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Dr. Binoy Kampmark is a senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University. He was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He is a contributing editor to CounterPunch and can be followed at @bkampmark.

Let’s Burn the Whole Thing Down: Death, Protest and George Floyd

Mobs are unruly, headless things. The message is the action. The platform is often violence. But what is happening across the United States cannot simply be labelled as a looting-leads-to-shooting episode. It ranks as another chapter of enraged despair and untidy opportunism.

It all began with a savage act in South Minneapolis, a killing grotesque for its indifference. The hunter in this gruesome Monday spectacle of cruelty proved to be a policeman from the 3rd Police Precinct, Derek Chauvin; the quarry, a black man by the name of George Floyd. As Floyd was held down by the knee for almost nine minutes, suffocating to death as he pleaded for his life, the Chauvin impassively went about his deadly task. The pulse ceased.

A country began to spasm, though it first began with a peaceful march of sorrow at the corner store next to the site of Floyd’s arrest. With the United States topping the global chart in coronavirus deaths, with numerous parts of the country easing lockdown restrictions as unemployment has surged, the release over the week became atavistic, vengeful. Mixed in were also protests of desperate sadness and anger, with sentiment very much against violence as a weapon of choice. Police were attacked but in other cases, notably that of Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson in Flint, Michigan, they joined protests and expressed a wounded solidarity.

Buildings were left burning; stores destroyed and looted. Curfews were imposed. The National Guard was called out – in Minneapolis, for the first time since the Second World War. Tear gas and rubber bullets have been used liberally. Vehicles have been driven into protesters in Minneapolis and New York City. In the chaos, even a crew from CNN was arrested. A fog of militarisation has descended heavily.

The panoramic violence provided sustenance for every interpretation on cause and inspiration. There was the civic-society hating hooligan said to be in the ascendancy; the daring, incendiary white supremacist having a go; the antagonised Black American furious and redressing grievances; the foreign agitator keen to exploit divisions.

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz’s own assessment put the blame on agitators from out of state who cared not one jot for the demise of Floyd. Justice for him, and any endeavours to achieve it for the slain resident, did not “matter to any of these people who are here firing upon the National Guard, burning” businesses and “disrupting civil life.” In agreement, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey dismissed any idea that this was a local poison, making its way through the body of the city. “The people that are doing this are not Minneapolis residents. They are coming in largely from outside of the city, from outside of the region to prey on everything that we have built over the last several decades.”

Such diagnoses ignore the scarring caused by killings inflicted since 2016. Floyd’s death was the fifth caused by police forces since 2018. The norm, generally speaking, has seen those involved spared charges. As Hugh Eakin observes on such prevalent impunity, “Behind such a dismal record of failed accountability, there is now a widespread sense that structural racism in the city’s administration and law enforcement runs deep.” Charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter have been filed, but will they stick? Hennepin County Prosecutor Mike Freeman was pleased to note that this was “by far the fastest that we’ve ever charged a police officer.”

Then there was the Trump administration’s own stretched interpretation, presenting it with a chance to settle a long-standing score. In a divided country, you take to barricades rather than remove them. “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization,” came the aggressive tweet from President Donald Trump. A flavour of what is to come was also given by Trump’s ever loyal US Attorney General William Barr on Sunday. “The violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.” Such measures are likely to fall foul of the Constitution, but that is a procedural irrelevance in the game of electioneering rhetoric. Trump’s point is to show that the US is broken, and that he is the best manager of a ruined MAGA Republic.

 

The brutality and poignancy of this Minnesota decline into pyromanic purgatory and tear-stained sorrow was captured by the words of rapper Killer Mike, a man who professes to having “a lot of love and respect for police officers,” being the son of one. “I watched a white police officer assassinate a black man. And I know it tore your heart out.”

At a press conference with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, he felt “duty-bound to be here to simply say that it is your duty not to burn down your house for anger with an enemy.” Fortify it, he suggested with biblical intonation, “so that you way be a house of refuge in times of organization.” But it was the words that followed that bring the matter into crystalline focus. Unalloyed anger; a desire to build from the ashes, was vital. To have purpose and worth, you needed to burn the whole thing down. Killer Mike’s suggestion, as you preserve your own home, is to take the matches to the system itself, one “that sets up for systemic racism.” Prosecute the offenders; get convictions. Unfortunately for him, that distinction may prove too fine in the groans and recoil that follows. Justice for Floyd, even before it starts in earnest, has already been eclipsed.

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Sinister Flatulence: Trump versus Twitter

Sawing off the branch you sit on can hardly be the best of policies. But that all depends on the nature of the branch. US President Donald Trump has huffed himself into another small historical moment, going on the offensive against social media companies using the very language his faux progressive opponents use against them. All seem to be in agreement on one point: the Silicon Valley giants have become too powerful, runaway monsters in the stakes of high influence. But sharp divergences and attitudes exist on how such companies are to be controlled, let alone disciplined.

The view on how best to chastise such companies come from opposite ends of the information spectrum. For the enraged and the offended, these internet giants should be punished for distributing content created by users who might, for instance, be seen to be glorifying violence or giving truck to the unsavoury. Their view seems to be that humanity cannot be trusted with viewing matter that might, on the off chance, prove dangerously galvanic.

This is the view taken, for instance, by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. “One thing is pretty clear to me,” he scoldingly told his audience at last year’s Never Is Now Summit hosted by the Anti-Defamation League. “All this hate and violence [in the world] is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history.”

For Baron Cohen and travellers of like mind, the problem in all of this is the protection provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The provision confers immunity on internet companies for the use-generated content they host.

For Trump, such companies should be punished for misusing their immunity from prosecution for actually banning or flagging undesirable content or opinions. In short, there should be no limits on the quality or nature of user-content used or posted. For the first Twitter President in history, it was all too bruising to be “flagged” for content posted on Twitter taking issue with the response to Monday’s lethal arrest of George Floyd in Minneapolis. On Friday, Trump tweeted the line, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” It was a phrase Miami’s police chief Walter Headley used in 1967 in response to, as reported at the time, a “crackdown on … slum hoodlums.” He spoke with reassurance for the head-kicking enthusiasts. “We don’t mind being accused of police brutality.”

Trump spruced up that version – slightly. “Looting leads to shooting, and that’s why a man was shot and killed in Minneapolis on Wednesday night – or look at what just happened in Louisville with 7 people shot. I don’t want this to happen, and that’s what the expression put out last night means.”

Twitter has shown interest in the US president of late. Flagging and hiding Tweets, it also added a fact-check link to one of Trump’s messages. All this was simply too much, a lingering, cyber stain. The Executive Order that followed was cranky and a bit confused, taking issue with the wielding of power by internet companies “over a vital means of communication to engage in deceptive or pretextual actions stifling free and open debate by censoring certain viewpoints.” Accordingly, “Section 230 was not intended to allow a handful of companies to grow into titans controlling vital avenues for our national discourse under the guise of promoting open forums for debate, and then to provide those behemoths blanket immunity when they use their power to censor content and silence viewpoints that they dislike.” In removing or restricting access to content, such companies were “engaged in editorial conduct” and would, for that reason, have she shield of immunity removed.

The order is not likely to have much effect. The legal cognoscenti see it has having little bearing, a wasteful act of sinister flatulence. Former Justice Department inspector general Michael Bromwich considered it “a hoot. Unlawful and unenforceable.” According to Joshua Geltzer, executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, it would be hard to make a case that Twitter’s labels on Trump’s tweets fell outside the immunity of section 230. Nor could Trump sue for defamation, given that Trump, not Twitter, added the element of falsity to the affair.

 

Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University sees the birth of the order as “unconstitutional because it was issued in retaliation for Twitter’s fact-checking of President Trump’s tweets.” The concern for Jaffer is that the order entails the possibility of intimidation and investigation of internet companies. “There may well be regulation, and legislation worth considering in this sphere, but whatever else this order may be, it is not a good faith effort to protect speech online.”

What the latest moves have done is precipitate something of a conflict within the usually amoral social media sphere. The titans seem to be in disagreement on how to approach the demagogue in the White House. Do we let him bark and bellow without inhibition, or should some health warning label be attached? Mark Zuckerberg makes Facebook’s position disingenuously clear: such companies should not be arbiters of truth. (Unfortunately for the CEO, he expressed that view on a news outlet that often prefers the fictional narrative to the sturdy truthfulness.) “Private companies probably shouldn’t be, especially these platform companies, shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey sees it differently. “Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves. More transparency from us is critical so folks can clearly see the why behind our actions.”

Neither CEO should be taken too seriously. Twitter will make its policies as it sees fit (consider, for instance, its righteous civic integrity policy); ditto Facebook. Neither – and here Zuckerberg is right – should be arbiters, but they are. They have shaped, directed, cajoled, mocked and massaged the gullible, the idiotic and the deluded. And for all the fuss being caused by this Order, Facebook it is not considered a serious target. As Ian Bogost and Alex Madrigal insist, the Trump campaign effectively ceded “control to Facebook’ ad-buying machinery” in 2016, as it is doing now. Internet boffin Zeynep Tufekci can only agree: the relationship between the president and the Facebook CEO “is so smooth that Trump said Zuckerberg congratulated the president for being ‘No.1 on Facebook’ at a private dinner with him.” Time to break bread again.

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Welcome Deaths: Coronavirus and the Open Plan Office

For anybody familiar with that gruesome manifestation of the modern workplace, namely the open plan office, the advent of coronavirus might be something of a relief. The prospects for infection in such spaces is simply too great. You are at risk from droplet-filled babblers, dribblers and gibbering colleagues. Good ventilation and a hyper-vigorous sanitation regime provide little guarantee of safety against the pathogens of a carelessly directed cough.

Employers will have to sort out some measure to ensure continued productivity from workers while still practising those now enshrined words “social distancing” and “1.5 or 2 metres apart.” That the open plan office will be a continued feature of mass productivity (never mind the quality of it all), continues to be the acceptable face of post-coronavirus design. Behind them are the property managers who care little for the quality and much for the efficiency (keeping costs down, maximising the use of space).

The New York Times suggested something along such lines in April. “Workplaces may have significant changes in the long run, including new seating arrangements and the addition of building materials that discourage the spread of germs. New technology could provide access to rooms and elevators without employees having to touch a handle or press a button.” The paper notes the opinions of a vice chairman of a real estate company, a certain Matthew Barlow of Savills who simply sees this as “trying to build confidence and a secure feeling.” Desks can be moved apart; workers can be given more elbow room. Use of sanitisers and around-the-clock armies of disinfecting crews would become an immutable, reassuring norm.

This is all the stuff of implausible, patchwork arrangements. Provided that benching desks were kept to a width of six feet, the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Provision would be complied with. This comes with challenges. “To create a six-foot radius around each employee, companies may have to pull desks apart or stagger employees so they are not facing one another.”

Geoffrey James, contributor editor to the business magazine Inc. is dismissive about such approaches, calling them “ludicrous.” The six-foot guideline was drafted to cope for people in public spaces. For instance, in shopping for goods at a grocery store, you would “keep your distance while transiting from one safe area (like your car or your home) to another.” Social distancing is a dead letter, a nullity in confinement, even with fewer people in a space where employees are held for hours.

The language on infection regarding coronavirus is that of logistics and projections. Designers assume that getting those matters right will be sufficient to minimise the COVID-19 threat. Given the way moisture travels, the essential feature of respiratory infectious disease transmission, they might well be fantasising.

Such moisture is taken to come in either “large” or “small droplets”, a dichotomy that took hold in the 1930s with the tuberculosis work of William F. Wells. COVID-19, however, has ruffled the establishment view on such transmission, one that is still accepted by the World Health Organization and other health bodies. Using methods focused on droplets might be missing the bigger picture on how transmission, notably in coronavirus cases, might work. “Even when maximum containment policies were enforced,” noted Lydia Bourouiba, “the rapid international spread of COVID-19 suggests that using arbitrary droplet size cutoffs may not accurately reflect what actually occurs with respiratory emissions, possible through contributing to the ineffectiveness of some procedures used to limit the spread of respiratory disease.”

Bourouiba offers a rather bleak picture for the office planners taken with merely modifying existing arrangements. Her language is militarily descriptive. Exhalation, sneezing and coughing are part of a continuum of moisture emission. First, the exhalation; then, the “short-range semiballistic emission trajectories,” followed by “a multiphase turbulent gas (a puff) cloud that entrains ambient air and traps and carries within it clusters of droplets with a continuum of droplet sizes.” Any droplet-bearing puffs containing pathogens can travel up to 7-8 metres.

Multiphase turbulent gas cloud from a human sneeze (Image from jamanetwork.com)

Time then to jettison a concept that has been found to defeat, undermine and maul the very things it set out to do. Since becoming a reality of Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision of democratised, spatial openness, supposedly found in the 1906 Larkin Administration Building in New York, it has continued to attract stern critics and a distinct imbecilic enthusiasm.

Did such plans enhance cooperation in a transparent setting with fewer boundaries on human “collaboration”? Not so, according to Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban. The authors found a decline in face-to-face interaction “with an associated increase in electronic interaction.” From such open-planned spaces emerge the hostile, the estranged, the disengaged.

Good for the well-being of employees? Think again, suggest Rachel L. Morrison and Roy K. Smollan, though the authors were still convinced that a decent open plan arrangement could be arrived at in offices given “good technical design and thoughtful ergonomic assessment of the needs of employees and the requirements of their tasks.”

As Adams reminds us, architects and office designers have not been ignorant to the incubating and transmitting qualities of open plan offices when it comes to disease. “They just didn’t care. Open-plan offices emerged from the same corporate mentality as the ‘work till you drop’ ethos that discourages sick days and vacations.”

Britain’s combative broadcaster Jeremy Paxman is even more pointed in his blows. “An open-plan office is a way of telling you that you don’t matter.” You get given allotted hours at some pod or work station; personal touch is eschewed “while opposite you someone you don’t know shouts into the telephone to a person sitting in an almost identical human warehouse in Bangalore.”

In the meantime, repurposing the home as a workplace is seen as an alternative. This would, in turn, reduce work travel, traffic chaos, pollution. Not all can do so but there is much to be said for those who can. The open plan ideologues, however, still have a following. For Sarah Holder, writing in CityLab, “A pivot to walls is probably still a long way away.” Tinker around the edges; cloak the message with a number of suitably chosen weasel words; hope that the workers will buy it despite being terrified. “The broad stroke is that the open office is over,” suggests the CEO of office interior design firm Knotel, Amol Sarva, “[but] there’s a bunch of different things that that might mean.” Through the looking glass they come.

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Ego Trip: US Space Flags and Super-Duper Missiles

US President Donald Trump is much taken with the bombastic and the exaggerated.

In an interview with the Associated Press in April 2017, he spoke of his infamous if somewhat less than successful wall project on the US-Mexican border. Ever happy to stretch the record on costs, he took issue with those “opponents talking $25 billion for the wall. It’s not going to cost anywhere near that.” Resembling that noisy relative who boasts about getting a cheaper deal for you on anything from car insurance to white goods, the president was confident: “I think $10 billion or less. And if I do a super-duper, higher, better, better security, everything else, maybe it goes a little bit more.”

In the year of an election, things are not looking rosy at the White House, neither super, let alone duper, but that is hardly an excuse not to embark on ego trips of extravagant optimism. Amidst the rising death toll in the United States due to coronavirus, military matters still have to be tended to. The signing of the 2020 Armed Forces Day Proclamation provided a chance for the Trump administration to reveal the flag for the US Space Force. “We’ve worked very hard on this and it’s so important from a defensive standpoint, from an offensive standpoint, from every standpoint there is.”

For the White House, the deep blue and sharp white colours of the flag represented the “vast recesses of outer space.” It was unfurled and ready, raised against those dastardly adversaries who, according to Secretary of Defence Mark Esper, had “weaponized space” and “made it a war fighting domain.”

The flag had caused a tittle of offence with its approval in January this year. New York Times reporter Sopan Deb lost his bearings on Twitter, shouting about its resemblance to the Starfleet logo of Star Trek. Actors such as George Takei, who featured in the original show run, saw little merit in the flattery of such theme-pinching inspiration. “Is nothing sacred?” (He promptly turned his thespian head to more earthly matters: royalties might be in order.)

Image from metro.co.uk (Getty photos)

The president also claimed during the ceremony that the United States was developing an exhilarating, novel weapon. “I call it the ‘super-duper missile.’ And I heard the other night, 17 times faster than what they have right now.” Not exactly solid on his avionics, the president observed that Russia “has five times, and China is working on five or six times.” (What times? Sound?)

In February, Trump was also very much enchanted by the speedy missile theme. “We have the super-fast missiles,” he explained to governors visiting the White House, “tremendous number of the super-fast. We call them ‘super-fast,’ where they’re four, five, six and even seven times faster than an ordinary missile. We need that because, again, Russia has some. I won’t tell you how they got it.” Not being able to restrain himself, Trump continued to explain. “They got it, supposedly, from plans from the Obama administration when we weren’t doing it. And that’s too bad.”

Trump might not have been briefed by the more specific advances made by the Russian military in this field. In December 2018, Russia supposedly tested the Avangard hypersonic vehicle, which claimed to go to speeds up to 27 times the speed of sound. “The Avangard,” Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted, “is invulnerable to intercept by any existing and prospective weapon defence means of the potential adversary.” The Kinzhal design, with a speed greater than Mach 10, is said to be even more agile.

Trump loathes the burdens of the technical, preferring the simplified language of the MBA (mediocre-but-ambitious) set. Such missiles are better known as hypersonic weapons, which have been preoccupying US officials for some time. “Our goal is, simply,” in the frank observation of Mark Lewis, the Pentagon’s director of defense and research engineering for modernization, “to dominate future battlefields.” The Pentagon’s budget for the 2021 financial year for all research related to hypersonic weaponry is $3.2 billion, with $206.8 million specifically dedicated to hypersonic defence programs.

The line between sensible defence and testosterone strutting is a hard to discern in military matters. New weapons are often developed to reassure the tribal establishment of their necessity. Others have them and so must we. The ego’s urges must be pacified. “We have no choice,” contends Trump. “We have to do it – with the adversaries we have out there.”

The hypersonic weapon tickles the tribe in various ways: it is ferociously fast and highly manoeuvrable. Being hard to detect, such vehicles are a challenge to destroy. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Commander of US Strategic Command General John Hyten sees their value in enabling “responsive, long-range, strike options against distant, defended, and/or time-critical threats [such as road-mobile missiles] when other forces are unavailable, denied access, or not preferred.”

The critics, who tend to be muffled in their assessments of such programs, suggest that having such weapons is an expensive exercise in futility. In the words of a Congressional Research Service report, they “lack defined mission requirements, contribute little to US military capability, and are unnecessary for deterrence.”

Certain military obsessives feel that Trump is on to a good thing. Ryan P. Burke of the US Air Force Academy has snootily dismissed the mockers and the knockers. “Between the Twitter jokes and the media’s fixation on missile development and soundbites, the public narrative is missing the point: The super duper missile is a super duper necessity to deal with the super duper Russian threat in the Arctic.”

To develop such weapons is, according to Burke, “important for a country in third place in the hypersonic race.” He leaves us with no reason why that should be so, other than the fact they have it. As with any such analysis, the feeling of being second, let alone third, is monstrously unedifying. It reduces strategists to panic attacks and prolonged periods of sobbing anxiety. Inadequacies must be underlined to increase budgets for the needless. Burke proceeds to earn his keep at the academy by opening the door to binges on weapons acquisition or, as he puts it, the attainment of “weapons parity.” Despite accepting the premise that conventional deterrence is questionable as a principle in an age of mutually assured destruction, he draws from the 2018 National Defense Strategy as a justification. Super-duper stupidity will get you far in this game.

 

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One Rule for Me and Another for Everyone Else: The Cummings Coronavirus Factor

Leaving crises to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s management skills will never disappoint those who favour chaos and the attractions of vague direction. The double standard is to be preferred to the equal one. With the United Kingdom sundered by death and the effects of COVID-19 (the PM himself having had his battle with the virus), the population was hoping for some clarity.  When, for instance, would the lockdown measures be eased?

On May 10, Johnson delivered an address from his comically staged desk which had the appearance of being trapped in the door during a bungled removal effort. “We have been through the initial peak – but it is coming down the mountain that is often more dangerous,” he tried explaining. “We have a route, and we have a plan, and everyone in government has the all-consuming pressure and challenge to save lives, restore livelihoods and gradually restore the freedoms that we have.” Seeds of confusion were sowed with promise. People would be allowed to do “unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise,” and the “Stay Home” message had changed to “stay alert, control the virus and save lives.” The broader citizenry were puzzled.

Mixed messaging was not the only problem facing Johnson, whose preferable default during any emergency is the behaviour of the reasonable Briton, characterised by patience and common sense. Within his own circles, abiding by the rules has been a lax affair. His chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, has been defiant before the lockdown rulebook.

In a statement and press address, Cummings laid out his explanation for his recent bad behaviour. The heart-tugging element was important. So was the ignorance that he had done nothing to niggle the ethical. Johnson had just been found out to have contracted COVID-19. Arrangements of how to handle the emergency were discussed. Then came the urgent call from Cummings’ wife. “She’d vomited and felt like she might pass out. And there’ll be nobody to look after our child.  None of our usual childcare options were available.”

What followed that April, with most of the UK in mandated self-isolation, was travel – some 260 miles in all – that involved leaving his London home on a trip to County Durham, accompanied by his wife and child. The decision had been made to stay in a cottage on the farm of Cummings’ father. It was there that Cummings fell ill, as did his son, who spent a stint in hospital. It subsequently surfaced that Johnson’s aide had also repaired to Barnard Castle, a visit reported to Durham police by Robin Lees, a retired chemistry teacher. That visit raised eyebrows for falling within the category of non-essential travel.

The aide’s conclusion for breaching such rules were self-exculpatory, which cannot excite any surprise from those familiar with those behind the law and policy of the state apparatus. The higher up the food chain of power, the more likely the powerful will misbehave and change the meals. Andre Spicer puts it in a dull though accurate manner: “a large body of research […] shows that it is people in positions of power that are most likely to take excessive risks.” Such risks are minimised, if not ignored altogether. The one who assumes, and presumes to be in a position of power, is likely to cheat, bend and break the order.

Cummings, in his reasoning, might have done unreasonable things in the past, but thought that what had transpired over those 14 days was reasonable. “The regulations make clear, I believe the risks to the health of small children were an exceptional situation, and I had a way of dealing with this that minimised risk to others.”

Such a statement of behavioural latitude, in times when those in the United Kingdom, for the most part, have complied with the coronavirus lockdown, looks politically indulgent. Johnson has added to that indulgence, claiming that Cummings merely “followed the instincts of every father and every parent, and I do not mark him down for that.” The “right kind of childcare” was not available” at that time; both Cummings and his wife “were about to be incapacitated by coronavirus.”

Staying with Cummings is courting a grand risk. And such risks compound when they are given the Johnson touch. Professor Stephen Reicher of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) furnishing Downing Street with advice on how the public might best respond to the lockdown measures, seethed on hearing about the prime ministerial defence. “I can say that in a few short minutes tonight, Boris Johnson had trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust and secure adherence to the measures necessary to control Covid-19.” Honesty had been “trashed,” as had respect for the public, equity, equal treatment, consistency and the message “we are all in this together.”

Even conservative commentary on the subject is wary of the prime minister’s loyalty to Cummings, showing that this is no ordinary row in the halls of Westminster. Former Johnson adviser Tim Montgomerie expressed embarrassment for having “ever backed Boris Johnson for high office.” Chair of the Northern Ireland select committee, Simon Hoare, was baffled. “With the damage Mr Cummings is doing to the government’s reputation, he must consider his position. Lockdown has had its challenges for everyone.” The prime minister “is a populist who no longer understands the populace,” suggests Nick Cohen in The Spectator. “Dominic Cummings pretends to be an anti-elitist but cannot see how lethal the slogan ‘one rule for me and another for everyone else’ is to him and the elite her serves.” That about sums it up.

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Budget Cockups in the Time of Coronavirus: Reporting Errors and Australia’s JobKeeper Scheme

Hell has, in its raging fires, ringside seats for those who like their spreadsheets. The seating, already peopled by those from human resources, white collar criminals and accountants, becomes toastier for those who make errors with those spreadsheets. Even in their self-celebrated expertise, blunders will happen.

Few errors are as magisterial as that of the Australian government’s on JobKeeper. In funding its job preservation scheme to cushion the shock of losses occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic, a miscalculation on the number of employees who should have been covered was revealed. The initial coverage was ambitious: 6.5 million employees. Treasury and the Australian Tax Office have now revised the figure, effectively halving it. The “reporting error” occurred with respect to 1,000 business applications, a drop-in-the-ocean of 910,000 businesses who had put their names to the scheme. A mind boggling $130 billion has been shaved and will now cost $70 billion. Any comparisons on generosity – for instance, with the United Kingdom’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme – were invalidated.

Not that the scheme was that generous to begin with. Anthony Forsyth, a sharply taloned legal eagle, teased out a few compromising details when the scheme was announced. “Australia’s payment is 70% of the median wage. The government’s claim that employees in retail and hospitality will get the median wage in those industries simply reinforces their low-paid status to begin with.” Numerous other groups were also sidestepped with callous budgetary acumen. Casual workers unable to show a period of employment of a year were simply ignored. This knocked out the university sector, one increasingly rapacious in the way it uses such labour. Ditto migrant workers or those on certain visas, the bread and butter recruitment for many small businesses.

The problem with such cockups is the opportunity they present. More money to spend, surely a good bit of news. But what on? Those purposely excluded from the program might well be included now. The original purpose of the initiative might be reiterated. This is certainly the position taken by various state governments, including Tasmania’s Liberal Premier, Peter Gutwein, and the Labor Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Michael Gunner. According to Gunner, “if we can keep JobKeeper for longer, we should.  Industries like tourism and hospitality have been hit hard, so if it needs to be targeted, let’s make sure we look after them.”

The misers in treasury will obviously wish it to be kept in the coffers, sugar coating the message that things are not as dire as all that. No need to spend that much; besides, all of this represents a glorious saving. As the ABC put it, “The JobKeeper bungle now means the Federal Government is essentially $60 billion richer, which is good news for the budget’s bottom line.” This is all well and good for handbag economics, which focuses on the fiction that government expenditure somehow resembles the old housewife’s weekly expenses. In a sophisticated world of Keynesian stimulus and necessarily invigorating injections to lift expectations, retaining such money is a sin. But it is a sin the Morrison government is keen on committing.

Instead of seeking scalps and culprits to crucify, the optimists abound. The savings will, according to Danielle Wood from the Grattan Institute, “mean the deficit is probably a bit smaller than we expected it to be.” Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar was enthused by a chance to give incompetence a distracting gloss. “In the end, what it means is our country is less indebted than it otherwise would be. This is all borrowed money; there’s not a pot of money that we have sitting aside waiting to be spent on programs like this.” His superior, Josh Frydenberg, celebrated the “welcome news that the impact on the public purse from the program will not be as great as initially estimated.”

Frydenberg has shown little interest in seeking a reallocation. There were no villains in the affair, no one set for the chopping block. “This is a very uncertain time. I’m not blaming Treasury’ I’m not blaming the ATO. No underpayments were made, no overpayments were made.” Such statements merely underline the manic myopia that governs decision making, even during the most debilitating of crises.

Pop the corks, people, though Warren Hogan, formerly of the Treasury, is not convinced that any champagne be taken off the ice. “There isn’t a sporting analogy for how big a miss this was.” That size intrigued Federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese, who took to the cosmos for his comparisons. “This is a mistake you could have seen from space.”

Opposition Senate leader Penny Wong is also scouring the record for answers. Her main target of interest: Treasurer Frydenberg, who had not, as yet “fronted up and taken responsibility.” The Senate Committee into the COVID-19 response will, in due course, press the treasurer for some explanation, but he is bound to be in the pink, excited that he has more cash to play with.

Such are the times that incompetence over such matters, however monumental, will not lead to sackings, demotions or any measure of retribution. The flames of hell are yet to come; in the meantime, there is a resounding cheer coming from the Treasury. All that cash, and no initiative to spend it. Things are really looking up.

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Patterns of Compromise: The EasyJet Data Breach

It has been a withering time for the airlines, whose unused planes moulder in a gruelling waiting game of survival. The receivers are smacking their lips; administration has become a reality for many. Governments across the globe dispute what measures to ease in response to the coronavirus pandemic; travel has been largely suspended; and the hope is that some viable form will resume at some point soon.

For the low-cost airline EasyJet, a further problem has presented itself. Earlier in the week, the company revealed that it had “been the target of an attack from a highly sophisticated source,” resulting in a data breach affecting nine million customers. Of those, 2,208 customers (“a very small subset,” as the company wished to emphasise) had had their credit and debit card details “accessed.”

The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office had been informed about the incident but the company only revealed this catastrophic lapse in data security to individuals, as it told the BBC, “once the investigation had progressed enough that we were able to identify whether any individuals had been affected, then who had been impacted and what information had been accessed.”

EasyJet were also quick to douse the fires of this grim chapter in data insecurity. “There is no evidence that any personal information of any nature has been misused, however, on the recommendation of the ICO, we are communicating with the approximately nine million customers whose travel details were accessed to advise them of protective steps to minimise any risk of potential phishing.”

This phishing risk entails that opening any suspicious email purporting to be from EasyJet is simply a risk not worth taking. Naturally, the company will have to inform, and have informed customers of that very risk, resulting in a peculiar circularity: Who to believe and what enables the recipient to detect the suspicious? As digital privacy expert Ray Walsh opines, “Anybody who has ever purchased an EasyJet flight is advised to be extremely wary when opening emails from now on.”

For the company’s part, customers whose credit card details were compromised have received an email with a unique code, ostensibly to access services provided by a third party. A call centre to deal with concerns arising from the hack has also been established, though service on that has been typically sloppy.

Airline companies have a rather patchy record in the field of data security.  In the cybersecurity department, they seem to be rather thin, a failing that matches a global tendency. (A 2018 report suggested a shortage of some 2.93 million.) The implications to both airline companies and aviation infrastructure have been of such magnitude as to prompt warnings that it is merely a matter of time before aircraft are themselves the subject of cyber-attack.

The honour board on compromised customer data is a long one. Cathay Pacific Airways experienced an attack on the scale of that of EasyJet, with a hacker accessing the personal information of 9.4 million customers over a four-year period. This was also a case that interested the ICO, resulting in a pre-General Data Protection Regulation fine of £500,000. The ICO investigation revealed that the airline lacked adequate security controls to ensure the integrity of passenger data within internal IT systems. This “resulted in the unauthorised access” to “passengers’ personal details including: names, passport and identity details, dates of birth, postal and email addresses, phone numbers and historical travel information.”

Cathay Pacific’s systems were penetrated via an internet server enabling the installation of data harvesting malware. It did not help that the data storage regime in place was weak and complacent. Back-up files were not password protected; internet-facing serves were unpatched; the presence of inadequate and outdated anti-virus protection software was noted.

British Airways was less fortunate in being fined £183 million in 2019 by the ICO, armed with the more punitive powers of the GDPR, for failing to take adequate steps in protecting the personal information of some 380,000 customers. The 2018 compromise of data took place through bookings made on its website (ba.com) and the British Airways mobile app over the course of a 15 day period. As with EasyJet, the company adopted a strategy of understating the effect of it all. Yes, personal details had been stolen, including the names, addresses and financial information of customers, but those cheeky hackers did not make away with passport or travel details. And, before anybody should get too excited, the cyber incident was, according to a spokesperson for British Airways, “data theft, rather than a breach”.

None of this impressed the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham. “People’s personal data is just that – personal. When an organisation fails to protect it from loss, damage or theft, it is more than an inconvenience. That’s why the law is clear – when you are entrusted with personal data you must look after it.”

Not to be left out, Air Canada also confirmed a data breach on its mobile app in August 2018, though the scale was a more modest 20,000 individuals. One defective feature of the airline’s operating systems stood out: a mediocre password policy accepting only letters and numbers.

Such patterns of compromise are all too common in the commercial aviation industry, but EasyJet’s Chief Executive Officer Johan Lungren claims to be wiser after the fact. “Since we became aware of the incident, it has become clear that owing to COVID-19 there is heightened concern about personal data being used for online scams.” Pressed by the ICO, “we are contacting those customers whose travel information was accessed and we are advising them to be extra vigilant particularly if they receive unsolicited communications.” A fine of some magnitude is expected.

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Pandemic Inquiry Wars: Australia, the United States and the Coronavirus Investigation

The Australian press and a chorus of the country’s politicians painted a misguided, blotched picture: the Scott Morrison government had achieved its goal of convincing members of the World Health Assembly that an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 was a move worth taking. “More than 100 countries, including Australia,” observed the ABC, “had already co-signed the motion for the probe into the global outbreak.” The same network also noted that Australia “was the first nation after the US to call for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19.”

Prior to Tuesday’s vote at the World Health Assembly, government MPs were cheerful. Australia had been noticed. The European Union had also joined the party with its resolution seeking an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the “international health response to COVID-19.” Senator Matt Canavan was in a celebratory mood, despite the cautious wording of the EU draft. “I don’t think it’s a bad day at the office when we have tens of other countries, major countries, joining us in the cause.” The Morrison government had been “massively vindicated” by an “outpouring from other countries in the world.”

Australian minister for agriculture David Littleproud forgot the diminutive qualification in his family name, and had his own outpouring session. “We should be damn proud as a nation that we have led the world, not only in understanding what the WHO has done, but understanding that wildlife wet markets’ role is in these pandemics.”

Even prior to the vote, it was clear that celebration in Australia was not only misplaced but premature and provincial. The draft motion had avoided reference to China, or to Wuhan, where the outbreak is said to have originated. It also left the World Health Organization as the primary agent behind the investigation, provided it link arms with the World Organization for Animal Health. The effort, according to the draft resolution, would involve “scientific and collaborative field missions” to “identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts.”

Roughing up the WHO has been a pastime of late for those in Canberra. In April, Australian foreign minister Marise Payne was curt about the organisation and what role it should perform in the investigative process. “We need to know the sorts of details that an independent review would identify for us about the genesis of the virus, about the approaches in dealing with it, and addressing the openness with which information was shared.” To charge the WHO with what it would otherwise be doing – inquiring into the origins of COVID-19 – was unwise. “I’m not sure that you can have the health organisation which has been responsible for disseminating much of the international communications material, and doing much of the early engagement and investigative work, also as the review mechanism.” Should an organisation that had so bungled, and so compromised its remit, be “a bit poacher and gamekeeper”?

Payne’s colleague, Australian health minister Greg Hunt was similarly bolshie in his comments, making a point of WHO laxity in the whole business. “We do know there was very considerable criticism when we imposed on February 1 the China ban from some officials and the WHO in Geneva.” Australia had done well to cope with the virus despite WHO efforts. The stage was set.

On Tuesday, the draft motion passed. No Australian draft measure had surfaced to challenge it. Fingers pointing in China’s direction had been withdrawn. Even the PRC had added their agreement, and scoffed at Australia’s peacocked confidence. “The claim that the WHA’s resolution (is) a vindication of Australia’s call,” an emailed statement from the Chinese embassy in Australia noted, “is nothing but a joke.”

The news was also digested with varying degrees of thoroughness in Australia. “The Morrison government has won unanimous support for its bid to set up an independent probe into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote Hans van Leeuwen of the Australian Financial Review, “but the victory was marred by equivocation from key players including the US and China.” That Australia should have also been blushing was put aside, though Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong was quizzical about the volte-face. “The government needs to explain why it changed its mind and now thinks the WHO is best placed to investigate the origins of the coronavirus.”

More broadly speaking, Australia’s misrepresented victory failed in achieving the inroads for its unquestioned, and most bullying of allies. The Trump administration had wished for an “immediate investigation” into the coronavirus and to restore Taiwan’s observer status at the WHO. It failed on both counts. President Donald Trump’s threats, made in a petulant letter to the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday, had failed to have its desired impact. “It is clear that the repeated missteps by you and your organization in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly for the world.” The body had 30 days to “commit to major substantive improvements”; otherwise, the president would make the “temporary freeze in United States funding to the World Health Organization permanent and reconsider our membership.”

 

Trump’s critique of WHO tardiness, a position that had been initially accepted by Morrison without demur, is recapitulated in the letter. According to the President, the health organisation “consistently ignored credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019 or even earlier, including reports from the Lancet medical journal.” Reports that directly conflicted with the official Chinese narrative were not investigated, “even those that came from sources within Wuhan itself.”

The swift response from The Lancet was dismissively cool, throwing ice at Trump’s fire. “This statement is factually incorrect.” No report was published in December 2019 referring to the outbreak in Wuhan. The first reports were published on January 24, 2020, describing the first 41 patients from Wuhan suffering from COVID-19 and the first instanced case of confirmed “person-to-person transmission of the new virus” was also published that day. Trump’s allegations outlined in the letter were “serious and damaging to efforts to strengthen international cooperation to control this pandemic.”

What matters now is the form the investigation will take. It risks being mangled. The WHO has been a victim of manipulation before, not least by the United States, and risks doing so again. On the other side will be China. The public relations crews will be busy; rivalries will again be replayed.

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Battles over Barley: Australia, China and the Tariff Wars

It promised to be bruising to both dignity and wallet. However brazen Australian politicians have been drumming up support for an international inquiry into the origins of the novel coronavirus, the first ones to be slapped in anger would have to be those in agriculture. Barley exporters find themselves facing a suffocating, and potentially market killing tariff, of 80.5 per cent. This Chinese tariff, as things stand, is set to be in place for five years. As the PRC accounts for half of Australia’s barley exports (worth $A600 million in 2019), the losses promise to be far from negligible.

The official explanation from China’s Ministry of Commerce was dry but damning. “The Ministry of Commerce conducted an investigation in strict accordance with China’s relevant laws and regulations.” The country’s own “domestic industry had suffered substantial damage” arising from subsidised Australian barley being sold in the country at below the cost of production; the measure, in effect, comprised an anti-dumping component (73.6 per cent) with the rest made up by an anti-subsidy.

Even before the measure, there were murmurings from PRC officials that evidence showing that barley had been “dumped” on the Chinese market by Australian farmers was scant. Nevertheless, investigations were initiated in November 2018. Beijing wished to teach Canberra a lesson. Australian exporters, members of industry and government submissions were duly made to MOFCOM seeking to rebut any claims of dumping, arguing that their “grain industry operates in an open, commercial and competitive global market.” No countervailing subsidies were provided to Australian farmers, and exports sales were “made at values above the purchase price offered to growers, which is in turn above their cost of production”.

The outcome seemed pre-ordained. Officially, Australia remains a near fanatical devotee of open agricultural markets, touting free-trade with uncritical, newborn enthusiasm. (In a time of insular trade policies crowned by the US-China trade war, such a view seems charmingly anachronistic.) Other reasons were seen to be at play. Prior to the investigation, the PRC had watched Australian moves to muscle in on the supply of undersea internet cables between Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Beijing had initially tickled the interest of the Solomon Islands in doing the same, using its communications company Huawei as the potential provider.

But minds were duly changed; Canberra’s offer, outlined in its Memorandum of Understanding of July 11, 2018, was too good to refuse, despite Australia’s record on internet speeds being, to put it mildly, abysmal. As Australia’s then Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, explained, “We spend billions of dollars a year in foreign aid, and this is a very practical way of investing in the future economic growth of our neighbours in the Pacific.” It was also a very practical way of shutting the door on Huawei as the conscience of charity was placated back in Australia.

The PRC subsequently noted the enthusiastic pledge by US Vice President Mike Pence that his country would work closely with Australia and Papua New Guinea to expand the Lombrum naval base on Manus Island to accommodate Australian guardian-class patrol boats. The base offered promise as yet another US-friendly port to project power. The announcement heralding the investigation came a few days later. The pundits wondered: startling coincidence, or punitive agricultural politics?

Beijing’s methods of economic retribution against those it finds fault with often avoid a dagger-in-the-front approach. Violations of the internal rule-book and regulations is preferable to a formal acknowledgment of punishment for a foreign policy disagreement. In 2017, South Korean conglomerate Lotte faced the closure of 74 of its 112 China-based supermarkets in apparent retaliation for Seoul’s installation of the US-backed Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence system. Lotte also seemed a plausible target, given its role in signing a deal suppling the ROK’s Defence Ministry with the land upon which to install the missile batteries.

The PRC also has another card to draw upon. Australia, that self-described paragon of free trade, has been unhesitant in deploying its own economic retaliations ostensibly to protect local industries Canberra claims have been injured. These take the form of anti-dumping and countervailing measures, both of which result in additional duties. Even the World Trade Organization permits their use in cases of material injury, provided there is a causal link between the damage and the act of dumping. Those deemed deserving of such treatment by Australian officials find their way onto the Dumping Commodity Register. The current list is impressively long, featuring extant tariffs or ongoing inquiries into imposing them on Chinese wind towers, A4 Copy paper, aluminium zinc coated steel, ammonium nitrate, clear float glass, PVC flat electric cables and railway wheels. The list goes on and includes, it should also be said, numerous other states.

Behind the shrill calls of the free-trade enthusiasts lies a qualifying hypocrisy, with a general acceptance that such rules shield, according to international trade academic Simon Lacey, “Australian import-competing industries from the full and potentially crushing impact of free trade with China.” But the Australian Productivity Commission thinks otherwise, arguing that there are “no convincing justifications for these measures, and they reduce the wellbeing of the Australian community.”

The wounding consequences of China’s barley play have been acknowledged by Australia’s farmers and certain politicians. In the rueful words of the Western Australian Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan, “These tariffs effectively close WA’s largest barley export market and could result in a direct loss of up to $200 million to Western Australian farm incomes this coming year from reduced barley values and reduced wheat prices, as more farmers turn to wheat crops.” The barley growers of the state had “been caught up in a much larger issue.”

A joint statement from the Grains Industry Market Access Forum, Australian Grain Exporters Council, GrainGrowers, Grain Producers Australia and Grain Trade Australia did not shy away from the scale of the decision. “For a number of years China has been Australia’s largest barley export market and Australia is the largest supplier of barley to China.” The duty rendered Australian barley uncompetitive in the Chinese market.

The federal agricultural minister, David Littleproud, resists any suggestion that the barley wars are part of a broader trade conflict, or that the decision was linked to Canberra’s zealous pursuit of an independent COVID-19 inquiry. Local producers, and the Australian public in general, have to be reassured that adventurism has not been the cause. “The reality is they are separate.” The investigations into Australian barley had “started 18 months ago, well before COVID-19 came into place and this was the juncture, coincidentally, of when it had to come to a decision.”

This view was not shared by former Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer. Never one to let the plight of the wounded cloud his judgement, he was content that “we haven’t caved in and been bullied by [China] and we’ve got the investigation that we’ve wanted.”

This move in the barley market have pushed other exporters up the ranks. France, Canada, even Argentina, seem like candidates for malt barley; the Black Sea appeals for feed barley. Australia, for its part, is considering the WTO for redress, something it did to India over claims of sugar subsidies. (That process grinds on in interminable slowness.) “China, we think in this case, has made errors of fact and law,” claims trade minister Simon Birmingham. But the hefty elephant in the room remains Canberra’s willingness to storm Beijing’s barricades on behalf of its chief security sponsor. This is coming across more as an act of misguided allegiance than valiant heroism.

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Why Thinking Makes It So: Donald Trump’s Obamagate Fixation

The “gate” suffix has been wearing thin since the break-in scandal that gave it its birth. Since Watergate, virtually anything dubious and suggestive, and much more besides, is suffixed. Which brings us to the issue of President Donald Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. Finding himself in hot water (did he ever leave it?) Trump has been sowing the seeds of “Obamagate”, a fairly grotesque measure that serves to fill the shallow spaces of the social mediaverse.

Obamagate is a show without much of a script, supported by the faintest of threads. Supposedly, they revolve around the merrily murky former national security advisor Michael Flynn, a serial perjurer who was “unmasked” as an American talking to foreigners under the routinely engaged eyes of the intelligence community. The revelations emerged from the declassification by acting national intelligence director Richard Grenell of unmasking requests made by the Obama administration in 2016. The exercise raised eyebrows, at least among certain Trump critics who detected a heavy accent of politicisation.

On the surface, the move was distractingly galvanic. The declassified document listing officials keen to identify Trump associates and any relevant ties to Russia suggested that Trump was going to embark upon yet another one of his exercises in mass distraction. The president duly hopped on the Twitter train to drive a narrative of criminality, making his Mother’s Day a special one. 126 tweets and retweets featured, making it the second most prolific single-day posting of the Trump presidency. Interspersed in the scatter were a few favourites: the QAnon conspiracy theory on Democrats being tied to a paedophilia cult; punchy counterattacks on those critical of his coronavirus non-policy. The retweets also featured monumental errors of judgment, including messages critical of the Trump administration. But something new had emerged in the smoke, all shinily suffixed.

Obama had, supposedly, committed “the biggest political crime in American history, by far,” one that made “Watergate look small-time.” When pressed for details by such individuals as Philip Rucker of the Washington Post, Trump was not particularly forthcoming, suggesting it was patently obvious. “It’s been going on from before I even got elected, and it’s a disgrace that it happened, and if you look at what’s gone on, and if you look at now, all this information that is being released – and from what I understand, that’s only the beginning – some terrible things happened, and it should never be allowed to happen in our country again.”

Russia, yet again, features. But this is not Democratic demonization in the Hillary Clinton mould so much as a claim of Deep State antics gone awry. Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists sees it as a ploy to seize the Russia narrative by the throat. “It is putting the spotlight on the investigators rather than the investigated. It is saying what is irregular here is not the extraordinary contacts with the Russian government but the attempt to understand them.” Obamagate has taken the place of “Crooked Hillary” as a call to arms. As Fox News host Brian Kilmeade observed, reflecting on the November election, “it’s not gonna be Biden against Trump. It’s gonna be Obama against Trump.”

Terms such as Obamagate only exist because thinking of it makes it so. It is the conjuring trick of a few words, fed by supposition and even superstition. It is the howl and bark of the social media echo chamber. In a sense, such terms do not matter, though they do exercise such individuals as Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Inquirer. The “idea of Obamagate”, he writes despairingly, grew “in Trump’s diseased mind and springing like a virus to his compromised and unjust Justice Department, his propagandists on Fox News’ quasi-state-media, and millions of truth-decayed supporters.”

As with so many assessments of Trump’s time in office, these are only some aspects of a broader, decaying Republic for which Trump’s opponents also have to answer for. He is the excremental reminder of a state in ruins, of an imperium gasping on a respirator. Bunch gives Trump too much credit for killing “the very idea of objective truth,” suggesting a certain monopoly on criminality. He even reserves some criticism for Obama, who he accused of being “too timid in looking into Trump and Russia.” And there, the Russian bogeyman makes yet another appearance.

How catching will this noise prove to be? Attention has turned to prosecutor John H. Durham, who examined the initial leak of information to the Washington Post on phone calls that took place between Flynn and the Russian ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak to the United States in 2016. The Grenell list could, in turn, be leaked. A fittingly messy turn that would be.

A sense that this will go nowhere is already being floated by Trump’s most loyal of deputies, the Attorney General William Barr. “As to President Obama and Vice-President Biden, whatever their level of involvement, based on the information I have today, I don’t expect Mr Durham’s work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man.” There is still time, but Obamagate is already expiring.

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Inglorious Bastardry: Hacking for Vaccines

If you cannot discover or create something, best steal it. It has been the operating principle for everything from wealth to technology. With the efforts to discover a vaccine to the novel coronavirus being all but bound by solidarity, the race on plundering secrets has already begun in earnest. No one party can claim particular innocence in this endeavour. All states engage in economic espionage and old-fashioned secret pinching to advance their interests. Finding the building blocks for a COVID-19 vaccine is proving no different.

As with such accusations, the cloak is procured with the dagger. The case is probable, and plausible enough, but confirmation tends to come in rations. In the business of hacking, what is acceptable in torrid love and hideous war tends to be a hard one to pin down. In 2015, the US and China reached an accord to, in the words of President Barack Obama, refrain from conducting or knowingly supporting “cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information for commercial advantage.” At the time, an assessment by Wired came to the conclusion that the agreement did not prevent traditional, full blown espionage, focusing, instead, on such efforts as those to pinch company source codes for competitive advantage.

In addition to Obama’s main point, Beijing and Washington agreed to furnish timely responses to requests for information and assistance dealing with malicious cyber activities; engage in “efforts to further identify and promote appropriate norms of state behaviour in cyberspace” and “establish a high-level joint dialogue mechanism on fighting cybercrime and related issues.”

In 2018, the National Counterintelligence and Security Centre (NCSC) reported that “the Intelligence Community and private sector security experts continue to identify ongoing Chinese cyber activity, although at lower volumes than existed before the bilateral September 2015 US-China cyber commitments.” Not all bad then, especially given that cyber activity designed to pilfer intellectual property for other non-competitive purposes continued to be de rigueur.

During the pandemic crisis, the niggles and pinches caused by cyberactivity have reportedly increased in number. Academic and research programs are being scrutinised. The US Justice Department has taken a particular interest in the PRC-sponsored Thousand Talents program. One of their latest targets is University of Arkansas’ professor of engineering, Simon Saw-Teong Ang, accused of concealing his ties to the Chinese government and universities while he worked on projects with NASA funding.

The United States, while not exactly leading in its response to dealing with COVID-19, now claims that its efforts to identify treatments and a vaccine are being targeted by others, with the PRC leading (naturally), the keen pack. “The PRC’s behaviour in cyberspace,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued in a statement last Thursday, “is an extension of its counterproductive actions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.” Senator Marco Rubio, one of the noisiest of China hawks, has also been squawking on what he claims is an adjustment in Chinese tactics. “Beijing has shifted its recruitment efforts for the Thousand Talents Program online, and it has increased efforts to hack US medical research institutes for COVID-19 information.”

On May 13, a joint statement by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency was published. It alleged “the compromise of US organizations conducting COVID-19-related research by PRC-affiliated cyber actors and non-traditional collectors.” Allegedly, such actors had “been observed attempting to identify and illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property (IP) and public health data related to vaccines, treatments, and testing from networks and personnel affiliated with COVID-19-related research.”

The statement warned that organisations “conducting research in these areas” should “maintain dedicated cybersecurity and insider threat practices to prevent surreptitious review or theft of COVID-19-related material.” Systems should be patched for “critical vulnerabilities”; web applications for authorised access should be actively sought out. Users “exhibiting unusual activity” should be suspended.

The warning is skimpy in details, notably on the issue of how treatments will be hampered. Nor are many researchers blind about similar pinching efforts from the US side of the fence. Jason Healey, a senior researcher at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs makes a few valid points on this. “If the US is wanting to argue for norms, I look forward to us doing it directly and saying here’s what we think the playing field lies, because certainly we’re being active in many of these areas as well.”

China has also been the subject of cyber interest in this particularly busy playing field. In April, a Vietnamese hacking group known as APT32 is said to have taken interest in the PRC’s Ministry of Emergency Management and the government of Wuhan. According to Ben Read of the cybersecurity firm FireEye, “These attacks speak to the virus being an intelligence priority – everyone is throwing everything they’ve got at it, and APT32 is what Vietnam has.” Not a good time, it seems, to find a vaccine in solidarity.

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The Mouse Roars: Australia, China and a Coronavirus Independent Inquiry

Australia matters little when it comes to international muscle. It is the retainer and pretender of power, a middle-distance runner who runs out of puff on the final stride. The big boys and girls look, agog. Why did you even bother? In the recent international relations shouting match (for Australia, shouting; for China, sotto voce with a touch of menace), you are left with a remarkable impression that Australia has the sort of heft to terrify opponents. It never has and never will, except when it comes to victimising refugees and bullying neighbouring states in the Pacific, whom they supposedly claim to have respect for. On all other matters, its best to consult the US State Department dispatches.

With a lack of prudence, the mouse has decided to roar. The theme tune: Chinese responsibility for COVID-19. The object: to take the lead in holding Beijing to account for the losses arising from it. It began with a certain rush of blood arising from a phone call between Prime Minister Scott Morrison and US President Donald Trump on April 22. Morrison emerged from the call brashly confident: an independent inquiry (however oxymoronic) into the origins of the pandemic, should be formed.

A letter to various world leaders was drafted and sent, and received a generally cool response. To spend time pursuing such an effort was an unnecessary distraction, taking away from the main task at hand: to battle the immediate effects of COVID-19.

Looking at this behaviour with puzzlement, veteran journalist Tony Walker suggested that Morrison, having created himself a sizeable hole, was intent on digging further. “Prime Minister Scott Morrison has excavated a diplomatic cavity for himself and his country as a consequence of an unwise intervention in the debate about China’s responsibility for a coronavirus pandemic.”

Beijing is certainly showing signs of assisting an enlargement of that cavity. China’s ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye has spoken of tourists “having second thoughts” and parents of students reconsidering sending their children to a place “they find is not so friendly, even hostile.” There have been threats of slapping punitive tariffs on Australian barley (upwards of 80 per cent) and halting beef exports. Red meat from four Australian suppliers, who control more than a third of the country’s exports to the PRC, have been banned.

The official justification – that Australian exporters had breached quarantine and other health regulations – conceals the retributive motivation of the decision. Publicly, Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham is playing dumb. “Chinese officials both publicly and privately are adamant that these are unconnected and so it is the best interests of our farmers and exporters for us to treat these issues all on their merits, and certainly from our policy perspective these are completely unconnected issues.”

The response to China’s moves has been marked by smugness, and also omits the fact that Australia has been more than happy to impose duties on Chinese steel, aluminium and chemicals for the best part of a decade. Australian journalists and commentators are confident that Chinese threats to abandon Australian iron ore in favour of Brazilian options are being dismissed. According to the Australian Financial Review, “there simply isn’t enough of the core commodity used to make steel to meet China’s demand.” UBS analyst Glyn Lawcock is quoted to add credibility to the claim. “With the market tight, it is difficult for China to source iron ore from alternative sources.” The general sentiment at the AFR, then, is that China is simply too prudent to risk self-harming in the matter, given that 62 percent of its iron ore hails from Australian sources. The same cannot be said about coal.

The strategic fraternity also fail to sight Morrison’s large and self-destructively aimed shovel, with its not so well concealed US inspiration. Peter Jennings, Executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, actually seems to think that the words “transparent” and “independent” would go hand-in-hand with “inquiry” into COVID-19. For any such pursuit to be worthwhile, it would have to be divorced from countries who had suffered harm, a decidedly difficult prospect given the virus’ devastating spread.

Jennings prefers to lob a grenade of accusation or two against China, making the trite point that they have “something to hide.” He omits the patent truth that China’s great accuser, the United States, has done its fair share of hiding and concealing matters relating to the coronavirus since it started to make its deadly impression.

It would be hard to forget the various twists and turns of Trump, who has done his heroic best at diminishing the effect of the virus while inflating the efforts of combating COVID-19. On February 28, he claimed that the virus “like a miracle,” would “disappear.” On March 4, he trotted out that cruel thesis that influenza kills with greater effect, suggesting that the novel coronavirus was pygmy-like by comparison, a view rejected by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci before Congress a week later. He has never tired of suggesting that the United States was, and remains, the “most prepared country in the world.” Then there is that most superb of howlers, the suggestion that coronavirus be treated by injecting disinfectant into the body. (Another lesser known bright idea he entertained: radiating patients with UV light.)

Australia finds itself, not so much an unwitting as a witless attachment in the pandemic politics of COVID-19, but best not let the ASPI tell you about it. Given that prudence and discretion have been banished from Canberra’s corridors, the issue of swatting Australia for its fanciful presumptions is very much on the cards. Those in the business of dealing with China in a direct, and it should be said more mature way, may well dread this Morrison moment.

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The Liabilities of History: The Dangers of Pandemic Compensation

Smug assertions of liability in history are often incautious things. They constitute a fruit salad mix: assertions of the wishful thinkers; hopes of the crazed; the quest of genuinely aggrieved generations who feel that wrongs need to be rectified (the Elgin Marbles and transatlantic slavery come to mind). Before you know it, the next historical act will require compensation, the next crime balanced on the ledger of misdeeds. Lawyers will be summoned, writs and briefs drawn up.

The advocates of the China-compensation initiative for COVID-19 are growing in number; most are charmingly untouched by history. Sociologist Massimo Introvigne is one, and with a certain peashooter menace claims that China, especially the Chinese Communist Party “may find itself attacked by an enemy its mighty military power will not be able to stop, aggressive Western lawyers.” Introvigne, while clearly no sharp taloned legal eagle, suggests reference to the International Health Regulations of 2005 which obligate States to conduct surveillance of, and convey accurate and timely information about, diseases through their agencies to the World Health Organization. Tardiness on the issue of reporting outbreaks that can constitute public health emergencies, for Introvigne, might constitute such grave breaches as to violate the Draft Articles on the Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts.

These particular articles, drafted by the International Law Commission, are not binding. But the Blame-China lobby has been cunning. James Kraska of the US Naval War College, for instance, thinks that the restatement has been absorbed into the ether of international state practice. Magically, the articles have been constituted as international customary law, which is binding.

A rash of legal suits have appeared across the United States, all sharing one common theme: a guerrilla compensation war via courts against a sovereign state. Members of Congress have been drafting various bills seeking to ease the pathway of private and public suits. Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn is one of several, hoping to amend that imposing legal obstacle to suing states known as the Foreign State Immunities Act of 1976 by establishing “an exception to jurisdictional immunity for a foreign state that discharges a biological weapon”. The name of the bill is instructive and leaves little to the imagination, being either the “Stop China-Originated Viral Infectious Diseases Act of 2020” or the “Stop COVID Act of 2020”.

This sort of legal pamphleteering and raging from the stump is interesting but not very instructive. Guilt and agency is already presumed by the advocates: China was not merely negligent in not containing the outbreak of COVID-19, but had actually created the virus with venality. The supreme self-confidence of those in this group leads to problems, the most obvious being the evidence they cite, and much they do not.

Even if there was something to be made about international pandemic wrongfulness, the United States would surely be one of the first to be cautious in pushing the compensation cart. The measure by Senators Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley, for instance, would grant the US president powers to impose visa and financial sanctions on foreign government officials who “deliberately conceal or distort information” about public health crises. This would also cover associates and those assisting in the endeavour.

But as has been pointed out by more grounded analysts, such measures will simply place US officials in the retaliatory firing line, including those who were rather slipshod with informing the US public about the dangers of the novel coronavirus. Rachel Esplin Odell is convincing in her summation at War on the Rocks: “If applied to Chinese officials, such sanctions would likely invite swift retaliation against US officials who themselves dismissed the threat of COVID-19, shared incorrect medical information about it, or spread false theories about its origins, such as the president, vice president, and many governors and members of Congress – including Cotton himself.”

Odell also warns that using the Draft Articles on State Responsibility in the context of public health is more than mildly treacherous. Disease outbreaks can be unruly things, hard to monitor and track; the customary rule accepting that a state in breach of international law is required “to make full reparation for the injury caused” by that breach has not featured in international health efforts.

David Fidler, a global health specialist, also suggests abundant caution in Just Security for linking state wrongs with infection and disease. What such eager commentators as Kraska avoid is the tendency in state practice to avoid attributing “state responsibility for acts allegedly to be legally wrongful with respect to the transboundary movement of pathogens.” Compensatory mechanisms are absent in any treaty dealing with the spread of infectious disease, and this includes the International Health Regulations (2005).

The pursuit of blame, and efforts to monetise it, also brings to mind the fact that an imperium such as the United States should be reluctant to cast stones in the glasshouse of international politics. That pedestrian dauber yet dangerously inept President George W. Bush might be free to pontificate about COVID-19 and the sweetness of solidarity but remains silent about his misdeeds in ruining Iraq, and, by virtue of that, a good deal of the Middle East. This was an individual who, in March 2003, said that the US would meet the threat of “an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder” so as not to do so “later with armies of firefighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities.” Unlike the case of pathogen transmission, the issue of attribution, in that case, is far from difficult.  

While international law furnishes little by way of financial compensation for damage caused by pandemics, it does about the criminal liability of state leaders and military commanders for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is also worth noting that the foundations for the invasion by the US and its allies was conspiratorial and deceptive, filled with the sorts of fabrications and mendacity that make the bumbling authorities in Wuhan seem childishly modest. In doing so, the crime against peace, sketched by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, was committed. As a Dutch Parliamentary inquiry found in 2010, UN Security Council Resolution 1441, giving Saddam Hussein a final chance to disarm, could not “reasonably be interpreted as authorising individual member states to use military force to compel Iraq to comply with the Security Council’s resolutions.” The warning for US law and policymakers in seeking Chinese scalps should be starkly crystal in clarity.

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Greasing the Revolving Door: Palantir Recruits Down Under

When he announced at the end of April that he would be retiring, thereby vacating the federal seat of Eden-Monaro, the Australian Labor Party’s Mike Kelly welled up. He noted persistent “health issues” from his time in the service of the Australian Defence Forces, including a worsening osteoarthritic situation and deteriorating renal condition. He had endured some ten invasive surgeries in recent times. He spoke, implausibly, of having made no enemies in politics. He had “stared into the face of true evil, whether it was genocidal warlords in Somalia, or murdering militia in Timor, or war criminals in Bosnia, or staring into Saddam Hussein’s face and the dirty-dozen, so called, in Iraq.”

Labor leader Anthony Albanese was full of lapping praise. “Mike Kelly is an extraordinary Australian, and he has brought a great deal of dignity, talent, capacity and commitment to this Parliament.” His labours “on defence and national security issues” in Parliament had been “second to none”.

Then came the revolving military door, where evil dons a different visage for its recruits. “I have been fortunate,” Kelly revealed even before the dust had settled, “to be able to take up a job offer with Palantir Technologies Australia that will enable me to work within my physical limitations but still be in a position to make a difference in relation to the issues that matter to me.” Good of the Silicon Valley-based Palantir: generous to an ailing man; considerate of his limits but happy to stroke the ego.

To work with the data mining security outfit Palantir Technologies can hardly be regarded as ethically elevating, certainly for a former member of parliament who had supposedly spent time gazing at faces evil and malevolent. But then again, his gaze must lack a certain resistance, bewitched as he is by this “amazing organisation” staffed by “some of the finest talent and quality personnel in the world.”

In recent times Kelly has given Palantir some free parliamentary advertising. In 2018, he told his fellow members that, “Companies like Palantir … effectively vectored Osama Bin Laden’s location so these are companies and capabilities that we need to work with.” The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security was also informed by Kelly of the Palantir’s “massive $US12 billion international effort on security issues.”

The company oozes of the slime that is the military-industrial complex, and counts the Central Intelligence Agency as an exclusive customer, though its client list has ballooned to include other government agencies, hedge funds and big pharma. In 2003, it got off the ground with US information analysts, among them Peter Thiel, champing at the bit to use data mining tools developed for PayPal.

Since then, the entity has developed search tools have given it pride of place in the security environment, earning it a credible fourth place in the “evil list” of technology companies compiled by Slate. Its software has found its way into the operations of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC). But in addition to encouraging bouts of faux patriotic heroics (Kelly notes the company’s role “in over 30 countries in the fight against COVID-19”), it has also veered into disdainfully murky territory. The same company, for instance, linked arms with Berico Technologies and HBGary Federal in 2011 to target WikiLeaks and smear the credibility of journalist Glenn Greenwald. The plan was revealed in emails obtained by the hacker group Anonymous, which managed to penetrate the servers of HBGary to unearth the nasty proposal to wage a campaign of misinformation against WikiLeaks and its supporters.

At the time, Palantir chief-executive Alex Carp, in a statement, was all contrite in severing ties with HBGary. With his hands firmly in the cookie jar, Carp claimed that his company “does not build software that is designed to allow private sector entities to obtain non-public information, engage in so called ‘cyber-attacks’ or take other offensive measures.” He also apologised specifically to Greenwald “for any involvement that we may have had in these matters.”

Carp and his company have since busied themselves with such humane endeavours as finding, in his words in a CNBC interview, “people in our country who are undocumented.” Over the years, Palantir’s role in aiding US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s deportation efforts has been skirted over. Its public relations arm has insisted that only Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) within ICE is of interest to them, rather than Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO). This is a distinction with bare difference, given that ERO avails itself of Palantir’s technology in conducting its deportation operations.

Kelly’s decision has caused a flutter of interest in various media stables, from Crikey to Sky News. Despite being at different ends of the journalist’s spectrum, they are in broad agreement that the decision to join Palantir reeks. Chris Kenny, an anchor for Sky, picked up on the sick card played by Kelly and was far from impressed. “Remember it’s less than two weeks since former Labor frontbencher Mike Kelly resigned from his seat saying he was too sick to serve out the term.” Not to be deterred, he confirmed with some swiftness that he had “already taken up a new job”, one with “a major US technology firm that does a lot of defence work.” Such behaviour demonstrated, in Kenny’s eyes, that the member was “apparently … not up to serving out another two years in parliament, but he is up to lobbying for a US tech giant.”

Kelly is yet another addition to the military-industrial complex that snaps up public servants and representatives at will. In February 2020, Australia’s former domestic intelligence spy chief, Duncan Lewis, was appointed to the board of the world’s tenth largest weapons making concern, Thales. He had waited a mere five months. At the time, few pundits deemed it problematic that a man privy to a nation’s secrets would take up a post with a French company which, admittedly, has a 35 per cent share of Naval Group, the lead contractor of Australia’s bloated Future Submarines project.

A stint in public service, it seems, is merely a prelude for moneyed rewards in the security sector, where conflicts of interest cease to be relevant, and lobbies run riot. Accountability is not so much diminished and ditched along the way. Companies operating in this realm know that securing a notable ex-politician or civil servant will grease the wheels and lead to deals. The gullible citizenry is left none the wiser.

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Patriotic Vaccines: The Divided Coronavirus Cause

When it comes to the politics of medicine and disease, the United States has always attempted to steal the limelight, while adding the now faded colouring of universal human welfare. In 1965, Washington pledged financial and technical support to the international effort to eradicate smallpox, though the initiative had initially been spurred by the Soviet Union at the behest of virologist and deputy health minister Victor Zhdanov in 1958. At that point in time, the World Health Organisation was not so much a punch bag as vehicle for US foreign policy, to be cultivated rather than rebuked.

As with the eradication of smallpox, a forced language of solidarity is coming into being with efforts to find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus. But behind it, there is backbiting and hostility, suspicion and paranoia. Like putting the first person on the moon, the matter is one of divided political endeavours.

One such effort of solidarity, and a not very convincing one at that, was made at this month’s Coronavirus Global Response Pledging Conference. The European Commission gave it a deceptively united title: “Joining forces to accelerate the development, production and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics – on-line pledging event.” Representatives from 43 countries, a range of non-profit entities and scientific groups also added to the number.

Like fund drives that are common in the United States for public broadcasting, the efforts were billed as magisterial when they were, for the most part, modest. 7.4 million euros seems rather small fare when compared to the weighty global loss in life, limb and economy, though it looks a dream to coalface researchers. There was also a certain niggling anomaly in the event that took away some of its lustre. EU officials had permitted the pledging of money already spent on COVID-19 relief since January 30, making the raised amount more generous than it otherwise would have been. The United Kingdom was a case in point, having pledged £388 million toward a total as part of a prior pledge for £744 million. The EU bureaucrats for their part, have not been forthcoming how much in terms of new funding was pledged, making it difficult to spot the double-counters.

The language from the donors, however, was high sounding in hope. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen was flashily presuming in her rhetoric. “Today we can truly say the world is united against the coronavirus, and the world will win.” The world, she claimed grandly, had “showed extraordinary unity for the common good … With such commitment, we are on track for developing, producing and deploying a vaccine for all.”

The British Prime Minister and COVID-19 survivor Boris Johnson was also unduly optimistic in his assessment of such a worldly effort. “The race to discover the vaccine to defeat this virus is not a competition between countries but the most urgent shared endeavour of our lifetimes.”

To ensure that this does take place will take more than pooled pledges with vague lines of distribution. The entire effort to find a vaccine would need to be decentralised. An aide to French President Emmanuel Macron described the problem to Politico as ensuring “that the production of the vaccine does not end up taking place only in the US or in a specific place, because the companies that produce vaccines are from a certain nationality”.

But a full-blooded competition this is, spiked with considerations of self-interest. Former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration Scott Gottlieb saw it in terms of a sporting race with a lucrative prize at the end. There is nothing of the cooperative or sharing spirit here, with Gottlieb seeing countries inoculating their own citizens first before sharing any supply with generous heart. “The first country to the finish line will be the first to restore its economy and global influence. America risks being second.” Given that Gottlieb is himself a board member of Pfizer and the biotech company Ilumina, a bit of hearty pandemic capitalism is bound to figure in his assessments.

The Trump administration had already signalled its intention to avoid any show of unity in the vaccine effort, which may suggest an unintentional expression of blunt honesty. It has frozen funding to the WHO and refused to send any representatives to a meeting organised by the organisation at a meeting, conducted virtually, last month. A spokesman for the US mission in Geneva told Reuters at the time that Washington “looked forward to learning more about this initiative in support of international cooperation to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 as soon as possible” but would not be participating in any official way. The response was much the same to the European Commission’s pledging conference.

For the Trump administration, finding a COVID-19 vaccine will, contrary to Johnson’s belief, be a predatory exercise in self-interest because other countries will, given the chance, treat it the same way. A neat, if vulgar example of this was given in March, when Die Welt reported that “large sums of money” had been offered by the administration for the German biopharmaceutical company CureVac, though former CEO Dan Menichella seemed to suggest that no definite offer was made in a meeting he had with the US president. Within that same month, Menichella had been replaced by the same man he replaced: founder Ingmar Hoerr.

In the messy rumble, billionaire Dietmar Hopp, who has an 80 per cent shareholding in CureVac via his biotech company Dievini has dismissed such ideas of exclusivity. No German company would entrust themselves with the task of creating such a vaccine that would be merely for exclusive US use. German health minister Jens Spahn was of like mind: any such vaccine would “not be for individual countries” but “for the whole world.”

This is stern and admirable stuff but not particularly convincing. The global patent system is marked by vicious rivalries rather than tea-ceremony tranquillity. The behaviour of its participants, according to the University of Hong Kong’s Bryan Mercurio, tends towards a winner takes all approach. “The rest of the efforts will go unrewarded.”

The fractious scramble for appropriate vaccines and viral drugs, as with other scrambles of history, serves to highlight the crude, even cruel reality of power politics, which proves stubborn even in the face of the existential and costly. This is pure Donald Trump, unilateral, instinctive and unromantic, with a reaction in keeping with previous thinking when it comes to international efforts of solidarity. Look more closely at them and see the sham; it’s every state for itself.

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