The New Heroes: How Smartphones Are Helping To Combat The Pandemic:

They could save the world in the war against the coronavirus”. This was the unlikely headline of a press bulletin published on March 20th by Kaiser Health News (KHN), a non-profit organisation based in San Francisco, California. Unlikely, because many recent assessments of smartphones appear to have focused as much on the perceived harm that these devices do to users’ well-being as on all the many benefits that they provide to society.

For example, the Metro contributor, Jeff Parsons, on 19th February, highlighted a new study conducted by a team of researchers at Heidelberg University in Germany which has suggested that what they portrayed as our addiction to unlimited scrolling and endless notifications could alter the shape of our brains. Now that smartphones have become an indispensable part of modern life, observed Parsons, it’s understandable that a debate has been raging about whether it’s all become a bit too much for us.

Likewise, Sean Coughlan, the BBC News family and education correspondent, on 29th November quoted the results of an investigation by BMC Psychiatry into young people’s “problematic smartphone usage”. This suggested that 23% of those questioned experience anxiety if they are unable to use their phone – a phenomenon known as “nomophobia” (the fear of being without your mobile) – and spend so much time on it that it has a detrimental effect on their other activities.

A report published by Ofcom, the communications regulator, confirms that the UK has become a “ smartphone nation” . It estimates that two-thirds of the country’s population owns one, using it for an average of 2 hours 28 minutes every day (twice as long as with laptops and PCs) to search the internet, access social media, manage their bank accounts and shop online. This rises to 3 hours 14 minutes a day among 18-24 year-olds. Consequently, 72% of adults say their smartphone is their most important device for accessing the internet, 71% say they never turn off their phone and 78% say they couldn’t live without it.

Ryan Whitwam, a commentator for the ComScore media measurement & analytics company, has noted that by far the most startling statistic from the data they’ve compiled on this issue is that one in five millennials don’t even use desktops any more: “Advances in hardware and software mean that there are fewer times you need to put the phone away and revert to a “real” computer to accomplish something” – thus a lot of casual browsing has migrated from the PCs to mobiles.

None of this bothers the Canadian journalist, Jesse Brown. In an article for “Toronto Life”, he accepted that “the pull of our glowing rectangles is hard to resist”, but considers that the challenge is not to resist them, but to reconcile constant digital connectivity with being human: “Technology is something we make and use, not something that is done to us”.

Professor Jon Crowcroft, Chair of the Programme Committee at the Alan Turing Institute, clearly agrees. On 18th March, he declared that scientists, the NHS (National Health Service) and their counterparts around the world should urgently enlist smartphones and their owners to collect invaluable data on the unfolding pandemic, which could provide crucial intelligence about how it’s evolving and help organise against the onslaught.

As KHN pointed out, officials from the World Health Organisation (WHO) have urged hospitals and clinics to expand their use of telehealth services (also known as “remote or virtual care”) by means of smartphones in order to treat the seriously ill and keep the “worried well” out of already crowded medical facilities.

Dan Hanfling and Tara O’Toole, specialist physicians with the American information technology firm In-Q-Tel, emphasised in the Washington Post on 13th March that digital health tools, including telemedicine and smartphone-based messaging applications can and should play an important role in fighting Covid-19. These would furthermore promote the “social distancing” (dissuading people from congregating) required to limit community proliferation of the disease – a key factor acknowledged by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 20th March when he announced the closure of restaurants, pubs, bars,clubs, cinemas, gyms, theatres and other similar venues across the United Kingdom.

The Observer columnist, John Naughton, pointed out in the newspaper on 15th March that “one of the things that makes this epidemic different from it’s predecessors is the dominance of social media in today’s world”. This was followed up on 21st March by the Guardian’s media editor Jim Waterson in his assessment of WhatsApp’s attempts to shed its reputation as “a hub of virus disinformation”. He acknowledged that the service, despite its image as a source of unverified claims, has nonetheless “become vital for organising many community responses and turned into a platform for sharing humour in dark times”.

According to the Economist’s edition of 21st March, there could still be “hiccups” with the mobile networks, which – as Mark Jackson of the independent UK Internet Service Provider Ispreview.co.uk told the magazine – are generally adapted to a lower level of data traffic than fixed-line broadband. Hence, people who rely on mobile broadband may experience occasional delays and some apps could initially struggle due to the extra load on the system.

Filed under: Healthcare, Media | Posted on March 24th, 2020 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

Phlegmatism & Black Humour: The UK Faces Up To The Coronavirus:

Keep Calm And Carry On”: That’s been the gist of the advice emanating from the British Government as the epidemic has spread around the country. Coupled with this has been the recommendation, first by the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg and then by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, that we should all frequently and thoroughly wash our hands, accompanied by a rendering of either the National Anthem or “Happy Birthday” (twice). Most people in Britain seem inclined to follow these guidelines, except maybe for the singing part and moreover – the BBC’s Health Correspondent, Dominic Hughes, noted on the 10’Clock News on 6th March – are determined not to allow the virus to radically change their lives.

As an example, two ladies in Huddersfield, Sandra and Lynda, patently belonging to the older, reputedly “vulnerable generation”, when speaking to Hughes on the programme insisted that they were “keeping a sensible head” and were still going out and about as usual. This relatively relaxed attitude was of some concern to a group of foreign students interviewed by BBC London News outside Kings Cross Station: “We’re worried”, they remarked “but the public doesn’t seem to be”.

The “Independent” correspondent, Stefano Hatfield, contends that the British traditionally employ “stoicism when confronted with truly miserable conditions and black humour in the face of adversity”. Their instinctive phlegmatism, he believes, is “very much a unifying defining characteristic that will persist for generations”. The EF (Education First) language school blogger, Simon, agrees: The British, he points out, use humour to lighten even the most unfortunate moments: “There are few subjects we don’t joke about. It’s not used to shock and offend but rather because the British turn to laughter as a form of medicine when life knocks them and those around them down”.

That’s acceptable, the American author, Paul Lewis, has emphasised on www.wired.com. so long as it doesn’t have ethnic undertones or disseminate misinformation. In the 7th March edition of the Spectator magazine, its polemical columnist Rod Liddle jested that if the virus eliminates a large swathe of the elderly who voted for Brexit, the 48% of the population who wanted to remain in the European Union would demand a rerun of the Referendum. He also maintained that the prediction by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development) of an imminent global economic collapse provides reasonable grounds for optimism in view of their previous (by implication, incorrect) prognostications.

In the same publication, Liddle’s colleague. Mary Killen, asserted that “it’s not all bad news” and that even a deadly pandemic has its positives, such as a reduction in carbon emissions because we’ll all be taking fewer planes. The best approach, in her opinion, is to assume that we’re all going to get it anyway, including if we hide in our houses and avoid the Tube and crowded gatherings. What about the things, she asks, that come through the post and in the hands of the delivery van drivers?

Yet another Spectator contributor, Ross Clark, on 29th February depicted the “Covid-19” hysteria” as the latest phenomenon to fulfil a weird and growing appetite for doom among the populations of developed countries: “We are living in the healthiest, most peaceful time in history, yet cannot seem to accept it”. He may have adjusted his judgement of the situation in view of developments since then.

At his coronavirus press conference on 3rd March, the Prime Minister was noticeably more jovial than the two advisers who flanked him at the podium – England’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty and the UK’s Chief Scientific Officer, Sir Patrick Vallance. Whitty implied that “only 1%” of the UK populace, namely the over 70’s, would be seriously at risk from the virus, which probably won’t have reassured anyone in that apparently dispensable category. He slightly amended this assessment when he appeared before a specially convened House of Commons health committee on 5th March by declaring that the over-80’s shouldn’t assume that they would automatically be “goners” if they became infected.

A much gloomier appraisal was provided by Dr Richard Hatchett, CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, to Channel 4 News on 6th March. He depicted the coronavirus as the worst and most fearsome epidemic since the Spanish flu of 1918 and that “it could be with us in perpetuity”.

The proverb “A pessimist is a well-informed optimist”, attributed to the American author Mark Twain, could perhaps be applied to both Whitty and Hatchett. Their observations might also explain why UK supermarket customers have been emptying the shelves of staple products such as rice, pasta, couscous, bottled water, yoghurt, butter and long-life milk as well as bathroom items and the increased demand at the pharmacies for ibuprofen, paracetamol and immune-boosting tablets such as Berocca.

This hasn’t, however, (so far) been on the scale of the panic buying in (among many others) Japan, South Korea, Poland, New Zealand and Australia – in the latter two cases of which shoppers have been televised (and subsequently arrested) while battling each other for packs of toilet paper.

Filed under: Healthcare, Society | Posted on March 9th, 2020 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

London Fashion Week Adapts To A New Era:

The message was clear from the start of the latest LFW (14th – 18th February). “Now is the time for drastic change in how we do things. We’re in a different world, a world of emergency”. That was the view expressed by Lynne Franks, consumer lifestyle campaigner and fashion week co-founder”, cited by the Guardian’s fashion editor, Hannah Marriott, on 15th February. The big dilemma, as Andreas Kronthaler, Vivienne Westwood’s co-designer and husband, declared to the same newspaper prior to the five day event, is how to blend environmental activism with the business of selling fashion, especially as “we already have enough clothes in the western world to last us for hundreds of years”.

The Observer columnist, James Tapper, on 9th February outlined “the huge challenges” facing the industry in its quest to become greener: “The UK throws away around 300,000 tonnes of clothes into landfills each year and some studies suggest global textile production creates 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide pa, more than airlines and shipping combined” – a situation which, his Evening Standard counterpart, Lizzie Edmonds, noted on 14th February, is putting increasing strain on the planet’s water resources and materials. That’s precisely why, Tapper pointed out, the search is on for alternative materials (such as mushroom leather and algae t-shirts) with smaller carbon footprints.

University of Westminster

University of Westminster

The British Fashion Council (BFC), in its LFW AW (Autumn/Winter) 20 press release, acknowledged that these are crucial issues which now have to be resolved. It thus highlighted not only the fact that there would be 60 catwalks and presentations, with 73 brands participating in the event, but also that the “Positive Fashion Exhibition” would be the main theme of the Designer Showrooms at the LFW HQ at 180 The Strand. Each exhibitor had been “carefully chosen to demonstrate the provenance and skilfulness of their designs, on the basis of the three strategic pillars of Positive Fashion – namely the environment, people and craftsmanship & community”.

University of Westminster

Erdem

Among the 36 organisations which had been allotted space in the Showrooms were “Fashion Our Future”, founded by Amy Powney, creative director of “Mother Of Pearl” whose aim is “to strike the balance between our love for fashion and protecting the planet”; “PAMA London”, which describes itself as “the ultimate in luxury fitness wear” and wants “to make women feel good, without harming our planet” and the French company “L’Occitane En Provence”, which professes to combine its beauty merchandise with respect for people and nature and to use eco-refill wrappings for its 25 different product lines”.

Ashish

The BFC emphasised that “more than ever, designers are taking sustainability to the heart of their collections, especially this season Johnstons of Elgin, Mulberry, Phoebe English, Richard Malone and Vivienne Westwood”. Advance information issued by many of the designers similarly focused on their commitment to the environment. “ToBeFrank & Molyneaux, for example, says it works with a recycling plant in Istanbul that “takes in 800 tonnes of unwanted fabric cuttings which would normally go into landfill” and that it melts down pellets from plastic bottles into polyester yarn, a “fibre which can be used for many types of fabrics”;

Ashish

Earth Logic”, which featured in the ON/OFF catwalk, states that its priority is “rooting fashion in creativity, community, curiosity and care, instead of profit”; Katie Ann McGuigan’s knitwear is comprised of “recycled yarns and screen prints which are sourced locally, so as to keep the production of her collection close to her studio in London”.

Ashley Williams

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saving the planet is not the only immediate concern for the UK fashion industry. Much of the country’s retail sector is struggling to recover from poor Christmas sales. The Evening Standard (ES) business correspondent, Alex Lawson, reported on 10th January that Superdry’s profits may crash to zero, due to “unprecedented” levels of discounting by rivals “coupled with subdued customer demand”.

University of Westminster

Two days later, the Sunday Times commentator, Sam Chambers, observed that clothing purchases at Marks & Spencer had continued their lengthy decline, down 1.7%, profit margins at such as Asos, Misguided and even Primark were being “squeezed”, but that Boohoo sales had “leapt” in the final four months of 2019.

The Mess, London UK.18th February 2020. Mark Fast shows his Autumn Winter 2020 designs during London Fashion Week. © Chris Yates

House of Fraser (now owned by Sports Direct’s Mike Ashley) and the Arcadia Group, run by Sir Philip Green and which owns Burton, Topshop, Miss Selfridges and Evans, among others, are both facing financial difficulties. Moreover, according to the writer John Arlidge in the ES magazine on 14th February, “coronavirus is the worst thing to happen to fashion since the financial crisis of 2008”.

The Mess, London UK.18th February 2020. Mark Fast shows his Autumn Winter 2020 designs during London Fashion Week. © Chris Yates

 

 

“Earth Logic” (ON/OFF)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Burberry has been particularly badly affected: Chinese customers account for 40% of its revenues and it has had to close 64 of its stores in mainland China. Victoria Beckham also admitted to the Metro journalist, Andrei Harmsworth, on 18th February, that “her empire had been hit hard by the global health crisis” – not ideal news considering that her fashion label is rumoured to be making considerable losses and being kept afloat by loans from her husband David.

LONDON, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 14: A model walks the runway at the TOBEFRANK x Amy Molyneaux show during London Fashion Week February 2020 on February 14, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Tim Whitby/BFC/Getty Images)

The Mess, London UK.18th February 2020. Mark Fast shows his Autumn Winter 2020 designs during London Fashion Week. © Chris Yates

Filed under: Media, Society | Posted on February 21st, 2020 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

Donating By Text: How Charities Raise Money in 2020:

There’s a donkey advertisement which appears occasionally on Sky News TV. It begins by showing a skinny, bedraggled animal named Indar who is clearly finding it painful to stand on his overgrown hooves. A voice in the background then tells the viewers that Indar is just waiting for someone to rescue him and asks why so many other donkeys like him are being neglected and abandoned. A request for a donation then follows, with the assurance that texting only £2 per month will enable Indar and his fellow-donkeys to be safe and happy for the rest of their lives.

Many people watching all of this will have been understandably so moved by it that they will have reached immediately for their mobile, tapped out the phone number given on the screen and sent the money. What did they do, however, if it was followed a few minutes later by a similar advertisement, for example from the Guide Dogs Association, this time asking for £5 to be texted to them?

As Donr.com, an organization which provides guidance on text-giving, has observed, 34% of the respondents to a survey it conducted find it difficult to choose from among the abundance of charities competing for funds or to distinguish which ones represent the most deserving causes. UNICEF (the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund: £5 per month), WaterAid (which aims to help poor communities around the world to establish sustainable water supplies: £3 pm), the British Red Cross (£10) and the British Heart Foundation (£3 pm), among a plethora of others, all campaign fiercely for donations.

Indeed, data provided by the market research company Nielsen and quoted by Rosemary Bennett, Social Affairs Correspondent for The Times, has revealed that charities now spend a combined total of well over £476 million per annum getting their message across not just on TV, but in cinemas, by direct mail, door drops, in the street, in the media and on the radio.

A recent Barclays Bank analysis on “The Future Of Giving” notes that 73% of charities have been experiencing a decline in street donations, hence are “exploring new and creative ways of connecting with donors”. The rise of donating by text has thus provided them with a welcome alternative source of income.

According to Donr.com and “Mobile Squared”, £37.5 million was donated to charities via text in 2017 /18, increasing to £49.6 million in 2019. The Charity Aid Foundation’s (CAF) “UK Giving 2019” Report lists Animal Welfare (26%),  Support for Children / Young people (26%), Medical Research (25%) and Hospitals / Hospices as the current most popular causes.

Hugh Radojev, a correspondent for Civil Society News, has pointed out that charity TV campaigns are not always successful. On the contrary – so he was told by Will Goodhand, commercial director of the market research company System 1 – over 80% of their advertisements get a “one star rating” from the public, compared to 53% for advertisements from other sectors. That’s because they elicit a negative reaction from the viewers, who often feel sad or even fearful about what they’ve just seen. Although humanitarian and natural disasters are likely to provoke an immediate and generous response, in the long-term “ a happy charity ad builds a helpful and positive association for the brand”.

Donr.com highlights several “barriers” which inhibit support for charities: 53% of those questioned said they couldn’t afford the contributions, 37% don’t give because they don’t know enough about how their donations will be used and 32% simply don’t trust them. Likewise, research by UK Fundraising.co.uk has indicated that 71% of donors want their money to be deployed wisely, 69% attach great importance to the charity’s reputation and 68% contribute because they have a strong belief in its mission and cause.

The “Better Business” organisation advises potential donors to check what will happen to the amount they’ve agreed to pay before allowing it to be automatically added to their mobile phone bill. For instance, how much of it will be spent on administrative costs and executive salaries.

Meanwhile, several contributors to the Mumsnet website have expressed annoyance at the aggressive tactics adopted by some charities. One of them had donated £5 after watching a UNICEF appeal for people suffering in South Sudan. She subsequently received several phone calls asking her to donate more: “It was pretty relentless and I felt very uncomfortable having to constantly defend myself by telling him that I’m on a low income and can’t give any more money”.

Another had “foolishly” given his postal address, so now constantly gets charity junk mail. A third had offered a £3 donation the previous day and was now being rung up and asked for £8 a month: “The gist of most people’s complaints is that this behaviour is very ungrateful and greedy”.

Donr.com acknowledges that there is a “considerable degree of cynicism” regarding how donations are used. The charities, it concludes “ need to find more compelling ways to explain their missions and distinguish themselves from the competition, if they are to achieve their growth ambitions”.

Filed under: Media, Society | Posted on February 10th, 2020 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

The Uncertain Future Of Britain’s Fish & Chips:

What do the American actor David Duchovny (the FBI agent Fox Mulder in the X-Files science-fiction series), ex-Queen Sofia of Spain, British boxer Tyson Fury and British singer/song-writer Robbie Williams have in common? They are all pescetarians. This means they abstain from eating any type of meat, with the exception of fish and other seafood such as shrimp, clams and lobster.  As the vegan cuisine author, Jolinda Hackett, pointed out on “spruceeats.com” on 22nd January, pescetarians believe that a moderate consumption of fish or fish oils, which are high in Omega fatty acids, is necessary for optimum health.

The Vegetarian Society (VS) disagrees. It insists that there are many other alternatives available, such as flaxseed and hemp food and furthermore that oily fish contains pollutants such as dioxins, PCBs (the now banned industrial compounds polychlorinated biphenyls) and mercury. The VS also argues that fish feel pain and suffer, that around 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die every year as a result of being trapped in fishing nets and that industrial fishing is reducing the biodiversity of the oceans and hence inexorably destroying the planet.

According to a survey of UK dietary trends conducted by “finder.com” and cited by its contributor Georgia-Rose Johnson on 22nd January, 23% of British residents say they intend to switch to a vegetarian, vegan (only food made from plants, such as vegetables, grains, nuts and fruits, so no dairy products or eggs), or pescetarian regime.

Millennials (those born between the 1980’s and the early 2000’s) are apparently the most meat-free generation: 15% of them state that they currently go without it. Finder calculates that if everyone questioned keeps to their decision, there will be 2,515,361 vegetarians and 1,703,109 pescetarians in the UK by the end of 2020.

Pescetarians, however, face a potential problem that could concern them rather more than their differences with vegans and vegetarians. Brussels has warned Britain – as reported by James Crisp in his capacity as the Daily Telegraph’s correspondent in the Belgium capital – that unless the UK allows European Union countries to continue

fishing in British territorial waters after Brexit, its population might find that their traditional fish and chips will no longer be available. That’s because – as indicated in data released by Sabine Weyand, the German trade expert and the EU’s deputy Brexit negotiator – the UK’s fish and chip shops, estimated at 10,500 by the National Federation of Fish Fryers (NFFF), are dependent on imports of cod and haddock from the EU to stay in business. FishFryerFinance has emphasised that NFFF members are already under pressure from higher rents and business rates as well as “a significant increase in competition from fast food outlets”.

Weyand’s statistics show that Britain catches only 5% of the cod it eats, about 21,000 tonnes and imports the rest, equivalent to 110,000 tonnes. More than 50% of UK-consumed haddock, amounting to 47,000 tonnes in 2019, is imported. Added to this is the threat of a “battle at sea” between French and British fishermen. Eric Gosselin, a Boulogne fishing boss, has declared that if his fleet of 50 ships is barred from UK waters, where they catch 60% of their fish, they will block British trucks from transporting fish into France. The UK sends 81% of its mackerel and 93% of its herring abroad.

The Prospect magazine columnist, Simon Taylor, observed on January 20th that although, after years of decline, the UK’s fisheries industry contributes only 0.12% to the country’s GDP compared to 4% from the automotive sector and 1.1% from heritage tourism, its fishermen “enjoy strong support from a public that admires them for carrying out a dangerous job in extreme conditions”.

Tony Connelly, a correspondent with RTE (The Republic of Ireland’s national TV & Radio broadcaster), describes the issue as “totemic, emotive and drenched in the symbolism of the UK taking back control”. He highlights the fact that although the UK, as an independent coastal state, will (on paper) be entitled to fish as much of the stocks in its own waters as it can, Brussels is insisting that if Britain wants a free trade deal, this will be linked to whatever access EU vessels obtain to both UK waters and the fish that inhabit them.

The British Sea Fishing Association considers it “hugely unfair” that European fishermen take 173 times more herring, 45 times more whiting, 16 times more mackerel and 14 times more haddock and cod out of UK waters than British fishermen do. It is also apprehensive that that the Royal Navy doesn’t have sufficient capacity to protect or control British territorial limits.

Gerard van Balsfoort, the head of the European Fisheries Alliance, which represents over 18,000 European fishermen, has told the BBC that his members will ignore any restrictions imposed on entering UK waters and will carry on fishing there regardless of the outcome of the 2020 UK / EU transition negotiations.

Filed under: Politics, Society | Posted on January 27th, 2020 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

The World’s Economy in 2020: Cautious Optimism:

Fragile. Handle With Care”. It was on this very tentative note that the World Bank launched its latest 334-page Global Economic Prospects (GEP) Report at a briefing for members of the UK Foreign Press Association on 8th January at London’s Millbank Tower. On the positive side, it anticipates world economic growth of 2.5% this year, up from 2.4% in 2019 and that this could be even stronger if trade tensions diminish – but if, on the contrary, they escalate, this could result in sharp downturns in major economies and financial disarray in emerging & developing ones (EMDEs).

As the Report emphasises, the USA and China together account for nearly 40% of global GDP and nearly a quarter of global trade. Hence, renewed dislocation in economic ties between them would not only damage them but the rest of the world as well. On 29th December, the Guardian assessed the possibility of two alternative scenarios. The “benign view”, it declared, is that global growth will start to improve and that Donald Trump will initiate his re-election campaign by announcing a trade deal with China. However, if the financial markets conclude instead that the trade war between Washington and Beijing is going to be long and bitter, the world “could be heading for economic, financial and environmental crises”.

The Guardian’s financial editor, Larry Elliott, furthermore noted on 9th January that the World Bank is particularly alarmed about what it considers to be excessive borrowing and debt accumulation by developing economies, which historically “tends to have an unhappy ending” and that a modest improvement in global activity will also depend on a better year for countries such as Argentina, Mexico and Turkey. China’s own vulnerability to its high and rising private debt “may lead to an extended period of subdued growth in the absence of deep structural reforms”, while any imposition by the USA of tariffs on automobiles and parts imports is likely to provoke retaliation from the countries affected. They could respond by establishing their own trade barriers and hence the entire global multilateral trading system “could be put at risk”.

Meanwhile, activity in the Euro area, observes the World Bank, has “deteriorated significantly”. The German industrial sector has struggled with falling demand from Asia and disruption to car production. The uncertainty regarding Brexit has also produced adverse repercussions. Euro area growth is expected to slow to 1% this year but recover modestly to around 1.3% in 2021 /22, depending on how the Brexit process unfolds and if there is no further intensification in trade restrictions.

So what impact will all this have on Latin America? According to the World Bank, growth in the LAC (Latin American and Caribbean) region will rise from an estimated 0.8% in 2019 to 1.8% in 2020 and 2.4% in 2021. In Brazil, it will increase to 2% due to more robust investor confidence and a gradual relaxation of lending and labour market conditions but Argentina’s economy “is anticipated to shrink to a more modest 1.3% as private consumption and investment recede more gradually”. In Central America, growth is expected to stabilize at 3% thanks to the easing of credit conditions in Costa Rica and relief from setbacks to construction projects in Panama. The World Bank seems assured that Chile will recover from the social unrest of late 2019, achieving 2.5% in 2020 and 3% in 2021.

For Colombia, it envisages favourable financing conditions which will support broader domestic demand and the more rapid implementation of planned infrastructure projects. These combined factors “ will support an upsurge in growth to 3.6% in 2020 and around 3.9% in 2021”. “Focus Economics” (FE) agrees that the “robust momentum” in Colombia will be sustained this year due to “lower corporate taxes and fiscal exemptions as well as healthy private consumption underpinned by softening inflation”.

Political uncertainty ahead of the 2021 elections in Ecuador will keep it at 0.5%, whereas in Bolivia – despite prevailing social tensions, dwindling foreign exchange reserves and a difficult external environment for hydrocarbon exports – it will be poised at around 3.2%. FE forecasts that Peru’s GDP will expand to 3.2% this year as a result of improving consumer confidence, but shares the World Bank’s opinion that the outlook for Venezuela “remains gloomy”, that its economy will contract by 8.4% in 2020, though could improve by 0.7% in 2021 if a political solution emerges. Indeed, the World Bank stresses that, due to lack of data, their GEP doesn’t include growth forecasts for Venezuela, focusing instead on the potential ramifications for neighbouring countries.

The main concern for the LAC region, the World Bank points out, is a further worsening of US-China trading relations: “This risk is particularly acute for countries highly reliant on China as an export destination (Brazil, Chile, Peru and Uruguay)”, though this might be partially alleviated by the trade agreement (yet to be ratified) signed between Mercosur (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay) and the European Union in June 2019. Likewise, sluggish US growth could be a hindrance for Mexico and other countries dependent on the United States.

Filed under: Politics | Posted on January 14th, 2020 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

The UK Election Result: Nato’s Preferred Outcome:

A nightmare scenario”: That was how Josh Glancy, the Sunday Times Washington correspondent, on 1st December described how many US senators viewed the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn becoming British Prime Minister. Particular concern, observed Glancy, was being expressed about Corbyn’s perceived tendency to sympathise with some of America’s most implacable enemies and whether intelligence sharing and defence co-operation could be continued if the UK electorate installed a left-wing Labour Government.

On the same page, Caroline Wheeler, the newspaper’s Deputy Political Editor, quoted five prominent British military commanders” who warned that Corbyn in 10 Downing Street would be “dangerous” for national security and could “wreck” the morale of the country’s armed forces. There have long been doubts in particular about his support for NATO. As Channel 4 TV’s “Fact Check” has pointed out, although the Labour Party’s official policy is for Britain to continue as a member of NATO, Corbyn himself (prior to becoming the party’s leader) has called for the organisation to be disbanded, depicting it as “an engine for the delivery of oil to the oil companies” and asserting that after the Cold War ended in 1990, it should have “shut up shop, gone home, gone away”.

During the General Election campaign, the UK Defence Chief, Sir Nick Carter, riposted (reported the Sunday Express columnist Alessandra Scotto di Santolo on 10th November) by sending “ a stern message” to Corbyn that NATO plays a fundamental role in protecting Britain from external threats.

Boris Johnson, in contrast to Corbyn, has made it clear that he is “rock solid” in his commitment to NATO. In his opening statement welcoming the organisation’s leaders to their summit at the Grove Hotel in Watford on 4th December, he hailed it as “ a great shield of solidarity that protects 29 countries and a billion people”. The simple proposition at the heart of the Alliance, he emphasised, is that by standing together “no-one can hope to defeat us and therefore no-one will start a war”. The Conservative Party’s election win on 12th December, providing a majority of 80 in Parliament, has ensured that it will be Johnson’s view of NATO, not Corbyn’s, that will prevail for at least the next five years.

Several  Heads of State & Government – including the Prime Ministers of Canada (Justin Trudeau), the Netherlands (Mark Rutte), North Macedonia (Zoran Zaev) and President Andrzej Duda of Poland – also attended the “NATO Engages: Innovating The Alliance” Conference held at the Central Hall in Westminster on 3rd December. Among the key issues that featured on the agenda were: “NATO’s Role in an Insecure World”, “Defence and Deterrent For a New Era”, “The Impact of Climate Change on the Alliance” and “From The Baltic to the Black Sea: Security on NATO’s Frontlines”.

It soon became evident from the debates and speeches that the organization is now focusing as much on potential  “provocations from the east” (namely China) as on tensions with Russia. As the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged in a press conference in New York on 29th November, the Alliance now “needs to take into account China’s significant military modernisation: Its increased presence from the Arctic to the Balkans and in cyber space”.

The Observer columnist, Simon Tisdall, noted on 17th November that, according to the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, China has established “ a nefarious web already spanning Asia, Africa and Latin America” and is using economic means to coerce countries into lopsided deals that mainly benefit Beijing.

NATO has insisted in its “2020 Analysis: New Strategic Concepts”, that, with the possible exception of  humanitarian emergencies, it doesn’t foresee the organisation being directly involved in the Latin American or Caribbean regions. This has been somewhat contradicted, however, by Stoltenberg, who informed David Brunnstrom, a contributor to the Reuters News Agency, that NATO is looking into the possibility of other Latin American countries, in addition to Colombia (with whom a Partnership and Cooperation Programme was signed in 2017) becoming partners.

Indeed, following the visit by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to the White House in March, it seems that Brazil could soon be awarded the status of a NATO “global partner”.Bolsonaro and Trump are fierce critics of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and strongly opposed to the apparent increasing Russian involvement that country. The US Air Force Chief of Staff, General David Goldfein, has made it clear to Newsweek magazine that the US & NATO “are certainly keeping a close eye on Chinese and Russian activities in Latin America” and that they would “push back aggressively if we must”. 

The Strategic Culture Foundation analyst, Alex Gorka, believes that the partnership with Colombia indicates that NATO is expanding its traditional zone of responsibility and has ceased to be just a European entity. The geopolitical expert and author, Paul Antonopoulos, agrees. “Decidedly (he declares), NATO and the US have turned their attention to South America”.

Filed under: Politics | Posted on December 16th, 2019 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

The Relentless Commercialisation Of Santa Claus:

Wanted: “ An enthusiastic, confident, jolly individual aged between 25-75 years old who believes in Christmas magic. Own beard an advantage. Personal experience not necessary: Full training and a quality costume will be provided. If you don’t have a large tummy, no problem. A synthetic one can be made available”.

This was the gist of the criteria specified by the Hillside Nursery Centre in Newton Abbey, Northern Ireland, when they were looking for someone to portray Father Christmas in their festive Grotto this year. The salary would be £12 per hour – somewhat less than the £25 per hour paid by Envisage Promotions for the same position at a shopping centre in Maidstone, Kent.

Both of these, however, compare favourably to the prevailing rates for Santa’s assistants, the elves, who get £11 per hour in Maidstone, between £5.30 and £9.00 per hour at the Planet Ice skating rink in Milton Keynes, “up to £9 per hour” at the Bentalls department store in Kingston Upon Thames and £7-£8 per hour at the Aldenham Country Park in Elstree.

Traditionally, “looking the part”, with a hearty laugh, a charismatic personality and a corpulent body were all that were needed to obtain a temporary Santa job. Not any more. Venues such as Capital Gardens in Sherfield, just north of Basingstoke, these days insist that applicants should have prior experience and training – which is why there are now several organisations in the UK that offer courses on how to be Father Christmas.

On the 27th November, for example, the events company Ministry of Fun hosted its annual “Santa School” at Southwark Cathedral in London, which included “all aspects of the role from boots to beard” and was designed to ensure that the students would be “equipped with a sack-full of responses for every potential scenario, especially the difficult questions they were likely to be asked by children”,

The “Santa School of Excellence” runs training sessions every day, price £99 per person, for a week in October at its headquarters in Rugby, Warwickshire and issues attendance certificates detailing the topics which have been taught. During the 6 years they’ve been hiring out their graduates to leading companies across the UK they’ve acquired (so they declare) “a vast amount of knowledge on what makes a great Father Christmas”.

There’s even an “International University of Santa Claus” (IUSC),based in Houston,Texas,USA. The IUSC claims that over the past eight years more than 3,500 Santas and Mrs Claus have enrolled at its Schools. It awards five different categories of diplomas in Santaclausology: Associate, Bachelor, Master, Advanced Master, and Doctorate (PhD).

To qualify for a PhD, candidates must have already passed the fourth stage, accumulated at least five years’ experience as Santa and then, as the final step, are required to submit a 20 – 30 minute dissertation to the selection committee.

Featuring among the possible topics suggested for the presentation are: “The basics of being Santa”, “The Correct Posture & Facial Features”, “The Do’s and Don’ts of Sitting in the Chair”, “Answering Those Who Don’t Believe in Santa or Christmas”, “Santa as a Business” and “How to Market Yourself”. Successful candidates are then bestowed with their Phd Diploma at an IUSC graduation ceremony and are entitled to attend the university’s future courses free of charge.

The Ministry of Fun’s Santa School opens its doors for its 18th annual training day. Potential Santas are put through their paces, with classes in general jolliness, reindeer name memorisation and learning “Merry Christmas” in 15 languages.

Many of the Santas currently working in grottos across the UK, may be feeling – irrespective of whether they have diplomas, experience or training – that their remuneration should and could be a little higher. That’s because, as has recently been highlighted by the British media, the expenditure for parents who want to take their children to see Father Christmas is more than double than what it was three years ago.

According to an analysis conducted by the Sunday Times and cited on 17th November by two of its journalists, Shanti Das and Tom Calver, the average charge has jumped from £9.39 in 2016 to £12.63 now, which represents a 35% rise.

In several places, the increase has been much higher: At the Royal Albert Hall, a ticket for an hour-long event with Father Christmas, music and puppets now costs £39.24, up from £26.50 in 2016. The biggest increase, noted Das and Calver, has been for the “Winterland Grotto” at Dreamland in Margate, Kent, from £9.95 to £27.95. The founder of the Mumset forum, Justine Roberts, told the Sunday Times that parents resented having to pay so much for attractions often consisting of “grotty grottoes and sullen Santas wearing ill-fitting beards”.

The fiercest criticism has been directed at the decision by Harrods in Knightsbridge to restrict access to its Father Christmas to customers who have spent at least £2,000 in the shop. As the Guardian columnist, Robert Neale, pointed out on 9th November, although the Qatari royal family – the owners of the store, which made a £171 million profit last year – have now agreed to allow 160 less well-off families the chance to visit the grotto, the wealthiest ones will still monopolise 96.4% of Father Christmas’s time at Harrods.

Filed under: Society | Posted on December 2nd, 2019 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

Public Transport Etiquette Under Scrutiny:

The Government should completely ban the eating of food on trains, buses and the underground”. This was the opinion expressed by England’s recently retired Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, as quoted by the Guardian’s health editor, Sarah Boseley on 10th October. That same day, Stuart Heritage, a contributor to the newspaper, accused Davies of thereby trying to deprive the country’s population of one of its “fundamental human rights” – although he did promise, as a concession to Davies, that he would no longer snack on hot catsu curry during the morning rush hour.

Tony Naylor, also of the Guardian, has similarly queried why he should be fined (or suffer the disapproval of other passengers) for munching a ham sandwich on his way to meet friends after work on a Friday evening. He believes that the real issue is the mess that people leave behind them – the empty boxes, cans, apple cores, spilled drinks, rolling bottles and (“worst of all”) the ubiquitous chewing gum. If you get crumbs on the seat, he insists, “you should brush them to the floor as you get up”.

In contrast to Heritage, the Metro columnist, Lizzie Thomson, asserted on 10th October that “it’s a truth universally acknowledged that sitting next to someone devouring a tuna sandwich on a bus is absolute hell”. While she accepts the contention that many commuters have no choice but to eat while on their way to and from their place of employment, she urges them to avoid “stinky food”, especially sushi, smoked salmon, camembert, mackerel pate and any nutriment that has a pungent aroma, as this will linger around long after they get off their means of transport: “Although the ‘fragrance’ of your doner kebab may seem like heaven to you, the rest of your carriage might disagree”. Furthermore, anything that has a potential to splash onto fellow travellers – such as noodles and all varieties of spaghetti – should be avoided and “ always ensure that you have a napkin with you”.

An editorial in the London Evening Standard on 12th November, advised any traveller tempted to start chomping through a packet of salt-and-vinegar crisps to keep their delicacy until later and focus instead on reading their newspaper. This coincided with a report that day by their crime correspondent, John Dunne, on the case of a city worker fined £1,500 by Blackfriars Crown Court for having launched an “aggressive tirade” against a fellow commuter, of South American origin, who had been enjoying her breakfast of “admittedly strong smelling” eggs on the 6 am train from Chelmsford in Essex to Liverpool Street Station in London.

Although Prime Minister Boris Johnson banned drinking alcohol on the capital’s buses and underground when he was Mayor of London, there’s currently no indication that this will be extended to the consumption of food – unlike in many other cities around the world. Eating, drinking and smoking is not allowed on trams in Barcelona or the subway systems in Washington USA as well as in Beijing, Nanjing, Xiamen and Shenzhen in China, where violations can result in having to pay out up to 500 yuan (£54), an exclusion from using the underground and the infraction being registered on the offender”s credit record.

The Filipino Times has warned any of the nation’s citizens considering going to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that once they step foot inside an underground train there, no food and drink is allowed, including water and chewing gum. In Singapore, commuters discovered by SMRT Corporation officials to be sucking even a sweet reputedly run the risk of being penalized  by the country’s Land Transport Authority. In Japan, journalistontherun.com has noted, drinking and eating is acceptable on regional long-distance trains but not on local ones.

In reality, according to a YouGov survey cited by the Guardian commentator, Carmen Fishwick, no matter how well you try to behave on the London underground, you’ll probably eventually upset someone. Apparently, 90% of Londoners are antagonised by people pushing to enter a carriage without giving the passengers still inside a chance to get off, 74% don’t like bags being placed on unoccupied seats, 71% find malodorous food offensive and 56% become impatient when other passengers take too long to go through the ticket barrier. Talking loudly, wearing a rucksack and failing to move down inside the carriage also all feature in YouGov’s “20 most irritating tube behaviours”.

The Press Association journalist, Erin Cardiff, has compiled a list for BT Lifestyle of the ten particularly annoying things she asserts occur most frequently on public transport. Among them: Loud phone calls (“nobody needs to hear about what you had for dinner last night or the hilarious trick your dog performed that morning”), bad hygiene, blaring music, people putting their feet on the seats, eating noxious food, reading another person’s newspaper or texts over their shoulder, being a space invader (for some, that could mean a cyclist taking up three seats or a large proportion of the aisle on a busy bus or train”) carrying huge bags during the rush hour and public displays of affection.

But what seems to exasperate Cardiff the most is someone putting on cosmetics during the journey, not just mascara but “applying nail varnish, plucking brows and clipping nails, anything you’d normally confine to your bathroom at home. The 296 bus is not the place for all of that”.

Filed under: Healthcare, Travel | Posted on November 19th, 2019 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

The Electorate’s Dilemma: Which Party To Trust:

People around the world expect and demand a lot more from their leaders than they receive”. That was the conclusion of Klaus Schwab, chairman of the World Economic Forum, following the survey conducted by Gallup International in 2004 which revealed that 63% of the 50,000 people questioned in more than 60 countries considered their top politicians to be dishonest, 60% felt they had too much power and 52% believed they behaved unethically. The result, as the Guardian columnist, Ian Traynor, commented at the time, constituted “ a massive vote of no-confidence in political elites worldwide”.

Fifteen years later, very little seems to have changed. Gallup International’s most recent global opinion poll, titled “Voice Of the People”, has indicated that the populations of many nations are even more unhappy now with their current government than they were then: In France, for example, 68% are dissatisfied, in Spain 64%, Argentina 61% (hence the defeat of President Mauricio Macri to the Peronist Alberto Fernandez on October 27), the USA 59% and Colombia 58%.

In the UK, the figure is 59% – which suggests (say Gallup) that there has been a shift in the British public’s attitude towards politicians, who are now seen more as being just “out for themselves and their party and not particularly concerned about doing the best for their country”. This evident disenchantment with politics and politicians is thus “fuelling a drift of voters away from the main parties”.

President Trump’s campaign mantra about putting “America First” has been replicated in many other countries: 72% of Italians (according to Gallup) hold the view that their national interests should take priority over international cooperation and globalization: In France, the figure is 70%, Spain 62%, Colombia 63%, Ecuador 82%, Argentina 81%, Paraguay 80%, Ethiopia 92% and the UK 71% – which would appear to explain the success of “Vote Leave” in the 2016 European Union Referendum.

In its report “Revealing The Truth About Trust” issued on September 19th, the market research company Ipsos Mori emphasized that “everywhere, the elites and mainstream media are being challenged by an angry populace”. As a member of the audience in the BBC TV’s Question Time programme on 31st October pointed out, the widespread contempt in Britain for Members of Parliament dates back to the expenses scandal of 2010 – which, the New Statesman contributor, William Lewis, observed in the publication on 1st May, involved claims ranging from the comical (duck houses and moat cleaning) to the criminal (false accounting, mortgage fraud) and has led to “a profound, long term disintegration of public trust in our political institutions”.

Statistica.com has similarly noted that questions are again being raised about the alleged corruption, greed and improper financial conduct of some MPs, whose basic annual income is £79, 478: “In a period of recession, when the wages of many employees around the country have stagnated, such behaviour is widely deemed to be a betrayal of their power”.

On the same BBC programme, the Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, Paul Scully, acknowledged that politics in Britain currently resembles “ a war of attrition” – a view apparently shared by another member of the panel, the journalist Isabel Oakshott, who described it as “a brutal game” and expressed her disquiet about the 500,000 abusive tweets received by MPs between January and September this year, a phenomenon partly due (she declared) to the “incredibly polarizing effect of Brexit”.

Although 70% of UK residents agree with the global perception (cited by the Pew Research Centre) that the political elites are out of touch with average citizens and that elected officials don’t care about what ordinary people think, politicians are perhaps surprisingly not the least-trusted profession in Britain. That accolade belongs to advertising executives, who with 16% are bottom of the Ipsos Mori Veracity Index, below politicians (19%), government ministers (22%), journalists (26%) and estate agents (30%).

At the very top are nurses, who with 96% are regarded as most likely to tell the truth, followed by doctors (92%), teachers (89%), engineers (87%), professors (86%), scientists (85%) and judges (83%). Members of the armed forces (78%) and the police (76%) are 8th & 9th on the list, but priests are down from 69% to 62% and TV news readers from 67% to 62% since 2017. Charity chief executives are trusted by just 48%, trade union officials by 45% and bankers by 41%.

Irrespective as to their position in the “Brexit” debate, UK residents don’t generally appear to differ from their fellow-Europeans on many other issues- for instance whether to trust pharmaceutical conglomerates (40% say no) oil and gas companies (18% say no), food & drink wholesalers ( 31% say no) or the banks (51% say no). The technology sector is the only one of the five classified as reasonably trustworthy.

Europe, emphasises Ipsos Mori, is one of the most privacy sceptical regions in the world, so people there (including in the UK) tend to be uncomfortable about handing over control of their personal data to others. Furthermore, “Over six out of ten Europeans trust news they receive from the radio, TV or the printed press but only 25% are fully convinced about the veracity of what they read on social media”.

Filed under: Media, Politics | Posted on November 5th, 2019 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

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