World roundup: July 19 2023
Stories from China, South Africa, Ukraine, and elsewhere
PROGRAMMING NOTE: Today’s newsletter is coming out early for reasons I outlined in an email that subscribers should have received earlier today. I will be traveling this afternoon and our schedule here is likely to be a bit ragged for at least the next few days. My apologies and best wishes to all of you.
TODAY IN HISTORY
July 19, 64: The Great Fire of Rome ignites in the area around the Circus Maximus under uncertain circumstances. The conflagration would continue to rage for six days before subsiding, only to reignite and rage for another three days. The actual circumstances behind the fire have been lost in an ocean of legends and rumors. Chief among these is the story that Emperor Nero blamed the fire on Christians and under that pretense launched the first imperial persecution of the nascent religious sect. Another theory has Nero himself ordering the fire in order to destroy Rome and rebuild it to his own tastes (in this narrative he uses the Christians as a scapegoat to escape his own culpability). Modern scholars seem generally to be skeptical of these theories. A more mundane but also more plausible theory is that the fire started accidentally and spread quickly due to high winds.
July 19, 711: The Battle of Guadalete
July 19, 1864: The Third Battle of Nanjing ends with a decisive Qing victory and the final eradication of the rebel Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. The battle, which ended after the death of rebel leader Hong Xiuquan and saw the Taiping forces lose perhaps as many as 100,000 men (double that if you include losses incurred over the course of the entire siege, which began in March), was the last major engagement of the Taiping Rebellion.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
A new report from the United Nations Development Program estimates that some 165 million people around the world have been driven into poverty over the past three years. Obviously COVID, inflation, and the war in Ukraine are the major drivers of this immiseration, but a key factor underpinning the situation is debt. As The Washington Post put it, “about 3.3 billion people live in countries that spend more on interest payments to banks or official lenders than they devote to educating or caring for their citizens.” This perversion of resources is stripping social safety nets bare and engendering increasing resentment toward governments caught in the debt trap. It’s an unsustainable situation but there’s little impetus in the developed world to do anything about it—the US government is more interested in blaming China for fueling this problem than in challenging the private lenders responsible for some 63 percent of developing nations’ collective debt.
If you’ve had the misfortune of going outside in recent weeks then you’ve probably noticed that, in specialist jargon, it’s freaking hot out there. Large parts of Asia, Europe, and North America are setting temperature and heat index records on an almost daily basis, with Iran’s Persian Gulf International airport reporting a heat index of around 67 degrees Celsius (152 Fahrenheit) on Sunday. This is not unexpected, given the onset of El Niño entwined with the effects of climate change. It’s also not an anomaly so much as a taste of things to come, and part of that story is going to involve severe economic impacts. Governments that can’t handle their current financial obligations won’t be able to manage climate change, and developed countries have been slow to offer assistance for fear they’ll set a precedent around climate reparations. And at some point those developed countries are likely to be overwhelmed as well.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that the overnight Israeli airstrike on targets around Damascus killed at least three people—two pro-government militia fighters and one Syrian soldier. State media is still as far as I know reporting that two soldiers were injured in the incident.