Defund the Police: Part I, The Instigation for the Movement

Reforms in policing were proposed in Ferguson, Missouri following two weeks of protests and riots that began on 10 August 2014, the day after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. Just as these days, curfews were instituted and police squads were deployed to maintain order. Just as these days, that “uprising” raised questions about the relationship between the police and African-Americans in Missouri and the rest of the country.

As the Washington Post observed this past week, a consensus has now emerged concerning the existence of systemic racism in American policing and other facets of American life. Long time organizers of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement are trying to extend its momentum beyond the popularization phase. Activists sense a once-in-a-generation opportunity to demand policy changes that once seemed far-fetched, including sharp cuts to police budgets in favour of social programs and greater accountability for officers who kill civilians.

25 percent of blacks shot and killed by police in the U.S. in 2015 over six months were in the midst of a mental health crisis. “It’s now something where the Mitt Romneys of the world can join in, and that was something unimaginable back in 2014. That is the result of six years of hard work by people who are in the movement and have put forward so many discussions that really changed people’s hearts and minds,” said Justin Hansford, who was an activist in Ferguson, Mo., during the unrest after the police killing of an unarmed black teen there.

What was different in 2014? The incident of the shooting was not captured on videotape. Further, the rioting and vandalism took place in response to 150 officers appearing at the peace protest in riot gear; the militarized police overshadowed the peaceful protest. In the confrontations, innocent protesters were fired upon, journalists were harassed, tear-gassed, shot at with rubber bullets, their cameras destroyed. Video captured a SWAT car rolling up to an Al Jazeera team and taking them down, refuting the claim that the police had simply asked them politely to move.

There was a third major difference. President Barack Obama was in office. He issued the following statement: There is “no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests, or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights. And here, in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.” In 2014, the president was on the side of the protesters yet the police repression was far worse and instigated the conflict. However, the central difference was the rise of routine videotaping of police brutally beating black men.

The BLM movement, that had been sparked by the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, got a singular boost because of the aggressive response to the Ferguson protests in 2014 and then a powerful heave upwards with the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis in May of 2020.

In 2014, Wilson claimed that he had confronted Brown following an assault and robbery of a convenience store. In the struggle, Brown was wounded and fled. Wilson gave chase. When Brown turned to confront the police officer, the latter shot and killed him. Bystanders claimed that Brown had turned, raised his hands to surrender, said, “Don’t shoot,” and was then shot. A grand jury refused to indict Wilson. More protests and riots followed in the week after that announcement on 24 November. The Department of Justice (DOJ) concluded that Wilson shot Brown in self-defence. However, in their investigation of the police department, the DOJ concluded in March of 2015 that the Ferguson Police Department had engaged in systematic discrimination against African-Americans.

In Milwaukee on 30 April 2014, Dontre Hamilton was killed by police officer Christopher Manney. Manney was not charged, but he was fired. Further, thereafter, Milwaukee police were equipped with body cameras. Dontre Hamilton was mentally ill and sleeping in a park when he was confronted by Manney who tried to frisk him. Hanney purportedly began to wrestle and claimed that Hamilton got hold of his baton and began hitting him on the neck when he shot him. He hit Hamilton 14 times. Peaceful protests followed.

In the single year that followed, 29 unarmed African Americans were killed by police in America.

Date 2014NameAgeCity  State
11 August  Ezell Ford                         25Los AngelesCA
20 NovemberAkai Gurley28BrooklynNY
22 NovemberTamir Rice12ClevelandOH
2 DecemberRumain Brisbon34PhoenixAZ
30 DecemberJerame Reid36BridgetownNJ
8 JanuaryArtago Damon Howard36Union CountyAK
4 FebruaryJeremy Lett28TallahasseeFL
15 FebruaryLavall Hall25Miami GardensFL
28 FebruaryThomas Allen34WellstonMO
1 MarchCharly Leundeu Keunang43Los AngelesCA
6 MarchTony Robinson19MadisonWI
9 MarchAnthony Hill        27DeKalb CountyGA
12 MarchBobby Gross35WashingtonDC
19 MarchBrandon Jones18ClevelandOH
2 April   Walter Scott50North CharlestonSC
15 April Frank Shephard41HoustonTX
22 April William Chapman18PortsmouthVA
25 April David Felix24New YorkNY
5 MayBrendon Glenn29VeniceCA
15 JuneKris Jackson22South Lake TahoeCA
25 JuneSpencer McCain 41Owings MillMD
2 July    Victor Emanuel Larosa23JacksonvilleFL
12 July  Salvado Ellswood36PlantationFL
17 July  Albert Joseph Davis23OrlandoFL
17 July  Darrius Stewart19MemphisTN
19 July  Samuel DuBose43CincinnatiOH
7 AugustChristian Taylor  19ArlingtonVA

Of course, deaths of black young men at the hands of the police do not only take place when the young men are being arrested. Death and torture take place when they are so disproportionately incarcerated. Between 1972 and 1991, at least 125 black Chicagoans were tortured by police officers in the Area 2 precinct building on the city’s predominantly black South Side. (Laurence Ralph, The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence) Shackled to steaming hot radiators, beaten, electrocuted by means learned in Vietnam and raped with sex toys to extract confessions that help send them to prison and even death row, beating and torture became part of the police culture in Chicago. Torture had been inflicted routinely, particularly at the hands of a Viet veteran, Commander Jon Burge, until he was fired in 1993. As a result of the 2009 Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, and in spite of the “ostrich approach” of many police officers who did not participate in the torture but were inevitably part of the cover up, this pattern was acknowledged in the 2015 reparations legislation for those victims, with claimants in line currently numbering 543. 410 miles to the northwest of Chicago we find Minneapolis.

Following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by police that was videotaped, very large peaceful protests took place around the world for at least three weeks with some rioting and looting, especially in New York City, in the first few days. There was not only an insistence by the multi-racial crowds that, “Black Lives Matter,” but there were also calls to defund the police. For some this meant dissolving the police department altogether and replacing it with other institutions.

Most of the BLM activists have lobbied for the last six years, not to dismantle police departments, but to spend less on policing and more on housing, health and social work, such as in Sweden, where funds were shifted from the police department to a mental health ambulance service, or Scotland where funds were shifted to a violence reduction unit with officers deployed to defuse conflicts. The activists wanted to shift funds from the police department to other agencies that were better trained and equipped to deal with family disputes, domestic violence or mental illness and stop the trend towards the militarization of police departments.

Three choices for change face police departments. They can attempt reforms that will enable the removal of “bad apples” and the prevention of excessive force, such as the use of chokeholds. Police departments can also be subjected to investigation by independent bodies so that the regulatory process is applied impartially without favoritism. Second, funds can be shifted to other departments more suited to performing functions like intervening in family disputes, dealing with substance abuse and mental illness. Third, Police Departments can be disbanded to get around the stranglehold many police unions have on efforts to instigate police reform and regressive racist and bullying culture that has infected some police departments.

When Senator Kamala Harris wants “to reimagine how we do public safety in America” and defunding the police, she does not mean abolishing the police, but taking funds that total almost one-third of municipal budgets and reallocating those monies to educational, social welfare and health resources. On the other hand, Joe Biden is an advocate of police reform rather than financial reallocation, arguing that police need more funds for better training and for equipping police with body cameras. He would allocate $300 million more to police departments nationwide.

Donald Trump, while paying lip service to reform, is not only opposed to all three types of changes, but insists on characterizing the reform and defund movements as efforts to dismantle police forces. Public safety would otherwise be endangered. “Our police have been letting us live in peace, and we want to make sure we don’t have any bad actors in there, and sometimes we’ll see some horrible things like we witnessed recently, but I say 99.9 — let’s go with 99% of them — great, great people, and they’ve done jobs that are record-setting,”  This is based on the claim that there is no systemic racism in police forces in America even though two-thirds of Americans are now convinced that there is, up from one-third at the time of the Ferguson protests.

This is not and has not been just an American problem. This past month alone, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an indigenous black Canadian woman in Toronto on 27 May of 2020, Chantel Moore, an indigenous Canadian woman in Edmundston New Brunswick on 4 June 2020, and Ejaz Choudry, a 62-year-old man with schizophrenia in Mississauga Ontario on 24 June, all were shot and killed at the hands of police in Canada. This past week, though his brother, Christian, was acquitted, Toronto police officer Michael Theriault was convicted of an off-duty assault in the brutal 2016 beating with a metal pipe of black 19-year-old, Dafonte Miller, who lost an eye as a result of the beating. In addition,  Dafonte also suffered a broken orbital bone, bruised ribs, a broken nose, and a fractured wrist.

Which of the four options described above do you support – a few symbolic acts, some substantive reform, reallocation of police budgets or dissolution of police departments as they currently exist and replacement with police services with a different culture? Alex Neve and France-Isabelle Langlois of Amnesty International advocated a mixture of the last two options, “All of this requires broad and time-bound consultations about community-led proposals that reimagine and propose new, transformative approaches to upholding public safety and setting and apportioning police budgets in ways that end racism and uphold human rights. Now is the time to advance this agenda of change.” Which direction would you choose? To answer that question, it might help to have a deeper knowledge of the philosophic roots and longer history behind the debate.


Dealing with Discontents: Rioters, Rebels and Plagues

Parashat Korah Numbers 16-18

In these past weeks, one cannot help but get the impression that the Torah, and particularly numbers, is concerned with the politics of managing discontent. However, the book starts with structural order and organization, applying those to the immediate environment, taking a census and the management of sacred icons, in particular, the Arc of the Covenant. These are the two poles – rebellion, discontent and dissension versus unity and the priority of solidarity and community.

In dealing with the first, with divisions, the tale in Numbers moves from administrative organization to exclusions, its causes and conditions, first from the tribe and then from a marriage, and then voluntary exclusions that are self-imposed, such as the abstinence of the Nazirites. But the volume always turns its back on denial towards donations and gift giving. 

With respect to the theme of dissension, chapter 9 paints the first sign of dissent. Though being near and tending to the sick and dying may exemplify the greatest virtue, men who had been near a corpse were excluded from the Passover offering. Moses turns to God and God offers a substitute sacrifice. The accommodation seems to satisfy the dissidents. The Israelites then receive their marching orders. And we are then returned to a new interpersonal story, the one between Moses and his brother-in-law. Hobab, son of Jethro (Reuel), the Midianite. Hobab announces that he is leaving, going back to his tribal homeland. Moses persuades him to stay by offering him the same portion as everyone.  Treatment of everyone equally with justice is the main positive thesis.

Numbers 9:14 “And when a stranger who resides with you would offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord, he must offer it in accordance with the rules and rites of the Passover sacrifice. There shall be one law for you, whether stranger or citizen of the country.”

Numbers 15:14-15 “And when throughout the ages, a stranger who has taken up residence with you, or one who lives among you, would present an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord – as you do, so shall it be done by the rest of the congregation. There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time and throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before the Lord.”

Hobab, however, was not the only one who was discontented. Fires were set in the midst of the community by God. The burning and the looting were destructive expressions of discontent. The people then really cried out and the fires died down. However, the discontent had spread. The riffraff complained about the food – no meat, only manna. The Israelites had turned into regular whiners.  Moses could not take it. He asked to resign. God intervened and reorganized his duties so that the role of the courts and handing out judgments was transferred to 70 elders, 6 from each tribe, less Eldad and Medad. At the same time, God eased the cause of the discontent by providing plenty of meat. Provisioning by the welfare state in its earliest and simplistic expression became the norm.

Eldad and Medad began acting like prophets. While everyone expected Moses to be upset, he was not. However, when his older sister, jealous of Moses’ primacy, supported by Aaron, uttered a racial slur against his second wife, a Cushite, Moses called both Miriam and Aaron out. And God remonstrated them for not recognizing the uniqueness of Moses. Presumably, that is why Eldad and Medad could act like prophets but never be ones, while Miriam and Aaron were chosen as well as Moses by the Lord, but not to be Moses’ equal. Inequality in performance and duty was a reality but equality of treatment was an aspiration. Again, the punishment of exclusion from the camp is imposed, this time on Miriam. Even royalty cannot be spared from the hand of the law.

Then there is a much bigger rebellion. While all twelve princes of the tribes sent out to scout the land report back on its bounty, ten of them also report that the inhabitants who live there are formidable and protected by walled cities. Instead of infusing the people with courage, they depressed the morale. There could be no invasion. This time the punishment was widespread and extreme. Other than Caleb and Joshua who tried to inspire the people, the other leaders and all the members of the tribes over 20 years of age who gave into their fears were denied the right to enter the land and had to wander in the desert for forty years, though initially God threatened not to fulfil his promise to the Israelites at all. As was His pattern, God backed down in the face of incessant complaints, but only partially.

Korah is a different story of dissent again with even greater stakes and even more insightful revelations of the Torah political theory of rebellion and dissension versus solidarity and survival. Further, the punishment for the dissidents is extraordinary. Korah, a Levite and two descendants of the Reuben tribe lead 250 Israelites, including chiefs and men of repute – this was not a rebellion of the street – to challenge Moses and Aaron in their leadership roles. Like Miriam’s reprimand of Moses, the rebellion is instigated in the name of equality of status. Why are the two, Moss and Aaron, granted superior recognition?

The key is recognition by God, as was the case with the much more minor case of Miriam’s dissent. The Levites, though not priests, already had a superior status in the Tabernacle. Further, Dathan and Abirman would not even come to talk to Moses about their complaints and differences concerning Moses lording it over them. This time the rebels were not exorcised from the community. Rather, the community deserted them and left them isolated in their tents. As they emerged with their wives and children, they are swallowed up by the earth and destined for Sheol (Hades?). They with their wives and children are buried alive and vanish from the congregation of Israelites. Fire burned up the rest of the 250 rebels.

However, the Israelites were upset with Moses over what happened lest they too be subject to extreme punishment. They railed against Moses and Aaron. And once again God threatened to wipe them all out. But Moses and Aaron pleaded on their behalf and “made expiation for the people” as the plague spread among them. After 14,700 had died from that plague, much more than the 8,500 who have died from the Covid 19 plague in all of Canada, Moses and Aaron managed to isolate the community from further devastation.

Note the initial act in God’s dealing with Korah – burying him and his family alive, far worse than being burned alive by fire or killed in a plague. They die in the most unnatural of deaths to validate the leadership of Moses and Aaron as their own claims are vitiated. There is neither a slow death from a virus nor even a swifter death by fire, but one where their death cannot be observed and their process of dying mourned. Instead, the death itself is unseen and unlamented. There can be no bedside visits. And Moses and Aaron are given no chance to intervene as they do with the plague.

As we know from the current Covid 19 pandemic, plague is synonymous with separation, isolation and, to some degree, exile from the community. In the case of Korah and his partners in rebellion, they are isolated as well, but the community separates itself from them and, in effect, goes into a form of exile. Albert Camus understood this phenomenon. For the safest place in a plague is in a remote place – like the hamlet in south-central France, Panelier, where he fled in 1942 when both his lungs contracted tuberculosis, and where he wrote the bulk of his novel, The Plague, or the city of Oran in Algeria where Camus’ wife found refuge.

However, the hamlet was not only a refuge from a “plague.” It was a refuge for Jews, 3,500 of them, fleeing the hand of death that would be inflicted by the Nazis. They were issued false papers and given recognition as French. The Korah parashat is much more a story of salvation from the plague and salvation from the wrath of the universe than about the horror inflicted on Korah.

The parashat concerns the politics of solitude, the awful solitude and isolation of being disappeared versus the survival solitude of retreat from the fires and rages and storms of civilization to live for another day. As one fled the invasion of the disease even more than the invasion of the Nazis, there was suffering – food deprivation, long lines at stores to purchase items needed for survival and even, to some degree, one’s freedom as laws are introduced to force certain behaviour, such as wearing masks, to protect the rest of the community.

In Camus’ novel, a front-line health worker is both the narrator and, in one sense, the hero, Dr. Bernard Rieux (Camus’ version of Moses), a narrator based on a doctor in real life, Doctor Paul Riou. Like Moses, he was fearless and humble, totally lacking in pride even as he served his “divinely” ordained mission. Nor did he have an ounce of resentment against his enemy upstarts. It was as if he was immune from the virus of envy that plagued his critics and the dissenters in the community. Rather than a novel of powerlessness and existential absurdity, the allegory is really an expansion of the Korah story. Those who would organize attacks against the Nazis, the Korahs of the world, with the inevitable reprisals, are not the heroes but rather become the ones swallowed up by the Nazi killing machine.

Though these are stories of envy and enmity, rivalry and historical election, of isolation and exile, they are also stories of human solidarity. For that is Korah’s ultimate sin. It was he who set himself apart from the community while Moses was set apart by history and always retained his ultimate loyalty to the people and solidarity with them, especially when the community was threatened by forces beyond his control. The moral issue is about self-effacement versus arrogance and egoism, identification with the ordinary even when cast by history into extraordinary roles, kindness, empathy and consideration of others versus any self-interest or personal ambition. At the same time, Moses was not a pacifist. The treatment of Korah was not non-violent but, in fact, violated the most fundamental human obligation, to sit by the bedside of a loved one and offer succor and comfort. Moses was human-all-too-human as a leader. Korah aspired to be a hero.

The story of Krah can be read as a story of punishment, but also as a story of rescue, as the story of Moses in the continuing saga of his dedication to the rescue of the Jewish people. It is a story of solidarity even more than rebellion.

The Plot Against America

A week after aviation pioneer, Major Harold Geiger of the U.S. Army crashed his Airco DH.4 de Havilland plane in Pennsylvania, Charles Lindbergh (“Lucky Lindy”), at the age of 25, flying the “Spirit of St. Louis” from New York, landed in Paris thirty-three and a half hours later to a cheering crowd of 150,000, completing the first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean on 21 May 1927. Lindbergh was a believer in eugenics. In the same month as that famous flight, the U.S. Supreme Court (“Buck v. Bell”) had permitted the forced sterilization of “unfits” and Louis B. Mayer, just two days before the Berlin Stock Market crash, organized the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that would consolidate the new age of visual communications that began the process of turning novels into prequels for movies and television series. Philip Roth, the great American novelist, predicted that reading novels would become cultic as contemporaries over the following century gradually lost the ability to concentrate, focus and offer the devotion required in reading and books became a nostalgic throwback to an earlier era.  

Just after Lindbergh’s famous flight and just before his enormous New York ticker tape parade, Henry Ford, perhaps the most famous antisemite in America, produced the last Tin Lizzie, the famous black Model T Ford. Ford would become Vice-President in Lindbergh’s imaginary presidency in Philip Roth’s creeping apocalyptic and precautionary novel, The Plot Against America. The Japanese also invaded Manchuria in May 1938. It was an ominous month and year.

Charles Lindbergh became a great American hero. His autobiography, We, was a best seller. President Calvin Coolidge awarded him the first Distinguished Flying Cross. Invited to tour the German aircraft industry in 1936, Lindbergh reported to the American government that Germany was “now able to produce military aircraft faster than any European country; possibly faster even than the United States.” Lindbergh was awarded the Service Cross of the German Eagle by Hermann Goering on behalf of Adolf Hitler on 18 October 1938, when earlier in the same month Germany annexed the Sudetenland (one-third of Czechoslovakia), Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement formally ceding the territory to Germany and the German government required German Jews to have “J” stamped in their passports. In 1940, Hitler would name Goering Reichsmarschall des Grossdeutschen Reiches (Reich Marshal of the Greater German Reich).

On his return to the U.S. in April of 1939 just following the American recognition of the fascist, Francisco Franco, as the Spanish Dictator, just following Italy’s invasion of Albania and the Dutch government opening of Kamp Westerbork, a refugee camp for German Jews but built with Jewish community funds, Charles Lindbergh became an activist and isolationist and revealed explicitly that he was also a white supremacist and an antisemite. He became the leader of the America First movement. Joe Louis had just become heavyweight champion of the world.

“We can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood, only so long as we guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races.” So Lindbergh wrote in Reader’s Digest in 1939. In a speech that Lindbergh delivered in Des Moines, Iowa, in September 1941, he said that the “greatest danger to this country lies in their [the Jews’] large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.”

These words are repeated in a broadcast that Herman Levin listens to at the beginning of the 2020 six-episode series, The Plot Against America, on Crave and HBO TV based on the 2004 Philip Roth novel of the same name.  Levin in that same episode watches a newsreel that cites a poll, a real 1939 Roper poll, that sums up American opinion on Jews just when World War II had begun, a year after Kristallnacht. “Only thirty-nine percent of the respondents agreed that Jews should be treated like everyone else. Fifty-three percent believed that ‘Jews are different and should be restricted. And ten percent believed that Jews should be deported.”

Even though Franklin Roosevelt won the 1940 election in a landslide and Lindbergh never did run against him, Philip Roth’s imaginative alternative history in his novel, The Plot Against America, was not so far fetched. According to the great historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., according to Philip Roth, “there were some Republican isolationists who wanted to run Lindbergh for president in 1940.

Neither was Goodbye, Columbus, Roth’s first famous 1959 short debut novel that I read avidly when I wrote my first play, Root Out of Dry Ground, divorced from historical reality. The novel was also about a Jewish youth questioning the values, morals, religious sensibilities and identities of third generation North American Jews. That was my reality. Roth was five years older than I was. He was also a brilliant writer. I was not. Further, I have been a terrible prophet, whereas Philip Roth proved to be very prescient. (As well as The Plot Against America, read, for example, The Human Stain, that dealt so insightfully with American identity politics.) Roth died in 2018.

Herman Levin (Morgan Spector, the central figure in the series) was a Jewish fictional insurance agent who lived in the Weequahi neighbourhood of Newark, New Jersey where Philip Roth grew up. Herman has a wife, Bess (Zoe Kazan), the name of Roth’s mother, and two sons, Sandy (Caleb Malis) and, yes, Philip who was also born in 1933, the year of Philip Roth’s birth. Sandy (Sanford) was the name of Philip Roth’s older brother. Herman was also his father’s name. One presumes that Roth’s father was as passionate and full of conviction as Herman and that his mother was the solid steel backbone of the family with the common sense and realism of the character in the series.

Fiction can be reality. One cannot watch the protests of Black Lives Matter, one cannot help watching the antics of Donald Trump and his trust in his own instincts and pseudo-science, one cannot watch Donald Trump’s Jewish convert of a daughter, Ivanka, and his modern Orthodox son-in-law, Jared, attending state dinners and bathing in the celebrity lights, as the rabbi and Beth’s sister, Evelyn, both do in the novel and the TV series, and not identify with the crisis in America depicted by Roth. We binge watched the series over the last three evenings. It is a terrific production. It is relevant. It is devastating.

If Lindbergh was an American Firster, Herman Levin is a die-hard American. But the latter shares with Lindbergh, and with both Herman’s sons as well, a nostalgic longing in their quasi-secular Jewish home. At one point in the series, Herman stands up in a restaurant to challenge an antisemite and, in a beautiful voice, croons the sweet memories of Paul Dresser’s late nineteenth century ballad “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” though Herman has evidently never been to the heartland of America, Indiana in this case, and ostensibly fears and rejects its values. Herman at the beginning of the series donates money to a Jew who comes to his door to ask for money for the Jews of Palestine. His nephew, Alvin, calls Palestine the homeland of the Jews. When his son Philip (Azhy Robertson) innocently asks about that claim, his father, Herman, answers by insisting that America is their homeland. The series is about Herman and his family discovering that the claim is not quite true. According to Herman’s brother, Monty (David Krumholtz), Lindbergh’s leadership allowed the anti-Semites in America to “crawl out from under their rocks.”

In the series, the racists do just as they did in Charlottesville; they marched carrying lit torches and Nazi symbols and shouted, “Jews will not replace us” as they protested the efforts of Blacks to remove statues of defenders of slavery, former Confederate leaders. The American firsters have critics but also those who serve as apologists and enablers when they support Trump, just as Bess’s naïve sister, Evelyn (Wenona Ryder) and the mellifluous and obsequious Rabbi Bengelsdorf (John Turturro) became shameless self-serving allies of the Lindbergh administration in the mini-series.

I have a question for my readers though. Why is Sandy, the older son and budding brilliant sketch artist, such a critic of his father? Why is Sandy a quasi-admirer of Charles Lindbergh? Is it because his sketches try to nostalgically preserve what he sees? The portrayal came across as thoroughly plausible, but I could not connect his visual artistry with his political blindness. He does serve as a foil for his cousin, Alvin (Anthony Boyle), the impetuous, energetic and very committed activist totally opposed to Nazis and fascism. Is there a connection between visual but non-creative acuity, which Alvin admires and expresses through the new technology of radar, versus Sandy’s skills? Why does Alvin possess prescient political insight, on the one hand, and Sandy mindblindness on the other?

Perhaps my puzzle is compounded because the novel, like Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, Death of a Salesman, is, in good part, about historical change overwhelming ordinary people, while the David Simons and Ed Burns TV series The Plot Against America, is more about celebrating the blessings of democracy.

The Looming Annexation in the West Bank

The annexation of parts of the West Bank is looming in many of the senses connoted by that adjective:

  • The prospective political move, even if the first step is limited, is considered massive by both supporters and opponents of the move;
  • The announced timing for the initiative for 1 July is imminent but it may be just a symbolic declaration;
  • Annexation is as yet indistinct in at least three ways:

a) Extending sovereignty, not annexation, is promised; there is a debate over whether the definitions of each of the terms is a distinction without a difference; much of the discussion has been about extending Israeli sovereignty, that is, extending Israeli law to those areas of the West Bank where Jews live to displace the current mixture of military, Jordanian and Ottoman law; annexation is about defining borders not just extending the rule of law [see Einat Wilf in the current issue of Mosaic where he argues that annexation in the West Bank is about fixing the final borders of Israel]; in any case, extending sovereignty may be a final step towards annexation, but is not identical to it;

b) The U.S. has not submitted its final map for its peace plan that is intimately intertwined with the annexation prospect;

c) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has himself not presented his final proposed map to his political leadership partner, Benny Gantz, and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gabi Ashkenazi;

  • The annexation proposal has become politically magnified as well as threatening, not only to parts of the Western and most of the Arab world, but also to Benny Gantz himself as Netanyahu has allowed rumours to circulate that he will dissolve the partnership on one pretext or another, call an early election and ignore the agreement that, if he does call an election prematurely, Benny Gantz will become Interim Prime Minister, this at a time when Netanyahu and the Likud are more popular than ever before;
  • Though most of the defense and intelligence leadership, both existing and retired, seem to be convinced that going ahead with annexation in any of its proposed forms is a real and unnecessary security risk, both Gabi Ashkenazi, a former Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from 2007 to 2011, and Benny Gantz, the current Defence Minister, Alternate Prime Minister and Chief of General Staff of the IDF from 2011 to 2015, appear to support some version of annexation; 
  • The PA may not survive past September;
  • The proposal, for a number of reasons, including the phenomenal convolutions of any of the interim maps, is akin to viewing something through a glass darkly.

We know that 1 July is not a firm date. We know that if and when the annexation or extension of sovereignty proposal is submitted to the Knesset, it may propose implementation in stages. We know that the proposal may initially include only the large Jewish populated areas of the West Bank, namely only those, like Ma’ale Adumin, near Jerusalem, but perhaps also Gush Etzion and Ariel and even Modi’in Ilit and Givat Ze’ev, that is, the urban areas with most of the Jewish population in the West Bank. Blue and White Knesset members have tried to promote a staged annexation along these lines. Further, Netanyahu may limit the extension of Israeli law and sovereignty since the U.S. reputedly will only support annexation if Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz agrees with the initiative which he now appears to have done.

To make things even more complicated, the Yesha Council of the settlers (Mo’etzet Yesha, in Hebrew the acronym for Yehuda Shomron, Aza – Judea, Samaria and Gaza Council – the umbrella organization of municipal councils of the West Bank Jewish settlements) is busy amending the Trump peace plan with alternative road routes that would not isolate the Jewish settlements. In other words, we know how amorphous the proposed political action is at the same time how threatening it appears even if it only takes place in stages. Whatever the details of the plan, a slippery slope is created when the principle opposing a unilateral move by either side is breached.

The threats come from many directions, including the U.S. where the Democrats in the House of Representatives are working on a resolution to unanimously condemn such a move, meaning that Israel will have an opponent to annexation in the White House if Joe Biden is elected in November. Or is that so clear? For one, Biden will be preoccupied with other issues of central concern to the U.S. and he might want to balance a rapprochement with Iran on the nuclear deal with a softer voice on the rights of the Palestinians.  Or he might find that taking on the Saudis over the war in Yemen leaves little diplomatic and political capital available for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The disposition to avoid being tough on Israel goes back decades. Biden declared himself a Zionist almost thirty years ago, even though first elected in a state that was less than 1% Jewish. He has always supported direct negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis and mostly blamed the Palestinians for the failures in those negotiations. He criticized the Goldstone Report on Gaza and insisted on Israel’s right to defend itself from rockets from Gaza.  The general line in the Democratic Party is to defend Israel’s right to exist and to self-defence while diplomatically supporting Palestinian rights to self-determination and opposing, to different degrees, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Joe Biden is unlikely to offer any creative innovation – if that is possible – on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but will continue to pay lip service to an increasingly unlikelihood of the older version of a two-state solution and verbally oppose annexation. U.S.-Israeli mutual interests go too deep and include defence, support for Israel as a democratic state, intelligence cooperation, joint training and technology sharing. Biden is not likely to innovate, though he may and he could, invite greater involvement by the international community, particularly the EU, Israel’s largest trading partner. The bottom line is that annexation for its critics will not enhance Israeli security but will, on the contrary, undermine it. Shany Mor in Mosaic argues that pursuing annexation means missing other critical opportunities, particularly with Arab states.

The real political policy conflict in America on Israel/Palestine is being fought on the local level between progressive and moderate Democrats. The most prominent fight is between Elliot Engel, a 16-term Democratic congressman and chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, versus a strong challenger, Bronx middle school principal Jamaal Bowman. As of this morning, Engel appears to have lost. From the other direction, freshman Ilhan Omar in Minnesota is fending off a Democratic primary challenger, Antone Melton-Meaux, backed by the pro-Israel wing of the party. But the latter has only a half million dollars in campaign funds compared to Omar’s $3.4 million. Omar is expected to win in the August primary, though this year she only won the endorsement of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer Labor Party with 65% of the delegates. Nevertheless, the drift in the Democratic Party seems clear – a more critical stance against Israel and greater sympathy for the Palestinian cause. After all, Representative Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez, a severe critic of Israel, easily won her primary in New York’s 14th District.

Most Democrats support Israel but most also are opposed to Israel’s settlement and especially its proposed annexation policies. More importantly, under the pressure of increasing numbers of progressive delegates and candidates, there has been a noticeable shift towards greater support for the Palestinians and stronger criticism of Netanyahu, criticism enhanced because Netanyahu aligned himself so strongly with Donald Trump and the Republican Party. The key issues may become discrimination against Palestinians and enhanced support for Palestinian rights to self-determination.

At the same time, the majority of Jews in the U.S. also seem to be opposed to annexation, though Yitz Tendler in the Jerusalem Post (18 June 2020) contended that a majority of engaged American Jews supported annexation, as evidenced by the votes in the World Zionist Congress where the annexationists won an 80 to 69 win. However, even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) came out with an equivocal statement a month ago to gloss over diaspora divisions. The motion stated that it would be a mistake to allow annexation of parts of the West Bank should the initiative affect Israel-U.S. relations. But most non-engaged Jews oppose annexation.  In Canada, 58 prominent Jews who are strong supporters of Israel urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to speak out in opposition to annexation. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union of Reform Judaism in the U.S., expressed the belief in a webinar yesterday and in an article penned with Rabbi Hara Person (“Urge the Israeli Government Not to Carry Out Unilateral West Bank Annexation”) that this maximalist initiative is a turning point in Israeli-Jewish/American-Jewish relations because the annexation is unilateral, breaches the rights to self-determination of the Palestinians and is allegedly an immense step towards making Israel a non-democratic state in order to retain its Jewish character. Israel risks losing its moral stature, risks losing its position on the moral high ground when it surrenders, in spite of or because of Palestinian non-cooperation, holding out the prospect of a Palestinian state.

This has been a phenomenon around the world. This past shabat, the story is read about the 12 Biblical spies sent to assess the prospect of the Israelites acquiring the land of Israel. 10 reported back that the task was too formidable. (They are generally taken to task by most rabbinical interpreters.) There are a host of prognostications about the dangers of annexing parts of the West Bank, not just a military danger, but even more of a political and ethical one to Israel’s democracy. They include the following list just sent to me by the New Israel Fund of Canada:

“This letter [a full page ad in Ha’aretz] is another piece of a concerted global effort to stop Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, a move which would severely damage Israel’s democracy and make the unequal and discriminatory legal system in the West Bank formal and permanent. Examples include:

  • 400 Jewish academics, including NIF International Board President Prof. David Myers and NIFC Advisory Council members Prof. Mira Sucharov and Prof. Derek Penslar, signed a letter denouncing unilateral annexation as a “crime against humanity”.
  • 40 leading British Jewish figures sent a letter to the Israeli ambassador to the UK stating that unilateral annexation would pose an existential threat to Israel.
  • 58 former Canadian ministers and diplomats, including NIFC Advisory Council member and former Canadian ambassador to Israel Jon Allen, called on Prime Minister Trudeau to show stronger resistance to proposed Israeli annexation of the West Bank.
  • Over 250 international law scholars sent a letter to the Israeli government condemning Israel’s plan to annex the West Bank as a flagrant violation of international law.
  • Over 220 former IDF commanders and generals signed a letter calling upon Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi to prevent the government from taking any unilateral annexation measures.”

In addition to the opposition within Jewish ranks, the Arabs are certainly opposed. This is not a reference to the enemies of Israel – Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas – but to developing allies of the Jewish state. The most prominent spokesperson from the Gulf States was the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba, who, last Friday, in both a video in perfect English and in an op-ed in Hebrew in the newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, speaking directly to Israelis, warned against annexing any territory in the West Bank. “Annexation will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with UAE.” Yesterday, in his interview at the webinar run by the Israeli Policy Forum, he also expressed his concern with the mood of the street that could threaten the security of Arab regimes.

King Abdullah II of Jordan has refused to take any telephone calls from Netanyahu. The Jordan/Iraq border is viewed by many in the Israeli defence establishment as a much more important security border than the Jordan River and its security is threatened by annexation. Abdullah warned that, “Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank could lead to ‘a massive conflict’ between his country and the Jewish state and did not exclude the possibility of suspension of Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel if it proceeds with annexation.”

On the other hand, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash of Abu Dhabi, while disagreeing with Israel over Jerusalem and on the Palestinian issue, called for increased cooperation and open lines of communication with Israel and decoupling the Palestinian issue from mutual benefits in other fields. At the same time, Abu Dhabi opposed the plans for annexation. Clearly, for Abu Dhabi, though staunchly opposed, annexation would not spell the death of the recent rapprochement with Israel. “This unilateral step is illegal, undermines chances for peace and contradicts all efforts made by the international community to reach a lasting political solution in accordance with relevant international resolutions,” according to UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Understandably, the most severe Arab critic is Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank. He threatens to cease security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank and even possibly administration of the West Bank itself. He does so without promising to resume peace negotiations if plans for annexation are cancelled. He has already cut off all cooperation and communication, including cooperation on stemming the COVID 19 pandemic, and Israel has not passed on the taxes it collects on behalf of the PA. On the other hand, it does seem odd, even paradoxical, that the Palestinians can only declare a state following negotiations, but Israel could unilaterally annex 30% of the West Bank to expand its state.

Many Israeli defence and intelligence officials would dearly like to avoid Israel assuming responsibility for policing the Arab areas of the West Bank and do not believe that risking cooperation with the PA is reasonable given the likely downside. Abbas claimed that under the threat of annexation, he was absolved, “of all the agreements and understandings with the American and Israeli governments and of all the obligations based on these understandings and agreements, including the security ones.” Is he just shooting his own nation in the foot? Is he destroying or resurrecting the moral and humanitarian commitment of the United States to Palestinian self-determination by undermining the security relations with Israel and the U.S.?

Only the European Union (EU) threats do not touch on Israeli security because there is little muscle behind them, even though the EU is Israel’s largest trading partner. The EU only said that the 27-nation bloc would not recognize the annexation and not that relations or cooperation agreements would be endangered. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has expressed grave concern and alarm when the Palestinian Authority told the IICC that Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank would annul the Oslo Accords and all other bilateral agreements.  However, though the harm to public relations with the Europeans may be a risk worth taking for the right in Israel, is the potential of much more serious harm on all other fronts worth it?

So where is the gain, the annexation critics ask? The situation has been relatively stable for the last few years. That answer is clearer than the proposal. It secures Netanyahu’s legacy. Even though it does not satisfy the settler organizations, which demand annexation of all of the West Bank and the fulfillment of Menachem Begin’s 1977 promise to annex the entire West Bank, it does fulfil promises both Netanyahu and the Likud made in the last election to annex sections of the West Bank in accordance with the Trump Administration’s “Deal of the Century.” Presumably, or perhaps not so presumably, Netanyahu, who is traditionally risk averse, has concluded that the gains far outweigh the risks and that Israel will have no better opportunity than when Donald Trump is President of the United States. Based on the precedent of the annexation of East Jerusalem, Eugene Kontorovich, Director of George Mason University’s Center for International Law, makes the argument in detail in the current issue of Mosaic.

But look at the cost. For the first time in a major initiative involving security, the defence and intelligence apparatus of Israel has not been involved in making the plan or even been consulted. There has been no risk analysis attached to the plan. For such a significant move, the lack of process and a government-led study is astounding. In the past, the IDF always led the process, but in this case, the IDF has been marginalized. Even if sovereignty is extended to all of the 30% of the West Bank mentioned, it will mean a decline of security control of an additional 30%, for Israel now controls 60% of the West Bank. Israeli direct security control will be cut in half. The IDF and the intelligence services will have fewer resources to deal with the Syria, the Lebanon and the Gaza borders. There is also the risk to Israeli-diaspora relations, to U.S.-Israeli relations if Donald Trump loses, to the emerging friendships with the Arab Gulf States, to a virtual ally, Jordan, and to the security arrangements with Abbas in the West Bank as the IDF is preparing to handle anticipated riots and even the resumption of an intifada while Hamas has resumed shooting rockets into Israel.

I have not weighed the cost for Israel itself. The cost is not a risk of losing public support, for a majority of Israelis now support annexation of the large Jewish population centres in the West Bank. The cost is possibly to the long-term character of Israel. For the move will heighten the support among Palestinians for a one state solution, propelled in part because Netanyahu, contrary to his earlier position in 2009, promised his Likud faction that no government that he leads would ever recognize an independent Palestinian state even in principle. And, if Israel is to remain democratic and not become a version of an apartheid state, a one state solution will mean either that Israel absorbs 2.9 million Palestinians as citizens or it loses its character as a democratic state. The latter option seems to many as the more likely prospect, though many on the right argue that limited Palestinian autonomy will avoid both of these alternatives. Many even support this new version of a two-state solution which has the great advantage of removing veto power over a peace agreement from the Palestinians while, at the same time, demonstrating that non-cooperation only leads to future deals that are less generous.

Even though only 4% of the Israeli Jewish population think of annexation as a priority issue, the majority support the initiative because no one, neither Jew nor Palestinian, is forced to move. Both sides would have the next four years to negotiate permanent borders and the actual boundaries of sovereign political realms. Though there are dire warnings about a renewed intifada, most Israelis doubt it will take place since nothing on the ground will really change, except the legal framework under which the settlers live. However, certainly there is significant risk. For what real gains?

As with all things Israeli, only the future will tell for sure.

Canada and COVID-19: March to May 2020

On 3 March, my wife and I were scheduled to fly to Portugal and Spain for five weeks and then continue onto Israel for another two weeks to visit my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The trip did not take place. Not because we were aware of the coronavirus pandemic. At the end of February, we were even more oblivious of the threat than Canadian officials.

Fortunately, my youngest sons who live in British Columbia were not. Daniel insisted that we not go. He forbad us to go. “But,” we protested, “there are only two cases in Spain.” “Do you know what is going on in Italy? Do you know the rate at which it is spreading? Do you know how virulent it is?” His insistence wore us down. We finally, and most reluctantly, agreed to cancel the trip as we felt it was not fair to allow our children to worry about us.

We had not been convinced by the evidence they put before us or the arguments they offered. We were even in greater denial and less able to absorb the extant evidence than even the Canadian leadership. Besides, the main story was still the protests by the Wet’suwet’en Nation over the pipeline. There was a breakthrough and a proposed deal. The federal and B.C. governments agreed to recognize the hereditary governance system of the Wet’suwet’en Nation.

In the meanwhile, we were receiving requests to sign petitions to urge the government to take action. “Coronavirus is spreading rapidly across the world. So far, it has killed over 3,000 people and infected more than 90,000. Several countries have already implemented safety measures to protect against the spread of the deadly disease, including tightening border control and screening new arrivals for signs of the virus. Almost 10,000 people have signed this petition urging the Canadian government to step up prevention methods now to keep Canadians safe — will you add your name?” We did not sign. We should have. But we did cancel our trip.

Canadian health professionals had started issuing warnings. “Person-to-person spread of the coronavirus within Canada unrelated to travel to an outbreak region is inevitable,” experts said as they called for more aggressive testing. “You can slow it down, but you can’t stop it,” said Gardam, chief of staff at Toronto’s Humber River Hospital. “Local transmission is coming.”

However, the general context was not one in which the authorities were primarily concerned about our health. As they would be again in May, the major concerns were economic. This was true internationally as well as locally. “As the coronavirus’s effects on the economy continue to mount, political leaders and central bankers were starting to take action. The finance ministers of the G7 countries issued a joint statement saying, “they would ‘use all appropriate policy tools’ to try to contain the virus and its effect on the economy. (The virus has jittered markets, slowed manufacturing in China and put a dent in international travel.)”

By 4 March, the U.S. Federal Reserve cut its interest rate by 50 basis points. The Bank of Canada quickly followed the American lead. Dozens of Canadian businesses included new disclosures in their financial reports that outlined the impact coronavirus could have on their operations and the growing risks that could affect profits. Media reports carried warnings of a coming coronavirus recession. Health reports from around the world enhanced the growing panic.

In Washington state, six died. Reports suggested the virus has been circulating for at least six weeks. There were fears that the virus would spread to British Columbia. Ontario initiated “pilot” sites testing patients with flu-like symptoms for COVID-19. By early March, there were 27 confirmed Canadian cases – 18 in Ontario, 8 in B.C. and 1 in Quebec. Canadians abroad, specifically ones on the cruise ship Diamond Princess, tested positive for the virus. Hope had been abandoned that health authorities could contain the epidemic. Isolation and separation, testing, and tracing, new treatments and a new vaccine would help mitigate, slow and eventually stop the disease. But the possible devastation was incredible. Harvard University epidemiologist, Marc Lipsitch, forecast that without adequate interventions, an infection rate of 20-60% might result.  At a mortality rate of 1%, that would mean 30 million deaths.

The story had switched from complacency to near panic. On 7 March, B.C., Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who would soon become a household name because of her TV appearances, announced a COVID-19 outbreak at a long-term care home in North Vancouver after two residents were diagnosed with the virus. What a difference a week makes. As Thomas Homer-Dixon in a Globe and Mail op-ed observed, “What a difference seven days make. Shopping for groceries at a big box store near Victoria during the last week of February, I found nothing amiss. Shelves were well-stocked, people’s carts contained the regular assortment of necessities and goodies, and everyone seemed to be happily going about their daily lives. A week later, I stood in front of the same shelves, expecting to find them filled with the usual staples – flour, pulses, sugar and the like. But they’d been stripped bare. Now, shopping carts were groaning under giant bags of potatoes, stacks of packages of frozen chicken and large jugs of water. People kept their distance from each other in the aisles. No one was smiling.”

Neither was I. But for a very different reason. For the next three weeks at this crucial time when the worldwide total of coronavirus cases first exceeded 100,000, when many were being asked to stay home from work, when schools were closed, when large gatherings and events were cancelled, when face masks became a common sight and when 3,400 people across 90 nations had died, I was unable to follow the development of the COVID-19 story. I had suffered a heart arrest. Normally, less than 10% survive. Many who do have serious mental deficiencies. I was lucky. My wife was present. So was a stranger nearby who knew CPR. My wife called 911 and the ambulance happened to be two blocks away. Speed and action – and luck – can radically alter history, individual or collective.

A 4.5 hour operation rewired my heart. But my body had become infected – not with the virus, but with a bacterium that was never identified. It took three weeks to get the infection under control. My two youngest sons flew in from BC. They took turns being at my side as I whined about my pain and insisted that I would rather die. My eldest daughter flew in from India but had to spend two weeks in quarantine. However, by 26 March I was home in bed watching TV and obsessed with the coronavirus story. Finally, on 23 March the federal government announced a lockdown. But testing? Tracing?

I could not yet read about it since I still had difficulty comprehending, but I followed the tale obsessively on TV. It was certainly an escape from my own discomfort and pain. On 25 March, the Province of Ontario had announced an emergency plan. I got used to Justin Trudeau emerging out of his home in Ottawa and announcing a new economic relief initiative for Canadians. If my memory serves me correctly, when I began to follow the coronavirus story in detail, Ottawa had announced wage subsidies of up to 75% for small businesses.

At the same time, the Province of Ontario passed Bill 188, the Economic and Fiscal Outlook Act which was primarily about amendments being made to the Personal Health Information Protection Act which focused on personal privacy when information was being collected. In this effort to protect individual rights, there was nothing about individual responsibilities to the collectivity to protect our health. If the federal government concentrated its efforts on “welfare” programs, the largest provincial government was focused on privacy issues as organizations were permitted to collect personal data, but only with permission and with a system to prevent and detect unauthorized snooping.

Privacy protection is fine. However, was this a priority as a pandemic was about to take off? Was this a priority when “we were not doing well at all in the efforts to mitigate the disease itself,” when “testing was rare,” when “there was no tracing of those who came in contact with a person diagnosed with the disease”? Most embarrassing of all was “the severe shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for frontline health care workers.” Anyone with N95 masks was asked to donate them to Toronto hospitals. There were shortages of gowns, gloves, disinfectant and visors. At the end of the first week in April, the race was on to obtain the necessary protective gear for Canada’s front-line health workers. “It is really a Wild West when it comes to buying medical supplies right now,” Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said.

By the first of May, reports documented that Canada’s emergency stockpile of personal protective gear was ill-prepared for the pandemic and constituted a fraction of what was required. “The federal agency did not have a target for the levels of personal protective gear it should maintain in the stockpile, did not know what level of stockpiles the provinces and territories had and did not advise lower-level governments about how much should be stockpiled.” (Globe and Mail)

At the same time, it had become clear that a large number of coronavirus deaths were taking place in long-term care facilities, such as the Camilla Care Community nursing home. “Nursing homes account for 81 percent of the country’s covid-19 deaths,” according to Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer. However, Canadian officials were insisting that there were encouraging signs that the spread of the virus was slowing in many parts of Canada.

The problem is that Canada over April and May remained relatively complacent. On 23 May 2020, Nathaniel Basen published an interview in with David Fisman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health (“COVID-19: The week in review with epidemiologist David Fisman – May 17-22”) in which he emphasized the necessity of testing aggressively as a key to a healthy province that could also enjoy a reasonably rapid economic recovery. When asked why the same discussion recurs over and over again, he responded, “I am completely baffled. I’ve expressed some frustration over the past couple of days with some of the contacts I do have with the province, saying I’m not playing this game anymore. Various people reach out and ask for your opinion or ask for your work, and it disappears down a black hole.” That pithily sums up what has happened from the end of March through April and May.

The PPE crisis may have been resolved, but this had yet to be tested if another spike in infections emerged. But the issue of testing had not been resolved. Ontario repeatedly set a target of 16,000 tests per day – nowhere near the recommended number – and repeatedly missed that target. There was no tracing program or one under development where tracers were being hired and trained. There was, of course, no effective treatment or preventive vaccine. As Fisman said, “there doesn’t seem to be any clear strategic planning at the provincial level.” Instead, we had “dysfunctional messaging” and a failure to recognize that Toronto was the hot spot in the province.

Why was Canada stuck in second gear? Part of the problem is that our bureaucrats are trained for repeated routine behaviour and not trained to take action in the face of a crisis. Fisman suggested that, “if you’re surrounded by folks who are in the most important public-health fight of their careers, and they are proving again and again that they just cannot get the job done, then I think he has to find people who can get the job done.” But the problem may be systemic and not a matter of a choice of individuals. We did not, and still do not, insist that the responsibility of out leaders is to lead dynamically, with initiatives and sanctions that penalize those who endanger the health of the community. Rights. Privacy. Voluntary compliance – all these are part of the dysfunctional system of communication.

It is not as if we do not have a plethora of lessons from history going back to the second wave of the 1918 flu epidemic. Why has wearing a mask become a symbol of a culture war, much more in America than in Canada, but with plenty of evidence that there exist a significant minority of Canadians who believe that the requirement to wear a mask is an imposition on their individual freedom just as they once insisted that wearing a motorcycle helmet was as well? But wearing a mask is sensible and protects others. That is not difficult to grasp. Why should wearing a mask be a matter of individual volition? Because it offends our sense of independence and even masculinity? Because we do not want to be identified with “political correctness”? But the vast majority of Canadians and even Americans concur that wearing a face mask is a matter of public health rather than a matter of personal choice.

However, there was a huge gap between what we knew and what we did. Further, the extent of our ignorance was amazing. In mid-April, at the height of the disaster and the evidence of Canada’s poor performance, the approval rates for the Prime Minister and the provincial premiers soared. 74% of Canadians approved of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s performance, the highest level of approval ever recorded for the prime minister, at least 30 points higher than he received in last year’s election and 20 points higher than his best rating after first being elected in October 2015.

Rob Ford who was elected in Ontario with minority support and who enjoyed only a 25% approval rating at the end of 2019, enjoyed a 60% approval rating with only 15% disapproving of his performance. The Ontario government’s performance responding to the pandemic, its communication with the people, and its handling of the economy got the most positive reviews. And the federal Liberals and the provincial Conservatives were by-and-large operating out of the same play book. Was this result because we favour our leaders in a crisis or because Canada looks great compared to the Americans to the south of us? After all, on 22 May, the federal government said it would do more to help the provinces ramp up testing and tracing.  This could have been done four months earlier.

It was not.

(To be continued)

Canada and COVID-19 – February 2020

James Somers ended his excellent article on how American engineers responded to the COVID-19 crisis, more particularly, the shortage of ventilators (“Breathing Room: Engineers take on the ventilator shortage,” The New Yorker, 18 May 2020) with a quote from Michael Ryan, the executive director of health emergencies at WHO. Ryan stressed the importance of speed. “If you need to be right before you move, you will never win.”

Commentators have noted with favour the speed at which Vietnam, Taiwan and even South Korea responded to the COVID-19 crisis as a critical explanation of why their infection and death rates were so low in this pandemic. Canada, in contrast, I have suggested, acted with alacrity. One reason given for the speed of the response of the Asian countries is their experience with SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003. As a result of lessons learned from that new coronavirus epidemic that emerged out of Foshan, Guangdong, China, preparations were put in place for the future.

As Christopher Kirchhoff wrote in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, “Ebola Should Have Immunized the United States to the Coronavirus.” And even more acutely SARS in Canada, for Canada had its own SARS crisis. A Chinese woman returning from Hong Kong on 23 February 2003 died on 5 March. Eventually, 257 individuals in the Province of Ontario were infected.

The crisis in the ill-prepared Hoping Hospital in Taiwan where the hospital was sealed off with 1,000 patients inside in response to the SARS scare in April 2003 was an example of a panic reaction when there was an absence of preparation. Vietnam had a similar fright. A Chinese-American, Johnny Chen, carried the SARS virus to Hanoi where, when in the French Hospital, he infected 38 members of the staff. He died on 13 March.

The Asian states were determined never again to be caught unprepared. The COVID-19 crisis proved that they were not. Why was Canada seemingly caught unawares when it had its own terrible experience with SARS? Canada, too, had responded to the 2003 crisis with a provincial thorough investigation and a detailed report by Justice Archie Campbell and the federal government with the Naylor Report. The final report of the Ontario independent commission was completed in 2006. The Minister of Health and Long-Term Care made it public on 9 January 2007. The report documented how the SARS virus came into the Province of Ontario, spread and the inadequate response of the health authorities. The report documented the need to isolate and quarantine, to test and track contacts, how to work on treatments and vaccines, but the greatest stress and emphasis of the report was on the measures needed to protect public and health workers. Quality tested masks, gowns and other protective equipment had to be purchased and stockpiled.

Were these lessons learned and applied? What about the public reaction to a new epidemic scare? Were preparations in place. With the outbreak of COVID-129, some racist Canadians attacked Canadians of Chinese ancestry. Attention was also given to the airlift to extract Canadians from Wuhan. At the same time, public health research was referred to as supporting the Government refusal to ban travel. The federal government has decided to follow the WHO’s advice against travel bans. According to Health Minister Patty Hajdu on 3 February, “There isn’t evidence’ that they effectively contain viral outbreaks.”

Imposing a total travel ban on China was viewed as contrary to both Canadian foreign policy and a source of stimulating anti-China sentiment. China, in turn, referred to Canada as a bulwark of calm in response to the crisis. Andre Picard in The Globe and Mail on 4 February even questioned whether Canadians returning from Wuhan, in an unprecedented move, who were quarantined for 14 days at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, needed to be. He had clearly not read the Campbell Report and, it turned out, few had. Picard advised, “Canada hasn’t acted promptly, so at least it can do so smartly.” He argued that medically, quarantine was unnecessary but politically essential. “Politicians and public health officials have to be seen acting, even if their actions are not especially useful.”

However, the problem was not pretence but that officials were not acting sufficiently quickly and implementing what had been learned from prior experience. As Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada’s first chief public health officer and Deputy Minister of the Public Health Agency of Canada, wrote, in opposition to Picard at the same time, there was a dire need for public health specialists and expertise. “There are few things that focus the mind quite like the fear of contagion. With the emergence of a new coronavirus, the world is once again reminded of the outbreak of SARS in 2003.”

However, Butler-Jones insisted that, “Public health officials and governments across the country are responding quickly and diligently to the current outbreak, applying lessons from SARS.” If this were true, why the failure to introduce a travel ban? Why was there no systematic effort to document the poor state of our protective equipment and, more importantly, take action to redress the problem? Butler-Jones, while mentioning the Campbell Report, focussed on the federal Naylor Report response to the 2003 crisis which stressed communication, coordination and cooperation across jurisdictions.

After all, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and Public Health Ontari0 were created in response to SARS in 2003 and that proved crucial in stopping the HiN1 pandemic in 2009. Since then, however, “many governments seem to have forgotten those lessons as changes since 2014 have diminished the capacity of public health to prepare for and respond to new and inevitable threats, as well as to carry out their mandate to protect and promote health and prevent illness and injury.” Government offices have been fragmented and depleted. Generic public servants have replaced specialists. Economic management rather than resource expertise were placed at the forefront.

However, changes in the make-up and organization of the Canadian civil service were not the only problems. For why were the experts complacent even in light of past evidence and reports. The University of Toronto by the end of the first week in February had established a steering committee of senior administrators and infectious disease experts who announced that, “the risk in Canada is low.” A more serious concern was stigmatization and discrimination.

There was another problem. Most observers have attended to the economic crisis that followed the COVID-19 crisis. However, even before the crisis in early December, Statistics Canada revealed the loss of a staggering 71,200 jobs, the worst month since the Great Depression. The monthly consumer confidence index slumped to its lowest reading in three years. The fear of a made-in-Canada recession became extant.

Canada faced a real firestorm – fear of an even greater impact on an already endangered economy, especially in the tourist and oil and gas sectors. Fear of domestic tensions with racist overtones. In place, there was a bureaucracy more concerned with coordination and communication than taking action. While China, Taiwan and Vietnam were promoting dedication and sacrifice, Canadian officials were reassuring its citizens that there was little to worry about even as the lucrative Chinese tourist industry (750,000 the previous year) died overnight. The fear was economic, not health. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious-disease specialist and physician with the University of Toronto, advised that. “Travellers need to be aware of where they are going, how they are getting there and know the latest [travel] restrictions, but they don’t need to cancel trips or stop thinking about future ones.” Canadian tourists consoled themselves: “the decreased volume of tourists was a godsend as we encountered smaller lineups, less traffic and easier access to everything.”

Where was the real crisis in Canada located? – the Wet’suwet’en blockades that had brought the rail transportation system to an effective halt. Bruce Aylward, a renowned Canadian epidemiologist who led a team of experts to China to study the novel coronavirus on behalf of the World Health Organization, was still living in an echo chamber in which Canadians did not or would not listen to his insistence that an aggressive approach to managing and treating the disease was needed. By the end of February, Canadians began to fear that the new virus was past the point of being contained as Italy began collapsing both in terms of public health and in terms of its economy.

A woman in her 60s who recently travelled to Iran became the 5th person in Ontario, the 12th in Canada, with the coronavirus, and was at home in self-isolation. At the end of February, as the pandemic was about to assault Canada, there were still relatively few cases. However, epidemiologists saw what was coming. Instead of reassuring Canadians about the low risk, as they had largely been doing, they now urged immediate action, including:

  • Directives for walk-in clinics, policies on patient transfers and guidelines on the appropriate use of isolation rooms and masks.
  • Large-scale tests of people who visited clinics and hospitals to determine if and when the virus starts spreading in Canada.
  • Ensuring there are enough ventilators, an especially important treatment tool for people over the age of 65, who appear to experience the worst effects.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu changed her tune from reassurance to urging Canadians to prepare by ensuring they have an adequate supply of food and any prescription medications, and be vigilant about hand washing and staying at home when sick.

Why was Canada so complacent and passive as the COVID-19 crisis grew in January and came to world attention? Why did this complacency continue almost through all of February? We noted that the intelligence about contagious diseases had been tucked away in a small unit if the Defence Department. But defence itself as a whole had been grossly neglected. Canada was not only complacent about its security interests related to contagious diseases, but about all security matters, particularly those that arose in the Far East. 

In a commissioned research paper by the Canadian Department of Defence, “A MAPPING EXERCISE OF DND AND CF ACTIVITIES RELATED TO ASIA PACIFIC AND INDO PACIFIC SECURITY, 1990-2015,” at a time when security concerns, diplomacy, and governance, non-state and state institution building, security concerns and dialogue, were all bywords, at a time when China was being acknowledged as a major full player in the region, and when Canadian soft as well as hard policy was pivoting to Asia, ”there has been a noticeable decline (my italics) in the Canadian presence, never mind leadership.” By neglecting our interests and opportunities, we undermined Canada’s security interests, now most apparently in the health field. Canada just does not, and did not, sustain or maintain its commitments even in areas central to our security concerns. The authors (David Dewitt, Mary Young, Alex Brouse and Jinelle Piereder) of the report in the article they published in International Journal in 2018 (Vol. 73:1, 5–32) entitled their piece, “AWOL: Canada’s defence policy and presence in the Asia Pacific.” They concluded not simply that Canada was asleep at the switch, but that Canada was just not there. Canada was absent without leave.  In other words, complacency in Canada was a trademark rather than an aberration.

Many factors combined to reinforce Canadian inertia. The lessons from SARS in 2002 had not been institutionalized. The Canadian administration had been hollowed out of expertise; administrators with a primary preoccupation with budgets replaced the experts. Stress was placed on cooperation and coordination rather than action and initiative. Canadian leaders feared Chinese and anti-China prejudice more than COVID-19. They were even more fearful of the already looming economic downturn and did not want to face the economic disaster that would result from the COVID-19 crisis. Diplomatic priorities with China in foreign policy also took priority. Initiative, entrepreneurship and action were effectively undercut until the crisis loomed like a huge monster before Canadian leaders.

Canada and COVID-19: January 2020

Where does Canada stand in its handling of the pandemic crisis? The situation clearly is not as bad as America’s. Just past mid-May, Canada had 77,000 cases of COVID-19 with 5,782 deaths.  Two months later, on 11 July, the country had almost 108,000 cases and 8,783 deaths compared to America with 3,236,000 cases and 134,572 deaths, up from 1,520,000 cases and 89,932 deaths on 15 May. The U.S. doubled its cases over the last two months and increased the number of deaths by 50%. The Canadian case load increased 40% and the number of deaths by 52%. Thus, while a great deal of attention has been paid to the horrendous situation in the U.S and Canada has seemed in good shape comparatively, a close look at the figures indicate that Canada is increasing its number of cases at half the American rate but its death toll at roughly the same rate.

The U.S. has a population of 328.2 million people while Canada’s has only 37.6 million. That means that in absolute numbers relative to population, Canada has suffered about half as much from the pandemic as the U.S.

COVID-19 cases3,236,000   108,000
Cases per 1,0001.28
COVID-19 deaths 134,5728,783
Deaths per 100,000         35.623.4
Thus, although our rate of increase in cases is half the American rate, in absolute terms we have less than 30% of the number of American cases though one-third fewer deaths on the basis of population. However, if the American record was not such a complete disaster, Canada’s record would look like a horror show. 

This becomes clear if we compare the Canadian rate to that of South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam.  

Country Cases Deaths Cases/1000 Deaths/100,000
Canada 107,590 8,783 3.3 23.4
South Korea   13,479    299 .27 3
Taiwan        451        7 .04 .004
Vietnam        371        0 .004 0

In my accounts on Taiwan (more than half of Canada’s population), South Korea (1.5 times Canada’s population), and Vietnam (2.5 times our population), the number of cases over almost the same period, was 451 and 371 from Taiwan and Vietnam respectively and 13,479 in South Korea (versus 107,600 in Canada), while the number of deaths respectively were 7 and 0 with 299 in South Korea (versus 8,783 in Canada). There is no comparison between Taiwan and Vietnam compared to Canada. Even South Korea has been far more successful in handling the pandemic. It is only when Canada is compared to the United States that the Canadian record looks reasonably good.  

Why is Canada’s record, as much as it differs from the American one, so much closer to the experience of the USA rather than Taiwan and Vietnam and even South Korea? If we focus on the differences between Canada and the USA, some of the reasons are obvious. Canada was led by a reasonably articulate leader who paid attention to scientists. America was led by a buffoon. By and large, on this issue, in Canada, the ruling party and the opposition generally saw eye-to-eye. Conservative premiers were as rational as the federal prime minister. The United States has a raucous large minority opposed to government. The Canadian public generally trusts government. Canada has a universal health system revered by Canadians; America does not.  

But the differences go much deeper. The American right has a distrust of not only government, but of what it refers to as the deep state. As a result, there has been a much deeper hollowing out of government in America. The resulting chronic structural weaknesses and underinvestment in governance, compounded by Republican Party hostility to a federal bureaucracy, has meant that the capacity of the government to respond adequately to a health crisis had been severely compromised.  

Further, the American media also made a difference. Daily, the media are caught up in Donald Trump’s antics and media distractions, treating his clownish performances as news. Instead of covering the president as a performer, he is covered as a politician when he is simply a corrupt narcissist who is often downright stupid. Except, the American press remains generally obsequious to the office even when the occupant of that office is a fool, all in the name of “objectivity.” The media avoids pressing a case of manslaughter as a result of negligence.  

But none of this tells us why Canada, relative to the Asian country performances already analyzed, has performed so badly. Using my notes I took over the last three months, let me try to reconstruct and analyze the Canadian performance. Was Canada fast off the mark and, if not, why not? Did Canada develop a national strategy and a centralized authoritative agency to deal with the crisis? How did Canada handle the issue of providing adequate protective gear for its health professionals? What did Canada do about testing and about tracing in all its dimensions? Why did Canada opt for a lockdown and a stress on distancing and isolation? What has Canada done to advance treatment and a protective vaccine?  

At the end of December, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission in China reported a cluster of cases of pneumonia and soon identified a unique virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) went on an emergency footing. At the beginning of January as the news of the pandemic was creeping out of China, and the day after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had already created an “incident management system” and issued a travel notice for travelers to Wuhan, Hubei province, the Canadian media was understandably focused on the 63 Canadians among the 176 people killed when Ukrainian International Airlines flight UIA 752 was shot out of the sky by the Iranian military just after the plane took off from Tehran Airport on 8 January 2020. Justin Trudeau’s suggestion, implying that the plane crash was partially the result of escalating tensions in the region between America and Iran, though undiplomatic, was perhaps understandable.

However, the existence of a possible very virulent virus was already extant. I have not written about Hong Kong or Singapore, but on 4 January, the head of the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Infection, Ho Pak-eung, insisted that the city implement the strictest possible monitoring system for a mainland mystery new viral pneumonia expecting a surge in cases during the upcoming Chinese New Year. The Singapore Ministry of Health on 4 January reported the first suspected case of the “mystery Wuhan virus” in Singapore, involving a three-year-old girl from China who had traveled to Wuhan.  On 7 January, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had already created an “incident management system” and issued a travel notice for travelers to Wuhan, Hubei province.  

Further, media interest in Canada could have been expected since there were reports that China was silencing its scientists. Chinese authorities censored the hashtag #WuhanSARS. They began investigating anyone who was allegedly spreading misleading information about the outbreak on social media. On 10 January 2020, Li Wenliang, a Chinese ophthalmologist and coronavirus whistleblower, started having symptoms of a dry cough. He was summoned to the Wuhan Public Security Bureau and forced to sign an official confession promising to cease spreading false “rumors” regarding the coronavirus. “We solemnly warn you: If you keep being stubborn, with such impertinence, and continue this illegal activity, you will be brought to justice—is that understood?” Li signed. “Yes, I understand.”  On 12 January 2020, he started having a fever and was admitted to the hospital on 14 January 2020. He died on 7 February.  Only then did the Canadian press take notice.  

Why in mid-January was the Canadian media preoccupied with whether the Queen in Britain would allow Prince Harry and Meghan Markel to live part time in Canada and reporting virtually nothing about the virus? On 5 January, WHO had already published its first Disease Outbreak News for the world community on the new virus named novel coronavirus-infected pneumonia (NCIP), although, as yet, there was no risk assessment. By 10 January, WHO had issued a technical package of guidelines to countries on how to detect, test and manage potential cases. Based on experience with SARS and MERS and known modes of transmission of respiratory viruses, the guidelines covered infection and prevention controls to protect health workers, recommending droplet and contact precautions when caring for patients, and airborne precautions for aerosol generating procedures. Two days later, China published and shared the genetic sequence of COVID-19.   

On 14 January, based on the experience with SARS and MERS, WHO’s technical team suggested that among the 41 confirmed cases, some limited human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus, mainly through family members, could be expected. WHO warned that there was a risk of a possible wider outbreak. Very significantly, over a week later a small specialized Canadian military intelligence unit (MEDINT) began producing warnings and analyses. There was no indication that the intelligence reports were being widely distributed within government at the time. I could find no evidence that these reports were distributed to the media.  

America was much further ahead. On 3 January, Dr. George Gao from China was on vacation in the U.S. with his family and briefed US CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield on the severity of the virus. Redfield was rattled. By contrast, in Canada, other “more serious” items appeared in the press which in retrospect are the height of irony. Several items stand out. Boeing very reluctantly stopped its production of the 737 Max jet and probably saved billions. Trump appeared before the World Economic Forum in Davos calling climate change advocates “prophets of doom” while he celebrated American oil and gas production that would soon enough result in over-production and a drastic drop in prices. Meanwhile, the Canadian government had won its case before the Supreme Court against B.C.’s rejection of pipeline expansion.  

By the time President Trump’s impeachment trial had opened in Congress on 22 January, two days earlier the U.S. had confirmed its first cases of COVID-19, then called the Wuhan coronavirus. While Canada was preventing Meng Wanzheu of Huawei’s return to China and holding her for possible extradition to the U.S., the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had an emergency response system and activated it. America authorities were advised to step up airport health screenings and Trump stopped all flights from China.  

China had reported 453 cases and 9 deaths. Health authorities in China were given sweeping powers to initiate lockdown and quarantine prevention efforts. On 22 January, the World Health Organization (WHO) convened an Emergency Committee to assess whether the outbreak constituted a public health emergency of international concern. By 30 January 2020, after a meeting in China to better understand the context and international implications as well as exchange information, upon their return, the Executive Committee of WHO reconvened and advised the Director-General that the coronavirus outbreak constituted a Public Health Emergency of International Concern with 7,818 confirmed cases, dubbing the risk assessment very high for China and high for the rest of the world. By then at very least, Canada should have stood up and taken notice.  

On 16 January, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare reported its first case. Researchers from the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF) at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin developed a new laboratory assay to detect the novel coronavirus allowing suspected cases to be tested quickly. On 17 January, US CDC sent 100 border officers to three American airports to screen travelers coming from Wuhan, China. However, when Donald Trump was briefed by US HHS Secretary Alex Azar about the virus, Trump was more concerned with the question of when flavored vaping products would be back on the market. When US CDC learned from the Chinese on 10 January of the genetic sequence of the virus, it developed its own testing kit using three small genetic sequences instead of two used by Germany. Within weeks, the test kits were found to be defective because the third sequence, or “probe,” gave inconclusive results. CDC lost five weeks in developing its testing program.  

By the time of Trump’s impeachment, and after 300 confirmed diagnoses and 6 deaths had been reported in China, the Chinese cover up the spread of a new coronavirus ended. On 21 January, the Communist Party’s Central Political and Legal Commission called for the public to be kept informed and warned that deception could “turn a controllable natural disaster into a man-made disaster.” In the U.S., on the day the impeachment trial began, Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s foremost infectious disease expert, gave video news report on Voice of America.  

Data was quickly accumulating on the rapid spread of the disease, human-to-human transmission and a rapidly increasing rate of transmission. China shut down Wuhan with a total quarantine on 23 January and suspended its public transportation. But while the American experts were issuing alerts, at the Davos Forum Trump assured everyone that America had the problem under control and that “its going to be just fine.”  

The sense of the enhanced riskiness of this disease was growing by leaps and bounds. On 24 January, in Lancet, Chinese scientists established that people could be symptom free for a few days after being infected, thereby greatly increasing the rate of infection. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) ws strongly recommended for front line health workers. The disease had spread to Thailand, Australia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Japan and Singapore when Canada reported its first case in Toronto on 25 January.  

Governments should have been in panic mode. Gabriel Leung, Dean of the University of Hong Kong medical school, a world expert on SARS and viruses, offered nowcasts and forecasts of the coronavirus projecting that the true number of coronavirus infections was likely 10 time more than the official reported numbers and that draconian measures were needed to slow the progress. He predicted that the number of infections would exponentially peak in late April or May when there could be up to 100,000 new infections per day. The disease had spread to Austria, Romania, Ecuador, Fiji, Samoa, Poland, Mongolia, Switzerland, Germany, France, United Kingdom, Russia, Tibet, UAE, Brazil and who knew where else.   

While senior officials in the U.S. were on top of the crisis with dire warnings from its intelligence agencies, Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, initiated regular meetings and briefings on the virus, but Trump himself was dismissive. A senior medical adviser at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Dr. Carter Mecher, emailed public health experts in government and universities that, “The projected size of the outbreak already seems hard to believe.”  

As of 30 January, finally there was some substantive action in Canada. Air Canada halted direct flights to China following the federal government’s advisory to avoid non-essential travel to the mainland. In contrast, Trump’s economic adviser, Peter Navarro, even as Trump downplayed the crisis, warned that the virus could evolve “into a full-blown pandemic, imperiling the lives of millions of Americans.” Azar, Redfield and Fauci supported the travel ban because it could buy some time to put into place prevention and testing measures. Little did they know or recognize that the time bought in February would almost entirely be wasted.  

Meanwhile, in Canada, an op-ed appeared fearing the transportation cut-off to China would disrupt our agricultural trade with China. And the Canadian Health Minister, Patty Hajdu, not Donald Trump, was reassuring Canadians at the end of January that the risk to Canadians remained low. David McKeown, former medical officer of health for Toronto, advised Torontonians not to “let the coronavirus mutate into an epidemic of fear and panic.”  

However, on 29 January, the House Committee on Health began to discuss the threat. Better late than never. But was Canada just late? (to be continued)

Vietnam and COVID-19

In addition to Taiwan and South Korea, Vietnam was another country with an exceptional record in fighting the virus. But it is neither a democracy nor a prosperous country like South Korea or Taiwan. It is both an authoritarian and a developing state. With 96 million people, it has almost twice the population of South Korea and four times that of Taiwan. Its medical and hospital system is not well-developed. In 2018, there were only 8.6 doctors per ten thousand inhabitants in Vietnam compared to 25.4 in Canada and 23.3 in South Korea. Vietnam also had the major disadvantage that it actually bordered onto China.

Around the world as a result of the COVID-19 virus, as of today (12 July), there have been almost 555,00 deaths, up from 300,000 on May 15. Of those, about one quarter are Americans. In contrast, Vietnam has had only 369 confirmed cases, up from 288 on 15 May, from a world total of 12.24 million, and not a single death. 350 of those 369 cases have recovered. What accounts for Vietnam’s success?

Like Taiwan, South Korea and the U.S., COVID-19 spread to Vietnam in January. The following summarizes the initial spread.

  • 22 January – first two cases, a Chinese man travelling from Wuhan to Hanoi to visit his son who also developed the disease
  • 24 January – on the basis of only those two cases and reports from Wuhan, Vietnam activated its Emergency Epidemic Preventive Centre and the Civil Aviation Administration which cancelled all flights to and from Wuhan 
  • In the very prestigious weekly, New England Journal of Medicine, Vietnamese physicians immediately described the coagulopathic and antiphospholipid antibodies developed in the 69-year-old Chinese man, his son and a third identified case; this was the first report in a prestigious medical academic journal of human-to-human transmission outside China
  • 29 January, the Ministry of Health in Vietnam established 40 – yes 40 – mobile emergency response teams on stand-by to help detect, quarantine and trace contacts of suspected cases
  • Before the end of the month, 3 other cases had been identified, all Vietnamese nationals who had returned from Wuhan
  • 1 February, a 25-year-old Vietnamese woman who had direct contact with the father and son became the first case of domestic transmission
  • 2 February, a Vietnamese-American girl had become infected in a two-hour layover at Wuhan Airport
  • 2-4 February, a 20-year-old female and a 30-year old male, part of the first training team, were diagnosed with the illness; shortly after, another 29-year-old trainee was diagnosed
  • 7 February, with only 13 cases, Vietnam had cultured and isolated the virus in a lab – thus far, only Singapore, Australia, Japan and China had managed to do so
  • The 15th case was a 3-month-old grandchild of someone who contracted the disease through a contact on Lunar New Year; this was the 10th of 15 cases identified, all in Vinh Phuc Province
  • Vietnamese leaders quarantined the whole village of 10,000 of Son Loi, dividing the village into groups of 50 or so households for close monitoring
  • 3 March, the quarantine was removed when, after 20 days, no new cases were reported in Son Loi, but schools that had been closed in February remained closed until the end of March
  • The same day, Assoc. Prof. Dong Van Quyen, Deputy Director of the Institute of Biotechnology of the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, announced the completion of research and development of the SARS-CoV-2 detection kit; two days later,  the Vietnam Ministry of Science and Technology announced that it had a second test developed by the Military Medical Academy and Viet A Technology JSC.
  • On 6 March, a 26-year-old female returning from travelling across Europe tested positive for COVID-19; 200 people were tracked who had contact with the patient
  • By 7 March, Vietnam had a total of 18 cases as a 27-year-old Vietnamese in Ninh Binh Province returning from Daegu, South Korea, was diagnosed with COVID-19 as well as 2 cases in Hanoi discovered as a result of contact tracing
  • Vietnam introduced three levels for isolating cases: 1) self-isolation at home; 2) isolation in a central facility; 3) hospitalization
  • By 9 March, 11 more cases were tracked; all were foreigners, that had contact with the patient returning from South Korea and were now spread throughout the country
  • the next day, the first Vietnamese=originated case was traced, a 24-year-old Vietnamese woman who had just returned from England; she as well as a  British man on the same flight and a 51-year-old businesswoman returning from the United States via Qatar and Korea tested positive
  • On 11 March, 4 Vietnamese who were part of the same contact group were diagnosed
  • On 12 March, a 29-year-old tour guide in the contact group was diagnosed, 3 more a day later, and 3 two days  later; tracing was working very fast to identify and isolate infected patients directly or indirectly in contact with infected foreigners, a Vietnamese returning from Paris, a Vietnamese student who had been travelling across Europe, and a Czech national
  • The risk was coming from returnees, the most dangerous, a Muslim from the Cham minority who had attended a religious event in Malaysia and then the Jamiul Muslimin Mosque in Ho Chi Minh City before returning home to Ninh Thuân; that led to the quarantine of  the whole province and the closure of the mosque
  • In the next few days, 2 more patients were identified, one returning from the same religious event and one in contact with the infected patient
  • By 26 March 26 additional cases, almost all of returnees, were identified
  • By 22 April, the authorities had got on top of the epidemic with no new cases the previous week; however, when one new case was identified in Dong Van town, the whole province was locked down  
  • There appeared to be the first death on 4 May, but the man died of liver disease and the initial diagnosis had been incorrect
  • On 15 May, Vietnam confirmed 24 new cases, all of them from a repatriating flight from Russia; they were immediately quarantined
  • With no new cases by the beginning of June, Vietnam Airlines opened domestic flights
  • By 15 June, two months had passed without a single new confirmed case as a result of local transmission
  • On 25 June, the flight from Vietnam to Tokyo was resumed.

In February, Bill Gates published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine warning of this once-in-a century pandemic to insist not only on saving lives but on developing a system to respond appropriately to pandemics. Vietnam did this; the U.S.A. did not. In March, in that same journal, Anthony Fauci, H. Clifford Lane and Robert Redfield, who would soon become well known to the American and world public, identified the COVID-19 virus as the latest threat to global health caused by a novel coronavirus that is structurally related to the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Like SARS (2002 and 2003) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) (2012 to the present) — the Covid-19 outbreak, they warned, posed critical challenges for the public health, research, and medical communities of all countries. They pointed out that the median age of the patients was 59 years, with higher morbidity and mortality among the elderly and among those with coexisting conditions and that 56% of the patients were male.

But the learning curve about the virus is also apparent on re-reading the article today as these great authorities on infectious diseases noted that, “there were no cases in children younger than 15 years of age. Either children are less likely to become infected, which would have important epidemiologic implications, or their symptoms were so mild that their infection escaped detection, which has implications for the size of the denominator of total community infections.” As we now know, this eventually proved to be misleading.

Experts also reported a case fatality rate of less than 1% akin to severe seasonal influenza with a case fatality rate of approximately 0.1%, much lower than SARS or MERS with case fatality rates of 9 to 10% and 36%, respectively. As of today, the death rate of 133,000 of 3.1 million cases in the U.S., which had been 6% in mid-May, has now dropped to 4.2% with improved treatment. Clearly, the most expert voices in the world on infectious diseases were still underestimating the virulence of COVID-19. Further, the authors credited travel restrictions on China for helping slow the spread of the virus, though we now know that the first cases in the U.S. came from Europe, not China.  

The authors noted that, “Community spread in the United States could require a shift from containment to mitigation strategies such as social distancing in order to reduce transmission. Such strategies could include isolating ill persons (including voluntary isolation at home), school closures, and telecommuting where possible.” The authors did note that, “The Covid-19 outbreak is a stark reminder of the ongoing challenge of emerging and reemerging infectious pathogens and the need for constant surveillance, prompt diagnosis, and robust research to understand the basic biology of new organisms and our susceptibilities to them, as well as to develop effective countermeasures.” Unfortunately, the U.S. did not introduce constant surveillance, prompt diagnosis, robust research or a strategy of effective countermeasures. Vietnam, by contrast, did all of these.

The best illustration in Vietnam emerged in the second phase of the outbreak when community transmission became a prominent concern. On 6 March, a 26-year-old woman in Hanoi was diagnosed with the virus and immediately 200 persons who had close contact with the individual were traced, identified and tested. But most new cases remined those of returning travelers on flight VN0054. Most cases in the second phase were patients returning to Vietnam or in close touch with such returnees. Further, to demonstrate the concern and concentration of the government, the armed forces were deployed to patrol and enforce quarantine and other control measures so tracing and focus made up for Vietnam’s limited ability to undertake extensive testing.

There was no shutting down of the economy wiping out businesses and jobs. Instead, speed. A quick start, an even faster reaction time when cases were discovered, early development of detection kits, systematic tracing and identification, rigorous and thorough quarantining, isolation of hot spots or hot bubbles and the use of tweezers, large tweezers rather than a hammer, caution in opening schools and extreme caution in resuming international flights. Pluck carriers out of society, quarantine them and their contacts who were immediately traced and keep them at home or in isolation hotels. To repeat, emphasize science and scientific leadership, robust research, constant surveillance, prompt diagnosis, and a strategy of effective countermeasures.

Instead of underdetermination and granting license to individuals in the face of both a communal crisis and a challenge to which individuals were ill-equipped to make decisions, overdetermination and centralized planning, resource allocation and decision-making, decisions which erred always on the side of extreme caution. The strategy was not secret. Fast action. Effective action. Social distancing, limited testing, extensive tracing and the use of isolation. Swift, strict and focused responses. The political leadership was effective in implementation, communication and gaining the people’s trust.  

Vigilante Justice – Parashat Pinchas: Numbers 25:1 – 30:17

CORRECTION: Bob Rae is 71 not 74.

Loyalty was at stake. Israeli men were not only consorting with Moabite women, but also sacrificing to the Moabite god, Baal-peor. God was furious. He instructed Moses to impale the ringleaders in full view of the Lord. Moses instructed his officials to go even further and kill not just the ringleaders, but every single male who began to worship Baal-peor.

Nothing was initially said about Midianite women. After all, Moses’ first wife had been a Midianite. His father-in-law, Jethro, had been a Midianite priest and greatly contributed to the Israelite system if justice. Jethro’s son, Hobab, was a key scout in guiding the Israelites to the Promised Land. When an Israelite male went off to a bedchamber with a Midianite woman (Zimri, a Simeon “prince,” and Cozbi, daughter of a Midianite chieftain), the presumption was that the Midianites had become allies of Israel’s enemies, the Moabites. Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson and a priest, went in and stabbed both of them, through their bellies with the same spear.

However, Pinchas was not punished for killing two people who were not accused of worshiping another god at the time, seemingly only enjoying intercourse outside of marriage. Pinchas killed them without instructions to do so, and went beyond God’s orders to target only ringleaders. Instead of being punished for his fanaticism and extremism, as a result of Pinchas’ vigilante action, the Israelites were rewarded with a cessation of the plague after 24,000, or about 4% of the population, had died.  The reward for moral purity is evidently physical purification.

Further, God said that if it were not for the zealotry of Pinchas, He would have wiped all the Israelites from the face of the earth, a threat to which God reverts to time and time again. Pinchas the zealot and his descendants as priests personally received an additional award; they were guaranteed God’s friendship and support for time immemorial; they inherited the priesthood for all eternity. Priests were forever branded as the arch defenders of moral purity and cancel culture. Finally, God issued the order to assail and defeat the Midianites, not just the Moabites. God insisted that the Midianites were also worshipers of Peor. Was this possibly a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc? Was God justifying and rewarding Pinchas for his zealotry rather than the text offering any substantive explanation for that vigilante action? After all, Balaam, who was also targeted for extinction, had turned to praising God and the Israelites, but evidently to no avail.

Other than the huge commendation of what on the surface seems an extremist immoral action in the name of moral purity, there is another puzzle. By chapter 31, the Moabites seem to have been forgotten and God instructed the Israelites to “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites.” (Numbers 31:1) A thousand men are recruited from each of the tribes. Led by Pinchas, the twelve thousand slew every single Midianite male, including the five kings, as well as Balaam, the prophet who had praised the Hebrew God. “The Israelites took the women and children of the Midianites captive, and seized as booty all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth.” (Numbers 31:9) They burned their cities to the ground. And the Israelites did not suffer a single fatality.

Was Moses satisfied? Did he greet the military victors on their return with open arms and acclaim? No. He reprimanded them. But not for any reason liberals might approve of. Moses was angry because, “You spared every female.” (Chapter 31:15) The women were blamed for seducing the Israelite men. And, therefore, for striking the Israelites with the plague. Moses instructed the returning soldiers to kill all the male children and to slay all the Midianite women who had consorted with Israelites. Then they could cleanse themselves outside the camp for seven days. Only the Midianite virgins were to be saved and would be left alive, presumably to become enslaved.

God seemed to clearly endorse this action for He then gave instructions on how to divide the booty. Moses then made a deal with the Gadites, the Reubenites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, son of Joseph, and gave them the towns of Gilead and all the land east of the Jordan for raising cattle as long as those tribes provided shock troops to conquer the rest of Canaan without expecting any further reward. Those tribes first went on to defeat the Amorites on the east side of the Jordan River.

This is a tale about sexual dalliance with foreigners, backsliding in religious faith, personal vigilante action and murder by a zealot and the endorsement of mass murder that amounted to genocide. This was all in the name of worshipping God, following His instructions and serving Him faithfully as well as gaining ownership of the land through conquest.

Is there any other way to read the tale that is less unappetizing? Nehama Leibowitz was critical of Pinchas’ violence, his impetuous acting “on the spur of the moment, without trial, or offering previous warning, without legal testimony being heard, and in defiance of all of the procedures of judicial examination prescribed in the Torah.” (Studies in Bamidbar, 329). Pinchas took “the law into his own hands.” This lack of due process and unilateralism “constituted a dangerous precedent, from the social, moral and educational angles.” Why did God reward rather than punish Pinchas?

Pinchas is clearly an unusual priest, much more a man of action, indeed of rashness, rather than a man of reflection. He does not await the rule of law and the adjudication of the sinners who consorted with the Moabite women but, instead, was a vigilante who took the law into his own hands. Further, he was very impetuous. For the idolater and fornicator, Zimri, was bold in displaying what he was up to and took the Midianite woman into the tent to bed her in front of Moses and the whole congregation. A commentator even suggested that Pinchas in his zealotry threw Moses’ words right back at him – “One who is intimate with an Aramean woman is attacked by jealous avengers.” More importantly, Pinchas did not ask Moses for permission for what he was about to do. He just went into the tent and thrust the spear right through their two bellies.

However, this is not the case of the full war against the Midianites. That action follows God’s instructions. Then there is no unilateral vigilantism. What is the connection between Pinchas in the individual action ignoring the chain of command and, in fact, in being disrespectful to Moses, and, in the second case, of the full scale war against the Midianites acting only under orders but in the same absolutely violent matter, only this time on a collective scale?

Even as an impetuous action, Jewish commentators tend to applaud his extremism. Except! Except! Rabbinic commentators are a clever lot. See Talmud Y’rushalmi 9.7 which claims that Pinchas acted “against the will of the Sages.” How do you turn praise into criticism? One way is to asset that if the action was simply good, there would be no need for praise. Thus, the praise must have a different meaning. It was ironic. A man beats up a rabbinical student and another man sarcastically congratulates him for beating someone half his size. God’s irony is verified by God’s action – rewarding Pinchas with the eternal priesthood. It is as if God were saying, “If you are so righteous, if you are so high and mighty, then you, like Prometheus, are condemned to doing the same thing for the rest of your life. Not only you. But all your descendants until eternity. The reward becomes a punishment.

According to this inverted interpretation, the very absurdity of the latter promise is further evidence that the portion is ironic. If the comment and compliment had been straightforwardly sincere, then Pinchas would have been made a Brigadier-General, not a priest, at the very least second in command to Joshua whom God instructs Moses to name as the new commander and leader of the Israelites. In contrast, God made Pinchas a priest, inherently supposedly a man of peace, as Aaron had been, rather than a warrior. But Pinchas was a warrior for purity and zealotry.

Certainly, the inverted interpretation is clever. It is often tied to situational ethics that describe the Israelites as living in spiritual and existential peril, not only from their exposed position, not only from the age and weariness of their leadership, but for their apostasy. Radical change and quick action was needed. But this is a liberal apologetic uneasily married to an ironic interpretation. Except such an ironic interpretation makes no sense of the tone of the section or of the other passages. There is simply no sense of irony or sarcasm in the text. Pinchas did overstep his bounds. He did go a step further than even Moses and, in the process, ignored Moses altogether and acted unilaterally. But God certainly seemed pleased with Pinchas even though God had not instructed Pinchas to act that way.  

Was Pinchas righteous in the other direction, for taking the matter into his own hands, for breaking the behavioural norms and becoming a disrupter who forges a new and more radical militant ethos needed by a bunch of ex-slaves in order for them to become real warriors? The right thing really appears to be doing dirty deeds. Moses, even though he one ups God, does not one up Him enough. Moses is not ruthless enough, further proof that he no longer has the guts (חוּצפָּה), the chutzpah to lead the Israelites. He can mouth strong words and commands but does not take the responsibility for punishment into his own hands.

This section is not about the endorsement of peace or even about legislating the rules of just war. It is about all-out-war against male children and non-virgin women. It is about turning the Israelites into genocidaire for the sake of God. One can read the portion with the inverse meaning to satisfy one’s modern liberal conscience, but only by misrepresenting the divine and erasing how far God evolved and developed over the centuries. We are sill in the very early days of nation building.

Pinchas does not listen to any moral or practical reasoning. Pinchas does not allow any moral sensitivity to get in his way. Pinchas does not engage in any consequentialist thinking. He acts. He just acts, driven by his fury and self-righteousness. The only conscience he demonstrates is one that demands absolute loyalty to God and absolutely no loyalty to any other human, including Moses. He does what he feels he has to do without reflection, deliberation or presumably any qualms.

Pinchas is like the impatient screamers involved in current identity politics, tired of pussyfooting around or offering abstract gutless homilies. Moses is simply considered full of empty rhetoric, incapable of action. What is needed is someone who can plunge into the mud and wrestle with the unscrupulous other side on their own terms. Only, in Pinchas’ case, he is not urging the thought police on by his protests and actions, but challenging the thought police and insisting by his actions that extremism in the defense of Judaism is a duty, not an aberration. Pinchas has no time for conflicted liberals like myself.

Whether it is Jewish survival or the survival of the planet, Pinchas might argue, finger wagging and lecturing from the sidelines are useless. You have to get into the muck and exercise your will or wrestle on the same level with those who do so in the name of fairness and justice. No more wallowing in reasoned and subtle discussion. Action! That’s what God’s creativity is about for zealots. Pinchas, pen and chas, means lest we fall into sin. Pinchas means that “he had pity on my face,” that he acted to save the Israelite people from embarrassment before the eyes of God. Murder was justified in the name of spiritual purity and the survival and expansion of the Israelites.

Words are intended, not for debate, but for changing the world. And for changing the world in the direction of moral purity rather than free expression. This was certainly the view of Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli physician who murdered 29 Muslims and injured another 150 in the massacre in the mosque in Hebron. It was the view of Yigal Amir who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. This is the extreme rationale used to justify impassioned and barbarous behaviour in defence of one’s own beliefs.

It is also a rationale used to justify pre-emptive action rather than dithering, as in Israel’s pre-emptive strike in 1967 against the Egyptian military and its airfields, against the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and, just recently, against the Iranian Natanz uranium nuclear enrichment facilities. However, actions rather than words in the UN are also used to justify “irregular” settlement activity in the West Bank.

Further, the principle of fairness applies only to victors who must distribute the spoils of war in proportion to the population of each tribe. Even women, but only Hebrew women, must be treated fairly when it comes to their rights of inheritance. Given this evolution in political and legal theory, it should be no surprise that many if not most liberal commentaries focus on female egalitarianism and tend to ignore the issue of Pinchas’ zealotry and role in genocide.

Long live moral righteousness, zealotry, the quest for moral purity, and the effort to drive out and even murder heretics. Praise or surrender to mob cancel culture that puts equality on a pedestal – but equality within a restricted sphere for the former slaves demanding their place in the sun. Glory to moral purity rather than celebrate free expression. This is the meaning and message of Pinchas and no amount of twisted and clever exegesis can cover that up.

South Korea and COVID-19

South Korea has not done as well as Taiwan, but its record in fighting the disease seems exemplary relative to other countries. On 23 February when the total number of cases in the world was 78,000 with 76,000 in China (compared to the well over 11 million today), South Korea had over 600 confirmed cases and 5 deaths. Of the cases outside China, 691 were on one crew ship in Japan that was subsequently quarantined. Of the 600 Korean cases, the vast majority, at least 500 in Daegu and immediate environs, could be traced to the Shincheonji religious sect or cult, the “Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony.” 

By 10 April, South Korea had almost 10,500 cases and 204 deaths. According to Johns Hopkins University. By 10 May, South Korea had still only over 10,000 cases and only 256 deaths. 34 new coronavirus cases were reported in May when for a month the highest number of cases had been 39 and South Korea reported many days with zero cases. By 5 July, the total number of cases had risen to 13,091 but the death toll to 1,269, still a relatively small number compared to the almost 130,000 in the U.S. This meant that outside China, though South Korea initially looked pretty bad, by May seemed to gain total control. It has had a second spike but still looks good compared to the rest of the world, especially America.

Clearly, South Korea got control of the pandemic early in its sweep across world. With contact tracing, the 34 cases in May were all tied to three nightclubs and bars in the Itaewon district of Seoul and confirmed by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC). Seoul immediately ordered the closure of all bars and nightclubs in the area. A 29-year old male who had visited five nightclubs in the area on 1 May tested positive. It is estimated that he had contact with 1,500 others. Contact tracing became intense and eventually 54 cases, 43 nightclub patrons and 11 acquaintances of the owners. were traced to the event. However, there were bound to be others that showed up later if only because the Itaewon bar establishments cater to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities. Clientele and hate speech against LGBTQ people remained rampant. There was little incentive for disclosure.

What initially appeared to be the possibility of a new wave turned out to be a single hotspot. Containment through a rapid and thorough response suppressed the outbreak somewhat. Nevertheless, in spite of this success, President Moon Jae-in predicted a second wave and asked Koreans to be prepared as the country tried to enforce both strict safety standards while trying to restore normal daily lives to South Koreans. The plan to reopen schools on 13 May remained in place with a watching brief. And there was a second wave, but relative to other countries, a relatively small one.

South Korea, like Taiwan, was very quick off the mark. On 16 January 2020, South Korean biotech executive, Chun Jong-yoon, directed his lab to develop detection kits, kits which the U.S. could have adopted instead of its initial failed effort. Further, it almost immediately introduced a system of widespread testing establishing drive-through testing centres. Even more importantly, contact tracing under the authority of the KCDC was developed using a central tracking app that informed citizens of any known COVID-19 case within 100 metres. Phones and credit card data traced their prior movements and found their contacts. Those determined to have been near the infected individual received phone alerts with information about their prior movements. Identified infected individuals were required to go into isolation in government shelters and could be fined if they did not comply.

Thus, although South Korea and the U.S.A. identified their first cases on the same day, 20 January 2020, the U.S. with over six times the population of South Korea had 10 times more confirmed COVID-19 cases by mid-May. As of 12 May 2020, the U.S. had over 1.3 million cases (1,347,881) and over 80,000 (80,682) deaths, the rate doubling every twenty-one days. By 5 July, the number of cases across the world had grown to 11.3 million with 2,852,807 cases in the U.S. and the world death toll of 531,000 with almost 130,000 in America. Further, while South Korea had reduced its rate of new cases to one-tenth of the peak by mid-May, the number of new cases in the U.S. keeps rising. U.S. citizens with a population of 331,002,651 had a 5% mortality rate in mid-May and remained at 4.5% on 5 July compared to only a 0.13% normal flu mortality rate per year.

In contrast, in mid-May in South Korea with a population of 51,269,185 had a mortality rate of 2.4% but by 5 July the death rate had risen to almost 10% of cases. The number of cases were trending much lower but a greater percentage of those who contacted the disease were dying, perhaps because a number of deaths included people who had been suffering from COVID-19 for months.

The major difference for the relatively strong record of success in South Korea was the speed of initiative and thoroughness of action. By the end of January, South Korea had developed successful tests for the coronavirus. A week later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a coronavirus test developed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but it proved to be unreliable and unusable. It was a month later before the Americans had a successful test, but by then COVID-19 had a huge running head start.

The initial steps in South Korea are telling.

  • 20 January 35-year-old Chinese woman identified with the virus
  • 23 January, 55-year-old man who had worked in Wuhan identified
  • 26 January, a 54-year-old South Korean evidently crossed paths with the second case as he traveled to three restaurants, a hotel and a convenience store; all contacts were immediately traced and tested
  • 27 January, a 55-year old man who had returned from Wuhan
  • 30 January, a 32-year old South Korean who had worked in Wuhan until 24 January
  • 30 January, a 56-year old South Korean who had visited the same restaurant as the third patient above
  • 31 January, five more patients detected, each having caught the disease as a result of communal contact.

The next victims were returning travelers from Japan, Thailand and Singapore. But by mid-February, beginning with the church in Daegu, more incidents of communal infection emerged. The fact that by 19 February, the South Korean Department of Health could trace the source of the infection of over 100 victims identified was telling. Further, because of the huge infection rate from the Daegu church, Daegu was the only municipality that saw extensive closures of restaurants and stores while the rest of South Korea operated close to normality with the exception of large sports and entertainment events.

However, at the end of February, South Korea had 3,700 confirmed cases while the U.S., without testing, had only identified 74 cases. Further, because Trump announced that the disease was “like a miracle” going to disappear, production of tests developed very slowly. When the U.S. had finally tested 3,300 suspected cases, South Korea had tested over 94,000, 10,000 per day by the end of February when the U.S. was only beginning to get its act together.

By March when the disease was racing through the U.S., passing South Korea’s total number of cases by mid-March, South Korea had initiated not only widespread testing but tracing as well, enabling the country to find infections rather than just allow those infected to find hospitals. This prevented widespread community transmission. Further, in March South Korea guaranteed a minimum income to anyone whose life was upended by the pandemic – 454,500 South Korean won or US$371.63 per month. Economic security was made as important as physical security. When Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, boasted on 24 March that the U.S. had finally surpassed South Korea in the number of tests performed (830,000), only 1 in 400 was being tested while in South Korea, 1 of every 130 persons had been tested.

Americans did not trust their government which offered contradictory advice and pushed the professionals into the background. Contrast this with the relationship developed in South Korea between the government and a people which learned to trust and invest in good governance. Even more important than testing and tracing, South Korea practiced separation, not simply people standing five meters from another, but the focus on and separation of sick people from the rest of the healthy population.  Isolate in the grander sense was as important as test and trace. But undergirding the whole effort was a belief in and trust of government.

Raw politics do not enhance health policy. Second, South Korea’s Ministry of Health kept the citizenry fully informed every step of the way, both the steps being taken and the reasons for them. Further, the government trusted the public to comply. Like Taiwan, South Korea never required an almost complete lockdown. Citizens stayed home because it was the responsible thing to do. They washed hands. They wore masks. They kept their distance. Finally, South Korea has a powerful civic ethos and memory. The people remember MERS. They remember SARS. They know everyone in society is in the same fight. They have been collectively vaccinated to follow the government’s lead and fully cooperate in the effort to fight the pandemic.

However, South Korea was not utopia. Religious sects repeatedly undermined government efforts, not only in collecting together, but in adopting harmful methods of treatment, such as spraying salt water into the mouths of parishioners. In late February, there was a sudden jump in cases. “Patient 31” had participated in the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony Church in Daegu which taught that illness was a result of sin. Stupid politicians are not the only source of ignorance. Of 4,400 followers of the church, 544 contracted the disease by mid-February and by the third week, 1,261 of 9,336 parishioners were tested positive. There were 245,000 members of the church altogether and all were ordered forcibly tested.

On 6 February 2020, the U.S Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan federal government entity, issued a declaration stating, “USCIRF is concerned by reports that Shincheonji church members have been blamed for the spread of # coronavirus. We urge the South Korean government to condemn scapegoating and to respect religious freedom as it responds to the outbreak.” In addition to Willy Fautré, Director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, the Commission included Massimo Introvigne, Center for Studies of New Religions, Rosita Šorté, International Observatory of Human Rights of Refugees, Alessandro Amicarelli, Attorney, European Federation for Freedom of Belief and Marco Respinti, a journalist. Fautré criticized South Korean authorities for demonizing the church, for calling it a heretical movement that should be combatted, that taught its members to reject medical treatment, for sitting on the floor during religious services in an unhygienic way, and that Patient 31 abused a nurse in resisting treatment.

The Commission offered no evidence that South Korean authorities had demonized the church nor did it refute evidence that church members took into their own hands the use of unrecognized methods to treat the virus. Further, sitting in large numbers in such close quarters clearly, on the evidence of the infection rate, was unhygienic. Patient 31 may never have abused the nurse, but no evidence was offered that anyone in authority leveled such an accusation. Further, that 61-year-old woman in Daegu refused testing on two occasions and ended up infecting another 37 people. Members and direct acquaintances of the church group make up two-thirds of all COVID-19 cases.

Clearly, this supposed religious rights organization was eager to defend deviant behaviour in the name of religious rights even when that behaviour demonstrably threatened the health of the larger community and was a key reason South Korea did not match Taiwan in the low rate of infections. The law applies to everyone. Under the revised anti-infectious disease law, violators of demands for self-isolation can face up to a year in prison, a 10 million won fine, or, in the case of foreign passport holders, deportation.

In addition, non-South Koreans, especially Chinese, suffered from discrimination. In February 2020, an entrance to a South Korean restaurant in downtown Seoul reportedly had a sign in red Chinese characters stating: “No Chinese Allowed.” There were other “No Chinese” signs reported. Other businesses simply banned all foreigners. Foreigners who were not subscribed to government health insurance were not offered free masks. The main focus remained China. More than 760,000 South Korean signed a petition lobbying the government to ban Chinese tourists from entering the country

As the Oscar-winning film, Parasite, portrayed, income differences create wide life disparities that breed both social distrust and manipulation to foster self-survival.  However, in mid-February, when the director Boon Joon-ho returned to South Korea from Hollywood, he, like many other celebrities, set an example by promising to “wash [his] hands from now on, and participate in this movement to defeat coronavirus.”

What about the reactivation rate in South Korea which by April had emerged as a new problem? Was it because the virus remained active or because the immune system weakened or were the tests inadequate in capturing the presence of all the virus? Success does not mean all questions can be answered but only that a successful program is in place to attack new problems. The key difference between South Korea and Taiwan had been the existence of a large religious cult in South Korea responsible for almost 80% of cases, not the system South Korea had developed for attacking the spread of the disease. South Korea used very similar methods as Taiwan to contain the disease and is worthy of significant credit in fighting the worldwide pandemic.