Tag Archives: pandemic

Predicting The Future

It’s impossible to pick up a magazine or log into a blog or website without coming across an article predicting how dramatically the Coronavirus pandemic will change the world.

As Steven Pearlstein recently wrote in the Washington Post,  self-appointed soothsayers are predicting the demise of globalization, the triumph of large enterprises over small business, and dramatic lifestyle changes brought about by fear of dangerous microbes:
everything from diminished travel, as people “think twice about boarding an airplane, checking into a hotel, attending a concert or taking their kids to Disney World” to the emptying out of expensive cities, since so many of us–and our employers– have discovered that we can work just as well from home.

Time to take a deep breath.

I certainly don’t have a crystal ball–nor do I claim any particular expertise in “futurism,” but these predictions strike me as fanciful at best and absurd at worst. Just look at how desperately people are returning to their previous behaviors, even in the face of warnings that it is dangerously early for such return. Humans are creatures of habit.

We are dependent upon those international supply chains. Our families are scattered around the globe, and we still want to visit them. Often, on airplanes. Etc.  Although there is likely to be movement toward remote work, that movement has been underway for quite some time, and it is necessarily limited–not just because many jobs require our physical presence, but because so many of us see real value in face-to-face interactions with our coworkers.

All of this is not to say that change is not underway. It is–and much of the social unrest we are seeing is attributable to it. The pandemic may accelerate some part of the broader social changes that were occurring when it hit–or it may retard some–but the real shifts have been underway for years, fostered by improved transportation and communication technologies and demographics.

I suspect that changes in the wake of the video of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer will turn out to be far more consequential than those triggered by the pandemic.

Last year, Gallup documented major social changes that have occurred “since Woodstock”: religious attachment has waned, support for marijuana legalization has grown, interracial marriage–and its acceptance– has increased, a majority of Americans now support reproductive rights, voters are far more willing to elect women or people of color, family sizes have shrunk, and given the option, most women now prefer to enter the workforce to staying home. And of course– to belabor the obvious–attitudes about premarital sex and LGBTQ citizens have dramatically changed.

There is a (hotly disputed) academic theory that posits cultural “swings” every forty or fifty years. Whatever the accuracy of that theory, anyone even slightly conversant with social history can recognize how the disruptions of one era lay a foundation for those of the next, and how technological innovations affect those changes (usually, in unanticipated ways).

My absolutely non-crystal-ball conclusion is that humans are approaching one of our inevitable turning points. (This one is made far more dangerous by climate change, and by the sheer number of humans on our planet.) One aspect of our new reality is already visible: thanks to demographic change and significantly increased urbanization, it has become far more difficult for people to live in geographic–as opposed to ideological–bubbles, far more difficult for most folks to ignore the reality of human diversity and the complexities of our daily social interactions.

At times like these, when social transformation seems overwhelming, people everywhere fall into two broad (very broad) categories–those who accept the new realities and those who reject them. Those who adapt–or try to– and those who panic.

In the United States, the MAGA folks, the alt-right provocateurs, the fundamentalist preachers, the Fox-News audience members and their ilk are clinging to a world that no longer exists, insisting that we can bring back a time when everyone knew their place– and the straight white Christian guy’s place was on top.

The pandemic will impel some changes around the edges, but the real transformation will be produced by people who recognize the necessity of building a different, fairer world. I’m betting that there are enough of those people, that they outnumber and certainly out-think the reactionaries, and that the disorientation and unrest we are now experiencing will ultimately lead to a vastly improved social contract.

I sure hope I win that bet….

 

 

Facts Can Be So Pesky

Santayana supposedly said that people who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. I think the even truer saying–one for which I don’t have an attribution–is “what we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.”

Which brings me to “the Big Lie.”

The big lie was a term used by Adolf Hitler in his 1925 book, Mein Kampf. It was a propaganda technique: tell a lie so huge, so colossal, that no one would believe that anyone would have the gall to make it up.

The Saint Louis Post Dispatch recently took aim at Trump’s effort to use a “Big Lie” to escape responsibility for his incompetent response to Covid-19. 

It was all Obama’s fault.

I am not suggesting that Trump is strategic enough to intentionally employ a propaganda technique; given his grasp of history, I doubt he’s ever heard the term “Big Lie.” (Besides, he blames everything on Obama. His jealousy of Obama is such an obsession that if space aliens invaded, that would be Obama’s fault too.) I’m not even sure he is capable of telling the difference between the reality he prefers and the reality most of us inhabit.

That said, his constant attacks on Obama create a story that his base–still smarting from the outrage, the indignity, of living in a country with a highly competent and widely admired black President for 8 long years– desperately wants to believe.

Trump has repeatedly blamed Obama for his own administration’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, claiming that “The last administration left us nothing.” But an investigation by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch found that Trump’s own budget documents show the opposite ― exposing what it called “a lie of colossal Trumpian proportions.”

The newspaper’s investigators found Trump administration testimony to Congress in which it justified its request for big budget cuts in pandemic preparedness programs by explaining that the Obama administration had left it with everything that would be needed should a pandemic emerge.

Trump’s 2020 budget asked Congress to cut the pandemic preparedness budget by $102.9 million, part of $595.5 million in requested cuts to public health preparedness and response outlay.

Think about that.

Trump has also blamed Obama for lack of personal protective equipment and testing supplies, saying “our cupboards were bare. We had very little in our stockpile.”

But a chart provided to Congress by the Trump administration as part of its budget requests showed that by 2016 ―which was Obama’s final year in office ― the nation’s public health emergency preparedness was at least 98% on every key measure. And that 98% was the Trump administration’s own assessment.

As the newspaper’s editorial board wrote,

We’ve taken the time to dissect Centers for Disease Control and Prevention budgets from the year before Obama left office all the way to the present. Trump can lie, but the numbers cannot. Obama left office with an unblemished record of building up the nation’s pandemic preparedness. Trump systematically sought to dismantle it.

Perhaps because of his experience with the 2015 Ebola outbreak, Obama sought to leave his successor fully prepared to confront future pandemics. He asked in his fiscal 2017 budget request to boost federal isolation and quarantine funding by $15 million, to $46.6 million. Congress approved $31.6 million. In Trump’s three years in office, he has not requested a dime more in funding.

Obama asked to nearly double his own $40 million outlay for epidemiology and laboratory capacity. Congress balked, but Obama left Trump with that $40 million as a starting point. What did Trump do? In his 2020 budget, he asked Congress to cut that number to: Zero. Zilch. Nothing.

Let me repeat the newspaper’s most damning discovery: in the 2019 fiscal year budget, Trump asked for a $595.5 million dollar cut to the overall public health preparedness and response efforts. 

The one thing we all know about the Big Liar in Chief is that nothing is ever–and can never be–his fault.

The one thing we don’t all know is how many of “We the People” will eagerly believe the Big Lie.

 

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.