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Trump: The Odds

7 October 2020

Now is when it gets interesting.

The announcement last Friday that US President Donald Trump had fallen ill with Covid-19 hardly came as a surprise. His political strategy of playing down Covid-19 required him to be reckless about his own health, and other Republicans were already dropping like flies. Fourteen Republican Senators and Representatives have now tested positive, compared to six Democrats.

Some journalists who were up against a deadline started speculating right away about what would happen if Trump died from Covid, but that felt kind of ghoulish. Besides, the odds were long against it.

The death rate for people in their 70s who are hospitalised with Covid symptoms is much higher than for younger people, but it’s still only 8.5%. Being male and fat with a heart problem are all additional risk factors for Trump, but they are probably counterbalanced by the fact that he gets excellent medical care 24 hours a day. So wait and see.

Wait how long? After a million deaths (almost a quarter of them in the United States), we now know a good deal about the pattern of this disease, and it is rarely life-threatening in the first week after symptoms develop. Some suffer from a constant dry cough, fever, headache, fatigue, and/or a loss of the sense of smell and taste, but at worst there’s a certain shortness of breath.

We know that Trump was briefly put on oxygen last Friday and again on Saturday, but that does not mean he’s deathly ill. On the other hand, the fact that the doctors let him go home to the White House on Monday doesn’t mean they are hugely confident either.

Trump would have put immense pressure on the doctors to let him go, since that would let him do some macho posturing about having defeated the virus. They would have shrugged their shoulders and given in, because the real crisis was not due until later anyway.

Trump did indeed indulge in some major chest-beating when he got home. “Feeling really good!” he tweeted. “Don’t be afraid of COVID! Don’t let it dominate your life!… I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”

Well, of course he’s feeling better. He’s on a steroid high. His doctors have put him on dexamethasone, a steroid medication that is not normally given to patients who are non-critical.

(He’s also taking remdesivir, monoclonal antibodies, zinc, vitamin D, famotidine, melatonin and aspirin, but none of those makes you feel like Superman.)

The doctors doubtless told Trump that the real make-or-break time with Covid-19 is seven to ten days after symptoms first develop, when some patients who have been feeling reasonably well suddenly go into a steep decline, with severe lung problems. That’s when you get put on the ventilator. But it probably didn’t register.

“Now I’m better, and maybe I’m immune,” he said at the White House. Then he took his mask off and, still highly contagious, walked back into the White House among the staff who were standing by inside. (Or to be more precise, those who were still standing at all. A dozen White House staff have already gone down with the disease.)

If Day 1 for Trump was last Thursday, as his doctors say, then Days 7 to 10 are this Thursday to Sunday. So it’s now reasonable for us to discuss how those days might define the future of the presidential election, and perhaps of the United States. Tastefully, of course, and with no ghoulishness.

Outcome A: Trump dies. Probability: less than 10% (see above). Consequence: Vice-President Mike Pence takes his place, and loses the election.

Outcome B: Trump gets very ill and is re-hospitalised. He survives, but cannot resume the campaign. Probability: around 10%. Consequence: Joe Biden wins the presidency with a margin big enough that Trump’s people cannot plausibly dispute it. Normal service is resumed, and Trump spends the rest of his life in court.

Outcome C: Trump recovers, and is back out campaigning within a week. Probability: more than 70%. Consequence: he still loses the election (just look at the numbers), but he is fit and able to build on the foundations he has already laid and lead a campaign from the White House (not necessarily non-violent) to dispute the postal vote.

He is desperate enough, and ruthless enough, to comprehensively muddy the waters, possibly with the help of his carefully packed Supreme Court. Perhaps the United States becomes a banana republic, perhaps not.

And we must recognise the possibility that Outcome C in some form is already inevitable because Trump contracted Covid days earlier, concealed it, and is already safely past Day 10. In which case this entire drama is just pantomime.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. (“Wait…breath”; and “He’s also…Superman”)

The Last Days of the Old Middle East

16 September 2020

President Donald Trump declared “the dawn of a new Middle East” in Washington on Tuesday as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrein signed public agreements with Israel for the first time.

Not “peace agreements”, as Trump claimed, since neither country has ever been at war with Israel. Just documents involving an exchange of ambassadors, trade deals and the like. And it was significant that while Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu were there in person, the UAE and Bahreini rulers just sent their foreign ministers.

The only thing that actually happened on Tuesday, however, was that two Gulf mini-states went public on ties with Israel, especially in the arms trade, that had previously been not actually secret, but at least discreet. Apart from that, it’s still the same old Middle East, as corrupt, violent and dysfunctional as ever.

The last time Israel fought an actual war against any of its Arab neighbours was in 1982, a full-scale invasion of Lebanon that ended in a prolonged Israeli military occupation of the southern part of the country. That’s long over now, although Lebanon remains a ghastly mess, but all the region’s other wars trundle on uninterrupted.

The second Libyan civil war continues into its sixth year, with a cast of foreign participants and supporters that now includes Russia, Turkey, France, Egypt and the UAE.

The atrocious foreign military intervention in Yemen, led by Saudi Arabia but involving most of the autocratic Arab states and their Western arms suppliers, is only one year younger and still killing around 5,000 a month.

The Syrian civil war is in its ninth year. It has killed at least half a million people and driven almost half the population from their homes. It may be creeping towards an end now, with only one province still in rebel hands, but the rebels have Turkish military support and the Russian air force fights for the Assad regime.

Iraq is enjoying only its second year of relative peace since the US invasion of 2003, but the signs are multiplying that Islamic State is going to launch a major come-back bid there. The collapse of the oil price has left much of the population destitute. Urban youth are in open revolt, with hundreds shot dead by the police this year.

And when something genuinely new does crop up in the endless churn that distinguishes the region’s politics, it is often unwelcome.

Saudi Arabia, once the stable, conservative linchpin of inter-Arab politics, has turned into a loose cannon, starting unwinnable wars (like Yemen), funnelling money and arms to jihadi extremists (in Syria), and commissioning the cold-blooded killing of critics of the regime (as in the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi).

Overshadowing all these wars, and actually driving some of them, is the religious and strategic confrontation between revolutionary Shia Iran and the conservative Sunni monarchies and dictatorships of the eastern Arab world. That’s what those huge Arab arms purchases are for, not for fighting Israel.

Indeed, Israel is a silent partner in this region-wide cold war between the Sunni Arab states and Iran; that’s what made the little ceremony at the White House on Tuesday possible. There is no ‘Arab-Israeli conflict’: the major Arab players are already undeclared Israeli allies, and the Israeli army refers to its sporadic punitive strikes against the Palestinians as ‘mowing the lawn’.

Real change in this region happens with glacial slowness, if at all, but that does not mean that it is stable. On the contrary, it could tip suddenly into a radically different state. It almost did so in 2010-12, the years of the aborted ‘Arab spring’, and the forces that drove that uprising are even stronger now.

Half the population in Middle Eastern and North African countries is under 25. As populations have soared (Iraq’s has doubled to 40 million since the first Gulf War in 1990), economies have not kept pace, and living standards have fallen almost everywhere. A huge, mostly jobless young population living close to despair is now the Arab norm.

The oil-rich Gulf states used to be the exception to this rule, but no longer. The oil-price crash this time is not temporary: demand is falling and will continue to fall as the climate crisis and cheaper new ‘clean energy’ sources eat into oil’s traditional markets.

The pantomime at the White House on Tuesday was about tidying up a few of the loose ends of an old conflict. It would have a certain relevance if the future was going to be just more of the present, but that is not the case.

The timing is uncertain but the destination is clear: big changes are coming that will sweep away many of the existing regimes and reshape the politics of the region. Happy endings are not inevitable, but different endings are practically guaranteed.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 15. (“Not…ministers”; and “The oil-rich…markets”)

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”)

A Warning from Poland

Few people outside of Poland care about the outcome of last Sunday’s presidential election there, but maybe they should. Andrzej Duda is practically a Polish clone of Donald Trump, who will also be seeking re-election less than four months from now – and Duda squeaked out a victory.

Duda only got 51.2% of the vote against 48.8% for his liberal opponent, but Trump doesn’t even need that many votes. The Poles vote for their president directly, but gerrymandered electoral districts and the ‘electoral college’ system in the United States let Trump won last time with only 46.1% of the popular vote. He could do it again.

It’s not a perfect comparison, of course. Duda is more intelligent than Trump, and the Covid-19 death toll is only 40 per million people in Poland, compared to 420 per million in the United States. Moreover the Law and Justice Party he is linked to is generally seen as competent and honest.

The history is different, too. Just as the United States was winning its independence from the British empire in the late 18th century, Poland was carved up by its neighbours and vanished from the map for more than a hundred years. Twenty years after it regained its independence in 1918 it was conquered by Hitler’s legions, and then it fell under Soviet Communist rule until 1989.

So what relevance could Polish politics have for the forthcoming election in the United States? Quite a lot, actually, starting with the very similar ways in which the two countries are polarised politically.

The Law and Justice Party (PiS), in power since 2015, draws its support from exactly the same social groups as Trump’s ‘base’: older, small-town or rural, lower-middle or working class, poorly educated, and significantly more male than female. Also more religious (which in Poland usually means a conservative brand of Catholicism) and much more nationalist.

Duda doesn’t use the slogan ‘Make Poland Great Again’, because it’s three centuries since Poland was a great power in Europe. He doesn’t share Trump’s deference to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, because Russia rivals Germany as the great historic enemy in Polish nationalist thought. But in terms of targeting minorities, the PiS and Duda actually outdo Trump.

The PiS makes a great song-and-dance about hordes of Muslim immigrants threatening Polish national identity (although no sane Muslim would ever choose to move to Poland). But the best targets in the culture wars are people who really live in the country, and since Poland doesn’t has no minorities of different colours, that mainly means gays and Jews.

Duda made homophobic rhetoric the centrepiece of his re-election campaign, promising to “defend children from LGBT ideology” and comparing the LGBT rights agenda to communism. He promised a new constitutional amendment to ban same-sex adoption, which he described as the “enslavement” of children.

Since the government has already turned the once impartial state-owned media into the PiS’s propaganda arm, it now concentrates its fire on the private media, much of it owned by US and German companies, which still try to offer independent analysis. Duda’s line was therefore to attack the evil foreign-owned media – and, of course, to suggest that they are really serving “Jewish interests”.

It’s not pretty, but Trump recognises a kindred spirit in Duda, whom he has met eleven times since 2017, including an invitation to the White House last month to give the Polish president a last-minute electoral boost. Duda attacks the media, his party is busily packing the judiciary with reliable conservative judges – and he won re-election. It’s enough to give The Donald hope.

But maybe not enough hope, because there is one big practical difference. However much Trump may claim to love the poor and “the poorly educated”, he hasn’t done much to help them, whereas the PiS puts its money where its mouth is.

Trump has signed a cheque for $1,200 for each American once during the pandemic, and wants to sign one more if Congress approves. The PiS gives every Pole $125 a month for each child every month, pandemic or not. It doesn’t make much difference to the average urban middle-class Polish family, but it has transformed the lives of millions of families who
live in the small towns and the countryside.

The PiS ‘base’ is also invested in the culture wars, but there’s little doubt that this subsidy, running around $3,000 a year for the average family, gave Duda a vital extra push in the election. If Trump promised a thinly disguised ‘basic income’ like that for the United States, he could probably win too.

He wouldn’t have any serious ideological objection to that, because he actually doesn’t have any coherent ideology. However, the Republican Party’s loyalty to its traditional conservative beliefs, though heavily eroded, is probably still strong enough to make that impossible.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“The history…1999”; and “Duda…Trump”)