Our editors give us a breakdown of this week’s current affairs
United Kingdom: Harry Street
Confusion and uncertainty continue to surround British politics as the wait continues for Sue Gray’s report, which hopes to shed light on the actions of government officials during COVID-19 lockdowns. The report was expected to be released this week; however, the report is yet to be published. To make matters more confusing, the Metropolitan Police started their own inquiry this week; its purpose is to see whether the government parties breached lockdown regulations. The Met has insisted this civil servant report should make “minimal reference” to events that are subject to investigation. Partygate has held the politics of this country in a deadlock for several weeks now, and there are few signs that this will pass anytime soon. Opposition leader, Keir Starmer, alongside his deputy leader, Angela Rayner, have expressed their frustrations with the Conservatives: Time is being spent discussing illegal gatherings and parties, rather than more pressing matters for the public.
On Friday, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak confirmed that the national insurance rise will go ahead in April, despite the backlash and calls for it to be scrapped. This 1.25 percentage point increase for employees and employers will generate £12bn for the government; however, this tax increase will only compound the cost of living crisis facing the UK. Energy bills and inflation are at record levels, and experts estimate the average Briton will be £1,200 worse-off this year.
Europe: Cameron Fulton
US-Russian negotiations once more fell foul last week, with Joe Biden suggesting a Russian invasion into Ukraine could be imminent. In the latest round of talks, the US rejected Russian demands for NATO to back down, though did leave the door open for further diplomacy. In recent weeks, the Eastern power has amassed 106,000 troops across Ukraine’s border, in what is a seemingly confrontational move. Moscow counterclaims this by suggesting the West have been supplying Kyiv with arms and training against Russian-backed separatists in ensuing Ukrainian civil conflicts since 2014. However, as indicated by essays of intent from Vladimir Putin and previous interventions, Russia is intent to ensure that Ukraine cuts ties with the EU and remains within the country’s sphere of influence. In reaction, both the EU and UK have promised sanctions if the conflict is to turn hot. New Russian gas projects will be curtailed with removed financial and technological support, including the Nord-2 pipeline. However, member states have urged caution to such a move, with Russian energy sources supplying 40% of EU usage. Inflationary pressures and shortages will be likely, in an already difficult winter period for energy prices. Further, a military response, coordinated by NATO, would be inevitable.
Elsewhere, the Turkish Lira is seemingly beginning to stabilise after its tumultuous performance in 2021. It fell by 44% last year but began to recover after emergency measures were announced last month. Savings schemes have been introduced alongside central bank intervention to dispel present inflationary pressures. Critics fear, however, that such recovery will be temporary, with interest rates set to remain well below long-run averages. President Erdogan remains convinced of his unorthodox monetary stimulus of post-COVID Turkey. Four months of consistent interest rate cuts have failed to bolster the economy. Instead, it has forced higher costs of living that induced separately a 50% minimum wage rise. The recovery of the Lira, though welcome news for Turkish businesses, will be feared temporary without amendment to current monetary policy.
Growth rates were announced for 2021 this week, with France pulling ahead of its neighbours in post-pandemic recovery. The country recorded 7% growth, its highest in 52 years, rebounding with buoyant consumer confidence and spending. The news will be welcomed by Emmanuel Macron, who this year is challenging to earn his second term as President. Pre-pandemic, Macron’s re-election looked impossible, with ‘Giles Jaunts’ protests seemingly voicing growing domestic discontent with the leader. Since, he has turned the tide in his pandemic response: business aid, keeping schools open after the 1st wave and his successful ‘health pass’ have saved both around €6bn in economic activity and his political career. However, concerns remain over continued restrictions in the Omicron wave – balancing discontent amongst his people and continued high rates of infection will be pivotal to ensuring his second term.
Asia Pacific: Sophie Evans
Questions over what Kim-Jong Un is trying to achieve with North Korea missile tests have been posed as the testing has been short range, with missiles landing well away from the Japanese coast. Unlike tests in 2017, when Japan was startled by unprecedented intercontinental missile testing over the top of the nation and into the Pacific Ocean, these tests appear to be fairly tame. As such, the Japanese government and other world leaders are questioning what Kim Jong Un’s motivations are for these tests. Following the tests, which happened between the 5th and 10th of January, Pyongyang announced it had successfully tested a ‘hypersonic glide vehicle’ (HGV) and a ‘manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle” (MARV). This is of concern, considering North Korea seems to be in the midst of developing technology capable of defeating the complex missile defence systems deployed by the US and Japan. Whereas some believe this may be an attempt to defend itself from its foreign ‘enemies’ others believe North Korea hopes to use its arsenal as leverage to negotiate a peace treaty with South Korea and the withdrawal of US troops from the Korean peninsula. As such it is believed it is an attempt to attract Washington’s attention and provoke such negotiations. However, with President Biden busy handling the Ukraine crisis, it is unlikely this will be happening any time soon.
A province in Thailand has declared a state of emergency as an oil slick hit a beach on the eastern coast of the country. The governor of Rayong province made the announcement after 20-50 tons of oil were estimated to have leaked on Tuesday night in the Gulf of Thailand from an undersea hosepipe that had been used to load tankers at an offshore mooring point owned by the Star Petroleum Refining Co. Restaurants and shops were shut down in response – further disrupting the already pandemic-hit tourism industry. The leak was stopped within hours, as the company has reported, but efforts to keep it from Mae Ramphueng beach in the province were unsuccessful. There are fears that as a major part of the slick remains at sea, it may hit Koh Samet, a popular tourist island just beginning to recover from the pandemic slump. Around 200 navy personnel and 150 representatives from Star Petroleum aided the cleanup effort, armed with equipment to absorb and skim the oil. However, with the beachside area largely dependent on tourists, there is little hope that such a shutdown will do anything but damage to the economic recovery efforts in the area. The oil slick will also affect the local fishing industry, and the Thai division of Greenpeace has pointed out this is the second such incident involving Star Petroleum – calling into question the company’s environmental responsibility.
A 36.5 million meth pill haul has been seized by police in Laos in the north-western province of Bokeo, the second huge haul of methamphetamine in the country in three months. The development has been said to reflect the breakdown of security in Southeast Asia, according to a UN expert. In October, 55.6 million meth pills were captured in the same province. The UN expert has warned that drug production and trafficking were increasing rapidly in the region and would require concerted efforts to get under control. “Organised crime treats the Mekong region like a playground – it has all the elements they look for,” he added. Bokeo borders Myanmar and Thailand, a frontier area known as the Golden Triangle, infamous for producing illicit drugs. Laos’s reputation as a poor and landlocked country, riddled by corruption has facilitated this smuggling. The political situation in Myanmar has further exacerbated efforts to control the illegal drug trade, as challenges to military rule have disrupted normal law enforcement operations. Securing borders and making it more challenging to launder money are a necessity for Lao, Thai and Myanmar’s government to mitigate the situation – however the process has been concerningly slow so far.
India: Rudra Sen
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a special video message to commemorate the thirty years of India-Israel full diplomatic relations highlighted that there is no better time to take India-Israel relations to the next level. India and Israel started full-fledged diplomatic relations on the 29th of January 1992, although India had recognised Israel on the 17th of September 1950. The relationship between the two countries seemed to thrive when Netanyahu was the Prime Minister of Israel. Modi was the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel during Netanyahu’s tenure.
Young job seekers in Bihar, India torched trains out of frustration due to unemployment and the unfair recruitment process of the railway sector as claimed by many applicants. These protests also involved the burning of tyres, obstruction of rail traffic and other damages to public property. Protestors claimed that the recruitment process of the railway sector which is managed by the government has not been transparent and showed many discrepancies as well. For instance, results for the different job categories showed the same name. A job with the Indian Railways is considered very lucrative as it provides job security, a competitive salary and other perks like free train travel. In 2018, when the Indian Railways had advertised for 63,000 jobs more than 19 million people had applied.
Middle East: Dhruv Shah
Fighting has broken out in Syria’s Hassakeh after clashes broke out between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and ISIL (ISIS) forces. In a move which is considered the most significant since its ‘caliphate’ was established, ISIL forces attacked the prison complex, killing 270. The SDF announced that it had recaptured the prison after several days of heavy fighting, after 3,500 ISIL members surrendered. However, pockets of fighting continue to flare up around the region. While it was first thought that the ISIL attack was initially quelled, the attack remains ongoing. According to the UK based war monitor – relying on a network of sources within the country – four ISIL fighters took a local official and three civilians hostage near the prison.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog arrived today in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for his first visit to strengthen Gulf ties amid heightened tensions in the region from Iran. The move comes after the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, when the UAE and Bahrain signed the US brokered normalization agreement with Israel. Many analysts have argued that the common driver of the agreement is a shared common concern about Iran and its proxy allies in the region. However, considering that both countries share a historic rivalry, maintaining peace and furthering political and economic links will be crucial for Israel to integrate with Arab countries in the region.
North America: Amelia Brown
Supreme Court Justice, Stephen Breyer, announced his retirement on Thursday. Breyer has been serving as an Associate Justice since 1994, after his nomination by then-President Bill Clinton. He is associated with the liberal side of the court panel, which has been a minority since Trump was able to nominate two candidates during his presidency. Breyer made repeated remarks during his announcement to the ‘experiment’ of the United States, stressing that the next generation will be responsible for seeing if the experiment still works. “And of course, I am an optimist, and I’m pretty sure it will,” Breyer concluded. The impending vacancy means that President Biden will be able to nominate and put in place a new Justice. After Breyers announcement, the President, affirming his stance touted during his election campaign, said that his nominee would be the first Black woman nominated to the Supreme Court bench. While the shining idea of the Supreme Court was a branch of government out of the reach of politics, the political scenes of the times will make it a tricky road to navigating a new Justice. While Biden has a Democratic majority in Congress right now, the midterm elections later this year could easily shift that, meaning the party is looking to confirm a candidate fast. Additionally, the Democrats and Republicans are split 50-50 in the Senate, with tensions recently between Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema and their party. The two dissenting Senators have almost single handedly been stopping party agendas, meaning they will have to be appeased by the nominee, or the nominee will need to satisfy some centrist-republicans to secure the 50 votes. Even with all these obstacles, Biden plans to announce his nominee by the end of February, and have them confined a month after that.
Inflation in almost all US sectors continues to be a worry for the economic recovery of the nation. Inflation in the cost of labor has been a result of ‘The Great Resignation’ where scores of employees working for low wages or in unfair conditions during the pandemic decided to quit, causing shortages in many industries and exacerbating the supply chain breakdown even further. The Employment Cost Index (ECI), measuring the cost of labor, was released on Friday for the last quarter of 2021. From December 2020 to December 2021, wages and salaries in the private sector rose 5%, however adjusting for inflation actually shows a 1.9% decrease for the year, with inflation-adjusted benefit costs also decreasing 3.8%. So while labor costs have gone up for some sectors, it seems to be driven at a lower rate than inflation in consumer prices, which rose 7% in December 2021 according to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Costs of labor have gone up, but not enough to give employees anymore financial security or spending power due to the even higher cost of living. The Federal Reserve refuses to rule out any option to tamper inflation, including increasing interest rates by as much as half a point, a method not used in decades.
Latin America: Leo Le Borgne
Xiomara Castro became Honduras’ first female president on Thursday. U.S. vice-president Kamala Harris attended her inauguration ceremony, against the backdrop of the U.S. facing a migrant crisis stemming from its southern neighbors. The democratic socialist won her campaign through her promises on a range of issues- from anti-corruption to the liberalisation of abortion laws. As the wife of ex-president Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted by a military coup in 2009, she won the presidency following two previously unsuccessful attempts. Despite winning the largest number of votes ever in the country’s history at 1.7 million, Castro faces an uphill political battle in congress, due to divisions within her own political party (Libre party). Castro’s policies will prove to be challenging to pass, should factions of her Libre party join forces with the opposition National party.
Culture: Armaan Gheewala
Universal Credit in the UK is set to be cut for the unemployed after a period of 4 weeks rather than the usual 3 months (if they are unable to find a job outside their industry), in line with the government cutting spending in other sectors such as ‘squeezes in BBC funding’. This is forcing unemployed people to look for jobs not in their sector, which is however frustrating for employers as applicants will therefore often not have the skills required to fulfill job requirements. There is also a ‘lack of evidence that benefit sanctions actually work in terms of getting people into jobs’. The main impact however of this, is that many workers will also fail to find long-term security in their employment as they’re likely not satisfied with their job, which would actually increase frictional unemployment as people would be consistently moving around the job market. This, combined with soaring energy prices has meant that poor parents, especially single ones, are going to find it extremely difficult to make ends meet, meaning that child poverty is also on the rise.
The 27th of January marked the Holocaust Memorial day where prisoners of Auschwitz were finally freed, giving space for people to remember and grieve those that were lost and to remind them of the heinous crimes that were committed against Jews. During this regime, it should also be noted the number of LGBTQ+ people who also faced persecution – an estimated 100,000 gay men were arrested for their homosexuality, along with an estimated 15,000 being sent to concentration camps. This was especially saddening due to the ‘flourishing nature’ of Germany’s capital Berlin for queer people in the 1920s. This therefore shines a light on the fact that in the majority of the world, it is illegal to be gay or identify as queer in any other way, with people facing imprisonment or worse as forms of punishment.
Also, on the 27th of January, marks the 1 year anniversary of Poland enforcing their near total ban on abortion. This is with the exceptions of rape, incest or where the mother’s health is at risk however activists claim that this has not prevailed in practice as several women have died from pregnancies, after being refused abortions. However, this hasn’t stopped Polish women from seeking help, with ‘NGOs estimating that between 150,000 and 200,000 people access abortions through pills or travelling abroad’.
Science & Technolgoy: Abi Byrne
As we spend increasingly more time online due to the pandemic Apple sales soared over the key Christmas trading period. Sales of Apple products rose 11% to a record £92.6bn from October to December. Whilst shares have risen by 4% due to the thriving pandemic trading. Apple’s market value even briefly reached the $3tn mark in early January, being the first firm to ever hit this milestone, although it has since slipped due to market turmoil over a global shortage of microchips.
Virologists have voiced concern over the misuse of the word ‘endemic’ when describing COVID-19 due to it encouraging a misplaced complacency. The word ‘endemic’ has arguably become the most misused of the entire pandemic. The worry over its misuse is due to many people assuming that as COVID-19 is endemic, it will come to a natural end. However, an endemic infection is one in which overall rates are static, neither rising or falling. Endemic diseases can be both at steady levels in a population and deadly. For example lassa fever and polio are both endemic, as was smallpox before vaccine eradication. In 2020, 6000,000 people died of malaria, an endemic disease. Additionally, letting the virus run rampant through our populations only allows for fast and unpredictable viral evolution, with the possibility of more successful variants to evolve and kick start a new epidemic. Therefore it is dangerous for governments and policymakers to fall back on the word endemic as an excuse to do little or nothing for their COVID-19 response policies.
Theory: Cassi Ainsworth-Grace
Despite the strong recovery witnessed in 2021, The World Bank has published a new forecast that this economic growth will slow into 2023. According to this report, global growth is expected to decelerate from 5.5% in 2021 to 4.1% in 2022, and then falling even further to 3.2% in 2023. Several reasons are pointed to for this prediction including fresh threats from Covid-19, building inflationary pressures, the last of pent-up demand being spent and the unwinding of emergency macroeconomic policy stimulus across the world.The World Bank also highlights the issue of a ‘hard landing’ for developing economies. The slowdown of economic growth in the world’s largest economies, the US and China, will put pressure on developing economies, exacerbated by the limits to their macroeconomic stimulus, supply shortages and other financial vulnerabilities. Some postulate that if the US is able to dampen the current inflationary forces following reduced fiscal stimulus and improvements in the supply chain, these developing economies may be able to largely avoid this situation. For some countries, it may be nearly too late. Sri Lanka is right now negotiating debt relief and considering approaching the IMF as it faces towering debt obligations that is pushing it closer to sovereign default.