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