Jul 19, 2021 - Podcasts

Simultaneous disasters in Europe

The flood waters in Germany and Belgium have started receding with more than 180 people dead. It’s the worst flooding the region has seen in decades and comes on top of a worsening COVID outbreak throughout Europe.

  • Plus, why car prices are driving inflation.
  • And, retailers turn to facial recognition technology.

Guests: Axios' Dave Lawler, Kim Hart and Felix Salmon.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Dan Bobkoff, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, Amy Pedulla, Naomi Shavin, and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Monday, July 19th. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s how we’re making you smarter today: why car prices are driving inflation. Plus, retailers turn to facial recognition technology.

But first, today’s One Big Thing: simultaneous disasters in Europe.

The flood waters in Germany and Belgium have started receding with more than 180 people dead. It’s the worst flooding the region has seen in decades and comes on top of a worsening covid outbreak throughout Europe. Here to catch us up on the crises the EU is facing is Axios’ world editor Dave Lawler. Good morning, Dave. Let's start with the floods - what has the damage been so far?

DAVE LAWLER: The scale of the damage is really quite shocking. Some villages look like they've basically been washed away. And many of these are kind of recognizable images of German villages - these timber frame houses along the riverfront. The government is talking about an initial package of 300 million euros for relief. That's gonna rise, I'm sure. So it's quite serious flooding that is not just in Germany, but as you mentioned, has also been in Belgium and the Netherlands.

NIALA: I get flash flood warnings on my phone all the time. Do these countries not have similar warnings?

DAVE: So what we're seeing is that the warnings seem to be quite uneven. Some local governments got ahead of this better than others but these are places where they hadn't seen this level of flooding in some cases in a century.

And so, maybe it's something you see and you disregard even if you did get the warning and then we've seen others that said, “Look, we didn't really get a proper warning here. We didn't know that this was going to be a once-in-a-century storm or whatever the case was.” I mean, we did see up to two months worth of rain falling in 24 hours in some cases. So it is a really extreme weather event, but you're right, that I think that there's some talk now in Germany about getting a better early warning system.

NIALA: Meanwhile Covid cases are skyrocketing across much of Europe as the Delta variants spreads. How are other countries in the EU handling the recent outbreak? I'm thinking for instance of France which has put some pretty strict new restrictions.

DAVE: Right, and as I think we discussed on the show before, a lot of countries were now coming out of these restrictions for what they hoped was perhaps the last time. Now you're seeing countries start to clamp back down in the face of the Delta variant. In France, they've taken quite a novel approach. You now will have to starting next month, have been vaccinated or have a recent negative Covid test in order to go to a bar, in order to get on a train, restaurants. This is an incentive to get vaccinated. And in an even more controversial step perhaps is this idea that people who work in certain jobs - so medical workers, people working in nursing homes - they will have to be vaccinated by September 15th or they won't get paid. So these are the kinds of steps we certainly have not seen in the United States and haven't really seen in other European countries, but the idea is to get that vaccination rate up as high as they possibly can.

NIALA: What's been the result?

DAVE: So you did see a number of people sign up to get vaccinated. You also saw a lot of pushback. France is a country where there has been quite serious vaccine skepticism. Now they do have a vaccination rate, at least for people who have one shot up. pretty close to where the US is. So they've overcome some of that initial vaccine skepticism but you have also seen a lot of backlash to the idea of essentially mandatory vaccinations. And so it's been effective initially in the goal of getting people vaccinated, but also quite controversial.

NIALA: President Biden is expected to announce a lift on the travel ban for Europeans to come here to the US. When do we think that will be? And what are the specifics?

DAVE: So this came up in a press conference where Biden was standing next to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and he said that this came up in their conversation and people should watch out for an announcement in the next several days.

Now this ban has been in place for over a year now, actually it came in under President Trump in March of 2020. Americans can now visit most of European countries if they're fully vaccinated. That's not the case for non-citizens of the U.S. who are in Europe and want to come over. So yeah, Biden did give a pretty clear hint that he's looking at lifting this, but again, we're talking about a time when cases are rising. So it's a really difficult issue for him to navigate.

NIALA: Dave Lawler writes the Axios World newsletter. Thank you, Dave.

DAVE: Thanks, Niala.

NIALA: We’ll be back in 15 seconds with the backlash against retailers gathering biometric data on customers.

Welcome back to Axios Today! I'm Niala Boodhoo.

There's a growing chance that when you go into a store, facial recognition software is being used to scan or store your image or those of employees working there late last week. A number of consumer advocacy groups launched a campaign to get retailers to stop using this technology or pledged to not use it in the first place.

Kim Hart is Axios’ national technology correspondent based here in DC with me. Hi, Kim.

KIM HART: Hi, thanks for having me.

NIALA: Kim, why are stores using facial recognition techniques?

KIM: Well, it’s a way to simplify a lot of processes for retailers. It's a way for them to kind of keep tabs on what shoppers are doing, who's in the store, what's going on in specific aisles, see where people are wandering. The reason that it is increasing now is during the pandemic, vendors of facial recognition software were able to market these tools as a way to better staff stores without having a lot of employees. So it was a way to allow for contactless payment or monitor the space between customers or even take temperatures.

NIALA: Does that need to be disclosed legally to customers if they are doing that?

KIM: It's somewhat dependent on what state you're in. Different states have different levels of privacy laws, and biometric data such as fingerprints or facial images always usually fall under those laws. Experts that I talked to said that it would be the best practice for stores to not only put it in their privacy policy generally, but to have people opt in to that kind of tracking technology when they decide to introduce it into a store.

NIALA: Kim, facial recognition technologies have been shown to be less accurate when it's identifying faces of people who are not white men. How is that factoring into this?

KIM: Most of the stores who are using any sort of facial recognition software right now are really using it to prevent shoplifting and fraud and theft. When you have technologies like this, that are able to scan faces and maybe comparing them to databases that they've gotten from law enforcement or police of people who have records of shoplifting and then trying to identify people who may be previous shoplifters, that can become very problematic. For example, a Black man from New York has sued Apple over being misidentified as a shoplifter seven times in Apple stores by its technology that was trying to prevent such fraud.

NIALA: Kim Hart is Axios’ national technology correspondent. Thank you, Kim.

KIM: Thank you.

NIALA: Inflation is at its highest level since 2008 and Axios’ chief financial correspondent Felix Salmon says that's mostly because car prices are on the rise.

Hey Felix, can you explain how a single item like cars can be responsible for the overall level of inflation going up?

FELIX SALMON: If everything else is going up at 2% year over year - in fact, less than that, right? So only one third of items are going up even as much as 2%. You're not seeing broad-based inflation, but you're seeing second-hand cars going up like 80% or car rental prices going up 80%. And so, so much of the overall price raise is just in that one sector.


FELIX: Computer chips, believe it or not. The average new car can have as many as 1,400 computer chips in it and there's this massive chip shortage. And so no one can find the new cars. The new car manufacturers are having to slow down production and halt production. So everyone's having to buy second-hand cars instead. And importantly, the car rental companies which normally are sellers of second-hand cars, you know, they buy them new and sell them second hand. They can't find any new cars so they’re now buyers of second-hand cars. And so that's completely turned the market upside down and sent the price of second-hand cars through the roof.

NIALA: So if you're in the market to buy a car, should you wait?

FELIX: Absolutely, this is a terrible time to buy a car. If you have a spare car, go out and sell it right now because you will get an amazing price for it. If you can possibly wait for a few months, everyone expects prices to come back down in the second half.

NIALA: Axios’ chief financial correspondent. Thank you, Felix Salmon.

FELIX: Thanks, Niala.

NIALA: That’s all we’ve got for you today! You can reach our team at [email protected] or reach out to me on Twitter. You can also text me at (202) 918-4893.

If you want more news before tomorrow - tune into our afternoon podcast Axios Re:Cap.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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