The World Today for August 24, 2021

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The Overachiever

Iceland has long punched above its weight in tourism, scientific prowess, the arts and other realms – you could call this small country of 368,000 an overachiever.

The pandemic has been no exception.

Nature noted last year “How Iceland hammered Covid with science,” with local officials and researchers tracking the health of every person who tested positive for Covid-19, sequencing the genetic material of each case and screening more than half of the island’s residents for the virus.

In late 2020, Icelanders moved quickly to administer vaccines. As a result, the country has one of the world’s leading rates of vaccinations, with 83 percent of the population older than 12 having received the full dosage, or 71 percent of the total population, according to the government. A whopping 96 percent of females over the age of 16 are vaccinated.

The country was doing so well that, in June, the government did away with all Covid-19 restrictions and opened its borders to foreign tourists. One month later, the masking, social distancing and capacity requirements are back, and the US, the EU and others are warning their nationals away from the island as Iceland struggles to contain the worst surge of cases it has seen during the entire pandemic.

As the Delta variant batters the country, rates have peaked at 433 infections per 100,000 in early July from 1.6 per 100,000 in June. One day in late June, the country recorded 87 cases. About 82 percent of those people were vaccinated, according to the government.

Anti-vaxxers are jumping on this opportunity to point to Iceland as an example of how vaccinations don’t work, as Reuters showed in some posts compiled from social media. But officials and scientists say Iceland’s experience shows the success of the vaccination program and offers a glimpse into the future for the rest of the world, especially highly vaccinated countries.

One big lesson is obvious. Of the 1,300 people currently infected, just 2 percent are in the hospital, the Washington Post reported. Only one person has died in all of 2021, in May. Meanwhile, of all the infected patients admitted to the hospital during this wave, 40 percent are unvaccinated — more than four times the overall share of unvaccinated Icelanders, Pall Matthiasson, chief executive of the country’s largest hospital, told the newspaper, adding that the data is clear: “Being vaccinated reduces the likelihood of admission manyfold. [Without vaccines, the outbreak] would be catastrophic.”

At the same time, Iceland’s experience shows that 60 percent of those vaccinated are protected against any kind of infection by the delta variant and 90 percent against illnesses, while 97 percent of those infected have mild or no symptoms, the Post reported.

Meanwhile, TrialSite, an outlet that focuses on promoting awareness of clinical research, noted how herd immunity hasn’t developed in spite of the high vaccination rate – all but busting that theory – and that those who are vaccinated easily get infected and easily spread the virus, just as is occurring in the US and elsewhere with high vaccination rates.

Meanwhile, life moves on. Iceland is planning to open schools for in-person learning at the end of August, the Iceland Review reported. Borders are open and tourists are welcome. Teachers and many others on the island who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be getting booster shots. And Icelanders will continue to track and trace.

Being an overachiever has its benefits.



Of Greener Pastures

The Scottish National Party and the Scottish Greens have created a power-sharing deal that elevates the Greens to two ministerial posts for the first time in the UK and could pave the way to another referendum on Scotland’s independence from the UK in the future, the Associated Press reported.

The two parties, which have been in negotiations since May after the SNP fell one seat short of an overall majority in the Scottish elections, will cement the pro-independence majority in the Scottish parliament over the coming five years even if it currently falls short of a coalition government, the news wire said.

The agreement, finalized Friday, will likely set the stage for a confrontation with the British government over Scottish independence. Sturgeon reiterated her view that she wants to hold another referendum on the issue in the first half of this parliament — in essence before the end of 2024 — provided the pandemic is in the past. The last independence vote was in 2014, before Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP, became first minister later that year.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the leader of the Conservative Party, has the ultimate authority whether to allow another referendum on Scottish independence. Johnson says the prior referendum settled the question: 55 percent of Scottish voters chose to remain with the UK. But many politicians and voters argue the situation has changed because of Brexit: In the 2016 Brexit referendum, 62 percent of Scots wanted to stay with the EU.

A slight majority supports holding a new vote, the National, a Scottish daily that supports independence, reported.

Sturgeon has said any attempt by the British government to thwart the democratic will of Scotland would only fuel the desire for independence.


Round Two

President Jair Bolsonaro has asked Brazil’s Senate to impeach a Supreme Court justice — a move unprecedented in Brazil’s history – in his escalating war on the judiciary and the electoral system, the Washington Post reported.

Senate’s president, Rodrigo Pacheco, will now decide whether there are grounds to open an investigation into Justice Alexandre de Moraes. The president’s impeachment filing alleges that the judge has carried out investigations with partisan and anti-democratic bias while acting as both investigator and judge. It also accuses him of violating free speech protections.

Since early last year, Bolsonaro has grown increasingly incensed over rulings that clarify that mayors and governors – and not the president – have the jurisdiction to impose restrictions to slow the pandemic. Bolsonaro, a virus-denier, has resisted any restrictions on people or businesses.

He escalated attacks on members of the judiciary following a decision by the electoral court on Aug. 3 to investigate Bolsonaro for his comments undermining the electoral system and de Moraes’ decision to include the president in the Supreme Court’s investigation into the spread of fake news. On Aug. 13, de Moraes also ordered the imprisonment of Roberto Jefferson, a close Bolsonaro ally and president of the Brazilian Labor Party, for also suggesting the voting system is easily manipulated on social media.

The Senate has never initiated an impeachment investigation against a Supreme Court justice and it’s unlikely they will this time, Paulo Calmon, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia, told the Associated Press: “This has a symbolic effect for his base…”

With his approval ratings sliding, Bolsonaro has insisted the country’s electronic vote system is prone to fraud – without presenting any evidence – and insisted that printed vote receipts would allow for auditing results, asking lawmakers to amend the constitution.

That has prompted concern he may be laying the groundwork to challenge election results. Recent polls have indicated that former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is expected to run in next year’s race, would win handily in a runoff.

Meanwhile, in a rebuff to Bolsonaro, lower house lawmakers voted against the proposal to adopt printed vote receipts at electronic ballot boxes earlier this month.


No Oath For This

Israel’s public hospitals announced they won’t accept more Covid-19 cases as of Monday, saying they are overwhelmed by patients and lack the finances and medical staff to treat them all, Haaretz reported.

Hospital officials said the healthcare centers would start working in weekend mode as of Wednesday to protest their budget shortfalls. They claim the government has failed to abide by an agreement that was supposed to give hospitals around 1 billion shekels ($310 million) in assistance beginning in January.

“Bureaucracy, excuses, committees – we can’t take in coronavirus patients anymore. This isn’t a strike – we just can’t do it,” said Laniado Hospital director-general Nadav Chen.

These seven public hospitals have been Israel’s hardest-hit medical facilities due to the pandemic.

The hospital directors warned the government at the beginning of the month that the public hospitals were on the brink of collapse due to a lack of funding. They’re struggling to buy crucial medical equipment, are unable to pay suppliers and need to halt multiple projects, they said.

Israel has been leading the world in its vaccination program with 78 percent of its citizens over the age of 12 having received complete dosage. But in recent weeks, it has seen one of the world’s highest daily infection rates — an average of nearly 7,500 confirmed cases a day, double the amount of two weeks ago, NPR reported. Nearly one in every 150 people in Israel today has the virus.

Also, it is one of the first countries to offer booster shots – more than one million Israelis have received a third Pfizer shot over the past several weeks.


Big Mouths

Scientists discovered a novel method to calculate the size of a black hole: Look at their feeding patterns, Live Science reported.

In a new study, a research team analyzed the flickering patterns in the brightness of accretion disks, the thick ring of matter pulled in by the black hole’s gravity. They did this by studying 67 supermassive black holes, each with an estimated mass ranging from 10,000 to 10 billion times that of the sun. In their findings, they found that there was a correlation between a black hole’s mass and the flickering of the accretion disk.

Subsequently, the team investigated whether this correlation was also applicable to black holes with smaller accretion disks – in this case, white dwarf systems.

The connection was clear.

“These results suggest that the processes driving the flickering during accretion are universal, whether the central object is a supermassive black hole or a much more lightweight white dwarf,” co-lead author Yue Shen said.

The findings could help the team study other types of black holes around the universe, especially the mysterious intermediate-mass black holes – only a few have been discovered until today.

“Now that there is a correlation between the flickering pattern and the mass of the central accreting object, we can use it to predict what the flickering signal from an IMBH (intermediate black hole) might look like,” said Colin Burke, another co-lead author.

COVID-19 Global Update

Total Cases Worldwide: 212,542,972

Total Deaths Worldwide: 4,441,389

Total Vaccinations Worldwide: 4,965,531,430

Countries with the highest number of confirmed cases worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*

  1. US: 37,939,681 (+0.61%)
  2. India: 32,474,773 (+0.08%)
  3. Brazil: 20,583,994 (+0.06%)
  4. France: 6,708,163 (+0.12%)
  5. Russia: 6,672,373 (+0.28%)
  6. UK: 6,555,419 (+0.49%)
  7. Turkey: 6,234,490 (+0.30%)
  8. Argentina: 5,139,966 (+0.12%)
  9. Colombia: 4,892,235 (+0.06%)
  10. Spain: 4,794,352 (+0.50%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

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