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Donald Trump

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Miracle Vaccine

8 September 2020

Nine of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies have just promised not to apply for regulatory approval for any new Covid-19 vaccine before it has gone through all three phases of clinical study. Why would they do such a thing?

You’d be surprised if brain surgeons got together and promised not to operate while drunk, or if the bus drivers’ union publicly pledged that its members will not drive recklessly. They don’t do that because operating sober and driving carefully are just part of the job. So is ensuring that new vaccines are safe and effective.

Yet nine major players in the international pharmaceutics market – AstraZeneca (UK-Sweden), BioNTech (Germany), GlaxoSmithKline (UK), Johnson & Johnson (US), Merck (Germany), Moderna (US), Novavax (US), Pfizer (US) and Sanofi (France) – all felt obliged to reassure the public that they won’t cheat. What’s up?

Obviously, it’s the perception that other players in the same market may indeed be cutting corners.

We’re not talking here about Russia and China, both of which have begun inoculating some key workers with vaccines that are still listed by the WHO as being in clinical trials. No surprise here: everybody knows that those regimes break the rules whenever they feel like it.

Usually the Trump administration’s actions are viewed with weary resignation by the rest of the world, but it would still be a very big deal if the United States started distributing a vaccine that had not been properly tested. Yet the signs are that that’s just what is going to happen.

Last month at the Republican national convention Donald Trump told the delegates and the country: “We are developing life-saving therapies, and will produce a vaccine before the end of the year, or maybe even sooner.”

On 4 September, the US government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told American health officials that “limited Covid-19 vaccine doses may be available by early November 2020.”

More specifically, the CDC urged state authorities to consider “waiving requirements” and grant permits to McKesson Corporation so they can start distributing a vaccine by 1 November.

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. The presidential election is on 3 November, two days later: that’s long enough for the glad news to get around and floating voters to be swayed in favour of Trump, but too short for any defects in the rushed vaccine to come to light.

Donald Trump is going to liberate Americans from the curse of Covid in a little less than two months. If the vaccine’s miraculous properties subsequently fade , even it turns out to kill large numbers of people, that won’t matter. The votes will have been counted, and Trump will be back in office for another four years. That, at least, is the scenario that is currently envisaged by the people around Trump.

It is a plausible one, especially if the race has tightened by then. Just 100,000 votes in three states, mostly from people who had previously voted Democratic, put Trump in the White House in 2016. A miracle vaccine could certainly swing that many votes again.

The nine pharmaceutical majors who felt the need to issue a “historic pledge” to uphold scientific and ethical standards were doubtless driven by this scenario. Even if there really has been an American breakthrough, they would still have to cope with the public’s suspicion that Trump is cheating – and the mistrust that will also attach to any other early vaccines.

It is possible that the vaccine or vaccines that Trump is about to unleash on the American public really do work and are safe. It would be a historic first in the development of vaccines – having a Covid vaccine ready for general use by next June or July would normally be seen as a remarkable achievement – but miracles do happen.

The problem is that they don’t happen often, and if the full testing regime is not followed, you don’t know if this is one of those times.

It’s only because the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine was going through the full third phase of tests, involving tens of thousands of individuals and many months of testing, that they spotted a bad reaction requiring hospitalisation on Wednesday and paused the tests. The American miracle vaccine will only start third-stage tests at the same time that it is made generally available.

Pauses like AstraZeneca/Oxford University’s happen often in the development of a vaccine, and the pause will probably only be temporary. But even a very low-frequency bad reaction can be a mass killer when tens of millions of people are being vaccinated, and these are not desperately sick people willing to risk anything for a cure. They are people in good health, and you mustn’t kill them.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 12. (“We’re…it”; and “It is…again”)

An October Surprise

5 August 2020

An ‘October Surprise’ in the United States is now almost inevitable, because that will be Donald Trump’s last chance to get re-elected legitimately. He might try to cling to office even if he loses the vote, but it would be a lot easier and neater if he actually won a majority in the Electoral College on 3 November.

‘October Surprise’ is the American political term for a fake crisis, usually involving foreigners, that is ‘discovered’ by a president trailing badly in the polls in the last few weeks before an election. All other issues are forgotten, Americans rally around the flag, and the incumbent wins on a surge of patriotism. Or that’s the theory, at least.

The same thing happens elsewhere too, of course, and not necessarily in October. That’s when it needs to happen in to win a US presidential election, but there’s a ‘July Surprise’ happening in Belarus right now (because the election there is set for 9 August).

Last week Alexander Lukashenko, the strongman who rules Belarus, ‘discovered’ Russian mercenaries in his country. They were unarmed and on their way to Istanbul, but Lukashenko says there is a plot: “So far there is no open warfare, no shooting, the trigger has not yet been pulled, but an attempt to organise a massacre in the centre of Minsk is already obvious.” Only I can save our country! Vote for me!

Trump will need something like that because otherwise the coronavirus is going to kill him politically. This was not true as recently as early June, because up until then the United States was not performing especially badly in dealing with the pandemic.

It LOOKED a lot worse because of Trump’s bizarre behaviour – the endless, shameless lies, the narcissism, the suggestions that people should inject bleach, etc. – but in terms of Covid-19 deaths per million people the American fatality rate was still lower than any other major Western countries except Germany and Canada.

The United States was late to go into lockdown, but so were they all, at least compared to most Asian countries. Until recently, if you were a Trump supporter, you could still believe he was doing a good job.

It was Trump’s rush to end the lockdown, not all the earlier nonsense, that did the real damage. He believed that he would lose the election if the economy didn’t revive, but by opening up too fast he managed to revive the pandemic at the same time.

The numbers tell the tale. This week America will record its 160,000th death from Covid-19. That’s almost a quarter of all the coronavirus deaths in the world. Much worse, US deaths are still going up while deaths elsewhere in the developed world have fallen steeply. That’s almost entirely due to Trump.

Take Canada, for example. It’s very similar to the US in economy and demography, but different in social and political terms. Canada has universal health care and a much less drastic divide between the rich and the rest, for example, which probably explains why America’s cumulative death rate per million is 484, while Canada’s is only 237.

The history is therefore an American death rate twice as high as Canada’s: not great, but not utterly awful. By now, however, Canada has managed to get its deaths down to ten a day, whereas America is back up around a thousand a day. Even allowing for Canada’s much smaller population, that is ten times worse. This is what coming out of lockdown too early did to the United States, and it is all down to Donald Trump.

The pandemic is raging again in the United States, and there may be a quarter-million deaths there by election day in November. US ‘deaths per million’ are going up three per day, which means that the US will overtake Chile (now 509) in less than two weeks, Italy (582) in a month, Spain (609) in five weeks. It might even catch up with the UK (682) by election day.

Most of those newly dead Americans will be over 60, so probably Trump supporters. Their relatives and friends are bound to to notice eventually. Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump in the polls has already widened to 10%, and there is probably no good news Trump could engineer in the remaining ninety days that would be big enough to turn that number around.

His only hope, therefore, is to manufacture some really bad news: a restaged ‘Gulf of Tonkin’ incident with China, perhaps, or a terrorist ‘threat’ so humongous that it gives Trump a pretext to declare martial law nationally. Or maybe he will arrange the premature certification of a magical new Covid-19 vaccine so he can roll it out just before the vote. If it kills a lot of people later on, who cares? He won.

Trump knows that if he loses the election he will spend the rest of his life in court, possibly even in jail. An October Surprise is practically guaranteed. It isn’t over yet.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“The same…me”)

Four-Day Work Week

As countries in Europe and North America emerge from lock-down and start trying to rebuild their devastated economies, the great concern is jobs.

Unemployment in the US and Canada is over 13%, a post-Second World War high. If it weren’t for subsidies that keep up to a fifth of the working population in paid ‘furloughs’ from their jobs, jobless rates in Europe would be as high or higher. That can’t go on forever, so there is a frantic search for job-saving strategies – and the ‘four-day work week’ keeps coming up.

Like that other proposed magic bullet, the guaranteed basic income, the notion of a four-day working week has been kicking around for a long time. The current emergency has given both ideas a second wind, and neither is nearly as radical or extreme as it sounds.

Less than a century ago the whole industrialised world transitioned from the traditional six-day working week (Saturdays included) to a five-day work-week, for the same pay, with no political upheaval and no significant loss of production. So why don’t we do that again, spread the work around, and save lots of jobs?

Because it doesn’t work like that. The four-day week is not about spreading the load. It is about finding ways for people who already have jobs to squeeze the same work into four 10-hour working days instead of five 8-hour days, or to work ‘smarter’ so that they can get the same work done (or more) in only four 8-hour days.

The 40-hour week done in four days is the only available option for most process workers on assembly lines or other repetitive physical tasks. Ten-hour workdays are even harder than they sound, but the prize is a three-day weekend and some people are willing to pay the price.

If everybody buys into that, then management can shut the plant down one extra day and save on power. If only some do, then management has the headache of scheduling some 10-hour shifts and other 8-hour shifts, plus the cost of the mistakes that may accumulate when exhausted people are approaching the end of a 10-hour shift. And no saving on electricity costs.

Nevertheless, it does make for a happier workforce, by all accounts, and maybe therefore a more efficient and productive one. There are already a few examples of this kind of four-day working in every industrial country, and now the prime ministers of Finland and New Zealand are both talking it up. Neither woman, however, is proposing to impose it nationally, and nobody is suggesting that it will create more jobs.

The four-day week is an easier and more attractive package for people in administrative and sales jobs, because everybody knows that there is a lot of wasted time in office work: social media, pointless emails, long boring meetings, etc. You could get the job done a lot quicker if everybody was motivated to concentrate on the bits that are actually useful and skip the rest.

So motivate them. Tell them that they can drop to four 8-hour days a week for the same pay as the old five days if they can still get the same work done – and leave it to them to figure out how. If they can’t, then it’s back to the same old five-day grind.

Miraculously, they almost always do manage to find the time. In many cases, indeed, productivity actually rises: happy workers do better work. The four-day week is an excellent idea whose time may finally have come, but it is not a magic bullet. Companies don’t ever hire more people just to spread the work around.

So what might spread the available work around? The US Congress had a brilliant idea in 1938, when it passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which required employers to pay overtime at 150% of the normal hourly wage for anything over 40 hours of work a week.

The idea was to make employers hire more people. If they had 40 employees working 50 hours a week, they would have to pay each of them overtime for the last 10 hours. So why not just hire another 10 people and save all that overtime pay? It worked quite well at the time, but it would not work now. Don’t hire more people; just put in more automation.

The coronavirus is just an accelerator. The real problem with employment ever since the 1990s has been automation, which has been eating up good jobs and excreting low-paid, insecure ones instead – or none at all. Six million good manufacturing jobs were automated out of existence in the US in 2000-2010, which led fairly directly to the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

The current pandemic is speeding the process by driving more jobs online, especially in sales (a different kind of automation), and fiddling with working hours or minimum wages is not going to stop it. So what’s left? Maybe a guaranteed basic income would help, but that’s a discussion for another day.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“So what…work now”)

Brazil: Populist Pandemic

What do you do if you are in charge of dealing with the pandemic and the number of deaths is getting out of control?

Simple. Stop publishing the number.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has been having a bad time with the pandemic. His default mode has been callous disinterest: when told in early May that the country’s Covid-19 death toll had reached 5,000, he said “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?”

When the number reached 30,000 dead early this month, he tried a philosophical tone instead: “I regret every death, but that’s everyone’s destiny.” But the victims’ families and friends remain unreasonably fixated on the question of why they had to die from coronavirus this month rather than of something else many years from now, and blame Bolsonaro for their untimely departure.

So on Sunday, with Brazil’s death toll about to pass 40,000 and become second only to that of the United States, Bolsonaro stopped his government from publishing the total any more.

From now on, only today’s number of infections, deaths and recoveries will be announced. No more awkward comparisons with other countries, no five-digit running total to confront him with his failure each day. And of course no attempt to establish the real number of deaths, which is almost certainly at least twice the official number since many victims never got to hospitals.

There is a temptation to group the three populist leaders of big Western democracies together, and they do have a lot in common. Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson removed a similarly damning piece of data from the daily press conference when the UK’s death toll per million overtook that of every other major European country. (It is now second-worst in the entire world.)

America’s Donald Trump, Bolsonaro’s idol, spent just as much time in the early months of this year belittling the gravity of the threat (Bolsonaro: “It’s only a little flu”; Trump: “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”) None of the three men will wear a mask, and they are all compulsive serial liars.

Nevertheless, there are major differences. Johnson manages to sound as if he cares about all the lives lost, and Trump at least goes through the motions occasionally. Johnson eventually declared a lock-down, although much too late, and Trump at least went along for a while with the lock-downs declared by almost all of the states.

Bolsonaro, by contrast, openly condemned the lock-downs declared by the various Brazilian states and ostentatiously disobeyed them. He held rallies and took crowd baths. He swiped his nose on the back of his hand and then shook hands with a fragile old lady. He showed up at a barbecue on a jetski.

He has fired two successive health ministers since January because they were taking the pandemic too seriously and hindering Brazilians’ return to work. He joined a street protest calling for a return to the military dictatorship that finally fell in 1985. He regularly vilifies the poor, the left, indigenous Brazilians, gays and non-whites.

Like Trump, he hates the World Health Organisation, but unlike Trump he also accuses the WHO of encouraging masturbation and homosexuality among children. He is widely believed to have links with paramilitary groups associated with the mafia.

And he is currently presiding over a pandemic that will probably kill over 100,000 Brazilians without lifting a finger to stop it.

Yet in late 2018 he won the presidential election in the first round with 55% of the vote, and his character was hardly a secret even before the election. A recent poll showed that his popularity is now down to 32%, so Brazilians have noticed that something is wrong with him, but it still verges on the inexplicable. Or does it?

The electorate that voted for Bolsonaro in 2018 was little changed from the one that gave Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, the absolute antithesis of Bolsonaro, two terms in the presidency immediately before him. Just as the American electorate that put Trump in office in 2016 was little changed from the one that elected Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

They didn’t suddenly go blind when confronted with a candidate as fraudulent as Trump or Bolsonaro. They deliberately overlooked his flaws because he offered them something they needed. It was probably something economical or psychological, and not specific to any single country because the mood struck British and Brazilians and Americans at the same time. (And Hungarians and Turks and Filipinos and Indians too.)

What this tells us – and I’m sorry to be the bearer of this news – is that if that same something is still bothering the voters when the next election rolls around next November in the US, or in Brazil in 2022, or in the UK in 2024, the same person can win again, no matter how badly he misbehaves in the meantime.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 12. (“When…departure”; and “Like…mafia”)