The US was a world leader in vaccination. What went wrong?

“The United States started its vaccination drive with a structural advantage. It had the most generous supply of Covid vaccines, along with Israel, thanks to investments made to procure doses before the vaccines were approved for emergency use by the US Food and Drug Administration.”

“Demographics may also be holding the US back to a degree. America has more young people than most Western European countries: About 16 percent of Germany’s population is under 18 versus about 22 percent of the US’s, to give one example. Children under 12 are still not eligible for vaccines in the US (or anywhere else), which may be partly depressing its vaccination share.
But there is more to the story than supply quirks or demographic trends.

Compared to a country like Portugal, now a world leader in Covid vaccinations, the United States’ vaccination rates for its eligible population are not particularly strong, either. In Portugal, 99 percent of people over age 65 are fully vaccinated; in the US, the share is closer to 80 percent. Those disparities persist in the younger age cohorts: 85 percent of Portuguese people ages 25 to 49 are fully vaccinated versus less than 70 percent of the Americans in the same age range.

Another big difference that explains that divergence is one of culture and politics. Covid vaccinations have become, like so much of America’s pandemic response, polarized along political lines. As of July, 86 percent of Democrats said they were vaccinated, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, while only 54 percent of Republicans said the same. One in five Republicans said they would “definitely not” get the vaccine.

“This political divide over vaccines has contributed to the US falling behind European countries when it comes to coverage levels,” Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told me.

There are pockets of vaccine hesitancy in Europe, especially in Germany and France, but nothing on the scale of what we have seen in the United States. In Portugal, as reflected in its exemplary vaccination rate, skeptics have a very low public profile.

“We don’t need to convince people to get vaccinated,” Gonçalo Figueiredo Augusto, who studies public health at NOVA University Lisbon, told me over Zoom. “People want to.””

Nuclear subs and a diplomatic blowup: The US-France clash, explained

“lays the groundwork for Australia to acquire at least eight nuclear submarines with support from the US and the UK. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it also marks the “first major initiative” of a tripartite new security agreement among the countries under the acronym AUKUS (pronounced AWK-us, according to the AP).

“This initiative is about making sure that each of us has a modern capability — the most modern capabilities we need — to maneuver and defend against rapidly evolving threats,” President Joe Biden said in Wednesday’s joint announcement with Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The AUKUS submarine deal replaces a previous agreement between France and Australia for France to deliver 12 non-nuclear submarines.”

“In public remarks..French officials, including Le Drian, have not held back their shock at Australia’s decision to turn to the US and the UK. “We had established a trusting relationship with Australia, and this trust was betrayed,” Le Drian said on Thursday, according to Politico.”

“French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to withdraw his country’s ambassadors to the US and Australia in response to the pact marks a surprising breakdown in France’s historically close relationship with the US — but Australia’s decision to look to the US for its submarine fleet is less surprising.

Specifically, China’s military buildup, and its quest for dominance in the South China Sea — a major trade route for Australia — made the French submarines obsolete before they were even delivered. Because the US-made submarines rely on nuclear power, they have a far greater range than conventional submarines, don’t require refueling, and have better stealth capabilities — meaning they can stay underwater for months at a time without being detected, Australian National University researcher AJ Mitchell explained in the Conversation this week.”

“In addition to the advantages of nuclear submarines, Australia’s previous deal with France — a $66 billion submarine contract, finalized in 2016, that would have provided Australia with 12 conventional, diesel-powered Barracuda submarines — has been rife with difficulties.”

“On top of cost overruns and delays, there were other issues as well. Shortly after Australia and France reached the agreement in 2016, the French shipbuilder, then called DCNS, revealed it had been hacked and documents related to a separate Indian submarine project exposed. And while France’s submarine technology — conventional, diesel-powered attack vessels that could be switched to nuclear power — may have made sense when Australia’s relationship with China was less contentious, that relationship has soured recently due to China’s aggressive foreign policy in the Pacific and elsewhere.”

“Australia and the US reportedly conspired to keep the developing deal from France, even as officials from both countries met with their French counterparts. Biden discussed the future of their alliance with Macron in June, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken made no mention of the pact when he met with Le Drian that same month in Paris.

Australia also hid its plans from France when Morrison and Macron met in June, although Morrison says he did raise concerns about the viability of diesel-powered vessels, according to the Hill. Australia’s defense and foreign ministers even met with their French counterparts late last month and issued a joint statement about furthering their defense cooperation, specifically citing the submarine program.”

Following Protests, France Retreats on Plan to Censor Filming of Police

“After a weekend of protests, inspired by a police beating, French President Emmanuel Macron and his ruling party are backing off from supporting a proposed law that would severely curtail, if not eliminate, the sharing of footage and images of law enforcement officers at work.

The proposal at issue, Article 24, would not officially outlaw photographing and sharing images of police. But it would threaten a yearlong jail sentence and a fine of 45,000 euros ($54,000) to anyone who takes or shares images of law enforcement with an “obvious intention to harm.” Experts in France, including the government’s own ombudsman, warned that the law was too vague and would have a chilling effect on the movement to expose police brutality.

And France does have a police brutality problem. This weekend’s protests were inspired by the beating of a 41-year-old black man, Michel Zecler, a music producer, who was stopped by police in Paris for not wearing a mandatory coronavirus mask on Nov. 21. According to NPR, surveillance footage captured three officers forcing their way into his studio and beating him. The beating only stopped when others came to Zecler’s aid. A fourth police officer threw a canister of tear gas into the studio.”

France’s mass protests against a controversial police security bill, explained

“Protests against a police security bill and the arrest of an unarmed Black man have rocked France for three consecutive weekends — with the past two Saturdays turning particularly violent.

The rallies, which started on November 21, have been fueled by public outcry against police brutality and a new draft law that would make it a crime to publish photos or videos of on-duty police officers “with the aim of harming their physical or psychological integrity.” If convicted, violators of the law could face fines of more than $50,000 and up to a year in prison.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s government has argued the measure is needed to protect police officers and their families from online abuse that could end in violence. But critics say it will curb both civil liberties and police accountability.

France has experienced a series of high-profile incidents in recent months of police using heavy-handed tactics, mostly against people of color. Security camera footage showing white police officers beating 41-year-old Black music producer Michel Zecler, a French man of Malian descent who is well known in the French rap scene, in the lobby of his music studio went viral on social media.

The graphic video contradicted the story the officers involved had initially provided to justify their actions: that Zecler had resisted arrest and acted violently toward them. The incident further inflamed the protests, with many arguing the proposed security law would potentially have made sharing such a video illegal. But without the video, Zecler told the New York Times, he’d likely be in prison right now.

In response to the video and the backlash, Macron’s government announced in late November that it would completely rewrite Article 24, the specific part of the broader security bill that would have restricted the sharing of videos and photos of police.

But demonstrators weren’t appeased. This past weekend, tens of thousands of people across France took to the streets in protests that in some cases turned violent. At least 60 people were arrested and several police officers were injured, according to France’s interior minister.”

France, the way to Islamic reformation is to challenge institutions — not stigmatize Muslims

“Recent events underscore the need for a reformed reading of Islam. But such reformation will not be brought about by stigmatizing Islam or Muslim communities, as the French president did. What is needed is to challenge Muslim institutions to take a clear position on Islamic jurisprudence justifying violence.”

“It was a policy statement about cracking down on “radical Islamist” influence among French Muslims to prevent their transformation into a “counter-republican” community. However, Macron’s bizarre remark that Islam “is in crisis all over the world today” unsurprisingly got most of the attention in the Middle East.”

“What was meant to be a debate about combating Islamic radicals in France turned into an outcry against “Macron’s stigmatization of Islam.” Nuanced Muslim voices got lost in the noise.
The Macron fiasco didn’t overshadow the problem of violence in the name of Islam for long. The beheading of a schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, on Oct. 16 for showing his students images of a caricature depicting Islam’s prophet came as a crude reminder of the problem. Calling it an isolated act, as the grand mufti of Egypt did, doesn’t cut it any longer. Nor does the lamentation over French atrocities in Algeria half a century ago. The problem of violence motivated by a certain interpretation of Islam is real.”

“Three key premises held by the Islamic Salafist tradition lie at the source of the problem. First, the idea that sovereignty lies with “God,” not the people, restricts the role of legislatures to enacting Islamic law, which is also understood in its most literalist interpretation. Rulers who don’t uphold this principle are deemed idolatrous. Second, Muslims’ “apostasy,” often defined as having a different interpretation of their faith, is punishable by death. Third, when Muslim leaders fail to enact these rules, individual Muslims have a duty, under certain conditions, to carry them out themselves.

These interpretations of Islam underpin most of the violence in its name, since the Egyptian scholar Sayyid Qutb wrote his call for Jihad more than half a century ago, all the way to the Islamic State and “lone wolves” violently punishing those who “insult Islam” today. Islamic institutions such as Al-Azhar often denounce that violence and insist that its perpetrators do not represent “true Islam,” as Egypt’s mufti just did. Yet they rarely address the intellectual foundations of these belligerent interpretations of Islamic texts.

Independent-minded Islamic thinkers have long been advocating more clement readings of Islam, its laws and its relationship with non-Muslims. From Muhammad Abduh in the 19th century to Nasr Abu Zayd, Mohammed Arkoun and many others more recently, thinkers have critically reviewed Islamic jurisprudence to show its emphasis on reason, individual freedom and equality. But religious institutions and movements did not follow their lead. And political leaders, including those of the so-called secular regimes, hedged their bets and walked a fine line between reformers and Salafists. Decades of social, economic and political decay, foreign encroachment and military interventions, along with Saudi support, helped Salafi thought grow. Today, Salafi thought is no longer a fringe: It has penetrated mainstream religious institutions as well as the Islamist movements that had started off as modernist, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Those who are interested in promoting a reformist vision of Islam should challenge the foundations of Salafism within these institutions and movements — not “Islam” as a whole, as Macron did, nor the already stigmatized Muslim minorities who are struggling with racism and discrimination in Western countries.
Instead, Islamic institutions and movements should be pressed to come up with unambiguous answers to the key questions that Salafism poses: Does their interpretation of “true Islam” allow Muslims to use violence against others? Does it allow Muslims to uphold modern political institutions and their laws? Does it allow Muslims to live peacefully with people they consider apostates or infidels?

Challenging these institutions and movements will help, not undermine, the debate among Muslims over what Islam is — the debate that will shape the future of Islam.”

Macron steps up fight against radical Islam (and his critics)

“Macron announced the Cabinet will on Wednesday dissolve a pro-Hamas organization known as Cheikh Yassine, which he said was “directly involved” in the gruesome assassination of Samuel Paty, the eighth-grade teacher who was killed after he showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed during a class discussion on freedom of speech.

The teacher reportedly tried to be mindful of the sensitivity of the subject for some of his pupils by asking those who might be offended to either leave the class or look away, sparking the ire of one pupil’s father, among others.

After the disgruntled parent and several others posted a video on social media denouncing the teacher, calling for mobilization against him and mentioning the address of the school, an 18-year-old man, without apparent ties to the school, waited for Paty and beheaded him. On Tuesday, French media reported the investigation into the beheading revealed the assailant had been in touch with the father prior to the killing.

The assailant was of Chechen origin, and Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke Tuesday evening, according to the Elysée, which said Macron “wants to reinforce Franco-Russian cooperation in the fight against terrorism and illegal immigration.”

The attack is not the first beheading or the bloodiest terror attack France has suffered in recent years, but it has struck a nerve. Schools and teachers, though underpaid and under-equipped, hold a unique place in the collective imagination of the French, who see themselves as the torchbearers of enlightenment. It also goes to the heart of the unique French conception of freedom of speech — one that prides itself on offending and tackling all sacred cows.”

“France has had a homegrown radical Islam problem for decades. It has caused problems for successive presidents and governments, which have struggled to reconcile the repression necessary to stamp it out with French laws, due process and freedom of speech. It culminated in 2015 with the bloodiest string of terror attacks in Europe: In January, assailants attacked satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and then in November, the Bataclan concert hall as well as cafés and restaurants in Paris.

The place of Islam in French society has been a lightning rod issue since former President Jacques Chirac passed a law banning French public service employees from wearing “ostentatious” religious symbols, widely interpreted as a roundabout way of banning the Muslim headscarf.”

“Macron will award Paty the Legion of Honor, France’s highest civilian honor, and will lead a national tribute to him. It will take place at the Sorbonne University, a location chosen by Paty’s family.

“The Sorbonne is the symbolic monument of the spirit of enlightenment and of French cultural, literary and educational influence,” according to an Elysée official.”

A terror attack in Nice threatens to turbocharge France’s debate on free speech and Islam

“The killing of three people in southern France on Thursday has been deemed a terrorist attack by French officials — and it looks to be related to the country’s ongoing controversy over the public display of cartoons depicting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and the government’s general approach toward Islam.

Around 9 am local time Thursday in Nice, an assailant used a knife to kill three people, two women and a man, at the Notre-Dame Basilica. One of the women died inside the church, as did the man; the second woman “fled to a nearby bar but was mortally wounded,” according to the AP.

Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi told reporters he believes the attack was perpetrated by an Islamist extremist. “He cried ‘Allah Akbar!’ over and over, even after he was injured” by police, Estrosi said. (“Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” is a common expression used by Muslims, especially during prayers.) “The meaning of his gesture left no doubt,” Estrosi added.

The suspect is now in custody and has been hospitalized.

Two other incidents occurred on Thursday, the same day some Muslims observe Mawlid, a celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. In Montfavet, also in southern France, a man was shot dead after threatening police with a handgun; in Saudi Arabia, a guard outside the French consulate in Jeddah was stabbed. The guard was hospitalized but his condition remains stable, the French embassy in Riyadh said in a statement, and the suspect has been arrested.”

“Earlier this month, a suspected Islamist extremist beheaded Samuel Paty, a 47-year-old secondary-school teacher, as he walked home from school. Days earlier, as part of a class discussion on freedom of speech, Paty had showed his 12- to 14-year-old students two caricatures of Muhammad that had been published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo — the same images that inspired jihadists to kill 11 staff members at the magazine and six others in Paris in 2015.

Police found a Twitter account suspected of belonging to Paty’s attacker that featured a picture of the severed head along with a message: “I have executed one of the dogs from hell who dared to put Muhammad down.”

Macron’s government turned Paty into a freedom-of-expression hero. At a national memorial for the slain teacher last week, Macron said France “will continue the fight for freedom” and “intensify” efforts to end Islamist extremism in the country.”

“French police raided numerous homes across the country as part of its probe into Paty’s killing. About 15 people have been taken into custody, and 51 Islamic organizations are under investigation.

The aftermath of Paty’s killing has rekindled a contentious debate in France about how to balance freedom of expression with respect for a religion.”

Why France has 4 times as many coronavirus deaths as Germany

“France and Germany, Europe’s two most powerful countries, have been hit hard by the coronavirus, with each approaching 150,000 confirmed cases. But as of April 17, France has near 18,000 dead from the infection, while Germany’s death toll has passed 4,000.
Which raises the question: How did two similarly sized countries, located right next to each other and with comparable levels of wealth and resources, end up with such starkly different outcomes?

The answer has a lot to do with how their respective governments responded to the crisis.

France had the continent’s first confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, but the French government failed for weeks to take decisive action to impose strict social distancing measures or promote large-scale testing. Germany, on the other hand, immediately began aggressively testing and tracking people with symptoms.

Now, France is under lockdown and has just extended it until at least May 11. Meanwhile, Germany plans to reopen part of its economy next week.”

“Germany isn’t out of the woods yet. But it’s in a better position than most because it had good fortune and the good sense to start testing early and often.

France, on the other hand, had none of that.”

“February came and went with little action. Health officials advised citizens to wash their hands, keep a safe distance from others, cover their mouths when sneezing, and stay away from retirement homes. And even as Macron held video conference calls on the virus and inspected hospitals and clinics to see how his country was coping, few concrete actions were taken to impose strict social distancing measures or promote large-scale testing.

In fact, in early March, the government still allowed gatherings of up to 1,000 people to proceed. Macron, for his part, attended a theater performance on March 6, partly to show that life could continue unperturbed. He also visited a retirement home that same day, even as the number of coronavirus infections in the country was at least doubling.

To make matters worse, France couldn’t get a clear picture of the growing problem due to a lack of tests. As Politico reported last week, the country doesn’t manufacture its own testing kits, but rather “relies on China for their main components.” With China paralyzed by its coronavirus outbreak at the time, France was unable to quickly get more tests. That severely limited the country’s ability to do widespread testing early on, which public health experts say is critical to slowing an outbreak.

Macron, in effect, seemed to be sleepwalking toward disaster.”