Welcome to Friday, where Joe Biden announces a huge COVID relief package, North Korea boasts "the world's most powerful weapon" and Wikipedia turns 20. Les Echos also explains how the pandemic response is quietly helping us prepare for the next big bad thing.
SPOTLIGHT: TRUMP DIDN'T INVENT THE SPREADING PLAGUE OF NARCISSISM
When I was a kid — 12,13 — my dad had a shrink friend who used to come around our house. His usual business on these visits was to review the degenerating state of the world for us, and list the ways it all made his profession difficult.
"Wanna catch a glimpse of the future?" he asked, raising an eyebrow. "Just visit the waiting room of a psychologist!" Then he raised a finger: "I'll tell you, they're no neurotics left, just narcissists!"
I remember that night because the word narcissist entered my vocabulary directly from the mouth of a professional in the field. And inside my still-growing cortex, a terrifying image of what that might mean for a person, the world, as well as for Dr. Jansson's blood pressure.
The term accompanied me through 2016, as Donald Trump lied and boasted and driveled his way to the pole position in the GOP primary, and on to the White House. What eventually was even more terrifying about the election of a narcissist was the subsequent consensus in the psychological community that Trump appealed most of all to fellow narcissists.
So ... as with Donald, as with us, the people. We the people, who almost twice elected a high-end bingo caller as leader of the Free World. There's solid data coming from my priest dad — Gunnar — that narcissism's rise to the status of a folk illness dates back decades.
Yes, it predates that virtual litter box for the worst that humans can verbally discharge. Twitter and other social media no doubt play their part, but at the time of the dinner conversation at my house, Zuckerberg had yet to invent his algorithm and people were still playing Snake II on Nokias.
Dr. Jansson's theory, Gunnar recalled on the phone the other day, was rather that our self-absorbed tendencies were the result of the widespread distrust in any kind of overarching idea. We contemporary humans prefer to cherry-pick our ideas — often fragmented, incoherent and simplified — that best validate some feeling of self-worth.
That's what Gunnar saw last week on his television set in southern Sweden as a mob of narcissists launched their assault on the U.S. Capitol. They are not believers in any ideology, per se, but rather a fleeting series of (conspiracy) theories: that Trump leads a covert battle against a blood-sucking child-trafficking conglomerate featuring Hillary Clinton and Tom Hanks; that the 2020 election was stolen through Hugo Chavez-designed voting machines hacked by Venezuelan children; that who knows what next ...
... well, you get it. The farcical madness that played out in Washington suggests something deeper than just political polarization, or the disillusionment of under-educated white voters, or social media going haywire. The lesson of these last four years that (let us hope) culminated last week is that our collective sanity, like democracy, requires constant support from professionals in the field.
— Carl-Johan Karlsson
THE SITUATION: 7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW
• COVID-19 latest: U.S. President-elect Joe Biden announces a $1.9 trillion relief package which includes $1,400 per person, additional unemployment benefits, food stamps, and rental assistance. As cases hit 30 million across Europe, France announces a 6 pm curfew, and the UK bans all flights from South America.
• Capitol riot aftermath: The Pentagon launches investigation into White Nationalism extremists in the military noting that "numerous people" have been identified as military veterans or active-duty service members. Meanwhile, the Army agrees to bring 21,000 National Guard members to D.C. and the city's mayor asks people not to come to the inauguration.
• North Korea flexes military: Kim Jong-un boasts Pyongyang's submarine launched missile as "world's most powerful weapon," and calls the U.S. his "principal enemy."
• Algerian roadside bomb: Five civilians have been killed and three wounded in a homemade bomb in eastern Algeria.
• Earthquake in Indonesia: A 6.2-magnitude quake has shaken the island of Sulawesi, killing at least 34.
• Dakar rally news: France's Pierre Cherpin has died from a head injury he sustained during a motorsport crash. Fellow countryman Stéphane Peterhansel has won the rally for the 14th time, a new record.
• Tintin painting breaks record: The original cover for Tintin's The Blue Lotus volume from 1936 was bought by a private collector for a record €3.2 million at a Paris auction. It breaks the 2014 record for the most expensive comic book art sale of €2.65 million.
"Without oxygen, Manaus sees deaths from asphyxiation in hospitals," titles daily O Globo as hospitals in the Brazilian city reach breaking point with reports of severe oxygen shortages and desperate staff. Brazil records more than 205,000 deaths, the world's second highest tally.
THE NEXT CATASTROPHE HAS ALREADY BEEN PREDICTED — AGAIN
Before it even began, the pandemic was already on the radar of big risks — and yet we were unprepared. Will it be the same for cyber security and environmental threats? asks Jean-Marc Vittori in French daily Les Echos.
If this health crisis is causing so much suffering, it's because we refused to seriously prepare for it. The time has therefore come to think about the next global catastrophes — the less predictable ones. "If you want peace, prepare for war" goes the old Latin adage. Luckily a major conflict among allied nations, seen in the last century, doesn't seem as likely today.
The major perils — the ones that could create worldwide catastrophes — are of a different nature. Except for infectious diseases and weapons of mass destruction, they all fit into two categories: digital and natural. And what happened with the pandemic can help us prepare for both.
The digital world has two dangers: system malfunctions and cyber attacks. Google's worldwide shutdown on December 14th after a problem with its identification system gave a glimpse of what this kind of massive outage could look like, and the consequences weren't just a missing search bar. The lesson here is clear: resilience requires diversification. It's similar to the old maxim, "Don't put all your eggs in one basket."
The other genre of catastrophic events is environmental: extreme weather, water shortages, natural disasters… "Climate: the next threat?" proclaimed the Toulouse School of Economics in their latest review. "In the long term, no challenge is greater or more urgently requires evidence-based action than climate change," declared Christian Gollier, the school's director.
➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com here.
"COVID-19 pandemic" was Wikipedia's most-read page in 2020 with more than 83 million visits, followed by Donald Trump and "Deaths in 2020." The collaborative internet encyclopedia is celebrating its 20th birthday today and has now become the seventh-most popular website in the world.
It is the State that is charged with safeguarding the welfare of its most vulnerable citizens, and it is the State that must bear primary responsibility.
— Irish President Michael D Higgins responds to a government report this week that found an "appalling level of infant mortality" and abuse of women and children at the Catholic Church-run homes that cared for mothers and children.
PHOTO OF THE WEEK
Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?
BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.
The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.
This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.
Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.
"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.
Can you trust environmental officials?
For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.
This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.
It could have sunk because of the rain.
After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.
The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.
"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.
"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.
Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water
A questionable claim
That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.
"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.
He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."
Living in pollution
The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.
"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.
He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.
The mining work should have been stopped long ago
Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.
The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.
In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.
The mine has affected the landscape around the villages
Resisting lignite mining
The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.
The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.
They were dependent on others' land for work.
Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.
In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.
The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.
"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.