Coronavirus Africa The World

How modernization might be slowing down South Africa’s vaccine rollout

On the 2nd of January 2021, South Africa’s Health Minister announced an ambitious vaccine rollout strategy. Vaccination is supposed to occur in three phases: starting with health care workers and ending with people over 18. According to this plan, 67% of the population will be vaccinated by the end of the year – thereby achieving herd immunity. 

The goal was to vaccinate one and a half million healthcare workers by the end of Phase One. However, to date, the country is on Phase Two, and only 642, 946 people have been vaccinated. The first phase was a profound disappointment, as only half a million healthcare workers were vaccinated. While there are valid reasons for why the rollout was delayed, e.g., the emergence of a South African variant and the doubts surrounding the J & J vaccine, the vaccine rollout strategy leaves a lot to be desired. South Africa is undoubtedly one of Africa’s wealthiest and most developed countries, but the procurement of vaccines has been a long and complex process, and it has also been affected by the COVID-19 patent divide

According to data from Media Hack Collective, at the current rate it will take South Africa 15 years, ten months, and eight days to vaccinate 67% of the population. These statistics are disappointing, to say the least. With a looming 3rd wave and the emergence of the Indian variant (which could lead to a rise in hospitalizations), South Africans don’t have that kind of time. 

The government has also made some costly mistakes. For example, they quickly sold the initial AstraZeneca doses to the African Union after doubts about the amount of protection it offered arose, and yet other African countries are now using those very same does to further their own vaccination programs. Secondly, and more importantly, the registration process is exclusionary. People aged 60 and under have to register on the government’s portal to receive the vaccine. They can do it online, by SMS, or via WhatsApp. For someone who is as young and tech-savvy as me, the registration only takes a few minutes. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for everyone, especially those over 60 years old. There are also major class implications, since only 9.5% of the population has household internet access and only 2% of rural homesteads are connected to the internet, which makes South Africa’s digital divide rather apparent.

It’s easy for me to use a smartphone because I have grown up around phones, and I live in an urban area where I’m guaranteed mobile connections. I can’t help but worry about older people, such as my grandmother, who still need to be explained the basics. I wonder if they have anyone assisting them or whether they even have access to information about where and when to get vaccinated. I’m worried that modernization has left them behind, and therefore denying them their right to healthcare. 

I believe that the trick to improving the rollout speed is to go back to basics and make things simpler. For example, Zimbabwe’s vaccine rollout is successful because people are served on a first-come-first-serve basis, and registration is done onsite. A manual system would look similar to South Africa’s elections, as voter registration is conducted manually and electoral commission officers do day-to-day campaigns. If the right safety protocols are followed, this strategy might also work for the vaccination drive. Having volunteers physically go to remote and underdeveloped areas might make a substantial difference. 

Instead of focusing on the disappointing number of registrations thus far, we can look to the future. Modernization makes our lives easier, but it also leaves people behind. Looking to the future can also mean using methods of the past. After all, the most important thing is to save as many lives as possible and win the war against COVID-19. 


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Health News Coronavirus The World

How creativity and community encourage people to get vaccinated around the world

Do you know someone who is hesitating to take the Covid-19 vaccine? You are not alone. Many people, especially the elderly, are concerned about the efficiency of Covid-19 vaccines and the possible side effects. Governments, hospitals, and vaccination centers around the world are using creative campaigns to put fears to rest and to encourage everyone to get the shot

In Mexico City, Mexico, it was a common sight to see the elderly scared at vaccination centers. They were worried about getting sick after the shot or of being scammed and injected with air. The officials at the vaccination centers felt the need to put the seniors’ minds at ease. 

Cue the dancing! There are now wheelchair yoga classes, dance sessions, young men doing football tricks, and other performances intended to ‘inject’ (not at all sorry about the pun!) some fun into the proceedings. Wouldn’t you love to see Lucha Libre (professional Mexican freestyle) wrestlers dancing to celebrate your vaccination? Beatriz Esquivel, a vaccination site coordinator in Mexico City, told the New York Times that although it is not clear if the performances are encouraging more people to take the vaccine, they do comfort those who have already come to get their shots. 

Over in Singapore, the government has decided to use the powerful combination of comedy and disco to get its message across. In a public health video, comedian Gurmit Singh, playing one of his famous characters Phua Chu Kang, raps about how it is safe to take the vaccine, and perhaps more importantly, how dangerous it could be to stay complacent. This last point is significant because Singapore was recently declared the best place to be during the pandemic. The number of cases is very low and experts are worried that Singaporeans will try to delay taking the shot. The song also dispels rumors about the vaccine being unsafe for senior citizens or people with certain medical conditions. “Get your shot, steady pom pi pi,” is the catchy refrain in Singlish, pom pi pi meaning “be calm”. The use of Singlish is an effective way to appeal to the nation’s sense of community. 

Another country has followed this principle. This country has been declared the second-best place to be during the pandemic – New Zealand. New Zealand’s Ministry of Health released a video called ‘Ka Kite, Covid’, which essentially means ‘See you later, Covid’ in Maori. It features regular New Zealanders excited to get back to life and make plans after getting vaccinated. I personally loved the shot where a healthcare worker says he’s opening the door to the future, and then opens a door to a vaccination center.


Although getting vaccinated in no way means that things will magically go back to what they were pre-pandemic, it is a step forward. We’ve been isolated from each other for a long time, but it’s stories like these that remind me how important a sense of community is, and how it can go a long way in helping people feel safe and protected. As the last screen of ‘Ka Kite, Covid’ reads, “Do it for each other.”


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Health News Coronavirus The World

The Covid-19 vaccine patent divide is yet another example of hinderance from the Global North countries

If there’s any word to describe COVID-19, it’s “unpredictable.”

It’s like a hydra; cut off one head and two more grow back. Every time researchers think they’ve got it figured out, we get new variants each with their own symptoms and varying severity. 

With the multiple vaccines having been created by different countries, there’s a small glimmer of hope for the world to break free from the hold this virus has on us, physically and mentally. 

Research indicates that the vaccines are 90% effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19, and one dose of a vaccine can halve transmission among people. While it’s easy to be hyper focused on the 10% chance that you could still fall sick, it’s quite literally the best shot at staying safe.

India is currently going through a horrible second wave of COVID-19, where the last recorded tally was 403,405 cases on the 8th of May. Various cities are experiencing a severe shortage of oxygen supplies and hospital beds, showing a harrowing picture of patients collapsing and even dying in the streets with their loved ones are helplessly looking for anything that could save them.

However, despite knowing the extent of what is happening in India and having the means to help, the US has placed a ban on the export of materials that could help Indian pharmaceuticals to create their own supply of vaccines. Denying India’s request to lift the ban, spokesperson Ned Price said that the “needs of the Americans should be looked at first.

So much for celebrating having a vice president with South Asian roots.

Maya Rudolph's Best Kamala Harris Sketches On SNL
[Image Description: a gif of Maya Rudolph playing Kamala Harris sipping on a drink while wearing sunglasses] Source: Buzzfeed
The ban and the US’ refusal to lift it had several people pointing out the disparaging patent divide for COVID-19 vaccine materials among countries all around the world, with particular reference to this map:

How the US can solve the global vaccine shortfall – Progressive Policy Institute
[Image Description: a world map that shows which countries support (coloured yellow), oppose (coloured pink), and are undecided (coloured blue) on the patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccine materials] Source: Progressive Policy Institute
Having the patent would allow the countries’ local drugmakers to manufacture vaccines for themselves, provided they have the materials. As you can see in this map, the countries that oppose the patent waiver are those who are part of the Global North (the richest and most industrialised countries in the world), including the US, Japan, Australia, and Europe. 

The countries that support the patent waiver are mostly countries in Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and parts of South America. Countries that are generally part of the Global South (normally known as the Third World countries).

What Is The Global South? - WorldAtlas
[Image Description: a graphic showing the Global North countries as a happy figure standing upright, and the Global South countries as a distressed figure hanging on] Source: World Atlas
Even China, which has developed its own vaccine Sinopharm, stands in support of the patent waver. The country has even stepped in to provide its vaccine rollout to India in its time of need.

Several people took to social media to point out this disparity between the privileged and the under-privileged.

This isn’t the first time the Global South has had to suffer the worst of an ongoing situation; the North has been known to continuously profit off of resources that the South has, while preventing any form of economic development to happen in the latter. In what is known as Dependency, the North keeps the South dependent on its finances and economic prowess while at the same time, keeping them from their own personal development. 

The scales will always be tipped in the North’s favour without ever achieving balance, and has been so long after the South was decolonised.

By obstructing the patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccine materials and banning their export, countries like the US are preventing countries like India from developing their own vaccines that would enable them to break free from their respective waves of the pandemic. 

Big Pharma has stated that they are doing this to prevent China and Russia (US’ global rivals) from exploiting platforms that could be used for other vaccines.

So basically, they’re saying lifting the ban could lead to more lives being saved. Mass recovery would mean the countries would no longer need US’ and other Global North countries’ support to get by. The US wouldn’t want that now, would it.

With the US, Japan, Australia and European countries moving up with their respective vaccine rollouts and gradually easing their lockdown restrictions, India and other countries in the global South are left in turmoil. At this rate, COVID-19 could become another disease that is ravaging Third World countries while the rest stay safe and vaccinated against it.

Disappointed but not surprised to see that hierarchy and profit triumph humanity when it comes to global health.


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Immigration Coronavirus The World Inequality

The fight for labor rights is far from over this International Workers’ Day

Another International Workers’ Day may be upon us, but I’m not sure global migrant workers will feel like celebrating this year. Despite migrant communities’ key role in many economies, laborers around the world continue to endure unsafe working conditions that make many vulnerable to exploitation. In addition, the global pandemic hit migrant workers harder than most, with COVID-19 exacerbating safety issues while also disrupting key labor markets and population mobility.

Migrant workers make up a majority of temporary, seasonal, or informal employment opportunities that are crucial to global industries like agriculture, construction, shipping, in-home care, and more. Many of these jobs are considered “unskilled” labor, a term that has been used to keep pay low and underscore the importance of these jobs.

The global pandemic forced many countries to reexamine which jobs are necessary to the functioning of society and the economy. The jobs migrant workers fulfill were predominantly deemed essential, and yet conditions remain inadequate for migrant communities around the world.

In Europe, migrant workers were acknowledged as essential to farming and the food industry. This allowed some laborers to cross borders closed to most. However, their status did not inspire employers to improve working conditions. Instead, many laborers continued to face inhumane working conditions, low wages, and overcrowded living corridors.

In 2020, migrant workers accounted for 93% of Singapore’s 58,000 COVID cases. Predominantly South Asian laborers live in cramped dormitories that house tens of thousands of people throughout the country, which has accelerated the spread amongst the country’s migrant workers and even taken a toll on their mental health.

Canada and the United States also have robust migrant worker populations. In 2020, much of these populations endured severe risk of contagion, wage theft, inadequate housing and food, lack of PPE, unsafe work conditions, and racism and xenophobia. In California, an agriculture and farming hub in the U.S., workers had to contend with COVID outbreaks and a grueling wildfire season made worse by climate change.

Some communities have used social media to draw attention to their plight. In the Gulf, domestic workers, a majority of whom have migrated from Africa and Asia, are calling their employers out via TikTok videos that detail how they are overworked, sexually harassed, and discriminated against. Some in-home care workers are also unable to leave their job or the country without permission from their employers, which can make workers more vulnerable to abuse. In fact, there are 24.9 million people around the world trapped in forced labor, including 16 million people in private sectors like domestic work, construction, or agriculture.

Activists, global nonprofits, and other advocacy groups are calling upon governments to make lasting changes. Some experts have demanded more legislature around legal systems of migration. This includes work visa programs that actually protect migrant workers from employer retaliation, deportation, and workplace abuses. Work visa programs are also ways to implement wage, housing, and healthcare reform so that laborers are compensated fairly. And, of course, the application process for any visas should be made more accessible to workers.

In the U.S., President Biden did not renew a ban on H-1B and other temporary work-based visas put in place by the Trump administration to prevent migrant workers from entering the country. In addition, Biden increased the number of seasonal guest-worker visas available this year by 22,000. Typically, there are 66,000 H-2B visas available to workers. These efforts join Biden’s ambitious immigration overhaul, which includes the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 to increase legal immigration and allow all undocumented immigrants to apply for citizenship, amongst other initiatives. However, this legislation hasn’t passed yet.

Despite the pivotal role migrant laborers play in global economies, many communities continue to face exorbitant abuse in working, housing, and living conditions. It seems obvious that radical reform and changes need to be made in order to ensure migrant workers receive basic human respect. With how far the labor movement has come to protect the rights of workers, there is still much to be done to protect the rights of all workers. And that is what International Workers’ Day reminds all of us this year.


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Editor's Picks World News Coronavirus Action Guide South Asia The World

India is gasping for breath as the second Covid-19 wave hits the country

On the eve of 14th April 2021, in a small town in India, a very close family member of mine tested positive for COVID-19. The events that followed left a devastating scar on our family. Aged 67, my mom’s aunt kept fighting for her life till her last breath. As soon as she was tested positive, she needed to be admitted into the hospital, but there were no beds available across the city. It took one whole day to find a hospital bed in a government hospital. It took another day to find a bed with ventilator support.

On the morning of 18th April 2021, she passed away. Her daughter, also tested positive, was admitted in a private hospital on the opposite side of the city, completely unaware of her mother’s death. In between, her distressed husband was desperately trying to procure a dose of Remdesivir injection while tending to the needs of his family who were fighting for their life.

This is the story of countless Indians who are experiencing the devastating second wave of COVID-19. As of 28th April 2021, India is recording the highest number (379,308) of daily new confirmed COVID-19 cases and the highest number (3645) of daily new confirmed COVID-19 deaths. There is a major shortage of oxygen supply and hospital beds. The healthcare system is coming to a collapse and the medical staff is being pushed to their limits. There is a sense of panic and extreme grief across India.

[Image description: Patients suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) get treatment at the casualty ward in Lok Nayak Jai Prakash (LNJP) hospital, amidst the spread of the disease in New Delhi, India April 15, 2021. ] via REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
[Image description: Patients suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) get treatment at the casualty ward in Lok Nayak Jai Prakash (LNJP) hospital, amidst the spread of the disease in New Delhi, India April 15, 2021. ] via REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
“I work in a private medical college and a 500 bed hospital. During the first wave, the hospital had allocated 250 beds (5 wards) to the COVID-19 patients. Now, the second wave has seen an influx of 300+ patients everyday. From 250 beds, our hospital has now dedicated all of the wards including 5 ICUs towards fighting COVID.” said Dr. Avijit Misra, a medical intern at Bharati Hospital and Medical College Pune when I spoke to him. “Government hospitals are also full. There is an increase in makeshift hospitals by the government which has helped a lot, but it is still not enough”, he added.

How did it become so bad?

The government of India had one year to prepare for a catastrophe like this. Ever since the start of the pandemic, the government was supposed to set up 150 oxygen plants but only started bidding for it after 8 months of delay. As of April, only 33 out of the 162 government-sanctioned oxygen plants are functioning.

Along with the shortage of oxygen supply, the transportation of the oxygen from the factories to the patients is a big hurdle that is contributing towards the crisis. India cannot ensure 24/7 road supply of oxygen due to the shortage of cryogenic oxygen tankers. The travel time for the transportation of the oxygen from the factories to the patients has increased from 3-5 business days to 6-8 business days, and the duration is much longer for the remote and rural parts of India.

This comes after a claim made by the National Executive of BJP (the ruling party) in February that the battle against Covid-19 has been triumphantly won. While praising the leadership, the party declared “with pride” that India has “not only defeated Covid-19 under the able, sensitive, committed and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, but also infused in all its citizens the confidence to build an ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat ‘(Self -reliant India)’.”

After the declaration, mass gatherings and crowd events became a normalcy. Events such as election rallies and religious events were sanctioned by the government. The rallies and the religious events were seen as an attempt by the ruling party to please and secure its vote bank, as their policy has historically reflected Hindu nationalist positions. The government led by PM Narendra Modi, has also been constantly downplaying the extent of the crisis and shutting down voices which have been instrumental in raising awareness and providing help to those affected.

[Image description: Amit Shah at an election rally] via Arun Sankar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
[Image description: Amit Shah at an election rally] via via Arun Sankar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The price is being paid by the common man

While patients are affected on one side, helpless relatives running around in search of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, and medications are also being forced to put themselves at risk. Families are being admitted to the hospital together but not all of them are going back home healthy and recovered.

The medical costs are only increasing. A middle-class person cannot afford a bed in a private hospital. Those who can, are being charged Rs. 15 thousand – Rs. 20 thousand ($2011 – $2682) just for the bed. The injections, oxygen cylinders and medication prescribed by the doctors are also in short supply and are being sold at 10 times the price in black markets.

[Image description: Table showing the comparison of prices of COVID-19 medications and oxygen cylinders in India] via BBC
[Image description: Table showing the comparison of prices of COVID-19 medications and oxygen cylinders in India] via BBC
People coming from rural parts of India to bigger cities to get help are being turned back. Families are fighting in the hospitals for bed space. “Phrases such as ‘my patient is younger than yours. At least, give them a chance to live’ can be heard across India,” said Dr. Misra.

In the midst of this tragedy, it is easy to feel helpless right now, but there are ways in which we can help:

1. Amplify

The best thing you can do right now is to use your influence to amplify and share the SOS alerts from those in need on your socials. One share can help save a life.

Instagram accounts to follow that are spreading awareness and amplifying SOS alerts:


Websites & Google Docs:

2. Donate

There are a number of organizations that have come forward and directly purchased resources for the front-line workers, donated supplies, or helped amplify the needs of vulnerable patients. Here are a few:

Local Agencies:

  • Ketto (Mission Oxygen- Helping Hospitals Save Lives) – You can donate to their efforts directly on their website
  • Hemkunt Foundation – Oxygen Suppliers. Donate here 
  • Khalsa Aid – Donate here
  • Milaap – Individual crowdfunding website. Donate here
  • Youth Feed India x Helping Hands Charitable Trust – Food Packages. Donate here
  • Care India – PPE Kits. Donate here

International Agencies:

  • United Nations agencies (UNICEF and WHO). Donate here
  • American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin – Oxygen Machines. Donate here
  • Care India – PPE Kits. Donate here
  • The Association for India’s Development – Protective equipment and food packages. Donate here

As I look back, I think that my family members were among the luckier ones to have at least gotten a hospital bed and oxygen support. We don’t know when this calamity will end. The road to the finish line looks too far ahead. The battle against COVID-19 continues with our healthcare workers on the front line. We cannot be spectators anymore. We need to step in and help those in need. 

In retrospect, the second wave of COVID-19 did push India to become Atma Nirbhar

Coronavirus Media Watch Europe Politics The World

Are British tabloids using nationalism to encourage Covid-19 vaccinations?

The Tempest Exclusive series Media Watch investigates and introspects on the intricacies of free speech around the world, right from The Tempest newsroom. 

Before Brexit, I never saw the UK as patriotic. We were proud to be British, yes, in terms of our impact on global culture – British music, British telly, British icons, even our internet meme culture was quintessentially ours – but proud of what our country did in the past and how we’ve made an effort to build on from that in the present? Never. I’ve always been too aware of our role in the empire and how we treated those that arrived on our shores afterwards, to feel anything remotely patriotic. 

But when 52% of my country voted to leave the European Union based on a campaign that fiercely promised to ‘take back control of Britain’ and liberate it from the oppressive chicken coop prison” of the EU, I realized people in the UK were a lot more patriotic than I originally thought.

Along with racially fuelled anti-migrant propaganda, some groups from the Vote Leave campaign ran the rhetoric of ‘Make Britain Great Again’ – an inflammatory slogan that mirrored Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign; a crusade similarly based on bigotry and nationalism.

‘Make Britain Great Again’ wanted to take Britain back to its supposed post-war “glory days”; the time shortly after we had won the war, but also the time when being gay was illegal, there was no anti-discrimination legislation to prevent landlords from refusing to accept tenants of color, and despite all the work by those fighting for women’s suffrage in the war, women were once again being shoehorned into the feminine ideal of the “the perfect mother and housewife”. Ah yes, the good old days.

And a large part of the Vote Leave campaign was run through British tabloids. Popular newspapers like The Sun and The Daily Mail, openly backed the decision to leave the EU, running so-called patriotic front-page news stories that encouraged readers to leave the ‘increasingly greedy, wasteful, bullying, and breathtakingly incompetent’ European Union, and vote leave for ‘our chance to make Britain even greater.’

And it worked. Statistics show that the newspapers with the highest proportion of leave voters were right-wing British tabloids; by these British tabloids openly backing the Vote Leave campaign – and endorsing the idea that Britain was better at a time when minorities had fewer rights – they allowed this harmful way of thinking to become acceptable once again.

If the 2016 Brexit referendum shattered the glass of an already cracked Britain, the British tabloids were the rocks that finally smashed it into pieces. They showed many bigoted Brits, who claim to have felt silenced in the past, that if the country’s press could openly racially discriminate, so could they. And then in 2020, the pandemic hit. And later on in the year, Covid-19 vaccinations came – along with anti-vaccination rhetoric. 

If the 2016 Brexit referendum shattered the glass of an already cracked Britain, the British tabloids were the rocks that finally smashed it into pieces.

I can’t generalize for all readers of the British tabloids – nor would I want to – but many would say that there is perhaps a correlation between those that had their views on the reasons to leave the EU swayed by these papers and those that began to engage with the idea that Covid-19 vaccinations were unsafe. I’ve read enough tabloid newspapers to know that they are perfectly okay with twisting the truth, but when the government backs the science, it’s a lot more difficult to twist hard facts.

So instead, these tabloids are repackaging the Leave campaign’s vision of Britain’s so-called post-war “golden era,” to convince anti-vaxxers of the importance of Covid-19 vaccinations.

Indeed, The Sun’s ‘Jabs Army’ campaign – backed by prime-minister, Boris Johnson, himself – not only includes a heart-shaped logo complete with a union jack, but also makes use of war jargon such as ‘sign up’ and ‘vaccination volunteer force’; phrases that allude to the compulsory conscription and drafting in of soldiers, and the general post-war celebratory mood of the country coming together for the greater good.

And this isn’t the first time in the pandemic these tabloids have used Britain’s obsession with the war to tell their readers what to think; The Daily Mail devoted a whole column to Captain Tom Moore, the late army veteran who raised almost £33 million for the NHS by walking 100 laps around his garden before he turned 100.

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Of course, what Captain Tom did was great, but the tabloids spent longer writing about the fact that it was a war veteran funding the NHS, and not that our shambles of a government had left our National Health Service in such a state that it even needed this funding in the first place.

While I’ve got my own issues with British tabloids, I am definitely not against them running a pro-vaccination campaign – if it means the country is able to get immunized quicker, then I certainly don’t see it as an issue.

But I do worry that by these tabloids using the Brexit utopian dream of a post-war “glory days” Britain as a means to an end for vaccinations, it could quickly become the much more permanent end vision of Britain, that these readers have long been hoping for.  

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Coronavirus Action Guide Europe Activism Politics The World Policy Inequality

Want to protest against the new police bill in the UK? Here’s everything you can do to help

Around the UK, thousands have taken to the streets to protest against the ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.’ There have been seven demonstrations in Bristol so far, with protestors also gathering in central London, Newcastle, Birmingham, Liverpool, and many more cities across the country.

What is the ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’?

The ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’ is a new piece of legislation our government is trying to bring in to change the way we protest and give the police more power over controlling these demonstrations. 

The new bill would allow police to:

• Impose start and finish times on protests
Set noise limits on demonstrations
Criminalize protests they deem a ‘public nuisance’ or a ‘serious annoyance’
Add measures to the routes of demonstrations
Apply these rules to a demonstration by just one person
Increase the maximum penalty for damaging a memorial to 10 years in prison

Why is the new bill bad?

The police bill gives police significantly more power over the way we protest – something we have a right to do in a democratic state. Without protests, it’s likely that women would still not have the vote, and only rich white men would be able to have their say in elections.

Protestors at a 'Kill the Bill' demonstration holding a placard that says, 'Priti Patel, women protested so you could have this job.'
[Image description: Protestors at a ‘Kill the Bill’ demonstration holding a placard that says, ‘Priti Patel, women protested so you could have this job.’] Via Tom Woollard on Instagram

At the moment, police officers have to show the demonstration could result in ‘serious public disorder’ before placing restrictions, as well as prove protestors knew they had been told to move on before they can say they’ve broken the law.  

With this new bill, police can easily shut down demonstrations they deem a ‘public nuisance’ – a vague term that could easily be applied to any and all protests – even those made up of just one person holding a placard and shouting into a speaker. 

The new bill will also make it a crime if protestors failed to follow restrictions they ‘ought’ to have known about, even if they have not received a direct order from an officer. This means that you can face criminal action if you breach conditions – without even realizing it.

Under the proposed law, you could face up to 10 years in prison for damaging a statue or memorial. To put this into context, this is a longer sentence than that given for violent crimes against living people. If this bill got through parliament then, there would be harsher penalties for damaging a statue, than for attacking a woman.

Two women at the Kill the Bill protest in Leeds holding placards.
[Image description: Two women at the Kill the Bill protest in Leeds holding placards.] Via Tom Woollard on Instagram

The new bill is in danger of violating international human rights laws, namely Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to freedom of assembly and association. And even former Prime Minister, Theresa May, has condemned the bill, urging the Conservative party to rethink as ‘our freedoms depend on it.’

How can I fight against the new bill? 

There are lots of ways to make your voice heard against this new bill. If you don’t feel comfortable going out and protesting, you can sign Netpol’s Protect Your Freedom To Protest petition, which opposes the proposed bill and calls on the National Police Chiefs Council to adopt a new Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights. You can also sign this Stop the Policing Bill petition.

What’s more, you can write to your local MP to express your concerns. While writing your own email from scratch will have more of an impact, you can also write to your MP using this email template, created by Sara Motaghian and Anuradha Damale. (There’s also one in Welsh.)

Protestor at a Kill the Bill protest with a placard that says, 'No progress without protest.'
[Image description: Protestor at a Kill the Bill protest with a placard that says, ‘No progress without protest.’] Via Tom Woollard on Instagram

Joining a protest

If you do want to join a demonstration, here’s what you need to know about your rights as a protestor – with thanks to Black Protest Legal Support for providing this information.

Am I allowed to protest?

Your right to protest is a fundamental Human Right. It is protected by Article 10 (the right to freedom of speech) and Article 11 (the right to assembly and protest) of the European Convention of Human Rights – don’t worry, even though the UK has now officially left the European Union, this is a European treaty so it still applies to British citizens. 

Can I protest in the pandemic?

Since the pandemic began, rules and restrictions across the UK have constantly been changing. This has affected protests in a number of ways. At the time of writing this article, government regulations in England allow protests to go ahead – provided the organisers adhere to a certain set of conditions. 

If you are attending a demonstration, make sure to check out what measures the organiser has put in place to limit the risk of spreading Covid-19. You should also be sure to socially distance and wear a mask – both for your own safety and for the safety of other protesters.

Protestor at the Kill the Bill protest in Leeds with a placard on the back of their wheelchair that says, 'Yes, I am exercising. I am exercising my right to peaceful protest.'
[Image description: Protestor at the Kill the Bill protest in Leeds with a placard on the back of their wheelchair that says, ‘Yes, I am exercising. I am exercising my right to peaceful protest.’] Via Tom Woollard on Instagram

What powers do the police use at protests?

If you are thinking of attending a demonstration, you should be aware of some of the tactics the police use at protests, namely stop and searches and kettling – if you see the police line-up begin to form a kettle and you do not wish to be part of it, the safest thing to do for you and the people around you is to quietly leave.

If you are stopped by the police and asked for your name and what you are doing, you do not have to answer. You can just walk away – they cannot arrest you or search you just for refusing to answer. However, it is a criminal offense to give false information. If you’re not sure why the police are asking for your details, ask them “under what power.”

The police only have the power to ask for your name if they suspect you of anti-social behaviour, and it then becomes an offense if you refuse to provide it.

If you are arrested, say “no comment” to all questions, until you have legal advice from a specialist solicitor with knowledge about protests. Do not accept a duty solicitor.

Instead, contact one of the following solicitors across the UK that offer free 24-hour advice:

ITN Solicitors: 0203 909 8100

Hodge Jones Allen (HJA): 0844 848 0222

Commons: 020 3865 5403

Bindmans: 020 7305 5638

More useful links and information

Follow Black Protest Legal Support UK on Twitter and Instagram for updates and advice on protesting both against the new police bill, and other demonstrations across the UK.

Follow Sisters Uncut on Twitter for more ways you can protest against the bill as well as fight for women’s rights and freedoms.

Follow Liberty on Twitter for ways to fight against injustices in the UK and hold the government accountable for their actions. Equally, their advice hub has loads of good information on protesting and policing, as well as protesting in the pandemic.

The freedom to protest is our human right, and we’re not letting go of it that easily.

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Coronavirus Europe Politics The World

The current British Government cannot hide its contempt for the poor

Here’s some numbers that will give you an idea of how elitism is central to the British political sphere – 65% of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s cabinet were educated at fee-paying private schools, compared to 7% of the national population. The elite few are disproportionately representing British people who have had far less of a privileged life compared to those that hold power in government. The same elite few are completely out of touch and show little regard to the poor population of the country. 

In Britain, high levels of poverty have been caused by the policies enacted by the Conservative government under Johnson and his predecessors Theresa May and David Cameron. Policies include introducing a new welfare system, Universal Credit, which provides significantly less money, leaving many claimants worse off; and £36bn taken out of the benefits system since 2010, including cuts in disability benefits. 

The government’s agenda to raise employment figures through these policies has backfired and left the most vulnerable in Britain into further destitution. There’s now an increase in food banks in the country and 4.2 million children in poverty. Even a UN poverty expert who visited Britain compared Conservative welfare policies to the creation of 19th-century workhouses. British people who were already below the poverty line have been hit further by the Covid-19 pandemic, and 2020 exposed how the government has tried to get away with as little as possible when it came to helping families and children in need.

This led to UNICEF feeding hungry children in the UK, one of the richest countries in the world, for the first time in its 70-year history. The UN agency donated £25,000 to the community project School Food Matters to supply 18,000 breakfasts to 25 schools over the recent two-week Christmas holidays and upcoming February half-term, supporting 1,800 families in Southwark, South London, who have been severely hit by the coronavirus pandemic – declared by UNICEF to be the most urgent crisis affecting children since the second world war.

So how did the British government respond to this news? When the question of UNICEF’s support was raised in the House of Commons by opposition Labour MP Zarah Sultana to Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, he claimed UNICEF should be “ashamed of itself”. He further stated that he thinks “it’s a real scandal that UNICEF should be playing politics in this way when it is meant to be looking after people in the poorest, the most deprived countries in the world, where people are starving, where there are famines and there are civil wars. And they make cheap political points of this kind, giving, I think, £25,000 to one council. It is a political stunt of the lowest order.”

His shocking comments were immediately met with backlash on social media. When confronted by the realities of what is happening on his doorstep, Rees-Mogg’s response was to deflect blame towards the international humanitarian agency for daring to grant funds to a UK charity. Privilege, wealth, and political power are fundamental forces in British politics – Rees-Mogg and the government show unwillingness to help those in poverty but are willing to treat other people and organizations that question their position as inferior.

Last year, footballer Marcus Rashford prompted the government to U-turn on their policies not once, but twice on the matter of financial support for poor children and their families. Back in June last year, 1.3 million children in England were able to claim free school meal vouchers in the summer holidays following the successful campaign led by Rashford – but his campaign was met with derision by a member of the cabinet, Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey. Rashford had asked his followers on Twitter to think about struggling parents who have had their “water turned off”, and whose children have gone hungry. Coffey’s single reply to his Twitter thread on free school meals was “water cannot be disconnected”. Rashford remarked how he was concerned this is the only tweet of his that Coffey acknowledged.

Coffey’s deliberate disregard of the difficulties facing parents and children across the country exposes the deep-held belief by government ministers that the poorer in our society just have to find a way to cope without government support. In November, a second campaign by Rashford led the government to take another U-turn and agree to spend more than £400m as part of a winter grant scheme to support poor children and their families in England. The November U-turn was on the back of Rashford calling for free meals to be provided over the October half-term, as the government agreed to during the summer period. The government refused, claiming the benefits system will be enough to support families. When the Labour party raised a motion in the House of Commons in October to call for an extension of free meals for school children over the October half-term and Christmas holidays, 320 Conservative MPs voted against the motion – the government was prepared for children to go hungry for the sake of the government holding their purses tight against their chest.

As soon as the government was met with criticism, politicians who voted against the extension made an effort to defend how they voted. Conservative MP Ben Bradley claimed that free school meals “increases dependency”. He continued directing his condescending remarks to Rashford, “Gov has lots of responsibilities: supporting the vulnerable, helping people to help themselves, balancing the books. Not as simple as you to make out Marcus.”

Rashford’s response was, “families have suffered a drop in income. Nearly 1 million have fallen off the payroll. This is not dependency, this a cry for help.” Finally, after facing criticism from Rashford, the media, and the public, the government had no choice but to agree to the winter grant scheme a month after the vote in the Commons.

Why does it take a high-profile figure like Rashford to raise awareness of how much poorer families are struggling across the country when the government can see for themselves what is happening before them? Rashford’s campaign made the public more aware of the government’s lack of empathy for the poor. Their contempt for the poor was out in the open for the country to see. The government was shamed into taking action, they didn’t take action of their own volition.

There’s an underlying sentiment held by government ministers who feel entitled to be at the top due to their elite status. The elite are drawn to politics and power not out of any sense of purpose or duty, but a dull and common belief that such things are what people like them do. This sentiment, which is present at the heart of government, has led the elite to deny the levels of poverty and show complete contempt for the poor in Britain.


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Coronavirus Race Science Now + Beyond

How the US government can encourage the Black community to trust the COVID-19 vaccine

It’s now been almost a year since the pandemic hit the US, and it has been well documented that the coronavirus is disproportionately impacting Black Americans. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black people are almost 4 times as likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19 complications and almost 3 times more likely to succumb in severe cases. Considering the harm the Black community has endured throughout the course of the pandemic, Black people should ideally be hopeful at the announcement of a vaccine, as it would mark a possible end to the widespread suffering.

In December, a vaccine was approved in the United Kingdom, and the UK government began slowly testing the vaccine on its citizens. Correspondingly, in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had also approved Pfizer’s COVID vaccine, shortly after, which planned to enable millions of highly vulnerable Americans to receive emergency vaccinations within a few days. For some, vaccination approvals and distributions in the US, UK, and Canada was good news as it possibly signals some kind of return to normalcy in the future. However, vaccine rollout in America has been rather unsuccessful. The US federal government left decisions up to each state regarding how vaccine distributions would be handled, but many states are not equipped with the resources needed to be effective in medically treating their citizens.

On the other hand, many Black Americans have openly expressed skepticism on social media regarding whether they trust the newly developed COVID vaccine. Notably, these conversations of doubt in the vaccine were sparked after Letitia Wright’s exit from Twitter in December after she shared a conspiracy video attempting to “debunk” the legitimacy of the COVID-19 vaccine as well as Tiffany Haddish spreading misinformation about the vaccine recently on a social media app called Clubhouse.

Many people have rightfully criticized Wright’s and Haddish’s misuse of their large social media platforms in sharing misleading videos or information about the vaccine, as the two are seemingly encouraging their followers to mistrust science. At the same time, others empathized with the two women’s flawed logic, highlighting the need to finally address whatever skepticism Black people have towards the vaccine, why Black people are even skeptical, to begin with, and what can be done to ensure the Black community can eventually trust the efficacy of the coronavirus vaccine.

many Black people’s skepticism in the vaccine is justified given what we’ve endured at the hands of white governments.

As a response to people’s skepticism, public figures like Dr. Fauci and former president Obama pledged to take the vaccine in hopes the American populace could be confident in the government’s efforts toward combatting COVID. However, there must be more specific ways the US government can begin to ease distrust of science and medicine within the Black community, who are already an at-risk demographic, as a result of longtime systematic mistreatment towards our community; starting with an acknowledgment of the inherent and historical anti-Blackness within the American healthcare system.

For example, medical racism has proved to have life-threatening consequences for many of us, especially for Black women. The Black community has historically been used as test subjects without our consent, been experimented on, and experienced exploitation within the medical industry to further progress for vaccinations and other disease control methods. 

I don’t believe Black people are wrong to distrust science or medicine; in fact, I believe many Black people’s skepticism in the vaccine is justified given what we’ve endured at the hands of white governments. However, I also believe spreading misinformation is unethical. There are more effective ways we can have conversations surrounding science, medicine, and the trust-ability of white governments in a way that is not harmful. We can and should acknowledge the abuse our community has suffered, hold our individual beliefs (within good reason), and question the efforts or intentions of historically oppressive governments. But, at the same time, we should use logic when deciding if and when something is potentially harmful or not. 

In the same ways we can question our government’s intentions, we can also conduct research utilizing trusted and fact-checked sources and research the individuals who are confidently and publicly backing the COVID-19 vaccination. 

A vaccine announcement doesn’t mean the pandemic is over.

Furthermore, governments must prioritize restoring trust within the Black community to ensure the COVID-19 vaccine has a chance of effectiveness. The American Medical Association (AMA) suggests that “(1) All elected officials affirm evidence-based science and factual data at every turn. (2) The media, including social media platforms, to consistently convey factual information from credible sources while challenging and rejecting misinformation.”

If there is consistency and solidarity amongst American government officials in expressing the severity of this virus without perpetuating right-wing or religious conspiracy theories, it might encourage the more vulnerable communities to trust government-backed COVID-19 vaccines. Additionally, the medical community and prominent figures in science and medicine should specifically acknowledge and validate Black people’s skepticism. There needs to be an earnest acknowledgment that governments have failed the Black community and an expression of commitment towards restoring any lost trust going forward.

Notably, a vaccine announcement doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. Rather, a vaccine is just the first step toward combating the coronavirus. In addition, while waiting for the vaccine to be distributed, whether you plan on taking the vaccine or not, we can do our individual responsibility of wearing a mask, social distancing, and continuing to wash our hands. While it’s true that there have been systemic failures on behalf of many of our governments, we can also do our part while this pandemic persists by staying on top of coronavirus updates as well as spreading awareness and accurate, research-backed information within our own communities.

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USA World News Health News Coronavirus The World

The global distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine is far from equal

With multiple of announcements, approval, and plans for COVID-19 vaccines popping up left and right, it may seem like we are reaching the light at the end of the tunnel. But, the reality is that right now, the priority for these approved vaccines is to be used only on high-risk individuals, frontline healthcare workers, and staff in assisted living facilities in wealthier countries within North America, Europe, and Asia. Even with the approval of these vaccinations, within those countries, it will be at least several months for the vaccination to become available to the general public. However, if we put this into prospective, the several months wait in those countries does not compare at all to countries of lower to middle income that will most likely have to wait years to have significant access to coronavirus vaccines.

The United States has now approved two vaccines for emergency use. The pharmaceutical company Pfizer was approved first for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on December 11. Then seven days later, the FDA approved the Moderna vaccine for EUA for individuals over the age of 18. During the clinical trial, Pfizer was reported to exceed expectations while Moderna vaccination was developed with the help of the U.S. National Institute of Health.

Canada and the United Kingdom will begin vaccinating high-risk individuals and frontline healthcare workers as well. Pfizer is supplying the vaccine in Canada. The United Kingdom was actually the first to approve Pfizer’s vaccine on December 2nd, which is the first approval of a vaccine that was tested in large clinical trials. Also, let’s not forget, China has already developed a vaccine, given over a million vaccinations since the summer, and promised to deploy vaccinations to other countries. Additionally, Russia has developed its own vaccine called Sputnik V. Manufacturers in India will be producing 300 million doses of Russia’s vaccine beginning next year.

While this progress is good and exciting after the long year that many have faced, the issue of distribution of vaccines across the globe is not an issue to ignore.  Wealthier nations have been able to make deals and buy these vaccinations before they were even tested or approved. On the other hand, developing countries and countries of lower-income are rightfully concerned about when they will be significantly accessible for their countries.

In the wake of the pandemic, a global alliance has formed to provide nations of lower-income with coronavirus vaccine called COVAX. The alliance is led by the World Health Organization, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the Coalition for Epidemic. There are 190 countries and territories that are participating in the alliance; this includes at least 92 donor-funded or low to middle-income countries. Under these alliances, countries contribute money to manufacturers and support the development of the COVID-19 vaccines.

Even with the alliance, many countries in less affluent parts of the world face crippling uncertainty as countries have secured pre-market agreements for the dose of the vaccine. Even countries and nations like Canada, Japan, the European Union, and the United Kingdom that are a part of the COVAX alliance have secured these pre-market agreements. A study on pre-market commitments for the COVID-19 vaccine by Anthony D. So and Joshua Woo confirms that the level uncertainty felt within these countries is valid. As of November 15, 2020, 51% of the doses will go to high-income countries from 13 vaccine manufacturers. That is equivalent to over 7 billion doses, and those countries only represent 14% of the world’s population.

Vaccine nationalism, in which countries are putting the vaccinations and domestic needs before others, will not return the world to the place that it once was before the outbreak. Countries and nations wanting the vaccination to protect their citizens and fight the virus is not inherently wrong. The issue is that without equal distribution of the vaccine, it is believed the pandemic can continue to be a threat for years, and as of now, it could take years to produce an adequate number of doses for the globe. Ultimately, there are limited resources. First come distribution method for the vaccines and nations claiming a majority of the vaccines does not insure equal distribution.

The premarket deals being made and vaccine nationalism is quickly making it harder and harder for COVAX to be able to deliver vaccinations to countries that need it. As wealthier countries secure more vaccinations than they need, it leaves lower-income countries with little options, and more suffering. The reality is the majority of COVID-19 vaccines produced in 2021 will more than likely be reserved for wealthier nations as they have reserved enough to cover more than their total population.

This exploitative system – which is reflective of that which has taken advantage of lower-income for centuries as a result of white supremacy, colonialism, and hierarchical power structures – will leave a significant portion of the world that is not able to secure premarket agreements without adequate access to vaccinations until at least 2022 and possibly even 2024. While the efforts of COVAX were meant to support the equitable access of COVID-19 vaccines during this global pandemic and consist of nations of various income levels, it seems that the labor and collaborative of efforts of countries of lower-income will benefit wealthier nations first as premarket deals that lack transparency and are not disclosed are continuously made for more doses of the vaccine.

People around the world have suffered and made sacrifices together throughout the year because of the coronavirus, but with the current deepening disparities between the distribution of vaccinations between countries of different incomes, it is more than clear that we certainly will not be reaching the end of the tunnel together.


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World News Coronavirus Policy Inequality

Pakistan seems to have embraced Christmas but not Christians

As I sit in a buzzing restaurant in an upscale neighborhood in Karachi, I see an artificial conifer tree near the entrance. It is draped with fairy lights and decorated with Christmas decorations with artificial presents around it. This time of the year, in the largest metropolis of Pakistan, this sight is more prevalent than the amount of Christians in the country. Most restaurants, malls, and even storefronts tap into the holiday spirit by investing in some festive decorations. I find this extremely amusing; not because Pakistan’s population is overwhelmingly Muslim; not even because this level of enthusiasm is not granted to another major minority (Hindus and their festivals who also make up 1.6% of the country’s population), but because this paints a falsely progressive portrait of our society.

In a country that was built upon the basis of religion, Islam, and its basis is upheld as ardently as ever, the symbolic inclusivity of Christmas is impressive. Yet it is also a deceptive veneer masking the grotesque truth about religious persecution. Just this year, the International Christian Concern (ICC) documented about 80 cases of persecution in the country, ranging from discrimination, sexual assaults, abductions, forced conversions, blasphemy accusations, and murder.

In this same year, 13-year-old Arzoo Raja was abducted and subjected to forced conversion and marriage to a 45-year-old Muslim man, who initially tried to prove that she was 18 and consented to the marriage. While the incident caused an uproar on social media, the authorities were slow to take action, prioritizing the investigation of her actual age through a medical board. Though horrifying, Arzoo Raja’s story was by no means rare. According to a study conducted by Birmingham University, about 1000 girls each year are “abducted, forcibly converted, and married off to their abductors.”

In Pakistan, minority women are a lesser citizen

While such perverse instances make headlines, the religious discrimination of the Christian community is common in most spheres of Pakistani life. They are also relegated to the peripheries of the economy and the workforce: due to bleak employment opportunities owing to lack of education and financial privilege. Thus many Christian women specialize as nursing staff or as beauty workers in salons. Growing up, the fact that the majority of salon workers were Christian, with few to none Muslims was a source of intrigue for me. But when I learned that Christians make up to 80% to 90% of Pakistan’s sanitation workforce, I understood it was a mix of discriminatory hiring practices and the idea of hygiene and caste (which is also prevalent in the Hindu caste system where there exists a sweeper class). Ironically, many of Pakistan’s Christians actually descended from low caste Hindus who converted in order to escape the caste system. But at the same time, in my years of visiting salons, I have also witnessed seemingly enlightened, privileged women walk in and request only Muslim girls do their services. I later discovered that as a result, many salon workers had adopted more Muslim sounding pseudonyms: a Maria was actually Mary.

On my last trip to the salon, I decided to ask a worker how it felt to be on the receiving end of such discrimination. I have been a regular client for this particular person and she’s otherwise quite cheerful and talkative. When I asked about her experience as a Christian in an Islamic state and the rights and liberties granted over Christmas, she was quiet and awkward. But her reticence gave me an answer that echoed loudly, the trauma of silence that her community has had to endure. Unaware of the full repercussions of the state’s blasphemy laws, I had asked a very personal question. The stringent blasphemy laws and their misuse, which in part sought to homogenize the populace of Pakistan into Muslim affiliation, have permanently robbed many of the right to freedom of speech. It was then that I realized that her reluctance to answer stemmed from her insecurity and vulnerability and my privilege as a Muslim in this country. I could record her for slander and blasphemy and have her charged just like many hardliners in my country historically had. Rather ashamed, I apologized for my momentary ignorance.

Two years ago, Asia Bibi, a Christian woman was finally acquitted after spending nearly a decade in prison under false blasphemy charges. But on her way of leaving the country, Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), a group of hardliners, broke out into violent protests. She was accused of blasphemy after an argument with some coworkers in 2009. A year later, a local judge meted out the death sentence to her and this verdict was upheld by the High Court of the region. Shahbaz Bhatti (then Minorities Minister) and Salman Taseer (then Governor of Punjab) were both assassinated for advocating for her and criticizing the blasphemy laws. Her family went into hiding and there was a bounty awarded to anyone who could kill her. Ultimately public outrage combined with humanitarian efforts had her acquitted.

[Image Description: Asia Bibi pictured on the extreme right, with her family in Canada where she now lives, after spending eight years on death row in Pakistan.] via The Guardian
Even now, while the world has been battling with a pandemic, Pakistan also has to curtail its very own epidemic of religious discrimination. The ICC also reported that Christians were deliberately left out of many food distribution efforts that happened in the wake of Covid-19. In a village in Kasur, about 100 families were denied food aid because of their “Christian surnames”. The organization also expressed concern over efforts using food aid as bait to convert vulnerable Christians and other religious minorities.

Truth be told, I don’t know why Muslims in Pakistan celebrate Christmas. Of course, the holiday coincides with the birth of Quaid-e-Azam, the nation’s founding father, which is already a Federal holiday. Maybe it is something we have picked up from television. Maybe the quaint and vintage vibe appeals to us. Maybe it is our lingering colonial complex that makes us want to appear more Eurocentric. Maybe we want to partake in the biggest consumerist frenzy of the year. Whatever the case is, the events of this year have revealed it is certainly not because we respect other traditions, cultures, or religions. The harrowing history of prejudice and discrimination leaves a stark reminder that we are only able to demonstrate tolerance and hospitality to a Christmas tree and decorations, not actual human beings.


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Editor's Picks Coronavirus Europe The World

What you need to know about the new COVID-19 strain detected in the UK

The word is shutting off the UK, and it’s not because of Brexit, but something much scarier: a new strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19.

Last Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the country and announced a tightening of COVID-19 restrictions for the Christmas period, scratching the previously announced break for the holiday period. The announced measures were surprisingly harsh, creating a new “Tier 4” for London and many parts of the South-East of the country, which will not allow its inhabitants to mix with other households for the holidays. However, the sudden U-turn of the UK government, who had stated only three days prior that it would be “inhumane to cancel Christmas” was not the thing that shocked the country. Rather, the reason for panic has been the identification of a new variant of COVID-19 which is 70% more contagious.

It is a known fact that viruses mutate. Usually, these new variants die-out, as they tend to be weaker than the original virus. Sometimes they continue to spread with very similar characteristics, being very difficult to distinguish from the original strain. Very rarely, they become more aggressive.

Although new mutations of COVID-19 have been identified since last April, none of them were considered to be more concerning than the original version of the virus, neither did they require different treatments or medications.  Last month, the Danish government culled millions of mink who carried a COVID-19 mutation, and in October, it was suggested that a coronavirus variant originating in Spanish farm workers was spreading rapidly through Europe. However, the new variant present in the UK seems to be different, and more concerning.

According to the Prime Minister, the new variant of COVID-19, VUI-202012/01 is 70% more transmissible than the previous versions of the virus and causes people to have a much larger viral load when they get the disease. This is because of a series of 23 mutations that have been identified in the pathogen’s genetic coding, many of which are associated with the “spike” protein, the part of the virus responsible for binding to human cells.

“As a result of the rapid spread of the new variant, preliminary modelling data and rapidly rising incidence rates in the south-east,” the UK government’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, stated. “The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) now considers that the new strain can spread more quickly. We have alerted the World Health Organization and are continuing to analyze the available data to improve our understanding.”

[Image description: A graph of the increased number of cases in England from March to December 2020] Via the UK government website.
[Image description: A graph of the increased number of cases in England from March to December 2020] Via the UK government website.
This higher spreading rate is the cause of the increased COVID-19 numbers in the UK, particularly around the London area. Between November 29th and December 13th, the rate of coronavirus infections in the UK has increased by 50%. As of last Sunday (December 20th), just over 1,100 COVID-19 cases with the new variant have been identified. The UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the new strain is “out of control”, admitting that this is “an incredibly difficult end to frankly an awful year”. 

However, let’s not panic just yet.

Current medical studies have shown no evidence than the new variant is more deadly than the original virus, or that the vaccines that are currently being administered to millions across the globe are less effective towards it. Although most vaccines do target this “spike” protein, the virus would need to mutate very significantly in order to make the vaccine ineffective, said Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser.

While more studies are being conducted to confirm these affirmations, many countries have imposed strict border controls or even banned flights from the UK, in an attempt to control the spread of this new variant. As we speak, the European Union is holding an emergency meeting to decide on a coordinated response to control the spread of the virus. At the same time, Boris Johnson will chair an emergency COBRA meeting to discuss the UK being cut off from Europe. In addition to freedom of movement, the delivery of necessary goods such as food is of great concern to the British administration.

[Image description: A map of the countries which have banned flights from the UK since the announcement of the new COVID-19 strain, including Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden, Iran and Saudi Arabia] Via Election Maps UK.
[Image description: A map of the countries which have banned flights from the UK since the announcement of the new COVID-19 strain, including Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden, Iran and Saudi Arabia] Via Election Maps UK.
This avalanche of terrible news is the last straw for many of us, who have spent the last few weeks hoping for a calm Christmas week, where all the issues threatening the future of the UK such as Brexit and the pandemic, could be put to the side. After all, let’s not forget that the UK is set to leave the EU on January 1st and there still isn’t a deal that regulates how it will happen and who or what will be allowed to cross the border.

As an immigrant who has made the United Kingdom my home for the last 5 years, I am terrified of the situation that the country is currently facing. Nonetheless, while we wait for scientists and policy experts to examine the characteristics of the new strain of COVID-19 and (hopefully) make a decision on Brexit and freedom of movement, let’s remember to be responsible. Yes, this Christmas will be different, and yes, this new strain is scary, but all we can go at the moment is make sure we keep ourselves healthy, mentally and emotionally, and that we follow the rules set by the experts. We don’t know much about VUI-202012/01 but we know it’s transmitted the same way as COVID-19.

So, this holiday season, avoid travelling, wear a mask, and wash your hands. Be safe, and turn off the TV if you have to.

A holiday guide for the COVID-19 pandemic



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