Puppets on a String

Some 2,980 puppets have gathered in Beijing to applaud President Xi Jinping in an annual choreographed ritual that goes by the name of National People’s Congress (NPC) – a misnomer on at least two counts. Over the course of ten days, President Jinping and his close associates pull the strings and have their initiatives duly rubberstamped by adoring acolytes. It is, arguably, the world’s greatest non-event and showcases, if anything, China’s continued subjugation to a tiny clique of potentates.

Although it is all about people’s this or that in China, no actual people other than the aforementioned 2,980 puppets are allowed to partake in the NPC’s farcical proceedings. The scene at the Great Hall of the People is straight out of a Orwellian book or movie: hordes of identically dressed automatons, bursting into applause at just the right moment whilst the powers that be torture them mercilessly with vacuous speeches about their past, present, and future accomplishments – fictitious or otherwise.

If this is how the country that wishes to lead the world is ruled, the global outlook is grim indeed. This year, the puppets showed excitement at President Jinping’s ruthless suppression of civil liberties in Hong Kong, the last vestiges of which have now been swept aside. The ‘one nation, two systems’ myth has been exposed for what it always was: a farce.

Earlier this week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed his frustration with China’s inability to understand the meaning of both democracy and the rule of law – concepts alien to the Middle Kingdom. China has amped up the pressure on Mr Trudeau to release Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of telecom giant Huawei arrested at Vancouver International Airport in December 2018 on suspicion defrauding multiple banks to hide her company’s busting of US sanctions against Iran.

To solve this potentially embarrassing issue, the Chinese government promptly arrested two Canadians and proposed a swap. To his credit, Prime Minister Trudeau has refused to reward this thuggish behaviour and insists that the courts deal with Ms Wanzhou. He has tried to explain the principle of separation of power between the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of democratic government to the Chinese – without any discernible effect. His words, repeated ad nauseam, simply do not register in Beijing where only the executive counts and all else is subordinated to it.

China attempts at convincing the world that it is right, and everybody else got it wrong, are becoming tiresome. The country bungled its response to the novel corona virus and covered up its mistakes with lies and a clampdown on what really transpired during the lockdown.

China may be a large and increasingly powerful country; it also sorely lacks the self-confidence that is required for any form of government other than an authoritarian one. China is scared of booksellers, artists, students, and thinkers in general. Its government doesn’t want people to use their brain: they should merely consume, be grateful, and shut up. That, by the way, also goes for those 2,980 string puppets assembled in Beijing.

Pluck

In one sense, the economic impact of the corona pandemic is helpful to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson: the depth and scope of the flash recession are such that any fallout from the country’s imminent departure from the European Union will seem trivial by comparison. Nobody could have foretold that Brexit’s doom component would be overshadowed by an even darker cloud.

The negotiations over a post-departure trade deal between the European Union and its wayward neighbour have also been eclipsed by the pandemic. Those talks are not progressing smoothly. A stalemate beckons with the UK possibly dropping deeper into the abyss.

There are a great many stumbling blocks but the most formidable one remains the status of Northern Ireland which is supposed to remain in the union for all practical intents and purposes with a new trade barrier emerging between the six counties and the British mainland. This is to become the EU’s external border. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement that re-established the peace in Northern Ireland precludes any checks along the border with Ireland proper.

Whilst the pandemic rages, talks between Brussels and London have been conducted by video conference with both parties now and again publicly expressing their frustration. EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier complained that his counterpart asks for a ‘Canada-style’ trade deal only to add a shopping list of demands to their initial request.

For their part, the British team says that the EU fails to display a measure of pragmatism, tabling demands that cross the great many red lines laid down by Prime Minister Johnson. One of those British no-no’s involves the European Court of Justice (ECJ). London does not wish to be subjected to its rulings. That seems fair enough at first glance. However, the addenda to an off-the-self barebones trade deal, such as the one requested by the UK, pries open access to the EU’s common market – the union’s most prized asset. That, the EU insists, requires ECJ oversight and adjudication of the inevitable disputes that will arise.

Whilst almost nobody was looking, the talks bogged down and a trade deal seems unlikely to emerge before the end of the transition period on 31 December. In Brussels, few seem to care. Officials are busy putting the finishing touches on a major initiative to help member states deal with the Corona Recession. Brexit is yesterday’s news. The EU has moved on. The UK may wish to do so too: it is time for that buccaneering spirit and British pluck we heard so much about to put in an appearance.

Stark Warning

Slowly and ominously, as the chronicle of a death foretold, the epicentre of the corona pandemic is moving south of the border. Today, the World Health Organisation (WHO), down but far from out, issued a stark warning that after developed countries have managed to flatten the curve and start emerging from lockdown, the virus is now spreading in poorer countries, cutting a swath through societies along class divisions.

Earlier this week, Brazil passed the United Kingdom and progressed to third place on the global corona infection ranking. Only the United States and Russia are ahead of the South American country with its underwhelmed president and overwhelmed public health services. One day after this news broke, Brazil registered the highest number of corona deaths and infections so far.

In a few weeks’ time, President Jair Bolsonaro sacked one health minister and had another one resign in disgust. The latter one, Nelson Teich, likened the federal health ministry to a ship cast adrift in a perfect storm and feared the pandemic may claim well over 150,000 lives over the next months.

Mr Teich’s predecessor, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, was summarily fired after questioning the president’s refusal to obey social distancing rules. Whilst the pandemic rages and mass graves are being dug, Brazil’s politicians – not usually standard bearers for propriety in public policy – hurl accusations at each other, losing sight of a suffering nation.

According to the country’s statistics agency, the Brazilian economy may shrink by as much as a tenth this year. The Corona Recession could herald the arrival of yet another ‘lost decade’. However, neither the health emergency nor the economic meltdown is being discussed in Brasília.

Sometimes described as a Trump on steroids, President Bolsonaro still doesn’t seem to comprehend the gravity of the situation: he declines to use a face mask, keep his distance, and refrain from ordering a national lockdown which, he says, would cripple the country’s already rickety economy.

Meanwhile, the government of Mexico admitted that it had probably underestimated the number of corona deaths by an order of magnitude. There too, the president kept hugging his adoring fans until quite recently whilst he dismissed warnings of public health officials as ‘alarmist’ scare mongering.

Absent a public information campaign, popular knowledge about the disease and its transmission is limited, leading to all sorts of wild theories. Mexican health workers report being shunned, threatened, and abused on their way to work by passers-by. Almost 50 attacks against health workers have been recorded by police.

With the sole exceptions of Chile and Uruguay, no Latin American country is equipped to handle a major public health crisis. Both political determination and proper healthcare funding are found lacking. The cost is calculated in human lives.

Smoking Gun

Don’t follow the leader. Also, please don’t smoke. The leader self-medicates whilst smokers die early. That may be true but with a caveat unearthed by scientists: the novel corona virus seems to dislike nicotine and apparently shies away from smokers. Medical authorities in China, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere discovered that smokers are seriously underrepresented in the pandemic’s statistics.

Crunching the numbers, it would appear that nicotine junkies are half as likely to become infected as those who quit or never took up the habit. In one study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCs) in the US, a random sample of some 7,000 covid-19 patients turned up only about 70 smokers (1%). An estimated 14 percent of the US population has yet to kick to habit, indicating that lighting up seems to offer some form of immunity.

There is also a bout of bad news: should a smoker become infected, he or she is more likely than others to end up in intensive care and succumb to the disease.

Puzzled by their findings, scientists are looking for an explanation to this politically incorrect phenomenon. The University of Oxford got involved and its scientists now suspect that nicotine may disturb the proper functioning of the integral proteins that dwell on the cell membrane. These ‘transporter’ proteins are the vehicle of choice used by the corona virus to penetrate cells.

French scientists of the renowned Pasteur Institute hypothesise that the novel virus is locked in a competition with nicotine for the use of these transporter proteins. Following this line of reasoning, they now want to study if the use of nicotine patches may help prevent infection and/or speed up a patient’s recovery.

Expect President Donald Trump to take up smoking before long. He is already taking hydroxychloroquine against the advice of his White House physicians. The drug, originally intended for the treatment of malaria, has dangerous and possibly lethal side effects when administered without close medical supervision. Evidence of its effectiveness in fighting the corona virus has been inconclusive. Recent studies have found no indication that it helps bolster the immune system.

That doesn’t bother President Trump at all. He is a risk taker and admits to taking hydroxychloroquine in an attempt to prevent infection. He is determined to be the last man standing. Mr Trump also refuses to wear a facemask as it would detract from his presidential aura. As if.

Bungling

Republican Alaska state representative has apologised for likening the curbs on civic freedoms adopted in the fight against the corona virus to the treatment of Jewish people in Nazi Germany. Only after a firestorm erupted amongst his peers in the state capitol and elsewhere did Representative Ben Carpenter see the error of his ways. Mr Carpenter now says he is sorry.

Passions flare regularly in the United States where the political landscape has become so polarised that bipartisan cooperation is now almost considered an act of ideological treason. Yet, some Republicans have coalesced into an informal grouping that seeks to wrestle control of the Grand Old Party away from fellow party members and representatives who are beholden to, if nor transfixed by, President Donald Trump. Sensing that the electorate could well swing to the Democrats, they try to distance themselves and their party from the president and his accident-prone administration.

In the House, a slowly growing number of Republicans are reaching out across to aisle in order to improve their own standing and show voters that they have acted sensibly. In competitive districts, Republicans representatives are keenly aware that it takes just a few disgruntled voters to eject them from Washington.

Though major news outlets focus on gun-toting mobs of libertarians angrily voicing their disagreement with stay-in-place orders, most ordinary Americans seem unhappy with the chequered performance of President Trump whose approval rating has plummeted to barely 42 percent. The president may expect stronger headwinds going into the campaign after the undoubtedly depressing economic data of the second quarter start trickling in.

The president has, of late, turned up the rhetoric and promises to deliver a splendid 2021. He now wants voters to ignore the Corona Recession that pushed the US unemployment to a depression-era level in a few weeks’ time. President Trump is busily looking for scapegoats as well. After first blaming China, he now points to state governors as the main culprits of the economic slump. His predecessor also gets apportioned a generous share of the blame. The president’s own performance has, of course, been nothing less than great and visionary.

There are few things more damning to the legacy of a US president than being ejected from the White House after a single term in office. Jimmy Carter never quite recovered from the experience. He was done in by a major economic crisis that came with an inflation rate of 20 percent. Reaching farther back in time, Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) also disappeared under a dark cloud for his monumental mishandling of the Great Depression.

There is a precedent or two to be found for presidents failing to secure a second term after bungling the federal response to a major crisis.

Chasing a Mirage

Swedes are a remarkably compliant people. Civil disobedience as an expression of individuality is collectively frowned upon whilst strict adherence to official instructions and suggestions is celebrated as the defining component of ‘lagom’, a supposedly untranslatable word that indicates both an acceptance of rules and convention and a passionate desire to not stick out from the crowd.

Thanks to the Swedes’ adoration of all things lagom, the government in Stockholm saw no need to order a lockdown. A mere suggestion to observe a social distance sufficed. Not normally a people relishing in close bodily contact, the Swedes complied with a suspicious eagerness that seemed to confirm all stereotypes.

Hailing from afar, the corona virus did not care for any other local trait or custom. Happily going about their business as usual, and in the process becoming President Trump’s favourite socialist country, quirky Swedes took great pride in their exceptionalism.

The country’s medical authorities continue to focus on establishing herd immunity as the only viable strategy to defeat the virus, absent a vaccine. Though no other European nation seems better equipped for herding than the Swedish, collective immunity remains a distant mirage. Just in the greater Stockholm area, the number of people infected by the virus needs to multiply by a factor of ten before herd immunity becomes a possibility. The virus must, of course, not mutate and spoil the effort.

Meanwhile the death toll keeps rising. Last month, 27 percent more people died in Sweden than might have been expected based on statistical averages. In neighbouring Finland and Norway, countries not burdened by lagom, there has been no spike at all in death rates. In Denmark, excess deaths amounted to 5 percent. By comparison, the UK in April reported a 67 percent spike in the country’s death rate.

There is no reason why Sweden should suffer more than its neighbours: the country’s population is relatively healthy and boasts an exceptionally high number of single person households. Only the government’s refusal to order a lockdown sets Sweden apart. It would seem that, perhaps, the Swedes have been a little bit less compliant than anticipated, allowing the virus to rip through its society opposed only by a probably fictitious national trait.

Winter Is Coming

Listening to Dr Rick Bright testify before US Congress and reveal the inner workings of the Trump Administration almost undermines one’s trust in politicians and their carefully selected appointees. In 2016, the good doctor was asked to lead the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a federal agency charged with the production and procurement of vaccines. On 21 April he suddenly resigned his post.

It now appears that Dr Bright was ousted for opposing the promotion of two potentially lethal drugs used to fight malaria as treatments for covid-19. But that was just the final straw that pushed him out. Dr Bright had also filed a whistle-blower complaint over large contracts awarded by the Department of Health and Human Services on the basis of political connections rather than scientific considerations.

Dr Bright displayed a sense of urgency and said that the US now faces its ‘darkest winter in modern history’. He also warned that time is running out for the country to come up with a coordinated response to the pandemic.

In a tweet both related and unrelated, President Trump demanded that Congress subpoena his predecessor Barack Obama for committing the ‘biggest political crime in US history’. The president failed to provide any specifics on Mr Obama’s alleged crime other than stating that ‘he knew everything’.

Whilst it was revealed that another three million American workers filed for first-time unemployment benefits last week, bringing the total job losses for the past seven weeks to a staggering 36 million, President Trump admitted on the Fox Business Network that the economy is unlikely to show signs of growth before the fourth quarter. However, he did promise to Make America Great Again next year.

As the president was chatting away on television, party politics were back on the hill without ever having really left. Republicans called the Congressional hearing all sorts of names whilst Democrats sought to showcase the administration’s incompetence in handling the pandemic. The latter had a field day with veteran California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo stating that Americans are ‘afraid, sick, hungry, and jobless’: “The government that was supposed to protect them has failed.” Texas Republican Michael Burgess shot back – from the hip of course – and called the hearing a ‘political sport’.

Whatever US politics has become, it is highly dysfunctional and unworthy of a great nation – something it never ceased to be notwithstanding Mr Trump’s constant belittling of the country. However, seldom before have the countries of northern Europe looked more civilised, orderly, and well-governed than they do now when compared to the allegedly Greatest Nation on Earth. That, by the way, says more about the United States than it does about Europe. Sad, very sad.

Only in America

Preppers, survivalists, libertarians, and assorted make-believe soldiers of private militias will gather tomorrow around the Michigan state capitol building in Lansing to express their anger over Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, now extended to 31 May. Mrs Whitmer has become the focal point of right-wing protest against measures that seek to limit the pandemic’s impact on society. They argue that the restrictions infringe on civil liberties guaranteed by the US constitution.

Last month, a mob of gun-toting militia members staged displays of civic power and managed to enter the state house in a scene both intimidating to the representatives who work there and reminiscent of apocalyptic disaster movies depicting a world gone mad.

At the time, President Donald Trump suggested the governor strike a deal with the protesters: “Give a little and put out the fire.” In one of his many disjointed tweets, the president had called for the ‘liberation’ of Virginia, also ruled by Democrats, saying that the state was ‘under siege’ and peppering his rallying cry with the obligatory exclamation marks. The implicit approval of the president emboldened the protesters in Michigan.

On Tuesday, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel revealed that her office had detected a number of ‘credible threats’ against elected officials. In a Facebook group set up by militia members, commenters wondered openly how long it would take for the governor to meet with the business end of a shotgun.

Even Republicans are now scrambling to diffuse tensions and create a socially acceptable distance between their party and the mob. During Tuesday’s lockdown debate, Republican state senate majority leader Mike Shirkey called the protesters ‘thugs’ and their actions ‘despicable’: “It is never OK to threaten the safety or life of another person, elected or otherwise, period.” However, Republicans stopped short of banning the brandishing of weapons inside the state capitol as proposed by the Democrats. The sanctity of the second amendment is, after all, not to be violated.

However, ‘that woman from Michigan’, as President Trump insists on calling Governor Whitmer, may yet become a foe to be reckoned with. She stands a good chance of becoming Joe Biden’s running mate on the Democratic ticket. Notwithstanding the antics of local right-wingers, Governor Whitmer enjoys a 72 percent approval rating amongst residents of her state. According to a recent poll commissioned by The Washington Post, President Trump’s handling of the pandemic inspires trust in just 42 percent of Americans – a shockingly high number considering his erratic performance as commander in chief. Only in America.

Defiance

Displaying an unsurprising anarchic streak, Elon Musk today defied a county lockdown order to reopen his flagship car assembly plant in Fremont, California. The enfant terrible of the US manufacturing industry dared the local sheriff to arrest him and said that he would be onsite orchestrating the start-up of production lines idle since mid-March.

Mr Musk, infamous for lacing his tweets and comments with four-letter expletives, has leveraged his fearsome reputation to drive up the share price of the company in which he retains a 51 percent stake. Since he first vented his anger at the stay-at-home order issued by Alameda County on 29 April and set to expire on 31 May, Tesla shares have gained 35 percent in value, recovering most of the terrain lost when the market pulled back in March. Interestingly, Tesla shares were already on a downward slope when the pandemic reached US shores, retreating from their February peak of almost $970 to settle around $860.

Today, in early morning trading, Tesla shares advanced steadily and tacked another 3.6 percent to their winning streak. Bucking the overall trend of the market, investors in Tesla have seen their holdings double in value so far this year. Over the past 12 months, Tesla stock gained a staggering 262 percent.

Mr Musk is a hook-or-crook kind of guy used to getting his way. He has friends in high places too. Over the weekend, he lambasted county authorities in a series of tweets, threatening to up sticks and move to a more welcoming and pliant jurisdiction. He is on the same page as President Donald Trump and considers the lockdown a ‘power grab by fascists’. Tesla’s battery plant in New York has also been shuttered by these unspecified forces of evil.

Last week, during an earnings call with fund managers and major investors, Mr Musk questioned the constitutional legality of the stay-in-place order decreed by the six counties of San Francisco’s Bay Area as it imprisons people and deprives them of their basic rights. He also feels that his personal freedom to make money has been curtailed.

Tesla manufactures flashy, fast, and often faulty vehicles. The company was not amused when Netflix posted a new batch of episodes of its Fastest Car series. In one memorable episode, a Tesla Model S was pitted against a 1990 Nissan 300SX and a 1989 Ford Mustang souped up by bearded amateur grease monkeys. The car was soundly beaten on the quarter mile by both wheeled rust buckets. Though undeniably fast, the Tesla barely managed to outpace a heavily modified Toyota pickup truck, also partaking in the challenge.

Cabbies in Europe and North America also have a thing or two to report on the build quality and maintenance requirements of their Tesla cars.

All this is not to say that Mr Musk is pursuing his glory without guts, vision, or perseverance. He is in many ways a genius which almost inevitably results in a social deficit. However, as long as he sticks to the rules, all may be forgiven. The trouble is, Mr Musk doesn’t particularly care for rules.

Merkel Steps In

Just about the last thing Europe needs is for Berlin and Brussels to clash. The EU is, to say the least, not amused by a ruling of the German Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe that could force the Deutsche Bundesbank to drop out of any future support initiatives by the European Central Bank (ECB).

The German judges seem to have overruled the European Court of Justice (ECJ) which in 2018 okayed the various ECB bond-buying programmes that sustain the continent’s sagging economy. European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, incidentally a former German defence minister, immediately threatened the country with sanctions and penalties should it allow national courts to forget their legal standing.

It is a well-established and perfectly logic legal principle – one against which in the UK Brexiters rebelled – that supranational courts such as the ECJ trump domestic ones. Should judges in all of the 27 EU member states be able to question EU law, the union would instantly cease to function. Anyone with a beef against the union may, however, approach the ECJ in Luxembourg for a ruling.

Earlier today, Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped in to re-establish order. She did so by stating that surely a compromise solution can be found and that she sees no need for heated argument or, indeed, threats.

The surprise ruling of the German court was promptly welcomed by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki who dislikes all things European and makes a habit out of ignoring his own country’s recent and more distant past.

With his usual holier-than-thou attitude that bespeaks of an innocence personified, Mr Morawieski appeared elated by the news from Karlsruhe and called it ‘one of the most important rulings in the history of the European Union’. He should know for Poland was one of the last countries to join the EU (in 2004).

The country has benefitted massively from Brussels’ generosity, receiving in excess of €17 billion annually for its €3.5 billion membership fee. Poland also profited from hundreds of billions in private investment that helped transform the country into one of the EU’s success stories.

Then again, Mr Morawieski doesn’t quite like the terms of EU membership and strongly objects to its insistence on judicial independence and the rule of law. Without enjoying the UK’s undeniable heft – and little good did that do – Poland, or at least its government, would like nothing better than to reduce the common market to a dumping ground for its unemployed and a source of cheap credit and juicy grants.

Mr Morawieski, isolated in Europe for his recalcitrance, has now found some allies in Karlsruhe. However, he is in for a surprise. The ruling of the constitutional court is by no means the last word on the matter. Chancellor Merkel knows that Mrs Von der Leyen is right when she upholds the supremacy of the ECJ. A face-saving solution is already now in the works, one that upholds the established order of legal things whilst preserving the dignity of the German Constitutional Court. However, the Polish prime minister may not be so lucky. His brother in arms over in Hungary, Viktor Orbán, proved much smarter and wisely refrained from commenting or grandstanding.