Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Ripley Was Right: Ebola, Science, and the Precautionary Principle

In my previous post on the Ebola outbreak, I focused on how the treatment of Ebola patients highlights the shortcomings of private healthcare in the US, and the need for a comprehensive public system.  I also mentioned that American media coverage has been limited, as we might expect, to a spectrum running from Republican/Fox fear-mongering to Democratic/MSNBC ass-covering. I avoided, and had formed no opinion about, the question of how dangerous this strain of Ebola is, or of any question about what preventive measures are called for.

Since that post, the subsequent brouhahas about who should and shouldn’t be quarantined have only exacerbated the ridiculous media paradigm in which what’s really at stake in Ebola is Obama’s presidential reputation or Chris Christie’s presidential prospects or which party will win the mid-term elections. At the same time, a lot of evidence has become available regarding the lethality and transmissibility of the Ebola strain we are dealing with. In this post, I want to look at some of that evidence, teasing out the issues of scientific knowledge and ethico-political authority that are raised by the Ebola crisis, and which are confused by the impulse to read them through the lens of American liberal/conservative categories, with which they have nothing to do.


Superbug

How lethal and how transmissible is the current (Zaire) strain of the Ebola virus?

Here’s a two-minute clip of Dr. Michael Osterholm, head of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, speaking at Johns Hopkins:

(2 minutes)

And here’s Peter Jahrling, chief scientist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who’s been studying hemorrhagic fevers for 25 years, and helped discover the Reston strain of Ebola, in an interview with Vox:
We are using tests now that [we] weren't using in the past, but there seems to be a belief that the virus load is higher in these patients [today] than what we have seen before. If true, that's a very different bug. …
JB (Vox): A higher viral load means this Ebola virus can spread faster and further? 
PJ: Yes. I have a field team in Monrovia. They are running [tests]. They are telling me that viral loads are coming up very quickly and really high, higher than they are used to seeing.
As Vox points out (using statistics that have already been surpassed), the current Ebola outbreak is “remarkable” because “the virus has spread to six countries in Africa plus America, and has already infected more than 13,000 people. It has killed nearly 5,000 people. That is more than six times the sum total of all previous outbreaks combined.” It has a 50-70% mortality rate.

In short, unprecedented lethality:



A Joke In November



On the way home from his successful fund-raising meeting, a powerful US Senator drives his car into a tree and dies. His soul arrives at the Pearly Gates, and is met by St. Peter. 

"Welcome to heaven," says St. Peter. "Before you settle in, we have a special protocol for a person of your stature, to make sure that you are given appropriate accommodations.“

"No problem, says the Senator. “Just let me in and we’ll work it out."

"Actually,” St. Pete says, “our process requires that you spend one day in hell and one in heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity."

"Not necessary. No need to waste my time. I've made up my mind. I want to be in heaven," says the Senator.

"I'm sorry, but those are our rules, and there can be no exception," says St. Peter, who escorts the Senator to the elevator and hits the “Down” button. The Senator gets anxious as the elevator wooshes waaaay dooooown.

The elevator stops abruptly, the doors open, and the Senator steps out into the middle of a lush resort. The sun is shining, there’s a beautiful beach, tennis courts, golf courses, yoga studios. At the main lounge, he finds all of his old friend and colleagues who greet him enthusiastically—everyone as healthy and charming as the day he met them. Also present is the devil, who turns out to be a very friendly guy, and who welcomes the Senator warmly. The Senator passes the day with the lot of them, frolicking in the sun and surf, and in the evening he joins his companions in a gourmet dinner, followed by drinks and dancing.

Before he realizes it, the day has passed, and he finds himself in the elevator, going up, up, up. When it stops, the door opens, and St. Peter greets him, saying: "Now it's time to visit heaven." So the Senator passes the next 24 hours with a small group of contented souls, going from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing his favorite Beatles’ songs.  He has a good enough time, which passes quickly, and before he realizes it, another day has gone by, and St. Peter returns.

"Well, then, Senator you've now spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Choose your eternity."

The Senator thinks for a minute, then answers: "Well, I never thought I would say this, but, although heaven has been delightful, I think I would rather be in hell."

So St. Peter puts him in the elevator and he goes back down to hell.

Now, when the elevator opens, the Senator is in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and garbage, reeking of the foulest odors. He sees all his friends, covered in shredded rags, scrounging in the muck for offal. The devil himself comes over to him, puts his arm around his shoulders, and says: “Welcome to eternity.”

"I don't understand," stammers the Senator. "Yesterday I was here and there was a beautiful beach, and beautiful people, and great food, and fun and dancing. Now there's just a horrid wasteland full of miserable, tortured souls. What happened?"

The devil smiles at him and says: "Yesterday we were campaigning.  Today, you voted."



Monday, October 20, 2014

The Irish Widow and the Liberian Fiancé:
Ebola, CEO Disease, and the Public Good




Outbreak

The Ebola crisis highlights the absurdity of pretending that a private, for-profit health system can do what a real public healthcare system must.

Remember the deadly-Ebola-like-virus movie where Dustin Hoffman and Renee Russo and Morgan Freeman and a whole state-of-the-art medical team, along with a small army (There’s always an army!) swoops in to quarantine the sick, catch the monkey, whip up a vaccine, and save the country?

Keep dreaming. That’s a fantasy. In reality, there is no public healthcare system. There is no serious publicly-funded and publicly-managed infrastructure, institution, or set of resources devoted to healthcare as a public good.

As the Washington Post said: “The hospital that treated Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan had to learn on the fly how to control the deadly virus.” The CDC? It runs a web site and holds press conferences. The medical professionals are all in private hospitals, now mostly folded into large private healthcare conglomerates, that do whatever the MBAs who manage them dictate—which is what the MBAs who manage the private for-profit health insurance companies are willing to pay for. As Rob Urie points out: “Missing from this ‘process’ that now finds Mr. Duncan dead, two nurses who attended him with Ebola themselves, the American health care system revealed as wholly unprepared to deal with what at present seems a moderately communicable disease, is any notion of a public interest.”

Here’s Juan González, talking to Karen Higgins, to co-president of National Nurses United:
The executive director of your union, RoseAnn DeMoro …, specifically raised the fact the CDC has no control over these individual hospitals, that in the privatized hospital system that we operate in here in the United States, the CDC can only offer guidelines, and it’s up to individual hospitals whether they’re going to enforce those guidelines, practice those guidelines. And, in fact, the CDC said yesterday…that they have no plans to investigate what happened at Texas Health Presbyterian, that that’s the responsibility of the local Department of Health in Texas. 
Karen Higgins: I think, you know—unfortunately, I think she’s right, as far as what powers the CDC has. … And what happens is then CDC makes recommendations, guidelines, and then it falls apart, because what you do with it as an individual hospital, because every hospital is pretty much individual, is where it starts to fall apart.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Gaza Calling: It’s the Colonialism, Stupid!

On how Gaza lays Zionism bare, in eight bites.



Subjugate, expel, exterminate

This summer’s Israeli assault on Gaza was a horror show. Whole families killed, whole neighborhoods levelled, schools and hospitals attacked, electricity, water, and waste treatment facilities destroyed, about 500 children killed, 3000 injured (1000 with lifelong disabilities), and 1500 orphaned – utter devastation.  We’ve all seen the pictures. I’ve written about it. I’m not going to go over the specifics again.1

I share with many the conviction that this deliberately disproportionate carnage constitutes a despicable crime. It has certainly forced everyone to confront the deep disparities and injustices embedded in what’s called the Israel-Palestine conflict. The incessant waves of death and destruction visited on Palestinians for decades have challenged even those Westerners predisposed to “liberal Zionism” to question more radically what they think the Jewish state, and the Zionist project, is, was, or could be all about.

Conversely, the aftermath of the Gaza carnage has seen the defenders of Israel become ever more frantic and adamant in asserting the absolute righteousness of the Zionist project—not just refuting, but wherever possible refusing to allow any fundamental questioning of its legitimacy. Ask Stephen Solaita.

Yet, casualty figures and atrocity photos are not really what the argument is about. We have to remember, as Miko Peled points out, that: “Israel began attacking Gaza when the Strip was populated with the first generation refugees in the early 1950s.”2 This summer’s Gaza carnage helps reveal the problem, but it is not itself the fundamental problem.

The fundamental problem is colonialism. You know, that thing where a group of people, who want the land somebody else is living on, take it. By subjugating, expelling, and/or exterminating the indigenous population.

The fundamental argument here between Zionists and non- or anti-Zionists is not about civilian casualties, but about colonialism. It is not about how many civilians the IDF (or Hamas) killed last month, but about the ongoing colonialism-in-progress that necessarily produces these casualties. It’s colonialism that provides the context which gives the facts and events their ethico-political meaning.

This needs to sink in. Israel is a colonial-settler state. Zionism is a colonialist project.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Bailout Created the Debt,
Not Vice-Versa




Take a look at this graph, from an interesting post (and follow-up) by documentary filmmaker David Malone on his blog Golem XIV. It shows that everything we've been told about the 2008 financial crisis and the resulting bailout is a complete crock of shit. It's the bailout that created the public debt crisis, not public debt that created the need for a bailout. The bailout, in every one of these countries, was a means for the financial elite to preserve its own enormous wealth by shifting its unsustainable private debt onto the shoulders of the public.

As Malone points out:
The green bars are debt as percentage of GDP before the bank bail outs and the blue bars are after. .... Notice Ireland. Its debt to GDP was down at 27%.  The ONLY thing that altered between 2007 and 2010 was the bank bails outs. Ireland’s ENTIRE debt problem is due to bailing out private banks and their bond holders. ... the fact is that all European nations apart from Portugal were either reducing their debt-to-GDP level or at least not allowing it to grow. Most of Europe was reducing government debt to quite manageable and historically low levels. ...Almost  every European country was keeping debt to GDP even or going down – before the banks were bailed out that is. The exceptions, of course, were Greece and Italy ..
The sudden explosion of European sovereign debt is the direct and indisputable result of all our political parties deciding they would safeguard their mates’ and their own personal wealth (it is the top 10% who hold the bulk of their wealth in the financial products which would be destroyed in a bank collapse. NOT the rest of us!) by bailing out the private banks and piling their unpaid debts on to the public purse.