Wednesday. 27/1/2021

The Monocle Minute

Opinion / Andrew Tuck

Sounding the alarm

If Boris Johnson suggested that English people should only be allowed to leave their homes for essential medical treatment, you sense that many would say, “Finally, some common sense!” And then ask whether medical care was really an excuse to step outside your front door. Even wise newspapers have ended up in tailspins of despair and lockdown one-upmanship: schools must stay closed! Seal our borders! Arrest the rule breakers! The fact that most people do follow the rules, that our airports are dead and that children’s education is on hold, doesn’t seem to register. Even the Financial Times has become a grandmaster of doom, running a series of comments in recent days suggesting that vaccines could fail and that this will be a “permawar” that will last for years. Thanks for that.

Meanwhile an opinion poll in The Observer newspaper found that most people want all coffee shops closed for takeaways, children’s nurseries shuttered, people prevented from exercising and the banning of click-and-collect services from all but essential shops (although you wonder whether these are people who drink tea, don’t have toddlers and are unlikely to be spotted doing a downward dog any time soon). Fear of the virus and its effects, which are being successfully contained by the current measures, apparently trumps stripping children of their life chances or pushing people into unemployment and poverty.

And the media that sits at the centre and left of politics is reluctant to enter a debate on these topics. Why should the right be the only place where counter views are at least aired?

Typical is the leader in The Times yesterday that called for the closing of Britain’s borders and admitted that while this would be touted as a “temporary” measure it could soon become “indefinite”. To what end though? That is apparently a question for the future: “In the present the case for action is urgent.” This mantra of “act now, think about the dangers later” seems unlikely to change any time soon – especially with many politicians trying to outdo each other with calls for added social curtailments.

The latest clamour for border closures looks set to win backing in some form from a UK government that is nervous of resisting the public. But it would be good to start asking a few questions. Can you really seal off a European nation? What would you do with the thousands of truck drivers that come to the UK every week for starters? And if measures only become tighter, with no space to question their merit – or offer hope – then will spring also deliver the sort of social unrest that’s broken out in the Netherlands? Surely action needs to be matched with reason. The social and economic hit balanced with the healthcare one. But even suggesting a debate now seems an incendiary idea to many.

Andrew Tuck is Monocle’s editor in chief. For a look at an extraordinary EU-UK spat over vaccines and their effectiveness, listen to ‘The Briefing’ on Monocle 24.

Politics / Estonia

Redressing the balance

It was just over a year ago that Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid had to apologise to Finland after right-wing interior minister Mart Helme derided Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin as a “sales girl”. This week the tables turned, as Estonia got its own first female prime minister, Kaja Kallas (pictured), making it the only country to have women serving as both prime minister and president. Added satisfaction will come from the fact that Helme’s EKRE party is no longer in Estonia’s government after the previous cabinet collapsed due to a corruption scandal. “Kallas is like Joe Biden in that she brings huge relief for many, as does the departure of the far-right from the government,” Kadri Liik, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Monocle 24’s The Globalist. “It’s a return to normality.” No doubt that sentiment is shared in Finland. Marin was quick to congratulate the new government and prime minister, saying that she looks forward to future collaborations.

Media / USA

Back on air

The Biden administration has made a swathe of new appointments to the US’s foreign broadcasting networks. Kelu Chao, acting head of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), dismissed the directors of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and the Middle East Broadcasting Network – all of whom were hired by controversial Trump appointee Michael Pack, a conservative film-maker who was accused of politicising the broadcasters and meddling in editorial decisions. The RFA position was handed back to its previous president and broadcasting veteran Bay Fang. Notably, the new hires received bipartisan support.

“A revitalised USAGM is critical to promoting the free flow of information to people that are hungry for independent and accurate news and, in turn, to US efforts to support democracy and human rights around the world,” reads a joint statement from Gregory Meeks, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Michael McCaul, the committee’s ranking Republican.

Fashion / Europe

One size fits many

From tomorrow, Swedish brand Arket will be renting out as well as selling its childrenswear, via a new partnership with Circos, an Amsterdam-based online shop and clothing subscription service. Arket notes that a typical child grows eight sizes in its first two years; on average their parents buy about 280 pieces of clothing during this time. As an alternative the Circos subscription – available to European customers from €19.50 per month – allows parents to hire the clothes for as long as they fit their children and return them when it’s time for a larger size. Up to 10 families could share the same piece of clothing and when the items eventually wear out, the materials will be recycled into new products. It’s a sweet dream and identifies an important issue but it remains to be seen whether customers can be convinced to put their children in secondhand pyjamas.

Urbanism / Myanmar

Stall order

Yangon (pictured) in Myanmar is taking a novel approach to tackling erosion on its waterways with the launch of a floating night market. The new venture will be the first of its kind in the city and takes inspiration from similar set-ups in Bangkok and Singapore, with new retaining walls built to facilitate stalls along a 1.5km stretch of the Ngamoeyeik creek. And while this new structure is intended to stabilise its banks, it might encourage Yangonites to change their own habits too. U Nyi Nyi, a regional parliament member, hopes that the project will raise public awareness and help both locals and businesses take better care of the creek. U Nyi Nyi’s ambition shows that infrastructure alone can’t restore waterways and that community responsibility is a key ingredient. For Yangon’s sake, here’s hoping they’ll find a market for that too.

M24 / Monocle on Culture

Monocle recommends

As many nations face at least the next few weeks stuck inside, we’ve enlisted TV critic Scott Bryan and music journalist Georgie Rogers to tell us the best things that are on television, streaming and coming out on record over the next month or so – all to be enjoyed from the comfort of your home.

Film / Finland

Icebreakers: life on board

Many seamen see icebreaking as a career pinnacle. We peek into the snug cabins, well-kitted kitchen and memorabilia-filled gym to see what serving on icebreaker ‘Kontio’ is really like.

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