COVID testing in Göppingen, Germany, on Dec. 24
COVID testing in Göppingen, Germany, on Dec. 24

Welcome to Thursday, where Israel announces a 3rd national lockdown, a Brexit deal looks imminent, and we've got the price for zooming with Santa in Lapland. We also look at the effects the pandemic is having on the gig economy.

SPOTLIGHT: JOE BIDEN'S REAL CHALLENGE: MOVING BEYOND ANTI-TRUMPISM

President-elect Joe Biden's ample support base is fluid and can melt away, if his administration ignores the social and political grievances that led millions to vote for Donald Trump, writes Federico Finchelstein in Buenos Aires-based daily Clarin:

U.S. President-Elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will face immense, and in many ways unprecedented challenges, upon taking office on Jan. 20. Future historians will have much to say on how "Trumpism" or radical right-wing views espoused by the outgoing President Donald J. Trump, took populism close to fascism and dictatorship. But history will also record how, after one term, he was rejected on Nov. 3. A record number of Americans — more than 81 million — voted for Biden, united by their opposition to Trump and his ideas.

As the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges said, it wasn't love that brought them together but fears. The question concerning the United States now, and in the future for countries like Brazil and Hungary is: Can you engage in politics merely on the basis of fear of what has already happened?

On the one hand, Biden is facing an unprecedented health and economic crisis. On the other, he must solve a political crisis, which actually can point to some precedents.

How should he rebuild democracy and generate genuine support among those who voted for him simply for not being Trump? Biden will need to be more than just honest, or not racist or discriminatory. It will not be enough for him to merely avoid scandalizing the public or manipulating and demonizing the media.

Biden needs to widen democracy, and improve living conditions, healthcare and education in order to represent his voters and avoid the inertia of the past.

In many cases, anti-Trumpism warned of the dictatorial dangers and risk of fascism inherent in the president's style of leadership. But critics often presented an alternative myth: that of historical exceptionality. This was the idea of a normality before Trump that was not in fact entirely "normal." As the case of Marine le Pen"s repeated candidacies in France shows, a "barrier" is not enough to keep long-term votes and support from gathering.

The pre-Trump period had its share of problems: elitism, technocratic predominance, aggressive police tactics, stock market and banking deregulation, President Barack Obama's inaction — or at times regressive measures — regarding immigrants, lack of gun control legislation, massive incarceration rates for ethnic minorities and restrictions on public education and healthcare that, alongside other issues, distanced many voters from the Democratic Party.

Should it view the Trump presidency as an interlude, the Biden administration will see its large support shrivel — as it will without proper judicial investigations into possible criminal actions by the outgoing president.

With foreign policy and U.S. relations with democratic and authoritarian leaders, one can expect a rapprochement with the European Union — but what will happen to Trump's global accomplices? Which policy will it adopt toward the tropical Trump that is Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil? How will it act with the Nicolas Maduro dictatorship in Venezuela or the Saudi kingdom?

Doing nothing is not a viable option, though it is always possible Trump will stick around in politics as a useful reminder to citizens of the failures of his administration. In any case. Trump may allow Biden a few months of complacency and inaction.

That Trump, and to a lesser extent the Republican Party, are currently rejecting the democratic results of an election should be a warning against urgently declaring the last four years an exceptional event in an otherwise healthy democracy. American democracy must be improved and widened in social, economic and political terms.

After the end of the Latin American dictatorships of the Cold War, as happened in Europe with the fall of fascist states in 1945, many eminent intellectuals espoused the same, misplaced optimism. They were naive because authoritarianism and xenophobia persisted on both sides of the Atlantic after those periods.

Considering fascism and authoritarian populism as aberrations rather than expressions of strong, local and global trends, can impede the work of democratic reconstruction needed to uproot them.

There are patterns of continuity in U.S. history, as in any history, and change as well. We must record our histories and both the friends and enemies of democracy, if we want to defend it and improve it for the future.

— Federico Finchelstein / Clarin



THE SITUATION: 7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

Brexit deal expected today: Following months of negotiations, an announcement of a Brexit trade deal is reportedly imminent after UK and EU negotiating teams worked through the night in Brussels to finalize the last details of the agreement.

• COVID-19 latest: Japan registers another daily record in the number of cases for the ninth consecutive day with more than 3,200 new infections, while in the United States, California surpasses 2 million cases, doubling its total in less than six weeks. Israel announces a third national lockdown for 14 days to fight rising infections.

• More Trump pardons: U.S. President Donald Trump announced 26 pardons, including for his former campaign manager Paul Manafort and longtime confidante Roger Stone, both convicted of crimes relating to the Mueller investigation. He also granted a pardon to Charles Kushner, the father of his son-his-law Jared, who was convicted in 2005 of tax evasion and witness tampering.

• Massacre in Ethiopia: More than 100 people have been killed by unidentified gunmen in the latest ethnic massacre in western Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said.

• China investigates Alibaba: China has launched an antitrust investigation into e-commerce giant Alibaba over alleged anti-competition practices, as the country tries to curb its ever-expanding internet titans.

• RIP Xin Xing: Xin Xing, the star of China's Chongqing Zoo and the world's oldest giant panda in captivity, has died at 38. She had more than 150 descendants around the globe.

• The Queen's digital doppelgänger: UK's Channel 4 will broadcast an alternative Christmas message featuring a deepfake of the Queen, to warn against the dangers of fake news and manipulated videos.


"Hold on to your loved ones," titles German daily Die Tageszeitung, highlighting the "most important feeling in the world" in times like these, as people around the world get ready to celebrate Christmas.


HOW COVID-19 EXPOSES THE HARD QUESTIONS ABOUT THE GIG ECONOMY

Consumers are convinced. Wall Street is buoyant. Demand around the world for app-based services is booming, with entire nations stuck at home during COVID-19 lockdowns and the prospect of goods and services at their door with just a click.

As the so-called "Gig Economy" spreads alongside the pandemic, society has struggled to keep up.

• Online sales in South Korea have grown by 17% this year, and 42% in food deliveries.

• The freelancer platform PeoplePerHour registered a 300% increase of users in March of this year in the UK, 329% jump in Spain, and 513% in Japan.

• Upwork reported a 24% increase in signups over the summer.

How it works: Rather than earning a regular wage, these apps pay for each "gig" completed. While it's not uncommon that people turn to freelance work during periods of economic downturns, the health crisis presents a unique scenario in which freelance workers risk being exposed to the virus in order to get paid.

• In the UK, a recent survey by the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) found that 78% of app workers thought their health was at risk while working.

Exploited & Exposed: The pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerabilities of millions of workers already in precarious financial situations and without a safety net. Deliverers are considered "essential," but they don't receive the same protections (both physical and economic) as other essential workers.

• With Uber Eats in France offering 10 euros to customers on three orders during lockdown, workers have accused the tech-giant of "promonavirus," that is, using them as "cannon fodder," to serve meals while everyone else stays at home, Le Monde reports.

• "We have no protection," migrant food delivery rider Diego Franco in Australia recently told the Sydney Morning Herald.

• Already this year, 15 delivery workers in South Korea have died from "kwarosa," literally "to die of overwork." The gig-world is at its tipping point.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com here.


€79

Lapland, Finland (where as we all know the real Santa Claus lives and works) may be currently closed to foreign travellers — but you can still reach him, provided you're willing to pay 79 euros to talk to him five minutes via WhatsApp, Zoom or Teams. (Warning: up to €99 on Christmas Day!)


Putting your own citizens at risk abroad won't divert attention from catastrophic failures at home.


— Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted in response to Donald Trump blaming Iran for a rocket attack Sunday on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.



PHOTO OF THE WEEK

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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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