Our editors give us a breakdown of this week’s current affairs
United Kingdom: Harry Street
The latest statistics on the UK’s economic recovery were released this week; the Office for National Statistics announced that GDP rose by 7.5 per cent throughout 2021. This is the largest growth rate since the second world war, and highlights that the UK economy is on a path towards strong recovery as it emerges from the pandemic. However, this growth spurt was not without faults: The ONS showed that GDP decreased in December, which is likely the result of the Omicron wave. The impact of Omicron was less hard-hitting than expected; however, it affected retail and hospitality the most, which saw significant falls in output of 3.7 and 9.2 per cent, respectively. The Bank of England and government will closely monitor the recovery of the economy, as all COVID restrictions are expected to be dropped in the coming months. This hopes to alleviate the labour pressures that many sectors have been facing, with workers being forced to miss almost a week of work due to self-isolation laws.
On Friday, the Prime Minister was handed a questionnaire from the police, which hopes to improve their understanding of the alleged breaches of COVID-19 rules. Though not a major setback back for Downing Street, it has re-emphasised the “partygate” rhetoric in the media and brings more unwanted attention to what is happening at Number 10. To make matters worse for Johnson, Sir John Major, former prime minister, said he believes that Johnson has broken the law and must quit if he is found to have misled parliament. This adds to the mounting pressure for the Prime Minister to resign from his position, which may soon be out of his control, as the number of letters calling for a vote of no confidence is believed to have reached 40 – only 14 letters away from triggering a vote.
Asia Pacific: Sophie Evans
The Thai government has attempted to expel human rights group Amnesty International. The vice-minister of PM Prayuth Chanocha’s office has garnered 1.2 million signatures on a petition opposing Amesty International’s presence in Thailand. Royalists have accused the group of attempting to stoke unrest by demanding a halt on filing criminal charges against people who have urged for monarchical reform. After being accused of undermining national security, in November Prayuth Chanocha ordered an investigation into Amesty. He has not commented publicly on the petition. Amesty released a statement last Friday urging the government to honour its human rights obligations. Many Thai nationals consider the monarchy sacrosanct and as such view any challenge to the institution as a threat to society. The move against Amnesty comes as the government also seeks to pass a law regulating non-profit organisations. Over 1,000 local and international groups have opposed this, stating it poses a threat to civil society.
At least 10 Indonesians have died after tidal waves hit a group of people meditating on a beach early morning on Sunday (13th of February). Local police stated they were “too close to sea and could not save themselves when the tidal waves came and swept them away”. Ten bodies have been retrieved from the ocean and 12 have been rescued alive. One more is unaccounted for. It is unclear what kind of ritual the group was performing in the predominantly Muslim region, however the spiritual guru who led the meditation has survived the incident and will be questioned. Regional military commander Batara Pangaribuan told a local news station that the beach was usually guarded and closed after dark, but the group somehow found their way onto it just after midnight.
Journalists working with the UN have been detained in Afghanistan. The organisation’s refugee agency reported that two journalists and several Afghan workers had been detained. The Taliban administration’s security and intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, said it had no information on the matter. There was also no indication of what prompted the detentions. Since the Taliban takeover of the country in August, there have been concerns over a crackdown on dissent. The UN has repeatedly raised alarm over missing women’s rights activists in recent weeks. Foreign nations have thus far refused to recognise the Taliban led administration but have ramped up engagement in an attempt to avert a massive humanitarian crisis stemming from an economy stalled by sanctions and a halt in development funding.
India: Rudra Sen
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has recently announced its intention to launch the PSLV-C52 orbital mission on the 14th of February. The countdown process of 25 hours and 30 minutes for this mission is scheduled to commence on the 13th of February. This orbital mission has been designed by ISRO to orbit an earth observation satellite (EOS-04) and weighs 1710 kilograms. Furthermore, the PSLV-C52 mission will carry two smaller satellites including a satellite from the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology and Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado. The work of ISRO has been at the forefront of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda and was highlighted in the COP 26 at Glasgow as well.
Communal tensions rise in the southern state of Karnataka in India over Muslim students not being allowed to wear the hijab and burka at a pre-university college. The college in question had recently introduced a policy that stated students could no longer wear headscarves to classrooms. While Muslim students have sought legal remedies against this decision by the college administration, Hindu nationalist groups have launched protests in support of this ban. Such religious protests took a violent turn, forcing the state government to close all high schools and colleges for a couple of days. A three-judge constitutional bench has also been set up in the High Court of Karnataka to hear this case. The Supreme Court of India has said it will not interfere with the proceedings being held at the High Court of Karnataka and might wait to hear its verdict.
India has approved a new single-dose vaccine, Sputnik Light to expand its vaccination programme amid a decrease in new COVID-19 cases. The Union Health Minister Madaviya tweeted that India had now approved nine vaccines for emergency use out of which three have been developed in India. Although India’s vaccination programme started rather slowly, it has picked up the pace and managed to administer 1.7 billion doses. The government estimates that more than 75% of the population has been fully vaccinated and approximately 99% have received at least one dose. Unlike Western countries, booster shots are only available to frontline workers and those above the age of 60 with comorbidities. It has also very recently started to vaccinate 15-18 year olds and reports suggest that more than 65% have received their first dose.
Africa: Laura da Silva
The WHO is optimistic about South Africa’s efforts to produce COVID vaccines. The WHO director general visited Cape Town to view three facilities that have started to manufacture vaccines. Dr. Tedos Ghebreyesus emphasized that there is an “urgent need” to increase local production of vaccines in low and middle-income countries. The Afrigen facility currently has backing from the WHO, and the governments of South Africa, Belgium and France. Clinical trials for the vaccines developed by the facility would start in 2022 and are hoped to be approved for use in 2024.
Sudanese demonstrators took to the street on Thursday in continued protest against last October’s military coup and the wave of political detentions that have followed. The march towards the presidential palace in Khartoum was met with tear gas and heavy security force. Other protests took place across the country in the cities of Omdurman, Bahri, Gadarif and Sennar. Some of the protests started in response to rises in electricity prices for farmers, which came at a time of deep economic trouble for Sudanese people, and turned into general protest against the military regime. Sudan’s long-standing economic problems have been deepened by the blockade of the Northern Artery, a key route for trucks carrying exports from Sudan into Egypt, which happened last month.
Protests started in Libya on Friday, as the country’s east-based parliament named a new prime minister. The protestors, who gathered in Libya’s capital Tripoli, oppose the replacement of Abdul Hamid Dbeibah as prime minister and have called on the eastern parliament based in Tobruk, which made the decision to replace him, to be dissolved. The controversial decision has raised fear of a return to divisions in Libya, which previously caused chaos after the toppling of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
North America: Amelia Brown
Canadian truckers may not be running their usual cross border routes to deliver goods, but they’re exporting something else worldwide: a spark to ignite protests of covid restrictions and mandates. Entering the 3rd week in Canada, convoys of trucks and other vehicles are blocking the Canadian-US border and other streets in every province to protest the trucker vaccine mandate and other public health related restrictions. In the US, protesters joined the ‘Freedom Convey’ on the stateside border in Michigan to show support. Protests in France inspired by their Canadian allies also took place this week, as well as in New Zealand and the Netherlands. President Trudeau and President Biden met Friday to discuss the shared border challenges, with Trudeau maintaining the position that everything is on the table to end the disruptions. Ontario enacted a state of emergency to enable police to try to clear the convoys. Overall, the blockade of trade between the US and Canada is estimated to be costing C$380 million a day.
The US consumer price index, measuring the cost of a set bundle of goods most households regularly consume, rose 7.5% compared to January 2021. This means inflation is at its highest point since the 1980s, driven in part by very high gas prices. Economists and White House advisors have both been off with their predictions of the subsiding of inflation, which persists despite other signs of economic recovery–namely job and wage growth. The Biden administration now needs to rely on the Fed to tamper inflation with interest rate hikes, as their fiscal policies have made little dent. Failure to deliver on taming inflation has hurt Bidens rating in the polls, not a good sign for the democratic party ahead of midterms later this year.
In response to the looming Fed involvement, the US treasury two-year bond yield has risen to above 1.5%, a 110% increase so far in 2022. With the 10-year bond yield only just above 2%, there is worry that the shorter term bond could go above the longer term bond, a rare occurrence. Such a situation would show that there is as much, if not more, uncertainty and risk for the near-future economic conditions–at least as predicted by Wall Street and other big investors. This type of doubt can influence other consumers’ confidence in the economic recovery efforts by the Fed, which can have a direct effect on recovery efforts’ success.
Latin America: Leo Le Borgne
The Nicaraguan government continued it’s ruthless crackdown on public opposition figures this week, with journalists and politicians alike being convicted and given lengthy prison sentences. Journalist Miguel Mora, a staunch critic of President Daniel Ortega, was given a thirteen year sentence for ‘conspiracy to undermine national integrity’. Mora is also among the seven ex-candidates that ran for the November 2021 presidential election who were arrested during the runup to the elections, where Ortega received a landslide victory that was called out by the U.N. and western nations as corrupt and undemocratic. Previous allies of Ortega, such as Dora Maria Teller, were also given similar sentences. Tellez was a former Sandinista rebel who helped Ortega overthrow the Somoza dictatorship that ran Nicaragua in the sixties and seventies, and later on broke political alliance with Ortega once his government became established. Hugo Torres, another ex-Sandinista rebel and previous ally of Ortega, died in prison at age 73; he was also arrested during the last election cycle. The mass arrests and convictions of dissidents shows a relentless Ortega willing to eliminate any potential political and social threat, regardless of their previous alliance or opposition towards him.
Peru’s President Pedro Castillo has sworn in his fourth cabinet since he took office six months ago. The new cabinet selection points to a drastic shift towards the political centre in hopes to appease right wing parties that have spelled trouble for Castillo’s policy ambitions. Castillo ran on a far-left political platform against centre-right Keiko Fujimori, sparking fears that Peru’s raw materials sector would become nationalised after his victory. The fourth prime minister under Castillo’s governance, Anibal Torres, is a former justice minister. In an opposition-controlled Congress, Castillo hopes that Torres will be able to sway opposition and allied parties to push through crucial policy reforms. Castillo’s previous prime ministers all faced social and political scandals that led to their rapid downfalls, with the most recent one Hector Valer being accused of domestic violence. Despite Castillo and Fujimori offering nearly opposite views for Peru’s economic and social future, the Andean nation’s rugged political landscape has brought Castillo much closer to Fujimori’s ideals than it would have ever been expected.
Business: Aoife Doyle
Despite the struggles of the pandemic lingering on, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported growth of 7.5%. Despite such positive indication for the health of the economy, the Omicron restrictions – implemented in December – shrunk the economy by 0.2% as hospitality and retail sectors suffered. These figures were stronger than expected, and the ONS director of economic statistics Darren Morgan noted that the expansion showed that the UK was the fastest growth economy in the G7 group of nations during the past year. However, this statement needs to be understood within the context Morgan’s speech. The growth in 2021 is compared to the low base of the UK economy, which fell 9.4% in 2020 – the sharpest fall of all G7 countries. Taking this into account the US, Canadian and French economies are above the UKs, but Italy, Germany and Japan are all below. The worst of the overall pandemic economic hit is past, but aftershocks remain. Looking forward, the extraordinary cost of living squeeze, with energy and retail prices leading to falls in the average living standards, there is still a significant hurdle for the economy in 2022.
SoftBank, a Cambridge-based company, is facing a battle to float the British chip designer Arm, due to escalating legal action from the head of Arm’s Chinese joint venture, Allen Wu. The dispute first began in 2020 when Arm China’s board voted to remove Wu who consequently refused to stand down and still retains control because of legal rights. Wu had launched a third legal action adding further red tape that SoftBank will need to overcome before floating Arm. SoftBank, has been forced to turn to its backup plan of floating the company after its sale to US-based Nvidia collapsed earlier this week due to regulatory hurdles and widespread political and industry opposition in the UK, Europe, US and China. As further legal action has been threatened the company now must resolve the issue in China to progress any further plans.
Following the introduction of a mask mandate to cope with the winter surge in Covid cases, many large New York based corporations are following suit of companies such as Walmart and withdrawing their mask mandate for fully vaccinated employees. The New York Stock Exchange removed their mandate on Friday, now making masks optional on the trading floor, and other public areas for fully vaccinated personnel and visitors. The NYSE joins investment banks such as Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase & Co and Morgan Stanley all announcing on Friday that the mask requirement for employees in offices would be dropped. This follows from plans that major U.S. banks are rolling out to bring their staff back into offices after the spike in Covid-19 cases subsided.
Culture: Armaan Gheewala
The Scottish government is planning to offer £150 payments to help people in poverty with their cost of living; however, this is also coupled with an announcement that tax breaks will also be awarded to the richest third of the country, ‘mirroring Rishi Sunak’s plan in England’. This has therefore received backlash from anti-poverty activists claiming that this is just widening the already large inequality gap. They also state that £150 will ‘barely make a dent in the hole in families budgets’ as people are already facing the higher costs of living with rises in inflation (most evident in rising fuel costs). Kate Forbes, the cabinet secretary for Finance and Economy, defended the scheme by stating that devising an alternative that included credit on council tax would’ve taken months to plan and she wanted families to have the money now. However, these cash payments will most likely be designated to a week’s worth of groceries rather than council tax debt therefore leaving the poorest of families in the same condition.
A bill in Georgia, USA known as the ‘Every Mothers Act’ has been put forward by Senator George Burns which will require all pregnant women to register with a pre-abortion service which will ‘attempt to dissuade them from having an abortion’. Women cannot use this service anonymously and this data will be on their record for the next seven years therefore breaching individual privacy as one of the cornerstones of abortion clinics is confidentiality. This is however, very much in line with other conservative states putting forward anti-abortion acts, placing heaving restrictions on when and how women can have abortions. For example, a similar bill is being put forward in Oklahoma where any individual is allowed to sue a medical professional for performing an abortion service, that is not carried out with the sole purpose of saving the woman’s life.