The latest (somewhat random) collection of essays and stories from around the web that have caught my eye and are worth plucking out to be re-read.
Social distancing is a privilege
Rama Ayyub, Foreign Policy, 28 March 2020
Ghanshyam Lal, a migrant laborer who works in a Mumbai tannery, has been feeding a family of eight on his daily wage of $3 a day. He told me he didn’t care about the virus as much as he did about putting food on the table. And he worried about his wife, Asha, who was on dialysis at a government hospital and may now be booted out to make way for wealthier patients who had tested positive for the coronavirus. ‘How easy it is for the prime minister to say do not step out of your houses,’ he said. ‘If I do not go out for a week, my children and my wife will die.’
Lal’s fears are not exaggerated. In a city with a population of 20 million, the government hospitals have only 400 ventilators and a thousand beds for intensive care.
At Mumbai’s Kasturba Gandhi Hospital, which is taking the bulk of patients who have tested positive for the coronavirus, doctors told me that their neighbors have distanced themselves from the doctors’ families. ‘We are saving lives. We are breaking down in the bathrooms while we are being treated like untouchables outside of the hospital premises,’ said one young doctor who wished to stay anonymous.
On Sunday, March 22, wealthy Indians came out on their balconies clapping and banging utensils to mark a national day of curfew. ‘Modi, Modi,’ they chanted. But it was a misplaced celebration of nationalism. It also highlighted a fundamental divide in the country. On the one hand, there is the country’s upper-middle class, the elite that has stocked hand sanitizer, mango puree, and ground coffee and is posting patriotic selfies on social media. But a much larger underclass, the country’s poor and struggling, is battling poverty, has no access to soap, water, or toilets, and is living in packed clusters in slums. These same people are extremely vulnerable to the virus; for them, social distancing is a curious privilege.
The unpreparedness of India’s health care and social system to deal with the pandemic is aggravated by an indifferent law enforcement that deploys brutal force against its people. On March 25, as the lockdown began, a 32-year-old man was beaten to death by police in West Bengal when he stepped out to buy milk for his family. And when police are not brutalizing the poor, they are being indifferent to the migrant laborers who are walking miles from one state to the other, trying to reach their families on empty stomachs and with no public transport. Their cries are falling on deaf ears. Rahul Musahar, an 11-year-old boy who used to work with his father collecting scrap every day, was shifted to a government hospital in Bhojpur district in Bihar this week. Musahar had not eaten food in three days. His mother, who is pregnant with her second child, tried desperately to feed herself and her son. Because of the lockdown, Musahar’s father, who would earn just enough money to survive a day, could not arrange for a meal. Musahar died on return from the hospital, not killed by the virus but by hunger—which could potentially kill many in India if the government does not take immediate measures.
Read the full article in Foreign Policy.
A tale of two New Yorks:
Pandemic lays bare a city’s shocking inequities
Ed Pilkington & Ankita Rao, Guardian, 10 April 2020
The attack is coming in waves – not just on one sunny morning in September as when the Twin Towers came down, but over days and relentless weeks. There are Ground Zeros dotted throughout the city, like Jacobi, one of 11 major public hospitals that are all now pushed to, and beyond, the limit.
As the crisis thickens, a picture of how the virus is ravaging the city has come into view carrying with it a sobering realization. Coronavirus may not in itself discriminate, but its outcomes certainly do. It has inflicted its terrible toll not so much on New York City, but on the two cities it contains.
‘Coronavirus has exposed New York’s two societies,’ Jumaane Williams, the public advocate who acts as the official watchdog for New Yorkers, told the Guardian. ‘One society was able to run away to the Hamptons or work from home and have food delivered to their door; the other society was deemed ‘essential workers’ and made to go out to work with no protection.’
Different boroughs, even different neighborhoods within each borough, are experiencing coronavirus almost as though it were two different contagions. In wealthier white areas the residential streets are empty; parking spots that are fought over in normal times now stand vacant following an exodus to out-of-town weekend homes or Airbnbs.
In places like the Bronx – which is 84% black, Latino or mixed race – the sidewalks are still bustling with people making their way into work. There is still a rush hour. ‘We used to call them ‘service workers’,’ Williams said. ‘Now they are ‘essential workers’ and we have left them to fend for themselves.’
The public advocate pointed out that 79% of New York’s frontline workers – nurses, subway staff, sanitation workers, van drivers, grocery cashiers – are African American or Latino. While those city dwellers who have the luxury to do so are in lockdown in their homes, these communities have no choice but to put themselves in harm’s way every day.
If you superimpose a map of where frontline workers live within New York over a map of the 76,876 confirmed cases in the city, the two are virtually identical. In Queens, the most intense concentration of Covid-19 infections are in precisely those neighborhoods with large numbers of essential workers.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
Why the coronavirus is killing black Americans
at outsize rates across the US
Dan Vergano & Kadia Goba,
Buzzfeed News, 10 April 2020
In Milwaukee, Chicago, New Orleans, and all over the nation, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown the long-running racial divide in the health of Americans into stark relief, seen in the outsize numbers of deaths among black populations in hard-hit cities and regions.
‘Health disparities have always existed for the African American community,’ Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at the White House on Tuesday, responding to a flurry of news reports of black patients dying in larger-than-expected numbers. ‘Here again with the crisis, how it’s shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is because, yet again, when you have a situation like the coronavirus, they are suffering disproportionately.’
For a variety of reasons, including a greater likelihood of working jobs that put them on the frontline, decreased access to health care that starts them out with more illness, and crowded living conditions that facilitates the virus spread, the coronavirus has been especially brutal in black communities…
‘You can’t drive a bus or wash dishes on Zoom,’ Oscar Alleyne, a public health expert with the National Association of County and City Health Officials told BuzzFeed News. ‘These are people we count on to do essential jobs, and they are going unprotected.’
A lot of the people most at risk for catching the novel coronavirus are the ones in service jobs who can’t avoid contact with the public, exemplified by Detroit bus driver Jason Hargove, who died this month from coronavirus complications after he made a video that went viral in March discussing people coughing on his bus.
‘People of color are often working in service jobs, cashiers, nursing, home health aides. These aren’t jobs you can phone in,’ said Seabrook.
Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows black people work a disproportionate number of jobs as health care and personal care assistants, for example. Such jobs lead to exposure with potentially sick people, which is even more risky for people who aren’t wearing hospital-grade protective gear.
‘Someone has to do these jobs, but people in service jobs just have a higher risk,’ said Seabrook. These are people more likely to take cold medicine to knock down a fever and head to a job they can’t afford to lose.
Read the full article in Buzzfeed News.
South Africa needs to end the lockdown:
here’s a blueprint for its replacement
Shabir Madhi et al, The Conversation, 10 April 2020
A health strategy based on an extended generalised lockdown is economically unsustainable. It is also damaging to public health. Instead, we need a unified health and economic strategy that allows for some economic activity while inhibiting the uncontrolled spread of the virus. This requires a number of health and economic measures to be implemented in a coordinated manner.
First, to reduce the rate of infections, the country must have ready the capability of mass virus testing and efficient contact tracing before the end of April 2020. This must be accompanied by a comprehensive approach to social distancing. Relying solely on screening of symptomatic individuals will not effectively reduce the rate of infection because high viral loads of SARS-CoV-2 in the upper airway occur in pre-symptomatic and possibly asymptomatic people.
To be successful, the scale of testing needs to be at least equivalent to that in South Korea (17,322 tests per day in South Africa, eventually testing 1 in 150 people). At best, it must be equivalent to that carried out in Germany (36,399 tests per day in South Africa).
Test turnaround times must result in identification of infected individuals within 12 to a maximum of 24 hours. This must be followed by immediate isolation and contact tracing. Isolation of infected individuals and contact quarantine must last for at least 14 days, either at home, if suitable, or in designated isolation and quarantine facilities.
The annual cost of conducting 17,000 tests per day is approximately R5 billion. There would perhaps be an additional annual cost of R4 billion for contact tracing and quarantine. These costs compare favourably to the daily economic cost (R13 billion) of the generalised lockdown.
Secondly, economic activities must be allowed in a way that is consistent with the aim of preventing the uncontrolled spread of the virus. Within the constraints of the health strategy outlined above, a risk-based economic strategy is required that balances economic and health imperatives.
Decisions on differential opening of the economy should be made in line with the criteria proposed in a recent paper by German researchers. This includes, for example, opening sectors with low risk of infection (highly automated factories) and less vulnerable populations (child-care facilities) first. It could also include areas with lower infection rates and less potential for the spread of COVID-19. Of course, these decisions will have to be based on a careful assessment of factors such as household structure and composition in South Africa, and public transport.
To do this, the country will need excellent data on the extent and location of any community outbreaks of the virus. Such data will be generated by mass testing, and accurate information about the ability of certain sectors of the economy to reopen safely and in compliance with the health protocols.
The health and economic strategy will thus need to be implemented in a dynamic fashion, responding to the latest evidence.
Read the full article in The Conversation.
Speaking positivity to power
Sagar, Caravan, 31 March 2020
Around six hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a three-week nationwide lockdown, on 24 March, he personally asked over twenty owners and editors from the mainstream print media to publish positive stories about the COVID-19 pandemic. The owners and editors represented media organisations working in 11 different languages, including the senior-most members of national media houses such as the Indian Express Group, the Hindu Group and the Punjab Kesari Group. According to a report on Modi’s official website, the prime minister asked the participants to ‘act as a link between government and people and provide continuous feedback’ on the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. The website further noted that in the interaction, which was conducted via videoconferencing and lasted an hour and a half, the prime minister emphasised that ‘it was important to tackle the spread of pessimism, negativity and rumor. Citizens need to be assured the government is committed to countering the impact of COVID-19.’
Through the interaction, the prime minister’s website reported, Modi sat with a notebook and pen and could be seen taking down notes when the participants offered suggestions. The exercise almost represented the journalists as a part of the government, as opposed to being members of an institution whose job entailed questioning the government on its shortcomings. Instead, most of the owners and editors appeared grateful for the exchange. The prime minister’s website reported that the journalists committed to ‘work on the suggestions of the prime minister to publish inspiring and positive stories’ about COVID-19. After the interaction, some owners and editors who were present in the meeting took to Twitter to thank the prime minister for making them a part of the videoconference and seeking their opinions, while others published reports on the meeting on the front page the next day, with photos of themselves and Modi on the television screen.
Following the conference, I spoke to nine owners and editors of media houses, from both national and regional media, who participated in the interaction. Almost all of them appeared enamoured by what some described as an important ‘gesture’ from Modi, of considering their opinions.
I asked the owners and editors whether their interaction with Modi, given his suggestion to publish positive stories, would affect their editorial judgment while publishing a critical piece on the government’s policies for fighting the novel coronavirus. Only two of them explicitly said they would publish a critical piece despite the interaction, while three said they would not do so but for different reasons, not due to the interaction. One of them asked me omit references to such question while referring to our conversation in this report. Others refused to comment at all.
But a scrutiny of their subsequent COVID coverage revealed that Modi’s words of caution had done the job—the newspapers were evidently uncritical of the government’s response to the virus. The coverage of the public-health crisis by these organisations contained little mention of the poor planning and disastrous implementation of the lockdown, or the government’s failure to prepare for the pandemic, such as stockpiling crucial medical equipment for the healthcare workers despite early warnings by the World Health Organisation.
Read the full article in Caravan.
New pathogens, old politics
Alex de Waal, Boston Review, 3 April 2020
What does all this mean for COVID-19? We face a new virus with uncertain epidemiology that threatens illness, death, and disruption on an enormous scale. Precisely because every commentator sees the pandemic through the lens of his or her preoccupations, it is exactly the right time to think critically, to place the pandemic in context, to pose questions.
The clearest questions are political. What should the public demand of their governments? Through hard-learned experience, AIDS policymakers developed a mantra: ‘know your epidemic, act on its politics.’ The motives for—and consequences of—public health measures have always gone far beyond controlling disease. Political interest trumps science—or, to be more precise, political interest legitimizes some scientific readings and not others. Pandemics are the occasion for political contests, and history suggests that facts and logic are tools for combat, not arbiters of the outcome.
While public health officials urge the public to suspend normal activities to flatten the curve of viral transmission, political leaders also urge us to suspend our critique so that they can be one step ahead of the outcry when it comes. Rarely in recent history has the bureaucratic, obedience-inducing mode of governance of the ‘deep state’ become so widely esteemed across the political spectrum. It is precisely at such a moment, when scientific rationality is honored, that we need to be most astutely aware of the political uses to which such expertise is put. Looking back to Hamburg in 1892, we can readily discern what was science and what was superstition. We need our critical faculties on high alert to make those distinctions today.
At the same time, COVID-19 has reminded a jaded and distrustful public how much our well-being—indeed our survival—depends upon astonishing advances in medical science and public health over the last 140 years. In an unmatched exercise of international collaboration, scientists are working across borders and setting aside professional rivalries and financial interests in pursuit of treatment and a vaccine. People are also learning to value epidemiologists whose models are proving uncannily prescient.
But epidemiologists don’t know everything. In the end it is mundane, intimate, and unmeasured human activities such as hand-washing and social distancing that can make the difference between an epidemic curve that overwhelms the hospital capacity of an industrialized nation and one that doesn’t. Richards reminds us of the hopeful lesson from Ebola: ‘It is striking how rapidly communities learnt to think like epidemiologists, and epidemiologists to think like communities.’ It is this joint learning—mutual trust between experts and common people—that holds out the best hope for controlling COVID-19. We shouldn’t assume a too simple trade-off between security and liberty, but rather subject the response to vigorous democratic scrutiny and oversight—not just because we believe in justice, transparency and accountability, but also because that demonstrably works for public health.
Read the full article in the Boston Review.
Cities that went all in on social distancing
in 1918 emerged stronger for it
Emily Badger & Quoctrung Bui, New York Times, 3 April 2020
As the first local influenza deaths were counted in the fall of 1918, officials in Minneapolis moved quickly — more aggressively than even state health officials thought was wise — and shut down the city. They closed schools, churches, theaters and pool halls, effective midnight on Oct. 12.
Across the Mississippi River, St. Paul remained largely open into November, with its leaders confident they had the epidemic under control. Fully three weeks after Minneapolis — with The St. Paul Pioneer Press pleading ‘In Heaven’s Name Do Something!’ — St. Paul ordered sweeping closures, too.
Both cities, relative to the worst-hit parts of the country, escaped steep death tolls. But the mortality rate in Minneapolis was considerably lower than in St. Paul. And as researchers today look back on those interventions, it appears the economy in Minneapolis emerged stronger, too.
The comparison between the Twin Cities is instructive today not just for what it tells us about the health benefits of social distancing, but also for what it says about any economic costs that come with it.
In 1918, cities that committed earlier and longer to interventions like banning public gatherings and closing schools didn’t fare worse for disrupting their economies for longer. Many of those cities actually had relatively larger gains in manufacturing employment, manufacturing output and bank assets in 1919 and into the next few years, according to a new study from researchers at the Federal Reserve and M.I.T. This is particularly clear among Western cities that had more time to prepare for a pandemic that hit the East Coast first.
For cities with the most aggressive interventions, there’s no trade-off apparent in this data between saving lives and hurting the economy.
‘If anything, these places do better,’ said Emil Verner, an economist at M.I.T., who wrote the paper with Sergio Correia and Stephan Luck of the Fed.
The reasons this would be true aren’t particularly hard to understand. But the same logic has been questioned today by elected officials and commentators who fear that social distancing in response to the coronavirus may not be worth the costs in shuttered businesses and unprecedented unemployment rolls.
Read the full article in the New York Times.
Covid-19 ‘immunity certificates’:
practical and ethical conundrums
Henry T Greely, Stat News, 10 April 2020
In normal times, a test is not used until its accuracy and rates of false positives and false negatives have been carefully tested and optimized. But these are not normal times. Such optimization has not yet been done yet for any of the tests under development, and it is not clear how long such a process will take.
Antibody tests are not the only way to decide that an individual is immune to SARS-CoV-2. We could assume that those who have had the disease are now immune and issue them immunity certificates. But how will we know they had Covid-19? Will an applicant need to show a positive virus test to justify a certificate? Without such testing, it can be difficult to know for sure if someone truly had Covid-19 or if they had something else, like the flu, with similar symptoms. But many people with Covid-19 symptoms have been unable to get coronavirus tests and have even been told not to try.
Verifying applicants’ claims and identities is another issue. If immunity certificates provide benefits, people will want them. They may be willing to provide test results from phony laboratories (I can imagine an entire underground industry springing up to meet this demand) or might lie about their own past symptoms. Some people would use another’s immunity certificate, unless it had a driver’s license-like photograph and identifying information or required thumbprints, retinal scans, or other identity verification, raising new privacy issues. And a black market in forged immunity certificates would likely arise.
The stakes are high. If a person who is not immune has an immunity certificate — because of error, fraud, or other reason — that person might contract the disease, with or without symptoms, and pass it on to others.
Those are the easy issues. Here are the harder ones: If we had sufficiently accurate immunity certificates, how should we use them?
Employers or governments might require that only people with immunity certificates be allowed to work in jobs involving substantial human contact, like health care, food, service, retail, transportation, and more. Restaurants, bars, sporting events, concerts, or other so-called public accommodations might admit only those with immunity certificates. Travel by public transportation or the privilege to attend classes in person might be limited to individuals with immunity certificates. But should they be so restricted?
These certificates have appeal — unless you are one of the many people who end up locked out of the world due to no fault of your own. For you, it is discrimination: some people can work, play, or travel while you cannot.
Read the full article in Stat News.
Coronavirus is the end of the end of history
Lee Jones, Tribune, 25 March 2020
All of this is highly disorienting for a Left that has become increasingly obsessed with ‘#resistance,’ instinctively opposing whatever the Right does while lacking any truly systematic alternative.
The problem is exemplified by acclaimed critical theorist Giorgio Agamben’s Foucauldian ranting against the ‘frantic, irrational, and absolutely unwarranted emergency measures adopted for a supposed epidemic’, while his countrymen die in droves.
Even mainstream leftist commentators are blindsided. The ink is barely dry on their op-eds – ‘well, okay, the government helped x, but what about y?’ – before yet another, larger aid package is announced. The anti-austerity Left has been exclusively focused on demanding higher government spending for so long, it hardly knows how to respond when it gets it. In Britain’s general election last December, the Labour Party ran on a platform promising adherence to fiscal rules which the Conservative government has torn up. As one Twitter wit put it so nicely, the far-left has been calling for ‘fully automated luxury communism,’ but Boris Johnson has provided ‘quarantine socialism in one country’.
This matters precisely because the old order is dead and the new is being forged piecemeal, day-by-day. Ruling elites do not know how this crisis ends. They are innovating on a daily basis, making it up as they go along. In this sense, everything is up in the air. The future is up for grabs – for good or bad.
In a society and state as dysfunctional as that of the United States, where the hollowing out of welfare and democracy has been deepest, it is easy to envisage an authoritarian trajectory. The rich are already panic-fleeing the cities. The frayed social bonds, deep poverty and widespread gun ownership of many American cities do not mix easily with food shortages and draconian containment measures. It is not fanciful to imagine severe social unrest, requiring the military to restore order. Nor is it clear how the US presidential election will be held on schedule in December, President Trump’s confidence that the virus will ‘go away’ by April notwithstanding.
The UK government’s proposed emergency measures also entail the biggest ever expansion of executive power in peacetime. Liberals are understandably (and rightly) concerned about civil liberties. But the Left should be even more concerned about democracy. In France, a ‘temporary’ state of emergency declared in 2015 was extended six times, then most of the measures were effectively made permanent through a new anti-terrorism bill. As the brutal repression of the gilets jaunes demonstrates, this has routinised despotic behaviour. The Left should not be calling for a national government to help steer an authoritarian state, but championing democratic control.
Read the full article in Tribune.
What our contagion fables are really about
Jean Lepore, New Yorker, 23 March 2020
The structure of the modern plague novel, all the way to Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ and beyond, is a series of variations on ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’ (a story set within the walls of a quarantine) and ‘The Last Man’ (a story set among a ragged band of survivors). Within those two structures, though, the scope for storytelling is vast, and so is the scope for moralism, historical argument, and philosophical reflection. Every plague novel is a parable.
Albert Camus once defined the novel as the place where the human being is abandoned to other human beings. The plague novel is the place where all human beings abandon all other human beings. Unlike other species of apocalyptic fiction, where the enemy can be chemicals or volcanoes or earthquakes or alien invaders, the enemy here is other humans: the touch of other humans, the breath of other humans, and, very often—in the competition for diminishing resources—the mere existence of other humans.
Camus, in his 1947 novel, ‘The Plague,’ sets the story within the walls of a quarantined French-Algerian town during the Second World War (the year is given as ‘194-’). With all its omens, prophecies, and scapegoats, it might as well have been London in 1665. Dr. Bernard Rieux, along with everyone else, at first fails to read the signs. (The novel purports to be written from Rieux’s notebooks, his journal of a plague year.) He watches a rat stumble, at his doorstep:
It moved uncertainly, and its fur was sopping wet. The animal stopped and seemed to be trying to get its balance, moved forward again toward the doctor, halted again, then spun round on itself with a little squeal and fell on its side. Its mouth was slightly open and blood was spurting from it. After gazing at it for a moment, the doctor went upstairs…
‘The Plague’ does not chronicle a pandemic, in the sense that the plague never escapes the town, and yet Camus’s plague is a plague without end. But Rieux learns, from reading history, that there really is only one plague, across all of human history, travelling from place to place, through the passage of time, from ‘Chinese towns cluttered up with victims silent in their agony’ to ‘the damp, putrefying pallets stuck to the mud floor at the Constantinople lazar-house, where the patients were hauled up from their beds with hooks,’ to ‘cartloads of dead bodies rumbling through London’s ghoul-haunted darkness—nights and days filled always, everywhere, with the eternal cry of human pain.’ Next on the list? Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald. The plague is man.
Read the full article in the New Yorker.
America doesn’t have a health care system
Jameson Rich, The Outline, 1 April 2020
I’d like to say this event was an aberration, but in my 26 years as a patient in American hospitals, I’ve experienced rationing of all kinds. Bed shortages, medications being out of stock, nurses given too many patients, a single specialist available for an entire inpatient population. Which is why, in early March, as reports came in from Italy of hospitals buckling under the strain of coronavirus patients, I realized that regardless of the true scale of the pandemic in the U.S., New York was likely to experience the same fate. Despite being in a high-risk demographic and having a history of pneumonia and heart and lung disease, my concern wasn’t about the virus itself or my ability to survive it. What panicked me was visions of overrun ERs, full intensive care units — a world where I was sick and insured and still couldn’t be treated, because I had already experienced those things in smaller ways many times. I wondered how our country’s hospitals could handle what was coming when I knew they could hardly handle what they already had. To be sure, I called my medical team, who told me without hesitation that, yes, if I had the ability, the safest place for me to be was pretty much anywhere but New York.
That fear was quickly borne out: In the second week of March, it was reported that 80 percent of New York State’s ICU beds were already full. The New York Times reported that NYU Langone had refashioned the very same pediatric emergency room where I’d been in November into a makeshift ICU. Still a month out from the projected peak of the disease, the state is just about at capacity, and already running out of crucial medical supplies like masks, personal protective equipment, and ventilators needed to keep patients who experience the most severe symptoms alive. Various plans have called for the manufacturing of extra equipment, but solving the current capacity issue necessarily requires solving every aspect. If hospitals get more ventilators, they may not have enough staff trained to use them. If they get more staff, they may still run out of beds.
The right questions are the obvious ones. Why is one of America’s biggest cities, home to some of the best hospitals in the world, unequipped to handle this? How can billions of dollars in hospital construction and planning and research create a system which so quickly reaches capacity? But it’s not just New York. Hospitals all over the country are reporting similar strains and are bracing for the coming rationing. The essential problem is this: if a system is a joined whole, then the U.S. does not have a health care system. It has a collection of disparate and competing public and private companies who are in the business of selling beds, doctors, and medications like products. It’s true that under this framing, the U.S. has good, high-quality products. But the structuring of our system is such that it actively undermines the quality and prevents the delivery of those things to its patients. We have incredible nurses and doctors, but they are over-scheduled and overworked, and this very frequently leads to illnesses being missed or drugs being misprescribed or more serious mistakes being made during treatment.
Read the full article in The Outline.
How do we value a statistical life?
Tom Harford, Financial Times, 3 April 2020
The coronavirus lockdown is saving lives but destroying livelihoods. Is it worth it? I’ve been accused of ignoring its costs. For an economist, this is fighting talk. Love us or hate us, thinking about uncomfortable trade-offs is what we economists do.
Three points should be obvious. First, we need an exit strategy from the lockdowns — a better strategy than President Donald Trump’s, ‘One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.’ Expanding emergency capacity, discovering better treatments, testing for infection and testing for antibodies could all be part of the solution, along with a vaccine in the longer term.
Second, the economic costs of any lockdown need to be compared with the costs of alternative policies, rather than the unachievable benchmark of a world in which the virus had never existed.
Third, the worth of a human life is not up for discussion. This week I lost a mentor of unlimited kindness. As I write these words I hear that a beloved family member is also reaching the end of her remarkable journey. Their lives, like the life of any individual, were priceless.
Yet no matter how much we want to turn our gaze away from the question, it hangs there insistently: is this all worth it?
We spend money to save lives all the time — by building fire stations, imposing safety regulations and subsidising medical research. There is always a point at which we decide we have spent enough. We don’t like to think about that, but better to think than to act thoughtlessly. So what are we willing to sacrifice, economically, to save a life?
A 1950 study for the US Air Force ducked this question, recommending a suicidal military strategy that valued pilots’ lives at precisely zero. Other early attempts valued lives by the loss of earnings that an early death would cause — effectively making retired people worthless, and the death of a child costly only if the child could not be replaced by a new baby.
The late Thomas Schelling, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, mocked these errors as he imagined the death of a family breadwinner like himself: ‘His family will miss him, and it will miss his earnings. We do not know which of the two in the end it will miss most, and if he died recently this is a disagreeable time to inquire.’
Read the full article in the Financial Times
And so the appalling human consequences
of the austerity experiment become clear
Jonathan Portes, Prospect, 25 March 2020
Over the last decade, the government made two fundamental errors. The first was the delusion that the primary metrics of readiness for an economic crisis are the level of the debt and deficit. To be fair, this was encouraged by institutions like the IMF, with its talk of ‘fiscal space.’ This was based on the almost entirely spurious notion that in a crisis markets would somehow stop countries with high debt and deficits from responding appropriately.
This wasn’t the case in 2008-09 and thereafter, when developed countries which—like the UK—can borrow money (and if necessary print it) in their own currencies had no problem financing very large deficits at very low interest rates. The scaremongering that the UK would become like Greece, or even Italy—which, because of euro membership, do not have that flexibility—was just that. Those of us who said that, while there were indeed plenty of things worry about, market panic about UK gilts wasn’t one of them, were right, both in economic theory and in real life.
So there was absolutely no excuse for thinking that this crisis would be any different. The UK—like most countries—has much higher debt than in 2008, but a somewhat lower deficit. No one really cares, and certainly not markets; interest rates on 30-year gilts are under 1 per cent, meaning the government can borrow essentially for free—and this is after the chancellor has just announced an unprecedented economic support package which is likely to see the deficit ballooning out again.
The simple fact is a crisis that requires a very large increase in government borrowing is also likely, as now, to be a crisis when the private sector is cutting spending and doesn’t want to invest—so government bonds are likely to be the most attractive option going. The question is not ‘who will lend us the money?’ but ‘what else are they going to do with it?’
Crucially, this obsession with deficit reduction was at the expense of other forms of readiness. And this was the second fundamental error. The government decided—on a distinctly dodgy interpretation of the economic research—that the burden of deficit reduction should fall almost entirely on spending cuts rather than tax increases, on the grounds that such cuts would be more politically and economically sustainable.
And in the short-term it was right. Cutting central funding for local authority services in half—and by more in deprived areas—was indeed a ‘sustainable’ strategy for the government, since much of the blame for the resulting cuts in social care, childrens’ services and the like could be redirected to local councils. Blaming immigrants for increased pressures on the NHS, and benefit scroungers for those on the welfare system, was also a successful political strategy on the right for a while.
But eventually, and inevitably, this hit the buffers. With the NHS overstretched and understaffed, thousands of people sleeping on the streets, and the welfare safety net increasingly full of holes, it was obvious, even before Covid-19, that many of these cuts would need to be reversed. Rishi Sunak’s 12th March Budget—which now seems years ago—simply recognised that reality.
Read the full article in Prospect.
Is ‘helicopter money’ the answer
to the looming economic crisis?
Frances Coppola, OpenDemocracy, 17 March 2020
As fears grow that the coronavirus pandemic will cause a global recession, a radical proposal is gaining traction. If central banks – or governments backed by central banks – gave money directly to households, could that help to prevent a crisis turning into a depression?
The American economist Jason Furman thinks it could. He proposes that every American should be given $1000. Other economists and commentators have followed his lead. Nouriel Roubini has backed Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s proposal for ‘helicopter drops’ of $1000 to every American until the crisis is over. Harvard economist Greg Mankiw and journalist John Carney have both made a similar call. In Australia, Prime Minister Morrison proposes giving pensioners and people on certain benefits AU$750 each.
I think they are wrong. This is not the right time for helicopter money. And if helicopter money is used at the wrong time and for the wrong purpose, there is a real risk that it won’t work and will then be dismissed as useless.
On first sight, helicopter money looks like a good response to the current crisis. When fear bites due to some unforeseen catastrophe, banks stop lending, people stop spending and companies stop investing. Falling sales deprive companies of revenue, forcing them to lay off workers. As unemployment rises, people’s income falls, they cut back spending even more, and companies sell even less. In 2008, quantitative easing (QE) was supposed to break this feedback loop. But because it didn’t get banks lending, and the money didn’t go to the people most likely to spend the money, its effects were weak. Many people, including me, think a better response at that time would have been to give money directly to people. This would have kick-started the economy more effectively than any amount of QE.
Like the 2008 crisis, the pandemic is depriving people of jobs and incomes. But that is where the similarity ends. In 2008, people didn’t lose their ability to work. In contrast, the coronavirus pandemic will temporarily deprive hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of people of their ability to work. Furthermore, whereas in 2008 businesses failed because money stopped flowing through the economy, this time they are threatened by restrictions deliberately imposed by governments to protect people from illness and death.
But the fact that this crisis is different from the last doesn’t explain why helicopter money is the wrong medicine. After all, people still need money.
There are two specific reasons why I think helicopter money is the wrong policy for this crisis. Firstly, the amounts of money proposed by Furman, Roubini and Mankiw, and by Prime Minister Morrison in Australia, are totally inadequate. $1000 isn’t even a month’s wages for Americans, and nor is AU$750 for Australians. Those who lose their jobs, or are self-isolating, or are ill, need their incomes maintained. Unconditional basic income, not discretionary handouts, is the right solution for them.
Read the full article in OpenDemocracy?
Why measles deaths are surging —
and coronavirus could make it worse
Leslie Roberts, Nature, 7 April 2020
The highly contagious measles virus continues to spread around the globe. In 2018, cases surged to an estimated 10 million worldwide, with 140,000 deaths, a 58% increase since 2016. In rich countries, scattered measles outbreaks are fuelled by people refusing to vaccinate their children. But in poor countries, the problems are health systems so broken and underfunded that it is nigh-on impossible to deliver the vaccine to people who need it. The DRC’s flood of cases shows why measles will keep flaring up despite efforts to control it. And the situation will only worsen with the COVID-19 pandemic: more than 20 countries have already suspended measles vaccination campaigns as healthcare workers scramble to deal with coronavirus.
In poor countries, measles is a killer, especially in combination with malnutrition and vitamin A deficiency. Estimates are uncertain, but the death rate in developing countries hovers around 3–6%, and it can spike as high as 30% in the worst outbreaks, according to the WHO. Its victims often die of complications including pneumonia or diarrhoea and dehydration. Those who recover can be left with permanent disabilities, including blindness, hearing loss and brain damage. The virus also impairs the immune system for months or years after infection, creating ‘immune amnesia’ that leaves children vulnerable to other infections.
The virus is so contagious that few unvaccinated people who come into contact with it are spared its effects. Scientists define infectiousness using the ‘reproduction number’ — how many people, on average, would be infected by a single person with the virus, in a population that has no immunity. For Ebola, that number is estimated at 1.5–2.5. The new coronavirus terrifying the world seems to be somewhere between 2 and 3. Measles tops the charts with a reproduction number of 12–18, which makes it the most contagious virus known. You don’t need to be in the same room as an infected person to catch the virus — it is spread by respiratory droplets that can linger in the air for hours.
Two doses of a safe and effective vaccine can prevent measles. Many children in poor countries are lucky to get a single dose, which doesn’t always lead to full protection in all who receive it. Because the virus is so contagious, 92–95% of a population needs to be fully immunized to ward off outbreaks. In the DRC, only 57% of children received even one dose of measles vaccine in 2018, according to a UNICEF study, creating ideal conditions for the virus to explode.
Read the full article in Nature.
Labour has to free itself from
the shackles of its own invented histories
David Edgerton, Prospect, 5 April 2020
In political debates about Labour history, then, there are only three positive reference points: a great reforming state welfarist 1945 programme, a techno-enthusiastic 1960s programme, and a policy-lite 1997 programme. And at first sight that looks like, from both sides of the argument, what the choices are today: back to 1945, or to 1997 minimalism, both perhaps with a dash of the white heat. Indeed Blair, in a recent speech full of incantations about a technological revolution, denounced Jeremy Corbyn’s policy agenda as ‘hopelessly out of date’ in its focus on the state, and argued in effect for a return to 1997.
But these reference points are too often little more than clichés, with little bearing on what Labour policy actually was. Ken Loach’s film The Spirit of ’45 told the story of a creation of a welfare state where there had been none. Corbyn compared the possibilities of the 2019 election with those of 1945, evoking the creation of the NHS. In fact, health and social services (the term welfare state in the modern sense did not exist) barely figured in the party’s 1945 manifesto. What Labour did, once it was in office, was significant, but it did not create the welfare state, or even public medicine. It reformed and extended a Tory working-class welfare state from 80 per cent to nearly 100 per cent of the population. In doing so it made important advances, but it also entrenched the regressive Beveridgean poll tax and its concomitant low benefits. For all, rather than for the many, one might say. It was the universalism of the new welfare system (not least in health) and the new methods of delivery, the increases in some benefits, which were important, not the supposed creation of a system where there had been none.
In fact 1997 was a deeply welfarist moment. Indeed, only recently both Gordon Brown and Blair have argued that Labour’s whole tradition was to create and sustain a welfare safety net. Labour was welfare. But there had been another important welfarist moment: the 1959 manifesto, the high point of revisionism under Hugh Gaitskell. Under the revisionists, and New Labour, the underlying argument was that capitalism, including British capitalism, was doing just fine—what was needed was a tax and welfare system to make up for its limited deficiencies. Tax and spend was the policy, even though New Labour associated it with Old Labour (again illustrating how misleading the standard histories are). In fact, even if one looks at tax as a proportion of GDP, peak tax, measured as tax and national insurance as a percentage of GDP, came not in the Labour 1970s, but in 1981/82 and 1984/85 under the Tories. Spending as a percentage of GDP, excluding investment, also peaked under the Tories, in 1981/2. Incidentally the real industrial ‘winter of discontent’ came in 1979-80, under the Tories.
In fact, for most of Labour’s history, it has downplayed welfare. Its manifestos promoted it as the party of social and economic transformation, not welfare. The 1945 manifesto, ‘Let us Face the Future,’ claimed that that ‘the nation needs a tremendous overhaul, a great programme of modernisation’—and promise to bring that about by ‘keeping a firm constructive hand on our whole productive machinery.’ This spirit was present in most election programmes until the 1990s.
Read the full article in Prospect.
Life comes at you fast
Jason E Smith, Brooklyn Rail, April 2020
This claim was shadowed, however, by another, more sophisticated theory advanced by many of the campaign’s most visible supporters online, but also by the campaign itself. Since the social and political landscape in the US—in contrast with, say, France (the Gilets Jaunes) or Hong Kong (the anti-extradition movement)—has produced no sizable mass movements in recent years, it would take the election of Sanders to the presidency to launch them. In a notable interview at a high point in the campaign, Sanders himself claimed that as president he would not simply be commander-in-chief, head of the state apparatus, but more importantly, ‘organizer-in-chief,’ able to call into being broad-based social movements that would take to the streets to pressure recalcitrant legislators from both parties to line up behind his sweeping policy reforms.5 This interpretation of the campaign does not claim that the electoral machine Sanders has put in place is itself a mass movement; it argues instead that a successful political campaign alone will provide the impetus and energy required for the rebirth of a new wave of mass struggles, picking up from where the Occupy movement, or Black Lives Matter, left off, though now reoriented toward the implementation of Sanders’s agenda. In a January article published in In These Times, Daniel Denvir imagines a Sanders presidency whose governing effectiveness would rely on a positive ‘feedback’ loop between mass movements and what he calls, following Frances Fox Piven, a Sanders-aligned ‘electoral bloc.’ The vision here is of a friction-less dynamic in which the forms of power wielded by movements and the state mutually reinforce and replenish one another, as they take on a host of enemies across American society (fossil fuel companies, say) and within the state itself (the non-Sanders-aligned electoral bloc: i.e. almost everyone outside a few junior congresswomen) A similar scenario is put forth by Meagan Day, whom I cited above as equating the Sanders fine-tuned political apparatus with a broad-based mass movement. In a piece written a year ago, before the primary season got underway, Day, like Denvir, notes that Sanders both ‘values extra-parliamentary politics on principle’ and ‘insist[s] that extra-parliamentary movements are the key to political success.’ But where Denvir’s friction-less feedback loop assumes the existence of both a Sanders presidency and autonomous mass movements, Day assumes the risk of predicting that these mass movements will not emerge on their own, with their own motivations and objectives, but will have to be convoked by the organizer-in-chief who, with his enormous personal charisma, can call them into existence. The inherent tensions lurking in this claim are highlighted by Day’s own formulation, as when she envisions a head of the US state who ‘call[s] for mass political activity from below.’7 The title of Day’s piece, ‘Bernie Sanders Wants You to Fight,’ encapsulates a line of thinking running through these pieces, which are ubiquitous on the pro-Sanders socialist left, not to mention endorsed by Sanders himself. Rather than having confidence in the ‘masses’ to take up their own fight, on their own terms, this vision imagines them waiting to be called into action; rather than imagining these movements putting forth their own objectives and demands, some of which might come into conflict with Sanders’s program, these arguments anticipate these movements’ own, autonomous demands obediently subordinated to the initiatives of the US state, or at the very least the head of its executive branch. A Any inkling that these movements might have a politics of their own, one at times at odds with the social-democratic platform put forth by Sanders, and that would disturb the positive feedback loops between state and movement this current within the socialist left takes for granted, is left unstated.
Read the full article in Brooklyn Rail.
How Denmark’s ‘ghetto list’
is ripping apart migrant communities
Feargus O’Sullivan, Guardian, 11 March 2020
From the outside, Copenhagen’s Mjølnerparken housing estate is pretty unremarkable. Located just beyond the Danish capital’s hip Victorian tenement belt, this sturdy-looking complex of squat red-brick 1980s blocks surrounded by lawns seems quintessentially Scandinavian – green, tidy and even a little prim.
The estate is nonetheless at the heart of a storm, shaken by a drastic set of policies that Danish media have called ‘the biggest social experiment of this century’. Mjølnerparken has, along with 28 other low-income neighbourhoods nationwide, been classified by the Danish government as a ‘ghetto’.
Denmark has compiled this ‘ghetto list’ annually since 2010; the criteria are higher than average jobless and crime rates, lower than average educational attainment and, controversially, more than half of the population being first or second-generation migrants. The government essentially sees these neighbourhoods as irremediable urban disasters, and in May 2018 it proposed dealing with them by mass eviction and reconstruction. The homes of up to 11,000 social housing tenants could be on the chopping block.
Understandably, many residents are reeling. ‘This is a beautiful place to live,’ says Asif Mehmood, 52, a Pakistani-born taxi driver who has lived on the Mjølnerparken estate for 26 years. His building has been selected to be cleared, renovated and turned into private rental.
‘Of course there have been problems here – but if a fire in a building is traced to a single gas leak, surely the best idea is to fix the leak. It’s not to clear out the entire building and start again. That’s what is happening here, though. Instead of solving a limited problem, they want to clear the whole block.’
In addition, the law itself applies differently in these neighbourhoods. The first stage of the government’s so-called ghetto deal set higher penalties for crimes, and allowed for collective punishment – by eviction – of entire families if one of their members commits a criminal act.
Other laws seem designed to force the integration in Danish society of immigrant communities. Pre-school children must spend at least 25 hours a week in state kindergartens with a maximum migrant intake of 30%, and face language tests. Otherwise their families’ benefits can be revoked.
But the most stringent part of the plan came into force on 1 January 2020, when these areas must slash their public housing stock to no more than 40%. To achieve this within 10 years, entire blocks will be emptied and converted into private and co-operative housing, from which people on low incomes will be barred. In some cities (though not Copenhagen) the blocks will simply be demolished.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
Who are you calling gullible?
Timandra Harkness, Unherd, 24 March 2020
A decade ago, Hugo Mercier and some colleagues wrote an article with the catchy title, ‘Epistemic Vigilance’. It argued that humans are naturally sceptical and not easy to convince, let alone fool.
Many people were… unconvinced.
‘What about flat-earthers?’ they would ask Mercier. ‘What about people voting for the Nazis?’ Like the rigorous scholar he is, Mercier would go away every time and do some more research, to check that he hadn’t missed a glaring counter-example that proved him wrong. But instead, he found more and more evidence that people are not as gullible as we often assume.
Most people were not taken in by Nazi propaganda, or won over by Hitler’s speeches. Even vocal believers that the earth is flat hold that belief separate from the rest of their lives, which allows them to carry on as normal.
In the end, Mercier told me, he had enough material for a book, ‘a long argument against the idea that humans are gullible’. Not Born Yesterday analyses the historical examples and classic psychology experiments often cited to show how willingly we suspend our critical faculties and follow the crowd, or follow orders.
The notorious Milgram obedience experiments, for example. Subjects followed orders to the point of delivering what they thought were agonising and dangerous electric shocks to fellow volunteers (in reality, actors). But those who took the whole set up at face value were less likely to comply with the experimenters’ instructions than those who expressed doubts, and authoritarian orders were less effective than appealing to science, with elaborate explanations delivered by a white-coated experimenter.
So while it’s not, after all, horrifying proof that we’re all potential Nazis, it does reveal some nuanced points about context. We don’t take information (or instructions) at face value. We’re constantly weighing up what’s going on. Who is telling me this? Why are they saying it? How far should I trust them? How much weight should I put on my new beliefs?
This is cheering news in today’s world of Fake News and conspiracy theories. Mercier doesn’t think they have much impact on the real world.
Read the full article in Unherd.
FDA and NIH let clinical trial sponsors
keep results secret and break the law
Charles Piller, Science, 13 January 2020
For 20 years, the U.S. government has urged companies, universities, and other institutions that conduct clinical trials to record their results in a federal database, so doctors and patients can see whether new treatments are safe and effective. Few trial sponsors have consistently done so, even after a 2007 law made posting mandatory for many trials registered in the database. In 2017, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tried again, enacting a long-awaited ‘final rule’ to clarify the law’s expectations and penalties for failing to disclose trial results. The rule took full effect 2 years ago, on 18 January 2018, giving trial sponsors ample time to comply. But a Science investigation shows that many still ignore the requirement, while federal officials do little or nothing to enforce the law.
Science examined more than 4700 trials whose results should have been posted on the NIH website ClinicalTrials.gov under the 2017 rule. Reporting rates by most large pharmaceutical companies and some universities have improved sharply, but performance by many other trial sponsors—including, ironically, NIH itself—was lackluster. Those sponsors, typically either the institution conducting a trial or its funder, must deposit results and other data within 1 year of completing a trial. But of 184 sponsor organizations with at least five trials due as of 25 September 2019, 30 companies, universities, or medical centers never met a single deadline. As of that date, those habitual violators had failed to report any results for 67% of their trials and averaged 268 days late for those and all trials that missed their deadlines. They included such eminent institutions as the Harvard University–affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital, the University of Minnesota, and Baylor College of Medicine—all among the top 50 recipients of NIH grants in 2019.
The violations cover trials in virtually all fields of medicine, and the missing or late results offer potentially vital information for the most desperate patients. For example, in one long-overdue trial, researchers compared the efficacy of different chemotherapy regimens in 200 patients with advanced lymphoma; another—nearly 2 years late—tests immunotherapy against conventional chemotherapy in about 600 people with late-stage lung cancer.
Read the full article in Science.
Fossil skulls rewrite the stories
of two ancient human ancestors
Tim Vernimmen, National Geographic, 2 April 2020
In the winter of 2015, Jesse Martin and Angeline Leece were extracting what they thought were baboon remains from a piece of rock. The two students at La Trobe University in Australia were part of an expedition to collect and study fossils from the Drimolen quarry northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa. As they cleaned the skull fragments and pieced them back together, however, they realized the fossils did not come from a baboon, but instead comprised the braincase of a young Homo erectus, a species never before identified in South Africa.
‘I don’t think our supervisors believed us until they came over to have a look,’ Martin recalls.
The braincase was described in the journal Science today, together with the skullcap of another ancient hominin, Paranthropus robustus, found at the same site. A suite of different dating techniques all hinted that the two species’ braincases were more or less the same age—about two million years old. This would make them the earliest fossils ever found for their respective species, according to the new study coauthored by Martin and Leece.
‘I think they have made a strong case for the oldest Homo erectus in Africa, and in fact, in the world,’ Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Witwatersrand, says in an email. A National Geographic Society explorer-at-large, Berger was not involved in the new study.
The age of the fossils was particularly surprising for the Homo erectus skull. Most paleoanthropologists believe that this human ancestor arose in East Africa, where several younger Homo erectus fossils—as well as the likely remains of older Homo species—have been found. Some have even hypothesized that Homo erectus originated outside of Africa, because the oldest known fossils from the species—before this new find—were discovered at the site of Dmanisi in Georgia.
An Asian origin for H. erectus now seems exceedingly unlikely, Martin says. ‘The first problem for that idea is that the earliest evidence for Homo erectus is now from South Africa. But the bigger problem is that there is no candidate ancestor for Homo erectus in Asia. If you dig any deeper at sites where Homo erectus remains have been found, there are no hominins there.’
The discovery of the new braincase in South Africa, however, does not necessarily mean that Homo erectus originated there either. ‘Based on the current evidence, my guess is it emerged somewhere in Africa we haven’t looked yet,’ Martin says.
Read the full article in National Geographic.
Percy Bysshe Shelley: ‘England in 1819’
Christopher Spaide, Poetry Foundation, 18 February 2020
What prompted ‘England in 1819’? The impetus was the so-called Peterloo Massacre, on August 16, 1819, in the industrializing city of Manchester: an armed cavalry, summoned by infuriated local magistrates, charged with sabers drawn into a crowd of 60,000 peaceful demonstrators, murdering at least 10 and wounding hundreds more. The sneering portmanteau Peterloo, coined in a local newspaper’s front-page headline, grafted the words Waterloo, where the British army defeated Napoleon in 1815, onto the site of the massacre, St. Peter’s Field in Manchester. The demonstration’s organizers—radical orators, groups supporting Parliamentary reform—were advocating for universal men’s suffrage and against the Corn Laws, which set tariffs on cheap foreign grain imports; what landowners saw as economic protection spelled scarcity, famine, and unemployment for England’s working-class farmers.
When word of Peterloo reached Shelley, he found inspiration in indignation. Within weeks, he had drafted ‘The Masque of Anarchy,’ a 372-line ballad that reenacts the massacre and offers the masses his pounding reassurances: ‘Ye are many—they are few!’ With the comparatively tinier ‘England in 1819,’ Shelley at once exploded his sense of scale—mapping an entire nation’s woes, chronicling a year in atrocity—and miniaturized his playing field to the tautly rhymed square of the sonnet. And he builds his sonnet atop one of poetry’s most enduring structures, the list, perfect for accumulating a full cast of historical actors and expansively painting one moment with a mural’s sweeping fullness.
Robert E. Belknap, the author of the book on the list, observes that many literary lists ‘may begin according to a specific principle, but they may show build, movement, or deviation as they progress’ and may even ‘spiral into their own constellations of form for which there is no identifying label.’ List poems make the reader do the connective work; you must hypothesize what binds everything together, must riddle out, item by item, why the list must be arranged precisely this way. The first principle governing Shelley’s list could be a hierarchical ladder or maybe a bubbling-up disdain for England’s leaders. The highest authority, George III, is introduced and dismissed all in one line, thundered in the key of D: ‘An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King.’ When Shelley wrote to Hunt, the 81-year-old monarch was indeed completely blind and dying, with only a month to live, and for years deemed insane; only despised is a matter of opinion, not fact, which could be why Shelley takes care to smuggle it in, bury it in the middle of the line. The polluted royal bloodline flows to princes who are more of the same, predictable ‘mud from a muddy spring,’ deserving all the ‘public scorn’ surrounding them. Rulers in general, unable or unwilling to ‘see,’ ‘feel,’ or ‘know,’ seem less human than ‘leechlike,’ oblivious to the damage they inflict on their ‘fainting country’ and even their own bloodthirsty selves. Growing overfull, they can ‘drop’ simply from their own engorged weight; no ‘blow’ is necessary to bring them down.
Read the full article in Poetry Foundation.
Artificial intelligence decodes
the facial expressions of mice
Alison Abbott, Nature, 2 April 2020
Researchers have used a machine-learning algorithm to decipher the seemingly inscrutable facial expressions of laboratory mice. The work could have implications for pinpointing neurons in the human brain that encode particular expressions.
Their study ‘is an important first step’ in understanding some of the mysterious aspects of emotions and how they manifest in the brain, says neuroscientist David Anderson at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
Nearly 150 years ago, Charles Darwin proposed that facial expressions in animals might provide a window onto their emotions, as they do in humans. But researchers have only recently gained the tools — such as powerful microscopes, cameras and genetic techniques — to reliably capture and analyse facial movement, and investigate how emotions arise in the brain.
‘I was fascinated by the fact that we humans have emotional states which we experience as feelings,’ says neuroscientist Nadine Gogolla at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Martinsried, Germany, who led the three-year study. ‘I wanted to see if we could learn about how these states emerge in the brain from animal studies.’ The work is published in Science.
Gogolla took inspiration from a 2014 Cell paper2 that Anderson wrote with Ralph Adolphs, also at the California Institute of Technology. In the study, they theorized that ‘brain states’ such as emotions should exhibit particular characteristics — they should be persistent, for example, enduring for some time after the stimulus that evoked them has disappeared. And they should scale with the strength of the stimulus.
Gogolla’s team fixed the heads of mice to keep them still, then provided different sensory stimuli intended to trigger particular emotions, and filmed the animals’ faces. For example, the researchers placed either sweet or bitter fluids on the creatures’ lips to evoke pleasure or disgust. They also gave mice small but painful electric shocks to the tail, or injected the animals with lithium chloride to induce malaise.
The scientists knew that a mouse can change its expression by moving its ears, cheeks, nose and the upper parts of its eyes, but they couldn’t reliably assign the expressions to particular emotions. So they broke down the videos of facial-muscle movements into ultra-short snapshots as the animals responded to the different stimuli.
Read the full article in Nature.
Exposing slavery: Photography, human bondage
and the birth of modern visual politics in America
Earnestine Jenkins, Reviews in History, 11 April 2020
Fox-Amato argues that the image of the kneeling slave (also borrowed from the British fight against the slave trade), functioned best in the abolitionist culture that evolved in the United States. Male and female slaves praying for deliverance appealed to the Christian sentiments of activists in the North. As a result, printed imagery utilized by abolitionists seldom depicted the scars of slavery. Abolitionist photography in America followed the visual perimeters popularized in the ‘mother country.’ The photographic images most associated with the abolitionists were the group and individual portraits of activists. White abolitionists circulated such photographs to solidify their identity as members of this radical network. Fox-Amato argues that black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass opted for representation that portrayed their personhood and humanity, as opposed to their victimization.
Photography’s use in this manner was a bit of a conundrum. While fugitive slaves understandably sought to remain hidden, the subversive activities of white and black activists could be documented in photographs. For example, about twenty of the Oberlin-Wellington rescuers—a crowd of men who freed an arrested fugitive from Kentucky named John Pike—spent over a year imprisoned at the Cuyahoga County jail in Ohio. Photographer J.M. Green took pictures of the black and white rebels standing in solidarity in the prison courtyard. Such photographs functioned as emblems of what Fox-Amato defines as ‘interracial martyrdom.’
In Chapter 4, the author investigates photography’s role in envisioning a new racial order. The most extensive practices of photography during the Civil War were situated in Union army camps made up of ‘slaveholders, enslaved people, and abolitionists.’ Fox-Amato theorizes that, by the end of the war, the ‘northern photographic imagination,’—representing what the new racial order without slavery would look like for the nation—dominated. Soldiers adopted a visual framework that portrayed—mostly black—men, kneeling, sitting, and serving. Northern whites adopted the racial hierarchies of the South to present themselves as liberators in control of how blacks would conduct themselves as freed people.
The epilogue reinforces the author’s argument that the Civil War left us with a photographic legacy that challenges the democratizing potential Frederick Douglass envisioned for the new medium. Fox-Amato recognizes that ‘former slaves’ continued to engage in image-making following the war. He argues, however, that white Southerners continued to commission de-humanizing images of loyal former slaves that codified freed people as subservient even after emancipation. White artists like J. A. Palmer mass-produced stereographs of stereotypes, which were prolific examples of photographic practices and subjects that helped Southern whites re-establish the old order as ‘new.’ White on black violence was not documented during Reconstruction. By the late 19th-century however, grotesque lynching photographs were all too common. I would argue that there are thousands, or possibly even more, archival images representing black southerners as the free people they saw themselves to be, that might effectively counteract the visual domination of imagery generated by white southerners. The private photographic archives of African American life during the 19th-century demand more scholarly attention.
Read the full article in Reviews in History.
What the Economist doesn’t tell you
Adam Tooze, Prospect, 30 March 2020
To read the complete run of the Economist would take a large part of a lifetime. To cut to the chase, Zevin sets aside the vast majority of the Economist’s actual reportage and focuses on the paper’s famous editorial pages. And, in particular, he singles out for attention three of liberalism’s neuralgic questions: democracy, finance and empire. In the course of the 20th century, we grew used to the synthesis of liberalism and democracy, of a liberal affirmation of national self-determination against empire, and an embrace of the radical freedom of money to circulate round the globe. But on all three counts, as Zevin shows, the track record of actually existing liberalism is mixed.
The Economist was founded by the liberal Scottish banker James Wilson as a mouthpiece of the movement for free trade. This was originally a broad church stretching from radicals like Richard Cobden and John Bright to the cotton interests of Manchester. But that coalition frayed as Wilson opposed assistance to Ireland during the famine and backed the authoritarian usurper Napoleon III following the 1848 revolution in France. By the 1850s, Wilson was doing battle with his erstwhile friends over his support for a war against Russia in the Crimea. This started a tradition. As one outspoken foreign editor remarked at his retirement from the newspaper, the Economist has yet to see a war it does not like. Again and again, spreading and defending the benefits of western liberalism has offered justification for imperial adventure.
All too often, democracy has come second to the rights of property and commerce. During the American Civil War, the Economist’s support for free trade meant sympathy for the slave-holding south. The cotton planters, unlike their Yankee industrialist opponents, were fundamentally dependent on export markets. Meanwhile, back home in Britain, the newspaper was far from enthusiastic about the expansion of the franchise. It was not until the early 20th century that it accommodated itself to democracy. And, even then, the question was what democracy meant in practice. Keeping economic policy out of the hands of the masses was all important. During the Cold War this dictated a hard line. In one of the most powerful chapters of the book, Zevin reconstructs the Economist’s unabashed role on the frontlines of anti-communism. After cheering on the murderous Suharto regime in Indonesia, the Economist also welcomed the bloody right-wing coup in Chile in 1973. When news of Marxist prime minister Salvador Allende’s suicide reached London, an editor cavorted through the Economist offices proclaiming ‘my enemy is dead.’
If there is one common point of attachment across the paper’s history, it is to the interests of global finance and the City of London, and the (often closely related) Bank of England. The third editor, Walter Bagehot, was the pre-eminent 19th-century theorist of central banking. As recently as 2008, Bagehot’s Lombard Street served as a manual for Ben Bernanke, the chair of the US Federal Reserve, during the financial crisis. So close was the connection that in the 1980s Rupert Pennant-Rea would serve first as editor of the newspaper and then as deputy governor of the Bank.
According to Zevin this is the algorithm of the Economist’s liberalism: a running commentary on world affairs that consistently invokes ‘sound economics’ and the high-minded liberal values of individual rights and freedoms but in fact amounts to an apologia for the interests of finance, the propertied elite and their global power.
Read the full article in the Economist.
Hospital paintings and the art of healing
Michael Prodger, New Statesman, 1 April 2020
the bland chirpiness that now characterises the art hung in medical centres has a more complex history – one in which the concepts of the soul and sin were thought more important than stimulating the release of endorphins. Indeed, precisely because they understood that the art of healing needed to minister to the spiritual as well as the physical, it was an area that fascinated some of the greatest of painters, from Piero della Francesca, Rogier van der Weyden and Leonardo da Vinci, to Rembrandt, Francisco Goya and Vincent van Gogh. For them, St Paul’s words on the interconnectedness of body and soul were an invitation to paint: ‘A body is not a single organ, but many… The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you’… If one organ suffers, they all suffer together.’ The spirit was one such organ.
This holistic attitude came about in part because, in the Middle Ages, hospitals did more than simply treat the sick; they were centres for assorted charitable enterprises, doubling as dormitories for travellers and pilgrims, asylums, almshouses and havens for foundling children. A fresco of 1444 at the Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala in Siena, Italy, includes a cartouche bearing the legend: ‘Here is an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Under your mantle the Christian populace is protected.’
This message of shelter and succour was given its most perfect early expression in the central panel of Piero della Francesca’s Polyptych of the Misericordia, which was commissioned in 1445 by the Compagnia della Misericordia, a charitable confraternity in the painter’s home town of Borgo San-Sepolcro. Piero gave the word misericordia – mercy – physical form in the standing figure of the Virgin opening her mantle to cover the kneeling figures of eight townspeople. The look on her face may be one of solemn detachment but the message of aid given and received is unequivocal. Mary, the embodiment of grace, is painted against an unadorned gold background so the panel reads like a signboard: here, at Mary’s feet and in her shadow, is where mercy and relief can be found.
At the same time, however, at Beaune in Burgundy, 1,000km away, the Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden offered a sharply contrasting vision of redemption. His 1443-51 Last Judgement for the Hôtel-Dieu hospital shows Christ and his saints in majesty but beneath them, tellingly closer to eye level, is a harrowing portrayal of the damned descending in stumbling procession to Hell. The multi-panel altarpiece was commissioned by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor of Burgundy, for a town that had been devastated by outbreaks of the plague just a few years earlier. It was nevertheless hung in the patients’ ward rather than in the chapel and during the week its hinged wings would be closed, showing the rear panels carrying portraits of the donor and his wife and trompe l’oeil statues, presenting to the sufferers a conventional image of piety. On Sundays, however, the panels were opened to reveal a brilliantly coloured panorama offering a straight binary choice: sin and mortality or redemption. For bodies and minds already in distress this living scene of their potential fate – whether imminent or distant – must have been startling. Van der Weyden’s extraordinary invocation of the end of days was meant, quite literally, to put the fear of God into them.
Read the full article in the New Statesman.
He was the most revered philosopher of his era.
So why did GE Moore disappear from history?
Ray Monk, Prospect, 3 April 2020
‘I almost worship him as if he were a god. I have never felt such an extravagant admiration for anybody.’ So the 22-year-old Bertrand Russell wrote to his fiancée Alys Pearsall Smith in November 1894. The object of his ‘extravagant admiration’ was George Edward Moore (always known as ‘GE Moore’ because he hated both his given names), who was 18 months younger than Russell and at that time just an undergraduate.
Russell was reporting to Alys on a meeting of the Apostles, the self-selecting and self-consciously elite discussion group (founded in 1820, and still in existence today) which only the students and fellows considered to be the brightest and best were invited to join. At their meetings, a member presented a case in a short paper—usually on a philosophical, cultural or political subject, designed to display both erudition and wit—which was then put to the vote. Russell had been enlisted in his second year at Cambridge, and Moore, likewise, two years later.
To be revered within the Apostles was to be a superstar of the British intellectual elite. In the 1890s it was a society with an exceptional reach into the worlds of culture and politics, as well as ideas. At the time of Russell’s letter to Alys, active members of the society included the philosophers James Ward and JME McTaggart, the political scientist Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, the polymath Edward Marsh and the art critic Roger Fry.
It wasn’t only in Cambridge quadrangles but soon also the squares of London in which Moore’s star shone. There was plenty of cross-over between the two sets. Several of the Bloomsbury luminaries were elected to the Apostles: John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Desmond MacCarthy, Leonard Woolf and EM Forster. Bloomsbury would develop a veneration of Moore as great as, if not greater than, that expressed by Russell. Beatrice Webb told Leonard Woolf that, although she had known most of the distinguished men of her time, she had never met a great man. ‘I suppose you don’t know GE Moore,’ Woolf replied. In his autobiography, he reflected that Moore was ‘the only great man whom I have ever met or known in the world of ordinary, real life.’
Today, this veneration seems a little hard to understand. It is still customary (just about) to lump Moore in with Russell and Wittgenstein, as a trio exemplifying the analytic tradition of philosophy that flourished in England during the 20th century, but the reputations of Russell and Wittgenstein today are far greater. To give one small indicator, nobody has ever suggested to me that I follow my biographies of Russell and Wittgenstein with one of Moore.
Read the full article in Prospect.
Isaac Deutscher, the ‘non-Jewish Jew’
and the intellectual tradition he came from
Anjan Basu, The Wire, 3 April 2020
Even in the context of the tempestuous 20th century, the trajectory of Deutscher’s life had few parallels. And yet we can perhaps trace his intellectual and moral ancestry to an extant European tradition. Indeed, I will argue that Deutscher himself drew our attention to this tradition, even though in an altogether very different context. In a speech he gave to the World Jewish Congress during the Jewish Book Week in February 1958 (later included in his posthumously-published book The Non-Jewish Jew).
He began his speech with a story from the Midrash (the Jewish exegetical bible text) about a great Jewish heretic of ancient times who, though he disregarded Jewish ritual boundaries and taboos, was yet revered by devout Jews for the brilliance of his mind and his sagacity.
‘The Jewish heretic who transcends Jewry’’, Deutscher concludes, ‘belongs to a Jewish tradition’. And he sees this great Jewish heretic as a prototype of some great revolutionaries of modern thought: Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky and Freud, all of whom were Jewish by birth, but all of whom transcended Jewry.
They all went beyond the boundaries of Jewry. They all found Jewry too narrow, too archaic, and too constricting. They all looked for ideals and fulfilment beyond it, and they represent the sum and substance of much that is greatest in modern thought, the sum and substance of the most profound upheavals that have taken place in philosophy, sociology, economics and politics in the last three centuries.
Deutscher believes that in some ways, all these six revolutionaries were very Jewish, even though they had either given up their Jewish faith or were atheists altogether. All of them were heretics, because each had eschewed given wisdom and sought out a path for himself or herself to self-actualisation.
They had in themselves something of the quintessence of Jewish life and the Jewish intellect. They were a priori exceptional in that as Jews they dwelt on the borderlines of various civilizations, religions and national cultures. They were born and brought up on the borderlines of various epochs. Their mind matured where the most diverse cultural influences crossed and fertilized one another. ….Each of them was in society and yet not in it, of it and yet not of it. It was this that enabled them to rise in thought above their societies, above their nations, above their times and generations, and to strike out mentally into wide new horizons and far into the future.
Read the full article in The Wire.
‘The majority of writers in Africa, of us,
confine ourselves, rather than having great ambition’
Nuruddin Farah & Lebohang Mojapelo,
Johannesburg Review of Books, 10 April 2020
The JRB: You mentioned earlier that you have not encountered writers now that pursue the history of their countries, especially dictatorship, as you did …
Nuruddin Farah: There was Dambudzo Marechera in Zimbabwe and I think if he had lived on and written about the authoritarian regime, his books would have been very, very interesting. I have not recently read Zimbabwean writing and I therefore do not know what Zimbabwean writers have written about dictatorship. The majority of writers in Africa, of us, confine ourselves, rather than having great ambition. And then it’s a matter of generation, perhaps it was my generation interested in dictatorship and not the younger ones.
The JRB: What is your generation?
Nuruddin Farah: There is nothing great about me, I should stress that. I do not belong to the Ngũgĩ, Achebe, Soyinka generation. Neither do I belong to the Chenjerai Hove and others generation, so I’m in, if you wish, a standalone generation. What makes me different is that I knew what the others had done. They thought very often about tradition and the place that tradition has in people’s lives. I come from a place where I question tradition. I come from a place where I say the elders have mucked up everything. I’m an aberration.
The other thing that sets me apart from the other writers is that I have been in exile for most of my life, while the majority of African writers belong to a narrow definition of European history and their national origins. So a Nigerian would speak English and be Yoruba. Whereas I come from a multicultural and multilingual background. Because I speak English and Italian or English and Somali. Because I have Arabic and I have Ethiopian Amharic. I bring a number of things into the mix. Achebe had Igbo and English, Ngũgĩ had Kikuyu and English, Soyinka had Yoruba and English. I borrow from a lot of these things but I also challenge our own normal traditions, which makes me an aberration.
This is one of the reasons the books I write are more appreciated in the North African tradition. Because none of my books have been reviewed in Southern Africa until recently. From a Crooked Rib had never been reviewed in its life history until after my name became a thing.
The JRB: It is interesting that you mention that. Having studied in the African literature department at Wits University I was only introduced to your work at postgraduate level in a ‘Nuruddin Farah’ course. Whereas for other writers we were taught one book at a time under different themes all through the coursework.
Nuruddin Farah: Because they don’t know what to do with my work. Do you know who taught my books at Makerere University? The department of religion. And in West Africa? The department of philosophy. That is part of the aberration. There was the question of where I would fit because of the mix I bring. It is this mix that disturbs them. I could quote a Muslim philosopher, a Hindu philosopher, a German philosopher, and the majority of people felt uncomfortable because they had to look for the sources and they did not know where to find the sources. In a number of African countries there is only one person who deals with and teaches my work. It is not a general thing. And when people mention my name, it is respected, but not many people have any idea what my work is really about.
I can’t complain. The books are respected but not popular. Some would say, ‘Is he really African?’ This is because there is a dual lineage to which Africans belong and that makes it easy: if you know African tradition you know Christianity. Because Ngũgĩ and Achebe deal with very specific ‘grounded’ traditional African cultures and ideas. But when it comes to Farah you have to know so much more than that.
Read the full article in the Johannesburg Review of Books.
The glorious resurrection of Notre-Dame
Agnes Poirier, Unherd, 10 April 2020
Of course, Notre-Dame’s regeneration goes far beyond architectural considerations. It presents a formidable opportunity for France to ask itself challenging questions. Big traumas always lead to fundamental questioning and offer renewed opportunities.
And the chance to confront, at last, and resolve problems which have blighted the reputation of Notre-Dame for decades: endless queues of tourists on the parvis blocking Parisians’ passage; inept and time-consuming security checks at the gates; the unattractiveness of cheap souvenir shops inside the cathedral — the list of such unpleasant practicalities is long. What is needed is a complete overhaul, and the possibilities are plentiful.
Why not, for instance, utilise the vacant carpark underneath the parvis to organise an access point to the cathedral for tourists, with shops and facilities? Some of this space could be used for the archaeological crypt, which needs a complete review. Why not create a museum in the partly unoccupied Hôtel-Dieu, the former hospital at the heart of Paris standing right across the parvis — as in Milan, where the museum of the Duomo, situated a few steps away from the cathedral, offers an opportunity to understand and learn about its history? So many of Notre-Dame’s works of art from across the centuries have been scattered around France in different museums for lack of a dedicated space in Paris, about which many historians have been campaigning for decades.
As for the spire, the international competition for a new flèche, launched the day after the fire by the French prime minister, now seems a distant memory, buried in the drawer of ‘good intentions but bad ideas’. The latest thinking is to ask the French people to vote on Notre-Dame’s future spire which, by all accounts, should be rebuilt identically.
There is one moment in particular that many Parisians are looking forward to; it is one that architect Philippe Villeneuve often dreams about. When the spire collapsed on 15 April, the copper rooster perched on its tip fell 96 metres to the ground. Instead of disintegrating like the rest of the spire, made of wood and lead, it just whirled in the air like an incandescent ball and remained in one piece. At dawn, Villeneuve found the battered rooster lying in the gutter of rue du Cloître Notre-Dame. Inside, the relics of Paris’s patron saint Genevieve were intact. He understood then that his work of nursing Notre-Dame back to her former glory would only feel complete when he placed the rooster back on the new spire. Paris awaits.
Read the full article in Unherd.
The images are, from top down: A coronavirus, by Alfred Pasieka/ Science Photo Library ; Theatre Group III, one of Barbara Hepworth’s ‘Hospital drawings’, (c) Sir Alan Bowness/Manchester Art Gallery, via Art UK; Portrait of Clement Attlee by George Harcourt, in the National Portrait Gallery (photograph by Snapshooter46, used via a Creative Commons licence); fragments of the braincase of Homo erectus, from Science; detail from Rogier van der Weyden’s Beaune Altarpiec (via Wikipedia).