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Dr. Binoy Kampmark is a senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University. He was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He is a contributing editor to CounterPunch and can be followed at @bkampmark.

University Bailouts, Funding and Coronavirus

In a set of stable circumstances, funding higher education should be a matter of automatic persuasion. If you want an educated populace, the taxpayer should muck in. In some countries, however, this venture is uneven. In the United Kingdom, the system remains divided, an echo of class stratification. In Australia, which took so many of its behavioural and policy cues from ancestral Britain, investment in public education as a measure of Gross Domestic Product does not stack up well, in real terms, with other countries of the OECD. Its school system is also something of a mild perversion – wealthy private schools receive millions as a windfall; state schools, short of equipment and facilities, starve and moulder.

This state of affairs is highly unsatisfactory, but it is one made worse by the governance of tertiary institutions that remains, at heart, anti-democratic and oligarchical. More to the point, they have lost their way, becoming beasts of private endeavour without enterprise; business driven without being entrepreneurial. Poor, even disastrous investment decisions have been made, most notably the foray into the international student market. This has often been done without a care about financial reserves or insurance that might cushion any precipitous fall in revenue. Notwithstanding this, university politburos are putting out feelers for bailouts and financial assistance. The begging bowl is doing the rounds.

In the United States, colleges have received a small slice – some $14bn of the multitrillion-dollar stimulus measure – to soften the blow caused by COVID-19. And some blow it has been, with LIU Post and Quinnipiac University laying off staff and the distinguished San Francisco Art Institute closing after a stint of 150 years. Of that, $6bn is in the form of student aid; $7.5bn goes to the institutions. The American Council on Education is none too pleased, claiming that the institutional portion is less than $8bn colleges and universities have spent in refunds and board charges. Sector-wide losses are predicted to come in at $50bn.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is an exception, having taken steps to insure itself against a sharp drop in Chinese student revenue. Moves were made in 2018 by the institution’s colleges of business and engineering to sign a three-year contract with an insurance broker to the value of $424,000, which would cover potential falls of revenue up to $60 million. As Jeff Brown, dean of the Gies College of Business explained at the time, the insurance would be “triggered” by a fall of 20 per cent in Chinese student revenue in a single year. “These triggers could be things like a visa restriction, a pandemic, a trade war – something like that that was outside our control.”

The picture before those seeking relief is not a good one. Combined with the characteristically shabby, ill-informed corporatism of the modern university, students in the higher education sector are receiving the attentions of an overworked and anxious teaching staff, many on sessional contracts, even as student fees feed the burgeoning managerial complex. And international student fees, varying from twice to three times the domestic rate, have proven irresistible, leading to a seemingly endless number of appointments in management, marketing and public relations. A logos-before-learning sentiment prevails.

In the United Kingdom, the question posed by the Financial Times over the weekend was whether universities are “too big to fail”. Student numbers have galloped away, with University College London finding itself with twice as many it had a decade ago (38,000) and Manchester University still mighty with 39,000. But this has not stopped the higher education sector’s call for a £7bn bailout. This has come with the rich assumption that universities, as a matter of course, will receive such assistance, assumed as given by such international ratings agencies as Moody’s. “It is not axiomatic,” retorts Baroness Cavendish, an adviser to the UK Department of Health and Social Care, “that UK taxpayers should now take on the financial risks of bridging what will be a shortlived hit to revenue – or without a quid pro quo.”

In 2018, the seasoned education specialist Sir Michael Barber, as head of the Office for Students, warned universities that they could not assume an automatic line of credit in the case of a financial crisis. “The OfS will not bail out providers in a financial difficulty,” reasoned Barber during the Wonkfest higher education festival in London. “This kind of thinking – not unlike the ‘too big to fail’ idea among the banks – will lead to poor-decision making and a lack of financial discipline, is inconsistent with the principle of university autonomy and is not in the students’ longer term interests.” In two words: too late.

This makes calls for more funding, or a bailout package, as sharp as a double-edged sword. Universities should receive generous funding from the public purse but there is also an expectation that such money be spent to advance the cause of education and the welfare of students, neither of which has featured much in the last decade. The Australian Labor Party, in traditional fashion, has fallen for the magic of higher education in its ideal, rarefied form rather than actual, grounded practice. That practice, which entails giving taxpayer insurance to cover the outcomes of shoddy decision making, is ignored.

For its part, the position of the Morrison government is best put by Senator James Paterson. Admittedly, it supplies an incomplete picture, and a disingenuous one at that. Nonetheless, it carries some weight. Despite being warned about the China risk, universities, claimed Paterson, “rode the cycle up”.  It was time for them to ride it down.

Inadvertently, the talk of protecting universities has started to resemble that of holding up financially imprudent banks. Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek, for instance, has warned of “serious concerns that without federal government action some leading institutions could collapse.” She proposes “low or no-cost loans to provide stability in coming months.” She misses a beat on the issue of financial folly. “For years, universities have used income from international education to help fund their world-leading research.” Such an equation is, if not false, then only a small part of it, ignoring the multi-million-dollar amounts expended on non-research and teaching related operations, notably the spread-sheet devotees of management.

With such circumstances in mind, it would surely be fitting for the university in general to start a process of considered self-examination or, as novelist Arundhati Roy suggests with sharp clarity, take advantage of the coronavirus to “break with the past and reimagine their world anew.” But what we find in certain marked instances is a hearty cri de coeur, a demand for financial padding that will tie things over. Worst of all, it is a call for generous insurance without a promise of change and without condition. Woe to the students, the sessional staff and the frontline academics.

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Boastful Pay Cuts: The Coronavirus Incentive

It has become a source of pride. Highly salaried executives – often, it should be said, receiving pay very much disconnected from the value of their work – making voluntary pay cuts and telling everybody else about it. In sport, celebrated figures such as Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo have chosen to reduce their enormous pay packages for the sake of the game. Both play for football leagues in Spain and Italy, countries ravaged by COVID-19, and both earn amounts reputedly coming in at $100 million a year. Such sums are scandalous to begin with, but it enables a sort of virtue to be practised, the sort that leaves few scares. Clubs such as Barcelona and Juventus host an army of non-playing employees, and such armies risk being culled.

This point is being demonstrated with some force in the United Kingdom, where handsomely paid players in the English Premier League have resisted calls to be virtuous in parting with their own cash in covering the fees of club staff. One figure keen to shout the message to do more is health secretary Matt Hancock. “Given the sacrifices many people are making, the first thing PL footballers can do is make a contribution.”

Julian Knight, chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee, also had a bone to pick with the Premier League, writing a scolding note to its chief executive Richard Masters about potentially misusing the job retention scheme. “The purpose of the coronavirus job retention scheme is not to support the economics of Premier League clubs.”

The targets of economic pain have, inevitably, been the staff and personnel who do not find themselves kicking a ball on the pitch. Clubs such as Tottenham have furloughed non-playing employees. Newcastle was first out of the box, reducing the salaries of non-playing staff by 20 per cent. This sent a rather ugly message: If you are not a performer on the field, you will be targets of convenience for the financial razor gangs.

Scratching the surface, and we find dissatisfied players such as Andros Townsend, a member of the English football team, none too keen to be either noble or a target of virtue. “Football,” he pleaded on talkSPORT, “is trying to do a lot of good.” He found it surprising that footballers were “being painted as villains”. (Tool Townsend might be; sharp, he is not.) Reductions in his own salary, and those of his peers, was something he preferred to avoid in the discussion. The focus was on charitable good works, helping the homeless or donating to charities. “I am involved in a campaign, Football United, raising money for the emergency trust.” A toast, then, to his achievements.

The pattern is repeated among other football players who prefer to raise money from the public to support what are, already, publically funded facilities. Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, for instance, is engaged in establishing a coronavirus fund with the purpose of raising millions of pounds for the National Health Service. The public can pay for something they already pay for, a truly innovative form of charity.

Across industries, the principle of superfluousness is coming to the fore. The mightily salaried are making claims of reduction to gain a seat in some heavenly kingdom. In doing so, they hope that no one will notice a cardinal fact: that the cuts are only to the base salary rather than the whole remuneration package. This has been particularly so in the airline industry, where executives are kitting themselves out in the vestments of a newly found morality. British Airways CEO Willie Walsh is accepting a 20 per cent pay cut for the remainder of his contract with International Airlines Group. Australian airline Qantas has also stormed up the ranks of virtue, with Alan Joyce taking no salary for the rest of the financial year ending in June 2020, while the executive management team accept a 30 per cent pay cut. Before shedding joyful tears for such consideration, Joyce’s rich rewards from the company should not be forgotten. According to the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors, his pay for 2018 was $23.88 million.

Few, in other words, should rush to join the self-congratulatory party. Delta CEO Ed Bastian’s base salary is $891,667, which he accordingly intends to cut “by 100 per cent through the next six months.” That constitutes a trifling 6 per cent of his mammoth $14.9 million compensation package. As Ethan Wolff-Mann of Yahoo Finance notes, that rich package consists of “stock awards, option awards, and other types of compensation that aren’t connected to the company’s stock price.” Shares, rather than salary, make the difference.

The picture looks equally seedy in the world of education, where the management heavies continue to bleed university budgets. In Australia, La Trobe University executives, self-termed “leaders”, have embarked on a process of trimming their bloated salaries. Senior executives who form a 12-strong group have been asked to cede 20 per cent of their pay packets “in the interest of minimising the economic impact of the crisis”. Vice-chancellor John Dewar explains the reasoning: “While the impacts at La Trobe may not be as severe as some other Australian universities, we will soon be facing a simple choice: ‘share the pain’ across the organisation’s staff or implement a significant cost cutting exercise.” Given how executive leadership imperilled the Australian tertiary system by overly investing in the foreign student market, they might do a little more than.

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Dangerous Gifts: Coronavirus and Trump’s Sanctions Regime

The global effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic has been one of stutters and staggers. There are go-it-alone instances of severity, and cases of blasé indifference. State ministers and leaders have not escaped the chance to demonise and point accusing fingers. Each crisis will garner its share of demagogues.

In the United States, the sense of confusion and disunity on how best to respond to COVID-19 is palpable. On the domestic front, President Donald Trump has proven to be a constant shape changer on the subject, minimising risks with rhetorical abandon, finding culprits with some eagerness and suggesting off the cuff mass quarantines. Policy is being made on the hop.

This approach won him one fan, with the director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, praising him for what most would regard as incoherent “leadership”. It could well be that the WHO chief is angling for a lucrative appointment after the pandemic’s passing, with the blessing of the US government. This would explain the crawling ingratiation, for “fighting this pandemic needs political commitment and commitment at the highest level possible.”

The blueprint for erratic response is also evident in the foreign policy of the Trump administration. On one level, little has changed. Sanctions remain in place against Iran, Syria, Cuba and Venezuela. The business of cruelty must go on like a tired, murderous show.

A halt to that show has been demanded by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver. “The continued imposition of crippling economic sanctions on Syria, Venezuela, Iran, Cuba and, to a lesser degree, Zimbabwe, to name the most prominent instances, severely undermines the ordinary citizens’ fundamental right to sufficient and adequate food.” The UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has also called for the lifting of sanctions “to avoid the collapse of any country’s medical system.” Sanctions were vicious obstacles standing in the way of importing medical supplies.

Similar calls have also been issued in the United States itself, including a March 31 letter signed by 34 members of Congress addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. “Rather than continue to invoke new sanctions in the Iranian people’s hour of need, we urge you to substantially suspend sanctions on Iran during this global public health emergency in a humanitarian gesture to the Iranian people to better enable them to fight the virus.”

Confusion on policy and how it should change to cope with COVID-19 also reigns at the US State Department, where Pompeo rules the roost. He claims that the US has been a very good international citizen in several respects, offering a generous hand to countries in crisis. “We’ve worked to try and get assistance into North Korea. We’ve made offers of assistance to Iran. You’ll recall when we first began, we worked diligently in Venezuela to get humanitarian assistance to the Venezuelan people as well.”

Rarely has that phrase from Virgil’s Aeneid (II, 49) been more apt: “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.” The modern Greeks bearing gifts have assumed the form of representatives drawn from the US imperium, and one should best be wary of them.

This has certainly been the case for Iran, whose response to Washington was rather Virgilian in flavour. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in rejecting US advances for assistance, suggested that the Great Satan had a devious plan. “You might send people as doctors and therapists, maybe they would want to come here and see the effect of the poison they have produced in person.” He also added at the time, for good measure, that he felt COVID-19, having been supposedly cultivated in US laboratories, was “specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians which they have obtained through different means.”

Much of this is positively batty, but the response is unsurprising given the addiction to sanctions Pompeo seems to suffer from. Those have had a devastating effect on the country’s health system, enfeebling it. With Iran being in the big league of coronavirus sufferers, offers of aid are bound to be viewed with suspicion, the actions of a deranged sadomasochist.

When confronted with the issue of being more generous on sanctions against Iran, Pompeo’s response has been formulaic and predictable. As he stated on March 20, US sanctions do not cover medical and humanitarian items. On Tuesday, when asked if the US position was etched in stone, Pompeo’s answer was trite. “We evaluate all of our policies constantly, so the answer is – would we ever rethink? – Of course.”

For Venezuela, the possibility of lifting US sanctions is being toyed with. But any such measure comes with strings, more appropriately shackles, attached. The Trump administration has the obstinate government of Nicolás Maduro in its sights. On March 26, the US Department of Justice charged Maduro, whose presidential status Washington refuses to recognise, and 14 senior officials, with “narco-terrorism”. The softening of sanctions has been parcelled up with an incentive to meddle in Venezuelan politics, using what Pompeo terms a “Democratic Transition Framework”. This would involve Maduro stepping aside for a transitional government led by Juan Guaidó ahead of elections. A “sequenced exit path” from US sanctions would be followed.

Pompeo’s approach on assistance has been framed in a manner reminiscent of President Woodrow Wilson: shun the leader but celebrate the people; caged in their beating hearts is a free-spirited American waiting to spring out. It has been an approach steeped in difficulty and hypocrisy, and one the Trump administration continues to practice. “We care more often about the people in those countries than their own leaders do,” reasons Pompeo. “That’s sad. That’s a reflection of those regimes, too often. It’s the reason, in fact, that we’re working to help these people raise up in their countries; so that they can get a better outcome for themselves.” A questionable premise. As the doomed Trojans found out in accepting the gift of a large wooden horse, Washington’s generosity is likely to be dangerous and appropriately feared.

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Signing in and Dropping Out: Coronavirus and the Virtual University

It was made with little thought but a good deal of high-minded urgency: Evacuate your office, take what you can, and prepare for the virtual world. Fill in a form, tell us if you actually pinched the office computer. This was the message that was sent to academic staff across Australia in the second half of March. Australian universities were effectively going into lockdown as a response to directives by the federal and state governments. The objective: to plan for the Virtual University.

For the most part, the execution was typically shabby. In one university’s case, a mere 24-hour notice was given to all staff, a feeble account that meant that much material remains in offices, inaccessible except through lengthy pleas to security staff. In this hurried exercise, no allowances were provided to assist the move of necessary equipment and supplies. In other cases, there were delays in implementing the “shutdown”. Campuses remained opened in some instances, though various parts were sealed. Libraries at the University of Melbourne, by way of example, were open even as staff were discouraged from coming onto campus.

The university lockdowns have given a push along to the cost-cutting iconoclasts of higher education. Imagine a world where the wings of a teacher are clipped, making that misnomer called student-centred learning an absolute? Forget the fogey in the front, musing on the Socratic method of instruction, the peripatetic walk. Welcome the person before the screen, with a domestic backdrop. What a cosy world.

Often ignored in online teaching is not the method but the implication, that grand vision which envisages the elimination of the in-class pedagogue who needs space and podium. The same goes for students who are told that they will have a particular experience in class, their physical presence being necessary along the way. With universities looking at every chance to minimise costs while pretending to deliver a certain quality, of course, the policy here is clear: coronavirus is an opportunity to clear the decks and thin the ranks.

The courses of a virtual university are cheaper to deliver and a blessing to the tyrants of the property services wing of the university. Higher education institutions, certainly in Australia, have shown a legendary indifference to students. Far better to have a bloated Human Resources department that serves as bullying dragoons for University management. Best listen to what they say in Property Services because they know all about the learning and research environment. (An example of such deep learning from the drones in PS is the dogmatic, and continued embrace, of open planning as a suitable environment for teaching and research staff.)

Those backing the Virtual University have suddenly found themselves in clover.  Psychologists Annie Ditta and Liz Davis at the University of California, Riverside, have made a splash by creating online tutorials using the video conferencing service Zoom.  They insist – and here’s the rub –on “bite-size pieces” in how to use Zoom and cognate facilities. Fittingly enough, online tutorials on how to use an online instruction or communication service are themselves trimmed of fat and length. “It would be easy to go on for 25 or 30 minutes in one lecture,” suggests Davis, “and that’s too much.  People will tune out.” And, perhaps, drop out.

Then come the words of wisdom from those who speak, not from the summitry of teaching but from the low point of management speak. Pauline Taylor-Guy of the Australian Council for Educational Research and Annie-Marie Chase of the Australian Council for Educational Research have fighting words in The Conversation. They are convinced: “When done right, online learning can actually be as effective as face-to-face education.” There you have it; conviction, writ large, no debates accepted, especially the contrary view that some courses should never be taught online.

These wise heads, who may well have lost connection with what an actual classroom looks or feels like, with the tart smell of the whiteboard or the worn appearance of chairs and desks, take a shot at the Australian university system for not having “upskilled their staff to deliver this kind of quality online education.” Many university instructors merely upload material to online learning platforms, rather than engaging them. And, silly creatures, they have no experience of “online course design and pedagogy.”

But Taylor-Guy and Chase are quick to reveal their angle. Not giving “intensive upskilling to lectures to deliver online classes and support effectively, they might see students disengaging and dropping out early.” Ways of keeping interest are available: the use of online discussion boards, chat rooms and the replication of “small group work in tutorials.”

A far better appraisal would be to suggest blended environments and the good eggs, few as they are in higher education will consider this in a post-ravaged landscape of COVID-19. Till then, it is worth reflecting that the online platform has become an often brain-deadening pre-requisite for any course. What’s not on it, does not exist. I platform, therefore I exist. To use a whiteboard and expect students to actually take notes is now considered something of a mild heresy, if not an anachronism deserving of the rack. The decline of note-taking as an art is lamentable, and to be mourned alongside the introduction of such terms as “workshopping” and “lectorial”.

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The Swedish Alternative: Coronavirus as a Grand Gamble

As draconian lock-downs, punitive regimes and surveillance become the norm of the coronavirus world, Sweden has treaded more softly in the field. This is certainly in contrast to its Scandinavian cousins, Denmark and Norway. The rudiments of a life uninterrupted generally remain in place. Cafes, restaurants and shops, for the most part, remain open and stocked. As do gyms and cinemas. Vibrant after-ski parties persist, much to the bemused horror of those across the border.

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, embracing the principle of voluntariness over coercion, has issued warnings to citizens to keep travel down to a minimum, avoiding anything non-essential. The traditional age group – those over 70 – have been told to mind their movements and stay at home. In the prime minister’s words during a televised speech, “Us adults need to be exactly that: adults. Not spread panic or rumours. No one is alone in this crisis, but each person carries a heavy responsibility.”

Despite all of this, Sweden’s authorities show that they do have a foot on the brake, albeit one applied with slow motion caution. Gatherings used to be limited to 500 – that confidently embraced number has now been reduced to 50, a measure that will be policed. Bars can only provide table service. Colleges and universities have moved to a virtual format in line with recommendations issued on March 18.

But the Public Health Agency exerts a powerful influence, insisting that a lockdown is simply unwarranted. Local sports tournaments and matches required no cancellations – exercise and sports were healthy initiatives. Organisers of events and seminars were responsible for conducting a risk assessment and providing information “about good hand hygiene, and access to hand washing facilities for all participants.”

The focus, rather, is on individual initiative, minimising instances of transmission while herd immunity builds up, or a vaccine is found. If over 70, avoid using public transport, shopping in supermarkets, visiting areas of congregation. “Instead, ask friends, family or neighbours to do your shopping etc.” Work from home, if you can. “This is to decrease the speed of transmission and the number of people needing hospital care.”

Central to such recommendations is a modelling game. As with all such games, risks abound. The go-easy approach has certainly caused little alarm in the country; if anything, it has given the Social Democrats a hearty boost. The wisdom of authorities is generally taken for granted, suggesting the customary, even awesome power of the Swedish civil service. The eggheads remain in charge.

The Swedish example shows a differing approach to measurement, which invariably involves looking at a crystal ball of sorts. Paul Franks and Peter Nilsson, both epidemiologists based at Lund University, suggest that the government is gambling on simulations made by the public health authorities on “surge requirements”. “From these simulations, it is clear that the Swedish government anticipates far few hospitalisations per 100,000 of the population than predicted in other countries, including Norway, Denmark and the UK.”

The observations by Franks and Nilsson are filled with characteristic scientific caution. Which modelling do you go for? Using British variants suggests a higher death toll for Sweden, though the authorities seem to be holding to the point that most infected people will have no symptoms, leaving one in five requiring a stint in hospital. And Britain is not Sweden.

We are left with the treacherous nature of public health modelling. COVID-19 prediction models, for instance, tend to rely on the examples in China and Italy, furthering upon data gathered from previous Ebola outbreaks, SARS and MERS. This brings the old question of demography into play, and the need to gather evidence of community transmission (so far, material on this is sketchy in Sweden). An inescapable fact is that Sweden has one major metropolitan area, so any accurate modelling would require material specific to that. Ways of interaction between generations would also have to be considered. In Sweden, less inter-generational conduct would lessen the risk to the elderly. More than half of Sweden’s households consist of one person, another telling factor.

The data does not tend to focus on hospital admissions and fatalities, a point stressed by Franks and Nilsson. “This latter can be used to be a ‘poor man’s estimate’ of community transmission, providing approximately how many fatalities occur among those infected.” The accuracy of this is somewhat compromised by the two-week period between diagnosis and the mortality, a “very blunt instrument” indeed.

The numbers of COVID-19 cases in Sweden have not been negligible. From the first recorded case on February 4, 2020, the total, as of March 30, 2020, stands at 4,028. Deaths come in at 146, though a disproportionate number come from a Somali community located in less commodious quarters with extended families.

Despite the highest death toll of the Nordic countries, state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell is supremely confident that the “strategy” has worked well, with Sweden showing a relatively flat curve of infection relative to Italy and Spain. “We want to slow down the epidemic until Sweden experiences a sort of peak, and if the peak is not too dramatic we can continue.”

A large number of citizens, bearing their heavy responsibility, have chosen to avoid public transport – Storstockholms Lokaltrafik claims a fall of 50 per cent in the number of commuters. Schools might be open, but many parents are keeping their children at home. Remote and work-from-home options have been embraced by companies with gusto.

The warning calls, while not shrill, are in evidence. An epidemiological battle is taking shape, though it remains one dominated by parrying disagreements of expertise. Britain’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has much praise for the approach, having made similar suggestions to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the “herd immunity” phase of discussions. In contrast, a petition featuring over 2,000 doctors, scientists and academics, which boast among its numbers the chairman of the Nobel Foundation, Prof Carl-Henrik Heldin, has called for more aggressive measures. “It is risky to leave it to people to decide what to do without any restrictions,” opines a paternalistic Joacim Rocklöv, an epidemiologist based at Umeå University. “As can be seen from other countries this is a serious disease, and Sweden is no different than other countries.”

Virologist Cecilia Söderberg-Nauclér, based at the Karolinska Institute, has not held back in her views, claiming with some punchiness that the government has committed all the big no-nos in responding to a pandemic. “We’re not testing enough, we’re not tracking, we’re not isolating enough – we have let the virus loose.” In so doing, Sweden had been placed on the path to catastrophe. To avoid a lockdown, a mass-testing approach as adopted by South Korea would have to be adopted. Time will tell which one stacks up.

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An Inglorious Opportunity: Coronavirus and Emergency Powers

There has been a hurried spate of cancellations and suspensions of elections across the globe because of the risk posed by COVID-19. The trend is unsurprising. In the age of post-democratic process, suspending the procedure should only induce a cough of recognition. But it is troubling for those who take the ceremonial aspect of these things seriously. Such tendencies have worried Jon Meacham, who went to the history books to remind New York Times readers that President Abraham Lincoln, even during a murderous civil war, would still insist on having an election he could lose.

A state of emergency, in other words, need not be inconsistent with democratic practice, though Meacham conveniently sidesteps Lincoln’s tyrannical streak in suspending the writ of habeas corpus by presidential decree and his hero’s acknowledgment that the executive could “in an emergency do things on military grounds which cannot be done constitutionally by Congress.”

The short of it is that states of emergency are dangerous times for rights and liberties. To speak about the liberty of the subject during crisis is considered individualistic and indulgent. Put the collective and polity first and your silly notions of freedom a distant second.

States of emergency can be varied creatures. Declaring a state of emergency, writes Théo Fournier on the Italian example in responding to COVID-19, entails giving “the central government the possibility to intervene directly in the affairs of the sub-state administrations (regions, provinces, metropolitan cities and communes). The necessity of coordinated response to the crisis bypasses the principles of subsidiarity and division of competences applicable in normal times.”

Some infringements and containment of liberty may well be warranted, though the jurists warn about the need for time limits and proportionality. “Despite their severity,” comes Fournier’s assessment, “the Italian measures pass the test of a legitimate infringement.” The Italian Constitution contemplates limitations on the freedom of movement, and the measures undertaken were, for the most part, proportionate.

Pressing emergencies can furnish political opportunists with the means to fortify their positions. They seek the archive of executive justifications in times of crisis for assistance, claiming that the threat can only be extinguished with authoritarian measures. The use of the term “war” in combating infection, an erroneous formulation at best, has provided the convenient covering of an iron glove.

The German authoritarian jurist Carl Schmitt went so far as to suggest that states of emergency undercut the very idea of legal norms, repelling them as they take hold. States of abnormality demand certainty and focused responses, not vague measures heavily qualified by restraint.  The only certainty that can be provided is by the unchallenged sovereign who defines what Schmitt famously called “the state of the exception”. (This leads to a classic form of circular reasoning: to be sovereign, you need to be able to define that state of the exception; to define that state, you need to be sovereign.)

In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s heavy measures do have a duration of some two months. What has tended to be drowned out is the element of opportunity that has little to do with the virus, the sovereign exploiting the situation to make hay. Being an enemy of the 35-hour workweek and unfair dismissal provisions in the workplace, Macron’s COVID-19 measures give employers full rein to dictate working conditions. As Edward Lee-Six and Véronique Samson put rather tartly in Jacobin, France was witnessing what “seems closer to an opportunistic instrumentalization of the health crisis to intensify police impunity and the deregulation of labour.”

The authors also point out the most bitter of ironies regarding Macron’s measures: the weakening of the underfunded health sector which has left a shortage of qualified staff, beds and medical equipment.

Hungarian strongman, Viktor Orbán, is also aware of the golden chances. Coronavirus has presented him a stunning opportunity to shore up what was already an unassailable position. For years, through the formidable party machinery of Fidesz, the wily politician has been sounding the gong of patriotism and attacking institutions he deems disruptive to the Magyar project. Timothy Garton Ash, that veteran student of central European affairs, has gone so far as to label Orbán the foremost iconoclast of European liberal democracy, having spent a decade or so demolishing it. The independence of the judiciary has been compromised; electoral laws have been amended to keep Fidesz cosily in power; activists have been harassed.

For Orbán, the problem is less the virus itself than other familiar bugbears. “The government wants a strong Europe,” he said during a radio interview on Friday, “but the EU has its weaknesses.” Having failed to arrive at a unified plan to cope with the economic and financial impact of COVID-19, the Hungarian PM seemed filled with that I-told-you-so confidence. “In terms of coronavirus aid, for example, Hungary has received support from China and the Turkish Council.”

The “protecting against the coronavirus” law promises to give the prime minister near dictatorial standing. It vests the executive with unaccountable decree powers, which include extending the state of emergency declared on March 11 indefinitely. The bill enables the executive to overrule lawmakers. It suspends elections and keeps information on government actions in short supply, to be delivered via the speaker of the parliament and party leaders.  Journalists face hefty prison terms for reporting on information that might disturb the populace.

The Council of Europe, another one of those bodies Orbán tends to rile, has acknowledged that “drastic measure to protect public health” were warranted in responding to COVID-19. The letter by Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić addressed to the Hungarian leader is filled with legal reminders, though the field of states observing them is diminishing. Anti-pandemic measures still had to comply with “national constitutions and international standards.” Democratic principles had to be observed. “An indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency cannot guarantee that the basic principles of democracy will be observed and that the emergency measures restricting fundamental human rights are strictly proportionate to the threat which they are supposed to counter.” Orbán’s snooty response was dismissive, urging the Council to “read the exact text of the law.”

The law in question also goes to show that the authoritarian can, when needed, adjust his position. Pro-government media outlets had, for instance, insisted earlier this month that the coronavirus pandemic was only deemed such by journalists engaged in “a worldwide experiment” of panic sowing. Whatever his previous views, Orbán is now gratified enough to accept the chances presented by this “invisible enemy” as, for that matter, are many others.

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Barbaric Decisions: Coronavirus, Refusing Bail and Julian Assange

“To expose another human being to serious illness, and to the threat of losing their life, is grotesque and quite unnecessary. This is not justice, it is a barbaric decision.” (Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, March 26, 2020).

Social distancing is not a word that seems to have reached certain parts of the British legal system. Granted, it is an odd one, best refashioned as an anti-social act for the sake of preservation. Marooned in some state of legal obliviousness, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser had little time for the bail application made by counsel for Julian Assange. The WikiLeaks publisher had again rubbed the judicial person the wrong way. Her memory was not unfazed: Assange had absconded in 2012 and had blotted his copy book. He would not be permitted to it again.

Not that the application was unsound. The central ground was the safety of the publisher, whose health has been assailed by seven years of confinement in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, followed by his incarceration at the high security facility at Belmarsh. Prisons, featuring high concentrations of people, have become fertile grounds for spreading COVID-19. The March 17 report by Richard Coker, Professor of Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, cautioned on how the transmission of the virus in “congregate settings” typified by “poor sanitation, poor ventilation, and overcrowding” could lead to overwhelming “a population, particularly a population with co-morbidities or that is elderly.” Coker was unequivocal in recommending that unnecessary detention regimes should be eased. “This should be done before the virus has chance to enter a detention centre.”

Representatives of the UK penal system have shown varying degrees of concern. There have even been calls for early release or means by which prison is avoided as a form of punishment altogether. The UK Prison Officers’ Association (POA) has urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to intervene executively to reduce numbers. The head of the Prison Governors Association Andrea Albutt has warned about the dangers posed by current detention arrangements. “We’ve lots of prisoners, two people in a cell built for one”, citing Swansea as an example where 80 per cent of prisoners were doubled up. “We have that all across the country.” Far better, she suggested, to reduce the population. Such a measure “helps stabilise prisons”, “calm prisoners”, and reduce the staff to prisoner ratio. “If we have less prisoners doubled [up in cells], it will be easier to isolate those who’ve been confirmed as having the virus or have the symptoms so we can delay the spread.”

Those standing by current UK prison guidelines remain defiantly confident that enough is being done. The Ministry of Justice is convinced that “robust contingency plans” have been put in place prioritising “the safety of staff, prisoners and visitors.” Procedures dealing with managing “the outbreak of infectious diseases and prisons” were already in place, and were being used to identify COVID-19 cases. Sanitising facilities such as hand washing “are available to prisoners, staff and visitors and we have worked closely with suppliers to ensure the supply of soap and cleaning materials.”

The ministry remains unclear on how the principle of social distancing, one seemingly anathema to the penal system, has been applied. For her part, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, considers such measures in crowded, unhygienic facilities “practically impossible”. Undeterred by such observations, the MOJ merely refers to a temporary suspension of “the usual regime”, meaning that “prisoners can no longer take part in usual recreational activities such as using the gym, going to worship or visiting the library.” Nor can prisoners receive visits. Such measures are bound to cause ripples of dissatisfaction.

Not much of this impressed the judicial consciousness. Assange’s legal team were valiant in their efforts to state the obvious. These were proceedings taking place on the third day of the country’s coronavirus lockdown. Edward Fitzgerald QC, sporting a facemask, insisted that, “These [medical] experts consider that he is particularly at risk of developing coronavirus and, if he does, that it develops into very severe complications for him…  If he does develop critical symptoms it would be very doubtful that Belmarsh would be able to cope with his condition.” Prisons were “epidemiological pumps”, fertile grounds for the transmission of disease, and Assange’s continued detention posed endangering circumstances “from which he cannot escape.”

Baraitser remained unconvinced. She was satisfied that there were no instances of COVID-19 at Belmarsh, a very cavalier assessment given that a hundred staff personnel were in self-isolation. She was more moved by the submission from Clair Dobbin, representing the US government, that Assange posed a high risk of absconding. Granting bail to him posed “insurmountable hurdles”. Fitzgerald’s response, to no avail, was to focus the matter on Assange’s survival, not absconsion.

Judge Baraitser has shown a certain meanness through these case management and extradition proceedings. In the Wednesday hearing at the Westminster Magistrate’s Court, things had not improved. “As matters stand today, this global pandemic does not as of itself provide grounds for Mr Assange’s release.” These were words uttered on the same day that 19 prisoners in 10 prisons in the UK had tested positive for COVID-19.

The ruling angered Doctors for Assange, comprising a list of some 200 physicians scattered across the globe. “Despite our prior unequivocal statement that Mr Assange is at increased risk of serious illness and death were he to contract coronavirus and the evidence of medical experts,” their March 27 statement reads, “Baraitser dismissed the risk, citing UK guidelines for prisons in responding to the global pandemic.” The group cited Baraister’s own solemn words deferring to the wisdom of the UK prison authorities. “I have no reason not to trust this advice as both evidence-based and reliable and appropriate.”

The medical practitioners took firm issue with the steadfast refusal of the judge to accept the medical side of the equation. Not only was he at “increased risk of contracting and dying from the novel disease coronavirus (COVID-19)”, declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, he was also more vulnerable because of the torments of psychological torture and a “history of medical neglect … fragile health, and chronic lung disease.”

The pattern of rejection and denial has been a consistent feature in Baraitser’s rulings regarding Assange’s case. When his legal team sought to liberate their client from the glass case in court for reasons of advice and consultation, the judge refused. She even refused to accept the reasoning of the prosecutor James Lewis QC, who suggested that letting Assange sit with his legal team was an uncomplicated matter. Her reasoning: To let Assange leave his glassed perch would be, effectively, an application for bail and mean he had escaped the court’s custody. True to form on Wednesday, Assange, present via videolink, had his connection terminated after an hour. This prevented him from hearing the defence summation and the concluding remarks of the judge. The despoiling of justice, even in the face of a pandemic, remains an unwavering aspect of Assange’s fate.

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Goodbye Gabbard

The Democratic establishment is deriving some delusionary cheer from it. The line of candidates for the presidential nomination has thinned, many falling out and proceeding, suicidally, to endorse former Vice President Joe Biden.

The case of Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard is particularly telling. At points, she has spoken with sober detachment on the US imperium. Herself an Iraq War veteran, she preferred to eschew military intervention and regime change tools of foreign policy. The US record on that matter is lengthy, ignominious and bloody. Peter Harris, writing in The National Interest, suggested the ideas of a realist at play, at least in a fashion; “that the United States must sometimes tolerate the existence of brutal foreign governments, especially if they share a common interest in fighting the same terrorist groups as America.”

Such mild and calculating cynicism did not go down well in certain Democratic quarters. Gabbard was accused of being a Russian asset by the perennially loathing Hillary Clinton. Her politics on the US imperium, questioning of its international engagements, notably in Syria, struck Clinton as odd, even to the point of being mildly treasonous. The remarks from Clinton on the “Campaign HQ” podcast are worth quoting in full: “She’s the favourite of the Russians, they have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far, and that’s assuming Jill Stein will give it up, which she might not, because she’s also a Russian asset. Yeah, she’s a Russian asset, I mean totally. They know they can’t win without a third-party candidate.”

This posturing libel by Clinton had a disruptive effect. Gabbard might have laughed them off as the mad bile of the defeated, but she took it seriously enough to take to the courts. In January, Gabbard initiated defamation proceedings, claiming that Clinton lied “publicly, unambiguously, and with obvious malicious intent.” The complaint makes accurate reading, at least when it comes to portrayals of Clinton, she with “a stranglehold over the Democratic party.”

Gabbard, like Bernie Sanders, has also had her issues with the dark machinery of the Democratic National Committee. In September 2019, she made her sentiments clear. “There’s just been a lack of transparency … lack of transparency means lack of trust in the process and that they’re trying to take the power away from votes to actually be the ones to decide who continues to move forward in this campaign.”

One point at issue was the restrictions placed by the DNC on who should qualify for candidate debates, using individual donors and polling averages as criteria. It was a decision taken without explanation and, as tends to be the nature of DNC machinations, behind closed doors. The DNC also preferred to adopt polls – again, without explanation – that tended to disfavour Gabbard, despite her meeting the donation threshold. Despite the muck levelled at her, she managed two delegates on Super Tuesday. True to form, the DNC again showed its colours by tinkering with the donor prerequisite to give former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg a chance. The establishment cheer squad was clear flexing some muscle.

Gabbard’s remarks on that particular bit of manipulation were hard to impeach. “The fact that a billionaire can come in and have that kind of influence to change rules of the DNC – all of a sudden, not coincidentally, to be able to benefit Michael Bloomberg … They are picking winners and losers before voters have the opportunity to do so.”

With the party machinery marshalled against her, Gabbard’s chances were always small. She also proved a bit too individual for her party colleagues, preferring to vote “present” when it came to the two articles of impeachment drafted against President Donald Trump. It was a heresy that brought out the pitchforks. “Look, I did not take the easy vote,” Gabbard reflected. “I took the vote that I felt was in the best interest of our country and standing in the centre to be able to bring the country together, to be able to begin this reconciliation that I think is so necessary in this terribly divided moment in our country.”

Last week, Gabbard’s will had crumbled. Rather than being proudly defiant, she showed that she was a lady for turning. Hatchets would be buried and differences set aside. After Tuesday’s election, it is clear that Democratic Primary voters have chosen Vice President Joe Biden to be the person who will take on President Trump in the general election.”

The statement is rich with presumption, though might sadly prove to be the case, given the Democratic tendency to self-immolation. “Although I may not agree with the vice president on every issue, I know that he has a good heart, and he’s motivated by his love for our country and the American people.” Her skills on spotting that heart must be other-worldly in nature. “I’m confident that he will lead our country, guided by the spirit of aloha respect and compassion, and thus help heal the divisiveness that has been tearing our country apart.” A misplaced confidence, if ever there was one.

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Coronavirus and the Prison Industrial Complex

The legacy of the coronavirus pandemic, at least in so far as responses are concerned, is thickening by the day. Behavioural changes are being urged, language is rapidly evolving (spot the “covidiot” amongst you) and the policy of health surveillance is being pushed. Another field where the virus has triggered interest is the very idea of incarceration. Prison may be a school for crime, but it is also the concentrated incubator for disease and infection.  

Social distancing, one of those oxymoronic terms uttered with little care to what it suggests, would tend to be a misnomer when it comes to controlling detained populations. It has sparked calls for releases and pardons across the globe.

In beleaguered Iran, where COVID-19 is exacting an ever-increasing toll, tens of thousands have been released as a result. Latest figures suggest that 85,000 have been temporarily released; 10,000 more are due to receive pardons. Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili stated that, “Those who will be pardoned will not return to jail … almost half of those security-related prisoners will be pardoned as well.”

One of Britain’s more prominent prison officials, Andrea Albutt, has been warning about the threat posed by COVID-19 for weeks. On BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, the president of the Prison Governors Association was not optimistic. Prison populations “don’t completely mirror society with our demographic of prisoners so we do have a higher number of people in the vulnerable groups, so they will be ill and there will be deaths.” With 85,000 people in Britain’s prisons, overcrowding was endemic, making transmission easy. “Coupled with that, we have a significant ageing population – the vulnerable groups, the people the Government keeps telling us will be more susceptible and more ill with this virus.”

While the temptation to release prisoners has yet to be succumbed to (the UK government’s advice remains a feeble one: “protective isolation” for inmates showing symptoms), the warnings of not doing so are loud. This is more so after cases of coronavirus were detected at Strangeways in Manchester and HMP High Down, Surrey. Over the weekend, former justice secretary David Gauke insisted on the suspension of short sentences and early release. “The advantage of not sending people inside for short sentences is that it reduces the churn.” Reducing the movement of people in and out of the system would reduce the risk of spread.

Eric Allison, who spend some 16 years in prison for theft offences, furnishes a view from The Guardian. The penal system in England and Wales, he proposes, is grim on the health front, packed with “horror stories of medical neglect.” Prisoners dying in hospital, still in chains, ignored by medical staff, is a not infrequent occurrence. With coronavirus, another killing agent awaits. “The local jails,” he warns, “may well transform into charnel houses if nothing is done to release those who represent at worst a nuisance, rather than a danger to society.”

Australia has also become a site for discussions on early release. “Release prisoners or see deaths,” tweeted sombre legal advocate Greg Barnes. “If it happens it will be industrial manslaughter.” The state government of New South Wales has shown a willingness to come to the party. On Tuesday, legislation was speedily passed giving the Corrective Services Commissioner Peter Severin powers to permit the early release of prisoners on parole and pass measures to assist in “social distancing”. This would require Severin to be satisfied that COVID-19 posed a sufficient risk to public health or the good order and security of prisons.  

Such “extraordinary measures,” explained NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman, “are only to be used to respond to the threat of COVID-19, and would allow the Commissioner … to prioritise vulnerable offenders and others who pose a low risk to the community for consideration for conditional release.”

In the United States, which boasts, with dubious distinction, the largest prison population on the planet, states are taking their own measures to initiate releases.  “Jails can be incubators for disease so we need to take bold and drastic steps,” stated New Jersey’s Attorney General Gurbir Singh Grewal. To avert a coronavirus crisis within the prison system, the pained former prosecutor insisted on something against his pro-incarceration nature. On Sunday night, the Chief Justice of the state’s Supreme Court, Stuart Rabner, signed an order to suspend or commute sentences served by inmates for probation violations and municipal court convictions. The measure is set to free up to 1,000 inmates, though they would still be subject to stay-at-home orders.

Across the country, albeit in piecemeal fashion, releases and reductions are taking place. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised the release of 40 inmates from Rikers Island jail, with another 23 to follow. The situation there is particularly dire, with 35 confirmed COVID-19 cases and an absence of hand sanitiser and bleach. Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villaneuva has also mucked in with the release of inmates with less than 30 days left on their sentences.

A bar to any significant releases lies in the fact that court orders are generally required for state and federal prisoners, though President Donald Trump is considering an executive order that may permit the release of “totally nonviolent prisoners”.

The risk posed by COVID-19 is not helped by the deplorable state of sanitation many face in the empire’s prison land. As Maria Morris, staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project describes it, “They are also living in filthy conditions and often without adequate access to soap, other hygiene products, other cleaning supplies, and that exacerbates the likelihood of the spread of a contagious illness.”

Shane Fausey, President of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Local 33, has had an eye on both the policed and the policing agents in prison, issuing a plea in a phone interview to Attorney General William Barr to intervene. “I am imploring the attorney general of the United States to stop all inmate movement, shelter in place at least for 14 to 21 days, following the guidance of the White House press briefings.” Not exactly a heartening measure, given that such briefings on the matter have been sketchy, at best.

As the United States takes to the stage as a confused combatant against a pandemic that continues its march, its institutional foundations are being challenged. A way of holding them is to consider penal conditions and their reform. The same might well be said of other countries who take pride in the prison industrial complex. Whether a vaccine is found or otherwise, the urgency of dealing with the spread is immediate and commanding. The narrow mind, traditional in penal matters, risks winning out.

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Business as Usual: Coronavirus, Iran and US Sanctions

Never discount the importance of venality in international relations. While pandemics should provide the glue for a unified front in response – we keep being told of fighting this horrendous “invisible enemy” – it’s business as usual in other respects. The United States, with a disparate, confused medical system that risks being overwhelmed, remains committed against that other country floundering in efforts to combat COVID-19: Iran. Instead of binding the nations, the virus, as with everything else, has served as a political obstacle.

This has led to a few glaring oddities. The first lies on the policy approach to US-led sanctions, which continues with usual viciousness. Last week, the US State Department added nine new entities and three individuals to the sanctions list against Iran. According to the press statement, “The actions of these individuals and entities provide revenue to the regime that it may use to fund terror and other destabilizing activities, such as the recent rocket attacks on Iraqi and Coalition forces located at Camp Taji in Iraq.” The aim here was to “deprive the regime of critical income from its petrochemical industry and further Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation.”

The Trump administration has insisted on pursuing the Iranian bogeyman with an enthusiasm verging on mania. Its attempts to scuttle Tehran’s 2015 nuclear agreement with six world powers has, to a certain extent, been successful. This has merely added gusto to Tehran’s defiance. The US has also sought to impress the Iranian armed forces that their influence in the Middle East remains on notice: the killing of Major General Qassem Soleimani of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Coprs was sharp, bloody and bankrupt in terms of strategy.

The coronavirus outbreak may well be seen as offering other opportunities to bring Iran to its knees. The desiccated tacticians are out with their spread sheets and tables wondering what will be most effective approach. The sanctions, as they tend to, have targeted the vulnerable, though never touch the well-heeled. The health system has suffered; shortages in equipment and medicines are savagely biting. A team of researchers at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran have concluded, using simulations, that 3.5 million deaths might eventuate in Iran if the crisis persists at its current momentum till May. A truly horrendous toll that, should it eventuate, would not necessarily give Washington what it wants: submission and regime change.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has insisted on conditions to any state wishing to offer humanitarian assistance to Iran. The “release of all dual and foreign nationals” is a primary condition. A cumbersome, red-tape Swiss channel has also been established to facilitate trade with Iran, but US oversight makes the option ungainly.

Amidst the tangle have come small offers of assistance from Washington; first the brutal slap, then the promise of miniscule relief. Scepticism was forthcoming. What was the Great Satan playing at? “Several times Americans have offered to help us to fight the pandemic,” assessed a sceptical Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a televised address over the weekend. “That is strange because you face shortages in America.”

Iran’s supreme leader had an explanation. Using the conspiratorial language that President Donald Trump has made ritualistic and famous, he claimed, that the virus was “specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians which they have obtained through different means.” He also retorted with the Chinese thesis on the subject. “Also, you are accused of creating this virus.” To accept medicines from the US might assist in spreading “the virus or cause it to remain permanently.”

The continued sanctions regime despite the crippling effect of COVID-19 has prompted calls for an easing, if not lifting altogether. China has taken the lead on the issue, and the international relations cognoscenti sense a pronounced step in the virus propaganda war. Its Foreign Ministry has urged the US to, in the words of spokesman Geng Shuang, “immediately lift unilateral sanctions on Iran. Continued sanctions are against humanitarianism and hamper Iran’s epidemic response and delivery of humanitarian aid.”

Russia has also added its voice of support, with its Foreign Ministry arguing that, “Illegal unilateral US sanctions, imposed since May 2018 as part of the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign, are a powerful obstacle to the effective fight against the infection.”

One firm US ally might also be softening its stance. The case of the Iranian-British dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has seen prospects for an easing of pressure. Her release from Iranian captivity, a period lasting five years, was a topic of discussion between UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and his counterpart Javad Zarif last week. Options pertaining to practical help for Iran were also discussed.

Even within US political circles, the Trump administration’s insistence on politicising aid is proving worrying. “We should never be conditioning humanitarian aid,” opined Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) to the National Interest. “We need to be engaged in the world, providing the leadership, and solving the pandemic, and giving help to countries that need it.” The good member of Congress might also consider that leadership also entails sorting out the domestic front before sending in the cavalry of rescue. A country short of respirators, masks and beds would be a poor contender for that role.

Azadeh Moaveni of the International Crisis Group, and human rights advocate Sussan Tahmasebi, founder of Femena, argue that suspending the sanctions regime during the course of the COVID-19 outbreak “should not be seen as a troubling or even monumental thing to do.” To control the virus should not be deemed a favour to the Iranian regime but more for Iranians “and indeed, to the rest of the world.” That would entail, almost impossibly, abandoning the temptations of Realpolitik and the urgings of insensible patriotism.

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The Pandemic Surveillance State

In anticipation of the post-COVID-19 world, bold statements are being made on how we will, as a race, be wiser, even kinder; cautious, and reflective. If history is ever a lesson on anything, such statements are bound to be the fatuous utterances of a moment, soon forgotten. What is left, instead, are the policy legacies, the detritus of bad decisions made on the long march of folly.

The Second World War was a catastrophe that gave a grand kick-along to human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was one of those rich fruits, a document drafted and endorsed with the blood of tens of millions still fresh. The pandemic crisis that is COVID-19 is set to yield another sort of harvest, one bitter towards rights, notably in the field of privacy.

Galloping pandemics tend to spell doom for the identities who contract the illness. As Harvard University’s legal doyen Alan Dershowitz has noted, the civil libertarian will be concerned that those who have tested positive for coronavirus should still have their privacy respected. “But the costs of anonymity for a highly contagious virus,” he rues, “must be taken into account.”

Beyond the issue of medical confidentiality, States found short in the planning and containment departments are set to develop a pandemic monitoring regime that will do away with any pretence of privacy. A glaring feature of the problem of dealing with the spread of coronavirus has been an absence of data, be it on testing, or on those who might be infected. Fighting the coronavirus pandemic, writes David Meyer, “means getting an idea of who is infected and the opportunities those people had to unwittingly pass on the virus to other people.”

This has aroused interest from the data crunchers and technical specialists keen to improve what is seen as a dire situation. “A multipronged surveillance strategy,” recommend the authors of a recent study published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), “could lead to enhanced case detection and reduced transmission of highly infectious diseases such as COVID-19.”

The epidemiologist, Bryan Walsh tells us in Axios, was arguably the first species of data scientist (think of John Snow’s discovery of the source of London’s cholera epidemic in 1854). Their contribution is that of using “rapid contact tracing to track an outbreak from its source to its spread in an effort to contain it.” But doing so is a taxing labour, placing the emphasis on doctors to identify suspect patients and plot their previous movements.

Now, epidemiologists are at the forefront of a new surveillance push. Encouragement to do so was already being given in response to other viral outbreaks. In an article published in Nature in 2018, the authors urged “those working on infectious disease to focus funds and efforts on a much simpler and more cost-effective way to mitigate outbreaks – proactive, real-time surveillance of human populations.” The 2013-16 Ebola epidemic, for instance, saw a tardy response. “Making promises about disease prevention and control that cannot be kept,” warn the authors, “will only further undermine trust.”

A fierce boom in surveillance technologies dedicated to monitoring whole populations is taking place. “In the era of big data and [the] internet, the flow of each patient can be clearly seen. So we are different from the SARS time now,” explained Li Lanjuan to CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, in February. “With such new technologies, we should make full use of them to find the source of infection and contain the source of infection.”

Companies dedicated to artificial intelligence ventures have been pressed and roped into health surveillance. This stands to reason: the deep pockets of the Chinese state is in the offing. Megvii, a facial recognition firm priding itself as “a world class AI company with core competency in deep learning” responded to the government call in battling coronavirus by developing a new “AI temperature measurement system” designed to identity temperatures using thermal cameras and relevant body and facial data to identify individuals. “The system,” according to a company announcement, “is designed to help staff working at locations with high-density passenger flows, such as train stations, bus stations, railway stations and airports, to swiftly identify people who may have elevated body temperatures.”

Megvii’s announcement is also significant in showing how integrated it is in the state surveillance system, having “assembled a team of nearly 100 R&D staff to devise and implement an efficient temperature detection system” with the generous assistance of state and city links, including the Haidian district government and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

This is technology promoted as virtue, utility and merit. Zhu Jiansheng of the China Academy of Railway Sciences, in an interview with the state news agency Xinhua, was glowing about how surveillance methods used on passengers would be invaluable as a detection tool. “We will retrieve relevant information about the passenger, including the train number, carriage number and information on passengers who were close to the person, such as people sitting three rows of seats before and after the person.” Once extracted, such information would be supplied to “relevant epidemic prevention departments.”

Other countries are following China’s example with varying degrees of relish. South Korea might have been praised for having an expansive testing programme but this was deployed alongside an aggressive surveillance effort. Mobile phone usage and bank cards have been tracked as part of the endeavour. CCTV technology has also been used.

Israel has also been busy in the field, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu throwing in Shin Bet, the domestic spy agency, into the fight. Their weapons: clandestine testing kits and anti-terrorism phone-tracking software. Israelis have received text messages directing recipients suspected of being in proximity to someone sick with coronavirus to “immediately isolate at home [14 days] to protect your relatives and the public”.

But not all is going the prime minister’s way. The Israeli Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction last week halting Shin Bet from using various surveillance technologies, including a mobile phone geolocator, against coronavirus sufferers and potential patients. The petition to halt such a measure had been submitted by Adalah, an advocacy group defending the rights of Palestinians in Israel, along with the Joint List, a coalition of Palestinian parties based in Israel.

The order did not permanently suspend Shin Bet’s tracking of the locations of coronavirus patients. According to the court, the tracking of the locations of coronavirus could only continue with the establishment of a parliamentary oversight committee by March 24, 2020. Not doing so would see the immediate banning of the program. The rebuke by the court, while not entirely stinging, suggests that the technology wonks behind the health surveillance regime will not have it all their way.

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Moralising Hoarding, Panic Buying and Coronavirus

Hoarding as moral aberration and ethical breach: the term has recently become the subject of scorn in coronavirus chatter. In terms of mental disorders, it is “characterized by persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions”, though the Coronavirus Hoarder is a breed that adds urgent bulk acquisition to the shopping equation. If you part with it, take advantage of making a buck along the way.

Hoarding products in times of crisis is condemned by those in power as unpatriotic, against the community and just plain rude. The empty supermarket shelf is considered the devilish outcome of this. Yet, shelves still remain empty, at least for periods of time. Despite limits imposed on purchases, the hoarder remains active, fearing the pandemic apocalypse, the lockdown, self-isolation and total quarantine.

The central motivation is fear, but it has worthy fuel. Do not trust the government; question the authorities. They, after all, were late to the party. With COVID-19 being enshrouded in garments of misinformation, or at the very least elements of incomplete information, the tendency is further accentuated.

The pieties against bulk buying are accumulating, inversely proportionate to diminishing opportunities to purchase. Writing for the Danbury, Connecticut-based News-Times, Chris Powell acknowledges that households should stock up on the necessaries, but only for a few days. To hoard “for worse than that is antisocial and generates fear. If serious shortages develop, will people consider themselves Americans, all in it together, sharing as necessary and helping their government as it tries its best, or will patriotism and civic duty dissolve into every man for himself?”

The reaction from authorities has ranged from the imposition of regulations to hectoring unprincipled shopping. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has gone so far as to regard panic buying as unpatriotic, a slight against his understanding of the Australian character. “On bulk purchasing of supplies: Stop hoarding. I can’t be more blunt about it. Stop it.” Such behaviour was nether “sensible” nor “helpful and it has been one of the most disappointing things I have seen in Australian behaviour in response to this crisis.”

Image from 7news.com.au

Interestingly enough, such scolding attitudes have done little to stem the craze. As Morrison should himself be most familiar with, any snark directed against voters tends to bite back. He, after all, was the beneficiary of an election victory in which his opponents were termed smug types prone to woke obsessions, preachy about the environment and condescending to those pro-mining “Quiet Australians”. Now, Morrison demands “Australia’s common sense cooperation with … very clear advisory positions. Stop doing it. It’s un-Australian and must stop.” Australians, quiet or otherwise, are panicked and not taking much notice.

Australia’s agriculture minister David Littleproud has also taken to the stage of publicity to condemn bulk shopping practices, calling such shoppers parasites. “I appreciate people are worried about Covid-19,” he wrote in Guardian Australia, “but those fighting in the aisles are more in danger of catching the disease by their actions than we ever are of running out of food.” Farmers were the noble ones, going about their business of supplying food, in contrast to those “frantic shoppers”. The decision by supermarkets to restrict purchases on certain products, change shopping hours and suspend online grocery orders, had been sensible.

In Canada, the panic has been sufficiently gripping to cause concern. The pattern is familiar: a spate of rushed purchases, the emptying of shelves, and the constant warning by those supposedly in the know that all is well in the supply chain. A survey conducted by Dalhousie University and Angus Reid between March 13 and 15 found that 71 per cent of Canadians were concerned about COVID-19, with 41 per cent purchasing additional groceries and supplies as a direct response. Then come the voices of authority, attempting to appease and reassure. Marc Fontin, president of the Retail Council of Canada in Quebec, claimed that “Canadians do not need to panic”. Over the weekend, stores would be “back to almost normal.”

This has not been enough. The panic-driven purchaser and diligent hoarder loom like troubling spectres. Policies have been introduced by specific drug wholesalers such as McKesson. Andrew Forgione, a spokesperson for the company, spoke about the taking of “proactive steps to support responsible ordering, including temporarily adjusting daily customer ordering for some medications and certain daily essentials.” Canadian consumer or retailers, he explained, had little reason to “mass order products.” But order, they do.

Some hoarders have even become accidental, and reviled celebrities. A Tennessee man, Amazon seller Matt Colvin, went so far as to acquire 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer. The intention was not so much to hoard as make a killing online, selling the items at marked up prices. The intention might have been seen as distinctly American, even patriotic: take advantage of adverse conditions, plan ahead and make money from it. “I’ve been buying and selling things for 10 years now,” he told the New York Times. “There’s been hot product after hot product. But the thing is, there’s always another one on the shelf.”

The interest of the Tennessee attorney general’s office was piqued. An investigation was commenced into possible price gouging. As this took place, Colvin had a change of heart, wishing to donate the supplies. Prosecutors, however, are intent on proceeding with the action.

More militant operations have been recorded in other countries in an effort to rein back the dedicated hoarder. In Maharashtra’s Jalna city, police and officials of the Food and Drug Administration conducted a joint operation against a shop owner Hastimal Bamb for allegedly hoarding 18,900 masks and possessing 730 bottles of fake hand sanitisers.

Across the border, similar stories have surfaced. In Karachi’s Baloch Colony a certain shopkeeper by the name of Zaheer was arrested during the week for hoarding sanitisers then, according to a police statement, selling “them for more than triple the actual price.”

Talk about community, toughing matters out, enduring together, provide salve for the bruised soul. It does not stop greed, nor does it stem opportunity. Responding to pandemics, as to conflict, brings its chances for profiteers and the desperate. No political potentate, whatever the measure, can stem it entirely. The coronavirus hoarder is here to stay – at least for the near future.

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Viral Reactions: The Smugness of Celebrity Self-Isolation

The rush to elevate self-isolation to Olympian heights as a way to combat the spread of COVID-19 has gotten to the celebrities. Sports figures are proudly tweeting and taking pictures from hotel rooms (Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton being a case in point). Comics are doing their shows from home. Thespians are extolling the merits of such isolation and the dangers of the contagion. All speak from the summit of comfort, the podium of pampered wealth: embrace social distancing; embrace self-isolation. Bonds of imagined solidarity are forged. If we can do it, so can you.

The message of warning varies in tones of condescension and encouragement. Taylor Swift prefers to focus on her cat. “For Meredith, self-quarantining is a way of life,” she posted on Instagram. “Be like Meredith.” Meredith, of course, had little choice in the matter. John Legend delivered a concert on Instagram, wife Chrissy Teigen beside towelled and quaffing wine. “Social distancing is important, but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring. I did a little at-home performance to help lift your spirits.” Then there was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who actually boasted two miniature ponies. “We will get through this together.” So good of him to let us know.

Others, like model Naomi Campbell, can barely hide their revelations, moments of acute self-awakening amidst crisis. “I’m learning what it means to put my busy or complicated life on hold and just to be still for a while, in one place, with hyper awareness of the people and spaces directly around me and the moment to moment actions I am making.” A long dormant, cerebral world, awoken by a virus.

Similarly, singer Lady Gaga has found that within that deodorised, heavily marketed form of celebrity is the heart of a human. “This is reminding me I think a lot of us,” she reflected on Instagram “what it is to both feel like and be like a human being.”

Self-isolation has seen the rich with their entourages making an escape for holiday homes and vast retreats. Then come the eccentric and the slightly ludicrous options: the well-stocked and equipped bunker; the safe room. Such an approach is far more representative of the estrangement between haves and have-nots. “One of the best options is in Middle America,” comes the recommendation from Adam Popescu in Vanity Fair. “If you’re part of the 1%, why wait for sluggish government support when you can burrow 175 feet underground in a refurbished Air Force missile silo in rural Kansas that markets itself as a survival condo?”

The condo in question, the brainchild of developer Larry Hall, sports nine-foot think concrete walls, epoxy-hardened for good measure. Their purpose, ostensibly, is to withstand nuclear blasts. Current interest, however, is over a possible occupancy to ride out the coronavirus pandemic.

Florida entrepreneur Tyler Allen has already reserved his spot. While he has “other fortified locations”, he has a preference for the Kansas condo project. “Some of my hard facilities have a bunker but it doesn’t have protection for biological infection, doesn’t have protection for radiation. The survival condo has layering; it has it all. I’m protected from everything.” His advice is not cloying and congratulatory. It is more of the self-preservation school of thinking. Let the idiots watch the disaster unfold on phones, screens and social media while I go about arming myself for doom.

All this excitement about upright behaviour provides a noisy distraction from those who are simply in no position to isolate themselves. Food from increasingly bare counters must still be put on the table. Doctors and nurses must still perform their dangerous tasks in increasingly overwhelmed health systems. The menial jobs where contact with the public inevitably continue.

Then come those who have been in isolation well before the term came into vogue: the forgotten elderly, the impoverished, the vulnerable. But even here, the celebrities lurk with message and instructions, waiting to pounce. Never let chances to do the good deed, and talk about it, go by. At the very least, it has presented opportunities to tell others to do good works for the poor. For actor Ryan Reynolds, “COVID-19 has brutally impacted older adults and low income families … If you can give, these orgs need your help.”

Reynolds and his wife Blake Lively have donated $1 million to be divided by Feeding America and Food Banks Canada. Lively, for her part, has a lesson. “Though we must be distancing ourselves to protect those who don’t have the opportunity to self-quarantine, we can stay connected,” she suggested in an Instagram post. “Remember the lonely and the isolated. Facetime, Skype, make a video.”

As with other forms of life, combating disease comes with its hierarchies. Luxuries and miseries are unevenly distributed. The allocation of resources is skewed. But valiant efforts are made to suggest that the well moneyed celebrity shares the lot with the proles and the hoi polloi. An Esquire contribution does just that, though the effort is risibly unconvincing. “Celebrities, they’re just like us!” it cheekily proclaims. “Self-isolating in their cavernous houses, dancing up their marble stairs, pouring themselves a crystal tumbler of citrus-scented tequila and sauntering into the home-cinema to wait for all this to blow over.”

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Surf the Internet Instead: Britannic Herd Immunity and Coronavirus

Epidemiologist William Hanage was more than perplexed by the plan. “When I heard about Britain’s ‘herd immunity’ coronavirus plan,” he reflected in The Guardian, “I thought it was satire.” Much public policy, foolishly considered and expertly bungled, tends to succumb to satire; having Prime Minister Boris Johnson leading the show provides an even better chance of that happening.

Herd immunity, as a policy, would involve easing off risk and preventive measures, allowing what would effectively be a mass infection, and focusing on recovery from younger members of the populace. Doing so would provide the assurance of immunity to prevent the calamity of another wave come winter. The result is a true peculiarity in health policy: a reluctance to ban mass gatherings, close spaces of public contact and deploy mass quarantine measures.

This, suggests Hanage, is erroneous; it presumes the same rationale used in mass vaccination. “This is an actual pandemic that will make a very large number of people sick, and some of them will actually die. Even though the mortality rate is quite likely quite low, a small fraction of a very large number is still a large number.”

On March 12, Johnson’s press statement had a certain dressing of alarm. All that seemed to evaporate before a sense of fatalism. Loved ones would be lost. Major public events, he had been told by his experts, would not be banned, because doing so “will have little effect on the spread.” To close down schools would cause more harm than good. As for those suffering symptoms that might be coronavirus-related, avoid seeking testing and disturbing the health system. Surf the internet, instead.

Sir Patrick Vallance, Britain’s chief scientific adviser, seemed to more than hint that herd immunity as an idea had taken an infectious hold. On Radio Four’s Today programme on Friday, he stated that, “Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also, because the vast majority of people get mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission.” This might have struck those with susceptibility and an assortment of vulnerable conditions as terrifying, though Sir Patrick was insisting that they, too, be protected. Even with a mortality rate of 1%, the death rate would be impressively contained.

That was certainly a scenario entertained by the UK chief medical officer Chris Whitty. A percent of deaths would equate to a loss of 500,000 people in circumstances where 80% of the country would contract the virus. For herd immunity to be achieved, calculated Vallance, “probably about 60%” of people needed infection.

Fuelling this particular approach was a worry shared by Johnson and his advisors that behavioural fatigue might set in. An early imposition of strict restrictions would see a lack of cooperation and caution. Besides, containing the virus initially might work with harsh measures, but not make it go away before the cold spell.

This general view jars with the European response to the outbreak of COVID-19. Owen Matthews, writing in Foreign Policy, noted that, “While continental Europeans were closing schools and putting soldiers on the streets to enforce strict quarantine rules, the British government’s official advice to its citizens was, essentially, just to keep calm and carry on.”

The Johnson method of governance requires constant cross-checking. Signals are mixed, contradictory and chaotic. Health Secretary Matt Hancock did his little bit of mixed signalling by suggesting UK health policy towards COVID-19 was not quite as Sir Patrick had intended it. “Herd immunity is not part of it,” he wrote in The Sunday Telegraph. “This is a scientific concept, not a goal or a strategy. Our goal is to protect life from this virus, our strategy is to protect the most vulnerable and the protect the NHS through contain, delay, research and mitigate.”

Hancock’s hurriedly revised position was assisted, in no small part, by a modelling analysis from immunologists based at the Imperial College of London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, though it was unclear whether he had ever embraced, at least directly, the herd immunity idea. (There is no mention of the term in the coronavirus action plan.) The researchers, in the 9th report from the WHO Collaborating Centre for Infectious Diseases and Modelling, took a particular interest in comparing potential impacts of COVID-19 to the devastating flu outbreak of 1918.

Two strategies were considered by the research team: suppression, which would involve the reduction of case numbers to low levels or their total elimination; and mitigation, which would not interrupt transmission totally but “reduce the health impact of an epidemic, akin to the strategy adopted by some US cities in 1918, and by the world more generally in the 1957, 1968, and 2009 influenza pandemics.” In what is an absorbing, if unnerving study, policy makers would have latched onto the conclusion “that mitigation is unlikely to be feasible without emergency surge capacity limits of the UK and US healthcare systems being exceeded many times over.”

The predictions were also rightly sobering. Britain would suffer some 510,000 deaths, and the US 2.2 million were the epidemic to be unmitigated. Using mitigation strategies would see a rough halving: 250,000 deaths in Britain; 1.1-1.2 million in the US. “We therefore conclude that suppression is the only viable strategy at the current time.”

Cue Prime Minister Johnson’s appearance for his No. 10 Downing Street press briefing. In his March 17 statement, he considered COVID-19 to be “a disease that is so dangerous and so infectious that without drastic measures to check its progress it would overwhelm any health system in the world.” He insisted on steps to avoid unnecessary contact to protect the vulnerable. Capacity for the National Health Service would be increased; public services would be strengthened. Science and research would be boosted. Any measures as that of a wartime government should be taken to bolster the economy. Millions of businesses and tens of millions of families needed to be supported. But not a word about bans, closures, testing of the public and strict controls.

The COVID-19 reaction formula still remains a Britannia goes it alone approach though closer to that adopted by the Trump administration. Keep it voluntary; take measures as a matter of good sense. Responses on the European continent remain determinedly autocratic in an effort to flatten the curve of infection. French President Emmanuel Macron has resorted to war metaphors, implementing measures akin to that: mandatory registration of intent to leave homes or face a fine of 38 euros. In Britain, however, Johnson’s preference is to prepare for the worst, wash your hands and surf the Internet.

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The Taliban Scores a Coup

It threatened to disappear under the viral haze of COVID-19, but February 29 saw representatives from the US and Taliban, loftily acknowledged as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, sign the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan.” After two decades of conflict, the agreement sets in motion the process that should see American troops leave Afghanistan within 14 months. Initially, 8,600 troops will leave over a 135-day period; the balance is set to do so after 9 months.

The Doha ceremony was attended by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Taliban deputy leader Mullah Baradar, a person said by former CIA Operations Officer Douglas London to be of “little influence or authority” serving as “convenient window dressing.” The ink from the US side for the signature was supplied by US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. Conspicuously absent, and much in recognition of the failings of that institution, was the NATO-backed Afghan government. Nor was the Taliban present in the joint US-Afghan declaration. The results of that say much about the sheer will power, not to mention staying power, of Taliban negotiators. It was they who insisted not to be part of any instrument acknowledging the legitimacy of the Afghan government.

In sum, both instruments lay out various steps for the Taliban, US and Afghan government to take. The Taliban are to prevent their territory from hosting groups or individuals who might threaten the US and their allies; the US is to draft a timeline for the withdrawal of all US and coalition forces; the Afghan regime and the Taliban are to commence peace talks at the conclusion of the withdrawal, with the parties ultimately developing the basis for a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire.

Having stolen the show, the Taliban has merely promised to engage in talks with the Afghan government about a lasting peace; cunningly, even brashly, they have refused to specifically renounce resorting to violence in achieving their aims. It will be hard to refute the claim that they have their opponents on the run and intend keeping it that way.

The deal will be another etching on the long list of agreements made in the cemetery of imperial failure. Afghan resistance can rightly claim the scalps of many, including Britain and the Soviet Union. Afghan president Ashraf Ghani has approved the release of 1,500 Taliban prisoners in exchange of 1,000 government troops. The decree signed by Ghani noted that the prisoners will be released within 15 days “with 100 prisoners walking out of Afghan jails everyday.” The US-Taliban agreement intends for the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners.

The joint US-Afghan declaration, for its part, has the Afghan government promising to “participate in a US-facilitated discussion with Taliban representatives on confidence building measures, to include determining the feasibility of releasing significant numbers of prisoners on both sides.”

On March 10, the UN Security Council gave the US-sponsored resolution supporting the deal their unanimous blessing, deeming it one of the “significant steps towards ending the war” and promising to provide “sustained support” in negotiations to achieve peace. It also spoke of “the willingness of multiple countries to facilitate or convene intra-Afghan negotiations in order to achieve political settlement and a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire.”

But this vote of confidence does not detract from the possibility that the US will still maintain a presence, or that conflict will continue. The US-Afghan joint declaration, for instance, takes the position that the withdrawal of US forces will eventuate on the “Taliban’s fulfilment of its commitments.”

Those barracking for some continuing US footprint are many, though the years have taken their toll.  Paul D. Miller, formerly of the National Security Staff for both President George W. Bush and Barack Obama, sees inadequacies and threats in the brokered deal. Tear up the agreement, he urges in Lawfare; al-Qaeda is likely to return in force and find a place of, if not hospitality then certainly sanctuary. “President Trump and his successor should scrap the deal and increase military pressure until the Taliban publicly denounces al-Qaeda and agreed to verifiably sever links with the group.” US commitments were “clear, specific and measurable”; those of the Taliban, lacking in detail, means of enforcement and verification.

Miller’s view that the US remain is based on a certain contempt for the US public and, it must be said, the armed forces. To maintain the imperium, you need to ignore the former, at least to a certain extent, and use the latter. The troop presence is not large, expensive or costly in terms of casualties. “There is no mass anti-war movement. The American people are not sick of the war: They are hardly even paying attention to it.”

London concurs on most points. He sees the Taliban with the same conviction that took US forces to Afghanistan in the first place. The agreement “naively relieves the Taliban from renouncing [ties to terrorist groups] or expelling them outright.”

Others nurse the maybes and the tormenting hypotheticals. Lawrence J. Korb, who in 2010 was engaged in negotiating efforts on ending the war in Afghanistan, rued the lost chances of the Bush administration in 2002 to annihilate the Taliban. “It compounded the problem by simultaneously expanding its objective from defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan to nation-building.” This train of thought is persistent in US strategic thinking: insurgents are somehow foreign and not indigenous, lacking local support; they can be culled, restrained or eliminated altogether.

There is little doubt that the resilient, seemingly indestructible Taliban will take greater heart in the entire process than the cheerleaders for empire. They have resumed operations against their enemy with enthusiasm. The unpopular central government is negotiating from a position of profound weakness.

Even Korb, despite lamenting lost opportunities, felt that it was no longer a conflict the US should contend with. “Just as America did not make it out better than France in Vietnam, it is time for its officials to realize that America will not make it out any better than the British or Soviets in Afghanistan – no matter how long it tries to stay.”

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