Our editors give us a breakdown of this week’s current affairs
United Kingdom: Harry Street
The conversation around Brexit is starting to creep back into the headlines, as the UK food industry struggles with supply across the country due to staff shortages. Nando’s had to temporarily close many of its branches due to a lack of its staple ingredient: chicken. Similarly, McDonald’s announced this week that they have run out of milkshakes across England, Scotland, and Wales. These chains, and many other businesses, have put supply issues down to a shortage of lorry drivers – a sector that was largely made up by EU immigrants in a pre-Brexit Britain. This problem has been further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which led to the cancellation of over 30,000 HGV driving tests and has forced many drivers to self-isolate after being contacted by NHS Track and Trace. However, even once the pandemic has come to an end, many large UK food giants, such as Tesco, believe the food industry labour supply is a “critical issue” under the current immigration regime. Leaving the EU may have created a permanent change to the UK labour market, as it now uses a points-based system for immigrants, designed to attract high-skilled workers.
High Speed 2 is one of the largest and most expensive infrastructure projects to be carried out by a UK Government; however, once again, it is reported that its projected cost has risen and, subsequently, may be radically scaled back. When first announced over a decade ago, the rail project was estimated to cost just over £30bn, yet this cost is now reported to have tripled to over £100bn. It was initially devised to help link many large cities across England and help boost the UK economy, by enabling greater movement of workers between Northern and Southern England. However, reports now suggest that the government wants to cut its budget drastically, and shift spending towards more pressing matters as the country plays “catch-up” from the pandemic. Additionally, as the country aims to achieve a net zero carbon economy, spending a large sum of the government’s budget on a fuel-consuming project may be a move in the wrong direction.
Europe: Cameron Fulton
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator over Brexit for the past four years, has declared his intention to run for the French Presidency in 2022. He remains popular in his native France and has talked of a ‘divided nation’ he hopes to unite in his initial proposals. The 70-year old veteran hopes to stand for the centre-right Les Rèpublicains party, but is one of several candidates aiming to displace the incumbent Emmanuel Macron. Whilst polls suggest that around two-thirds of the country is right-leaning, voters are split in a choice between the LRP, the far-right of Marine Le Pen and Macron’s self-proclaimed middling policies. This split has suggested that if the LRP were to submit more than one candidate, they would stand little chance in the election. Whilst the EU was left frustrated by the ever-changing antics of British negotiators, Barnier was widely praised for his efforts into steering talks into results.
Recent polls in Germany have concerned Angela Merkel this week, with her party’s leading margin dwindling. The CDU-CSU bloc, who at the start of 2021 held a 15 percentage point lead over its closest competitor in the Green Party, has slipped to second in the polls, behind their outgoing coalition partner, the SPD. Armin Laschet, the candidate for Merkel’s Christian Democrats, is now under serious pressure in what was seen as a potential majority election becoming a coalition that could exclude his party. Whilst the CDU has seen their lead slip during 2021, it contrastingly has led to the ascent of Olaf Scholz’s SPD, whose popularity on an individual level makes him an overwhelming favourite to succeed Mrs Merkel. It is the first time in 15 years that Merkel’s party have fallen behind in the polls: the outlook is ominous for Mr Laschet only one month before the election.
Poland is in a standoff against Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. Border guards have been implemented in Usnarz Gorny, East Poland, to stop Afghan refugees from entering the country from Belarus. This has been orchestrated by the Belarusian autocratic leader, as part of his ‘weaponising’ illegal immigrationinto its neighbouring European nations. This comes in retaliation for raised sanctions against the former-Soviet nation and the EU’s support of Belarusian opposition. More than 2,100 migrants have attempted to enter Poland in recent weeks, as fears over a repeat of the 2015 migrant crisis grow. In the most recent standoff, 32 Afghans are being left in limbo with border control stopping entry into Poland, whilst behind is Belarusian soldiers who will likewise not allow a U-turn.
Asia Pacific: Sophie Evans
There have been 83 new cases in New Zealand today, as the Delta variant outbreak continues. All but one case is in the nation’s most populated city, Auckland. Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has stated she will not hesitate to impose stricter restrictions in order to contain the outbreak. When the first positive case was picked up on the 17th of August, the country entered a national lockdown mere hours later. The lockdown is likely to continue for another fortnight or more, said the Prime Minister, as cases do not show signs of dropping. Critics to New Zealand’s risk averse approach have been quick to call out the country as a “mysterious socialist hermit nation” and state that the zero Covid strategy is not plausible in the long run. Other countries, such as the U.K. have adopted different approaches – learning to live with the virus rather than eliminating it. On the whole, it seems New Zealanders agree with their government’s policies – with a survey finding 83% of people supported the move into lockdown. Currently, New Zealand has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the OECD, with a mere 20% vaccinated, a number which has grown rapidly since the outbreak.
Japan is looking into mixing AstraZeneca vaccinations with other types in an initiative to speed up vaccine roll-out. The minister responsible for vaccinations announced on Friday that he is discussing with the health ministry whether it would be feasible to use AstraZeneca vaccines for the first dose and Pfizer or Moderna for the second. He believes this could ramp up vaccine rollout as it could shorten the 8-week interval between first and second shots when using AstraZeneca, which is longer than other jabs. Japan is facing its worst outbreak of infections due to the Delta variant and daily infections rose to over 25,000 this month. The country’s vaccination rollout has also lagged behind other developed nations, with 54% of the population singe jabbed and 43% double jabbed.
China: Tommy Pigatto
The past week has been defined by increased tensions between China and the United States, as President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris direct diplomatic jabs at the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over its role in the cover-up of international COVID-19 investigations and its treatment of its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region. Though U.S. intelligence agencies’ probes into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic remain inconclusive on whether the virus originated in a lab or from animal-human contact, President Biden nonetheless lashed out at the Chinese government for “withholding critical information” about the virus from the international community, and intentionally hindering investigations into the virus’s origin “from the beginning”. CCP officials have responded to these allegations by calling American reports “not scientifically credible” and spreading misinformation about the pandemic, such as twitter posts suggesting that U.S. military base Fort Detrick is the real origin of the COVID-19 pandemic and inventing fake Swiss biologist “Wilson Edwards” to corroborate this fake news.
The Chinese and American governments also sparred this week over the issue of regional trade and the South China Sea, with Kamala Harris accusing China of “bullying” its neighbors in South East Asia. While Harris made it clear that the U.S. did not desire conflict in the region, she made it clear that the U.S. would “there are actions that Beijing takes that threaten the rules-based international order”. Chinese media outlets responded in a frenzy, accusing the U.S. of meddling in affairs unrelated to itself, and hypocritically attempting to rally the region against China. As the United States and China continue to spar over influence in the South East Asia region, these online tit-for-tat feuds—though seemingly harmless—have the potential to morph into real conflict if the national security of either party is perceived to be under threat.
Africa: Laura da Silva
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned the Security Council of the deepening conflict in Ethiopia and the need for all parties to negotiate a lasting ceasefire that will end the current “humanitarian catastrophe”. Guterres emphasized the drastic state of the humanitarian crisis caused by the war which started in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, during a statement on Thursday. He said that more than two million people have been displaced from their homes, and at least 400,000 people are living in famine conditions. Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of the Tigray forces that the Ethiopian government attacked in November, wrote a letter to the UN chief last week which expressed the need for an impartial mediator to negotiate an end to the nine-month war. His letter emphasised the brutality of government forces whose “aim is to exterminate Tigrayans by starving them to death”, and warned that the African Union can provide no solution to ending the war since they endorsed the conflict in its early stages. Although humanitarian assistance is greatly needed, the UN Security Council remains unable to take significant action as permanent member China has opposed external interference in Ethiopia’s affairs.
About 100 Nigerian school children have been freed by captors after being abducted three months earlier from an Islamic seminary. The Tegina seminary abduction in northwest Niger State, which happened May 30th of this year, is one of many mass kidnappings to occur at Nigerian schools since December. Around 1,000 students have been kidnapped since gangs started targeting schools in December. Most of these students have been released after ransom negotiations, but many are still missing and are presumed to be held in forest camps. Northwest and central Nigeria have seen an increase in mass abductions, looting and attacks by criminal gangs. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has ordered military operations and air strikes on bandit camps, but this has yet to subdue the abductions.
The Republic of the Congo will assume the OPEC rotating presidency in 2022, succeeding Angola. The Republic of the Congo is the third-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa after Nigeria and Angola, with an estimated production of 336,000 barrels of crude oil per day. Moreover, with 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, the nation is driving development across the entire energy value chain. The SNPC, the national oil company of the Republic of Congo, hopes that natural gas will play a key role in positioning the country as a regional energy hub which will boost the local economy.
Middle East: Dhruv Shah
On Friday, Afghanistan was rocked by a devastating attack, as a suicide attack occured in Kabul airport, killing 13 US soldiers and 60 Afghan civilians. The attack which was initially thought to be two explosions has come as British and US troops continue to evacuate US personnel and Afghan allies from Afghanistan. Jihadists called ISIS K – an offshoot of ISIS – have taken responsibility for the attack. The group are believed to be far more radical than the Taliban and consider both the US and Taliban as sworn enemies.President Joe Biden has retaliated to the recent attack by initiating drone strikes against Islamic State militants in Southern Afghanistan killing two militants.
Iraq has hosted a regional summit aimed at supporting the country’s rising threats from terrorism and reducing regional tensions within the Middle East. Senior representatives from several Middle Eastern countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, have attended the conference. Many analysts hope that the attendance of Iran and Saudi Arabia – traditionally considered as archenemies – together at this summit is indicative that future rapprochement between both countries is possible.
North America: Amelia Brown
The US FDA granted full approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine on Wednesday for those 16 and older, while keeping the Emergency Use Authorization for 12-to 15-years-olds and for booster shots. “The public can be very confident that this vaccine meets the high standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality the FDA requires of an approved product,” Commissioner Janet Woodstock said. The vaccine will now be marketed as Comirnaty. The full approval brings hope that those hesitant to get the vaccine for safety concerns will now be willing to get it, which would help curb the wave of Delta cases hitting the states, particularly those with low vaccination rates. It also allows more freedom to mandate the vaccine in federal and private businesses. Pfizer now is stepping up their salesforce for Comirnaty, preparing for the marketing race between themselves and other vaccine makers to be the booster shot of the season. Americans vaccinated with mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna will start receiving booster shots as soon as eight months after full vaccination, meaning immunocompromised, the elderly, and front line workers will start getting them in mid-September. President Biden said in a press conference that they are even discussing shortening the booster timeline to five or six months after vaccination.
Kathy Hochul became the 57th governor of New York state on Tuesday but the first female one. After her predecessor reigned over sexual harassment charges, Hochul took up office. She appointed Brain Benjamin a Democratic state Senator as her Lieutenant Governor. One of Hochul’s first acts as governor was to require the covid-19 vaccine for all state employees.
Latin America: Leo Le Borgne
Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez was charged by prosecutors over the violation of Covid-19 quarantine rules after hosting a birthday party for his partner, Fabiola Yanez, last year. A political probe concerning Fernandez’s quarantine violation is being pushed by opposition lawmakers, but is unlikely to go forward, due to most lawmakers being political allies of the president. This is not the first scandal that has rocked the Argentinian government, which enacted a lockdown restricting nearly all movement outside the home to thwart the rise in Covid cases and hospitalisations. In February, health minister Gines Gonzalez Garcia resigned following the revelation that people connected to the government jumped the queue to get vaccinated. Fernandez’s approval ratings stood at a strong 57% at the beginning of the lockdown last year; it now stands at a tumbling 34%. Political and popular support for the Fernandez administration is becoming more scarce by the day as he navigates the current scandal.
Sixteen Peruvian miners working for the MMG (Minerals and Metals Group) Ltd. Las Bambas copper mine were killed on a bus en route to the mining site. The crash occurred due to the bus plunging off a cliff in the mountainous Andes region of the Cotabambas province. Bus plunges occur frequently in Peru. In June, 27 miners were killed after the bus transporting them dived into the bottom of a 400 metre ravine. The roads to many mining sites are often dangerous and situated upon mountainous and poorly maintained roads in Peru,
Business: Aoife Doyle
As the US economy rebounds, the Federal Reserve Bank (Fed) could begin withdrawing stimulus funds this year, the chairman, Jermone Powell, announced on Friday. Mr Powell explained that despite the central bank making significant progress when it came to inflation, they were in no rush to increase interest rates, despite a recent rise in inflation. The chairman also added that he and his fellow policymakers were closely watching the risks tied to the Delta variant. During the crisis, the Federal Reserve slashed US interest rates to almost zero and launched a $700bn stimulus programme to protect the economy from the effects of the pandemic. In addition, the bank has been buying $120bn in government-backed bonds each month since March 2020 a process known as quantitative easing. These policies make borrowing cheaper, fuelling spending by businesses and households, thus bolstering the labour market. As the economy bounces back, the Fed’s new framework faces its first real test, and what the central bankers do next could determine how transformative it proves.
According to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, on Saturday oil firms cut nearly 91% of U.S. Gulf of Mexico crude oil production, an estimated 1.65million barrels, and paused 85% of natural gas production in the Gulf as Hurricane Ida makes its way toward major U.S. offshore oilfields. Oil and gas companies evacuated 279 out of 560 manned production platforms in the Gulf as the storm approaches. Falling on the anniversary weekend of Hurricane Katrina, Ida has been forecasted to reach a Category 4 hurricane before making landfall west of New Orleans. The Gulf of Mexico offshore oil production accounts for 17% of the US crude oil production and for 5% of its dry gas production and so a direct hit from Hurricane Ida could see gas prices rise by around 10 cents a gallon in the Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic markets.
Culture: Armaan Gheewala
Afghanistan is facing a major brain drain as the ‘best and the brightest’ are leaving but not by choice but because they see no future for their career by staying where the Taliban would exploit their knowledge and skills. Whilst this process has been exacerbated with the recent Taliban takeover, it isn’t new as Afghanistan has been going through ‘uninterrupted warfare’ for the last 40 years making it one of the largest refugee populations with some 2.5 million registered with the UN’s refugee agency but the number is likely to be much more than that.
Activists have been protesting a new assembly law in the German state of North Rhine-West-phalia that ‘would make state surveillance easier’. Protests have taken place in Düsseldorf with up to 5000 people with many claiming that this law will infringe ‘on their right to protest, expression of opinion and freedom of assembly’. The law includes rules like assemblies must be registered at least 48 hours ahead of the assembly and police must be informed of the number of stewards.
Theory: Cassi Ainsworth-Grace
New evidence has emerged that alleges that funds marketed as “climate themed” may have holdings in large polluters. The think-tank InfluenceMap attests that 72 out of the total 130 climate-focused funds they studied held shares in what we would consider major polluters, and are thus contrary to the goals of the Paris Agreement. Overall, the 130 funds that were studied held a total of $153 million in companies involved in the production of fossil fuel.