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From Lock-Down to Whack-a-Mole

It’s wrong to say that there is no exit strategy from the anti-coronavirus lock-downs that have proliferated across the world. There is, and the first phase is to keep the lock-downs going long enough to bring new Covid-19 infections down to a manageable number. Maybe by June.

Then you start playing whack-a-mole until there is a vaccine (minimum 18 months). If there is no effective vaccine, then you have to keep doing it until your population has developed ‘herd immunity’ (two to four years for most places, but only if surviving the infection confers lasting immunity). But at least you can reopen most of your economy.

These are the best options left for the countries that missed the bus when the coronavirus first appeared three months ago – which is to say practically all of them, with the exception of the East Asian countries: China, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The most important (and startling) statistic of the current pandemic is that Americans are 120 times more likely to die of Covid-19 than Chinese citizens.

We know how many Chinese died with some precision, because the dying has stopped in China, at least for the moment. The total is 3,331, most of them in Wuhan or the surrounding province of Hubei. The only new cases now being reported in China are in citizens returning from abroad.

The predicted death toll from Covid-19 in the United States, according to no less an authority than President Donald Trump, is 100,000.

You may be sure that that is the lowest number Trump thinks he can get away with. His chief infectious disease adviser, Dr Anthony Fauci, actually said “looking at what we’re seeing now, I would say between 100,000 and 200,000 … deaths” on 29 March, but let’s stick with the lowball figure.

One hundred thousand American deaths is a toll thirty times higher than 3,331 Chinese deaths, but that still leaves one important factor out. The population of China is four times larger than that of the United States. So in proportion to its population, Covid-19 will kill Americans at 120 times the rate it killed Chinese people.

That is shockingly high, but the comparable rates for major European countries are just as bad. Italy and Spain have just passed the peak rate of deaths – the daily rate has been falling since last week – and will probably end up with around 20,000 deaths each. The United Kingdom is still climbing the curve, but will probably end up in the same place.

Each of these countries has about one-fifth the population of the United States, and is facing about one-fifth the number of deaths. If the American death toll climbs well above 100,000, then you can start blaming Trump for the excess deaths, but there is something more fundamental happening here.

All these countries only moved very late to act against the virus, so late that their only remaining option was lock-down. Whereas all the east Asian countries reacted at once.

China, where the coronavirus originated, was blind-sided by the wave of deaths in Wuhan, but as soon as the virus had been identified Beijing locked the city down, and soon after the whole country.

A week or two were lost to the Chinese regime’s denial and its reluctance to damage the economy, but the reaction was still fast enough. The lock-down worked, and most Chinese are now back to work.

South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong got the warning at the same time as everybody else. No country other than China needed to go into lock-down at that point, because the coronavirus had not yet gained a firm foothold in their populations.

The East Asian countries have some serious experience of pandemics, however, so they immediately started testing frantically to identify new clusters of infection, tracing all the contacts of the infected people, and isolating everybody involved to break the chains of infection.

These methods never detect all of those infected, and the ones that are missed will cause new clusters of infection to emerge a few weeks later, so this is a never-ending game of whack-a-mole which requires a small army of testers and contact tracers. But it keeps the death toll down and the economy open.

Western countries did not use the ample time they had to put a similar system in place. They didn’t even stock up on masks, ventilators and protective clothing. They let the infection spread so widely that only a long, full lock-down could contain it. Why? Arrogance, wishful thinking, and a fierce determination not to harm economic growth.

A great many unnecessary deaths later, when the remaining number of infections is down to Korean levels, Western countries will finally be able to reopen their economies and join the game of whack-a-mole. But by that time, of course, the pandemic will be rampaging through Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America.

Back to normal is still a long way off.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“You may…figure”; and “Each…here”)

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

The Other Shoe

They STILL haven’t dropped the other shoe. The ‘Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C’ contains terrifying forecasts about what will happen when we reach an average global temperature one-and-a-half degrees C higher than the pre-industrial average. (We are now at +1C.) But it still shies away from talking about the feedbacks, the refugees, and mass death.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ordered this special report in 2015, after the Paris climate agreement effectively admitted that the traditional target – stopping the warming before it reaches two degrees C higher – had been set too high. By then, really bad things would already be happening.

So all the countries that want to stop the warming before it goes runaway (everybody except the United States) formally kept the ‘never exceed’ target of +2C, but said that governments should ‘aspire’ to stop the warming earlier, at +1.5C. And they asked the IPCC to figure out how hard that would be.

The answer, revealed at a meeting in South Korea on Sunday, is: very hard. We have effectively wasted the past thirty years, since the climate change threat first became known, and there is now very little time left. In order to skid to a halt, brakes on hard, before we hit +1.5C, we will have to cut our greenhouse gas emissions by almost half (45%) in the next twelve years.

To cut emissions that fast by 2030, we would have to decide to close down all the remaining coal-fired power plants within the next two years. It would take the next decade to get that done and get the same energy from expanded renewable sources (water, wind and solar), leaving us just on track to reach zero emissions by 2050.

Climate scientist John Skea, who worked on the report, summed it up: “Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics, but doing so would require unprecedented changes.” Changes of a scale that people would readily accept if they faced an imminent invasion by Nazis or Martians – but that they are less willing to make when their whole environment is at risk. Humans are funny that way.

The report is a bracing dose of realism in many ways. It effectively says that we can’t afford to go anywhere near +2C. It talks bluntly about the need to end all fossil fuel use, reforest vast tracts of marginal land, and cut down on meat-eating. It even admits that we will probably have to resort to geo-engineering – ‘solar radiation management’, in the jargon.

“If mitigation efforts do not keep global mean temperature below 1.5C,” says the report, “solar radiation modification can potentially reduce the climate impacts of a temporary temperature overshoot, in particular extreme temperatures, rate of sea-level rise, and intensity of tropical cyclones.” Pumping sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere is scary stuff, but so is runaway warming.

So far, so good. At least it’s being honest about the problem – but only up to a point. ‘Not in front of the children’ is still the rule for governments when it comes to talking about the mass movements of refugees and the civil and international wars that will erupt when the warming cuts into the food supply. And they still don’t want to talk openly about the feedbacks.

People forget that this is a governmental project run through the United Nations – the InterGOVERNMENTAL Panel on Climate Change – not just a scientific one. Scientists write the body of the report, but the executive summary (the only part that most policy-makers and journalists will ever read), is negotiated between the scientists and the governments.

The governments take climate change very seriously these days, but they worry that too much frankness about the cost in lives of going past 1.5C will create irresistible pressure on them to take radical action now. In the ensuing struggle between the scientists and the politicians, the executive summary always gets toned down.

What got removed from the summary this time was any mention of “significant population displacement concentrated in the tropics” at +2C (i.e. mass migrations away from stricken regions, smashing up against borders elsewhere that are slammed shut against the refugees).

Even worse, ‘tipping points’ are barely mentioned in the report. These are the dreaded feedbacks – loss of Arctic sea ice, melting of the permafrost, carbon dioxide and methane release from the oceans – that would trigger unstoppable, runaway warming.

They are called ‘feedbacks’ because they are self-reinforcing processes that are unleashed by the warming we have already caused, and which we cannot shut off even if we end all of our own emissions.

If you don’t go into the feedbacks, then you can’t talk about runaway warming, and going to 4, 5 or 6 degrees C higher average global temperature, and hundreds of millions or billions of deaths. And if you don’t acknowledge that, then you will not treat this as the emergency it really is.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“If mitigation…warming”; and “People…governments”)

What North Korea Wants

What does Kim Jon-un want? One thing: security.

He doesn’t want to conquer the world. It’s impractical: only one out of every 300 people in the world is North Korean. He doesn’t even want to conquer South Korea. It’s twice as populous as North Korea and ten times richer: eliminate the border and Kim’s regime would crumble in months. And he certainly doesn’t want to attack the United States.

King Kim III (as we would have called him a couple of centuries ago) declared last week that North Korea has now completed the task of building a nuclear deterrent to ward off a possible American attack. It will return to the task of building its economy and prosperity instead. Indeed, it will “ stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles,” and even shut down a nuclear weapons test site.

He’s obviously laying out his negotiating position for the summit meetings that are planned for this month with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and for next month with US President Donald Trump. He clearly wants a deal, but he has long been afraid of an American attack. There could be a deal, but only if Washington and Seoul acknowledge that his fear is real.

A little story from the Cold War. I only realised how deeply I had been affected by the propaganda I had heard all my young life when I attended my first NATO military exercise in Europe as a journalist. It was the same exercise scenario as always, with Russian tanks surging forward to overrun Western Europe and outnumbered NATO troops struggling to halt the attack.

I did know that NATO wasn’t really outnumbered. It had almost twice as many people as the Soviet Union and its allies, and at least four times the wealth. It just chose to have smaller armies because soldiers are very expensive to maintain, and relied instead on the early use of nuclear weapons. But I had never questioned the threat of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Nobody did.

Then one day, I was interviewing a senior British army officer and for some reason I asked the obvious question I had never bothered to ask before. What scenario did the Russians use when they ran their military exercises?

Oh, he said airily, their scenarios imagine that we have invaded East Germany, but after a few days they manage to turn it around and start pushing us back west. When their tanks are breaking through the Fulda Gap we use nukes to stop them, and the whole thing rapidly escalates into a general nuclear exchange.

Well, of course. Would the Russians tell their troops that they were launching a deliberate attack on the West that would end in a full-scale nuclear war? No. As the weaker side in the long confrontation, would they ever even consider doing that? Probably not. But I had never considered the fact that the Russians were afraid of us.

It had simply not occurred to me before that a country that had been invaded by everybody from Napoleon to Hitler, and had lost at least 20 million killed in the Second World War, might be obsessed about the threat of being attacked by us. We were the good guys: surely they must realise that we would never do that. But OF COURSE they didn’t.

Maybe we were ‘the good guys’ in that confrontation, in the sense that our countries were democracies and their countries were dictatorships, but in terms of threat perception and over-reaction the two sides were identical. The situation in the Korean peninsula is the same story in microcosm.

The Kim dynasty inherited a devastated country at the end of the Korean War in 1953. Its cities were levelled and at least a million people had been killed. The Chinese troops who had helped North Korea went home after the war, but the American troops stayed in South Korea. Moreover, the Americans had nuclear weapons and would not promise not to use them – and there was no peace treaty, just an armistice.

The Kims built a very big army as a partial and unsatisfactory counter-threat to US nuclear weapons, and started working on their own nukes as soon as the economy had been rebuilt to the required level. However, that big army created a threat perception in the US and South Korea as real and acute as North Korea’s own fears.

So how might you negotiate your way out of this futile and dangerous confrontation? Pyongyang won’t give up the nuclear deterrent it has worked so long and hard to build: there’s not enough trust for that. But Kim is saying that he is willing to leave it at its current small and technologically primitive level. It’s no real threat to the US in its present form.

Concentrate instead on a peace treaty that gives North Korea a sense of security at last. Demand as a quid pro quo that Pyongyang reduces its ridiculously large army to the same size as South Korea’s. And promise that once those cuts have been made, the US troops in South Korea will go home.

It might work. It’s certainly worth a try.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“I did…did”; and “It had…didn’t”)

The Koreas: The Risk of Miscalculation

14 March 2013

The Koreas: The Risk of Miscalculation

By Gwynne Dyer

The joint US-South Korean military exercises known as “Key Resolve” and “Foal Eagle” have got underway, and so far the heavens have not fallen.

The American forces have not launched an unprovoked assault on North Korea, despite the strident claims of Pyongyang’s media that the exercises are a cover for exactly such a plan. In fact, joint exercises on this scale – they only involve 13,000 American and South Korean troops – have been held every year of the past forty, and pose no threat whatever to North Korea.

Neither has North Korea chosen to “defend its sovereignty”, as it recently threatened to do, by launching pre-emptive nuclear strikes against both the United States and South Korea. It could certainly do huge damage to South Korea, bur despite its successful nuclear and missile tests in the past three months it still lacks all but the most rudimentary capability to hit the United States.

Pyongyang’s nuclear test in February had twice the explosive power of the last one in 2009, but nobody believes North Korea’s claim that it has also made its bomb small enough to fit on the tip of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Nor does the Unha-3 missile, which Pyongyang used to launch a satellite in December, have the guidance systems and re-entry technology necessary to deliver such a nuclear weapon onto an American target – which would have to be in western Alaska, since that is the limit of the rocket’s range.

There is no doubt that Kim Jong-un’s regime is feeling extremely peeved about the international response to its weapon and missile tests, which has included tighter United Nations trade sanctions that got unanimous support in the Security Council. Even North Korea’s only ally, China, voted for them.

In a particularly peevish gesture, he has even cut the military hotline between the two sides at Panmunjom. (If you think there’s going to be a crisis, the last thing you want is a secure and rapid means of talking to the other side.) But it’s really just an empty gesture: an alternative military communications line, used to monitor cross-border workers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, remains open.

But it’s a long way from feeling peeved to feeling suicidal. Any North Korean nuclear attack on an American target would be answered by immediate US strikes that would annihilate the military and civilian leadership in Pyongyang, obliterate its nuclear facilities, and probably destroy much else besides. So North Korea’s threat to launch a “pre-emptive” nuclear strike against the United States, or even against South Korea, is totally implausible.

However, the young and inexperienced North Korean leader may feel the need to prove his mettle to his own military commanders by taking some more limited action against the US-South Korean exercises. That sort of thing can easily go wrong.

There is a widespread perception in South Korea that Seoul was caught off-guard by North Korea’s sinking of the warship Cheonan and its artillery attacks on Yeonpyeong island in 2010. North Korea paid no military price for either action, and South Korea’s newly elected president, Park Geun-hye, who took office only two weeks ago, needs to show South Koreans that she is not going to let that happen again.

She probably also hopes that a promise of prompt and severe retaliation will deter North Korea from any future attacks of that sort. So she has engaged in some rhetorical escalation of her own.

She has warned North Korea that any further attacks will be met by instant retaliation that targets not only the units involved in the attack, but also North Korea’s high command.

No doubt this is only intended to deter any such North Korean attack, but in practice it means that there will be much more rapid and uncontrollable escalation if Pyongyang makes a token attack anyway.

Even a conventional war in the Korean peninsula would be hugely destructive. Just north of the “Demilitarised Zone” between the two countries is the largest concentration of artillery in the entire world, and the mega-city of Seoul is within long artillery range of the border.

North Korea’s population is considerably smaller than South Korea’s, but the North maintains the fourth largest army in the world. Its armed forces operate mostly last-generation weaponry, but the equipment is well maintained and the soldiers appear to be well trained. The last war between the two countries killed over a million people and left all the peninsula’s cities in ruins – and that was over sixty years ago.

If North Korea ignored Park’s warning and made some local attack to demonstrate its displeasure, and Park then felt obliged to act on her threat to go after the North Korean leadership in Pyongyang in retaliation, things could get very ugly very fast.

So far the US-South Korean exercises have gone off smoothly, but the risk of a serious miscalculation first in Pyongyang and then in Seoul is real, and the exercises still have more than a week (until 25 March) to run.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 14. (“In a particularly…open”; and “North…ago”)