal is to make me feel like I'm crazy."
Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.
SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.
The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.
It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.
Seoul housing prices top London and New York
In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.
According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.
Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.
One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.
According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.
Playing the stock market
At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.
A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."
In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.
42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s
Game of survival
In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.
But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.
This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.
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