Trump Has Sabotaged America’s Coronavirus Response

Trump Has Sabotaged America’s Coronavirus Response
As it improvises its way through a public health crisis, the United States has never been less prepared for a pandemic.
Jan 31 2020

When Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), declared the Wuhan coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern on Thursday, he praised China for taking “unprecedented” steps to control the deadly virus. “I have never seen for myself this kind of mobilization,” he noted. “China is actually setting a new standard for outbreak response.”

The epidemic control efforts unfolding today in China—including placing some 100 million citizens on lockdown, shutting down a national holiday, building enormous quarantine hospitals in days’ time, and ramping up 24-hour manufacturing of medical equipment—are indeed gargantuan. It’s impossible to watch them without wondering, “What would we do? How would my government respond if this virus spread across my country?”

For the United States, the answers are especially worrying because the government has intentionally rendered itself incapable. In 2018, the Trump administration fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command, including the White House management infrastructure. In numerous phone calls and emails with key agencies across the U.S. government, the only consistent response I encountered was distressed confusion. If the United States still has a clear chain of command for pandemic response, the White House urgently needs to clarify what it is

—not just for the public but for the government itself, which largely finds itself in the dark.

When Ebola broke out in West Africa in 2014, President Barack Obama recognized that responding to the outbreak overseas, while also protecting Americans at home, involved multiple U.S. government departments and agencies, none of which were speaking to one another. Basically, the U.S. pandemic infrastructure was an enormous orchestra full of talented, egotistical players, each jockeying for solos and fame, refusing to rehearse, and demanding higher salaries—all without a conductor. To bring order and harmony to the chaos, rein in the agency egos, and create a coherent multiagency response overseas and on the homefront, Obama anointed a former vice presidential staffer, Ronald Klain, as a sort of “epidemic czar” inside the White House, clearly stipulated the roles and budgets of various agencies, and placed incident commanders in charge in each Ebola-hit country and inside the United States. The orchestra may have still had its off-key instruments, but it played the same tune.

Building on the Ebola experience, the Obama administration set up a permanent epidemic monitoring and command group inside the White House National Security Council (NSC) and another in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—both of which followed the scientific and public health leads of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the diplomatic advice of the State Department.

On the domestic front, the real business of assuring public health and safety is a local matter, executed by state, county, and city departments that operate under a mosaic of laws and regulations that vary jurisdiction by jurisdiction. Some massive cities, such as New York City or Boston, have large budgets, clear regulations, and epidemic experiences that have left deep benches of medical and public health talent. But much of the United States is less fortunate on the local level, struggling with underfunded agencies, understaffing, and no genuine epidemic experience. Large and small, America’s localities rely in times of public health crisis on the federal government.

Bureaucracy matters. Without it, there’s nothing to coherently manage an alphabet soup of agencies housed in departments ranging from Defense to Commerce, Homeland Security to Health and Human Services (HHS).

But that’s all gone now.

In the spring of 2018, the White House pushed Congress to cut funding for Obama-era disease security programs, proposing to eliminate $252 million in previously committed resources for rebuilding health systems in Ebola-ravaged Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. Under fire from both sides of the aisle, President Donald Trump dropped the proposal to eliminate Ebola funds a month later. But other White House efforts included reducing $15 billion in national health spending and cutting the global disease-fighting operational budgets of the CDC, NSC, DHS, and HHS. And the government’s $30 million Complex Crises Fund was eliminated.

In May 2018, Trump ordered the NSC’s entire global health security unit shut down, calling for reassignment of Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer and dissolution of his team inside the agency. The month before, then-White House National Security Advisor John Bolton pressured Ziemer’s DHS counterpart, Tom Bossert, to resign along with his team. Neither the NSC nor DHS epidemic teams have been replaced. The global health section of the CDC was so drastically cut in 2018 that much of its staff was laid off and the number of countries it was working in was reduced from 49 to merely 10. Meanwhile, throughout 2018, the U.S. Agency for International Development and its director, Mark Green, came repeatedly under fire from both the White Houseand Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And though Congress has so far managed to block Trump administration plans to cut the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps by 40 percent, the disease-fighting cadres have steadily eroded as retiring officers go unreplaced.

Public health advocates have been ringing alarm bells to no avail.


The Truth About “Dramatic Action”

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Rosenthal.  DLH]

The Truth About “Dramatic Action”
By Da Shiji
Jan 27 2020

“As far as I know, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science.” This was how Dr. Gauden Galea, the World Health Organization’s country representative in China, described the situation facing the city of Wuhan when asked late last week for his update on the coronavirus outbreak. 

It was clear from Galea’s remarks that the total containment of Wuhan, the city where I have lived for the past few decades, was not a course of action the WHO had recommended. Nor did the organization have any clear view on whether such an action would prove effective in limiting the spread of the disease. “It has not been tried before as a public health measure,” he said, “so we cannot at this stage say it will or will not work.”

I am now one of 11 million people in Wuhan who are living through this grand experiment, a measure that, Galea also said, shows “a very strong public health commitment and a willingness to take dramatic action.” From inside the curtain that now encloses my city, I wish to offer my thoughts on this “dramatic action,” and to judge what we have actually seen and experienced in terms of commitment to public health. 

Closing Up the Cities

At 2AM on January 23, authorities in Wuhan suddenly issued the order to close off the city. According to the order, from 10AM that same day, all public buses, subways, ferries, long-distance buses and other transport services would be suspended; the airport and train stations would be shuttered. At this point, the WHO might have had reservations about the necessity and effectiveness of this strategy – but in any case, is was irreversible, and it would soon extend to neighboring cities as well. 

In less than two days, up to noon on January 24, a total of 14 cities in Hubei province would be brought into the quarantine zone. These cities, with a population of around 35 million, include: Huanggang (黄冈) and E’zhou (鄂州), were quickly brought under the order for closure. More cities followed: Chibi (赤壁), Xiantao (仙桃), Zhijiang (枝江), Qianjiang (潜江), Xianning (咸宁), Huangshi (黄石), Enshi (恩施)、Dangyang (当阳), Jingzhou (荆州), Jingmen (荆门) and Xiaogan (孝感). 

This was no longer a city under lockdown, but effectively an entire province under quarantine. 

Galea and other foreign experts have expressed a sense of awe about the boldness of the quarantine in Hubei province. Over the weekend, the New York Times quoted Dr. William Schaffner, an expert on infectious disease from Vanderbilt University, as saying that the lockdown is a “public health experiment, the scale of which has not been done before.” Schaffner was clearly astonished: “Logistically, it’s stunning, and it was done so quickly.”

China’s capacity to impress with such grand gestures calls to mind talk of the “Chinese miracle,” often used to describe the performance of the country’s economy over four decades. But is it fair to regard this case of large-scale quarantine also as a “Chinese miracle” in public health? 

Shutting People’s Mouths

Everyone must understand, first of all, that this epidemic was allowed to spread for a period of more than forty days before any of the abovementioned cities were closed off, or any decisive action taken. In fact, if we look at the main efforts undertaken by the leadership, and by provincial and city governments in particular, these were focused mostly not on the containment of the epidemic itself, but on the containment and suppression of information about the disease. 

The early suppression of news about the epidemic is now fairly common knowledge among Chinese, and many people view this failure to grapple openly with the outbreak as the chief reason why it was later seen as necessary to take the “dramatic action” of closing down my city and many others. 

The direct cause of all of this trouble is of course the new coronavirus that has spread now from Wuhan across the globe and has everybody talking. Up to January 24, in Hubei province alone, there were 549 admitted cases of the virus. Among these there have been 24 deaths. But the real numbers are still unknown. 

According to reports from Caixin Media, one of China’s leading professional news outlets, the entire situation began on December 8, with the discovery of the first known case of an infected patient in Wuhan, a stall operator from the Huanan Seafood Market. The Huanan Seafood Market is a large-scale wet market, with an area about the size of seven football pitches and more than 1,000 stalls. The market has a constant flow of customers, making it the ideal place for the spread of infectious disease. A seafood market only in name, it sells a wide array of live animals, including hedgehogs, civet cats, peacocks, bamboo rats and other types of wild animals. At this market, the nearly inexhaustible appetite, and insatiable greed and curiosity of Chinese diners is on full display. 

The number of infected people rose rapidly, reaching 27 people within a short period of time. Health professionals in Wuhan began suspecting in early December that this was an unknown infectious disease, not unlike the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that emerged in southern China in 2003. The ghost of SARS seemed to wander Wuhan in December, and rumors spread farther and farther afield of a new disease on the prowl. 

China is a society closely monitored by the government, and the shadow of Big Brother is everywhere. Social media in particular are subject to very close surveillance. So when the authorities detected chatter about the re-emergence of SARS, or of a similar unknown outbreak, they took two major steps initially. First, they tried to ensure that this new outbreak remained a secret; second, they put the stability preservation system into effect (启动稳控机制). On December 30, the Wuhan Health Commission (武汉市卫建委) issued an order to hospitals, clinics and other healthcare units strictly prohibiting the release of any information about treatment of this new disease. As late as December 31, the government in Wuhan was still saying publicly that there were no cases of human-to-human transmission, and that no medical personnel had become infected. 

Science Versus Politics

The period from December 8 to December 31 was a crucial 23-day period. During this time, scientists in China were not in fact idle, but raced against the clock trying to trace the virus – and their performance was remarkable. Meng Xin (孟昕), a researcher at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, has since disclosed:

So originally they [NOTE: Meng is referring here to the government] had one ace card in their hand. My colleagues worked hard through the night, and within one week had managed to: successfully isolate the disease, sequence the coronavirus genome (测完了序列), and confirmed the origin of the disease. In less than two weeks, they had developed test reagents and had distributed them to provincial CDCs, and they had reviewed anywhere from dozens to hundreds of specimens from Wuhan (the specific number is still unknown), actions that would earn unanimous praise from international colleagues and the World Health Organization, and that would save precious time in the prevention and control of the epidemic.

Meng is referring here specifically to the actions taken by scientists in Beijing. But Shanghai scientists were not far behind. According to a report in Health News (健康报), the official publication of China’s National Health Commission, the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center (上海市公共卫生临床中心) had isolated a new strain of coronavirus by January 5, within just 10 days of its receiving samples from patients in Wuhan on December 26, and scientists at the center had obtained the entire genome sequence.


The Deceptively Simple Number Sparking Coronavirus Fears

The Deceptively Simple Number Sparking Coronavirus Fears
Here’s what the oft-cited R0 number tells us about the new outbreak—and what it doesn’t.
By Ed Yong
Jan 28 2020

When a new disease emerges, health organizations turn to a seemingly simple number to gauge whether the outbreak will spread. It’s called the basic reproduction number—R0, pronounced R-nought—and though useful for decision makers, it’s a nightmare for public communication. In brief, R0 is the average number of people who will catch the disease from a single infected person, in a population that’s never seen the disease before. If R0 is 3, then on average every case will create three new cases. But even though it seems incredibly straightforward, it’s hard to calculate and tricky to interpret.

R0 is important because if it’s greater than 1, the infection will probably keep spreading, and if it’s less than 1, the outbreak will likely peter out. So it offers vital information to organizations and nations as they consider how to respond to an outbreak—such as the one the world is currently experiencing.

In December, a previously unknown coronavirus, now called 2019-nCoV, emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan. There have been more than 4,500 confirmed cases, the majority of which have been in mainland China. But several dozen cases have been detected in more than 15 other countries, and as the outbreak has spread, so has fear. Public-health researchers have sped to estimate the R0 of the new disease, and as they have shared their findings, this number has fueled several alarmed missives on social media.

In the past week, at least six teams of researchers, along with the World Health Organization, have published estimates of R0 for the new coronavirus. All these groups used different methods, but their results have been mostly consistent, with estimates hovering between 2 and 3. WHO was a little more conservativethan the others, with estimates of 1.4 to 2.5. One Chinese team is a clear outlier, with estimates of 3.3 to 5.5. And a British-led group initially published a high average value of 3.8 last week before revising it downward to 2.5 as new data emerged.

In the intervening time, however, some observers seized upon the 3.8 number, with one Harvard doctor describing it as “thermonuclear pandemic level bad” in a tweet that has since been retweeted more than 16,000 times. That’s a dubious interpretation, and here are six reasons why.

First, the R0 estimates for the new coronavirus are in line with those for many other diseases. They’re similar to those for SARS (2 to 5) and HIV (also 2 to 5), and considerably lower than those for measles (12 to 16).

Second, a bigger R0 doesn’t necessarily mean a worse disease. Seasonal flu has an R0 that hovers around 1.3, and yet it infects millions of people every year. SARS had an R0 of 2 to 5 and infected just over 8,000 people. The number is a measure of potential transmissibility. It does not actually tell you how fast a disease will spread.

“People make the mistake of thinking that a high R0 means that you’re inevitably going to end up with a pandemic, and that’s not what it means at all,” says Maia Majumder from Harvard Medical School, who published one of the seven estimates for the new virus. In her view, if the number is higher than 1, we should take the disease seriously. But exactly how high it is beyond that threshold isn’t very informative at this stage.

Why? Because third, R0 is an average. Let’s say the virus has an R0 of 2. This could mean that every single infected person passes the virus to two other people. It could also mean that one infected person is a “super-spreader” who infects 100 people, while 49 infected people infect no one. These two scenarios have radically different implications for what will happen during an outbreak.

Super-spreader events are dangerous for health-care workers, but counterintuitively, they can sometimes be a good sign. They suggest that most infected people won’t actually perpetuate the outbreak, while the most problematic cases “may be more likely to be recognized due to their dramatic nature,” writes David Fisman of the University of Toronto. This attention can mean that control measures are put in place more readily, he explained in a posting to the ProMED email list. Other coronaviral diseases, such as SARS and MERS, involved super-spreader events, although it’s still too early to say if 2019-nCoV will have the same.

Fourth, R0 is not easy to calculate. That’s especially true in the early days of an epidemic, when it’s not even clear how many cases there have been. Some people might have been infected without showing symptoms. Others might not have reported their symptoms to health authorities. Absent clear data on who has the disease, let alone how they’re moving around and interacting with other people, scientists have to calculate R0 by doing complicated simulations using a variety of possible methods. That’s why early estimates can vary so wildly, and why they should be taken with a grain of salt.

Fifth, R0 is not some magical, immutable property of the virus itself. It depends on how likely someone is to be infected after contact with an infectious person, and how often such contact occurs—and these quantities are also affected by how societies deal with a virus. When SARS first emerged, transmission dynamics played out very differently in China and Canada, which is why the virus’s R0 values cover a wide range, from 2 to 5. “In places with good infection control, where you can isolate cases as soon as they happen, you’ll see a lower R0 than, say, in places where an outbreak initially took off,” Majumder says.

The current R0 estimates for the new coronavirus are specific to Wuhan, and mostly to the era before people knew about the virus. New estimates will emerge as the virus spreads to places that are now aware of and watching for it. “Likely, these will all be significantly lower,” says Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Translational Institute.

Sixth, R0 is not destiny. It is a measure of a disease’s potential. And once nations realize that a new disease exists, they can actively screen for it, check that health-care workers are using proper protection, and instigate quarantines. Even simple steps such as hand-washing might make a difference. All these measures could potentially lower the chances that the virus will spread and ensure that its actual transmission rate—the quantity known simply as R—is less than R0, and ideally less than 1. There are a few reassuring signs: One study suggests that patients are now being isolated just one day after showing symptoms, as opposed to six days after at the start of the outbreak.


Trends in Unmet Need for Physician and Preventive Services in the United States, 1998-2017

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Rosenthal.  DLH]

Trends in Unmet Need for Physician and Preventive Services in the United States, 1998-2017
By Laura Hawks, MD, et al
Jan 27 2020

Question  Has unmet need for physician services shifted for US adults between 1998 and 2017?

Findings  Using data from US adults aged 18 to 64 years in 1998 (n = 117 392) and in 2017 (n = 282 378) who responded to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Behavioral Risk Factors Surveillance System, this study found that from 1998 to 2017 the inability to see a physician because of cost increased 2.7 percentage points owing to worsening access to care among the insured. In contrast, the proportion of chronically ill adults receiving checkups did not change; results for receiving guideline-recommended preventive services were mixed.

Meaning  Many US adults face substantial and increasing barriers in access to care, despite a modest improvement in insurance coverage in the past 20 years.


Importance  Improvements in insurance coverage and access to care have resulted from the Affordable Care Act (ACA). However, a focus on short-term pre- to post-ACA changes may distract attention from longer-term trends in unmet health needs, and the problems that persist.

Objective  To identify changes from 1998 to 2017 in unmet need for physician services among insured and uninsured adults aged 18 to 64 years in the United States.

Design, Setting, and Participants  Survey study using 20 years of data, from January 1, 1998, to December 31, 2017, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System to identify trends in unmet need for physician and preventive services.

Main Outcomes and Measures  The proportion of persons unable to see a physician when needed owing to cost (in the past year), having no routine checkup for those in whom a routine checkup was likely indicated (within 2 years), or failing to receive clinically indicated preventive services (in the recommended timeframe), overall and among subgroups defined by the presence of chronic illnesses and by self-reported health status. We estimated changes over time using logistic regression controlling for age, sex, race, Census region, employment status, and income.

Results  Among the adults aged 18 to 64 years in 1998 (n = 117 392) and in 2017 (n = 282 378) who responded to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Behavioral Risk Factors Surveillance System (mean age was 39.2 [95% CI, 39.0-39.3]; 50.3% were female; 65.9% were white), uninsurance decreased by 2.1 (95% CI, 1.6-2.5) percentage points (from 16.9% to 14.8%). However, the adjusted proportion unable to see a physician owing to cost increased by 2.7 (95% CI, 2.2-3.8) percentage points overall (from 11.4% to 15.7%, unadjusted); by 5.9 (95% CI, 4.1-7.8) percentage points among the uninsured (32.9% to 39.6%, unadjusted) and 3.6 (95% CI, 3.2-4.0) percentage points among the insured (from 7.1% to 11.5%, unadjusted). The adjusted proportion of persons with chronic medical conditions who were unable to see a physician because of cost also increased for most conditions. For example, an increase in the inability to see a physician because of cost for patients with cardiovascular disease was 5.9% (95% CI, 1.7%-10.1%), for patients with elevated cholesterol was 3.5% (95% CI, 2.5%-4.5%), and for patients with binge drinking was 3.1% (95% CI, 2.3%-3.3%). The adjusted proportion of chronically ill adults receiving checkups did not change. While the adjusted share of people receiving guideline-recommended cholesterol tests (16.8% [95% CI, 16.1%-17.4%]) and flu shots (13.2% [95% CI, 12.7%-13.8%]) increased, the proportion of women receiving mammograms decreased (−6.7% [95% CI, −7.8 to −5.5]).

Conclusions and Relevance  Despite coverage gains since 1998, most measures of unmet need for physician services have shown no improvement, and financial access to physician services has decreased.


How business lost its influence on right wing parties

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Rosenthal.  DLH]

How business lost its influence on right wing parties
By Simon Wren-Lewis
Jan 28 2020

This covers ground which others may be more knowledgeable about, so please let me know of any references or sources that I really should read that cover issues central to the discussion below.

When Trump threatens governments that want to tax tech giants, most of which are based in the US, it seems like the familiar story of governments acting in the interest of business. But when Trump imposes tariffs on imports he may be favouring particular firms, but he is also acting against the interests of US trading firms in general. 

Brexit is a much more potent example. Brexit is clearly not in the interests of firms that trade. Because Brexit makes the economy as a whole poorer there are not many firms who support it. Boris Johnson, when asked about concerns from business about a hard Brexit, is reported as saying “f*** business”, and following some comments by the new Chancellor, Chris Grey speculates whether “f*** business” is now government policy.

It wasn’t always like this. David Edgerton writes that: 

“After the second world war, such captains of industry avoided the Commons, but the Conservative party was without question the party of capital and property, one which stood against the party of organised labour.”

That changed after Thatcher, as she reduced the power of trade unions, and Labour began distancing itself from them. Another development that I think began with Thatcher, and is particularly evident in the UK, is a lack of concern about who owns large firms. The importance of this should not be overstated: the ONS estimated that in 2012 just 1% of non-financial firms were foreign-owned, but these firms were large so around a third of value-added was accounted for by foreign owner firms. I suspect the proportion is higher still in the traded sector. But that still leaves plenty of important UK owned firms. 

Another important point, and a difference from the US, is that joining the EU meant the UK was no longer in charge of trade negotiations. This ended the extensive and direct contacts between the UK traded goods sector and government that you find in countries not part of the EU. However links between the financial sector and the UK government are strong and effective. In contrast as the financial sector expanded, its links with domestic businesses became less important. 

Finally another important development that followed from the Thatcher period was the reduction in taxation of top incomes. This particularly benefited high earners in the financial sector, but it also spread to most CEOs of large companies. According to Piketty, Saez and Stantcheva, this encouraged in the UK and US an explosion in executive pay, distancing the 0.01% or 0.001% of extremely rich individuals from everyone else. This involves the managers of business extracting rent from the business itself. Although this explosion happened in the 1980/90s, the cash increase in remuneration (including bonuses etc) for the median FTSE 100 CEO between 2009 and 2017 increased by 76% to £3.9 million. There are no signs of it ending. 

This meant that CEOs spoke in the interests of both the companies they ran, but also in the interests of very rich individuals like themselves. Before the 2015 UK general election, one of the main concerns of business about a possible Labour government was a potential tax on expensive homes! This helps dilute the pressure business can exert on right wing governments, if those governments make it clear that they will always stand up for the very rich. In 2017 Labour’s campaign slogan was ‘for the many not the few’, so of course the few will always support the Tory party, even when it was making life much more difficult for business. Tax cuts for the wealthy are now a key part of any Republican programme.

In these senses neoliberalism (aka what happened during and after Thatcher and Reagan) created the conditions that helped diminish the direct influence of business on the dominant right wing party in the UK and US, and therefore for much of the time the UK and US state. This was my thinking when I wrote
“Rent extractors naturally seek political defences to preserve their wealth, and the mechanisms that sets in place may not embody any sense of morality, leading to the grotesque spectacle of Republican lawmakers depriving huge numbers of health insurance to be able to cut taxes for those at the top.”

It also means that the finance any party of the right needs can come from money and those that manage business (and extract rent from it), and that can be divorced from the interests of business. This was part of my thinking in talking of a governing plutocracy, and writing:


What Will You Do When the Culture War Comes for You?

What Will You Do When the Culture War Comes for You?
Newsrooms still aren’t ready for the trolls.
By Charlie Warzel
Jan 29 2020

The culture war will come for us all.

On Sunday, it came for a Washington Post reporter, Felicia Sonmez.

Nine people were killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif., that morning, including the basketball legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. The news rocketed around social media, where mourners shared their heartbreak at the news. As is common with major breaking news, some reports were inaccurate or false, layering anxiety on top of grief.

Into the mix, Ms. Sonmez tweeted the link to a 2016 article from The Daily Beast about a young woman’s accusation that Mr. Bryant had raped her in Colorado. Criminal charges against him were dropped in 2004 and a civil suit was settled out of court.

The tweet highlighted the fact that Mr. Bryant’s legacy is fraught and complicated, and attracted the attention of fans as well as trolls who bombarded her inbox with abuse and posted her home address online. Ms. Sonmez then posted a selection of the threats she received, without obscuring the names of the people who had sent her hate mail. She slept in a hotel on Sunday night, fearing for her safety at home, she said.

We don’t know all the details, but it seems that The Post’s managing and executive editors were not pleased. They chastised her over email and placed her on administrative leave while the organization reviewed whether she had violated the company’s social media guidelines. Their reasoning on Monday: “The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.” The Post reversed her suspension on Tuesday, roughly 36 hours after the initial tweets, stating that senior managers had concluded that Ms. Sonmez’s tweets didn’t violate company policy.

This, of course, was obvious to almost everyone but The Post’s higher-ups. It was impossible to imagine how posting a link to a story by a different publication on Twitter could undermine the work of colleagues. Just as it was impossible to imagine which colleagues would have felt undermined (more than 300 of Ms. Sonmez’s colleagues expressed solidarity with her in a letter from The Post’s union to management).

There remain glaring questions. Did the executive editor, Marty Baron, inquire about Ms. Sonmez’s safety when he emailed her to criticize her tweets? What, beyond a reflex for online civility, led The Post to determine the reporter was “hurting this institution” by discussing a part of Mr. Bryant’s legacy that appeared in The Post’s own news pages? Why, after years of watching journalists, women and vulnerable individuals being trolled and abused by viral outrage online, are newsrooms still falling for the same Gamergate-style tactics? The Post’s official statement (it doesn’t quite rise to the level of an apology), which included the caveat “we consistently urge restraint” for reporters online, doesn’t begin to answer these questions.

The incident also raises headier questions, including: In the world of online journalism, what specifically do writers owe to their publications via their social media presence? Surely, there’s a bare minimum if they’re collecting a paycheck. Journalists obviously shouldn’t undermine their colleagues with cheap shots or reckless speculation as to others’ work. They should stay professional. After that, things get murky.

Twitter is a Gordian knot of news and opinion that can’t be untangled. Inside publications, news and opinion bleed together; opinion writers report while reporters opine via news analysis. Partisan commentary, once a third rail for objective reporters, is omnipresent on Twitter. In the past, news organizations — and the people who work for them — would never have called the president a racist. Some now do so explicitly. Newsrooms and even the platforms have struggled with finding a new standard in the Trump era of disinformation; meanwhile, journalists are expected to sort it out in real time, while on the job. And to get it right or face consequences.

Journalists who build followings online, in part by being incisive, combative, funny and omnipresent on Twitter, are often hired because of that exposure — because they’re a known quantity.

At a larger organization, though, those same attributes may quickly be seen as a liability. Publications hire diverse outspoken writers and then get anxious when these writers start tweeting about politics. Some outlets ask staffers who don’t cover incendiary beats like politics to refrain from commenting on political goings-on. But what happens when politics touches everything? For those who’ve made a name being outspoken, suddenly saying nothing is a statement in itself. For newsroom leaders the questions get tough, fast. Few if any outlets seem to want to draw exact lines. And so they become blurred.

There’s also a double standard. While few publications would say it, it’s all but required for young journalists to jump into the culture war online. It’s a way to find stories. And in a volatile industry it gets you noticed. Being “part of the discourse” each day means being marketable. It helps writers, but it also bolsters publications, helping promote big stories and creating all kinds of dystopian forms of content like “microscoops,” or breaking news too small to merit its own article but enough to tout to competitors on Twitter.

This exposure is a drug for journalists. The real-time sparring and feedback is seductive, and the endorphin boosts of constant mentions is addictive. But it’s also exposure in the truest sense: great visibility and great vulnerability blended seamlessly together.

Though an argument could be made that all the time-wasting, in-jokes and gaffes from idle reporters and editors on Twitter subtly undermine the rigorous parts of the work, newsrooms benefit greatly from the constant exposure of their journalists. Reporters use Twitter to poke and prod sources. Writers sometimes enhance their stories with long tweet threads that explain the reporting process. And reporters build trust with audiences by including or signaling to their audience perspectives in their online analysis (Ms. Sonmez, who has come forward with details of her own sexual assault, told her colleagueErik Wemple that her tweets were, in part, to make survivors like herself who follow her feel seen). When important news breaks, newsrooms claim credit when their reporters break it first on Twitter.


Amateur stargazers capture new form of northern lights

Amateur stargazers capture new form of northern lights
Aurora enthusiasts discover new phenomenon in Finland
By Nicola Davis
Jan 28 2020

A new form of the northern lights has been captured by amateur enthusiasts, researchers have revealed.

The phenomenon of glowing green lights rippling across the night sky, also known as the aurora borealis, have long captivated the public and experts alike.

Some have suggested the lights are depicted in prehistoric cave paintings, while the Latin term is said to have been coined by the astronomer Galileo Galilei.

Auroras are produced when charged particles, such as electrons, are ejected by the sun and funnelled towards the Earth’s poles by our planet’s magnetic field. There they interact with gases in the atmosphere, including oxygen and nitrogen, increasing the energy of these gases – energy which is subsequently released as light.

“This is the same as neon lamps,” said Minna Palmroth, a professor of computational space physics at the University of Helsinki. “Basically we can say the auroras are celestial neon lamps.”

The northern lights have been seen in many forms, including “quiet arcs”, spirals and corona.

But now, thanks to the work of amateur enthusiasts, Palmroth and colleagues say they have discovered a previously unknown form, a pattern they claim resembles sand dunes.

The discovery came about when Palmroth was invited to join a Facebook group for aurora enthusiasts to explain the science behind the different forms of the phenomenon.

“Over the years I noticed that I am always explaining the same thing,” she said, adding that her experience spurred her to write a book. “It is similar [to] a bird-watching book, but instead of birds you take the aurora forms.”

As part of the project Palmroth asked the community of citizen scientists to capture images of particular forms. But there was a conundrum. “Some of them asked me ‘what about these stripes, which form are they?’,” she said.

With the pattern apparently new to scientific literature, Palmroth asked the citizen scientists to take further images of the aurora. “I was basically sitting on my couch and sending real-time messages to the observers saying ‘take these kinds of pictures’.” The community did not disappoint – the images sent included two taken at the same time from different sites in Finland.

That allowed Palmroth and colleagues to determine the altitude and other aspects of the phenomenon, such as the spacing between the ripples of the “dunes”.

Palmroth said the green colour of the display is produced by excited oxygen, with further work revealing its form is probably down to disturbances in the atmosphere, known as gravity waves – these are the same sort of ripples that form when a pebble is tossed into a pond. In the atmosphere, however, waves often travel vertically upwards – and there are many of them. That, said Palmroth, offered a clue.

“[The waves] have different frequencies, different wavelengths, different amplitudes and [so] to observe something very even, like the dunes, means that there has to be some active mechanism which is making them so even,” she said.

Palmroth explained that mechanism could be an unusual event called a mesospheric bore, whereby a particular wave is filtered out and bent, allowing it to travel horizontally between two layers in the atmosphere. 

The phenomenon, she said, is similar to a tidal bore seen in rivers. Palmroth said this can happen when, unusually, the temperature of one layer of the atmosphere is slightly higher than both the layers above it and below it.


Gig economy traps workers in precarious existence, says report

Gig economy traps workers in precarious existence, says report
Doteveryone thinktank says workers suffer from financial insecurity and loss of dignity
By Alex Hern
Jan 29 2020

Far from providing flexible jobs for complex modern lives, gig economycompanies, such as Uber and Deliveroo, increasingly trap workers in a precarious existence where they need to devote ever-more time to the platform in order to remain financially stable, a new report argues.

Based on research and collaboration with a group of gig workers, the report by digital thinktank Doteveryone argues that the spiral can be reversed by government action – or by the platforms themselves adopting changes, which could be implemented rapidly.

“The platform economy enables flexible work but not everyone benefits equally,” said Catherine Miller, interim chief executive officer of Doteveryone. “The recommendations set out in this report can happen immediately and show that, in shaping the future of work, technology can and should be used responsibly to create a fair, inclusive and sustainable democratic society.”

The problems identified by the thinktank fall into three categories: a lack of financial security, a loss of dignity at work, and the inability to progress in a career or train to leave it.

When it comes to finances, for instance, workers highlight that the low rates of pay mean flexibility is often moot because the only way to earn enough to live is to work longer than full-time. “If you want to get the money you’ve got to be available seven days a week,” said a London-based handyman.

Working for any of the platforms carries hidden costs, the report details. One Uber driver says: “I do 60 hours, I make £750. But then you have to deduct expenses, around £150 on fuel. I can take out £600 but then you pay insurance, VAT for cars. It’s been four weeks where I’ve made no more than £400. You’re just managing your expenses and taking £150-£200 home.”

“I did in the beginning write emails – long emails – pointing out ways the platform could work better for [workers],” the report quotes a 22-year-old courier for a delivery platform as saying. “But I realised that they don’t care about that. If you make any issues for them, they’ll just fire you or find a way to stop giving you work.”

Wasted knowledge plays into the third problem: an inability to see a way out of the flexible life. “I don’t know what comes next as I can’t keep working [gigs] as I can’t get a new car when this one dies,” said a 42-year-old driver from Stoke-on-Trent. “And I don’t have time [to research alternative careers] or go to the gym – sometimes I’m sitting here waiting for a job for an hour and a half!”

To tackle these problems, Doteveryone suggests three key policies that could improve life for workers: a minimum gig wage, which would require platforms to account for the additional costs that are levied on the workers, such as fuel costs for drivers and statutory employee benefits; modifications to the government’s national retraining scheme, to make it easier for “flexible” workers to take advantage of the courses on offer; and the introduction of new governance structures at gig employers to give workers a greater voice in the design of the platforms.


Let’s abandon climate targets, and do something completely different

Let’s abandon climate targets, and do something completely different
Setting targets for climate action sounds sensible, but is actually impeding progress. There’s a different approach: maximisation
By George Monbiot
Jan 29 2020

The crisis is not imminent. The crisis is here. The recent infernos in Australia; the storms and floods in Brazil, Madagascar, Spain and the US; and the economic collapse in Somalia, caused in part by a devastating cycle of droughts and floods, are not, or not only, a vision of the future. They are signs of a current and escalating catastrophe.

This is why several governments and parliaments, the UK’s among them, have declared a climate emergency. But no one in government acts as if it is real. They operate within the old world of incremental planning for a disaster that has yet to arrive.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the reports of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the official body that began with such hope and promise of holding the government to account, but that now seems to have abandoned scientific realities in favour of political priorities.

Its latest report, on changing the UK’s land use, is so unambitious that, in some respects, it would take us backwards. For example, it calls for a 10% reduction in cattle and sheep numbers over the next 30 years. But it admits that over the past 20 years, their numbers have declined by 20%, so this would involve a slowing of the trend. Cultured meat and milk could replace these sectors almost entirely by 2050.

The report makes no mention of rewilding or natural regeneration. The only means it proposes by which trees should return to the land is planting. This is often a slower, more expensive and less effective way of restoring habitats and sucking carbon out of the atmosphere than removing livestock or controlling deer numbers and allowing trees to return by themselves. Its target for reforestation is so feeble that the UK would still have less than half the average current European forest cover by 2050.

One of the reasons for this timidity is its preposterous assumption that if land is unsuitable for commercial forestry, it’s unsuitable for trees. There are plenty of places where trees grow well, store carbon and provide magnificent habitats, but won’t produce straight 50-foot poles. The CCC envisages not wild woods, but plantations, whose purpose is the discredited policy of “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage”.

This means growing wood to burn in power stations, then capturing and burying the carbon emissions. It is likely to cause more harm than good. Could the committee’s enthusiasm have anything to do with the fact that one of its members works for Drax, the energy company pioneering this disastrous technology? Throughout the report, business appears to come first; nature and climate last.

All this, the CCC says, is consistent with the target it has set for the government, of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It tells me that the rationale for this target “remains valid today”, meeting the UK’s obligations under the Paris agreement. This agreement commits governments to seek “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels”.

But in November, the UN published a report showing that preventing more than 1.5C meant cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6% every year between now and 2030: a much steeper trajectory than the CCC’s. The committee has set the wrong target, for the wrong date.

But I think the problem runs deeper than this. It’s not just the target that’s wrong, but the very notion of setting targets in an emergency.

When firefighters arrive at a burning building, they don’t set themselves a target of rescuing three of the five inhabitants. They seek – aware that they may not succeed – to rescue everyone they can. Their aim is to maximise the number of lives they save. In the climate emergency, our aim should be to maximise both the reduction of emissions and the drawing down of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. There is no safe level of global heating: every increment kills.

Maximisation is implicit in the Paris agreement: it requires governments to pursue “the highest possible ambition”. In its land-use report, the CCC repeatedly admits that it could go further, but insists it doesn’t need to, because its policies will meet the target. The target has supplanted the ultimate objective, which is to respond appropriately to the climate emergency. This is a classic vindication of Goodhart’s law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

We are all familiar with the absurdities of target culture. We know how, in many workplaces, the target becomes the task. We know how official targets for depriving people of social security ruined thousands of lives. We know that the Windrush scandal – the persecution and wrongful deportation of people legally entitled to reside in the UK – was caused in part by the Home Office target for “enforced returns”. We know how targets encourage people to game the system, as hospital administrators do with their waiting lists, and cause Kafkaesque nightmares of overzealous officialdom, as David Boyle documentsin his new book, Tickbox.

But less discussed is the way in which targets can encourage officials to underperform. As soon as you set a target, you pull back from maximisation. Even if you say “this target is the minimum”, as the CCC does, politicians treat it as merely the line they need to cross. At this point, they fulfil their legal duty, even if they fail to fulfil their wider duty of care.


Re: Is inflation higher than central banks think?

[Note:  This comment comes from reader Randall Head.  DLH]

Subject: Re: [Dewayne-Net] Is inflation higher than central banks think?
Date: January 25, 2020 at 5:00:54 PM EST

Have you ever noticed that when the price of gasoline and/or food is going up, inflation is reported as “Excluding volatile measures, like food and energy”, but when those prices are going DOWN, it’s somewhat strangely not so important to exclude those volatile items?

Is inflation higher than central banks think?
By Claire Jones
Jan 23 2020