Sunday, 5 April 2020

Bamako sunset

Thanks to a friend and the digital technology, I could watch the sun setting below the horizon of Bamako, the capital of Mali. The Niger River reflected the last rays of light of the day and sent me a message of beauty, tranquillity and vastness. Not far, the image showed one the arteries of the city, as busy as it is customary on a Sunday end of the afternoon. We talked about the virus – five registered deaths so far in the country. But we know how difficult it is to record the true cause of death in a country like Mali. Fine. The important point, for me, was to learn that life goes on as usual in the city and elsewhere. The UN mission, and the embassies, are following the prevention protocols. But the ordinary Malian is focused on what keeps him busy every day: to find enough resources to buy food and other basic needs; and to worry about the security of his family and his own, especially in the central and northern regions of the country. And those concerns are there to stay. People have very little time for the virus, as they had no time for the legislative elections that took place last weekend. The turnout in Bamako was around 10%. That says a lot. And it reminds us that we might live in a global village, but some corners of that village spend their time just trying to survive, virus or no virus.

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Our daily dose of fear

In my area of the city there is one big supermarket. I go there every Thursday morning, for the weekly shopping. And sometimes, one more time, for some item that might be needed and was left out of the weekly list. During the last two or three weeks, I noticed that the number of people inside the supermarket is much smaller. Not because of any entry control, let me add. It all starts at the underground parking. Nowadays, it’s much easier to find a good spot for the car. I should add that most of those shopping on Thursday in morning are older customers, retired people. I am told they are afraid of spending time in the big shop. And today, as I was chatting over the phone with a friend, I got the confirmation that there are many people – and more so now, as the bad figures keep increasing – who are simply afraid of any contact, even a distant one, with other shopping fellows. And I said to myself that we are living in very strange times, when the simple act of moving along the wide aisles of a supermarket is seen as a dangerous exercise.  

Friday, 3 April 2020

What lies ahead is simply unique

The economic dimension of the crisis is huge. That’s now obvious to everyone, as the figures about unemployment and temporary layoffs become known. And that explains the gigantic size of the recovery programmes that have been announced. The amounts are just mind-boggling, difficult to imagine, because of the large number of zeros that follow the initial figure. Hundreds of billions, many of them close to trillion figures, or even above, as it is the case in the US. We are talking about funds that are simply not available. They will have to be printed.

It is a dramatic situation to many families and a move to extraordinary levels of indebtment by the States, the corporations and firms, and the families. Large amounts of debt, both public and private, were already a key feature in many countries. Our economies have been in the red for several years. But the previous debt levels will look as small fish when compared with the numbers in the next phase, the recovery phase. Most of that debt will be untenable and will have to be write off, sooner or later. That will cause major changes in wealth ownership. The point will be to manage such transition in a way that would avoid the ruin of key sectors of the economy, including the pension mechanisms, the banking and insurance systems, the bond and the property markets.

It is indeed a completely new ball game. We will have to play it and keep defining the rules as we move on. It will require an extraordinary level of international cooperation. That means wise leadership, plenty of foresight and political courage. Unfortunately, wise leadership seems to be a dimension that is seriously absent in the current international relations scenario. In my opinion, that’s one of the key risks that can seriously disrupt the next stage of our life in this small planet. These will be exceptional times.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Beyond the facts

Today I give everyone a break. There is no writing about the pandemic. No word about the crisis millions are facing. No mention of the economic collapse we are witnessing. Let’s be light today. It’s better for our own mental health.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

The UN's appeal must be heard

The UN Secretary-General launched yesterday an appeal for funds to help the developing countries to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic and to finance their socio-economic recovery. António Guterres stated very clearly that this pandemic is by far the deepest crisis the world has faced since World War II. It has many dimensions and all of them tremendously affect the weakest people in the poorest countries of the world. The amount he deems necessary is about $8 trillion US, meaning 10% of the global GDP.

I agree with the Secretary-General’s analysis, approach and amount he is looking for. But I am extremely pessimist as it regards to the response the richest countries will provide. Every country, in the better off regions of the world, is desperately looking for resources to deal with the impact of the Covid-19 within their own borders. The call for international solidarity is a distant call. It will not be heard. The developing world will be left to its own fate.

The developing countries that were better connected to the global economy will gradually re-establish those connections. It will take time for different reasons. The logistical chains of supply have been seriously disrupted, the demand in developed economies will remain weak for a good period and there will be an attempt to produce locally what was up to now imported from afar. International trade might take a new shape, to operate within smaller circles of nations.

The countries that were outside the global sphere of production and commerce will continue to struggle at subsistence level. Poverty will continue to be as widespread as it is now. The opportunities to go beyond the local level will not open. And we can easily guess that international cooperation and aid priorities will go further down in the multilateral agenda.

In both cases, food production for local consumption will become the central concern. Any assistance to the agricultural sector will make a difference. The other concern will be to maintain peace and security in societies that have been profoundly de-structured and further impoverished.
The media that matters is too busy with the Covid-19 progression in the most developed societies to give any serious echo to Antonio Guterres’s appeal. No media attention means additional hurdles in terms of money mobilisation. 

Independently of the success of this initiative, the Secretary-General did the right thing. He must be the moral voice of those who are too far from the wealthy and the powerful to be heard.  

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

A dictator called Viktor Orban

The emergency powers approved yesterday by the Hungarian Parliament are outside the democratic framework that guides the European politics and governance. They allow the Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, to rule by decree as he pleases and for as long as he wants to. He will have the authority to imprison any opponent for years, including journalists, bloggers, human rights activists and whoever he sees as a threat to his leadership. This move must be clearly denounced by the European leaders. It cannot just be mentioned in vague terms, as Ursula von der Leyen did today. It must be spelled out with all letters and with the Prime Minister’s name attached to it. The EU has no place for people like Mr. Orban.

Monday, 30 March 2020

Positive stories must be told as well

Reports say that China is 85% back to normal. I have some questions about this figure. I think it is too high. But there is no doubt that the economic activity is resuming. And people are again on the move. There are still some restrictions being imposed, especially on travellers intending to come in from abroad. But all in all, things are now moving in the direction of recovery. 

That’s good news. Our media should be reporting about that. We need that kind of encouraging news. It is not good just to be inundated with our own sad figures and disturbing information about the existing chaos in some of our Western places. 

We must also fight all types of prejudice concerning the Chinese people. That should be part of the new world, the one we would like to live in, after the Covid crisis.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

The American disorientation

I felt very sad as I watched the American news. The country seems to be drifting. There is no coherent and effective response to the virus crisis. What I perceive is cacophony and partisanship. That’s not the best response to a challenge of this size. And the problem is still at its beginning. It will get much bigger as the days flow. It is incredible to see the most powerful country in the world being unable to organise a proper public health campaign. This is an exceptional threat and the leaders must take extraordinary measures, well beyond the conventional ones. That’s the only way to be equipped to confront the pandemic.

The American confusion is not encouraging. It must be redefined along the recommendations coming from the public health experts. That has to happen as the new week starts.

I am not sure the President can stand to the task.

And I am also very disappointed by Joe Biden’s timid and poorly communicated approach to it.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

EU must work together

It would be a serious mistake to continue the ongoing noise about the future of the European Union. The priority now is to combat the virus, safe lives and accelerate the vaccine research. The member states should be discussing and agreeing on what must be done together and in a coordination matter in these areas. There are already some positive moves of collaboration. They must be expanded immediately.  

The discussion about the economic recovery is also an urgent matter. But it would be much easier if the priorities I mention above could be effectively addressed. The shorter the period of the crisis the easier it will be to deal with the economic dimensions.

Friday, 27 March 2020

The required leadership is lacking

When the challenge is huge and its evolution unpredictable, the best approach is to concentrate all the efforts on containment. You limit the fire as much as possible. That means reducing the impact of the challenge and look for ways and means of controlling it. It also implies we mobilise everyone that can be called upon. The issue concerns everyone and each person can play a role in addressing it. That must be the message the leaders should bring forward. The collective effort. It’s a phase by phase combat but it is also part of a broader plan to resolve it. That must be said and repeated until every citizen gets to understand what is at play and the direction the leaders are taking.

This time the challenge is unique, profound and global. It requires a good combination of local actions and international cooperation. It concerns all nations. As such, we must put a much stronger emphasis on a concerted response. That emphasis and that type of action are still missing. Those who have the authority to call for that must act now. They have to move beyond their current timidity. Hesitation is not acceptable.