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Donald Trump

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Time for Fauci to Quit?

Is it time for Dr Anthony Fauci to quit?

Brazil’s health minister, Luiz Mandetta, was fired last Friday for criticising the country’s mini-Trump, Jair Bolsonaro. Like Trump, President Bolsonaro needs a booming economy in order to be re-elected, and denies the threat from coronavirus because shutdowns hurt the economy.

Mandetta did what he could to control the berserker president, but eventually called Bolsonaro out on his attempts to force Brazilian state governments to end their shutdowns prematurely. He was duly fired, but it does raise the question: should Dr Fauci do the same thing?

Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the past quarter-century, has served six US administrations loyally through various health crises, starting with the AIDS epidemic. He’s done his best to keep Donald Trump from doing the wrong thing. Sometimes he succeeds – but sometimes the most useful thing an adviser can do is resign.

Fauci has become a familiar figure standing beside Donald Trump at media briefings, never openly contradicting him but subtly trying to steer him away from his worst ideas. It’s a humiliating position to be in, but he has probably saved at least a few tens of thousands of American lives, and many people admire him for patiently, even humbly doing the best he can in impossible circumstances.

There comes a time, however, when staying on the inside and trying to limit the damage by staying on good terms with the author of the disaster shades into complicity in letting the disaster happen. Dr Fauci undoubtedly examines his conscience on this question every single day, and fully understands how tricky his position is.

There was a revealing moment recently when Science Magazine asked him why he hadn’t challenged Trump’s claims to have saved millions of American lives by banning flights from China. “Let’s get real,” Fauci replied. “What do you want me to do?…I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down.”

Well, he could, obviously, but that would be the end of any positive influence he has on Trump. He’s 79, so he’s not worried about saving his job. He’s ignoring Trump’s exaggerations and lies so he can preserve his influence for some more important occasion. We now know what it is.

Trump bangs on obsessively about his ‘China ban’ decision on 31 January because it’s the only thing he did about the coronavirus for the next six weeks, even as the pandemic silently spread among the US population. Last week he even claimed that “It could have been billions of people (who died) if we had not done what we did.”

Around 2,000 Americans are now dying from Covid-19 every day, so Trump clings desperately to his China story. Fauci lets the lie pass because it’s just history and can’t be changed. He’s focussed on the decisions being made now that will determine how many Americans die in the future.

Trump is now frantically trying to end the lockdowns and get Americans back to work because he believes the economic damage is sabotaging his re-election prospects in November. He’s even urging his base to demonstrate against (Democratic) state governors who take a more cautious line, texting “LIBERATE MINNESOTA”, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA”.

Maybe this is the hill that Fauci should choose to die on, because ending the lockdowns early could needlessly kill an extra hundred thousand Americans. The United States now has one-third of all the Covid-19 cases in the world (with only 4% of the world’s population), and the number is still going up fast.

‘Liberating’ Americans from lockdown before the number of new infections is clearly in decline will just add fuel to the flames.

The rule is: never lift a lockdown until you are able to test huge numbers of people for the disease. The virus will inevitably start to spread again when you turn everybody loose, but if you test enough people, isolate the infected ones, and trace all of their recent contacts and isolate them too, then you can avoid a new spike in cases.

You will need tens of millions of test kits and hundreds of thousands of trained contact-tracers to do that. Those facilities are currently scarce or non-existent in most of the United States, and so far there is little visible effort to expand them. Ending the lockdowns without them will cause a new peak of cases and deaths by mid-summer, necessitating a new round of lockdowns.

If Fauci’s resignation could prevent this carnage, he surely would not hesitate, but Trump is not as stupid as Bolsonaro. If Fauci hangs in there and stresses the inevitability of a second wave of deaths closer to election time if the lockdowns end prematurely, he might just manage to steer Trump away from this cliff.

So his long martyrdom must continue.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Trump bangs…future”)

The Plague: Saving the Old

The basic choice all along with Covid-19 has been: do we let the old die, or do we take a big hit economically? So far, the decision almost everywhere has been to take the hit and save the old (or most of them), but in some places it has been a very near-run thing.

Today or tomorrow, for example, the number of deaths from coronavirus in the United States will surpass the total number who have died in China (3,304 people) from what Donald Trump generally calls the ‘Chinese virus’.

China has four times the population of the United States, but in the end around fifty times as many Americans will die from the coronavirus. That is according to Trump’s own prediction on Sunday, in the speech where he finally did a U-turn, that ‘only’ 100,000-200,000 Americans will die because of his wise decision to extend the national lockdown to 30 April.

It was a decision he took long after the last minute, if ‘last minute’ is defined as the last moment when the right decision would have held American deaths down to the Chinese level. But Trump was not alone in this dereliction of duty: his Mini-Me equivalent across the Atlantic, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, also waited much too long, and the United Kingdom will be lucky to escape with 20,000 deaths.

Why did they wait so long before imposing the restrictions on movement that will break the chain of transmission of Covid-19? Because locking down the people also means locking down the economy: huge numbers of people will lose their jobs, at least temporarily, and the stock market will crash.

Whereas if you don’t impose the restrictions, perhaps on the plausible pretext that you are pursuing an alternative solution called ‘herd immunity’, then the economy will keep ticking over nicely. However, achieving herd immunity requires 60%-70% of the population to have had the disease – and with this particular coronavirus, about one or two percent of those people will die.

But who cares? Almost all the victims will be over 70, two-thirds of them will be male, and at least half of them will also have ‘underlying conditions’ that are already forcing the health services to spend a lot just keeping them alive. They are entirely dispensable to the economy. We would be even richer if they did die.

Did Johnson understand that this was the real strategy? Possibly not: he’s never been a ‘detail’ man. But his Svengali and chief political advisor, Dominic Cummings, certainly did understand it, and seems to have been perfectly OK with it.

What forced Johnson into a thinly disguised about-face two weeks ago was one or both of the following facts. One: almost everybody his policy was condemning to death was somebody’s beloved father or mother. And two: it amounted to carrying out a cull of Conservative voters, since two-thirds of British people in the over-70s group vote for the Tories.

He was late, but not too late. Even the strictest measures now will not keep the British death toll under 20,000, according to the Imperial College London group that did the key calculations two weeks ago – but half a million would have died without them. And exactly the same equation applies to Donald Trump.

It’s always tough to know what Trump really believes, because he will say whatever he thinks works best politically at this precise moment. If it flatly contradicts what he said yesterday, he doesn’t care. And if some journalist calls him on the contradiction, he just denies what he said yesterday. It doesn’t matter if the statement is on the record; it’s ‘fake news.

We cannot know if Trump ever really understood the choice he was making when he condemned lockdowns and repeatedly promised the imminent ‘reopening’ of the economy. And then, two week after the Imperial College group published its prediction that without lockdowns 2.2 million Americans would die, he finally read it and reversed course. Or so we are supposed to believe.

He even claimed credit for saving two million American lives by abandoning his old strategy (if that’s the right word for it). His real calculation, at some level of his conscious or unconscious mind, was that his re-election in November would be even more damaged by two million needless American deaths on his watch than by a deep recession and huge unemployment.

But at least half of the Americans who will still die would have survived had he moved two weeks sooner, when he already had ample evidence that it was the only sane course. Exactly the same criticism applies to Boris Johnson. But here’s a consoling thought.

Everywhere from China and India to Spain and Russia, and even in the United Kingdom and the United States (after stalling as long as possible), governments are putting the lives of the ‘useless’ old ahead of the alleged needs of the economy. Because that’s what their people really want.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“Did…it”; and “It’s always…news”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Assange Hearing

The cost of being a whistle-blower is going up. When Daniel Ellberg stole and published the ‘Pentagon Papers’ in 1971, revealing the monstrous lies that the US government was telling the American public about the Vietnam war, he was arrested and tried, but the court set him free.

When Edward Snowden released a vast trove of documents in 2013 about the global electronic surveillance activities of US intelligence agencies, he was already abroad, knowing that civil liberties had taken a turn for the worse in the US since 1971. Snowden is still abroad seven years later, living in Moscow, because hardly anywhere else would be safe.

And Julian Assange, whose court hearing on a US extradition request began on Monday at Woolwich crown court in east London, is facing 175 years in jail if Britain delivers him into American hands. The American authorities are really cross about his WikiLeaks dump of confidential material in 2010 that detailed US misbehaviour in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Everybody knew or at least suspected that terrible things were happening there, but without documentation there was really nothing they could do about it. What Assange did was give them the evidence.

The most striking piece of evidence was a video and audio clip from an Apache helicopter gunship attacking civilians in Baghdad in 2007. The crew spray their targets with machine-gun fire, making comments like “It’s their fault for bringing their kids into battle” and “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards.” They even target people in a vehicle that stops to help the wounded.

As for the claims of the US authorities that Assange has “blood on his hands” – that his 2010 data dump endangered the lives of some of those who were mentioned in the documents – there is not a shred of evidence that this is so. If anyone had come to harm over the past nine years as a result of his actions, don’t you think that the US government would have trumpeted it to the skies?

The whistle-blowers are among our last remaining checks on the contemptuous ease with which those who control the information seek to manipulate the rest of us. We don’t always respond to the whistle-blowers’ revelations as fast and as strongly as they would hope, but they are indispensable to keep the level of lying down. They should be praised, not punished.

So what are the chances that Julian Assange will escape extradition to the United States and a lifetime in prison? His lawyers will doubtless argue that nobody was harmed as a result of his revelations (except perhaps in their reputations for truthfulness) and that nobody profited by them. A British court might look unfavourably on an extradition request that is brought out of sheer vindictiveness.

The story that Donald Trump contacted Assange through an intermediary, former Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, might also help. Trump was allegedly offering to pardon Assange if the Australian would confirm that it wasn’t the Russians who gave him the Hilary Clinton campaign emails he released during the 2016 election campaign.

This has all been denied by both Rohrabacher and the Trump White House, but in carefully phrased ways that leave room for suspicion. Trump’s recent denial that he doesn’t know Rohrabacher and never spoke to him is especially suspect, since he invited the man to the White House for a one-on-one in April, 2017. British courts will not extradite if the request is politically motivated.

But Assange’s best chance probably lies elsewhere. During the seven years when he lived in Ecuador’s embassy in London as a political asylum-seeker, a Spanish security company called UC Global installed cameras in every corner of Assange’s space in the embassy and live-streamed every contact and conversation he had, including with his lawyers, directly to the US Central Intelligence Agency.

I don’t know how a British court will respond to that information, but I think I know how an American court would respond. That’s how Ellsberg got off in 1971: the government tapped his phone conversations (and sent burglars to break into his psychiatrist’s office and steal his file), so the judge dismissed the case because the government’s behaviour was outrageous and no fair trial was possible.

There will be many appeals, both in the UK and maybe later in the US, and Assange will not draw a free breath for a long time, if ever. But in the meantime, here’s one happy ending.

Edward Snowden couldn’t tell his girlfriend his plans before he left the US and released his documents, because that would have made her his accomplice. She was angry at first, but she forgave him, married him in 2017, and lives with him in Russia.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“The whistle-blowers…punished”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Morsi: A Death Foretold

Egypt’s first and last democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, died on Monday, lying on the floor of the courtroom where they were trying him on yet more charges. (He was already serving several life sentences.) It was probably a heart attack, but according to witnesses they left him lying there for twenty minutes before medical help arrived.

He was only 67, but he was not in good health: he had both diabetes and liver disease. But he was not getting proper treatment for those illnesses: a British parliamentary group that investigated his situation at his family’s request last year concluded that without urgent medical assistance the damage to his health could be “permanent and possibly terminal.” Well, it was.

Morsi was held in solitary confinement for six years, and saw his family just three times. His living conditions were such that the United Nations Human rights office has called for a “prompt, impartial, thorough and transparent investigation” into his death. Fair enough, but he is only one of thousands of Egyptians who have been murdered or tortured by the military regime that overthrew him in 2013.

Morsi was not a very good president: he was a narrow, stubborn man who governed solely in the interests of his own Muslim Brotherhood party and its Islamic priorities. He behaved like this even though he had barely scraped into the presidency with the votes of many who, though secular in their views and values, feared that otherwise the candidate of the old regime would win.

They fully shared his desire to uproot the secular ‘deep state’ that had ruled Egypt through three military dictators and six decades, but they had not signed up for an Islamist constitution instead. So they started demonstrating against Morsi, and only a year after he was elected they cheered when the military stepped in and overthrew him, like so many turkeys voting for Christmas.

Morsi and his party behaved badly, the secular pro-democracy activists were no wiser, and they have both paid a high price in blood and misery for their mistakes. So is there any particular reason to highlight the fact and manner of Morsi’s passing?

Yes, because it creates an opportunity to consider what might have happened if he had not been overthrown.

He would probably still be alive, because he would have been getting good medical care, but he would no longer be in power. His four-year presidential term would have expired in 2016, and he would not have won a second term.

Whoever won the first election after long-ruling dictator Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in 2011 was winning a poisoned chalice, for the Egyptian economy was already on the rocks when the protests began. In fact, that’s why they started, and the long period of protesting and politicking that followed meant that nobody even started thinking about the economy again until early 2013.

The whole of Morsi’s first presidential term, had he served it out, would have been spent struggling to pull the economy out of the ditch. In the course of that, he would have had to impose all sorts of austerity measures that would have hurt exactly the people who were his core voters: the pious poor. And half of them wouldn’t have voted for him next time.

The whole tragedy of 2013, which ended up with General al-Sisi’s snipers killing more than a thousand unarmed protesters in Rabaa and Nahda Squares in Cairo and wounding at least 4,000 others – a massacre perhaps as bad as Tienanmen Square – was completely unnecessary. People more experienced with democracy would have known that Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood rule would both be rejected in the 2016 elections.

All they had to do was wait it out, and let the voters sort it out next time. That’s what Americans who deplore Donald Trump are doing right now, but they have more than two centuries of democratic government under their belt.

The voters may choose to make the same ‘mistake’ again, of course, being only human, but mostly they don’t. And even if they do, there will be another chance to fix things the next time around. As long as the decisions are not completely irrevocable, they can eventually be reversed – and you get to keep your democracy.

If Morsi had not been overthrown, the biggest Arab country, with one-third of the world’s Arabic-speaking people, would still be a democracy. Other Arab countries like Algeria and Sudan, where they are trying to make democracy happen today, would have a powerful supporter in Egypt, not a sworn enemy.

Syria would probably still have suffered a civil war, and so might Yemen, but the ultra-conservative monarchies of the Gulf would no longer dominate the Arab world with their money. Nobody can question the courage of the young men and women who overthrew the Egyptian dictatorship in 2011, but they were too ready to dispense with democracy at the first sign of trouble.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“Morsi…2013″; and “Whoever…2013″)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.