Monday, March 30, 2020

A Farewell to The Merry Widow...

Legend has it that the amaryllis - the stunning red flower we've come to associate with the holidays - began as a shy, timid nymph. Amaryllis fell deeply in love with Alteo, a shepherd with Hercules' strength and Apollo's beauty, but her affections were unrequited. Hoping that she could win him over by bestowing upon him the thing he desired most - a flower so unique it had never existed in the world before - Amaryllis sought advice from the oracle of Delphi.

Following his instructions, Amaryllis dressed in maiden's white and appeared at Alteo's door for 30 nights, each time piercing her heart with a golden arrow. When at last Alteo opened his door, there before him was a striking crimson flower, sprung from the blood of Amaryllis's heart. With this romantic - albeit tragic - tale as its beginning, it's not surprising that today the amaryllis has come to symbolize pride, determination and radiant beauty.

Once, when I wandered in the woods alone,
an old man tottered up to me and said,
“Come, friend, and see the grave that I have made
For Amaryllis.” There was in the tone
Of his complaint such quaver and such moan
That I took pity on him and obeyed,
And long stood looking where his hands had laid
An ancient woman, shrunk to skin and bone.

Far out beyond the forest I could hear
The calling of loud progress, and the bold
Incessant scream of commerce ringing clear;
But though the trumpets of the world were glad,
It made me lonely and it made me sad
To think that Amaryllis had grown old.
-Edwin Arlington Robinson, "Amaryllis"

Amarilli, mia bella,
Non credi, o del mio cor dolce desio,
D’esser tu l’amor mio?
Credilo pur, e se timor t’assale
Dubitar non ti vale
Aprimi il petto e vedrai scritto il core
Amarilli è il mio amore.

Ciao, cara mia! Solo il bene muore giovane!

What Should a Federal Pandemic Prevention Policy Look Like?

Dave Roos, "Why the Second Wave of the 1918 Spanish Flu Was So Deadly"
The first strain of the Spanish flu wasn’t particularly deadly. Then it came back in the fall with a vengeance.

The horrific scale of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic is hard to fathom. The virus infected 500 million people worldwide and killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million victims— that’s more than all of the soldiers and civilians killed during World War I combined.

While the global pandemic lasted for two years, the vast majority of deaths were packed into three especially cruel months in the fall of 1918. Historians now believe that the fatal severity of the Spanish flu’s “second wave” was caused by a mutated virus spread by wartime troop movements.

When the Spanish flu first appeared in early March 1918, it had all the hallmarks of a seasonal flu, albeit a highly contagious and virulent strain. One of the first registered cases was Albert Gitchell, a U.S. Army cook at Camp Funston in Kansas, who was hospitalized with a 104-degree fever. The virus spread quickly through the Army installation, home to 54,000 troops. By the end of the month, 1,100 troops had been hospitalized and 38 had died after developing pneumonia.

As U.S. troops deployed en masse for the war effort in Europe, they carried the Spanish flu with them. Throughout April and May of 1918, the virus spread like wildfire through England, France, Spain and Italy. An estimated three-quarters of the French military was infected in the spring of 1918 and as many as half of British troops. Luckily, the first wave of the virus wasn’t particularly deadly, with symptoms like high fever and malaise usually lasting only three days, and mortality rates were similar to seasonal flu.

Interestingly, it was during this time that the Spanish flu earned its misnomer. Spain was neutral during World War I and unlike its European neighbors, it didn’t impose wartime censorship on its press. In France, England and the United States, newspapers weren’t allowed to report on anything that could harm the war effort, including news that a crippling virus was sweeping through troops. Since Spanish journalists were some of the only ones reporting on a widespread flu outbreak in the spring of 1918, the pandemic became known as the “Spanish flu.”

Reported cases of Spanish flu dropped off over the summer of 1918, and there was hope at the beginning of August that the virus had run its course. In retrospect, it was only the calm before the storm. Somewhere in Europe, a mutated strain of the Spanish flu virus had emerged that had the power to kill a perfectly healthy young man or woman within 24 hours of showing the first signs of infection.

In late August 1918, military ships departed the English port city of Plymouth carrying troops unknowingly infected with this new, far deadlier strain of Spanish flu. As these ships arrived in cities like Brest in France, Boston in the United States and Freetown in west Africa, the second wave of the global pandemic began.

“The rapid movement of soldiers around the globe was a major spreader of the disease,” says James Harris, a historian at Ohio State University who studies both infectious disease and World War I. “The entire military industrial complex of moving lots of men and material in crowded conditions was certainly a huge contributing factor in the ways the pandemic spread.”

From September through November of 1918, the death rate from the Spanish flu skyrocketed. In the United States alone, 195,000 Americans died from the Spanish flu in just the month of October. And unlike a normal seasonal flu, which mostly claims victims among the very young and very old, the second wave of the Spanish flu exhibited what’s called a “W curve”—high numbers of deaths among the young and old, but also a huge spike in the middle composed of otherwise healthy 25- to 35-year-olds in the prime of their life.

“That really freaked out the medical establishment, that there was this atypical spike in the middle of the W,” says Harris.

Not only was it shocking that healthy young men and women were dying by the millions worldwide, but it was also how they were dying. Struck with blistering fevers, nasal hemorrhaging and pneumonia, the patients would drown in their own fluid-filled lungs.

Only decades later were scientists able explain the phenomenon now known as “cytokine explosion.” When the human body is being attacked by a virus, the immune system sends messenger proteins called cytokines to promote helpful inflammation. But some strains of the flu, particularly the H1N1 strain responsible for the Spanish flu outbreak, can trigger a dangerous immune overreaction in healthy individuals. In those cases, the body is overloaded with cytokines leading to severe inflammation and the fatal buildup of fluid in the lungs.

British military doctors conducting autopsies on soldiers killed by this second wave of the Spanish flu described the heavy damage to the lungs as akin to the effects of chemical warfare.

Harris believes that the rapid spread of Spanish flu in the fall of 1918 was at least partially to blame on public health officials unwilling to impose quarantines during wartime. In Britain, for example, a government official named Arthur Newsholme knew full well that a strict civilian lockdown was the best way to fight the spread of the highly contagious disease. But he wouldn’t risk crippling the war effort by keeping munitions factory workers and other civilians home.

According to Harris’s research, Newsholme concluded that “the relentless needs of warfare justified incurring [the] risk of spreading infection” and encouraged Britons to simply “carry on” during the pandemic.

The public health response to the crisis in the United States was further hampered by a severe nursing shortage as thousands of nurses had been deployed to military camps and the front lines. The shortage was worsened by the American Red Cross’s refusal to use trained African American nurses until the worst of the pandemic had already passed.

Medical Science Didn't Have the Tools

But one of the chief reasons that the Spanish flu claimed so many lives in 1918 was that science simply didn’t have the tools to develop a vaccine for the virus. Microscopes couldn’t even see something as incredibly small as a virus until the 1930s. Instead, top medical professionals in 1918 were convinced that the flu was caused by a bacterium nicknamed “Pfeiffer’s bacillus.”

After a global flu outbreak in 1890, a German physician named Richard Pfeiffer found that all of his infected patients carried a particular strain of bacteria he called H. influenzae. When the Spanish flu pandemic hit, scientists were intent on finding a cure for Pfeiffer’s bacillus. Millions of dollars were invested in state-of-the-art labs to develop techniques for testing for and treating H. influenzae, all of it for naught.

“This was a huge distraction for medical science,” says Harris.

By December 1918, the deadly second wave of the Spanish flu had finally passed, but the pandemic was far from over. A third wave erupted in Australia in January 1919 and eventually worked its way back to Europe and the United States. It’s believed that President Woodrow Wilson contracted the Spanish flu during the World War I peace negotiations in Paris in April 1919.

The mortality rate of the third wave was just as high as the second wave, but the end of the war in November 1918 removed the conditions that allowed the disease to spread so far and so quickly. Global deaths from the third wave, while still in the millions, paled in comparison to the apocalyptic losses during the second wave.

A New Hope...?

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The COVID19 Survival Guide

Slavoj Žižek, "Slavoj Zizek’s Covid-19 lockdown survival guide: Guilty pleasures, Valhalla Murders & pretending it's just a game"
To deal with the mental pressure during the coronavirus pandemic, my first rule is it’s not a time to search for spiritual authenticity. Without any shame – assume all small rituals that stabilize your daily life.

Let me begin by a personal confession: I like the idea of being confined to one’s apartment, with all the time to read and work.

Even when I travel, I prefer to stay in a nice hotel room and ignore all famous attractions. A good essay on a famous painting means much more to me than seeing this painting in a crowded museum. But I noticed this makes it worse, not easier, for being now obliged to confinement. Why?

Let me repeat the famous joke from Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka: “‘Waiter! A cup of coffee without cream, please!’ ‘I’m sorry, sir, we have no cream, only milk, so can it be a coffee without milk?’”

At the factual level, coffee remains the same coffee, but what we can change is to make the coffee without cream into a coffee without milk – or, even simpler – to add the implied negation and to make the plain coffee into a coffee without milk.

Is this not what happened with my isolation? Prior to the crisis, it was an isolation “without milk” – I could have gone out, I just chose not to. Now it’s just the plain coffee of isolation with no possible negation implied.

Invisible threats are most terrifying

My friend Gabriel Tupinamba, a Lacanian psychoanalyst who works in Rio de Janeiro, explained this paradox to me in an email message: “People who already worked from home are the ones who are the most anxious, and exposed to the worst fantasies of impotence, since not even a change in their habits is delimiting the singularity of this situation in their daily lives.”

His point is complex but clear: if there is no great change in our daily reality, then the threat is experienced as a spectral fantasy nowhere to be seen and all the more powerful for that reason. Remember that, in Nazi Germany, anti-Semitism was strongest in those parts where the number of Jews was minimal – their invisibility made them a terrifying specter.

Tupinamba further noticed that the same paradox held for the outburst of the HIV crisis: “the invisible spread of the HIV crisis was so nerve-wracking, the impossibility of rendering ourselves commensurate with the scale of the problem, that having one’s passport ‘stamped’ /with HIV/ did not seem, to some, like too high a price to pay for giving the situation some symbolic contours. It would at least give a measure to the power of the virus and deliver us to a situation in which, already having contracted it, we could then see what sort of freedom we would still have.”

The moment the spectral agent becomes part of our reality (even if it means catching a virus), its power is localized, it becomes something we can deal with (even if we lose the battle). As long as this transposition into reality cannot take place, “we get trapped either in anxious paranoia (pure globality) or resort to ineffective symbolisations through acting outs that expose us to unnecessary risks (pure locality).”

These “ineffective symbolizations” already assumed many forms – the best known of them is US President Donald Trump’s call to ignore the risks and get America back to work. Such acts are much worse than shouting and clapping while watching a soccer match in front of your home TV, acting like you can magically influence the outcome. But this does not mean we are helpless: we can get out of this deadlock before science will provide the technical means to constrain the virus.

How not to give in to paranoia

Here is what Tupinamba says: “The fact that doctors who are in the frontline of the pandemic, people creating mutual aid systems in peripheral communities, etc., are less likely to give in to crazy paranoias, suggests to me that there is a ‘collateral’ subjective benefit to certain forms of political work today. It seems that politics done through certain mediations – and the State is often the only available means here, but I think this might be contingent – not only provides us with the means to change the situation, but also to give the proper form to the things we have lost.”

In the UK, more than 400,000 young healthy people volunteered to help those in need – a good step in this direction.

How to avoid mental breakdown

So what about those among us who are not able to engage ourselves in this way – what can we do to survive the mental pressure of living in a time of pandemics? My first rule here is: this is not the time to search for some spiritual authenticity, to confront the ultimate abyss of our being. Without any shame – assume all small rituals, formulas, quirks, etc. that stabilize your daily life.

Everything that may work is permitted here to avoid a mental breakdown. Don’t think too much in long terms – think of today, what you will be doing till sleep. If it works, play the game of Life is Beautiful (the movie): pretend the lockdown is just a game in which you and your family freely participate with the prospect of a big reward if you win. And, if we are with movies (if you have some free time for them), gladly succumb to all your guilty pleasures: catastrophic dystopias, daily life TV comedy series with canned laughter like Will and Grace, YouTube podcasts on the great battles of the past. My preferences are dark Scandinavian – preferably Icelandic – crime series like Trapped or Valhalla Murders.

However, this stance doesn’t reach all the way – the main task is to structure your daily life in a stable and meaningful way. Here is how another of my friends, Andreas Rosenfelder, a German journalist from Die Welt, described in an email to me the new stance towards daily life that is emerging: “I really can feel something heroic about this new ethics, also in journalism – everybody works day and night from home office, making video conferences and taking care of children or schooling them at the same time, but nobody asks why he or she is doing it, because it’s not any more ‘I get money and can go to vacation etc.’, since nobody knows if there will be vacations again and if there will be money. It’s the idea of a world where you have a flat, basics like food etc., the love of others and a task that really matters, now more than ever. The idea that one needs ‘more’ seems unreal now.”

I cannot imagine a better description of what one should shamelessly call a non-alienated decent life – and I hope that some of this stance will survive when the pandemics will hopefully pass.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Virus Maths, How Misleading Are It?

What a Single Death in Your Area can Tell You About the Possible Number Of People Infected

Friday, March 20, 2020

On the Road to Communism

-Slavoj Zizek, "Biggest threat Covid-19 epidemic poses is not our regression to survivalist violence, but BARBARISM with human face"
The impossible has happened and the world we knew has stopped turning around. But what world order will emerge after the coronavirus pandemic is over – socialism for the rich, disaster capitalism or something completely new?

These days I sometimes catch myself wishing to get the virus – in this way, at least the debilitating uncertainty would be over. A clear sign of how my anxiety is growing is how I relate to sleep. Until around a week ago I was eagerly awaiting the evening: finally, I can escape into sleep and forget about the fears of my daily life. Now it’s almost the opposite: I am afraid to fall asleep since nightmares haunt me in my dreams and make me awaken in panic – nightmares about the reality that awaits me.

What reality? Alenka Zupancic formulated it perfectly, and let me resume her line of thought. These days we often hear that radical social changes are needed if we really want to cope with the consequences of the ongoing epidemic (I myself am among those spreading this mantra). But radical changes are already taking place.

The coronavirus epidemic confronts us with something we considered impossible. We couldn’t imagine something like this to really happen in our daily lives – the world we knew has stopped spinning around, whole countries are in lockdown, many of us are confined to one’s apartment (but what about those who cannot afford even this minimal safety precaution?) facing an uncertain future in which even if most of us survive an economic mega-crisis lies ahead…

What this means is that our reaction should also be to do the impossible – what appears impossible within the coordinates of the existing world order.

The impossible has happened, our world has stopped, and now we have to do the impossible to avoid the worst. But what is that ‘impossible’?

I don’t think the biggest threat is a regression to open barbarism, to brutal survivalist violence with public disorders, panic lynching, etc. (although, with the possible collapse of health and some other public services, this is also quite possible.) More than open barbarism I fear barbarism with a human face – ruthless survivalist measures enforced with regret and even sympathy, but legitimized by expert opinions.

Survival of the fittest

A careful observer easily noticed the change in tone in how those in power address us: they are not just trying to project calm and confidence, they also regularly utter dire predictions – the pandemic is likely to take about two years to run its course and the virus will eventually infect 60-70 percent of the global population, with millions dead.

In short, their true message is that we’ll have to curtail the basic premise of our social ethics: the care for the old and weak. In Italy, for instance, it’s already been proposed that if the virus crisis gets worse, patients over 80 or those with other heavy diseases will be simply left to die.

One should note how accepting this logic of the “survival of the fittest” violates even the basic principle of military ethics which tells us that, after the battle, one should first take care of the heavily wounded even if the chance of saving them is minimal. (However, upon a closer look, this shouldn’t surprise us: hospitals are already doing the same thing with cancer patients).

To avoid a misunderstanding, I am an utter realist here – one should plan even medicaments to enable a painless death of the terminally ill, to spare them the unnecessary suffering. But our first priority should be nonetheless not to economize but to help unconditionally, irrespective of costs, those who need help, to enable their survival.

So I respectfully disagree with Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben who sees in the ongoing crisis a sign that “our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything — the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions — to the danger of getting sick. Bare life — and the danger of losing it — is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them.”

Things are much more ambiguous: it DOES also unite people – to maintain a corporeal distance is to show respect to others since I also may be a virus bearer. My sons avoid me now because they are afraid they will contaminate me (what is to them a passing illness can be deadly for me).

Personal responsibility

In recent days, we hear again and again that each of us is personally responsible and has to follow the new rules. The media is full of stories about people who misbehaved and put themselves and others in danger (a guy entered a store and started to cough, etc.). The problem here is the same as with ecology where the media again and again emphasize our personal responsibility (did you recycle all used newspapers, etc.).

Such a focus on individual responsibility, necessary as it is, functions as ideology the moment it serves to obfuscate the big question of how to change our entire economic and social system. The struggle against coronavirus can only be fought together with the struggle against ideological mystifications, plus as part of a general ecological struggle. As Kate Jones, the chair of ecology and biodiversity at UCL, put it, the transmission of disease from wildlife to humans is “a hidden cost of human economic development.”

“There are just so many more of us, in every environment. We are going into largely undisturbed places and being exposed more and more. We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones,” Jones said.

So it is not enough to put together some kind of global healthcare for humans, nature should be included into it – viruses also attack plants which are the main sources of our food, like potatoes, wheat and olives. We always have to bear in mind the global picture of the world we live in, with all the paradoxes this implies.

For example, it is good to know that the lockdown in China because of coronavirus saved more lives than the number of those killed by the virus (if one trusts official statistics of the dead): “Environmental resource economist Marshall Burke says there is a proven link between poor air quality and premature deaths linked to breathing that air. ‘With this in mind’, he said, ‘a natural – if admittedly strange – question is whether the lives saved from this reduction in pollution caused by economic disruption from Covid-19 exceeds the death toll from the virus itself. Even under very conservative assumptions, I think the answer is a clear yes.’ At just two months of reduction in pollution levels he says it likely saved the lives of 4,000 children under five and 73,000 adults over 70 in China alone.”

Triple crisis: medical, economic, mental

We are caught in a triple crisis: medical (the epidemic itself), economic (which will hit hard whatever the outcome of the epidemic), plus (not to underestimate) mental health – the basic coordinates of the lives of millions and millions are disintegrating, and the change will affect everything, from flying to holidays to everyday bodily contacts. We have to learn to think outside the coordinates of the stock market and profit and simply find another way to produce and allocate the necessary resources. Say, when the authorities learn that a company is keeping millions of masks, waiting for the right moment to sell them, there should be no negotiations with the company – masks should be simply requisitioned.

The media reported that Trump offered $1 billion to Tübingen-based biopharmaceutical company CureVac to secure the vaccine “only for the United States.” The German Health Minister Jens Spahn said a takeover of CureVac by the Trump administration was “off the table”: CureVac would only develop a vaccine “for the whole world, not for individual countries.” Here we have an exemplary case of the struggle between barbarism and civilization. But the same Trump had to invoke the Defense Production Act that would allow the government to ensure that the private sector can ramp up production of emergency medical supplies.

Earlier this week, Trump announced the proposal to take over the private sector. He said he would invoke a federal provision allowing the government to marshal the private sector in response to the pandemic. He added he would sign an act giving himself the authority to direct domestic industrial production “in case we need it."

When I used the word “communism” a couple of weeks ago, I was mocked, but now “Trump announces proposals to take over the private sector” – can one imagine such a title even a week ago?

And this is just the beginning – many more measures like this should follow, plus local self-organization of communities will be necessary if the state-run health system is under too much stress. It is not enough just to isolate and survive – for some of us to do this, basic public services have to function: electricity, food and medicaments supply… (We’ll soon need a list of those who recovered and are at least for some time immune, so that they can be mobilized for the urgent public work).

It is not a utopian communist vision, it is a communism imposed by the necessities of bare survival. It is unfortunately a version of what, in the Soviet Union in 1918, was called “war communism.”

As the saying goes, in a crisis we are all socialists – even the Trump administration considers a form of UBI – a check for $1,000 to every adult citizen. Trillions will be spent violating all the market rules – but how, where, for whom? Will this enforced socialism be socialism for the rich (remember the bailing out of the banks in 2008 while millions of ordinary people lost their small savings)? Will the epidemic be reduced to another chapter in the long sad story of what Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein called “disaster capitalism,” or will a new (more modest, maybe, but also more balanced) world order emerge out of it?