FIFA sucks, but it’s the national associations that have been exposed for inaction on equal rights
Image by Christian Lue via Unsplash
As the England men’s football team lined up for their first World Cup match in Qatar yesterday, their kit was missing a certain controversial element. The Danish team’s kit will also most likely be lacking this evening, as will the German team’s tomorrow.
The announcement by football’s governing body FIFA that players risked being booked for turning out in the armband came only hours before England’s first group match. According to a statement by seven of the football associations involved, FIFA had been notified of their intention to wear the band months beforehand and had not issued a response.
Let’s be clear, FIFA is a disgrace in its own right. Not exactly known for its morally-upstanding stances or procedures, its ban on the armband is the latest appalling sop to power and money. Its own anti-discrimination campaign for the competition (known innovatively and vaguely as #NoDiscrimination) demonstrates at least some awareness of its tournament’s hosts’ record on human rights, but is one that avoids saying ‘boo’ to the Qatari golden goose.
‘What’s the point of a protest if there are no stakes?’
As such, the OneLove armband might have been a powerful statement – players on a world stage risking (and possibly receiving) a yellow card for expressing solidarity with oppressed minorities, all watched by an estimated audience of five billion. But rather than make an important protest, the football associations have cowed to FIFA and to Qatar. As Jack Murley, presenter of the BBC’s LGBT Sport Podcast, noted, ‘what’s the point of a protest if it doesn’t actually make a splash; if there are no stakes to it?’
As it has turned out, the climb-down has made a mockery of the campaign and shown it to be little more than pinkwashing – a gesture designed, not to show meaningful solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community, but one intended to make the Europeans appear progressive while, at the same time, allowing them to participate in an event that should never have been allowed to happen in the first place.
Bizarre though FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s remarks at the pre-tournament press conference were, he was not wrong in identifying European hypocrisy. While teams from other nations may have made their own statements that the competition was about football and not politics (and while we can have our views on that stance more generally), what they did not do is make threats they failed to follow through on.
Solidarity without sacrifice is just marketing
The justification for abandoning OneLove has been that, in risking a booking, individual players should not be put in a position where they could jeopardise their own role in the competition. And indeed they should not. But isn’t that exactly what the football associations are for?
FIFA is all-powerful, but the English FA, the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (DFB) and others aren’t exactly impotent, and nor are players. If they had intended to genuinely show up for LGBTQ+ people, they should have pressed ahead with wearing the armbands and taken the consequences, painful though they may have been. Genuine protest for change does not come for free. It comes with sacrifice and suffering.
Helpfully, a lesson in real protest was still on display last night. Standing beside the England side was the Iranian team, the players of which opted not to sing their national anthem – a gesture that demonstrated their support for the anti-government protests that have already resulted in more than 400 deaths and 16,000 arrests. The Iranian women’s netball team, meanwhile, posted an image on Instagram of themselves posing without the mandated hijab, an act of disobedience that could have serious repercussions well beyond a yellow card.
FIFA’s response to the rainbow armband was absolutely predictable. But sadly, so was that of the football associations. OneLove was, at best, a naïve and ill-thought-out missed opportunity. If we truly want to challenge FIFA, to make sport inclusive, and to force social change, we need to take risks, use strategies to which we can commit, and, most importantly, take the necessary consequences. The question is really whether football associations, as representative of the people, are prepared to do that, or whether ‘showing solidarity’ only when it’s convenient is enough for them.
We hardly need reminding that this not a time to be messing about with LGBTQ+ rights advocacy; when trans rights are under relentless attack and when, just this weekend, five people were murdered in a gay bar in Colorado. The stakes for the football associations are minimal when held up to the very real threats and dangers experienced by the people they purport to support.
In future, European associations must think seriously about the role they want to play in human rights struggles. We can only hope they will begin to show some backbone, take on FIFA directly and end the culture of empty gestures.
Weigh in! Are you watching the tournament? What role should sport and sporting organisations play in addressing injustice (if any)?
With seven series and 368 pithy episodes, Peppa Pig has impacted the lives and outlooks of countless children and parents alike. But what can our porcine heroine and her pals tell us about the world of work? Let’s look at five of our favourite characters.
Miss Rabbit and the gig economy
No analysis of work in Peppa Pig would be complete without a focus on the hardest working person in the country (Series 4, Episode 27: The Queen). Over the seven series, Miss Rabbit has had no fewer than 28 different jobs, from supermarket cashier to rescue helicopter pilot.
Besides the obvious safety concerns of having an overworked helicopter pilot, we need to address the question of why Miss Rabbit feels the need to take on so many positions.
The so-called gig economy, in which workers usually operate on a self-employed or contract basis and without employee protections and benefits, has grown enormously over the past five years. An estimated 4.4 million people in England and Wales now work at least once a week for the likes of Uber, Deliveroo and Upwork. Gig workers often work for multiple gig platforms and many do so to supplement insufficient full-time pay from formalised work.
Some might argue that Miss Rabbit isn’t part of the gig economy, rather that she’s simply entrepreneurial with a number of ‘side hustles’. But even this suggests a warped idea about the role work plays in our lives.
Mr Bull and government spending
In his seminal 1936 work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, John Maynard Keynes advocated government intervention to counter economic recession, including but not limited to public works. His suggestion that the Treasury bury bank notes in coal mines and employ people to dig them up has become commonly known as the “dig holes and fill them up” theory. Keynes argued that putting money in people’s pockets by guaranteeing full employment is what keeps the cogs of the economy greased, especially in times of crisis.
Construction worker, Mr Bull, seems to be well-acquainted with Keynesian economics, as demonstrated by his unbridled enthusiasm for “digging up the road”. Unlike an employee of a cash-strapped local council, Mr Bull will not only put shovel to asphalt to mend potholes. He and his colleagues, Messrs Rhino and Labrador, will, with minimal invitation, excavate large chasms in public highways, even going so far as to destroy a local beauty spot to keep the economy going (Series 4, Episode 18: Lost Keys).
Today, as Europe slides closer to recession, expect Mr Bull to ramp up his commitment to Keynesian theory. Just watch your step.
Mummy Pig and the reproductive economy
Long before Covid (though not before swine flu), Mummy Pig began working from home. It’s not clear what she does exactly except that it involves a computer.
What we do know is that her husband, Daddy Pig, is employed as a structural engineer. We must presume therefore that this position requires him to spend many hours in the office or on building sites, leaving Mummy Pig to work on her computer and simultaneously care for Peppa’s brother George, who is too young to join her at playgroup.
Mummy Pig is in good company. A recent report has found that almost half of working age women in the UK perform 45 hours of unpaid care work per week, while twenty five per cent of men undertake 17 hours per week. These 45 hours represent £382bn of care work in the UK per year, value that is vital but absent in national economic calculations.
Generalised incompetence aside, Daddy Pig is portrayed as a doting father. But Mummy Pig isn’t oblivious to the skew in their caring responsibilities. When the identity of the hardest working person in the country is about to be announced, she notes drily, ‘well, it won’t be you, darling’. (Series 4, Episode 27: The Queen).
Mummy Sheep and the welfare state
Although the fate of Susie Sheep’s father is still the subject of internet speculation, he is widely believed to be deceased (looking at you, Alexander Armstrong).
Barring generational wealth or a hefty widow’s pension, Mummy Sheep, an apparently unemployed single parent, must, we presume, be in receipt of some degree of welfare.
In the UK, 22.7 per cent of families with dependent children are headed by a lone parent, and half of all children in lone-parent families live in relative poverty. According to the single parent charity, Gingerbread, ‘benefits are a lifeline for many single parents, whether in work or not. Barriers to entering and progressing in work, high living costs and unpaid child maintenance all add to the financial strain on single parent families, which means state support is often vital.’
Fortunately, Mummy Sheep and Susie appear to be living in comparative comfort (Series 3, Episode 1: Work and Play), suggesting that wherever it is that Peppa Pig is set is not beneath the shadow of Tory austerity.
Madame Gazelle and the pensions crisis
At 79, Madame Gazelle is the oldest formally employed character of the series. She works as the town’s school teacher and has taught not only Peppa and her contemporaries, but all the mummies and daddies of the town before them. While attempts to get her to retire have so far failed (Series 4, Episode 26: Madame Gazelle’s Leaving Party), Madame Gazelle is setting an important example.
With a rapidly aging population, Europe is walking into a potential pensions crisis. According to the OECD, ‘the dependence ratio of older people (i.e. those aged 65+ as a proportion of those aged 20-64) will rise from the current figure of 22 per cent to 46 per cent in 2050’. Reforms to pension systems across Europe, such as those proposed in Madame Gazelle’s native France, may be unpopular. But finding a solution to ensure that younger people do not endure the burden of providing for an aging population will be key. This may include increasing the retirement age.
Not that this is likely to bother Madame Gazelle, who seems content to spend many more years chastising Pedro Pony and singing the Bing Bong Song. How many years depends, of course, on whether she really is a vampire.
Going forward we need to be smart, loud and inclusive
The United States Supreme Court decision to overturn the landmark case Roe v. Wade, and with it the rights of millions of women and pregnant people to access abortion, was crushing. Its impact will be felt not only in the US but across the world.
The overturning of Roe is not an anomaly, but a staggering success in a well-organised campaign by an emboldened global anti-abortion movement. This single decision has the potential to begin the rolling back of reproductive rights across Europe and to delay advances in reproductive care across the world.
Many commentators have claimed that this moment signifies a return to the 1960s. But as Jia Tolentino notes in her New Yorker piece, in many regards, we’re in a worse place. But rather than deterring us, this should make us more determined to take on the threat to global abortion rights in a way befitting the 21st century. With this in mind, here are six points to consider as we reframe the fight for abortion rights.
(This piece was inspired by an Instagram post by prhdocs. You can find the full post here and the group’s website here.)
1. Be unapologetically pro-abortion
Abortion is healthcare and healthcare is a human right. This is the central argument we need to be making if we want to advocate for reproductive justice.
Anti-abortionists choose to frame the abortion ‘debate’ as one of morality because it invites reasonable people to consider artificial shades of appropriateness for what is essential medical care. This is a trap that we must not fall into.
It is not enough to believe that abortion should be permitted only in dire circumstances, such as rape, incest or when continuation of pregnancy threatens the life of the pregnant person. Invoking these distinctions only adds grist to the anti-abortionist mill as it implies that abortions obtained for other reasons are somehow wrong. Abortion is not wrong or immoral under any circumstances.
Going forward, we need to be unapologetically and unwaveringly pro-abortion to ensure that people consistently have access to the care they need when they need it.
2. Avoid using coat hanger imagery
The coat hanger has been a recurring symbol of the abortion movement for decades. A stark and chilling image, it is representative of a time when desperate people had to take desperate action to end their pregnancies. Particularly prevalent in the pre-Roe years, the coat hanger was one of myriad dangerous and often ineffective methods of self-inducing abortion.
But we are now post-Roe not pre-Roe, and today there are safe ways of self-inducing abortion. During the first 11 weeks of pregnancy, abortion can be brought about by taking a combination of the drugs mifepristone and misoprostol. The method is safe, up to 96 per cent effective and can be done without the presence of a physician.
At the height of the Coronavirus pandemic, the UK government allowed mifepristone and misoprostol to be distributed by post. In March of this year, it was announced that the service would be available indefinitely, allowing people to end their pregnancies safely, conveniently and with dignity.
Nevertheless, the coat hanger abortion is not altogether obsolete. In 2015, a Tennessee woman was rushed to hospital after attempting to end her pregnancy using a wire hanger (she was later arrested). For exactly that reason, we need to raise awareness of safe methods of self-inducing abortion.
So instead of sharing coat hanger imagery, let’s share practical information about how to safely obtain abortion pills and other means of safe abortion.
3. Ensure that trans people are included in the movement
The majority of people who have abortions are women, however trans men, intersex and non-binary people also need access to reproductive healthcare. We gain nothing by excluding these people from the fight.
It’s important to remember that discrimination against trans people shares its roots with the beliefs that brought about the SCOTUS decision: misogyny.
4. Respect the work of abortion funds
If there is anything positive to be taken from the turn of events in the US (and that is highly debateable), it might be the apparent reinvigoration of the feminist movement. But as with any groundswell of support following a crisis moment, we need to be mindful that there is already plenty of positive action going on, by people with a greater insight into the relevant issues.
In the US, the National Network of Abortion Funds connects more than 90 local abortion funds, which aim to assist those seeking an abortion to overcome the financial and logistical hurdles to receive the healthcare they need. These funds are well-established and familiar with the legal and practical aspects of providing abortion care in places that are hostile to it. Supporting these existing organisations, rather than seeking to reinvent the wheel, is key.
Abortion advocacy groups are also active in Europe. Abortion Support Network helps pregnant people in countries such as Ireland, Malta, Poland and Hungary to obtain an abortion.
Globally, Women on Web can provide abortion pills to those who are unable to obtain them in their home country. And MSI Reproductive Choices (formerly Marie Stopes International) works in 37 countries to provide contraception, safe abortion and post-abortion care.
5. Don’t cite The Handmaid’s Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is a fascinating piece of literature about a patriarchal, white supremacist, totalitarian society in which women are forced to give birth.
It’s easy to see why comparisons with the book and our current situation can and have been made. But doing so centres the white experience and excludes the experiences (past, present and likely future) of those who will feel the effects of the ban on abortion most keenly, specifically Black and Brown people for whom this kind of oppression is nothing new.
In the US, African American women have suffered from the most egregious aspects of the intersection of racism and misogyny. During slavery, enslaved women were subjected to naked auctions and unnecessary gynaecological surgeries, and routinely raped. Up until the present day, African American women have undergone compulsory or targeted sterilisation, medical experimentation and consistently receive inferior healthcare. Black women in the US are up to four times as likely as other groups to die from pregnancy-related complications, a statistic mirrored in the UK.
The atrocities of slavery and Jim Crow were perpetuated not only by white men but by white women, and white women have been instrumental in pushing the anti-abortion agenda that has resulted in this latest abomination.
Of the states which have or which intend to ban abortion, many have populations of Black women greater than the national average, and Black women have abortions at a higher rate than white women. As Marcela Howell, President of the National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda notes: ‘Eliminating abortion rights in many states will be an inconvenience for women and birthing people of means – mostly white – who will be able to afford the high cost of accessing safe abortion. Many Black women and birthing people will lose all access – for them, the cost may be their health, lives or livelihood.’
6. Be vocal about the successes we have had
In the light of so much despair, it can be tempting for non-US citizens to be coy about the rights we still have in other parts of the world. But this is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing.
But, in the light of Roe being overturned, these gains are fragile. As we have seen, a right that many took for granted can be eradicated with the fall of a gavel, especially when we don’t actively seek to consolidate it. If we want to defend and expand reproductive justice, we need to be shouting from the rooftops about how access to reproductive healthcare in all its forms is an inalienable human right.
A satirical classic, an exploration of culture and a timeless call to arms.
2021 has been a blur of a year for many of us, almost a 12-month appendix to 2020. Although lockdowns have been eased and some aspects of life may have returned to ‘normal’, I’ve found that the desire to stay cloistered remains strong. As a result, I’ve been reading more, a pastime I had sadly neglected in recent years.
When it came to selecting my favourite reads of 2021, I noted that they all had common themes of aging, love and identity. Besides being significant to me at this point in my life, these themes are clearly highly topical as we begin to consider how we want to rebuild our post-pandemic world, what a good life really means and how we might be better and kinder than we were before. But mostly, I’ve enjoyed these books because they are heartfelt, with characters who don’t quite fit in their respective worlds and who desire things that are beyond the norm. I will endeavour to take inspiration from them going into the new year.
Fear of Flying, Erica Jong (1973)
Fear of Flying gets a bit of a bad rap these days, in part because, at face value, it’s the whingings of a wealthy white woman. But, for me (a fellow whinging wealthy white woman), that’s exactly why it worked in 1973 and (worryingly) still works today. Jong details in writing what goes on in women’s heads – however narcissistic, neurotic and erotic that may be. It should go without saying that not all of it applies to all women, but moments still ring true with alarming regularity. As a writer, this novel is significant to me because Isadora is tediously selfish, infuriatingly contradictory and often deeply unlikeable, a state that sadly remains as unacceptable for female characters as it does for female humans.
Genius line: “Women are their own worst enemies. And guilt is the main weapon of self-torture… Show me a woman who doesn’t feel guilty and I’ll show you a man.”
Why the Germans Do It Better, John Kampfner (2020)
Why the Germans Do It Better is an exploration of modern Germany, set within the framework of that quintessential British admiration of/ revulsion for its Teutonic neighbour. Kampfner isn’t coy about Germany’s faults, nor does he fawn over its successes. Instead, Why the Germans Do It Better is a clear-eyed, well-researched, eminently readable work. Combining history with modern anecdote, it’s the product of someone who understands the culture of Britain as well as he does that of Germany, and, more importantly, how those two cultures interact.
Genius line: “With the credibility of the US and UK undermined, Germany has found itself in the deeply uncomfortable position of being the standard-bearer for liberal democracy.”
Less, Andrew Sean Greer (2017)
‘Failed novelist’ Arthur Less receives an invitation to his ex-boyfriend’s wedding. Desperate to avoid attending, Less decides he’s going to try to outrun his heartbreak by taking a round-the-world trip. It’s a simple enough set-up, but the journey Greer takes the reader on is one that is lively, charming and achingly poignant. Less is a story of a man coming to terms with aging and beginning to understand how the meaning and significance of love can shift with that process. The novel is pure of heart and wicked of wit, a combination in the face of which I am forever weak.
Genius line: Less is full of sweet and profound observations on love. But it’s the sparkling turns of phrase that appealed to me, for example: “An eel of panic wriggles through Less”, or, “The Russian novelist pulls his lush eyebrows together like the parts of a modular sofa”. Fresh, rich and unique.
The Lion and the Unicorn, George Orwell (1941)
The Lion and the Unicorn is actually an essay published in a compilation, Why I Write. It hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks, a life-changing piece that gave me an unexpected insight into myself as a Brit living abroad. Although the essay was written in the throes of the Blitz, there are moments when you’d be forgiven for thinking Orwell is talking about another European disaster: Brexit.
What really fascinated me, however, was Orwell’s optimism. He was genuinely convinced that one of the outcomes of the war would be a shift from capitalism to socialism. The spoiler, of course, is painful. But it was an important lesson that it is hope, not despair, that is the true driver of visionary writing.
Genius line: “The insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time.” Ouch.
The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford (1945)
I’ve no idea why it took me so long to come to the divine Nancy Mitford. The Pursuit of Love is primarily the story of the upper-class, mercurial and perpetually romantic Linda Radlett as she pursues, well, love, or whatever that meant to young women in the 1930s. Set against the backdrop of impending war, it’s tragicomedy at its sweet/sad, heart-rending best. As social commentary, it’s a brilliant and bonkers send-up of the British aristocracy and an exploration of the evolution of personal identity in the interwar years. The BBC also released an adaptation of The Pursuit of Love in 2021, which does a good job of replicating the tone of the novel.
Genius line: “‘He was the great love of her life you know.’ ‘Oh, dulling,’ said my mother, sadly, ‘One always thinks that. Every, every time.'”
What the ban on children in Parliament tells us about women in the workplace
The image of the MP for Walthamstow, Stella Creasy, taking her Parliamentary oath in 2019 with her month-old daughter strapped to her chest was an enduring and heart-warming one.
However, earlier this week, Creasy received an email from Parliament informing her that, according to newly-updated guidelines, she and other Members would now be prohibited from entering the Chamber when accompanied by a child.
Creasy posted the email on social media and received support from various quarters, together with the expected bile. Some critics pointed out that members of the armed services, nurses or lorry drivers wouldn’t have the privilege of bringing their offspring to work; why was she any different? Others noted that, on her salary, she could obviously afford to pay for childcare.
Notwithstanding the irony that the House of Commons is often described as a playground with its booing and braying, the rule change sends a firm message: government is not a place for mothers, at least not ones who are open about it.
Why we need more babies in Parliament
Creasy is an interesting case because, although she’s entitled to paid maternity leave, she has been denied maternity cover. Instead, her staff are expected to ‘escalate matters to the MP as necessary’, leaving her in a state of technically-but-not-practically-on-maternity-leave, obliged (and keen) to continue representing her constituents.
By not offering Creasy a locum and leaving her in a kind of post-natal professional limbo, the suggestion is that, if an MP happens to become pregnant, they should just step down, being, as they surely are, unable to complete the duties of an elected representative. With relatively few pregnant male MPs in the Commons, this is an expectation that has thus far only applied to women. To take the subtext further, women should only be allowed into Parliament in the first place if they behave like men, and men don’t have babies, at least not visible ones.
Despite what the right-wing media might have us believe, Creasy isn’t an outlier. Around the world, babies in Parliament aren’t uncommon (and provide a delightful Google image search on a grey November day). Jo Swinson was the first British MP to bring her baby into the Chamber in 2018; Australian Senator, Larissa Waters breastfed her baby during a debate; and New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern’s daughter, Neve, accompanied her onto the floor of the UN in New York.
It’s unclear whether Creasy would have taken her baby into Parliament had she had the benefit of maternity cover. The answer might well be yes, and with good reason. Babies deserve to be in Parliament. Parliament isn’t a haulage firm or a hospital; MPs aren’t lorry drivers or nurses. Parliament is the seat of democracy, the place where we’re supposed to hold our leaders to account, and where the future prospects of all children are determined. Their presence is a reminder of the very purpose of the state. Banning children from the House of Commons is a convenient way of ignoring them and their needs.
It’s not coincidental that child poverty in the UK has risen significantly since 2010 as a direct result of Conservative and coalition government policies. An estimated 30 per cent of children in Britain now live below the poverty line, a trend that is expected to continue. During the same period, council spending on early years services has been slashed by as much as 60 per cent, with between five hundred and a thousand Sure Start centres being closed.
Of course, some people would just prefer not to have to deal with babies at all. As one of Creasy’s critics pointed out, ‘you might think your baby is wonderful, but the rest of us are far less starry-eyed about the issue’. And this might be a reasonable point, except that babies aren’t a hobby some people choose to participate in. They are the economy’s future workforce. Workers don’t spawn spontaneously to fill vacancies, they need to be nurtured and educated, and their futures protected.
At present, they are raised for free (or at least at a highly-discounted rate) primarily by women.
The motherhood penalty
The criticism directed at Creasy didn’t come only from anonymous keyboard warriors. Conservative MP for Blackpool South, Scott Benton tweeted, ‘Parents who get paid a fraction of what you do pay for childcare and juggle responsibilities so they can go to work. What makes you so special?’
This is a great straw man. Indeed, parents on low salaries do juggle their parenting and professional responsibilities. But the issue isn’t: why does Stella Creasy get special treatment? It’s: why are parents expected to juggle at all?
When we talk of a gender pay gap, what we often mean is a motherhood pay penalty. According to a recent study, ‘the median loss of women’s earnings is around 45 per cent relative to what they would have earned if they had remained childless’. While the value of the motherhood pay penalty varies widely by industry, level of education and the age at which a woman had her first child, across the board, women are worse off when they have children compared to men.
At the same time, childcare costs in the UK are among the highest in the world. A week’s full-time nursery school for a child under two in the UK costs, on average, £263. Childcare accounts for 80 per cent of women’s full-time median incomes, compared with the EU average of just over 30 per cent. This is a clear disincentive for (in particular) women to continue in the workforce after having children.
To add insult to injury, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on mothers’ engagement with paid work. Already heavily responsible for caring for children and elderly relatives, the burdens of home-schooling and remote working have left women more precariously positioned than ever. According to a report by McKinsey, in the U.S., a quarter of working mothers were considering reducing their hours or quitting the workforce completely. For women with small children, a third were grappling with that decision.
Stella Creasy isn’t the first mother to be made to feel unwelcome in her workplace. Women are invariably subject to lower pay and reduced opportunities as a result of becoming parents.
Ultimately, nobody should be in a position where they feel they are unable to raise a child and play a part in the workforce; not Stella Creasy, not a nurse and not a lorry driver.
The criticism levelled at Creasy that she is, in some way, taking advantage by bringing her baby into the Commons is exactly the reason she should be doing so. It serves as an important, if visually-jarring, reminder that when we drive women out of decision-making, everyone suffers, especially families.
Weigh in! Should the ban on children in the Chamber be overturned? What has been your experience of working while parenting? How can we make work life more conducive to family life?
This coming Sunday will mark the end of an era. Germany’s second-longest-serving Chancellor, Dr Angela Merkel will stand down after sixteen years. Since I moved to Germany in 2013, all I’ve ever known is Merkel. And in that time, I confess – I’ve caught feelings.
As a member of the British Labour Party since the day I turned 16 and the daughter of a former Labour Councillor, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool, bleeding-heart socialist. If you were to cut me open, I’d have ‘fuck the Tories’ written throughout like a stick of Blackpool rock. And yet, on Sunday night, I may well find myself shedding tears at the departure of a Conservative politician.
So how did it happen that, with such a background, I fell for Angela Merkel?
Our type on paper
I’m not alone in holding a candle for the woman born Angela Dorothea Kasner in 1954. In objective terms, Merkel has been good for Germany and largely good for Europe. At the beginning of her tenure in 2005, GDP per capita in Germany was below that of the UK and France. It now outstrips both of these countries.
That rise was partially thanks to a controversial legacy inherited from the previous administration. But Germany’s comparatively swift recovery from the 2008 financial crash came as a result of Merkel’s understanding of and reliance on her country’s inherent economic and social strengths. Likewise, Germany has weathered the coronavirus storm better than other nations because of a healthcare system that has been well looked after and the presence of sensible public debate.
Merkel’s political scorecard would be admirable at any time, not least at a time when the world has found itself in an ever-quickening spiral of disarray. But that’s not the reason I fell for her.
A first flush of love
For me, there are two clear incidents that have marked Merkel out as the most extraordinary politician of the era. The first, rather obviously given my creed, was the manner in which she managed the refugee crisis of 2015.
As Syria’s civil war escalated and the region collapsed into chaos, hundreds of thousands of refugees began the gruelling journey to and through Europe. The European response to the development was embarrassingly fractured. While Merkel’s Germany opened its borders, many other nations pulled up the drawbridge, leaving millions of desperate people stranded. Germany processed 1.4 million asylum applications between 2015 and 2017. By comparison, the UK processed fewer than a hundred thousand.
Worthy though it clearly was, Merkel’s decision to give sanctuary to traumatised people fleeing conflict was not wholly driven by compassion. Like many European countries, Germany has an aging population. The influx of young, fit and eager workers is likely to be viewed a boon in years to come.
And that’s exactly why I admire her: she’s good, but she’s also smart, and she’s a brilliant politician because she recognises when these qualities align.
The same can be said of the second incident that made me fall for Merkel’s political charms. It’s one that, at first glance, may seem counterintuitive.
The seven year itch?
The introduction of same-sex marriage has long been overdue in general and, in a social democracy like Germany, especially so. This was in no small part due to Merkel’s hesitancy to bring the issue to the floor of the Bundestag. For this, I would be the first to criticise her.
However, the vote on equal marriage eventually came and was passed in 2017. In full Merkel-tradition, it was almost certainly a politically-calculated move, again the serendipitous alignment of ‘good’ and ‘smart’ (the alternative view being that it was a slip-up). The vote took place three months before the General Election and, in allowing it, Merkel neutralised a key campaign issue of the opposition centrist and left-wing parties. She gave her party a free vote, framing it as ‘one of conscience’. Merkel, herself, is believed to have voted against the bill, despite having expressed a shift in her attitudes in recent years.
At the end of the day, Merkel is a conservative, the daughter of a pastor, raised in then-Communist East Germany. As the leader of the country’s Conservative party, the CDU, and with an eye to the dangers posed by the emerging right, as well as critics and traditionalists within her own party, Merkel had little option but to vote against, knowing that the proposal had sufficient support to pass regardless.
This incident might have put me off Merkel by raising exactly the wrong kind of red flag. In fact, it had the opposite effect. In admitting that the world was evolving, and she with it, and in allowing her party to vote freely, it was a prime example of what has been Merkel’s defining characteristic on the world stage: behaving like a grown-up.
Unlike so many of her peers, she has been precisely what she was elected to be – a public servant. Not a petty, thin-skinned, self-serving narcissist, but a genuine representative of a diverse people.
Merkel has always trodden the fine line of trying to antagonise as few people as possible on all sides. By making concessions rather than remaining entrenched in dogma, it has enabled her to form a series of functioning governmental coalitions that took her country from the ‘sick man of Europe’ to the continent’s leading economic and political power. That is grown-up politics.
I’m happy to admit that Merkel has been far from perfect. It would be remiss of me not to highlight a number of her failings.
With the exception of the same-sex marriage and adoption votes, social policy (as one might imagine after sixteen years of Conservative government) has been woefully neglected. The New Year’s Eve incident in Cologne highlighted how regressive laws on sexual assault still are. Access to abortion is still not in line with World Health Organisation recommendations (there remains a compulsory ‘cooling off period’ after a procedure is requested and women are mandated to undergo counselling). The tax system still heavily favours marriage, leading to fewer women engaging in full-time employment. Reproductive assistance is hamstrung by outdated legislation. All of these aspects require the progressive touch of a more liberal administration.
Furthermore, despite economic successes, Merkel has been old-fashioned in her approach to technology, specifically digitalisation. If Germany wants to maintain its competitive edge in the new world, this is an area that demands immediate attention from the new leader.
Finally, there are plenty among my ilk who have viewed her as something of a tyrant, throwing her country’s economic might around Europe in order to subjugate the periphery. Her handling of the Greek Debt Crisis came in for especially heavy criticism. While her approach in that particular crisis was tough (to say the least), the Euro and the European Union project survived as a result.
The end of the affair
As she prepares to step down, Angela Merkel’s popularity ratings have seldom been higher, and that comes as no surprise.
In a world of Johnsons, Trumps and Bolsonaros, Merkel has been stability over recklessness, rationality over conspiracy, and dignity over egotism. At a time when weak men and even weaker morals seem to have been the order of the day, she has been a beacon of compassion, graciousness and professionalism.
But Merkel is not just decent by comparison. At any time in history, she would have been recognised as an effective and thoughtful leader.
And most importantly, for me at least, she has taught me that while my ethics may be fixed, how to apply them can be flexible. She has reminded me that humility is the most effective form of leadership, reinvigorated my interest in ‘proper’ politics, and even brought me out of my shell as a writer and activist.
I’m not alone in fearing for the post-Merkel future. One of the worst possible outcomes would be a CDU/CSU victory – all the damage of another conservative-led government without the moderating force of Angela Merkel.
The Social Democrats and (less so) the Greens are polling well (at time of publishing…) so there are grounds for optimism. Much as I’ll miss Merkel personally, it is more than time for an actively progressive, rather than a sluggishly modernising government.
Weigh in! How do you think history will remember Angela Merkel? What are your wishes and expectations for the new government in Germany?
I didn’t want to read the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for two reasons. First, it’s technical – it’s ‘the science bit’ of the UN body’s most recent assessment. But mostly I didn’t want to read it because I knew it would be scary, and not just hide-behind-the-sofa-scary, rather proper, “Code Red for Humanity”, existential-collapse-scary.
But eventually, I did read it and, yes; it was just as terrifying as I had anticipated. But, to my surprise, it was also encouraging and strangely liberating. So if, like me, you can’t bring yourself to look at the report just yet, read on for the lowlights and – unlikely as it may seem – a message of hope.
What is the IPCC report?
The IPCC is currently in its Sixth Assessment Cycle. The report published earlier this month is Working Group I’s contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) and presents the ‘Physical Science Basis’ of climate change.
Ultimately, AR6 will include reports from two further working groups, on the impacts of climate change (due in early 2022) and how to mitigate climate change (due in autumn 2022).
What does the report say?
Much as I’d expected, the report doesn’t make for easy reading in any sense of the word. In short, it presents the science of climate change as we know it, summarises the specific environmental effects of climate change thus far, and presents scenarios on how things might go in the future.
Most importantly, it states that “it is unequivocalthat human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land”. Humans have caused a rise in global surface temperature of over 1ºC since 1850, and that rise in temperature has (already) resulted in a rise in sea levels, the acidification of the oceans, and the increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.
After a rundown of our transgressions to date, the IPCC goes on to model five different scenarios for our future, depending on levels of climate change mitigation as well as a number of socio-economic assumptions.
Scenario 1 is something of a pipedream – it would only be achievable if, tomorrow, we started running our cars on unicorn farts. Scenario 2 is aligned with the requirement of the Paris Climate Agreement to keep the global temperature increase to less than 2ºC. Scenarios 4 and 5 are the hell-and-damnation options, in which we fail to cooperate and instead do the bare minimum to reduce (or even increase) CO2 emissions, and in which we see global warming of up to 6ºC. Unlike scenario 1, these scenarios are not out of the question.
Under every one of thescenarios, global surface temperatures will continue to increase until at least 2050. The report adds that, without “deep reductions in CO2”, by the end of the century, global warming will exceed 2ºC. The last time a global temperature increase of 2.5ºC was sustained was 3 million years ago. For context, that’s a million years before Homo went erectus.
The report then illustrates how different increases inglobal temperature affect different regions to different extents – that’s to say, a 2ºC rise in global warming would generate a mean increase of 3ºC in the Pacific Northwest, a region that has already seen record temperatures this year, and a greater than 6ºC increase in the Arctic.
Meanwhile, with that same 2ºC rise in global warming, incidents of extreme heat, which would naturally have occurred every 50 years or so, will occur every three or four years and be more intense. Likewise, incidents of heavy rain will occur twice as often and be 14% wetter. That information is of particular poignancy in central Europe, where more than 300 people died last month in some of the most extreme flooding in living memory.
Clarification of the regional impacts of the global system is a particular strength of the report. You can frighten yourself even more by playing with the IPCC’s interactive map to see how different variables might affect different regions. This tool makes it starkly clear that nowhere on Earth is immune to climate change, and that life as we have enjoyed it is changing irrevocably.
Finally, there is some good news! The five scenarios presented illustrate that humanity still has the power to influence how bad climate change will become. Furthermore, with a sustained period of net negative CO2 emissions, we could, eventually, reduce the global temperature (though many of the impacts of global warming cannot be undone for at least several millennia). Whether this is feasible is clearly moot, but it’s an important reminder that all is not lost, even at this juncture.
Why is this report different?
Firstly, this report is irrefutable documentation of the progress and potential of climate change. It’s confirmation of the scientific consensus, of what most of us knew but were reluctant to admit and what vested interests have been trying to explain away. In this report, there’s nowhere left to hide – not behind the sofa and not behind the quirks of the Holocene. Bearing in the mind that the report had to be signed off by the world’s superpowers (and heaviest polluters), this is highly significant.
Second, this report matters in a positive way. With the five scenarios, we’re actively rejecting the idea that climate change is a binary – we’re screwed vs. we’re not screwed. Besides being excessively simplistic, this kind of all-or-nothing thinking plays into the hands of climate deniers and fossil fuel lobbyists who would prefer that we accept what’s been done and carry on regardless because we’ve nothing left to lose.
That simply isn’t true. Damage has been done and damage will continueto be done. The issue is now one of extent. This is an opportunity to stop the rot, to make peace with the fact that scenario 1 and our pristine planet are things of the past, and to acknowledge that we still have the power to tame, albeit not to prevent, climate change.
For me, this report is different because there’s a certain amount of liberation when theoretical doom becomes tangible, measurable disaster. How we go forward from here will be the subject of the IPCC’s autumn 2022 report and I, for one, won’t be hiding from it.
Coronavirus restrictions are set to be lifted completely in England in less than a week’s time. With the number of Covid-19 cases at its highest since January, this counterintuitive move will inevitably lead to a further rise in cases, more deaths and more incidents of the life-limiting morbidity associated with ‘long Covid’.
Much has been written about the British government’s ongoing indifference to keeping its citizens safe. But in the absence of competent, responsible leadership, it’s worth reflecting on the role of the individual, not only to protect others, but to protect the legacy of humanity’s fight against disease.
Vaccines: humanity’s greatest achievement
Vaccines are one of the greatest (if not the greatest) human discoveries. Vaccination programmes are the finest example of global human cooperation. At the start of the twentieth century, life expectancy in the developed world was just 47. By the end, it was 77. Vaccination played an enormous role in this astonishing advancement.
At the beginning of that period, for example, more than 60,000 people in Britain fell ill with diphtheria every year, resulting in about 6,000 deaths. At least two of my infant ancestors were among them. Polio, meanwhile, very nearly killed my grandmother and left her father disabled for life. Smallpox was ravaging the world.
Today, babies, including my own daughter, are vaccinated against diphtheria, polio and four other deadly diseases at a routine trip to the GP. As a result, there was a single recorded death from diphtheria in the UK in 2019. Since its launch in 1988, The Global Polio Eradication Initiative has reduced cases of polio across the world by 99 per cent. We now talk about smallpox, a disease that killed 300 million people in the twentieth century, in the past tense.
A large part of such regression is the result of so-called ‘anti-vax’ movements, peddling misinformation and conspiracy. This is abhorrent, cruel and exploitative and must be tackled as an imperative. But what is also concerning at this point in our history is the potential for simple complacency to become a factor in walking back the gains we have made, particularly in this pandemic.
Our response to Covid-19 thus far has been especially impressive. The gene sequencing of the original virus was achieved within a single day, while the production of several effective vaccines began within months of the first confirmed cases. Almost a billion people worldwide have been fully vaccinated just 18 months after the first lock-down began. Again, these are achievements of cooperation, but our continued success now depends on people recognising their individual power.
‘Typhoid Mary’ – the world’s first known asymptomatic carrier
The case of ‘Typhoid Mary’ is a prime example of how the apparent wellness of a single individual can conceal a devastating vector of disease transmission.
Mary Mallon was born in 1869 in Ireland and emigrated to the United States at the age of 15. There, she became a cook in the kitchens of wealthy New York families. Over a seven year period, several members of those families, as well as other domestic staff, fell ill with typhoid fever. Eventually a pattern emerged with Mary at the heart of it.
Mary Mallon was the first known case of an asymptomatic carrier of disease – and a ‘super-spreader’ to use modern parlance. Although she never exhibited symptoms of typhoid, herself, it is believed that she infected at least 53 people, three of whom died. From this, she acquired the sobriquet ‘Typhoid Mary’.
The story of Mary Mallon is particularly tragic because she was forcibly quarantined for much of her life, obliged to give samples against her will. Germ theory was still not fully understood or supported, and Mary refused to believe that she could be the source of the outbreaks, even up until her death in 1938.
Although Mary’s treatment was highly ethically questionable, it did reveal that a person who does not show symptoms of a disease can still carry and pass on that disease. This theory has been borne out repeatedly in the cases of tuberculosis, HIV and, latterly, Covid-19.
The power of the individual as part of a whole
Mary Mallon’s trail of destruction was utterly unintentional. Today, we know about asymptomatic carriers, how diseases spread and how vaccines work in populations.
No vaccine is one hundred per cent effective. Vaccination programmes work because the proportion of vaccinated people is sufficient to reduce outbreaks, so that populations no longer come into contact with disease in the first place. A successful vaccination programme protects both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. The latter group avoids contracting diphtheria not because they’re lucky or strong, but because the people around them have actively behaved in a way that protects them. Vaccination success depends on the willingness of individuals to cooperate with other individuals in the interest of the community.
Mary Mallon’s case is especially pertinent today because, as with asymptomatic typhoid, it is entirely possible for a person who is double-vaccinated against Covid-19 not only to become infected, but to spread the disease inadvertently.
Half of the British population is now fully vaccinated. At the same time, the more contagious Delta variant (as well as its eager cousins, Eta, Kappa and Lambda) is wreaking havoc despite our efforts. The current raft of vaccines does seem to work against variants but there is no guarantee that they will continue to do so. Vaccination is vital, but it is only part of a puzzle that is built as much on personal responsibility as on scientific progress.
Covid-19 has so far killed at least four million people, including my own grandmother, and has touched the lives of millions more. It will continue to do so unless we acknowledge our own role in the ongoing story of humanity versus disease. As the vaccination roll-out continues, as case rates eventually stabilise or decline, and as more and more restrictions on our everyday behaviour are lifted, it behoves us to remain as vigilant and thoughtful as possible.
Now is as good a time as any to reflect on lessons from the past and proceed in the vein of human cooperation that has brought us to this point. That’s what’s at stake come July 19th.
Weigh in! Will you still be wearing your mask after 19 July? What are your thoughts about the lifting of restrictions in England?
When the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Department of Mental Health and Substance Use published the first draft of its Global Alcohol Action Plan 2022-2030 last week, a single clause in the 37-page document drew heavy criticism.
In it, the WHO appeared to be advocating that women of childbearing age should not be allowed to drink alcohol. At all. Regardless of whether they were, or intended to become, pregnant.
Specifically, the document stated, ‘appropriate attention should be given to… prevention of drinking among pregnant women and women of childbearing age…’ (p.17)
Of course, had the line simply read, ‘prevention of drinking among pregnant women,’ it’s unlikely that anybody would have batted an eyelid. But the suggestion that all women who are capable of becoming pregnant should be prevented from drinking alcohol is, not only offensive, it has potentially damaging ramifications.
The idea that a woman who is not pregnant should be forbidden from engaging in an activity open to the rest of the population purely on the off-chance she falls pregnant is, in the first instance, discriminatory. Worse is the implication: that women of childbearing age are primarily reproductive vessels, seen as secondary in their rights and life choices to a hypothetical foetus.
Half a sentence in an obscure draft may not seem like much. And perhaps the authors ‘misspoke’, focused, as they must have been, on their task of reducing the morbidity associated with excessive alcohol consumption. It’s unlikely that they intended to impair the bodily autonomy of several billion people.
But even if it were a mistake, this is really not a time to playing fast and loose with the language of human rights. A woman’s right to decide what to do with her body is under threat. Last month, the Governor of Texas signed into law a bill that not only prohibits abortions after as little as six weeks (before some women even know they’re pregnant), but has the potential to allow private citizens to sue abortion providers. In Poland, a member of the EU, a near-total ban on abortion is being enforced. As many of the report’s critics pointed out, the statement was reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s (mercifully-still-fictional) Gilead.
It is worthy of note that the beginning of the draft action plan does offer a disclaimer: ‘The information in this document does not necessarily represent the stated views or policies of the World Health Organization. The responsibility for the interpretation and use of the material lies with the reader’.
Yet it’s not difficult to imagine how hard-line conservatives and the pro-life contingent would interpret it.
Let’s remember that the action plan is still in its draft form, and following this furore, I would be extremely surprised to see the offending clause appear in the final draft. However, it has been a useful reminder that we cannot afford to be sloppy in how we express issues of human rights. By doing so, we play into the hands of those who believe exactly what the WHO has suggested (deliberately or otherwise) – that a woman’s exclusive purpose is to produce offspring.
Just in case the WHO is still considering including the clause, you can voice your objections at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Weigh in! What are your thoughts on the WHO’s report? How can we ensure that authoritative organisations with health mandates consider their social responsibilities?