Dozens of couples participate in a collective wedding in San Salvador, El Salvador, on Valentine’s Day
Dozens of couples participate in a collective wedding in San Salvador, El Salvador, on Valentine’s Day

Welcome to Monday, where the Myanmar generals are tightening their grip, new COVID variants are identified and a very ancient watering hole is discovered in Egypt. We also have a Die Welt piece on the dark side of the dream of moving out to the countryside.

• COVID-19 latest: Researchers have identified seven new variants circulating in the United States, with similar genetic mutation to the more contagious strains found in the UK and South Africa. WHO investigators in China have discovered signs that the initial outbreak in Wuhan in December 2019 was much wider than previously thought.

• Myanmar military coup tightens: As armoured vehicles appear in several cities, Myanmar's military junta rushes through a series of changes to its penal code, warning anti-coup protesters they could face 20 years in prison if they obstruct armed force. Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi's lawyer has announced the pro-democracy leader will be detained for a further two days before a trial via video link this week.

• Trump acquitted: Bipartisan support is growing for the creation of an independent commission to investigate the Capitol riots after former U.S. President Donald Trump was acquitted on Saturday of inciting an insurrection. Seven Republicans joined all 50 Democratic Senators in voting guilty, but fell short of the two-thirds majority required to convict.

• Indian climate activist arrested: Disha Ravi, 22, has been arrested on charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy for sharing online "toolkit" with information on the farmers' protests, which had been tweeted by climate activist Greta Thunberg.

• WTO's new director: Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is set to be named director general of the World Trade Organization, the first African and woman to lead the WTO.

• Argentina mourns Menem: Argentina has declared three days of national mourning in honor of former president Carlos Menem, who has died at the age of 90. The charismatic leader served from 1989-1999.

• World's oldest brewery: Archeologists in Egypt discover what could be the world's oldest beer factory dating back about 5,000 years in Abydos, an ancient burial ground in the desert.


"Symbol of an era," titles Argentine daily La Gaceta, honoring former president Carlos Menem, who died at the age of 90.

How the dream of moving out to the countryside can backfire

Many urban dwellers fantasize about a rural lifestyle, especially in the middle of the pandemic. But leaving city life behind is easier said than done, writes Freia Peters in German daily Die Welt.

Between the two lockdowns, Bianca Berlin and her family moved to the German countryside, to a village of 400 people in the Uckermark region, around 100 kilometers north of Berlin. Having access to nature, especially during the pandemic, has been priceless, the 34-year-old mother of two explains. "The girls can build dens and climb trees without fear of coming into contact with other people," Berlin says. "During the first lockdown, in the city, I only went to the park at eight in the morning."

Many families would envy the Berlins. According to a survey of 2,700 city dwellers carried out last November by the polling institute Civey, around a third dream of a life in the country. For 25%, this is a long-standing wish, while for 10% it has been sparked or strengthened by the coronavirus pandemic. Home-working is opening up new possibilities, and during the pandemic, life in the cities can feel a bit grim.

But whether the moves will prove to be long-term is another question. Anne Dirfad from Hamburg fantasized for years about moving to the countryside, and when her husband, who works in advertising, got offered a new job in 2019, they finally took the leap. But things didn't turn out the way they'd hoped and expected. "It wasn't meant to be," she now says. "We had a lot of trouble making friends. Families there kept to themselves, and children in the neighborhood often went to their grandparents' in the afternoon."

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


Iranian woman suspected of 700k theft after her "arranged" marriage

A 26-year-old woman in Tehran suspected of more than a dozen thefts began by befriending wealthy female targets. But the plot for her big payday would require setting the trap for a man.

Iranian newspaper Sharq reports that the woman, arrested last week for allegedly stealing 700,000 euros in cash and property, confessed to previous more modest thefts from the homes of 15 women in Tehran. Police identified the suspect as "Roxana," who admitted to befriending women in affluent neighborhoods and stealing items from their bedrooms, telling them she needed to "freshen up."

But her plans to target one particular well-to-do family would take a bit more time — and a much bigger lie. She aimed to seduce the family's son, and trick him into proposing marriage. The young man, Amirhossein, admitted to police that he "fell for her" fast.

Presumably to assuage concerns that she was after the family's money, the suspect rented an apartment in Farmanieh, an expensive district in northern Tehran, where the marriage proposal eventually took place, with unnamed accomplices posing as her family.

One day, she asked Amirhossein to wait for her outside the same rented flat for her to come outside. He waited for three hours while, according to police, she had slipped out of the building, gone to his family home and broken into the safe with keys she had stolen. She emptied almost 700,000 euros (3.5 billion tomans) worth of cash and valuables before being arrested. Amirhossein told police that Roxana had been "quiet and kind" right until the end.

➡️ Keep up with all the planet's police reports and plot twists on Worldcrunch.com

-4.8%

Monday's end-of-year tally in Japan showed that the country's economy shrank for the first time since 2009 due to the pandemic. Still, the Nikkei stock market closed above 30,000 yen mark for the first time since 1990 as figures showed that the recovery in the second half of the year was better than expected.

The world is watching.

— A jointly signed statement from Western ambassadors in Myanmar condemns the actions of the military and urges them to restrain from violence against protesters following the coup that overthrew the democratically elected government in the southeast Asian nation.

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The daily Shargh ("East") is considered to be aligned with the reformist-moderate forces in Iran, and has been shut down periodically in the past by government authorities. It is published in Tehran, where it was founded in 2003.
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January 15-16

  • Kazakhstan’s vicious circle of strongmen
  • COVID school chaos around the world
  • The truth behind why we lie to ourselves
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

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]

⬇️  STARTER

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


🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• 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.

📚😷 COVID SCHOOL CHAOS AROUND THE WORLD


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

🇰🇿  KAZAKHSTAN’S VICIOUS CIRCLE OF STRONGMEN


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

🐟 DENMARK, A SMALL FISH IN THE SALMON INDUSTRY’S BIG POND


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

💡  BRIGHT IDEA

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.

#️⃣ TRENDING


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.

🤦‍♀️🛴🤦‍♂️ FACEPALM OF THE WEEK


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.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

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.

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• 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:

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