BBC

Worldcrunch Today, Dec. 21: New COVID Strain, Record Relief, Vaccinating Santa

Crowds at London's St Pancras station after new lockdown measures were announced in the UK
Crowds at London's St Pancras station after new lockdown measures were announced in the UK

Welcome to Monday, where stocks plummet and borders are blocked after news from Britain about a new faster spreading COVID strain. Mada Masr also takes us to Ethiopia's troubled Tigray region and considers the ramifications of the conflict along the border with Sudan.

SPOTLIGHT: THE PANDEMIC HAS CHANGED THE MEANING OF WORK AND FREE TIME

Bill Gates is among those predicting that the shift toward remote work will last beyond the COVID-19 crisis. But what if, to compensate, people start making more of an effort to mix and mingle? Beatriz Miranda Cortes, a lecturer at the Externado university in Bogotá, looks ahead in Colombian daily El Espectador.

In a marvelous reflection on the post-modern world and the individual, human condition, the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman cites the example of a young man who aspired to having 500 friends on Facebook.

Bauman observes that at 86, he still hasn't found that many friends, but suggests that the word friend likely means different things to him and to the young Facebook user. Bauman wants authentic human bonds, in a living community. The online community, he says, depends for its existence on two gestures: connecting and disconnecting. And both are just a matter of clicking the right button. Add friend? Click. Remove friend? Click.

The philosopher's reflections focused on the blessings and curses of human ties in the real world versus the virtual, online realm. But now there's an entirely new factor to consider: a painful pandemic that will reshape the world, and our relations.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates recently tackled the topic of COVID-19, and the lasting impact it may have on the world, in a conference organized by the New York Times. And one of his predictions is that 50% of business trips and 30% of office days will be eliminated.

That's a very different scenario from the one that people envisioned just last year, when things were still "normal." In a piece published Jan. 24, 2019, Spain's El País called business travel a "rising asset" and cited Bogotá, along with London, New York, Sao Paulo and Mexico City, as one of the world's best cities for corporate events.

But then COVID-19 came along, and many executives made their homes an office. Remote work means it won't be easy to justify a business trip now, which will surely reduce the number of flights crossing the skies every day. Bad news for the airlines, but as far as climate change is concerned, it's actually a rather favorable development. Airports, long trips, jet lag, hotels and constant separation from loved ones will no longer be part of the routine of corporate directors.

Also during the pandemic, many people moved to places far removed from city centers. They were looking for quiet places, surrounded by nature and often cheaper. Moving forward, everything indicates that more people will return to the countryside and picturesque villages where the norm is to appreciate the small things in life. This will likely reduce the population density of big cities and in the long term, redistribute the population in many countries.

Gates believes that the shift to remote working will be a lasting one, and that offices will never go back to how they were. He expects that as a result, people will feel more of a need to socialize. In the meantime, though, we're still having to deal with the virus. Vaccines will take time to distribute and apply, meaning that the disruptions to normal life will continue. We can also expect that most people will continue being cautious with elderly parents and relatives.

In 2020, most countries imposed social distancing. Borders were closed. People moved apart. And our houses, in addition to being homes, doubled as offices, classrooms and everything else. The silver lining was that the concept of home recovered its beauty, sense and essence. And yet, it's also clear people want to reach out and touch each other again. After staring at a screen for hours on end, people want to look each other in the eyes, the way they used to.

Gates said he hadn't anticipated facemasks would be so controversial, or that the Trump administration would take such an extremist attitude to the pandemic. He acknowledged that there is strong antipathy in the United States to using facemasks, but said he isn't sure if it's because of the government's political posturing, or due to a vigorous attachment, among American people, to personal freedoms.

Those kinds of unpredictable behaviors — in the name of freedom or under other pretexts — could occur elsewhere in the world too. Only time will tell. Either way, let's hope that whatever happens, whether in relation to Bauman's ideas about human bonds or Gates's post-pandemic predictions, we'll be ready to see and experience the changes — in person.

— Beatriz Miranda Cortes / El Espectador



THE SITUATION: 7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

COVID-19 latest: EU officials to discuss response to rapid spread of new COVID-19 variant in the UK, as several countries already suspended travel from the country. The new strain is said to be more transmissible, but not necessarily more deadly. New outbreak in Greater Sydney leads the government to shut off borders within the area.

Monday markets: Asian stocks have plummeted over fears of the new coronavirus strain while European shares fell 2% amid surging market volatility.

U.S. stimulus package: Congress has approved a $900 billion relief package designed to help America's pandemic-hit families and small businesses.

India farmer protests: Farmers protesting against India's new agricultural bills are ready to start a day-long "relay" hunger strike and have vowed to carry on sit-ins, despite the cold weather which has already led to the death of nearly 30 demonstrators since late November.

Brexit talks carry on: Trade talks between the EU and the UK continue after negotiators failed to reach an agreement over the weekend, with only 10 days left before the deal's year-end deadline.

• Biden TV jab: President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, will receive their COVID-19 jab today on live TV as part of efforts to encourage Americans to get vaccinated.

• In Jesus' shoes: After months of studying historical texts, Israeli archeologists and masons have recreated the same tile flooring that Jesus walked on in Jerusalem's ancient Jewish temple.



Slovak daily Dennik reveals on its front page the 2020 Person of the year: "Healthcare professionals," paying tribute to the doctors and nurses who were on the front line of the fight against the pandemic this year.



WAR IN ETHIOPIA'S TIGRAY REGION CASTS LONG SHADOW OVER SUDAN

With a humanitarian crisis looming on the Sudan-Eritrea border, Ethiopian refugees pine for news of those they were forced to leave behind, reports Nasr Eddin al-Tayib for Egyptian online newspaper Mada Masr.

The fighting between Ethiopia and the northern region of Tigray has continued over the course of the last month despite the Ethiopian military's capture of Mekelle, which continues to be underreported due to the communication blackout imposed by the Abiy government. Many of those that fled the fighting have made their way across the border into Sudan, whose fragile transitional government must now coordinate a burgeoning humanitarian crisis along its southern border.

In the Hashaba region of Sudan, Mada Masr spoke with Tesfai Bjika, 75, and his family, who have fled to Sudan twice from their hometown of Mai Khadra in Ethiopia. "My wife and I were displaced to Sudanese territories during the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998, and I spent about four years in the city of Gadarif, where my two sons were born," Tesfai says. "I returned to Mai Khadra after the peace agreement between the two countries was signed. And here I am, once again, displaced."

Ahmed Omran, the UNHCR official at the temporary refugee camp in Hamdayit, says that he is concerned about the organization's ability to cope with the huge influx of Ethiopian refugees. "We record about 1,000 to 1,500 refugees daily, all of whom all want to be transferred to the Um Rakuba camp in the state of Gedaref," he says from the tent that was set up by UNHCR to tally and register arriving refugees.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com here.



¥106.61 trillion

Japan has approved a record ¥106.61 trillion ($1.03 trillion) budget draft for next year, as the pandemic puts pressure on the country's already challenged finances.



I took a trip up there to the North Pole; I went there and I vaccinated Santa Claus myself.

— Top U.S. immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci assured children that Santa Claus is "good to go" as part of an hour-long CNN/Sesame Street special show.

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AL JAZEERA
Al Jazeera is a state-funded broadcaster in Doha, Qatar, owned by the Al Jazeera Media Network. Initially launched as an Arabic news and current-affairs satellite TV channel, Al Jazeera has since expanded into a network with several outlets, including the Internet and specialty television channels in multiple languages.
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EL ESPECTADOR
The oldest newspaper in Colombia, El Espectador was founded in 1887. The national daily newspaper has historically taken a firm stance against drug trafficking and in defense of freedom of the press. In 1986, the director of El Espectador was assassinated by gunmen hired by Pablo Escobar. The majority share-holder of the paper is Julio Mario Santo Domingo, a Colombian businessman named by Forbes magazine as one of the wealthiest men in the world in 2011.
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REUTERS
Reuters is an international news agency headquartered in London, UK. It was founded in 1851 and is now a division of Thomson Reuters. It transmits news in English, French, Arabic, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, Korean, Urdu, and Chinese.
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MADA MASR
Mada Masr is an independent Egyptian online newspaper, founded in June 2013, with content in Arabic and English.
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Denník N
Slovak daily and online news site.
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BBC
The BBC is the British public service broadcaster, and the world's oldest national broadcasting organization. It broadcasts in up to 28 different languages.
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Economy

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.


Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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