Sunday, June 28, 2020


Two interesting articles in the June Smithsonian; Defying the Nazis and Predicting the Pandemic.

The first, Defying the Nazis, recounted the story of Paul Rivet, a French anthropologist who openly disagreed with the racist ideas promoted by many anthropologists of the time (and adopted by Hitler and the Nazi party) which was used to justify the murder of the Jews, and the belief in the superiority of the Aryan race.  As is usual about so many Smithsonian articles, this small bit of history is generally unknown by most people, as it was by me.  Rivet went on to not only fight the racism endemic in the belief of certain races being inferior to others, but was a key figure in the early creation of the French underground movement, and in fact, the naming of that movement; the Resistance.

The second tells the story of the 1957 pandemic that killed 1.1 million people worldwide, and infected about 20 million Americans, leading to 116,00 deaths.  Similar to the current coronavirus plaguing our planet, this strain also emerged from China and was a strain unlike any which humans had encountered before.  The difference however, is that a man named Maurice Hilleman, an American microbiologist who was in charge of influenza monitoring at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, saw the virus coming and prepared the United States ahead of time.  Hilleman arranged for the US military to ship samples of the pathogen from Hong Kong to his lab in Washington DC, a task which enabled him to identify the H2N2 strain as a unique pathogen.

Initially, however, Hilleman's warnings were ignored by the US Public Health Service.  Eerily similar to our reaction to the novel coronavirus today, people and health organizations had become complacent in their understanding of the deadly power of such aggressive influenza strains, and so his warnings were for naught.  Fortunately, he sent his samples to the 6 biggest pharmaceutical companies directing them to produce a vaccine for the new flu, which they did, such was his clout and reputation in the industry.  When the virus hit America's shores in the fall of 1957, as Hilleman had predicted, America was soon armed with a vaccine due to his persistence, and upwards of 30 million Americans were inoculated during that year's flu season, saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

While I did not do the research, I would imagine that this lesson may have resulted in the eventual formation of the CDC and other such agencies, whose job it is to identify, study, disseminate information about, and provide guidance to fight such diseases.

Stories such as Frankenstein, address both our admiration and fear of the power of science.  We dearly hope that our scientists can find cures for such horrible diseases as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, cancer, etc, while fearing that the power of science might be used for nefarious or violent means.  No topic better illustrates such hope and fear than nuclear power which has been used to provide clean energy, yet also to kill thousands of people in one second.

Scientists themselves often find themselves caught between the realization that their research can be used for both good and evil, but rather than engaging among themselves and with the public to determine the right path, they allow politicians and business people to find uses for their inventions, uses which too often run contrary to the good of the public. 

Paul Rivet, whom that first article was about, did not abdicate his responsibility to speak out when he saw anthropological evidence used by the Nazis to power their evil agenda, while Maurice Hilleman used his knowledge to spur the development of a vaccine which saved countless lives despite being told he was an extremist and doomsayer for predicting the deadly nature of the virus he had studied.

In the last few days, we surpassed 10 million cases worldwide, 500,000 deaths due to COVID-19.  Here is America, while we have only documented over 2.5 million cases (compared to 20 million in 1957-58), we have already experienced more deaths than what was, at the time, the 2nd worst epidemic in America's history.  However, and it is a big HOWEVER, the virus didn't wait until the fall to start killing people, it began right away, in the Spring.  And it is still spreading, alarmingly so, despite the heat of the summer.  And, a vaccine, while perhaps only 6 months away, will not provide us with any relief through at least half of the next flu season.  And, worst of all, it is beginning to spread through countries with dense populations and countries with far less advanced medical facilities than Western Europe and the US.  We are currently experiencing a million new cases every week, worldwide and the rate is accelerating.  40 million by year's end?

But even scarier, this virus seems far more deadly than any we have seen before.  Even if we were to assume that there have been 4-5 cases for every case that has been identified, the death rate is upwards of 10 times higher than a normal flu.  2 million deaths by year's end?

It is crystal clear to this writer, that Donald J Trump has failed America on two fronts.  First, his apparent disdain for the science of infectious disease, especially when it interferes with his selfish desire to win reelection no matter the price.  And second, his utter inability to understand that health comes before money and a strong economy.  Both fatal flaws are on display with his single minded need to hold rallies to appease his ego.  In essence, he and his entourage are becoming the super seeders of COVID-19, spreading the virus into America's heartland, while he publicly demonstrates his lack of even the most basic trait of a good leader, to lead by example, or in his case, by leading by no example as illustrated by his refusal to wear a mask which in turn, allows his ardent followers to do the same.

Finally, it is this disdain for science that has resulted in going on 4 more years of lost time in addressing climate change.  Four more years of doing nothing, and in some cases, making it worse.  If science can truly save us from ourselves before climate change fully impacts the Earth, we will need to decide as a country and as a planet, to seek the best science, throw out the chaff from the wheat, and elect leaders who respect the answers it can provide while employing those solutions for the betterment of all of us.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Ongoing Protests

As we mark the 2-week anniversary of the beginning of the protests which resulted from the brutal murder of George Floyd, I thought I would repost the story I wrote in late 2018 called The Switch Back which presents a version of the age old story of a person or people finding themselves in an unfamiliar body with the same mind.  I present it here with the caveat that, like past protests against racial inequality, unfair treatment by the judicial system and the general disadvantages of being a non-white person in America, this current wave of protests will end.  The question isn't, was there justification in all the marching and proposed policy changes and endless speechifying, but will anything actually change?  We have seen all too often that public outcries and politicians making impassioned pleas for legislation, have a limited shelf life until the next crisis or disaster or seminal event leaps onto the stage.

In the story which follows, actual change does begin to occur, because the "event" lasts longer than a few days or weeks.  Time passes but the evidence lingers beyond the normal attention span of the average news cycle.  It makes me think that any movement, or attempt to change society on a large scale, needs longevity, even more so than repeated bursts.  Clearly, this is true concerning our desperate need for violence control in the area of gun law reforms since repeated events have done very little to create stricter gun laws.  In fact, we seem to have gone backwards on that front, if you accept that protesters armed with rapid fire weapons while protesting a stay at home order to battle a national health crisis, are an acceptable sight on the steps of a state capital.

Is it just too late for the boomer generation to learn the lessons of the injustice of police (and everyday white people) who view black men as animals who need to be controlled and dominated, just as it appears it is too late for us to have learned the tragic lessons of our love affair with guns and violence as played out in the all too familiar occurrence of mass shootings, as well as the daily carnage which claims far too many American lives?

I have faith that the generation of my children will make progress on both of these fronts, but alas, have little hope that the generation of my peers will renounce its selfishness and address its deep rooted faults.

I include a link to the this story, below, as well as the story itself.

                                   The Switch Back

The day before was like any other day. People went to work, got married, had babies. Athletes and actors performed on TV, the mail was delivered, school was in session. Trains and planes ran on time, dogs were walked in the parks, children played in schoolyards and in the streets. Armies waged war, politicians did, whatever it is they do.

Then came the Switch.

In fact, as a percentage of the world’s population, it was barely 10%. But, for those who experienced it, the shock was devastating. And, as if it was controlled by a purposeful hand, it effected the rich and powerful at an alarming rate.

The Switch barely touched Africa. The Polar Regions and most of Indonesia were spared. Few people in South and Central America were changed, but many in North America, especially the United States experienced it. Europeans were also inordinately altered. Oddly, every United Nations representative, every head of state, every religious leader (excepting the Dali Lama), almost every person of influence was switched overnight.

But this wasn’t a science fiction inspired alien body snatching plot. This switch involved individual race and gender. Those that were white became black and vice versa. Those that were male became female, and again, vice versa. Overnight, the make-up of the world’s movers and shakers changed from white male to black female. On the outside. Internally, those who were changed were the same person as before. The same experiences, the same background, the same ambition and intelligence, just a new exterior.

The first few days after the Switch, the world paused. What did this mean? Was it a message from God? Explanations were offered, everything from an end of the world precursor to an environmental cause to an alien plan to disrupt the fabric of humanity. But, as the days became weeks, then months, it became clear that there was no explanation that would suffice; it was time to take stock, adjust and move on.

Then, slowly, proposals for change began to emerge. The hidden biases of the financial world were brought to light. The income gap between genders was addressed. The percentage of poverty among minorities and women was prioritized. The dominance of history that had been justified as resulting from the natural superiority of the white male was redefined as the consequence of better education, better opportunity, better resources.

As time passed, the world settled into a new paradigm. Certainly, there were some who merely exchanged the belief in their new appearance’s supremacy for their old. Why were they picked for the Switch, they argued, except due to the fact that they were more loved, more special in the eyes of the Creator. But for most, the new dominance of those decidedly not white, not male, was seen as an opportunity to rise or fall without obstacles, on the merits of their hard work, integrity and perseverance. Skin color, gender, became less important, less cared about.

And then came the Switch Back. Again, it was as sudden as the Switch; overnight. Everything was as it had been. The white male was back in charge, the majority of those in power, those with influence.

Again, the world paused. Had it been a global hallucination? Did it really happen? It quickly became obvious that no pictures, no physical evidence of the Switch existed. It was if the lessons learned in the past nine months were meant to be remembered via faith alone, without tangible proof.

Without hard evidence, there were some who preferred not to remember. They introduced bills and trumpeted calls to reverse some of the changes that had transpired, changes that had almost eliminated the prejudices of race and gender that had plagued the world before the Switch. There were even some religious leaders that claimed the Switch Back should be interpreted as a return to the normal, an admittance that the experiment of the Switch was unsuccessful.

Now, a mere 30 days since the Switch Back the debate continued. On one side, the forces of those who chose to ignore the lessons of the Switch. Those who were more comfortable with their age old belief in the preeminence of the white male. On the other side were those that had internalized the changes that the Switch inspired. Those who believed that the Switch was meant to nudge humanity towards a true equality.

Only time would tell which side would prevail. And whether the lessons of the Switch would be maintained or ignored by the reality of the Switch Back.