The pandemic has accelerated the growth of e-sports

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MOTOR RACING has a long and chequered history of cheating, from illegal designs to the use of nitrous oxide to give cars a boost. On May 23rd, however, a new type emerged when a Formula E driver, Daniel Abt, was disqualified for substituting a teenage video-gamer to drive for him. The cheating happened not in a real car but in a virtual version of the sport, played on “rFactor2”, a video game, organised to keep fans amused while real racing was stopped for the pandemic. The races were watched by hundreds of thousands of viewers on television as well as YouTube and Twitch, a live-streaming service owned by Amazon.

That competition was not the only example of athletes taking to a video-game version of their sport during the pandemic. In Britain Sky Sports, a broadcaster, showed matches of “FIFA”, a popular football game, with players from the real-life Premier League. In America NASCAR races have been held virtually, too.

It may seem surprising that fans might be satisfied by watching a virtual version of their sport. Yet video games have been quietly becoming more like traditional sports for some time. Covid-19, by keeping athletes indoors, has given a boost to “e-sports”—not just virtual versions of old sports, but entirely new online games, played competitively by professionals and watched by tens of millions of people.

Video games, now played often by perhaps a quarter of the world’s population, are no longer just entertainment. Many games are more like something between a sport and a social network. And games have thrived under lockdown. The number of players logged into Steam, a popular gaming platform on PCs, reached record highs in late March, with 25m players logged in at one time. Nintendo’s share price increased by 45% in the month from March 16th. Twitch saw its traffic jump by 50% from March to April.

Over the past decade the business model of games has changed radically. Revenue used to come from selling blockbuster single-player games, such as “Grand Theft Auto”, on disks. Now the biggest-grossing games, such as “Fortnite” or “League of Legends”, are given away free and updated constantly, with money made from in-game purchases. They are more social, more competitive and arguably more addictive. Some of them are becoming cultural phenomena in their own right. Executives hope they can persuade more people to watch them, buy gear and cheer teams as they do with traditional sports.

Take “League of Legends”, perhaps the biggest e-sport in the world. It was launched in 2009 by Riot Games, an American firm now owned by Tencent, China’s biggest tech firm. It is a complex strategy game, in which teams of five players command “heroes” in a battle to defeat each other. As many people play it regularly as play tennis; at any one time, 8m people may be online. It also supports a professional game that is, at least in terms of the number of players earning a living from it, also larger than tennis. The final of the League of Legends World Championship last year was watched live by 44m people. By comparison the Super Bowl, America’s biggest live sporting event, was watched by roughly twice that.

Twelve professional leagues now span all regions of the globe except Africa, with 120 franchised teams and perhaps 1,000 professional players. Whereas tennis stars in the world’s top 200 often struggle to make a living, “League of Legends” players in America are guaranteed a minimum salary of $75,000. There, players are entitled to the same visas that other foreign athletes can get. The average salary is closer to $400,000, says Chris Greeley of Riot Games. Lee Sang-hyeok, a Korean star, known by his tag “Faker”, may be the highest-paid sportsman in his country.

Older sports are moving in. F1’s e-sports competition existed before covid-19 brought it to television, as did eNASCAR races. Michael Jordan, a retired basketball star, is among those to have invested in Team Liquid, which plays in around a dozen e-sports. In November Manchester City, an English football club, unveiled its professional “FIFA” team—based in South Korea. Games of “Starcraft”, a strategy game, were first screened on cable TV there in the 1990s. Korean teenagers play, after school and before private tuition, in internet cafés, known as “PC bangs” (PC rooms).

Activision Blizzard, a publisher, runs leagues for “Call of Duty” and “Overwatch”, two first-person shooter games. These are modelled on conventional sports leagues, with teams that rent stadiums and play at home and away. Being based in a specific city enables teams to generate local support, as well as revenue from local sponsors, says Ben Spoont, the CEO of Misfits Gaming, which owns the Florida Mayhem “Overwatch” team.

Crowding in

Last year Epic Games, the publisher of “Fortnite”, launched a “World Cup”. Anyone could apply to play: 40m did so. The finals filled 19,000 seats of the Arthur Ashe stadium in New York and $30m of prize money was dished out to the winners.

Though South Korea remains a leader in e-sports, China is catching up. The island of Hainan, popular for its beach resorts, has set aside $141m to subsidise international e-sports. In Hangzhou government money has been used to build an “e-sports town”, featuring a 56,000-square-foot (5,200-square-metre) arena, which is home to the Chinese “League of Legends” games, sponsored by Tencent. There are also shops, a training academy and an e-sports-themed hotel.

For a generation that lives chiefly online anyway, games are a means of socialising, like traditional sports. Thurston Jepps, a 12-year-old from London, mainly plays “Minecraft”, a free-roaming construction game, and “Overwatch”. He guesses that at least four-fifths of the time he spends playing is with friends online, rather than alone. Logging into his Xbox and seeing who is online is a little like going to the park to see who is around for a kick-about. “I don’t often play single-player games unless I am kinda lonely,” he says. “Playing alone is very uncool.” Sometimes he and his friends play competitively, but often they just hang out and talk on voice-chat.

E-sports are different in some respects, however. Nobody owns the game of soccer or basketball. That is not true of e-sports. Publishers control the games. And grassroots do not exist in the same way. Children are not encouraged to play video games at schools; most amateur teams exist only online; the pathway into playing professionally is unclear. Some teams are trying to change that. Mr Spoont’s firm has held “block parties’’ to encourage parents to take the game seriously. His teams have scouts to recruit the best players internationally, much as other sports do. But he admits that there is a long way to go. “Parents are rightly anxious,” says Mr Spoont, who limits his six-year-old’s screen time.

These games bring with them fears that do not apply to kicking a football around a pitch. Fewer people now worry about violent video games causing real-world violence, but newer concerns have arisen. Last year lawyers in Canada filed a suit on behalf of two sets of unidentified parents accusing Epic Games of bringing in psychologists to help make “Fortnite” more addictive. Players are encouraged to buy “battle passes” to customise their characters. For all that executives talk about media rights and sponsorship, much of the esports industry is cross-subsidised by money made on in-game purchases. The prize money at the “Fortnite” World Cup came from Epic, which made $1.8bn last year from microtransactions in the game.

The free-to-play model may bring in millions more players, but it also relies on a small minority spending extravagant sums on virtual uniforms. Britain’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport has just launched a call for evidence to look at “loot boxes”—virtual purchases that some campaigners think are akin to gambling. The sale of loot boxes can create bills that go beyond what parents can afford. Last year Valve, the makers of “Counter-Strike”, another shooter game, banned the trading of virtual items which were being used to launder money.

Gambling is another worry. Just as it did with baseball in the 1920s, gambling on e-sports threatens to undo the professionalism of the league. “Counter-Strike”, “League of Legends” and “Overwatch” have all had match-fixing scandals. Some players have resorted to doping—Adderall, a stimulant prescribed to treat attention-deficit disorder, has been used to stay alert during long sessions.

And then there is politics. In the Gulf states and China governments have cracked down on political activism spread via video games. In Hong Kong “Animal Crossing”, a video game, stopped being sold in April after it was used by virtual protesters to mock Beijing.

Not just a game

As games evolve more into social networks, it is also harder to control the content that children see. And unlike the text on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, voice chat is harder to moderate. Rodolfo Rosini, a technology entrepreneur in London, says he has no trouble with his son Finn making friends online, but worries about the “toxicity” of some games he and his children play. On games like “Overwatch”, which mostly have a young-adult audience, bullying is common. Racism is especially common on some American servers, he says. Encountering racist chants is also a risk of going to a football match—but it is easier for parents to avoid.

If anything checks the rise of e-sports competing with football or basketball for the world’s attention, though, it may be that video games move too fast. “League of Legends” has been going for a decade; “Counter-Strike” is almost two decades old. That is an aeon for a video game still to be played. But compared with sports that were codified in the 19th century, it is short. The Overwatch League has struggled over the past year as some of its players have switched to “Valorant”, a new shooting game, or from playing in teams to streaming live on YouTube. In the end, there may simply be too many games to try.

Correction (June 29th 2020): This piece has been updated to correct the video game Daniel Abt was playing when he was disqualified in the Formula E virtual races. It was “rFactor2”, not the official Formula 1 game, as we originally wrote. We are sorry for the mistake.”

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Legends in lockdown”

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Covid-19 has led to a pandemic of plastic pollution

THE THAMES has always been a reflector of the times, says Lara Maiklem, a London “mudlark”. Ms Maiklem spends her days on the river’s foreshore foraging for history’s detritus, from Roman pottery to Victorian clay pipes. She can tell the time of year, she says, just by the type of rubbish she has to sift through: champagne bottles during the first week of January; footballs in summer. The year 2020 has left its own mark. Since the coronavirus reached Britain the mud has sprouted a crop of latex gloves.

In February, half a world away, Gary Stokes docked his boat on Hong Kong’s isolated Soko Island. Soko’s beaches are where OceansAsia, the conservation organisation he runs, sporadically records levels of plastic pollution. Mr Stokes says he is all too accustomed to finding the jetsam the modern world throws up, such as plastic drinks bottles and supermarket carrier-bags. But what he documented that day made news across Hong Kong: 70 surgical facemasks on a 100-metre stretch of beach. Having cleaned it up, he went back four days later. Like a stubborn weed, the masks had returned.

Whether on the foreshore of the Thames or the deserted beaches of Soko, the planet is awash with pandemic plastic. Data are hard to come by but, for example, consumption of single-use plastic may have grown by 250-300% in America since the coronavirus took hold, says Antonis Mavropoulos of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), which represents recycling bodies in 102 countries. Much of that increase is down to demand for products designed to keep covid-19 at bay, including masks, visors and gloves. According to a forecast from Grand View Research, the global disposable-mask market will grow from an estimated $800m in 2019 to $166bn in 2020.

Staggering though such figures are, personal protection is only part of the story. Lockdowns have also led to a boom in e-commerce. In March, as parts of America and Europe shut up shop, some 2.5bn customers are reckoned to have visited Amazon’s website, a 65% increase on last year. In China, more than 25% of physical goods were bought online during the first quarter of the year, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a think-tank in Washington, DC.

Much of what is bought online comes wrapped in plastic—and the bad kind at that. Goods are often packaged in plastic comprising several layers. That keeps the contents safe in aeroplane holds and on delivery lorries. It also makes it nearly impossible to recycle the plastic. At the same time, the locked-down masses have been consuming home deliveries from restaurants in record numbers. First-quarter sales at Uber Eats, one of America’s biggest restaurant-delivery apps, for example, rose by 54% year on year. Every extra portion of curry, or pot of garlic dip, means more plastic waste.

If the public’s increasing appetite for single-use plastic worries environmentalists, then so too does its diminishing inclination to recycle materials that can be reused. In Athens, for example, there has been a 150% increase in the amount of plastic found in the general-waste stream, says Mr Mavropoulos. Anecdotal evidence from ISWA members suggests this is a worldwide trend. An unwillingness to recycle might be explained by people’s nervousness about venturing out to put waste in recycling bins. Or it might just be that lockdowns have put more pressing matters into their minds, prompting a slip in their diligence.

Covid-19 has led to a glut in plastic waste in other ways. For one, the pandemic caused a crash in the oil price. Because petroleum is a major constituent of most plastics, they became cheaper to produce, says David Xie of the University of Warwick. That in turn gave firms less incentive to use the recycled stuff. But the growth of plastic rubbish is mainly caused by the fact that municipalities around the world have curtailed their recycling schemes. Collections have been cut back and plants have been shut over fears about spreading the contagion. Worries about contaminated rubbish have also made some refuse collectors and sorters nervous about going into work (the virus can survive for about 72 hours on plastic).

All of which means that much of the plastic produced this year is ending up either in landfill sites or being incinerated. Both could store up future problems. Landfills, especially in poor countries, are often little more than open dumps. They are responsible for some of the biggest leakages of plastics into oceans, says Mr Mavropoulos. Because the material is light, it is easily swept by rain or wind into waterways.

Incineration is not much better. Again, particularly in the developing world where facilities can be shoddy, not only can burning plastics create toxins, but it also often fails to obliterate the plastic, leaving considerable levels of nano- and micro-particles. These can both be emitted into the atmosphere, where they can cause cancers, or leach into groundwater and eventually into oceans.

There is no academic consensus on whether plastics in the oceans, once they are broken down by salt and sun into micro-particles, are particularly dangerous to animals. Polymers, on which plastics are based, are chemically inert, although some additives can be toxic. But given the huge natural experiment now under way, researchers may soon have a clearer idea. “We are only just starting to understand the potential impacts of nanoparticles and the way in which they can penetrate into living cells in marine organisms as well,” says Dan Parsons, director of the Energy and Environment Institute at the University of Hull. “Plastic nanomaterials released into the environment could be the asbestos of the seas.”

Indeed, like the virus itself, pandemic-era plastic pollution is hitting the poor hardest, says Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. In low-income countries, 93% of waste goes into open dumps, she says. And where there are incinerators, they tend to be of low quality. Even in rich countries, the poor are more likely to live closer to facilities that deal with rubbish, says Ms Andersen.

There are good reasons why the public has turned to plastics, says Mr Parsons: “People know that it protects them” from the coronavirus. Not only that, points out Ms Andersen, it is hardly fair to blame manufacturers for producing environmentally unfriendly protective equipment—or consumers for buying it—given the global scramble to obtain the materials needed to make the masks and visors that keep health workers and others safe. And a world in which less plastic is produced would not necessarily be a greener one. Because the material is light, it often causes lower emissions when it is transported than alternatives do.

But what worries Mr Parsons is that years spent trying to change the public’s attitude towards single-use plastic might now be lost. Preliminary findings from research his team has conducted suggest that the public has reverted to its earlier insouciance about plastic waste. The pandemic has already encouraged the rolling back of anti-plastic legislation, such as taxes on single-use grocery bags in some American states, or a ban on plastic straws in Britain. Ironically, that may even help the climate. But just as covid-19 has scarred families and harmed livelihoods across the world, its effect on the planet will linger, too, in the world’s landfills and oceans.

Editor’s note (June 23rd 2020): This article has been amended to note the ambiguous effect on the climate of producing more plastic.

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Covid-19 raises the risks of violent conflict

BUNIA, A DUSTY city of perhaps 650,000 in Ituri, a province of eastern Congo, has long known war. Since the start of this year, rebels have burned dozens of villages to the ground and hacked hundreds of people to death with machetes. A rebel group made up of assailants from the seed-sowing Lendu tribe has launched a series of attacks on the pastoralist Hema. The government hospital in the city is overrun with patients. “We have people wounded with machetes, with gunshots, women with amputated limbs, people with fractures,” says John Katabuku, a doctor working there. “When the displaced arrive we look after them for free—they have lost everything. But it is difficult for the hospital. We really do not have the means.”

With war comes disease. Ituri is still recovering from an outbreak of Ebola which started in 2018 and killed 2,262 people in the region before subsiding. Now it has covid-19. Though there are just two recorded cases in the province, that is surely a woeful undercount. If the disease is spreading, it would not be easy to tell. Tests have to be sent 1,800km to the capital, Kinshasa. And few people can get tested. Some 22 clinics have been burned down. One man living in the nearby war-torn area of Djugu says that there is nowhere to go if you are sick—all the clinics are either ruined or occupied by rebels. The hospital in Bunia has no working ventilators and only enough space to isolate up to ten people, in the area that was previously being used for suspected Ebola patients. “We have to hospitalise two to three displaced children per bed, so you can see that we do not have infection prevention under control,” says Dr Katabuku.

Covid-19 has thus far taken its most serious toll on rich, peaceful countries. America, Britain, Italy, France and Spain, five of the six worst-affected, have collectively borne over half of recorded deaths from the virus worldwide. But the disease is now rippling through less stable places. What will happen as it does? There are reasons to fear not only that conflict will help the virus to spread, but also that its spread may worsen wars. The two could feed upon each other, creating a cycle of misery it is difficult to arrest.

At the outset of the Peloponnesian war with Sparta, which raged from 431BC to 404BC, Athens was ravaged by a plague that swept through the city for three years, killing thousands of soldiers and a third of its inhabitants. “Such was the nature of the calamity, and heavily did it weigh on the Athenians; death raging within the city and devastation without,” recalled Thucydides, a Greek historian and general. The Spanish flu of 1918, another world-shaping pandemic, festered in the trenches and barracks of the first world war and killed more people than the conflict itself. Over 36,000 American soldiers died before ever reaching France, with 12,000 dying on troop transports. In total, more American soldiers, sailors and Marines died of flu and pneumonia than bullets and bombs.

Some still hope that confronted with an indiscriminate killer, human beings on all sides of a conflict would put down their guns—at least briefly—and confront the shared enemy. In March António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations (UN), began urging a global ceasefire. Encouragingly, fighters in more than a dozen countries seemed to heed his call. The National Liberation Army (ELN) in Colombia, which has been trying to “liberate” the country for a half century, declared a ceasefire on March 30th. So did the New People’s Army (NPA) in the Philippines, a communist guerrilla group that has been in the field since 1969. Saudi Arabia has sought to draw down its forces in Yemen and declared a unilateral ceasefire. In Syria there were just 71 civilians killed in May, the lowest monthly toll since the start of the civil war in 2011, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

But in many places the tranquility has proven short-lived. By the end of April, both the ELN and the NPA announced that they were not extending their ceasefires and would return to violence. The Philippine government argued that the NPA had violated its ceasefire early on and that peace talks were pointless after the guerrillas killed two soldiers at the end of March. The Security Council, the UN’s cockpit of big powers, has been deadlocked by squabbling between America and China, including over weighty matters such as what to call the virus. Political violence has risen in 43 countries and remained steady in 45 since the start of the pandemic, according to data collected by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). Some of the largest increases were in Libya, Yemen and Mali, each enmeshed in civil wars with a web of international links.

Behold a pale horse

Battlegrounds are easy pickings for the virus. But they also help it spread. War displaces civilians, shifting disease from one place to another, while their immune systems are worn down by hunger, trauma and ill health. Trust in government tumbles, making it harder to enforce social distancing or deliver vaccinations. And those who normally provide succour are driven away. UN humanitarian agencies have already cut staff in places like Yemen and placed limits on where their staff can travel, notes Robert Malley, the president of the International Crisis Group, a research outfit.

In Congo, some 480,000 people have fled their homes since violence escalated in late March. This number accounts for 75% of the total number of people displaced worldwide during the pandemic. Near Bunia, over 27,000 displaced people live in rows of white tarpaulin tents in a camp. Twenty-nine-year-old Charlotte Tabu sleeps in a tent that she shares with nine others. She fled when rebels attacked her village. “The rebels burned my house while I was working in the fields,” she says. “We are suffering here. It is not easy to find food in the camp. We need this war to end. I had seven children, two were burned inside my house.”

Health workers worry about the spread of the virus through and among such wretched communities. In Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, for instance, 900,000 Rohingya Muslims, driven out of Myanmar, live in packed camps. In a survey conducted from April 11th to 17th, researchers at Yale found that 25% of respondents in camps had experienced at least one common covid-19 symptom. Most had attended a communal prayer in the previous week, a setting in which transmission is especially likely. Several refugees have already died.

Those with the guns—governments and rebel groups alike—are exploiting opportunities created by the virus and its shock to economic and social life. Since March Islamic State has switched its focus from intimidating civilians to attacking government and government-backed forces in Iraq and Syria. It killed more than 30 Syrians soldiers in two days of fighting in April and briefly seized a small town, Mubarak, in Diyala province north-east of Baghdad. In early May it launched its biggest attack in Iraq since the coalition declared its defeat in 2017, killing ten fighters from Hashad al-Shaabi, a mostly Shia militia.

In Colombia, the Simon Bolivar bridge on the border with Venezuela has closed. That means that many of the 35,000 Venezuelans who crossed on an average day are now being forced to use illegal crossing points controlled by armed groups. Authorities in Colombia fret that this flow of untested people might unleash a health disaster. It also gives rebels a fresh source of recruits among desperate Venezuelans.

That is one of many ways in which Colombia’s armed groups have consolidated their position. Many have jumped at the opportunity to expand their control and build something resembling legitimacy by imposing cordons sanitaires and lockdown. In parts of Nariño, in southwestern Colombia, the Oliver Sinisterra, a “dissident” group descended from FARC, a guerrilla organisation that is now a political party, threatened to “sanction”—in practice, attack—any shop found open or any pharmacy with too many customers inside. In Bolivar, in northern Colombia, the ELN has said only bakeries, food stores and pharmacies may open. In Arauca, on Colombia’s border with Venezuela, the ELN has even offered to educate the children of farmers, while schools are closed. Such indoctrination could breed another generation of rebels.

The crisis has also made it easier for the government to target insurgent groups and their illegal coca crop. Because road traffic has plummeted and the army has been put in charge of supplying towns and cities with food, illicit vehicles heading to rebel hideouts stick out like lines of powder cocaine on a mirror. That has enabled the armed forces to mount a string of attacks in Cauca, on the Pacific coast. The government is also eradicating coca in areas which they previously avoided, because farmers, who would otherwise offer vigorous resistance, are safely locked down.

Armies and navies are also fertile ground for contagion. Troops are packed into barracks; sailors, into cramped ships. Men in uniform gather in large numbers for drills and exercises. They cross oceans and borders. Marauding land armies are rarer than they once were, but many war zones pull in spooks, soldiers and insurgents across borders. In Iran, one of the worst-hit countries in the Middle East with nearly 9,000 deaths, Mahan Air, an airline affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG), continued to operate between China and Iran for weeks after other airlines had suspended flights. Several commanders contracted the virus. The movement of IRGC-financed Shia fighters between Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan also spread the disease. Syria’s first documented cases occurred in Saida Zeinab, a Shia shrine near Damascus under the control of IRGC-backed armed groups.

Rich countries’ armies are affected too—in ways that may have lasting consequences. In America over 8,000 military personnel have tested positive for covid-19, with three deaths (the case fatality rate for those with military ties is 0.3%, considerably lower than the rate for the broader public, perhaps because soldiers tend to be young and fit). Foreign governments have sharply cut ground forces and military trainers, including most of Iraq’s 29 coalition partners pursuing Islamic State (IS). In March America withdrew from six bases in Iraq and NATO suspended its training programme. Defender-20, a military exercise slated to be the largest movement of American troops to Europe since the cold war, was halted, not long after a Polish general involved in its planning was taken ill. At the same time, America’s armed forces, like many others, have been tied up on the home front, to support beleaguered civilian authorities with everything from logistics to testing.

The most dramatic impact, however, has been on navies, whose confined spaces are ripe for disease. “It is a Petri dish of virus,” says one former commander of an American carrier strike group. “There is no social distancing of 5,000 people on a vehicle that’s three football pitches long…and one football pitch wide.” America’s navy comprises a quarter of the country’s military personnel but a third of all cases among them. The USS Theodore Roosevelt, one of America’s largest carriers, was forced to halt operations in the Pacific and return to port in Guam in March after an outbreak of covid-19 that eventually infected 1,000 of its crew, out of 5,000 or so in total, including its captain. It limped back to sea only at the end of May. France’s sole aircraft-carrier, the more diminutive Charles de Gaulle, was also taken out by covid-19, with two-thirds of its crew infected (though only half were symptomatic).

Many countries are anxious that such self-evident disruption to their armed forces reeks of vulnerability. On May 6th the UN’s Mr Guterres warned that some “may see opportunities because the attention of governments and the international community is absorbed by the health crisis”. That is presumably why Thomas Modly, America’s then navy secretary, rashly sacked the Roosevelt’s captain, who had sounded the alarm about conditions on the ship. In a speech to the Roosevelt’s ailing crew, Mr Modly told them to “stand strong as warriors, not weak like victims”. The ship, he said, “has to demonstrate to the citizens back home that it has its act together, and that it is knocking down this virus, just as it would knock down the Chinese or the North Koreans or the Russians if any one of those nations were ever so stupid enough to mess with the Big Stick”. (Mr Modly himself was later forced to resign for his poor judgment.)

Opening the seals

The urge to downplay weakness and project strength has resulted in a form of nervous muscle-flexing that Nick Childs of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank, calls “pandemic deterrence”. In mid-April China steamed its own aircraft-carrier through the Miyako Strait between Taiwan and Japan, an “opportunistic” act “almost calculated to contrast with the plight” of the stricken Roosevelt, notes Mr Childs. On May 22nd America’s navy pointedly noted that it had seven out of eleven carriers at sea, though it is implausible that all are fighting fit. In mid-June three were sent to the Pacific for the first time in three years (see article).

Covid-19 has not had the shattering effect on military power the Spanish Flu had a century ago. Modern health care is vastly better. Today’s pandemic, unlike the earlier one, largely spares the young adults who fill the ranks of armed forces. But as governments have been preoccupied at home and distracted abroad, the virus has deepened geopolitical tensions—between America and China, above all—and worsened what was already a febrile international mood. “Some leaders may…see covid-19 as cover to embark on destabilising foreign adventures, whether to deflect domestic discontent or because they sense they will face little pushback amid the global health crisis,” warns the ICG.

The line between pandemic deterrence and adventurism can be hard to draw. But some of the geopolitical manoeuvring has already taken a more violent turn. In early March, Indian troops in Ladakh, a Himalayan region abutting China, delayed their annual summer exercise after soldiers were infected by covid-19. China went ahead with its own matching drill. But the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) peeled away from exercises and dashed to several disputed areas on the mountainous border, where it dug in to strategic territory. India’s army stumbled upon them at the end of April, prompting it to rush forces to the disputed area.

The entanglement of virus and war was encapsulated in a series of videos and photographs showing PLA troops in the aftermath of a brawl in May, wearing masks as they leant over trussed and bloodied Indian captives, mindful of good respiratory hygiene even during a skirmish between nuclear-armed rivals. Another fight erupted on June 15th, resulting in serious casualties on both sides (see article). “A section of the Chinese leadership believes that the…pandemic is a window of opportunity for China to expand its regional and global influence,” reflected Shyam Saran, India’s former top diplomat, in May. “China stabbed us in the back,” complained an Indian officer to News18, a television channel. “In the middle of a pandemic, this was not expected.”

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Horsemen of the apocalypse”

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Covid-19 has stalled the wedding industry

HEATHER QUINLAN and Adam McGovern, a couple from Parsipanny, New Jersey, intended to marry in October, amid family and friends. But as covid-19 outbreaks swept through America, that looked unrealistic. “We decided that, since we had no idea when the actual, traditional ceremony would take place, there was no time like the present,” says Ms Quinlan, a writer who, fittingly, has just finished a book about pandemics. Looking for alternatives, they settled on Zoom, the video-calling software that in lockdown has facilitated everything from work meetings to birthday parties. Mr McGovern contacted Parsippany’s mayor, Michael Soriano, who in turn spoke to New Jersey’s governor. He signed an executive order allowing civil marriages to happen remotely. The marriage license was then mailed back-and-forth to witnesses. The couple were married in their home on May 20th by Mr Soriano, dialling in from his office.

In normal times, weddings are big business. Worldwide, the industry is estimated to be worth $300bn a year. Each wedding feeds a constellation of businesses, from caterers and photographers to florists and entertainers. International “destination weddings”, as well as stag and hen parties, are a boon to the travel industry. Those in the wedding business often boast that it is “recession-proof”: people will always want to celebrate getting married. But it is not pandemic-proof. Couples have been forced to choose between delaying their nuptials and finding new ways to wed.

In some countries, disruption began before official restrictions were imposed. An estimated 80% of the world’s wedding gowns are made in China, and those made elsewhere are often reliant on Chinese fabrics and materials. In February, as China closed factories to try and curb coronavirus outbreaks, brides in America and Europe found themselves suddenly dress-less. By April, most nations had instituted lockdowns. Bans on people gathering put paid to conventional weddings: the average American nuptials are attended by 140 guests, according to The Knot, a wedding planning website.

For those set on a big day, the only option is to postpone. Katrina Otter, a planner of luxury weddings in Britain, says that almost all the couples on her books with spring or summer weddings have deferred them until 2021. This is hard on vendors and suppliers, many of whom are self-employed, but the most entrepreneurial have adapted: florists switch to deliveries of flowers and produce; photographers do socially-distanced family portraits; Ms Otter has been training other wedding planners.

Drought now may lead to deluge later. Ms Otter notes that demand for wedding dates next year has rocketed; many venues are already booked up from April to October. (More people may end up marrying on Sundays and weekday weddings.) In post-lockdown China, couples have rushed to wed. On May 20th, China’s own Valentine’s Day, more than 200,000 would-be-weds registered for marriage licences. In the eastern province of Anhui, registrations were up 47% from the same day last year.

Some couples won’t wait. Many of India’s 12m annual weddings are scheduled for astrologically auspicious dates. Plenty fall in the autumn but there is also a cluster in spring, especially in western India. In the state of Gujarat, a reported 30,000 weddings have already been postponed or cancelled. Those determined to keep their dates have begun getting married privately or by video. Shaadi.com, a popular online matchmaker, is running a “weddings from home” service which provides everything from a pandit (Hindu priest) to tutorials from make-up artists. Guests can join in: Anupam Mittal, Shaadi.com’s chief executive, recently participated in a ceremony with 300 online attendees, plus a livestream to thousands more. Such initiatives aid marrying couples but do little to help the informal labourers and vendors who rely on weddings for their livelihood.

Weddings have pivoted to the web elsewhere too. In April New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, issued an executive order, nicknamed “Project Cupid”, allowing couples to apply for marriage licences online from May 7th. (Previously, they had to turn up at the state’s marriage bureaus.) Annie Lawrence, a minister in New York City, is now conducting several Zoom weddings each week. She notes that many couples are motivated, both existentially and practically, by the pandemic. For some, being with the one they love suddenly feels more urgent; and even among romantics, the desire to share health insurance can be a factor. Project Cupid has proved so popular that no more marriage-licence appointments are available until September. Other states, including California and New Jersey, have adopted similar policies.

The speed at which “normal” weddings will resume will depend on how countries ease lockdown measures. Many European countries are beginning to relax the rules about how many people can congregate; Denmark plans to permit social gatherings of up to 500 over the next few months. Some Indian states now allow gatherings of 50 (though, in a country where guest lists can run into the thousands, this will hardly be business as usual). In America, Ohio will allow weddings and receptions of up to 300 people from June 1st, provided guests follow social-distancing guidelines. Weddings without dancing or mingling will not be quite the same.

Yet some may welcome forced simplicity. In Gaza, where the groom traditionally pays, weddings can be ruinously expensive. Thrifty men are reportedly using venue closures as an excuse for smaller, cheaper ceremonies. A Kenyan couple who wed in private, spending a fraction of their original budget, told the BBC that they have been inundated with calls from young people saying they had inspired them not to fall into debt over their weddings. Others may do well to heed their example, even when restrictions lift. One-fifth of the average Indian’s wealth is thought to go to “wedding services”, including matchmaking. In 2018 China’s ministry of civil affairs called for an end to costly weddings, which it said were incompatible with socialist values. In Latin America too, many couples go into debt to get hitched in style.

It is not clear when the global wedding industry will be up and running again. In the meantime, the act of marrying has proved itself adaptable. For her Zoom wedding, with her dress stuck in the shop for alterations, Ms Quinlan wore her mother’s bridal gown and ring. Mr McGovern borrowed his father-in-law’s class ring. During the ceremony, Mr Soriano read a familiar text from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “Love is patient, love is kind.” The passage continues: “Love…always hopes, always perseveres.”

Editor’s note: Some of our covid-19 coverage is free for readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. For more stories and our pandemic tracker, see our coronavirus hub

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Covid-19 forces courts to hold proceedings online

The jury is still out on the benefits of justice by Zoom

International

IT WAS BY digital video shared in May that global attention first turned to the killing of George Floyd. In a striking parallel, it was again by video that Derek Chauvin, the white police officer filmed kneeling on Mr Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, made his first appearance in court as a murder suspect. Handcuffed and in an orange jumpsuit, with a protective mask over his mouth, the 44-year-old cop was beamed into Hennepin County court in Minneapolis on June 8th for around 15 minutes from a maximum-security prison. From there, through the lens of a digital video camera, Mr Chauvin looked on as a judge told him his bail would be set for at least $1m.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced courts around the globe to modernise with unprecedented haste. America’s covid-19 stimulus package includes a provision for federal judges to use teleconferencing. Its Supreme Court conducted hearings by telephone for the first time. India’s Supreme Court began hearing all cases on an app called Vidyo on March 23rd. Spain held its first internet trial in May. Britain’s Supreme Court changed its rules to require all evidence to be submitted digitally. A branch of government built on precedent is now procedurally breaking it. The speed with which it is doing so means the effects are hard to predict but certain to reshape the judicial system, even after covid-19 has subsided.

Legal reformers have long advocated digitisation. Technology can make justice cheaper and more accessible, streamlining systems already stretched to their limits. Hearings in digital conference rooms can be easier to attend than physical ones for reporters covering the courts. Remote proceedings also prevent the spread of disease. The best way to get people into otherwise packed courtrooms without the risk of contagion is by video link. Although speaking on services such as Zoom feels awkward, some research has shown that digital platforms have little effect on verdicts. Defendants in a simulated criminal trial who testified on camera in a recent Australian study were no more likely to be found guilty than those who appeared beside their lawyers in court.

But such technology is untested at scale. Research so far on its impact has been inconclusive. Slow internet speeds, bad hardware and confusing software can negate the time and expense supposedly saved. Human-rights advocates argue that delivering harsh sentences remotely is “inhumane”—if society is going to condemn someone to death, it should have the courage to do it face to face. Indeed, in May a man in Singapore received his death sentence (for drug smuggling) by Zoom.

Further, digital justice threatens to upend the ancient understanding that courts should be open to the public. Spectators remind courts that their decisions have bearing on society. Video access could make courtrooms more accessible by extending the number of people who might attend from a few dozen to thousands or more. But as internet users have discovered over the past decade, the web is easy to wall off. Courts could block access with passwords and private Zoom sessions, or leave proceedings open but difficult to join, on hard-to-find web pages. So video justice needs rules ensuring some public scrutiny.

For legal systems, the pandemic has amounted to an unexpected, months-long experiment into digital procedure. Richard Susskind, author of “Online Courts and the Future of Justice”, said at a recent British parliamentary committee meeting that the adoption of remote hearings around the world has for the first time produced a significant amount of data for researchers. Both civil-law and common-law countries appear to be adopting remote courts at similar rates, he says. Countries with a greater openness to alternative dispute-resolution processes, such as mediation or conciliation, may be more open to new technologies.

Initial findings suggest a divergence between the branches of the justice system. Civil cases—those without juries—appear to transfer easily to cyberspace. On June 5th Britain’s Civil Justice Council published a report that surveyed more than 1,000 lawyers, journalists and members of the public who had taken part in remote civil cases since mid-March. Some 71.5% of respondents said they had had a positive or very positive experience with remote hearings.

Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that participants in family courts have been less positive. In Britain judges have spoken out about the difficulty of handling delicate matters such as child custody remotely. Family-court justices often speak directly with lay participants at the end of trials to explain their decisions. The internet curtails opportunities to offer empathy outside a hearing’s regular formalities. In criminal courts, meanwhile, the need for juries has posed big challenges. It would be difficult to ensure the impartiality of jurors logging in from their kitchen tables, where they could be influenced by outsiders.

As countries relax social-distancing restrictions, courts may face new and potentially even more difficult questions. Young demonstrators newly alive to the inequities of the justice system—its great costs, its slowness, its procedural complexities and robed formalities often alien to those of humbler backgrounds—may bring greater scrutiny to courts. Many have amassed backlogs of cases put on pause during the pandemic. To cope, authorities may have to keep more of the emergency digital measures than they might have imagined.

Editor’s note: Some of our covid-19 coverage is free for readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. For more stories and our pandemic tracker, see our coronavirus hub

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Autocrats gleefully decry America’s racial turmoil

ANTI-AMERICAN AUTOCRATS are enjoying the spectacle. All around the world, America is being derided for its brutal police and ill-treatment of minorities. For regimes with much worse records, what could be sweeter?

For China the timing was delicious. On May 28th its parliament rubber-stamped a proposal to impose a draconian security law on Hong Kong. America denounced this infringement of Hong Kongers’ freedoms. Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, met Chinese democrats. The editor of Global Times, a party-controlled tabloid, sneered that Mr Pompeo should “stand with the angry people of Minneapolis, just like you did with people of Hong Kong”. China’s top spokeswoman tweeted: “I can’t breathe.”

Chinese state media loudly lament America’s bias against blacks. They say little about Chinese bias against them, let alone the internment of perhaps 1m Muslims in Xinjiang for such crimes as praying and having big beards. Torched shops and club-wielding cops in America fill Chinese screens. Anyone in mainland China who dared to mark the anniversary on June 4th of the slaughter of pro-democracy protesters near Tiananmen Square risked arrest.

Russian state mouthpieces have adopted a similar tone. “The key values of the Free World are shattering under the blows of police batons and burning in the flames of looted shops,” went a voice-over on Russia’s main TV channel. To pump up the tension it showed the closing scene of a film, “Brother-2”, in which a Russian hero, flying back from America, listens to a rock song, “Goodbye America”. To the movie it added real news footage of American cars on fire and a police van ramming a crowd.

Russia’s propaganda, like China’s, tries to persuade viewers that America is irredeemably racist and that mass protests mean anarchy. Dmitry Kiselev, Russia’s propagandist-in-chief, drew parallels with Ukrainian protesters who rose against a Kremlin-backed government in 2014. “Here is a woman urinating on top of an overturned police vehicle,” he intoned against a backdrop of American street chaos. “When the state abandons its law enforcers, it is a bad symptom.”

Iran’s leaders have piled in, too. “A cop kneeling on a black man’s neck and letting him choke to death…is the nature of the American government. They have done the same to such countries as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria,” said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader.

Yet autocrats’ propaganda is not always persuasive. Russians know Mr Putin wants to distract attention from his lawless security services and unfathomably rich cronies. And democracies adapt better to popular complaints. America is prosecuting the cop who killed Mr Floyd and rethinking police tactics. Hong Kongers know that none of the police who beat up pro-democracy demonstrators last year will be punished. An official report into the protests was a whitewash.

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “We love to see you burn”

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The killing of George Floyd has sparked global soul-searching

LOCAL POLICE arrested Giovanni López, a 30-year-old Mexican bricklayer, in Ixtlahuacán de los Membrillos, a town near Guadalajara, on May 4th. Why they detained him is unclear. The next morning his family found him dead in a nearby hospital, with bruises on his head and a bullet in his ankle. His name did not go viral; no politician lamented his death.

Christian López, who filmed his brother’s arrest, stayed silent at first. He would later claim that messengers acting on behalf of the local mayor threatened to kill his family if the footage went public. But then came the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the anti-police, anti-racism backlash that has swept the world. “I saw it and thought, this is the same thing that happened to my brother,” he says. On June 1st he went to the press.

The chief prosecutor in the state of Jalisco, where the death occurred, faced a barrage of questions. On June 4th a march in Guadalajara, marking a month since Giovanni’s death, turned violent. Calls demanding #Justiciaparagiovanni increased. The three officers connected with Giovanni’s death were arrested. The mayor’s role is under investigation. Protests have since spread to Tijuana and the state of Veracruz against two local pre-Floyd police killings, of Oliver López (no relation) in March and Carlos Andrés Navarro in May.

Mr Floyd’s death has provoked protests around the world. Why his death set off a global movement whereas countless other unjust killings did not is hard to say. Mr Floyd was American, of course, and the world pays more attention to the United States than to Mexico or any other country. His death was filmed in excruciating detail. It happened at a time when billions of people were cooped up and frustrated at home, thanks to covid-19. Lockdowns have surely made the global mood more combustible.

But the important points are that police brutality is rife in many countries and minorities fear discrimination everywhere. That is why Mr Floyd’s fate resonated. Just as women on every continent found common cause in the #MeToo movement, despite the range of their experiences, so protesters around the world have united around the cry that black lives matter.

At their simplest the protests mark people’s antipathy towards cops who beat or kill those whom they vowed to protect. Protests have spread throughout Mexico, where nine in ten homicides go unpunished and many police moonlight for the other side. The country’s most notorious unsolved crime, the disappearance and presumed murder in 2014 of 43 student teachers in the town of Ayotzinapa, is thought to have been orchestrated by police paid by drug gangs.

Some of the global anger is directed at the United States. Protests have erupted outside American embassies from Spain to South Africa. Nana Akufo-Addo, Ghana’s president, tweeted that: “Black people, the world over, are shocked and distraught.” President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa said: “The killing of George Floyd has opened up deep wounds for us all.”

Many protesters would agree. But many also seethe that their leaders condemn police abuse in Minnesota while allowing or even encouraging it at home. America’s police kill more people than those of any other rich democracy, but cops in some developing countries are much more lethal (see chart 1). So plenty of the protests around the world are about local abuses as well.

On June 8th in Mathare, a poor part of Nairobi, about 200 Kenyans marched against police atrocities. Since a covid-19 curfew was introduced in Kenya’s capital on March 27th police have killed 15 people, according to the country’s Independent Police Oversight Authority. “[T]he poor people of this country have come together to say no to police killings…and also stand in solidarity with the global protest against police excesses,” Juliet Wanjera, a member of the Mathare Social Justice Centre, an NGO, has told journalists.

Since 2012 there have been more than 40,000 complaints against the South African Police Service for alleged crimes including rape and murder, with just 531 convictions. Security forces have killed at least 11 people during South Africa’s lockdown, in place since March 27th, and more than 200,000 have been arrested. Mr Ramaphosa has said merely that authorities have been guilty of “over-enthusiasm”.

That will not wash with many South Africans. The killing on April 10th of Collins Khosa, a 40-year-old man from Alexandra, a township in Johannesburg, by soldiers, has prompted particular outrage. According to his family, Mr Khosa was targeted for drinking a beer even though he was on his own property. (Buying alcohol was illegal in April and May, as per lockdown regulations, but drinking it was not.)

Some analysts worry that police abuse in America may make it easier for others to follow suit. “It will certainly be very easy for leaders in Africa, those with their own dictatorial tendencies, to justify future behaviour by referencing the actions of the US administration in the last few weeks,” argues Idayat Hassan of the Centre for Democracy and Development, a think-tank in Abuja, Nigeria. Police brutality in developing countries rarely prompts a global reaction. The killing by Zimbabwean security forces of 17 protesters in January 2019 did not lead to mass protests elsewhere.

In the state of Rio de Janeiro (population 6.3m), police killed 1,810 people last year, nearly twice as many as in the United States (population 328m). Police say most of the dead are gunmen from favelas, informal settlements that are often controlled by criminals. But watchdogs point to a rise in extrajudicial killings, including massacres of more than ten people, fuelled by warlike police operations, sometimes with snipers in helicopters. Images of smiling children killed by police all too often appear on people’s televisions. They include eight-year-old Agatha, shot by a stray bullet last September while riding in a van with her mother, and 14-year-old João Pedro, killed in a botched police raid last month.

Brazilians in more than ten cities took to the streets on June 7th to mourn their deaths and to protest against the government of Jair Bolsonaro, a populist who campaigned on promises to give immunity to police who kill. He said last year that a bill to this effect would cause criminals to “die in the streets like cockroaches”. Congress rejected the measure, but Brazil’s trigger-happy police are rarely prosecuted. Still, on June 5th a Supreme Court judge banned most police operations in favelas for the remainder of the pandemic.

Of the 6,220 people killed by Brazil’s police in 2018, three out of four were black. In Indonesia, #BlackLivesMatter has found new relevance as #PapuanLivesMatter. Indonesia runs half of the island of New Guinea, and controls it almost as if it were an occupying power. Papuans—whose skin is darker than that of other Indonesians—face bleak economic prospects and violence at the hands of security forces.

In 2019 a Papuan student dormitory in Surabaya in eastern Java was besieged by a mob claiming its inhabitants had thrown the national flag into a gutter. Some taunted them as “monkeys”. Rather than dispersing the mob, riot police stormed the dorm with tear-gas and arrested 43 Papuans. That and similar actions in other cities were the catalyst last summer for huge demonstrations by young Indonesians in support of Papuans. In recent days calls have grown for Indonesians to denounce the discrimination that Papuans suffer.

A determined people

Even where police brutality is rarer, attention has turned to domestic racism. In Melksham, a small town in England, 120 people gathered on June 7th to protest against it. Some 97% of the town’s inhabitants are white. It has not seen a major protest since woollen-mill workers rioted in 1802. “White privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard,” Botan Williams, the event’s 15-year-old organiser, told the crowd, “it just means your skin colour isn’t one of the things making it harder.”

Throughout Britain demonstrators have echoed their American counterparts, chanting “hands up, don’t shoot” at (unarmed) police. Placards named black victims of British police violence: Mark Duggan, Rashan Charles and Edson Da Costa. Black people are just 3% of the population in England and Wales but 12% of prisoners. Black men are stopped and searched at nine times the rate of white men.

Similarly in Australia Aboriginals and Torres Strait islanders are just over 3% of the overall population but 29% of those in prison. An indigenous female Australian is more likely to be behind bars than a non-indigenous male. Scott Morrison, the conservative prime minister, says: “There is no need to import things happening in other countries here to Australia” because “Australia is a fair country…[it] is not the United States.” Protesters were unconvinced. Indigenous Australians are poorer and less healthy—and have less access to housing, land, education and social workers—than other Australians.

The first demonstration in France since Mr Floyd’s death brought 20,000 people carrying “Black Lives Matter” banners to the main Paris courthouse on June 2nd. It centred on a French controversy: the death in 2016 of Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old who was pinned to the ground by police officers during his arrest. A medical report released on the morning of the demonstration suggested that he was asphyxiated. The Floyd protests carry particular resonance in the banlieues, high-rise estates where friction between the police and residents, many of them of immigrant origin, frames daily life. This distrust can erupt into confrontation, violence and, occasionally, death. There were 19 deaths in France during police operations last year.

France is the first European country where the protests have changed policy. Earlier this year, after a motorbike courier died of asphyxiation during his arrest in Paris, President Emmanuel Macron asked Christophe Castaner, his interior minister, to come up with ways to “improve police ethics”. On June 8th those proposals were hastily put together. Mr Castaner acknowledged racism within the police force, and said that choke holds would be banned. France would take a “zero tolerance” approach to racism, he declared.

Before the protests, New Zealand was mulling whether to equip more of its usually unarmed police with guns. Evaluation of a six-month trial was to have been completed by the end of June. But on June 9th the head of police said he had received over 4,000 letters in a week, and that the plan would be permanently scrapped.

Some Europeans have deplored American racism while failing to see the parallels in their own countries. Europe’s biggest Black Lives Matter rallies were in Germany. Signs in English were far more prominent than German ones. In Spain, too, demonstrators mostly condemned American racism, with only cursory mentions of Europe’s treatment of African migrants. There were few mentions of Europe’s widespread religious discrimination against Muslims.

Europeans are sometimes complacent about racism. Granted, European police shoot far fewer people than American police do. But this is largely because they are less likely to be shot at. Last year 48 police were killed—most of them shot—in the line of duty in America; in Britain one was.

Measuring prejudice is hard. Racist attitudes have been socially unacceptable nearly everywhere for decades, so many who harbour them will not admit it to pollsters. But some do. And according to a recent international World Values Survey, more Germans and Dutch say they would not want “people of another race” as neighbours than Americans (see chart 2).

Ethnic profiling by police is illegal in most countries, but common. Members of minorities (especially young men) are routinely frisked and asked for identification when out in public. In private, many police admit to taking account of race when deciding whom to stop, noting that some groups, for a variety of reasons, commit more crimes than others. Such profiling makes life much harder for those who happen to belong to those groups, the vast majority of whom are law-abiding.

Many people do not care. Brazilians knew what to expect when they elected Mr Bolsonaro. Two-thirds of Germans think racial profiling is an acceptable tool of policing, according to a poll in 2017 by YouGov. “The worst thing about it,” says Sony Kapoor, an Indian-born Briton who lives in Norway, “is the smugness of Europeans who think they don’t harbour the same sort of racism as Americans.”

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “So other people would be also free”

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NATO sets its sights on China

EVEN AS IT grapples with short-term troubles, among them another spat between America and Germany, NATO is starting to plan for the next ten years: how to adapt to the rising power of China? Finding an answer may be vital if the alliance is to retain a sense of purpose in 2030.

The source of the latest turbulence, as so often in recent years, is President Donald Trump. On June 5th the Wall Street Journal reported that Mr Trump had decided to reduce the number of American forces in Germany by 9,500 by September, more than a quarter of the 34,500 currently stationed there. A memorandum said to have been signed by the president’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, would cap the number of American troops who could be in Germany at any time (swelling through exercises or rotations) at 25,000, compared with the present limit of 52,500. Mr Trump has long complained about Germany’s failure to come close to honouring its promise to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence. Some of the troops could be relocated to Poland, which does achieve that target, though whether Poland ends up with more American forces than envisaged under an agreement reached with America last autumn remains unclear.

There is as yet no official confirmation of the move. Some doubt whether it will really happen—on June 9th the Journal reported that 22 Republican members of Congress had written to the White House urging it to reconsider. But the reports have already caused dismay in Germany, not least because “nobody in Washington thought about informing its NATO ally Germany in advance,” as Peter Beyer, who serves as co-ordinator for transatlantic co-operation at the foreign ministry, put it. NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, who spoke with Mr Trump on June 8th, refused to comment, pointing instead to America’s increased military presence in Europe in recent years. “The US presence in Europe is good for Europe, but it’s also good for the United States,” Mr Stoltenberg stressed, noting that America’s operations in Germany, such as the air base at Ramstein and military hospital at Landstuhl, are used to project force beyond Europe, into the Middle East and Africa.

More turbulence currently comes from covid-19. NATO is working on preparedness for a possible second wave of the pandemic. Although the alliance has had to cancel some exercises, Mr Stoltenberg insists that it has maintained operational readiness. NATO’s headquarters, indeed, had updated its plans for a pandemic in December.

Beyond these immediate concerns, NATO is starting to look ahead to its priorities for the longer term. At their London summit last December NATO leaders gave Mr Stoltenberg the task of considering how the alliance should prepare for the next decade. His conclusions will feed into a summit next year. As a start, on June 8th he launched his “reflection on NATO 2030”.

He outlined three ways in which the alliance must adapt. One is to ensure that it stays strong militarily, investing in new technologies. Second, it needs to become more united politically (something that may become easier beyond Mr Trump’s time in office), bringing a broader range of policies together to strengthen NATO’s 30 members. The experience of covid-19, for example, suggests there needs to be a wariness of over-reliance on Chinese supplies, something NATO will no doubt consider as it updates its “baseline requirements” for national resilience, to ensure members have the necessary robustness in telecoms and other infrastructure, as well as the ability to deal with mass casualties. Third, and most strikingly, Mr Stoltenberg envisages the alliance taking a more global approach—in particular, adjusting to China’s rise.

Founded to stand up to the Soviet Union in Europe, NATO has suffered repeated bouts of angst about its relevance. It was increasingly drawn into “out-of-area operations” after the cold war, initially in the Balkans and ultimately as far away as Afghanistan. More recently it has focused again on the threat of a more aggressive Russia. Forming a coherent response to the challenge of China is thus new.

In reality, China has become hard for the alliance to ignore. Mr Stoltenberg sees “China coming closer to us” in all sorts of ways, from the Arctic to Africa, and from cyberspace to 5G networks and other infrastructure investment in Europe, not to mention intensified joint exercises with Russia. China is the world’s second-largest military spender, Mr Stoltenberg points out, and is deploying cruise missiles that can reach the whole of NATO. Just as important, if unstated, is that NATO needs to shape up on China if it is to continue to matter to America, which is ever more concentrated on its great-power challenger and, under Mr Trump, worryingly ambivalent about the alliance.

What might NATO’s stance on China look like in practice? Ian Brzezinski of the Atlantic Council, a think-tank based in Washington, DC, suggests the alliance could establish a NATO-China Council, along the lines of the talking-shop it has with Russia. He urges deeper consultation and more robust military exercises with partners in the Pacific. Mr Brzezinski would also like to see NATO establish one of its “centres of excellence” in the region, and a small military headquarters there to co-ordinate exercises and contribute to regional awareness. (Already, Japan has joined NATO’s cyber centre of excellence, based in Tallinn in Estonia.)

Mr Stoltenberg is not yet ready for such details. He cautions that the new focus on China is “not about moving NATO into the South China Sea”. But he sees closer collaboration with like-minded countries in the region, including Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. As an early sign of this, Australia’s defence minister will attend the meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels next week—the first participation in a general meeting of this type, unrelated to discussion of a specific mission, such as the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan.

It is still early days for NATO’s thinking on the challenge of China’s growing power. But one idea will guide its emerging strategy: that the alliance itself offers a key advantage. Even though China’s GDP may before long outweigh America’s, the alliance has nearly a billion people and half the world’s military and economic might. One of Joe Biden’s main foreign-policy advisers, Tony Blinken, last month stressed the importance of working with other democracies in Asia and Europe. On its own, he said, America is about 25% of the world economy; “when China is engaged in practices that are unfair, and we want them to change, it’s a lot harder for them to ignore 60% of the world’s GDP than it is to ignore a quarter of it.” Mr Trump may be unimpressed by that argument, but his potential successor clearly sets a lot of store by it.

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How George Floyd’s death reverberates around the world

SOME MIGHT dispute whether America remains the “indispensable nation”, a phrase deployed in 1998 by Madeleine Albright, then the country’s secretary of state. But it is certainly still the nation that cannot be ignored, the one that, in a sense, sets the political weather globally. So when it goes through a trauma as it has since the killing by the police of George Floyd, the impact is felt worldwide. Mr Floyd’s death has provoked popular protests in dozens of countries; it has also been an opportunity for gloating from the governments of America’s foes and rivals, and has been an embarrassment for its friends and allies.

This past weekend saw hundreds of protests not just in America, but around the world. On Saturday in Parliament Square in London, the largest of many demonstrations in Britain, tens of thousands of people braved chilly squalls and the risk of covid-19, which had led government ministers to call for protests to be shunned. They shouted Mr Floyd’s name, chanted “Black Lives Matter” and, every now and then, dropped to one knee with one clenched fist raised skyward. The crowd, overwhelmingly young and racially mixed, mostly wore masks but paid no attention to social-distancing constraints. Many regarded the danger posed by the virus as proof of their commitment to the anti-racist cause. Their parents or grandparents might have been hurt or arrested in the battle outside the American embassy that followed a protest against the Vietnam war in March 1968. But they too, in their own eyes at least, were putting themselves on the line.

They were protesting against not just violence by the American police, or President Donald Trump’s handling of the unrest, but against racism at home. Many placards listed names of black victims of police violence in Britain, such as Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old whose shooting by the police in London in 2011 sparked widespread rioting. They also recalled the victims of other crimes whose perpetrators had not been brought to justice, such as Belly Mujinga, a railway worker who died of covid-19, allegedly after being spat at by a carrier of the virus.

In other countries, too, George Floyd’s murder has resurrected old worries about the justice system’s treatment of ethnic minorities. In France, for example, protesters remembered Adama Traoré, a young Frenchman of Malian descent who died in police custody in 2016. And Brazil on Sunday saw nationwide marches against President Jair Bolsonaro and police violence against black people, including the accidental killing of a 14-year-old in Rio de Janeiro on May 18th.

Elsewhere representatives of entire communities have drawn parallels between their plight and that of African-Americans. Palestinians saw echoes of George Floyd’s fate in the shooting by police in Jerusalem on May 30th of Iyad Halak, a 32-year-old with severe autism, who was apparently mistaken for somebody else. In Australia, Aboriginal activists pointed out that more than 400 indigenous people have died in police custody since 1991, when a commission of inquiry, held to investigate the problem, made hundreds of recommendations to promote reconciliation between Aboriginal and other Australians. The “Black Lives Matter” slogan has been adopted in Indonesia by indigenous people in the provinces of Papua and West Papua. Darker-skinned than many Indonesians, many Papuans complain of widespread discrimination, and hanker after independence.

That no country is entirely free of racism and discrimination may have restrained some politicians from commenting on America’s problems. Its strongest critics, however, showed no such reticence. After all, American leaders rarely pull their punches.

China in particular relished accusing America of hypocrisy. The timing was poignant. On May 28th China’s parliament rubber-stamped a proposal to impose a security law on Hong Kong that America insisted robbed the territory of the autonomy it was promised. June 4th marked the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. Mike Pompeo, America’s secretary of state, undeterred by the irony that America now appeared far more likely than China to deploy armoured vehicles against peaceful protesters in its national capital, observed the date by meeting veterans of China’s democracy movement. Hu Xijin, editor of Global Times, a tub-thumping party-controlled tabloid, clearly enjoyed drawing attention to these coincidences. On Twitter, he called on Mr Pompeo to “stand with the angry people of Minneapolis, just like you did with people of Hong Kong”.

Iran’s leaders have been milking America’s predicament for all it is worth. “A cop kneeling on a black man’s neck and letting him choke to death…is the nature of the American government. They have done the same to such countries as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria,” said Ayatollah Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, in a televised speech. Authoritarian leaders elsewhere—in Russia and Turkey, for example—have similarly jumped to criticise America, and, by implication, try to vindicate their own repression. Even North Korea, by many assessments the world’s most thuggish and despotic regime, tried to seize the moral high ground. “Demonstrators enraged by the extreme racists throng even to the White House. This is the reality in the US today,” claimed a spokesman quoted in the ruling-party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun.

America’s friends and allies, by contrast, have found themselves in a tight spot. Few want to antagonise America, or Mr Trump. So many have sought refuge in keeping their mouths shut. Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, for example, has been uncharacteristically taciturn on the issue. And Justin Trudeau, his Canadian counterpart, responded to a question about Mr Trump’s handling of recent events with more than 20 seconds of eloquent silence, before beginning his answer: “We all watch in horror and consternation what’s going on in the United States…”, before turning to racism and inequality in Canada.

On the other hand, the pressure from the streets means that Western leaders cannot ignore racism either in America or at home. A young generation for whom this has become, along with climate change and sexual inequality, one of the big political issues will force an examination of many national blindspots. In the British port city of Bristol, for example, protesters toppled a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave-trader, and heaved it into a canal. And in the Netherlands, the prime minister, Mark Rutte, said he had changed his mind about his previous defence of the “Zwarte Piet” tradition cherished by many Dutch people: when Santa Claus visits the country each December, he is accompanied by “black Petes”, helpers played by children or adults dressed up in blackface, big red lips and curly wigs.

The pandemic has marked a pause in the wave of unco-ordinated but simultaneous protest movements that crossed much of the world last year. They seem to be resuming, starting in America. Its position as the sole superpower may be under threat. But its political agonies still sway opinion around the world.

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Donald Trump has reignited a debate about regulating speech online

HASTILY DRAFTED, legally flawed and unworkable. Experts poured scorn on the executive order Donald Trump signed on May 28th in reaction to a decision by Twitter, a microblogging service, to flag one of his tweets as unsubstantiated. The company had put warnings on a pair of tweets in which the president said: “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent”. Social-media firms are not liable in America for the content published on them, thanks to section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Mr Trump seems to be arguing that if they do not remain—at least in his view—politically neutral, they should lose that protection.

To many, the document seemed like a blatant attempt to bully Twitter, Facebook and other big tech firms into abandoning any efforts to fact-check the president’s online utterances ahead of the election in November. In this, if nothing else, the executive order may succeed. But it will not end the debate over how to regulate speech in the virtual realm.

Section 230 and its analogues elsewhere were crafted to solve what might be called the “moderator’s dilemma”. In the mid-1990s regulators worried that online firms would refrain from policing their services for fear this would make them liable for the content and open them up to costly lawsuits. To solve this problem, section 230 stipulated that, even if firms moderated content, they could not be held liable for it. It does not, however, eliminate all liability for online content. Material that is copyrighted or violates federal criminal law must still be taken down. And those posting offending content can be sued, though this is often difficult and costly.

Much has changed since the CDA was passed in 1996. Few predicted back then the flood of invective and misinformation that now sloshes around online. Nor did they guess that social-media firms, fixated on growth and profitability, would do little to stem the tide until the negative effects became too egregious to deny. Big tech firms now employ armies of moderators and use artificial intelligence to police their services, but governments, particularly in Europe, want them to do more. Meanwhile, civil libertarians worry about the stifling impact on free speech. (And so, he claims, does Mr Trump.)

Section 230 and similar regulations have already gone through one round of mini-reforms. In May 2016 the European Union (EU) agreed to a “Code of Conduct” with Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube to counter online hate speech. It includes a commitment to deal with most offensive content within 24 hours. In 2017 Germany made compliance with such rules mandatory, while giving firms some leeway in how they apply them. And in 2018 Congress added communications that promote sex-trafficking to the list of content that is exempt from immunity.

A second round of reforms has now begun. The EU intends to follow the example of Germany, which itself is in the process of tightening its law, the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz. Britain may soon get similar legislation. In America calls are growing to scrap section 230—on the left as well as the right. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, is not a fan. But without such legislation social-media firms will probably err on the side of caution and become the “ministries of truth” that so many fear.

Governments, particularly in Europe, where limits on free speech are more acceptable, seem to be urging online firms to police their platforms more. Tech titans are unlikely to put up much resistance, since they have already begun monitoring more content in the wake of the pandemic (see article). Groups charged with overseeing the companies’ decisions will become more common. They may be public agencies, as is planned in Britain, or semi-independent self-regulatory groups, such as Facebook’s “oversight board”, also known as its “supreme court”, which in early May welcomed its first batch of judges. Perhaps one day Mr Trump can look forward to their rulings.

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “The moderator’s dilemma”

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Fake news is fooling more conservatives than liberals. Why?

“DOCTORS NEED three qualifications: to be able to lie and not get caught; to pretend to be honest; and to cause death without guilt.” So wrote Jean Froissart, a diarist of the Middle Ages, after an outbreak of bubonic plague in the 14th century. Fake news then meant rumours that the plague could be cured by sitting in a sewer, eating decade-old treacle or ingesting arsenic.

The “infodemic” around covid-19, declared by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in February, is not the world’s first outbreak of misinformation. This time the myths include the notion that the disease can be cured by drinking methanol, which has led to more than 700 deaths in Iran, and that it is spread by 5G transmitters, which has convinced arsonists in Britain to carry out more than 90 attacks on phone towers. Just as the virus lodges in people’s lungs, dangerous ideas are infecting their minds.

One big difference between the infodemics of the 1300s and 2020 is the rapid worldwide transmission of today’s nonsense, enabled by the internet. In March a poll by Gallup International of 28 countries in four continents found that in all of them, at least 16%—and as many as 58%—of people thought covid-19 was being deliberately spread (see chart 1). A clip of a film called “Plandemic”, which claims that a shadowy elite started the outbreak for profit, was uploaded on May 4th; within a week it had been seen 8m times and its star, Judy Mikovits, had topped Amazon’s bestseller list.

Social media enable people to share true news as well as the fake sort. But the fabulists seem to be winning. A study published in Nature in May found that, although pro-vaccine Facebook users outnumber anti-vaccine ones, the anti-vaxxers are better at forging links with non-aligned groups like school parents’ associations, so their number is growing faster. Among Americans, exposure to social media is associated with a greater likelihood of believing that the government created the virus or that officials exaggerate its seriousness, according to a recent paper in the Harvard Kennedy School’s Misinformation Review.

Broadcasters in many countries need a licence and must convince regulators that they try to report the news truthfully. Few such constraints apply to the internet. In April Britain’s broadcasting watchdog, Ofcom, censured a tiny TV station called London Live for airing part of an interview with David Icke, a conspiracy theorist who believes the pandemic is a hoax. The broadcast had been watched by only 80,000 people. Yet at the time of Ofcom’s ruling 6m had viewed the full interview on YouTube, which is outside Ofcom’s jurisdiction.

YouTube has since taken the video down, along with many others. Section 230 of America’s Communications Decency Act absolves tech firms of responsibility in that country for fact-checking uploaded content. But President Donald Trump wants to change this (see article). Even if he is blocked by the courts, public opinion favours more intervention. In America 84% say social networks should delete posts that they suspect contain inaccurate information about covid-19. Half that number say they should do so without confirming the posts are false. Tech firms have thus begun to add warnings to false information and signposts to reliable sources.

Covid-19 may seem a relatively straightforward subject on which to play censor. Compared with, say, politics, “it’s easier to set policies that are a little more black and white and take a much harder line,” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s boss, told the New York Times in March. Yet it is proving tricky. The science is changing rapidly. In February America’s surgeon-general tweeted that facemasks were “NOT effective in preventing general public from catching coronavirus”. Now he says they are.

Worse, any hope that the pandemic would be politically uncontentious has evaporated. In March Mr Zuckerberg said Facebook had no problem taking down “things like ‘You can cure this by drinking bleach.’ I mean, that’s just in a different class”. Yet weeks later Mr Trump suggested it might help to inject disinfectant. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have removed videos posted by Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, declaring hydroxychloroquine an effective treatment. So far clips of Mr Trump praising (and even claiming to take) “the hydroxy” remain up. The firms say the difference is that Mr Trump stopped short of saying that the drug was a proven cure.

Left v right v wrong

Just as misinformation is not new, nor is its political use. In 1964 an essay by a historian, Richard Hofstadter, on the “paranoid style” in American politics described “the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” running through everything from 18th-century protests against the Illuminati to the anti-Masonic movement. Yet whereas Hofstadter argued that the paranoid style came as easily to those on the left as on the right—for instance, he cited the rumours of a slave-owners’ plot that were propagated by some abolitionists—today’s infodemic appears to be spreading more easily among the world’s conservatives than its liberals.

In America the Pew Research Centre found in March that 30% of Republicans believed the virus was created intentionally, nearly twice the share of Democrats. Last month a poll by YouGov found that 44% of Republicans think Bill Gates wants to use covid-19 vaccines to implant microchips in people; 19% of Democrats agree. In France a poll by Ifop found that 40% of those who support Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (once the National Front) believed that the virus was made by design, twice the share among backers of the far-left Unsubmissive France party. Supporters of the Dutch right-populist Freedom Party and the Forum for Democracy (FvD) are 40% more likely than backers of the far-left Socialist Party to say covid-19 is a biological weapon.

Wilder conspiracy theories aside, conservatives also seem more likely than liberals to question the official line on the pandemic. In late March, with Britain freshly locked down, a quarter of Tories but only 15% of Labour supporters believed that covid-19 was “just like the flu”.

The reluctance of so many conservatives to believe the conventional narrative of covid-19 is part of a more general suspicion of mainstream sources of information in some places. In America there is a yawning partisan gap in trust (see chart 2). The widest gulf concerns journalists, the next academics. These professions have long been conservative targets. Rush Limbaugh, an American talk-show host, speaks of the “four corners of deceit”: the media, scientists, academia and the government.

Such language is echoed by European populists of the right. Thierry Baudet, leader of the FvD, declared last year that “we’re being destroyed by the people who should protect us and undermined by our universities, by our journalists.” He has set up a “hotline” to report left-wing academics, and scoffs that the Dutch public broadcaster “obediently nods for the powers that be”. In France Ms Le Pen claims that “the government has been the biggest provider of fake news since the start of this [covid] crisis.” And in Britain, Brexiteers have questioned the impartiality of journalists, academics and civil servants, their attitude summed up by then justice secretary Michael Gove’s remark that people “have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong”. British Conservatives have less faith than others in most of the media, as well as in international institutions. In April an Opinium poll found they were twice as likely as Labour voters to mistrust Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the WHO.

Elite-bashing is hardly unique to conservatives. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s populist left-wing president, continually lays into the media. So did Labour’s former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who talked darkly about an “establishment” that mysteriously kept causing him to lose elections. Democrats are likelier than Republicans to believe that 9/11 was an inside job. And the left is partial to corporate conspiracies, including the myth that AIDS was invented by Big Pharma and the CIA. One prominent peddler of covid-19 myths, according to NewsGuard, which vets sites for accuracy, is @OrganicLife, whose tweets combine vegan nut-milk recipes with paranoia about 5G transmitters.

Conspiracy beliefs are associated with ideological extremism of any variety, argues Karen Douglas, an expert on conspiracy theories at the University of Kent. Yet she says there is an “asymmetry”. People on the right believe in them more often, and entertain a broader range of theories, particularly those that accuse the other “side” of plotting, whether that be left-wingers, foreigners or other groups.

Structural shifts may explain why conservative voters seem to be more prone to the infodemic, and why conservative leaders have more reason—and are more likely—to undermine reliable sources. For one thing, conservatives’ complaints that elites are not on their side have become more plausible. In many countries the old left-right political divide, based on economics, has been replaced by a liberal-conservative split, based on culture. This largely pits liberal graduates against conservative school-leavers. And elites—whether in the media, the civil service, science or academia—are dominated by graduates. This doesn’t necessarily make them partial. But when Brexiteers complain that the civil service is a nest of Remainers, or Republicans growl that America’s universities are stuffed with liberals, they are right.

Conservatives have responded by tuning in to their own media sources, which have found that there is money to be made in amplifying their fears. American talk-radio punctuates paranoid chat with ads for dubious health remedies (Alex Jones, a Texas-based radio host, was recently ordered to stop selling toothpaste which he claimed “kills the whole SARS-corona family at point-blank range”). Cable channels such as Fox News and websites like Breitbart have drawn audiences by bringing fringe theories into the mainstream.

Most recently, social networks’ algorithms have steered people towards polarising content, which is more likely to provoke “engagement” and thus generate ad impressions. In 2018 an internal report at Facebook warned that users were being pointed to divisive material. Yet plans to highlight less controversial posts—a project dubbed “Eat Your Veggies”—were sidelined, partly because of concerns that the changes would affect conservative users more than others, according to the Wall Street Journal. Some 16% of Americans get their covid-19 news directly from the White House; three-quarters of those who do so think the media have exaggerated the seriousness of the pandemic.

Another cause of conservative mistrust is that, in some countries, the electoral system gives conservative politicians a particular incentive to encourage polarisation. Liberals tend to be concentrated in cities; conservatives are more spread out. In winner-takes-all systems, this puts liberal parties at a disadvantage, as they pile up huge majorities in cities while conservative parties win more seats by lower margins elsewhere. In America this means the Republicans can win the electoral college with a minority of the popular vote (as they did in 2000 and 2016). In Britain it means Brexit supporters are in the majority in nearly two-thirds of constituencies but make up only about half of voters. The upshot, argues Ezra Klein in a new book on America, “Why We’re Polarised”, is that ultra-partisanship works better for conservatives. Liberals have to win votes from moderates; conservatives can prevail by just getting out their base. As politics becomes more polarised, energising the base gets easier, and winning over moderates harder.

The lessons from history are gloomy. Hofstadter believed that political paranoia “may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population.” But, he warned, “certain historical catastrophes or frustrations may be conducive to the release of such psychic energies, and to situations in which they can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties.” Like the Iraq war and the global financial crisis, the pandemic may prove to be exactly that kind of catastrophe.

Correction (June 8th, 2020): The poll cited in the third paragraph was by Gallup International, not Gallup as we originally stated. The two are separate organisations.

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Return of the paranoid style”

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Old religious quarrels return as covid-19 lockdowns ease

Editor’s note: Some of our covid-19 coverage is free for readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. For more stories and our pandemic tracker, see our hub

FROM DEAGU in South Korea to Qom in Iran, Mulhouse in France and Sacramento in California, places of collective worship have often been accelerators of coronavirus contagion. Months later, with lockdowns starting to ease in the rich world, some religious groups have been loudly demanding a return to normality, and complaining that their needs have been forgotten.

In France houses of worship have opened earlier than planned because of a successful appeal by conservative religious groups to the Council of State, the highest administrative court. And the High Court in London has agreed to hear an appeal from a mosque leader in Bradford, a stronghold of Islam, who says stopping Friday prayers curbed his religious liberty.

The clash between religious and secular authority is felt most keenly in America. On May 29th the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to reject an appeal from a church in California, South Bay United Pentecostal, against restrictions imposed by the state’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom. Conservative court members saw merit in the church’s complaint that the constitutional right to free exercise of religion was being violated, but they were overruled. Often President Donald Trump’s administration has sided with churches in disputes with local or state authorities seeking to enforce stay-at-home orders. On May 22nd Mr Trump demanded the re-opening of churches, deeming them “essential”.

Covid-19 has exacerbated not only tension between churches and states, but also disagreements between different religious tendencies. Religious figures have denounced one another, either for being too reckless or for being too meekly compliant with government orders.

These disputes may be a symptom of a wider phenomenon. In the words of Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Pope Francis, the virus has “deepened existing fault-lines and exposed a few new ones” in the realm of religion. For example, he says, some believers see in the covid crisis a deadly threat to religious liberty; others dismiss that view. Those fault-lines are particularly evident in liberal-democratic countries where practising religion of any kind or style, or firmly rejecting religion, is an open choice, not a default mode.

To understand the biggest chasm, imagine two camps that are defined by what they fear and dislike most. In one are religious groups whose strongest impulse is to improve the material lot of humanity, by fighting poverty or pollution. They are open to working with secular agencies, including governments and supra-national bodies, where they can be a force for the common good. In the other camp, faith communities believe the main challenge is secularism, the watering-down of old certainties, the threat posed by new thinking about sex and gender—all perceived evils deemed to be perpetrated by liberal elites and secular government authorities.

The fault-line does not neatly separate religions; it often divides denominations. Take the split in Catholic ranks. In his response to the pandemic, Pope Francis reaffirmed his preference for the more humanitarian camp by establishing a high-level panel to advise not just on the disease itself but also on the challenges that will follow: unemployment, strained welfare budgets, the need for new definitions of economic value. On May 31st he marked the feast of Pentecost by leading a sparse, mask-wearing flock in prayers in St Peter’s Square; he urged special concern for the world’s vulnerable, including the indigenous people of the Amazon, “that they may not lack health care.” The readmission of a well-policed crowd marked some relief from the empty expanse which Francis faced seven weeks earlier at Easter.

Yet the pope’s declared opponents, including Raymond Burke, an American cardinal, have redoubled their attacks on him for being too compliant with worldly authorities which may have dark agendas. In chastising restrictions preventing the faithful from going to mass, Cardinal Burke wrote: “We cannot simply accept the determinations of secular governments, which would treat the worship of God in the same manner as going to a restaurant or to an athletic contest.” He has also aligned himself with conspiracy theorists in suggesting that the virus might lead to compulsory vaccines or even the subcutaneous microchipping of people by an all-controlling state.

To a degree the divide splits Europe and America, in part because of their differing collective memories. Americans abhor state-imposed religious orthodoxy, whereas Europeans have a theocratic tradition whose current form is emollient. The humanitarian camp is much stronger in Europe, at least among established Christian hierarchies. Bishops have raised few objections to locked-down churches, but they have weighed in on social and political issues. In Britain, for example, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the head of England’s established church, warned the government against returning to austerity to repay the fast-rising pile of public debt. Several other bishops openly rebuked Dominic Cummings, a prime-ministerial adviser who made a long road-trip during a lockdown.

In some European countries, observers have seen a subtle Christian influence in policy responses to the virus, always working with the grain of the liberal state, not against it. In Germany, for example, theologians have taken part in a commission that pondered how to allocate medical resources in an acute crisis: it concluded that a person’s ability to recover—but not age itself—should be a criterion.

On both the secular and religious right in the United States, by contrast, the argument has sometimes been made that saving the old and vulnerable should not always take priority over saving the economy, or simply practising religion. Rusty Reno, editor of an influential religious journal, First Things, made waves by arguing that it was un-Christian to focus too much on avoiding death. “There are many things more precious than life. And yet we have been whipped into such a frenzy in New York that most family members will forgo visiting sick parents,” he complained, in a much-contested editorial.

On May 11th he tweeted that wearing masks was tantamount to “enforced cowardice”. That prompted Rod Dreher, another widely read pundit, to describe his fellow conservative’s utterance as “contemptible”. Mr Reno subsequently withdrew the tweet and apologised. Meanwhile, in California an influential Orthodox priest, Josiah Trenham, has rejoiced in recent days over the widespread “civil disobedience” by the state’s churches which was, in his view, forcing the governor to retreat from a “large, unjustified over-reach of the civil authority” in curbing the practice of faith.

These “theocon” objections to the lockdowns have been advanced on roughly three grounds: that they damage the economy, that public worship is more important than anything else people do, and that human freedom to do anything at all is being unfairly restricted. Such things would be hard to say in Europe. One of the many reasons for that, according to religion-watchers, is the European reading of Christianity, especially in the post-1945 era when the continent’s leading thinkers, secular and religious, have had a horror of any attitude that favoured cold economic or ideological calculation over basic decency.

Among Europe’s Christian Democrats, like those who dominate German politics, this religious influence is acknowledged in varying degrees. And even Scandinavian social democracy, on the face of things a godless creed, has clear historic roots in the region’s Lutheran tradition which emphasises good citizenship, says Nick Spencer of Theos, a London think-tank. For pious traditionalists, that Nordic example is a warning, not an inspiration: wherever religion merges with social welfare, they would retort, it virtually ceases to exist.

Still, not all religious disputes have got worse. One of the pandemic’s surprises is that traditional faith communities, as well as newfangled ones, have responded creatively to the need for new forms of worship. In one German town, a Catholic priest and a female Lutheran minister experimented with a drive-in service where people could enjoy the singing and preaching through their car radios. To a traditionalist Catholic, this mixing of sexes, denominations and rites breaks every rule of church order. But plainly some of the faithful like it, and they may want more.

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