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Commentary | Five Moments That Defined 2018

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From the rapprochement between North and South Korea at the Winter Olympics in January to December’s frantic news agenda, 2018 has had no shortage of surprises. Below are my key picks for the defining moments of the year.

Elon Musk, Mars, and a roller coaster year for billionaires

On Feb. 6, Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy rocket blasted into space from Florida and sent a cherry-red Tesla roadster hurtling toward Mars. It was a powerful statement about the influence and ambition of a new generation of tech billionaires.

Overall, however, 2018 would be a rough year for the group, and Musk was no exception. By July, he was embroiled in a high-profile spat with a British cave rescue diver over a miniature submarine he had hoped would help rescue 12 boys trapped underground in Thailand, just one of a series of increasingly negative headlines.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg – once touted as a potential U.S. presidential candidate – had scarcely a better year, his firm plagued by its own stream of scandals and political headwinds.

Google, whose chief executive Sundar Pichai became the latest tech chief summoned before Congress, faces a mutiny from some workers on multiple topics, including his dealings with the U.S. and Chinese governments. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos faces mounting criticism over working conditions and low tax payments.

Yet none of this looks set to stop tech firms from continuing to radically disrupt the world – indeed, many of their founders appear to believe their mission is to do so. Expect these battles to grow in 2019, particularly if new technology such as artificial intelligence and driverless cars accelerate change.

Trump fires advisers, tightens his grip

One billionaire learning his way around the political system in 2018 was U.S. President Donald Trump. After reports of growing frustration with some of his most senior officials, March saw him fire Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Both had been viewed as moderating influences on Trump, with successors Mike Pompeo and John Bolton perceived as less prone to questioning him.

December’s departure of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly leaves Defense Secretary James Mattis the key restraining influence.

Overall, Trump seems increasingly keen to trust his own judgment rather than that of establishment-based gatekeepers or Republican insiders.

POTUS woos Kim and Putin. Elsewhere, diplomacy unravels.

In Singapore in June and in Helsinki in July, Trump upset many in his own administration with the warmth of his meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The friendliness of the summits stood in stark contrast to the G7 gathering of Western and Allied leaders in Canada, also in June. There, Trump appeared more isolated than ever before on topics including climate change, protectionism and relations with Russia. The G7 leaders were unable to agree on a communiqué, with the six non-U.S. members making their own statement independent of Washington.

Events at the G7 pointed to a wider malaise in international diplomacy. World leaders at November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Papua New Guinea also failed to agree on a communiqué, this time due to divisions between China and the United States and its allies over trade.

Military posturing is also on the rise. Russia, China and NATO each held their largest wargames in recent history this summer, while confrontations between jets and warships in the South China Sea and Europe have also increased markedly.

Khashoggi killed as authoritarian states take the gloves off

The world’s authoritarian states appeared at least equally as focused on stifling dissent and opposition. Nowhere was that clearer than in the case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered and reportedly dismembered in his own country’s consulate building in Istanbul. Like the suspected Russian nerve agent assassination attempt on a former double agent in the UK town of Salisbury the previous year, the killing sparked international outrage and some diplomatic isolation of Riyadh – but little in the way of convincing apology from those believed responsible.

A string of autocratic governments appear increasingly dismissive of human rights, openly taking draconian action against critics and enemies alike. Russia is continuing its ruthless military campaign against remaining rebel enclaves in Syria, and a Saudi-led coalition has persisted in its war in Yemen – at catastrophic cost to civilians, where millions now face starvation.

China is cracking down on its Muslim Uighur minority, with a U.N. report citing estimates Beijing has interned up to one million in “reeducation camps.” Such steps suggest authoritarian rulers like China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Putin may not feel as secure as they appear – or that they believe such brutal tactics are simply necessary to retain their grip.U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un leave after signing documents that acknowledge the progress of the talks and pledge to keep momentum going, after their summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

G20 meets as Paris burns

November’s G20 gathering in Argentina was perhaps the year’s most successful multilateral gathering, with world leaders managing to agree on a largely bland communiqué on reform of global trade. Trump’s meeting with China’s Xi brought some temporary relief from the two countries’ trade war, even as Ukraine tensions and Mueller’s Russia probe made a Trump-Putin meeting impossible. There was still no shortage of disagreements on show, however – and as the leaders met, riots in Paris were grabbing global headlines.

Almost every Western leader in Argentina returned home to an existential political crisis. French President Emmanuel Macron has since bowed to some of the demands of the “yellow vest” protesters, particularly over fuel tax, but that has not been enough to stem the unrest. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has signaled she will shortly leave politics, although she has seen some success in appointing a protegé to lead her party. Trump went back to Washington to face the fallout from former lawyer Michael Cohen’s admission of lying to Congress about a Trump Tower project in Moscow; British Prime Minister Theresa May has so far failed to find a Brexit deal she can get through Parliament.

Many of these impasses stem from a much wider crisis in Western nations, with rising wealth gaps and often mounting discontent and hardship among the poorest. Solving those issues will be tough – and more disruption feels inevitable through 2019 and beyond. – Reuters

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Quarantine Reflections: How Businesses Must Lead From The Heart Now

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Bisila Bokoko, born in the Equatorial Guinea, raised in Spain and now resident in New York as a businesswoman, communications consultant and motivational speaker, is a global citizen like no other.

Straddling these regions for her wine and sports retail businesses and a library project she is spearheading in Senegal, Bokoko has been on self-quarantine for the last four weeks in her Manhattan apartment, after a recent work trip to Spain.

Here, she sheds light on the Covid-19 crisis that she says has made her more reflective of how she needs to rethink her businesses. “It is an extremely confusing and challenging time with such a huge impact on everything,” she says. “Life is never going to be the same again.”

The coronavirus outbreak has changed the way we eat, shop and consume, she adds, with the most dramatic change happening in retail, because of changing values and new priorities.

“The center is going to be the human being, and the wellbeing of the human,” says Bokoko. “And this will not be from an individual perspective, but in relation to each other. We have to be a more collaborative economy, because how we are, will affect everyone else. As leadership, we now need to lead from the heart.”

In this FORBES AFRICA interview, Bokoko speaks to Managing Editor Renuka Methil, also about how the current crisis will throw up new opportunities for local African art and the fashion business.     

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New York On Lockdown

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As I walk through Brooklyn Bridge Park, gazing at the magnificent Manhattan skyline on the East River, at first glance it looks as crowded as it usually does. However, if you look closer, it’s not your typical mixture of tourists with their cacophony of foreign languages, photographers with tripods, or teenagers on skateboards. The park is filled with lone joggers, parents in yoga pants pushing double strollers and carefully guarding kids on scooters. No one plays volleyball in the sand by the river. No one picnics in the barbecue area. Everyone keeps a friendly and polite distance, some people wear face masks. And yet, it doesn’t really look like social distancing, or the lockdown that it is–ordered by the mayor and the governor of New York in an effort to contain the spread of the Coronavirus.   

That peaceful picture of joggers and children playing shouldn’t fool anyone. The five boroughs of New York City – Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx  — are hit hard by the rapidly spreading Coronavirus. With the death toll rising – 678 patients had died in overcrowded New York City hospitals by March 28, and the number of cases in New York state has surpassed 53,000; the five boroughs of New York have become the epicenter of the pandemic. 

The healthcare system is overwhelmed. I spoke with four medical professionals in the city and they all confirm the disturbing reality that is in the news. The hospitals don’t have enough protective gear, single use masks have been reused, hospitals do not have enough beds and ventilators. Medical personnel intubate patients non-stop, assisting them with breathing. The city hospitals have set up makeshift tents to triage COVID-19 patients as well as to act as morgues. The government’s delayed response to the virus’s spread is costing many, many lives. 

One thing that is striking about New Yorkers – my home of seventeen years – is how people come together and support each other. After the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001; during the power outage in 2003, when the entire city went dark for hours; and after the devastating hurricane Sandy in 2012. 

On the day when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, New Yorkers, predominantly liberal democrats, were especially sensitive with each other, calmly sharing their sadness and expressing worry for the future of their country. Today, when schools, non-essential stores, bars and restaurants are closed, and many people are isolating and trying to follow social distancing guidelines, members of communities come together to help each other: buying food for older neighbors, helping with disinfecting door knobs and elevator buttons. Mental health professionals volunteer their services to the anxious and scared. At grocery stores and pharmacies only a few people are allowed in at a time, people are waiting outside, standing about two meters apart, and the doormen pour out hand sanitizer into people’s palms. 

Besides solidarity and respect, there is also fear and anxiety. Service and food industry workers are out of work, facing months of hardships. According to the New York State Labor department, during the first days of the lockdown, in some parts of the state, there was a 1,000% increase in unemployment claims as 1.7 million people called to file for benefits. Well over a million children from financially strained families relied on school lunches, and those are now provided at meal sites. But that also means the disparity in incomes in New York has been underscored by the Covid 19 impact, and the inequality between the haves and have-nots will continue to be exposed.

Forbes headquarters in New Jersey has been working remotely since the first week of March. We quickly re-organized: the entire company of 400 people has migrated into a virtual workplace, with a highly mobilized virtual newsroom. Besides holding daily meetings and video calls, our teams get together for virtual hangouts to keep each other’s spirits up. 

The city authorities were slow to respond to the Covid-19 spread. For weeks, when it was clear the crisis was imminent, eight million New Yorkers commuted in crowded subways, went to crowded restaurants and bars, and also traveled to and from crowded international airports, breathing in each other’s air. 

In the absence of the pandemic team, fired by Trump in 2018, the federal government’s response was slow to respond to the disaster. The Trump administration failed to prevent this crisis underestimating the danger of Covid-19: “We have it totally under control,” he said in January, when the virus was already spreading. “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control.” The government failed to test people in a timely manner. In New York,  Mayor Bill De Blasio and the governor Andew Cuomo stepped in and tried to help the hospitals secure supplies and additional testing stations. They are still trying.

Meanwhile, the city is contemplating closing parks and other public places. Maybe even prohibiting people from leaving their homes, or perhaps prohibiting them from leaving New York itself. For the next few weeks, the Big Apple will stay confined indoors. Stay home, don’t spread, save lives.

Katya Soldak, Forbes Staff, Business

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Here’s How Much It Could Cost If We Stop Social Distancing

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Topline: This week, President Trump floated the idea of easing up on social distancing measures on the theory that the damage caused by shutting down the economy might be greater than the cost of letting the virus run its course—some models suggest, however, that reopening the economy too soon could be exponentially more expensive.

  • If the United States were to abandon aggressive social distancing measures after 14 days, more than 125 million people will contract the virus, some 7 million could be hospitalized, and 1.9 million people will die (accounting for other factors like infectiousness and hospitalization rates), according to a model built by the New York Times
  • If social distancing goes on for two months, the model predicts that 14 million will contract the virus, with fewer than 100,000 deaths.
  • There’s no debate that the broader economy is going to suffer even at the current rate of spread. Morgan Stanley is predicting a 30% drop in GDP next quarter. U.S. GDP is currently $21.43 trillion. A drop of 30% would mean a value-loss of more than $6.4 trillion (for context, the economic relief bill signed by President Trump this afternoon is worth about $2 trillion). 
  • If the outbreak worsens due to relaxed social distancing measures, it’s not unreasonable to anticipate even greater economic losses.
  • Economists can calculate the average value of one life saved using a model called the value of a statistical life. It’s a fuzzy metric used by some government agencies that is based on how much a person is willing to pay to reduce the risk of death. Right now, that figure hovers around $10 million.
  • “If we could prevent a million deaths, at the usual way we value [them] of around $10 million each, that’s $10 trillion, which is half of GDP,” says James Hammitt, a professor of economics in Harvard’s health policy department. 
  • University of Chicago economists have arrived at a similar conclusion: they’ve found that under “moderate” social distancing measures, 1.7 million lives and at least $7.9 trillion could be saved. 

Big number: The average cost of a hospital stay for a mild case of pneumonia is $9,763, according to Peterson-KFF analysis (pneumonia is commonly associated with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus). The median total cost balloons to $88,114 for the most severe cases that require more than four days of ventilator support. Seven million hospitalizations for patients with mild cases would cost more than $68 billion. If 17% of those patients required ventilator support, as was the case in one Chinese study, the cost of hospitalizations alone could add up to a staggering $161 billion, and that’s before the cost of other health complications related to the virus is accounted for. 

Crucial quote: “Anything that slows the rate of the virus is the best thing you can do for the economy, even if by conventional measures it’s bad for the economy,” University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee told the New York Times

Key background: In some ways, all of this discourse is more than a century old. A new paper released yesterday found that during the1918 flu pandemic—the closest historical analogue for the current coronavirus outbreak—cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively to slow the spread of the virus through social distancing and isolation of cases suffered no greater economic damage than those that didn’t. “On the contrary,” the authors write, “cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively experience a relative increase in real economic activity after the pandemic.” Seattle, Oakland, Omaha, and Los Angeles, for instance, implemented stronger containment measures than Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Philadelphia and all saw a much larger surge in job growth after the crisis was over in 1920. 

Tangent: Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick suggested earlier this week that grandparents might be willing to die to preserve the economy for their grandchildren. “No one reached out to me and said, ‘as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’” he said. “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.” His and Trump’s comments sparked a backlash among progressives on social media on Tuesday, when the hashtag #NotDying4WallStreet trended on Twitter as users voiced their fears of the pandemic, and of the government’s response to it. “I’ll let Wall Street flat line before my grandma does,” wrote one Twitter user. 

Sarah Hansen, Forbes Staff

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