Friday. 16/4/2021

The Monocle Minute

Opinion / Chris Smith

Outside chance

One very visible symptom of coronavirus is its effect on the hospitality industry. I should know: I live opposite a pub. This week the pumps hissed back into service and pints began sloshing into glasses again. Patrons emerged, glasses held aloft, with expressions like they’d uncovered the Holy Grail, though in some parts of the UK you wouldn’t see the ear-to-ear grins owing to the mask mandated by some local authorities even for people drinking outside.

Presumably the killjoys responsible are from the same intellectually bereft band of brothers that have people on Spanish beaches wearing masks with their trunks and bikinis, and are clamouring for a block on the use of Astrazeneca’s incredibly effective vaccine over fears of a side effect less likely than being struck by lightning. In fact, that’s a good point – why aren’t umbrellas banned for people sitting in pub gardens, just in case?

What’s really needed here is an injection of common sense. Apart from promoting lockdown fatigue and fuelling an existing pandemic of obesity and inactivity, demonising outdoor activities only serves to drive more people to indulge in covert indoor get-togethers, which are the real elephant in the room. This is a sentiment echoed recently in an open letter penned in Germany by specialists who work on the behaviour of aerosols – in other words, things like viruses that move through the air.

As England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty has also pointed out many times, the risk of catching coronavirus indoors is far higher than through outdoor contact, where the combination of fresh, humid air and sunshine dilutes and destroys coronavirus particles faster than you can say “nose swab”. On the flipside, the longer you spend sharing recycled air and the more people involved – even if they’ve left the room by the time you come in – the more likely you are to encounter a dose of coronavirus particles sufficient to cause infection.

So what we should be doing now, while the weather is good, is encouraging people to get outside. And, while they’re out of the way, use the opportunity to rip the unhealthy guts out of our existing office and leisure spaces, install 21st-century ventilation and air-purification systems and insert windows that can actually be opened. It’s the crowded, poorly ventilated work and living spaces that are the demons – not the beer garden.

Chris Smith is Monocle’s health and science correspondent. He is a consultant virologist at Cambridge University and editor of the ‘Naked Scientists’ podcast.

Defence / USA & Russia

Stepping up

No sooner have the US and Nato decided to begin a full exit from Afghanistan than the next conflict is looming. Foreign and defence ministers from the transatlantic alliance met on Wednesday to discuss Afghanistan and hold emergency talks on Russia’s large-scale military build-up along its borders with Ukraine. The US, meanwhile, has announced fresh sanctions against Russia. “This is part of a recalibration of relations between Moscow and Washington,” Paul Rogers, international security adviser at Open Democracy, told Monocle 24’s The Briefing. Both countries’ leaders will benefit domestically from talking tough: Joe Biden needs to take a harder line than Donald Trump did, and Vladimir Putin is eager to prevent Nato from extending its sphere of influence. But, says Rogers, neither wants this to go to war. Biden and Putin, following a call earlier this week, said that they planned to meet in the coming months. Let’s hope they keep talking the talk – and leave walking the walk well enough alone.

Politics / Cuba

Reigned off

It is being called the end of an era. The Castros have been at the forefront of Cuban life since the 1959 revolution brought them to power. But at a party congress in Havana, which starts today and runs until Monday, 89-year-old Raúl Castro will announce his retirement as head of the party. The country’s president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, is expected to replace him. Raúl gave up the presidency in 2018, while his brother Fidel (pictured, on right, with Raúl) died in 2016.

Expect the Congress to stress “continuity” – but will anything change? Certainly, citizens waiting on food and other goods lines, as well as some high-profile dissidents, will be upping the pressure for meaningful liberalisation. But it’s the US that arguably holds the cards: normalising relations with Cuba – and ending the embargo – could be the surest way to accelerate economic and political change. But for now, Joe Biden has signalled that a “Cuba shift” is not high on his list of priorities.

Transport / Japan

Fare deal

Japan is considering the introduction of “dynamic pricing” for railway services in big cities, which would raise fares during peak times in a bid to reduce high occupancy rates and encourage passengers to travel at less busy times. East Japan Railway Company (JR East) and West Japan Railway Company (JR West) have already started testing the idea around Tokyo and Osaka. The Tokyo Metro is following suit in July. While surge pricing on transport is a common practice in many western cities, it’s new to Japan. Yuji Fukasawa, president of JR East, says that the way people live and work is changing, while the pandemic has also given the country a nudge to thin out its disproportionately packed trains. Still, a fare rise for commuters could trigger opposition among those who don’t have other options due to fixed work and school commitments. It’s good to have a public discussion on how this will impact urban life but penalising people who need to travel at certain times isn’t the right track to take.

Housing / Berlin

Lessor extent

Germany’s highest court has ruled that Berlin’s rent-control law is unconstitutional. The Mietendeckel legislation was introduced in 2020 largely in response to an influx of wealthy expats over the past decade, which caused housing shortages and priced many locals out. Rents were capped until 2025 with future increases of no more than 1.3 per cent a year. The Federal Constitutional Court’s new ruling followed challenges by 284 parliamentarians and several private landlords. “It has left millions of tenants facing not only higher rents but possibly even owing months of back pay,” journalist and Monocle contributor Kati Krause tells The Monocle Minute. Only about 18 per cent of Berliners own property (long-term renting is common in Germany) and the city’s department for urban development and housing estimates that the rent freeze affected more than 1.5 million apartments. “The issue of how to effectively and sustainably manage rents will most certainly play a role in both Berlin’s and the German federal election in September,” says Krause.

M24 / The Global Countdown

South Africa

For this week’s countdown, Monocle’s Fernando Augusto Pacheco looks at the top songs in South Africa. Expect plenty of amapiano, the country’s jazz-inflected house music.

Monocle Films / Global

The secret to finding a spring jacket

Bruce Pask, the menswear director at Bergdorf Goodman, is fêted for his unfussy personal style, so much so that the New York department store has given him his own space – B. – in one corner of its shop floor. As the mercury rises we asked Pask to give us the lowdown on picking a quintessential menswear staple: the spring jacket.

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