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Coronavirus in 2021: what we do and don’t know

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We’ve seen a lot of striking statistics and bold claims about Covid-19 and how it’s changed human society forever. But it’s not easy to disentangle the things that have changed for good from those that could rebound back to normal or even beyond normal in the months ahead. So I’m going to run through some of the predictions that we’ve all heard about how Covid-19 is changing the world and talk about which ones do and don’t stack up best against the data.

This year we’ve been introduced to V-shaped recoveries, U shaped, Zs, Ls, and even Ws. It’s a lot to keep track of. But the consensus for most western economies is that things look pretty grim, and some countries could be facing worst recessions than they had even after the financial crisis.

The outlook for the economy is extraordinarily uncertain.

It is now, yes, very likely that the UK economy will face a significant recession this year.

The picture in the UK, for example, looks particularly bleak with the latest data showing that the British economy may not recover to its pre-Covid levels until sometime in 2023. Now, even with the most creative handwriting, I’m not sure that’s a V. But there are other countries where things look more positive.

The most striking of all of these is probably China. And if we look at the data there, we see that just 10 months after the country was in crisis, China’s economy is estimated to have grown by 1.8 per cent over the year as a whole. And with the economy fully back up and running, including in Wuhan, it’s forecast to increase that to a growth of 8 per cent in 2021.

It’s not just China either. If we move further west to a place like Norway, the economy actually rebounded more in the third quarter than it had lost in the second and is on course only to lose around 1 per cent of its GDP over the year of 2020 as a whole. Positive examples like this do offer hope for countries like the UK, suggesting that once the virus is to an extent under control and, crucially, people feel safe, certain sectors as well as the overall economy can begin returning to something approaching normal.

When lockdowns brought cities to a standstill the impact on global carbon emissions was profound. In April alone, global emissions dropped by around 17 per cent. And even over the full first half of 2020 they were down by around 9 per cent. Since then, politicians have pledged to build back better by bringing forward emissions cuts targets and increasing their adoption of things like electric cars.

China has announced net zero emissions.

Net zero carbon emissions.

Net zero by 2050.

The European Green Deal will be our growth strategy.

This has raised environmentalists’ hopes that 2021 can be the first year of a new green revolution. And the data have certainly provided plenty of examples of what might be possible. As the virus hit Europe and the US hard in March, global commercial air traffic plummeted by 80 per cent and city streets across much of the world fell silent at the same time as stay-at-home orders were rolled out.

But these patterns have not held, and as public transport networks worldwide have either been closed or increasingly seen as unsafe, hundreds of thousands have flocked back to their cars. As early as March, road traffic levels were back to normal in many Chinese cities. And even in London levels had returned to their historical averages by September.

In the skies, there have actually been signs of overshoot, suggesting that people are responding to months of limited travel options by throwing themselves into this even more than they were before. If we look at China, domestic air travel has been at roughly similar levels to the historical norm for several of the last months. And indeed, in early October levels exceeded what they’d been in 2019. If these patterns that we’ve seen in China are repeated elsewhere next year, the hope for a flight free future could be as far away as it’s ever been.

One of the most frequently asked questions about the pandemic’s enduring impact is whether this can be the death of the city. We’ve seen commercial real estate prices plummet. And the millions of commuters, previously the lifeblood coursing through cities’ veins, have vanished, putting at risk the many businesses that provide for these people. These temporary shifts will rebound in time, but exactly how much is unclear.

Data on visits to leisure locations – cafes, bars, restaurants, shops, and theatres – show that although footfall recovered over the summer, it increased more slowly in city centres than suburbs or rural areas. Even when people were out and about they were near their homes, not their offices. This has really got people thinking about the whole future of commuting and whether some people may indeed make more permanent moves away from the bright lights.

But the great Covid-induced urban-to-rural migration has been overstated. And if we look at the data from the US on changes of address this shows that there was only a 2 per cent increase in permanent moves in the first half of 2020, and more than half of all moves were only temporary. The figures also show that where people were moving out of city centres, whether permanently or temporarily, they were mainly moving to suburbs of those same cities. Think Manhattan to Brooklyn, for example, or to other major cities. So to the extent that there has been some kind of urban exodus, not only has it been relatively small scale; it’s mainly been people who were already planning to move slightly further out, just bringing that move slightly forward.

Unlike the threats of economic downturn and urban desolation, one area where a lasting pandemic-induced change would be more welcome is for people like us in the western world to come out of this better prepared for similar threats in the future. A lot has been made of how countries in East Asia learned from their experiences with similar infectious viruses, like SARS or, in the case of South Korea, MERS, about what it that is required to keep a virus like this at bay.

It’s become increasingly hard to deny that a key factor for these Asian countries’ relative success was the fact that they acted quickly, strictly, and early in doing things like ramping up testing and putting on masks, whereas by contrast countries in the west, generally speaking, were more slow to react. But data from YouGov and Facebook shows that mask wearing has been fairly widely adopted almost everywhere in the world and that almost invariably once people got used to wearing masks in public spaces they kept doing so even during the virus’s summer remission. Since those figures apply equally to countries east and west, north and south, it suggests that next time the pandemic alarm sounds all of us will be more ready, more prepared to make the kind of quick changes that can turn a months-long ordeal into a short, sharp shock.

By its very nature data is backward looking rather than forward, so I’m not going to pretend that the charts, graphs, and stats that I’ve shared with you today can predict the future. But that’s kind of the point I’m making here. As we all look ahead to what we hope will be a much better year than 2020, we should neither be too gloomy about the prospect of further lockdowns or to naively optimistic about this ushering in a new green era. 2020 could be a sea change, or it could just be a blip. And all of us here will play a part in determining which.



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Analysis

Can plant-based milk beat conventional dairy?

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Plant-based milk brands are churning up the global dairy business, with a surge in sales, investment, and new products coming to market. The plant derived dairy trade is now worth an estimated $17bn worldwide.

Growing consumer demand has boosted investment. According to data firm Dealroom, venture capital funding across the plant-based dairy and egg sector has skyrocketed, from $64m in 2015 to $1.6bn in 2020.

The world’s biggest food company, Nestle, recently launched its first international plant-based dairy brand, a cow’s milk substitute made from yellow peas. Wonder will come in a variety of flavours, competing with established brands like Oatly oat-based milk. Founded in Sweden in the 1990s, that company is now valued at around $15bn. Demand for alternatives to soya, which once dominated the dairy free market, continues to escalate.

In the west, sales for other plant-based milks, including oat, cashew, coconut, hemp, and other seeds overtook soya back in 2014. Since then, they’ve raced ahead to be worth almost three times as much as soya products, with a combined projected value of more than $5bn in sales by 2022.

Advocates argue that plant-based production emits less greenhouse gas than cattle, making it the way forward to help feed the world and curb global warming. But dairy groups are fighting back with their own sustainability campaigns. And cow’s milk is hard to beat when it comes to naturally occurring nutrients, like protein, vitamins and minerals.

The average 100 millilitre glass of cow’s milk contains three grammes of protein, compared to 2.2 grammes in pea milk and just one gramme in oat-based substitutes.

Dairy producers have also won a legal bid, preventing vegan competitors in the EU from calling their products milk and yoghurt. Despite their growing popularity, plant-based brands are a long way from displacing conventional milk products. Their current $17bn turnover is still a drop in the pail, compared with the traditional cattle-based dairy trade, which is worth an estimated $650bn worldwide.



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'It’s more than sport – every day we are fighting for our rights to be equal’

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French pro basketball player and podcaster Diandra Tchatchouang on her role beyond the court



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Emily Dean on how allyship amplifies the female experience on film

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When I was six years old, I decided to be an artist. When I was 12, I decided to be a filmmaker. And instead of saying no, you can’t do that, or it’s not possible, my mum bought me a video camera.

After several years of working in the industry, I’m working with a female director for the first time. And it’s been such a gratifying experience. Women express leadership in different ways. Maybe you don’t have to be the loudest person in the room. But you can have great ideas.

And the best thing about being mentored by women and being a mentor to women is that make friends with women.

There’s something so powerful the women coming alongside other women, especially in a group setting. Because it means that you can and back each other up. You can support each other’s decisions, and you can amplify each other’s voices.

It’s about seeing yourself in your work. Seeing some part of yourself reflected is really gratifying. It’s also important that we speak up for female characters. I want to see girls and women on screen who have the whole cacophony of experience of what it’s like to be female.

I want to see their flaws. I want to feel their struggles. I want to see their joy. That is so important to making a character feel real. And it took me a little while to settle into myself and realise, if the characters I like to come up with are not your everyday run of the mill characters you see in animation, that’s fine. Because this is who I am.

When you walk into a story room, when you’re working on a film, you have to leave your ego at the door. I think that can be interpreted like keep your ego out of the work. But I’d also say for women who are maybe more shy that leaving your ego at the door means you walk in. And your job is to focus on what’s best for the story and for the film.

The story needs you. The film needs you, and it needs your best ideas. It won’t thrive unless you speak up.



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