28 March 2020   Leave a comment

The Guardian has published an article about the time lost in the US before there was an adequaste response to the spread of COVID-19. The newspaper is a lefty newspaper and its critique of the Trump Administration is biting. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the article because of possible bias–there are too many specific dates and events cataloged in the article to argue that its critique is unfair.

The first documented case of COVID-19 in the US occurred on 20 January 2020 (I posted about the coronavirus on 22 January–one did not have to be an expert to know that something significant was going on in China). The New York Times documents the fact that the Director of the US Center for Disease Control, Dr. Robert Redfield, knew about the seriousness of the virus early on:

“The first time Dr. Robert Redfield heard about the severity of the virus from his Chinese counterparts was around New Year’s Day, when he was on vacation with his family. He spent so much time on the phone that they barely saw him. And what he heard rattled him; in one grim conversation about the virus days later, George F. Gao, the director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, burst into tears.”

NBC News provides evidence of how the US intelligence agencies warned the Trump Administration about the threat of COVID-19 and how those warnings were ignored by the Trump Aministration:

According to The Washington Post, ‘U.S. intelligence agencies were issuing ominous, classified warnings in January and February about the global danger of the coronavirus while President Trump and lawmakers played down the threat and failed to take action that might have slowed the spread of the pathogen.’ Almost a year before that, an annual threat report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence by Dan Coats, then its director, stated, ‘The United States will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support.’ Coats stepped down last year after he was reported to have angered the president with unwelcome intelligence assessments.

“The 2020 report, which was supposed to have been released in February, remains mysteriously classified.”

The Guardian article compares the US and South Korean response to the virus:

“When the definitive history of the coronavirus pandemic is written, the date 20 January 2020 is certain to feature prominently. It was on that day that a 35-year-old man in Washington state, recently returned from visiting family in Wuhan in China, became the first person in the US to be diagnosed with the virus.

“On the very same day, 5,000 miles away in Asia, the first confirmed case of Covid-19 was reported in South Korea. The confluence was striking, but there the similarities ended.

“In the two months since that fateful day, the responses to coronavirus displayed by the US and South Korea have been polar opposites.

“One country acted swiftly and aggressively to detect and isolate the virus, and by doing so has largely contained the crisis. The other country dithered and procrastinated, became mired in chaos and confusion, was distracted by the individual whims of its leader, and is now confronted by a health emergency of daunting proportions.”

The article then goes on to point out that the US government did not even take the testing process seriously until 29 Fenruary:

“Those missing four to six weeks are likely to go down in the definitive history as a cautionary tale of the potentially devastating consequences of failed political leadership. Today, 86,012 cases have been confirmed across the US, pushing the nation to the top of the world’s coronavirus league table – above even China.

“More than a quarter of those cases are in New York City, now a global center of the coronavirus pandemic, with New Orleans also raising alarm. Nationally, 1,301 people have died.

“Most worryingly, the curve of cases continues to rise precipitously, with no sign of the plateau that has spared South Korea.

“’The US response will be studied for generations as a textbook example of a disastrous, failed effort,’ Ron Klain, who spearheaded the fight against Ebola in 2014, told a Georgetown university panel recently. ‘What’s happened in Washington has been a fiasco of incredible proportions.’”

The article goes on:

“Jeremy Konyndyk, who led the US government’s response to international disasters at USAid from 2013 to 2017, frames the past six weeks in strikingly similar terms. He told the Guardian: ‘We are witnessing in the United States one of the greatest failures of basic governance and basic leadership in modern times.’

“In Konyndyk’s analysis, the White House had all the information it needed by the end of January to act decisively. Instead, Trump repeatedly played down the severity of the threat, blaming China for what he called the ‘Chinese virus‘ and insisting falsely that his partial travel bans on China and Europe were all it would take to contain the crisis.”

It is instructive to note that other countries have been remarkably effective in keeping the death rate from COVID-19 down. National Public Radio cites Germany, another liberal democracy, that faced the same issues that the US did, but with completely different outcomes: “In Italy, the fatality rate from the virus is around 10%; in France, 5%. But in Germany, only a tiny fraction of people with the virus have died – just 0.5%.” There are many resons why Germany has been more successful than other states, but the principal difference seems to be the willingness of the state to embrace testing of everyone–not just those who were sick–in order to enforce social distancing. The New York Times echoes the singular importance of testing:

“But as the deadly virus from China spread with ferocity across the United States between late January and early March, large-scale testing of people who might have been infected did not happen — because of technical flaws, regulatory hurdles, business-as-usual bureaucracies and lack of leadership at multiple levels, according to interviews with more than 50 current and former public health officials, administration officials, senior scientists and company executives.

“The result was a lost month, when the world’s richest country — armed with some of the most highly trained scientists and infectious disease specialists — squandered its best chance of containing the virus’s spread. Instead, Americans were left largely blind to the scale of a looming public health catastrophe.”

Snopes did a fact check of all the times US President Trump seemed to downplay the significance of the virus. The list is quite long, so I will not reproduce it here, but Snopes carefully documents every source of the remarks. The failure of the US to respond effectively to the crisis will be studied in great detail after the crisis is over. But one point should be crystal-clear: effective governance can make a huge difference in protecting the well-being of citizens.

Posted March 28, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

26 March 2020   Leave a comment

The United Nations Security Council has been debating a resolution calling for the cessation of hostilities among nations because of the impact of COVID-19 on societies globally. According to NBC News:

“Although the U.N. has a separate public health body — the World Health Organization — the Security Council has sought to warn how ongoing global conflicts could exacerbate the crisis and undermine the response.

“France, a permanent member of the council, proposed a version demanding a ‘general and immediate cessation of hostilities in all countries,’ including a 30-day humanitarian pause in conflicts, to allow coronavirus-related supplies to flow, according to a text reviewed by NBC News.

The debate on the resolution has been stymied by the US insistence that the resolution contain language that identifies China as the source of the virus: “the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Wuhan, Hubei province in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in November 2019.”  The US and China have been engaged in a bootless contest over the origins of the coronavirus with the Chinese claiming that the US military brought the virus into China and the Americans wanting to blame China for a slow response to the spread of the virus. The German media outlet, Der Spiegel, also reports that the G7 meeting (which was held electronically–a bizarre circumstance given that the 7 countries span 13 different time zones) did not issue a final communique because the US insistence that the COVID-19 virus be called the “Wuhan” virus. In a press conference about the health crisis, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, made the following statement: “The Chinese Communist Party poses a substantial threat to our health and way of life, as the Wuhan virus outbreak clearly has demonstrated”. Nancy LeTourneau, writing in The Washington Monthly, argues that the tactic of blaming China for the crisis is a way of shielding US President Trump from criticism over his handling of the crisis. Politico has obtained a copy of the “playbook” on handling a pandemic that was issued by the Obama National Security Council in 2016. It is 69 pages of a step-by-step process to contain and minimize the effects of a pandemic on the US population. One cannot say if the playbook would have been effective, but, upon reading it, I can confidently say that the Trump Administration did not take a majority of the steps outlined. It is dry reading, but it seems to be quite comprehensive.

The US Senate passed a huge bill designed to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on the US economy and it is expected that the House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the bill tonight. There is one part of the bill that is quite interesting: the money allocated to support the cruise line industry. Much of that industry is not registered in the US. The industry flies “flags of convenience”, such as Liberia or Panama, in order to avoid paying US taxes and to avoid safety and environmental regulations. It is estimated that only about 5% of the workers for the industry are American.

“Despite many of them being based in Florida, major cruise lines conveniently rely on legal loopholes by registering their companies in low tax jurisdictions. Their cruise ships also fly the flags of other countries so that they do not have to abide by US labor laws, a loophole known as a “flag of convenience”. 

Carnival, the largest cruise company in terms of market share, is incorporated in Panama according to Panama’s registry and the other two major companies in the industry employ similar tactics. Norwegian is incorporated in Bermuda, and Royal Caribbean has been incorporated in Liberia since 1985.

“Despite the fact that all three of their corporate headquarters are in Miami, annual filings show that these companies are part of an industry that paid an average tax rate of under 1%, which is well below the required 21% corporate tax rate in the United States.”

We should seriously ask why the industry will receive tax money derived from US citizens even though it has contributed very little to that pool of money. The passage of this part of the bailout bill will benefit only the owners of the cruise ships and not the American people. In fact, the American people will be poorer as a result.

Posted March 26, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

25 March 2020   2 comments

COVID-19 raises all sorts of questions about world politics. It is a disease that respects no national borders and is in many respects similar to the threats to global stability posed by climate change. In particular, the virus creates a backlash against the process of globalization which mirrors the populist challenge to globalization which has rattled world politics since the Great Recession of 2008. US President Trump made this abundantly clear in his remarks to the press on 24 March:

“We should never be reliant on a foreign country for the means of our own survival.  I think we’ve learned a lot.  We’ve learned a lot.  This crisis has underscored just how critical it is to have strong borders and a robust manufacturing sector.

“For three years, we’ve embarked on a great national project to secure our immigration system and bring back our manufacturing jobs.  We brought back many jobs — records numbers — record numbers of jobs.

“And this really shows — this experience shows how important borders are.  Without borders, you don’t have a nation.

“Our goal for the future must be to have American medicine for American patients, American supplies for American hospitals, and American equipment for our great American heroes.

“Now, both parties must unite to ensure the United States is truly an independent nation in every sense of the word.  Energy independence — we’ve established that.  That’s something incredible that we have established.  We’re energy independent, manufacturing independence, economic independence, and territorial independence enforced by strong, sovereign borders.

“America will never be a supplicant nation.  We will be a proud, prosperous, independent, and self-reliant nation.  We will embrace commerce with all, but we will be dependent on none.”

This view is profoundly myopic. It may be the case that Mr. Trump does not want to be dependent on resources coming into the US. But the perspective ignores the fact that much of American prosperity rests upon other states buying US resources such as agriculture, airplanes, and high technology. The US would be a significantly poorer country in the absence of a globalized economy. The more productive approach to globalization is to cushion the harmful aspects of the process by investing in an infrastructure that supports those who suffer and guide them into more productive employment.

Posted March 25, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

22 March 2020   Leave a comment

Virtually all my news feeds are related to the COVID-19 crisis. There’s a lot to think about and the crisis is clearly going to command our attention for an extended period of time. I am not going to pretend that I have any original insight into the crisis, and, at this moment, there does not seem to be any other issue in the world that seems to be more urgent. We are all hunkered down and keeping as safe as we can, but it is discouraging to get news reports that some governments in the world have yet to respond effectively. So here are some diversions to help alleviate some of the discouragement.

Posted March 22, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

19 March 2020   Leave a comment

The have been many press reports about the state of preparedness in the US for the onset of a pandemic such as the country is experiencing currently. It is, to my mind, a curious question since there are many historical examples of plagues which completely transformed daily life in many societies. The real question is why, given the evidence, most societies were completely unprepared for such a devastating possibility. The question is even more perplexing because there is substantial information about systematic studies that were offered to governmental officials about what needed to be done to more effectively address the potential for a pandemic. Those studies, however, failed to elicit any response to this glaring threat to the security of citizens.

The New York Times published today a report about the information the Trump Administration had about the US government’s preparedness for a pandemic. The report was issued by the Health and Human Services agency on a simulation of a pandemic outbreak, entitled “Crimson Contagion” in October 2019. The simulation was run in January, April, and May of 2019. According to The New York Times:

“The draft report, marked ‘not to be disclosed,’ laid out in stark detail repeated cases of ‘confusion’ in the exercise. Federal agencies jockeyed over who was in charge. State officials and hospitals struggled to figure out what kind of equipment was stockpiled or available. Cities and states went their own ways on school closings.

“Many of the potentially deadly consequences of a failure to address the shortcomings are now playing out in all-too-real fashion across the country. And it was hardly the first warning for the nation’s leaders. Three times over the past four years the U.S. government, across two administrations, had grappled in depth with what a pandemic would look like, identifying likely shortcomings and in some cases recommending specific action.

“In 2016, the Obama administration produced a comprehensive report on the lessons learned by the government from battling Ebola. In January 2017, outgoing Obama administration officials ran an extensive exercise on responding to a pandemic for incoming senior officials of the Trump administration.”

To its credit, the Obama Administration created a position on the National Security Council dedicated to coordinating federal resources to address the possibility of a devastating pandemic. That office briefed the incoming Trump Administration in January 2017. But that office was eliminated in January 2018.

It is clear that pandemics should be considered as national security threats as devastating as any threat posed by states or non-state actors. And we should fund defenses against pandemics (as well as climate change, by the way) to the same degree that we currently find defenses against more traditional acts of war. And we should assess the failure of anticipating such threats as egregious failures of the state.

Posted March 19, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

18 March 2020   Leave a comment

Barry Posen has written a very insightful essay on the relationship between the US and Iran, a relationship that continues to escalate in an uncertain way. Posen details the more recent history of the US-Iranian relationship, paying particular attention to the significance of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iranian nuclear deal. The re-imposition of sanctions, as well as the secondary sanctions imposed by the US on the other signatories to the agreement, have placed the Iranians in a desperate situation. Posen describes the attitude of the Iranians:

“In its eyes, the sanctions are particularly malevolent, because Iran had agreed, after long negotiations with the Obama administration and the European Union, to constrain its nuclear ambitions in return for enhanced economic exchange with its negotiating partners. The Trump administration defected from this agreement, dubbed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). So long as Iran adhered to its obligations under the JCPOA, other states were ostensibly committed to trade with Iran. But other guarantors did not hold up their end, even though Iran initially adhered to the terms. The European Union, in particular, has done essentially nothing to fulfill its part of the JCPOA bargain, because the United States has threatened punishing secondary sanctions on foreign banks and companies if they do so. Russia and China, the other co-guarantors of the JCPOA, have been somewhat more willing to help Iran, but the help is furtive and insufficient to ameliorate the U.S. sanctions effort.”

Posen believes that the Iranians are currently holding out for a new US President. But if Trump is re-elected, the Iranians will be forced to figure out a way to break the US control over likely Iranian trading partners. That course of action would involve continuing the incremental attacks on US forces in Iraq as well as attacks on US Arab allies in the Gulf. THat course of action would require a US response, but Posen believes that US military action would not achieve US objectives:

“The United States could try to end such a war quickly and cheaply by bombing Iran’s diverse capabilities out of existence, though this would probably take more time than many expect and probably would not fully succeed. The U.S. air campaigns against Serbia and Libya took much longer than anyone expected; both adversaries managed to continue military operations while under aerial pressure. Both were much weaker than Iran. At some point, the United States would ask Iran if it is ready to capitulate. And if Iran is unwilling, as is likely, then the United States would have five options: negotiate an end to the war that includes compromises on U.S. objectives; stop bombing and hope that the Iranians also stop fighting; settle in for a long, grinding blockade and attrition war; escalate the bombing to civilian targets, a war crime that the president has already hinted at in one of his tweets; or invade Iran with ground forces. None of these options look good. War would be costly, and probably unwinnable in the traditional sense without an invasion of Iran.”

Both the US and Iran have been rattled by COVID-19 and it is likely the case that neither side wishes to take provocative action at this time. But the vulnerability of both could lead to serious miscalculations.

Posted March 18, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

17 March 2020   1 comment

Research published in the journal Nature Energy (the article is paywalled–for those who wish to buy it, the link it here) which provides data which confirms what is intuitively obvious: the rich are the primary contributors to the process of climate change. The BBC reports:

“The rich are primarily to blame for the global climate crisis, a study by the University of Leeds of 86 countries claims.

“The wealthiest tenth of people consume about 20 times more energy overall than the bottom ten, wherever they live.

“The gulf is greatest in transport, where the top tenth gobble 187 times more fuel than the poorest tenth, the research says.

“That’s because people on the lowest incomes can rarely afford to drive.

“The researchers found that the richer people became, the more energy they typically use. And it was replicated across all countries.

“And they warn that, unless there’s a significant policy change, household energy consumption could double from 2011 levels by 2050. That’s even if energy efficiency improves.”

The rich travel more often and disproportionately take longer airline flights. They also have larger homes which require more energy to heat. The breakdown by countries is illustrative:

“It shows that a fifth of UK citizens are in the top 5% of global energy consumers, along with 40% of German citizens, and Luxembourg’s entire population.

“Only 2% of Chinese people are in the top global 5% of users, and just 0.02% of people in India.

“Even the poorest fifth of Britons consumes over five times as much energy per person as the bottom billion in India.”

The information provides a very compelling case for reducing income and wealth inequality, as well as targeting the most energy-intensive activities as the ones that should be discouraged, primarily through higher taxes on things such as air transportation. The Center for Biological Diversity quantifies the role of airplane emissions: “Airplanes could generate 43 gigatonnes of planet-warming pollution through 2050, consuming almost 5 percent of the world’s remaining carbon budget, according to a new Center report…..Aircraft emit staggering amounts of CO2, the most prevalent manmade greenhouse gas. In fact they currently account for some 11 percent of CO2 emissions from U.S. transportation sources and 3 percent of the United States’ total CO2 emissions. All told, the United States is responsible for nearly half of worldwide CO2 emissions from aircraft.” Needless to say, the rich would likely try to block their activities, but the planet can ill-afford their selfishness.

The European Union (EU) has announced that it will close all Schengen borders for 30 days. The Schengen agreement, adopted in 1985, allowed the free movement of people and goods throughout the EU and is applied by 26 members (although Great Britain will end its participation when the final Brexit Agreement is signed). The move is in response to efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 and it will undoubtedly create difficulties for the Union (imagine the chaos if all fifty US states placed border controls on each other). Europe is emerging as the center of the COVID-19 crisis:

“Italy, the worst-hit country outside of China, has recorded a total of 23,073 positive cases and 2,158 deaths, in figures released by its health ministry on Monday. Some 2,749 have recovered.

“Spain, the next most affected, posted an extra 1,438 cases today, bringing its total to 9,191, while Germany has 6,012 – up 1,174 from yesterday – and suffered 13 deaths.

The move is a symbolic blow to the idea of European unity. We should all hope that the action slows down the spread of the virus, but it may already be too late to make much of a difference.

Posted March 17, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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