World

Britain being led by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab as Boris Johnson remains in hospital. Cyclone Harold wreaks havoc on Pacific islands. Authoritarian and anti-democratic regimes try to control Covid-19 information. Coronavirus pandemic and international emissions targets. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Dominic Raab takes reins as Johnson has stint in ICU

Flowers from the Pakistan embassy are delivered to 10 Downing Street this week after British PM Boris Johnson, who is suffering from Covid-19, was transferred to the intensive care unit at St Thomas’ Hospital.
Credit: Chris J. Ratcliffe / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Britain: On Monday at 7pm (GMT), Boris Johnson was moved to intensive care at St Thomas’ Hospital in London after his coronavirus symptoms worsened. He had not been seen since the previous Friday, when he posted a video on social media in which he said he still had a temperature and a minor symptom. Johnson is 55 years old, with no known underlying health conditions.

The news came as a shock to a nation that has been struggling to deal with the virus. More than 8000 people have died and there have been more than 65,000 confirmed cases. Johnson was initially reluctant to order a strict shutdown, and testing rates have been much lower than other countries with serious outbreaks. On the day Johnson went into intensive care, it was revealed that 17.5 million antibody kits that had been ordered by the government to test for prior infections may not work.

Britain does not have a deputy prime minister, but Johnson had asked the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, to replace him “as necessary”. Raab, 46, is a former lawyer, a hardline supporter of Brexit and a notoriously dull public speaker. He appeared shocked on Monday night after he was asked to fulfil the role of leader. Johnson spent three nights in ICU before being moved back to a ward to continue his recovery.

Britain’s political future is now uncertain, but the deepening Covid-19 crisis has led to a rare show of national solidarity after years of toxic debate over Brexit.

Keir Starmer, the new leader of the Labour Party, described Johnson’s worsening illness as “terribly sad news”. “All the country’s thoughts are with the prime minister,” he said in a tweet. Starmer, a 57-year-old former lawyer, last weekend won the strong support of Labour members, raising hopes his leadership will end the fierce divisions of the Jeremy Corbyn era.

The Queen, too, has tried to rally the nation, appearing in a rare unscheduled television speech that evoked memories of World War II. “I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge,” she said. “And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any.”

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Vanuatu: On Monday, a tropical cyclone hit Vanuatu with wind speeds of about 250 kilometres an hour, destroying villages and crops just as the country was struggling to secure food and medical supplies due to the Covid-19 restrictions.

The cyclone, one of the country’s strongest on record, prompted authorities to quickly remove social distancing rules for those forced to evacuate. The worst-hit islands appeared to be Espiritu Santo, Malo and Pentecost. At least two people were killed.

Matai Seremaiah, an MP from Luganville, the main town in Santo, said about 50 to 70 per cent of the town’s buildings had been damaged.

“It’s bad. It’s really bad,” he told Radio New Zealand. “Power is down, there are problems with water, and I think there are dire needs now for shelter systems.”

Luganville, which has a population of about 15,000, was left isolated by flooding and landslides caused by the cyclone.

Before reaching Vanuatu, the cyclone last weekend passed through the Solomon Islands, where it killed 27 people who were swept overboard from a ferry that ran into sea swells. The vessel was carrying more than 700 people and had reportedly ignored warnings not to sail.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Belarus: Late last month, Sergei Satsuk, who edits a news website in Belarus, was arrested after questioning the government’s claim that there had been no deaths from Covid-19. The president, Alexander Lukashenko, has taken a relaxed approach to the pandemic, keeping businesses open and suggesting remedies such as drinking vodka or having saunas. “The tractor will heal everyone,” he said.

Lukashenko also ordered a crackdown on alleged “fake news” about the outbreak, which led to Satsuk’s arrest. But this approach is not unique to Belarus. It has been adopted by authoritarian and anti-democratic regimes around the world to try to control information about Covid-19 and silence criticism of the government.

In Turkey, eight journalists have reportedly been interrogated over articles disputing official figures. In the Philippines, two journalists have been charged with a new law banning false information on the crisis. In Algeria, three employees of a daily newspaper face 10-year prison sentences over an article claiming the state’s scientific institute published incorrect test data. In Egypt, a reporter for The Guardian, Ruth Michaelson, was expelled for reporting on Canadian research that suggested infection numbers were worse than those released by the government.

One of the more blatant attempts to suppress criticism has occurred in Hungary. Viktor Orbán, the prime minister, has introduced a law banning the spread of misinformation that hinders his handling of the outbreak, part of a series of measures that allow him to rule by decree, indefinitely. Orbán proceeded to use his new powers to try to end legal gender recognition for transgender people and to limit the authority of opposition mayors.

Long before the outbreak, Orbán had ensured much of the media was controlled by his allies. But he has left the health system sorely underfunded – including abolishing the health ministry – and, as Hungary’s outbreak worsens, appears to be frantically trying to pre-empt a backlash.

SPOTLIGHT: CV19 and climate

Britain: The worldwide shutdown of the economy – including the closure of factories and grounding of aircraft – is expected to cause at least a 5 per cent drop in carbon emissions this year. This will be the first drop since a 1.4 per cent dip after the 2008-09 global financial crisis and will be the largest annual fall since World War II.

But scientists say the falls, which were caused by temporary national responses to the pandemic rather than the adoption of new targets, are likely to quickly be reversed. Following the GFC, for instance, emissions rebounded sharply during the recovery, increasing by 5.9 per cent in 2010. In China, factories have already begun to reopen in recent weeks and emissions have returned to their standard range.

The prospect of developing new international emissions targets has been set back by the postponing last week of COP26, the United Nations climate summit that was due to take place in Glasgow in November. The summit was postponed until next year. The pandemic is also set to disrupt much of the climate diplomacy that typically precedes these summits and prods countries towards new commitments.

It is not yet clear how a post-pandemic world will approach climate change. As governments try to stave off recessions or depressions, they may seek short-term economic fixes and ignore the environmental damage. But they may also try to rebuild by turning to emerging and sustainable areas of the economy, such as the renewable energy sector.

The scientific consensus on the threat of global warming, and the action required to address it, is decades old. For the world to keep temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – which scientists say is crucial to avoid catastrophe – carbon emissions will need to drop by 7.6 per cent a year. Even with the pandemic drop, the world may not reach this target in 2020.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 11, 2020 as "Raab takes reins as ill Johnson in ICU".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.