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The strategic reverberations of the AUKUS deal will be big and lasting

JUST OCCASIONALLY, you can see the tectonic plates of geopolitics shifting in front of your eyes. Suez in 1956, Nixon going to China in 1972 and the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 are among the examples in living memory. The unveiling last week of a trilateral defence pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (introducing the awkward acronym of AUKUS) is providing another of those rare occasions.

AUKUS envisages a wide range of diplomatic and technological collaboration, from cybersecurity to artificial intelligence, but at its core is an agreement to start consultations to help Australia acquire a fleet of nuclear-propelled (though not nuclear-armed) submarines. One consequence of this is Australia cancelling a contract, worth tens of billions of dollars, signed in 2016 with France for diesel-electric submarines. In announcing AUKUS on September 15th with the prime ministers of Australia and Britain, Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson, President Joe Biden stressed that it was about “investing in our greatest source of strength—our alliances”. However, America’s oldest ally, France, has reacted with understandable fury. Jean-Yves Le Drian, its foreign minister, called it a “stab in the back”. On September 17th President Emmanuel Macron withdrew France’s ambassadors from Washington and Canberra (though not London).

The powerful reverberations of AUKUS show what a profound shift it represents. For America it is the most dramatic move yet in its determination to counter what it sees as the growing threat from China, particularly the maritime challenge it poses in the Pacific. Not only is America sharing the crown jewels of military technology, the propulsion plant for nuclear submarines, with an ally for only the second time in 63 years (the other time being with Britain). It is also robustly signalling its long-term commitment to what it calls a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.

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Many countries in the region which share the sense of threat from China welcome that. AUKUS will now provide a potent backdrop for the first in-person meeting of leaders of the Quad—America, Australia, India and Japan—in Washington, DC, on September 24th. Last month, amid a chaotic withdrawal from Kabul, there was talk of America’s lack of staying power and a loss of faith among its allies. For all the anger in Paris, AUKUS changes that narrative. “The larger significance of this is that the United States is doubling down on its allies, and its allies are doubling down on the United States,” says Michael Fullilove of the Lowy Institute, a think-tank in Sydney. “Unfortunately, France is collateral damage.”

In Australian eyes the developments that led to AUKUS were largely made in China. It was the heavy-handed pressure that China has applied on Australia, the most striking recent example being the response to its call for an independent investigation into the origins of covid-19, that led to urgent interest in ways to push back. Ditching the submarine contract with France was a bold move. Although the deal with Naval Group, a company in which the French state has a majority stake, had run into difficulties over its escalating costs and delays, and had few friends among politicians or the press, it was nevertheless one of the largest contracts in the history of Australia and was widely thought to be too big to dump. That the government has done so, despite the prospect of hefty penalties, reflects both the scale of its bet on America as an ally and the attractions of the submarine technology it will obtain: far stealthier and with far longer range than the diesel-electric ones.

Britain may be the least important of the AUKUS trio; certainly, its role is belittled in the French decision not to recall its ambassador to London (Mr Le Drian called Britain the “third wheel” in the deal). Even so, for Mr Johnson the pact illustrates his country’s changing role in the world. It conveniently chimes with the post-Brexit effort to promote “Global Britain” (henceforth to be energetically championed by a new foreign secretary, Liz Truss). And it gives substance to the “tilt to the Indo-Pacific” that was embraced in a comprehensive review of foreign and defence policy published in March.

For the French, too, AUKUS crystallises what they view as profound realities in international relations, notably the idea that Europe needs more “strategic autonomy” so as not to depend excessively on America. However the muted reaction among France’s European partners casts familiar doubt on how serious such autonomy can be. After news of the AUKUS deal emerged, a German official called for “coherence and unity” among Western powers, which he said would require “a lot of effort” to bring about. France has concluded that it will struggle for fair treatment in the face of the reflexes of Anglophone allies to club together (the trilateral deal comes on top of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance that involves the same three countries plus Canada and New Zealand). But French fury, especially against Australia, is also driven by a personal sense of betrayal.

That goes beyond the loss of a giant contract, painful as that is. France sets great store by its role in the Indo-Pacific region, where it keeps some 7,000 troops and has nearly 2m citizens, including in its island territories such as New Caledonia and French Polynesia. It has been assiduously building what it thought was an ever-closer relationship with Australia. As recently as August 30th the communiqué from high-level Australian-French ministerial consultations spoke of “the strength of our strategic partnership” across many areas, and stressed “the importance of the Future Submarine programme”. Yet neither at that summit nor at the many others over the months when AUKUS was in the works was France given any notice of it. The “six months of secrecy” was “quite a performance,” says François Heisbourg, a French foreign-policy expert who through his think-tank had for years been involved in cultivating connections with Australia.

The fallout in France is one of several caveats to what otherwise appears to be a strategic coup for the three partners in AUKUS. The administration’s idea of working together with allies to check China makes sense. But a major split with a key ally—one with serious Indo-Pacific interests—hardly helps. Creative efforts will now be needed from the AUKUS squad to try to mitigate the damage.

Second, there is what this says about American diplomacy. The French were bound to be upset, but the handling of them was graceless. That comes on top of the Biden administration’s poor handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. One example of foreign-policy incompetence looks unfortunate; two in quick succession look like a pattern. That is not a good omen for the management of the relationship with China, which involves elements of military competition, economic laissez-faire and collaboration over, say, climate change and arms control.

Third, American foreign policy has often been criticised, including by Mr Biden, for placing too much emphasis on the military dimension and not enough on diplomacy and other tools. The nuclear-submarine initiative is a big move on the defence front, but China is increasingly powerful in the region on the economic and financial fronts. China responded to AUKUS by criticising its “cold-war mentality”. The next day it applied to join the CPTPP, an 11-country transpacific trade pact that America helped to instigate as a way to limit China’s influence, but then abandoned.

There is no quick fix for America’s mistakes in economic policy. Indeed, the rivalry between China and America, together with its allies, will play out across many areas over many years. It is the defining geopolitical challenge of the 21st century. And now in AUKUS it has acquired a new landmark.

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What does the Australian submarine deal mean for non-proliferation?

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Only once in its history has America handed over a nuclear submarine propulsion plant, the crown jewels of military technology, to another country. That was 63 years ago when America helped the Royal Navy to go nuclear. Now it will take that dramatic step again. A new trilateral defence pact, AUKUS, announced on September 15th, will involve far-reaching defence co-operation between America, Australia and Britain. The group’s first initiative, and its most important, will be American and British assistance to Australia in building a fleet of at least eight nuclear-powered submarines. The precise form of assistance will be worked out over the next 18 months; it may involve Britain actually supplying the technology, with America’s blessing and support.

“This technology is extremely sensitive,” acknowledged an American official, speaking anonymously on September 15th. “This is, frankly, an exception to our policy in many respects…We view this as a one-off.” Nuclear-powered subs are sensitive not just because of their range, speed and stealthiness. It is also because they are powered with the same stuff—usually, uranium enriched so that it has a higher proportion of the most fissile isotope, U-235—that is used in bombs.

The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) forbids signatories who don’t already have a bomb from making one. It also says they must put sensitive nuclear material, like enriched uranium, under international safeguards, monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a watchdog. But the rules have a submarine-shaped loophole. States are allowed to remove nuclear material from safeguards if they are for “a non-proscribed military activity”, such as submarine propulsion. No non-nuclear-armed state has ever tested that loophole—until now.

Australia is unlikely to produce enriched uranium itself; unlike every other state which has operated a nuclear-powered sub, it has neither nuclear weapons nor any nuclear power stations. It is more likely to acquire reactor fuel from another country. Once that fuel is in a working reactor, it becomes too radioactive to use for a bomb. But depending on how AUKUS is implemented, it might still have fissile material hanging around before then.

Worse still, both America and Britain use highly enriched uranium (HEU), essentially weapons-grade, in their subs. It is possible to operate a sub with low-enriched uranium (LEU)—both France and China do so—but it has drawbacks, such as larger reactors and more frequent refuelling.

Most non-proliferation advocates are not terribly worried about Australia building a nuke (it once sought one, but ended that pursuit in the 1970s). They are more concerned that the spread of nuclear-submarine technology and fuel for propulsion reactors sets a dangerous precedent that will be exploited by others. Countries that do want nuclear weapons, or simply want to keep the option open, might see submarines as a convenient excuse for making or acquiring bomb-usable HEU, out of sight of pesky inspectors.

Iran, whose nuclear programme is the subject of an increasingly tense dispute with the West, has toyed with the idea in the past. South Korea, which faces a North Korean nuclear threat, and where opinion polls show plurality support for building nuclear weapons, has explored nuclear subs off and on since the early 1990s. Brazil is actually building one, the Álvaro Alberto, as part of a partnership with France. “With the new AUKUS decision, we can now expect the proliferation of very sensitive military nuclear technology in the coming years, with literally tons of new nuclear materials under loose or no international safeguards,” warns Sébastien Philippe of Princeton University, writing for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a research group.

Others believe that these concerns are overwrought. “It would be a matter of real non-proliferation concern if we are planning to produce our own fissile material but we are not,” writes Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister, “and I have no doubt that complete safeguards discipline will be maintained.” Mr Evans dismisses the possibility that the move will encourage “problematic behaviour” by others. Ian Stewart, based in Washington, DC, as director of the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, says that Australian subs could be fuelled in Britain, with that fuel placed under permanent IAEA seal and subject to periodic inspection in a way that would meet both military requirements and the demands of safeguarding.

Even so, nuclear norms are being tested and stretched. Notably, the past 16 years have seen two revolutionary agreements that prioritised geopolitics—namely, balancing against China’s rise—over non-proliferation sensitivities. The first was America’s civil nuclear deal with India in 2005, which came only eight years after India, an NPT holdout, had tested nuclear weapons. AUKUS treads a similar path. After the cold war, much attention was paid to non-proliferation, observes David Santoro of the Pacific Forum, a think-tank. “Now power politics is back in force. Non-proliferation still matters but isn’t the sole consideration anymore”.

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The Gates Foundation’s approach has both advantages and limits

THE JANICKI OMNI PROCESSOR, a $2m machine paid for by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, turns human waste into water and electricity. In poor cities such as Dakar in Senegal, where it has been piloted, the hope is that people will send sewage to sanitation plants to be processed, rather than chucking it into the streets.

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The Omni Processor exemplifies the Gates Foundation’s approach to philanthropy. Mr Gates likes to apply business principles to doing good, which means focusing on innovative, often technological, solutions with quantifiable results. The processor’s inputs and outputs can be counted. The first version, which arrived in Senegal in 2015, was not designed to deal with sewage filled with sand and rocks as it is in Dakar. It was made of materials that corroded quickly in the city’s sea air. These glitches have been fixed in the “OP 2.0”, which arrived in Dakar this year.

Mr Gates has championed the foundation’s data-driven style of philanthropy. But his ex-wife, now known as Melinda French Gates, is thought to have tempered his relentless focus on efficiency, arguing that number-crunching methods cannot resolve the complex causes of poverty on their own. That difference in emphasis, in turn, raises questions about whether the couple’s divorce, announced this year, will set the world’s most powerful charitable foundation on a novel course.

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The foundation’s influence is immense. Its $50bn endowment comes from contributions from Mr Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, Ms French Gates and Warren Buffett, a billionaire investor and friend. In 2019 it gave out $4.1bn, according to the OECD, a club of rich countries, more than 11 times as much as the next-largest private American development foundation. If it were a government, it would be the 12th-biggest disburser of foreign aid, between Italy and Switzerland (see chart 1).

The Gates foundation is the second-biggest donor to the World Health Organisation, behind only the American government. It is a founding member of Gavi, a public-private partnership that provides vaccination programmes in poor countries. It has committed more than $1.8bn to fighting covid-19.

It is not the first to embrace a businesslike approach to charitable giving. In 1889 Andrew Carnegie, a steel magnate, wrote in “The Gospel of Wealth”: “One of the serious obstacles to the improvement of our race is indiscriminate charity.” He cautioned against giving people money without scrutinising how they spent it. He and other industrialists such as Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller set up large foundations with big boards to give away their money, mostly late in life.

In recent decades the centre of gravity for American philanthropy has shifted from the east coast to the west. Rich tech founders are giving away their wealth while young and taking a keen interest in how it is spent. Many take their cues from the Gates Foundation in terms of which causes to support and how to do so, says Nick Tedesco, a former Gates employee who is now head of the National Centre for Family Philanthropy in Washington, DC. “The influence of the Gates Foundation”, he says, “is outsized.”

Established in 2000, the foundation employs 1,750 people, mostly in Seattle. Mr Gates, who stepped down from his day-to-day role at Microsoft in 2008, takes a hands-on approach to its work. He and Ms French Gates pick causes on which they believe they can have the most impact, from improving education in America to eradicating diseases such as polio and malaria. They hire academics, former management consultants and mandarins to dish out grants, often referred to as “investments”. The return on grants is measured precisely. A malaria project might be judged on bed-nets distributed; one on education might track attendance rates or test scores. Unsuccessful ventures are dropped.

Not all rich benefactors operate in this way. Some simply give vast sums of money to charities they like, leaving them to spend it as they wish. MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, has announced over $8bn in donations since July 2020 in an approach she calls “seeding by ceding”. She has hired Bridgespan Group, a consultancy, to help her pick grantees. Her gifts come without prescriptions or demands for reports on progress.

The Gates Foundation promotes data-driven, tech-based fixes for discrete problems. Mr Gates’s first charitable effort was to buy computers for libraries in poor parts of America and connect them to the internet. His work in health initially focused on technological solutions, like vaccines, for particular infectious diseases.

Philanthropic Outlook

In other areas, however, that hyper-efficient, outcomes-oriented approach gets you only so far. Counting vaccines is easy; putting a number on a woman’s freedom is not. Mr Gates and Ms French Gates expected global health to be the trickiest part of their portfolio, says Patrick Methvin, who works on education in America for the Gates Foundation. But they found that education projects were more complicated, in part because evaluating what children have learnt—and what they should learn—is far from straightforward. “Education is fundamentally a social-values-based enterprise,” Mr Methvin says.

As Adam Moe Fejerskov, author of “The Gates Foundation’s Rise to Power”, puts it: “Quantification is really about reducing the messiness of the world to formulae and numbers.” The trickiest problems cannot be solved by technology and numbers alone. When the first Omni Processor arrived in Dakar, almost a third of the city’s 3m inhabitants did not live in homes connected to sewers. Public understanding of sanitation is limited. Shortly after the machine appeared, rumours that water extracted from sewage was being added to the city’s drinking water caused uproar. Speak Up Africa, a Gates-funded policy-and-advocacy group, was called on to launch a public-information campaign.

The point of evaluating projects is to steer money away from those that do not work. The foundation says that it does so slowly, winding programmes down gradually. But this trial-and-error method can cause problems.

Early on, the foundation backed the small schools movement in America which suggested that students learn better in small groups getting more individual attention. But running extra-curricular activities and programmes for pupils who needed help with English or special needs was difficult with a smaller student body. With fewer teachers, small schools had to limit their curriculums. The foundation honoured existing grants but channelled new funds into other education reforms. Schools were left struggling for cash and children faced unnecessary upheaval. “We fell short,” Mr Gates wrote in 2009.

For grantees, the level of monitoring and evaluation marks a big difference between the Gates Foundation and other donors. Programme officers oversee their work. That can be helpful. At Speak Up Africa, which has been awarded some $33m in multiple grants since 2015, the team says its monthly virtual meetings with Gates staff in Seattle offer a chance to discuss new ideas and meet international experts.

But the administrative burden can be overwhelming for small groups unused to working with a demanding, global foundation. Askaan Santé, a non-profit organisation in Dakar focused on public health with a staff of 13, received $900,000 in funding after its founder, Fatou Fall Ndoye, met a Gates staffer at a conference. The foundation helped her craft her proposal. But the application took eight months. “It’s a long process,” Ms Ndoye says.

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This explains in part why the foundation tends to fund organisations based in the rich world rather than those in developing countries where the money is needed most. An analysis of the foundation’s grants database by The Economist and David McCoy, a professor of global public health at Queen Mary University of London, suggests that grantees with headquarters in Africa and Asia have received just 5.3% and 5.6% of its grants respectively since 1999, though their share has risen (see chart 2).

There are many reasons for this asymmetry. Grantees based in America or Europe often have branches in poorer countries and pass funding on to sub-grantees elsewhere. Fewer people are doing cutting-edge research in sub-Saharan Africa. But it is also difficult for a small organisation in the poor world to get the attention of a Gates staffer. And the paperwork can be intimidating. Those that manage to win Gates funding often know someone at the foundation or have worked at an organisation backed by the foundation and so understand the process. Ms Ndoye had both.

Initially the thought was that the foundation would use its resources for innovation to come up with “breakthroughs”, and leave it to others to ensure they reached the right people, says Mark Suzman, its chief executive. “The wake-up call which hits a lot of people who come into philanthropy is that that doesn’t necessarily work.”

Instead the foundation is now focusing on making sure that its innovations work in the real world. This involves messy social changes that are difficult to track. It has invested $4bn in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, including vaccines. But in Nigeria, the only African country where the disease remained endemic, it has also mapped villages in the conflict-ridden north which were missed in immunisation campaigns. The continent was declared free of wild polio last year.

In family planning the foundation is not simply distributing cheap contraceptives. Women in a low-income country, like India, might not feel comfortable going to a clinic to get condoms or a pill. The Gates-backed Centre for Social and Behaviour Change at Ashoka University near New Delhi tries to understand these social dynamics. It is supporting groups that help women build their confidence in such matters. Confidence is hard to quantify.

The unmeasurable side to philanthropy has drawn on the temperament and insights of Ms French Gates. Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, a British medical journal, says she takes a “more holistic approach” to development, encompassing women’s rights and the capacity of health systems. “She humanised the foundation in a remarkable way,” he continues. Chris Eide, who founded Teachers United, an American advocacy group that received a Gates grant in 2011, describes two separate meetings with the pair. Ms French Gates, he says, asked him to bring a group of teachers and asked “open and earnest questions” about their work. Mr Gates met him one-on-one and grilled him on education policy. “The way he took notes from our conversation, it was almost like he was building a machine,” says Mr Eide.

The question now is whether Ms French Gates’s influence will outlast the pair’s divorce. If in two years they no longer want to work together, she will resign as a trustee and receive a payout from him to continue her philanthropic work elsewhere. That would require the foundation to find a new way to get the most out of Mr Gates’s data-driven method.

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Shifting foundations”

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How the world changed

WILL ANYTHING ever be the same? In the days after 9/11, when all were stunned, it was clear the world had changed profoundly. Less obvious was just how far the geopolitical shockwaves would reach. In our first cover story after the assault we likened the moment to the attack on Pearl Harbour. Suspicion already pointed to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. We called for America, and its allies, to offer up a response that was not timid, but that remained “measured”.

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Two months after the attacks our focus was squarely on Afghanistan, where the American-led coalition had chased the Taliban from the larger cities, including Kabul, and al-Qaeda had fled to the border areas with Pakistan. In our cover story we wished for the Taliban to be in “total, not merely tactical, retreat”, hoped for the UN to help to bring stability, and called for any new rulers to shun bin Laden and his like.

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A year on, global attention, led by America’s president, George W. Bush, had shifted to Iraq. Could America, and its allies, justify invasion even without UN agreement? The goal was to depose Saddam Hussein, a former-ally-turned-opponent, who was assumed to be developing weapons of mass destruction. In this issue (and later ones) we made a case in favour of the coming war.

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The invasion of Iraq proved swift and overwhelming, but without a strong or popular government, sectarian clashes and terrorist attacks spread. As was soon obvious, much had gone wrong. Troubling for America and Britain, investigators found no sign of Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. Western intelligence, again, had proved badly off the mark. By late 2003 we asked if George W. Bush and Tony Blair had lied to justify war.

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By 2004 gloom was mounting. Western countries struggled to find legal ways to confront extremist opponents who had been stirred up by events in Iraq and beyond. Images of abuse of suspects who were kept (almost always without trial) in American detention centres spread dismay. Pictures of ill-treated inmates stood “an awful chance of becoming iconic images that could haunt America for years”, we said.

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Some Economist covers require weeks of work. This one was produced in hours, after suicide-bombers struck London’s buses and underground trains in July 2005. Extremists, many linked to al-Qaeda, carried out attacks against civilians in Madrid, Mumbai, Nairobi, Nice, Paris and other cities over the years. Public debate often focused on whether the West’s actions in the Middle East had provoked them.

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Near the end of Mr Bush’s presidency, fatigue over wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was widespread. But how to leave without conceding humiliating defeat? One counterintuitive (and temporary) answer was a “surge” of extra American soldiers, sent into Iraq to try to impose order. “Democracies need the courage to withdraw from wars that bring no good,” we observed, “but also to persevere in just ones.” Nonetheless we admitted that victory would “at most mean preventing catastrophe.”

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In May 2011 Barack Obama told the world how American special forces had found and killed Osama bin Laden in a safehouse in a military town in the heart of Pakistan. Al-Qaeda had been dealt a near-fatal blow. But its ideas and methods would re-emerge and spread among many successor groups.

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Marking ten years since 9/11, there was much still to be troubled about. In launching his attacks, bin Laden had hoped to draw America into “bleeding wars” in Muslim lands. As we concluded, “in this he most cruelly succeeded.”

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By 2014 it became clearer that a new Islamist terrorist group was a greater threat to the world than al-Qaeda. Islamic State appealed more to the disaffected within Western countries as it set about seizing territory in Iraq and elsewhere, all in the name of forming a “caliphate”.

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Years of terror, violence and tension since 9/11 have challenged core elements of Western democracy. How secure could ordinary people feel? How robustly could freedom of speech be defended? In January 2015 extremists murdered cartoonists in Paris who had dared to sketch the Prophet Mohammed. Even bloodier terror attacks followed in Paris, Brussels and Nice.

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Joe Biden vowed to get the last Americans home from Afghanistan, to end “forever wars”, and to do so before the 20th anniversary of the attacks. Yet the rapid collapse of the American-backed government in Kabul, and the swift return of the Taliban, marks a humiliating end to a difficult period. What role now for America in the world?

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Societies that treat women badly are poorer and less stable

“A WOMAN WHO drives a car will be killed,” says Sheikh Hazim Muhammad al-Manshad. He says it matter-of-factly, without raising his voice. The unwritten rules of his tribe, the al-Ghazi of southern Iraq, are clear. A woman who drives a car might meet a man. The very possibility is “a violation of her honour”. So her male relatives will kill her, with a knife or a bullet, and bury the body in a sand dune.

The sheikh is a decorous host. He seats his guests on fine carpets, in a hall that offers shade from the desert sun. He bids his son serve them strong, bitter coffee from a shared cup. He wears a covid face-mask.

Yet the code he espouses is brutal. And one aim of that brutality is to enable men to control women’s fertility. A daughter must accept the husband her father picks. If she dallies with another man, her male kin are honour-bound to kill them both.

Women mostly stay indoors. Your correspondent visited three Shia tribes in southern Iraq in June, and wandered through their villages. He did not see a single post-pubescent woman.

Oppressing women is not only bad for women; it hurts men, too. It makes societies poorer and less stable, argue Valerie Hudson of Texas A&M University and Donna Lee Bowen and Perpetua Lynne Nielsen of Brigham Young University.

Some Iraqi cities are quite liberal by Middle Eastern standards, but much of the rural hinterland is patriarchal in the strict sense of the word. The social order is built around male kinship groups. The leaders are all men. At home, women are expected to obey husbands, fathers or brothers. At tribal meetings, they are absent. “I’ll be clear: according to tribal custom, a woman does not have freedom of expression,” says Mr Manshad.

The male kinship group has been the basic unit of many, if not most, societies for much of history. It evolved as a self-defence mechanism. Men who were related to each other were more likely to unite against external enemies.

If they married outside the group, it was the women who moved to join their husbands. (This is called “patrilocal” marriage, and is still common in most of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.) The bloodline was deemed to pass from father to son (this arrangement is called “patrilineal”). Property and leadership roles also passed down the male line. Daughters were valued for their ability to give birth to sons. Strict rules were devised to ensure women’s chastity.

Such rules were designed for a world without modern states to keep order, or modern contraception. In rich, liberal countries, the idea of the male kinship group as the building block of society faded long ago. Elsewhere, it is surprisingly common. As a group that champions an extreme version of it has just seized power in Afghanistan, it is worth looking at how such societies work.

In “The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide”, Ms Hudson, Ms Bowen and Ms Nielsen rank 176 countries on a scale of 0 to 16 for what they call the “patrilineal/fraternal syndrome”. This is a composite of such things as unequal treatment of women in family law and property rights, early marriage for girls, patrilocal marriage, polygamy, bride price, son preference, violence against women and social attitudes towards it (for example, is rape seen as a property crime against men?).

Rich democracies do well; Australia, Sweden and Switzerland all manage the best-possible score of zero (see chart). Iraq scores a woeful 15, level with Nigeria, Yemen and (pre-Taliban) Afghanistan. Only South Sudan does worse. Dismal scores are not limited to poor countries (Saudi Arabia and Qatar do terribly), nor to Muslim ones (India and most of sub-Saharan Africa do badly, too). Overall, the authors estimate that 120 countries are still to some degree swayed by this syndrome.

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As a patriarch, Mr Manshad is expected to resolve problems his tribesmen bring to him. Many involve bloodshed. “Yesterday,” he says, he had to sort out a land dispute. Men from another tribe were digging up sand to make cement on a patch of land that both they and Mr Manshad’s tribe claim. Shooting broke out. A man was hit in the thigh. A truce was called to discuss compensation, mediated by a third tribe. In a separate incident five days ago, three men were killed in a quarrel over a truck. We have “many problems like this”, sighs the sheikh.

The Iraqi police are reluctant to intervene in tribal murders. The culprit is probably armed. If he dies resisting arrest, his male relatives will feel a moral duty to kill the officer who fired the shot or, failing that, one of his colleagues. Few cops want to pick such a fight. It is far easier to let the tribes sort out their own disputes.

The upshot is that old codes of honour often trump Iraqi law (and also, whisper it, Islamic scripture, which is usually milder). Cycles of vengeance can spiral out of control. “Innocent bystanders are being killed,” complains Muhammed al-Zadyn, who advises the governor of Basra, a southern city, on tribal affairs. “The last gun battle was the day before yesterday,” he says. The previous month he had helped resolve a different quarrel, which dated back to a murder in 1995 and had involved tit-for-tat killings ever since. Mr Zadyn has two bullet wounds in his head, inflicted after he decried tribal shakedowns of oil firms.

His phone rings; another feud needs mediation. A woman was accused of having sex outside marriage. So far, seven people have been killed over it, and five wounded in the past few days. Because two of the slain were elders, their kin say they must kill ten of the other tribe to make it even. Mr Zadyn has a busy night ahead.

Clan loyalties can cripple the state. When a clan member gets a job in the health ministry, he may feel a stronger duty to hire his unqualified cousins and steer contracts to his kin than to improve the nation’s health. This helps explain why Iraqi ministries are so corrupt.

And when the state is seen as a source of loot, people fight over it. Iraq saw five coups between independence in 1932 and Saddam Hussein’s takeover in 1979; since then it has invaded two neighbours, been invaded by the United States, seen jihadists set up a caliphate, Kurds in effect secede and Shia militias, some backed by Iran, become nearly as powerful as the government. Clearly, not all this can be blamed on patriarchal clans. But it cannot all be blamed on foreigners, either.

Ms Hudson and her co-authors tested the relationship between their patrilineal syndrome and violent political instability. They ran various regressions on their 176 countries, controlling for other things that might foster conflict, such as ethnic and religious strife, colonial history and broad cultural categories such as Muslim, Western and Hindu.

They did not prove that the syndrome caused instability—that would require either longitudinal data that have not yet been collected or natural experiments that are virtually impossible with whole countries. But they found a strong statistical link. The syndrome explained three-quarters of the variation in a country’s score on the Fragile States index compiled by the Fund for Peace, a think-tank in Washington. It was thus a better predictor of violent instability than income, urbanisation or a World Bank measure of good governance.

The authors also found evidence that patriarchy and poverty go hand in hand. The syndrome explained four-fifths of the variation in food security, and four-fifths of the variation in scores on the UN’s Human Development Index, which measures such things as lifespan, health and education. “It seems as if the surest way to curse one’s nation is to subordinate its women,” they conclude.

Sexism starts at home

The obstacles females face begin in the womb. Families that prefer sons may abort daughters. This has been especially common in China, India and the post-Soviet Caucasus region. Thanks to sex-selective abortion and the neglect of girl children, at least 130m girls are missing from the world’s population, by one estimate.

That means many men are doomed to remain single; and frustrated single men can be dangerous. Lena Edlund of Columbia University and her co-authors found that in China, for every 1% rise in the ratio of men to women, violent and property crime rose by 3.7%. Parts of India with more surplus men also have more violence against women. The insurgency in Kashmir has political roots, but it cannot help that the state has one of most skewed sex ratios in India.

Family norms vary widely. Perhaps the most socially destabilising is polygamy (or, more precisely, polygyny, where a man marries more than one woman). Only about 2% of people live in polygamous households. But in the most unstable places it is rife. In war-racked Mali, Burkina Faso and South Sudan, the figure is more than a third. In the north-east of Nigeria, where the jihadists of Boko Haram control large swathes of territory, 44% of women aged 15-49 are in polygynous unions.

If the richest 10% of men have four wives each, the bottom 30% will have none. This gives them a powerful incentive to kill other men and steal their goods. They can either form groups of bandits with their cousins, as in north-western Nigeria, or join rebel armies, as in the Sahel. In Guinea, where soldiers carried out a coup on September 5th, 42% of married women aged 15-49 have co-wives.

Bride price, a more widespread practice, is also destabilising. In half of countries, marriage commonly entails money or goods changing hands. Most patrilineal cultures insist on it. Usually the resources pass from the groom’s family to the bride’s, though in South Asia it is typically the other way round (known as dowry).

The sums involved are often large. In Tororo district in Uganda, a groom is expected to pay his bride’s family five cows, five goats and a bit of cash, which are shared out among her male relatives. As a consequence, “some men will say: ‘you are my property, so I have the right to beat you,’” says Mary Asili, who runs a local branch of Mifumi, a women’s group.

Bride price encourages early marriage for girls, and later marriage for men. If a man’s daughters marry at 15 and his sons at 25, he has on average ten years to milk and breed the cows he receives for his daughters before he must pay up for his sons’ nuptials. In Uganda, 34% of women are married before the age of 18 and 7% before the age of 15. Early marriage means girls are more likely to drop out of school, and less able to stand up to an abusive husband.

A story from Tororo is typical. Nyadoi (not her real name) waited 32 years to leave her husband, though he once threatened to cut off her head with a hoe. He was “the kind of man who marries today, tomorrow and everyday.” She was the first wife. When he added a third, her husband sold the iron sheets that Nyadoi had bought to make a new roof. Perhaps he needed the cash for his new wife.

Bride price can make marriage unaffordable for men. Mr Manshad in Iraq complains: “Many young men can’t get married. It can cost $10,000.” Asked if his tribe’s recent lethal disputes over sand and vehicles might have been motivated by the desire to raise such a sum, he shrugs: “It is a basic necessity in life to get married.”

Insurgent groups exploit male frustration to recruit. Islamic State gave its fighters sex slaves. Boko Haram offers its troops the chance to kidnap girls. Some Taliban are reportedly knocking on doors and demanding that families surrender single women to “wed” them.

You don’t own me

Patrilineality is sustained by property rules that favour men. To keep assets within the patriline, many societies make it hard for women to own or inherit property. Written laws are often fairer, but custom may trump them. In India, only 13% of land is held by women. Several studies have shown that women who own land have more bargaining power at home and are less likely to suffer domestic violence.

Nyadoi tried to build a small house on the land of her deceased parents, but her cousins told her she could not, because she was a woman. Only when staff from Mifumi interceded at a clan meeting and laid out her rights under Ugandan law did her relatives let her have a small patch of land. She now lives there, away from her husband. She sobs as she recalls “all the suffering for so many years…fighting, beatings, cuttings, being chased away.”

Home matters. If boys see their fathers bully their mothers, they learn to bully their future wives. They may also internalise the idea that might makes right, and apply it in the public sphere. Ms Hudson argues that if women are subject to autocracy and terror in their homes, society is also more vulnerable to these ills.

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Ready to take on the world

Yet there are reasons for optimism. Globally, patrilineal culture is in retreat. The selective abortion of girls is declining. The male-to-female ratio at birth peaked in China and India and has fallen since. In South Korea, Georgia and Tunisia, which used to have highly skewed sex ratios, it has fallen back to roughly the natural rate.

Child marriage is falling, too. Since 2000 more than 50 countries have raised the legal minimum age of marriage to 18. Globally, 19% of women aged 20-24 were married by 18 and 5% by 15, according to Unicef, the UN’s children’s fund, but that is down from 31% and more than 10% in 2000. Polygyny is less common than it was, and often unpopular even where it is widespread, because of the harm it does to women and non-elite men. Women’s groups have pushed for bans in countries such as India, Uganda, Egypt and Nigeria.

Even in rural Iraq, some sexist traditions are in retreat. Mr Manshad says it is no longer acceptable for men to pay blood debts by handing over a daughter. “It is haram [sinful],” he says, though local feminists say it still goes on.

Other trends that help include urbanisation and pensions. When women move to cities, they earn higher wages and increase their clout at home. Their clan ties tend to loosen, too, since they live surrounded by non-members.

When the state provides pensions, old people no longer depend so completely on their children to support them. This weakens the logic of patrilineality. If parents do not need a son to take care of them, they may not desire one so fervently, or insist so forcefully that he and his wife live with them. They may even feel sanguine about having a daughter.

That is what happened in South Korea, the country that in modern times has most rapidly dismantled a patrilineal system. In 1991 it equalised male and female inheritance rights, and ended a husband’s automatic right to custody of the children after divorce. In 2005 the legal notion of a single (usually male) “head of household” was abolished. In 2009 a court found marital rape unconstitutional. Meanwhile, increased state pensions sharply reduced the share of old Koreans who lived with, and depended on, their sons. And among parents, one of the world’s strongest preferences for male babies switched within a generation to a slight preference for girls.

The change was so fast that it prompted a backlash among bewildered men. By comparison, it took ages for patrilineal culture to wither in the West, though it started much earlier, when the Catholic church forbade polygamy, forced and cousin marriage and the disinheritance of widows in the seventh century.

Individual attitudes can evolve. In Uganda, which has seen five violent changes of government since independence and invaded most of its neighbours, 49% of women and 41% of men tell pollsters that it is sometimes acceptable for a man to beat his wife. But this rate is in decline.

In the northern district of Lira, which is still recovering from a long war against rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army, domestic violence is rampant, says Molly Alwedo, a social worker. But it is falling. She credits the REAL Fathers Initiative, a project designed by Save the Children, a charity, and the Institute for Reproductive Health at Georgetown University. It offers older male mentors to young fathers to improve their parenting and relationship skills.

Gary Barker of Promundo, an NGO that promotes such mentoring globally, says: “There’s always a cohort of men who say, wait a minute, I don’t believe in these [sexist] norms. [They see the] consequences for their mums and their sisters.” It is local dissidents, rather than parachuting Westerners, who make the best messengers. Mentors do not tell young men their attitudes are toxic. They get them to talk; about what happens in their homes and whether it is fair. Peers swap tips on how to control their anger.

It doesn’t work everywhere. But a randomised controlled trial with 1,200 Ugandan fathers found that such efforts resulted in a drop in domestic violence. Emmanuel Ekom, a REAL Fathers graduate, used to come home drunk and quarrel until morning, says his wife, Brenda Akong. Now he does jobs he once scorned as women’s work, such as collecting firewood and water. One day she came home and discovered him cooking dinner.

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “The cost of oppressing women”

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As a rich-world covid-vaccine glut looms, poor countries miss out

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FOR MUCH of this year, the global distribution of covid vaccines has been enormously inequitable. The rollout has been a two-speed affair, with richer countries in the fast lane. Today, in low-income countries, less than 2% of adults are fully vaccinated, compared with 50% in high-income ones. A new analysis from Airfinity, a life-sciences data firm, spells out the startling implications: if rich countries do not redistribute surplus vaccine this year, between 1m and 2.8m lives could be lost as a result.

The data show that G7 countries could redistribute 500m doses today, and up to 1.2bn doses by the end of the year. Moreover, Bruce Aylward, a senior adviser at the World Health Organisation, says this surplus is actually an underestimate because it takes into account only supplies to the G7, and not the whole world.

The analysis was done by looking at the output of vaccine factories on a daily and weekly basis and the number of doses procured by G7 countries. The supply is vastly larger than countries will be able to use. The analysis generously assumes that children over the age of 12 will mostly be vaccinated, and everyone is offered a booster shot after six months. Rasmus Bech Hansen, the boss of Airfinity, says that even with these unlikely assumptions the number of surplus doses is “extraordinary”.

He says that countries have been stockpiling because of past uncertainties over supply. As vaccine production ramped up at the start of the year, supplies were small and unreliable. All that has changed. Today more than 1bn doses a month are reliably produced, and this will continue to increase every month this year. In November 2021, the world will make 1.5bn doses of covid vaccine. This is more than all the vaccines made in the first four months of this year.

If this rate of production continues there will be a glut of vaccines by the middle of next year. This year the world will make about 12bn doses, and it has the capacity to make the same amount again by June 2022. To fully vaccinate 80% of the population above the age of 12, only 11.3bn doses are needed.

With output now reliable, Mr Bech Hansen thinks the world has reached a “tipping point” in production, and that high-income countries can be confident about supply. Dr Aylward says the goal is to achieve 10% coverage in all countries by the end of September, and at least 40% by the end of 2021. Vaccinating 10% will cover health-care workers and the elderly; vaccinating 40% will cover most at-risk groups, including people with comorbidities, and reduce death rates enormously. Reaching this target will require only between 2bn and 2.5bn doses this year.

Yet Covax, the biggest buyer of vaccines and supplier of them to poorer countries, has struggled to get hold of doses it has bought and has shipped only 230m this year. It faces a variety of difficulties. A critical one has been that its most important suppliers, in India, have been prevented from exporting by their government. Seth Berkley, head of the vaccine-finance group Gavi says Covax invested more than $1bn in Indian vaccine production, and helped with the technology transfer. But, he says, “there is no answer out of India on what they are going to do.”

Although India has now vaccinated 47% of its population aged 12 and over with a first dose, it has so far failed to say when exports will resume. This lack of clarity now means that Covax is currently struggling to project precisely how much it can distribute this year.

Donations, to the tune of 100m doses, have acted as a stopgap while Covax waits for the arrival of the doses it has contracted to buy. Discussions are under way about a summit that the Biden administration intends to convene to discuss global vaccine distribution. One source says it will take place on September 20th. This is expected to tackle the immediate vaccine-supply gap in poorer countries.

Yet, although vaccine donations are urgently needed, Dr Aylward argues that Covax ought to be getting its orders directly from the firms themselves, rather than as donations from third parties. He urges a more rational approach: that countries swap early-delivery contracts with Covax. Australia has been doing exactly this with Britain, Poland, and Singapore. Australia needs vaccines now but is not yet scheduled to receive deliveries. It has, therefore, swapped its contracts with countries that can get delivery more immediately but do not need vaccines now. Other countries urgently need to make similar arrangements.

In the months to come, it seems likely that America will want to try to play a leading role in sorting out the global vaccine supply. The country’s early vaccine nationalism allowed China to project itself as a benevolent global leader by sending an abundance of vaccines overseas. A geopolitical win for America would be especially useful after the debacle in Afghanistan.

On September 2nd America said it would invest $3bn in the vaccine supply chain to position itself as a leading global supplier of vaccines. The money will be spent on American suppliers that make the ingredients for vaccine production, as well as on sites that fill and finish vaccines. This is probably as much for economic as political reasons. As the start of next year approaches, the supply of vaccines will grow so large that, if they are plentiful enough, more popular vaccines will have the opportunity to push the less popular ones out of the market.

It is fairly clear that the mRNA vaccines are widely seen as the most effective and desirable around the world, whereas Chinese vaccines are seen as an inferior product that works less well. By supporting American mRNA manufacturing, the government can also help these vaccines win in the competitive market to come.

Yet vaccine geopolitics aside, the moral case for vaccines to flow quickly to lower-income countries could not be clearer or more urgent. The two-speed world means that as cases of Delta surge everywhere, the burden of death is falling heavily on the poorest.

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From Congo to the Capitol, conspiracy theories are surging

IN LATE JULY, less than a week after the British government lifted most of its remaining covid-19 restrictions, several thousand people nonetheless gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square to protest against “lockdowns”. Among the speakers were Piers Corbyn (brother of a former Labour Party leader), a climate-change denier who thinks that covid-19 is a “hoax”; David Icke, an author who believes that the world’s most powerful people are secretly lizards; and Gillian McKeith, an advocate of colonic irrigation who argues that a good diet is enough to stop the virus. A former nurse (struck off for spreading misinformation) compared medical staff who have been distributing vaccines to Nazis, and suggested they be hanged.

Such demonstrations have become common not just in Britain, but all over the world. The pandemic has produced a tsunami of misinformation. In France a documentary alleging that covid-19 was invented by political elites as part of a conspiracy to bring about a “new world order” was watched 2.5m times in three days. In America the notion that covid is a hoax has spread alongside a collection of feverish theories known as “QAnon”, which hold that the government is run by a secret cabal of paedophiles and that Donald Trump is a saviour destined to defeat them.

This is, in short, a golden age of conspiracy theories. The internet makes it easier than ever to spread them. They are at least as common in poor countries as in rich ones. In Nigeria many people believe that Muhammadu Buhari, the president since 2015, actually died in a hospital in London in 2017, and has ever since been impersonated by a Sudanese body double called “Jibril”. In India Narendra Modi’s government has alleged that Greta Thunberg, a teenage Swedish climate activist, is part of a global plot to defame his country’s tea. The idea is widely held across the Middle East that the attacks of September 11th 2001 were “false-flag” operations plotted by Israel (or just some Jews).

Of course, many people hold beliefs that are ludicrous yet harmless, such as the idea that Elvis Presley is alive and living in Kalamazoo, Michigan. A conspiracy theory, however, is something more specific: a belief in a secret plan by a small number of powerful people to harm a larger group of ordinary folk. Such theories are, according to Quassim Cassam of Warwick University in Britain, “first and foremost forms of political propaganda”. Their power lies in giving people an explanation of the world that blames their misfortunes on their enemies. But they are usually nonsense, and they tend to make rational politics impossible. Their ability to motivate people is what makes them dangerous.

Conspiracy theories have existed throughout history. Tinfoil-hatted Romans concocted the myth that emperor Nero had started the great fire of 64AD. After the printing press was invented in the 15th century, one of the first bestsellers was a guide to the evil plots of witches. For centuries Jews have been accused of scheming to murder Christian children; the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, published in the 1900s by tsarist propagandists, broadened the charge to world domination. Freemasons, communists, the CIA and the European Union have all played starring roles in conspiracy theories.

To get a sense of how they infect politics today, a good place to start is the Democratic Republic of Congo. In few countries is creating and spreading conspiracy theories so deeply ingrained. Almost all politicians, including the president, have espoused them at one time or another. They “contribute to a narrative to mobilise people”, says Kris Berwouts, a Belgian academic. By using a conspiracy theory to whip up a mob in the streets (or, in the countryside, to attack a neighbouring tribe), a politician generates pressure he can use in negotiations with other leaders.

At his home in Kinshasa, the capital, Valentin Mubake, an ageing politician, lays out the country’s most common conspiracy theory. In his telling, Congo’s current problems began in the mid-1990s when Paul Kagame, now president of neighbouring Rwanda, organised a fake genocide of his own people, the Rwandan Tutsis. That gave him the political cover to take over Rwanda and then to invade Congo at its weakest moment. “A mafia was created for the balkanisation of Congo,” he says. “Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, they worked with Kagame. The West prepared their war…and Kagame did the job.” Everything, he says, was “organised by the United States”. The UN, he alleges, commits massacres and spreads diseases such as Ebola to keep the plot going.

Mr Mubake’s alternative history of Congo is widely believed. At a meeting of young middle-class poets in Goma, a big city in the east, your correspondent asked how many knew people who believed the theory. Everyone in the room raised a hand. Such ideas do tremendous damage. Hatred of Rwanda fuels ethnic violence, particularly against Congolese Tutsis. The belief that Ebola is a foreign plot has led militias to storm clinics and “liberate” patients, thus spreading the disease. People refuse to take covid-19 vaccines for fear they are part of the plan. Conspiracy theories “literally kill”, says Rodriguez Katsuva, a Congolese journalist who co-founded Congo Check, a fact-checking website.

Why do people believe them? One reason is that some conspiracies turn out to be real. In Congo Patrice Lumumba, the country’s first prime minister after independence from Belgium in 1960, was murdered by separatists with the support of the CIA and Belgium. Mr Kagame obviously did not fake the Rwandan genocide, but he did invade Congo using a local rebel boss as a front man. Nazi Germany staged a false-flag attack before invading Poland in 1939; in the 1960s the American government planned one as an excuse to invade Cuba.

Other conspiracy theories, while false, feed on real-world anxieties. There is no paedophile deep state, as QAnon adherents believe. But Jeffrey Epstein and Jimmy Savile, two paedophiles in America and Britain respectively with ties to politicians, lived untroubled by the law for years.

Such fears are tapped into by clever salesmen. William Coleshill, a young political entrepreneur, travels around London with a camera live-streaming footage from (usually tiny) protests to a YouTube channel called “Resistance GB”. He argues that covid-19 is a plot to justify “communist” government. His channel has 48,000 subscribers and is growing fast. It gives him a modicum of fame and has a button for donations. Other political entrepreneurs sell crank goods. An online anti-vaccine network probed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a watchdog, directs users to websites selling “heavy metal detox” spray for $95 and “marine plasma drinkable sea water” for $49.95.

The appeal of conspiracy theories is partly rooted in human psychology. Studies show that people consistently overestimate their ability to understand complicated systems. They think that “they can explain the world they live in fairly well” when in fact their information is quite limited, found Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil, two psychologists, in a paper published in 2002. Conspiracy theories help people to find meaning in a disturbingly random world, reassuring them that bad things result from the machinations of bad people rather than just bad luck (or their own mistakes).

To the extent that liberal democracies avoid the conspiratorial discourse that dominates places like Congo, it is because of social norms and institutions. Ideally, those who spread conspiracy theories lose the support of the media, parties and ultimately voters. In France Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a hard-left candidate for president, has been denounced by almost every major political figure for his belief that a global oligarchy is conspiring to keep Emmanuel Macron in power. In America Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon supporter in Congress, was stripped of her committee appointments for claiming that several mass shootings were staged.

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But these mechanisms seem not to be working very well of late. Poland’s Law and Justice party won power in 2015 while propounding the baseless theory that Russia was behind a plane crash that killed the country’s president in 2010. Donald Trump won the American presidency after peddling the false accusation that Barack Obama’s birth certificate was fake. Long before Mr Trump claimed that the 2020 election had been rigged, he made the same claim about primary elections he lost in 2016, winning the loyalty of Republicans who felt ignored by party power-brokers.

Indeed, Republican institutional elites are conspicuously failing to enforce norms against nuttiness. In February Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, called conspiracy theories a “cancer” on his party. But he still voted to acquit Mr Trump of using them to incite the riot at the Capitol on January 6th. In 2016 Ted Cruz, a Republican senator, denounced Mr Trump for baselessly claiming that he was born abroad; in 2020 he backed Mr Trump’s false accusation that the presidential election was stolen. That is probably because so many rank-and-file Republicans believe Mr Trump’s version rather than reality. There are 45 believers in QAnon running for Congress in 2022.

You can’t mandate the truth

How can conspiracy theories be discouraged? Many look to technology firms. Starting in 2019 Facebook limited to five the number of people to whom a user may simultaneously forward a message on Whatsapp (which it owns). The aim was to slow the spread of conspiracy theories on the platform—a big problem in India. On Facebook itself, 15,000 moderators work to take down disinformation. In January Twitter suspended 70,000 accounts linked to QAnon. Both platforms attempt to suspend posters who repeatedly disseminate harmful falsehoods, or at least to prevent them from profiting. In 2019 YouTube blocked people spreading misinformation about vaccines from being paid for adverts.

Another method is to debunk the theories, the approach taken by Mr Katsuva at Congo Check. He founded the organisation in 2018 with two other local journalists, at a time when massacres were being committed in north-eastern Congo amid widespread misinformation about an Ebola outbreak. The number of such fact-checking websites worldwide grew from 145 in 2016 to 341 this year, according to Duke University’s Reporters’ Lab, a journalism centre. Yet fact-checking sites tend to win fewer readers than the conspiracy bugs.

Ultimately, conspiracy theories are believed when authorities are not trusted. To combat them, politicians have few options other than to govern transparently and well. Three centuries ago Jonathan Swift wrote that “falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it; so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale has had its effect.” Even the best of governments may not beat conspiracy theories. But they can give them a run for their money.

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “It’s all connected, man”

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Climate change will alter where many crops are grown

TOM EISENHAUER remembers driving through Manitoba, a province in central Canada, more than a decade ago. Surrounding his car were fields of cold-weather crops, such as wheat, peas and canola (rape). Dense staples such as maize (corn) and soya, which are more profitable, were few and far between. The view is very different now. More than 5,300 square kilometres have been sown with soya and around 1,500 with maize.

Mr Eisenhauer’s company, Bonnefield Financial, hopes to benefit from the ways that climate change is changing Canadian agriculture. The company buys fields and leases them to farmers, both in Manitoba and elsewhere in the country. It is betting that a warmer climate will steadily increase how much its assets are worth, by enabling farmers in the places where it is investing to grow more valuable crops than they have traditionally selected. It is far from the only business making such wagers. Climate change could make a cornucopia out of land that was once frigid and unproductive. It could also do great harm to regions that feed millions.

The amount of space used to produce food has been increasing for centuries. Since 1700 areas of cropland and pastureland have expanded fivefold. Most of that growth came before the middle of the 20th century. Starting in the 1960s, the widespread adoption of chemical fertilisers, the development of more productive varieties of grains and rice, along with improved access to irrigation, pesticides and machinery, enabled farmers to make much better use of the fields they already tilled. In recent decades, technologies such as genome editing and better data crunching have helped lift yields even higher.

The rise in global temperatures which began towards the end of the 20th century slowed increases in productivity, but it did not stop them. A recent study by researchers at Cornell University calculates that, since 1971, climate change resulting from human activity has slowed growth in agricultural productivity by about a fifth.

The “headwind” caused by climate change will only become stronger, says Ariel Ortiz-Bobea, one of the study’s authors. Their research found that the sensitivity of agricultural productivity increases as temperatures rise. In other words, each additional fraction of a degree is more detrimental to food production than the last. That is especially bad news for food producers in places, such as the tropics, that are already warm. Another study predicts that for every degree that global temperatures rise, mean maize yields will fall by 7.4%, wheat yields will fall by 6% and rice yields will fall by 3.2%. Those three crops supply around two-thirds of all the calories that humans consume.

In the coming decades there will be more mouths to feed. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an American research group, guesses that the global population will rise from around 7.8bn to 9.7bn by 2064 (after which it will fall). Growing middle classes in many developing countries are demanding a wider variety of food, and more of it.

Hence the importance of the changes global warming brings to farming areas. By expanding the tropics, it will change rainfall patterns in the subtropics. By warming the poles especially fast, it is opening up high-latitude land as quickly. The regions to the north of America and China are warming at at least double the global average rate. As Mr Eisenhauer’s experience in Manitoba can attest, crops are already moving polewards in response.

A study by researchers at Colorado State University, published in Nature in 2020, found notable changes in the distribution of several rain-fed crops in the 40 years between 1973 and 2012, as farmers began to make different decisions about which crops were worth planting where. Maize production, for example, spread from America’s south-east to its upper-Midwest. Wheat has moved so substantially to the north, with the help of new irrigation methods, that it has outstripped the warming trend: the warmest places where it is grown today are cooler than the warmest places it grew in 1975.

Soyabeans account for 65% of all the protein fed to farm animals. The cultivation of these wonder-beans has moved both north and south, as new breeds and other advances have allowed it to expand in tropical regions. The areas in which rice is harvested in China have expanded northward since 1949. Wine grapes and fruit crops have also migrated north.

Mr Eisenhauer says investors are increasingly stumping up for Canadian land as a hedge against climate risks they face elsewhere. Martin Davies of Westchester, a big agricultural investment firm, says he is seeing similar trends in many parts of the world.

A moveable feast?

The bravest investors spy opportunity in lands that currently support no farming at all. For the moment only about one-third of the world’s boreal regions—a biome characterised by coniferous forests that covers vast tracts of land south of the Arctic Circle—boast temperatures warm enough to grow the hardiest cereals, such as oats and barley. This could expand to three-quarters by 2099, according to a study published in 2018 in Scientific Reports, a journal (see map). The share of boreal land that can support farming could increase from 8% to 41% in Sweden. It could increase from 51% to 83% in Finland.

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Efforts to farm these areas will alarm people who value boreal forests for their own sake. And cutting down such forests and ploughing up the soils that lie beneath them will release carbon. But the climatic effects are not as simple as they might seem. Northern forests absorb more heat from the sun than open farmland does, because snow-covered farmland reflects light back into space (in forests the snow is underneath the trees and not so directly illuminated). The fact that felling boreal forests may not worsen climate change, though, says nothing about the degree to which it could affect biodiversity, ecosystem services or the lives of forest dwellers, particularly indigenous ones.

Some governments are already keen to capitalise on climate change. Russia’s has long talked of higher temperatures as a boon. President Vladimir Putin once boasted that they would enable Russians to spend less money on fur coats and grow more grain. In 2020 a “national action plan” on climate change outlined ways in which the country could “use the advantages” of it, including expanding farming. Since 2015 Russia has become the world’s largest producer of wheat, chiefly because of higher temperatures.

Russia’s government has started leasing thousands of square kilometres of land in the country’s far east to Chinese, South Korean and Japanese investors. Much of the land, which was once unproductive, is now used to grow soyabeans. Most are imported by China, helping the country reduce its reliance on imports from America. Sergey Levin, Russia’s deputy minister of agriculture, has predicted that soya exports from its far-eastern farmlands may reach $600m by 2024. That would be nearly five times what they were in 2017. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador, a province on the north-eastern tip of Canada, is also trying to promote the expansion of agriculture into lands covered by forests.

There is a way, in addition to higher temperatures, in which the changes humankind is making to the atmosphere could help such projects along. Carbon dioxide is not just a greenhouse gas; it is also the raw material for the photosynthesis through which plants grow and feed themselves. For most plants, other things being equal, more carbon dioxide means more growth. The build-up of carbon dioxide over the past century has led to a clearly measurable “global greening” as those plants which benefit most from higher carbon dioxide levels thrive. This effect can help boost crop yields. But it is not an unalloyed good. Bigger crops may not be more nutritious crops.

Moreover, climate change will alter patterns of rainfall. This will not necessarily benefit plans for more farming in northern climes. Many areas that are becoming mild enough to farm may end up lacking water, at least without intensive irrigation. Others may get too much. Crops are not the only organisms whose range expands as temperatures rise: pests and pathogens, which are often killed off by cold winters, spread too. Soil matters as well. The best quality stuff is most commonly found at lower latitudes, not far-northern ones.

Cold comfort

Some emerging farmland is near to established farming systems. But transforming remote regions of Siberia, to take one example—where much existing infrastructure is already sinking and breaking apart because of melting permafrost—will be slow and costly. Frontier farms will also have to attract and accommodate many more workers. They will have to rely increasingly on foreign migrants, an idea that voters in many rich countries do not much like.

All told, the northern expansion of farmland will only go some way towards mitigating the damage climate change may do to agriculture. The societies that will benefit from it are mostly already wealthy. Poor places, which rely much more heavily on income from exporting agricultural produce, will suffer.

A much wider range of adaptations will be needed if food is to remain as copious, varied and affordable as it is today. These will include efforts to help crops withstand warmer temperatures, for example through clever crop breeding, advances in irrigation and protection against severe weather. Rich and poor countries alike should also make it a priority to reduce the amount of food that is wasted (the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation guesses that more than one-third is squandered). The alternative will be a world that is hungrier and more unequal than it is at present—and than it might have been.

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This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Farming’s new frontiers”

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Why America keeps building corrupt client states

20210828 blp901 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

ONCE AMERICA announced that it would not save its client state, things unravelled quickly. As the enemy seized province after province, government soldiers shed their uniforms and ran. On paper the army had hundreds of thousands of well-equipped fighters. In reality its few loyal commanders had to buy ammunition from crooked supply officers and pay in cash for artillery support. The special forces fought well, but regular troops were often commanded by politicians’ incompetent relatives. Soldiers went unpaid as officials pilfered military budgets. Citizens stayed loyal to their families and clans, not to a corrupt government that was as likely to shake them down as to help them. The state was a Potemkin village constructed to please its American sponsors. When they left, it fell.

So it went in South Vietnam in 1975, and again last week in Afghanistan. The similarities between the two collapses are striking. They go beyond intelligence failures, mendacious speeches and abandoned allies. Ultimately, both states fell because they had been hollowed out by corruption, an ancient disease of governance to which America’s nation-building projects are prone. (Think also of Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia and Haiti.) Political scholars once considered corruption a minor issue, but many now see it as crucial to understanding not just why America’s proxies fail, but how states work in general.

Corruption is usually defined as the abuse of public office for private gain. Its simplest form is bribery, which is ubiquitous in Afghanistan. “From your birth certificate to your death certificate and whatever comes in between, somehow you have to bribe,” says Ahmad Shah Katawazai, a former Afghan diplomat. (He was pushed out of the service after writing an opinion piece denouncing government corruption.) Customs officials, police and clerks routinely demand baksheesh (a “tip”). As the Taliban advanced in recent weeks, the pay-off needed to get a passport rose to thousands of dollars.

But petty bribery is the least threatening type of corruption. More troublingly, getting government approval for big investments requires giving ministers or warlords a piece of the action. Worse yet, a government job with access to bribes is itself a valuable commodity. As Sarah Chayes, an expert on corruption, discovered while running an NGO in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2009, local officials often buy their posts. They must then extort kickbacks to pay off their investment, while sending their superiors some of the take. Mr Katawazai says it can cost $100,000 to become a district police chief.

Such corruption creates patronage networks that threaten the state’s integrity. Officials’ main goal is not carrying out their agency’s mission, but extorting revenue to distribute to their families and cronies. Even before America invaded, Afghanistan was partly run by patronage networks headed by regional warlords.

Yet instead of dismantling these networks, America strengthened them by paying warlords to keep the peace, according to reports by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), an American oversight authority. Afghans soon grew furious at government corruption and more welcoming towards the Taliban. A study in 2015 by Transparency International cited one policymaker’s epiphany: “The guys at the bottom are sending money to the top of the system and the guys at the top are sending protection downwards, which is how a mafia runs.”


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It was not until 2009 that America paid corruption serious attention. Ms Chayes became an adviser to Stanley McChrystal, a reformist general who then headed ISAF, the coalition of NATO-led forces in the country. An ISAF investigation unit known as Shafafiyat (“transparency” in Pashto) was set up under H.R. McMaster, who later served as America’s national security adviser. It made progress in stopping procurement fraud. (The Afghan government’s own anti-corruption authorities mainly prosecuted political enemies.)

But under subsequent commanders the Shafafiyat was cut back. By the time of the Taliban’s final offensive the state had grown so corrupt that most of its governors cut deals with the jihadists to switch sides. The Afghan army was in poor shape to fight: its numbers were inflated by “ghost soldiers”—absentees listed on the payroll so that commanders could steal their salaries.

Americans of a certain age may remember the term “ghost soldiers” from Vietnam, where corrupt commanders used exactly the same system. Perhaps a quarter of the names on South Vietnamese army (ARVN) rosters in the Mekong Delta in 1975 were fictitious. Some ARVN officers were brilliant businessmen: one South Vietnamese colonel used to order aimless artillery barrages in order to hawk the spent shell casings as scrap metal. As in Afghanistan, police and military forces also profited from the heroin trade.

Indeed, the conclusions of a report in 1978 on the fall of South Vietnam by RAND, a security think-tank, foreshadow those in the last SIGAR report on Afghanistan, released on July 31st. South Vietnamese believed corruption was “a fundamental ill that was largely responsible for the ultimate collapse”, the RAND report found. The problem had already been diagnosed in Vietnam by forward-thinking officers in the early 1960s. So why did America refuse to treat it as a grave issue when it invaded Afghanistan decades later?

One answer is that this would require a shift in perspective. Over the past two decades many scholars have come to see corruption as a form of governance in itself. It resembles the pre-modern states that Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist, calls “personalistic” governments, where power is based on ties of family or friendship rather than impersonal institutions. Such states are mainly concerned with placating armed commanders by giving them a share of the economic spoils.

That description applies just as well to mafias, feudal systems such as those of medieval Europe, and the warlord regimes in South Vietnam and Afghanistan. States like these can be reasonably stable. But they lack the loyalty and cohesion needed to beat a disciplined ideological insurgency such as the Vietnamese communists or the Taliban.

Another problem is that American interventions were led by the armed forces, which are biased towards optimistic reporting and short-term thinking. Military officers “are hugely focused on actively doing things within the duration of their nine-month rotation, which is not well suited to solving corruption”, says Mark Pyman of CurbingCorruption, a watchdog. Mr Pyman, who led the Transparency International study, says officers early in the occupation boasted of having pacified their districts by paying off warlords. Aid agencies, meanwhile, have a dubious habit of judging success based on how much money they raise and whether they have spent it all.

This leads to a related problem: spending too much money in poor countries causes corruption. In both South Vietnam and Afghanistan, a vast influx of American dollars caused a surge in inflation, wiping out public-sector salaries. (Afghanistan, with a GDP of about $20bn in 2020, received $145bn in American aid between 2001 and 2021. Inflation averaged 17.5% in 2003-08.) Neither government had the capacity to collect enough taxes for the wages of soldiers and civil servants to keep pace. Even otherwise honest public servants were forced to demand kickbacks to support themselves.

Hence one recommendation of anti-corruption experts is that in countries like Afghanistan aid should be frugal and focus on achievements rather than grant sizes. That is easier said than done. America is simultaneously among the world’s richest and most idealistic nations, and at some point it will probably decide to save another suffering country. If it does not learn that dollars cannot build a real government, it may end up creating yet another fake one.

Read our special series on America’s changing geopolitical standing here

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The world needs a proper investigation into how covid-19 started

“THE VIRUS MYSTERY”, broadcast on August 12th, drew uncommonly wide attention for a Danish television documentary. That was because it featured Peter Ben Embarek, an expert on food security and zoonotic diseases, casting doubt on the conclusions of a “joint study” on the origins of the covid-19 pandemic carried out earlier this year under the auspices of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Dr Ben Embarek was the senior WHO figure who went to China as part of that study.

In March the joint study reported that it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus had been released in a laboratory accident. Dr Ben Embarek revealed that this conclusion did not come from a balanced assessment of all the relevant evidence but from a steadfast refusal by the Chinese members of the joint study to support anything stronger. Indeed they only allowed even that minimal assessment on the condition that the report did not call for further investigation into the question. He also pointed out that the idea that the point of spillover was someone collecting bat samples for research purposes belongs in the “likely” basket, along with other human interactions with wild bats.

Problems in the joint study had long been clear. Within the WHO one source describes it as “riddled with compromises and sloppiness”. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, was uneasy about the way it was carried out. He pushed back at the marginalisation of the lab-leak hypothesis, particularly when the final report was released in March. He has since called for further investigations into it, as well as into other possibilities.

The further unravelling of the joint study matters because, more than a year and a half after the covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, a city in Hubei, was first recognised as the work of a new pathogen, there has been nothing like a thorough international investigation of how that pathogen, SARSCoV-2, got into humans and spread round the world. The pandemic’s death toll stands at 9m-18m, according to a model which The Economist has built on the basis of excess-mortality reports and other indicators. The question of how it started matters both for the relatives of the dead and for those who wish to prevent such an outbreak happening again. China’s efforts to stop the world from answering it are both shabby and, to an extent, self-defeating. The more the truth seems hidden, the more it seems suspicious.

Earnest calls for an international investigation into the origins of covid-19 began in April 2020, voiced most clearly by Scott Morrison, the prime minister of Australia. The next month the World Health Assembly, the gathering of government representatives which serves as the WHO’s decision-making body, passed a motion calling for a study into the origins of the pandemic. But in order to be acceptable to China—which had reacted furiously to Mr Morrison’s original suggestion—the work was set up as a joint research project between two teams of scientists, one Chinese, one international. And it was to be based on “scientific and collaborative field missions”, rather than a targeted and forensic inquiry into all the relevant circumstances.

The terms of reference, which were subsequently negotiated behind closed doors, allowed the Chinese hosts to frame the joint study’s work in the way which best suited them. The study was set up to build on pre-existing Chinese research, not to delve into unvetted data. Investigating the laboratories that had been working with coronaviruses like SARSCoV-2 in Wuhan was not part of its terms of reference.

After a lot of wrangling, the international team got to China in January this year. Data about the first reported covid-19 cases, those from December 2019, were one subject of friction with their hosts. The Chinese had reported 174 such cases, but would not share the underlying data on which those reports were based. Hearing that these vital data were not being made available worried Dr Tedros enough that he lobbied the Chinese government for access. The authorities declined, citing concerns over citizens’ privacy. It could have been anonymised.

Elsewhere the team appears to have been knowingly misled. Take, for example, the live-animal trade at the Huanan seafood and wildlife market, a site associated with a number of Wuhan’s earliest recorded cases of covid-19. In its final report, the study group took at face value claims there was no credible evidence that live mammals were sold there in 2019. A lot of eyewitness accounts gainsay that; so does a study published in Scientific Reports, a journal, this summer.

One report and no more

The Scientific Reports paper found that 18 species of mammal had been for sale in Wuhan between May 2017 and November 2019; gunshot wounds and trapping injuries suggested that almost a third of them were taken from the wild. Although the paper was published only recently, it was submitted to the journal in October 2020. Chinese law requires that all covid-19 research be reviewed by the government before it is sent to a journal. Some Chinese authorities would have known of its contents before the team arrived.

The market is not the only way for animals and the pathogens they carry to get into Wuhan. The horseshoe bats in which the closest wild relatives to SARSCoV-2 have been found do not live anywhere near the city, but the two laboratories there that were known to have engaged in coronavirus research received samples from bat caves around the country. The joint-study team was not allowed to investigate the procedures around, or documentation of, this research; when it visited the laboratories the team was shown presentations on safety procedures but no more.

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When the researchers left Wuhan the WHO’s Geneva headquarters told them that their report needed to be laid out scientifically and could express dissenting opinions; the international members and the Chinese members did not have to reach a consensus. However, according to sources within the WHO, the team felt committed to producing a joint report with their Chinese counterparts. Dr Tedros was so unhappy with what finally emerged from the processes that he nobbled the report as it left the starting blocks, rejecting its contention that the possibility of a lab leak needed no further investigation.

On May 26th President Joe Biden ordered America’s intelligence services to report on the pandemic’s origins in 90 days (time will be up on August 24th). When he and his fellow G7 leaders met in June they joined in calling for a timely, transparent and science-based follow-up study. On July 16th Dr Tedros laid out the next steps which the WHO wants to see taken. They include further work on the Wuhan animal markets, studies of early cases and audits of local laboratories.

The Chinese government has reacted angrily to the idea of further studies on its territory. Zeng Yixin, the vice-minister of China’s National Health Commission, said he was “shocked” by the plan to investigate a lab leak, saying it was “impossible” to accept. According to the Global Times, a tub-thumping tabloid run by the Communist Party, 55 countries have sent written complaints about the proposal for further investigations to the WHO. Dr Tedros, elected director-general with China’s support in 2017 and derided by President Donald Trump as China’s puppet, may now face a Chinese-backed candidate when he looks for reappointment later this year.

In the absence of any hope that China will co-operate, sources of data beyond its control have become increasingly important. One area of interest is genetic sequence data. Another is early cases exported from China.

See what you did there

An online open-source-intelligence group which calls itself DRASTIC has been scouring sequencing data to get insight into activities at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). When researchers publish sequences they typically post the raw data from which those sequences are assembled to public databases such as the sequence-read archive at America’s National Centre for Biotechnology Information. Contamination events in the laboratory, or within sequencing machines themselves, mean these data sometimes contain sequences not meant to be there. In theory such evidence could reveal nefarious goings-on.

Such work, while promising, takes a lot of resources. If you have the sort of supercomputers available to America’s national labs it gets easier. Gilles Demaneuf, a data scientist who works with DRASTIC, says he has a hunch the American intelligence community’s 90-day study is working the same angle. It is conceivable that the intelligence services might have been able to filch raw sequence reads directly from Chinese sequencing machines, thus picking up even more data.

Sequencing data only offers a way forward if the virus did indeed leak out of a lab, something which remains a possibility but which is far from proven. The study of early cases should be useful whatever route it took; the closer you get to understanding the when and where of the crossing-over from animal to human, the easier it should be to learn something of the how.

On the basis of information provided by China the joint study concluded it was unlikely for there to have been any substantial transmission in Wuhan before December 2019. That is unlikely to be true. For one thing the South China Morning Post, a newspaper based in Hong Kong, obtained government documents in 2020 which showed one to five new cases a day in Wuhan from November 17th 2019 onwards. Further evidence has strengthened the possibility that the virus could have been in circulation much earlier than the official story allows.

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That circulation need not have been limited to China. There is increasing evidence suggesting early infections elsewhere. These cases would have been exported from China; no virologists doubt that Hubei was where the virus got going within humans. But if circulation in Hubei goes back further than thought and cannot be directly assessed through studies there, the presence of cases elsewhere offers an alternative way to get an idea of the timing. If a specific travel link were identified, that might help identify a group in Hubei which was infected early on.

A recent study of blood samples from 9,144 adults in 12 different regions of France found seven which contained antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, all of them taken in November 2019. An Italian lung-cancer screening trial has found samples taken in September 2019 which seem to contain anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. Another antibody study suggests the virus was circulating at a low level in northern Italy at the same time, notably in Lombardy, a region which has close connections to Wuhan through the garment trade, and saw Europe’s first major outbreak of covid-19 in March 2020.

Antibody tests can give false positives. In a preprint published on August 6th by the Lancet, researchers in Lombardy reported on looking instead for SARSCoV-2 gene sequences. Examining 289 swabs and urine tests taken from people who had presented with a rash as far back as the second half of 2019, they found SARSCoV-2 sequences in 13, the earliest of which was taken on September 12th.

Sudhir Kumar of Temple University in Philadelphia says the Lancet preprint is likely to inspire other investigators to go back and look at retrospective hospital samples. That should help his own research into the origins of the virus. A family tree Dr Kumar and his colleagues have built from vast numbers of published SARSCoV-2 genomes allows them to predict the sequence of the progenitor virus from which they are all descended. This sequence differs in three places from that found in the earliest samples taken from patients in Wuhan, meaning there had been enough spread for a certain amount of viral mutation to take place before December. Dr Kumar says that an analysis of the Lombardy sequences suggests that the timeline for the origin of the virus in China might now extend back to the late summer.

More systematic international research into these early infections and their circumstances is needed. Maria Van Kerkhove, head of emerging diseases and zoonoses at the WHO, suggests it may be possible to prioritise work in areas which saw the earliest outbreaks in America, France, Italy and Spain. “I think the floodgates will open one day,” says Dr Kumar.

A last line of light

An early origin would fit with the timeline that lab-leak proponents tend to favour. Early this August, the minority Republican staff on the House foreign-affairs committee released an 84-page report arguing this case. It makes much of a small but deadly disease outbreak which took place at an abandoned copper mine in Yunnan in 2012. As DRASTIC showed last year, a virus studied at WIV which had been taken from that mine is the closest known relative to SARSCoV-2.

The report sees importance in the removal, on September 12th 2019, of a database containing details of sequences and samples from the WIV. This is read as the beginning of a cover-up, and thus as the point when the authorities first knew something had gone amiss, arguing for a leak in late August or early September. The WIV says it was a response to cyber-attacks.

A leak is not the only research-related possibility. The first person infected could have been someone employed by the WIV or another lab to collect bats and samples—the prospect to which Dr Ben Embarek pointed in his television interview. And it is important to remember that some other form of spillover outside the lab, either directly from a bat or by way of some other species, may well be to blame.

China clearly does not want lab-leaks investigated; but that does not mean it knows one happened. It is also being misleading about Huanan market, denying access to early-case data and obfuscating in various other non-lab-leak-specific ways. The most obvious explanation is that it does not really want any definitive answer to the question. An unsanitary market, a reckless bat-catcher or a hapless spelunker would not be as bad in terms of blame as a source in a government laboratory. But any definite answer to the origin question probably leaves China looking bad, unless it can find a way to blame someone else. To that end China has called for an investigation of Fort Detrick in Maryland, historically the home of American bioweapons research; state media regularly publish speculations about its involvement.

The possibility of spillover from wild bats does not have to be studied in China. Yunnan abuts onto Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, and bats are not sticklers in matters of territory. Samples taken outside China could provide a good idea of viral diversity the other side of the border. A thorough evaluation of the existing farm-animal and wildlife trade in the region would also be useful.

Yet there is an inherent risk in such work that needs to be considered. Efforts to uncover the roots of covid-19 by seeking out a natural reservoir of something very like SARSCoV-2 would, by definition, expose people to the sort of risks that can seed pandemics. Ironically, the very possibility of a lab leak raises questions about how most safely to pursue investigations into other possibilities.

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When he called for further inquiries in July, Dr Tedros also announced the formation of a new permanent group of pathogen hunters, the International Scientific Advisory Group for Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO). He wants it to organise further studies of SARSCoV-2. But it will also need to look at more general questions for the future—such as how to be sure that, come what may, studies of pathogens involved in past disease outbreaks never create further outbreaks of their own.

Dig deeper

All our stories relating to the pandemic and the vaccines can be found on our coronavirus hub. You can also find trackers showing the global roll-out of vaccines, excess deaths by country and the virus’s spread across Europe and America.

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Putting it all together”