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President Donald Trump

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British Roulette

“I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose their loved ones before their time.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, 11 March 2020

“Just stay calm. It will go away.”
President Donald Trump, 10 March 2020

The contrast between the two major populist leaders of the English-speaking world could not have been greater. Trump, who spent two months dismissing the Covid-19 virus as a “hoax” cooked up by his opponents to crash the market and scupper his re-election chances, finally did an about-face on 13 March and declared a “National Emergency”. But on Sunday he was still fantasizing that “we have tremendous control” over the virus.

Johnson, on the other hand, assumed a grave manner as he delivered the bad news. It’s serious, many people will die, but we do have a plan. The problem is that the plan may kill a great many Britons for nothing if he is wrong – which most experts think he is.

“When I heard about Britain’s ‘herd immunity’ coronavirus plan, I thought it was satire,” epidemiologist William Hanage of Harvard University told the Guardian on Sunday. But it is deadly serious. Boris Johnson, unlike Donald Trump, listens to scientists, but the ones he listens to most, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical adviser Chris Whitty, have a plan that most other experts think is crazy.

‘Herd immunity’ occurs when a large majority of the community has acquired immunity to a disease. That breaks the chain of transmission for the virus in question, and even those without immunity are fairly safe so long as their numbers stay low. So this is Boris’s cunning plan.

Let the coronavirus spread until around 60 percent of the population has acquired and survived it. Then the dreaded ‘second wave’ of the epidemic will not happen, because herd immunity will protect everybody. Alas, there are a few flaws in this plan.

Sixty percent of the British population is about 40 million people. Only 0.2% of adults under 40 who contract Covid-19 die from it (and those under 10 don’t get sick at all). The death rate goes up steeply for older age groups, but even for those in their 60s it’s only 3.6%. So for all the under-70s it’s only – hang on a minute, that’s 445,000 deaths. More than British military deaths in World War Two.

That’s assuming that Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) can give intensive care to all the severe cases of Covid-19. If the UK follows the pattern in China, around one in five coronavirus patients will need intensive care to recover. One in five of 40 million people is eight million.

The number of beds in intensive care units (ICUs) in British hospitals is 4,300. Maybe the NHS can improvise 10,000 more, but it still wouldn’t go far if up to 8 million severely ill patients need ICU beds this year, each for weeks at a time. Many more than 445,000 would die. The whole scheme is lunacy – and we still haven’t got to the plan for the over-70s.

The death rate from Covid-19 for people in their 70s is 8%. For 80 and over, it’s at least 15 %. So while everybody under 70 takes their chances with the virus, all those over 70 must self-isolate for four months. Those who venture out can be fined up to £1,000 (US$ 1,230) or even jailed.

Moreover, there may be unknown after-effects of having Covid-19, like getting shingles decades after you had chickenpox. There are reports of lung damage in many survivors. Re-infection may be possible: infected people have tested positive again after being discharged negative. Why don’t we give Covid-19 to 40 million people and see what happens?

Now, it’s possible that Boris Johnson’s advisers are right and everybody else is wrong. Maybe there is a devastating ‘second wave’ coming next winter, and this bizarre plan is the only way to stop it. But we don’t even know if Covid-19 will have a second wave. There wasn’t with SARS, a similar coronavirus. As William Hanage said, “vulnerable people should not be exposed to a virus right now in the service of a hypothetical future.”

Elsewhere, there’s a dramatic fall in the number of new infections in Asian countries that started testing, contact tracing and social distancing early on. China has had 81,000 cases, but on Monday reported only seven new cases. No official will say this aloud, but Britain is deliberately neglecting all that and letting the infections rip.

Testing, contact tracing and social distancing may turn out to be ineffective: infections may pick up again in other countries when the rules are finally relaxed. (280 million Chinese went back to work on Monday after two months of lockdown). But that strategy is certainly worth a try, whereas Johnson, in the words of Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of leading British medical journal ‘The Lancet’, is “playing roulette with the public.”

Why is he doing it? Perhaps it’s just arrogance (aka the ‘Brexit spirit’): Britain knows best, and should always steer its own course. But he probably just prefers a policy that does not cripple the economy, and doesn’t understand the implications.

So not all that much difference between the mini-Trump and the real thing after all. And the ‘herd immunity’ nonsense probably won’t last long once the British public realises what Johnson’s government is actually planning.
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THIS ARTICLE is a bit longer than usual. To shorten it to 850 words, omit paragraph 12 (“Moreover…happens”). To shorten further to 750 words, omit also paragraphs 14 and 16. (“There has…rip”; and “Why…implications”)

Iran and Trump: “Uniquely Dysfunctional and Divided”

Iran has “begun its march…towards nuclear weaponry,” said Israel’s energy minister Yuval Steinitz, and that is technically correct. Only one year and sixty days after President Donald Trump ripped up the treaty that guaranteed Iran won’t make nuclear weapons and peed on the pieces*, Iran has taken a tiny step towards reviving its nuclear programme.

Just a baby step: on Monday Tehran announced that it would start enriching uranium fuel to more than 3.67%, the limit set by the treaty that it signed in 2015. Until last week it was fully obeying all the terms of the treaty, as France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China, the other signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), all confirmed.

The fuel Iran is making now will be used in its reactor at Bushehr, which requires fuel enriched to just below 5%, so this is not a very big breach of the treaty. Indeed, Iran says it is not a breach at all, quoting the part of the JCPOA that says a party can “cease performing its commitments… in whole or in part” in the event of “significant non-performance” by any of the other parties.

You could certainly argue that the United States ‘ceased performing its commitments… in whole or in part’ by abandoning the JCPOA , but there would be no point. This is about power, not legality or fairness, and the United States has the power.

The United States has blocked all trade with Iran and used its power to force most of the other countries that signed the treaty to stop trading with Iran too. Unfortunately, it’s not ‘Germany’ or ‘France’ that trades with Iran; it’s German and French companies, which will not be allowed to buy or sell in the United States if they trade with Iran.

The European governments have no legal power to force their companies to trade with Iran, and they have not offered to compensate companies that do so and as a result lose American contracts. They all acknowledge that Iran is in the right and Donald Trump is in the wrong, but they lack the courage to act accordingly.

So Iran has been hung out to dry. Its foreign trade has collapsed, including the oil sales that kept the economy afloat. Inflation has quadrupled, its currency has lost 60% of its value, household incomes have fallen sharply, and the economy is predicted to shrink by 6% this year. It’s what Trump calls “maximum pressure”, and ordinary Iranians are hurting.

Iran’s response, after more than a year of this, was to become just a little bit non-compliant with the JCPOA. Its clearly stated policy, however, is to ratchet up the scale of the breach a bit more every sixty days, applying pressure back in a quite different mode.

You can only sub-divide the move back to a full civil nuclear programme into so many steps, however, and even at 60 days per step Iran will probably be there by this time next year.

That doesn’t mean it will be making nuclear weapons next year. It had a full civil nuclear programme for several decades before the JCPOA was signed, and it didn’t get nuclear weapons then. But without the treaty the ‘break-out time’ to Iran’s first nuclear weapon, if Tehran decided to go for broke, would drop from one year to only a couple of months.

This is what the JCPOA was really about. Iran always swore that it would not make nuclear weapons – Ayatollah Khomeini even called them “un-Islamic” – but a lot of other governments hated or at least mistrusted the Iranian regime. Before the 2015 deal, there was much wild talk in the US and Israel about the need to make a ‘preemptive attack’ on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The JCPOA kicked the can down the road for 15 years. Iran dismantled various nuclear facilities and agreed to intrusive inspections so that if it ever did decide to cheat, everybody else would have a year or more to respond. Nobody loved the deal, but everybody agreed that it was the best available, and made the future a lot safer.

So why did Donald Trump trash it? His obsession with destroying Barack Obama’s political legacy undoubtedly provided the initial impetus, but he also probably believed that putting ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran would make it crumble. Another triumph for the great statesman.

The hawks in the White House (John Bolton, Mike Pompeo et al.) probably do know that Iran is too proud to crumble, but they don’t care because they actually want a war.

Trump is trapped between them and his promise not to lead the United States into another Middle East war – which is why we have crazy episodes like the air strikes on Iran he allegedly cancelled on 20 June ten minutes before they hit.

No wonder Sir Kim Darroch, British ambassador to the US, said in a confidential dispatch leaked to the press on Sunday that Trump’s White House is “uniquely dysfunctional” and “divided”.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“The fuel…power”)

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