2020
May
28
Thursday

Monitor Daily Podcast

May 28, 2020
Loading the player...

TODAY’S INTRO

Help for schools? Ask young Americans.

Kim Campbell
Culture & Education Editor

Motivated college students and teens are using the summer months to work on masks that measure vital signs and volunteer at food banks. But what if some of that innovation and helpfulness could also be aimed at schools?

Besides the logistics of social distancing, districts are facing financial shortfalls due to dwindling state coffers. (Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is also pressing states to share education funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act with private schools.) A recent USA Today/Ipsos poll suggests nearly 1 in 5 K-12 teachers are unlikely to return if schools reopen.

The U.S. education system could use the problem-solving skills of the country’s young people about now. What will groups like AmeriCorps (which I participated in), the government-sponsored public service organization that has historically helped in schools and communities, come up with? Efforts are already underway to expand national service programs, which could employ recent college graduates to assist with tutoring and other needs. Elsewhere, educators are already enlisting the support of students themselves. A middle school in Florida utilized a tech team during the lockdowns, with trained eighth graders helping peers and teachers navigate devices and apps. It has been satisfying work, the middle schoolers say. And it suggests possibilities for collaboration in the fall.

“[T]he students became the teachers,” Lois Seaman, a teacher at Hammocks Middle School in Miami, told The 74. “There was a real trust here. We have a lot of tools in our toolbox.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Trump, Flynn, and flipping the script on Russia

Controlling the narrative has been a hallmark of President Trump. His handling of the Michael Flynn saga fits that mold as part of a broader attempt to paint the Mueller investigation as a personal attack.

Kim

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

With the Mueller report over a year old and the 2020 presidential election looming, President Donald Trump appears to have launched a concerted attempt to undermine the foundation of the Russia probe and cement in history an alternative vision of the investigation as a long, underhanded strike against his presidency.

President Trump’s repeated tweets about “Obamagate” – a vague, unfounded charge that his predecessor orchestrated a spying conspiracy – are part of this effort. Central to its narrative is the saga of Michael Flynn, the Trump national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during the Mueller investigation.

Under Attorney General Bill Barr, the Department of Justice recently announced it wants to drop its case against Mr. Flynn, an extraordinary move considering that his prosecution is essentially over. 

To his supporters, Mr. Flynn is a good American who was treated badly by powerful, overzealous federal prosecutors. To critics, his actions raised obvious national security concerns, and the lies he told about them had serious consequences.

“[Mr. Trump] wants to turn the scandal against the accusers. ... Translate this into his being the victim, not the villain,” says Princeton University professor of political history Julian Zelizer in an email.

Trump, Flynn, and flipping the script on Russia

Collapse
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/File
President Donald Trump (from left), joined by Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, national security adviser Michael Flynn, communications director Sean Spicer, and senior adviser Steve Bannon, speaks by phone with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Jan. 28, 2017.

From the outset, Donald Trump viewed the Russia affair as an attack aimed at him.

In December 2016, when then-President Barack Obama expelled Russian diplomats in response to Moscow’s meddling in the United States election, President-elect Trump felt personally slighted, according to his first chief of staff, Reince Priebus.

“The President-elect viewed the sanctions as an attempt by the Obama Administration to embarrass him by delegitimizing his election,” Mr. Priebus told investigators for special counsel Robert Mueller, according to Mr. Mueller’s final report.

Now, with the Mueller report over a year old and another election looming, President Trump appears to have launched a concerted attempt to undermine the foundation of the Russia probe and cement in history his vision of the investigation as a long, underhanded strike against his presidency.

President Trump’s repeated tweets about “Obamagate” – a vague, unfounded charge that his predecessor orchestrated a spying conspiracy – are part of this effort. Central to its narrative is the saga of Michael Flynn, the Trump national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during the Mueller investigation.

Under Attorney General Bill Barr, the Department of Justice recently announced it wants to drop its case against Mr. Flynn, an extraordinary move considering that his prosecution is essentially over. The president has hailed the decision as “justice” and proof that the entire Russia investigation was thin as tissue, nothing but a scheme of the “deep state.”

“He wants to turn the scandal against the accusers. ... Translate this into his being the victim, not the villain,” says Princeton University professor of political history Julian Zelizer in an email.

The Muller report, a year later

In recent months, President Trump seems to have turned up the volume on the subject of Russia. Critics say it is an effort to distract attention from his administration’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic. Before 8:45 a.m. on Wednesday, for instance, the president tweeted eight times about “Obamagate-” and five times about Michael Flynn. He tweeted only once about a COVID-19 related subject.

Mr. Mueller’s final report, issued in March 2019, concluded that the Russian government believed it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome. Investigators did not establish that Trump campaign members conspired or coordinated with Russia in the effort.

In addition, Mueller investigators said that given the facts and applicable legal standards, they could not say that President Trump did not commit obstruction of justice during their probe.

“While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” the Mueller report says.

In the months following the report’s release, President Trump insisted that it amounted to a complete exoneration. More recently, he has pushed the idea that the real criminal conspiracy was among the investigators. As support, he has pointed to revelations about problems in the first days of the FBI’s Russia probe, including serious errors and omissions in secret applications to surveil a former Trump campaign aide.

Top administration officials have echoed his concerns. Attorney General Barr has been especially supportive.

“I think the president has every right to be frustrated, because I think what happened to him was one of the greatest travesties in American history,” Mr. Barr said in an April interview with Fox News.

In April 2019, Mr. Barr tapped U.S. Attorney John Durham to examine the early days of the Russia probe, and in particular, whether there was any impropriety in the investigation. Mr. Durham’s investigation has largely proceeded in secret.

In April of this year, Mr. Barr said he did not expect the Justice Department would open criminal investigations into President Obama or former Vice President Joe Biden on this matter. Some critics interpreted this statement as an implicit rebuke of President Trump and his “Obamagate!” tweets. The president himself said he “was surprised” by Mr. Barr’s remark.

But Mr. Durham might yet bring a criminal indictment of some sort related to the opening of the FBI’s “Crossfire Hurricane” probe into the Trump campaign and Russia, noted Ryan Goodman, a former Department of Defense counsel, in a Just Security piece on May 15.

In particular, it’s possible he could identify a former senior official who leaked to a Washington Post reporter the classified intercept of a Dec. 29, 2016, phone call between Mr. Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

The leak was serious disclosure of classified material, revealing details of a phone call at the heart of the case against Mr. Flynn, and Trump critics would have a hard time criticizing an indictment. At the same time, why now?

“Even if there were criminal misconduct involving the leak to the media over three years ago, ask yourself why the investigation just so happens to be heating up now as we enter the general election?” writes Mr. Goodman.

The Flynn saga

Whatever the Durham investigation produces, events dealing with Mr. Flynn and his legal case could well keep the Mueller probe, Russia, and President Trump’s attempts to flip the narrative in headlines for weeks to come.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
Michael Flynn, then national security adviser, speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Feb. 1, 2017.

To his supporters, Mr. Flynn is a good American who was treated badly by powerful, overzealous federal prosecutors. To critics, his actions raised obvious, serious national security concerns, and the lies he told about them had serious consequences.

Mr. Flynn, a former Army lieutenant general, was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, and was rewarded with the plum job of national security adviser.

He only lasted 24 days, a record for shortest tenure in the job. President Trump fired him following revelations that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other top officials about the nature of his communications during the presidential transition with Russian Ambassador Kislyak.

In December 2017, he pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI and agreed to cooperate with Mr. Mueller’s investigation. Asked by agents whether he had talked about U.S. sanctions with Ambassador Kislyak and urged restraint, Mr. Flynn said no. But the agents knew better, as they had transcripts of FBI wiretaps of the Flynn-Kislyak conversations.

Mr. Flynn reiterated his guilty plea before a federal judge in December 2018. Then in January 2020, he asked to withdraw it, alleging among other things that he had been “duped” into admitting wrongdoing.

Earlier this month, the Department of Justice abruptly reversed course, and filed a motion to dismiss the case with federal Judge Emmet Sullivan. In essence, prosecutors said that in terms of the FBI’s investigation into Mr. Flynn’s activities, his lies didn’t matter.

Agent questioning “was untethered to, and unjustified by, the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into Mr. Flynn,” wrote Timothy Shea, acting U.S. attorney in Washington, in the motion to dismiss the charges.

But Judge Sullivan appears to be in no hurry to do that. He has asked for outside groups to file friend-of-the-court legal briefs about the case for his consideration, and appointed retired U.S. District Judge John Gleeson to present arguments against the motion to dismiss.

In response, Mr. Flynn’s lawyers went over Judge Sullivan’s head. They asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. to order the case dismissed. Instead, an appeals court panel ordered Judge Sullivan to explain himself within 10 days. Judge Sullivan has hired his own lawyer to guide him through the legal morass.

Is this a mess? Yes – but it’s a mess with important and complicated separation-of-powers implications, says Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney and University of Michigan law professor.

“Usually it is the executive branch that gets to decide whether to bring prosecutions, and the court plays a very limited role,” says Ms. McQuade. “But here, where there is some concern about the merits of a motion to dismiss, the district judge quite properly wants to make sure that he is not a party to corruption.”

Of personal concern

Critics of the attempt to dismiss the Flynn case say the Justice Department has long known the details surrounding the FBI interview in question, and the only thing that has changed since Mr. Flynn pleaded guilty is the leadership of the Justice Department.

In addition, Mr. Flynn has long been a figure of personal concern for President Trump, they point out.

In early February 2017, shortly after Mr. Flynn’s dismissal, the president cleared the Oval Office to have a one-on-one talk with then-FBI Director James Comey.

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy,” President Trump said to the FBI chief, according to the Mueller report.

Later that month, President Trump asked his chief of staff, Mr. Priebus, to reach out to Mr. Flynn and let him know that the president still cared about him. Mr. Priebus called Mr. Flynn and said he was just checking in, and that Mr. Flynn was an “American hero.”

“Priebus thought the President did not want Flynn saying bad things about him,” the Mueller report says.

Patterns

Tracing global connections

For US-China relations, a day of reckoning

As the U.S. relationship with China worsens, some are predicting a new Cold War. Such decoupling seems unlikely, but a shifting mood in Washington suggests a pivot point may be close.

Kim
Bob Daugherty/AP/File
President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai toast each other at the end of the first day of Nixon's historic visit to Beijing in 1972. The surprise trip – a diplomatic bombshell – opened a new era in U.S.-China relations that is now in peril.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

Tensions in Washington’s relationship with Beijing have been bubbling for some time, but now they seem to be coming to a head. Although a complete break in ties is unlikely, since that would hurt both sides too badly, a fundamental reassessment seems inevitable.

U.S. officials complain that China has used questionable means – ranging from illegal state aid for its businesses to industrial espionage – to become the second largest economy in the world. And Chinese President Xi Jinping has imposed the strictest regimen of Communist Party rule since Mao Zedong’s day.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare how dependent many U.S. companies are on supply chains originating in China, and a rethink is underway in Congress about how this dependence might be lessened.

But it’s a long way from there to the new Cold War some are predicting. China is far more tightly tied into the world economy than the Soviet Union ever was. Washington and Moscow used to partner only on arms control. Today, a range of critical challenges such as climate change demand cooperation between the U.S. and China.

Neither side can afford to decouple completely. But the forces pulling them apart are growing stronger.

For US-China relations, a day of reckoning

Collapse

No international relationship matters more. And amid all the political tremors caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, ties between the United States and China are about to enter their most fraught period in decades.

It may not prove the end of an era – a definitive halt to the process of engagement begun with the Nixon administration’s dramatic opening to Beijing in 1972. A full break would mean major economic and financial costs for both sides. That’s an especially serious risk now, coming on top of the huge damage already done by shutdowns aimed at stemming COVID’s spread.

But at the very least, a fundamental reassessment seems inevitable. And a series of recent developments – such as the way President Donald Trump has made criticism of China a centerpiece of his reelection campaign and Beijing’s move to impose tough new security legislation on Hong Kong – suggest we’re at a critical pivot point.

Tensions had been building long before COVID, mind you.

On the U.S. side, they were rooted in frustration over a growing imbalance in the relationship. Where China had once been largely a source for lower-cost consumer goods, it had grown into a modern and increasingly high-tech economy: the world’s second largest. Beijing was using state aid, exchange rate adjustments, strong-arm restraints on foreign companies, and industrial espionage to steal a march on competitors, U.S. officials charged.

There were other tensions, too, rooted in political changes. In the U.S., these were embodied by the election of President Trump on his “America First” platform; in China, by the shift from a collective, more rules-based and open system in the early 2000s to the rule of President Xi Jinping. Since coming to power in 2012, he has consolidated his authority, done away with presidential term limits and instituted the most pervasive regimen of Communist party control since the rule of Mao Zedong. He has also moved to expand China’s influence and power abroad.    

But sometimes in international relations, a single event or crisis does more than aggravate existing tensions. Like a freeze-frame, it dramatically highlights the core issues behind them, and leads to a shift in direction. One example: In 2014, the toppling of the pro-Moscow government in Ukraine was followed by Russia’s military intervention, its annexation of Crimea, and a systematic tightening of Western sanctions.

For the U.S.-China relationship, COVID-19 has played a similar role. In one sense, that may have been inevitable: The virus got its start in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the authorities initially tried to hide it.

But the political and economic shockwaves that the pandemic spread in Europe and the U.S. also painfully underscored mounting concerns about the West’s relationship with China.

On the political front, once President Xi’s government got COVID-19 under control he resisted calls for an independent inquiry into its origins, while also reframing the public narrative to contrast China’s “success” with the failure of Western democracies to stem the pandemic effectively.

Economically, the initial Chinese shutdown underlined the dependence of many U.S. and other Western businesses on supply chains starting in China. That dependence became even more starkly evident when countries and companies had to scramble for ventilators and personal protective equipment to deal with COVID-19. By far the majority of these items were now made in China.

There are already signs of reassessment. A bipartisan coalition in the U.S. Congress is looking for ways to loosen these dependencies – and also now for ways to react if President Xi follows through on his move to end Hong Kong’s autonomy in matters like free speech, an independent judiciary, and the rule of law. Europe, too, is looking at ways of strengthening its own capacity to produce strategically important goods, as well as to forestall possible efforts by Chinese firms to buy Western businesses weakened during the pandemic.

The longer-term question is whether we’re headed for something like the Cold War with the old Soviet Union.

In one sense, the parallel is illusory. China is much more advanced economically, and more intricately connected with the international economy, than Soviet Russia ever was.

There are still the makings of a Cold War-style rivalry, however. China has staked out a military presence in the South China Sea and, through its Belt and Road infrastructure-building initiative, has made itself felt economically and diplomatically across central and south Asia and in Africa and Europe. President Xi’s consolidation of power has also drawn a Cold War-style ideological dividing line between his increasingly totalitarian regime and democratic governments in the West.

Yet the world has changed since the Cold War in ways that could determine how any new China relationship evolves. Back then, besides arms control, there were no major international issues requiring U.S.-Soviet partnership. Now, in order to deal effectively with tomorrow’s top challenge – climate change – the U.S. and China will need to work together. And the world economy as a whole would suffer heavily from a purely adversarial relationship between its two major powers.

There’s also been another change. During the Cold War, the U.S. relied not just on its own strength. It could count on strong military, political, and economic bonds with other democracies, and the international weight of its democratic example.

For now, at least, Washington seems much less interested in this “soft power,” and ties with its allies have been fraying badly. China, on the other hand, shows every sign of a continued determination to widen its global influence.

‘They didn’t get to die with dignity’: Canada reexamines care for seniors

COVID-19 has tested the effectiveness of safety nets. The alarming concerns about nursing homes that have surfaced in Canada, a country known for its health coverage, are spurring a national reexamination.

Kim

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

For years, Canada has been lauded for its universal health protections, and per capita during the pandemic, the country has fared much better than its neighbor, the United States, in containing the spread of the disease.

But the coronavirus crisis has exposed a glaring shortcoming in Canada: More than 80% of its COVID-19 fatalities are linked to nursing homes. “This has focused everybody’s attention that we really need to put in an effort to change the nature of how we provide nursing home services in the country,” says John Hirdes, a professor at the University of Waterloo. He foresees a growing discussion about extending the concept of the Canada Health Act to nursing homes and home care.

The Vancouver Coastal Health system in British Columbia may show one way forward. At present the system has managed 14 outbreaks by implementing measures including constant testing and containment and proper use of protective equipment. More permanent changes, such as improvements for staff, would both limit the spread of disease and provide better continuity of care for residents, says Michael Schwandt, a medical health officer in the system.

“I have a lot of hope,” says Dr. Schwandt.

‘They didn’t get to die with dignity’: Canada reexamines care for seniors

Collapse
Carlos Osorio/Reuters
Workers wave at passing cars honking their horns in support for Pinecrest Nursing Home after several residents died and dozens of staff were sickened by COVID-19 in Bobcaygeon, Ontario, March 30, 2020. Canada's nursing homes have been hit especially hard by the pandemic.

France Brideau checks her phone each morning when she wakes up to see if her mother has called. But it’s just a reflex, a realization that hits heavily each day: Her mother, Thérèse Duguay, died in mid-April from COVID-19.

“It’s strong, that bond,” Ms. Brideau says in a telephone interview from her home in Laval, a city in the Canadian province of Quebec. “She was there for me for 56 years.”

Ms. Duguay contracted the novel coronavirus in a long-term facility, where she moved in February 2019 after her care at home got too complicated. A year later, that move unwittingly placed her in the heart of a pandemic. In Quebec, which has seen the highest coronavirus infection and mortality rates in Canada, 63% of COVID-19 fatalities have occurred in long-term care facilities, known as CHSLDs.

Per capita, Canada has fared much better than the United States in containing the spread of the disease. But although both countries have suffered outbreaks in nursing homes, that problem has been much more severe in Canada: More than 80% of COVID-19 fatalities in the country are linked to them, according to Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Canada is not alone in confronting a high mortality rate among older people, especially those in institutional care. But in a country lauded for its universal health protections, the death rate and shocking conditions in some homes have generated an urgent conversation about whether its safety net is supporting those most vulnerable.

In Quebec and Ontario, the military has been deployed to assist nursing facilities that have been hardest hit. This week the Canadian Armed Forces shook the nation with a damning report on the unsafe state of five long-term care facilities in Greater Toronto. Ontario Premier Doug Ford promised justice, calling the findings “heartbreaking” and “gut-wrenching.”

Advocates and victims’ families are calling for public inquiries as to what went wrong and for new national standards for long-term care to be established. They want emergency measures that were implemented to contain the outbreaks – such as better wages for personal support workers so they don’t have to patch together part-time work to make ends meet – to become permanent. Some want the entire industry to be rethought.

Courtesy of France Brideau
France Brideau (right) lost her mother, Thérèse Duguay, in mid-April from COVID-19. She had been residing in a nursing home. Approximately 80% of COVID-19 fatalities in Canada have been linked to long-term care facilities, causing the country to look hard at its failings when it comes to older people.

“We’ve been able to kind of eke along with minimal staffing levels in nursing homes, but COVID has blown it apart. It’s shown it just wasn’t sustainable,” says John Hirdes, a professor at the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. “This has focused everybody’s attention that we really need to put in an effort to change the nature of how we provide nursing home services in the country.”

The Canadian setup for health care

The principles behind Canada’s publicly funded health system, which requires that all medically necessary hospital and doctor services be covered, does not extend to nursing or home care. While all the provinces and territories provide some coverage for such care, run by a mix of public and for-profit entities, it varies extensively, says Paul Williams, a University of Toronto professor and co-chair of the Canadian Research Network for Care in the Community. “I think it was massively shocking to people to find out what was going on in places which are understaffed and underfunded,” he says.

It’s not shocking to advocates, though. Paul Brunet, who heads a patients’ rights group that launched a class-action lawsuit in 2018 on behalf of Quebec’s CHSLD patients, says understaffing and a lack of funding have meant for years that patients have not received the care they are entitled to under the law. In Canada, “everyone has access to all the care he or she might need, but when there’s budget cuts ... unfortunately the poorest and the oldest normally [take the hit],” he says. “To me, it is discrimination. It is prejudice.”

And many believe it set the country up for failure when the pandemic swept through. In one of the most notorious cases, residents in a privately owned CHSLD in Montreal were left abandoned without water and in full diapers for days, the Montreal Gazette reported. At least 51 residents died as a result of the outbreak, which is now the subject of three inquiries.

Quebec Premier François Legault has acknowledged the problem, saying that “society failed” to protect those most vulnerable and that successive governments did not invest enough in the CHSLDs. “I think that many people are responsible. I don’t exclude myself,” Mr. Legault told reporters.

In Ontario, Mr. Ford, under fire for turning a blind eye to the problem before the pandemic, said he’d launch an independent commission to probe the failings, in which around 1,500 nursing home residents have died from COVID-19 (among more than 2,100 in total). An investigation by the Toronto Star showed that seniors in for-profit care are four times as likely to die as those in public facilities.

According to Sharleen Stewart, president of the Service Employees International Union Healthcare that represents 60,000 front-line health workers in Ontario, low staffing levels – while populations have grown older and more clinically complex over the past two decades – have left the system dangerously exposed. One key reason for COVID-19’s rapid spread: Personal support workers in nursing facilities, paid far less than their counterparts in hospitals, have to work in multiple facilities, she says.

“Early on in March, when the government was calling us together to talk about a pandemic plan, I asked the question: What are we going to do about the fact that 1 in 3 personal support workers work more than one job?” She says she was ignored. “Somebody needs to be accountable for this.”

One way forward?

No outbreak is “inevitable,” argues Michael Schwandt, a medical health officer in the Vancouver Coastal Health system in British Columbia. At present the system has managed 14 outbreaks by implementing measures including constant testing and containment and proper use of protective equipment. The system has declared eight of those outbreaks over. He says more permanent changes, such as staff earning a living wage at a single center and being able to take off work when sick, would both limit the spread of disease and provide better continuity of care for residents.

“I have a lot of hope,” he says. “I think that we’ve seen some improvements put in place in short order in [British Columbia] to limit the impacts of the pandemic, and with some of those successes, I hope that some of those measures will be made permanent and will spread to other [places] as well.”

Dr. Hirdes foresees a growing discussion in the country about extending the concept of the Canada Health Act to nursing homes and home care, although how that would be achieved is unclear. As a start, Dr. Williams says that Canadians would welcome national standards, but he’d like the process to lead to an overhaul of the industry – finding more ways that seniors can stay in their communities, and not just increasing funding for institutional settings.

“I hope they take this as an opportunity to rethink, as many other countries have, the entire idea of care over the longer term instead of long-term care beds,” he says.

For now, many like Ms. Brideau are left wondering if they’d still have their loved ones if the system had implemented changes earlier. On April 12, just a week after her mother tested positive, Ms. Brideau says she got a phone call from the CHSLD telling her that her mother’s condition had deteriorated and that she should come in.

Ms. Duguay died that afternoon. “When I hear anything about COVID-19 now, my eyes fill up with tears and my throat tightens,” Ms. Brideau says. “They didn’t get to die with dignity. ... I’m really disappointed in society, disappointed in everything that is happening.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Brexit’s benefits? How food security prep set up UK for pandemic.

The British government spent a great deal of money and effort trying to protect itself from food shortages in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Then the coronavirus pandemic brought about its own food crisis. How did the U.K. fare?

Kim
Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Local residents pick asparagus as they work at Dyas Farms, in Sevenscore, England, on April 16, 2020. Foreign workers, the backbone of Britain's agriculture force, are missing from the country's fields due to the coronavirus lockdown.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

When planning for Brexit, the British government spent several billion pounds making preparations in case the country pulled out of the European Union without an agreement. That included a concerted look at food security, for good reason: Britain imports fully half of its food.

This extensive pre-Brexit planning has proved a boon in the last few months, as it has softened the disruptive blow of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet as the United Kingdom begins reopening after two months under lockdown, analysts say the coronavirus has still exposed an unacceptably high vulnerability of food dependency that must now be dealt with.

One challenge has been reshaping the “just-in-time” delivery system that the U.K. has relied upon for decades to bring fresh produce as cost effectively as possible to store shelves. But such a system typically keeps very little produce in stock to cope with emergencies like the current crisis. Food services may switch to a “just-in-case” approach, says David Bailey, a professor at the University of Birmingham, “so instead of having a super-lean supply chain that stretches across the world, you actually have much bigger stocks and supply-chain sourcing locally.”

Brexit’s benefits? How food security prep set up UK for pandemic.

Collapse

In the chaotic lead up to Britain’s departure from the European Union, grim forecasts emerged of the dangers of a no-deal Brexit. They warned of disruption of fragile food and medicine supply chains, and panic buying and fuel shortages that would spark “a rise in public disorder and community tensions.”

The British government, in fact, spent several billion pounds making preparations in case the country pulled out of the EU without an agreement. The contingency planning, called Operation Yellowhammer, included a concerted look at food security, for good reason: Britain imports fully half of its food, much of that from the EU.

This extensive pre-Brexit planning has proved a boon in the last few months, as it has softened the disruptive blow of the coronavirus pandemic. Britain has been relatively ready to cope with a COVID-19 surge in demand for food thanks to a degree of warehouse and stockpile expansion from early 2019.

Yet as the United Kingdom begins reopening after two months under lockdown, analysts say the coronavirus has still exposed an unacceptably high vulnerability of food dependency that must now be dealt with. It is a holdover from the British Empire in the mid-19th century, when the country relied on food sourced from colonies abroad to provide nourishment at home.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Questions are also being raised about how crisis-mode government decisions further empowered large supermarket chains, while decimating the restaurants and hotels of the food-service sector, which accounted for 30% of U.K. food consumption before the lockdown. And the pandemic has raised alarm about overreliance on seasonal foreign workers, most from the EU. This even prompted Prince Charles to take the unusual step of calling on Britons furloughed from other sectors of the economy to help to bring in crops before they rot.

“Britain was probably in the best-stocked position that it had been for many, many years, because of preparations for Brexit,” says David Bailey, a professor of industrial strategy at the University of Birmingham. “So, when COVID-19 hit, leading to lots of economic dislocation and people starting to stockpile at home, the supermarkets’ distribution system was in a position to meet that, though not necessarily in the right place at the right time.”

“The negative side,” adds Professor Bailey, “is that when it comes to food in particular – agriculture, picking crops, and food processing – the U.K. is very dependent on an army of overseas, low-paid workers ... and that’s been made worse by [pandemic] travel restrictions.”

Denis Charlet/AP/File
An employee of Eurotunnel and his dog check trucks on their way to Britain during a day of test in case of no-deal Brexit, at the exit of the Channel tunnel in Calais, northern France.

As Britons begin to emerge from the worst of the virus, with the second highest death toll (37,000) in the world after the U.S., the push to bring critical supplies closer to home will accelerate, and extend beyond food.

“There will be questions about how far we have gone in terms of integration globally and whether we need to bring a balance back, at least in what we deem to be strategically important areas – agriculture, parts of manufacturing, sourcing for our health system, pharmaceuticals – for more local content to guard against this sort of disruption,” says Professor Bailey.

Another result will be close examination of why the food-service sector was almost completely shut down during the lockdown, rather than being kept running to help food banks and other outlets. Food producers have been challenged with huge surpluses from unused local produce, such as 95,000 tons of potatoes expected to pile up by July, which had been destined for fish and chip shops.

And Britain’s nine largest supermarket chains have been relied upon to carry the burden, while the rest of the food-service sector was “devastated” by lockdown measures, says Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at City, University of London, and author of a new book “Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them.”

“The astonishing thing, going into coronavirus, is Britain ought to have been the best-prepared rich country on the planet to deal with food and a no-deal Brexit. It wasn’t,” says Professor Lang, who has advised a host of United Nations bodies and U.K. government agencies on food issues. He cites preparatory reviews for a pandemic in 2011, then full-scale Brexit planning in 2016 and 2019.

Despite the long-standing concerns, little has been done to make the U.K. less food dependent, says Professor Lang. “The U.S. feeds itself. France feeds itself. Britain doesn’t, and has chosen not to.”

“Why does that happen? It’s because Britain had an empire and it made a decision in the 1840s not to feed itself,” says Professor Lang. Ever since, despite food shortage shocks during both world wars, “the hardwired position still in Britain … is we expect others to feed us.”

Andrew Boyers/Reuters
Customers shop at Hunters Farm shop in Milton Keynes, England, as the spread of the COVID-19 continues on March 18, 2020.

One challenge has been reshaping the “just-in-time” delivery system that the U.K. has relied upon for decades to bring fresh produce as cost effectively as possible to store shelves. When the mammoth British supermarket chain Tesco adopted the system, it shot up from being the third-biggest retailer in the U.K. to the third largest in the world – and now accounts for more than 20% of retail food purchases in Britain. But such a system typically keeps very little produce in stock to cope with emergencies like the current crisis.

Tesco has been a key player in “feed the nation” contingency plans since early March. During the lockdown, it donated food to provide millions of meals for health service workers, and supported 350,000 people from a government-provided list of those “clinically vulnerable.”

Presciently, Tesco in 2016 also conducted a “doomsday” exercise, in which it envisioned coping with a headquarters shutdown. It was therefore ready for remote working, but not the sudden surge in demand for food akin to its traditional heaviest shopping day of the year, Dec. 23.

“With no notice we had five days at that level and no chance to plan,” Dave Lewis, Tesco’s chief executive officer, told The Guardian earlier this month. “That pace in demand is unbelievable. The whole industry emptied the front end of the supply chain and then we had to recover.”

The lessons now being learned are likely to have far-reaching effects. Birmingham’s Professor Bailey says Brexit provided a useful stress test for the supply chain, but both Brexit and the pandemic will galvanize a trend toward reducing risk. Critical needs like food and health services may switch from just-in-time delivery systems to "just-in-case," so “instead of having a super-lean supply chain that stretches across the world, you actually have much bigger stocks and supply-chain sourcing locally,” says Professor Bailey.

In the U.K., that may require a broader change of thinking.

“There are really important issues that Britain has got to face; [it’s] got to wake up and discuss its food security problem,” says Professor Lang. “Food banks can’t cope, and the government’s response is, yet again, let nine retailers give more donations to food banks. ... There is a terrifyingly worrying arrogance being shown in the British government that it can just leave it to Tesco, et al.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Film

‘Cook Off’ heats up: Netflix debut a triumph for Zimbabwe film

People often look to popular culture for reflections of themselves. When the movie “Cook Off” arrives on Netflix on Monday, it will mark a first for the streaming service – and Zimbabweans.

Kim
Anel Wessels/Courtesy of Zoe Flood
Jefferson Muserera, who plays contestant Simba T, prepares for a take on the set of "Cook Off" with camera assistant Dennis Denya Madyira. The 2017 film from Zimbabwe is available on Netflix starting June 1.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

When Netflix announced earlier this month that it had acquired its first feature film made in Zimbabwe, “Cook Off,” it felt to the cast and crew like the movie’s plot had jumped the screen into their real lives.

The total budget for “Cook Off” – which follows an amateur chef as she dukes it out with professionals to try to win a reality TV cooking competition – was about as much as a decent used car. Actors sometimes missed call times because they got caught in the crossfire of the police tear gas being used to break up anti-government protests in Zimbabwe’s capital in the dying days of Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule. Several crew members shared the director’s small house, which also doubled as part of the set. And the actors were told they’d only be paid if the film made money. First released in 2017, the romantic comedy let Zimbabweans see themselves on the big screen, and eventually won over audiences, including Netflix executives. 

“We wanted to make something authentically Zimbabwean,” says director Tomas Brickhill. “But at the same time, we wanted it to be something the rest of the world could identify with, too.” 

‘Cook Off’ heats up: Netflix debut a triumph for Zimbabwe film

Collapse

Everything about “Cook Off” was a long shot.

The film’s plot, for one. It told a story of near-impossible odds, following a single mother and amateur chef as she duked it out with an ensemble of professionals to try to win a Zimbabwean reality TV cooking competition called “Battle of the Chefs.” 

“It’s just so much harder than I imagined,” confesses Anesu to a fellow competitor after nearly being eliminated from the show. “I just feel like I’m way, way out of my depth.”

But if the fictional Anesu was out of her depth, the film’s crew was even more so. The total budget for “Cook Off,” a romantic comedy, was about as much as a decent used car. Actors sometimes missed call times because they got caught in the police tear gas being used to break up anti-government protests in Zimbabwe’s capital in the dying days of Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule. Government power cuts would arrive in the middle of filming, and to save money, several crew members shared the director’s small house, which also doubled as part of the set.

So when Netflix announced earlier this month that it had licensed the streaming rights to the 2017 film – the first time in the streaming service’s history that it had acquired a feature film made in Zimbabwe – it felt to the cast and crew like the movie’s plot had jumped the screen into their real lives.

“There are so many barriers holding us back, and so many odds against us as African actors and filmmakers,” says Tendaiishe Chitima, who plays Anesu. “But at that moment, it felt like we had broken through them all.”

Anel Wessels/Courtesy of Zoe Flood
Actress Tendaiishe Chitima looks out a window for a scene in "Cook Off." She plays the lead character, Anesu, a single mother and amateur chef.

Among the biggest barriers in Zimbabwe, of course, is money. Feature films made in the country are often donor-financed, with the stipulation that they tackle a pressing social issue like HIV, homelessness, or teen pregnancy.

“We often have this super-serious heavy content coming out of Zimbabwe,” says “Cook Off” director Tomas Brickhill. “We really wanted to do a feel-good romantic comedy to say, our lives look like this, too. We should be allowed to fall in love on screen, too.” 

As a director of the real-life “Battle of the Chefs” competition, Mr. Brickhill knew the ins and outs of the contest well. So it wasn’t much of a leap for him to fictionalize his reality show experience for the big screen. What was far tougher was putting together a feature-length film with an initial cash budget of $8,000, supplemented by deals to offset the costs of gear and film set. “For everyone who participated, it was a leap of faith,” he says.

The actors were told they’d only be paid if the film made money. And when it came time to screen the final cut in December 2017, the crew chose the roof of a hotel in the capital Harare, not because it was a hip open-air venue, but because they couldn’t afford to rent out a cinema. 

But even before Netflix bought “Cook Off,” which will go live on the streaming service June 1, the film’s trajectory was, well, cinematic. In the weeks between when filming wrapped and that first screening in Harare, Zimbabwe’s only leader since independence, Mr. Mugabe, was muscled out of office by his former vice president in a coup. And although his replacement was his former right-hand man, Zimbabweans were jubilant at the prospect of a new dawn for their country.

Bongani Kumbula/Courtesy of Cook Off
“We wanted to make something authentically Zimbabwean,” says "Cook Off" director Tomas Brickhill (left), posing with one of the movie's producers, Joe Njagu.

“There was a big push from the new government to say, ‘We want to be more open; we want to allow more freedom of expression,’ and our film got caught up in that momentum,” Ms. Chitima says. “Obviously a few years later we can see not much has changed for Zimbabwe, but at that moment, it felt like a fresh start.”

And the film soon had momentum of its own, screening at a dozen international film festivals and garnering fans from Los Angeles to Rotterdam in the Netherlands to Durban, South Africa.

“We wanted to make something authentically Zimbabwean,” says Mr. Brickhill. A film that let Zimbabweans see themselves – their tin-roofed neighborhoods, their skeptical mothers, plates stacked with meat and pillowy clouds of sadza, a local starch – on the big screen, he says. “But at the same time, we wanted it to be something the rest of the world could identify with, too.” 

And it worked, he says. Audiences around the world were sucked into the love story, the reality show drama, and most of all, the story of an underdog who made it big in an improbable way.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the title of the film in one sentence. 

Other headline stories we’re watching

(Get live updates throughout the day.)

The Monitor's View

An opening for softer diplomacy?

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 3 Min. )

In early May, five tanker ships carrying refined petroleum embarked from Iran for Venezuela. Their journey sparked speculation about Iran’s motives and strategic concerns as well as how Washington would respond. In its tenure the Trump administration has imposed ever-tighter sanctions against both Tehran and Caracas to compel regime change.

The ships’ safe passage is the latest sign of an unacknowledged, informal détente unfolding between Tehran and Washington that provides an important opening for progress in both Iran and Venezuela.

If the purpose of sanctions is to create conditions for a people to effect change from within, the power of sanctions lies in knowing when to exchange them for the softer tools of diplomacy.

An opening for softer diplomacy?

Collapse
AP
A Venezuelan oil worker holding an Iranian flag attends a ceremony for the arrival of an Iranian oil tanker at a refinery near Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, May 25.

In early May, five tanker ships carrying refined petroleum embarked from Iran for Venezuela. Their journey sparked speculation about Iran’s motives and strategic concerns as well as how Washington would respond. In its tenure the Trump administration has imposed ever-tighter sanctions against both Tehran and Caracas to compel regime change.

By violating the sanctions, was Iran attempting to provoke President Donald Trump as he campaigns for reelection? Possibly. Would the U.S. president respond? He had the means in place, having recently deployed U.S. warships off Venezuelan waters to, as he said, “increase surveillance, disruption, and seizures of drug shipments.”

Notably, however, the first of those Iranian ships docked this week without incident, delivering precious fuel to a country that is literally starving after two decades of failed authoritarianism and now the coronavirus pandemic. The tanker loads, enough supply for two months if stretched prudently, may bring temporary relief to Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis. The ships’ safe passage is the latest sign of an unacknowledged, informal détente unfolding between Tehran and Washington that provides an important opening for progress in both Iran and Venezuela.

Tehran backed Washington’s favored candidate for prime minister in Iraq in March and released a captive U.S. naval veteran into the hands of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran. In recent months, attacks against U.S. troops in Afghanistan by Iranian-backed forces have eased off. So have confrontations against ships and tankers in the Persian Gulf.

The Trump administration credits its “maximum pressure” campaign – withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, comprehensive economic sanctions, the January assassination of the elite Qods Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani – for reining in Tehran.

It has applied similar pressure in Venezuela in an attempt to force President Nicolás Maduro from power. Last year the administration recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president, prompting roughly 50 other countries to do the same. In addition to a comprehensive oil embargo and a raft of targeted economic sanctions, in March the U.S. Justice Department charged Mr. Maduro and other officials of colluding with Colombian guerrillas to traffic drugs.

Conditions in both countries may be ripe for a shift to American restraint and compassion. On a recent trip to Iran, journalist Dexter Filkins from The New Yorker captured a society weary of decades of repression and sanctions and yearning for change. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is considered to be frail and withdrawn. The regime’s attempt to conceal early cases of COVID-19 resulted in a rapid and devastating outbreak. For the first time since the Islamic Revolution 41 years ago, Tehran appealed to the International Monetary Fund for help. “Public confidence in the theocratic system,” Mr. Filkins wrote, “has collapsed.”

In Venezuela, meanwhile, the combined toll of sanctions and the pandemic “has pushed many Venezuelans eager for change to close ranks with the government and blame the U.S. for their troubles,” according to an assessment by Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. The group of former U.S. spy practitioners noted that Mr. Guaidó’s support “for ever-tightening sanctions – at a time when his countrymen lack food, water, and most basic supplies – is destroying his credibility.”

The Iranian shipment of fuel to a country so broken it cannot tap its own vast oil reserves reflects defiant measures of self-preservation by two isolated and desperate regimes. That presents an opportunity to cultivate good will. If the purpose of sanctions is to create conditions for a people to effect change from within, the power of sanctions lies in knowing when to exchange them for the softer tools of diplomacy.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Harmony and friendship replace division

  • Quick Read
  • Read or Listen ( 3 Min. )

Stunned by a co-worker’s hostile query about her political affiliation, a woman prayed to see everyone as innately capable of expressing God’s love and peace. Soon, the atmosphere completely turned around.

Harmony and friendship replace division

Collapse
Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

One winter, I had a part-time position in a chocolate and ice cream shop. During my first day on the job, a coworker approached me and asked me, quite pointedly and aggressively, about my political affiliation.

I was stunned into speechlessness. We hadn’t even introduced ourselves yet, and my first thought was to respond with something like, “Hi, I’m Cher. I’m new here.” But as I collected my thoughts, I recalled something Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, wrote in response to the question, “What are your politics?” She said, “I have none, in reality, other than to help support a righteous government; to love God supremely, and my neighbor as myself” (“The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany,” p. 276).

I’ve always appreciated those ideas, and that inspired my response. I shared that what seemed most important to me was to follow the golden rule, treating people the way I’d like to be treated. But the tone of the conversation felt fearful and hostile. I felt like I was under attack.

I realized I had to approach this situation from a different standpoint if I was going to find peace or joy in this workplace. I decided to pray, something I’ve found helpful on many occasions.

My prayers started with the first chapter of Genesis in the Bible – the beginning. There we read of God being All and creating all, and of man made in God’s image and likeness. It follows that God’s nature is expressed in all of creation, that God’s children reflect all that He is. The Bible describes God as Spirit and Love, and so each of us, in our true nature as His spiritual offspring, includes only good, loving qualities.

I wanted to see my new coworkers – including the one who had confronted me – as the loved of God, Love. I mentally affirmed that hostility and anger aren’t included in the qualities that make up God’s man. Everyone shares in this reality, including lawmakers, coworkers, customers, neighbors, and friends.

I got through the day without further incident. And I continued to pray about the issue over the next few weeks. Quite honestly, I was still shaken every time I thought about the too-often heated nature of politics – and not just in my workplace. We all want to feel protected and safe and cared for, and I prayed to know that I and my fellow men and women are all capable of feeling God’s love and doing good. This includes during conversations about controversial topics – we don’t have to fight it out in the workplace or on the campaign trail.

The Apostle Paul talks about the “weapons of our warfare” as “not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds” (II Corinthians 10:4). Qualities such as honesty, integrity, purity, respectfulness, compassion, inclusivity, holiness, wisdom, and love flooded my thoughts. Such qualities have the power of God behind them, and belong to everyone in my workplace and everywhere. Praying to see and hear what God knows about man’s true nature brings harmony, joy, peace.

That’s what I experienced at the shop. The uncomfortable, hostile conversations completely ceased. For the rest of the time I worked there, I felt safe and cared for. And I know my coworkers felt this harmony, too. I made fabulous new friends, and I felt surrounded by divine Love every day.

In “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” Mrs. Eddy states: “Human hate has no legitimate mandate and no kingdom. Love is enthroned” (p. 454). To bear correct witness to this spiritual reality, we must be conscious of God’s government of His creation, which is “very good” (Genesis 1:31). This empowers us to not be swayed by animosity, but overcome it.

Viewfinder

Groundswell

Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP
Demonstrators gather May 27, 2020, in Los Angeles in protest of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody earlier in the week.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Kim Campbell
Culture & Education Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow. We're working on a data-driven piece about repercussions officers face after on-duty killings.

Here’s a window on some of the faster-moving headline news that we’re following. 

More issues

2020
May
28
Thursday

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.