Does the economy need a helicopter rescue to escape COVID-19 disaster?: Don Pittis

A controversial way of giving spending power to ordinary people is getting serious attention during crisis

Police officers in a helicopter patrol Copacabana Beach during the COVID-19 outbreak in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, last weekend. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

As the Canadian government and the U.S. central bank say they will do whatever it takes to get their economies back on track, some experts are recommending a long-discussed weapon.

Known as helicopter money, the concept was proposed as a thought experiment by Nobel Prize-winning American economist Milton Friedman as an alternative to governments borrowing and spending to stimulate the economy.

With growing fears of a wider economic meltdown caused by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, economists are suddenly considering the helicopter option, though the subject remains controversial.

One of the many controversies is over the definition of exactly what helicopter money is and what it is not.

No actual helicopters needed

While no actual helicopters are used in the process, the one thing most economists agree on is that it involves the distribution of money into the economy in a way that boosts the spending power of ordinary citizens.

“Let us suppose now that one day a helicopter flies over this community and drops an additional $1,000 in bills from the sky, which is, of course, hastily collected by members of the community,” Friedman famously proposed.

U.S. President George W. Bush, centre, talks to Rose Friedman, right, as her husband, economist Milton Friedman, left, addresses dignitaries gathered at an event held in his honour at the Eisenhower Executive Building in Washington, May 9, 2002. Friedman, a 1976 Nobel Prize winner for excellence in economics, was one of the strongest advocates of economic freedoms and free enterprise. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Friedman, who died in 2006, was one of the founders of the Chicago school of economics that tended to oppose government involvement in the workings of the economy.

Usually described as a monetarist because of his belief in monetary policy as a means of adjusting or fine-tuning the economy, Friedman was part of the small government movement that began to mature following his influential paper in 1969. In general, Friedman objected to the fiscal spending championed by Keynesians, who believe that governments should borrow money and spend it on anything from roads to schools to reignite economic growth.

Deflation fighter

In the helicopter theory’s original form, Friedman saw this distribution of cash in the economy as something to be used when interest rates had gone as low as they could go and the economy was refusing to respond to other kinds of monetary stimulus. He saw it as a one-time measure to return inflation to a healthy level.

As described by Friedman, helicopter money was exclusively a monetary tool used by the central banks, which can create the money out of thin air, just as they do with the money used to buy bonds in quantitative easing. Often called “printing money,” it is the process of creating new currency units, as the Fed promised to do yesterday, and using them to buy existing bonds, thus injecting cash into the economy.

“When the economics community talks about helicopter money, what they really mean is, at the end of the day, the Bank of Canada could print money and simply send it to Canadians,” Craig Alexander, Deloitte Canada’s chief economist, said in an interview last week.

But he says now is not the time for that inflationary boost.

“You might start to entertain distributing money from the central bank to households if there was deflation, but that isn’t where we are in terms of risks yet,” he said.

In the slippery world of economic theory, the definition of helicopter money as solely a tool for generating inflation has expanded beyond what Friedman proposed.

No doubt he turns over in his grave every time someone uses the term modern monetary theory, or MMT, the idea that helicopter money could be used in place of fiscal spending to redistribute wealth and even pay for policies like the proposed Green New Deal in the U.S.

While many economists would object to the wider use of the term, sources as credible as the Financial Times and the Bank of Canada suggest it has become more inclusive.

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, right, answer questions during the administration’s daily coronavirus briefing at the White House last Tuesday. Mnuchin said the administration was looking to send money directly to Americans to help them cope with the COVID-19 crisis. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The FT story with headline, White House warms to showering U.S. with ‘helicopter money,’ points out the Trump administration is seriously considering a cash handout to every American that would expand the national debt.

“We are looking at sending cheques to Americans immediately,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said last week. “Americans need cash now, and the president wants to get cash now — and I mean now, in the next two weeks.”

You are the guinea pig

Economists at the Bank of Canada bridge the monetarist and Keynesian perspectives with a fresh report out last month titled: The Power of Helicopter Money Revisited: A New Keynesian Perspective.

A quick glance at the Bank of Canada paper, besides demonstrating that economics is a very different language than most of us use, reveals how much the results of cash injections of this kind remain theoretical.

As University of Ottawa professor Jacqueline Best told me last week, only half in jest, it’s all a big experiment. But, she says, no matter how it is done, there may be a qualitative difference between handing money out to ordinary people or dumping it into bond markets with quantitative easing, where only large corporations can make use of it.

But among those who would entertain the idea of helicopter money, there is one consideration that both central bank theorists and practical politicians must now be thinking about.

While most agree it is crucial to turn on the spending taps immediately to fight COVID-19, and to tide people over with the essentials and to keep the economy from collapsing, the real need for helicopter money may come later.

With so much of the economy shut down and so many people laid off and feeling insecure, until everyone is able to get out of their homes and resume normal lives, a new flood of money might not have the desired effect of sparking a new round of stimulative discretionary spending. SOURCE

The Star Editorial: Coronavirus shows it’s time to mend the safety net

MPPs applaud as emergency legislation aimed at protecting workers who are forced to stay home due to the COVID-19 crisis is passed in the Ontario legislature on Thursday. Just two dozen MPPs from all parties were on hand to maintain social distancing.

Canadians live in a country where the national unemployment program provides zero support to most of the people who are out of work.

A country where the most populous province, Ontario, had to recall the legislature on Thursday to pass a labour law that says workers can’t be fired just for being sick or staying home to care for children at a time of crisis.

That’s how frayed our federal and provincial worker protections and safety net has become.

This, of course, is not news to the many who have long decried this situation, which leaves an increasing number of people precariously employed and on the verge of poverty.

But now, with the coronavirus pandemic creating a health and economic crisis the likes of which we could scarcely have imagined, governments — with the sudden support from all political parties — are finally paying attention.

And acting with incredible speed.

The Trudeau government started with a $1-billion aid package that included tweaks to Employment Insurance. Then came a $10-billion credit line to help businesses and, this week, a comprehensive $82-billion package.

It delivers EI benefits to those who do not normally qualify, such as the self-employed and part-timers; increases direct support to lower-income people with temporary boosts in the Canada Child Benefit and GST credit; and provides a host of tax deferrals for struggling individuals and businesses.

We’re promised that even more help will come as it’s needed.

Governments are suddenly alive to the fact that EI hasn’t kept up with changes in the economy, the nature of work and the dramatic increase in businesses using part-time, contract and self-employed workers, in large part to cut their costs by avoiding minimum labour standards designed decades ago.

That should never have happened. Governments should have ensured that social programs and labour protections adapted to changing times to serve workers — all workers, not just those lucky enough to have employers that offer good pay and benefits.

It’s a similarly sad story with provincial labour laws that have allowed minimum standards to fall to such depths that a great many Ontario workers have no job protections and so few benefits that they’re not entitled to a single paid sick day.

That includes some of the warehouse workers, delivery drivers, cashiers and cleaners we’re now relying on so heavily to keep supply chains going.



“Up from the earth the wisdom came, through the trees, down into the water, and Finnegas knew that if he could catch and eat the salmon then all that wisdom would be his.” 

It was the poet and bard Finnegas who finally caught the legendary salmon, after devoting years of his life to the hunt.

In the time of this great, strange plague, Paul Kingsnorth returns to the Celtic tale of Finnegas, the woodland hermit who devoted his life to catching and eating the salmon that contained the wisdom of the world.

God doesn’t need to come down upon a mountain, for the mountain itself is the revelation. We only have to look at it and we will know how we should live.

I  would like to tell you a few things about this virus and the lessons it should teach us, all the things we should be learning. I would like to add my voice to the crowd and be heard above it.

I would like to say: fish have returned to the Venetian canals now that humans have stopped polluting them.

I would like to say: the clouds of air pollution over Italy and China have dissipated since people were prevented from causing them with their cars, planes, factories.

I would like to say: up to 80,000 premature deaths which would have been caused this way have probably been prevented in China by the shutdown of the economy.

I would like to say: carbon monoxide levels in the air above New York have collapsed by 50 percent in a single week.

I would like to say: Nature recovers swiftly when we stop our plundering of Her bounty.

I would like to say: lift your gaze, humans.

I would like to say: we can learn from this, we can change.

I am squatting in the sun on this day of the spring equinox, it is a cold sun, I am down by the pond with my children, we are watching the tadpoles squirm free of their jelly under the leafing poplars. The world is turning.

Today is the day when shafts of dawn sunlight illuminate the passages of the old Neolithic tombs at Carrowkeel, at Loughcrew, at Newgrange. Today at Stonehenge, at Wayland’s Smithy, at West Kennet, all across these Atlantic islands—today is the day the light of Sky pierces the darkness of Earth. Today is the day that aérios meets chthón.

Neolithic : we think we know what this word means, but it is just another one of our categories. When we say Neolithic, we mean: forgotten people, unknown people, the first farmers. When we say Neolithic, we mean: who were they and what was their world and how was it so different from ours under this same sky?

Their world, the world of those people long supplanted, was a world of tombs; a world of great barrows raised on high downs, barrows that became the pregnant belly of Earth, barrows into which, each equinox, a shaft of sunlight would pierce, enter the womb of the Mother, seed new life each spring.

I am writing this on the day of the equinox in the time of the great, strange plague.

I would like to say, as if I could tell you: This was what they knew. That each spring, Sky must meet Earth, that there is no life without both Sky and Earth, without both chthón and aérios. That if you live without one or the other, you will build a world that is bent on its axis, and that world may seem whole but will be only half-made, and one day it will fall over and you will fall with it.

I would like to say: well, we had it coming.

The Irish writer John Moriarty wrote a lot about chthón. His life’s search was for ways to re-embed us in what we have lost, to take us around and down again, to correct the Western Error. In his autobiography, Nostos, he writes:

Chthón is the old Greek word for the Earth in its secret, dark, depths, and if there was any one word that could be said to distinguish ancient Greeks from modern Europeans, that word chthón, that would be it. Greeks had the word, we haven’t. Greeks had the pieties and beliefs that go with the word, we haven’t. Greeks had the wisdom that goes with the word, we haven’t. Greeks had the sense of spiritual indwelling that goes with the word, we haven’t. In the hope that they might continue in the goodwill of its dark but potentially beneficent powers, Greeks poured libations of wine, of honey, or barley-water sweetened with mint down into this realm, we don’t.

I would like to say that we forgot all about chthón, we with our space stations and our stellar minds, our progress and our clean boots, our hand sanitizers and our aircon units, our concrete vaults and our embalming fluid; that for a short period we escaped into aérios, or thought we had, and now we are going to have to go underground again, and you can be sure we will be dragged there by the Hag against our will, and we will fight and fight as the sun comes down the shaft and we see again what is carved on the stones down there.

You can forget about chthón, but chthón won’t forget about you.

I would like to say that I know what to do about all this, or what to learn. I would like to teach it to you so that you may learn too. I would like to be a prophet in a time when prophets are so sorely needed.

Unfortunately, I am not qualified for this role. I don’t know anything at all, and I am learning, painfully, that this was my lesson all along.

I don’t know anything at all.

My society does not know anything at all.

All the things I was brought up to label as learning : my A-levels, my Oxford University degrees, all the books I have read and written, all the arguments I learned how to formulate, all the ideas I learned how to frame, the concepts I learned how to enunciate. All this head-work, all these modern European ways of seeing, understanding, controlling, managing, directing the world:


None of that was it.

One of the best-known myth cycles of Celtic Ireland is the life story of the great warrior Finn McCool. Finn, in his boyhood, was apprenticed to an old woodland hermit by the name of Finnegas. Finnegas had spent his life fishing for an elusive salmon which dwelt in a pool under a group of hazel trees. The hazel trees contained a great old magic, and when their nuts dropped into the pool and were eaten by the salmon, they imparted to it all the knowledge and wisdom of the world.

Up from the earth the wisdom came, through the trees, down into the water, and Finnegas knew that if he could catch and eat the salmon then all that wisdom would be his.

One day, to his great joy, Finnegas finally caught the salmon. He laid it upon the ground and instructed Finn, his apprentice, to cook it for him while he took a walk in the woods to collect himself, to prepare for his great moment.

Cook the salmon, he instructed Finn, but eat none of it.

Yes, master, said Finn.

When Finnegas returned and looked into Finn’s eyes, he saw immediately that everything had changed. He saw that the catastrophe had occurred.

Did you eat the salmon? he demanded. No, master, replied Finn. But …

Cooking the salmon, Finn had seen a blister appear in its flesh. Perhaps wanting the meal to be perfect for Finnegas after his years of labor, he had pressed the blister down with his thumb and in the process had scalded his hand with hot oil from the cooking fish. Instinctively, he had raised his thumb to his mouth to suck away the pain.

In Finn’s eyes now, Finnegas saw all the wisdom of the world, and he saw too that it was Finn, and not he, who was destined for greatness. Finnegas saw that his life’s dream, his life’s work, was not what he had thought it was. Everything he had learned, the moment he thought he had prepared for:


Eat, master, said Finn, offering the fish to Finnegas, for this was your work. But Finnegas refused. No, he said. No, the fish is yours, Finn, and some part of me always knew it would be so. Yours is the work, Finn. My work was to prepare for it. Eat the fish, and use well what you learn.

Maybe we thought we would one day eat that salmon, you and I. Maybe we thought that if we worked hard enough, learned enough, we could catch it and learn from it, we could save the world, change the world, teach the world some lessons.

I thought that once. I probably learned it at university. Now I think that I, we, our generations, those of us brought up within the machine, brought up to breathe with it, rely on it, those of us tamed and made by it, those of us who crushed the world without thinking—the wisdom to come is not ours.

We will never escape what we have made and what made us. We are not equipped.

We are not the people who will eat the salmon. We are not Finn.

But perhaps, if we’re lucky, we could be Finnegas.

Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we could lay some ground for what is to come.

Yours is the work. My work was to prepare for it.

You cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. You cannot use your arguments and your concepts to access the chthón. You cannot use your Oxford University degree to build a world which regards Oxford University degrees with the bafflement they deserve to be greeted with.

It is good to learn how little I know, and how little we matter.

Now I will say what I believe: that this civilization will not learn anything from this virus. All this civilization wants to do is to get back to normal. Normal is cheap flights and cheap lattes, normal is Chinese girls sewing our T-shirts under armed guard, normal is biblical bushfires and barrels of oil, normal is city breaks and international conferences and African children poisoning their bodies sorting the plastic we have dumped on their coastlines, normal is nitrite pollution and burning stumps and the death of the seas.

We made this normal, and we do not know how to unmake it, or—whisper it—we do not want to.

But Earth does, and it will.

It turns out that we were never in control at all.

Control is what civilizations do. Perhaps it is what they are. Perhaps it is their central story. If we can control the world, we can protect ourselves from the darkness it contains. We can protect ourselves from what lies under the ground, in the tombs. Who doesn’t want to be protected? But who, in the end, can ever be?

Later in his autobiography, Moriarty writes that he is attempting to walk into culture. Into a culture so sure of itself that it wouldn’t ever need to become a civilization.

Cultures like that have existed before. They will again. But not yet. And when they come, people like us will not make them. We can’t. It is not our work.

Who knows what happens next? Maybe the virus will come and carry me away, me with my weak chest, me with my winter coughs, deepened every year by the damp Atlantic land I am grounded in, and there will be nothing to be done about this. Then my atoms and light will go back where they came from, or forward to somewhere else, and this is the way of things, and when exactly did we forget that? When exactly did we decide that our tiny little temporary mass of atoms, named and suited and given a role, pumped up with words and stories, should have any right at all to persist in its small form when all else is change and motion?

Nothing matters at all, and this is why everything does.

Look: the sun pierces the tunnel; the belly of the Mother is seeded again as another year begins. Something will be born when the summer comes. You do not need to catalogue it, understand it. You do not need to learn anything at all from it.

You can just watch it come.

Cultures that last are cultures that do not build. Cultures that last are cultures that do not seek to know what cannot be known. Cultures that last are cultures that crawl into their chthón without asking questions. Cultures that know how to be, that look at the sun on the mountain, and say, yes, this is the revelation.

People last when they do not eat apples that were not meant for them, when they do not steal fire they do not understand. People last when they sit in the sun and do nothing at all.

Let us learn from this! we say. Let us take this crisis and use it to make us better! Better people, more organized people, wiser people. Sleeker people, more efficient people. Let us become sustainable! Let us learn to tell new stories, for the old ones are broken now!

We should be saying: stories were the problem. We should be saying: no more stories, not from us.

We should be saying: break the stories, break them all. Nothing of this should be sustained.

We should be saying: no more normal. Not now, not ever.

We should be saying: we could die any moment, and this has always been true. Look at the beauty!

We should be saying: see the sunlight crawl down the passage of the tomb.

We should be saying: something is about to be illuminated.

We should be saying: watch.


Coronavirus: Meanwhile, some good news amid COVID-19 gloom

Amid the pandemic scare, these are the news that instill our hope that though there’s a long way to go, we can fight.

With number of coronavirus cases increasing every hour and countries on lockdown, one can sense fear in the atmosphere. People are panicking due to lack of information or misinformation. But trust experts, there is nothing to panic. One needs to maintain hygiene and social distancing.

So far more than 160 cases have been reported in India, as per Health Ministry website. The condition across the globe is critical but we know–this too shall pass. So amid this situation of crisis, here are some good news to give you a sigh of relief.

Fight Against Coronavirus

  • Zero domestic infection reported in China – In a major milestone against coronavirus pandemic battle, China marked a major milestone in its battle against the coronavirus pandemic as it recorded zero domestic infections for the first time since the outbreak emerged, but a spike in imported cases threatened its progress. The pandemic, it seems is on decline as nations across the world have shut down in a desperate effort to contain the pandemic, with more people now infected and having died abroad than in China. There have been no new cases in Wuhan — the central city where the virus first emerged in December — for the first time since authorities started publishing figures in January, according to the National Health Commission.
  • China has closed down its last coronavirus hospital as there were not enough new cases to support them. 
  • Doctors in India have been successful in treating coronavirus. Combination of drugs that are being used are Lopinavir, Retonovir, Oseltamivir along with Chlorphenamine. Same medicines are being suggested globally.
  • Researchers of the Erasmus Medical Center claim to have found an antibody against coronavirus.
  • A 103-year-old Chinese grandmother has fully recover from COVID-19 after being treated for 6 days in Wuhan.
  • Apple reopens all 42 china stores.
  • Cleveland Clinic developed a COVID-19 test that gives results in hours.
  • In South Korea, number of new cases are declining.
  • Italy has been hit hard only because they have the oldest population in Europe, as per experts.
  •  Scientists in Israel might reportedly announce the development of a coronavirus vaccine.
  • 3 Maryland coronavirus patients fully recovered
  •  A team of Canadian scientists are making excellent progress in Covid-19 research.
  • A San Diego biotech company is working towards developing a Covid-19 vaccine in collaboration with Duke University and National University of Singapore.
  • Reportedly, plasma from newly recovered patients from Covid -19 can treat others infected by Covid-19.

Amid the pandemic, these news reinstate our faith and give us hope to fight with double the strength. Wash hands, stay away from each other to stay safe. SOURCE

Ten Thoughts on the Power of Pandemics

They disrupt, reveal, renew. They give opportunity to rethink what we’ve come to believe is normal.


Non-pharmaceutical interventions such as hand washing, social isolation and the banning of crowds can dramatically slow the spread of a viral plague. Images source: Wikihow

[Editor’s note: Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is the author of two best-selling books on epidemics: The Fourth Horseman and Pandemonium, both published by Penguin Books.]

“It is the microbes who will have the last word.”—Louis Pasteur

In 2016 the Commission on Creating a Global Health Risk Framework for the Future, a U.S. panel of health experts, warned that “the conditions for infectious disease emergence and contagion are more dangerous than ever” due to overpopulation, urbanization, industrial livestock crowds and mobility.

The panel estimated that there was a 20 per cent chance that four pandemics could unsettle the globe over the next century.

The late Joshua Lederberg, a Nobel Prize winning biologist, warned more than a decade ago that the world had entered a disquieting era of plague making.

“We have crowded together a hotbed of opportunity for infectious agents to spread over a significant part of the population. Affluent and mobile people are ready and willing and able to carry affliction all over the world within 24 hours’ notice. This condensation, stratification and mobility is unique, defining us as a very different species from what we were 100 years ago,” he wrote.

As dramatic agents of biological change pandemics resemble tsunamis or bombs. They can wash over continents changing political arrangements, religious beliefs, artistic endeavours and economic habits.

Or they can blow up fossilized institutions and destabilize political dynasties.

In the past they have stopped wars and started them. Pandemics have the energy to rattle and even collapse civilizations. Think of them as mighty and uncertain biological recalibrations.

As COVID-19 provokes the usual spate of plague behaviours (fear, dread, generosity and compassion) it is worth remembering that pandemics remain critical and immutable social forces that shape our lives. They paralyze and disrupt. They reveal and renew. Here then are 10 characteristics that the global economy and its elites have mostly ignored about the energy of pandemics:

1. Pandemics are one of four biblical horsemen that give meaning to our lives and shape human history.

The White Horse represents the word of God or truth. The Red Horse symbolizes the power of the state over peace and war. The Black Horse, for good and ill, commands the busts and booms of economics and famines. Last but not least, comes the Fourth Horseman. It represents the disquieting influence of microbial life and pestilence. As I noted in my book The Fourth Horseman nearly 30 years ago, we don’t like to think that we are a part of history anymore, but we are walking memories of past plagues.

2. Pandemics may appear as random events, but are really the product of cultivated vulnerabilities by different civilizations at different times.

Homo sapiens have a long history of provoking plagues with overcrowding, dirty water, deforestation, poor nutrition, ruinous poverty, soil erosion and novel agricultural practices.

Influenza, for example, started to unsettle the globe when Chinese farmers added ducks to rice paddies to control insects in the 16th century. That single change put avian viruses in close proximity to pigs, which helped the virus jump to humans.

3. So-called “non-pharmaceutical interventions” such as hand washing, social isolation and the banning of crowds can dramatically slow the spread of a viral plague.

In contrast vaccines and drugs rarely arrive on the scene until the pandemic has waned. In fact material changes in human behaviour, housing, nutrition and hygiene have always had the most impact on slowing or stopping plagues.

The experiences of COVID-19 in South Korea and Italy illustrates how rapid changes in human behaviour can alter outcomes.

As of March 14 South Korea had 67 deaths. Meanwhile Italy has lost more than 1,266 citizens, a death rate of seven per cent for those known infected, much higher than South Korea’s.

4. Pandemics invite a rude parade of blame, conspiracies and religious zealotry.

As waves of plague undid Europe fearful authorities scapegoated Jews for spreading the Black Death. (They practiced better hygiene and therefore were suspect by the afflicted.) During the industrial revolution working people thought that the rich had invented cholera to murder the poor.

In scores of riots they attacked the rich, hospitals and doctors. When the Spanish flu pandemic hit Africa, white South Africans blamed blacks for the mounting death toll because blacks worked in the most crowded and appalling work places. That blame eventually morphed into a noxious political policy: apartheid.

COVID-19, of course, initially directed a surge of racism against Chinese citizens even though the virus probably did not originate in Wuhan’s wet market as widely reported.  The market merely spread the virus.

582px version of COVID-modest-proposal.jpg
A poster created by one of Spain’s most famous cartoonists, Miguel Brieva.
5. Global trade has always played a formidable role in disease exchanges.

The Silk Road brought rats and fleas to 13th-century Europe resulting in a demographic collapse in which one in four people died.  The slave trade bombarded two continents with epidemics. Waves of cholera epidemics followed European trade routes from the Ganges Delta to the slums of major cities. Global steamship traffic dutifully carried influenza around the world and played a key role in spreading the deadly Spanish flu pandemic.

6. Each and every pandemic leaves a unique and unpredictable legacy.

The Black Death killed so many people that feudal landlords were forced to increase wages and decrease rents to keep labour.  The die-off also changed humankind’s relationship with God and nature.

In the 17th century syphilis changed sexual politics between men and women and public baths fell out of fashion. Tuberculosis epidemics illuminated the perils of homeless and forced migrations. And so on.

7. As great disturbances in human affairs, pandemics invariably unsettle and change economies.

Smallpox emptied the Americas and allowed Spain to loot the region of its gold and silver. Smallpox also played a major role in shaping the ebb and flow of Canada’s bloody fur trade by dramatically killing off entire First Nations on the plains.

The Spanish Flu of 1918 to 1919 killed at least 50 million people and erased five per cent of global gross domestic production. Ebola ate up 10 per cent of the GDP of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea in 2014 and 2015. COVID-19 likely will be the costliest pandemic due to the complexity and fragility of globalization.

Some pandemics undo economies with mass die-offs but in most modern cases it is the fear of infection that bleeds financial systems.

8. Pandemics rudely outline weaknesses and faults in political leadership. Good leaders lessen their impacts while incompetent leaders add to the gravity.

President Woodrow Wilson was so focused on the First World War that he ignored repeated warnings about influenza and its impact on Atlantic troop movements to the Western Front. At the end of the war Canadian and U.S. authorities knowingly put sick troops on cramped ships with poor ventilation. As a result the flu killed 675,000 Americans while the trench warfare claimed but 53,000 U.S. soldiers.

President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa didn’t think HIV was caused by a virus and thousands died.

President Donald Trump, who initially accused his political rivals of perpetrating a “hoax” when they warned his administration wasn’t doing enough about COVID-19, failed to prepare the United States with adequate testing and containment.  Then, saying “I take no responsibility at all,” he falsely blamed the Obama administration for inadequate testing kits.

9. Pandemics are rarely equal opportunity events.

They might scare everyone but they don’t kill everyone: They tend to target the poor, the vulnerable and those wounded by bad health.

The Black Death struck down both rich and poor but really focused on the malnourished and the frail.

Smallpox became a terror for Indigenous Peoples because they had no immunity to this novel Old World virus. During the Spanish flu members of First Nations died at rates seven times higher than British Columbia’s provincial average.

Cholera primarily dogged the working class. HIV initially targeted marginalized communities: gay men and drug users. Ebola affected the poorest of the poor. To date COVID-19 seems to affect the elderly and unwell disproportionately.

10. Ultimately, pandemics invite us to question disturbances in the human family.

COVID-19, for example, could provoke challenges to the unsustainable complexity of technological life as well as the deadly biological traffic in all living organisms on a planet now crowded by eight billion people. We might, after the storm has passed, question the vulnerability of monocultures and the globalization of everything.

Long after the monotony of deprivation and separation, the survivors of pandemics will kiss and hold their loved ones with a new appreciation. They might light candles, true plague light, and offer prayers of thanksgiving.

The humbled will be thankful, as author of The Plague Albert Camus once was, for what pandemics have always taught those receptive to biological instruction: “There are more things to admire in men than to despise.”  [Tyee] SOURCE


Anatomy of a Pandemic

Like major contagions throughout history, the new coronavirus causes fear as well as illness. The remedy for both, it turns out, is the same


TO BE ALIVE is to be afraid; anxiety is the spirit of this age and, substantially, of all ages. However good things have gotten, at least for those of us in Canada—however low crime and unemployment rates have become, however much war deaths have declined, life expectancy has grown, or HIV, cancer, and age-adjusted heart disease death rates have shrunk—disquiet claws at us. Financiers may advise that what they call the downside risk—the potential for loss in the worst cases—is limited, but at an existential level, we know better. Everything could just go all to hell, no matter how shiny things look. You don’t need to be a wigged-out prepper in the woods to suspect it.

Things have always gone all to hell. Over 4,000 years ago, climate change came to Mesopotamia, causing drought and a subsequent famine so severe that the world’s first empire, Akkad, simply ceased to be. Farmers abandoned their crops and many scribes just stopped writing. For archaeologists, for the next 300 years: near silence.

This is from The Curse of Akkad, written around the time of the silencing:

Those who lay down on the roof, died on the roof; those who lay down in the house were not buried. People were flailing at themselves from hunger. By the Ki-ur, Enlil’s great place, dogs were packed together in the silent streets; if two men walked there they would be devoured by them, and if three men walked there they would be devoured by them.

In the third century, the Three Kingdoms war shattered China. The An Lushan Rebellion, five centuries later, shattered it again. Millions died in each of: the Mongol conquests, the nineteenth century’s Taiping Rebellion, colonialism in the Americas, the Thirty Years’ War in Europe—and, of course, the World Wars, which killed, conservatively, over 110 million.

Famine and war routinely bring civilizations low, but though he trots closely beside those two, the horseman who carries off the most has always been pestilence. The Roman Empire’s Justinian Plague, which was perhaps history’s first known pandemic, is thought to have killed millions in the sixth century and may have further stressed the weakening imperium. Procopius writes contemporaneously that death rates in Constantinople were as high as 10,000 per day:

And many perished through lack of any man to care for them, for they were either overcome by hunger, or threw themselves down from a height. And in those cases where neither coma nor delirium came on, the bubonic swelling became mortified and the sufferer, no longer able to endure the pain, died.

This was humanity’s first catastrophic involvement with Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that would resurface again during the Black Death, killing 30 to 60 percent of the population of medieval Europe. Western Europe’s population would not reach what it had been in the 1340s again until the beginning of the sixteenth century. In subsequent centuries, cholera also swept the urbanized world—crowding being a powerful accelerant for non–vector borne (that is, not insect- or snail-spread) infection. (Paleolithic peoples saw no sustained human-to-human infections; their numbers were too small to keep up chains of transmission.) What John Bunyan called the “captain of all these men of death,” tuberculosis, has been with us for at least 9,000 years, since the Neolithic period, and has killed more than a billion humans in the last 200 years alone. It was responsible for 25 percent of all deaths in Europe between the 1600s and the 1800s. It remains the most lethal infection worldwide, killing about 1.5 million people a year, and currently infects one-third of living humans.

Those infections are bacterial, but history’s worst pandemic was caused by a virus that swept the world only a long lifetime ago: the misnamed “Spanish” flu of 1918–1920 was a strain of H1N1 influenza of unknown origin (any place where pigs and chickens and people live is a candidate). That illness was often complicated by a supervening bacterial pneumonia, for which there were then no antibiotics, and it spread around the world over the course of two years, ultimately killing 20 to 50 million. It killed, on average, 2.5 percent of the people it infected, but certain communities were hit much harder: about 7 percent of Iranians died, a third of Inuit in Labrador, and 20 percent of the Samoan population.

In The Great Influenza, historian John M. Barry quotes an American Red Cross worker: “Not one of the neighbors would come in and help. I . . . telephoned the woman’s sister. She came and tapped on the window, but refused to talk to me until she had gotten a safe distance away.” Barry continues: “In Perry County, Kentucky, the Red Cross chapter chairman begged for help, pleaded that there were ‘hundreds of cases . . . [of] people starving to death not from lack of food but because the well were panic stricken and would not go near the sick.’”

Contagion may be a leading cause of death, but the worst thing it ever does is prompt us to recoil from one another—much the greater injury: to our health, to our communities, to whatever it is that stands in the way of this slouching beast.

This January and February, things started looking like they could again go all to hell. (They may yet.) Wuhan, in the province of Hubei, China, is a transportation hub of 11 million built where the Yangtze and Huan Rivers meet. In December, patients began presenting, in steadily increasing numbers, with symptoms and clinical findings suggestive of viral pneumonia. (Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs; it may be caused by viruses, bacteria, or fungi.) Tests for known pathogens capable of causing such an illness came back negative. This raised the question of whether a novel pathogen—an infectious agent not previously known to affect humans—had emerged.

A person in full-body protective gear looks at his shadow on the wall, which is a robed figure in a broad hat and a plague mask with a long beak.

Novel pathogens inspire a particularly pointed sort of anxiety among doctors. Many familiar pathogens are lethal on a broad scale—influenza caused over 34,000 deaths in the US in 2018/19, for instance—but their behaviour is known and tends to be consistent. Seasonal influenza, for example, is active in the northern hemisphere beginning in November; its spread slows dramatically by late March. It is monitored carefully and understood well enough that vaccines may be prepared that are usually effective at reducing disease incidence and severity. We know how to contain this virus, we know which patients will be the most vulnerable to it, and we know, within an order of magnitude, how many will die. The ceiling on that number matters. While the best-case scenario for influenza each year includes many deaths, we also have an idea of what the worst-case scenario is. The downside risk is not infinite.

With novel pathogens, this is not true. The worst-case scenario is undefined. Novel pathogens are not inevitably virulent or necessarily prone to become epidemic, but some of them do prove to be catastrophic—and doctors don’t know, when one emerges, what course it’s going to take.

The number of ill in Wuhan grew quickly, as did the number of medical researchers paying attention. On December 31, China notified the World Health Organization (WHO) that it was seeing an outbreak of pneumonia due to an unknown agent. By January 7, Chinese virologists had sequenced the genetic structure of this new virus—which has been dubbed SARS-CoV-2 (the illness that it causes is called COVID-19)—posting it online so that researchers around the world could access it. A few days later, an apparent connection to the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, in Wuhan, was reported to the WHO, and the market was quickly ordered to close. On March 11, following growing transmission in countries around the world, the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, which it defines as “the worldwide spread of a new disease.”

The virus was found to be part of the family of Coronaviridae, or coronaviruses: a large group of viruses that are so named because, when examined with an electron microscope, they appear studded with projections that suggest a crown. Benign instances of coronaviruses cause up to a third of common colds. A more alarming example is the SARS virus, which leapt from an unknown agent (likely bats) to civet cats and caused a multinational outbreak, killing about 10 percent of the 8,000 people it infected, and which hit Toronto, where forty-four people died of the illness. Another coronavirus leapt from camels to humans in 2012 or earlier and causes a type of pneumonia called MERS, or Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, which persists in Saudi Arabia. These new coronaviruses are zoonotic: they originated in animal populations and were then transmitted to humans. Researchers concluded early on that SARS-CoV-2’s leap to humans had occurred quite recently, likely sometime last November.

The story of this pandemic is, in many ways, a story about speed. HIV circulated among humans for about six decades before it was noticed. The quickness with which science has identified this new infection and defined the genetic nature of the virus causing it is unprecedented, but this is matched by the virus itself: the rapidity with which it was observed to leap to humans and the rate at which it was seen to disseminate among us has almost no parallel in modern medicine.

Everything about this story is fast: the science, the virus, and the almost instantaneous popular fascination with and fear of unfolding events—spread by social media but also by traditional journalism and a public sensitized by Ebola and 2009 H1N1. The spirit of our age anticipates disaster when once it anticipated flying cars. For a time after 9/11, every loud noise was a bomb and every brown man a bomber. The disasters of our time have been mostly human caused (or anthropogenic, as the climatologists put it). Given human obduracy, this is less reassuring than it might be.

The Chinese government’s information management around the COVID-19 outbreak worsened our general unease. China has been more forthcoming than it was with the 2003 SARS outbreak, but even so, it has not been broadly transparent. Frustration over this among the citizenry crystallized over the treatment of Li Wenliang, a thirty-four-year-old ophthalmologist in Wuhan who alerted his former medical-school classmates to the outbreak, on December 30, over WeChat, the Chinese messaging and social media platform. After being summoned for questioning by police and signing a statement that his warning had “disturbed [the] social order,” he was released—only to come down with COVID-19 himself, dying of it on February 7. The indignation and anger on Chinese social media was uncharacteristically plain-spoken.

The early clampdown on information had many repercussions. Echo Xie, a reporter for the South China Morning Post, travelled to Wuhan in the first weeks of the outbreak. As recently as late January, she told me, “a lot of people didn’t take it seriously. It’s been almost twenty days since the Wuhan health authorities first published information about the coronavirus, but some people still haven’t heard about it.” She went on to describe some of the people she had met:

A woman surnamed Xu, thirty-one, said her father, her brother-in-law, and a family friend had all developed severe pneumonia and breathing problems. Her father had caught a fever in early January, after a business trip to the southern region of Guangxi. He was treated for a common cold at first, but his condition kept worsening. He went to the hospital on January 12, where he was not formally admitted as the hospital had no beds left; he was instead put in an observation room—one that he shared with eleven other patients with different illnesses, with no partitions separating beds. An X-ray showed his lungs were infected, but at that time, he could still walk. On January 19, when he got another X-ray, three doctors told Xu that her father was in a very serious situation and there was a large area of shadow on his lungs. Still, he was kept in the same room as others, without quarantine facilities.

                                                                                                                                           People were asking for help online when almost every hospital was full and no longer accepting any new patients. Yuan Yuhong, a professor in Wuhan, posted on WeChat: “Parents of my son-in-law were infected by the coronavirus and they were diagnosed, but now no hospital accepts them.”

SEVERE VIRAL pneumonias are a familiar problem to intensive care units all over the world, and the level of resources that must be devoted to the care of such patients is high, often straining existing health care structures even with the comparatively low numbers of such patients that are usual most years. ICU care is expensive, costing more than $1,500 per day, and maintaining surge capacity—the ability to respond to an abrupt increase in caseload—is correspondingly expensive. And so, little elasticity exists in most Western medical systems, including Canada’s.

The H1N1 influenza strain of 2009 (commonly referred to at the time as “swine flu”) is perhaps the most recent outbreak in Canada that can give a sense of what COVID-19 would be like if it spread here in earnest. Intensive care units were profoundly taxed with patients who had needs that were similar to those of the most serious COVID-19 cases. Supporting critically ill patients—those in multisystem organ failure—requires ventilator support, dialysis, and one-to-one or sometimes even two-to-one nursing staff. It takes only a few such cases to stretch an ICU and its staff, together with allied disciplines, such as respiratory therapists, to their limits, or past them.

In the intensive care unit where I work as a critical care physician, in Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, we began seeing such patients in late December 2009; by January, we were consistently over capacity. Nanaimo is a medium-size city of just over 100,000, and the Nanaimo hospital has nine ICU beds—a little fewer than the national average of about 12.9 beds per 100,000 people. In such a setting, even a handful of extra patients requiring high-level care can put unsustainable pressure on the system. And it did. By March, the nurses, who had worked long overtime hours for months, were spent.

Those days had a frenetic quality to them that lingers in the memory of clinicians. Usually, the patients were admitted through the emergency room after several days of fever and coughing—familiar symptoms of influenza, which progresses just as COVID-19 progresses. When pneumonia supervenes, breathlessness is the most common indication that things are going badly. This is a consequence of inflammation in the lungs limiting their ability to transfer oxygen to the blood and to permit the exhalation of carbon dioxide.

With respiratory distress comes confusion and agitation; if that distress becomes severe, there may be a decision to sedate and intubate the patient—to pass a plastic tube into the trachea in order to force oxygen into the lungs and facilitate the removal of CO2. The tube is connected to a ventilator and the pressures and volumes of oxygen-enriched air are titrated to adequately support lung function without overdistending the lungs—a narrow window with patients so sick. People with severe pneumonia are often laid prone, on their fronts, in their beds, usually chemically paralyzed and sedated to the point of anaesthesia. Special intravenous catheters will have been placed by this point, leading to the large veins that drain into the heart, to facilitate the administration of powerful medicines to support blood pressure. Dialysis catheters may also be necessary if the kidneys are failing, and that, in turn, will usually be treated with continuous dialysis machines, requiring a dedicated nurse and the help of kidney doctors.

That process of stabilization and the initiation of life support systems will occupy a physician, a respiratory tech, and three or four nurses for one to three hours, when it goes well. Three such admissions would fill a day—in addition to the care required for other patients, with heart attacks and abdominal infections and injuries from car accidents, which do not go away during a pandemic—and still leave our ICU short a dialysis machine.

This is what clinicians know: a few dozen extra cases—each of which may require many weeks of care—in a winter can be overwhelming. It is impossible to even imagine how hundreds or thousands of such cases would be managed.

In retrospect, after 2009 H1N1—as well as after SARS and the other recent near misses, to say nothing of the fifteen-century history of pandemics—the surprising thing is how little was done subsequently to prepare for the next disastrous outbreak. There are not boxes full of spare ventilators in the basements of North American hospitals, ordered in volume once H1N1 subsided. There are not broadly understood and detailed plans for coping with the toll of caregiver infection, for housing and feeding the many new staff the medical and ICU wards would suddenly require; personal protective gear has not been stockpiled in anything like sufficient quantities—indeed, according to Tedros Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, worldwide supplies are already under severe strain.

AS MUCH AS the COVID-19 story is about speed, it is also about fear. Frightened people behave badly; contagion makes them recoil from one another. This serves the purposes of the horseman, distracting from important problems and their solutions and making marginalized people—some of whom seem often to be deemed culpable for epidemics—even more vulnerable. Plagues preferentially consume, whether directly or indirectly, the poor and powerless; it is a taste they have exhibited since Procopius.

As a barometer of fear and social dissolution in pandemics, othering has a long history; contagion has, for centuries, been associated with disparaged minorities. The Black Death certainly did not inaugurate anti-Semitism, but there is evidence that it propelled it to new depths. More than 200 Jewish communities were wiped out by pogroms justified by the libel that Jews were responsible for the plague in that they had poisoned local wells. There is a terrible account in Jakob von Königshofen’s history of Agimet of Geneva, a Jew who was “put to the torture a little” until he confessed to having poisoned wells in Venice, Calabria, and Apulia, among others. This became a narrative that accompanied the plague as it moved throughout Western Europe.

A similar othering effort was applied to gay and bisexual men when HIV was first recognized, attributing the HIV pandemic directly to sexual practices and indirectly to drug use (particularly amyl nitrate, or “poppers”) that lowered inhibitions—which is to say, to the queer “lifestyle.” Bathhouse culture was implicated—as if promiscuity were only the province of gay men—as was intercourse between men.

The new coronavirus, it has been suggested, arose and became epidemic among humans in China because of the Chinese themselves. Chinese dietary customs were singled out early—though any sort of explanation would likely have served. In the first days of the outbreak, a clip from a 2016 travel show of a young Chinese YouTube celebrity eating bat soup in a restaurant on the Pacific island of Palau was widely circulated. (Throughout much of Oceania, bats—the only native mammal species to many of the Pacific islands—have long been considered a delicacy.) This was presented as evidence of the unnatural behaviour of the Chinese, which was in turn held to be the proximate cause of the epidemic. The response was disgust and contempt and a chorus of self-righteous disdain—just as is intended when malicious stereotypes are circulated in such situations.

Alongside these noxious comments, a competing—and equally racist—account of COVID-19 began circulating. A paper—later retracted—was distributed prior to peer review arguing that SARS-CoV-2 had such “uncanny” genetic commonality with HIV that it was probably bioengineered, presumably by the Chinese, who have a microbiology lab located in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. This fringe theory (the genetic sequences in question aren’t just in common with HIV but with many other viruses) was repeatedly espoused by Tom Cotton, a Republican senator from Arkansas. (He later walked back the claim.)

Sinophobia has acted at a more local level as well. During the height of the 2003 SARS outbreak, business at Chinese restaurants in Toronto dropped by 40 to 80 percent. Restaurateurs in Chinatowns across Canada were seeing customers stay away before the epidemic had even arrived. And, in January, parents in a school board just north of Toronto signed a petition demanding that a student who had recently travelled to China not be admitted to school; it now has just over 10,000 signatures. “This has to stop. Stop eating wild animals and then infecting everyone around you. Stop the spread and quarantine yourselves or go back,” wrote one signatory.

THE MEASURE of a plague is the number of people it infects and how seriously it sickens them. The number of people it’s expected to infect multiplied by its mortality rate yields its prospective death toll. And this, naturally, is the question that draws the most attention: How bad is it going to get? How many are going to die? What are the numbers? People seek numbers in times of uncertainty because it feels like they have a solidity about them. A quantified subject is a tamed one, to some extent.

The R0, or the basic reproductive number, is a tool that allows epidemiologists to describe how contagious a pathogen is in a given circumstance. It is the average number of people who will in turn be infected by each new infection. If it is less than 1, the infection dwindles. More than 1, it spreads. Regular seasonal flu has an R0 of about 1.4; pandemic flu between 1.5 and 2, depending on the strain. Some early calculations estimated COVID-19’s R0 to be as high as 4, but as with the mortality rate, successive estimations moderated the result, and by mid-February, most experts estimated it at between 2 and 2.5. Which remains high compared to influenza but is hardly unprecedented. Measles, in unvaccinated and crowded populations, can be as high as 18.

Other numbers are needed to understand how fatal a pathogen is. A point made often, early in the course of COVID-19, was that its mortality rate is much lower than that of SARS (10 percent) or MERS (34 percent). Though it is too soon to pin down the mortality rate of COVID-19, current estimates put it at between 1 and 4 percent. (In Wuhan, where the health care system has clearly been profoundly stressed, it is at the higher end of that range. Elsewhere, the early numbers, at least, have been lower.) This follows known patterns: as a general rule, there is an inverse relationship between mortality and spread; COVID-19 has infected many more people than SARS or MERS and has a lower fatality rate.

Paradoxically, the lower virulence of SARS-CoV-2 makes it more dangerous. With SARS, people who were infected but not yet symptomatic were mostly not contagious. When they did fall ill, they often felt so unwell so quickly that they took to bed or went to the hospital—where they became very contagious. Many nurses were infected, but community spread was limited.

With SARS-CoV-2, it seems that many quite contagious infected people may feel well initially or indeed throughout their infection. Decreased virulence is bought at the price of increased contagiousness, and even if infected people are a quarter as likely to die, ten times as many people have been infected, and many more infections are yet to occur. The Spanish Flu’s fatality rate was under 2.5 percent; the WHO believes it killed about 50 million, though some other estimates go as high as 100 million. Seasonal influenza’s fatality rate is generally accepted to be about 0.1 percent—though it, too, is lethal, killing tens of thousands of North Americans every year as a consequence of how widespread it becomes every winter.

There are reasons for optimism and reasons for pessimism.

One point that needs more emphasis is that epidemics have diminished in much of the Global North for good reason. There has not been an uncontained and uncontainable epidemic on the scale of 1918 in over a century. This is only partly because of specific antibiotics, antiviral therapy (for viruses like HIV and hepatitis C), and vaccines. A large part of this is due to affluence and, to a qualified and recently diminishing degree, justice. The poor in the rich parts of the world no longer often die of hunger. For a majority, drinking water is cleaner. The crowding and misery of Dickensian London saw tuberculosis become the leading cause of death among adults; over the course of the twentieth century, that death toll fell 90 percent. Streptomycin, the first effective antituberculosis antibiotic, was made available in 1947, but there was a huge drop in infections prior to that due to improvements in quality of life. There had been some redistribution of wealth, and the very poorest were less poor than they had been. Tuberculosis in most of Canada is almost gone. But, in Nunavut, which has Canada’s highest poverty rate, the incidence was recently comparable to Somalia’s.

Part of this reduction in illness is also due to the sustained efforts of public health workers. Public health measures work. They worked to contain SARS in Toronto in 2003. Identifying and isolating infected and contagious people reduced the R0 to less than 1. The discipline of public health lacks the drama of the Salk polio vaccine or effective antiretroviral therapy, but it has saved countless lives nonetheless. It may be just beginning to work in Wuhan. Within a few weeks of the outbreak, there was a test for the virus. In a few weeks more, there may be a much more rapid and convenient test, perhaps available at the point of care, which would make isolation measures much more effective.

But the reasons for anxiety are compelling too. A vaccine is at least a year away. There is no drug with proven efficacy against the virus. As of this writing, the virus is present in more than 100 countries. There are nearly 8 billion humans on the planet; the next largest population of nondomesticated large mammals is the crabeater seal, around Antarctica: 15 million. We live, worldwide, mostly in cities and now in densities that make us profoundly vulnerable. As Michael Specter, writing presciently in The New Yorker about pandemics, has pointed out, few of us can completely isolate ourselves—and, in Wuhan, the lockdown cannot continue indefinitely. In other parts of the world, where the central government is less powerful, it could not even be initiated. People need food; people need medicine; people need one another.

Nothing important about us and our success as a species can be understood except by looking at our interdependencies. If many of us could not come to work—because of sickness, because of the need to care for loved ones, or because of mandated social-distancing—then the fabric of our society would begin to tear. Transportation networks would fail; airports would cease to operate. Human beings are ambivalent about their interdependence. To need others is to be vulnerable; when we’re under threat, vulnerability elicits fear.

Despite our hopes, and despite the unprecedented quarantine, COVID-19 was not contained in Wuhan as SARS, improbably, was contained and extirpated in Toronto and the other cities it broke out in. The Wuhan lockdown did slow the epidemic, however, and relieved the pressure on the city’s health care system, which was failing.

Now, the rest of us brace for a version of what the Chinese experienced. We must now contemplate how much we need one another. The instinct to recoil would be the worst possible response because doing so would ensure that the most vulnerable among us are consumed. And, in a pandemic, that injury would not be purely moral or social—though it would be those too. It would feed the contagion, overwhelm the hospitals, and increase the risk to the less vulnerable. Rarely is the argument for mutual devotion so easily made.

It might be that that this pandemic will turn out less severe than what is feared; it might be that the winter spike in Wuhan will not be replicated elsewhere. But, even if we contain this virus, there will be another. And this point, that some threats can be faced only collectively, will remain. We have to learn it. SOURCE


How measures to contain COVID-19 may clash with Canadians’ Charter rights

With Canada facing a pandemic that puts the health of millions potentially at risk, and governments imposing stringent measures, questions are being raised about what role constitutional rights play in times of crisis, and whether governments have the manoeuvring room to protect society. Sean Fine looks at the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in dangerous times.

Q: What powers do governments have for this crisis?

A: Widespread quarantine powers, the ability to close borders, restrict the movement of goods and people, close buildings and even order individuals to seek treatment. New powers were developed after the SARS crisis of 2003 left provinces realizing they lacked the legal authority for health emergencies.

Q: Does Canada need the Charter at a time of such peril?

A: More than ever, constitutional scholars say, to ensure the country does not abandon its principles such as protection of the vulnerable. “The Charter is there to stop decisions that are entirely fear-based and speculative,” says Michael Bryant, chief executive officer of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and a former Ontario attorney-general. For instance, if a province attempted to quarantine Asian-Canadians or Asian visitors in the beginning stages, the move would have been vulnerable to a constitutional challenge, he said.

Q: How flexible is the Charter in taking a health emergency into account?

A: Section 1 can impose reasonable limits on fundamental freedoms. But it needs to justify those limits on the basis of evidence, if challenged in court. What’s reasonable depends on the context and situation, says University of Ottawa law professor Carissima Mathen. Also, Section 33, the notwithstanding clause, allows the government to opt out of fundamental freedoms. But the federal government has never invoked it.

Q: In what specific situations does the question of reasonable limits arise in the current emergency?

A: Bail hearings may be unavailable to accused persons, as most courts have closed many of their operations down, Mr. Bryant says. The Charter contains a right to timely bail, and federal law spells out how quickly such hearings need to be held. “In those circumstances I think they have to be released. They haven’t been convicted of a crime – there’s no legal authority to detain them.” He said he has been visiting jails and speaking to corrections officials and criminal defence lawyers to get a sense of what is happening to bail rights.

Q: What about Canadians who are symptomatic, and are now barred from entering Canada on an airplane, a decision of the federal government?

A: Section 6 of the Charter says, “Every citizen of Canada has the right to enter, remain in and leave Canada.” The notwithstanding clause doesn’t apply to this section, underlining the importance of the right. The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act also guarantees that same right not only to citizens but to permanent residents. The federal Quarantine Act contains measures that, on their face, are in conflict with the Charter and the IRPA, Mr. Bryant says. Thus, the CCLA has put the message out on social media for Canadians in this situation, or those trying to visit symptomatic Canadian relatives abroad, to contact them. “Right now it seems to be the area of constitutional vulnerability,” Mr. Bryant said. However, Prof. Mathen said, “there is at least an argument that if you’re actively showing symptoms of a highly contagious condition, any government probably has a reasonable basis for saying, ‘We cannot permit you to board an aircraft.’ ”

Q: What constitutional issues would there be with the emergency powers declared by Ontario Premier Doug Ford on Tuesday, such as limiting places of worship to gatherings of 50 people, or ordering restaurants closed?

A: If the worship limit were challenged in court, the government would likely have to show it’s a minimal intrusion on freedom of religion in the circumstances, Mr. Bryant said. On the closing of restaurants, Prof. Mathen said there is no right to earn money in the Charter, and no property rights, unlike in the U.S. Constitution. Only if the limits had the effect of starving people, she said, would they have a constitutional case under Section 7, the right to life, liberty and personal security.

Q: Can governments actually limit the right to life, liberty and security?

A: Only in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice, as Section 7 puts it. But no more than that, at least so far. Nothing the Supreme Court has ever found fundamentally unjust under Section 7 (such as a ban on medical assistance in dying) has ever been ruled a “reasonable” limit under Section 1. But the court has said that war, insurrection or disease could allow for such a possibility.

Q: What might the Charter (and the courts, if a challenge arrived) have to say about a citywide or even countrywide quarantine?

A: It would be seen as a sweeping move, and require a justification based on evidence of peril, perhaps including evidence that many people were not obeying social-distancing directives. “I’m not saying it would be impossible,” Prof. Mathen said. “I think the courts generally permit the government a fair bit of latitude to say, ‘In our judgment, this is the risk, and we need to be able to manage the risk.’ ” But it would be tricky. SOURCE

Climate Change Has Lessons for Fighting the Coronavirus

María Medem

“Alarming levels of inaction.” That is what the World Health Organization said Wednesday about the global response to coronavirus.

It is a familiar refrain to anyone who works on climate change, and it is why global efforts to slow down warming offer a cautionary tale for the effort to slow down the pandemic.

“Both demand early aggressive action to minimize loss,” said Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology who was teaching classes remotely this week. “Only in hindsight will we really understand what we gambled on and what we lost by not acting early enough.”

Scientists like Dr. Cobb have, for years, urged world leaders to bend the curve of planet-warming emissions. Instead, emissions have raced upward. Now the consequences are being felt: a three-month-long flood in the Florida Keyswildfires across a record hot and dry Australia, deadly heat waves in Europe.

Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at New York University, called the virus “climate change on warp speed.”

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Why have we not taken climate risks to heart? Politics and psychology play a role.

Change is hard when there’s a powerful industry blocking it. The fossil fuel industry has pushed climate science denial into the public consciousness. It has lobbied against policies that could rein in the emissions of planet-warming gases. And, it has succeeded: The United States, history’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, is the only country in the world to have withdrawn from the Paris accord, designed to stave off the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

Get an informed guide to the global outbreak with our daily coronavirus newsletter.

On display this week was some of that same disregard for scientific evidence with respect to coronavirus, which prompted an unusually blunt editorial in Science magazine. It called out President Trump for demanding a coronavirus vaccine at a time when his administration had gutted funding for scientific research and repeatedly questioned the fundamentals of science, saying, “you can’t insult science when you don’t like it and then suddenly insist on something that science can’t give on demand.”

Then, there’s human psychology. As with climate change, our collective ability to confront the pandemic is shaped by our brains. We are bad at thinking about tomorrow.

Credit…María Medem


Elke Weber, a behavioral scientist at Princeton University, said that makes climate science, which deals in future probabilities, “hard to process and hard for us to be afraid of.”

“We are evolutionarily wired for taking care of the here and now,” Dr. Weber said. “We are bad at these decisions that require planning for the future.”

That appears to be true even if the future isn’t so far away. The Arctic is on track to be ice-free in summers in 20 years, researchers say, while the Amazon rain forest could turn into a savanna in 50 years.

Here, too, are lessons for our ability to confront the virus. Precisely because we are bad as individuals at thinking about tomorrow, economists and psychologists say it’s all the more important to have leaders enact policies that enable us to protect ourselves against future risk.

For coronavirus, those may be costly now, Dr. Wagner pointed out in a telephone interview, but they yield huge benefits in the not-too-distant future.

“It’s costs today and benefits within days and weeks,” Dr. Wagner said of the needed coronavirus measures. “Even though the time scale is compressed, we still apparently can’t figure out what to do.”

Scientists have repeatedly said that global emissions must be reduced by half over the next decade in order to keep average temperatures from rising to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, from preindustrial levels. A failure to do so is likely to usher in catastrophes as early as 2040, including the inundation of coastlines, worsening wildfires and droughts.

Those warnings don’t spark much policy change. We are not told to do the climate equivalent of coughing into our elbows. We are not discouraged from flying. Instead, sales of sports utility vehicles soar. The Amazon burns so more soy and cattle can be produced.

The dangers of to human life, though, are already being felt. Climate change was linked to a crippling drought around Cape Town in 2018. Heat waves in Western Europe last summer resulted in hundreds of additional deaths, according to government agencies. In England alone, over the course of two months, there were an additional 892 deaths, mostly older people, while in France that number was 1,435.

A study by University of Chicago researchers projected that, by 2100, climate change would kill roughly as many people as the number who die of cancer and infectious disease today. As with the European heat waves, the most vulnerable in society will bear the brunt. “Today’s poor bear a disproportionately high share of the global mortality risks of climate change,” the paper concluded.

But here’s the big unknown: Will the effort to revive the global economy after the pandemic accelerate the emissions of planet-warming gases, rather than avert climate change? That depends on whether the world’s big economies, like China and the United States, use this moment to enact green growth policies or continue to prop up fossil fuel industries.

This was to be a crucial year for global climate goals, with presidents and prime ministers under pressure to get more ambitious about reining in greenhouse gas emissions when they gather for United Nations-led climate talks in Glasgow in November. The United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, has leaned on world leaders to announce more ambitious targets and to end what he called “vast and wasteful subsidies for fossil fuels.”

In a speech this week, Mr. Guterres hinted at another deficit faced by both the health and climate crises.

“In the months ahead, we need to rebuild trust,” he said. “We need to demonstrate that international cooperation is the only way to deliver meaningful results.” SOURCE

‘Batten down the hatches’: Oilpatch braces as prices plummet

Concern for Canadian producers after OPEC deal to cut production collapses

‘Those who don’t manage their balance sheet — if this sell-off continues — are not going to make it,’ says Martin Pelletier, with Trivest Wealth Council. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Canada’s oilpatch is bracing for the impact of plunging crude prices after OPEC and its allies failed to reach a deal aimed at cutting production as economies slow because of the novel coronavirus.

Prices began sliding after Russia refused to support deeper oil cuts to cope with the outbreak of coronavirus and OPEC responded by removing all limits on its own production.

Brent crude, the global oil benchmark price, had its biggest daily percentage loss in more than 11 years on Friday, down $4.72 US, or 9.4 per cent, to settle at  $45.27 US a barrel.

The benchmark crude contract in North America, West Texas Intermediate (WTI), closed down 10 per cent on Friday, dropping $4.62 to $41.28 US per barrel. It was its worst drop in more than five years.

Brent and WTI are both down over 30 per cent so far in 2020.

‘Not good for governments reliant on oil revenues’

COVID-19 concerns and the impact on oil demand — plus the prospect of OPEC abandoning its role in trying to limit supplies — have the makings of a “toxic recipe” for oil prices, said Judith Dwarkin, chief economist at RS Energy Group.

“That’s not good for oil producers; it’s not good for governments reliant on oil revenues,” Dwarkin said.

“It’s generally not good for the Canadian economy, for which oil production and all the taxes and royalties and other revenue collected from that [are] an important part of the economy.”

OPEC sources told Reuters that Russia, one of the world’s biggest oil producers but not a member of OPEC, and Saudi Arabia, the biggest crude producer in OPEC, had failed to find a compromise despite several rounds of bilateral talks this week in Vienna.

Canada’s oilpatch is bracing for the impact of plunging crude prices after OPEC and its allies failed to reach a deal aimed at cutting production as the reach of the novel coronavirus spreads. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)


As a result, the existing deal for output cuts will expire in March, so OPEC members and non-OPEC producers can in theory pump at will in an already oversupplied market, sources told Reuters.

OPEC members are responsible for about 40 per cent of the world’s oil production.

Coronavirus is cutting world crude demand

Oil prices have dropped in recent weeks over concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. It’s estimated the impact of the disease in China sliced about 900,000 barrels of daily oil demand from that country alone.

The impact has rippled out across global energy markets, including Canada.

On Friday, Calgary-based Vermilion Energy cut its dividend in half to deal with weakness in commodity prices and global economic fallout from the novel coronavirus.

Dwarkin said today’s news might add to the incentive for oil companies to cut capital spending, if they were already moving in that direction and should the price spiral continue.

At oil prices as low as they were on Friday, she said, the industry does not make money. Over time, that might mean gasoline will cost a little less at the pump, but it could also mean layoffs and even bankruptcies.

“We’ve seen the punch and the counter-punch today, the Russians and the Saudis,” Dwarkin said.

“Let’s see what emerges in the next few days on that front before you declare this bout over.”

Martin Pelletier, a portfolio manager with Trivest Wealth Council in Calgary, said he expects Canada’s oilpatch to “batten down the hatches” with oil prices falling.

“You’ve got to manage your balance sheet,” Pelletier said.

“Those who don’t manage their balance sheet — if this sell-off continues — are not going to make it.

“This [situation] could be over in a week or two weeks, but it may not be over for a couple months.

Western Canada’s oilpatch had been hoping for a better year, especially with recent progress on three key pipeline projects. But the shelving of a major oilsands project and now struggling oil prices are again heightening uncertainty.

Tristan Goodman, president of the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada, whose membership represents a fifth of the oil and gas production in the country, said there is significant concern about where oil prices are headed.

Though he thinks oil markets have “partially” overreacted to the news, it will take time understand the true impact.

“We have to sort of give this a few weeks to figure out, OK, how is this really going to impact the global economy?”  SOURCE