10 July 2020   Leave a comment

Jeremy A. Greene and Dora Vargha have written an essay for the Boston Review entitled “How Epidemics End“. They make an important distinction between the biological and the social roots of an epidemic. The biological roots can ultimately be identified through scientific investigation and then the question is whether there is sufficient expertise to disarm the biological agent (bacteria or virus). The social roots identify the ability and willingness of the social, political, and economic system to respond to the biological threat.

In both cases, the authors suggest that there is never a clear end to an epidemic. We tend to think of a vaccine as the silver bullet to a pandemic, but history suggests otherwise. The authors use polio vaccines as an example. The first vaccine, developed by Jonas Salk, was an important, but not conclusive, response to polio. The second vaccine, developed by Sabin, was much more effective, but its adoption was sporadic at the beginning:

“The development of the polio vaccine is relatively well known, usually told as a story of an American tragedy and triumph. Yet while polio epidemics that swept the globe in the postwar decades did not respect national borders or the Iron Curtain, the Cold War provided context for both collaboration and antagonism. Only a few years after the licensing of Jonas Salk’s inactivated vaccine in the United States, his technique became widely used across the world, although its efficacy outside of the United States was questioned. The second, live oral vaccine developed by Albert Sabin, however, involved extensive collaboration in with Eastern European and Soviet colleagues. As the success of the Soviet polio vaccine trials marked a rare landmark of Cold War cooperation, Basil O’Connor, president of the March of Dimes movement, speaking at the Fifth International Poliomyelitis Conference in 1960, proclaimed that ‘in search for the truth that frees man from disease, there is no cold war.’

“Yet the differential uptake of this vaccine retraced the divisions of Cold War geography. The Soviet Union, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia were the first countries in the world to begin nationwide immunization with the Sabin vaccine, soon followed by Cuba, the first country in the Western Hemisphere to eliminate the disease. By the time the Sabin vaccine was licensed in the United States in 1963, much of Eastern Europe had done away with epidemics and was largely polio-free. The successful ending of this epidemic within the communist world was immediately held up as proof of the superiority of their political system.

“Western experts who trusted the Soviet vaccine trials, including the Yale virologist and WHO envoy Dorothy Horstmann, nonetheless emphasized that their results were possible because of the military-like organization of the Soviet health care system. Yet these enduring concerns that authoritarianism itself was the key tool for ending epidemics—a concern reflected in current debates over China’s heavy-handed interventions in Wuhan this year—can also be overstated. The Cold War East was united not only by authoritarianism and heavy hierarchies in state organization and society, but also by a powerful shared belief in the integration of paternal state, biomedical research, and socialized medicine. Epidemic management in these countries combined an emphasis on prevention, easily mobilized health workers, top-down organization of vaccinations, and a rhetoric of solidarity, all resting on a health care system that aimed at access to all citizens.”

At this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, these lessons are clear. There is a wide discrepancy among states in effective responses. The most dramatic evidence of the social basis of the pandemic will become very obvious when a vaccine is developed: Which states will have access to the vaccine? Who will profit from the vaccine? How will the vaccine be distributed? The answers to these questions will highlight the power dynamics of the pandemic.

Turkish President Erdogan has signed a decree converting Hagia Sophia back to a mosque from its current status as a museum. Hagia Sophia was built in the 6th century by the leader of the Byzantine Empire, Justinian I. It is widely regarded as a architectural triumph and is one of the world’s great monuments. It was converted to a mosque after the Turkish capture of Constantinople by Mehmet II in 1453 (and the city’s name was changed to its current name, Istanbul). Mehmet II closed the city to European traders (mostly Venetian and Genoese) which ended the highly lucrative Silk Road trade. That closure stimulated the Europeans to find an alternative route to Asia–cue in Columbus. In 1934, Ataturk, who had a clear vision of Turkey as a secular state, converted the mosque into a museum.

The decision cements the Islamist turn of the Erdogan government. We will have to see how the Turks respond. There is no doubt that Putin will be quite angry since he regards the Eastern Orthodox church to be an important part of his right to rule. We’ll see if the decision has any effect on the Russia-Turkish standoff in Syria.

Hagia Sophia

Posted July 10, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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