Tag Archives: pandemic

Why Cities Matter

The weather finally–finally!–got warm and pleasant, and I was able to walk around my downtown neighborhood. It was a welcome break from what my husband and I have come to call “house arrest,” and it gave me the opportunity to see who had planted flowers, whose house had been painted, and who else was out walking–with or without a dog.

I’ve written before about how, in the forty years we’ve lived downtown, the center of the city has dramatically changed. Dilapidated structures have been restored, new construction is everywhere, bars and restaurants are too numerous to count. I’m a very urban person, and I have rejoiced in it all.

Now, I fear what the pandemic will do to cities–including mine.

Will fear of density cause people to opt for the suburbs or exurbs? Now that many businesses have seen the virtues of a remote workforce, the cost and hassle of commuting may diminish, making outward migration more appealing. On the other hand, an article from the Conversation reports that density is not the negative we tend to think it is.

Yet while dense major cities are more likely entry points for disease, history shows suburbs and rural areas fare worse during airborne pandemics – and after.

According to the Princeton evolutionary biologist Andrew Dobson, when there are fewer potential hosts – that is, people – the deadliest strains of a pathogen have better chances of being passed on.

This “selection pressure” theory explains partly why rural villages were hardest hit during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Per capita, more people died of Spanish flu in Alaska than anywhere else in the country.

Lower-density areas may also suffer more during pandemics because they have fewer, smaller and less well-equipped hospitals. And because they are not as economically resilient as large cities, post-crisis economic recovery takes longer.

Given the degree to which facts have become meaningless in today’s America, I doubt many people will base their decisions on these findings. As a recent New York Times column began 

To the extent that cities can be said to possess “a brand,” history suggests that pandemics, from the Black Death to smallpox, have not been very good for it. The coronavirus is no exception: According to one recent poll, nearly 40 percent of adults living in cities have begun to consider moving to less populated areas because of the outbreak. In New York, where I live, roughly 5 percent of the population — or about 420,000 people — have already left.

The urge to flee urban “caldrons of contagion” is a very old one, dating at least to the 14th century. Its resurgence now has been described as “temporary,” but so was the war in Afghanistan. Will the coronavirus really set off a mass exit from cities, and, if so, what will they look like on the other side of the pandemic?

The author echoed the findings published by the Conversation, pointing out that a number of “hyperdense” cities in East Asia contained their outbreaks, and that even in New York, Manhattan, the densest borough, has the lowest rates of infection, while Staten Island, which is the most spread-out, has some of the highest. Density isn’t the problem–it’s household overcrowding, poverty, racialized economic segregation and the nature of one’s participation in the work force.

The real threat is that the pandemic will eviscerate all the things that make cities attractive. If it wipes out the restaurants, bars, museums and theaters that make urban living so richly rewarding–and if rents stay sky high–all bets are off.

That said, the column ended on a positive note; the coronavirus “could herald an urban rebirth instead of an urban decline…. After all, the very idea of abandoning cities is a luxury reserved only for those who have the resources to pick up and move.”

Cities matter because they are incubators of creativity. When diverse people come together to work and play, they generate new ideas, new ways of doing things. They see new connections. They are nurtured by living in neighborhoods where they are close enough to know each other, where the sidewalks go somewhere, and where people are acutely aware of their interdependence.

In the wake of this pandemic, America’s cities may experience a few years of stasis or population decline. But history tells us that cities are too attractive and too necessary to abandon or neglect for long.

Job number 2 will be to ensure that cities emerge healthier, more equitable and even more vibrant than they were before Covid-19. Job number 1, of course, is to save America from  Trump, his administration and his base.

 

Climate Denial Coming Back To Bite Us

It’s all connected.

Not just climate change and the incidence of pandemics–which, it turns out, is a connection we need to understand and take seriously–but science denial and destructive public policies, among many other relationships.

As Talking Points Memo and Pro Publica have reported, scientists and medical researchers are just beginning to unravel the ways in which climate change affects the emergence of new diseases. It isn’t as though the relationship between the two was unknown; for many years now, experts in the field have been warning about the likelihood that a warming planet would accelerate the rate at which new diseases appear. But the mechanisms are just beginning to be understood.

The numbers are jaw-dropping: A new emerging disease surfaces five times a year. One study estimates that more than 3,200 strains of coronaviruses already exist among bats, just waiting for an opportunity to jump to people.

Those strains have always been there–but the planet previously had “natural defenses” that fought them off.

Today, climate warming is demolishing those defense systems, driving a catastrophic loss in biodiversity that, when coupled with reckless deforestation and aggressive conversion of wildland for economic development, pushes farms and people closer to the wild and opens the gates for the spread of disease.

The effect of climate change on the way diseases are transmitted from bats and other animals or insects to humans is anything but intuitive, which is why it would be helpful to elect legislators and other policymakers who have a modicum of scientific literacy. (Actually, it would be nice if at least a few GOP lawmakers knew the difference between science and religion…)

The article explains how it works.

There are three ways climate influences emerging diseases. Roughly 60% of new pathogens come from animals — including those pressured by diversity loss — and roughly one-third of those can be directly attributed to changes in human land use, meaning deforestation, the introduction of farming, development or resource extraction in otherwise natural settings. Vector-borne diseases — those carried by insects like mosquitoes and ticks and transferred in the blood of infected people — are also on the rise as warming weather and erratic precipitation vastly expand the geographic regions vulnerable to contagion. Climate is even bringing old viruses back from the dead, thawing zombie contagions like the anthrax released from a frozen reindeer in 2016, which can come down from the arctic and haunt us from the past.

Not only does climate change facilitate contagion, but once new diseases are introduced into the human environment, changing temperatures and precipitation change how–and how fast– those diseases spread. Harsh swings from hot to cold, or sudden storms — exactly the kinds of climate-change-induced patterns we’re already experiencing— make people more likely to get sick.

The bottom line: climate policy is inseparable from efforts to prevent new pandemics. The relationship of the two cannot be ignored.

What’s known as biodiversity is critical because the natural variety of plants and animals lends each species greater resiliency against threat and together offers a delicately balanced safety net for natural systems. As diversity wanes, the balance is upset, and remaining species are both more vulnerable to human influences and, according to a landmark 2010 study in the journal Nature, more likely to pass along powerful pathogens.

Losses of biodiversity have accelerated. Only 15% of the planet’s forests remain intact–the others have been so degraded that the natural ecosystems that depend on them have been disrupted. When forests die, and grasslands and wetlands are destroyed, biodiversity decreases further.

The United Nations has warned that the planet has already lost 20% of all species– and that more than a million more animal and plant species currently face extinction.

Speaking of interrelationships–politics is intimately and unavoidably involved with our efforts to avoid planetary-wide extinctions. Losses of biodiversity and the increasing prevalence of pandemics cannot be addressed by MAGA-believing xenophobes who fear globalization and dark people, and think border walls will repel viruses and brown people, and return America to the 1950s.

We are facing life-and-death issues, and they can only be resolved by global collaborations led by people who respect science and trust scientists–and aren’t afraid of people who look or pray differently.

 

 

Are States Outmoded?

Indiana residents who follow state economic trends probably know the name Morton Marcus. Marcus–who sometimes comments here– used to head up a business school think tank at Indiana University, and even though he’s retired, remains a popular public speaker–not just because he is very knowledgable, but because he’s always been willing to speak his mind and share his often “unorthodox” opinions.

When I first joined the faculty at IUPUI, Morton’s office was down the hall, and he would sometimes pop in to discuss those opinions. I still remember a conversation in which he argued that states–whose boundaries have always been artificial–no longer made sense. Instead, he thought the U.S. should be governed through designated areas of economic influence: the Chicago region, the Boston region, etc.

I thought back to that conversation when I read a recent paper issued by the Brookings Institution. Many years later, Brookings scholars have evidently come to the same conclusion.

The paper began by noting the country’s haphazard response to the coronavirus pandemic, exacerbated by the failure to coordinate governance across local and state lines.

There are a number of ways in which the patchwork of state responses–and the tendency of many Republican governors and legislators to treat the pandemic as a political and economic problem rather than a public health crisis–is leading to thousands of unnecessary deaths. The recent majority decision by Wisconsin’s conservative Supreme Court justices to the effect that the state’s Democratic governor lacked the authority to order a uniform state response is just an extreme example of the chaos caused by internal state political struggles.

Even without the politicization of Covid-19, however, state lines complicate government’s response. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo explained the problem during a  briefing about plans to deploy contact tracing:

“If I turn up positive, yeah, my residence is in Westchester County, but I work in New York City, and I would have contacted many more people in New York City than I did in Westchester…If you’re going to do these tracing operations, you can’t do it within just your own county, because you will quickly run into people who are cross-jurisdictional.”

The paper pointed out that the multiple governance dysfunctions caused by state lines aren’t limited to those highlighted by the pandemic:

Before the arrival of the coronavirus, our planning processes formalized many inequities within and across regions, ranging from hospital bed availability to housing inventory to environmental racism…

Before the coronavirus arrived, both established metropolitan regions and “megaregions”—combinations of two or more metro areas—were consolidating at unprecedented levels. This brief presents evidence documenting these trends, and makes the case for new state and federal policy frameworks to address cross-jurisdictional equity problems that emerge when everyday activities happen in a mega-region.

The paper describes the changes in residential and commercial activity over the past decades, resulting in the creation of what the authors call “large polycentric regions, or a “megapolitan America.” Jobs, housing, and consumption now occur across multiple state and municipal jurisdictions. Significant numbers of people commute between cities or town centers. Etc.

The paper describes several of these regions, and the inequities within them, and I encourage those of you who are interested in the data to click through and read the entire paper. But living in Indiana, I was particularly struck by this description of one problem caused by the mismatch between legal jurisdictions and contemporary realities:

The lack of regional governance institutions is particularly problematic for addressing equity problems within regions. For example, a worker may live in a lower-cost municipality and work in a wealthier one. The revenues generated in the wealthy area will not normally support the services available in the worker’s lower-cost neighborhood if it is in a different county.

We have the opposite situation in the Indianapolis region: workers who commute to Indianapolis from wealthy suburbs in other counties. These commuters use the infrastructure and public services paid for by cash-strapped Indianapolis (where state government agencies and nonprofit statewide organizations occupy roughly 25% of the real estate and are exempt from property taxation), but their taxes go to their already flush home counties.

The Brookings paper provides one more example of an over-arching and increasingly dire problem–the failure of America’s governing institutions to keep pace with contemporary realities. Structures like the Electoral College, the filibuster, the way we conduct and finance elections, and the way we allocate governance responsibilities among local, state and federal authorities are just a few of the systems that no longer serve their intended purposes.

A blue wave in November is an absolutely essential first step toward addressing America’s creaky governing infrastructure.  Given the percentage of voters who remain in the cult that was once the GOP, however, I don’t have high hopes for the thoroughgoing reforms we need.

An Omen….

Like most of you who read this blog, I’ve been sequestered for several weeks now. And also like most of you, my link to the outside world–to work, family, news, commerce–has been the Internet.

I think there’s a song about not appreciating what you have until it’s gone…

A few days ago, in the midst of end-of-semester grading and other academic “wrap-up” obligations, our Internet went out. The timing was particularly bad, because I’d agreed to participate in a FaceBook “town hall” on voting that night, and the next morning a doctoral committee on which I’ve been serving was meeting via Zoom for the candidate’s all-important dissertation defense.

Thanks to my phone, I was able to participate in both, at least to a degree. But when I drew a breath of relief, it occurred to me that I had seen a highly plausible version of the future.

Think about just how dependent we have become on the Internet.

In our house, we have a “smart” thermostat. We open and close our front door with an Internet-enabled Amazon Key. Our new water softener uses the Internet to tell us when it needs salt. We bank online–remote depositing the occasional checks that still come via snail mail, and paying bills through the bank or PayPal. If we run out of some household good–batteries, furnace filters, vacuum-cleaner bags, whatever–we order replacements on line.

Our burglar alarm is online. We pay our taxes online. We stream television online.

The pharmacy that fills our standard medications is online. Amazon is there for so many purchases–especially during the Coronavirus lockdown. And during this lockdown, we’ve been able to order groceries online and have occasional dinners delivered by ClusterTruck and the like.

Communication and information? All online.

After my panicky episode (lasting a whole day!), I started to think about what America would look like if huge numbers of our citizens lost access to the Internet.

We are already seeing the problems caused by the so-called “digital divide.” As schools and universities have moved to online instruction, poor children and children in rural areas without access broadband have been significantly disadvantaged, further driving a wedge between the haves and have-nots.

In my more idle times, I’ve wondered what would happen if America was attacked not by guns or bombs, but by a successful effort to take down the country’s Internet. I don’t know whether that’s possible–whether there is sufficient redundancy in the system to foil such an effort–but the consequences would be disastrous. It would bring all the country’s systems and commerce to a screeching halt.

What is far more likely is that, when we finally emerge from this pandemic, it will be into an economy where unemployment is at Depression-era levels. Millions of people would be hard-pressed to pay for food and a roof over their heads–let alone IPhones and Internet service.

What would that America look like?

This pandemic has brought so many of our national weaknesses into sharp focus, and not just our inexplicable refusal to adopt universal healthcare. Chief among those weaknesses is a longstanding inattention to aspects of our constitutional system that no longer serve us; glaring examples are the Electoral College and the way our federalist system currently allocates responsibility/jurisdiction between the federal government and the states–especially responsibility for conducting elections. Along with gerrymandering and the widespread lack of both civic literacy and civic responsibility,  outdated constitutional structures are a major reason we have both a President and a Senate utterly incapable of doing their jobs, let alone handling the crisis we are now facing.

Meanwhile, social media promotes the conspiracy theories and “alternate facts” these officials depend upon for their continued political viability.

Think Nero was bad?

Our own mad leader doesn’t fiddle; he tweets while America burns–continuing to squander America’s global credibility, endanger the lives and livelihoods of millions of our citizens, and demonstrate un-self-aware buffoonery.

What would he and his pathetic crew do if more than half of America lost access to the Internet?

 

The Math of Politics

Life in the U.S. these days is dispelling a number of previously accepted “truths”–and not just the widespread belief in American “can-do” spirit and competence.

Those of us who have spent a significant portion of our adult lives in politics, for example, have generally accepted the “math” of politics–the belief that political success is an exercise in addition. Successful campaigns are those that add supporters to whatever base the campaign started with.

One of the reasons so many of us were stunned by Trump’s victory (even recognizing that it was an Electoral College squeaker, and a significant loss in the popular vote) was that his entire strategy was based upon subtraction and division. That first surreal trip down the golden elevator (you really can’t make this shit up) was followed by a speech calculated to repel Latino voters.

His subsequent behaviors were similarly offensive exercises in subtraction. I doubt that disabled folks were charmed by his cruel and demeaning imitation of a disabled reporter. His declaration that there were “good people on both sides” of the racist and anti-Semitic riot in Charlottesville reminded  black and Jewish voters, among others, why David Duke and the Neo-Nazis had endorsed Trump.

It has been three-and-a-half years of constant subtraction.

Political pundits are fond of pointing out that Trump’s popularity has never been good–he has been “underwater,” with negatives larger than positives throughout both the campaign and his dismal presidency. I’ve been appalled by the number who do continue to support him, but it’s true that his base has never been close to a majority. (The lesson here is the importance of turnout, and the need to fight voter suppression–it doesn’t matter that a majority hates you if enough of them don’t vote.)

Thanks largely to his pathetic performance during the pandemic, there are emerging signs that his internal polling is tanking, posing a real dilemma to the down-ballot sycophants running in 2020.

Dozens of media outlets are reporting that US intelligence agencies held more than a dozen classified briefings beginning in January, warning Trump about the emerging threat of the coronavirus. Trump ignored them (as, evidently, he ignores everything in those briefings…). Voters who cared only that their 401Ks were growing–who dismissed the obvious corruption and incompetence and international embarrassment because the only indicator they found meaningful was the one on the bottom line–are suddenly less forgiving.

Speaking of numbers and math–Trump’s pursuit of political victory has always rested on his belief in division. Dividing immigrants from citizens, blacks from whites, Muslims and Jews and mainstream Protestants from Evangelicals, rich from poor, rural from urban residents and  more recently, Red States from Blue.

The concept of “American” seems entirely foreign to him. Playing on fears and resentments  has been his “go to” instinct, and in 2016 that (barely) worked for him.

There’s plenty to fear about a pandemic, but very few people are looking to the “bully pulpit” for direction; a “pulpit” from which we get only rambling diatribes, seething animosities and evidence of Dear Leader’s monumental stupidity. (True, some people are actually asking health authorities if it’s okay to drink bleach…Those people are beyond help.)

Right now, Americans need reassurance that our government is in the hands of competent people who will see to it that we’ll eventually be all right.

We need empathy–expressions of concern and human-kindness and connection.

We need to believe that we have a President who is more concerned with our health and wellbeing than with himself. (Amazingly, the braggart-in-chief– a consummate liar–somehow can’t manage to lie about that.)

Above all, we need a President who knows how to add–and stops dividing.