The realities of Brexit, the rise of vaccine nationalism and who is counter cultural

Now that Donald Trump has had the keys for social media and the White House taken off him, it feels like we can now get back to the more serious issues of Brext and Covid-19 (with a side serving of GameStop). Find below some of the stories that have caught my eye over recent weeks.

Brexit arrived and warnings which were being described as “Project Fear” are now proving all too true as George Parker, Peter Foster, Sam Fleming and Jim Brunsden lay out in this report from the Financial Times:

The bill for Johnson’s relentless focus on sovereignty is now due. The government’s deal does allow for the continuation of tariff-free trade for goods that qualify as British- or EU-made. However, Britain’s exit from the customs union and single market on January 1 created a thicket of customs declarations, health checks and other barriers to trade. Services, which make up 80 per cent of the British economy including its crown jewel — the City of London — barely get a look-in.

Providing a more first hand account of Brexit is Philip Hammond’s interview with UK in a Changing Europe. The interview provides a fascinating account of UK’s relationship with Europe and what we’ve lost by going our own way:

As Foreign Secretary, I discovered that the European Union was a very useful platform and a multiplier of British influence because there were only 2½ countries that were credible foreign policy players in Europe: the UK, France, and the Germans in respect of certain areas of activity and certain geographies. Then smaller players, like the Dutch, Swedes and Danes who were absolutely present but small scale. The UK was able to exert significant influence through that medium, but it was the creation of the Single Market – frankly, a British, or we like to think, a British invention – that leveraged the value of Europe for the UK.

I have generally seen the European Union as acting in good faith in its negotiations with the UK on Brexit. Recent friction over the supply of Covid-19 vaccines signals something of what I’m hoping is a temporary departure from this as Daniel Boffey and Dan Sabbagh report for The Guardian.

“We were worried about vaccine nationalism – but the person we feared was Trump, that he would be able to pressurise a US company, and perhaps buy up the drug stocks,” said a former adviser at the Department of Health. “We never expected there would be a row with the EU.”

The roll out of Covid-19 vaccinations has given many Britons something to cheer about and the country’s tracking of different variants is admirable. That being said, there’s been much to criticise in Britain’s handling of the pandemic with politicians often making decisions far too late. The Lowy Institute provides visitors with chance to compare the performance of different regions, populations political systems and countries. Britain doesn’t come out particularly well:

Anthony Fauci has proven one of the stars of the Covid-19 pandemic providing words or reason when leadership from Donald Trump and the Republican Party was sorely lacking. Sam Adler-Bell provides a more critical take suggesting that if Fauci had taken a tougher stance, America could well have seen a less tragic outcome:

Anthony Fauci is no doubt a dedicated public servant, respected by his colleagues, beloved by many Americans. But the puzzle remains: why has the man most closely associated with the public health response to the pandemic entirely avoided accountability for its failure?

Providing a more personal perspective is the account of a NHS consultant anaesthetist working in intensive care who makes clear the pain felt by both the patients and the carers:

Three hours later, we are asked to intubate this patient. She bursts into tears, saying: “I’ve got children at home. I can’t go on a ventilator. I’m not ready. I can’t die.” She is 35 years old. I kneel down and hold her hand. I explain again that we are here to help her with her breathing. As she FaceTimes her children, we urgently get our equipment and drugs ready. Her young children are crying. I must look really scary to them. I can see them but can’t communicate with them at all, even as their mum is becoming increasingly hypoxic and agitated. “I love you, I love you, I love you… ” she says, until she finally presses “end” on the screen with her shaking fingers.

Britain will be hosting COP Climate Change Conference in Glasgow later in the year so it’s interesting to look where UK stands in terms of moves to a low carbon future. MIT’s Green Future Index points to Britain doing alright in global comparison but not so well against its Western European neighbours:

In a world of encroaching social media and influencers, what does it mean to be counter cultural? Caroline Busta takes a closer look for Document:

To be truly countercultural today, in a time of tech hegemony, one has to, above all, betray the platform, which may come in the form of betraying or divesting from your public online self.

Whilst Harvey Weinstein may represent the most predatory form of sexual harassment, there’s plenty of other cases of sexism in the workplace. Jennifer Barnett provides a demoralising account of life at The Atlantic under the leadership of James Bennet:

Adapt. Be one of the guys. It was a boy’s club after all, and it was celebrated as such. Despite the fact that my boss openly acknowledged and resented the reputation of being a boy’s club — he frequently pointed out the number of women working there (yet at the time, I was one of the few at the top of the masthead and he still shut me out of meetings) this was the culture that was actively fostered. The publisher at the time was quoted in an outrageous article extolling the manliness of magazines.

Science moves forward, verdicts on BoJo, Trump and Amazon

Lucy McLauchlan mural in Leytonstone for London Mural Fest

A look at some of the stories that have caught my eye over the last couple of weeks. These include science’s impact on the coronavirus pandemic, verdicts on the leadership of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump and a closer look at tech giant Amazon.

Ed Yong looks at the scientific research community’s successes and occasional failures in addressing the coronavirus pandemic:

The scientific community spent the pre-pandemic years designing faster ways of doing experiments, sharing data, and developing vaccines, allowing it to mobilize quickly when COVID‑19 emerged. Its goal now should be to address its many lingering weaknesses. Warped incentives, wasteful practices, overconfidence, inequality, a biomedical bias—COVID‑19 has exposed them all. And in doing so, it offers the world of science a chance to practice one of its most important qualities: self-correction.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the difficult but necessary decision of “cancelling Christmas” this year. Despite this, it’s hard to feel too sorry for him given the lack of leadership shown in managing the pandemic as ably described by Andrew Rawnsley:

The coronavirus crisis could not have been more cunningly engineered to expose Mr Johnson’s flaws. He was made prime minister not because anyone thought that he was a cool and decisive head with the leadership skills and moral seriousness required to handle the gravest public health emergency in a century. He was put there because he was a successful representative of the entertainer branch of populist leadership that prospered in the pre-virus era. “We elected him to be a ‘good times’ prime minister,” comments one senior Tory. “His curse is to be prime minister in bad times.”

Few of his strengths as a politician have been of much utility in this emergency. All of his weaknesses have been searingly exposed. A man who spent his career ducking responsibility was suddenly confronted with a challenge that could not be run from, though that didn’t stop him vanishing at the outset when he went missing from critical meetings. In the coronavirus, he met an opponent impervious to glib slogans and empty promises. Here was a disease posing hideous and inescapable dilemmas that confounded the “have your cake and eat it” philosophy by which he had lived his life.

Being single during the coronavirus pandemic left me reflecting on how rules and regulations have predominantely been designed for couples/families rather than the growing number of people living alone. Megan Nolan provides a personal take on how “lockdown life” has hampered her and many other singles natural quest for intimacy:

Mostly, the government here in Britain — as in many other places — pretended that sex doesn’t take place except between cohabiting couples. When public health advocates have brought themselves to allude to the existence of sex, the advice is usually unrealistic and inadequate, instructing couples who don’t live together to meet up outside and not touch. News releases from sex toy companies began filling my email inbox, advertising remote-controlled vibrators, as though the loss of physical connection was purely about missing an orgasm.

There has been no serious effort to confront the particular challenges of what it is to be single — to be alone — in 2020. There have been no major harm-reduction initiatives, just the deluded implication that all of us who failed to partner up by March 2020 should live without meaningful connection until there is a vaccine.

Despite Donald Trump’s loud protestations, he’s going down as one of the most inept American presidents of all time. Given this, it’s interesting to read David Frum pointing (through clenched teeth) to 12 achievements that Trump has made during his time in power:

Yet nobody does nothing as president, not even someone who watches television for five or six hours a day. There were achievements in the Trump years, and even if they hardly begin to compare to Jimmy Carter’s, they are still worth noting as this presidency comes to an end. 

Anne Helen Petersen looks at the financially precarious position of many people in the American middle class which she describes as the hollow middle:

Forty years ago, the term “middle class” referred to Americans who had successfully obtained a version of the American dream: a steady income from one or two earners, a home, and security for the future. It meant the ability to save and acquire assets. Now, it mostly means the ability to put your bills on autopay and service debt. The stability that once characterized the middle class, that made it such a coveted and aspirational echelon of American existence, has been hollowed out.

It has been over 13 years since the launch of the first iPhone and the various iterations on the smartphone has changed the world we now live in. Benedict Evans looks at what technologies are likely to make an outsize impact in the coming years but also forecasts that the smartphones will continue to drive plenty of changes in years to come:

Amazon like many of the tech giants has seen its market position strengthen during the coronavirus pandemic as more people push their shopping online. Dana Mattioli examines how Amazon’s intense competitive spirit has increasingly brought it to the attention of both competitors and market regulators:

He still exhorts employees to consider Amazon a startup. “It is always day one,” he likes to say. Day two is “stasis, followed by irrelevance, followed by excruciating, painful decline, followed by death.” Mr. Bezos originally considered calling his company Relentless, and www.relentless.com still redirects to Amazon’s site.

Providing an interesting compliment to Mattiolis’ piece is Logic’s interview with an anonymous Amazon employee. There’s plenty of coverage of Amazon’s efforts to provide a secure environment for its web services. Where I found it particularly interesting was its commentary on Amazon as a workplace, particularly as it compared to the other tech giants:

I think your question kind of misses the forest for the trees. For most people at Amazon, glancing at the Apple News feed on their iPhone is about as much of the discourse as they consume. They don’t care about the news. It doesn’t contribute anything to their life. There are colleagues I’m friends with who don’t really know who ran for president. They figure it’s all going to be the same anyway, so why bother.

But by the same token, if they hear someone criticize Amazon, they’re not inclined to be super defensive. There aren’t a lot of intense loyalists. People at Amazon are mercenaries. The company doesn’t have great benefits. Office life kind of sucks and it’s not that fun of a place to work. It’s a grind. People work there because it pays a little bit better than the competition and it looks good on a resume. They can go in, do their job, go home, spend time with their kids, watch sports. That’s the good life.

Amazon has around a million employees worldwide. The majority work in shipping and logistics and delivery. There are maybe eighty thousand corporate employees. And I would estimate that fewer than two thousand of them have participated in discussions around organizing.

Joe Cascarelli looks at the world of music fandom which reflects the increasingly polarised world of politics:

n what is known as Stan Twitter — and its offshoots on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Tumblr and various message boards — these devotees compare No. 1s and streaming statistics like sports fans do batting averages, championship wins and shooting percentages. They pledge allegiance to their favorites like the most rabid political partisans or religious followers. They organize to win awards show polls, boost sales and raise money like grass roots activists. And they band together to pester — or harass, and even dox — those who may dare to slight the stars they have chosen to align themselves with.