Good morning, everyone to your late rising pundit round-up person!


Maeve Reston of CNN has the good and the bad news with regard to COVID.

The accelerating pace of vaccinations in the United States has rightly been a source of celebration, with a CNN analysis showing that the nation’s pace is nearly five times faster than the global average. The US set a record high of 4.6 million vaccine doses reported administered in a 24-hour period, according to data published Saturday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And Americans have taken heart in the fact that more than one in four adults are now fully vaccinated against Covid-19. But officials are citing increasing concern about the number of young people landing in the emergency room with Covid-19.

The emphasis on progress has inevitably created a false sense of security in some corners at a time when the virus remains unpredictable and increasingly contagious because of new variants.

    The reality is that the country is still a long way away from herd immunity — with vaccine hesitancy now standing as a major hurdle in achieving that goal. A stunning 40% of Marines have declined the Covid-19 vaccine, according to vaccine data provided to CNN on Friday by the Marine Corps.

    Damian Garde of STATnews reports on…a pill for treating COVID-19 in the future?

    The world has vaccines that can prevent most cases of Covid-19. It even has drugs that can help with the most serious symptoms of the disease. Now what it needs is a Tamiflu for SARS-CoV-2.

    It would be a pill, exquisitely calibrated to target SARS-CoV-2, with tolerable side effects and a low price tag. And it would work just as well as those antibody treatments that require an hourlong intravenous infusion, but it would come in a handy packet patients could take home.

    “We’re looking for something I could give everyone in an urgent care setting who comes in with exposure or a positive test,” said Nathaniel Erdmann, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital who treats Covid-19. “An easy, oral, safe drug.”

    As simple as that sounds, the process of actually developing new antiviral treatments is overwhelmingly complicated, even outside of a pandemic. Things can go disastrously wrong at countless steps along the way, whether drugs are too weak to stop the viral spread or too sloppy to be safe. And SARS-CoV-2 is consistently evolving, meaning scientists have to outfox natural selection itself to stay ahead of the game.

    German Lopez of Vox has some details on what we know of President Biden’s first budget proposal.

    The $1.5 trillion discretionary funding request is only a proposal — and not even a complete budget proposal, with a more comprehensive version including mandatory spending and tax changes coming this spring. But it’s an important window into the new administration’s priorities, calling for a boost in domestic spending on issues ranging from education in poor communities to the opioid epidemic to climate change to pandemic preparedness.

    In a letter to Congress, the administration pointed to the “four compounding crises of unprecedented scope and scale” the US is currently dealing with: the Covid-19 pandemic, a weakened economy, a reckoning on racism, and global warming. It argued that the federal government, with the right priorities, can not only tackle these crises but “begin building a better, stronger, more secure, more inclusive America.”

    To achieve that, the Biden administration proposes boosting non-defense discretionary spending by 16 percent — an attempt to get the country back to historical spending levels. Among the increases are funding boosts to housing vouchers, Title I grants for high-poverty schools, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, programs to help combat the opioid epidemic, and gun violence initiatives.

    Ovetta Wiggins and Erin Cox write for the Washington Post about the Maryland’s legislature’s veto override that repeals the LEO Bill of Rights and introduces new measures of police accountability.

    The Democratic-majority legislature dealt Republican Gov. Larry Hogan a sharp rebuke, overriding his vetoes of measures that raise the bar for officers to use force; give civilians a role in police discipline for the first time; restrict no-knock warrants; mandate body cameras; and open some allegations of police wrongdoing for public review.

    Each bill had been hailed by criminal justice advocates as having the potential to make policing in the state fairer and more transparent. Democrats, who hold large majorities in the legislature, made enacting them a top priority after months of protests over the police-involved deaths of unarmed Black men and women.

    “Maryland is leading the nation in transforming our broken policing system,” said House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), who sponsored the repeal of the officers’ bill of rights and is the first Black person to hold her leadership role. “I am proud to lead the House in overriding the governor’s veto and showing the nation exactly where we stand as a state.”

    The changes do not go as far as some social justice advocates had hoped: Discipline will now largely be decided by civilian panels, for example, but police chiefs maintain a role. Some activists wanted the panels to act independently of police.

    Robin Wright of the New Yorker writes on whether and how the U.S., under Biden’s leadership, will be able to get out of  the wars they are in around the globe.

    For millennia, politicians, from Cicero to Winston Churchill and Richard Nixon, have opined about “peace with honor” to end military engagements; writers, from Shakespeare and Edmund Burke to A. A. Milne, have waxed eloquent on the challenges. Biden is the fourth President to try to achieve it in the Middle East and South Asia in the twenty-first century. There’s a lot of debate in Washington about what he should do—and whether the U.S. should simply pack up and pull out of the region, which is what it did in Vietnam, in 1973, and in Lebanon, in 1984, under pressure from ragtag militias with vintage weaponry who were better strategists and willing to sacrifice more lives. With the pivot to Asia—a.k.a. China—and American energy independence, why stay longer? From a distance, it’s appealing; from the ground, it’s a more challenging call.

    For Biden, his legacy could be either of two extremes—a President who finally extricated America from quagmires in the messy Middle East, or a leader who ceded ground to isis jihadis and the dictatorial Assad regime in Syria, Sunni extremists and well-armed Shiite militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Not to mention Russia, which now has access to bases on the Mediterranean, in Syria, and in Libya, farther west than it’s ever been. Biden’s legacy will shape America’s legacy, too.

    Adam Nossiter of the New York Times takes a closer look at the “desperate” circumstances of Afghanistan’s prime minister Ashraf Ghani

    From most vantage points, Mr. Ghani — well qualified for his job and deeply credentialed, with Johns Hopkins, Berkeley, Columbia, the World Bank and the United Nations in his background — is thoroughly isolated. A serious author with a first-class intellect, he is dependent on the counsel of a handful, unwilling to even watch television news, those who know him say, and losing allies fast.

    That spells trouble for a country where a hard-line Islamist insurgency has the upper hand militarily, where nearly half the population faces hunger at crisis levels, according to the United Nations, where the overwhelming balance of government money comes from abroad and where weak governance and widespread corruption are endemic.

    Meanwhile, the Americans are preparing to pull out their last remaining troops, a prospect expected to lead to the medium-term collapse of the Afghan forces they now support.

    “He is in a desperate situation,” said Rahmatullah Nabil, a former head of the country’s intelligence services. “We’re getting weaker. Security is weak, everything is getting weaker, and the Taliban are taking advantage.”

    The United States has steadily distanced itself from Mr. Ghani, 71, and has frequently worked around him to deal with the Taliban and regional power brokers. Afghan warlords, potent centers of alternative power, openly condemn or flout him.

    Finally this morning, Jon Ronson, writing for the Guardian, takes a historical and current perspective on the popularity of conspiracy theories.

    I spent much of the late 1990s chronicling the embryonic world of Satanic Hollywood lizard paedophile conspiracy theories for my book, Them: Adventures with Extremists, which turns 20 this week. Lately, of course, the theories have proliferated wildly – radicalising unparalleled swathes of YouTubers, inspiring an insurrection and reportedly in the past two years at least one murder and a suicide bombing. I feel lucky to have been there at its inception, but annoyed with myself for not anticipating quite how vast and malevolent things would get. Looking back, were there clues?

    ***

    These days nothing much has changed, except instead of streaks of vapour and the dollar bill they’re deciphering clues in Beyoncé videos and Chrissy Teigen’s tweets. For QAnon to work, adherents have to allow themselves to believe that the secret paedophile elite, despite their Machiavellian genius, can’t resist leaving little visible pointers to their malevolent power, like a thief placing a monogrammed glove at the scene of the crime. It’s lucky for the armchair detective that that’s their achilles heel.

    Looking back then, it’s obvious that all the movement needed was a much better distribution system and some charismatic leaders, Art Bell being reclusive and not a tub-thumper.

    It turned out I had a knack for star-spotting future conspiracy luminaries – although, to be honest, it wasn’t hard. In the 1990s two men towered over the others in terms of oratory skills and engrossing theories – David Icke and Alex Jones.

    That’s it. we’ll go with the smaller lineup this morning.

    Have a good morning

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