Category Archives: Worldwide pandemic

Benicia Author Stephen Golub: Our “Lucky Town”: Unvaccinated Americans Procrastinate and Protest, Unvaccinated Foreigners Perish

Today’s dominant delta variant is the 2020 version “on steroids.”

By Stephen Golub, A Promised Land, July 24, 2021

My Last Lecture

I taught courses on law and international development at Berkeley Law School and elsewhere for quite a while. On the last day of class each year, I’d end with what I considered my “lucky” lecture to the students. It went something like this:

Among other things, I hope that this semester you’ve learned something more than what you knew before about how unfortunate many people in the world are, about the inequities or deprivation they face. I hope you also appreciate how lucky you are, and that, going forward, you find ways of giving back.

No doubt, many or most of you have had major disappointments or pain in your lives. And if you haven’t, you certainly will sooner or later.

But still, the very fact that you’re smart enough and lucky enough to make it to Berkeley Law means that you won the lottery. Whether out of some sense of justice, or faith, or thankfulness, or whatever, please consider ways of aiding the less fortunate as you pursue your careers and lives.

OK, it’s not the Gettysburg Address. But I hoped it resonated for at least some of the students, particularly since they’d shown an interest in the wider world by taking the course to begin with.


Lucky Us

Those providential sentiments are on my mind as I consider people blind to their blind luck. Specifically, so many Americans still refuse their nearly miraculous anti-Covid shots while so many people abroad perish for lack of them: perhaps four million in India alone, according to a recent study. It’s a kind of American exceptionalism, you could say.

As Bruce Springsteen wrote in a song that celebrated his community (that is, America), lamented what it had become and hoped for better days,  “Son, we’re lucky in this town, it’s a beautiful place to be born.”

We know that America the Beautiful is a myth for many Americans, given the racial, economic, gender and other injustices plaguing our society.

But we’re still lucky, compared to the billions around the world who scrape by on a dollar or two per day, or don’t know where their next meal is coming from, or are brutalized by war, or lack even minimal control over their own lives…

Or don’t have any access to vaccines while so many Americans turn up their lucky, privileged noses at inoculation.

Some caveats: In some cases, the distrust of vaccines springs not just from Fox News propaganda or general anti-vaxxer wackiness, but from the medical profession’s historical mistreatment of Black Americans. For some folks, the hesitation isn’t political or historical; it instead reflects simple ignorance of the relative risks of the shots versus the contagion. Finally, it’s not just Americans displaying this attitude; many Europeans are as well.

Risks from the Shot Avoiders

Regardless, the impact of procrastination or even protests over vaccination remains. As does indifference to others’ wellbeing, including by otherwise caring persons. Because of course that avoidance or resistance doesn’t only put the unvaccinated in harm’s way:

  • As a former senior health adviser to President Biden put it, the delta variant is “the 2020 version of COVID-19 on steroids.”  With this much more contagious and possibly more virulent variant now dominant, the danger increases for the immunocompromised and for unvaccinated kids.
  • Large swaths of unvaccinated populations enhance the chances of vaccine-resistant variants emerging.
  • Even the vaccinated may face increased chances of falling ill. Fortunately, the risks remain extremely low for contracting severe cases of Covid if inoculated. But recent findings from Israel (so recent that their apparent conflict with previous research has not been resolved) suggest that Pfizer’s vaccine is not nearly as effective at preventing mild cases. And as one major medical center puts it, “Even a mild case of COVID-19 can come with some pretty miserable symptoms, including debilitating headaches, extreme fatigue and body aches that make it feel impossible to get comfortable.”
  • Vaccinated persons may contract Covid from the unvaccinated, remain asymptomatic and unknowingly spread it to immunocompromised persons or to kids.
  • There’s the looming question of whether even a vaccinated individual’s mild case can lead to “long Covid”: symptoms lasting for six months or longer.
  • Finally, our knowledge of Covid and vaccination remains in flux at this early stage (yes, in some ways it’s still early) of the pandemic. Certain risks I’ve listed here could prove minimal. Or they could prove more dangerous as we learn more – as that Israeli research may indicate – or as new variants emerge. There’s so much we just don’t know.

So what could all this add up to?

Three things:

Joy (or At Least Less Misery) to the World

We need massive and urgent action for the unwillingly unvaccinated across the globe. This can’t be said too often (which is why I’ve often said it): As both a humanitarian matter and a matter of self-interest, the United States should spearhead a campaign to vaccinate everyone in every country ASAP. True, there are some such efforts underway, most notably COVAX. But they are far from sufficient as to scope and speed.

It’s also true that the logistics of such an effort are daunting. But in its absence, many more millions may die.

For those Americans who can only see this in terms of, pardon the expression, America First, the proposed U.S.-instigated campaign would be in our own interest in at least a few ways. It would:

  • help limit mutations that yield vaccine-resistant virulent variants,
  • portray the United States as a beacon of help and hope in countless countries, and
  • mitigate potentially significant economic harm here and abroad.

A Shot in the Arm for the Unvaccinated

We can hope that most unvaccinated Americans will come to appreciate how lucky they are, how little it requires to accept a protective shot or two and how much it can mean to others for them to do so.

Even as I write this, though, I think to myself, “Good luck with that.” It’s time for increased policy responses – by  government, businesses and other institutions – that create more pressure to come around. Thankfully, such moves may be underway, though they clearly could take hold in some states than in others.

Questions for the Rest of Us

How do we deal with the unvaccinated? Simply accept that they see the world differently, as Democrats and Republicans sometimes do (though such acceptance has tailed off in recent years, given what’s become of the Republican Party)? Avoid the touchy issue entirely, just as some refrain from discussing politics with relatives who support Biden’s predecessor?

The matter becomes more problematic as it becomes more personal and immediate. It’s easier if we don’t know who’s gotten inoculated and who hasn’t, which is the case for most settings. Ignorance is a sort of bliss.

But what if we know folks who refuse vaccination?

To pick just one type of scenario: Should we invite unvaccinated relatives to weddings, parties or other events, even if outside, where people might be drinking, laughing, shouting and doing other things that could help spread the far more contagious delta variant? Make the invitation contingent on their getting the shots or providing proof of a negative Covid test?

Conversely, if invited, do we refuse to attend such an event if they’re there? Attend, but decline to sit near them or interact with them in such settings? Just accept the (slightly?) greater risks and the potential ripple effects of increased transmission? ­­

As one Florida vaccine hesitancy outreach coordinator (what a title!) recently put it, in advising on attending a large outdoor gathering where you don’t know if everyone is vaccinated (and presumably if you know some aren’t), it’s a good idea to don masks or remain socially distant: “[T]he delta variant has shown that it’s rampant and unforgiving in its ability to spread…When you talk about outdoor weddings and parks, I think physical distancing is still a good thing because an infected person may be asymptomatic.”

Fine. So how do you remain physically distant at a wedding party?

The fact that a large event is outdoors does not assure protection in these uncertain times. The experience of a recent Dutch music festival might shed some light. As an experiment, the organizers required that the 20,000 attendees prove beforehand that they were vaccinated, Covid-negative or recently recovered from Covid. Yet more than 1,000 tested positive afterwards.

Many more questions than answers here. Welcome to the far-from-Brave New World that the delta variant and the unvaccinated have helped create.

Stephen Golub, Benicia – A Promised Land: Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.

Benicia resident Stephen Golub offers excellent perspective on his blog, A Promised Land:  Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.

To access his other posts or subscribe, please go to his blog site, A Promised Land.

Benicia Author Stephen Golub – A Tale of Two Covids…

The pandemic news is both wonderful and horrible.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

By Stephen Golub, A Promised Land, June 21, 2021

The Moonshot and the Bubble

Late last year, in discussing with me the rapid, successful development of anti-Covid vaccines, my cousin the doctor (and medical school professor, and very bright guy) – described the feat as a “moonshot.” I’d imagine others have also applied the term to that effort. But I’ll gladly give credit where credit is due for the first time I heard it used that way.

Indeed, the massively life-saving achievement merits the moniker. Just recall how grim the prospects seemed barely a year ago. A skeptical April 30, 2020 New York Times analysis dismissed the most optimistic predictions, of at least 12 to 18 months, as masking “a grim truth behind this rosy forecast…” It noted the inevitable steps and frequent missteps that make vaccine development typically a matter of many years rather than months – if it pans out at all.

In fact, Pfizer’s and Moderna’s trailblazing mRNA vaccines built on years of prior research, much of it government-funded. But churning out these medicines so quickly remains the equivalent of humanity landing on the moon. That so many of us are socializing, hugging and breathing so much easier right now seems miraculous.

We’re in a kind of bubble, though certainly one we should relish after a long, hard slog and not one that I’m predicting will burst. We’re not quite back to normal. But I’ll take quasi-normal over the thoroughly bizarre world that was 2020.

On June 15, California “reopened,” which means many though not all Covid restrictions have been relaxed. Here in the small, waterside city of Benicia, where I live, a new brewpub now welcomes patrons; it replaces a venerable café that closed during Covid. Tourists are tentatively returning to check out the local arts and gallery scenes. The other day, my wife and I gathered with some neighbors for bocce-and-wine for the first time in an awfully long time.

The city’s annual July 4 parade and fireworks remain canceled. But Benicia’s first Juneteenth celebration was a blast. The weekly Farmers’ Market has resumed, albeit with masks still required for the time being, as is (wisely) the case for going inside many businesses. Some folks still stroll down the main street masked – whether because they’re immunocompromised or out of simple, understandable caution.

At the same time, Benicia is part of Solano County, which has witnessed a slight rise in cases in recent days. As the indefatigable, heroic “Benicia Independent” blogger reminds us, after daily chronicling the pandemic’s course in the city and county for over a year, “COVID is still out there – TAKE CARE!”

In sum, it’s still weird and worrisome. But also oh so wonderful.

Meanwhile, Back on Planet Earth

Our bubble nonetheless floats amidst a world awash with Covid. While official tallies of daily death rates and total fatalities in India are “only” 1,200 and 390,000 respectively, these figures are probably vast undercounts. An accurate conservative estimate would double those Indian numbers; the actual fatality total there could even be over four million and climbing. Meanwhile, Brazil’s official death count has now topped 500,000, second only to 600,000 in the United States. (We’re Number One.) But, as in India and other nations, both of those figures likely underestimate the true tolls. We actually could be pushing one million deaths in America alone.

The picture in many other parts of the globe is also daunting. With less than one percent of its population vaccinated, Africa is experiencing a surge of cases; 22 countries reported increases of 20 percent last week. Peru may have the worst per capita mortality rate in the world, while parts of East and Southeast Asia that dodged the Covid bullet earlier on are reeling now. Though they remain in better shape than many other countries, there have been troubling outbreaks in Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and especially Malaysia.

Meanwhile, the prevalence of the Delta variant, originally identified in India and more transmissible and dangerous than the original virus strain, grows both abroad and at home. This comes even as the fully vaccinated rates remain below 35 percent in several, mainly southern states. While fully vaccinated folks thankfully are at very low risk from this mutation, the protection drops substantially for those who have only had their first jabs from the two-shot regimens.

Those of us living in relatively inoculated states and nations occupy not only geographically privileged places. We also may be living in temporal bubbles (admittedly a Star Trekkish term) as well. With the Delta and potentially other variants’ rates rising, and so many Americans remaining unvaccinated, we could see a spike in deaths as those mutations spread and when autumn and winter force more people indoors.

It’s tempting to shrug our shoulders and leave willingly unvaccinated Americans to their self-selected fates, even as each illness and death is a tragedy. But exposure to unvaccinated Americans puts immunocompromised people, kids who can’t get shots and other populations in substantially greater danger, as well as slightly increasing risks for the inoculated.

Another Moonshot

Against this backdrop, late last month the leaders of the World Bank, the World Health Organization and other institutions called for a crash program to increase vaccine supply and distribution, so as to vaccinate the globe as fast as possible. The subsequent pledge of President Biden and other world leaders to donate a billion doses to poorer nations falls far short of satisfying that need. It’s been justifiably criticized by the WHO and other authorities.

The pledge is disappointing as a humanitarian, economic and even self-interested matter. The longer Covid rages around the world, the greater the chance that vaccine-resistant variants can arise, threatening us all. It’s true that one of the miracles of mRNA technology is that it can be adapted to neutralize new variants. But untold human and financial prices could be paid before that happens.

In other words, we need that crash program. We need another moonshot.

One closing thought for the unvaccinated (and the rest of us) in the United States: If there was ever a time for Americans to appreciate what we may take for granted and what people elsewhere would practically die for – and are literally dying without – this is it.

Stephen Golub, Benicia – A Promised Land: Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.

Benicia resident Stephen Golub offers excellent perspective on his blog, A Promised Land:  Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.

To access his other posts or subscribe, please go to his blog site, A Promised Land.

Benicia Author Stephen Golub – Get the Whole World Vaccinated!

A Promised Land: Go Global

To fight Covid, there’s no alternative.

“Vaccine Nationalism”

Benicia Author Stephen Golub, A Promised Land

As vaccinations bring the first flicker of light at the end of the Covid tunnel, the emergence of more transmissible and somewhat vaccine-resistant variants seem to stand in the way.

But there’s a path forward. In fact, as a matter of both principle and self-preservation, it’s the only path: Go global. Get the whole world vaccinated much more quickly than currently planned.

Going global is vital because, as explained in a recent Washington Post article, “A [coronavirus] mutation in any location [on the planet] will likely spread everywhere.” Inoculations in America will buy valuable time. But until we control Covid via worldwide vaccinations, we may have to keep striving to stay one step ahead of such mutations.

Drawing in part on a fine Foreign Affairs article decrying “vaccine nationalism,” a Fareed Zakaria  op-ed accordingly makes a case for a massive international effort to inoculate the entire world as soon as possible. Among his primary points:

“[O]ur current trajectory [which features a much faster vaccine roll-out for richer nations than the rest of the world] virtually guarantees that we will never really defeat the coronavirus. It will stay alive and keep mutating and surging across the globe.”

“The basic problem is in how the vaccine is being distributed around the world — not based on where there is the most need, but the most money…Rich countries make up 16 percent of the world’s population, yet they have locked up 60 percent of the world’s vaccine supply.”

“Duke University researchers say [that at the currently planned vaccination rate] many developing countries will not be fully vaccinated until 2024, which means the virus will have years to spread and mutate. In their annual letter, Bill and Melinda Gates note that low- and middle-income countries will be able to vaccinate only 1 out of every 5 people by the end of 2021.”

“The International Chamber of Commerce has released a study showing that this lopsided vaccination of the world will cause global economic losses of $1.5 trillion to $9.2 trillion, of which half could be borne by the richest countries…Another study estimates that for every dollar rich countries invest in vaccines for the developing world, they would get back about $5 in economic output.”

“Bollyky and Bown lay out an excellent plan in Foreign Affairs. They argue that the United States should use the lessons from Operation Warp Speed to ramp up production and distribution of the vaccine worldwide…There is now a global vaccination effort to help developing countries, COVAX, which provides a powerful framework for action. President Donald Trump refused to join this effort [surprise, surprise] despite the participation of over 180 nations, but President Biden has reversed that decision.”

Ramping Up

Biden can and probably will do more. The question is whether he, other world leaders and pharmaceutical firms will commit to doing much, much more, by bolstering vaccine production and distribution to inoculate the entire planet well before 2024.

A key step would be to persuade or compel such firms to convert existing facilities into plants that manufacture Covid vaccines or other supplies crucial to the inoculation efforts. There’s already a precedent for this: A French firm, Sanofi, is making a Frankfurt pharmaceutical plant available to increase production of Pfizer’s vaccine.

Where persuasion or shared profit-making prove insufficient incentives for drug makers to boost production via factory conversion, Biden could invoke the Defense Production Act to force them to do so. His staff was reportedly considering that option during the transition period and is continuing those deliberations now.

Neither Gleeful Nor Glum

Word of the potentially more dangerous South African variant, and of other new strains, might make us wonder whether we can get a handle on the pandemic’s spread in America, much less the rest of the world. This is indeed cause for concern, putting us in a “race to vaccinate” in order to limit the spreads of such strains. The recent decisions of California and other states to start opening up again could prove premature, to put it mildly.

But there’s good news. With research findings indicating the Johnson & Johnson vaccine protects against Covid – albeit not quite as well as the Pfizer and Moderna drugs or as well against the South African variant as it does against other strains – the potential for ramped-up supplies to reach all of the world just became much more realizable.

For one thing, unlike those other two companies’ products, the J&J vaccine requires only one dose. It also differs in that it need not  be stored at ultra-low temperatures, a crucial consideration for much of the world. Finally, even at lesser overall efficacy, it still seems very effective at preventing severe illness and extremely effective at preventing death.

There are yet more reasons to be, if not gleeful, then not entirely glum regarding prospects for protecting both America and the world. More vaccines are already available to various degrees abroad, or are on the way. And the technology utilized for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is such that they can be adapted to fight virus variants in about six weeks (though regulatory and manufacturing hurdles can add time to their becoming widely available).

To be clear, ongoing vigilance and extra precautions against the new variants are well warranted. More people, perhaps many more, may die because of those mutations. My main point here is that we should not give up on helping the rest of the world, regardless of what happens here in coming months. In fact, a turn for the worse here is all the more reason to go global.

Principle and Self-preservation

A  case for aiding the entire human race does not only boil down to humanitarian principle – though saving millions of lives sounds pretty persuasive to me. Since Covid could remain a looming threat here as long as it surges elsewhere, self-interest and self-preservation might be the better selling points for those Americans (and other nationalities) who insist that “charity begins at home.” (That’s why, regarding another global challenge, Biden often frames fighting climate change in terms of jobs.)

Regardless, the battle against Covid demonstrates that we can’t hide behind the “America First” wall that fortunately lost out in November but still haunts this land. It’s not just Covid and our health, as crucial as they are. To a good degree, our economy, environment and security hinge on how the rest of the world is doing.

As Bill and Melinda Gates put it, “[L]ike it or not, we’re all in this together.”

Stephen Golub, Benicia – A Promised Land: Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.

Benicia resident Stephen Golub
 offers excellent perspective on his blog, A Promised Land: Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.
To access his other posts or subscribe, please go to his blog site, A Promised Land.

Canada’s pandemic response sends $16 billion to fossils, just $300 million to clean energy
Extraction_of_petroleum | Flcelloguy/Wikimedia Commons
The Energy Mix, by Mitchell Beer, July 16, 2020

Canada’s pandemic response to date has sent just C$300 million to clean energy, compared to more than $16 billion to fossil fuels, according to new data released this week by Energy Policy Tracker, a joint effort by multiple civil society organizations including the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).

The totals include C$13.55 billion (listed as US$10.05 billion on the site) for 42 policies that deliver unconditional support to fossil fuel companies, C$1.59 billion for three fossil support policies that carry environmental conditions, plus C$300.5 million for unconditional clean energy funding.

“A considerably larger amount of public money committed to supporting the economy and people of Canada through monetary and fiscal policies in response to the crisis may also benefit different elements of the energy sector,” the tracker states. “However, these values are not available from official legislation and statements and therefore are not included in the database.”

The Canadian numbers are just one segment of a wider data summary, which “shows that at least US$151 billion of bailout cash has been spent or earmarked so far to support fossil fuels by the G20 group of large economies,” with only one-fifth of that total “conditional on environmental requirements such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions or cleaning up pollution,” The Guardian reports. “The G20 countries are directing about US$89 billion in stimulus spending to clean energy, despite most of those governments being publicly committed to the Paris agreement on climate change.”

The United States is lavishing $58 billion on fossil industries, compared to about $25 billion invested in clean energy, the research shows.

“At this point in history it’s clear that investing in fossil fuels is as lethal to global economies as it is to life on Earth,” tweeted Climate Action Network-Canada Executive Director Catherine Abreu. “Yet Canada has funnelled at least US$11.86 BILLION to fossils in recent months, while directing only $222.78 million to clean energy.”

“The COVID-19 crisis and governments’ responses to it are intensifying the trends that existed before the pandemic struck,” concluded IISD Energy Policy Tracker lead Ivetta Gerasimchuk.

“National and subnational jurisdictions that heavily subsidized the production and consumption of fossil fuels in previous years have once again thrown lifelines to oil, gas, coal, and fossil fuel-powered electricity,” she said. “Meanwhile, economies that had already begun a transition to clean energy are now using stimulus and recovery packages to make this happen even faster.”

Other organizations involved with the tracker include the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, Oil Change International, the Overseas Development Institute, the Stockholm Environment Institute, and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

The Canadian figures show the federal government has been “completely captured by the oil industry,” Greenpeace Canada Senior Energy Strategist Keith Stewart told The Canadian Press. “They just don’t understand how the world is changing.”

CP cites an internal Natural Resources Canada briefing, obtained by Greenpeace through an access to information request, that showed the pandemic “wreaking havoc right across the energy sector, including fossil fuels and renewables,” as early as mid-April. “This will challenge Canada’s climate and energy transformation agendas,” stated the document prepared for Deputy Minister Christyne Tremblay.

“An attached presentation deck from Tremblay’s department outlines the impacts, including the collapse in oil prices, plummeting demand for both oil and electricity, and a cleantech industry being brought to its knees,” CP writes. Cleantech “is heavily dominated by start-up enterprises and those in the research and development phase that are heavily reliant on capital investments,” the news agency adds, and “the onset of the pandemic threw ice water on those investments, including from the oil and gas sector itself as its own revenues dried up.”

CP says Clean Energy Canada Executive Director Merran Smith called on the government “to ensure this sector’s survival by making sure it is a big part of the COVID-19 recovery stimulus programs. She said that doesn’t mean investing just in things that generate clean power, like wind and solar farms and technology, but also in promoting the use of cleaner power, such as by electrifying cars and public transportation.”

The Guardian notes that the tracker results were released ahead of a G20 finance ministers’ meeting this weekend where post-pandemic economic stimulus will be on the agenda. “Some of the spending on fossil fuels is likely to be designed to quickly stabilize hard-hit industries, preserving jobs and preventing a worse recession,” the UK-based paper states. “However, green campaigners are concerned that so much of the money is flowing to companies with no conditions to force them to take even basic measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or other pollution,” in spite of the “green strings” demanded by civil society groups and introduced by some countries.

“Economists and energy experts have already shown that green spending can [create] jobs and a higher return on investment in the short and longer term,” The Guardian notes. At the same time,  “as the data studied by Energy Policy Tracker is focused on the energy sector, the figures may not capture all of governments’ green spending. For instance, governments have been urged to spend on many ‘shovel-ready’ non-energy issues, such as cycle lanes, tree-planting, nature restoration, flood resilience, and enhanced broadband networks to help people work at home, all of which will also contribute to a green recovery.”

“We have some anecdotal evidence on these sectors which suggests that total green recovery numbers can be higher,” Gerasimchuk said. “Similarly, global environmentally harmful recovery numbers can be higher as there are measures leading to deforestation, land degradation, overfishing, etc. A lot of government support policies remain unquantified.”

Last week, the Corporate Europe Observatory warned that “fossil fuel fingerprints” were beginning to accumulate on the much-touted European Green Deal (EGD).

“Its mere existence is a positive first step; but is the deal really as good as they want us to believe?” the Observatory asks. “The fingerprints of industry, and in particular the fossil fuel industry, can be seen all over the EGD. Carbon trading will continue to allow big polluters to slow the transition, emissions reductions targets are too modest and too slow, fossil gas is kept as a transitional fuel, and public money will finance industry ‘false solutions’. The fossil fuel lobby is taking advantage of its privileged access to policy-makers, as well as the corona-crisis, to secure these gains.”