All posts filed under: COVID-19

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 …

The China Syndrome Part IV: Did China Fudge its Data?

Note: This is the concluding part of a four-part series of essays looking in detail at China’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic. Part One looked at the circumstances surrounding the initial outbreak; Part Two looked at the discovery of human-to-human transmission and the immediate response; Part Three investigated allegations that the pandemic began in a “wet market” or that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan; this part examines charges that China falsified its pandemic data.  Allegations that China was falsifying its COVID-19 figures began to appear when its death and case rates were overtaken by even more dismal figures in parts of Europe and America. How could a repressive society like China possibly be getting this right while the West’s democracies were getting it wrong? As Western numbers climbed, commentators and politicians declared with growing certainty that China’s claim to have successfully suppressed its epidemic was simply the propagandistic lie of a mendacious totalitarian regime intended to fool its own citizenry and the rest of the world. Back in April, Bloomberg reported that, according …

The China Syndrome Part III: Wet Markets and BioLabs

Note: This is the third part of a four-part series of essays looking in detail at China’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic. Part One looked at the circumstances surrounding the initial outbreak; Part Two looked at the discovery of human-to-human transmission and the immediate response; this part investigates allegations that the pandemic began in a “wet market” or that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan; Part Four examines charges that the Chinese have falsified their pandemic data.  Among the most controversial questions debated in the wake of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak are how and why the pandemic began in China in the first place. In the previous part of this essay, I argued that, to the extent that China was blameworthy for the pandemic, it was down to a matter of chance. Had the pandemic started in the West instead of China, it would likely have been much worse, so unless you believe in moral luck it doesn’t make sense to blame China. However, if the outbreak began as a result of Chinese negligence …

The China Syndrome Part II: Transmission and Response

Note: This is the second part of a four-part series of essays looking in detail at China’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic. Part One looked at the circumstances surrounding the initial outbreak; this part looks at the discovery of human-to-human transmission and the immediate response; Part Three investigates allegations that the pandemic began in a “wet market” or that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan; Part Four examines charges that the Chinese have falsified their pandemic data.  There is evidence that, in mid-January, Chinese officials withheld suspicions that sustained human-to-human transmission was occurring. Nevertheless, most of the claims about Chinese mendacity and its implications have been wildly exaggerated. A useful account of the ways in which the local health authorities delayed the release of crucial information was published on February 5th, 2020, in China News Weekly, but apparently deleted from their website almost immediately. Fortunately, it was archived and eventually translated by China Change, a website created by Chinese human rights activists in the US. A fair-minded story published by Associated Press also illuminates the role played by …