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What We're Watching: Johnson's political mess, carnage in Kabul, Algerian plot twist

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson with a hand to his chin looking concerned

Boris Johnson's hot mess: Analysts across the British political spectrum seem to agree on one word to describe UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's pandemic response: chaotic. After recently saying there would not be another nationwide lockdown in England, Johnson reversed course on Saturday after the UK recorded over 1 million COVID-19 cases and neared 47,000 deaths. (Around 1 in 100 people in England were infected with COVID-19 in the week between 17 and 23 October, according to the UK's Office for National Statistics.) Public health experts say that these new measures come too late, having recommended weeks ago that the government introduce new nationwide restrictions to tackle the country's soaring caseload and surging rate of hospital admissions. While offering support for the lockdown, Labour opposition leader Keir Starmer accused the Johnson government of gross incompetence due to its inconsistent messaging. Johnson has also faced opposition from inside his own Conservative party, with some MPs saying that another lockdown will be ruinous for England's economy. (A leaked memo Friday caused Johnson to make an ad-hoc announcement about the planned lockdown, blindsiding some members of his own party.) Meanwhile, pro-Brexit warrior Nigel Farage is also capitalizing on the chaos and outrage, saying he will change his Brexit Party's name to Reform UK, switching focus to fight the government's COVID lockdown: "Building immunity" would be a more effective strategy, Farage said.

Carnage in Kabul: At least 19 people were killed — mostly students — and scores more injured when gunmen and a possible suicide bomber stormed the biggest university in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday, leading to an hours-long standoff with Afghan security forces. The deadly rampage coincided with an Iranian book fair on campus, which was set to be attended by Iranian publishers and dignitaries. The Taliban, long locked in a battle against the US-backed Afghan government, says it was not involved in the gruesome attack. Attention is now on Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan who claimed responsibility for a similar attack on an education center in Kabul last month that killed 24 people. (ISIS-linked groups gained a foothold in Afghanistan in 2014, and have targeted Afghanistan's minority Shiite community in particular.) This latest bout of violence comes as representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban are trying to iron out a peace deal in Qatar, while the US is looking to bring its troops home from Afghanistan soon after nearly two decades in the country.

Another political plot twist in Algeria: For more than 18 months, the gas-rich Mediterranean nation of Algeria has been gripped by political drama. Last year mass protests led by students succeeded in toppling long-ruling dictator Abdelaziz Bouteflika. But his successor hasn't pleased the streets, and protesters say the same corrupt cabal of military men still run the country. Over the weekend, the government held a referendum on a new constitution that it hoped would meet protesters' demands for more government accountability and economic security. But while those who voted overwhelmingly approved it, total turnout in the country of 44 million people was just 24 percent, raising big questions about the popular legitimacy of the document. One big reason for the weak showing at the polls was a boycott by the "Hirak" (the leaderless protest movement) which says that although the new constitution includes more guarantees of social and economic rights, it was drafted without sufficient input from civil society and still reserves too much power for the president. It's not clear what happens next — but if the government thought the referendum would draw a line after more than a year of unrest, it may be in for a rude surprise in the coming weeks.

Meet Ian Martin, an English Professor from Glasgow who is now head of Communications for Eni's International Resources. Approaching his work in the same way he used to hold his lectures, Ian is dedicated to listening and making people around him comfortable. Having working in both Milan and London, Ian utilizes his ability to communicate in different languages and cultures to prepare Eni's global messaging strategy. "Communication is a transfer of humanity," he says, and his job is as much centered around people as it as around language.

Watch Ian's human approach to communications on the most recent episode of Faces of Eni.

How to capture the essence of this incredible, terrible year in a few short words and without using profanity? It's not easy.

Thankfully, the dictionary website Merriam-Webster.com has released its list of most heavily searched words of 2020, and they tell the story of an historic year in US politics and the life of our planet. Here's a sample.

The top word, unsurprisingly, was "Pandemic," a disease outbreak that covers a wide area and afflicts lots of people. In 2020, the coronavirus crisis hit every region of the world, triggering a public health, economic, and political emergency on a geographic scale our planet has never experienced. Differing responses to that problem defined the politics (and geopolitics) of 2020.

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While recent news from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca on the efficacy of their respective COVID vaccines is encouraging, it has also given rise to bidding wars between wealthy countries trying to secure the largest supply of the new drugs for their citizens. Meanwhile, many governments in emerging market economies, where healthcare infrastructure is generally weaker, are worried they'll be kicked to the back of the line in the global distribution process. Indeed, history bears out their concerns: while a lifesaving HIV treatment hit shelves in the West in the mid-1990s, for example, it took years to become widely in Africa, which saw some of the worst HIV outbreaks in the world. But here's the catch: even if wealthy countries manage to obtain large supplies of vaccines to immunize their populations, the interconnected nature of the global economy means that no one will really be out of the woods until we all are. Here's a snapshot of how many COVID vaccines select countries have already purchased.

Afghanistan's small breakthrough: For months, disagreements over a range of political issues have hamstrung the intra-Afghan peace talks brokered by the Trump administration that aim to bridge the years-long conflict between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But this week, a significant breakthrough was made on the principles and procedures governing the talks, that, experts say, will help push negotiations to the next phase. One key advance is agreement on the official name of the Afghan government, an issue that stalled talks earlier this year. Still, progress is fragile. Taliban violence and efforts to seize territory have only increased since the militants and the US reached a deal in February on a blueprint for an American troop withdrawal. And the Trump administration says it aims to pull out all but 2,500 US troops by mid-January, whether the Taliban have kept their end of the deal or not. What's more, while this week's development puts the parties one step closer to an eventual power-sharing agreement, it's unclear whether the incoming Biden administration will even honor the Trump administration's deal with the Taliban.

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Two weeks ago, Russia secured a deal to build a naval base in Sudan, its first new military facility in Africa since the end of the Cold War. The accord is a major milestone in Moscow's wider push to regain influence, and income, on a continent where the Kremlin was once a major player.

But with the ideological and military contests of the Cold War long over, what is Moscow doing in Africa today?

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Reasons for Hope: COVID and the Coming Year. Watch on Friday. Dec 4 2020 12 noon - 1 pm ET


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