Stories from 'round the world – by Bram Souffreau

The story behind the Magnum-book 'The Book of Veles' is unbelievable. It's a stark warning not to believe everything you see.

Photographer Jonas Bendiksen explains in an article the different bits of misinformation that he incorporated in his book. The city of Veles exists. The disinformation farms existed too. And there was once a Book of Veles written. But all this existing information is mixed with non-existent information for an art project critical about contemporary media.

In the interview, Bendiksen unravel the different layers of misinformation: * The photos are real, but the people in the photos are digitally designed avatars, * The original Book of Veles exists, but it's a fantasy of two writers, * The texts in the book are written by text robots fed with articles on the fake news industry in Veles, quotes from interviews and the ancient Book of Veles, * The person acting against the book was a fake Facebook and Twitter-account.

In sum, it became a fake news story about fake news producers. The story of Veles being a fake news hub is real. The story of the Book of Veles’ discovery and forgery is real. But all the actual content is fake.

It's an interesting read. A read that makes you think “What is real, and what is not?”.

Book of Veles - (c) Jonas Bendiksen

“Unfortunately, it didn’t happen... Rich countries behaved worse than anyone's worst nightmares.”

The West promised with Covax a system of global procurement to supply COVID-19 vaccines to the Global South. But Covax failed. The mechanism had some structural errors. And, the West acted very selfish.

Covax failed

The Lancet published an article on Covax and analyzed where it went wrong.

Countries that should have funded Covax had their own bilateral deals with vaccine manufacturers, and those deals got priority. Moreover, some rich countries procured extra vaccines through Covax. Canada and the UK, for instance, received vaccines through Covax before (!) the rest of the world because they paid for it. Covax worked this procedure out in order to receive money, but it had some weird side effects: the Covax-system is short in vaccines, can't keep it promises and it has to reserve 1 in 5 doses for rich countries...

Covax isn't a solution for the Global South. Developing countries will receive 20% of the necessary vaccines through the charity. The rest will be paid for. Rich countries would never accept to inoculate only one in five of their citizens... And from those 2·3 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines that Covax wants to roll out worldwide by early 2022, 485 million doses are for the rich countries; the countries that have vaccinated a big part of their citizens.

Slow World Bank

Another failure is the financing of low- and middle income countries so that they can buy vaccines. In Nature Justin Sandefur explains why the World Bank is so slow in giving money.

Apparently, the World Bank didn't took leadership and waited very long to act. It also put up a lot of requirements before money could flow to the South. Poor countries were thus set off to loan money. The bank didn't even offer grants, or thought about lower rates on the loans.

So what now? The bank must soften the terms of its loans for health systems and unleash more of its $12 billion pledge as grants for vaccine procurement. The longer it waits, the less good its money will do.

No IP waiver

The American president Joe Biden scored extra points with progressists on waiving the IP's on the COVID 19-vaccines. But Europe didn't follow. So it stranded. But waiving IP's is not enough. Even Chelsea Clinton knows it:

The world needs about 10 billion vaccines delivered as quickly as possible. The only way to reach that goal is for Biden to support a comprehensive World Trade Organization waiver that goes beyond vaccine patents to all technologies associated with the vaccines, and for him to persuade other countries to do the same. He also must compel pharmaceutical companies to share their vaccine technology, something well within his power for the vaccines the U.S. has funded.

But chances that this will happen, are small. Biden has started his vaccine diplomacy and Europe wants to protect its pharmaceutical industry. And that's worth the dead of thousands of people in the Global South.

Vaccine nationalism

We should never forget that one and a half year after the start of the pandemic and a year after the first positive results on vaccines “around 0.8% of all COVID-19 vaccines distributed in the world have gone to poor countries. Most of the 1.65 billion doses of vaccines administered have been in rich countries.”

And I haven't touched vaccine nationalism, the export ban in Europe and the United States, the hoarding of vaccines and the fact that non-Western vaccines aren't accepted in the West...

#vaccine #coronapandemic

There's a pot of salt next to the door of our apartment. Apparently for good luck. But it helps to keep the bad spirits away, as well. Aswangs among others...

I hadn't heard about The Aswang Project before. Well, I'm not really into mythology, so no surprise here. But an open letter attracted my attention. The Aswang Project got struck in an online controversy on race, culture and identity.

I'm not going to focus on that controversy. Too much words have already been wasted on the topic. But through this discussion it, I discovered an unknown world to me: folklore and mythologies in the Philippines.

Jordan Clark, a Canadian guy, shares since 2006 his knowledge on myths, creatures and shamans in the Philippines. He produced a documentary, directed a web series and edited a dictionary of Philippine Mythology (originally written by Ferdinand Blumentritt, a correspondent of the Filipino national hero José Rizal).

I watched the full documentary last Sunday. Very interesting, and very respectful towards Filipino superstitious beliefs and practices. Clark tries to understand where the aswang comes from. Wikipedia explains:

An aswang is umbrella term for various shape-shifting evil creatures in Filipino folklore, such as vampires, ghouls, witches, viscera suckers, and werebeasts (usually dogs, cats, pigs). The Aswang is the subject of a wide variety of myths, stories, arts, and films, as it is well-known throughout the Philippines.

If you'd like to know which role aswangs played – and still play – in the Filipino history, culture and folklore; and where its roots are situated, the documentary is a must see.

The docu will also explain you why we have salt in our apartment ;)


The documentary is probably also a good backgrounder to the Netflix series Trese. It's different, but from the trailer we can deduct that some creatures, like aswang or manananggal, formed the inspiration of the anime-series, and the Filipino horror comic series with the same name.

#mythology #aswang #trese #philippines

Marikina River Park is an unexpected green space in Metro Manila. It's a vast system of parks, trails and open spaces along the Marikina River. It was developed in the nineties and relived the river banks after decades of negligence and pollution.

The recreation facilities stretch over 11 kilometer. The park covers an area of 220 hectares. It contains the Riverbanks Center, a mall and office complex. Throughout the park, different kind of facilities are scattered. Among others an amphitheater for 20.000 people, floating stages for cultural events, a Roman dome, a Chinese Pagoda, a gazebo and picnic grounds. The sports facilities include a baseball field, a basketball court and a skating rink.

Urban farming on the riverbanks of Marikina River.

On the riverbanks urban farmers plant vegetables and hold animals in the so called salamyaans. Elderly come together and spend time together.

The park and river banks are bringing people together and are strengthening the community. That was also one of the objectives of the 'Save The Marikina River' (.pdf) program, the initiative that shaped the river park in the nineties. The rehabilitation program was launched in 1993 and had different aims: reduce flooding, improve the eroded riverbanks, resettling informal settlers and create an environment for community building, leisure and sports.

A dead river

By the 1970's the Marikina River was heavenly polluted with domestic sewage and industrial waste. The river was practicaly dead. On the river banks 2.000 informal settler families built their house in an area that was often flooded. The quarrying of the river and its banks resulted in erosion. All this lead to more flooding, to poor water quality and hygiene problems. Moreover Marikina lies in an earthquake prone area.

From 1992 on the government took a series of resolutions and actions to rehabilitate the river and prepare the city for the frequent flooding and earthquakes. The informal settlements were removed through a relocation program. The decade long initiative was a success. The Asian Disaster Preparedness Center summarizes the program in a leaflet titled 'Flood Disaster Mitigation and River Rehabilitation by Marikina City, Philippines' (.pdf) It received also the Galing Pook Award (.pdf).

Youngsters cycling on the bike path.


A lot of initiatives are taken. Often with the best intentions. But that doesn't guarantee success. Marikina made sure that inhabitants and – important – the informal settlers were convinced of the project. Mayor Bayani F. Fernando (.pdf):

“The people have to touch and smell the water. It is hoped that this experience and exposure will galvanize them to muster enough political pressure for the government and the rest to act and conserve the river.”

The rehabilitation plan contained:

  • Building access roads to allow men and equipment to go near the river and undertake the necessary cleaning and clearing operations
  • Clearing the banks both of its informal settlers and other encroachments
  • Improving the river water quality by demanding industries to set up and maintain water treatment facilities
  • Creating sports facilities, historical and cultural structures
  • Enhancing the aesthetic appeal of the river environment by planting various flora and trees

Today, the park is the center for community activities and sports. Thousands enjoy walking, biking and jogging. The restoration created job opportunities, relived the spirit of Marikina and empowered the community. Marikina River is not healthy yet, but awareness has been created. Hopefully neighboring cities will start seeing that enhancing a river can lift a whole city.

A floating bridge connecting the river banks (and an emergency bridge in the occurrence of an earthquake).

#marikina #philippines

The Filipino government is planning to build an elevated highway on top of Pasig River. The highway will be almost 20 kilometers long and will traverse Metro Manila from west to south-east. It will connect Manila Bay with Laguna Lake, just like the river does. The project description foresees a six-lane highway that compromises four segments. The government hopes that it will decongest different city highways, like R-10, EDSA and C5. It will also connect to the Skyway, the elevated highway running from south to north.

The cost of the Pasig River Expressway (PAREX) is estimated at 81 billion pesos (1.4 billion euro). The project will be funded with toll revenues. The construction would take some 36 months. The first engineering analysis started in February 2021. By 2023 the highway should be ready.

The construction and exploitation are in hands of the Philippine National Construction Corporation and San Miguel Holdings Corporation. San Miguel owns different toll roads in the country, among others Skyway.

Another scar

A lot of elevated constructions are crisscrossing the metropolitan area. The Pasig River Expressway is only an extra scar in the making. The San Juan River shows what PAREX could be like. Part of the river is covered with the Skyway Stage 3. The river has lost all its attraction. True, it was environmentally dead, but with a highway on top of it, it's guaranteed a giant sewer for the next thirty to fifty years.

San Juan River, Skyway Stage 3 (Photo: Wikimedia, patrickroque01)

Is this the future awaiting Pasig River?

The project of San Miguel was approved in August 2020, but – luckily – resistance is growing. People question if sacrificing the river is worth the traffic gains.

With PAREX Metro Manila will loose its access to her biggest waterway. Water is always an important component of a healthy city. Water has a positive impact on ones wellbeing, too. But this will anno 2021 be traded for a highway that caters at least 120.000 cars everyday, will cast a permanent shadow on the river and its surroundings and will create noise and air pollution in a city that already has its fair share of pollution.

People centered

Pasig River is not ideal today, but PAREX will mortgage all possible future ameliorations. The project is car-centric. It is not inclusive or people-centered. With PAREX, the revitalization of the river won't be possible. 'Cleaning' the river will fall into nowhere once it's semi covered.

Instead of investing billions of pesos in an elevated highway, the money could be used for greener programs with safe pedestrian pathways, protected bike lanes, a decent and regular ferry system, new pedestrian bridges and a lot of more green pockets and parks along the river.

The waterfront could be redesigned in an inviting public space, what will create new developments. Urban strategist Leandro Poco dropped an analysis on Twitter in which the river banks are expanded for cycleways, walkways and parkways. Those '-ways' connect the different parcels along the river, he writes. He also makes a statement for more bridges and more connectivity between the two river banks. Landscape architect Paulo Alcazaren is also on a roll and has written different posts on the Pasig River (Guadalupe, Braess Paradox, more bridges ).

A contemporary look at urbanism exists. Let's see if it can prevail on solutions that were popular last century...

#parex #pasigriver #metromanila

What. A. Read. Novelist Arundhati Roy analyses the covid-19 catastrophe in India. In her long form feature, her main target is the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. He wasn't prepared, he let the crisis unfold, and he didn't do anything to help the vulnerable and poor. On the contrary, the graphs were skyrocketing when he was rallying in the state of West Bengal.

‘We are witnessing a crime against humanity’: Arundhati Roy on India’s Covid catastrophe is a must read and an eye-opener.

It gives an insight in the complicated Indian society, where people are living a harsh life even without covid-19. The corona illness is ripping cities and families apart. Roy illustrates the catastrophe with heart wrenching stories from friends and colleagues. She sketches a very poorly build health system, and a political caste out of touch with reality. She connects the present with the past, and fears the worst.

Abraar Karan

A total different approach can be found in the podcast The Rachman Review of Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman. He interviews Abraar Karan, a physician at Harvard Medical School and a specialist in global health.

It's an interesting conversation, with some statements you don't immediately expect in a FT-radio show.

#india #coronapandemic

Vaccinated American tourists will be welcome in Europe. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, hinted in an interview with The New York Times that the American dollars are more than welcome this summer.

Her emphasis on Western vaccines was remarkable. Her allusion on “free movement” ironic.

“The Americans, as far as I can see, use European Medicines Agency-approved vaccines. This will enable free movement and the travel to the European Union. Because one thing is clear: All 27 member states will accept, unconditionally, all those who are vaccinated with vaccines that are approved by E.M.A.”

A global world

Globalization struggled to stay on its feet before the pandemic. But the current crisis accentuated the unraveling world and accelerated the existing trends. We are living in a multipolar world.

Even in a banal topic like travel, geopolitics surface. By excluding non-Western vaccines, Von der Leyen made a clear statement. In her eyes, you have the good guys, and the bad ones. Or better said: the good vaccines, and the bad ones.

The situation is hilarious, because numerous countries are obliged to use Chinese, Russian or other vaccines. They have no other choice. The United States, the European Union, Canada or Australia are hoarding the 'good vaccines'. Some Western blocs are even banning the export of vaccines and raw materials.

The result are weird situations; and torn families as Bloomberg noted:

“Of the two vaccine options available in the city (Hong Kong) – one from Sinovac and another developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE – Cheung plans to sign up for Sinovac for easier movement in and out of the mainland. Meanwhile, her British husband will go for the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, she says to boost his chances of visiting family in the U.K.”


While doctors, experts and organizations like the World Health Organization are telling that every vaccine is good, the European Union sends out the message that some vaccines are better than others. Sad. But unsurprising.

Though it is true that China's visa policy too favors people vaccinated with the Chinese vaccine. The Chinese don't accept Western vaccines as a valid protector against covid-19.

Sad as well. And telling about their standards and world view.

But that doesn't speak well the lowering of the standards by the European Union.

#coronapandemic #vaccine

The pictures from India are horrific. India is experiencing an enormous surge in covid-19 cases. The number of new cases per day are in the tens of thousands. Every day thousands of deaths are added – and that's probably an underestimation. Hospitals are overwhelmed. Nurses tired. There is a lack of oxygen and hospital beds in some part of the country. And lockdowns are hitting hard the poorest of the poor.

India made errors. The government opened the economy too quickly and non-essential activities and big gatherings were made possible. Leadership is missing, too. Moreover not all people comply with social distancing or masking. Isolation is difficult in overcrowded districts, and not everyone takes the disease as serious as it should be. The vaccination drive is slow.

The bigger picture

But it would be too easy to dismiss the drama as India's own fault. There's a bigger picture. The world is an unequal place.

Countries are hoarding vaccines and holding back the raw materials of vaccine production. The American ban on the export of raw materials proved to be problematic for the Indian vaccine producers. The United States says it's Trumps fault, but the new president Joe Biden likes his 'America First'-strategy as much.

Patents too are slowing down the production. Those patents seem to be inexpugnable. Some say that scrapping the patents for covid-19 vaccines and medicines will undercut all patents. It seems they have little faith in the robustness of their glorified system...

Meanwhile, people are dying.

Waive the patents

Celebrated scientists, old heads of states and the World Health Organization are asking to lift the patents on vaccines. Medical companies are claiming that they could have already been producing vaccines or other medicines if they were involved in the production earlier.

A Canadian company said it could help, but it is not allowed to. “If we had started this last year, we could have shipped millions of doses by now. This is supposed to be like a wartime effort, everyone in it together. But that doesn’t seem to be the case”, says John Fulton, the vice-president of Biolyse in The Guardian. Opening extra production capacity seems too hard. And when companies and industries are willing to help, there are send away.

The Western initiative Covax isn't working at all. Only a fifth of the promised doses have been delivered. Million of doses are outstanding, but before those reach the developing and emerging countries thousands extra will die. Covax is sustaining a deadly monopoly of a handful vaccine makers. Thank you Bill Gates!

Some say 'the market' has failed us, but that is not entirely true. The product has been mainly sponsored by some governments and the formula and production was given to a handful of companies. The patents made sure that the market cannot work. Nothing is open. It's a closed circuit. Vaccine makers are getting rich, and Western governments are cheerleading them.

The rest of the world is the plaything of the 'vaccine diplomacy' mastered by China, India and Russia, and clumsy copied by the United States, United Kingdom and the European Union.


Are Western countries negligent?

I think so. More than a year ago, we read about production challenges like the lack of vials or a scarcity in raw materials. Debates on the necessity of patents were opened. Foreshadows of production shortages were explained by experts. Today, the fear came true. I can't remember politicians cut a ribbon of new production facility...

What is sure, is that the West is not the one who will be duped by this whole corona crisis. The Western economies are being doped as never before. Billions of dollars are invested. The 'free' money is making sure the West will survive the hiccup without too much damage. Before summer ends in the northern hemisphere most Westerners will have gotten their corona vaccine jab, and the pandemic will be quickly forgotten...

But developing nations and emerging countries won't be able to cope that easily and that quickly. Will they remember that at the start of the pandemic the world wanted to ensure that covid-19 drugs and vaccines would be universally and cheaply available? And that Western values decided otherwise?

This is what vaccine inequality looks like

Washington Post - Vaccines doses administered per 100.000 residents. The Washington Post summarized how the vaccines are distributed in the world. It shows the vaccines doses administered per 100.000 residents.

#coronapandemic #vaccine

A wonderful tribute to Irish Coffee and William Souffreau, written by Dirk Steenhaut in Dutch.


'Stop acting like colonizer'. The headline this morning in the newspaper was bold. It was a message intended for China from some Filipino business groups. The business men even dug up a quote of Deng Xiaoping from 1974 warning his country not to act like an aggressive superpower or bully.

The soundbite is the culmination in an ongoing discussion about the claims of China and the Philippines on some islands and reefs in the South China Sea. It's a quarrel that exists since the nineties, and earlier. But the past months a new chapter was written.

It started with pictures taken by the Filipino army of some two hundred Chinese vessels in the Julian Felipe Reef, part of the Filipino economic exclusive zone and its continental shelf. International maritime law says that the Philippines enjoys in that zone the exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resources, living and non-living.

The pictures were dated March 7, 2021, but were published March 20. China said the flotilla was looking for some refuge in the Union Banks from the bad weather. But some of the ships are, one month later, still in the vicinity of the reef.

The dispute is a minefield. The Chinese vessels are fishing in the reefs and harvesting huge clams. But, some say, the Chinese are emptying the sea, chasing small Filipino fishing crews away and occupying the reefs. Others, among them the Philippine government, don't want to go against China because of all kinds of other interests. They hope it will pass.

Air strips, buildings, wind turbines

What is happening in the South China Sea appeals to the imagination. China is building all kind of installations on the islands and reefs, and are presenting the nations from South East Asia with a fait accompli.

The Filipino newscaster ABS-CBN, for instance, checked what is happening in the waters around the Union Banks. The videos and photos are intriguing. Airports, radars and buildings with different floors have been build. There are even wind turbines! And the huge 'fishing' ships are being escorted by military ships and the Chinese coast guard.

The Filipino may claim the territory, but it is clear from the videos that China owns the islands and reefs.

#china #philippines #southchinasea

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