On Bread & Butterflies – Ripples of War?

It is still not clear if war is coming – although there is certainly that ominous building of tension that comes before the thunderstorm. How much of that is manufactured by media hysteria and hawks as opposed to reality is an open question. Nonetheless, I wanted to write a quick piece on some of the potential consequences of war breaking out over Ukraine.

I should stress that hear I’m not necessarily going to talk about boots on the ground and the risk of an escalation to a full on West/Russia confrontation – I personally see that as unlikely, although there is certainly the risk of such an escalation to that level. Instead, I’m going to address some issues that the average citizen may not have considered yet. And to that I need to discuss bread and butterflies (or, rather, butterfly theory).

Bread

Ukraine is a major exporter of wheat, as well as other agricultural products. Of course, they have other exports, but their primary export is cereals – corn, rye and wheat. And of that, they’re the fifth largest wheat exporter in the world. And Ukraine’s primary wheat production is in eastern Ukraine, the most likely site of any war.

Additionally, several countries that surround the Black Sea are also major wheat exporters – think Russia (17.7% of global production), Romania (2.1% of global production) and Bulgaria (1.6% of global production), the worlds number one, eleventh and thirteenth top wheat exporters. Combined with Ukraine those four countries alone account for about a third of global wheat production, which much of it exported via ship through the Black Sea. Additionally, land locked Kazakhstan, the ninth largest exporter of wheat (2.5% of global production), ships a huge amount of its wheat via the Black Sea through Russian ports.

Any outbreak of fighting in Ukraine will most likely disrupt global wheat supply through not just the impact on Ukraine (8% of world production) but the likely disruption of trade through the Black Sea.

On top of that disruption from war, there have been major wheat crop failures in other major wheat production areas of late – Kansas and Oklahoma, the two main US (14.1% of global wheat production) wheat producing areas, have suffered major droughts recently greatly impacting wheat production, as has Australia (6% of global production) and Canada (14.1% of global production).

So, what does all this mean? Well, when the price of a raw material goes up, so does the price of products made from it. When it comes to wheat, that means bread, pastries, pasta, pizza and beer. Now, it’s not a one to one correlation – the price of bread doesn’t increase in direct proportion to the increase in the price of wheat. That’s because there’s other factors involved other than just wheat. However, the price does go up all the same. And indeed, if you look at the price of wheat recently, you’ll see it has largely gone up in conjunction with tensions in Eastern Europe and droughts:

As of Monday, January 24th, 2022

What does this mean for the average consumer? Well, that depends where you are. For us in Bermuda, the main impact is going to be a slightly higher grocery bill and restaurants. An added frustration on top of already increasing cost of living thanks to supply chain disruptions.

Basically, supply of wheat is already down, and war in Ukraine risks greatly reducing supply even more. At the same time, demand is largely static. There’s some elasticity in terms of switching to other starches (other cereals, potatoes, etc.) but that just increases demand for those. Either way, prices will go up. Which brings me to butterflies…

Butterflies

Anyone who’s read or watched Jurassic Park is likely familiar with butterfly effect of chaos theory:

Basically, a small change in one thing can lead to a chain of reactions ending in a large change elsewhere. Admittedly, I’m using more the popular conception of the concept rather than the original concept. Nonetheless, I feel it applies for my purposes.

For the average consumer in the West any increase in the price of wheat will be seen as an annoyance, if we even register it at all, beyond a general recognition that the cost of living is increasing – and it’s not just your food bills either, in as much as it can increase the cost of labour to compensate for the cost of living, leading to an all round increase in all prices. Annoying, yes. But, all things considered, not that big a deal in the West.

In other countries though, especially those countries particularly dependent on Ukrainian wheat, and especially those already experiencing challenges (drought, war, oppression), the increase of wheat is going to have a much greater impact. So, what countries are particularly exposed to Ukrainian wheat – and for whom any war in Ukraine will cause a major economic shock? The top ten are:

  1. China
  2. Egypt
  3. Indonesia
  4. Spain
  5. Netherlands
  6. Turkey
  7. Tunisia
  8. Bangladesh
  9. South Korea
  10. Libya

In addition, there are countries that are not major importers of Ukrainian wheat, in absolute terms, but whose consumption of wheat is relatively major. If we were to look at which countries are particularly dependent on Ukrainian wheat in terms of percentage of wheat consumed, we get:

  1. Lebanon – 50% dependent
  2. Libya – 43% dependent
  3. Malaysia – 28% dependent
  4. Indonesia – 28% dependent
  5. Yemen – 22% dependent
  6. Bangladesh – 21% dependent
  7. Egypt – 14% dependent

On this, we should take note that the Arab Spring which began just over a decade ago, was in many ways sparked by increased food costs. Many of the countries that are particularly exposed to Ukrainian wheat were also part of the Arab Spring – even if almost all are now undergoing the ‘Arab Winter’. Many remain relatively unstable, even if coups have installed new authoritarian regimes. In countries with ongoing conflict (Libya, Yemen) the disruption of Ukrainian wheat may potentially trigger famines, and in other countries we may see renewed conflict (Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey). Other countries are less vulnerable, but still at risk – such as Morocco and Algeria, but also Iraq.

Potentially, war in Ukraine could see far-reaching ripples far beyond the shores of the Black Sea, and potentially destablize major regions of North Africa, the Middle East and South-East Asia. These in turn have the potential of sparking conflicts elsewhere – for example, it could reignite conflicts between Iran and Saudi Arabia in a chain reaction.

Of course, there’s a lot of what if’s in all of the above. All the same, it’s worth considering the potential ramifications. And in the meantime I’m going to plant a lot of corn and sweet potatoes in my backyard, as well as stock up on some pasta…

No To NATO

In this post I want to address what the point of NATO is and why I’m critical of it.

NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – is one of those sacred cows of the West, so I realise that many readers may not have really thought too much about NATO and whether it is good or bad. It’s just there, and has been there for most of us all of our lives, so the implicit assumption is that it is inherently a good thing. And the Trump regime even pulled off the magic trick of convincing many liberals (in the American sense) and progressives that NATO is something good to be defended against the uncouth Trump.

So, what, exactly is NATO?

At its core, NATO is a military alliance formed in the aftermath of World War II by the USA and Western European nations. It came into existence in 1949, however its precursor was the 1947 Treaty of Dunkirk, which was a military alliance between the UK and France against either a resurgent Germany or a hostile USSR. This then developed into the Western Union by incorporating Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg in 1948. This military alliance was then enlarged to incorporate the USA, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark and Iceland as NATO.

Now, there are 14 articles to the Treaty that gave birth and underpins NATO. Of these, the key one is Article 5 which concerns collective defense – “…an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all…”.

What’s not stated in the Treaty but was articulated by the first Secretary General of NATO, General Hastings Lionel Ismay, is the raison d’etre of NATO, when he said that NATO was created to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the German’s down”. The ‘in’ in question is understood to be Western Europe and the North Atlantic. This position was further underlined when, despite NATO being in theory open to any State, it rejected an application from the USSR to join in 1954. The response to this was to describe the USSR as “an unrepentant burglar trying to join the police force” – making it abundantly clear to the USSR that the purpose of NATO was to oppose the USSR. It was in a response to this that the Warsaw Pact was formed in 1955.

Incidentally, the communique from the USSR about joining NATO raises some interesting points – warning about how antagonistic military alliances resulted in WWI and WWII and we should avoid this; and noting Soviet concerns that Nazi Generals had been incorporated into NATO, including command of NATO’s Central European Forces.

NATO Today

An updated version of Ismay’s famous dictum on the purpose of NATO for the 21st Century would no doubt read “keep the Chinese out, the Americans in, and the Russian’s down”.

The end of the Cold War, with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, effectively ended the entire point of NATO as originally conceived and operated up until that point. There was an opportunity for NATO to dissolve and for the huge sums of monies invested in its military and weapons of mass destruction to instead be invested into peaceful purposes – such as healthcare, education, science, eradicating inequality. As we know, this didn’t happen, with American triumphant launching the first Gulf War and ushering in an era of unchecked American imperialism, from the dismantling of Yugoslavia through to the War on Terror.

In the closing days of the Cold War, in discussions concerning the reunification of Germany, NATO gave assurances to the weakened USSR that NATO troops would not go further east than Germany. At least that was certainly the understanding in Moscow. As the USSR collapsed and the former Warsaw Pact countries were weakened under the Katastroika, the USA saw an opportunity to ‘keep Russia down’ and the EU weak, and began it’s eastward expansion, preying on weakened economies and the rise of ethno-nationalism that accompanied the Soviet retreat.

As a tool of the American empire, NATO played a pivotal role in (a) preventing the emergence of a rival power in the form of the EU; and (b) keeping a former rival down. Additionally, it played a key part in the imperial adventurism of the War on Terror, be it Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya. And, with the increasing rise of a rival power in the form of China, NATO is being pivoted to contain the Chinese threat to American hegemony – as well as strengthen American power in Latin America.

As the New Internationalist rather neatly states:

“NATO is the instrument of choice when the US wants to avoid the political complexities of UN peacekeeping. No worries about Security Council vetoes or embarrassing defeats in the General Assembly. As an organization shrouded in military secrecy, most NATO debates take place behind closed doors and political agreements involve only the consent of fairly like-minded politicians. If there is disagreement, US political and economic pressure is usually enough to bend the governing council to its will.”

Time To Say No To NATO

Ultimately, NATO should never have been created in the first place. Ostensibly set up to defend Western Europe against a Soviet invasion that was extremely unlikely – the Soviets had been devastated by the Nazi offensive, with its industrial capacity and cities in ruins, millions of citizens dead and an exhausted military, the last thing the Soviets wanted was another war. Especially against an ascendant nuclear armed USA. And with the end of the Cold War even that excuse was gone and there was no real purpose for NATO.

NATO instead marched on as a tool of American imperialism and the military-industrial complex. And to sustain itself it constantly creates new enemies through its militarism and provocations – be it China, Russia or the War on Terror. We see this today with the crisis over Ukraine, where both Russia and NATO feed off each other to justify their build up and arms trade. It’s time to terminate NATO and hold its members accountable for their war crimes over multiple wars such as Yugoslavia, Libya and Afghanistan.

In place of NATO we can finally have the peace dividend that the end of the Cold War promised – and even dismantling NATO in the first place will go a significant way to addressing two of the most pressing problems of the 21st Century – militarism and climate change!

The Ukrainian Crisis

As the world continues to deal with the ongoing covid-19 pandemic in the face of the omicron surge – Bermuda included – the world is also faced with simmering threats of major war in three regions:

  • In Asia-Pacific there are growing tensions between China and the West over the perennial issue of Taiwan, fueled in particular now by the development of the AUKUS alliance, a sort of Pacific version of NATO, designed to contain China as opposed to Russia and driven by the USA.
  • In the Middle East, tensions continue to mount between the USA and Iran as the negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal continue in Vienna.
  • In Eastern Europe, tensions are growing between Russia and the USA (and subsequently the EU and NATO) over the situation in Ukraine.

There are of course some ‘lower level’ conflicts ongoing, such as Yemen, Palestine, the civil war in Ethiopia, various conflicts in the Sahel, Syria/Iraq and Afghanistan, and ongoing attempts to destablise Cuba and Venezuela by the USA. However, looking at the three ‘big’ tension areas, the common factor in all three is the USA (indeed, the USA is also a common factor in most of those other conflicts, with the potential exception of Ethiopia).

While it is unlikely we will see outright war between the big powers of the USA, Russia and China, it does seem pretty safe to say that we’re in a new phase of the Cold War 2.0.

In this post I want to dig a little deeper into the conflict currently at the forefront, the crisis in Ukraine. First, I think it’s important to make clear what the narrative is in the West and in Russia. For those interested in a bit of a deeper dive into Ukraine’s recent (2014) developments, see my then post about the events there – The Tragedy of Ukraine?

What we hear in the West

In the West, at least based on what I’m seeing in the media, the analysis of the situation can be summed up as:

  • Russia has been engaged in hostile actions towards Ukraine since 2014 when it annexed Crimea and supported rebels in the south-east of Ukraine.
  • Russia has massed over 100,000 troops on its borders under the pretext of ‘war games’ to launch an invasion of Ukraine.
  • Russia’s actions are unprovoked and in general Russia is the aggressor.
  • The 2014 event was a revolution against an authoritarian regime with no legitimacy.

And the Russian narrative

In Russia the narrative is very different, and it is important to understand this different perspective to better understand Russia’s potential actions:

  • The US/West provided assistance and support to a coup against a legitimately elected government in 2014.
  • This 2014 coup was in part led by far-right Ukrainian militias and parties and installed an illegitimate government.
  • This illegitimate government persecuted Russian minorities by banning Russian language as an official language and also banned political parties representing the Russian minority (in particular the Ukrainian Communist Party) while at the same time provides support for far-right groups (historical and current).
  • The government also sought to repress those who supported the democratically elected government overthrown by the coup.
  • In the dying days of the USSR, the Russians were given assurances that NATO would not expand eastwards beyond the borders of East Germany. The subsequent eastern expansion of NATO is seen as both a breach of those assurances and as an attempt to contain and control Russia, in particular by preventing it’s ability to ever regain ‘great power’ status.
  • The 2014 coup was engineered by the West to bring Ukraine under US control and bring NATO troops into Ukraine to threaten Russia.
  • The actions of Russia following the coup were done to protect persecuted minorities in the face of an illegitimate government using far-right anti-Russian militias.
  • The West has flooded Ukraine with western weapons to threaten Russian security and weaken Russian autonomy on the global stage – including arming and training far-right and neo-Nazi groups.

What’s the truth?

As you can see, there’s some rather fundamental differences in perspective between the West and Russia on this matter. Let’s try to find out whether there are factual bases to these different points of view, as understanding these are key to understanding especially Russia’s current actions.

A – Was a democratically elected government overthrown in 2014?

The short answer is yes, the government led by President Viktor Yanukovych was a legitimate democratically elected government.

Both his election to president in 2010 and the victory of his party in the 2012 parliamentary elections were reviewed by international observers and considered legitimate elections. This isn’t to say there weren’t problems during the elections, however the Organisation for Security & Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) report for the 2010 presidential election concluded:

“The presidential election met most OSCE commitments and other international standards for
democratic elections and consolidated progress achieved since 2004. The process was
transparent and offered voters a genuine choice between candidates representing diverse
political views. However, unsubstantiated allegations of large-scale electoral fraud negatively
affected the election atmosphere and voter confidence in the process.”

And for the 2012 parliamentary election the results were mixed, but still accepted as legitimate.

B – Did the US/EU provide support for the actors involved in overthrowing the democratically elected government in 2014?

Yes.

It’s certainly clear that the US and the EU were actively supporting the protests against the democratically elected government, including discussing the formation of a pro-Western government, giving vocal support for the protesters and even handing out cookies to the protesters advocating regime change. The US and the EU were certainly not passive observers.

It’s also true that the US has previously funded (to the tune of at least $65 million) pro-Western groups in Ukraine since at least 2004 – so it’s likely, especially in terms of US officials actively discussing the formation of a post-coup government before the coup, that the US was still funding such organisations in 2014.

C – Were far-right militias and organisations involved in the 2014 overthrow of a democratic government in Ukraine?

Again yes.

While the bulk of those supporting the West and opposing the elected government came largely from what can be called the middle class, they also were supported by Ukrainian oligarchs with Western interests. And also involved – and providing the spear tip of the ‘revolution’ were far-right paramilitaries, including straight-up neo-Nazi organisations. The majority of these far-right groups collaborated during the protests under the name of The Right Sector.

Key groups that fell under the banner of the Right Sector included Tryzub (a far-right paramilitary organisation founded in 1993 by the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists – the name is the acronym for the Stepan Bandera All-Ukrainian Organisation; Stepan Bandera was the leader of the Ukrainian Nazi collaborators during WW2); the Ukrainian National Assembly – Ukrainian People’s Self Defense (a far-right anti-Russian organisation); and the White Hammer (the paramilitary wing of the Patriots of Ukraine, a fascist neo-Nazi organisation, as you might gather from the name ‘white hammer’). These paramilitary groups seized weapons from Ukrainian military depots and used them to attack the elected government – indeed, the actions of these far-right paramilitary groups were crucial in the overthrowing of the elected government as a result.

D – Is the West arming and training far-right and neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine?

Yet again, the answer is yes. But it’s a bit more complicated.

You see, after these far-right paramilitaries helped overthrow the democratically elected government, the new government that was ushered in subsequently made these paramilitaries part of their official National Guard and defense forces. They were not distributed throughout but allowed to retain their identities – just with official training, weapons and salaries. As the civil war developed, these paramilitaries became full-on far right military battalions – the most famous of which are probably the Azov Battalion and the Donbas Battalion. The Azov Battalion is essentially the White Hammer paramilitary mentioned above. These far-right battalions have since been implicated in war crimes and persecution of the ethnic Russian minority in Ukraine see both here and here for example.

Since 2014 the West has been arming (see more recently here and here and here) and and providing training, including war games, for the Ukrainian military – including these far-right organisations.

E – Have the ethnic Russian minority of Ukraine suffered persecution since 2014?

Sort of. This one is difficult to really gauge.

What is true is that the areas dominated by ethnic Russians (Crimea and eastern Ukraine in particular) were opposed to the overthrow of the elected government and considered the subsequent government as illegitimate and hostile to them. The presence of anti-Russian far-right groups were no doubt a huge factor in that not exactly unreasonable fear…

The subsequent legitimation of those far-right groups and their deployment to suppress protests in Russian dominated areas, with resulting abuses noted above, has certainly not been perceived as a good faith move by the post 2014 government. Neither was the decision of the post 2014 government to https://www.fairobserver.com/region/europe/eastern-ukraine-russia-conflict-language-culture-news-10099/repeal the 2012 Regional Languages Law which recognised a federal approach to languages, allowing Russian speaking regions to use Russian as their official language.

In Closing…

I realise I haven’t answered all of the questions I set out to do here. Quite frankly I feel this article is long enough already. Nonetheless, I think I’ve cleared up some key issues that are somewhat absent from the Western media narrative about the Ukrainian crisis.

Once you realise that the West backed the overthrow of a legitimated democratically elected government in 2014, and that that overthrow depended on armed far-right paramilitaries having seized military depots, and that those same far-right paramilitaries are now part of the Ukrainian security forces being armed and trained by the West, and that these paramilitaries are explicitly anti-Russian (even going so far as to have gone an ‘hunting trips’ to target Russian soldiers in other theaters of war), it’s a bit easier to understand why Russia is a little bit concerned. I’m pretty sure that if – hypothetically – Canada saw an anti-American revolution and was receiving weapons and military training from Cuba, Vietnam, China and North Korea, the USA wouldn’t just sit back and be chill about it.

For clarity, none of this should be seen as a defense of Russia and Putin. All I have set out to do here is to make more clear Russian perception (which is more or less rooted in fact) of what’s on their doorstep, and how that is factoring into the calculus of the Kremlin. And to further understand that calculus you do have to understand that Russia is understandably suspicious of NATO’s actions (like, what really is the point of NATO other than to contain and threaten Russia anyway), especially the increased militarization of NATO’s eastern flank, be it in the Baltics of the Black Sea (one need only do a cursory look at NATO developments in Romania and Bulgaria to get a sense of the latter).

Ultimately, the West is looking to justify increased military activity on its eastern flank based on Russia’s actions, and at the same time Russia is justifying increased military activity on its western flank in reaction to NATO. The two are playing each other for their own ends. Neither side are without blame. But the people of Ukraine and elsewhere are but pawns on this chessboard of imperial adventurism.

Sadly, Ukraine is just a game, even if the bloodshed and misery is all too real.

Should war break out – and with it the potential for escalation beyond Ukraine itself – neither side is blameless or the ‘good guys’, even if the West is responsible for setting everything in motion in the first place.

Common Cold Clarity

In the midst of this fourth wave, and my being on staycation, I’ve been enjoying some nature walks and sitting off in nature. On one of my walks I passed two people also sitting off by the water, beer in hand, discussing the current outbreak. Beyond the usual pleasantries I didn’t join the conversation, mostly because it was hot and I was thirsty. Nonetheless, I thought it useful to address the key question that seemed to be animating their conversation.

Basically, they were discussing the fourth wave and whether or not to get the vaccine (they were both I’d guess in their 20s). One of them said he didn’t trust the vaccine because the common cold was caused by a coronavirus, and there’s no vaccine for that, so he didn’t trust that the vaccine for covid-19, a coronavirus, was legit. So, let’s explore that…

Is the common cold caused by a coronavirus?

As is often the case in science/medicine the answer is nuanced. It’s not a straight up yes or no. In this case the answer is ‘sort of, can be, but…’

Despite us all collectively referring to it as a single illness ‘the common cold’, what we’re actually referring to is the symptoms of an illness that can be caused by about 200 different viruses. As all of these can cause the same symptoms, we generally don’t discern between them in common conversation. Indeed, only researchers studying them really bother discerning between them. Your doctor is as likely as a random person on the street to simply call it the common cold.

Okay, so back to these 200 different viruses that can cause what we call the common cold. Of these, some are, indeed, coronaviruses, relatives to covid-19 (or SARS-CoV-2). However, the vast majority of these viruses (around 180 of the 200 or so) are not coronaviruses but actually a type of virus known as a rhinoviruses (which means, roughly, ‘virus of the nose’ which kind of indicates where you’re most likely to find them…). Of the remaining 20 or so viruses that can cause the common cold, in addition to some coronaviruses there are other types of viruses such as adenoviruses and enteroviruses.

So, essentially, some coronaviruses can cause the common cold, but most common colds are actually caused by rhinoviruses. In theory, after many years (decades, probably centuries or more), covid-19 will become a coronavirus that causes the common cold, but at the moment it is novel to our immune systems, which is why it’s so problematic to us, whereas the existing common cold coronaviruses are ones our immune system has had millennia of experience dealing with – thus why their symptoms, while annoying, are usually mild (but, of course, can cause complications for some, nonetheless).

Okay, but why don’t we have a vaccine for the common cold?

This is also a question that doesn’t lend itself to a simple answer. It’s nuanced.

The short answer is that we actually do have effective vaccines for many of the viruses that cause the common cold, and we’ve had them for decades. However, because there are about 200 viruses you would need to vaccinate again AND the symptoms of the common cold are generally mild, it’s simply not economical to vaccinate against all 200 viruses. We have enough trouble getting people to get annual flu shots, let alone covid-19 vaccines – can you imagine trying to encourage people to get 200 annual vaccine shots? It’s just not happening.

Now, that being said, if one could create either a vaccine that focuses on something universal to all the rhinoviruses that cause the common cold, so you just need one vaccine and you’re good for 180 out of 200 of the viruses, that would be economically viable. Or you can create a single vaccine which includes in it the individual vaccines for tens of the common cold viruses, that, too, would be economically viable.

And researchers are, indeed, working on both of those possibilities. At the moment the ‘holy grail’ approach of a universal rhinovirus vaccine isn’t anywhere close to happening, but some working vaccines capable of vaccinating against up to 50 individual common cold viruses have been developed.

Still, there’s a lot of hurdles to make these approaches economically viable, and as the common cold in general is a mild illness and while it does have an economic cost to society (in capitalism measured in terms of loss of productivity) of about $40 billion annually, the investment needed to vaccinate against ‘the common cold’ is more prohibitive. Covid-19 however has an economic cost (in it’s first year) of about $10 trillion, and is caused by a single virus (albeit with variants), making it far more viable an investment for developing a vaccine.

And this is especially so seeing as the coronavirus has long been identified as having the potential for the pandemic we have experienced – remember the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak? It didn’t quite reach the extent that covid-19 has, but was also caused by a coronavirus. And then we had the MERS outbreak in 2012, also caused by a coronavirus. Since them, researchers have been studying coronaviruses and developing vaccines for them. The result? When covid-19 hit we didn’t have to start from scratch. We had about 80-90% of the work already done and just needed to fill in the gaps specific to the new coronavirus. And we poured huge amounts of capital and labour into that task. Which allowed us to produce a covid-19 vaccine relatively quickly.

Key takeaways?

  1. The common cold is caused by any of 200 different viruses.
  2. Some of those viruses are related to covid-19, being coronaviruses, but most (180) are actually rhinoviruses, not coronaviruses, and there’s other types of viruses also in play.
  3. We do actually have vaccines for individual common cold viruses, but it’s not practical to have 200 annual common cold vaccinations.
  4. Researchers are working on workarounds that would be economically viable and practical, but we’re not there yet.
  5. Researchers knew coronaviruses had the potential for creating a pandemic since at least the 2002-2004 SARS-1 outbreak (covid-19 is technically SARS-2) so we’ve been working on the basics of a vaccine for about 20 years – as such, we didn’t start from scratch in 2020 in developing the covid-19 vaccine, even though it was a novel virus.

Dude, where’s my flu?

I’ve written about this elsewhere on social media, but decided to create a blog post for it so I can just refer to it rather than writing it all out as needed. A stitch in time and all that.

A common question I’ve heard from some Qonion is what happened to the flu? I’m not entirely sure of why they are asking this, but my best guess is that they are trying to dismiss a lot of persons listed as being covid-19 positive and/or in the hospital or dying are not actually sick with covid-19 but actually just have the flu. To that degree it is a sister to the Qonion refrain that covid-19 is no more serious than the flu (actually, covid-19 is much more serious than the flu).

They seem to be focused on the absence of reporting on influenza cases, or the apparent reduction in influenza cases compared to pre-covid-19. So I thought I’d clarify a few things that you can keep in mind whenever you hear or come across this argument.

Flu Season

It’s not flu season in Bermuda yet. Flu season in Bermuda is roughly in line with the US flu season, generally October to May, with peaks in December through to February. As such, those raising the question about the lack of flu cases before October can easily be answered by pointing out that it’s not flu season, so hardly a surprise that there’s no flu cases. Not that you can’t get flu outside of the flu season, it’s just much less likely. Having said that, October is coming up, so you would expect to see public health messaging soon with a focus on encouraging people to get the flu shot. Not only is this to reduce the risk of illness and death from the flu in general, but as we’re still dealing with covid-19 for the foreseeable future, there is a strong public health desire to reduce the overall strain on our healthcare system. In general, flu shots are available in Bermuda from late September on, and I encourage readers to take advantage of their availability.

Public Health Precautions Work On Flu Too!

It is true that the world, and Bermuda, has seen a large decline in flu cases from March 2020 to the present, in both hemispheres (flu season in the southern hemisphere is roughly May to October). This is quite easily, simply and logically explained by pointing out that the same public health measures taken to deal with covid-19 are the same public health measures that would also deal with the flu. Namely, wearing of masks, handwashing, hand sanitizing, social distancing, lockdowns and remote working, as well as reduced travel. The same measures used to reduce the rate of covid-19 transmission also reduce the rate of influenza transmission. What was novel since March 2020 was that the seriousness of covid-19 meant we collectively really ratcheted up these public health measures. If we were to regularly wear masks, remote work, reduce travel and clean our hands regularly for flu outbreaks, we would have seen much smaller flue outbreaks pre-covid-19. No one at all should be surprised whatsoever that rates of influenza were greatly reduced in both 2020 and 2021 (so far). Reduced international travel is certainly a key role in this – remember the flu season in the North is October to May and in the South it’s May to October. What happens is when the environmental conditions for flu disappear in one hemisphere it keeps going in the other hemisphere. When you remove or greatly reduce travel between hemispheres, you sort of create a circuit breaker for flu transmission in general.

Flu Shots!

In 2020 there was a lot of public health resources invested in increasing the uptake of flu shots. I haven’t seen the exact rates for Bermuda, but it’s likely our rates followed that of the UK and the USA. The reason for this increased push to get people to take the flu shot? Covid-19. Basically, the covid-19 vaccines were not readily available at that point and from a public health perspective there was a fear of a second and even a third wave of covid-19 during the flu season, and the combination of a health system already struggling to deal with covid-19 cases also having to deal with flu cases, as well as the potential for persons to suffer from both covid-19 and the flu at the same time, wasn’t exactly a rosy picture (and indeed, our second and third covid-19 wave occurred during regular flu season). So from the public health perspective it made complete sense to push the existing flu vaccines to greatly reduce the influenza part of that threat equation. The flu shots are pretty effective for the flu – about 40% to 60% effective in reducing risk of flu illness. As a result, through a combination of higher than normal flu vaccination rates and the public health precautions in place for covid-19, that also work for the flu (see above), it’s absolutely not surprising that flu rates would have been less in 2020-2021 to date than previous years.

Schools

School children play a major role in flu outbreaks, and flu season in general. As a result of covid-19 we have seen a lot of schools go to remote learning, and when able to do in-person learning they were applying covid-19 precautions (social distancing, handwashing, hand sanitizing, regular cleaning of facilities, masks, etc.). The result was to largely remove schools from the equation of flu outbreaks, meaning greatly reducing their role in the 2020-2021 flu season.

Less Flu Post Covid-19 Easily Explained

Quite frankly, that we have collectively seen less flu since covid-19 really hit the West in March 2020 is easily explainable. You just need to reflect on it and it’s easy to understand why flu rates were down. There’s no conspiracy involved – just simple cause and effect, in this case, actions as a result of covid-19 had the side-effect of also reducing flu rates.

The Sting In The Tail – The Flu Strikes Back?

Having addressed why flu rates have been down since covid-19 hit our shores it is useful now to turn to the question of what happens next? And there we come to some potentially bad news…

With less influenza variants around due to the reduced flu season (thanks to the reasons above), this does mean that there has been less potential for mutations (the opposite is the case with covid-19, which is why we’re seeing successive waves of variants). This means it is theoretically easier for the 2021-2022 flu vaccine to be more effective than usual. Which is good. The flip side however is that due to the reduced flu season, less people than normal have encountered the flu, meaning our collective immune system is a bit rusty with this annual virus. Which means we are potentially at risk of seeing a particularly bad flu season, a sort of revenge of the flu, simply because our immune systems are less ready for the flu than we would be normally.

This can, of course, be largely headed off if a large number of the community takes advantage of the flu shots. The flu shots give our immune system the heads up they need to prepare. The challenge is that those who didn’t take the flu shot last year are more vulnerable to the flu this year, so if anything we need to see an increase in flu vaccination rates for the 2021-2022 flu season – a tall order, considering last year saw an abnormal uptake and since then the anti-vaxxers have come front and center into public health debates.

My prediction? Well, I feel we’re in line for a very bad flu season. And I feel we are at risk of the ‘twindemic’ of both a covid-19 wave and flu season peaks coinciding. Those most vulnerable to a future covid-19 wave in the midst of the upcoming flu season remains the unvaccinated persons, however the threat of our hospital being overwhelmed like it is currently while also having to deal with an unusually bad flu season is high.

All I can say is I hope I’m wrong. Both on the 2021-2022 flu season being bad and on successive covid-19 waves during the upcoming flu season. Myself, I’m not going to take any chances, and I encourage readers to take advantage of the soon to be available flu shots.

8Andrew Starling, Marilyn Starling and 6 others2 commentsLikeCommentShare

The American Crisis – What is rightwing populism?

It is difficult to fully define anything – there are always exceptions to the rule – and I am not a fan of dictionary explanations of certain things (there are many Whites for example who refuse to recognise structural racism, insisting instead only on a narrow dictionary definition of racism, restricting it solely to overt racial discrimination, for example).

However, it is important to get at least a general outline of what rightwing populism is, and more specifically how it manifests in the USA. This is what I attempt to do here.

I am going to follow the lead of Margaret Canovan where she argues that all forms of populism “involve some kind of exaltation and appeal to ‘the people’, and all are in one sense or another anti-elitist.” And I also agree with the sentiments of Berlet & Lyons (2000) in their excellent book (which informs much of this series on this matter) where they develop a working definition of populism as:

  1. Involves a celebration of ‘the people’; and
  2. Some form of anti-elitism.

They go on to distinguish a populist movement from populist appeals with the qualification that a populist movement uses populist themes to mobilise a mass constituency as a sustained political or social force.

There are of course both rightwing and leftwing forms of populist movements (and I suppose there may also be centrist populist movements). Additionally, they may be authoritarian or egalitarian in nature, and based on a charismatic cult of a central leader or a decentralised movement based around a motivating idea. They may be advocates of a new future system, or conservatives that romanticise a fabled past ‘golden age’ that they seek to reassert. Further, what falls under the concept of ‘the people’ can be inclusive or it can be ethnic or other identity based. Some may be based on an actual critique of real existing social structures (such as class or structural racism), or they may be based on absurd conspiracy theories (i.e. lizard people or Protocols of the Elders of Zion).

Additionally, populist movements may be repressive in nature or emancipatory. A repressive populist movement is one that mixes anti-elite rhetoric (and scapegoating) with efforts to create, maintain or intensify systems of social privilege and power. Such as race or sex. Often they involve channeling popular discontent away from emancipatory, positive social change and towards oppressing marginalised or vulnerable groups (ethnic or other minorities, immigrants – so, for example, against Filipino workers but away from the bosses who exploit them to depress the general wage of labour…).

Sara Diamond offers what I think is a succinct definition for determining a rightwing from a leftwing movement: “To be rightwing means to support the State in its capacity as an enforcer of order and to oppose the State as a distributor of wealth and power downward and more equitably in society.”

I also agree with Berlett & Lyon’s argument that a rightwing populist movement “is a repressive populist movement motivated or defined centrally by a backlash against liberation movements, social reform, or revolution. This does not mean that rightwing populism’s goals are only defensive or reactive, but rather that its growth is fueled in a central way by fears of the Left and its political gains.”

It is not hard to see much of the rightwing populist movement, throughout the USA’s history, as fitting the above. One need only look at the KKK as a reaction to Black empowerment during the reconstruction era, and since, especially during the civil rights era. Or the Tea Party (and Trumpism) as a reaction to the election of a Black President and gains made by the Democrats in the 2008 (such as the Affordable Care Act).

What do you think – is the above a good working introduction to what rightwing populism is?

For those interested, I strongly recommend Berlet and Lyon (2000) Right-Wing Populism in America – Too Close For Comfort (The Guilford Press). I picked it up early on in the Trump regime and have found it very informative; much of the early part of this series The American Crisis is indebted to the insights of this book.

Also cited above are:

Canovan, M. (1981) Populism. Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.

Diamond, S. (1995) Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements & Political Power in the United States. The Guilford Press.

The American Crisis – Views from the 14th Colony

I confess that when, on New Year’s Eve, I wrote about my blogging plans for 2021, I had not envisioned that an attempted coup in the USA would happen on January 6th.

To be clear, it was obvious since early December that the far-right around Trump were looking to organise a protest in early January. They were not exactly subtle about their intentions, including their ambition to storm the Capitol. However, I assumed that this was more bluster than anything – that the US security forces would be reading the same things I was and would put in sufficient security so that all that would happen would be a noisy protest outside.

My biggest concern was that the more militant elements of this mob would seek to provoke a response from anti-fascist and anti-racist groups, with the intention of giving Trump an excuse to execute some form of martial law, and do a coup through that way. I was confident they would fail in their attempt to provoke such a reaction.

Well, here we are, four days after the attempted coup. It happened, but not in the way I expected.

In light of the attempted coup, I have decided to try my hand at a series, The American Crisis. My objectives in this series will be to:

  1. Explore the origins and nature of the fascist/rightwing populist movement in the USA.
  2. The likely development of this movement in at least 2021, as a result of the attempted coup.
  3. The likely development of the post-Trump Republican Party (and the internal conflicts shaping this).
  4. The likely development of the post-Trump Democratic Party (and the internal conflicts shaping this).
  5. The opportunity for a revolutionary offensive (noting it might not be a revolution, but the opportunity to advance class positions against the right all the same).
  6. The potential implications of the attempted coup and the ongoing American crisis for Bermuda – and what we, in Bermuda, might do. This includes a look at our own issues of class and race, as well as our constitutional relationship with the UK.

It will take me some time to cover all of these issues. I will seek to first publish a skeleton article hitting my key points, which I will then expand in respective articles

I have taken the name of the series from the work of the same name by my favourite US Founding Father, Thomas Paine.

Additionally, while the US mythos speaks of the 13 colonies that launched the revolutionary war in the first British Empire, a war that ended in their war of independence, there were actually other colonies in the Americas. Bermuda was actually the 14th colony. Only our geography – isolation and small size – and a large British military garrison prevented us being one of the founding States. We have, of course, diverged since. However, we have always remained interlinked with the US. Like Mexico, we are too far from heaven and too close to the USA; in practical terms we remain a British colony formally, but an American colony in reality.

Smoke surrounds the Capitol Building during the January 6th attempted coup. Photo by Heather Khalifa, the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Looking ahead to 2021

Well, balancing my 9-5 job with the Commission of Inquiry workload rather put a wrench in my plans to post here regularly. Going into 2021, I will have the same challenges, at least in Q1.

Nonetheless, from Q2 on I am hopeful that I’ll be able to post more regularly. Until then, however, I will try my best to post the following:

  1. Weekly Worker – A round up of any union news, local or international (with local implications) and/or a review of relevant legislation.
  2. Municipal News – A weekly review of what’s happening in at least the City of Hamilton, with a particular focus on meetings.
  3. Alternative News – This I’m thinking will be a monthly round-up of news events in Cuba, Romania and Yemen. These are countries that aren’t regularly reported on, so I thought it would be interesting to see what’s happening there, beyond the other global headlines. I chose these three to give a representation of the Americas, Europe and the ‘Middle East’. The plan in Q2 on is to consider adding other countries to represent Africa, Central Asia, South East Asia and East Asia. That might be a bit too ambitious, but that’s the plan.
  4. National RFPs/Consultations – I’ll try to post RFP and public consultation alerts when I see them, on a weekly basis.

I may not be able to manage all of this in Q1, but I’ll try.

So Many Times Betrayed – Part II @BermudaPSU

Girl I believe you
Are you losing your mind thinking
What will it take to make somebody listen to you

I Believe You by Fletcher

Continuing my series exploring the issue of sexual harassment, this post continues the review of the BPSU’s report on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, written by now Minister Jason Hayward.

Gender Lenses

Having provide a definition of sexual harassment and some general types of it, the report has an interesting section on ‘Gender Lenses’. Essentially, this section notes that perception of sexual harassment (and/or its severity) is often influenced by gender.

“Men and women exhibit vastly different views of the propriety of sex in the workplace. In general, men and women differ concerning the appropriateness of sexual conduct in the workplace; behaviour considered offensive by women may be viewed as harmless by men.”

This is important to note, especially in the current context that has spurred this conversation about sexual harassment. As most, if not all, of the women affected by this appointment (either having previously experienced sexual harassment, or potentially subject to such) are civil servants (and thus restricted in having a voice as the matter relates to political appointments), only one side of the story is being given – all from men, and thus potentially subject to the gender lens/filter raised in the report. Additionally, many of the social media discussion on this largely seems to reflect this gender bias (with the addition that several male commentators feel that women are weaponising sexual harassment claims).

Now, the report cites two studies by:

  1. Gregory, Raymond, F. (2004) Unwelcome and unlawful: sexual harassment in the American workplace. New York, Cornell University Press.
  2. Bannerjee, et al (2011) Gender differences in perception of workplace sexual harassment among future professionals (Industrial Psychiatry Journal, 20(1): 21-4).

Both of these are excellent papers and well worth the read for those interested.

Now, the key takeaways from these papers that the report notes are:

  1. In general men and women diverge greatly on what they would consider offensive sexual harassment (in particular being propositoned by the opposite sex).
  2. In general men blame women for sexual harassment, in the form of saying women are responsible for their harassment in the workplace based on their dress or working in a male dominated space, and so on.
  3. That there is a need for awareness training – especially for men – regarding the full definition and scope of sexual harassment.

These findings are not new, nor are they exceptional. As Bhattacharya & Stockdale (2016) note:

  1. “Men’s attitude toward sexually harassing activities continues to be more tolerant than women’s.”
  2. “Women are more likely than men to define social-sexual behaviour or events to be sexually harassing or rate such events to be more severe, threatening, unwelcome, serious, or harmful…”
  3. “…there is abundant evidence that women tend to be more sensitive than men to SH [sexual harassment] perceptions and that individuals endorsing traditional masculine gender role orientations or sexist attitudes tend to be less sensitive to SH perceptions…”

There are, of course, plenty additional academic studies that basically find the same thing. In general, men are less likely to perceive their behaviours as sexually harassing than the women who are generally the subject of the harassing. And furthermore, men are more likely to blame the victim.

Myself, I was struck by the similarity here with perceptions of racism. As far back as 1981 (and no doubt earlier – see McConahay, et al ‘Has Racism Declined in America? It depends on who is asking and what is asked’), it was recongised that Whites (who generally benefitted from slavery, segregation and ongoing structural racism) are less likely to recognise the continuation of racism beyond the overt ‘old-fashioned’ in your face form of racism.

As our studies demonstrated, whites mainly recognise old-fashioned racism as reflecting racism. Any of their opinions, beliefs, or actions that work to the detriment of blacks are not seen as prejudice; and since most white Americans either do not hold old-fashioned racist beliefs or they feel guilty about the ones they do hold, whites tend to think racism is a thing of the past. Hence, whites perceive the continuing efforts and demands of blacks as unjustified, while blacks see whites’ resistance to these efforts as tangible proof of racism and hypocrisy, and the cycle of conflict continues.”

In general, using the US example again, perceptions on racism remain different depending on whether the perceiver is white or black.

There is a clear gender bias or ‘lens’ in perceptions of sexual harassment.

Internalised Sexism

Not covered in the BPSU report, but something which I think is worth at least mentioning here is the matter of internalised sexism. In this, I am referring to women that have internalised sexist attitudes and help enable the perpetuation of such – in this case either dismissing claims of sexual harassment or blaming the victim.

There are, of course, various aspects of internalised sexism, but the one I’m referring to here is these aspects:

“Defending, justifying, and excusing individual acts of misogyny, mistreatment, and/or abuse, either toward oneself or toward other women.”

“Defending, justifying, and supporting societal, institutional, political, and/or cultural bias and oppression against women (internalized oppression). Blaming women for causing their own victimization.”

This has certainly been on display on some social media conversations concerning the Commissiong controversy, as well as the radio. In this, the women involved have helped support and legitimise the oppression of other women. There are even some women with internalised sexism who will actively seek out sexually harassing behaviour from men, and to that degree dismiss the very real trauma of sexual harassment on other victims.

In some situations, this can be particularly problematic should a woman with such internalised sexism holds a key role of a shop steward in a unionised workplace. This may cause women workers to feel they cannot go to their union for assistance. This is not the case – if you as a worker are in such a situation where you feel your shop steward is compromised, you can and should go directly to the union itself, be it to a Division Vice-President or to the Executive Committee of the union itself.

2020 Election Analysis

I am toying with the idea of restarting the blog. More to come on that. I won’t be touching on local Bermudian politics, in terms of opinion. However, here’s some analysis from the 2020 election.

With the caveat that I’m sleep deprived and so struggling with the maths, by my calculations, between the 2017 and 2020 elections:

1) The PLP vote declined by an average of -2.4%.

2) If one excludes C20 which saw a boundary change to an uncontested seat, this change removing about 70 PLP votes, the PLP vote actually declined by just -1.7%.

3) The OBA vote declined by -30.5%. This of course somewhat warped by the two constituencies with no OBA candidate, thus a -100% decline.

4) If excluding C20 from this, the OBA vote declined by -31.3%. Again with the caveat of a -100% decline in two constituencies lacking OBA candidates.

5) The non-voting group increased by +9.3% (no change here if excluding C20).

6) The 2020 vote provides a baseline for future FDM analysis.

7) The PLP vote was uneven, seeing an increase in C1 by +0.5%; C8 by +5%; C9 by +1.5%; C12 by +7.6%; and C30 by +1%.

8) Excluding C20 with its boundary change (seeing a PLP vote decline of -23.8%), the three largest PLP vote declines were in C10 (-8.8%), C36 (-5.9%); and C21 (-4.6%).

9) The OBA vote was also uneven. The only OBA vote to increase was C10 by +0.2%. The three lowest declines for the OBA were in C25 (-4.4%); C8 (-4.6%); and C20 (-5.2%). If one excludes C20, then it would be C12 (-5.5%).

10) Excluding the seats without OBA candidates (thus a -100% decline), the three greatest OBA voter declines were in C34 (-99.9%); C15 (-90.3%); and C29 (-59.2%).

11) In general, the PLP vote largely remained static (albeit a very slight decline). The OBA vote largely collapsed (in double digits in all but 10 constituencies, of which one of those was such a slight % increase as to be static. – incidentally the site of the biggest PLP decline).

12) Based on the above one can generally conclude that the FDM took almost no votes from the PLP but likely attracted votes from otherwise non-voters. The bulk of FDM votes came from protest OBA votes. The OBA voters largely stayed home while a significant minority voted for the FDM. The PLP does not seem to have really lost any votes to the OBA.

13) There is scope here for an Opposition party to regain several seats simply by re-energising the anti-PLP base in those constituencies which only went PLP due to OBA voters boycotting the election.

14) The challenge for the PLP in those seats is to secure those seats by either winning over otherwise OBA voters who stayed home or attracting otherwise non-voters. Both the PLP and the Opposition parties will likely look to focus their resources in these seats between now and the next election.

15) The challenge for the FDM is that their boost as a novelty or protest vote is unlikely to be present in the next election, at least nowhere to the degree they had in 2020. They have more time to establish themselves, however the voters also have more time to size them up. The FDM needs to win over otherwise OBA voters, appeal to otherwise non-voters and also look to see how to peel voters away from the PLP.

% Change 2017-2020
Constituency PLPOBANonvoter
10.5-23.911.5
2-2.9-28.78.6
3-1.5-36.16.4
40.1-21.58.1
5-3.2-43.210.5
60.0-26.114.4
7-2.2-10.17.6
85.0-4.69.8
91.5-6.39.2
10-8.80.29.6
111.9-11.68.8
127.6-5.510.9
13-3.9-21.19.1
14-4.4-19.119.3
15-2.9-90.310.5
16   
17   
18-0.3-50.011.4
19-0.8-12.78.9
20-23.8-5.29.3
21-4.6-100.07.7
22-2.2-7.08.5
23-3.9-6.96.6
24-3.9-11.77.7
25-0.5-4.49.3
26   
27-3.7-22.512.5
28-1.2-11.111.0
29-2.1-59.27.7
301.0-5.65.9
31-0.8-6.07.1
32-2.6-38.37.7
33-3.5-100.07.1
34-2.7-99.98.8
35-3.1-64.87.3
36-5.9-54.07.1
Mean-2.4-30.59.3