All posts filed under: COVID-19

Rise of the Coronavirus Cranks

I am no lockdown junkie. I’d like to get that straight before I explain why the most extreme variant of lockdown scepticism is rebarbative and destructive. I will never forgive the government for dragging out the first lockdown for 14 weeks, pointlessly exhausting the public’s patience and sowing the seeds of the non-compliance we see today. I think the second lockdown was an unnecessary overreaction to a surge in cases in the north-west that was being dealt with by local restrictions. I think the 10pm curfew was counter-productive and the tier system was clumsy and unfair. I always thought “circuit breakers” caused unnecessary hardship and had no chance of nipping the problem in the bud, as their advocates claimed. It was criminal to not reopen the schools in June and I’m not entirely convinced they should be closed now. I scorn the likes of Piers Morgan and “Independent” SAGE who would have had us in lockdown all year if they’d had a chance. No amount of comparing Sweden to its immediate neighbours will persuade me …

An Optimistic Outlook on 2021

The outlook, scientist Peter Turchin tells the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood, is bleak. Turchin thinks we are looking at another five years—or more likely a decade—of misery. And as 2020 draws to a close, modern civilization does appear to resemble a metaphorical dumpster fire. It really has been a terrible year, possibly the worst most people can remember. Every morning seemed to bring a new global damage report—an endlessly spreading pandemic, mounting death tolls, economies cratered by lockdowns, rising unemployment, racial inequality and civil unrest, spiraling political polarization, election turmoil in the United States, and bushfires in Australia. Countless people are ending the year feeling much further behind than they were on New Year’s Eve 2019. “Surely 2021 can’t be worse than 2020?” feels like wishful thinking. 2020 has felt particularly punishing, at least in part because the decade that preceded it was astonishingly hopeful and productive according to almost every metric of human progress. Extreme poverty was dramatically reduced, from 18 percent of the global population to just 8.6 percent. More than 158,000 people climbed …

God and the Pandemic

If God gives you technology, use it to reach people! ~Rabbi David Eliezrie The Secret of Chabad During this most miserable of years, religion, like virtually every major social institution, has been profoundly disrupted. There have been church closures and the ranks of outdoor—or socially distanced—worshipers represent a mere fraction of those who engaged before. Yet the pandemic may also mark a critical breaking point, leading to profound changes in how spirituality is experienced and sustained. In some senses, we are witnessing a shift as important as that brought about by Guttenberg’s press and Luther’s vernacular Bible during the Reformation. As sociologist and historian Max Weber suggested, these developments overturned the notion that “magic and the supernatural quest for salvation” belonged to the Latin-speaking priesthood.1 The pandemic and the flood of new online spiritual offerings have combined to transform religious life in much the same way. This will be a disruptive and painful transition for many established religious institutions; empty pews and church closures augur what Fordham’s David Gibson has called a “religious recession.” COVID-19 restrictions, …

The Fragility of Modern Education in the Time of COVID-19

Modern education is arguably the most massive feat of social engineering ever attempted by humanity and one of the most important, when effective. Academic competencies at the end of schooling can have life-long influences on employability, wages, and the ability to advance in one’s career.1,2,3,4 These influences, of course, benefit the individual, but also shape the communities in which educated individuals reside and have wider effects on gross domestic product and rates of technological and other innovations.4, 5 It is not simply years of schooling or having a credential (e.g., high school diploma) that produce these effects, it is the actual reading, mathematics, and other academic skills and knowledge that students take with them as they head off for college or the work force.5 With this in mind, consider that the strategies designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 have disrupted the schooling of as many as three out of four of the world’s students,6 The long-term impacts of these disruptions will not be known for some time but there are well-founded reasons to believe …

On the Cusp of a Vaccine—and a Historic Scientific Triumph

More than a century separated the first wave of Spanish flu in 1918 from the emergence of COVID-19 in early 2020. Yet as Nicholas Christakis writes in his new book, Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, there are people who’ve been laid low by both plagues, and even lived to tell the tale. These include Marilee Harris, who caught the Spanish flu as a six-year-old child in Chicago. She survived, then a century passed—during which time she became a sculptor, got married (twice), wrote a book about her life, and moved to Washington, DC, where, still a working artist at age 107, she was hospitalized with COVID-19. Doctors called her daughter with the grave news that she only had hours to live. (The COVID-19 death rate for those aged 85 and over is estimated to be 630 times higher than for young adults.) Amazingly, she survived, went home, and lived another five months before passing away on September 11th. As Christakis shows, there are some aspects of …

Totally Under Control—A Review

Alex Gibney’s Totally Under Control revisits a time, the legacy of which still haunts us. Spanning the period between January of 2020 and late spring of 2020, his new documentary traces the rise of the pandemic which has become a defining feature of our time. A New York Times headline on January 21st read “China Confirms New Coronavirus Spreads From Humans to Humans.” The full horror of mass deaths and economic lockdown hadn’t dawned on the world yet. Even in Wuhan there wasn’t full comprehension of what was to come. Nevertheless, the next day President Donald Trump was asked if he was worried about the pandemic and responded that “We have it totally under control.” Obviously, Trump was wrong. Totally Under Control is squarely focused on the bungling, mismanagement, and incoherence of the Trump administration. Gibney’s documentary is fundamentally a chronicle of the lopsided match between the COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump administration. As a point of contrast, Gibney focuses on the coherent and concerted efforts of America’s Pacific Rim ally, South Korea. The comparison …

It’s Still Early Days. But Pfizer’s Stunning Vaccine Results Could Be a Real Game-Changer

With COVID-19 cases surging in the United States and many other countries, Monday’s announcement that ongoing vaccine tests had produced positive results comes as much-needed good news. In a placebo-controlled trial of 43,538 subjects, a vaccine developed by Pfizer, working with the German company BioNTech, was found to be “more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 in participants without evidence of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection.” (Although the early work was done in Germany, by Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Özlem Türeci, the BioNTech co-founders, subsequent development work has been performed collaboratively with Pfizer, which is why it is commonly referred to in the media simply as the Pfizer vaccine.) Half the subjects received the placebo and half the vaccine (dubbed “BNT162b2”); and an independent monitoring committee unlocked the data when 94 COVID-19 cases had been recorded among all subjects (a predetermined point of interim analysis). Pfizer reports that “the case split between vaccinated individuals and those who received the placebo indicates a vaccine efficacy rate above 90 percent, at seven days after the second dose.” In …

R.M. Vaughan (1965–2020): A Beautiful Mind Silently Extinguished in a Time of Fear

We were extremely close for about five years. He was my confidante and my support system. We were best friends. Never lovers—though many thought we were. It was a dark time for me, and I needed him. Canadian gay writer Richard Murray Vaughan (1965–2020) was found dead by police in Fredericton, New Brunswick on October 23rd—10 days after being reported missing. No foul play is suspected. This is in part a remembrance of R.M. (as he was widely known, including to his friends), but also a reminder that the campaign against COVID-19 can create its own kind of harm. I don’t pretend that this essay is one Richard would have authored (though he did write about COVID-19 and mental health shortly before his death). He and I were different men and different writers. But I do think my old friend would have agreed with at least some of what I have to say. I met Richard when he entered my office at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre—142 George Street, Toronto—in 1991. Initially we talked about …

The Coming Post-COVID Global Order

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated economics in the West, but the harshest impacts may yet be felt in the developing world. After decades of improvement in poorer countries, a regression threatens that could usher in, both economically and politically, a neo-feudal future, leaving billions stranded permanently in poverty. If this threat is not addressed, these conditions could threaten not just the world economy, but prospects for democracy worldwide. In its most recent analysis, the World Bank predicted that the global economy will shrink by 5.2 percent in 2020, with developing countries overall seeing their incomes fall for the first time in 60 years. The United Nations predicts that the pandemic recession could plunge as many as 420 million people into extreme poverty, defined as earning less than $2 a day. The disruption will be particularly notable in the poorest countries. The UN has forecast that Africa could have 30 million more people in poverty. A study by the International Growth Centre spoke of “staggering” implications with 9.1 percent of the population descending into extreme poverty as …

Something is Rotten in the State of Victoria

In Hamlet, after the unquiet ghost of Hamlet’s father is seen walking the battlements of the castle, the guard Marcellus observes to Horatio, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” In my home state of Victoria, in Australia, COVID-19 is the unquiet ghost which has exposed the flaws in governance at the heart of my state. I suspect we are not alone, and that flaws in governance have been exposed in different ways across the world. The unusual aspect of my state is that it locked down harshly, but this did not stem the spread of COVID-19. Let me also get a few preliminaries out of the way first. I am a vulnerable person who has been lucky enough to be able to work from home with very little contact with anyone other than immediate family and medical professionals since March this year, when the first wave of COVID-19 hit Melbourne. I am not saying that the government was wrong to lockdown. In fact, at first, I was supportive of (and relieved by) its …