As the world continues to grapple with the pandemic, the news that several vaccines had finally made their way through testing and over bureaucratic hurdles seemed to bring energy back to many who could - for the first time in months - feel that the immediate future would not be lived through a screen. However, many nations still see rising infections and death rates, despite their governments imposing increasingly strict measures
It is therefore not surprising that the pressure on political leaders is high to lead their people out of this pandemic as soon as possible. Nowhere was this clearer than in this week’s dust-up between the EU’s leaders and AstraZeneca, one of the first pharmaceutical companies that has succeeded in bringing a Covid-vaccine to market.
After informing the bloc’s leaders early this week that AstraZeneca would deliver but 60% of the doses it was scheduled to in the first quarter, CEO Pascal Soriot gave a remarkable interview to Italian outlet La Repubblica, in which he accused the EU of reacting “emotionally” and claiming that the contract his company had closed was not binding and only required “best efforts” to be made to achieve the agreed upon quota. The Commission’s response was furious, with legal threats being lobbed from several national capitals and a search of AstraZeneca’s Belgian facilities ordered to investigate where its manufactured doses had disappeared to.
This dramatic incident seemed to be winding down when both parties waived the non-disclosures and the contract was released on Friday. While a lot of questions remained, Soriot’s misrepresentation had created enough ire to force both parties to the table. But no sooner had this news broken, when it emerged that the EU was considering invoking a clause in the Northern Ireland Protocol that would essentially close the border for any vaccines.
All hell broke loose.
Ireland had been blindsided by its own allies, the EU had to scrambled to salvage the damage and the UK government, which until now had only scant PR victories over its decision to leave the EU, looked on in astonishment as the stoic negotiators of major trade regulatory minutiae descended into chaos. In real terms, it was a non-decision. Northern Ireland was not ever likely to see any vaccines cross over its land border. But in overplaying its hand, the EU have vindicated Soriot in his earlier assessment and, in the process, have further fed the mounting exasperation with its handling of the vaccine roll-out and emboldened its critics going further.
On to other news; further East, two storms of an entirely different nature are brewing. In Russia, thousands of protesters in cities throughout the country flooded into the streets to protest the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, demanding his release. This comes on the back of a week of raids and arrest of Navany’s associates following the release of a video investigation that ties Vladimir Putin to an opulent billion Euro palace on the Black Sea Coast purportedly built through black money and kickbacks. Protests had been increasing ever since Navalny took centre stage in 2012, but to many observers, the increasingly anxious response from government agents might be a sign that years of mounting problems could finally be unnerving a ruler whose grasp on power had long seemed unshakeable.
Near simultaneously in Poland, following what amounts to a near-total ban on abortion by the country’s controversial Constitutional Tribunal, thousands are marching in daily protests demanding the reversal of the decision, which was largely made by the stacked courts at the behest of the ruling Law and Justice party and its allies in the Polish Catholic church, which remains a powerful force in the country. Jaroslaw Kaczynsky, the leader of far-right party and Poland’s de facto ruler, branded the protesters as “criminals seeking to destroy the Polish nation” and called on his supporters to “defend Poland”. Previous attempts in 2016 and 2018 to impose a ban through parliament were hastily abandoned in the face of similar nationwide demonstrations that brought the country to a screeching stop.
While it is unlikely to change course this time around, dark clouds are gathering. The country is facing an uphill battle in legal proceedings over its interference in its judiciary in European courts and the pressure is high on embattled European leaders to finally deal with countries seen as descending into right-wing extremism. So far, the ruling party seems to be willing to pay the costs, but with no sign of popular anger subsiding and very few friends remaining, now that Republicans are out of power in Washington, Poland will have some troubled months ahead.
Finally, in somewhat more uplifting news, a rare victory for justice was won in The Hague (link in Dutch) this Friday. After a 13-year battle in the courts, 4 Nigerian farmers were finally granted compensation for the pollution caused by oil spills in 2004 and 2005 by Shell Nigeria. In what was a long legal slog over complex issues regarding jurisdiction and liability, the judges found that the company’s efforts to limit the environmental consequences of the spill and clean up the damage had been woefully insufficient, while further determining that its parent company, Royal Dutch Shell, must now upgrade its installation to prevent any similar event from occurring in the future.
The company had claimed that the spills had been the result of sabotage, but hadn’t provided enough evidence to support the claim in the eyes of the court. A third spill, however, was deemed to have been proven to be the result of sabotage. Following a year that has left many people feeling listless and not in control, this verdict is a welcome reminder that sometimes, human tenacity and a belief in one’s convictions can, eventually, bring relief in the end.