Thursday. 7/1/2021

The Monocle Minute

Opinion / James Chambers

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Cast your mind back to January last year. Here in Hong Kong we had just returned to work after a Christmas break and the watercooler chatter (not to mention a fair few jokes) was about a mysterious flu-like virus in Wuhan. A kind-hearted mainland colleague – from near Wuhan, no less – came into the Monocle bureau with several boxes of masks, enough for everyone. I remember ribbing her for overreacting. One year on and we are still wearing masks. Businesses around the world are reeling, almost two million people have died and still the world is no closer to finding out how the virus started, let alone taking steps to prevent something similar happening again.

Investigators from the World Health Organization (WHO) have not even been able to get into China to examine the situation in Wuhan for themselves and the reasons for the ongoing delays are beyond ridiculous. Yesterday’s revelation that the WHO team did not have the correct paperwork to enter China – after months of negotiations between Geneva and Beijing – is either blatant obstruction or incomprehensible incompetence. China has downplayed it, while WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed his “disappointment”. Neither response is acceptable at this stage. Proper visas might indeed be granted in the coming days but it’s already too late. How many of us believe that the WHO is actually going to find – or should I say, be allowed to find – any smoking guns in Wuhan? The whole trip will be carefully choreographed and key evidence could be tidied away. The resulting report will be heavily scrutinised prior to publication – whenever that will be, if ever.

All the while, Beijing has been stepping up its efforts to change the narrative. Foreign minister Wang Yi is the most senior official to suggest that the virus might have originated elsewhere, perhaps in Italy or the US. Did it? Who knows? The WHO certainly doesn’t. Visiting Wuhan is about finding facts not pointing fingers. It’s about international public health not politics. General decency not Donald Trump. The WHO must be allowed to investigate every potential source of this deadly and destructive pandemic unimpeded. It’s high time they were allowed to get on with their jobs – so that the rest of us can get on with ours.

Politics / Italy

Much ado about nothing

Another of Italy’s all-too-frequent political crises is looming as prime minister Giuseppe Conte attempts to keep his job. Matteo Renzi (pictured), the leader of Italia Viva, has threatened to withdraw his party’s small but crucial stake in Italy’s ruling coalition and weeks of negotiations have yet to resolve the impasse. A new survey of Italian political analysts showed that most expect that Renzi, who was prime minister from 2014 to 2016, will fail to dethrone Conte. Founded by Renzi after he quit the centre-left Democratic Party, Italia Viva is a minority partner in the governing coalition, but its 48 parliamentary seats ensure a majority overall. Even though Italia Viva is polling at about 3 per cent, Renzi is demanding greater influence on government policy. The move is all the more incomprehensible when considering Conte’s high approval ratings. It wouldn’t be the first time that Renzi has picked the wrong political fight. But at a time when more urgent matters are at hand, few in Italy will welcome the risk that this latest political squabble is creating.

Conflict / Ethiopia

Tip of the iceberg

More than 800 people fleeing Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region have crossed the border into Sudan in the first few days of the new year. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says that it has already directed many to the newly opened Tunaydbah refugee camp. The existing Um Rakuba facility (pictured), which houses many of the 56,000 Ethiopians who have fled to Sudan, is reaching full capacity.

Sudan has generously kept borders open but the fact that it falls to a country that is still feeling the significant economic shocks of its own violent history to accommodate thousands of desperate people should alert world leaders to the importance of outside help. By the end of 2020, $40m (€32m) of aid for the region had already been pledged to UNHCR. But in order to ensure sanitation – and with the looming threat of coronavirus and the rainy season just around the corner – the UNHCR estimates that much more assistance will be needed.

Transport / Moscow

On the right track?

Moscow’s metro system has hired its first female drivers since the early 1980s. It comes after a decree was passed in September reducing the number of exclusively male professions in Russia from 456 to about 100. Other roles now open to women include the right to be lorry drivers, train drivers and boat skippers. The lack of women working on the metro and in many other roles was historically justified by its categorisation as a profession too physical and dangerous for women to undertake. Thankfully this is no longer the case: the assertion that women could not spend prolonged periods underground was proved nonsensical by the fact that the metro has long employed women in other positions within the network. A statement from the Moscow transport department following the decree says that the job is now more automated, making it less physically demanding. Despite having the desired outcome, that view is a rationalisation that still hints at Russia’s deeply questionable stance on equality.

For a fuller discussion on this with Moscow-based journalist Anna Nemtsova, tune in to today’s edition of ‘The Globalist’ on Monocle 24.

Fashion / Germany

Styling it out

Frankfurt has announced the launch of its first fashion week in July. The event will be differentiated from the many other small-city fashion weeks by its purpose: to help to “propel the transformation of a modern, resource-efficient fashion industry”. All exhibitors will be required to implement the UN-backed Sustainable Development Goals by 2023. As well as conventional runway shows, there will be a B2B trade fair, conferences on technology and sustainability, and cultural community events across the city to engage consumers. This includes SKTWK (Skateweek), a celebration of music, art and all things skateboarding. Organisers are smart to involve such disparate parties – from the UN to climate activists, wholesalers, manufacturers, consumers and cultural influencers. The past year has shown that the old model, focused on elaborate runway shows presented to a small cohort of the international fashion press, is outdated and doesn’t serve the diverse needs of fashion businesses. Let’s see if this new arrival can help the industry to shift gears.

M24 / The Menu

Recipe edition, David Geisser

A favourite recipe by a top Swiss chef, who was previously a member of the Swiss Guard.

Monocle Films / Sweden

Sweden’s Arctic: green innovation

Norrbotten in Sweden is blessed with natural resources but more recently has been turning heads because of its growing roster of innovative start-ups. We bear witness to the region's effort to change heavy industries into clean businesses.

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