Did China manufacture Covid-19?

The 73rd World Health Assembly began on May 18th – and it soon became yet another battleground between the US and China. Back in March, the Trump administration started repeatedly addressing the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus”, causing huge offence in Beijing. Since then, the two countries have been engaging in a mediatic war over who is responsible for the pandemic. The underlying assumption of this blame-shifting is that the virus has been bioengineered to serve as a weapon.

This conversation has proved dangerous on both sides: it not only provoked several attacks in regard to China and Chinese communities abroad, but it also injected a renewed sense of nationalistic pride in the Chinese and eventually reinforced an “East versus West” paradigm and the idea of an inevitable conflict between the two.

Narratives of this kind are as ominous as they are misleading. In the US, it is mainly conservative politicians who speculate that China created their virus out of their biosafety level-four laboratory located in Wuhan, where they suggest the outbreak originated. The first raising questions as to the possibility of a manufactured Covid-19 was American social scientist Steve Mosher, who published an opinion piece on February 22 entitled ‘Don’t buy China’s story: The coronavirus may have leaked from a lab’. Mosher, the president of the Population Research Institute, has also written a book entitled Bully of Asia: Why China’s ‘Dream’ Is the New Threat to World Order, which sheds a bit of light on his stance on the country.

Chinese criticism has been equally sharp but quite different in nature: allegations of a US-manufactured virus were framed more as a (not very) diplomatic response than as an actual inquiry into the American medical research. Xinhua, China State News Agency, has instead released a video advertisement that mocks the U.S. government and blames it for having underestimated the virus and having poorly handled the crisis causing many people to die. A type of criticism that may somehow be more constructive than blaming a government to have deliberately released a new-type disease as a weapon.

What is more important, however, is that none of this is backed by science. Experts worldwide have been debunking theories that Covid-19 originated in a lab. According to a study recently published on the biomedical journal Nature Medicine the molecular features of SARS-CoV-2 that are essential to initiate infection are so perfect that they can only be the result of natural selection and not the product of a genetic engineering process, even if performed by very clever scientists.

In interviews published on Business Insider and Scientific American, Jonna Mazet, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Davis, who has worked with and trained Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers in the past and Wuhan-based virologist Shi Zhengli warn that there are at least four reasons why a leak would be unlikely. Besides the rigorous safety protocols implemented by the lab, it appears that the lab’s samples simply don’t match the new-type corona-virus.

The most likely explanation for the appearance of Sars-Cov-2 may be instead that it was transmitted to humans after a process of natural selection in an animal host – probably bats – that were sold in Wuhan wet-market. This theory has been leading many to mistrust or mock the Chinese for their backwardness and unusual alimentary habits. While part of this criticism is justified – as China grows it should start taking responsibility both over its society and its engagement with the world – it is not reasonable for other countries to assume that China should just abandon its culinary traditions however strange they might sound. At the origin of the pandemic is the problem of unregulated animal markets anyway, not the ingredients of a Chinese soup.

One last consideration: it may be worthwhile to engage in a mental exercise for a second and imagine what would have happened if the virus originated, let’s say, in Italy. Would have the conversation been any different? It suddenly becomes harder to picture anybody accusing the Italian government of having evil plans to conquer the world. A sign that most of the current discourse on Covid-19 might have more to do with politics than with health.

 

The Uncertain Future of Vladimir V. Putin

If Otto von Bismarck was right when he said, “politics is not a science, but an art,” then Vladimir Putin is a virtuoso whose great works deserve to hang in the halls of the Hermitage. 

Since acceding to the presidency in 1999, initially as a temporary replacement for a declining Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Putin has spent the opening 20 years of the 21st century at the head of the Russian Federation, a considerable, if crumbling global power. 

Over the years, the President, then Prime Minister, then President (again and again), has remained at the top. He defeated the Communist Party in a 2000 election, won essentially uncontested in 2004, then — due to a clause in the Russian Constitution not allowing Presidents more than two consecutive terms — spent four years as Prime Minister, theoretically subordinate to Dmitry Medvedev. Never losing his influence or sway over his country’s politics however, Putin completed his ‘castling’ move with Medvedev and again became President in 2012, this time for six years as his predecessor had helpfully extended the office’s term limits during the period of Putin’s interregnum. And so, the game continued, with Putin at the helm until March 2018, at which point another illiberal election renewed his lease on the Kremlin until 2024. 

2020 began with what was perceived at the time to be either an overture to the finale, or merely a prelude to an era of renewed Putinism. In January, the State Duma and Federation Council (the Russian houses of parliament) passed bills that strengthened the legislature and prime minister at the presidency’s expense, while imbuing a previously inconsequential body called the State Council with new powers. The shakeup, so the theories went, would allow Putin in 2024 to either become Prime Minister again, this time with expanded influence, or discreetly exercise control through the new levers available to him as chairman of the State Council. 

In March, however, amidst the background of COVID-19’s beginnings in Russia, Putin changed track. On March 11th, he pushed more amendments through the Duma and Federation Council that would reset his number of presidential limits to zero, thereby allowing him to run for the presidency anew in 2024, as well as ostensibly in 2030, should the then-septuagenarian wish to do so. But before these changes could be finalized as the law of the land, they had to be given popular assent via a national referendum, the date of which Putin set for April 22nd. 

Even without factoring in the effects of COVID-19, Putin’s planned political arithmetic was this time not going to be simply executed. The social contract in place, one requiring sufficient enough economic prosperity to make up for an absence of political rights, was already increasingly tenuous. Putin’s approval took a hit in 2019 after he raised the retirement age, and tough Western sanctions imposed after the seizure of Crimea in 2014 have helped keep Russian disposable incomes below their 2013 levels. 

With the advent of the coronavirus, though, Putin’s position has become more fragile than ever. The first cases arrived on January 31st, when two Chinese tourists were diagnosed with the virus, but initially, it seemed that Russia may have been able to escape the worst. According to government figures, no Russian nationals were infected until February 17th and throughout March, Putin’s air was collected and confident. At the beginning of the month, on the 1st, he declared the situation “entirely under control” and towards the end, on the 25th, he still maintained that Russia had the ability “to restrain both the wide and rapid spread of the disease.” He closed national borders to protect his citizens and their “sovereignty”— one of Putin’s common rallying cries— and declared on March 27th a week-long nationwide ‘holiday’, accompanied by tax deferments for medium and small-sized businesses. 

Putin Graph

If at the beginning of April, the worse had yet to come, over the course of the month the situation in Russia rapidly deteriorated. Cases skyrocketed, and even government officials, including the Prime Minister, were diagnosed with COVID-19. At the same time, Putin’s two-pronged political strategy — that of distancing and deception — became apparent. He began avoiding publicly commenting on the virus and declared that regional governors would have to make difficult decisions themselves. 

This allowed Putin to criticize local leaders from afar for ‘sloppiness’ when the coronavirus became particularly problematic in a certain region, as happened in Komi, Central Russia. Additionally, as legal activist Ernest Mezak pointed out, the fact that local officials lie, because “this is what they have always have done… as a habit” in order to please Putin, helped keep the number of confirmed cases and COVID-19 fatalities at a minimum. 

Still, however, Putin’s efforts to avoid being blamed have not been successful. His public approval was recently measured at 59% by Levada, a pollster thought to be independent of the state. Even putting to one side the well-documented fact that citizens of an authoritarian, or at least highly illiberal, government like that in Russia are likely to overstate their support so as to project loyalty, the May rating was the lowest recorded since Putin took office in 1999. 

Because of the virus and / or his unpopularity, Putin’s all-important national referendum on the constitutional amendments has been delayed. While on March 11th, 64% of voters were recorded to support the changes, by April 17th only 50% of Russians said they would vote their approval. With real incomes expected to fall by at least 5% according to Alfa bank (one of the largest private banks in Russia), and with unemployment forecast to skyrocket, it would seem support for the amendments will likely fall further. 

In a democracy as opaque as Russia, an absence of popular support may not seem overly consequential for Vladimir Putin. But for all his maneuvering, he has largely been popularly supported throughout his 21st-century reign. Still, if the situation in Russia remains dire with oil prices low, regular employment absent, and government aid paltry, then Mr. Putin may face his greatest challenge yet: a truly democratic one. 

 

Quarantined Music – by Quarantined Musicians

This comes in from the Syrian poet and broadcaster, Malak Mustafa. She liked it and we like it. It comes from Barcelona, one of the places worst affected by this plague:

And this from Stafford Clarry, our senior NCF member in Iraq: There are some things even a pandemic can’t stop. Perhaps something beautiful is rising up out of this pandemic. It is very much needed.
All the music on the list below was produced by quarantined musicians. The collection is a meadow of music to wander through and roam in.
Take care of each other.

El “Nessun Dorma” de l’òpera ‘Turandot’ de Puccini
1 May 2020
We Are the World – COVID-19 Tribute (Cover)
17 April 2020
ORFEOI TXIKIA koarentenan: ‘Lore dantza
14 April 2020
College Church Hallelujah chorus
12 April 2020
L’ONLyon vous réveille en musique pendant le confinement
11 April 2020
Havana – par les musiciens confinés de l’Orchestre d’Harmonie Saint Jean le Vieux / Ambronay (OHSJA)
11 April 2020
We are the World (2020) | Together At Home Edition by Channel Aid, KHS & YouTube Artists
10 April 2020
NHS Staff Choir sing ‘Lean on Me’ by Bill Withers
10 April 2020
ROYAL CHORAL SOCIETY: Hallelujah Chorus in Isolation
10 April 2020
Here Comes The Sun – Camden Voices (self-isolation/virtual choir cover)
10 April 2020
A Hope or the Future
9 April 2020
2020: An Isolation Odyssey | 40 musicians play epic intro from Kubrick classic during UK lockdown
9 April 2020
Les musiciens de l’Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg en télétravail
9 April 2020
YOU’VE GOT A FRIEND performed by the worldwide cast of BEAUTIFUL (in quarantine) for The Actors Fund
7 April 2020
From Our Homes to Yours: Milwaukee Symphony (Virtual) Orchestra performs Elgar’s “Nimrod”
7 April 2020
Les musiciens de l’ONCT se réinventent !
7 April 2020
Go Big & Stay Home – Socially Distant Orchestra Plays Wagner
6 April 2020
Thank You for the Music – Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
5 April 2020
Europa InCanto – 700 bambini cantano Nessun Dorma – Turandot
5 April 2020
Carmen
5 April 2020
Bella Ciao/La Casa de papel – Musicians in Covid19 Quarantine – Delirium Musicum
4 April 2020
ORFEÓN DONOSTIARRA – DONOSTIAKO ORFEOIA: Hallelujah
4 April 2020
The Lahti Symphony Orchestra: Sibelius: Finlandia op 26
3 April 2020
A Boléro from New York: NY Philharmonic Musicians Send Musical Tribute to Healthcare Workers
3 April 2020
Un obsequio para el mundo | Edward Elgar, Enigma Variations, IX Nimrod – OSNC
31 March 2020
Philip Glass by Cello Octet Amsterdam feat. Maki Namekawa
1 April 2020
Lockdown Sessions – Set You Free (N-Trance)
31 March 2020
Remerciements – Le Boléro De Ravel interprété en confinement par l’Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice
30 March 2020
Aussie Pops Orchestra Phones It In – What a Wonderful World
30 March 2020
Rise UP | Boston’s Children’s Chorus and other children’s choirs
30 March 2020
 “Stayin’ Inside” – Corona Virus Bee Gees Parody
27 March 2020
Roedean School (South Africa) – Hallelujah (Virtual Choir)
27 March 2020
 “Stayin’ Home” – Socially Distant Orchestra Plays Dvořák’s “New World”
27 March 2020
A Virtual Choir in quarantine sing Florence + The Machine
26 March 2020
Kaleidoscope Orchestra Lockdown Sessions – Don’t You Worry Child (Swedish House Mafia)
24 March 2020
 GRIEG – Holberg Suite – Preludium “á la Quarantine”
24 March 2020
Tonkünstler-Orchester / Tonkunstler Orchestra – Boléro
 Helplessly Hoping – il coro che non c’è
23 March 2020
 What the World Needs Now – for Virtual Orchestra
22 March 2020
StrongerTogether – SocialSymphony (Ode to Joy, Bamberger Orchestra)
22 March 2020
Socially Distant Orchestra Plays Ode to Joy
22 March 2020
True Colors – Camden Voices (self-isolation/virtual choir cover)
22 March 2020
Hallelujah – from a balcony in Italia
21 March 2020
CORO VIRTUALE – VIRTUAL CHOIR – Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen)
20 March 2020
Good Times, Ghali – Gaga Symphony Orchestra
18 March 2020
 Chino Valley USD Students Spread Hope During School Closures Due to COVID-19
17 March 2020
Daddy Daughter Duet – The Prayer

Italy’s phase two: what (not) to do

After Europe’s longest lockdown, Italy has entered its much-anticipated phase two on May 4th but it seems only few will have reason to celebrate.

All non-essential activities were banned and severe restrictions on people’s movement were imposed in Italy as early as March 10th, to contain the virus and avoid the risk of overwhelming the National Health System. On April 26th, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, in a video message to the nation, outlined his plan to slowly ease quarantine causing millions to express their anger and disappointment at what became labelled a “false reopening”.

Phase two has been presented as ‘coexistence with the virus’, meaning that people will be able to move within their region of residence to visit family or go to work, and many activities allowed to restart. Conte’s plan was predictable: the lifting of the lockdown, however gradual, must simultaneously involve the areas of production and of social life. After all, market rules teach us there is no significant movement of goods without the movement of people.

What Italians contested was the set of criteria used by the government to formulate cans and can’ts in the new phase. Only export-oriented manufacturing and public sector construction activities reopened on 4th May, leaving many small and medium-sized private sector businesses still at high risk of shutdown. Freedom of movement is still limited to essential activities, such as shopping for groceries or medical supplies, with the sole addition of visiting family members within the same region.

The decision to limit individual contacts to blood relatives alone has been sharply criticised by the public. Many emphasized how the choice of the state to prioritize blood ties is the expression of a backward and familial conception of social life, typical of Italian institutions. As a result of this criticism, the government decided to extend visit permission to all people that constitute “stable relationships”. A vague concept that makes law enforcement much harder.  The Prime Minister has explicitly said that “the success of the second phase rests upon Italians’ common sense”.  

Other changes involve the reopening of public parks – daily exercise is now allowed, provided that it is done alone and in full respect of social distancing – and the food sector, within bars and restaurants set to reopen to serve takeaway and delivery food.

Thus, Italy’s second phase is intended to look like the UK’s current ‘first’ phase of containment. The country is still far from the ‘phase two’ model set by China, where schools and most work activities have been reopened for weeks, although with strict rules of hygiene and social distancing. And this is what ultimately annoyed Italians, worn out by eight weeks of seclusion.

Other measures, however, are certainly understandable. For instance, the price of face masks has been capped at 50 cents, to make it easier for companies and shops to ensure respect for the rules that will grant their reopening.

Overall, the Italian government has been willing to negotiate. Regardless of its success, Italy’s second phase will set the precedent on the basis of which other countries could – and should – start to outline their strategies. 

 

Six in the Afternoon

Some of you may remember Joelle Manih and Ethan Jahan as the Producer and Director respectively of The English Hour broadcasts formerly hosted by NCF Secretary General, William Morris. They are both in lockdown as are most of us these days. This is an interesting short film, made by Ethan and starring Joelle, as their response to Covid-19.

Covid-19 Pandemic; what language do we use?

This comes in from Rev Larry Wright, a Board Member of the Next Century Foundation:

What language do we use when speaking about the Covid-19 pandemic? Do we see it as a ‘battle’ to be fought, a ‘monster’ to be slain, an ‘invisible enemy’ to be defeated? Such terms may be helpful for evoking a sense of unity among those who are most at risk but it also perpetuates the questionable idea that human beings and nature are in a perpetual struggle for survival. Covid-19 is a viral mutation whose origins are obscure, but its effects are the same as any other viral mutation, it moves from host to host (human to human) to live and multiple. The fact that it multiples most effectively in human beings is tragic for us but it could have been a mutation which infected other species; remember the swine flu and foot and mouth epidemics? Mutations in nature are a natural phenomenon and will keep occuring as part of creation’s diversity. We as the human species are in a unique position to resist and overcome threats to our survival but it will always be at a cost to us in illness and lives lost. It may feel like an ‘enemy’ among us but it is nature being nature and we will adapt and overcome, until the next time . . .

Keep well, Keep safe, Keep praying

Revd Larry Wright
Team Rector
Kings Norton Team Ministry

https://www.kingsnorton.org.uk/

 

Covid-19: Lessons from the East?

Are there lessons still to be learnt about the way the East has handled coronavirus? As Europe and the US adopt increasingly draconian measures to stop the spreading of the virus, Asia is slowly recovering. Within a similar period of time, the virus has made a greater number of victims in Europe and the US than in Asia. This imbalance is not only a matter of governance or national health systems – a lot of it is cultural.  

The People’s Republic of China, a country of 1.4 billion people, managed to contain the virus in about ten weeks reporting the first day without deaths on April 7th. Vietnam, one of the PRC’s neighbours and home to the first registered case outside of China back in January, has only a few hundred infections within its territory and, seemingly, no deaths. The government in Hanoi was even praised by the World Health Organisation for its performance. South Korea, one of the virus epicentres back in February, managed to slow down the spread and now has about 10,000 cases (one seventh of those registered in the UK) and only 222 deaths.

What made Asian countries’ response to the virus effective? Many have found an answer in the ability of governments to strictly control their citizens. This capacity is seen as the direct result of the presence of authoritarian governments – China, Vietnam – or authoritarian traits within formally established democracies – South Korea – and has been dismissed in the West as something neither possible nor desirable. But this view might be simplistic. As much as a country’s policy-making reflects the nature of its political systems, political arrangements result from the mindset, customs and social behaviour of a people or a society. To put simple, politics rests upon culture.

There are a few societal behaviours shared by China, Vietnam and South Korea that are absent in the Western cultural tradition. First, the general tendency to value the collective over the individual. This fundamental premise is a legacy of Confucianism and an underlying concept to the notion of citizenship in China and culturally proximate countries. Confucius preached that the virtuous individual should be willing to sacrifice for the family, the neighbouring social circles, and ultimately the state.

Valuing the collective over the individual is a two-fold asset at a time like this: first, the Chinese, the Vietnamese and the South Koreans have arguably had less troubles than Europeans or Americans in accepting the idea of suffering any form of discomfort – isolation, in this case – for the common good. As such, they proved more disciplined. This is evidenced by the Chinese experts that were sent to Europe to help fighting the virus: “The main problem is that too many people are still out in the streets,” they declared to China’s State News Agency.

Secondly, the importance conferred by the individual on the state, combined with centralized policy-making, allowed the government to adopt cost-cutting strategies to deal with the crisis. For instance, central governments in China and Vietnam have been able to elude market rules in order to prioritize production of certain goods over others: this allowed to avoid the risk that key products – such as food, surgical masks, and sanitary products – get out of stock or become overly expensive.

Most European countries and the United States have been taking on some of the measures that proved successful in Asia, but recovery is nowhere near in sight. As Westerners, we feed into the idea that this imbalance is the result of the ideological premises of liberal democracy that grant citizens’ individual freedom instead of controlling and restraining them. This might be true. But on closer inspection, we might find that some aspects of existing liberal democracies exceeded those premises: undeterred individualism, the rule of the market, and the lack of state intervention, if unchallenged, may be our doom in the world of the future.

 

Covid-19 and Protagoras’ Paradox

This interesting reflection explains a lot about how the British Government were handling Covid-19 in the early days. It has been doing the rounds on the internet though we are unaware of the original source. The earliest source we can find for it is the Nigerian publication “City People”

Over 2000 years ago, in Greece, there was a lawyer named Protagoras. A young student, Euthalos, requested to apprentice under him, but was unable to pay the fees. The student struck a deal saying, “I will pay your fee the day I win my first case in the court”. Teacher agreed. When the training was complete and a few years had elapsed without the student paying up, the teacher decided to sue the student in the court of law.

The teacher thought to himself: ‘If I win the case, as per the law, the student will have to pay me, as the case is about non-payment of dues. And if lose the case, the student will still have to pay me, because he would have won his first case. Either way I will get paid’.

The student’s view was, ‘If I win the case, I won’t have to pay the teacher, as the case is about my non-payment of fees. And if I lose the case, I don’t have to pay him since I wouldn’t have won my first case yet. Either way I will not pay the teacher.’

This is known as Protagoras Paradox, which ever way you look both have equally convincing arguments, one can go either way in supporting the teacher or the student and would not be wrong.

Those of us in medical practice often come across such situations, either in making a diagnostic or therapeutic decision. One physician can recommend a course of treatment based on scientific evidence and another can recommend a diametrically opposite course again based on medical evidence. Right or wrong, but some merit would exist on both sides.

Often the physician himself is having an internal struggle to make a decision about the most appropriate course of action, Protagoras & Euthalos are arguing in his mind, to do this or to do that. The horns of dilemma are tearing him apart.

But what prompted this essay was a tweet by Donald Trump, ‘hope the cure is not worse than the disease’. L & G I hate to say, but I find some merit in this tweet. In our global attempt to flatten the COVID curve, I hope we do not flatten the global economy curve. The question is what’s the best way forward. One group recommends ‘total lockdown’ to break the transmission chain, based on evidence from China, they managed to control the spread of the virus by ruthless lock down and 3 months later they are showing that disease is controlled in Wuhan. On the other hand, the other school of thought is graded isolation & protection of elderly and very young and those with co-morbidities, let it spread amongst the young and healthy, after all the disease ultimately will be controlled when we achieve ‘herd immunity’. The medical community is divided in these two groups. To enforce complete lockdown or Graded isolation?

To complicate the issue the epidemiologists have joined the bandwagon with cacophony of statistical analysis. From Rosy to Dooms day predictions. If we don’t do a complete lockdown then a million people will die in 1 year. No say some more like 90 million will die in 1 year. Whose data analysis is correct. Some suggest do nothing, nature will take over in a few months and all will be well, they quote historical data to justify their recommendations. On whose inputs should we base our disaster management strategy.
Then come the economists with their doomsday predictions. If this continues till May our medical resources will be overwhelmed, Agriculture will suffer, food shortages will occur, production will come to a standstill. There will be an economic crisis of the proportions that world has not seen ever. So, break this lockdown nonsense and let’s get back to work as usual.

What will our political masters do. My guess is they will listen to medical experts, epidemiologists & economists. Then they will decide what course of action will ensure their survival, what will get them people’s votes and they will run with that. At present ‘Lockdown” finds favour with them. Boris in UK had to abandon the recommendations of the medical community about graded response, because the people’s perception became that our Government is not doing enough to protect us citizens. That means revolt against him. So, screw it, lets go with total lockdown if that’s what the people want. Gradually people will get tired of lockdown and demand- let life go on. Then with equally convincing arguments the governments will say the time has now come to lift the blockade, we have controlled the contagion, we have won.

Incidentally the Protagoras Paradox has not been resolved till date. Students in Law schools still hold mock trials and give arguments on both sides, without any resolution of the dispute.