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The Evening Report - May 30
Global COVID hot spots. Denmark looks to triple defense spending.
“Editors note - This rare Tuesday evening update is due to the holiday long weekend in Denmark that preempted the usual Monday Morning News & Notes.”
COVID numbers continued to slide around the globe but the picture is more nuanced at the individual country level with some potentially concerning trends. According to the latest global weekly coronavirus update from the World Health Organization, there were almost 2.3 million new infections (-21%) and nearly 15,000 more lives lost to the virus (-17%) in the latest 28-day reporting period ending May 21.
At the regional level infection activity increased in two regions, Africa (+11%) and the Western Pacific (+38%). COVID deaths rose in four regions, Africa (+6%), the Americas (+21%), South-East Asia (+61%), and the Western Pacific (+9%).
“Reported COVID cases are underestimates of infection rates, largely due to the reductions in testing globally, and potential delays in reporting.”
Of the 42 countries reporting hospital numbers, there were another 96,701 infection-related hospitalizations around the world (-31%) and 2,875 intensive care admissions (-8%) over the last 28 days. Three countries reported hospital admissions increasing at a rate of 20% or higher. They are Indonesia (+225%), Afghanistan (+74%), and Singapore (+44%). The United States again logged the highest overall number of coronavirus hospitalizations with 40,821 new admissions (-33%).
Among the 17 countries reporting intensive care data, three countries reported admission surges of 20% or higher. They are Indonesia (+162%), Singapore (+115%), and Brunei(+88%). France had the dubious distinction of recording the highest overall number of intensive care admissions with 1,024 (+5%).
For a second straight week, South Korea had the most overall new confirmed COVID cases with 462,726 (+52%). The United States had the second highest 256,909 (-47%) followed by Japan with 164,367 (-24%).
Elsewhere, Myanmar is seeing soaring case numbers (+1,235%), Mongolia is seeing numbers jump (+1,123%), and Thailand is also registering increases (+357%). India had the highest number of new infections in South-East Asia with 94,472 (-50%). Morocco is also seeing rising virus activity (+107%) and Spain is a COVID hot spot with infections trending upward (+25%).
The United States once again saw the most pandemic deaths of any country on earth with 4,135 more lives snuffed out (-31%). Spain saw its fatalities increase with 745 more deaths (+92%). Peru also saw deaths increase with 488 fatalities (+34%). Elsewhere, Indonesia lost 497 lives (+172%), Thailand had 106 fatalities (+783%), Australia saw pandemic deaths increase with 417 (+30%), and the death toll edged up in India with 503 (+1%). While COVID deaths dipped slightly in France (-1%) it still lost 810 more lives.
With vastly diminished testing the World Health Organization says from what it can tell with the 25,415 sequenced positive tests shared through the international genome database, GISAID, in the last 28 days, XBB.1.5 remains dominant globally. But the WHO notes XBB.1.5 continues to lose ground while XBB.1.16 is doubling its share of cases every week. XBB, XBB.1.9.1, XBB.1.9.2, and XBB.2.3 are variants also seeing growth.
Across Europe, coronavirus rates remained more or less stable or decreasing across all age groups. This is a “continuation of the pattern observed in recent weeks” according to the latest weekly update from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
However, COVID deaths have risen across Europe with 418 more lives lost last week, that is 48 more fatalities than the week previous among the 23 countries reporting data on coronavirus deaths.
There were also variations among the individual countries. Iceland, Lithuania, and Greece all reported increasing infection activity among seniors over 65. Greece is especially hard hit with 210 infections among every 100,000 seniors, by far the highest rate in Europe. Meanwhile Finland, Latvia, Portugal, Slovenia, and Liechtenstein, all reporting rising positivity percentages.
Among the countries reporting hospital data, Greece was the only one to register an increase in COVID hospital admissions per 100,000 people. While Ireland was the only country to record an increase in pandemic-related hospital occupancy. There were no countries reporting any increases in ICU numbers.
Uptake for a 2nd booster dose in Europe remains lacking with just 35.6% of vulnerable seniors over 60 availing themselves of the protection offered by variant-specific booster doses.
Just 16 countries met the extremely low bar of reporting at least 10 sequenced positive test results. Of that extremely limited pool of data, XBB.1.5 appears to remain dominant coming back in 89% of cases.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control is providing a framework of lessons learned from the COVID pandemic to help countries better prepare for the next one. The ECDC found several key areas that need addressing across Europe to address the lessons learned over the last three years.
Chief among them was addressing a shortfall in healthcare staff. The lack of qualified healthcare staff was exacerbated by burnout during the pandemic. The ECDC notes staffing challenges are also being squeezed by a looming demographic crisis as Europe grapples with an aging population. It says the recruitment of young healthcare professionals is “urgently needed.”
Another major area needing improvement was for a significant strengthening of pandemic preparedness plans across Europe. The ECDC notes while many countries had pandemic preparedness plans they were largely designed to deal with influenza outbreaks and were largely outdated. The agency says countries need to prepare emergency response plans that are robust, flexible, and take into account worst-case scenarios covering a number of different viral threats. It also urges countries to formalize a role for public health institutions in pandemic response decision-making. It says this will reduce the politicization of pandemic response decisions and help make them more evidence-based.
“Lack of evidence, competing or conflicting priorities, and recommendations provided by different advisory bodies, unclear roles, and the fragmentation of the health system slowed down decision-making or made it difficult during the COVID pandemic.”
The ECDC says public health institutions need to strengthen their ability to communicate noting leadership in communication during a crisis is crucial. Clear informed and transparent communication is a must and not just in press conferences but also in the use of social media. It notes how completely unprepared health institutions were to deal with the tsunami of misinformation during the COVID pandemic.
The last key area needing work is data collection. The ECDC notes that in many cases during the COVID pandemic data collection, surveillance systems, tracking hospital admissions, beds in use, and contact tracing had to be built from scratch in the heat of the crisis. The agency says accurate data is a necessity for evidence-based decision making and those mechanisms should be built, tested, maintained, and regularly upgraded before a pandemic strikes not during the crisis itself.
You can read the full report HERE.
Sweden’s national infection control system needs improvements to be better prepared for the next pandemic. That is the crux of a report released this week by Sweden’s National Audit Office. It reviewed the national infection prevention system and found it lacking as reflected in the report’s title "The national infection prevention system - not adapted to a large-scale spread of infection.”
The agency says infection control systems are perfectly adequate for a ‘normal’ situation but needs to be strengthened to deal with any future pandemic or any other serious infection spread posing a risk to the country.
Swedish Public Health Agency Director General Karin Tegmark Wisell:
“The National Audit Office's infection control review is urgent. For example, the National Audit Office notes, just as we do at the Public Health Agency, that today's infection control legislation is not adapted to a pandemic situation or to the global context in which we live today.”
In particular, the report highlights deficiencies in infection monitoring systems and in data gathering and sharing. Health data needs to be more accessible as a “prerequisite for the continued development of knowledge-based data-driven public health work and for better preparedness for infection prevention.”
Another area needing improvement was for the various agencies responsible for infection control efforts to work better and more cohesively together
“We will take note of the National Audit Office's recommendations for measures for the Public Health Agency.”
The report has now been submitted to the Swedish Riksdag (parliament) for consideration. The government has four months to report back to parliament in writing on measures that have been taken to address the review’s findings.
Sweden has settled on a new state epidemiologist. Infectious Disease Doctor Magnus Gisslén has been named to the post that his predecessor Anders Tegnell vacated more than a year ago. Tegnell left the job in a cloud after masterminding Sweden’s much-maligned pandemic response strategy. It was initially announced by Sweden’s Public Health Agency he was leaving to take a prestigious post at the WHO. But the agency had to walk back the claim after inquiries by reporters found no such job existed and WHO officials knew nothing about Tegnell joining the organization.
Sweden’s state epidemiologist works under the auspices of the Folkhälsomyndigheten (the Swedish Health Authority).
At least 181 people have been infected with COVID as a United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention conference in April has turned into a super-spreader event. The conference of epidemiologists and infectious disease experts drew 1,800 attendees and was the first in-person conference since the pandemic arrived in 2020.
The CDC used a post-conference survey to track growing infection numbers. More than 80% of conference attendees responded. They reported a crowded event, with face-to-face encounters, and many meetings in small rooms. About 70% of those responding to the survey said they did not mask up at the event. Of those reporting positive coronavirus tests, 52% said they had not been infected before. More than 90% had at least one vaccine dose.
The Public Health Agency of Canada is reporting 3,147 new infections and 33 more coronavirus deaths in its latest weekly update.
The seven-day positivity percentage is 9.3%, a slight week-to-week decrease.
On the variant front, PHAC says that four variants continue to spread in increasing numbers. They are XBB.1.5.1, XBB.1.16, FD.1.1, and XBB.2.3. It says all other strains are either treading water or in decline.
COVID hospitalization numbers were largely in decline in the week ending May 23. The total number of hospital beds occupied by a pandemic patient fell to 2,569, a drop of 41 compared to the previous week. General admissions eased slightly to 2,450 patients with 26 fewer beds in use. Intensive care admissions decreased from 134 to 119 from one week to the next. The only statistic not following the downward trend was the number of people on a ventilator, which inched upward by two to 69 severely infected people.
⚡️Energy & Environment🍃
The European Union’s effort to top up natural gas reserves ahead of the coming winter is driving down prices. European whole-sale natural gas prices hit a two-year low on Tuesday of €24.84 per megawatt hour. Energy analysts point to high storage amounts in Europe combined with lower use as one factor driving down prices. There is also a record amount of LNG tankers crossing the Atlantic from the United States to Europe as the EU seeks to fortify gas supplies against the energy crisis when winter arrives.
Sweden’s economy beat rather dismal expectations and grew by 0.6% in the first quarter of 2023 according to Statistics Sweden. Its GDP also grew over the last year by 0.8%, defying expert predictions. The statistics agency credits a strong export market for boosting economic growth.
Electricity prices were so low over the weekend in Denmark that some people in the country could actually make a little money by charging their electric car, or running the laundry machine, or dishwasher. For a brief period, electricity prices in western Denmark dropped to -97 øre (an øre is essentially a Danish penny). For people who have an electricity contract tied to hourly rates then they could actually make money using power.
Green Power Denmark Energy Analyst Kristian Rune Poulsen spoke to DR:
“There were two maybe three hours when you could get money for using electricity. It's not a lot of money, but it's very good in light of the energy crisis that you can get money back. It's not a lot of money you earn, and it will quickly be surpassed by the money you spend on electricity during the rest of the day.”
The European Union Commission would like the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries to shoulder the cost of their products ending up in marine environments. The idea is at this point just a proposal. Reaction to the proposal is divided with some companies like Denmark’s Cosmetics and Hygiene Industry Association giving it a thumbs down.
CEO Helle Fabiansen spoke to Ritzau:
“The substances that are being talked about can come from many other places. Caffeine is a good example of a so-called micro-pollutant that the EU Commission would like to clean out of the wastewater. But everyone knows that caffeine doesn't just come from cosmetics.”
On the other hand, the Water Trades Association supports the idea.
Chief Consultant Susanne Vanggård:
“This is about finding money for better cleaning of the waste water. And that it will be the producers who actually pollute who have to pay instead of the state or the water consumers.”
The EU Commission says 92% of the hazardous substances that pose an environmental risk found in Europe’s wastewater originate from medical and cosmetic products.
France has banned some short-distance flights to reduce emissions and encourage people to use the country’s train system. In France, flights are banned for any destination where the trip could be made by train in less than two and a half hours.
Now other countries in the European Union are looking at the idea, including Finland. The Finnish government handed out €17 million in subsidies in March to flights serving regional airports that had low passenger numbers.
University of Jyväskylä Researcher Stefan Baumeister spoke to Yle to say from an environmental perspective domestic flights are brutal.
“It is just plain stupid that we have empty planes flying around Finland.”
Baumeister says the Finnish rail system is robust enough that it can out-compete flights over certain distances.
“The railway network here is so good that, in my opinion, all flight routes that are shorter than 400 kilometers should be closed. Train connections are still as fast as air traffic.”
He says decreasing or ending airline subsidies keeping empty planes in the air would be one way to address the problem. The other would be to follow France’s lead and legislate a flight ban over certain distances.
You won’t see any single-use plastic items next year when the Summer Games are held in Paris, France. The city’s mayor announced that this will be the first Olympic Games without single-use plastic. This means people coming to watch the games cannot bring plastic bottles or other single-use plastic items into the games with them. It also means athletes will have to drink from reusable cups and even Coca-Cola, a major sponsor of the Summer Games, will serve its beverages in reusable glass bottles.
Organizers of the Paris Olympics are trying to make an environmental statement setting the goal of holding the event with half the carbon footprint of any other previous games.
🇺🇦/ 🇷🇺 War
🇸🇪 🇹🇷 🇺🇸
Incumbent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğa won the run-off election cementing his hold on power and continuing Turkey’s slide into authoritarianism. Immediately after the election result, Erdoğan ordered an unprecedented investigation of the election coverage into every news channel seen as either opposition or independent.
As far as Sweden’s NATO application, which continues to be held up by Turkey and Hungary, one expert thinks Erdoğan winning the election could simplify things. Director of the Institute for Turkish Studies at Stockholm University Paul Levin told Radio Sweden that with Erdoğan‘s party holding power in the Turkish parliament, the big question remains “is what Erdoğan is thinking of doing.”
On that note, the United States may hold a hammer in convincing Erdoğan to stop playing games and approve Sweden joining NATO. President Joe Biden called Erdoğan to congratulate him on the election victory but also told him that if Turkey wants the American F-16s it covers then it needs to stop holding up Sweden’s NATO application,
“I spoke with Erdoğan. I wished him luck. He still wants to figure something out with the F-16s. I told him that we want to resolve the situation with Sweden, so let's get it done. We agreed to keep in touch.”
Sweden was quick to congratulate Erdoğan on his election victory with a call from the Swedish Prime Minister. But Sweden’s Foreign Affairs Minister Tobias Billström also reached out to his Turkish counterpart to say congratulations. According to Sweden’s national broadcaster SVT the conversation resulted in a promise to have more detailed talks about Sweden’s NATO bid. Billström told SVT, that the goal remains to have Sweden officially join NATO by this summer’s alliance summit in Lithuania.
All 31 NATO member countries must approve Sweden’s membership application. Currently, 29 have and two, Turkey and Hungary, have yet to hold ratification votes.
NATO 🇸🇪 🇳🇴
In a press conference in Oslo, Norway on Tuesday, NATO’s Secretary-General pledged that the military alliance would respond should Sweden be attacked. Jens Stoltenberg says there is no sign any such attack is even remotely likely but says it is “inconceivable” that NATO would not respond should it happen.
“Any idea that Sweden is left alone is absolutely wrong. Therefore we would react if there was any type of attack.”
Stoltenberg says as a NATO applicant country the military alliance has a vested interest in its security.
Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre who was also at the press conference added that his country and all of Sweden’s Nordic neighbours all have security pacts in place with Sweden and would also come to its aid in force if need be.
On Sweden’s NATO status, Stoltenberg says he remains in close contact with Turkey on getting Sweden into the alliance as quickly as possible. He repeated the goal is to get Sweden’s NATO application ratified by this July’s NATO summit in Lithuania.
“Sweden as a member of NATO is good for the whole alliance. It is within reach. It is possible to have Sweden as a full member by the Vilnius summit.”
“Six weeks is absolutely long enough to make that happen if the will is there.”
Stoltenberg would not answer direct questions about if more pressure needs to be placed on Turkey or if there were any other specific things NATO could do to get Turkey to drop its opposition to Sweden’s NATO application.
Denmark is joining a growing list of European countries that are looking to drastically boost defense spending in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Danish government announced Tuesday morning it is proposing to triple defense spending over the next ten years. It would spend about 143 billion Danish kroner in the next decade as part of its effort to boost defense spending to two percent of its GDP, the goal set by NATO for member nations.
Acting Minister of Defence, Troels Lund Poulsen:
“We must stand up and be stronger in the face of the serious, new threat that we are looking into now and in the future. That is why the government is putting forward an ambitious plan today. The government will significantly strengthen Danish defense and security.”
As is the case in Denmark this is a framework proposal with many specifics yet to be hashed out in negotiations that will come beginning this week with the various parties in the Danish parliament.
“The threat picture can change quickly. We see this not least with the war in Ukraine. Therefore, we will create a new approach to defense settlements, which gives us the opportunity to make pit-stops along the way and continuously make decisions that can take into account developments in the security situation. To a greater extent, we must be able to live up to the demands and expectations that NATO and its allies have for Denmark. It requires large investments in the Armed Forces to lift our share of the responsibility in NATO. At the same time, today's defense must also be able to handle more than military threats. The Armed Forces must contribute so that it is better able to deal with new threats to society, such as cyber-attacks and attacks on critical infrastructure.”
The proposal notes that while defense spending needs to be urgently increased that it must be done so while maintaining support for Ukraine.
In making the announcement Acting Defense Minister Troels Lund Poulsen says the proposal includes bolstering the number of military personnel, improving old and degraded buildings, and investing in Denmark’s military role in the Nordics and global hot spots.
“We are at a historic turning point in defense and security policy. There is war in Europe, and we can no longer take peace for granted. It is a historic boost because we must stand stronger in the face of the serious, new threat picture that we are looking into now and in the future.”
The proposal sets aside 6.7 billion Danish kroner in defense spending this year a figure that will rise to 19.2 billion by 2032. 105.4 billion kroner is earmarked for new defense and security policy priorities. 27 billion for improving skills among the rank and file, upgrading IT, and restoring dilapidated buildings.
One of the plan’s points that will be hammered out in negotiations that the Danish public will be keeping a keen eye on is changes to conscription. Poulsen is already saying those discussions will be “difficult.” Currently, about 4,000 people are conscripted into the Danish military for some length of service each year. The minister was asked what changes might be coming to the number of people that could be conscripted and the length of time they would have to serve.
“I am not going to present a model in relation to how I see conscription to be set up, I will discuss that with the parties that will be included in the agreement. It depends on the number and length and what the conditions must be for the new members who come in. We are going to create a model for the protection authority in the autumn, which will be more concrete.”
Denmark is increasing its financial contribution to the Ukraine fund, which is designed to provide long-term financial support for weapons and other military aid to Ukraine in the years ahead.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced this week that Denmark will add another 7.5 billion Danish kroner (about $1.5 billion Cdn) to the fund this year and another 10.4 billion (about $2 billion Cdn) next year.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy took to Twitter to thank Denmark for the support.
“Grateful to the Danish Parliament, the Danish government and the Danish people for the decision to increase the funding of the Ukraine Fund. This is a major contribution. Our strength is in our unity!”
The Danish government set up the Ukraine fund in March injecting 7 billion kroner into it at the time.
Russia is expelling hundreds of German officials in retaliation for Germany booting out Russian diplomats. Russia imposed a limit on the number of employees at German diplomatic missions impacting cultural and educational facilities. While exact numbers haven’t yet been confirmed media in Germany are reporting over 200 officials are being thrown out of Russia. They include teachers at German schools and employees at places like the German government-run Goethe Institute.
Germany’s Foreign Affairs Ministry released a very short statement on the situation.
“This limit, which Russia has set from the beginning of June, requires a very large reduction of our presence in Russia.”
Earlier this year Russia also expelled more than 20 German diplomats.
Germany has agreed to a contract to procure up to 123 new Leopard 2A8 tanks. Germany will shell out €525 million for the development and delivery of 18 Leopard 2A8 tanks in a deal that includes maintenance and spare parts over five years. It has the option to buy 105 more tanks for €2.4 billion.
The order has increased pressure on the German arms companies that build the Leopard tank as countries line up to upgrade their armour. Interest in the new Leopard tanks is coming from the Czech Republic, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and others. This will require some significant upgrades to churn the tanks out in sufficient numbers to meet demand.
The Finnish Air Force is leading a huge exercise called the ‘Arctic Challenge’ involving troops and equipment from 14 different countries. It will take place in areas of Finland, Sweden, and Norway. It begins this week and runs until June 9. The participating countries are Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Around 150 aircraft and about 3,000 soldiers will take part.
The Finnish Border Guard says new fencing being built along a section of the border with Russia is nearly complete. However, the trial project is running about a month behind schedule. The trial portion of the fencing project will be finished in July and become fully operational the following month. Then the next phase of the project seeking to reinforce 200 kilometers of the border will begin. Finland shares a 1,300-kilometer-long border with Russia.
People in Finland think there is a greater likelihood of war and feel the country’s defense is a growing priority. That is the essence of a poll from the Finnish Ministry of the Interior. For more than 30 years the ministry has conducted the survey every three years. This year tensions with Russia and fears of war due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were reflected in the survey result.
There was a 15% increase in people who think war is more probable. In the last survey conducted in 2020, there was a doubling in the number of people who felt protecting Finland needs to be more of a priority.
“And this year the trend continued to become stronger. By clear contrast, respondents considered a pandemic less likely to take place than in 2020. Experiences of the probability of different risks varied according to the respondent's age, type of housing, and gender. Male respondents regarded the probability of all risks as lower than female respondents did.”
🇺🇸 🇫🇮 🇳🇴 🇸🇪
The US Secretary of State will be swinging through the Nordics this week. Antony Blinken will pay official visits to Norway, Sweden, and Finland. This will be his first visit to Finland since it joined NATO. The U.S. State Department says the war in Ukraine and Russia’s aggression will be the two biggest topics during Blinken’s trip. He will also attend a meeting of NATO Foreign Affairs ministers in Oslo, Norway.
While in Sweden on Tuesday, Blinken said that the United States will soon announce new sanctions targeting Russia’s use of Iranian attack drones. The sanctions will target technology exports that are used in components of the Iranian drones.
The State Department says Blinken will focus his messaging during his Scandinavian tour on how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a strategic blunder.
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