Insights, analysis and must reads from CNN’s Fareed Zakaria and the Global Public Square team

Are we still in a pandemic?

Sadly, the answer is a resounding yes. In some countries, it may feel as if vaccines have ended the crisis. But the more-transmissible Delta variant and anecdotes of “breakthrough” infections—when a fully vaccinated person comes down with Covid-19—are injecting uncertainty.

The virus is still raging in the largely unvaccinated developing world, but rich countries are handling their current state of vaccine–virus limbo differently. France will implement a new “health pass” rule, requiring proof of vaccination, recent recovery, or a negative Covid-19 test to enter most museums and movie theaters, the BBC reports, noting a recent surge of cases; the government hopes to extend the requirement in August to anyone entering a restaurant or bar. (The law sparked controversy in France’s National Assembly, and David A. Andelman writes for CNN that President Emmanuel Macron is staking his political future on new restrictions.)

In the US and UK, life is moving ahead—and infections are still a part of it.

The vaccinated have largely been protected from serious illness and hospitalization, but “breakthrough infections, while rare, are making headlines,” Jen Christensen reports for CNN, pointing out that three more New York Yankees players known to be vaccinated, for instance, recently tested positive. The US CDC has stopped keeping track of breakthrough infections among the vaccinated, but The Economist writes that mostly-restriction-free Britain, where 53.4% are fully inoculated and where Prime Minister Boris Johnson has discarded measures like gathering-size limits, will be a global test worth watching.

“The Delta covid-19 variant is ripping through Britain, with more than 40,000 cases reported a day (roughly two-thirds of the peak in January), and the number is doubling every fortnight,” the magazine writes. “It is the first country to face a wave of the more transmissible Delta variant after having vaccinated most of its adult population. It will be watched by policymakers in other rich countries seeking to answer a crucial question: does a mixture of vaccination and acquired immunity allow them to treat covid-19 more like other endemic diseases (ie, influenza and the coronaviruses that cause common colds), or are more severe restrictions still necessary? … Even if deaths are much lower than otherwise would have been the case, huge numbers of infections can still cause immediate damage.”

Putin Won’t Quit Ukraine

After Russian President Vladimir Putin published a lengthy essay arguing that Ukraine and Belarus belong, historically, in Russia’s sphere of political and cultural influence, Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead writes that “his strategic objectives are unmistakable. Mr. Putin’s quest to rebuild Russian power requires the reassertion of Moscow’s hegemony over Belarus and Ukraine.” Putin may be constrained in how aggressively he can act, Mead writes, but he’s unlikely to stop trying to bring Ukraine, especially, closer into Moscow’s fold.

China’s Succession Problem

Given how central President Xi Jinping has made himself to China’s political system, Jude Blanchette and Richard McGregor write for Foreign Affairs that China faces deep uncertainty over what will come after him. Xi hasn’t put in place any obvious successors, they write, and it’s unlikely anyone in the current generation of officials will rise to become the heir apparent.

“[R]egardless of how or when [Xi] departs from office,” they write, “the lack of a clear plan raises unavoidable questions about the party’s ability to transfer power in a peaceful and predictable manner. In the decades after Mao’s death in 1976, the country’s political system seemed to be steadily stabilizing, despite occasional turmoil at the top. Today, however, China’s political future is shrouded in uncertainty. The succession issue is not one that Chinese officials discuss in public, but they cannot ignore it, either. It is a problem that will need a solution sooner or later.”

The Public Square Is Still Out of Order

If social-media platforms like Twitter and Facebook constitute our modern “public square,” where political views are voiced and debated in the open, then that square is effectively flooded with sewage, as hinted at by a New York Times Magazine piece by Emily Bazelon last year, which examined the effect of disinformation and questioned the assumption that more and freer speech is better.

In the current issue of The Political Quarterly, several essays pick up where Bazelon left off, and the conclusions are not particularly encouraging. Social-media companies have some responsibility to spread good information and not garbage (an “epistemic” responsibility), but they also have an obligation to foster open participation (a “participatory” responsibility), and those seem to be in tension, as Leonie Smith and Fay Niker portray them. Trust in the mainstream media is so low that it’s quite easy for false beliefs to spread, Shane Ryan writes, suggesting people will believe something on the assumption that if it weren’t true, they would’ve heard; when people don’t trust mainstream news outlets, that belief dynamic gets tricky to manage, as false beliefs aren’t effectively debunked and persist, as a result.

For all the talk in our political ecosystem about facts and objective information, Natalie Alana Ashton and Rowan Cruft argue that people have always formed their operating judgments based on underlying, non-disprovable “hinge” beliefs and that social media didn’t really cause a fragmented diversity of views to sprout; rather, in their view, it simply revealed the panoply of disagreements (factual and otherwise) that were already there. As for what we should do about it, David Yarrow writes that fact-checking alone may not be enough: We need to supply context to factual claims and vet underlying assumptions. To Yarrow, “value checking” would be a worthy companion endeavor.

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