Wednesday, April 01, 2020

When Power Speaks Truth to the Public, We All Win.

The Globe has high praise for British Columbia's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last Friday, British Columbia Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix gave a master class in treating the public like adults. It was a model for any government dealing with a crisis.

First, Dr. Henry walked viewers through the statistical models the province is using, and the reasons why the evidence leads her to believe the province may be on the point of getting the upper hand on COVID-19. Her explanations were clear and careful. There was no obfuscation or bluster.

After Dr. Henry had presented and analyzed the data on the spread of the virus and the public health measures taken, Mr. Dix itemized the province’s key resources – from ventilators to hospital beds – and measured their availability against three scenarios: a modest outbreak (South Korea), medium (China’s Hubei province) and bad (northern Italy). 
It inspired confidence. Transparency does that. 
A free and transparent flow of data will help win public support and trust. A lot is being asked of Canadians and without public buy-in, Canada will not succeed in bending the curve.
B.C. is an example of doing it right. Others need improvement. In Ontario, journalists are still digging up data that the provincial government should be releasing, and discovering information gaps that may prove costly.
Dr. Henry does indeed lay her cards on the table. You don't hear public officials mentioning that Covid-19 will probably return, with a vengeance, in the fall, after lulling us into a false sense of security by receding in the hottest months of summer. You don't hear it from Donald Trump. You don't even hear it from our prime minister. Some of them, especially Trump, even portray it as a "one and done" epidemic.

A quick search of pandemics at the Centers for Disease Control or its counterparts in the UK and Canada, reveals that pandemics come in two, sometimes three waves, over a span of 12 to 18-months. The second wave is typically the most deadly. Getting the public to accept that and prepare for it is a Herculean chore and it will take time. What will our contagion look like this fall? How will our economy cope? What are the chances there will be effective anti-virals in sufficient quantities by the end of summer to blunt the impact of a second wave? How long before there's a vaccine?

While You're Waiting for that Cheque from Ottawa

While you're waiting for that relief cheque from Ottawa, here's a word to keep in mind, "Phoenix."

Phoenix is the system the Harper government introduced in 2011 to streamline paycheque services for Canada's public service.  It was a screw-up then and it's still a screw-up.

The Liberal government that succeeded Harper inherited this mess and has been struggling with it ever since. Canada's minister of digital government, Joyce Murray,  said that "Canada's hard-working employees should be paid accurately and on time." Last month it was announced that SAP Canada would soon be testing various fixes to debug Phoenix. According to ITCanada, the testing is expected to take a year.

While you're praying you don't catch Covid-19 it wouldn't hurt to throw in a little prayer that your relief cheque isn't processed through Phoenix.

BTW, by the time the next round of testing is done, it'll mark the 10th anniversary of the Phoenix system. Ten years to perhaps fix a screwed-up payroll system. Remember what people once managed to do in ten years? (you can pick this up at the 2:00 mark)

We Don't Have to Lose the Oceans But Saving Them Won't Be Easy

For decades, humans have been inflicting one blow after another on our oceans. Global heating, ocean acidification, the discharge of chemicals, especially fertilizers, the dumping of massive plastics waste, rapacious overfishing and the use of trawls that rake and destroy seabed habitats where the oceanic food chain begins, seabed drilling accidents. It's been a prescription for the death of our oceans on which all life, marine and terrestrial, depends.

Apparently we can reverse all that.
The glory of the world’s oceans could be restored within a generation, according to a major new scientific review. ...The scientists say there is now the knowledge to create an ocean renaissance for wildlife by 2050 and with it bolster the services that the world’s people rely on, from food to coastal protection to climate stability. The measures needed, including protecting large swathes of ocean, sustainable fishing and pollution controls, would cost billions of dollars a year, the scientists say, but would bring benefits 10 times as high.
The law of the sea creates three classes of oceans - ours, yours, and anybody's/nobody's, the vast swathes that we pillage and contaminate.
...progress is far from straightforward. Pollution from farms and plastics still pours into the oceans, the waters are reaching record high temperatures, and destructive fishing is still taking place in many places, with at least one-third of fish stocks overexploited. 
“The Mediterranean is still pretty much a basket case,” said Roberts. “And there is horrendous overfishing throughout large parts of south-east Asia and India, where fisheries are just catching anything they trawl on the seabed to render into fish meal and oil.” 
The global heating of the oceans has driven the few hundred surviving northern right whales along the coast of the western Atlantic. Here, amid busy shipping lanes and lobster fisheries, they are killed by collisions or drowned in a tangle of ropes, according to Roberts, though new regulations are starting to help. 
The Gulf of Mexico suffers massive dead zones owing to huge amounts of manure and fertiliser running off midwest farms, and elsewhere albatrosses continue to be snared by long-line fishers, despite simple solutions being available.
The challenge will be to forge a powerful international consensus to do what is required for a protracted period, 30 years, and that puts the public interest, humanity's interest, over the narrow special interests of industrial fishing fleets, seabed miners and such. That's a tall order.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

America's Cocktail. Equal Parts of Denial and Death.

Paul Krugman writes that his fellow countrymen don't realize that America is on the "worst trajectory" of any developed nation wrestling with the coronavirus and that includes Italy.
I’m not sure that people understand, even now, what that kind of exponential growth implies. But if cases kept growing at their current rate for a month, they would increase by a factor of a thousand, and almost half of Americans would be infected. 
We hope that won’t happen. Many although not all states have gone into lockdown, and both epidemiological models and some early evidence suggest that this will “flatten the curve,” that is, substantially slow the virus’s spread. But as we wait to see just how bad our national nightmare will get, it’s worth stepping back for a few minutes to ask why America has handled this crisis so badly.
...Among advanced countries, the United States has long stood out as the land of denial and death. It’s just that we’re now seeing these national character flaws play out at a vastly accelerated rate. 
About denial: Epidemiologists trying to get a handle on the coronavirus threat appear to have been caught off guard by the immediate politicization of their work, the claims that they were perpetrating a hoax designed to hurt Trump, or promote socialism, or something. But they should have expected that reaction, since climate scientists have faced the same accusations for years. 
And while climate-change denial is a worldwide phenomenon, its epicenter is clearly here in America: Republicans are the world’s only major climate-denialist party.
...decades of science denial on multiple fronts set the stage for the virus denial that paralyzed U.S. policy during the crucial early weeks of the current pandemic.

About death: I still sometimes encounter people convinced that America has the world’s highest life expectancy. After all, aren’t we the world’s greatest nation? In fact, we have the lowest life expectancy among advanced countries, and the gap has been steadily widening for decades. 
This widening gap, in turn, surely reflects both America’s unique lack of universal health insurance and its equally unique surge in “deaths of despair” — deaths from drugs, alcohol and suicide — among working-class whites who have seen economic opportunities disappear. 
Is there a link between the hundreds of thousands of excess deaths we suffer every year compared with other rich countries and the tens of thousands of additional excess deaths we’re about to suffer from the coronavirus? The answer is surely yes.
...while America is a great nation with a glorious history and much to be proud of — I consider myself very much a patriot — the rise of the hard right has, as I said, also turned it into a land of denial and death. This transformation has been taking place gradually over the past few decades; it’s just that now we’re watching the consequences on fast forward.

Has the Pentagon Met Its Match?

The pride of the US Navy are its fleet carriers - massive, nuclear powered, nuclear armed aircraft carriers that have for decades been a critical asset for "force projection" around the world. They have been a powerful instrument for imposing America's will on problem states.

One of these supercarriers, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, is now sitting at the dock in Guam as the Covid-19 virus spreads through the crew of 4,000.
In a four-page letter, first reported by The San Francisco Chronicle Tuesday, Capt. Brett E. Crozier of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt laid out the dire situation unfolding aboard the warship, with more than 4,000 crew members, and what he said were the Navy’s failures to provide him with the proper resources to combat the virus by moving sailors off the vessel. 
“We are not at war,” Captain Crozier wrote. “Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our sailors.”
The problem is that Guam lacks the facilities and resources to quarantine 4,000 sailors nor the equipment and personnel to board the Roosevelt and disinfect the ship's spaces.

And what of the rest of America's armed forces?
The crisis aboard the Roosevelt played out like a slow-moving disaster and highlights the dangers to the Pentagon if the coronavirus manages to infiltrate some of its most important assets, such as bomber fleets, elite Special Operations units and the talisman of American military power, aircraft carriers.

At its core, the issue on the Roosevelt, and other warships, stems from the near impossibility of putting adequate social distance between people to stop the spread of the illness. Living quarters, hallways and doorways are cramped. Bathrooms and cafeterias are shared areas. 
In his letter, Captain Crozier clearly outlined the challenge. “None of the berthing aboard a warship is appropriate for quarantine or isolation,” he wrote.
Military bases, by their very nature, are incompatible with social distancing or isolation. Barracks are not designed with distancing in mind. People cluster together whether in mess halls and hangars or in tanks or at sea.  Their proximity and mobility are  essential to their effectiveness.

Decades ago the most feared contagion was meningitis. Now, it seems, there's a new contagion.

Today in the Land of Crazy

I heard something curious on NPR radio this morning. It was Donald Trump announcing that America would be sending no longer needed medical equipment and supplies to Italy and Spain and France to help them fight the coronavirus.

He was talking about equipment that doesn't exist and an urgent domestic need that's a long way from being met.

Trump was, as Barack Obama said when he sized him up, just bullshitting.

Yesterday or the day before I heard Trump boast that, if America could keep its pandemic deaths to one or two hundred thousand, that would be a great victory for his administration. Hey, if you're facing an outright colossal failure, move the bar and call it a "victory." Then say you're doing so well, so perfectly well, that you're already preparing to box up all that non-existent equipment to ship it to Europe for those second-rate countries.

Trump doesn't care that it's bullshit. He's got the Gullibillies and, if he can hold out long enough and do everything in his power to skew the next election, and those Gullibillies are stupid enough to return him to office, he's home free - he won't even need the dumbass class.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Francis Fukuyama - On Paper, America Has What It Takes. Except For One Thing.

Political historian Francis Fukuyama writes that America has what it takes to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Except for one critical factor that it cannot succeed without - trust.

A democracy delegates emergency powers to its executive to deal with fast-moving threats. But willingness to delegate power and its effective use depend on one thing above all, which is trust that the executive will use those powers wisely and effectively. And this is where the U.S. has a big problem right now
Trust is built on two foundations. First, citizens must believe that their government has the expertise, technical knowledge, capacity, and impartiality to make the best available judgments. Capacity simply has to do with the government having an adequate number of people with the right training and skills to carry out the tasks they are assigned, from local firemen, policemen, and health workers to the government executives making higher-level decisions about issues such as quarantines and bailouts. Trust is something the U.S. Federal Reserve had in spades in 2008: Its chairman, Ben Bernanke, was a former academic who had studied the Great Depression in depth; the Fed is staffed with professional economists rather than political appointees likely to favor friends and cronies.
The second foundation is trust in the top end of the hierarchy, which means, in the U.S. system, the president. Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt enjoyed high levels of trust during their respective crises. As wartime presidents, this trio succeeded in symbolizing, in their own persons, the national struggle. George W. Bush did initially after September 11, but as his invasion of Iraq soured, citizens began questioning the delegations of authority they had made to him via legislation like the Patriot Act. 
The United States today faces a crisis of political trust. Trump’s base—the 35–40 percent of the population that will support him no matter what—has been fed a diet of conspiracy stories for the past four years concerning the “deep state,” and taught to distrust expertise that does not actively support the president.
President Trump continues to denigrate and undermine agencies he feels are hostile: the intelligence community, the Justice Department, the State Department, the National Security Council, even the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Many administrative agencies have seen a steady depletion of career civil servants in recent years, with positions of high responsibility going either to acting agency and bureau heads, or else to political friends of the president such as Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell. With a 29-year-old partisan conducting a purge of federal agencies, the administration has placed personal loyalty far above competence. Trump appears to be well on his way to sidelining the highly trusted Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for disagreeing with him publicly.
All of which highlights the extent of the challenge to the second foundation: trust in the president and his immediate circle. Donald Trump has never, during his three and a half years as president, sought to reach out to the more than half of the country that didn’t vote for him. He has not taken any of the simple steps he could have to build trust. When recently asked by a journalist what he would say to fearful Americans—a softball question any other leader would have hit out of the park—he instead went on a tirade against the question and the journalist. 
Because of Trump’s hesitancy to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously, many conservatives have come to deny that we are in a crisis at all, and insist that the panic surrounding the virus is the result of a Democratic plot to take down the Trump presidency. Trump himself, after briefly pivoting to portray himself as a “wartime” president, declared that he wanted to reopen the country by Easter. He has admitted that this date was chosen not on any epidemiological grounds, but because it would be a “beautiful” date for churches to be full. Perhaps he is thinking of the national spectacle of thanksgiving he could stage around his reopened rallies, and how that would affect his reelection chances.
The intense distrust that Trump and his administration have aroused, and the distrust of government that they have instilled in their supporters, will have terrible consequences for policy.
I don’t believe that we will be able to reach broad conclusions about whether dictatorships or democracies are better able to survive a pandemic. Democracies such as South Korea and Germany have been relatively successful so far in dealing with the crisis, even if the U.S. is doing less well. What matters in the end is not regime type, but whether citizens trust their leaders, and whether those leaders preside over a competent and effective state. And on this score, America’s deepening tribalism leaves few reasons for optimism.

Why America's Healthcare System is Structurally Incapable of Handling Covid-19

The problem certainly isn't lack of money. Americans already spend far more per capita than people in other developed countries on healthcare. Robert Reich says America's healthcare system can't respond to the Covid-19 pandemic because of critical flaws in the way it's structured.

Dr. Anthony S Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and just about the only official in the Trump administration trusted to tell the truth about the coronavirus, said last Thursday: “The system does not, is not really geared to what we need right now … It is a failing, let’s admit it.” 
While we’re at it, let’s admit something more basic. The system would be failing even under a halfway competent president. The dirty little secret, which will soon become apparent to all, is that there is no real public health system in the United States.
Instead of a public health system, we have a private for-profit system for individuals lucky enough to afford it and a rickety social insurance system for people fortunate enough to have a full-time job. 
At their best, both systems respond to the needs of individuals rather than the needs of the public as a whole. In America, the word “public” – as in public health, public education or public welfare – means a sum total of individual needs, not the common good.
Even if a test for the Covid-19 virus had been developed and approved in time, no institutions are in place to administer it to tens of millions of Americans free of charge. Local and state health departments are already barebones, having lost nearly a quarter of their workforce since 2008, according to the National Association of County and City Health Officials. 
Healthcare in America is delivered mainly by private for-profit corporations which, unlike financial institutions, are not required to maintain reserve capacity. As a result, the nation’s supply of ventilators isn’t nearly large enough to care for projected numbers of critically ill coronavirus victims unable to breathe for themselves. Its 45,000 intensive care unit beds fall woefully short of the 2.9 million that are likely to be needed. 
The Fed can close banks to quarantine financial crises but the US can’t close workplaces because the nation’s social insurance system depends on people going to work.
Almost 30% of American workers have no paid sick leave from their employers, including 70% of low-income workers earning less than $10.49 an hour. Vast numbers of self-employed workers cannot afford sick leave. Friday’s deal between House Democrats and the White House won’t have much effect because it exempts large employers and offers waivers to smaller ones. 
Most jobless Americans don’t qualify for unemployment insurance because they haven’t worked long enough in a steady job, and the ad-hoc deal doesn’t alter this. Meanwhile, more than 30 million Americans have no health insurance. Eligibility for Medicaid, food stamps and other public assistance is now linked to having or actively looking for work. 
It’s hard to close public schools because most working parents cannot afford childcare. Many poor children rely on school lunches for their only square meal a day. In Los Angeles, about 80% of students qualify for free or reduced lunches and just under 20,000 are homeless at some point during the school year. 
There is no public health system in the US, in short, because the richest nation in the world has no capacity to protect the public as a whole, apart from national defense. Ad-hoc remedies such as House Democrats and the White House fashioned on Friday are better than nothing, but they don’t come close to filling this void.

Food Security. It's Now a Thing. Finally.

A few years ago I did a spate of online courses on topics ranging from climate change to warfare in the 21st century to global food security. Of them all, food security seemed to be the most mundane.

One course looked at how Britain's food industry kept fresh strawberries on Sainsbury's shelves year round. It was a matter of "chasing the sun" by growing strawberries wherever the climate was suitable at any given time across both the northern and southern hemispheres. Something didn't seem right about the whole thing so I did a bit of digging into these satellite operations.

"Chasing the sun" involved Third World operations in countries that were already food insecure, nations that experienced periodic famine requiring developed countries to begrudgingly send food aid to avert mass starvation.  A lot of their prime farmland had been bought out by these foreign companies to meet demand in markets thousands of miles distant.

One thing led to another. I came across studies by renowned agronomists on the unmentioned global crisis in soils degradation. The main scourge was industrial agriculture that was destroying what had been for centuries, millennia, good and productive farmland. Intensive (excessive) agriculture produced bountiful crops thanks to the rapacious consumption of limited groundwater resources and the application of increasing quantities of agricultural chemicals - fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. What these several agronomists reported was that this Green Revolution was stripping soil carbon and other nutrients without which the soil was turning to barren sand.

Finally, in 2014, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization acted on these agronomists' reports and issued a statement warning that our farmland would support a mere 60 more harvests. That was a somewhat confusing statement but it did convey the message that we were already experiencing a loss in soil fertility.

That's a terrible development for the people of the Third World but today's editorial in The Guardian reveals that those of us in affluent nations are also facing our own forms of food insecurity evidenced by empty shelves in our grocery stores.

The underlying problem is that just-in-time supply chains can struggle to cope with even relatively small shifts, and that a handful of retailers dominate the market. The top eight account for more than 90% of all grocery sales in Britain, with Tesco alone accounting for 27%. The efficiencies that have kept food prices low, and the long and complex global chains that bring us such variety, come at a price. 
Border closures due to the virus as well as sickness could yet hit agriculture and delivery. Farmers say they face huge labour shortages, though Britain, France and others are discussing new “land armies” to bring in crops normally harvested by migrant workers. Some countries are imposing limits on exports of staples to ensure they can feed their own populations. Only half the food we consume in Britain is produced here. 
The hardest hit will be those who suffer at the best of times. Food charities have warned that millions will need food aid in the coming days. The government says military planners are organising a food delivery system for the 1.5 million people most vulnerable to coronavirus, and is developing a scheme to support the 1.6 million children who rely on free school meals – probably in the form of supermarket vouchers.
One of the many things our governments need to do is thoroughly examine our food chains. They need to identify our vulnerabilities and what we must do about them. Perhaps we should be de-industrializing our agricultural economy with less emphasis on massive exports and more focus on our own self-sufficiency. A return to smallholder farming and local distribution. Yes it might mean paying more for our food but bolstering food security is well worth the premium.

Now We Have to Look at Ourselves In the Mirror. It's Not Very Pleasant.

One of the traits neoliberalism has instilled in us is a near-bulletproof ability to look the other way.

Terrestrial life (non-human) declines by half in forty years. Marine life declines by half in forty years. Not my problem. Biodiversity loss, especially the loss of pollinators, spreads across the planet. Meh. Stocks of farmland degraded by excessive, intensive agriculture and agricultural chemicals. Somebody ought to do something about... what was that? Severe weather events of increasing frequency, duration and severity. Well my, my. Global warming. Sure, yeah, bad.  We'll get someone on those things, eventually. They'll think of something.

Then a pernicious little virus sets in. Oh well, a few weeks of self-isolation and social distancing should do the trick and then we'll be back to normal, right as rain. Only we're not so sure of that as we were just a few months ago. We've started to look in the mirror.

Some of us are finally coming to realize that all of those annoying dire warnings thrown at us over the last 15 to 20-years were true. They weren't "alarmist," the excuse we often used to justify ignoring them.  Have we really been living in a Potemkin culture?

The Guardian's enviro-scribe, George Monbiot, wrote an op-ed last week that went largely unnoticed as all eyes were riveted on the coronavirus.  He questioned whether Covid-19 will awaken us from our stupor.
The temptation, when this pandemic has passed, will be to find another bubble. We cannot afford to succumb to it. From now on, we should expose our minds to the painful realities we have denied for too long. 
The planet has multiple morbidities, some of which will make this coronavirus look, by comparison, easy to treat. One above all others has come to obsess me in recent years: how will we feed ourselves? Fights over toilet paper are ugly enough: I hope we never have to witness fights over food. But it’s becoming difficult to see how we will avoid them. 
In combination with a rising human population, and the loss of irrigation water, soil and pollinators, this could push the world into structural famine. Even today, when the world has a total food surplus, hundreds of millions are malnourished as a result of the unequal distribution of wealth and power. A food deficit could result in billions starving. 
But this is just one of our impending crises. Antibiotic resistance is, potentially, as deadly as any new disease. One of the causes is the astonishingly profligate way in which these precious medicines are used on many livestock farms.

In the US, where 27 million people have no medical cover, some people are now treating themselves with veterinary antibiotics, including those sold, without prescription, to medicate pet fish. Pharmaceutical companies are failing to invest sufficiently in the search for new drugs. If antibiotics cease to be effective, surgery becomes almost impossible. Childbirth becomes a mortal hazard once more. Chemotherapy can no longer be safely practised. Infectious diseases we have comfortably forgotten become deadly threats. We should discuss this issue as often as we talk about football. But again, it scarcely registers.
Monbiot observes that the spread of virulent epidemics, antibiotic resistance, climate breakdown, and the spreading reality of food insecurity are just some of the civilizational-scale threats we're facing. If we treat Covid-19 as some "one off" event, we're setting ourselves up for even greater catastrophes that won't be waiting for future generations. They're getting an early start and we're all in their crosshairs.
There are two ways this could go. We could, as some people have done, double down on denial. Some of those who have dismissed other threats, such as climate breakdown, also seek to downplay the threat of Covid-19. Witness the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, who claims that the coronavirus is nothing more than “a little flu”. The media and opposition politicians who have called for lockdown are, apparently, part of a conspiracy against him. 
Or this could be the moment when we begin to see ourselves, once more, as governed by biology and physics, and dependent on a habitable planet. Never again should we listen to the liars and the deniers. Never again should we allow a comforting falsehood to trounce a painful truth. No longer can we afford to be dominated by those who put money ahead of life. This coronavirus reminds us that we belong to the material world.

Is This An Oil War or the Death Throes of a Petro-Economy?

There was a story on CBC radio this morning about Alberta oil producers running out of places to store their petro-production. No mention in the report that it's a problem that's happening world wide.

There's a severe oil tanker shortage. Producers and investors are now using them as floating tank farms to store oil until "better times" return. These supertankers aren't delivering oil. To where?

There is an oil production/price war underway pitting Saudi Arabia against Russia. When Russia refused to slash output the Saudis retaliated by ramping up production to insane levels given the collapsing markets.

Now the Saudis have announced yet another increase in crude oil exports to start in May. Another 600 thousand barrels a day.

The Saudis, who launched an all-out price war for market share with Russia after Moscow refused to back deeper cuts, will not only boost April exports from the current 7 million bpd, but it will also grow exports in May by another 250,000 bpd from April. Now supply is expected at 10.6 million bpd starting in May, as per the latest Saudi statement. 
According to analysts, no deal can save the market right now as demand destruction could reach 20 million bpd or more in the coming weeks.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Is This a Re-Run of the High Middle Ages?

An historian of the Middle Ages, Patrick Wyman, sees eerie parallels between European history leading up to the Black Death and the post-WWII era leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Black Death came at the end of a long period of economic contraction that had begun way back in toward the end of the 1200s. Before that, there had been this long period of economic efflorescence in high medieval Europe of “the commercial revolution,” where long-distance trade spread rapidly, lots more money was in circulation, the economy grew. But it was built on demographic growth; some populations doubled or even tripled throughout a lot of Europe.
Many countries today, including China and India, have seen their populations triple since the end of WWII. Over that same interval, the US population has more than doubled.
And that meant that by the end of the 13th century (1200s) practically all of the arable land was under cultivation. Even a lot of marginal, mucky, hilly, swampy land was in use. But the effect of having all of these people was that wages were extremely low. There were a lot of people living on the edge of subsistence without land of their own. These were the material conditions that underpinned the peak of the serfdom system, a labor arrangement in which people owed unpaid service to the lord in return for the use of his land. 
There’s a climate element, too. Part of the reason for this long economic efflorescence was that it was a period of really good, warm, stable weather. It’s less important for farmers that the weather be good than that it be predictable, because what you need to know is when to sow your crops and when to harvest them. But over the late [1200s] and into the [1300s], the weather gets much worse. It’s much less predictable — it’s wetter, colder. And that reaches a particularly bad point in what’s known as the “Great Famine,” which spikes between about 1315 and 1322. A lot of people died: Hundreds of thousands or millions of people starved to death across Western Europe. So that’s a sign that there is something systemically wrong. And that continued up through the Black Death.
There were also a whole bunch of bankruptcies of very large businesses — unprecedentedly large businesses that in the historiography are called “the Super-Companies” — that were invested all over Europe. They went bust in the middle of the 1340s, before the Black Death. They went under for a lot of reasons, but one of them was because of how overexposed they were and how teetering the economy was. 
So you have tight money. You have high population, low wages, high land costs … that’s a recipe for a really bad series of outcomes.
What goes up inevitably comes down. That's true for dominant countries that rise to form empires m- Dutch, French, Spanish, British - or quasi-empires such as the United States.
The end of the Roman Empire did not make life worse for everybody, and I think that’s an important point. Life does not have to get worse because of the end of a large-scale political entity. There’s some desperate inequality in the Roman Empire. A lot of groups of people are systemically treated terribly in the Roman system. For most people, there is no baseline assumption that their life has any real value. So the standard of living probably rose for a lot of people in the post-Roman world, population health was probably better, and diets were probably better in large swaths of the world
That said, life often can get worse because of the end of a political system. There are things that large-scale states do that make life better or are quite useful in a lot of ways. There’s some evidence that, after Rome, people lived in a more violent world. The simple fact was that people — and there were a lot fewer people in general — lived in much more local worlds. Their worlds were much less urbanized and less connected over long distances. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on how there was a lot less long-distance communication in the post-Roman world. 
For our grandkids, I worry a lot about the climate, about a time when you just can’t really go outside in the summer, when you can’t grow certain crops because it’s too hot. I think we could be in a similar situation as post-Roman Europe, in which — if the climate stuff keeps going the way it’s going — we have a more violent world and a more disordered world. It’s not necessarily worse, but we could definitely be telling them about a much, much different world.
To meet the challenges of the 21st century we will need new, highly capable leadership. The era of the feeble technocrat, the administrator, the petit fonctionnaire, must end.
But as we’re looking to solve our current problems, we need people who have the right skill sets. We need people who know how to pull the levers of the political system to direct state resources toward the massive glaring problems that we are facing. We need people who can see a shortage of protective equipment in hospitals and find ways to ensure we are producing and distributing that equipment. If we need to test people for the coronavirus, we need people in positions of power who can guarantee that we are producing, distributing, and utilizing coronavirus test kits. That’s what the situation demands. 
And at moments like this, we have the opportunity to evaluate what is and isn’t working, and you have the opportunity to make change. Yeah, this crisis is ongoing, but when the dust eventually settles, we will be able to look at the wide and broad strokes and see things that desperately need changing. And hopefully we can use this as an opportunity to build more resilient systems as we move forward. 
This won’t be the last shock. We’ve been very lucky that we haven’t had one for a long time. But we’ll have another one.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Rolling Stones - "Ventilator Blues"

When your spine is cracking and your hands, they shake
Heart is bursting and your butt's gonna break
Woman's cussing, you can hear her scream
Feel like murder in the first degree
Ain't nobody slowing down no way
Everybody's stepping on their accelerator
Don't matter where you are
Everybody's gonna need a ventilator
When you're trapped and circled with no second chances
Code of living is your gun in hand
Can't be browed by beating, can't be cowed by words
Messed by cheating, ain't gonna ever learn
Everybody walking 'round
Everybody trying to step on their Creator
Don't matter where you are, everybody, everybody gonna
Need some kind of ventilator, some kind of ventilator
Come down and get it
Source: LyricFind

Ventilators were used as a last ditch treatment for acute drug overdose, as in heroin overdose.

While They're All Distracted By that Virus, Let's Gut the EPA

Figuring that a public worried about a viral pandemic and their next pay cheque, Team Trump figures this is the perfect time to pull a fast one - or two - or maybe more.

Where better to begin than the EPA, America's already beleaguered Environmental Protection Agency?
The Environmental Protection Agency, headed by former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, announced on Thursday a sweeping and indefinite suspension of environmental rules amid the worsening coronavirus pandemic, a move green groups warned gives the fossil fuel industry a "green light to pollute with impunity." 
Under the new policy (pdf), which the EPA insisted is temporary while providing no timeframe, big polluters will effectively be trusted to regulate themselves and will not be punished for failing to comply with reporting rules and other requirements. The order—applied retroactively beginning March 13, 2020—requests that companies "act responsibly" to avoid violations.

Wheeler said in a statement. "This temporary policy is designed to provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions, while ensuring facility operations continue to protect human health and the environment." 
Critics, such as youth climate leader Greta Thunberg, accused the Trump administration of exploiting the coronavirus crisis to advance its longstanding goal of drastically rolling back environmental protections. 
"The EPA uses this global pandemic to create loopholes for destroying the environment," tweeted Thunberg. "This is a schoolbook example for what we need to start looking out for." 
Cynthia Giles, former head of the EPA's Office of Enforcement under the Obama administration, told The Hill that the new policy is "essentially a nationwide waiver of environmental rules for the indefinite future."

Friday, March 27, 2020

How Will the Corona Virus End? - The Atlantic

The Atlantic looks at how the Covid-19 contagion will end for the United States. It won't be pretty.

Like World War II or the 9/11 attacks, this pandemic has already imprinted itself upon the nation’s psyche. 
A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”
...the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed and distributed a faulty test in February. Independent labs created alternatives, but were mired in bureaucracy from the FDA. In a crucial month when the American caseload shot into the tens of thousands, only hundreds of people were tested. That a biomedical powerhouse like the U.S. should so thoroughly fail to create a very simple diagnostic test was, quite literally, unimaginable. “I’m not aware of any simulations that I or others have run where we [considered] a failure of testing,” says Alexandra Phelan of Georgetown University, who works on legal and policy issues related to infectious diseases.
The testing fiasco was the original sin of America’s pandemic failure, the single flaw that undermined every other countermeasure. If the country could have accurately tracked the spread of the virus, hospitals could have executed their pandemic plans, girding themselves by allocating treatment rooms, ordering extra supplies, tagging in personnel, or assigning specific facilities to deal with COVID-19 cases. None of that happened. Instead, a health-care system that already runs close to full capacity, and that was already challenged by a severe flu season, was suddenly faced with a virus that had been left to spread, untracked, through communities around the country. Overstretched hospitals became overwhelmed. Basic protective equipment, such as masks, gowns, and gloves, began to run out. Beds will soon follow, as will the ventilators that provide oxygen to patients whose lungs are besieged by the virus.
America’s health-care system operates on the assumption that unaffected states can help beleaguered ones in an emergency. That ethic works for localized disasters such as hurricanes or wildfires, but not for a pandemic that is now in all 50 states. Cooperation has given way to competition; some worried hospitals have bought out large quantities of supplies, in the way that panicked consumers have bought out toilet paper. 
Partly, that’s because the White House is a ghost town of scientific expertise. A pandemic-preparedness office that was part of the National Security Council was dissolved in 2018. On January 28, Luciana Borio, who was part of that team, urged the government to “act now to prevent an American epidemic,” and specifically to work with the private sector to develop fast, easy diagnostic tests. But with the office shuttered, those warnings were published in The Wall Street Journal, rather than spoken into the president’s ear. Instead of springing into action, America sat idle.
People who were infected several days ago will only start showing symptoms now, even if they isolated themselves in the meantime. Some of those people will enter intensive-care units in early April. As of last weekend, the nation had 17,000 confirmed cases, but the actual number was probably somewhere between 60,000 and 245,000. Numbers are now starting to rise exponentially: As of Wednesday morning, the official case count was 54,000 (82,000 today, one day later), and the actual case count is unknown. Health-care workers are already seeing worrying signs: dwindling equipment, growing numbers of patients, and doctors and nurses who are themselves becoming infected.
The U.S. has fewer hospital beds per capita than Italy. A study released by a team at Imperial College London concluded that if the pandemic is left unchecked, those beds will all be full by late April. By the end of June, for every available critical-care bed, there will be roughly 15 COVID-19 patients in need of one. By the end of the summer, the pandemic will have directly killed 2.2 million Americans, notwithstanding those who will indirectly die as hospitals are unable to care for the usual slew of heart attacks, strokes, and car accidents. This is the worst-case scenario.
In the U.S., the Strategic National Stockpile—a national larder of medical equipment—is already being deployed, especially to the hardest-hit states. The stockpile is not inexhaustible, but it can buy some time. Donald Trump could use that time to invoke the Defense Production Act, launching a wartime effort in which American manufacturers switch to making medical equipment. But after invoking the act last Wednesday, Trump has failed to actually use it, reportedly due to lobbying from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and heads of major corporations.

...the pandemic will either accelerate beyond the capacity of the health system or slow to containable levels. Its course—and the nation’s fate—now depends on the third need, which is social distancing. Think of it this way: There are now only two groups of Americans. Group A includes everyone involved in the medical response, whether that’s treating patients, running tests, or manufacturing supplies. Group B includes everyone else, and their job is to buy Group A more time. Group B must now “flatten the curve” by physically isolating themselves from other people to cut off chains of transmission. Given the slow fuse of COVID-19, to forestall the future collapse of the health-care system, these seemingly drastic steps must be taken immediately, before they feel proportionate, and they must continue for several weeks.
The importance of social distancing must be impressed upon a public who must also be reassured and informed. Instead, Trump has repeatedly played down the problem, telling America that “we have it very well under control” when we do not, and that cases were “going to be down to close to zero” when they were rising. In some cases, as with his claims about ubiquitous testing, his misleading gaffes have deepened the crisis. He has even touted unproven medications.
Trump already seems to be wavering. In recent days, he has signaled that he is prepared to backtrack on social-distancing policies in a bid to protect the economy. Pundits and business leaders have used similar rhetoric, arguing that high-risk people, such as the elderly, could be protected while lower-risk people are allowed to go back to work. Such thinking is seductive, but flawed. It overestimates our ability to assess a person’s risk, and to somehow wall off the ‘high-risk’ people from the rest of society. It underestimates how badly the virus can hit ‘low-risk’ groups, and how thoroughly hospitals will be overwhelmed if even just younger demographics are falling sick.
A recent analysis from the University of Pennsylvania estimated that even if social-distancing measures can reduce infection rates by 95 percent, 960,000 Americans will still need intensive care. There are only about 180,000 ventilators in the U.S. and, more pertinently, only enough respiratory therapists and critical-care staff to safely look after 100,000 ventilated patients. Abandoning social distancing would be foolish. Abandoning it now, when tests and protective equipment are still scarce, would be catastrophic.

It’s likely, then, that the new coronavirus will be a lingering part of American life for at least a year, if not much longer. If the current round of social-distancing measures works, the pandemic may ebb enough for things to return to a semblance of normalcy. Offices could fill and bars could bustle. Schools could reopen and friends could reunite. But as the status quo returns, so too will the virus. This doesn’t mean that society must be on continuous lockdown until 2022. But “we need to be prepared to do multiple periods of social distancing,” says Stephen Kissler of Harvard.
The aftermath or the legacy of Covid-19
One could easily conceive of a world in which most of the nation believes that America defeated COVID-19. Despite his many lapses, Trump’s approval rating has surged. Imagine that he succeeds in diverting blame for the crisis to China, casting it as the villain and America as the resilient hero. During the second term of his presidency, the U.S. turns further inward and pulls out of NATO and other international alliances, builds actual and figurative walls, and disinvests in other nations. As Gen C grows up, foreign plagues replace communists and terrorists as the new generational threat. 
One could also envisage a future in which America learns a different lesson. A communal spirit, ironically born through social distancing, causes people to turn outward, to neighbors both foreign and domestic. The election of November 2020 becomes a repudiation of “America first” politics. The nation pivots, as it did after World War II, from isolationism to international cooperation. Buoyed by steady investments and an influx of the brightest minds, the health-care workforce surges. Gen C kids write school essays about growing up to be epidemiologists. Public health becomes the centerpiece of foreign policy. The U.S. leads a new global partnership focused on solving challenges like pandemics and climate change. 
In 2030, SARS-CoV-3 emerges from nowhere, and is brought to heel within a month.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

They've Been Right All Along. America is No.1

They had a lot of catching up to do but, boy, have they made up for lost time.

The United States has now logged more Covid-19 cases than either China or Italy.

The US has topped China in coronavirus cases, with more than 82,000 people now infected in the US according to tracking numbers from John Hopkins University. China's coronavirus case count is sitting at around 81,700, while Italy is around 80,500.

There have been over 1,100 COVID-19 deaths in the US. By comparison, however, there have been around 8,200 fatalities in Italy, 4,100 in Spain, 3,300 in China, 2,200 in Iran and 1,700 in France. 
During a White House coronavirus task force briefing Thursday afternoon, US President Donald Trump said the jump in cases is "a tribute to our testing." 
"We're doing tremendous testing," Trump said. 
Trump argued it's uncertain what the numbers are in China, and that he's speaking with Chinese President Xi Jinping at 9:00 p.m. ET tonight. 
Globally, coronavirus cases sit at 526,000 as of 3:00 p.m. PT on March 26, with deaths reaching 23,700.
Canada's death toll, as of two hours ago, stood at 39.

Brace Yourself. Trump's Approval Ratings Hit All-Time High

The coronavirus has been great for the Mango Mussolini, America's Bungler in Chief.

It is unclear how long Trump's polling bump will last. Polls tend to be lagging indicators, meaning they reflect events from the recent past rather than the present. 
Many of the polls were conducted last week, when Trump adopted a noticeably more serious tone when discussing the pandemic. This week he has again reverted to minimising the virus and has flagged a return to normal life by Easter, an idea vigorously opposed by public health experts
Rather than being surprised by Trump's popularity boost, some long-time poll watchers say it should be even bigger. In times of national emergency, citizens tend to support their leaders - a phenomenon known as the "rally around the flag" effect.

We Knew. We've Known for Years. We Just Ignored the Warnings. That Must Stop - Now.

When we think of climate science we think of what are sometimes called "earth sciences." Stuff like physics, chemistry, atmospherics, geology, hydrology, glaciology - the droughts, floods and severe weather events sciences.  Much less known are the related medical sciences, specifically epidemiology. And yet that community of doctors and scientists has been warning us for a long time that pandemics were in our future. Author and journalist Bryan Walsh explains that now is the time to begin preparing for the next pandemic.  A lot of lives will be lost paying for the mistakes we're still making.
The novel coronavirus pandemic, known as Covid-19, could not have been more predictable. From my own reporting, I knew this first-hand. In October 2019, I attended a simulation involving a fictional pandemic, caused by a novel coronavirus, that killed 65 million people, and in the spring of 2017 I wrote a feature story for TIME magazine on the subject. The magazine cover read: “Warning: the world is not ready for another pandemic”. 
There was little special about my insight. Over the past 15 years, there has been no shortage of articles and white papers issuing dire warnings that a global pandemic involving a new respiratory disease was only a matter of time. On BBC Future in 2018, we reported that experts believed a flu pandemic was only a matter of time and that there could be millions of undiscovered viruses in the world, with one expert telling us, “I think the chances that the next pandemic will be caused by a novel virus are quite good.” In 2019, US President Donald Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services carried out a pandemic exercise named “Crimson Contagion”, which imagined a flu pandemic starting in China and spreading around the world. The simulation predicted that 586,000 people would die in the US alone. If the most pessimistic estimates about Covid-19 come true, the far better named “Crimson Contagion” will seem like a day in the park.
Mankind has seen it all before.
Covid-19 marks the return of a very old – and familiar – enemy. Throughout history, nothing has killed more human beings than the viruses, bacteria and parasites that cause disease. Not natural disasters like earthquakes or volcanoes. Not war – not even close.

The plague of Justinian struck in the 6th Century and killed as many as 50 million people, perhaps half the global population at the time. The Black Death of the 14th Century – likely caused by the same pathogen – may have killed up to 200 million people. Smallpox may have killed as many as 300 million people in the 20th Century alone, even though an effective vaccine – the world’s first – had been available since 1796.
How we dropped the ball on Covid-19.
Covid-19 is very much a disease of the moment, emerging in a crowded city in a newly prosperous and connected China before spreading to the rest of the world in a matter of months. But our response to it has been both hyper-modern – and practically medieval. Scientists around the world are using cutting-edge tools to rapidly sequence the genome of the coronavirus, pass along information about its virulence, and collaborate on possible countermeasures and vaccines, all far quicker than could have been done before. 
But when the virus arrived among us, our only effective response was to shut down society and turn off the assembly line of global capitalism. Minus the text alerts, the videoconferencing and the Netflix, what we were doing wasn’t that different from what our ancestors might have tried to halt an outbreak of the plague. The result has been chemotherapy for the global economy
Just as the eventual emergence of something like Covid-19 was easily predictable, so too are the actions we should have taken to shore ourselves against its coming.
Learn from this pandemic and be ready for the next.
We need to strengthen the antennae of global health, to ensure that when the next virus emerges — which it will — we’ll catch it faster, perhaps even snuff it out. The budget of the WHO, the agency ostensibly charged with safeguarding the health of the world’s 7.8 billion citizens, is somehow no more than that of a large urban hospital in the U.S. 
We need to double down on the development of vaccines, which will include assuring large pharma companies that their investments won’t be wasted should an outbreak end before one is ready.
We need to build more slack into our public health systems. Just as the US military is designed — and funded — to fight a war on two fronts, so our health care systems should have the surge capacity to meet the next pandemic. 
One ongoing challenge in pandemic preparation is what experts call shock and forgetting. Too often politicians make funding promises in the immediate aftermath of a crisis like Sars or Ebola, only to let those pledges lapse as the memory of the outbreak fades
Somehow, I expect that won’t be the case with Covid-19. We need to do all we can to not just survive this pandemic, but to ensure it remains a throwback from the past, not a sign of things to come.