And in other news…

TS Eliot said that April is the cruellest month, but this January might be the longest of months, in this the darkest winter of our soul. I pray for the optimism of April, the new growth and we’ll emerge blinking into the light, cowed and ready for regenerating the broken bones of our society.

I spend too much time listening to or reading the liberal news outets: The Guardian, the BBC and the New York Times. I don’t know why but I’ve acquired the habit and I’m finding it hard to shake. Although I do supplement this mindless consumption with other more varied sources: Al-Jazeera, Middle East Monitor, Novara Media, Useful Idiots podcast, the Intercept, the Telegraph, Financial Times, the Independent, Channel 4 news and the amazing Tricontinental newsletter. Yet the most content that goes into my brain comes from the parochial moderate nationalism of BBC Radio 4. I need to find a way to give it up. Yet despite infecting my brain with the Westminster guff that passes for news on Radio 4, I’ve also managed to learn some actual real things about what is happening in the world, wholly via other sources.

Cuba is in the final stages of testing a vaccine

Cuba announced over a week ago that it will begin testing its Covid-19 vaccine in Iran, a country that has been hit hard by the pandemic. Covid spread to Iran quickly in January and February last year, probably because of its tourist and trade links with China, and the regime has struggled to bring it under control, with accusations of state cover-ups and under-reporting of deaths. The country reports over 50,000 deaths from the virus, hitting the country that is suffering the long-term effects of the US sanctions regime, renewed by the outgoing orange one, that impacts upon the ability to buy medicines among other products, on the international market. While the US administration allowed the Iranian regime to access Swiss bank accounts for the purposes of buying vaccines available on the market, the regime then banned US or British made vaccine imports. While the Iranian state has now begun testing its own vaccines on human volunteers, it has also allowed the trial of the Cuban vaccine, Sovereign 2, on its population. Trials in Cuba wouldn’t work as their case numbers are so low. To date, the country has only had 148 deaths from covid, another success story that I haven’t heard featured on the British mainstream news once during the past year (however, I concede that I first heard about this Cuba story on the World Service). If successful, the Cuba vaccine would be the first Latin American country to produce a vaccine, and would be a boost to the ailing continent. Oh, if only a rich island in North Sea that grew fat on the suffering of the Caribbean could face down a virus with the strength of poor socialist Cuba. Yet the mainstream British news tends to toe the government line that we were the first country in the world to approve use of a vaccine made in Germany funded by a private US company and developed by Turkish immigrant scientists. Less amplified on the British news was how those immigrants might not reach the earnings threshold required for a UK visa, or that Russia was the first country to develop vaccine in August last year, or that Brazil has approved use of a Chinese made vaccine, or that Britain currently has the highest infection rate anywhere in the world, and that we are a country that has a failing and costly test-and-trace system developed by a Tory donor and that we are happy to let poor children go hungry and take back 20 pounds a week from the unemployed and the working poor, because work in Britain doesn’t pay enough to live on. Throw away the union jack and book a holiday in Cuba for 2022 because that’s when we’ll next be allowed to leave this awful island.

The wealth of billionaires worldwide rose during the first lockdown

In March and April last year the world was plunged into corona-shock, as most countries in the world locked down, closed their borders (although not the UK, which took a year to introduce covid restrictions at its borders, because why let a little global pandemic disrupt the important business of business) and shut everything down. Children were sent home from school, the world became eerily quiet and we saw for the first time empty streets, heard birdsong in cities, and looked out a clear blue skies. And of course, jobs were lost. While billions lost their jobs worldwide, between April and July last year, the world’s billionaires increased their wealth by over a quarter (27.5%), as reported by the UBS and where I picked it up here in the Tricontinental. At the same time, 50 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa moved into extreme poverty. If that doesn’t make you realise that the world economy is profoundy broken then I don’t know what will. Here in Britain, the centre of global financial capitalism, the UN was giving food to poor children for the first time, a fact that was scoffed at by one of our ruling elite named Rees-Mogg, presumably because he thinks we should just let them starve instead. Another Tory toff said that we should send food packs to poor families and not vouchers because they’ll sell the vouchers to buy crack and prostitutes. Which is how they end up being given baked beans and carrots by a private company, because our ruling class hates the poor. In the US, job losses were sudden a painful, and the working class in the US is less well protected by a functioning social welfare system, and yet at the same time its billionaires rode the bonanza jackpot of the stock market bubble. The Institute for Policy Studies found that:

“Between March 18 and April 10, 2020, over 22 million people lost their jobs [in the US] as the unemployment rate surged toward 15 percent. Over the same three weeks, U.S. billionaire wealth increased by $282 billion, an almost 10 percent gain.”

This sudden windfall for the very rich comes after two decades in which their wealth increased by over 1000%, while in the same period median wealth in the US increased by around 5%. That’s the great American dream, work hard and your wealth will increase by tiny amount over the course of your lifetime, but if you’re born rich or are lucky enough to develop a unicorn tech company that pays its workers sub-minimum wage and prevents them from unionising then you can build an obscene and immoral fortune. I should know, I’m working for one myself, and the wages are so low that right now I’m having to claim universal credit so I can cover my rent. And Deliveroo is currently being value at $7bn in preparation for its public flotation later this year. Interesting that boss Will Shu says the recent injection of capital will be used to ‘improve the business for “consumers, riders and restaurants”‘, when it leeches 35% off each order from the restaurant, and has lowered our wages in the past three months, despite enjoying increased sales over the course of the pandemic. The rich get richer and continue to squeeze the last tiny drops of wealth from the working poor. So business as usual then.

Tunisians are rising up in protest, ten years after the Arab Spring started in their country

Protests kicked off in Tunisia last week, ten years after the Arab Spring was sparked here in December 2010, when street vendor Muhammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest at police harassment and corruption. What resulted in the next ten years were upheavals across the region, as protest spread to Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Some were effectively and brutally suppressed (Bahrain), whereas in Egypt there was a successful popular revolution that resulted after the election of Morsi in a counter-coup led by the military and that has led to an even more repressive security state under Sisi than that which preceded him. In Syria, Libya and Yemen popular protests were swept away in a flood of violence, counter-revolution and outside intervention. Only in Tunisia did things look perhaps better than when protests began in 2010. Protests led to the ousting of dictator Ben-Ali, and democratic reforms, including the 2014 constitution that safeguarded women’s rights. Yet this article in the New Arab also points to an increase in gender-based violence in the last ten years, and continuing issues of securing legal and social protections for women who experience gender or domestic violence. Other issues are raised, including repression of bloggers and lack of progression on LGBTQ rights. Clearly the situation hasn’t progressed as fast as Tunisians would like, hence the current protests.

The spark for this year’s protests in Tunisia seems to be dissatisfaction with a snap lockdown a few weeks ago, that the government says was to tackle rising cases, and which others have pointed out is timed with the ten-year anniversary of the country’s Jasmine Revolution that overthrew Ben-Ali. Protests took place all over Tunisia, meeting tear gas and heavy police repression, igniting further protests against police violence. At least one was killed by the police. The backdrop to these protests are widespread dissatisfaction with the political classes and rising unemployment. The Tunisian economy has shrunk by 8% over the past year due to corona-virus restrictions, and youth unemployment is high. There is low trust in the government due to ongoing corruption cases involving ministers. The picture in this report shows a protester with a sign that says ‘more poverty, more hunger‘. The situation makes me think a bit of Lebanon, where a protester was killed yesterday in protests against the continuing lockdown that is compounding Lebanon’s economic woes, the making not of the people themselves but rampant corruption among the political and financial classes. We might moan about the ongoing lockdown in Britain, as well as our useless political classes, but we have the state to fall back on in times of crisis, in the form of state benefits and the furlough scheme. In Lebanon, where more than 50% of the population are in poverty and government coffers were emptied out by the political elites in elaborate currency trading frauds, there is no such support. In these situations as in Lebanon and Tunisia the people will go out into the streets to express their anger against political and economic systems that have failed them. In Lebanon, a protester tells Al-Jazeera, “If you besiege someone from all sides, they will lash out… we have no way left to express ourselves other than throwing rocks.”

Guatemala recently protested an austerity bill that cut healthcare and benefits, and lawmakers had to abandon it

I first heard about this through Mona El-Tahawy’s Feminist Giant newsletter. She is an Egyptian-American journalist and writer who was sexually assaulted and beaten during the Egyptian revolution protests in Tahrir Square in 2011, and writes brilliant feminist critiques of what she terms the ‘general patriarchal fuckwittery’ that constitutes the world in which we live. In November she wrote about the seeming imperviousness of US lawmakers to caring about the inequality and poverty in the US that has increased during the pandemic. She pointed out that in Guatemala, when lawmakers tried to pass an austerity bill in November that reduced funding for healthcare and social security while increasing their own pay, people rioted outside the parliament, putting up a guillotine and setting fire to the Congress building. The bill also proposed cutting $25 million allocated to tackling malnutrition in the midst of a pandemic and severe flooding. People are always saying, anarchists don’t have any positive vision of what they want, they just criticise how things are. Well there’s a positive example of how we should treat our rulers right there. Set parliament on fire and demand universal basic income, a rent cap, a moratorium on evictions, houses for everyone who’s homeless, a 90% top rate of tax, and cutting of ministerial salaries to reflect the complete abject failure that has been this country’s response to the pandemic, and now.

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