Saturday, April 11, 2020

America Needs More Science and Less Stupid Politics

Note to readers of this blog: Most of my readers know that I started my career in education as a science teacher at the high school level. I still consider myself primarily a science teacher. That’s why I feel compelled to examine our country’s reaction to the current Covid-19 pandemic from the point of view of the relevant science. In addition, I believe there are critical lessons to be learned as we fight though this dangerous challenge. These lessons should be anchored in a reliance on science instead of knee jerk reactions of some of our inept and unethical politicians.

Someone recently sent me a slick public relations video of the city of Wuhan China. This is the city of 11 million people where the Corona virus got its start. The video showed an aerial view of a fabulous city featuring beautiful architecture and amazing infrastructure including complex highway systems, attractive high-rises, and even beautiful public art works in the center of the city. 

I was skeptical of such an obvious propaganda video, so I went to the Internet and did a little research. I found that Wuhan does have some amazing architecture and much of the infrastructure represented on the PR video. I concluded that Wuhan was quite an impressive city, regardless of the problems that we know would carefully be excluded from a PR video. I am not including a link to the PR video here because I don’t want to be part of any propaganda effort by the Chinese government.

But none of this keeps me from concluding that any society or country that could build such a fabulous city must have more going for it than just one-sided-trade policies. (Some popular media sources have been blaming China for many of our country’s failings in dealing with Covid-19 by pointing to what they claim to be one-sided trade agreements. Speaking of propaganda, these sources very seldom feel the need to explain or document their claim of one-sided trade agreements).  

My reaction to all this finger pointing is that the Covid-19 pandemic is far too serious for our country to continue dwelling on Bogymen. We in America can’t continue to just blame the Chinese for some of the obvious shortcomings of our own government and our inability to deal with serious health dangers to our country. 

It is believed by epidemiologists that Covid-19 started as a crossover disease caused by a virus infecting bats that mutated to the point that it could thrive in other mammals, including humans. It probably started in Wuhan, China when probably just one human came into contact with infected mammals that were being sold as food. Unfortunately, it was highly communicable. This caused the first cases of Covid-19. From then on it spread like wildfire for the many reasons that we find it hard to stop the spread today. 

Of course many Americans are disgusted by the thought of strange food practices in some countries, along with the fact that the early cases of Covid-19 were kept secret as the Chinese struggled unsuccessfully to stamp out the epidemic. So some TV talking heads apparently now believe that punishing the Chinese government would be in order. That may be true, but it does not at all address the fact that such a pandemic could probably start almost anywhere in the world. Even with complete transparency by the country of origin, there is no guarantee that the world could be warned in time to stop the development of a pandemic. Trump’s so called Chinese travel ban certainly did not stop the spread of Covid-19 to America.  There are no nations that succeeded in stopping its spread to their populations.

Without going into the scientific details, it occurred to me that it would have been just as easy for a bunch of Cajuns in Louisiana to set off a similar pandemic of a crossover disease, such as mad cow disease, by their habit of eating squirrel brains. (Fortunately for my Cajun buddies and relatives that claim turned out to be groundless).  Or maybe some high status Midwesterner could contract a new flu virus from coming into contact with infected pork, like the American woman in the movie Contagion. (Louisiana’s own Steven Soderbergh made that extremely well researched movie.) Often our health authorities can’t know if meat is infected with a novel virus because there can be no test for it. A contagion or a pandemic could start for completely innocent reasons anywhere in the world. You can’t pass a law banning pandemics. 

It makes no sense therefore, to label a particular country or society as evil just because a deadly disease started on their shores. Nor is any big company in this country prepared to stop trading with or manufacturing products in China simply because their government leaders cheat and lie. (Think about that one for a minute.) Not only that; my God, we’d be shutting down Walmart and all the Dollar Stores!  

Crossover diseases have caused serious epidemics such as AIDS, the recent H1N1 flu, and even the Bubonic Plaque. The present conditions in the modern world, because of our dense populations and the explosion of business and tourism travel are now more dangerous than ever for the proliferation of numerous horrendous pandemics that could sweep across the entire earth in the coming decades. Some of our most brilliant biological scientists have been trying to sound the alarm about the need to prepare defenses against infectious disease pandemics for the last 20 years. Because of recent discoveries in the field of genetics, there are now effective ways of battling even novel infectious diseases if we have the will and intelligence as a nation set up defensive systems. But those warnings by our scientists have been almost totally ignored by several of our recent federal administrations. The last administration had at least created a branch of our public health system devoted to pandemic response, which was promptly dismantled by the Trump administration for no announced reason, just in time for this recent outbreak.

My point in bringing up this issue it that we Americans simply need to wake up and renew our efforts to advance science, rebuild our health infrastructure, and rely more on our most competent scientists and engineers to protect and renew our own country, instead of blaming everyone else for our lack of vision and planning. 
Dr Fauci can be depended on to give us the facts

What good will it do us if we succeed in proving that China didn’t tell us soon enough about the danger of the Corona virus? South Korea got their first Covid-19 case on the same day the U.S. did and got the same information on the genetics of the disease, and somehow they were able to produce enough tests and launch an initiative to greatly reduce the spread of the disease while we let it run out of control in our country. Was that the fault of the Chinese? 

We can deal effectively with this problem if we forget about these unproductive excuses and get to work. Did anyone make excuses for possible failure in 1960 when our nation chose to launch a project to land Americans on the moon in less than a decade? That moonshot resulted in technological advances for America over other countries that we still enjoy today, but that advantage is rapidly evaporating. We could still be producing great leaps forward in all the areas of science and commerce if we made science and technology a national priority. Let’s stop pointing fingers and feeling paralyzed by numerous outside enemies, and instead start taking care of our own business. I can’t help but feel that our dysfunctional government, where ignorant politicians claim to know more than the scientists, is the beginning of our downfall as a nation. 

In just a few short years we have dismantled some of the most effective departments of our Federal government because a few political hacks said that we needed to shrink down the size of our federal government down to where it could be drowned in a bathtub. (Look up lobbyist Grover Norquist) But remember that our successful moonshot happened because of a big government creation called NASA. Our entire economy benefited when we utilized all the amazing technologies developed by and for the moonshot and NASA. 

Now government deregulation, not trade policies, has allowed our big corporations to build vital products in China instead of in America. (Our big 3-M company makes their surgical facemasks in China). When congress passed the massive tax cut last year that benefited our big corporations most, there were no amendments made by Democrats or Republicans to require that our corporations bring vital manufacturing back to the US as a condition of those tax cuts. Lack of action by our dysfunctional federal government refused to put price controls on drugs (like most other countries do) that could have saved thousands of lives over the years. All because we were told that our big companies and free enterprise would solve all of our problems more efficiently if  “big government” would step out of the way. So now we have every state competing for vital testing kits, medical equipment and supplies that our free enterprise system allowed our companies to make in China. This happened as a result of deregulation, and control of our government by greedy American tycoons. Not because of bad trade policy. 

Our own major corporations did this to us because we trusted them instead of our government to take care of us. There has to be a balance of power with government protecting the general welfare of its people against the false promise by the rich to give us trickle down prosperity. Our big corporations are screwing us, not because our federal government is too big and is regulating too much. The big corporations are screwing us because their lobbyists have bought out our incompetent and unethical politicians of both parties to make their executives obscenely rich at the expense of the middle class workers of our country. Don’t blame our unions who now represent only a tiny percentage of workers. Their influence on government has been reduced to no more than a minor nuisance compared to big business. Big business PACs whose donors are secret, spend a hundred times more than unions in buying politicians.

The advantage of a Federal government, run correctly, is that it can mobilize all the enormous resources of the nation to address a problem like a pandemic (or a moon shot) that does not recognize state borders. The Chinese government did not depend on the governor of Wuhan province to suppress their epidemic. They understood that it could soon spread to the entire population of 1.4 billion people if the central government did not take control. Covid-19 doesn’t care about political parties or how it will affect the next election. It just multiplies as fast as we will let it because of our refusal to follow the advice of our health scientists. We suffer in direct proportion to the incompetence of the politicians who insist on making political decisions on medical strategy instead of letting our health scientists run the show. 

We will not gain one life saved now by blaming China for this. We just need to get our act together just like we did when our government helped us recover from the great depression, and when we “nationally” mobilized our industries to build thousands of B-17s to defeat Germany in World War II. Surely we can mobilize our industries to build sufficient ventilators and millions of 60-cent facemasks to protect our doctors and nurses and even average people who want to buy groceries during this lockdown. 

I have a personal problem with this pandemic and the fact that our country cannot make enough ventilators for very sick Covid-19 patients.  I am 75 years old and if I get a bad case of Covid-19 I may have to be denied a ventilator so that a younger person could have access to that last ventilator available at my local hospital.  I wouldn’t be dying for any worthwhile cause.  I’d be dying because of our incompetent and unethical politicians! Surely we can mobilize our industries to build sufficient ventilators and millions of 60-cent facemasks to protect our doctors and nurses and even average people who want to buy groceries during this lockdown. Surely our government could order enough antibody tests to find out who is now immune to Covid-19 and therefore could go back to work without fear. Listen to our health care scientists: We need testing, testing, testing! This can only happen at the direction of a competent federal government. No private companies will organize such an effort and the states could not coordinate it. It has to be done by “big government”. You know, the government that Grover Norquist wanted to drown in a bathtub. 

Our misfortune in being number 1 in the world in Covid-19 cases is not because of all the other countries conspiring against us, or bad trade deals, even though I’m sure that our trade deals could be improved in the way I have suggested here. Maybe our failure to meet this challenge is because we have an incompetent government totally controlled by big business leaders who don’t realize that they are hurting themselves as well as our general population with this stranglehold they have on our government.   Maybe we should get to work fixing our real problems by throwing out all the unethical and corrupt politicians financed by the Koch brothers and other big business PACs, and instead insist on competence and ethical behavior at all levels of our government. Wuhan, China did not get where it is by doing away with big government. I am certainly not endorsing the dictatorial government of China. Democracy, done right, by and for the people is much better. But that’s not what we have in America today.  

Mike Deshotels, retired science teacher