The pandemic is plunging millions back into extreme poverty

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FOR MORE than a decade Suresh Aryal has flogged momos, steamed dumplings from Nepal, on the streets of New Delhi. On a good day the 32-year-old could take home as much as 6,000 rupees ($82). Then in March, as covid-19 spread, India shut down. Mr Aryal waited for things to improve for three months. When they did not, he returned to his home village in Nepal.

India has since eased its lockdown. But Mr Aryal has no plans to return to the Indian capital. While people are still strapped for cash and reluctant to eat on crowded kerbsides, there is little point. Years spent surviving in a big city and sending money home to his family have left him with no savings. He has been getting by on loans from neighbours, but such generosity has its limits. Jobs are scarce in the village and Mr Aryal does not qualify for government support. “I don’t have a plan,” he says. “I’m going to have to hustle to feed my family.”

Mr Aryal is not alone. According to estimates in June by the World Bank, national lockdowns and the ensuing economic catastrophe will push between 71m and 100m people into extreme poverty this year, defined as subsisting on less than $1.90 a day (at 2011 prices). Its predictions have worsened since the pandemic began, and suggest that three years of progress will be wiped out. Some countries could be even worse hit, depending on the scale of the recession (see chart). From 1990 until last year the number of extremely poor people fell from 2bn, or 36% of the world’s population, to 630m, or just 8%. Most of those left in poverty were in sub-Saharan Africa (see map) and in countries riven by conflict. By contrast, almost half the newly destitute will be in South Asia.

The United Nations is even gloomier. It defines people as poor if they do not have access to things like clean water, electricity, sufficient food and schools for their children. Working with researchers from Oxford University, it reckons the pandemic could cast 490m in 70 countries into poverty, reversing almost a decade of gains.

The economic crisis caused by the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities more sharply than previous recessions. The pandemic has left them with few fallback options. Those who lost formal jobs were unable to make a quick buck in the informal sector driving rickshaws, shining shoes or sorting rubbish, because the world had shut up shop. Lockdowns have frozen entire economies—black, white and grey. Since the disease has struck everywhere, relatives in richer countries may not be able to send extra cash home; remittances may drop by about a fifth this year, the biggest decline in recent history, according to the latest figures from the World Bank.

Worst affected have been the millions who escaped poverty by moving to bustling cities with running water, electricity and schools. Many have lost work and fled to more rural areas, where there are few jobs but at least living costs are cheaper. Official data in India suggest 10m people have relocated, but others reckon the total is five times more. In Kampala, Uganda’s capital, SafeBoda, a motorbike ride-hailing app, reckons that 40% of its drivers went back to the countryside under the lockdown. Returning to big cities holds little appeal until it is clear that economic activity is picking up and that further lockdowns are unlikely. With places such as Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, announcing new restrictions in response to rising infections, it is not clear when that will be.

The economic crisis is already turning into a food crisis. Peter Lutalo ran a thriving bar in Kiboga, in central Uganda. His family used to eat meat at the weekend and drink milky tea every day. But since the government ordered bars to close they can afford meat only once in three weeks and take their tea black. He is far from alone. The number of people unable to afford enough to eat could double as a result of the pandemic, says the UN’s World Food Programme. That would mean an additional 130m people this year suffering from the sort of debilitating hunger that harms adult health in the long term and can stunt children’s development.

Nor have international organisations plugged the gap. Anna Obba is a teacher in the Bidibidi refugee camp in Uganda. When schools shut down, her income disappeared and her children’s education was disrupted. The World Food Programme cut food rations for refugees by 30% in April, citing a financial crunch. Since then the family has been living on one meal a day.

The disruption to education will have awful long-term consequences. Children whose families have fled cities will probably get a worse education in rural areas, if they get one at all. A survey by the UN’s World Health Organisation found that in August schools were fully open in only six of 39 African countries; only 12 more expect classrooms to reopen this month. Kenya has closed schools until 2021. As every year of education is reckoned to increase annual earnings by roughly 10%, the consequences for poor children are alarming.

The harm to health-care systems will be long-lasting, too. Clinics have been short of staff as medics have been unable to travel to work safely. People have been nervous about visiting them, too. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation says vaccination rates among children are dropping to levels last seen in the 1990s. Some of those jabs can be done once doctors are able to work properly again. But for infectious illnesses like measles, even a temporary pause may be lethal. Just 67% of the world’s children may get a crucial third dose of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine (which is usually administered around the age of six months) this year. Last year 84% did.

Some hope that, as lockdowns lift, economies will start to grow again fast, as they often do after disasters. Large parts of Vietnam were destroyed during the war there, but the country bounced back rapidly thanks to economic reforms: between 1990 and 2015 real GDP per person tripled, according to IMF estimates. The portion of the population living on less than $1.90 a day has fallen from over 60% in the 1980s to less than 5% just before covid-19 struck.

Poor countries are unlikely to see similar growth in the short term. For the first time in 25 years sub-Saharan Africa will fall into recession this year. The IMF is forecasting a contraction of 3.2% in the region in 2020, and an underwhelming rebound to 3.4% growth next year. Among the G20 economies India’s shrank most in the spring; its GDP is set to fall by about 4.5% in 2020. It may take some time to catch up. “Historically certainly, growth and poverty reduction have gone hand in hand,” says Carmen Reinhart, chief economist at the World Bank. “But there are enormous question-marks about how much growth we’re going to get.”

There are some signs of improvement. According to recent phone surveys by the World Bank in Ethiopia, 87% of respondents said they had had at least an hour’s work in the week before the interview, though that is still below pre-pandemic levels. Employment levels in Nigeria are almost back to their pre-pandemic level.

But it seems likely that a return to growth will be fitful and uneven. People in poor countries are plainly desperate to return to work. Most are young, and so less vulnerable to covid-19. The World Economic Forum estimates that just 3% of Africans are over 65 years old, whereas over 40% are under 15. Hunger could kill them before the virus does.

Hungry for work

If these economies were getting going again, those who stayed in cities should be able to find plenty of work, given the exodus to the countryside. Poor workers still have the same skills they had six months ago; most are keen to use them. But demand for labour remains low. Vishwanath Kamble used to earn around 350 rupees a day as a cobbler in Mumbai. With offices shut and few passers-by, he more often gets only ten rupees nowadays. When he says his daily prayers, he pleads for things to go back to how they were before. That is still far off. Data from Google Maps show that even in mid-September visits to Mumbai’s restaurants, cinemas and shopping centres were down by over 70% compared with January and early February.

Widespread fears about the spread of the virus are still hampering any recovery. “I’m scared too, but what can I do? I have to go to work,” says Munni Mehra, a maid looking for a job in Mumbai. Her husband is working as a cook, earning 10,000 rupees a month. But if Ms Mehra stays at home much longer they will have to go back to their village in Uttarakhand, in India’s far north. Domestic workers see the irony in how middle-class employers think they are the ones at risk if they rehire house servants, says Martha Chen of Harvard, who has been interviewing informal workers around the world throughout the crisis.

Cleaners, with their meagre salaries, are not the ones visiting shopping malls, spas and cinemas where covid-19 thrives. Raju, a flower-seller in the same city, can no longer deliver flowers to people’s homes because security guards will not let him into posh blocks of flats. With no trains running, he has been unable to get to the wholesale market, so has had to use pricier local suppliers. As a result his costs have soared. Since covid-19 took hold in India, his earnings have almost halved, from 13,000 a month to 7,000 rupees.

Nor can poor countries rely on foreign spending. The sharp fall in oil prices earlier this year was enough to slash revenues in countries like Nigeria and Angola that rely on oil exports. In two-thirds of poor countries, commodities make up more than 60% of total merchandise exports, according to the UN’s latest estimates, rising to 88% in Zambia and 100% in Angola. Foreign tourists are not booking safaris in east Africa or beach breaks in Bali. Demand for exports such as Kenyan flowers and Bangladeshi garments has slumped, too. These industries can expect to recover when the pandemic subsides and borders reopen. But the poor cannot wait.

For the time being they must rely on help from their own governments. The World Bank reckons that in the past six months 212 countries and territories have rolled out—or made plans to roll out—1,179 social-protection measures that will reach 2bn people. As well as the usual efforts to hand out food and waive utility bills, poor countries are trying out new ideas. Kenya’s government has started a programme to give temporary jobs to more than 26,000 young Kenyans. Montenegro’s is offering subsidies to the tune of 70% of the minimum wage to encourage employers to create new jobs.

Cash handouts, heralded by policymakers for years as a cheap and effective form of support, are proving most popular. Technology is helping. A new national ID system in the Philippines and a unified digital payment system in Tunisia have been speeded up, so that governments can get cash to the poor faster. The Democratic Republic of Congo wants to use mobile-phone data to locate the poor and then send money directly to their e-wallets. In July the central bank also said it would set up special accounts—either through banks or online—to hand out emergency cash.

But such schemes are useful only if governments can afford to hand out serious lumps of cash. Poor countries on average have spent just $4 a head on programmes to help the poor during the covid-19 crisis, compared with an average of $695 per head of the population in rich countries such as Britain, France and America, according to World Bank estimates. The Congolese government plans to hand out $50m to just two million people in Kinshasa and other badly affected provinces, amounting to $25 for each recipient.

And in other countries governments are doing far from enough. A World Bank survey in Ethiopia in June found that 2% of households had received government help in the previous three weeks. A poll of people in Indian cities by the London School of Economics at around the same time found that only a fifth of those responding had received any money from the government. The transfers on average made up less than a quarter of their monthly salary.

Other governments are barely doing anything at all. Residents of Cañales, a poor suburb of Cárdenas, a smallish city in Mexico, say the only help they have received was a single round of food packages from the state government in May. Marco Antonio González Cruz has been jobless since the pandemic struck. But he isn’t holding out for help from politicians. “They only come when they want the vote,” he says. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a left-wing populist, created a slew of welfare programmes after taking office in 2018, including an expanded pensions system, an apprenticeship scheme for the young and a tree-planting programme in a number of Mexico’s states. But he has provided close to nothing in response to the worst recession the country has seen in a century.

Because the urban poor have been harder hit than those in rural areas, governments need to spend any money they do have more cleverly. The Indian government should expand its rural employment guarantee scheme to urban areas, suggests Abhijit Banerjee, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The programme, which provides 100 days of guaranteed work every year, could deploy low-skilled workers as assistants in primary schools or care workers for the elderly. “If the cities recover, then there is hope,” argues Mr Banerjee, who won the Nobel prize for economics last year.

Governments will struggle to continue funding such efforts as revenues fall. Emerging-market governments issued $124bn in hard-currency debt in the first six months of the year. But there are limits to how much more they can borrow. The recent wave of sovereign downgrades has been startling, even compared with previous crises.

Too little help from their friends

The response from richer governments and international institutions has been patchy. The IMF has disbursed over $30bn in emergency financing to 76 countries since March. It has acted fast, but the sum is far from enough. Earlier this year African finance ministers got together and calculated that African countries alone will suffer a short-term funding gap of $100bn in 2020, rising to $200bn next year.

The G20 has agreed to suspend payments between May and December on bilateral debt from 73 of the world’s poorest countries, if they want such help. That is a fraction of the $31.5bn in external debt servicing they face in that period. So far just 42 countries have requested support, which would free up $5.3bn for them to spend on things like health care and welfare programmes. The scheme doesn’t touch commercial lending from banks or bondholders. Nor does it include Asian countries such as India and the Philippines, where many of the newly destitute reside.

Politicians in poor countries, shackled by debt, will struggle to provide meaningful support. The pandemic has shown how flimsy recent progress has been, says Andrew Sumner of King’s College London. He reckons that the proportion of people in poor countries living on less than $1.90 a day had fallen last year to 17%. But a third were still living on less than $3.20 a day. Covid-19 has exposed the vulnerability of that group—the poor but not destitute—in the face of a big economic shock. Policymakers must now help people climb back above the poverty line—and devise ways to make them more resilient to future shocks.

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “From plague to penury”

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Louis Partridge Prefers Flowers

By Emlyn Travis

Louis Partridge remembers exactly where he was when he discovered that he had been cast as the noble Viscount Tewkesbury, Marquess of Basilwether, in Netflix’s newest film Enola Holmes, out today (September 23). He was in the kitchen of his London home with his mom and dad and, upon discovering that he had gotten the role, promptly shot up the stairs in a celebratory victory lap. Then, he recalls, he packed up his things and took an English literature exam at school.

“I was auditioning for Enola Holmes in the run-up to my GSCEs in England, which are these big exams that you take, and I thought: I should be revising for this [exam], but I’ve got this audition in a week, and this is the most important thing I’ve done so far. I want to do this; the exams can wait,” the 17-year-old actor tells MTV News over Zoom from the very same home in London. “And then I went and did my exam, and I remember halfway through putting my pen down and just being spaced out, thinking: Wow, I got the part.”

Prior to the call, it had been a long period of waiting after his audition in Leicester Square. “I just remember waiting to hear so bad,”  he says. “You can fall into a trap a bit where you want a part so bad and you don’t get it, so I try not to want [any role] too bad, but I couldn’t with this one.”

Landing the part, however, did come with a caveat: ”It was the worst exam I did of the whole of my GCSEs,” he reveals between laughs. “I did 10, and it was the worst one I got. I’ll take the Enola job over a better grade, that’s for sure.”

Alex Bailey / Legendary

Directed by Harry Bradbeer, the coming-of-age film is based on the novels by Nancy Springer and sees its titular character, played by Millie Bobby Brown, embark on an adventure to London to track down her missing mother (Helena Bonham Carter) while dodging her brothers Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft Holmes (Sam Claflin). Along the way, she encounters the posh Tewkesbury, played by Partridge, and the two form an unlikely alliance despite being complete opposites; Enola is unabashedly direct and quick on her feet, while Tewkesbury is more thoughtful and gentle. It’s Tewkesbury’s soft heart that initially drew Partridge to the character.

For the last six years, Partridge has delicately balanced a burgeoning acting career alongside the busy life of a teenager. Everything in his life changed when, at 12-years-old, he was part of a three-day short film shoot that made him fall in love with acting, and he’s been chasing its creative thrill ever since. Although he never officially took acting classes or went to drama school, he cites Leonardo DiCaprio as a major acting influence growing up, especially the films The Aviator and Shutter Island (he’s yet to watch What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, but it’s on his list), and now finds inspiration in Timothée Chalamet’s career, too. Since that fateful film, Partridge’s bright-eyed determination has also led him to roles in Paddington 2 and Medici; he knows the route into Central London for auditions so well that, at this point, he swears he could do it with his eyes closed.

But offscreen, Partridge is still a down-to-earth teen. He likes skateboarding and listening to his favorite bands: The Strokes, The Smiths, The Cure. (“If it’s ’80s, I’ll like it,” he says.) Naturally creative, he’s been teaching himself how to play songs on piano via YouTube tutorials. With the world currently in lockdown, he’s been taking his dog on walks, he’s tried out songwriting, and he’s recently become obsessed with making milkshakes in his Nutribullet — just about anything that gets him away from his laptop screen and online schooling. He’s also a fan of mysteries although, admittedly, prefers Agatha Christie’s stories over Sherlock Holmes.

Still, he could quickly see similarities between himself and Tewkesbury, the quiet teen who prefers plants over politics. “He might not seem it at the start, but [Tewkesbury’s] super soft. He’s quite a gentle character and he’s really just trying to navigate his way through this pretty insane life that’s been set out for him,” he says. “[He’s someone] who’s not afraid to like flowers. This is where me and Tewkesbury meet; I often wear quite a lot of women’s clothes and I get teased a little at school. It’s healthy, obviously, but I like the fact that Tewkesbury represents something that you don’t see all too much, in the same way Enola does.”

It was easy for Partridge to slip into the role of Tewkesbury, in part because he got to work alongside Brown. Aside from being “a little bit” starstruck upon their initial meeting, he and Brown quickly formed a fast friendship not dissimilar to their characters. Despite initially wanting nothing to do with him, Enola is forced to work alongside Tewkesbury after the two narrowly escape death by leaping from a moving train. It’s not until they’re lost in the English countryside together that the duo discovers their unique upbringings make them a good team; Tewkesbury’s knowledge of local foliage and mushrooms secures them dinner, while Enola’s knack for disguises grants Tewkesbury anonymity so he won’t be recognized as the missing Marquess in London. “We’d be talking on set and joking and doing whatever, and we’d sort of fall into our characters, and then it’d be Enola and Tewkesbury,” he says.

Their friendship is partly why Partridge didn’t feel particularly nervous on his first day on the set of a massive production. “I think it’s something to do with acting with Millie that made me sort of forget where I was,” he says. “Because we were mates offscreen, you sort of bring that into your onscreen relationship which really helped and I think it came across in the film.”

Between takes on the 50-day shoot, Brown and Partridge could often be found joking around and creating short videos together using the app Video Star, including a particularly stunt-heavy one he believes lives on Brown’s phone. “There’s a Video Star that we made in between takes of [shooting scenes on the train],” he says. “We stood up the camera in the train while they were filming, so it’s Millie’s phone from the inside just lying on the seat while I’m hanging out of the train, basically.”

Partridge hopes viewers enjoy that onscreen connection between Tewkesbury and Enola and that they leave the film with a better understanding of his character’s own personal struggles. “I hope people understand that behind his bravado and his arrogance at the start, he’s kind of lost underneath,” Partridge says. “He’s really innocent, and Enola sees that and likes that. And I see sort of the opposite in Enola, who seems to know what’s going on when, in actual fact, she needs Tewkesbury, just like Tewkesbury needs her.”

As she speeds away on a bicycle with a cheeky grin in the final scene of the film, Enola says the future is “up to us,” and, if given the chance, Partridge has a few ideas for his character’s future that he’d like to see happen in further installments. “I think Tewkesbury would quite like to meet Sherlock; I think that would be quite interesting,” he says. And naturally, he’d love to work with Brown again in a sequel. “I think they left the relationship between Enola and Tewkesbury so up in the air that I think there’s so far for it to go… but that’s just me!”

Social-media platforms are destroying evidence of war crimes

TECHNOLOGY HAS always mattered in the prosecution of war crimes. The Nazis who stood trial at Nuremberg were damned not only by war reporters’ photographs and films but also by their own typewriters and mimeographs. Forensic science and satellite imagery aided the prosecution of Rwandan and Yugoslavian war criminals. In August Salim Jamil Ayyash was convicted in absentia by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon for his role in a bombing in 2005 that killed 22 people in Beirut, among them Rafik Hariri, the country’s former prime minister. Mr Ayyash was first identified by algorithmic analysis of mobile-phone metadata.

Social media opens a new frontier in such investigations. In 2016 a court in Frankfurt convicted a German national of war crimes after photos were posted to Facebook of him posing with the severed heads of enemy combatants impaled on metal poles in Syria. But social-media firms are in a tricky position. They are under pressure to protect users from horrific content and extremist propaganda, and keen to stay on the good side of governments. That leads them to adopt stringent content-moderation policies. But their policies have also led to the loss of evidence of human-rights violations. As a result, opportunities to bring the perpetrators of appalling atrocities to justice may be missed.

It is not hard to see why investigators have increasingly turned to social media to gather evidence. Conflict zones are difficult and dangerous to visit. Eyewitness reports are fallible and can be manipulated. Gathering information remotely allows investigators to corroborate evidence or generate new leads and information. Fighters bragging about their exploits on Facebook might inadvertently give away their location from the metadata in photos, landmarks in the background or even the weather. That same boast may give prosecutors evidence of intent, a necessary element of a successful prosecution.

User-generated evidence is especially useful for international bodies like the International Criminal Court (ICC) that do not necessarily have the ability to serve subpoenas or search warrants, or adequate funding to mount a thorough investigation. In 2017 the ICC was able to issue an arrest warrant—the first based on social-media evidence—for Mahmoud al-Werfalli, a commander in the Al-Saiqa Brigade (a unit of the self-styled Libyan National Army controlled by Khalifa Haftar, a warlord from the east of the divided country) for his involvement in the murder of 33 people.

However, such evidence can be far from perfect. Those who record it on the ground often lack professional evidence-gathering experience, can be selective in what they film and put themselves at enormous risk. Evidence can be misattributed, staged or manipulated—a growing concern given the rise of deep fakes, highly plausible but untrue audio and video clips created using machine learning. Wading through the mass of potential evidence constantly uploaded requires time and resources. That is, if it is not destroyed before investigators can use it. A new report from Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group based in New York, alleges that social-media platforms are erasing evidence of atrocities from the internet. And its use in court is new, so there is little precedent as to what judges will admit and what weight they will give it. But despite these problems, user-generated contributions can provide otherwise unavailable material to achieve the gold standard for war-crimes investigations: the triad of physical, documentary and testimonial evidence.

Take the example of Bellingcat, an investigative-journalism site that used online materials to uncover the involvement of Russia’s 53rd air defence brigade in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014. When asked by prosecutors to provide this evidence, it found that much of it, hosted on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and VKontakte, a Russian social-media site, had been taken down. It tenaciously scoured the internet for alternative copies, contributing to a successful prosecution in absentia in the Netherlands in March 2020 of three Russians and a Ukrainian. But the initial deletion endangered the investigation.

Such deletions are common. The Syrian Archive, a non-profit group that records and analyses evidence of human-rights violations in Syria, estimates that of the nearly 1.75m YouTube videos it had archived up to June 2020, 21% are no longer available. Almost 12% of the 1m or so tweets it logged have disappeared. Had the Syrian Archive not collected copies, this evidence might have been lost for ever. Human Rights Watch revisited the links to social-media evidence that it used in public reports between 2007 and 2020, most published in the last five years, and found that 11% of the sources it had cited as evidence of human-rights violations had disappeared.

Some of this is because users remove content themselves. But much is a result of platforms’ policies. Though they remove horrific content for good reasons—videos of beheadings and extremist propaganda are not what Twitter means by “see what’s happening in the world right now”—their methods are largely self-regulated and often ignore the content’s evidential value. They are also zealous out of a desire to stay on governments’ good sides, fearing failure to remove offensive or extreme content might lead to more stringent regulation. And they have been stung before—Facebook came under scrutiny for taking over a year to remove material posted by Myanmar’s armed forces to foment genocidal rage against the Rohingya in 2017. (Our picture shows a member of Myanmar’s security forces walking past burned Rohingya houses.)

In that case, Facebook preserved much of the content it had removed, but it has not made it easy for investigators to get their hands on it. Gambia has brought a case against Myanmar to the International Court of Justice on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, a group of 57 mainly Muslim states. But the case has been delayed as Gambia tries to convince an American court to compel Facebook to release the content so it can be used as evidence.

It is unclear precisely what happens to content that is removed from platforms. It is often retained for a time, though this varies with platforms’ terms of service and legal restrictions. But once it is removed, investigators have difficulty gaining access to it. And legal requirements regarding data retention may lead to permanent deletion.

As the use of algorithms to remove offending content has increased, the problem of lost evidence has got worse. In the summer of 2017 hundreds of thousands of videos from Syria were taken down from YouTube by a new algorithm unable to differentiate between material posted by ISIS and that from human-rights activists. After some negative press, YouTube restored many of the videos. Initially, heads of social media companies were caught off-guard, having never imagined that their platforms would be used for such purposes. Now they have little excuse. As one Google product manager puts it, Syria is “the first YouTube conflict”.

More and more, social-media companies are using algorithms that remove content before it reaches the public. A video that can be seen elicits a trail of comments, even if it is later deleted. These can aid investigators establish the network of people involved in an incident, according to Alexa Koenig, of the Human Rights Centre at University of California, Berkeley School of Law, helping ”to sketch out the who, what, where, when, why and how”. But posts taken down before publication leave no public trace. Of the content that Facebook removed for violating its community guidelines between January and March 2020, 93% was flagged by automatic systems, not human moderators. Of those, half were removed before any user saw them.

Social-media companies have tried to mitigate the problem on their own. In December 2016 Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube established the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), a communal database where terrorist content is marked with a unique “hash” that other sites can track. As of July 2020 it had over 300,000 hashes. But a hash does not lead to the automatic removal of content. That decision rests with individual platforms, and little is known about how they respond to content being on GIFCT. Numerous human-rights groups have complained about the lack of transparency. It is also unclear how effective the system is: if content is edited—the speed changed, the length altered—it can bypass filters.

A better solution would be for platforms to preserve deleted content that might have evidential value—or pass it on to an independent archive, or to several. This information should be accessible only to those with a legitimate interest, argues Ms Koenig. An independent body would not only preserve potential evidence but could also aid in its verification and help ensure that it is collected and preserved in such a way as to increase the chance that it will be admitted into court and given weight as evidence, while still respecting the privacy concerns. Social-media platforms must be careful when sharing normal users’ data so as not to violate privacy statutes or cause harm to users. When those users have filmed a local army unit engaged in a massacre, say, the risks are that much greater.

Preliminary work is already being done. Experts are in the process of analysing potential models and drafting international protocols to improve how evidence is collected and verified so that it might be useful in prosecutions. But preserving potential evidence will require, above all, a commitment to do so from those in charge of social-media platforms.

In his final report on the Nuremberg trials, Telford Taylor, chief counsel for the prosecution, marvelled at the quantity of documentary evidence created by a “Teutonic penchant for making detailed records of events and conversations” and made available only by the “rapidity and completeness of Germany’s final military collapse”. Had the Nazis had more time, perhaps they could have erased the evidence of their misdeeds. Social media produces far more evidence than the Nazis ever did. But it can also destroy it at blitzkrieg speed.

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The UN renews its vows in a 75th-birthday general non-assembly

AT THIS TIME of year New York City is normally gridlocked. World leaders and their delegations, as well as hordes of consultants and folk from non-governmental organisations, flood into town for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). This year’s gathering was meant to be special, marking the 75th anniversary of the UN’s founding in 1945. But the constraints of covid-19 have ensured that the UNGA of 2020 will stand out in a different way: as a general non-assembly.

World leaders are not travelling to New York. Instead, they will deliver pre-recorded video messages to the session’s general debate that starts on September 22nd. Until recently it seemed that President Donald Trump might at least be an exception, coming to the UN to speak in person. But last week his chief of staff confirmed that he would stay away after all.

The formal commemoration on September 21st of the UN’s 75th anniversary will thus be a subdued affair. Even before covid-19 disrupted arrangements, it was planned to be low-key. The mood is strikingly different from the euphoria that greeted the organisation’s birth at the end of the second world war.

At the closing session of the conference in San Francisco that hammered out the UN’s charter, President Harry Truman praised the 50 founding countries for setting aside their differences “in one unshakable unity of determination—to find a way to end wars.” Since then the UN has expanded to 193 members, sprouted numerous specialised agencies and a big bureaucracy, championed efforts to save the planet from climate change (brokering the Paris Agreement) and to save humanity from poverty (producing Sustainable Development Goals), and moved into peacekeeping in a big way. Over the years more than 1m people have taken part in more than 70 UN peacekeeping missions.

Yet, given the troubled state of the world, this was not deemed to be a time for a boastful birthday bash. “We are not here to celebrate,” says the UN’s anniversary declaration, due to be approved by the General Assembly on September 21st. “We are here to take action.” The declaration, which amounts to a renewal of vows and a commitment to “reinvigorated multilateralism”, was hammered out this summer after hiccups over the wording on human rights and the Paris Agreement. It includes repeated pledges to “build back better” after the pandemic, which it describes as “the largest global challenge in the history of the United Nations.” (Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, might do well to note a pledge to “abide by the international agreements we have entered into and the commitments we have made.”)

Rather than throwing a big party, the UN’s secretary-general, António Guterres, decided to use the anniversary for a “global conversation”, consulting world opinion through a series of surveys and meetings. The conclusions, in a report called “The future we want, the United Nations we need”, were released for Monday’s 75th-anniversary commemoration.

Conveniently, the world thinks more or less what the UN hoped it would: people’s immediate priority everywhere, unsurprisingly amid a pandemic, is access to basic services such as health care and sanitation, and education. For the future, they worry most about climate change and are also concerned about respecting human rights, settling conflicts, tackling poverty and reducing corruption. Fully 87% of respondents to the UN’s online survey believe international co-operation is vital to deal with today’s challenges (in a separate survey, by Edelman, 74% of respondents said they saw the UN’s role as essential, though more than half perceived it to be remote from their lives).

Although support for the UN around the world is robust, it is uneven. In a Pew survey conducted in June-August, also published on September 21st, majorities in almost all the 14 rich countries polled had positive views of the UN (the 14-country median rating was 63% favourable against 33% unfavourable). But Japan is a glaring exception: 55% of respondents there view the UN unfavourably, whereas only 29% hold a positive opinion of the organisation, a drop of 18 points since last year’s survey. According to Pew, Japanese who say the World Health Organisation has done a good job dealing with the outbreak are much more likely than those who say it has done a bad job to have a favourable view of the United Nations (52% against 22%, respectively). And in America, though overall approval of the UN remains strong, at 62%, there is a big partisan divide—85% of Democrats see the UN favourably, but only 39% of Republicans do. A similar partisan gap exists in views on international co-operation. For example, 83% of Democrats thought that if America had co-operated more with other countries it would have had fewer coronavirus cases; only 27% of Republicans thought this.

The pandemic is a powerful example of the need for such co-operation (to share data, spread best practices and ensure that when vaccines are ready for use they are distributed efficiently). So is climate change, and from the cybersphere to space, global governance is increasingly needed. But the call for reinvigorated multilateralism comes at a time of reinvigorated nationalism in many parts of the world. Great-power rivalry is crippling the Security Council. And at 75, in its structure—with the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council—the UN still reflects the world as it was in 1945 rather than one in which India, Africa and others deserve and demand a growing say.

The need for reforms is widely acknowledged. Mr Guterres wants to make the bureaucracy more agile and more open, finding ways to engage regional organisations, businesses, NGOs and young people in the UN’s deliberations. The declaration also includes a commitment to “instil new life in the discussions on the reform of the Security Council”. Sadly, when it comes to messing with the core power structure of the organisation, vested interests make change almost impossible. In this respect the format of this year’s UNGA is likely to prove all too apt: reforms will remain more virtual than real.

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Citizens’ assemblies are increasingly popular

SHIRLEY ISLAM has little faith in politics. Elected representatives “are either bickering on TV, or wasting taxpayer money, or trying to sell something,” says the 48-year-old care worker from West Lothian, in Scotland. “They are all saying the same thing,” she sighs. But she has felt a little more hopeful of late. Her optimism is a result of her involvement in a “citizens’ assembly” in Scotland to debate the country’s future—held first in a conference centre in Glasgow and since September 5th on Zoom. Politics, she thinks, “needs to be in touch with people.” “This is the way forward,” she continues. “It has to be.”

Over the past decade democratic institutions have taken a battering. According to Pew Research Centre, an average of 64% of people across 34 countries do not believe that elected officials care what ordinary folk think. Fully 69% of Britons are dissatisfied with the way democracy is working at home, as are 59% of Americans.

One solution, long favoured by political scientists, is to include more deliberation within democracy. Citizens’ assemblies are an increasingly popular way of doing so. These involve a group of around 100 people, broadly representative of the population (by gender, age and socioeconomic status, say), meeting over several weeks or months to debate tricky topics, such as whether to legalise abortion or how to respond to climate change. In the course of the best-organised assemblies participants hear from experts on all sides and produce recommendations to which their governments have promised to respond.

Several big citizens’ assemblies are under way or have recently concluded. Last year President Emmanuel Macron created a “citizens’ convention on climate” to come up with measures that will enable France to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030. The proceedings, which were disrupted first by national strikes and then by the covid-19 lockdown, concluded in June. The 150 participants called for two changes to the constitution to help preserve the environment and biodiversity, and a law to criminalise “ecocide”. A “climate assembly” in Britain issued its final report, completed via Zoom, on September 10th. “Deliberación País”, a large-scale deliberative process in Chile to debate pension reform and health care, has been postponed to December and will be online only.

Although citizens’ assemblies had been tried in Canada and the Netherlands in the early 2000s, the recent craze started in Ireland. Two citizens’ assemblies have taken place there to discuss a variety of topics. The original impetus was the financial crash of 2007-09, which left many in the country feeling disillusioned with politics and made politicians more willing to experiment, recalls David Farrell of University College Dublin (UCD), who advised the Irish government on the projects. A similar sense of crisis informed the citizens’ convention in France, which was set up in response to the gilets jaunes protests.

The Irish assemblies led to two referendums, on same-sex marriage and on abortion, topics long considered too divisive for politicians even to broach in a country where three-quarters of the population still describe themselves as Catholic. The results were striking. In 2015 same-sex marriage was approved by 62% of the population; 66% voted in 2018 in favour of making abortion available in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The citizens’ groups foreshadowed these results.

“Ireland is the Rolls-Royce of citizens’ assemblies,” says Iain Walker of the newDemocracy Foundation in Australia, which has run similar pow-wows in that country. Mr Farrell is more circumspect. Ireland’s convocations were not perfect: at one the supposedly randomly selected citizens, rustled up by a market-research firm, included a couple. At another seven participants turned out to be friends with one of the recruiters. Nonetheless, the fact that the assemblies helped pave the way for significant reforms makes Ireland something of a “beacon”, he thinks.

Ideally the gatherings should resemble the public at large. France selected the members of its assembly at random by telephone. Some 255,000 people were contacted. To the organisers’ surprise 70% said they were willing to take part. Of those, 150 French citizens who reflected the country’s make-up in terms of gender, age, income and place of residence were invited to participate. The minimum age was set at 16 to enable high-school pupils to be involved. Each person was paid €86 ($97 then) a day (the same sum paid in France to those on jury duty). Child-care costs were reimbursed, and the assembly paid directly for hotels and train fares. The budget was over €5m. In order to drum up 120 people for Scotland’s meeting, the teams organising it knocked on some 10,000 doors across the country. Each participant is paid £200 for every weekend they attend; the assembly costs £1.4m ($1.8m).

The machinery for change

Participants seem to enjoy the process. Isabelle, a finance director from western France, said she initially thought the invitation to take part in the convention there was “a joke”. It turned out to be anything but. The experience, she says, has been “enriching” but also “shocking”, as it has opened her eyes to the climate crisis.

But can deliberation change people’s views? In America James Fishkin, a professor at Stanford and the director of the Centre for Deliberative Democracy, has run a series of “deliberative polls”—similar to citizens’ assemblies but much larger, with 500 or so people involved, totally randomly selected—to see if the process can bridge the partisan divide.

One of Mr Fishkin’s gatherings, in September 2019, demonstrated that Americans could indeed change their opinions. After four days hearing from experts and discussing with their peers five policy areas (immigration, health care, the economy, the environment and foreign policy) those involved concluded that democracy was in fact working rather better than they had thought. On particularly divisive topics, people tiptoed to the centre ground: support for reducing the number of refugees allowed to resettle in America dropped by 15 percentage points, to 22%. Among Republicans it fell by 32 percentage points, to 34%. Meanwhile support for increasing the federal minimum wage fell by 23 percentage points among Democrats, to 59%.

A larger question is whether these processes can change opinions among the broader population. According to research by Mr Farrell, Jane Suiter of Dublin City University and others, those who voted in the referendum to liberalise abortion in Ireland were more likely to have heard of the assembly, suggesting a possible causal relation between the two.

To work well, these assemblies need a clear subject to discuss. Alan Renwick, a specialist in deliberative democracy at University College London, thinks that they are best suited to grappling with large, seemingly intractable problems, such as climate change. But it is also helpful if that topic can be framed as a choice: the subject is fraught, but debating whether abortion should be legalised is more straightforward than trying to paint a picture of Scotland’s future, as the citizens’ assembly there is supposed to do. In Australia, Mr Walker notes, deliberative groups are typically given a question of no more than ten words to discuss. Anything longer than that, the thinking goes, and it becomes harder for people to understand, and easier for politicians to ignore any solutions that might be proposed.

Some worry that the shift online will undermine the value of these meetings—even though, as with many aspects of life, many participants feel it has worked surprisingly well. Most of the assemblies that have moved online this year had an advantage: the members had met in real life before. It is hard to see the process of a “group forming and becoming committed” happening in an online-only forum, says Mr Renwick, without the ability to hobnob over lunches or tea. Ms Islam was nervous about the change. She had to remind herself of how committed she felt to the assembly to gee herself up for the sessions, and has been reading up before the discussions to keep engaged. As more assemblies, such as the one in Chile, are held entirely online, it will become clearer how well they work at a distance.

What is clear is that citizens’ assemblies are most successful when politicians actually listen to them. For a long time, that looked improbable. Matthew Taylor recalls that when he was the head of the prime minister’s policy unit in Britain, he tried to get the two prime ministers he worked for, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, interested in the idea of assemblies. “On both occasions both the politicians and officials loved the idea, up to the point at which I said, ‘You can’t control the outcome and you will have to respond to it positively. Not to implement it, but to respond to it positively.’”

By contrast, the French government went out of its way to demonstrate its support for the citizens’ assembly. Mr Macron dropped by for an evening sitting in January, and stayed to answer questions for over two-and-a-half hours. In June, he invited the participants to his official residence and gave a speech in the garden in which he promised to put either into legislation, or to a referendum, all but three of the 149 proposals put forward by the assembly. (That pledge was looking shaky on at least one count this week after the president vowed to press ahead with the roll-out of 5G networks, despite the assembly’s proposal for a moratorium.) He also promised €15bn towards the implementation of the proposals.

In Scotland the assembly was set up by Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister. Several participants felt confident that their proposals would be acted on in Holyrood. “I really feel they are going to listen,” said Lynsay Walton, a 61-year-old cleaner. “That’s why I keep coming.” Others were more dubious. “If it is not responded to, it’s a waste of time,” said David Farrell, a joiner.

Not everyone is entirely convinced of the virtues of this kind of deliberative democracy. According to Kevin Elliott of Murray State University in America, however these groups are chosen, there will always be an element of self-selection, as it is not a compulsory process. “You are always extending an invitation that can be refused,” he points out. He worries that citizens’ assemblies are an attempt “to solve the problem of distrust [in democracy] with a technocratic fix”. Samuel Bagg of Oxford University wonders whether, if assemblies are given more power, they will be subject to more influence from lobby groups: a climate assembly lobbied by a fossil-fuel company, and so on.

It is inevitable that, as assemblies proliferate, some will be considered flops. But when they work well, these groups provide elected representatives with a mind-clearing idea of what voters really want.

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Some assembly required”

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A New Film Starring Zendaya And John David Washington Is Coming To Netflix

While many of us were learning to bake sourdough during quarantine, the actors Zendaya and John David Washington filmed a whole movie — and in secret, no less. In July, Deadline broke the news that the two would star in the forthcoming romantic drama, Malcolm & Marie, written and directed by Euphoria creator Sam Levinson, a project that came to life when production for the colorful HBO series was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, the highly anticipated black-and-white film is headed for (computer) screens everywhere, after Netflix acquired the film at the Toronto International Film Festival marketplace, beating out HBO, Amazon, Apple, Focus Features, and more. The streaming giant paid an astounding $30 million, reportedly off promo alone. Come through, faith!

Netflix confirmed the deal, with Levinson noting, per Deadline, he was “grateful to this cast and crew, many of whom are my Euphoria family, for coming together during such uncertain times. We felt privileged to be able to make this film together and we did so with a lot of love. We are all thrilled that it has ended up with Netflix which is unparalleled in allowing filmmakers the freedom to tell their stories that reach audiences all over the world.”

The acquisition of Malcolm & Marie follows an approximately $20 million Netflix deal for Bruised, directed by Halle Berry. Though it may seem as if Netflix swept the early buys, Amazon took One Night in Miami, Regina King‘s directorial debut, and Utopia Pictures snagged a documentary about the Italian designer Salvatore Ferragamo, Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams.

How Tiny Details Made Almost Famous‘s Brand-New Outfits Look Old (And Iconic)

By Sara Radin

“Do you have to be depressed to write a sad song?” teenager William Miller, played by Patrick Fugit, asks rock star Russell Hammond, played by Billy Crudup, backstage. “Do you have to be in love to write a love song? Is a song better when it really happened to you?”

The scene in writer-director Cameron Crowe’s 2000 semi-autobiographical film Almost Famous is one of many in which William’s maturity breaks through his youthful exterior and wardrobe (think white t-shirts and misfit jeans). It’s 1973, and William has been given the opportunity of a lifetime — to profile Hammond’s rising band Stillwater for the cover of Rolling Stone. It’s a gig any writer, let alone a 15-year-old, would dream of, and William’s ditched school, along with his overbearing mother, to make it happen. Crowe wrote his own real-life adolescence as a teen journalist for the magazine into the film, loading it with memorable quotes and humorous and emotional exchanges. The iconic outfits, though — like William’s brown corduroy jacket and Russell’s brown leather one — came courtesy of costume designer Betsy Heimann.

Heimann, who’s been bringing the stories of characters to life through clothes for more than three decades, has worked on some of the biggest movies of the past 30 years, including Jerry Maguire and Pulp Fiction. For Almost Famous, released on September 13, 2000 — 20 years ago — she worked closely with Crowe to translate his story authentically. Scouring fabric stores for scraps and looking at rock and roll tours from the time, Heimann helped piece together the narrative by employing her own interest in bringing out a character’s full range of emotions. From putting Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) in a translucent blouse to emphasize her vulnerability to creating the fur-lined coat of the century, Heimann played a huge role in making the film both period-appropriate and emotionally resonant.

MTV News sat down with Heimann to get more insight into the ways she illuminated the inner worlds of the characters via their dress.

MTV News: What drew you to the story? What was the process of translating the script like for you?

Betsy Heimann: When you read a script written by Cameron Crowe, it’s extremely inspirational. As a costume designer, you’re working to put the director’s vision together for people to see through clothes. It was a 1970s autobiographical film, and I had the greatest source of reference sitting right in front of me, Cameron. We looked at a lot of photographs of rock and roll tours from 1970 to 1973, some by friends of his, and that was our starting off point.

MTV News: Were there any specific musicians or tours you looked to?

Heimann: The photographs we looked at were from a Neil Young tour in 1973. Another one was the Allman Brothers and also The Eagles. It was not the birth of rock and roll by any means, but it was the end when people were there for the love of the music. Music wasn’t a big commercial entity at that time. The movie is an homage to that time.

When Jimmy Fallon’s character [a manager brought in by Stillwater’s label] enters the film, it’s the beginning of the end. But it wasn’t about how many t-shirts you could sell. It wasn’t about big tours with big money. Fallon brings that all to the party, and that’s a turning point in the film and was also a turning point in that kind of music.

MTV News: When it came to Patrick Fugit’s character, did you look at photos of Cameron Crowe, or what were your reference points for him?

Heimann: I was inspired by a photograph that was taken by Joel Bernstein of somebody that was on the tour with Neil Young in 1973. The photograph was of a man, but he was standing in a dressing room, just looking at the camera, and he looked very fish out of water. The picture was black and white. So I didn’t really have any sense of color, but it was just something in that moment that was captured with that person that inspired me for William. I didn’t really look at that many pictures of Cameron as a child, but his mother, absolutely. I looked at a lot of pictures of his mom cause you know, Frances McDormand is playing that part. Cameron’s mother was a wonderful woman and I had costumed her for Jerry Maguire.

Courtesy of Paramount

MTV News: Let’s talk about Penny Lane and Kate Hudson. What were some of the references for that character? She had such iconic pieces.

Heimann: In terms of actual people, there was Pattie Boyd and Elaine Taylor. There was a picture of Pattie where she’s looking at herself in the mirror and she had a certain expression on her face and her hair was awesome. I just found that picture very inspirational. There were also some photographs by Baron Wolman, who was a photographer of the era.

But the biggest reference was the script. I mean, Penny Lane leapt off the page. She was a magical person. Cameron gave her a living, breathing heart and soul, so I just read the script and tried to notice any feelings I had about her. And then you combine that with Kate, who is just so joyous and beautiful and happy and vulnerable. You know, that’s how I work. I work from an emotional basis. Of course there’s always references for every film I’ve ever done, but it comes from an emotional place of the character in the script. It’s mainly about the screenplay for me.

MTV News: Where did you source the clothing?

Heimann: I designed all of the clothes. They were all brand new, though some were made with vintage fabrics, and then we aged them down to look old. We sourced a lot of vintage clothing for the background people. Paramount Studios was closing down their costume department and they had a huge back room of fabrics that went all the way back in time to all the movies in the ’30s and the ’40s. And I found all kinds of things there. A lot of people think that all of the clothes came from thrift stores. I take that as a compliment because, you know, it has some authenticity to it. But in fact it was me with my little sketch pad. I tried to put myself in the period of Almost Famous and then make it my own.

MTV News: What’s the story behind Penny Lane’s coat?

Heimann: The coat was inspired by a drawing by Erté, who was an artist in the 1920s and ’30s, of an opera coat. That was my jumping-off point. The cream color really reflected the light of her face. And the coat itself was some drapery fabric. I wanted it to be like a cocoon for her because when she’d opened that coat, she was like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. When she had that coat on, she was Penny Lane, and inside there was a very vulnerable girl. The coat itself was made out of some upholstery fabric I found in downtown L.A., and the collar was made out of a rug from Urban Outfitters. Oftentimes during a period film, you go back a little further in time. So some of what Penny was wearing had a lot of reference to the sixties.

Courtesy of Paramount

MTV News: I love the little camisole she wears that’s like a crop top.

Heimann: Those were big in that period. I made her tops out of little vintage pieces of fabric and lace. I would find remnants of things that I like. That’s kind of what I do. I’ll take something old and turn it into something new.

MTV News: What about at the end? She goes to the airport and she’s wearing an elegant black outfit.

Heimann: That was a very Audrey Hepburn moment. Now she’s going to play the part of this mysterious movie star with the sunglasses and the black hat and the black dress. She’s going off to Morocco to play a different character and be somebody else. She’s like, “I’m going to leave this fantasy behind and go into the real world. But here I am starting it with a new fantasy.”

MTV News: Let’s talk about Zooey Deschanel. I loved her in this movie and the way she kind of goes from being this teenager with her hair up in rollers to being a hip flight attendant.

Heimann: If my memory serves me well, Cameron’s sister actually had her hair in the rollers, and that was very important as was the curly hair for Penny Lane. There was an airline called PSA, Pacific Southwest Airlines, and that was their uniform. We had to make it because that airline had gone out of business but that was all referenced in research and we actually found a stewardess who lived in San Diego and we drove down there. We used her photographs and uniform to make Zooey’s, so it was an authentic reproduction.

I used a very restricted palette for the film. Brown, navy, brick, and avocado were my four main colors. And then there were the dusty roses and the dusty purple, but the Miller family wore a lot of red, which was really the only time you saw that color in the film.

Courtesy of Paramount

MTV News: What was the meaning behind that choice?

Heimann: I think it was to say that they were in their own world. They just traveled to the beat of their own drum, the daughter, the mother, and the son were all uniquely different from each other, but in their own world. They did things the way they did them. It didn’t really matter what the rest of the world was doing.

MTV News: How does it feel to see so many people dressed up as Penny Lane for Halloween, and have such a cult following around the film?

Heimann: I think it’s fantastic, just a real tribute to the film and to the mood that we created, that we’ve created something lasting and that feels good. I’m just so flattered that here you are calling me and talking to me, it’s a wonderful thing. It’s great to still be in the consciousness of people. The film itself was a joyous experience for me, it’s very close to my heart and it’s really exciting that other people feel the same way.

Almost Famous is available for streaming on Apple TV. 

The world needs a better World Health Organisation

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

THE GLASS and metal headquarters of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the UN’s health agency, contrast starkly with their bucolic surroundings in the hills around Geneva. The only dabs of colour are the flags of its 194 member-states. For now the American flag still flutters beside the rest. But if President Donald Trump has his way, by July 2021 it will be gone. America is the WHO’s biggest donor. A tenth of its staff are American. Its influence runs through the agency, right down to the peanut-butter cups in the staff vending machine.

It is an odd time to cut ties with the world’s foremost public-health body. There is a pandemic going on. Mara Pillinger, a health-policy researcher at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, says the WHO has done a “pretty remarkable job” of coping with covid-19, given the constraints built into the way it works. Nonetheless, the twin threats of Trumpism and coronavirus have illuminated both the agency’s strengths and its weaknesses, and raised questions about its future.

The WHO’s emergency work is governed by a legal framework known as the International Health Regulations, the current version of which has been in force since 2005. They spell out how public-health emergencies should be handled. They set the rules for how nations should behave. And they constrain the WHO. Member-states are bound to report outbreaks of diseases as soon as they can, but if they fail to do so, or delay as China did with covid-19, the organisation has no way of compelling them.

Before 2005 the rules were different. Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former Norwegian prime minister who led the WHO from 1998 to 2003, slammed China for failing to report an outbreak of SARS promptly in 2003. Those days are gone, she says; member-states have now limited what the head of the WHO can do and say. Tedros Adhanom, the current director-general, has not openly criticised China. But nor has he lambasted America, points out Jeremy Hunt, a former British health secretary. Such tact is crucial. UN bodies work by consensus, he says: “That is the price you pay for getting all the countries in the world around the table.”

Ordinarily the job of the WHO is to identify the best public-health measures, share that information and offer technical support to members that need it. It is the main forum where countries co-operate on matters of health. The practical work of public health is not its job. However, when others fail it will step in. It has provided mental-health services in Syria and airlifted ambulances into Iraq. It failed in its response to an outbreak of Ebola in West Africa in 2014 which killed more than 11,000 people. But when the disease struck the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in 2018 it played a leading role in bringing it under control. When others thought it too dangerous to send staff into the field, the WHO stayed. Two staff were killed by rebels, who often attacked clinics. Dr Tedros visited Congo 14 times, showing unusual pluck for someone in his position.

WHO are you

The WHO was central in the eradication of smallpox, a disease that killed almost 300m people in the 20th century. It has helped almost wipe out polio, which in the 1980s paralysed 350,000 people in 125 countries each year. The disease is now found in only three countries. The WHO receives information from countries on outbreaks, organises vaccination programmes and often acts as a kind of vaccine-approval agency.

One problem for the WHO, argues Dr Pillinger, is that much of its work is invisible. It co-operates closely with governments and lets them take credit for its efforts. When things go wrong, of course, it makes a convenient scapegoat, as Mr Trump has realised.

Its response to covid-19 has come under intense scrutiny, as it should. Dr Brundtland thinks the WHO declared the outbreak a public-health emergency far too late. That could be because China, once again, withheld information about a novel outbreak. It was, she says, “concealing and waiting and shouldn’t have done, according to International Health Regulations”.

Some say the WHO was too slow to issue guidance on the use of dexamethasone, a drug that can treat some of the sickest patients. Others have blasted it for dragging its feet before promoting the wearing of fabric masks on buses and in shops. Initially it did not have the evidence on which to base such guidance, explains Maria Van Kerkhove, a WHO epidemiologist. It needed to know whether masks would be available and what the science said about the efficacy of the widespread use of the fabric kind. It asked researchers at Stanford University to investigate. On the basis of their research in June it changed its advice to say that such masks should be worn in public where physical distancing is impossible.

But overall the organisation has responded to covid-19 swiftly. At the start of the outbreak officials worked with technology and social-media companies to encourage them to promote accurate information. It coined the phrase “infodemic” to describe the rapid spread of misinformation about the new virus.

It has helped co-ordinate global efforts to find treatments and vaccines. It is working with drug firms to safeguard the supply of medicines. It is now a key player in COVAX, a plan to distribute 2bn doses of a covid-19 vaccine in 2021. The WHO has rushed to digest research produced at high speed and explain what it means. Behind the scenes member-states are regularly told where the WHO thinks their measures are not aggressive or comprehensive enough.

For WHO the bell tolls

Its efforts will be further analysed. In May the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s decision-making forum, requested a full independent evaluation of the agency’s response to the pandemic as well as that of individual countries. It will be published next year. Whatever its conclusions, many of the WHO’s weaknesses are already apparent. Last month officials in the German and French health ministries circulated a paper saying the agency is severely underfunded, chronically over-mandated by member-states, and weak by design.

Money is the most immediate problem. The WHO’s budget is a piddling $2.5bn a year (roughly what America spends on health care for a typical small city). “It’s a sad figure,” says Howard Koh, a professor at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and a former assistant secretary for health in the Obama administration. With this “we expect them to solve the world’s pandemics.” In emergencies the WHO often has to go cap in hand to its funders to scrounge more cash. In the middle of the Ebola outbreak in Congo in 2018-19 it ran out.

Its work is made harder because only 20% of its $2.5bn in funding is guaranteed and comes without strings. Much of that comes from a small number of large donors (see chart). It is like an oil-dependent country, argues Dr Tedros, too reliant on a single source of income, namely America. Other big countries, such as China and France, contribute trifling amounts. The other 80% comes in the form of around 3,000 unpredictable and voluntary contributions earmarked for specific projects. Almost half are for less than $500,000. They are messy, difficult to manage and fragment the organisation, says the WHO’s boss.

Since he took over in 2017, Dr Tedros has tried to secure the agency’s finances. He set up the WHO Foundation to create a more reliable source of money. He is trying to persuade member-states to give more unconditional funding. Even before the pandemic he had pushed health up the political agenda. Staff at a big health charity say that under him the WHO has gone from discussing its work with health ministers to talking to heads of state.

Dr Tedros credits his staff for feeding him good ideas, such as setting up a WHO Academy to support the training of health workers around the world. He established the role of chief scientist. He has reached out to the private sector, something the WHO has hesitated to do before, for fear of conflicts of interest. He says he is willing to work with the food industry to eliminate trans fat, a particularly unhealthy type of fat, from food by 2023. The agency is looking into working with big tech firms on digital health technologies.

Dr Tedros is the first director-general to be elected by a secret ballot of all member-states—giving him greater independence, he says. A smaller group of countries, the WHO’s executive board, used to control these elections. The reforms he has implemented so far have been ambitious, but member-states must push them further.

Beyond pandemics, the work of promoting science-based policy, strengthening health systems and expanding access to care is not glamorous. But it is vital. The agency’s record on covid-19 is far from perfect but it had long warned of the possibility of a pandemic on such a scale. In 2018 it talked about “Disease X”, an illness caused by a pathogen never seen before in humans that would cause the next pandemic and wreak havoc. Dr Tedros set up a new division to prepare for it. Many countries did not listen.

The world has no better idea than it did a year ago whether an outbreak as bad as covid-19 is a once-in-a-century event or will happen again tomorrow. Meanwhile, new demands on the WHO are emerging. A fresh outbreak of Ebola in Congo requires attention. Poorer countries will need support dealing with covid-19 along with existing diseases such as diabetes and measles. The WHO will have to spread its already limited resources even more thinly.

Dr Tedros has tried to convince the Trump administration that America should stay part of the WHO but says it set “completely unacceptable” conditions for doing so (he did not specify what they were). Joe Biden has promised that America would rejoin the WHO immediately, should he win the presidency. Either way, the possibility of the organisation’s main donor bunking out has made other countries realise that they should do more to bolster it. An internal panel is looking at reforms to the International Health Regulations. The WHO may need the power to investigate outbreaks more independently and to establish a system so that it can issue warnings about public-health emergencies earlier. A year ago the risks of a weak global health system were hard to calculate. Today the costs of failure are measured in trillions of dollars and the loss so far of around 900,000 lives to covid-19.

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “What’s wrong with the WHO”

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Haley Lu Richardson And Barbie Ferreira Destigmatize Abortion With Comedy In Unpregnant

By Alex Gonzalez

HBO Max’s latest film Unpregnant offers a timely update to the traditional road movie, which typically sees a group of friends in search of debaucherous adventures. In this case, ex-best friends Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) and Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) set out for the former to get an abortion in secrecy.

There is one particularly poignant scene about midway through the movie when, shortly before arriving at the clinic, the two get into an argument after Veronica’s classmates call her to tell her they solved the mystery of a telltale pregnancy test found in their school’s dumpster. While the test was Veronica’s, her friends insist that it’s Bailey’s. To save face, Veronica agrees — but Bailey overhears, leading her to ditch Veronica. Veronica follows, insisting that she’s “not the type” of person who gets an abortion, a statement that reflects an insidious yet pervasive stereotype that women who receive abortions are irresponsible. Bailey replies, “You are exactly the kind of person who gets an abortion and then doesn’t tell anyone.”

“I think that’s my favorite line in the whole movie,” Ferreira tells MTV News. “I always laugh when people think they’re above something. And it’s like, having an abortion, there’s no type for that. Anybody who is having sexual intercourse with a penis and a vagina can have some sort of chance of getting pregnant, whether that’s with birth control or not. There’s no look for it. It’s not a certain type of girl. One in four women will have an abortion or have had an abortion. So clearly there is no type, and I think that’s one of a lot of things that we need to destigmatize.”

Ursula Coyote

Destigmatizing abortion and dispelling the notion that there are “types” of people who need access to them is just one thematic element of the film, which hits the streaming platform today (September 10). While Veronica seems to come to the decision of terminating her pregnancy rather quickly, the difficulties manifest in other ways, due to external pressures from her conservative community. She can’t even google the full word, only bringing herself to type “abor” in the search bar. When her boyfriend, Kevin (Alex MacNicoll), catches up with her and Bailey on their road trip after tracking Veronica through her iPhone’s Find My Friends feature, she tells him she’s “taking care of the situation.” But she’s still wary.

“Even though she almost immediately knows what she wants to do and the choice that she wants to make for herself, it doesn’t mean that she’s totally comfortable with it,” Richardson says, “which is why she feels like she can’t go to her friends or her boyfriend or even her parents, because she’s so worried about what they’re going to think of her and how their perception of her will be tarnished because she failed in this way.”

While the characters Richardson brought to life in The Edge of Seventeen and Support the Girls are more relaxed and easy-going about life, she drew upon difficult moments from her own past to embody Veronica through her journey. When preparing for the role of the pregnant straight-A student set to attend Brown University following graduation, Richardson thought back to the pressure she put on herself as a child while preparing for dance competitions. Most of the desire to be the perfect pupil is refraction from Veronica’s family and peers, and Richardson compared dealing with such external forces similar to that which she faced growing up.

Ursula Coyote

“I was so hard on myself,” Richardson says. “I realized a lot of the torture that I put myself through, in terms of my pressure that I had on myself, came from me wanting to like perform for others or be perfect or win the competition for others. And then when I would feel that disappointment, if I didn’t live up to that, it wasn’t necessarily me being disappointed in myself or me honestly thinking that I sucked. It was me feeling like I let everyone else down. And I feel like that’s something that I really related to about Veronica.”

58 percent of women who receive abortions feel the need to keep the procedure a secret from friends and family. Two out of three women who receive abortions fear stigma if others were to find out. Throughout the movie, Veronica wants to remain as mum about the pregnancy as possible. She tells her mom that she is studying at a friend’s house for the weekend, her friends that she is studying at home, and she posts decoy “self-care” Instagram posts, so people know not to bother her.

Dr. David Eisenberg, an ob-gyn based in St. Louis, Missouri, believes Unpregnant is timely, given the current political climate and the upcoming presidential election. While the issue of abortion has at times been overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic, vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris has spoken in support of reproductive justice. President Trump has been outspoken in his opposition to abortion, having attended the anti-abortion March for Life rally and appointing over 200 judges to the federal judiciary, many of whom have anti-abortion track records.

Courtesy of HBO Max

Eisenberg, who has been providing abortion care in multiple states for over a decade, says that situations like the one in Unpregnant, where a 17-year-old girl has to travel out of state to get an abortion, are very real and far too common. While abortion is currently legal in all 50 states, the restrictions on the procedures, abortion deserts in many states, and duplicitous “crisis pregnancy centers” make it difficult for many to access choice-affirming health care.

“We have been seeing over and over again how state-level regulations that have no basis in science or public health practices are making it harder and harder for people who need abortion care to get the care they need locally when they need it,” Eisenberg says, “and it is forcing folks to have to leave their communities to seek that care in other locations.” With the 2020 election 54 days away, Eisenberg says that it is important that we all show up and vote this November. He insists that we must keep in mind state representatives and legislators, as well as the president.

Unpregnant puts these political implications on full display. When Veronica finally arrives at the abortion clinic in Albequerque, she sits down with a nurse, who explains what the abortion process entails. The nurse asks Veronica if the abortion is her choice, explains that the doctor will insert a wand inside of her to remove the fetus and that she has the choice of either staying awake or being asleep while the procedure is taking place. At this point, Veronica is calm, relaxed, and comfortable with her decision. Prior to the film’s production, director Rachel Lee Goldenberg visited many abortion clinics and talked to people about different types of scenarios in which people choose to receive abortions. But beyond a desire to portray their stories accurately, the project is a personal one for Goldenberg.

Ursula Coyote

“I had an abortion years ago and have been pro-choice my whole life. But after I got my abortion, I didn’t talk about it with many people,” Goldenberg told Variety. “I didn’t question the decision, it just felt like something you don’t talk about. It somehow felt inappropriate. Then I started reading about the history of this issue and how actually since the 1980s it’s a norm that’s been created by society where we’re making it less and less OK to talk about and that me not talking about was sort of its own political act.”

For her part, Ferreira is dedicated to unpacking the tough issues that affect young women today. Through her powerful performance as the quiet, reserved Kat Hernandez in Euphoria, who confronts a boy after leaking a video of her having sex, she explores teen sexuality and body positivity. And while many fans believe public figures like Ferreira and Richardson should use their platforms to address such issues, Ferreira believes that this is less of an obligation and more something she enjoys.

“I never think of it as a responsibility,” Ferreira says. “It’s more of an interest of mine. I gravitate towards things that are maybe a little bit more controversial in other people’s eyes. I gravitate towards conversations that are a little bit more taboo. I have really strong opinions and I always have… I’ve always chosen to be a part of something that has a greater message.”

Timothée Chalamet And Zendaya Brood Their Way Through Epic Dune Trailer

Timothée Chalamet is afraid. But he’s not letting the fear grip him.

A trademark floppy-haired Chalamet anchors the new trailer for upcoming sci-fi epic Dune, wherein he broods about his future, wears a breathing tube to navigate inhospitable terrain, and even briefly locks lips with his co-star Zendaya, though it might just be a mirage. It all might be, in fact — the murky Dune epic follows Chalamet’s Paul Atreides as he navigates the interconnected politics of a new world while also coming of age.

“The dream is, like, [for] the theater to be rocking,” Chalamet told MTV News’s Josh Horowitz in 2018 about then being in final negotiations for his lead role. “To work on something of that scale — I’m not afraid of the green screen-isms of it all,” he said, noting that he still wasn’t sure if that was director Denis Villeneuve’s plan quite yet. From the trailer alone, and its massive scope, it’s a safe bet that digital technology was, in fact, implemented to help execute such a grand vision.

“I’m just talking the big-budget nature of it,” Chalamet continued then. “I can imagine on something else, particularly for this long shooting periods, you can get there on a certain day and be like, ‘What am I doing?’ But what’s amazing with Denis is that his movies are so rapidly intelligent.”

The trailer — our first complete look at Villeneuve’s particular eye on the world of Dune — is not just the Chalamet show, though. The film boasts an impressive ensemble cast that includes Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Javier Bardem, and more. But of course, it’s loaded with plenty of moody moments in which Chalamet can walk through sand in a large coat and stare off into the distance like a darker, more tortured Luke Skywalker longing for adventures far away from Tatooine.

Dune is the latest big-screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel, following a 1984 take from David Lynch and a 2000 miniseries on what was then the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy). Villeneuve, the visionary behind Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, helms the 2020 version, which was originally due to be released in December. The trailer doesn’t offer a release date, though it does specify where you’ll be able to see the film when it drops: “Only in theaters.”

Watch Chalamet brood, yell, and embrace his destiny in the first Dune trailer above.

The pandemic is boosting efforts to get the old out of prison

PATRICIA WRIGHT expected to spend her life in prison in California, for ordering a hitman to kill her husband—which he did. Twenty-four years later, as the covid-19 pandemic wreaks havoc across America, she has been released, aged 69 and with terminal cancer. That was one small victory for humanitarian groups that have been lobbying governments to free older prisoners. They are particularly vulnerable to catching covid-19, by dint of their confined living quarters, and to suffering serious or fatal effects from it, because of their advanced age. Yet, as Bethany Brown of Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based lobby group, puts it: “These men and women have been given a prison sentence, not a death sentence.”

Ms Wright is one of an increasing but still too small number being released because of the pandemic, says HRW. Of 21,000 prisoners released in the Philippines in the four months to July, just 409 were older people. Britain has let out only 275 prisoners of all ages (some government documents on releases mention pregnant women but not the old). By May, Bolivia had freed only two inmates in total (more have since been let out). Still, attention is at last being paid to silver-haired jailbirds.

Globally the number of old people behind bars is increasing at a phenomenal rate. In Britain, the number aged over 60 has jumped by 243% since 2002, to 5,176 in March 2020; they make up 6% of the prison population. Today 20% of Japan’s inmates are 60 or older, double the proportion in 2002. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an advocacy group, estimates that by 2030 one-third of all inmates in America will be older than 55. They already make up a larger share of the state-prison population than do people aged 18-24.

Populations in the rich world are ageing. But that does not on its own account for the increased numbers of old people behind bars. Tougher policies on crime in America and Britain since the 1970s have led to longer sentences, so people grow old inside. In Britain, older people are being convicted of offences committed several years beforehand; male sexual offenders make up the largest proportion of pension-age prisoners. In Japan, older people are committing more crime, often minor offences such as shoplifting, because they cannot afford to live on their pensions. Some say that in prison they will at least be fed.

The issue becomes starker because those put in jail are often in poor health. And some studies suggest prisoners age faster than their contemporaries in the community. The problems are many, starting with the provision of suitable accommodation. Prisons were built for fit and healthy young men, not people who need handrails in the shower, bed hoists or escorting to the toilet. Old people have more health problems, often chronic, such as dementia, or incurable, like some cancers. Rich countries have started to acknowledge that their prisons now have to be nursing homes and hospices. But prison guards are trained in discipline and security, not nursing.

Old people cost a lot more to keep. The ACLU estimates it costs $72,000 to keep an elderly person locked up for a year, triple the cost of a younger one—and that is before providing them with proper services.

The focus during the pandemic is, understandably, on getting inmates out of jail. Provisions to do so exist. Some states in America, including Alabama, California and Georgia, have geriatric-release laws. Other places that don’t, Britain included, can use compassionate release. These provisions are “underused”, says Azrini Wahidin of Warwick University; only one or two people are let out every year in Britain. Some older people remain a danger to society but recidivism rates for the elderly tend to be very low, around 2-4%.

Those who are released probably also find it harder to reintegrate into society than younger ex-insiders. “We have too often kept them beyond the point of return,” says Ronald Aday of Middle Tennessee State University, of the situation in America. “They can’t get a job; their families don’t want them.” Kasamatsu prison in the centre of Japan’s main island runs exercise classes to keep inmates fit, and support services assist them once released. Nordic countries, which favour open prisons, do better at keeping people healthy and connected to society by never severing their access to social and health services in the community.

Releasing unhealthy or dying inmates poses other problems. Lynn Saunders, the governor of HMP Whatton in Britain, a prison for male sexual offenders who by nature of their sentence have little hope of being released before old age—if ever—says someone who has been in jail may not want to go to a hospice to “die alone”. If they have been locked up for a long time, all their friends are inside. Hospices and nursing homes often reject ex-prisoners. “Is grandma going to be happy to be in a home with a multiple-convicted rapist?” asks Ms Saunders.

In some cases prisons set up hospices on their grounds. HMP Whatton provides palliative care; currently it has one elderly dying inmate. Elsewhere dedicated nursing homes cater to former convicts, like 60 West in Connecticut, which opened in 2013. But it faced opposition from local residents and problems in securing access to federal funds.

Both Britain and America have acknowledged the growing number of elderly inmates and the associated problems. Yet neither country has a national strategy to deal with older offenders. That means provisions to deal with them are improvised and often depend on the prison—with varying results.

HMP Whatton, for example, has built 48 cells for older prisoners and has asked Age UK, a charity, to run activities inside for their older inmates. Fishkill prison in upstate New York was the first American facility to start a unit for those with dementia-like conditions; it has bright lighting, space to walk around and bingo. Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, America’s biggest maximum-security prison, has its own cemetery. Others have nothing to offer their older residents.

Prisons increasingly draw on other prisoners to help bear the burden. Sometimes that is ad hoc—a former Japanese inmate who served 30 years inside for murder before being released in 2016 at the age of 61 says she had to help older prisoners to wash and go to the toilet. Several prisons in California train—and pay—well-behaved inmates, known as Gold Coats, to care for their peers, in ways such as making sure they get their turn in the food-queue at the cafeteria.

The obvious missing part, says Mr Aday, is the “front end”. To reduce the number of inmates in a sustainable manner means putting fewer people in jail or incarcerating them for shorter periods, where appropriate. Russia, Ukraine and Romania limit the imposition of life imprisonment on people over 65. Ms Wahidin suggests that a prisoner’s age could be taken into account in sentencing. “A ten-year sentence means something very different for a 20-year-old and a 70-year-old,” she says. That approach, she notes, is “radical”. But extreme situations call for extreme solutions; the pandemic and the toll it is taking on government budgets might just focus minds.

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Anti-lockdown protests have been hijacked by conspiracy theorists

IN MANY COUNTRIES citizens have in the past few months faced restrictions on their personal freedoms unprecedented outside wartime. Many have been confined to their homes; those venturing out have found restaurants, bars, cinemas, theatres and sports stadiums closed; they have been advised and in many places obliged to wear face-coverings; and large gatherings have been frowned on or banned outright. It is not surprising that all of this has met some resistance. And as lockdown restrictions have eased, in a number of places people have taken to the streets to protest against the remaining constraints. What has been surprising is the nature and content of those protests.

Just this weekend there have been small protests in many places, including Rome, British cities including Edinburgh and Sheffield and a number of Australian cities, with the biggest in Melbourne. And a week earlier tens of thousands of Germans in Berlin staged the biggest of many demonstrations against pandemic restrictions in different German cities since April. The protesters were a diverse bunch. Some were “anti-vaxxers”, campaigners against government-mandated inoculations. Some applauded Robert Kennedy junior, nephew of the former American president, whose speech railed against 5G networks and the building of a surveillance state, and complimented Berlin as being once again on the front line against totalitarianism. Some simply objected to rules requiring them to use masks on public transport and in government buildings. But the protesters also included several hundred far-right activists, flourishing the flag of the old pre-1918 German empire (seen in these circles as a proxy for the swastika, which falls foul of laws banning the use of Nazi symbols). They even tried to storm the parliament building.

The same day, a smaller protest in Trafalgar Square in London also drew a very mixed crowd. Piers Corbyn, brother of the previous leader of the opposition Labour Party, was fined as one of the organisers of a demonstration that breached a coronavirus ban on gatherings of more than 30 people. Mr Corbyn believes the virus “is not a high-consequence infectious disease” but has been used in a “psychological operation” designed to close down the economy in the interests of mega-corporations, such as pharmaceutical and telecoms companies. The other speakers included David Icke, a former footballer and television presenter who has become one of Britain’s most prominent conspiracy theorists. His beliefs include that climate change is a hoax and that Britain’s royal family are lizards. In comparison, his views on covid-19 are more mainstream. He called the crowd in Trafalgar Square “an island of sanity in a sea of madness”, in the midst of “the illusion pandemic”.

From the outset, the pandemic has bred conspiracy theories. These fall broadly into two overlapping categories. Some see it as a “scamdemic”, ie, a hoax. In this version covid-19 either does not exist at all or is no worse than a mild bout of the flu and has been exaggerated by governments and companies in a power grab. The other sort of theory is that it is a “plandemic”, ie, real and dangerous, but a deliberate plot by some evil actors or governments, either to make huge amounts of money or to impose or extend a dictatorship.

Some of these theories have received serious scrutiny: that the virus was developed in a Chinese laboratory, for example, and then released either deliberately or by accident (or, conversely, was introduced to the country by the American army). Some have adapted older theories to new circumstances, such as the fear that 5G radio masts are killing people, or that vaccinations are a sinister government plot. Many focus on the unlikely figure of Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder and a leading philanthropist. According to one poll from YouGov and Yahoo News, more than a quarter of all Americans and 44% of Republicans believe that Mr Gates wants to use a covid-19 vaccine to implant microchips under people’s skin. A talk he gave in 2015 arguing that “if anything kills over 10m people in the next few decades, it is likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war” has been viewed more than 30m times on YouTube, with its prescience seen by many as proof of culpability.

Perceived coronavirus-related plots have also been absorbed into the bizarre and convoluted QAnon conspiracy theory, which contends that President Donald Trump is waging a secret war against an elite of devil-worshipping paedophiles. The link with the pandemic is not obvious to outsiders (in some versions, covid-19 is a scamdemic concocted to scupper Mr Trump’s chances of re-election in November). But QAnon has spread, by one count, to 71 countries, and its symbols and adherents have turned up at protests far from their American homeland—including those in Berlin, London and Melbourne.

Uncertainty and confusion about the nature and risks of the virus make all-encompassing conspiracy theories superficially attractive. And of course they are boosted by having high-profile publicists, such as President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and, most notably, Mr Trump himself. He has endorsed a Republican congressional candidate with a history of promoting QAnon fantasies, and as recently as August 30th retweeted a post from a QAnon adherent claiming that the true number of covid-19 deaths in America was but a fraction of the official tally.

Even so, conspiracy theorists remain very much on the fringes, unable to mobilise mass support even against unpopular covid-19 restrictions. The most recent protests have been far fewer and smaller than those that took place around the world in early June—when much stricter lockdowns were in force in many places—to support the Black Lives Matter campaign after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

But that these theories play such a prominent part in protests does bring three dangers. One is that they might be exploited by other political forces. Far-right extremists seem to have been in a minority in the crowd in Berlin, for example, but those protesting for other reasons gave them cover and a chance to recruit. Second, they feed into other “culture war” cleavages, leaving society more divided, at a time when a common threat might have brought it together. Wearing a mask should be a public-health precaution, not a political badge.

Third, they risk discrediting perfectly reasonable grievances about the response to the pandemic. In Britain, for example, Liberty, a civil-liberties watchdog, is campaigning to repeal coronavirus legislation, raising legitimate worries about enhanced police powers, data privacy, surveillance and migrants’ rights. In every country, even if it is accepted that the coronavirus is neither an evil plot nor an elaborate fiction, government responses require scrutiny and, often, protest.

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Robert Pattinson Reportedly Tested Positive For Coronavirus

UPDATE (9/4/2020 10:20 a.m.): Production on The Batman has resumed without Robert Pattinson, Variety and the Daily Mail report. Director Matt Reeves is apparently trying to complete as much of the film as he can without its star, who has to self-isolate for 14 days. Original story below.

A little less than two weeks ago, the teaser trailer for Matt Reeves’s much-anticipated film The Batman dropped, letting fans into the gritty new world of Robert Pattinson as the titular Caped Crusader. Production shut down in March, when the coronavirus pandemic lockdown measures were first implemented, and the film’s release date was pushed back from July to October 2021. But this past week, production had resumed in studios outside London, eliciting excitement from fans.

Now, though, production has reportedly been halted once again. Via Variety, Warner Bros. offered a brief explanation as to why: “A member of The Batman production has tested positive for Covid-19, and is isolating in accordance with established protocols. Filming is temporarily paused.”

On Thursday (September 3), Variety also reported that the crew member is none other than Pattinson himself.

Though his representative did not immediately get back to Variety about a comment, the publication reports that “a highly placed source” confirmed Pattinson to be the affected crew member. The news comes as conversations linger around resuming production for film and television work amid the ongoing global health crisis, with questions of safety being top of mind. Major sports leagues, including the NBA and NHL, have resumed their 2019-2020 seasons by keeping their players secluded and quarantined in what’s been called “bubbles,” so far with success. MLB players, however, have not been as lucky.

In May, Pattinson appeared on the cover of GQ for a wide-ranging yet enigmatic interview conducted over video chat, where he shared his latest dietary routines and his thoughts on why he chose to don the cowl of one of the most famous comic-book heroes on the planet.

“You’ve seen this sort of lighter version, you’ve seen a kind of jaded version, a kind of more animalistic version. And the puzzle of it becomes quite satisfying, to think: Where’s my opening? And also, do I have anything inside me which would work if I could do it?” he said. “And then also, it’s a legacy part, right? I like that. There’s so few things in life where people passionately care about it before it’s even happened. You can almost feel that pushback of anticipation, and so it kind of energizes you a little bit. It’s different from when you’re doing a part and there’s a possibility that no one will even see it. Right? In some ways it’s, I don’t know… It makes you a little kind of spicy.”

Pattinson also stars alongside fellow onscreen superhero Tom Holland in Netflix’s new film The Devil All the Time, set to hit the streaming giant on September 16, and stars in Christopher Nolan’s initially long-delayed blockbuster Tenet, which finally hits select theaters in the United States today. (A bemasked Tom Cruise saw it in Europe. He loved it.)

This is a developing story. We’ll update as more information becomes available.

Covid-19 is spurring the digitisation of government

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

FOR KARINA CELIS and her fiancé James, covid-19 could not have come at a worse time. The couple planned to marry in May and to move from London to Salisbury, a small English city whose cathedral impresses Russian tourists. In July they had a baby, their first. The wedding has been postponed indefinitely. Moving house during lockdown was surprisingly straightforward. But having the child proved a nightmare of bureaucracy.

In Britain pregnant women are often given a paper folder containing their medical records, which they must haul to their appointments. Ms Celis’s notes were not transferred properly from her hospital in London to a new one in Salisbury. She had to start a new folder—and to repeat all her appointments. Absurdly she and her fiancé had to listen again to an hour-long talk about what to do when expecting a baby.

For Ms Celis, a software-engineering manager, the lack of digitisation was shocking. “At almost every appointment I have been to, either in London or here, the staff mentioned their struggles with tech,” she says. Some maternity services have moved online, but mostly health care in Britain, as elsewhere, has stubbornly resisted digitisation. The National Health Service (NHS) remains among the world’s biggest purchasers of fax machines. A plan to create a unified digital system of patients’ records was abandoned almost a decade ago, after £10bn ($12.5bn) was spent on it. No further attempts have been made.

Neither health care nor Britain is unique in relying heavily on paper. By preventing face-to-face meetings and closing the offices where bureaucrats shuffle documents, the pandemic has revealed how big a problem that is. In many countries, it has been impossible to get a court hearing, a passport or get married while locked down, since they all still require face-to-face interactions. Registering a business has been slower or impossible. Elections are a worrying prospect.

Governments that have long invested in digitising their systems endured less disruption. Those that have not are discovering how useful it would be if a lot more official business took place online.

Covid-19 has brought many aspects of bureaucratic life to a halt. In England at least 73,400 weddings had to be delayed—not just the ceremony, also the legal part—reckons the Office for National Statistics. In France courts closed in March for all but essential services, and did not reopen until late May. They are still not operating at full capacity. Most countries have extended visas for foreigners trapped by the pandemic, but consular services stopped almost everywhere, meaning that people living abroad could not renew passports or register births. In America green-card applications were halted in April; they restarted in June. In Britain appointments to take biometric details of people applying for permanent residency ceased in March and resumed only partly in June.

Some applications cannot be delayed. As Florida was locking down, huge queues formed outside government offices to get the paper forms needed to sign up for unemployment insurance. In theory the state has a digital system, but it was so poorly constructed that many could not access it. At the start of the pandemic the website crashed for days. Even several months later people trying to apply had to join a digital queue and wait for hours before being able to log in. When government offices in Montgomery, the capital of neighbouring Alabama, reopened, people camped outside, hoping to see an official who might help with their claims.

Where services did exist online, their inadequacies became apparent. Digital unemployment-insurance systems collapsed under a wave of new claimants. At the end of March the website of the INPS, the Italian social-security office, received 300,000 applications for welfare in a single day. It crashed. Some of those who could access it were shown other people’s data. The authorities blamed not just the volume of applicants but also hackers trying to put in fraudulent claims. Criminals were a problem in America, too. In the worst-affected state, Washington, $550m-650m, or one dollar in every eight, was paid out to fraudsters who took advantage of an outdated system of identity verification (about $300m was recovered).

Purposely pointless paperwork

In America such problems were inevitable, says Michele Evermore of the National Employment Law Project, a think-tank, because the country has invested very little in modernising its unemployment-insurance systems. Spending on administration has fallen since 2001, even before accounting for inflation. Some states, including Florida, deliberately designed their systems to be difficult to use to discourage workers from applying. In August Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, admitted that the state’s system was designed with lots of “pointless roadblocks”.

Yet elsewhere the pandemic has revealed how effective digitising government services can be. Governments have for the most part been able to transfer money into the accounts of hundreds of millions of people without queues at government offices or banks. In Britain the previously unloved Universal Credit system, which distributes welfare benefits, proved its worth when almost 1m people signed up to it in two weeks without having to go to a job centre. Britain has no national identity card or citizenship register—a problem in keeping track of people. But a digital workaround, whereby people were able to prove their identity by scanning the electromagnetic chip in their passports with a mobile phone, seems to have been effective. Though people had to wait five weeks for payments—a political decision—they mostly got them.

Governments that have embraced the idea of digitising their services—and invested in them—have performed admirably. In Estonia, a country where digital government is so advanced that it is possible to vote online, all citizens have a digital ID linked to their bank account and the tax system. That meant that working out which Estonians were furloughed and getting benefits to them was fairly straightforward. Taiwan, another digital pioneer, adapted its health-insurance system to implement an economic stimulus intended to help face-to-face businesses, says Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister. After paying at a restaurant, for example, citizens can use their insurance card at an ATM to reclaim cash from the government.

Covid-19 will probably accelerate a shift online. During the pandemic the governors of New York and California legalised digital marriages. When New Jersey’s leaders realised the extent of the shutdown, they invested in putting more services online, says Beth Noveck, the state’s chief innovation officer. Her office created a single government website through which residents can find information on the coronavirus and book tests for it, among other things. Other states have followed suit. Her office is also trying to find ways to streamline the awkward process of verifying people’s identities online in America, which like Britain has no national ID cards. In France social-security paperwork, which previously had to be sent by post, can now be submitted electronically.

Some think that a bonanza of digital investment may be coming. “Everyone now can see that the digitisation that will take place will be enormous and billions and billions will be spent,” says Daniel Korski, who runs Public, a venture-capital firm that invests in the digitisation of public services. He points to various government IT contracts that are nearing renewal. Britain’s NHS is among the services most likely to change. Harpreet Sood, a practising GP who is also in charge of technology for the NHS, says that before the pandemic 7% of his consultations were done remotely. During lockdown the figure jumped to 90%. Not everything can be diagnosed over the phone, he says, but a lot can.

Not everything works well digitally. At the height of the pandemic almost all family-court hearings in Britain stopped except for the most urgent cases, such as the removal of children from abusive parents. Those were put online, with judges expected to make decisions based on evidence delivered over sometimes patchy internet connections. But the backlog has forced some people to deal with the problems outside the courtroom. Couples going through contested divorces have not been able to get judgments on their financial disputes, so arbitration has thrived, says Samantha Woodham, a British barrister who runs the Divorce Surgery, which provides legal advice to spouses breaking up.

The pandemic has not just drawn attention to more efficient ways of operating; it has also required governments to do new things. Track-and-trace systems work only if governments know who their citizens are and can contact them reliably. Estonia’s officials can do so easily; Britain’s and America’s cannot. In China in order to board public transport or enter their own apartment buildings people have to show QR codes on their phones to verify that they have not been to a virus hotspot recently.

In Britain and America the lack of ID cards means that different government records are isolated in different departments. Health-care records do not identify where somebody works and vice versa. Local administrations do not always have access to central-government records. With no simple way of connecting names and addresses, Britain’s government has had to rely on data from credit checks to verify people’s identities before posting them covid-19 tests. When its track-and-trace system was being built, contact tracers were not able to connect swiftly clusters of cases linked to workplaces because local government did not have the data. As a result some local outbreaks were not spotted quickly enough to stamp out the spread.

Tony Blair, a former prime minister, is among those who have called for Britain to invest in a citizenship register like the one in Estonia. Such projects take time and money but could prove a worthwhile investment. Sharing information can help with more than stopping the virus. Better data-sharing would allow governments to improve even mundane services such as rubbish collection or managing street parking. Better digital identities would not just help track patients—they would also reduce the risk of digital fraud, one of the few industries to have thrived under lockdown. If Americans had digital identities like Estonians, organising November’s presidential election would be easier.

Such changes will not be cheap. And the implications for privacy must be taken seriously. Implemented badly, new digital systems could create new opportunities for fraud, instead of making it more difficult. A state that gathers more and more granular information ought to be able to make better policy—but it will also find it easier to snoop on citizens. Not all governments can be trusted with such powers.

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Paper travails”

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