World

Jacinda Ardern pledges to tighten gun licensing laws after Christchurch deaths. Polish women protest over plans to limit abortions. US investigating diplomats’ accounts of Havana syndrome. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Britain rolls out mass Covid-19 vaccinations

Margaret Keenan is applauded by staff after being vaccinated against Covid-19 at University Hospital in Coventry.
Credit: Jacob King / POOL / AFP

Great power rivalry

Britain: At 6.31am on Tuesday, Margaret Keenan, a 90-year-old former seamstress and window-dresser, received a quick jab in the arm at her local hospital in Coventry, making her the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer–BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine outside a trial.

“If I can do it, well, so can you,” she told reporters.

Britain is the first Western nation to introduce a mass Covid-19 immunisation program. The government expects to have 10 million doses of the vaccine this year and to start administering it to elderly care home residents and their carers, followed by people aged over 80 and health and social care workers. As of Wednesday, Britain had recorded 1,754,911 cases and 62,130 deaths.

Other countries are also racing to introduce vaccination programs.

In the United States, regulators are considering an emergency request to allow the use of the Pfizer vaccine. Donald Trump says immunisations will begin within 36 to 48 hours of approval. Joe Biden, the president-elect, said he plans to ensure 100 million people are immunised within 100 days of taking office on January 20.

Canada plans to start Pfizer vaccinations as soon as next week. The European Union is expected to approve its first vaccine for use by the end of the month.

Separately, China and Russia have developed their own vaccines.

China has already given more than one million doses of a locally made experimental vaccine to healthcare workers and people at high risk of infection. It has also made deals to distribute mass quantities to countries such as Brazil, the Philippines and Turkey – a move that could enhance its global reputation and has been described as an effort at “vaccine diplomacy”.

Indonesia has received 1.2 million doses of a Chinese vaccine and has ordered raw materials that could make a further 45 million but will not administer it until the Indonesian regulator has approved it.

Russia this week began small-scale immunisations of soldiers, medical workers and teachers, using its vaccine, called Sputnik V.

The neighbourhood

New Zealand: On Tuesday, a royal commission in New Zealand concluded “there was no plausible way” authorities could have detected a plot by an Australian white supremacist, Brenton Tarrant, to conduct a terrorist attack at mosques in Christchurch. The mass shooting, on March 15 last year, left 51 people dead.

But the commission’s 800-page report found several failings by authorities, including loose gun regulations and an excessive focus by security agencies on Islamic extremism. Muslim organisations told the commission that authorities had failed to respond to their warnings about the threat from right-wing extremists.

The report said Tarrant began planning his attack almost as soon as he arrived in New Zealand in 2017, noting: “Despite the individual having almost no history in New Zealand, his application for a firearms licence was approved within about three months of his arrival in the country.”

In 2018, Tarrant suffered a gun injury to his eye and thigh – he claimed a shot went off while he was cleaning a rifle barrel – but the incident was not reported to police.

The government accepted the commission’s 44 recommendations, including tighter gun licensing laws and changes to improve police responses to hate crimes.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern apologised for the failings exposed by the commission, saying that accepting its findings was the “least we owe” to the victims.

Democracy in retreat

Poland: In October, Poland’s constitutional court tightened abortion laws – which were already the harshest in Europe – to ban abortions in cases of severe foetal defects, even if the foetus has no chance of surviving. The decision would allow abortions only in cases of rape or incest, or where the woman may die if she gives birth.

Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party, led the push for the change, saying women should be forced to give birth to foetuses that will not survive “so that the child can be baptised, buried, and have a name”.

But the decision has sparked a revolt, including weekly mass rallies across the country that have been led by young women. The rallies have been some of Poland’s largest since the Solidarity protests in the 1980s that led to the overthrow of Communist rule.

The current protests have encompassed calls for democratic rights and an end to attacks by the ruling party and by some Catholic Church leaders on the LGBTQIA+ community. The party’s nationalist, illiberal agenda mirrors that of other populist leaders in Europe, including in nearby Hungary.

Police have cracked down on the protests, sometimes violently. But the government, perhaps wary of the public opposition, has not yet introduced the new abortion law and is considering passing a different version. More than 80 per cent of abortions in Poland currently involve cases of foetal abnormality.

Spotlight: Mystery spy illness

United States: Four years ago, a few CIA agents working in Cuba all began reporting an unusual phenomenon: they would hear a sudden piercing noise while in their homes, but the sound would stop as soon as they stepped outside.

Other diplomats at the embassy in Havana soon reported similar experiences, though some did not hear sounds but suffered sudden bursts of pressure or vibrations in the head.

All those affected reported debilitating symptoms that included dizziness, headaches, nausea and fatigue.

Experts offered various theories about the possible cause, including poisons or sounds from defective listening devices installed by the Cubans. Some neurologists suggested the embassy staff had experienced an outbreak of mass hysteria, possibly related to stress.

Two years after the cases in Havana, American diplomats working at the consulate in Guangzhou in China began experiencing similar symptoms. All complained of hearing strange sounds while at home. Washington had initially blamed Cuba for the so-called “Havana syndrome” but now began to consider China and Russia as culprits.

The State Department asked the nation’s science academy to investigate the cases. Last weekend, the academy released a 64-page report that concluded the probable cause of the ailments was microwave radiation.

The report has prompted speculation that the culprit could be China or, more likely, Russia. The Soviet Union bombarded the American embassy in Moscow with microwaves in the 1970s, and Moscow has continued to conduct research on pulsed radiofrequency technology. Russia is also suspected of separate attacks targeting American officials involved in investigating Russian interference in US politics.

The US government says it is still investigating the syndrome. It has avoided identifying the suspect, possibly because it would then be forced to retaliate.

Some of the spies and diplomats – and their families – continue to experience symptoms. Several have retired, saying they are no longer able to work. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 12, 2020 as "Britain rolls out mass Covid-19 vaccinations".

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