Margaret Keenan, 90, is applauded by staff as she returns to her ward after becoming the first person to receive the Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine at University Hospital in Coventry in the UK on December 8 (Photo: JACOB KING/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The Bulletin World Weekly: Making sense of 2020

The Spinoff Members enjoy many benefits, including a special treat in their inbox every Thursday – the Bulletin World Weekly, an international news round-up focusing on the best journalism from around the globe. As a festive bonus, we’re sharing the final one of the year with all our readers. 

In the last Bulletin World Weekly this year – it’ll be back in January 2021 – I thought I’d go over some stories to help make sense of 2020, plus share a reminder of some people we lost during the year, the risks of disinformation, and a parcel of stories to keep you going.

To be or not to be vaccinated, that is the question

You won’t have missed the news about the United Kingdom launching the first mass vaccination programme against the virus that causes Covid-19, using the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, but you may have missed that the second person vaccinated was William “Bill” Shakespeare, aged 81, kicking off a wave of puns, The Washington Post reported.

“They really are prioritising the elderly: this guy is 456,” wrote one user, while the term “Two Gentlemen of Corona” swiftly became a top trend in Britain. Others quipped that the first batch of inoculations, part of the first mass coronavirus immunisation campaign in the west, marked the “Taming of the Flu”.’

To understand how mass vaccination works, it’s worth listening to this More or Less BBC podcast by British economist and Financial Times columnist Tim Harford. He’s also done a specific series, How to Vaccinate the World.

“Bill” William Shakespeare, 81, receives the vaccine on December 8 in Coventry (Photo: Jacob King – Pool / Getty Images)

Best data visualisation related to Covid-19

This graphical representation of virality and contagion was published in The Washington Post relatively early in the pandemic, but remains for me one of the most effective explanations of spread and why “flattening the curve” matters so much.

Graphics reporter Harry Stevens produces some of the most lucid data representations you will see in journalism, where too often jazzy graphics can get the way of comprehension. This one on herd immunity showed how it works and how nuts it is to think of trying to achieve natural herd immunity when it’s still not clear for how long infection may confer immunity.

Of course, closer to home the Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles and The Spinoff’s Toby Morris have produced astoundingly effective graphics storytelling on Covid-19, so good that the World Health Organisation (WHO) wanted them.

Word of the year: Disinformation – how it erodes trust in everything

Disinformation is regarded as the deliberate spreading of lies, misinformation more as its repetition. When the president of the United States is prolific in spreading disinformation, it becomes clear how corrupted norms have become.

Jane Lyvynenko of Buzzfeed wrote this week that disinformation – whether about Covid, Black Lives Matter, or the presidential election – is breaking the United States: “Disinformation and its fallout have defined 2020, the year of the infodemic. Month after month, self-serving social media companies have let corrosive manipulators out for dollars, votes, and clicks vie for attention, no matter the damage.”

The obsession with celebrities and influencers doesn’t help, according to an analysis by the disinformation research group FirstDraftNews.org of the impact of nonsense spread by the famous from Rihanna misleading her 100 million followers about the Australian bushfires, to Woody Harrelson spreading conspiracy theories about 5G or Kanye West saying that Covid vaccines could “put chips inside of us”.

“The free and limitless access of social media has since stripped away the distance between celebrities and fans, allowing social interaction at the touch of a button…,” Ali Abbas Ahmadi wrote. “However, celebrities and influencers must be aware of their responsibility when it comes to how quickly they can share misinformation to their millions of fans. The damage can be exacerbated by media reports that repeat the misleading or false claims for clicks. Regardless of whether they spread misinformation intentionally or not, celebrities are complicit in information disorder.”

Some we lost this year, a sample from The Economist

Qassem Suleimani, Iranian military strategist and, as The Economist said, “mastermind of Iranian expansion, destruction and killing”, was assassinated in a US strike on January 3.

“To him the job was still soldiering. That was his calling, even if he did most of it in black shirt and jacket from his desk. His eight-year service in the Iran-Iraq war, the Sacred Defence, in which he was wounded and near-choked by chemical weapons, did more than battle-harden him. It taught him to slide between local militias, crossing borders, making alliances, that proved invaluable later. It taught him that neighbouring countries had to be controlled to keep Iran strong. Most of all he learned that the trenches and attrition of the Sacred Defence, the million deaths, were not a good way to wage war. He would deal out death by other means,” The Economist wrote in Suleimani’s obituary.

“Mad Mike” Hoare, mercenary and inspiration for The Wild Geese, died on February 2.

“The word ‘mercenaries annoyed him; they were ‘volunteers’. Money was not the point, or not for him. He was given a brick of gold once, when they stumbled on an abandoned mine, but was relieved when someone stole it. Glory was his purpose, not plunder. His men seized opportunities, as when they captured a United Nations helicopter, disassembled it and sold it back to the UN as spare parts. They took trophies, decorating their trucks with the spears, shields and heads of Simba warriors,” The Economist wrote.

Olivia de Havilland, “last grande dame of Hollywood’s Golden Age”, died on July 26.

“Because she was small and flawlessly beautiful she was inevitably an ingénue: the lovely and mindless girl, her pleading eyes harking back to silent-cinema days, who would lead the hero windingly but inevitably to the marriage bed. Warner Bros had one great dramatic actress, Bette Davis, and two ingénues, one blonde and one brunette. She was the brunette. And with a burst of menthol in her eyes, she could weep real tears…From the start, this rankled with her. She wanted to play women who were complex and thoughtful…,” The Economist wrote.

Jan Morris, travel writer and sexual destiny pioneer, died at 94 on November 20.

“But far too much was made of organs. Gender was distinct from sex, a more fundamental reality, based not in the loins so much as in head and heart. It was an inner music, a light and shade. For her ‘the conundrum thing’ was less a matter of science than a divine allegory, a union of selves. One had absorbed the other, and nothing was discarded. As with writing about a place, which was also a search for unity of a sort, hard facts were less important than feeling, mood and even imagination. These produced a subtler, personal truth,” The Economist wrote.

Ann Wroe, obituaries editor at The Economist, used this piece some years ago to explain her philosophy of writing about the well known and the less well known: “I don’t want to write what everyone else thinks of the person. I want what they thought of the world.”

Jan Morris in 1988 (Photo: Doris Thomas/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Big reads for the break – a selection of good reporting on open-access sites – to keep you thinking big thoughts over the Christmas/New Year period:

In case you think I am obsessed with Donald Trump and the crisis in US democracy created by his challenging the result of the elections, remember he still has more than a month in the White House as president of the United States.

Here’s George Packer from The Atlantic with his political obituary for Donald Trump

“America under Trump became less free, less equal, more divided, more alone, deeper in debt, swampier, dirtier, meaner, sicker, and deader. It also became more delusional. No number from Trump’s years in power will be more lastingly destructive than his 25,000 false or misleading statements. Super-spread by social media and cable news, they contaminated the minds of tens of millions of people. Trump’s lies will linger for years, poisoning the atmosphere like radioactive dust.”

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