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“Not with a bang, but with a whimper”*…



Death Table from Tuberculosis in the United States, prepared for the International Congress on Tuberculosis, September 21 to October 12, 1908. Image: U.S. National Library of Medicine


Recent history tells us a lot about how epidemics unfold, how outbreaks spread, and how they are controlled. We also know a good deal about beginnings—those first cases of pneumonia in Guangdong marking the SARS outbreak of 2002–3, the earliest instances of influenza in Veracruz leading to the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009–10, the outbreak of hemorrhagic fever in Guinea sparking the Ebola pandemic of 2014–16. But these stories of rising action and a dramatic denouement only get us so far in coming to terms with the global crisis of COVID-19. The coronavirus pandemic has blown past many efforts at containment, snapped the reins of case detection and surveillance across the world, and saturated all inhabited continents. To understand possible endings for this epidemic, we must look elsewhere than the neat pattern of beginning and end—and reconsider what we mean by the talk of “ending” epidemics to begin with…

Contrary to hopes for a tidy conclusion to the COVID-19 pandemic, history shows that outbreaks of infectious disease often have much murkier outcomes—including simply being forgotten about, or dismissed as someone else’s problem: “How Epidemics End.”

* T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”


As we contemplate the end, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Nettie Maria Stevens; she was born on this date in 1861.  A geneticist– and one of the first American women to achieve recognition for her contributions to scientific research– she built on the rediscovery of Mendel‘s paper on genetics (in 1900) with work that identified the mechanism of sexual selection: its determination by the single difference between two classes of sperm—the presence or absence of (what we now call) an X chromosome.

220px-Nettie_Stevens source


“Crises and deadlocks when they occur have at least this advantage, that they force us to think”*…




In the spirit of Nehru’s sage injunction…

The COVID19 pandemic has exposed a strange anomaly in the global economy. If it doesn’t keep growing endlessly, it just breaks. Grow, or die.

But there’s a deeper problem. New scientific research confirms that capitalism’s structural obsession with endless growth is destroying the very conditions for human survival on planet Earth.

A landmark study in the journal Nature Communications, “Scientists’ warning on affluence” — by scientists in Australia, Switzerland and the UK — concludes that the most fundamental driver of environmental destruction is the overconsumption of the super-rich.

This factor lies over and above other factors like fossil fuel consumption, industrial agriculture and deforestation: because it is overconsumption by the super-rich which is the chief driver of these other factors breaching key planetary boundaries.

The paper notes that the richest 10 percent of people are responsible for up to 43 percent of destructive global environmental impacts.

In contrast, the poorest 10 percent in the world are responsible just around 5 percent of these environmental impacts…

It confirms that global structural inequalities in the distribution of wealth are intimately related to an escalating environmental crisis threatening the very existence of human societies.

Synthesising knowledge from across the scientific community, the paper identifies capitalism as the main cause behind “alarming trends of environmental degradation” which now pose “existential threats to natural systems, economies and societies.”…

The research provides an important scientific context for how we can understand many earlier scientific studies revealing that industrial expansion has hugely increased the risks of new disease outbreaks.

Just last April, a paper in Landscape Ecology found that deforestation driven by increased demand for consumption of agricultural commodities or beef have increased the probability of ‘zoonotic’ diseases (exotic diseases circulating amongst animals) jumping to humans. This is because industrial expansion, driven by capitalist pressures, has intensified the encroachment of human activities on wildlife and natural ecosystems.

Two years ago, another study in Frontiers of Microbiology concluded presciently that accelerating deforestation due to “demographic growth” and the associated expansion of “farming, logging, and hunting”, is dangerously transforming rural environments. More bat species carrying exotic viruses have ended up next to human dwellings, the study said. This is increasing “the risk of transmission of viruses through direct contact, domestic animal infection, or contamination by urine or faeces.”

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the COVID19 pandemic thus emerged directly from these rapidly growing impacts of human activities. As the new paper in Nature Communications confirms, these impacts have accelerated in the context of the fundamental operations of industrial capitalism.

The result is that capitalism is causing human societies to increasingly breach key planetary boundaries, such as land-use change, biosphere integrity and climate change.

Remaining within these boundaries is essential to maintain what scientists describe as a “safe operating space” for human civilization. If those key ecosystems are disrupted, that “safe operating space” will begin to erode. The global impacts of the COVID19 pandemic are yet another clear indication that this process of erosion has already begun…

Humanity’s “own goal”? “Capitalism is destroying ‘safe operating space’ for humanity, warn scientists.”

Pair with “A New Land Contract“…

Weirdly enough, the land system that we have today has its origins in a problem specific to medieval kings, which is ‘how do I fund military campaigns and defence, without paying to keep a standing army?’

And it was William the Conqueror who perfected the answer. It was a piece of paper. And on that piece of paper was basically an agreement between the Crown and a noble, saying ‘if you provide men for military campaigns when I ask, in exchange I will grant you a monopoly over your own private fiefdom, where you can levy as high taxes as people can bear to pay’.

So effectively — rent is the original tax, paid via lords to the King.

In fact the word ‘feudal’ derives from the latin word feudalis — for ‘fee’. In other words, rent. So the whole system of government by which the Normans ruled over the Anglo Saxons was based on rent…

So what you’re left with is a set of power relations in society: an enforced system of servitude and control. As the economist Henry George pointed out, it is essentially a diluted version of slavery.

“Ownership of land always gives ownership of people… Place one hundred people on an island from which there is no escape. Make one of them the absolute owner of the others — or the absolute owner of the soil. It will make no difference — either to owner or to the others — which one you choose. Either way, one individual will be the absolute master of the other ninety-nine.”

And “Basic income isn’t just a nice idea. It’s a birthright“…

A basic income might defeat the scarcity mindset that has seeped so deep into our culture, freeing us from the imperatives of competition and allowing us to be more open and generous people. If extended universally, across borders, it might help instil a sense of solidarity – that we’re all in this together, and all have an equal right to the planet. It might ease the anxieties that gave us Brexit and Trump, and take the wind out of the fascist tendencies rising elsewhere in nativism that is spreading across much of the world.

We’ll never know until we try. And try we must, or brace ourselves for a 21st century of almost certain misery…

As Paul Romer (and so many others) have observed, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste”…

[TotH to Patrick Tanguay (@inevernu)]

* Jawaharlal Nehru


As we ruminate on remedies, we might recall that it was on this date in 1864 that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Valley Grant Act (Senate Bill 203), giving California the Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation.”

Mirror Lake, Yosemite
Carleton E. Watkins, photographer, circa 1860.
source: Library of Congress


“Everyday, it’s a-gettin’ closer / Goin’ faster than a roller coaster “*…




The American economy is reopening. In Alabama, gyms are back in business. In Georgia, restaurants are seating customers again. In Texas, the bars are packed. And in Vermont, the stay-at-home order has been lifted. People are still frightened. Americans are still dying. But the next, queasy phase of the coronavirus pandemic is upon us. And it seems likely that the financial nadir, the point at which the economy stops collapsing and begins growing again, has passed.

What will the recovery look like? At this fraught moment, no one knows enough about consumer sentiment and government ordinances and business failures and stimulus packages and the spread of the disease to make solid predictions about the future. The Trump administration and some bullish financial forecasters are arguing that we will end up with a strong, V-shaped rebound, with economic activity surging right back to where it was in no time. Others are betting on a longer, slower, U-shaped turnaround, with the pain extending for a year or three. Still others are sketching out a kind of flaccid check mark, its long tail sagging torpid into the future.

At least four major factors are terrifying economists and weighing on the recovery: the household fiscal cliff, the great business die-off, the state and local budget shortfall, and the lingering health crisis…

Annie Lowrey (@AnnieLowrey) unpacks a painfully-plausible worst-case scenario featuring the four horsemen of what could be an economic apocalypse– the four major forces at work today that are terrifying economists and weighing on the recovery: “The Second Great Depression.”

For more on the fourth and most terrifying force Lowrey cites, see here (and the research that underlies it).

* Buddy Holly


As we take necessary steps, we might recall that it was on this date in 1867 that Lucien B. Smith patented barbed wire (U.S. No. 66,182).  Eventually competitors produced more than 1,500 different types of barbed wire; but Smith’s patent gave him pride of invention. His simple idea that was an artificial “thorn hedge” consisting of wire with short metal spikes twisted on by hand at regular intervals. For prairie farmers and cattlemen natural fencing materials were scarce, so the invention gave them an accessible way keep their cattle safely away from crops.  It also created tensions between farmers and ranchers: inexpensive barbed wire allowed farmers to fence in their fields, preventing ranchers’ livestock from feeding off of the farmers’ fields, and making it more difficult for cattle drives to cross farmers’ lands.   Ultimately ranchers too recognized the benefits of fencing their herds… and the days of the open range came to an end.

Copy of Lucien B. Smith’s wire fence improvement (barbed wire) Patent, 66,182, dated June 25, 1867 (source)


“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything”*…




We’re living through a real-time natural experiment on a global scale. The differential performance of countries, cities and regions in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic is a live test of the effectiveness, capacity and legitimacy of governments, leaders and social contracts.

The progression of the initial outbreak in different countries followed three main patterns. Countries like Singapore and Taiwan represented Pattern A, where (despite many connections to the original source of the outbreak in China) vigilant government action effectively cut off community transmission, keeping total cases and deaths low. China and South Korea represented Pattern B: an initial uncontrolled outbreak followed by draconian government interventions that succeeded in getting at least the first wave of the outbreak under control.

Pattern C is represented by countries like Italy and Iran, where waiting too long to lock down populations led to a short-term exponential growth of new cases that overwhelmed the healthcare system and resulted in a large number of deaths. In the United States, the lack of effective and universally applied social isolation mechanisms, as well as a fragmented healthcare system and a significant delay in rolling out mass virus testing, led to a replication of Pattern C, at least in densely populated places like New York City and Chicago.

Despite the Chinese and Americans blaming each other and crediting their own political system for successful responses, the course of the virus didn’t score easy political points on either side of the new Cold War. Regime type isn’t correlated with outcomes. Authoritarian and democratic countries are included in each of the three patterns of responses: authoritarian China and democratic South Korea had effective responses to a dramatic breakout; authoritarian Singapore and democratic Taiwan both managed to quarantine and contain the virus; authoritarian Iran and democratic Italy both experienced catastrophe.

It’s generally a mistake to make long-term forecasts in the midst of a hurricane, but some outlines of lasting shifts are emerging. First, a government or society’s capacity for technical competence in executing plans matters more than ideology or structure. The most effective arrangements for dealing with the pandemic have been found in countries that combine a participatory public culture of information sharing with operational experts competently executing decisions. Second, hyper-individualist views of privacy and other forms of risk are likely to be submerged as countries move to restrict personal freedoms and use personal data to manage public and aggregated social risks. Third, countries that are able to successfully take a longer view of planning and risk management will be at a significant advantage…

From Steve Weber and @nils_gilman, an argument for the importance of operational expertise, plans for the long-term, and the socialization of some risks: “The Long Shadow Of The Future.”

* Dwight D. Eisenhower


As we make ourselves ready, we might recall that it was on this date in 1822 that Charles Babbage [see almanac entry here] proposes a Difference Engine in a paper to the Royal Astronomical Society (which he’d helped found two years earlier).

In Babbage’s time, printed mathematical tables were calculated by human computers… in other words, by hand.  They were central to navigation, science, and engineering, as well as mathematics– but mistakes occurred, both in transcription and in calculation.  Babbage determined to mechanize the process and to reduce– indeed, to eliminate– errors.  His Difference Engine was intended as precisely that sort of mechanical calculator (in this instance, to compute values of polynomial functions).

In 1833 he began his programmable Analytical Machine (AKA, the Analytical Engine), the forerunner of modern computers, with coding help from Ada Lovelace, who created an algorithm for the Analytical Machine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers— for which she is remembered as the first computer programmer.


A portion of the difference engine




“Oh happy people of the future, who have not known these miseries and perchance will class our testimony with the fables”*…



The Plague of Florence as Described by Boccaccio, an etching (ca. early 19th century) by Luigi Sabatelli of a plague-struck Florence in 1348, as described by Petrarch’s friend Giovanni Boccaccio — Source.


The Italian poet and scholar Francesco Petrarch [see almanac entry here] lived through the most deadly pandemic in recorded history, the Black Death of the 14th century, which saw up to 200 million die from plague across Eurasia and North Africa. Through the unique record of letters and other writings Petrarch left us, Paula Findlen explores how he chronicled, commemorated, and mourned his many loved ones who succumbed, and what he might be able to teach us today…

Love, death, and friendship in a time of pandemic: “Petrarch’s Plague.”

* Petrarch, from a 1347 letter to his brother, who lived in a monastery in Montrieux


As we learn from history, we might recall that it was on this date in 1986 that the British government banned the slaughter and movement of lambs in parts of Cumbria, Scotland and Wales; heavy rainfall in those areas had showered fallout from the Cernobyl nuclear disaster onto farms there.  (The transfer of radionuclides to sheep and goat products is greater than to cattle.)  As the ban lifted, animals’ radiation levels were monitored before they were allowed to be sold at market. The number of failing animals peaked in 1992, but some still recorded higher levels of caesium as recently as 2011.

Sheep and Lambs source


Written by LW

June 13, 2020 at 1:01 am

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