Category Archives: Pandemic

Intelligence Agencies Fail to Protect us from Pandemic

With millions forced out of work and many more stuck at home, Canadians need to ask tough questions of organizations receiving billions of dollars to protect them from foreign threats. The country’s intelligence/security sector has done little to respond to the ongoing social and economic calamity. Even worse, their thinking and practices are an obstacle to what’s required to overcome a global pandemic.

A recent Canadian Press article highlights the failure of intelligence agencies to warn of the COVID-19 outbreak. They largely ignore health-related threats despite receiving huge sums of federal money.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s (CSIS) has more than 3,000 employees and a $500 million budget, which is nearly equal to that of the lead agency dealing with the pandemic. The Public Health Agency of Canada’s (PHAC) budget is $675 million and it has 2,200 employees. For its part, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) employs 2,500 and receives over $600 million annually. In 2011 Department of National Defence run CSE moved into a new $1.2 billion, 110,000 square metre, seven-building, complex connected to CSIS’ main compound.

CSE is but one component of DND’s intelligence juggernaut. Not counting CSE, the Canadian Forces has greater intelligence gathering capacities than any organization in the country. While their budget and size are not public information, the government’s 2017 Defence Policy review notes that “CFINTCOM [Canadian Forces Intelligence Command] is the only entity within the Government of Canada that employs the full spectrum of intelligence collection capabilities while providing multi-source analysis.” The Defence Policy Paper called for adding 300 military intelligence positions and expanding CFINTCOM’s scope.

CFINTCOM has a medical intelligence (MEDINT) cell to track how global health trends and contagions impact military operations. Apparently, they reported on the coronavirus outbreak in January but it’s unclear who received that information.

The $2 billion spent on CSIS/CSE/CFINTCOM annually — let alone the more than $30 billion devoted to DND/Veterans Affairs — could have purchased a lot of personal protective equipment for health care workers. It could have paid for many ventilators and it could also have been used to raise the abysmally low wages of many who work in long-term care and nursing homes.

But, it’s not only that CSIS/CSE/CFINTCOM resources could be better used. Their ideology and structures are an obstacle to avoiding/overcoming a global pandemic. Two weeks ago, CSE put out a statement warning Canadian coronavirus researchers to beware of malign international forces seeking to steal their research. A Canadian Centre for Cyber Security statement noted, “these actors may attempt to gain intelligence on COVID-19 response efforts and potential political responses to the crisis or to steal ongoing key research toward a vaccine or other medical remedies.” But, wouldn’t it, in fact, be great if our ‘enemies’ in Russia, China, Iran, or anywhere else employed Canadian research to develop a cure or vaccine for COVID-19? Who, except extreme right-wing ideologues, could believe a vaccine or cure should be patented and profited from?

It won’t be easy to shift their orientation to include pandemics. In a recent commentary, prominent intelligence agency insider Wesley Wark notes, “our security and intelligence agencies have never seen health emergency reporting as part of their core mandate, despite a plan laid down in the National Security Policy announced after SARS that unfortunately went nowhere.” For a time after the 2003 SARS outbreak the CSIS-based Integrated Threat Assessment Centre reported regularly on pandemic dangers, but the unit was soon collapsed into the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre. For the intelligence agencies “terrorism” is appealing because it justifies militarism and a ‘security’ state. Health emergencies, on the other hand, justify better work conditions for long-term care providers.

The CSIS/CSE/CFINTCOM definition of ‘security’ is heavily shaped by corporate Canada, state power projection and ties to the US Empire. In criticizing Canadian intelligence agencies’ failure to warn/protect us from the pandemic, Wark highlights the dangerously narrow outlook of the intelligence community. He suggests CSIS/CSE/CFINTCOM could have helped prevent the calamity by gathering better intelligence on China. But, if Beijing hid early information on COVID-19, it’s at least partly because China is locked in a destructive geopolitical competition with the US empire, which was instigated by Washington and its allies (from 1949 to 1970 Canada refused to recognize China and in 1950 sent 27,000 troops to Korea largely to check Chinese nationalism). In recent months CSIS/CSE/CFINTCOM have sought to identify China as a threat.

Wark’s thinking must be rejected. Avoiding and overcoming global pandemics requires a free exchange of health information. It also requires international solidarity.

After the COVID-19 crisis dies down, progressives should renew their push to devote intelligence agencies’ resources towards initiatives that protect ordinary Canadians’ security, rather than the interests of the rich and powerful.

The Decade Of Transformation: Being In Balance With Nature

Save Our Planet Save Our Future, Belgium, January 31, 2019 (Photo: EuroNews/Twitter)

This is the fourth newsletter in our series on the 2020s as a decade of transformation See Remaking International Relations, Remaking the Economy for the People, and Remaking Healthcare. In addition to COVID-19 and the economic collapse, multiple crises are reaching a peak and the world is changing as a result. How the world changes will be determined in some part by our actions. This week, we look at what can be done to bring our societies into balance with nature.

Biologist Elisabet Sahtouris describes an alternative theory of evolution to Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” in her book, “Earthdance: Living Systems in Evolution.” Sahtouris finds that evolution is cyclical, a spiral instead of linear. She describes how when a new species arises, it upsets the ecological equilibrium as it comes into competition with other species over habitat. The task of that species in the adolescent phase of its evolution is to find its niche in a way that is cooperative with other species. If it fails, it goes extinct.

The human species is in its adolescent phase, and now it is time to recognize our mistakes and change our behaviors. Sahtouris writes:

Like any adolescent who is suddenly aware of having created a very real life crisis, our species faces a choice — the choice between pursuing our dangerous course to disaster or stopping and trying to find mature solutions to our crises. This choice point is the brink of maturity — the point at which we must decide whether to continue our suicidal course or turn from it to responsible maturity. Are we going to continue our disastrously competitive economics, our ravaging conversion of our natural supply base into things, our pollution of basic soils, waters and atmosphere in the process? Or will we change the way we see life — our worldview, our self-image, our goals, and our behavior — in accord with our new knowledge of living nature in evolution?

We’re in for a rough patch

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic occurred quickly. The first documented cases occurred in Wuhan, China in late December. The first reported case outside of China occurred two weeks later in Thailand. At that point, it was also discovered that human-to-human transmission of the virus could occur. One week later, the first case of COVID-19 was identified in the United States. Within a month, 18 countries besides China had infections. By early March, there were 500 cases in the United States impacting 30 states plus the District of Columbia. And within another month, the number of cases in the US grew one thousand-fold to 500,000, with 20,000 deaths. These are only the ones we know about. It is certain that the number of cases in the US is being undercounted, perhaps by a factor of ten, as are deaths.

Within a matter of months, the pandemic has had wide-ranging and devastating impacts. There are nearly two million cases in 210 countries. Over 100,000 people have died. Health care systems are being overwhelmed. The pandemic triggered a global recession, which the world was on course to experience at some point soon, and this was before the economy started shutting down.

Nearly 17 million people in the US became unemployed in the last three weeks. This is also likely an underestimate as unemployment offices are overwhelmed. And a majority of workers in the fields of construction, manufacturing, and transportation, and in the service sectors are unable to meet their basic needs. Millions are losing their health insurance when they need it most.

As abruptly as the pandemic and global economic collapse have changed our lives, scientists predict another rapid disruption in our lives is on the horizon. A new study published in Nature predicts ecosystem collapse could start occurring within the next decade. Researchers found that many species are already living near the limits of the conditions they require to survive. As the planet heats up, many species will reach their limit simultaneously and there will be mass die-offs.

Bob Berwyn of Inside Climate News explains:

As global warming heats their habitat to the point that it is intolerable, many species have no place to go. Some will go extinct, with a domino effect that affects scores of other species. If it gets too hot for bumblebees, for example, it affects the reproduction of plants. If it gets too warm for insects and reptiles, it affects food supplies for birds and mammals.

When ecosystems start collapsing abruptly, we will face similar situations as we are facing today with the twin COVID-19 pandemic and global recession. We will be forced to adapt to a new reality, but this time it will be a reality that threatens the food supply in addition to increasing the risk of disease. Just as health professionals warned us for years that we were unprepared for an inevitable pandemic, climate scientists are warning us of ecosystem collapse. We can mitigate the crisis, but that is only going to happen if we take the initiative to make it happen.

COVID-19 will change the world (From News Karnataka)

We’re all connected and it’s all connected

Before we start looking at solutions, we must understand the roots of the crises we face. It is by changing systems at the root level that we will bring about the transformation we need. Of course, this won’t be an in-depth examination. That is beyond the scope of a newsletter.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that we are a connected global community. Diseases, greenhouse gases, and capital are not restricted by borders. What we do in one place, impacts another. To stop the pandemic, we must control the infection everywhere or there will always be a repository perpetuating it and putting any of us at risk. International cooperation and solidarity are required to make the transition we need.

The same is true with the climate crisis and the globalized neoliberal economy. They are connected to each other and to our health. It is the globalized neoliberal financial system that has driven the race to the bottom. Capital moves freely about the world in search of the cheapest labor and resources. Many governments, especially those in the global south, compete with each other to loosen regulations that protect workers and the environment to attract capital to their countries. Corporate trade agreements make transnational corporate profits more important than protecting the planet. Humans have created multiple environmental crises from polluting the Earth, as Robert J. Burrowes writes, turning it into a junk planet.

Capitalism knows no limits when it comes to profits. People are being displaced from their land as corporations gobble it up for mining, energy production or industrial agriculture. This forces people deeper into wild habitats where they come in contact with wildlife and also pushes wildlife into human communities. It increases the chances of transmission of disease.

As Keishia Taylor explains, “…human activity disrupts ecosystems and damages biodiversity, shaking loose viruses, which then need a new host.” As the barriers between humans and wildlife break down, the greater the risk for zoonoses, diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans. COVID-19 “is the sixth major epidemic in the last 26 years that originated in bats, mediated by a range of farmed, domesticated or hunted animals.” Factory farming is a great culprit driving these epidemics. Large numbers of animals live in crowded and unnatural environments, which weaken their immune systems and make disease transmission more likely.

Biodiversity is key to healthy ecosystems, writes Eric Roston in TIME. He adds, “Almost half of the new diseases that jumped from animals to humans… after 1940 can be traced to changes in land use, agriculture, or wildlife hunting. …There may be 10,000 mammalian viruses potentially dangerous to people.” The climate crisis is another threat to biodiversity as described above, for which governments are not responding.

Capitalism drives the exploitation of people and resources for profit without regard for the consequences. The burning of cheap, dirty fossil fuels for transportation required to connect disparate parts of the global supply chain as well as the oil and gas industry’s history of pushing dirty forms of transit drives greenhouse gas emissions along with large polluting industries and factory farms. Destruction of the land, including our forests, has lowered the capacity for natural carbon sequestration. This has led to the high levels of carbon in the atmosphere that cause climate chaos; record high temperatures are heating the oceans and storms, fires and droughts are causing more damage.

Vijay Prashad describes the many ways neoliberal capitalism has also driven privatization of state institutions, such as healthcare, and has created precarious livelihoods in his newsletter “We Won’t Go Back to Normal, Because Normal Was the Problem.” And that is our task: to make sure that out of these crises come major changes, the maturation of our species to cooperate with the ecosystems in which we live.

Activists march in a climate change rally in London, Britain, September. 20, 2019 (Reuters)

Opportunities for change

Life has changed drastically for many people as we are suddenly required to stay in our homes. Education has moved online. People are doing more of their own food preparation. Conferences and other large gatherings have been canceled, and some have moved online. We’ve had to change our habits quickly to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 cases.

One positive side effect of our reduced activity is that greenhouse gas emissions have dropped significantly. Charles Komanoff and Christopher Ketcham of the Carbon Tax Institute estimate that the drop could be as much as 50% this year. They identify four positive lessons from the pandemic: greater reliance on science, the recognition that government action is required to confront crises, the knowledge that we can change our behavior quickly, and the necessity of social solidarity.

We can take rapid action to “flatten the curve” of greenhouse gas emissions just as we are for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here is a list of ten basic steps we can take to reduce greenhouse gases and support the health of all living beings and the planet:

  1. Decentralize agriculture – End monopolized industrial agriculture and return to small and medium-sized farms owned by farmers who will manage the land in ways that support biodiversity, rebuild the soil and sequester carbon. This means organic farming methods and includes urban agriculture to produce food locally.
  2. End land grabs – Stop the land grabs that drive people off their land and allow them to return. Smaller landowners tend to be better stewards of the land.
  3. Sequester carbon naturally – Do this through regenerative farming methods, and by restoring wetlands which has the added benefit of buffering sea level rise, and protecting forests, especially mature forests.
  4. Restore wildlife habitat – Protect wildlife areas and plan our communities in ways that do not encroach upon them. This includes rethinking tourism. There are some areas humans ought to avoid out of respect for wildlife habitat.
  5. End fossil fuel and nuclear use – Move rapidly to a carbon-free and nuclear-free energy economy. To make this a just transition, areas that overuse energy will need to reduce consumption and areas that do not have enough energy to meet basic needs will need to increase energy use. This also means finding ways to reduce travel until we can reduce the carbon output. Many businesses and organizations are changing to online meetings and conferences instead of doing them in-person.
  6. Decentralize energy production – Massive solar and wind farms can be disruptive through displacement of communities and the destruction of wildlife areas. Energy production can be integrated into the infrastructure; e.g., on rooftops, parking lots and community solar. Decentralized production ends energy monopolies and allows many people to benefit from the energy they produce.
  7. Remake transportation – Reduce energy use significantly through investment in mass public transit and shared ownership of vehicles as cars are parked 95% of the time. Many cities already have fleets of cars for short-term rental. Fewer cars mean fewer resources being used. And we can increase bike and pedestrian areas to encourage less driving.
  8. Rebuild the rail system – Electrify our railroads and increase their use for moving goods and people. Decentralized energy production can feed into the rail line to power it. This is a concept called Solutionary Rail.
  9. Become zero waste communities – Rethink our consumption and reduce it to what is necessary and then find ways to meet our necessities through closed-loop production cycles, reuse of materials, sharing of items and more.
  10. Cooperate more – In this pandemic, people around the world are organizing mutual aid to provide food and other basic needs. Let’s build on this spirit to look out for each other and connect human-to-human. We may find that building our communities will increase sharing and reduce our desire for so much stuff.

There are more steps we could add to this list that include socializing sectors of the economy so that human rights and protection of the planet supersede corporate profits, remaking trade along the same lines and strengthening localized, worker or community-owned enterprises.

We are truly at a crossroads. The pandemic has taught us to act in solidarity and that we can alter our lifestyles drastically when necessary. The climate crisis requires us to flatten the curve of our greenhouse gas emissions and toxic, polluting society. We can’t go back to normal because normal is killing us. The time is now to create a new world in balance with nature.

Solidarity in the Age of Coronavirus: What the Arabs Must Do

While the Coronavirus continues to ravage almost every nation on earth, Arab countries remain unable, or unwilling, to formulate a collective strategy to help the poorest and most vulnerable Arabs survive the deadly virus and its economic fallout.

Worse, amid growing international solidarity, we are yet to see a pan-Arab initiative that aims to provide material support to countries and regions that have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 disease.

The lack of collective Arab responsiveness is not unique as it mirrors Europe’s own systematic failure, exhibiting ‘solidarity’ when it is financially convenient, and turning its back, sometimes at its own brethren, when there are no economic incentives.

For example, when Greece defaulted on its debt to international donors in 2015, Germany, and other European Union countries, pounced on the opportunity to dismantle the country’s major financial institutions and to profit from Athens’ mounting miseries.

All the talk of European solidarity, fraternity and community floundered at the altar of greed and unhindered profits.

That was not the first – nor will it be the last – occasion when the opportunistic EU showed its true colors. In truth, Europe is united, not by common history or unbreakable social bonds, but rather by the shared belief that a united Europe is a stronger economic unit.

The same sordid scenario was recently repeated. As Italy began buckling down under the unbearable burdens of the deadly Coronavirus, it immediately, and naturally, sought the help of its European sister states. To no avail.

Despite its sizable debt, Italy is a major player in the economic arena of Europe and, in fact, the world. Indeed, Italy is the world’s 8th largest economy. But the country’s economy is now experiencing a rare freefall, especially in the poorer regions of the South, where people are literally going hungry.

The first country to come to Italy’s aid was neither France, nor, unsurprisingly, Germany, but China, followed by Russia, then Cuba, and others.

This palpable lack of solidarity among European countries has further empowered the ethnocentric view already prevailing in Europe, and championed by far-right movements like Italy’s League Party of Matteo Salvini. For years, the latter has advocated against European integration.

It will take months, if not years, for the political fallout of the Coronavirus to be fully assessed. But what is already clear is that international and regional economic hubs are actively hedging their bets to consolidate their geopolitical positions in the post-Coronavirus world.

Despite bashful American attempts to join the politically-motivated international solidarity, US President Donald Trump’s humble moves arrived too little, too late. In fact, a sign of the times is that Chinese and Russian aid is pouring in to help the United States, which now has the world’s largest number of COVID-19 cases.

A compelling question, however, is where are the Arabs in all of this?

Italy and Spain, in particular, share historical and cultural bonds, and broad political interests, with many Arab countries, interests that will remain long after the Coronavirus is eradicated. Failing to register on the radar of international solidarity with Italy and Spain will prove a strategic miscalculation.

Israel, on the other hand, is activating its aid agency, IsraAID, which has previously worked in Italy between 2016 and 2019, after a major earthquake killed nearly 300 people and left behind massive infrastructural damage.

Israel uses ‘humanitarian aid’ as a political and propaganda tool. Israeli missions are often under-funded and short-lasting, but their impact is greatly amplified by a powerful, official media machine that tries to project Israel as a ‘peace-maker’, not a war-monger.

The truth is, some Arab governments do, in fact, provide badly needed funds and aid to countries that are devastated by wars or natural disasters; alas, these efforts are often disorganized and self-centered — and frankly, not at all motivated by true solidarity.

That said, the absence of Arab initiatives in the field of international humanitarian solidarity dwarf in comparison to the lack of Arab solidarity within the Arab world itself.

According to United Nation estimates, there are “101.4 million (people) in the region who already live in poverty, according to official criteria, and around 52 million undernourished.”

A new policy brief issued on April 1 by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), projects that an additional 8.3 million people are set to join the poor and undernourished masses throughout the Arab world.

Aside from empty rhetoric and useless press releases, we are yet to witness a major collective Arab initiative, championed by, for example, the Arab League, to provide an Arab equivalent to the many economic stimulus plans that have been set into motion in many other countries and regions around the world.

Late March, United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, issued a ‘global ceasefire appeal’, pleading to the world, especially to warring Middle Eastern nations, to cease fire and to unite all efforts in one single war against the Coronvirus.

Sadly, that call has so far gone unheeded. The war in Libya is escalating, not subsiding; Israeli killing of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank continues unabated; the flood of refugees out of Syria, Turkey, and other Middle Eastern countries is yet to slow down.

Times of crisis, especially the kind that targets all of us regardless of race, religion, or geography, often constitute a wake-up call, present an opportunity for a new beginning, a new social contract so that we may resurrect from the ashes of our collective pain to build a better world.

Let COVID-19 be that opportunity that will allow all nations, especially in the Middle East, to take a stance against war, hunger and disease, to share their wealth and to extend the hand of solidarity to Africa and our historic allies throughout the world.

The United States Is Where COVID-19 Deaths Are Being Under-reported

Refrigerated trucks parked outside of a New York City hospital (Screenshot from Twitter of @bestgug)

While the United States government and corporate media point fingers at China, accusing the Chinese government of under-reporting the number of deaths from COVID-19, it is actually the US and not China that has that problem.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, China responded quickly by reporting the novel disease to the World Health Organization and taking steps to identify and study the virus. Within a matter of weeks, it was clear that the virus was a serious public health matter. China then mobilized its resources and took an aggressive public health approach to contain the spread and care for those who became ill. For this, the US chastised China, calling it “authoritarian” and “draconian,” instead of learning from the success of China.

So far, China has controlled the virus, keeping the total number of cases below 82,000 and the number of deaths in the low 3,000’s. Today, they are easing the quarantine, opening businesses back up and slowly returning to normal activity. The World Health Organization sent a mission to China that commended the government for its actions. Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting writes there is no evidence that China is hiding data. Quite the opposite, researchers in the West have been combing through China’s data to see what they can learn.

Contrast that with the United States where there has been a total lack of leadership at the national level leaving states to compete with each other for resources and fend for themselves. The total number of COVID-19 cases that have been reported is close to 400,000 and is rising by tens of thousands daily. The total number of reported deaths is over 12,000. New York alone has almost 140,000 reported cases and almost 7000 deaths, placing it in close range to Italy and Spain, which rank second and third in the world for the most cases.

Now, evidence indicates that the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States is likely to be much higher than what is being reported. The University of Texas at Austin reports it is likely that only one in ten cases of COVID-19 in the United States is being reported. This means the United States is closer to 4 million cases of COVID-19. They write that: “If a county has detected only one case of COVID-19, there is a 51% chance that there is already a growing outbreak underway. COVID-19 is likely spreading in 72% of all counties in the US, containing 94% of the national population. Proactive social distancing, even before two cases are confirmed, is prudent.”

The number of deaths from COVID-19 is also being under-reported. McClatchy found that there was a spike of deaths from pneumonia in the US in late February and early March that were not caused by the flu. They write:

There has been an increase in pneumonia deaths unrelated to the flu — showing that the deaths could be caused by the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pneumonia deaths have been on the rise since late February, outpacing the percentage of flu-related deaths, the CDC said. One explanation, according to the CDC, is that some people are dying of pneumonia after contracting the coronavirus….

Doctors said that some coronavirus deaths in February and early March were misidentified as being caused by the flu or pneumonia, The New York Times reported.

Recently, Mark Levine, the Chair of the New York City Health Council, tweeted this message out:

And ABC News issued this grim report today:

Now, with the public and private hospital networks in New York City overwhelmed to the point of drowning, there are no resources or time to test samples from the dead or resolve statistical problems, officials acknowledged. At the moment, hospitals in New York City are only testing for novel coronavirus among hospitalized patients.

Testing is the foundation of a public health approach to controlling the spread of infectious diseases. The commonsense approach is to screen everyone for symptoms, test those who are likely to be positive and isolate them until the results are in. If they test positive, they need to be quarantined and monitored for worsening disease and all of their recent contacts need to be located and tested too. This will give a better idea of where the disease hot spots are but it won’t identify everyone who is infectious because about half to three-quarters of those who have COVID-19 are asymptomatic and people are highly infectious in the few days before symptoms appear.

It is unlikely that such an approach will be implemented in the United States. There is a severe lack of everything – tests, personal protective equipment, hospital beds, ventilators, public health staff, and healthcare providers. New York City is in a severe crisis state and there are many other cities that are likely to be just a few weeks behind New York in terms of the severity of the situation.

The best we can do right now is to heed the advice to distance ourselves physically, observe excellent hygiene practices and make sure those around us have what they need to get through the crisis. If we do this, we may be able to hold the number of cases down so the healthcare system can catch up.

We also need to remember that this situation will likely last for months to years. The economic collapse partly triggered by the pandemic is causing rates of unemployment never seen before in the United States. Millions of people who lose their jobs are also losing their health insurance. States are being subjected to a scarcity of supplies and price-gouging. So, in addition to the above actions, we need to demand the nationalization of our entire healthcare system from the hospitals to the pharmaceutical corporations to the medical device and supply companies. We need to invest in a strong public health infrastructure from the local to the state to the national level that can swiftly implement a plan to contain an epidemic when it begins. And we need policies that protect everyone from financial insecurity, homelessness, and lack of food.

Every day, I hear people saying that the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax. We just need to look around to see the fallacy of that assertion. It is clear that countries with a strong social infrastructure have been able to minimize disease, suffering, and death while those with privatized, for-profit infrastructure have fared poorly. Those who deny the pandemic remind me of climate deniers. The impacts are obvious but they continue their destructive habits placing the whole world at risk. Even if you aren’t convinced the pandemic is real, it is prudent to behave as if it is because the risks of not doing so are too great.