Monday, 25 May 2020

More non-Covid stories

Egypt released violent criminals in an Eid amnesty but kept political prisoners locked up.

Iran gives petroleum products and refinery know-how to Venezuela. One can see why Venezuela is desperate to bring down petrol prices and get its own refinery in working order again, but one wonders what is in the deal for Iran, other than annoying the Americans. The transaction has achieved one thing: the US threats to block the shipments have proved hollow, as one tanker is about to unload and four more are crossing the Atlantic unhindered. Of course, all this cloak-and-dagger stuff could be done away with and the Venezuelan economy restored, if only Maduro were to recognise the democratic choice of his people and yield power to the opposition.

Trump's unauthorised arms sales: probably the most significant story of last week. New York Times and Defense News reported that the inspector-general in the State Department fired by President Trump had been investigating the Trump administration’s use of an emergency declaration to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE. In May of last year, a key Senate committee had

held up the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, over concerns of how they will be used as part of the Saudi-led actions against Iranian-backed fighters in Yemen, an operation that has led to a humanitarian crisis in that country.

Now, the administration is pushing through those weapons, as well as a mix of unmanned aerial vehicles and aircraft maintenance, using an obscure exemption to circumvent Congress’ ability to say no to foreign weapon deals.

The Arms Export Control Act contains an exemption to sell weapons to partners in case of an emergency, something designed to speed up the process amid a crisis. In this case, Trump appears to be using the tense situation with Iran — based on intelligence reports that have been widely questioned by Democrats, but supported by the Pentagon — as a reason to push through the weapons.
[Senators] Menendez and Murphy hinted at introducing legislation to make sure Trump cannot use the emergency procedure for future sales, but gave no details on how that might work. And in his statement, Menendez specifically warned that U.S. industry may regret Trump’s latest move “With this move, the President is destroying the productive and decades-long working relationship on arms sales between the Congress and the Executive Branch. The possible consequences of this decision will ultimately threaten the ability of the U.S. defense industry to export arms in a manner that is both expeditious and responsible,” according to Menendez. 

Of immediate concern to us on this side of the Atlantic is not only the probable use of these weapons against civilians in Yemen, but also their being passed on to the rebel Haftar in Libya. Currently, the internationally-recognised official government is repelling the insurgency but an injection of more sophisticated weaponry might reverse the situation. Where Saudi- and UAE-backed forces succeed, Daesh follows.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

More thoughts on Covid-19 Pt 2

This is a follow-up to a posting from late last month.

A recent article by Rick in his Flip-Chart Fairy Tales reinforces the point about changing attitudes:

What we are seeing now could become a major cultural shift. Apart from those in particularly exposed occupations, most of us in the developed world, with clean water, clean living space and good sanitation, went about or daily business on the assumption that we were not likely to be infected with anything. Like all deep rooted assumptions, it was so deep rooted that infection barely crossed our minds. If we worked in city centre offices, we would get off filthy trains, go to work at our keyboards, pop out and buy a sandwich, sometimes (but not always) wash our hands and then eat the sandwich while bashing away at the keys we had been touching all day. We would then go to meetings where we would shake hands with, or even kiss, colleagues who had been doing the same thing. We knew, intellectually, that we would probably get a cold at some point during the winter yet it still came as something of an irritation when it happened. If we were unlucky enough to get flu or a stomach bug, we would respond with indignation. ‘How the hell did I get this? I bet it was that restaurant we went to at the weekend.’
That assumption has now been turned on its head. We leave the house now under the assumption that there is a good chance we will catch something and that, if we do, it is likely to be extremely unpleasant or fatal. This risk may be lower than a lot of people think, especially for younger age groups but, for the moment, that is beside the point. People fear this disease and that fear has changed our assumptions. When we leave the house, we react to people in a different way. We get a taste of what it is like to live in a dangerous neighbourhood. We look upon strangers with suspicion and are wary even of people we know. Suddenly, we see other people are a risk in a way they weren’t a few weeks ago. We applaud the bravery of essential workers because, in the course of their jobs, they are going out and mixing with people in a way that would scare the hell out of a lot of us. As we clap, many of us are thinking, ‘Thank God I don’t have to do that.’
(The whole piece is well worth reading for all too plausible scenario for our post-Covid future.)

In Radio 4's Inside Health last week, there was further evidence from Margaret McCartney (practising Scottish GP and beady-eyed analyst of PR from both pill-pushers and the government) that there was no substitute for traditional methods of tracking and tracing, shoe-leather and feet on the ground. The system as cobbled together by the governments north and south of the border is too top-down, insufficiently integrated so that GPs who should know what is going on in their area, do not.

The Times publication of the numbers of lives lost as a result of the Johnson government's delays (where has The Thunderer been for the last month?) emphasisesd the fact that the countries which have been most successful in counteracting the virus are those which applied good old-fashioned public health measures. They did not wait for technology (though it helped when they had it, as in Singapore and South Korea) but just got on with the job. Nor did they write off old or already poorly people in pursuit of some long-term "herd immunity".

Friday, 22 May 2020

Timing and EU membership

Continued pressure by Liberal Democrats and rather more ambivalent representations by Labour have finally told. The Johnson government has relented over the visa surcharge for migrant health service workers. What tipped the balance was the growing opposition from Johnson's own Conservative backbenchers, clearly swayed by the growing public recognition of the service (and sadly in too many cases, sacrifices) given to the health services of Britain by non-British people. Most of these entered the UK from the continent when we were still members of the EU and enjoyed free movement. One wonders whether, if the membership referendum were held now at the peak of the Covid-19 epidemic, the implications of losing those vital personnel had hit deeply enough to produce a different result.

(It has been clear for some time that if the EU referendum had preceded that for Scottish independence, the result of one or the other would have been different.)

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Other non-Covid stories you may have missed

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are in dispute over the waters of the Nile. Since 2011, Ethiopia has been building on the Blue Nile the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). This will be Africa’s biggest hydroelectric power plant once completed. Negotiations, which have stalled, centre on the pace at which Ethiopia fills the 74 billion cubic metre reservoir behind the dam and the impact that could have on water supplies downstream in Sudan and Egypt. The UN Secretary General has stepped in to encourage resumption of talks.

There is water impact elsewhere in Africa. The worst drought in decades continues to affect Zimbabwe, while hundreds of people have died in floods in East Africa.

Calls for more control over space junk. The remains of a Chinese Long March 5B launch vehicle fell into the Atlantic earlier this month. At 18 tons, it is the largest piece of space debris to return to earth since 1991. Some US newspapers speculated that New York had a narrow miss.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Trump finances

In addition to his disputes with scientific experts over his self-medication and the source of Covid-19, President Trump is in another, behind-the-scenes, battle. Two committees at the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, as well as New York prosecutors, have demanded financial records from two banks that did deals with Mr Trump - Deutsche Bank and Capital One - as well as from Mazars, the president's accountants. Trump's lawyers have resisted, and the cases have been taken to the Supreme Court, which will rule within the next few weeks.

ICIJ investigations suggest that neither the President nor his connections will want this area of his interests floodlit.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

What is the EU to do with a problem like Hungary?

Last month, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning the degradation of civil rights in both Poland and Hungary.

Of the two, the slide towards elective dictatorship looks more dangerous in Hungary:
Opposition politicians in Hungary are alarmed by a spate of detentions for alleged scaremongering on social media about the coronavirus pandemic. They fear that voices critical of the government are being silenced and accuse Prime Minister Viktor Orban of abusing special powers granted to him in March. [...] 

 Several people have been arrested at their homes and detained for several hours over social media posts. Police said on Thursday that 16 people have been questioned during their investigations. They added that they have been investigating 87 cases under emergency legislation for allegedly publishing "false information", and 27 cases of endangering the public. "Police are continuously monitoring the internet," an earlier statement said. The new law adopted on March 30 widens a pre-existing offence, giving the authorities powers to clamp down on "alarmist comments".

On Wednesday a member of the Momentum opposition party was detained in southern Hungary, over a social media post about a controversial government policy of clearing non-virus patients out of hospitals to make beds available for COVID-19 sufferers. János Csóka-Szűcs shared a post from opposition MP Ákos Hadházy, adding that 1,170 hospital beds in his town of Gyula were being cleared -- a claim that has been confirmed to be true. He was detained for four hours on the grounds that he had allegedly "obstructed efforts to combat the pandemic". 

 "The silencing of critical voices has begun, namely by police action intimidating people who are writing or telling the truth," Hadházy commented in a Facebook message.

The previous day a 64-year-old man was held for hours in northeastern Hungary over a message posted last month, criticising the government's lockdown policy. It included the remark: "You are a merciless tyrant, but remember, until now dictators always fall". Prosecutors said on Wednesday that the case had been closed.

What a pity that a major nation, the key player in the formulation of the European Convention on Human Rights, is not in there putting its weight behind moves to restore liberal democracy in Hungary.

However, as Euronews states, there is not a lot which can be done at present:
For the moment, MEPs' pleas are likely to go unheard. After all for Brussels, in the middle of a pandemic in which it's helping to fight a virus and battling to keep countries' economics alive, ongoing rule of law issues in Budapest are going to struggle to get on the agenda. 

But when this crisis passes – and it will – what can an increasingly frustrated and angry EU do? Well, it can’t kick Hungary out. While Article 50 allows for a country to leave, there is no such mechanism for forcing out a member state. The Article 7 process, which suspends members' voting rights, is also unlikely to go anywhere. Another member state can simply veto it. And Hungary has the backing of Poland and the Czech Republic.

The quickest and most-effective method could be to use the next EU budget to withhold financial payments, by qualified majority. Or allow the Commission to directly control the reallocation of funds, rather than funnelling them through Budapest. Hungary is a big recipient of these funds – reducing them would hurt. The European Union could also help foster and support democracy movements inside Hungary. The institutions could provide funding directly to municipalities and local governments as well as resources to trade unions, universities, and citizens' movements.

And finally, surely if Europe’s leaders were serious about sending a strong message to Orbán, the EPP, the union's largest political group, would simply force out Fidesz? Clearly, none of these decisions are easy, nor straightforward. But what’s the alternative? Sit back? Say nothing? Pretend it’s not happening? What would that then say about the EU’s values? Indeed, what would it say about the EU project itself?

Monday, 18 May 2020

What's wrong at Transport?

MPs sitting on the Public Accounts select committee have criticised the Department of Transport’s permanent secretary Bernadette Kelly, claiming that she did not pass on briefings from HS2 Ltd suggesting it could not deliver phase one of the project to budget and on schedule. {From reports on BBC and the press.]

It would not have happened in my day (or even that of Peter Black, who has also written on this subject). When I joined the old Ministry of Transport at one rung above the bottom of the clerical ladder, the Perm. Sec was Sir Thomas Padmore, "an outstanding administrator and manager, an understanding and tolerant man of absolute honesty and integrity" (wikipedia). His successor, Sir David Serpell, made a favourable impression on an earlier member of the Public Accounts Committee, Tam Dalyell, who described him in his obituary as an extremely able man, one who really cared. One cannot imagine either of them dissembling in front of the PAC.

Friday, 15 May 2020

The fighting went on in Burma

From Cyril Kirk's wartime diary:

8th May 1945
Victory in Europe announced.
Very little reaction amongst the boys.
Still putting out barbed wire for local defence.
Churchill’s speech messed up by wireless.
9th May 1945
Moved to reform battery. 70 miles journey.
Oil line tapped in many places by natives.
10th May 1945
108 miles from Rangoon.
Stiffest opposition for long while.
Earlier store up.
Letter from Win.
11th May 1945
Went for rations.
Little firing Jap guns opened up at night div target
Battery had moved 85 ……
12th May 1945
Moved back with C troop to SCHEWDAUNG
13th May 1945
Mail up.
4 from Win, 1 mother, 1 bottle beer ½ Brandy. VDAY