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In the US, the Second Wave Is Already Here

If the United States had quick-thinking and efficient leadership, the pandemic would have infected about 100,000 people and killed only a couple thousand. That’s the experience of South Korea, times seven to account for the difference in population.

If the United States had overwhelmed but reasonably sensible leadership, the coronavirus pandemic would have racked up somewhere near a million infections at this point and killed about 36,000 people. That’s what would have happened here if we’d had a German-style response.

Instead, as of the beginning of July, the infection rate in the United States is a world-leading 2.6 million and the death toll has topped 126,000. There are countries with worse death rates per million people, but with a couple exceptions they’re either small (like Belgium) or presided over by leaders (like Boris Johnson in the UK) as idiotic as ours.

That is tragic enough. But now comes Act Two.

If the United States had practically any administrative team other than the Trump-Pence clown show, it would have at least flattened the curve at this point, no matter how many infections and deaths had occurred during the first wave of the outbreak. Americans would then be cautiously enjoying their summers, bracing for a second wave of infections that most epidemiologists have predicted for the fall.

Instead, while Europe and much of Asia are tracking down and containing small pockets of infection that reach at most into three digits, the United States is dealing with its highest daily number of infections yet — over 40,000 a day.

Remember those early statistics about how many more tests South Korea was conducting per day compared to what the United States was doing in a week? We are currently suffering the consequences of that disparity. Every day, the United States is now adding three times the number of infections that South Korea has had during its entire outbreak.

The Trump administration’s response to the threat of a second wave is: why wait?

American Lunacy

Donald Trump doesn’t like masks. He has refused to wear them. He has ignored the advice of health officials, members of his administration, and his congressional enablers. Trump is such an outlier on the mask issue that even Dick Cheney has consented to being photographed wearing facial protection.

Astonishingly, the president said, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, that some people are wearing masks “to signal disapproval of him.” To the extent that people associate Trump with Death itself or are wearing masks so that they can live long enough to vote the Grim Reaper out of office, the president is right. The pandemic in America has indeed become all about Trump: his appalling ineptitude and sociopathic cruelty.

Masks are just the tip of the iceberg toward which the president is steering Titanic America. Trump was warned multiple times that an indoor campaign rally in the middle of a pandemic was not a good idea. A group of Tulsa citizens and businesses launched a legal effort to stop the event from happening on the grounds that it would only contribute to the ongoing spike in infections. The Oklahoma Supreme Court put the kibosh on the legal challenge.

Trump not only went ahead with the rally last month, he seemed to do everything possible to ensure that it would be a public health hazard. His advance team had eight people who tested positive with the disease. His organizers removed stickers from seats that were designed to maintain a modicum of distance between audience members. In the end, the 6,000 people who showed up were all crowded together like sardine superspreaders. Most followed their leader by not wearing masks.

Tulsa subsequently experienced a new uptick in COVID-19 cases, though it’s not clear how many can be traced back to the rally. That’s because Oklahoma has an inadequate contact tracing system.

Not content to help boost the numbers for the coronavirus in Oklahoma, Trump then went on to Arizona, where he stopped at a megachurch for a rally with student supporters. Such churches have been the epicenters of new outbreaks in Oregon, West Virginia, and Texas. At the Arizona event, neither Trump nor many of his young worshippers wore masks. Trump told them several times that the United States was “at the end of the pandemic.”

Trump has done just about everything to distract Americans from the second wave of infections engulfing us. He has deployed racism (“kung flu”) to defect responsibility. He has studiously avoided the topic of the pandemic. He has claimed that the numbers are up because of more testing (wrong).

Even the Trump administration doesn’t have Trump’s back on this one. The vice president now wears a mask and urges others to do so as well. The health and human services secretary, Alex Azar, is not reassuring in the least: “The window is closing, we have to act, and people as individuals have to act responsibility,” he said recently. “We need to social distance, we need to wear our face coverings where we can’t social distance, particularly in these hot zones.”

Meanwhile, many governors are demonstrating that idiocy is not the monopoly of the president.

Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, refuses to mandate the use of masks. Houston’s spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations has maxed out the capacity of the intensive care units at city hospitals. Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s response? He told the hospitals to stop reporting that particular statistic because it was generating negative headlines. Peekaboo: if we close our eyes, the pandemic will magically be over.

Of course, if people didn’t listen to Trump or their death-defying governors and simply stayed home, they could collectively flatten the curve. But no, many Americans have flocked to beaches, bars, churches, and dance clubs. They’ve been egged on by cheerleaders for a fast economic recovery who are either genuinely concerned about unemployment and widespread bankruptcies or fear that Trump can’t win reelection without a rapid rebound.

In some cases, the cheerleaders themselves have become victims of their own heedlessness. The head of Reopen Maryland, Tim Walters, came down with the coronavirus last week. It was not, alas, a Saul-on-the-way-to-Damascus moment: he hasn’t changed his views on reopening, wearing masks, or sharing contact information with government tracers.

Instead of getting the message, too many people are going after the messengers. The Washington Post reports that attacks on public health officials who counsel safe behavior have been particularly intense in Ohio, California, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. In Colorado, according to the executive director of the Colrado Association of Local Public Health Officials, “80 percent of members had reported being threatened and more than that were at risk of termination or lost funding.”

Keep Out Americans

It is any wonder that the European Union, when contemplating the opening of borders to travelers and tourists, decided to continue to ban Americans?

This week, Europe will welcome visitors from around the world. With a few exceptions, those will not be American visitors. Who gets in instead? Rwandans, Tunisians, Uruguayans, Serbians, Moroccans, Japanese, South Koreans. Oh, and just in case you think there’s a North American bias, Canadians are welcome as well. And if China lifts its ban on European visitors, then Chinese will soon be taking their summer holidays in Paris and Rome.

If America manages to get this second wave of infections under control, Europe will reconsider. But why should Europe reconsider?

I’m reminded of those pictures of people you see posted at convenience stores — shoplifters, scam artists, stolen credit card users. Those photos are a reminder to the scofflaws not to return to the scene of the crime. Europe has posted an American flag at the passport control booths at its airports. Americans are the world’s scofflaws.

Too many Americans have proven themselves to be entirely irresponsible when it comes to the health of the community. That goes for too many public officials as well, from mayors to governors to the president himself.

So, it makes sense for the world to keep its distance, not just six feet but an entire ocean if possible. The entire country should be quarantined until we stop electing public health risks to office and, as a citizenry, start acting like adults instead of kindergartners who feel compelled to eat every marshmallow in sight rather than postpone gratification until it’s safe to indulge.

It’s not just America, of course. The virus continues to rage in Brazil, India, and South Africa. The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, points out that “although many countries have made some progress, globally, the pandemic is actually speeding up. We all want this to be over. We all want to get on with our lives, but the hard reality is that this is not even close to being over.”

In the good old days, like four years ago, the United States for all its flaws would have been at the forefront of addressing this public health emergency.

Let’s face it: we are now the public health emergency.

FPIF, July 1, 2020

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Articles Featured Food

The Black Death Undermined Feudalism. What Does COVID-19 Mean for Capitalism?

You pay little attention to the systems of your body — circulatory, digestive, pulmonary — unless something goes wrong.

These automatic systems ordinarily go about their business, like unseen clockwork, while you think about a vexing problem at work, drink your morning cup of coffee, walk up and down stairs, and head out to your car to begin your morning commute. If you had to focus your attention on breathing, pushing blood through your veins, and metabolizing food, you’d have no time or energy to do anything else. The body abhors the micromanaging of the mind.

The same applies to the world’s markets. They whir away in the background of your life, providing loans to your business, coffee beans to your nearby supermarket, labor to build your house, gas to fill your car. You take all of these markets for granted. All you have to concern yourself with is earning enough money to gain access to these goods and services. That’s what it means to live in a modern economy. The days of hunting and gathering, of complete self-sufficiency, are long past.

And then, in a series of sickening shifts, the markets go haywire. As with a heart attack, you no longer can take the optimal performance of these systems for granted.

The coronavirus crisis has thrown the global economy into cardiac arrest, and now you are acutely aware of the very markets that you had previously just assumed would function as normal. The first indication was the precipitous drop in the stock market that took place in late February. Then, as the United States began to enter quarantine, the labor market collapsed and hundreds of millions of people were suddenly out of work. Shortages in a few key commodities — masks, ventilators, toilet paper — began to appear.

It is one of the central tenets of laissez-faire capitalism that markets behave like automatic systems, that an “invisible hand” regulates supply and demand. Market fundamentalists believe that the less the government interferes with these automatic systems, the better. They argue, to the contrary, that markets should increasingly take over government functions: a privatized post office, for instance, or Social Security accounts subjected to the stock market.

Market fundamentalists are like Christian Scientists. They refuse government intervention just as the faithful reject medical intervention. Much like God’s grace, the invisible hand operates independent of human plan.

Then something happens, like a pandemic, which tests this faith. States around the world are now spending trillions of dollars to intervene in the economy: to bail out banks, save businesses, help out the unemployed. Countries are imposing export controls on key commodities. As in wartime, governments are directing manufacturers to produce critical goods to fill an unexpected demand for greater supply.

These are emergency interventions. The market fundamentalist looks forward to the day when stay-at-home restrictions are lifted, people go back to work, the stock market barrels back into bull mode, and the invisible hand, with perhaps a few Band-aids across the knuckles, returns to its job.

But some pandemics fundamentally alter the economy. In such emergencies, people realize that an economy is constructed and thus can be reconstructed. Are we now at just such a moment in world history? Will the coronavirus permanently transform the relationship between the state and the market?

Let’s take a look at three key markets — oil, food, and finance — to measure the impact of the pandemic and the prospects for transformation.

Oil

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In 2007, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa offered to forgo digging for oil beneath the Yasuni national park in exchange for $3.6 billion from the international community. No one took him up on the offer.

When the U.S. price of oil went below zero last week, I immediately thought of Correa’s offer. The mainstream scoffed at the Ecuadorian leader back in 2007. How on earth could you possibly propose to keep oil under the earth? The world economy runs on fossil fuels. You might as well ask your kid to keep her Halloween candy uneaten in the back of the cupboard.

Today, however, the world is glutted with oil. The global recession has radically reduced the need for oil and gas.

In the United States, transportation absorbs nearly 70 percent of oil consumption. With airplanes grounded, fewer trains and busses in operation, and highways uncongested, the demand for oil has dropped precipitously. Businesses, too, are using less energy. It’s not just oil. Companies devoted to pumping natural gas out of shale deposits are filing for bankruptcy as their market value drops precipitously: the price of a share of fracking giant Whiting Petroleum fell from $150 a couple years ago to 67 cents on March 31.

It’s gotten to the point that you almost can’t give away the stuff.

After all, if you somehow found yourself with a bunch of barrels of oil, where would you store it? Oil-storage tanks in the United State are near capacity. “Oil supertankers are looking like petroleum paparazzi, crowding the Los Angeles shoreline, either as floating storage or waiting on some kind of turn in sentiment,” Brian Sullivan writes at CNBC. “With prices higher in coming months, for now it pays to sit on oil and hope to sell it for more money down the pipeline.”

Oil-producing nations, after years of boosting their supplies, finally agreed in mid-April to cut production by 10 percent — about 10 million gallons a day. In other words, they are deciding to leave oil in the ground. Now, however, it doesn’t even qualify as a half-measure, since demand has dropped by 35 percent. The oil producers are awaiting the end of recession, when the quarantined go back to work, and everyone jumps on their transport of choice to make up for lost travel. They are awaiting a return to normal.

But the market for fossil fuels is not normal. The notion that the invisible hand will steer economies in a sustainable direction is hogwash. We are long past the moment when we should have paid Correa and everyone else to leave the oil and gas in the ground and move toward a world powered entirely by clean energy. The market treats the environment either as a commodity like any other or as an “externality” that doesn’t factor into the final price of goods and services. That is so nineteenth century.

Climate change demands an intervention into the energy markets with restrictions on production, subsidies for clean energies like solar, and government purchases of electric cars. Returning to “normal” after the pandemic is not a viable option.

Food

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Like the oil exporters, food producers in the United States are restricting production as well.

In Delaware and Maryland, chicken producers are euthanizing two million chickens because the processing plants don’t have enough workers. Sickness and death in these facilities, which has caused closures that are disrupting the supply chain, has prompted Trump to classify such plants as “critical infrastructure” that needs to remain open. Meanwhile, thousands of acres of fruits and vegetables are rotting in the fields in Florida because of the suspension of bulk food sales to schools, theme parks, and restaurants. The shortage of pickers — often migrant laborers whose mobility has been restricted — is complicating harvests.

Unlike oil, however, the overall demand for food remains high. The grocery business is booming. Food banks are overwhelmed by a surge unlike any in recent decades. The U.S. Department of Agriculture ordinarily could swoop in and buy up surplus production — as it did for soybean growers during the trade war with China — for use in food banks and other distribution programs. But as with so many other government agencies in the Trump era, the USDA has been slow to act, despite repeated pleas from growers and governors.

The pandemic is highlighting all the problems that have long plagued the food supply. First, there is the mismatch between supply and demand. Around 820 million people globally didn’t have enough to eat in 2018, a figure that had been rising for three years in a row, and contrasts with another rising number: the 672 million obese people in the world. In the United States, fully 40 percent of food goes to waste every year. So, obviously the invisible hand does a pretty poor job of achieving market equilibrium.

Second, despite a growing movement to eat locally and seasonally, the food system still eats up a huge amount of energy. The problem lies not so much with bananas arriving by cargo ship, which is relatively efficient, but with perishable items delivered by plane. And it’s what we eat, rather than where the products come from, that matters most. “Regardless of whether you compare the footprint of foods in terms of their weight (e.g. one kilogram of cheese versus one kilogram of peas); protein content; or calories, the overall conclusion is the same,” writes Hannah Ritchie. “Plant-based foods tend to have a lower carbon footprint than meat and dairy. In many cases a much smaller footprint.”

Third, because of economies of scale and abysmal labor practices, food in the industrialized world is too often grown by agribusiness, processed by transnational corporations, and picked or handled by workers who don’t even make close to a living wage.

Returning to this kind of food system after the pandemic fades would be truly unappetizing. The livable wage campaign must spread to the countryside, meat substitutes must get an additional lift through government and institutional purchases, and innovative programs like the Too Good to Go app in Europe — which sells extra restaurant and supermarket food at a discount — must be brought to the United States to cut down on food waste and get meals to those in need.

Finance

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The financial crisis of 2008-2009 exposed the fragility and fundamental inequality of the global financial system. But all along the invisible hand has been pickpocketing poor Peter to pay prosperous Paul. Bankers, stockbrokers, and financial gurus have constructed a casino-like system that occasionally doles out a few pennies to the people playing the slots even as it enriches the house — the top 1-2 percent — at every turn.

The most outrageous part of this scheme is that the financial crisis demonstrated just how bad the financiers were at their own game. Not only did they not go to prison for illegal activities, they were with a few exceptions not even punished economically for their market failures. They were either too big, too rich, or too powerful for the government to allow them to fail.

In The New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten quotes a prominent investment banker at a bond fund:

“In the financial crisis, we won the war but lost the peace.” Instead of investing in infrastructure, education, and job retraining, we emphasized, via a central-bank policy of quantitative easing (what some people call printing money), the value of risk assets, like stocks. “We collectively fell in love with finance,” he said. 

After the last financial crisis, the wealthy, who are heavily invested in the stock market, did quite well, while everyone else took a hit. Explains Colin Schultz in Smithsonian magazine: “While families hovering around the average net worth lost 36 percent over the past decade — dropping from $87,992 in 2003 to $56,335 in 2013 — people in the top 95th percentile actually gained 14 percent in the same tumultuous period — going from $740,700 in 2003 to $834,100 in 2013.”

The Trump administration is clearly in love with finance. Even before the pandemic hit, Trump’s tax reform provided the top six U.S. banks with $32 billion in savings. That’s more than what the 2008 bank bailout provided (and remember, banks mostly paid back those earlier loans). The stock market also benefited from an unprecedented upswing in stock buybacks — $2 trillion combined in 2018 and 2019 — that enriched shareholders at the expense of workers.

The $2 trillion in initial stimulus funds that the U.S. government is providing this time around has gone to individuals (those Trump-signed checks in the mail), small businesses (except when it went to big businesses), hospitals, and unemployed workers. There’s also money for farmers, schools, food stamps, and (alas) the Pentagon. Future rounds of stimulus spending might include infrastructure, more aid to states and localities, and funds for smaller banks.

There’s not much enthusiasm, at least publicly, to bail out Wall Street. Stock buybacks were explicitly excluded from the stimulus package. Meanwhile, the stock market has begun to climb out of the basement in the last couple weeks, largely on the strength of the news of all this new money being pumped into the economy.

But just as the tax bill was a covert giveaway to financial institutions, so have been several of the administration’s pandemic responses. Quantitative easing, by which the Federal Reserve buys bonds and mortgage-backed securities, has increased the amount of liquidity available to financial institutions.

In the latest effort, the Fed announced that it will buy $500 billion in corporate bonds, but without any of the strings attached to other assistance such as limits on stock buybacks or executive compensation. The banks are even nickel and diming people by seizing stimulus check deposits to cover overdrawn accounts.

Out of a total pie of around $6 trillion in potential stimulus spending, banks and major corporations are well-placed to grab the lion’s share. Writes Nomi Prins at TomDispatch:

In the end, according to the president, that could mean $4.5 trillion in support for big banks and corporate entities versus something like $1.4 trillion for regular Americans, small businesses, hospitals, and local and state governments. That 3.5 to 1 ratio signals that, as in 2008, the Treasury and the Fed are focused on big banks and large corporations, not everyday Americans.

Invisible hand? Hardly. That’s the very visible hand of government tilting the financial markets even more in favor of the rich. As for the invisible enrichment that goes on beneath the surface, otherwise known as corruption, the Trump administration has gutted the oversight mechanisms that could bring those abuses to light.

It’s time to end America’s love affair with finance. That means, in the short term, higher taxes on the very rich, limitations on CEO pay built into all bailouts, and reviving all the reasonable proposals for reforming the financial sector that were either left out of or didn’t get full implemented in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act passed in the wake of the last financial crisis.

Post-Pandemic Economics

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The Black Death depopulated Europe, killing as much as 60 percent of the population in the middle of the fourteenth century. Feudalism depended on lots of peasants working the land to support the one percent of that era. By carrying off so many of these workers, the Black Death made a major contribution to eroding the foundations of the dominant economic system of the time.

The coronavirus will not kill anywhere near as many people as the Black Death did. But it may well contribute to exposing the failures of “free markets” and the scandal of governments intervening in the economy on behalf of this era’s one percent. The pandemic is already, thanks to huge stimulus packages, undermining the “small government” canard. A state apparatus deliberately hobbled by the Trump administration — after earlier “reforms” by both parties — did a piss-poor job of dealing with this crisis. That doesn’t bode well for dealing with the even larger challenge of climate change.

The short-term fixes described above in the oil, food, and finance sectors are necessary but insufficient. They shift the balance more toward the government and away from the “free” market. They’re not unlike the New Deal: reforming capitalism to save capitalism. But this pandemic is pointing to an even more fundamental transformation, to a new definition of economics.

The tweaking of markets to achieve optimal performance is much like the rejiggering of earth-centric models of the universe that took place in the Middle Ages. These models became more and more complex to account for new astronomical discoveries. Then along came Copernicus with a heliocentric model that accounted for all the new data. It took some time, however, for the old model to lose favor, despite its obvious failures.

The global economy remains market-centered, even though the evidence has been mounting that these markets are failing us and the planet. Tweaking this model isn’t good enough. We need a new Copernicus who will provide a new theory that fits our unfolding reality, a new environment-centered economics that can maximize not profit but the well-being of living things.

Foreign Policy In Focus, April 29, 2020

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A Progressive Victory over the Coronavirus

The current pandemic has led to the postponement of elections around the world.

Over 75 countries have declared some kind of state of emergency. Several illiberal leaders, like Viktor Orban, have used the crisis to seize virtually unlimited powers. The Chinese model of full-spectrum clampdown has elicited praise across the political spectrum for its apparent effectiveness in combating the virus.

But one country has taken a very different approach.

South Korea held elections last week. Even amid a worldwide pandemic, more South Koreans went to the polls than in any parliamentary election since 1992. They weren’t turning out in protest. Rather, they gave the ruling party — and the president, Moon Jae-in — the largest parliamentary majority of any party since the country became a democracy.

The surge in support for the left-of-center ruling party has been because of the coronavirus, not despite it. The government’s handling of the crisis has received top marks both domestically and internationally.

Moon Jae-in has not been content to promote a return to the status quo that existed prior to the outbreak. He campaigned on a platform of transformation, one that has not been fully appreciated outside of Korea.

The South Korean example, because it holds many lessons for progressives around the world, offers a vivid refutation of the notion that the world, after the pandemic subsides, will necessarily shift further to the right.

Dealing with Pandemic

In late February, South Korea had the most coronavirus cases outside of China.

A cult-like church was responsible for a large outbreak in the southern city of Daegu, and the hospitals there were being overwhelmed. The government was scrambling to contain the crisis. A petition to impeach the president for his failure to address the pandemic garnered 1.4 million signatures. The country was getting bad press, like Suki Kim’s hack job in The New Yorker.

This week, less than two months later, the number of new cases of the coronavirus has dropped to a mere dozen or so a day. South Korea has had a little over 10,000 cases but only 236 deaths, for a mortality rate of a little over 2 percent. There have been more deaths in Springfield, Massachusetts (246) than in all of South Korea. That’s a metro area of about 700,000 people, compared to a country of about 50 million.

The United States and South Korea both registered their first coronavirus infections at the same time.

South Korea has achieved this success without closing down the economy. It shuttered schools and museums, and churches have held services online. But many restaurants and even movie theaters remained open. The unquarantined continued to travel with few restrictions around the country.

This ability to avoid full lockdown has relied on a robust and widespread system of testing, contact tracing, and quarantining. South Korea was one of the first countries in the world to manufacture kits in large enough quantities to test a significant portion of the population. It has gathered information on the movement of infected persons via cell phone data, credit card records, and closed-circuit television, and it shared some of that information publicly. It requisitioned the membership list of the cult-like religion in Daegu to shut down that infected cluster.

This system required some loss of privacy, which many Koreans seemed willing to give up. Oh Jeong Hyeon is a scholar at the Wilson Center. “In my opinion, COVID-19 is spreading quickly, and the disclosure of patient information is indispensable. The information not only lets people avoid the area of the outbreak, but also encourages people who were there to be examined quickly,” he told journalist Jean Lee, also at the Wilson Center. “That’s why the government needs patients’ information, and to me this is worth sacrificing privacy.”

The technological sophistication of the population — with an Internet penetration rate of 96 percent and mobile Internet usage of 90 percent — has enabled citizens to jump into the fight against the coronavirus. Programmers came up with interactive maps that provide information about where new infections have emerged. One popular app warns you if you come within 100 meters of the last tracked location of an infected person.

It’s not just coders that have gotten in on the effort. Musicians in the Seoul Philharmonic have put on virtual concerts to help get people through these difficult times. Violinist Won Hyung-Joon has gone even further by visiting hospitals and playing directly for coronavirus patients.

South Korea, contrary to popular belief, is not a high-trust society. People do not march in lock-step out of fealty to Confucianism or some collective ideology. But they do have a stronger sense of the common good than, say, teenagers partying in Florida or right-wing demonstrators in various states fed up with stay-at-home restrictions. South Koreans maintained physical distancing, complied with testing and quarantine protocols, and worked together despite some profound political, economic, and social divisions in the country.

At the international level, Moon Jae-in has reached out to help North Korea weather the pandemic. He has given advice to the Trump administration. After a tiff with Tokyo early on around travel restrictions, he directed his foreign minister to meet by video call with counterparts from Japan and China to discuss coronavirus cooperation.

When Maryland Governor Larry Hogan needed testing kits recently, he gave up on the Trump administration. The Republican governor pragmatically turned to South Korea and, courtesy of his Korean-speaking wife, negotiated a deal for 5,000 kits capable of administering 500,000 tests.

Early on, the U.S. news media was astonished by the statistics that showed Korea testing as many people per day as the United States was testing in 14 days. Even more astonishing is that, this late in the game, the governor of a state right next to Washington, DC has to get test kits from 7,000 miles away.

Moon’s Quantum Leap

During the election campaign, Moon Jae-in emphasized that it was no time for complacency with the economic status quo during the coronavirus crisis. Rather, it was an “opportunity for South Korea to restructure its economy — capitalizing on industries like AI and biopharma,” observes Minseon Ku, a scholar at Ohio State University. Moon said prior to the election that South Korea “can be the country that overcomes the crisis the fastest through solidarity and cooperation.”

What that means in practice is pushing forward with an agenda that had been largely blocked by the opposition in parliament. Now, halfway through his five-year tenure as president, Moon no longer has to worry about that opposition. Writes Doug Bandow in The National Interest about last week’s election, “The right had its worst legislative result since 1960. A former prime minister and parliamentary floor leader were ousted from the National Assembly. Party leaders are likely to take responsibility by resigning, leading to further disarray in the once‐​powerful right.”

The bottom line is that Moon’s party has a parliamentary super-majority that can push through its economic agenda. That means addressing rising income inequality, though probably more through job creation than wage increases. It also means finally reducing the power of the big corporations, or chaebols, which have been at the center of economic corruption for decades.

But the challenge for South Korea is two-fold. The economy is export-driven, and global trade is taking a big hit during this crisis. Also, despite some grand words about the dangers of climate change, the Korean economy remains carbon-intensive. The capital, Seoul, has a reputation for having the largest carbon footprint of any city in the world.

So, tweaking the Korean economy isn’t going to work. It needs a quantum leap into a fundamentally different economic system.

Strangely, the mainstream press has missed Moon’s larger economic goal. He’s not just looking at AI, job creation, and boosting small and medium-sized enterprises.

Last month, his Democratic Party pledged to implement a Green New Deal that will make South Korea carbon-neutral by 2050, the first country in Asia to make such a pledge. Writes Chloé Farand in Climate Change News: “The plan includes large-scale investments in renewable energy, the introduction of a carbon tax, the phase out of domestic and overseas coal financing by public institutions, and the creation of a Regional Energy Transition Centre to support workers transition to green jobs.”

The coronavirus crisis has given this political opportunity to Moon. You know what they say: a crisis equals danger plus opportunity.

Actually, let’s walk back that statement…

Crisis ≠ Danger Plus Opportunity 

It is often said that, in Chinese, the character for crisis translates into danger plus opportunity. The reality is a bit more complex. Rather than opportunity, explains Sinologist Victor Mair, the second element of the crisis character really translates into either “incipient moment” or “resourcefulness” or “machine.”

“Any would-be guru who advocates opportunism in the face of crisis should be run out of town on a rail, for his/her advice will only compound the danger of the crisis,” Mair adds.

The Korean words for “crisis” (wi gi) and “opportunity” (gi hwae) derive from the same Chinese characters. The current coronavirus crisis thus presents not an obvious danger plus an opportunity to be seized. Rather, following Mair’s analysis of the critical phoneme gi, it is a time of danger and a moment for technological resourcefulness. In other words, digging into the word “resourcefulness,” it’s a time to use scientific know-how to put available resources to more efficient or ingenious use.

I can’t think of a better definition of the Green New Deal. That’s what this double crisis of pandemic and climate change demands: using science to make better use of existing resources. South Korea, having beaten back the coronavirus and demonstrated that democracy can flourish even in an emergency, is now poised to show the world how to move forward to save lives and the planet.

Foreign Policy In Focus, April 22, 2020

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Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

The Next Pandemic

Congress is already thinking about how to prevent the next pandemic.

See how quickly Cory Booker (D-NJ) has teamed up with Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to write a letter calling for a global ban on “wet markets.” The current pandemic is reputed to have originated in a wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan. So, having identified what they believe to be the root of the problem, these politicians want to eliminate it.

In an era of political polarization, even modest bipartisan action is noteworthy — and cause for suspicion.

Booker and Graham could have benefited humanity by reaching across the aisle to do pretty much anything other than co-writing that letter. If they’d done just a little homework, they would have discovered that a “wet market” is any place that sells perishable goods like meat and produce — as opposed to a “dry market” where you can get appliances.

Wet markets are a vital part of life in most of the world. Only some sell the kind of wildlife, dead or alive, that can generate zoonotic diseases like COVID-19. Your local farmers market, for instance, qualifies as a wet market. “Calling for a ban on all wet markets based on the Wuhan wet market, which purportedly sold live wildlife, is like banning all pet ownership based on what goes down in Tiger King,” writes Martha Cheng in The Atlantic.

It also might seem strange for Congress to focus attention on the next pandemic when it has done such a lousy job dealing with the current pandemic. Instead of dictating policies to other countries, the senators should be doing more to ensure that state authorities have testing kits, hospitals have critical supplies, and citizens have the economic wherewithal to survive the ongoing economic downturn.

Instead of going far afield to find blame, Booker and Graham could have found a worthier target right down the block. The Trump administration, through its overwhelming incompetence, has turned the United States into an enormous Petri dish of infection. By threatening to restart the economy without either squashing the curve or ensuring that enough testing kits and a tracing system are in place, Trump is threatening to offer up thousands of new hosts for this novel coronavirus.

And by canceling U.S. contributions to the World Health Organization this week, President The-Buck-Stops-Anywhere-But-Here is kneecapping the one global institution that can help save us from the next pandemic. “The WHO failed in its basic duty and must be held accountable,” Trump said by way of explanation.

According to that logic, I can cancel my federal tax payments this year.

When I was preparing to write this column about the next pandemic, I discovered that I’d already done so: in an article for the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh.

In 2014.

So, before I return to what the world is doing now to prevent the next COVID-19 outbreak, let’s step back for a moment to September 2014, when the world was confronting the specter of Ebola. That episode contains some important lessons for today.

Back in 2014

In the South Korean movie The Host, the American military pours formaldehyde into the Han River and inadvertently creates a monster. This freak of nature not only goes on a murderous rampage but also is the host of a deadly virus. The movie, inspired by a real-life incident of contamination, is a cautionary tale of the consequences of tampering with the environment.

At first glance, the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa would seem to have nothing to do with such ecological issues. The plague, which has claimed the lives of more than 1,400 people in the countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, most likely came from an infected fruit bat that bit a toddler in a remote area of eastern Guinea in December 2013. The disease spread quickly from there to urban locations and then across borders. Beginning this summer, it has dominated the headlines. In August, it very nearly overshadowed the summit of African leaders that took place in Washington, DC.

Ebola is a form of hemorrhagic fever. It has a very high mortality rate. There are no known vaccines, though several experimental drugs are currently being tested. Several outbreaks of Ebola have taken place in the past, but mostly in remote areas. Since it first appeared in the Congo region in 1976, Ebola has claimed around 3,000 lives.

For all the media attention surrounding the current outbreak, Ebola is not the most pressing medical issue facing Africa today. Every day, 2,000 African children die from diarrhea. Every minute, an African child dies of malaria. In 2011 alone, 1.2 million Africans died of HIV/AIDS. The Ebola epidemic would have to increase several hundred-fold to match these numbers.

What makes these diseases so tragic in their effects is that effective treatments exist that could bring the mortality rate down to near zero. In the case of diarrhea, that means clean water and sanitation; for malaria, that means mosquito nets and prescription drugs; for HIV/AIDS that means antiretroviral treatments. So far, the money has not been available in sufficient quantities to address these problems.

Diarrhea, malaria, and HIV/AIDS no longer threaten lives at an epidemic level in industrialized countries. Ebola threatens to be something quite different, since it has resisted treatment. The media has covered the Ebola outbreak so extensively in part because of fears that the disease could spread beyond Africa. Books like The Hot Zone and movies like Contagion have primed people to expect the next major pandemic to emerge any day. But because of the way it spreads — through direct contact with infected bodily fluids — Ebola is not likely to become the next pandemic.

Another reason the media loves to write about Ebola is because it fits comfortably into a neo-colonial view of Africa as a place of barbaric customs such as eating “bush meat.” The consumption of infected chimpanzee or bat meat has been linked in the past to Ebola outbreaks. In this case, however, the outbreak had nothing to do with eating anything. And plenty of people in America eat “bush meat,” which we simply call “game” — venison, boar, and squirrels — and few people consider that to be barbaric.

Of course, Ebola is worrisome because of the speed with which it has spread. One of the reasons that Ebola has spread so quickly is that medical personnel in Africa are already stretched thin dealing with these other diseases.

But the other reason for Ebola’s spread is environmental. The current outbreak of Ebola differs from all previous ones because it spread from a remote area to urban centers. And that happened in part because of deforestation.

The area where this strain of Ebola first appeared — the Western Guinean Lowland Forests — have been cut down by loggers or to make way for farmers. West Africa as a whole has been losing more forests annually — nearly a million hectares — than any other place in the world. Humans are venturing into places that were hitherto largely untouched.

In other words, residents in the region are now more likely than ever to have contact with carriers of Ebola. And they will also have more contact with one another, creating more opportunities for the spread of the disease.

The environmental destruction of Africa’s forests may well produce more outbreaks of the disease. And it might spread to areas with inadequate medical infrastructure. But if we’re going to worry about the next global epidemic, it will more likely come from the flu or SARS, not Ebola.

Still, we should be concerned about how our changing environment affects the spread of disease. Rising temperatures connected to human activity — global warming — has been linked to the spread of malaria and the greater incidence of flu epidemics. We simply don’t know what alteration of the environment will trigger a calamitous pandemic.

At the end of The Host, the monster dies. And eventually the current Ebola outbreak will burn out. But if we continue to treat our environment as a place to dump our garbage, the garbage will eventually come back and haunt us. It won’t take the form of a science fiction monster. But Ebola, malaria, and SARS can be just as lethal as anything the movies have dreamed up for us.

Lessons Moving Forward

That outbreak of Ebola would last for two-and-a-half years and claim over 11,000 deaths in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

In 2018, meanwhile, 405,000 people died of malaria, 94 percent of them in Africa. Also that year, 770,000 people died of AIDS-related illnesses. And diarrheal diseases like rotavirus, cholera, and shigella kill more people than homicide, suicide, military conflict, and terrorism combined: nearly 1.6 million people in 2017 versus 1.35 million deaths from those other causes.

So far, COVID-19 has killed about 128,000 people. In the United States, 26,000 people have died, and the latest predictions are that about 69,000 will perish here by the time the pandemic fades. If that rate of increase holds across the globe — with lower rates in some countries and higher rates in others — then COVID-19 will be responsible for about 340,000 deaths.

That’s a lot of people. And it could be a lot more if this coronavirus becomes entrenched in countries with little medical infrastructure, in overcrowded refugee camps, or in places without water for hand-washing. But this estimate of around 340,000 fatalities doesn’t approach the annual death tolls of the other diseases.

Of course, this projected death toll for COVID-19 already takes into account significant countermeasures (social distancing, economic lockdown) to avoid the kind of horrific death tolls associated with past pandemics, like the Spanish flu of 1918 that left as many as 50 million dead.

But why hasn’t the industrialized world funded similar efforts to radically reduce malaria deaths? Could it be because the disease isn’t infectious and doesn’t threaten the Global North?

Nor has the global response to COVID-19 addressed the root causes of the pandemic. Wet markets, as with bush meat and Ebola, are not the ultimate precipitating factors. UN Environmental Program head Inger Anderson is looking at the same data as Booker and Graham about the source of zoonotic diseases and has come to very different conclusions. “Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people,” she told the Guardian. “Our continued erosion of wild spaces has brought us uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbor diseases that can jump to humans.”

It’s not just deforestation. Climate change plays a role too. “As the planet heats up, animals big and small, on land and in the sea, are headed to the poles to get out of the heat,” explains Aaron Bernstein of Harvard’s Center of Climate, Health and the Global Environment. “That means animals are coming into contact with other animals they normally wouldn’t, and that creates an opportunity for pathogens to get into new hosts.”

The scientific community, funded by governments and private foundations, is focused on preventing the next pandemic. The search is on for an antiviral drug that can either mess with the way this coronavirus reproduces or, as Matthew Hutson explains in The New Yorker, alter the cellular mechanisms of the human host to address a suite of viruses. The Pentagon’s R & D arm DARPA, meanwhile, is researching how to stop a pandemic even further back in the chain of infection by identifying and vaccinating the animal hosts. The idea is to prevent the leap of infectious disease from animal to human in the first place.

These scientific efforts are admirable and necessary. But even stopping pandemics before they make the leap to humans is intervening too late in the process. We will always play catch-up with these wily viruses if we continue our all-out war on the environment.

Yes, we need a coronavirus truce in the various military conflicts around the world. More fundamentally, we need a truce in our assault on the planet.

If we don’t pay substantial reparations to make good our relationship with Mother Earth, she will continue to send us these little viral messages: stop being selfish and arrogant, pay attention to the important things in life, and for crying out loud start listening to your mother.

Foreign Policy In Focus, April 15, 2020

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Articles Featured Security

We Need a Coronavirus Truce

During World War I, soldiers all along the Western front held a series of informal truces in December 1914 to commemorate Christmas.

It was early in the war, and opposition had not yet hardened into implacable enmity. The military command, caught by surprise, could not impose complete battlefield discipline. An estimated 100,000 British and German soldiers participated. They exchanged smokes, sang together, and even, on at least one occasion that has since been widely mythologized, played a game of soccer.

Imagine how different the world would look today if that truce had held, if it had turned into a lasting ceasefire, if Europe had not burned itself to the ground in a fit of nationalist pique. There might not have been a global flu epidemic spread by soldiers in 1918. The Nazis might not have seized power and precipitated the Holocaust. World War II might never have happened and nuclear weapons never used.

At the very least, nearly 20 million people would not have perished in that first world war.

We are now in the early stages of another world war, call it World War III, this time against the common enemy of pandemic. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres last week called on all countries to observe a global ceasefire to focus all resources on beating back the coronavirus. “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, eight countries that have been suffering under economic sanctions — China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela — have appealed for an end to the economic sanctions that are hampering their efforts to battle the disease.

And a number of civil organizations are pressing for the release of political prisonersjailed journalists, and as many nonviolent offenders as possible to reduce the crowding that makes prisons a potential killing ground for the coronavirus.

Not surprisingly, there has been pushback to the idea of even temporarily ending these three expressions of state power: military conflict, war by economic means, and mass incarceration. But this pandemic, for all of its ongoing horrors, can serve as a jolt of smelling salts. International cooperation needs to take priority right now, and countries must stop their wars against one another and against their own populations.

Bombs, sanctions, and prisons are not effective tools in the fight against the coronavirus. Indeed, by aiding and abetting the enemy, they will only make the war worse.

Silencing the Guns?

There has been much talk of repurposing the U.S. military to fight the coronavirus. Two Army field hospitals have been sent to New York and Seattle. Some soldiers have already been deployed, the National Guard has been activated in three states, and the Pentagon has been authorized to call up former soldiers to help in the fight. But the military is, to use an apt simile, like a large battleship that is not easily turned. The Pentagon hasn’t even allowed immigrant doctors in its ranks to help against the pandemic.

In the meantime, the Pentagon continues to pursue its prime directive: planning war and killing people. On March 12, the United States conducted air strikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq, in response to attacks that killed two U.S. service personnel. It was billed as a “proportional” response. Yet the Pentagon has been pushing a far more ambitious plan to go to war against Iranian proxies and, ultimately, Iran itself.

“Some top officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, have been pushing for aggressive new action against Iran and its proxy forces — and see an opportunity to try to destroy Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq as leaders in Iran are distracted by the pandemic crisis in their country,” write Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt in The New York Times.

In nearby Afghanistan, the United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal at the end of February. But any end to the war in Afghanistan will require a truce among the factions within the country, indeed within the government itself. After a disputed presidential election that once again pitted President Ashraf Ghani against chief rival Abdullah Abdullah, even the threat of reduced U.S. aid didn’t persuade the two sides to unify.

The fighting continues on the ground, with air strikes against the Taliban most recently on March 24 as well a series of Taliban attacks in the last week against Afghan soldiers and policemen. In the leadup to the signing of the peace agreement, the United States conducted the second highest number of air attacks for the month of February since 2009. And last year, Afghanistan sustained the most U.S. aerial attacks since 2006.

Wars grind on in other parts of the world, pandemic be damned. All sides declared a truce in Syria in early March, but Turkey exchanged attacks with “radical groups” in Idlib province on March 19. This week, Israeli war planes targeted a Syrian military base near Homs. And the Islamic State has indicated that it sees the coronavirus as an opportunity to step up attacks — like a recent massacre at a Sikh temple in Kabul — because the last thing the “crusaders” want is “to send additional soldiers to regions where there is a chance for a spread of the disease.” However, COVID-19 will most harm Syrian refugees, particularly the recent wave of nearly a million people who fled Idlib and Aleppo in December.

In Libya, both sides of the civil war agreed to a humanitarian truce that evaporated after only a day and now the fighting there has even intensified. Whoever wins Tripoli will take over a capital with an already ravaged infrastructure and a collapsed economy. The Pyrrhic victor will then have to address a mounting health emergency with ever diminishing resources.

Meanwhile in Yemen, which is on track to becoming the poorest country in the world because of its five-year-long war, the combatants agreed to a truce last week. As in Libya, it hasn’t lasted long. The Houthis have since launched some easily intercepted ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia, which retaliated by once again bombing Sana’a, the capital of Yemen.

Conflicts throughout Africa — in CameroonChad, Nigeria, Mozambique, Mali — also continue despite pleas for a truce. Neither has al-Shabaab stopped its suicide bombings nor the United States ceased its drone attacks in Somalia.

Elsewhere in the world, there’s no pandemic pause for a series of equally deadly cold wars.

Weaponizing Sanctions

For years, the United States has tried to shut down North Korea’s economic relations with the outside world as a way to force the government to negotiate away its nuclear weapons program. North Korea devised a variety of methods to get around U.S. and UN sanctions, including illicit transfers of oil from foreign ships to North Korean vessels in the middle of the ocean.

But the most lucrative source of goods and revenues continued to be China, which has been responsible for upwards of 95 percent of North Korea’s trade. Washington has intermittently put pressure on Beijing to shut down this trade to pressure Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table. It hasn’t worked.

Then the coronavirus hit. By the end of January, North Korea had shut its borders with China to minimize the risk of infection. It even issued a directive to guard posts to put a stop to flourishing smuggling operations. What sanctions couldn’t accomplish in years, the virus managed to achieve in weeks.

Despite these precautionary measures, the coronavirus has no doubt reached North Korea. There have been reports of probable coronavirus-related deaths in the North Korean military. Thousands of people have been quarantined. Even as the North Korean government insists that the country remains pandemic-free, it has quietly appealed to other governments for assistance in addressing the disease.

The United States has so far held firm. Even though sanctions are holding up the delivery of critical humanitarian aid, Washington has refused to reconsider sanctions. Secretary of State Pompeo continues to talk as if a pandemic isn’t raging outside: “The G-7 and all nations must remain united in calling on North Korea to return to negotiations and stay committed to applying diplomatic and economic pressure over its illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”

Pompeo has been even more ruthless toward Iran, an early pandemic hotspot. Tehran initially fumbled its response to a disease, which was quickly spreading through the populace as well as the political and religious leadership. As Human Rights Watch has meticulously detailed, U.S. economic sanctions have only made a bad situation worse.

Yes, the U.S. government formally permits humanitarian aid to the country. But its sanctions regime — which includes the threat of secondary sanctions against entities that engage Tehran — ensures that banks and companies steer clear of Iran. Pompeo’s take: “Things are much worse for the Iranian people, and we’re convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime.”

That’s also pretty much the U.S. strategy toward Venezuela, which is in an even more vulnerable position. Though it only has a little more than 130 confirmed cases, COVID-19 will likely ravage the weakened country. “Only a quarter of Venezuela’s doctors have access to a reliable supply of water and two-thirds are without soap, gloves or masks,” reports The Guardian. “There are 73 intensive care beds in the whole country.”

This week, the Trump administration conditioned any reduction in sanctions on a political deal that requires President Nicolas Maduro to step down in favor of a transitional council that includes the political opposition. The current government has rejected this regime-change option.

These maximum pressure tactics toward North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and others recently led Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl, who is no softy on foreign affairs, to conclude that Pompeo’s “pandemic performance will ensure his place among the worst ever” secretaries of state.

Emptying the Prisons

Egypt freed 15 prominent oppositionists on March 21. A few days earlier, Bahrain let go nearly 1,500 detainees, but no prominent human rights activists or political oppositionists. Iran has released 85,000 prisoners, but only temporarily. Turkey is planning to release 90,000 prisoners, but none of them political.

Prisons are the perfect breeding ground for the coronavirus: poor sanitary conditions, overcrowding, minimal medical facilities. Many countries, including the United States, are looking into ways of reducing the population behind bars.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is mobilizing support to pressure governments to release the 250 journalists who are currently in prison worldwide. UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has urged countries to reduce the numbers of people in detention, with a special emphasis on political prisoners. “Now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views,” she said last week.

Those behind bars are frequently the victims of various government campaigns: against a free press, against political dissent, against drugs. But when a major war threatens the homeland, prisoners are sometimes drafted into military service. That happened during the French colonial period and by different sides in World War II.

In World War III, we need everyone on our side. If countries don’t significantly empty out their prisons during this COVID-19 crisis, the inmates as well as the guards will likely be drafted by the enemy. This foe only gets stronger as our petty conflicts continue and the stiffest sanctions remain in place.

It’s time for a truce on all fronts — or else we will surely lose the larger war.

Foreign Policy In Focus, April 1, 2020

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Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

The Politics of the Coronavirus

The far right thrives on fear. It’s no surprise, then, that it would use the latest pandemic, which has generated widespread panic, to bolster its own agenda.

All of the hallmarks of the far right are in play during the current crisis. It has pushed to close borders. It has demonized foreigners and particularly border-crossers. It has spread a variety of conspiracy theories. And where it is in power — Hungary, Israel — it has moved to increase that power through emergency measures.

On the other hand, the incompetent response of some right-wing leaders — Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil — may well set back the far right in certain countries. Moreover, the scale of the threat has put on the table the kind of large-scale transformative policies that hitherto circulated only on the margins.

So, which way will COVID-19 ultimately push the political pendulum?

From Denial to Weaponization

Imagine if Hillary Clinton were in the White House today.

The far right, led by the head of the anti-Hillary forces, Donald Trump, would have immediately used the “China virus” to demand that the Clinton administration close all borders and ban all immigrants and refugees. Under ordinary conditions, in other words, the far right would have had a field day in the United States using the coronavirus threat to advance its xenophobic agenda in the face of a liberal, cautious Washington consensus.

But with Trump in the Oval Office rather than sitting on the sidelines lobbing the pundit’s equivalent of Molotov cocktails, the far right started out in denial. When the pandemic began in China at the end of December, after all, it was far away and it was not infecting Americans. Even when the pathogen was detected for the first time in the United States on January 21 — in a young man returning to Washington state from China — right-wing pundits continued to downplay the risk for weeks on end.

On February 24, for instance, Rush Limbaugh told his radio audience that “the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump. Now, I want to tell you the truth about the coronavirus … I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.”

He would say on another occasion that the greater threat to the country was Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party more generally. Just as becoming president didn’t make Trump more presidential in conduct, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom clearly didn’t make Limbaugh any more professional in conduct.

The breakdown of concern among Americans has followed the political contours of the country. Writes Ronald Brownstein in The Atlantic this week:

A flurry of new national polls released this week reveals that while anxiety about the disease is rising on both sides of the partisan divide, Democrats consistently express much more concern about it than Republicans do, and they are much more likely to say they have changed their personal behavior as a result. A similar gap separates people who live in large metropolitan centers, which have become the foundation of the Democratic electoral coalition, from those who live in the small towns and rural areas that are the modern bedrock of the GOP.

As the Trump administration finally switched into its own incompetent version of engagement, some sections of the far right zoomed well past the denial phase. Those of a survivalist and apocalyptic bent are already halfway to their bunkers, with Alex Jones of Infowars infamy trying to profit off the panic by raising the prices on his prepper products. It’s part of a more general wave of profiteering that encompasses Amazon price-gougers and traffickers of inside information like Richard Burr (R-NC) in the Senate.

Neo-Nazis and sovereignists, meanwhile, are rejoicing at the failures of the federal state to handle the crisis. They are anticipating the realization of their cherished dream: the collapse of the liberal order. Still other extremists in the QAnon camp believe that Trump will use the virus as a pretext to arrest members of a global liberal pedophile ring (like Trump, they simply double down when their assertions are proven wrong, as in the Comet Pizza debacle).

Then there’s the blame game. Jerry Falwell Jr. fingered North Korea as the culprit behind the coronavirus. California Republican Joanne Wright, like many of her tribe, has asserted that China manufactured the disease but added the twist that Bill Gates financed the plot. And it wouldn’t be a wacky right-wing conspiracy if George Soros somehow weren’t implicated as well.

Chinese and Asians more generally have faced a terrifying uptick in attacks and discrimination. With the appearance of each new hotspot — IranItaly — targeted xenophobia has been sure to follow. Soon, thanks to Trump, it will be Americans in the crosshairs.

As far as the American far right’s anti-immigrant agenda, the Trump administration is already carrying that water. Trump closed the border with Mexico. He announced that all undocumented trying to get into this country will be summarily turned back.

Even the migrant workers who are seasonally granted H2-A visas to work on American farms are finding it difficult to cross the border. Farm owners pushed back against a ban, forcing the administration to accept workers previously granted such visas. But the absence of new workers will still leave U.S. agriculture dangerously understaffed.

Borderline Issue

For decades, Europe has been at war with itself over borders — both its internal borders and its borders with the rest of the world. The coronavirus has taken that war to a new level.

The overwhelming obsession of the far right in Europe has been to reduce or eliminate immigration from points east and south. Some political parties, like Germany’s Alternative fur Deutschland, even support “remigration”: namely, forcing established immigrants to leave the country.

The coronavirus offers the far right yet another arrow in its quiver. “We are fighting a two-front war. One front is called migration and the other one belongs to the coronavirus,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said. “There is a logical connection between the two as both spread with movement.”

In Italy, far-right leader Matteo Salvini has used the pandemic to push his “closed ports” policy. In February, even as the outbreak was gathering steam in his country, Salvini declared that “allowing the migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed, is irresponsible.” At the time, there was only one reported case on the whole continent, in Egypt.

In Germany, the identitarian movement hung banners proclaiming “Defend Our Borders” on the Brandenburg Gate, once a potent symbol of the erased border between east and west Germany. Throughout Europe, far-right parties were retooling their “great replacement” narrative — that immigrants are poised to overwhelm majority populations — to incorporate the coronavirus. The threat that outsiders supposedly pose to the health of nations has long been a singular obsession of fascists.

It wasn’t just the threat from outside Europe.

In 1995, seven European nations created the Schengen Area, which abolished their internal border controls and visa requirements. Eventually becoming subject to European Union law, the area expanded to include 26 states. Practically from the beginning, the far right has taken aim at Schengen as an unacceptable abridgement of sovereignty. It has argued that Schengen makes control of immigrants more difficult (as with the influx of Tunisians into Italy in 2011) and compromised anti-terrorist policing (in the wake of a terrorism suspect’s flight from Germany to Italy in 2016). Still, Schengen survived.

What the far right wasn’t able to do, the coronavirus managed in a matter of weeks. Some members reestablished internal border controls without notifying the EU Commission, as required by the Schengen Border Code. These moves prompted the EU to declare last week that all internal borders will be closed for 30 days. The next step for the far right, and its more mainstream conservative allies, is to try to make this temporary change permanent.

Separating the Competent…

For some illiberal leaders, the coronavirus is like a golden ticket. It allows them to sweep away what remains of the rule of law in their countries.

Consider Benjamin Netanyahu’s extraordinary moves to hang onto power. Up until recently, things weren’t looking so good for Bibi. He was supposed to go on trial this week for corruption. The last election provided a narrow victory to his opposition, and the head of the Blue and White alliance, Benny Gantz, was given first shot at forming a government.

But the coronavirus, a death sentence for so many people, has been a lifeline for Netanyahu.

As part of a more general lockdown, the prime minister froze the judiciary. And that just happened to put his own trial on hold. Meanwhile, the speaker of the Knesset, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, resigned this week and closed down parliament rather than allow a vote to elect his successor, who would likely have been from the Blue and White alliance.

Because of new rules that limit public gathering, it’s impossible for people to come out on the streets to protest any of this. It goes further, as Gershon Gorenberg explains in The Washington Post. Even as the government was freezing the justice system…

Netanyahu himself announced that the government would use electronic means to track the locations of citizens in an effort to enforce self-isolation. That quickly turned out to mean giving the Shin Bet security service the power to locate people via their cellphones. That measure, an extreme infringement on civil rights, should be vetted by a Knesset committee. Instead, Netanyahu enacted it under emergency regulations.

Think of it as a stealth coup. Plus the transformation of Israel into a police state. Or, put another way, Israelis are now going to understand a little more of what Palestinians have known for a long time.

Viktor Orban has done something similar in Hungary. He has put a new law in front of parliament that would give his government extraordinary power to detain pretty much anyone, as Kim Lane Scheppele points out in Hungarian Spectrum.

Anyone who publicizes false or distorted facts that interfere with the “successful protection” of the public — or that alarm or agitate that public — could be punished by up to five years in prison. And anyone who interferes with the operation of a quarantine or isolation order could also face a prison sentence of up to five years, a punishment that increases to eight years if anyone dies as a result.

The first set of controls is aimed at what remains of an independent press in Hungary. The second could incarcerate anyone who objects to anything the Orban government does.

As if that’s not enough, the prime minister could, according to the proposal, “suspend the enforcement of certain laws, depart from statutory regulations, and implement additional extraordinary measures by degree.” These would be permanent changes in Hungarian law.

Many sectors of Hungarian civil society have vehemently opposed this proposed “enabling act.” And parliament failed to pass the bill on the first attempt this week. But it’s likely that Orban will try again next week, relying on his party’s comfortable majority in parliament to get it through.

…From the Incompetent

Donald Trump’s dangerously ill-informed response to the coronavirus — including such basic failures as providing test kits and other basic resources to hospitals — has incredibly not spelled his political demise.

According to a recent Monmouth poll, 50 percent of Americans think he’s done a good job versus only 45 percent who give him poor marks. His approval rating has even increased a couple points. That might change as the casualties rise, particularly if the president attempts to end the policies of social isolation early, as he has threatened to do. Or it might not, if the virus disproportionately affects blue urban areas.

For all his incompetence, Trump hasn’t been so stupid as to miss the political opportunity to push through parts of his cherished economic agenda, like further tax cuts. The Justice Department, meanwhile, is asking Congress for new emergency powers to detain people indefinitely without trial. The Trump administration is clearly looking to Israel and Hungary as examples.

Other incompetent leaders, however, may not survive politically.

Jair Bolsonaro has largely followed the same script as Trump by downplaying the risk of the pandemic. On March 15, despite having been in close contact with several members of his administration who’d already contracted the disease, Bolsanaro joined a demonstration of his supporters where he touched a reported 272 people. The president has claimed that his tests have come back negative. He also continues to argue that the crisis is little more than a media conspiracy.

Millions of people appeared last week at their windows in the big cities to bang pots and pans in a demand for Bolsonaro to step down. Even some of his conservative backers are outraged and have turned against him. After declaring in a December column in the conservative Estado de São Paulo that Bolsonaro is “unbeatable” in the next election, political commentator Eliane Cantanhêde argued more recently, “I think he’s fatally wounded for the election [in 2022] … If the election was held today there is a big chance Bolsonaro would be defeated.”

COVID-19 affects people differently depending on their underlying conditions. The same holds true for politicians. The most fit will survive while the politically weak will be weeded out.

Time for Transformation

Nuclear apocalypse is hypothetical. The worst effects of climate change are in the future. Neither nuclear disarmament nor radical cuts in carbon emissions have been on table because of the unfortunate tendency of politicians to minimize the risks and ignore the already considerable short-term impacts.

The coronavirus crisis is not abstract. It’s happening right now. Country after country has imposed quarantines, dramatically changing how people live, work, and interact. Governments are considering massive bailouts to save the economy and bolster medical systems. But those are just quick fixes.

“We changed the way we live, work and travel to counter this pandemic, why can we not do the same to counter the climate emergency?” asks Lorenzo Marsili in Al Jazeera. “Why should we go back to a deadly status quo now that we know it is within our power to transform the way we live and organise our economy and society?”

When the quarantines end, as they inevitably will, the world will experience the same kind of rebound in carbon emissions that happened after the end of the 2009 financial crisis. So, the economic response to this pandemic must incorporate features of the Green New Deal or we will be jumping out of a frying pan and into a literal fire.

COVID-19 is a near-death experience for the human race. Just as individuals often react to such experiences by transforming their lives, the current crisis should force a reevaluation of the status quo.

Anything less will be just a temporary stay of execution.

Foreign Policy in Focis, March 25, 2020

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Articles Asia Featured

Coronavirus: Cooperation vs. Quarantine

Pathogens don’t know anything about borders. They don’t care about history or ethnicity. They are interested in just one thing: reproduction.  They are constantly in search of places where they can be fruitful and multiply.

Trade and war have been the great facilitators of the plagues that have periodically decimated the human race. Soldiers and merchants, by traveling from place to place, helped spread the Black Death in the fourteenth century and the Spanish flu in the twentieth century, both of which killed about 50 million people.

The latest pandemic, the coronavirus, is no different. People traveling on business in and out of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and the epicenter of the outbreak in China, gave the pathogen new hosts to infect. The commerce of tourism also helped out, as the coronavirus has taken advantage of close quarters on cruise ships and airplanes to jump from body to body.

More than 100,000 people around the world so far have been infected. That includes tens of thousands of people in China, thousands of people in South Korea, and hundreds of people in Japan.

One immediate response to the latest epidemic has been to shut down sites of infection. To start off, the Chinese government locked down Hubei, a province of nearly 60 million people. Traffic in and out of the province has effectively ended, and residents are still confined to their homes. The rate of infection in Hubei and throughout China has dropped considerably as a result.

The Italian government has followed suit. It began by imposing a travel ban on its northern provinces.

Some medical professionals have praised this quarantine approach, arguing that the Chinese government slowed the spread of the disease and gave other countries more time to prepare for the inevitable. But epidemiologists are also skeptical whether such an approach is ultimately effective since another outbreak could take place once travel resumes and infected people reintroduce the virus to areas that had (temporarily) eradicated the disease.

Also, it’s not easy for quarantines to work in democratic countries. The quarantine in Italy is not as tight as the one in Hubei. People fled Milan and other places in the northern regions as soon as the new measures were announced, and many residents were still going out into public even as the government pleaded with them to stay home. The Italian government has subsequently imposed the ban on the entire country, severely restricting movement around the country and closing schools as well.

In this age of rekindled nationalism, leaders have called for tougher border controls – this time not just against immigrants but against anyone traveling from countries with high infection rates, like Italy and Iran. The Trump administration, for instance, implemented a 30-day travel ban on anyone coming from continental Europe, creating chaos for Americans caught there for business or on vacation.

Japan, meanwhile, has pledged to put anyone coming from South Korea or China into a two-week quarantine. It’s one of dozens of countries that have imposed such restrictions. Mongolia and Turkey, for instance, won’t even allow in people who have recently been in or transited through South Korea. But the South Korean government has singled out the Abe government for criticism and also eliminated visa waivers for Japanese visitors.

Shutting down cities and closing borders seem to be plausible responses to a crisis that is amplified by travelers and border crossers. But ultimately such measures provide a false sense of security, particularly when it comes to a pathogen like the coronavirus.

First of all, it looks as though the coronavirus is turning out to be only a little more lethal than a bad influenza virus. The large majority of those infected experience only mild symptoms. And some victims of the disease pass on the infection when they’re still asymptomatic. That means that the coronavirus spreads far more easily than more lethal diseases like Ebola, where there’s no evidence that the asymptomatic infect other people.

With diseases like the coronavirus, unless it is contained immediately at its source, the best that can be hoped for is mitigation. That means ensuring that at-risk populations – the elderly, those with underlying conditions – avoid contact with the general population. It means more aggressive screening, as South Korea has instituted, and aggressive isolation of those infected. It means targeting resources at those hospitalized with more severe symptoms.

It also means that increasing cross-border cooperation, rather than shutting it down, is the key to addressing the problem. In the absence of a robust, global response to pandemics – and such a response is unlikely given opposition from leaders like Trump – countries must push for regional coordination.

The coronavirus is a test run for this kind of cooperation. The next pandemic might be more lethal, might spread more quickly, and might be able to mutate into something even deadlier.

Japan, South Korea, China, and North Korea have myriad disagreements about borders, history, trade, and security. The coronavirus couldn’t care less. It has created its own regional alliance that speaks only one language: the language of infection.

The countries of Northeast Asia should take this opportunity to create a regional scientific consortium, a regional transportation authority, a regional medical response team, and a regional fund to help less affluent areas deal with disease.

Such cooperation, ideally, would extend to other pressing matters: climate change, sustainable energy, and arms control. But let’s start with something basic, like pooling knowledge about the coronavirus, its effects, and its weaknesses.

Regional cooperation requires a common enemy. Such an enemy mobilized its troops in Wuhan and has now invaded every country in the region. It’s time for South Korea, Japan, North Korea, and China to put aside their historical and territorial differences and fight this enemy together.

Hankyoreh, March 15, 2020

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Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Will the Coronavirus Kill Globalization?

At a dinner party in mid-February, an architect told me that he was having a problem finishing his building projects. It was the carpets.

Most wall-to-wall carpeting for big construction projects in the United States, he explained, comes from China. The coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan — and the subsequent shutdown of many Chinese factories — was having a ripple effect across the global economy all the way down to the carpeting in U.S. buildings.

The global spread of a new pathogen has exposed the fragility of modern life. As it moves around the world, the coronavirus has compromised the circulatory system of globalization, dramatically reducing the international flow of money, goods, and people. The disease has done so rather economically, by infecting fewer than 100,000 people so far. Extrapolation and fear have done most of the work for it.

In the world of things, the coronavirus has infected the global supply chains that connect manufacturers and consumers. Port traffic in Los Angeles, the largest U.S. port, declined by 25 percent in February. Container traffic in general was down over 10 percent last month.

Manufacturers that depend on the sourcing of components in far-off countries had already been rethinking their participation in the global assembly line because of tariffs, the costs of transport, and increased automation. This “reshoring” will get a boost from the disruptions of the coronavirus.

People, too, are not moving around as much. Airline service in and out of emerging hot spots — South Korea, Italy — has been cancelled. Airline ticket sales last week were down 10 percent over the same period last year. The cruise industry, after outbreaks on a couple big ships, has taken a major hit.

After blithely ignoring the coronavirus outbreak in China for most of February, markets took a major dive in the final week of the month. The stock market lost $6 trillion in value last week, its worst showing since the financial crisis of a decade ago. This is testament to both the persistence of the disease and the incompetence of certain national leaders, notably Donald Trump. Despite the intervention of the Federal Reserve and other central banks, market volatility continues.

It might seem ridiculous to expect that a pathogen, even one that spreads at the rate of a pandemic, could reverse an economic trajectory that’s more than a century in the making. But the coronavirus outbreak coincides with attacks on economic globalization from many different quarters.

Environmentalists, for instance, have long been skeptical of unrestrained global economic growth. The threat of climate change has sharpened that critique and placed it squarely in the middle of mainstream debate.

Meanwhile, worsening economic inequality has called into question the capacity of economic globalization to lift all boats in a rising tide. Even the IMF has acknowledged the pernicious impact of this inequality (but without engaging in the necessary institutional overhaul to address the problem).

Finally, a slowing of global economic integration over the last decade suggests that the world may already have passed peak globalization.

On top of these systemic challenges, a rising political populism has targeted the global economic elite as the enemy of “the people.” Donald Trump challenged this elite and their orthodoxy of free trade by imposing tariffs on allies and adversaries alike and by withdrawing U.S. participation in big trade pacts, like the Trans Pacific Partnership.

The trade war he began with China has had perhaps the greatest impact. It has hit both economies hard, with job loss, higher bills for consumers, and lost markets for manufacturers and farmers. The recent agreement between Beijing and Washington notwithstanding, most of the tariffs remain in place.

Meanwhile, the UK finally pulled out of the European Union this year, which was a victory for economic nationalists. Populists elsewhere have railed against what Steve Bannon calls the “Davos class.” Neoliberal orthodoxy has given way to pronouncements of America First, Brazil First, and the like.

Such a setback is not necessarily fatal. Globalization has been challenged before by financial crises, pandemics like the Hong Kong Flu, even the specter of Y2K.

This time around, however, the failure of the global community to establish new rules of the road for the economy, the environment, and health care is creating a perfect storm of international disfunction. If something with a relatively low mortality rate like the coronavirus — between one percent and four percent, compared to 50 percent for Ebola — can do such a number on the global economy, perhaps the patient was already suffering from some pretty dire underlying conditions.

Pandemic

When people travel, they bring all sorts of luggage, including pathogens.

Thus was the great era of exploration also the dismal era of genocide. Explorers to the New World brought a panoply of diseases like smallpox and measles that were new to the indigenous communities. The colonial invaders subjected the Americas to war and slavery. But it was those diseases that were largely responsible for a catastrophic reduction in populations up and down the Americas. As many as 56 million people, or 10 percent of the world population at the time, died by the beginning of the 1600s. The mortality rate for the indigenous communities was an astonishing 90 percent.

In exchange, the explorers returned to their native countries with syphilis, a horrible disease to be sure, but it didn’t radically depopulate Europe.

Pandemics are closely associated with the movement of traders and soldiers. Roman soldiers returning from Mesopotamia were responsible for the plague that ravaged the empire in the second century AD, one of several pandemics that helped end Rome’s global dominance. The bubonic plague of the fourteenth century began in China and reached Europe via merchant ships carrying flea-infested rats. In the modern era, soldiers returning home from fighting in World War I spread the Spanish flu, killing up to 50 million people.

This last pandemic was one of the factors behind the collapse of the first wave of modern globalization. Prior to the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the world had never been more tightly connected with steamships, trains, and the telegraph serving as the connective tissue. Trade as a proportion of GDP stood at 14 percent on the eve of the war.

The devastation of World War I followed by the flu epidemic dealt a heavy blow to world trade and economic integration. The global economic depression of the 1920s, the rise of various types of nationalism, and a second world war ensured that, by 1945, trade as a proportion of GDP had dropped to a mere 5 percent.

Modern globalization is made possible by modern medicine. A couple of pandemics have broken out since 1945, but they haven’t disrupted the global circulatory system. In the ancient Akkadian language, the word for epidemic disease meant “certain death.” Only recently have medical professionals been able to handle outbreaks of disease on such a scale.

Thanks to a second wave of globalization, trade would rise again to the levels it registered in 1914 — but only by the late 1980s. With the collapse of the Soviet bloc, a third wave of globalization removed more barriers to the movement of goods and money. Even China, a nominally Communist country, joined the World Trade Organization at the end of 2001. It has since offered its own version of globalization through the Belt and Road initiative that places China at the center of a burgeoning network of trade and finance.

The coronavirus, by itself, will not put an end to this most recent wave of globalization. Like the flu pandemic of 1918, it could contribute to a trend of greater fragmentation. Or, by serving as a reminder of how the health of humanity has been mutually dependent across borders for millennia, the latest outbreak could prompt a rethinking of how the world works together.

Things Fall Apart?

China will prove pivotal in determining which direction the world heads.

At the moment, economic pundits in the West are exhibiting a degree of schadenfreude at Beijing’s difficulties. Kenneth Rapoza, for instance, argues in Forbes that “The new coronavirus Covid-19 will end up being the final curtain on China’s nearly 30 year role as the world’s leading manufacturer.” The global assembly line was already shifting away from Chinese sources as a result of Trump’s tariffs, so the pandemic only reinforces this trend.

China could still come out a winner in all of this. No longer dependent on low-end manufacturing, it could invest its surplus capital into an even greater push toward higher value-added production, particularly in the digital sphere. This shift could facilitate a major reduction in the country’s carbon footprint as well.

Much depends on the U.S.-China relationship. Long before the coronavirus crisis, the U.S. policy elite had already moved away from supporting engagement with China. China was already prepared for disengagement. It had laid the groundwork for an alternative globalization, denominated in the renminbi and financed by the country’s considerable trade surpluses. Many countries in China’s vicinity opted to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative and receive financing from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

At the very moment that China and the United States need to forge a new consensus on economy and environment, the two countries are heading in different directions. And that will make it very difficult for the international community, such that it is, to come up with global solutions to what are increasingly global problems such as climate change and pandemics.

Because of the coronavirus, China has rediscovered how dependent it is on the rest of the world — to buy Chinese products, to supply Chinese consumers, to provide raw materials for Chinese business, to service Chinese tourists.

China’s projected growth rate for 2020 has been revised down from 6 percent to 5 percent, but it might drop even further. Sociologist Walden Bello has long argued that the Chinese economy is in fact quite fragile — with overcapacity in the manufacturing sector, a real-estate bubble, high rates of debt, and growing inequality.

With the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing was hoping it could grow its way out of these problems. That strategy depends on a number of unknown variables, which in the short term include the persistence of the pandemic and the results of the upcoming presidential election in the United States.

The coronavirus is a wake-up call for both Beijing and Washington. The new status quo of a revived Cold War between the two hegemons is unworkable. It’s time for another wave of globalization, but this time one that reduces carbon emissions, proceeds more equitably, and strengthens the capacity of international institutions to fight pandemics.

It won’t happen without U.S.-China cooperation. And that won’t happen without a different U.S. president and a different approach in Beijing.

Foreign Policy In Focus, March 4, 2020

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The Games of Our Lives

You are a customs official. It’s the early 1980s. You are living in a grim East European country.

Your job is to check the documents of visitors, immigrants, and returning citizens. You need the job because times are tight, and several of your family members are sick. Every day the rules change regarding the paperwork that the border-crossers need to show. You have to scrutinize the documents carefully and interrogate the person in front of your desk if any discrepancies turn up.

Occasionally bombs go off nearby as terrorists blow themselves up in protest against your government. At the end of the day, you go home to spend your pitiful salary on the food and medicines to keep your family alive. And the next day, you’re back at your desk, stamping documents.

This is a game. And it’s fun, in a weird kind of way.

If you think that computer games these days are all about shooting terrorists, throwing birds at pigs, or racking up points with “zoology” on a triple word score, you need to check out Papers, Please.

Developer Lucas Pope bills the game as a “dystopian document thriller.” I played the game for about an hour and found it surprisingly absorbing. It didn’t take long before I was eagerly trying to excel at my job, rooting out people with false documents and agonizing over whether to let in a desperate asylum-seeker even at the risk of losing my position.

Soon I was fully in the mindset of someone “just following orders,” and I was horrified at how easily I could step into the shoes of a faceless civil servant trying to survive in a blandly evil system.

A Generation of Gamers

Welcome to the latest generation of computer games. They don’t so much help you escape reality as insert you back into it at a different angle.

In Pandemic, you are a bacterium, a virus, or a parasite trying to take over the world: kill everyone and you win. In Unmanned, you experience a day in the life of a drone pilot, from shaving and driving to work to targeting persons of interest. In World Without Oil, you experience the first 32 weeks of a global oil crisis.

The game designer Jane McGonigal made a splash on TED when she proclaimed that, in order to save the world, people should be spending more time playing games. In 2010, she said the world spends 3 billion hours a week interacting with various virtual worlds. But to solve the myriad problems facing the real world, she argued, we need to spend 18 billion more hours per week staring at our computer screens.

In the gaming environment, after all, millions of people are focused intently on solving challenging problems and often cooperating in order to do so. Precisely this kind of focused cooperation is needed to solve climate change, the energy crisis, and all the other disasters on our doorstep.

But here’s the problem: can resolving problems in a virtual world ever be as emotionally satisfying as killing bad guys and wiping out civilizations? In a devastating spoof by John Oliver, The World of PeaceCraft shows just how boring peace simulations can be. Yes, you too can go online and experience hours and hours of tedious haggling over clauses in documents that may never get signed anyway. The highest drama comes when, out of frustration, you bang your head repeatedly against the negotiating table.

So, which is it: a world saved by gamers or a world lulled to sleep by too many hours spent glued to a computer screen?

The answer might depend on your age. My parents, and even my older brothers, would never willingly play computer games. But I was part of the first generation to grow up with these virtual worlds. I first played Pong in elementary school on my best friend’s TV, experiencedSpace Invaders as a middle schooler at the neighborhood pool hall, and tried out one of the first text-based role-playing games on my college computer system.

Although my computer gaming these days consists largely of chess and Scrabble, I am fully comfortable in the virtual world. Everyone younger than me who has had access to computers since they were kids has an even greater comfort level.

Another generational change is that we have become entirely accustomed to working with far-flung and often anonymous collaborators. Crowd-sourcing is not just Wikipedia these days. For instance, you can join tens of thousands of fellow explorers to find the burial place of Genghis Khan via National Geographic’s online “noninvasive survey.” Or you can donate some of your computer’s computing power to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Surely this swarm power can be used to resolve global problems.

Inspired by my hour as a border official checking documents, I’m going to offer a few different ideas of what could make both interesting and useful foreign policy games. I’m going to assume, based on my experience of watching what people do on their commute to work, that playing games will increasingly take up our waking hours with or without the encouragement of Jane McGonigal. And I’m also going to assume, based on my experience playing Papers, Please, that even the most unpromising subject for a game can be made compelling, World of PeaceCraft notwithstanding.

Shock and Awe

The first group of games I’ll categorize as Shock and Awe. These are applications designed to jolt us out of our complacency by making abstract or distant problems more immediate.

Take the example of climate change. There are dozens of climate change simulations, including one that allows you to replay the world climate negotiations to achieve a better result, and another that prompts you to make changes in your own lifestyle to reduce your carbon footprint.

But what about a “game” that shows you exactly what your hometown — and even your home — will look like 50 years from now if climate change continues unabated? You can find out what the average temperature will be and whether the seawater will be up to your second-floor window. The game would draw on Google Maps to give you a realistic picture of the world outside your window — what your street or even your very house would look like underwater or surrounded by desert. It would be a version of Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, which imagined an Earth without any earthlings. But this game would be The World Is Very Much With Us — Along with All Our Carbon Emissions.

Other Shock and Awe games would include Inequality (a graphic depiction of how more violence and more gated communities would transform your locality), Fundamentalism (what would happen to your community if the most prominent fundamentalist group in your vicinity took political power), and Drone World (what the sky above your house would look like if every governmental and corporate entity began to use drones for surveillance, deliveries, and other “services”).

Cooperate and Combat

The second group of games would use crowd-sourcing to come up with solutions to pressing problems. These “cooperate and combat” games would bear some resemblance to the gaming scenarios the Pentagon runs. But instead of contingency planning for the Army and Special Forces, these games would would promote civic responses to worst-case scenarios and provide potentially useful data for policy professionals.

It’s fun to be a virus spreading around the world. But what about a pandemic game that brings together players around the world to deal with an outbreak of avian flu in real time? Players must make decisions about airport closures, hospital staffing, and new regulatory protocols. Those with specific expertise — on medicine, epidemiology, public policy — would weigh in with their suggestions. Players would have to assess the various trade-offs at the local, national, and global levels. The pandemic would spread according to a set algorithm, resources would be limited and unevenly distributed, and communities would be continuously rated on the effectiveness of their response.

Such “cooperate and combat” games might also include Natural Disaster (The world must address a series of interconnected extreme weather events), Crop Failure (A virus wipes out the world’s wheat production), and Global Financial Crisis (The spread of complex financial instruments creates an unsustainable bubble and…Oh, I guess this already happened. But maybe we can game out better responses than TARP and German austerity).

React and Resist

It’s one thing to address problems on the horizon. But what about taking a more proactive and transformative approach to the world’s problems? Shock and Awe games raise awareness. Cooperate and Combat games deal with impending emergencies. But React and Resist games bring together disparate actors to imagine other possible worlds.

For instance, imagine a game in which you have to cut 20 percent of the next military budget. You have in front of you all the line items. And when you propose a cut, you see exactly what will happen in terms of job reductions, base closures, and lobbyist pushback. Can you and your other online participants devise an optimal compromise that achieves the goal while meeting other criteria such as equity in cuts across armed services and voting districts, elimination of waste by a certain percentage, and reduction of bureaucracy? More importantly, how do you use the tactics from the Street Heat pull-down menu to create political support for these cuts?

Here are some other React and Resist games: Shut Down the Trade (where participants create a monitoring and enforcement regime that disrupts and reduces sex trafficking), Buy Local (in which players create a local currency system that actually works), and The New Bretton Woods (where gamers rebuild the international financial architecture from the ground up). These “games” would bring together experts and amateurs from around the world to create virtual models that could then be implemented if there is sufficient political will.

In his famous short story “On Exactitude in Science,” Jorge Luis Borges describes a map that becomes ever more detailed until finally it is the same size as the country it was designed to represent. By making games that are ever more complex and representative of our modern reality, are we effectively reproducing, in all its particulars, a precise simulacrum of the tedium of everyday life? Why would anyone who is not paid to do so spend hours and hours poring over the details of a defense budget or a spreading pandemic?

But perhaps by taking these tasks out of the realm of bureaucracy and subjecting them to the wisdom of the crowd, we can not only come up with better solutions but, dare I say it, have fun doing so. In dreams begin responsibilities. In games begins the recreation of our futures.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, December 17, 2014

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Articles Featured Korea

The Next Pandemic

In the South Korean movie The Host, the American military pours formaldehyde into the Han River and inadvertently creates a monster. This freak of nature not only goes on a murderous rampage but also is the host of a deadly virus. The movie, inspired by a real-life incident of contamination, is a cautionary tale of the consequences of tampering with the environment.

At first glance, the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa would seem to have nothing to do with such ecological issues. The plague, which has claimed the lives of more than 1,400 people in the countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, most likely came from an infected fruit bat that bit a toddler in a remote area of eastern Guinea in December 2013. The disease spread quickly from there to urban locations and then across borders. Beginning this summer, it has dominated the headlines. In August, it very nearly overshadowed the summit of African leaders that took place in Washington, DC.

Ebola is a form of hemorrhagic fever. It has a very high mortality rate. There are no known vaccines, though several experimental drugs are currently being tested. Several outbreaks of Ebola have taken place in the past, but mostly in remote areas. Since it first appeared in the Congo region in 1976, Ebola has claimed around 3,000 lives.

For all the media attention surrounding the current outbreak, Ebola is not the most pressing medical issue facing Africa today. Every day, 2,000 African children die from diarrhea. Every minute, an African child dies of malaria. In 2011 alone, 1.2 million Africans died of HIV/AIDS. The Ebola epidemic would have to increase several hundred-fold to match these numbers.

What makes these diseases so tragic in their effects is that effective treatments exist that could bring the mortality rate down to near zero. In the case of diarrhea, that means clean water and sanitation; for malaria, that means mosquito nets and prescription drugs; for HIV/AIDS that means antiretroviral treatments. So far, the money has not been available in sufficient quantities to address these problems.

Diarrhea, malaria, and HIV/AIDS no longer threaten lives at an epidemic level in industrialized countries. Ebola threatens to be something quite different, since it has resisted treatment. The media has covered the Ebola outbreak so extensively in part because of fears that the disease could spread beyond Africa. Books like The Hot Zone and movies like Contagion have primed people to expect the next major pandemic to emerge any day. But because of the way it spreads – through direct contact with infected bodily fluids – Ebola is not likely to become the next pandemic.

Another reason the media loves to write about Ebola is because it fits comfortably into a neo-colonial view of Africa as a place of barbaric customs such as eating “bush meat.” The consumption of infected chimpanzee or bat meat has been linked in the past to Ebola outbreaks. In this case, however, the outbreak had nothing to do with eating anything. And plenty of people in America eat “bush meat,” which we simply call “game” — venison, boar, and squirrels – and few people consider that to be barbaric.

Of course, Ebola is worrisome because of the speed with which it has spread. One of the reasons that Ebola has spread so quickly is that medical personnel in Africa are already stretched thin dealing with these other diseases.

But the other reason for Ebola’s spread is environmental. The current outbreak of Ebola differs from all previous ones because it spread from a remote area to urban centers. And that happened in part because of deforestation.

The area where this strain of Ebola first appeared – the Western Guinean Lowland Forests – have been cut down by loggers or to make way for farmers. West Africa as a whole has been losing more forests annually – nearly a million hectares – than any other place in the world. Humans are venturing into places that were hitherto largely untouched.

In other words, residents in the region are now more likely than ever to have contact with carriers of Ebola. And they will also have more contact with one another, creating more opportunities for the spread of the disease.

The environmental destruction of Africa’s forests may well produce more outbreaks of the disease. And it might spread to areas with inadequate medical infrastructure. But if we’re going to worry about the next global epidemic, it will more likely come from the flu or SARS, not Ebola.

Still, we should be concerned about how our changing environment affects the spread of disease. Rising temperatures connected to human activity – global warming – has been linked to the spread of malaria and the greater incidence of flu epidemics. We simply don’t know what alteration of the environment will trigger a calamitous pandemic.

At the end of The Host, the monster dies. And eventually the current Ebola outbreak will burn out. But if we continue to treat our environment as a place to dump our garbage, the garbage will eventually come back and haunt us. It won’t take the form of a science fiction monster. But Ebola, malaria, and SARS can be just as lethal as anything the movies have dreamed up for us.

Hankyoreh, August 31, 2014