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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.

Brutal Choices: Anders Tegnell and Sweden’s Herd Immunity Goal

If the title of epidemiological czar were to be created, its first occupant would have to be Sweden’s Anders Tegnell. He has held sway in the face of sceptics and concern that his “herd immunity” approach to COVID-19 is a dangerous, and breathtakingly cavalier approach, to public health. Tegnell T-shirts featuring him as a medieval liberator are available for purchase; fan pages can be found on Facebook abuzz with encouragement. Tegnell’s point, throughout, is that his approach is less than radical given the global lockdown formula that has perpetrated, almost overnight, the worst economic crisis in generations.

This is not to say that such herd immunity is being encouraged by a lax approach to public health regulations. As the World Health Organisation’s Mike Ryan has noted, a false narrative had been perpetrated about an absence of control measures in Sweden to halt the transmission of COVID-19. The focus in Sweden, rather, is on sensible, voluntary restraint, making sure that large gatherings are avoided, and, where people do gather (those of less than 50 are permitted), physical distancing is observed. But such a gamble is dependent on developing a critical, resistant core against re-infection, thereby protecting the vulnerable population. Viral transmission, it follows, will eventually be halted if a majority – say 60 percent of the population – have contracted it while the vulnerable are sheltered.

Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter, the country’s ambassador to the United Nations, has been tasked with promoting the Tegnell model to the world. On National Public Radio, her words had the authority of a proclamation. “About 30 percent of people in Stockholm have reached a level of immunity.” Daringly, she suggested that, “We could reach herd immunity in the capital as early as next month.”

The merits of such a position soon became matters of culture and ideology. The science becomes part of the context within which it is pursued – Sweden as unique; Sweden as peerless – or at least just that bit more peerless than its Nordic neighbours. Within the country, trust for the myndigheterna (the agencies) is unflappable, and if herd immunity be the policy, then so be it.

Attempts to deprive Tegnell of primacy and his sheen of confidence have not succeeded. In March, 2,300 academics signed an open letter to the Swedish government calling for stricter measures to contain the pandemic. As one of the signatories, Cecelia Söderberg-Nauclér of the Karolinska Institute wondered, “No one has tried this route, so why should we test it first in Sweden, without informed consent?”

An attempted scientific putsch by 22 researchers in April, launched in Dagens Nyheter, failed. In the open letter, the group took issue with the Public Health Agency’s approach, urging government intervention with “swift and radical measures” along the lines undertaken by the country’s neighbours. “In Sweden, there are now ten times more people dying than in neighbouring Finland where coffee shops and restaurants are closed.” Other comparisons were also cited, with a focus on the last three days before the Easter vacation. Between April 7-9, “10.2 people per million inhabitants died of COVID-19 each day in Sweden.” For the same number in Italy, it was 9.7; in Denmark, 2.9; Norway, 2.0 and Finland 0.9.

The authors also threw in a quote from an interview in the same newspaper with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö. It was a pointed remark on the failed credo of voluntary restraint. “You cannot ask people not to go out if the restaurants are allowed to stay open.”

Tegnell’s response was curt, claiming that the figures cited by his critics were marred by “a number of fundamental errors.” As is his wont, he drew upon technical qualifications to debunk the data, noting the line that country comparisons were always risky and deceptive propositions. “The death figures they quote are incorrect, they do not match the Swedish death figures.” Italy’s figures, for instance, only covered deaths in hospitals.

There is a certain brutal emphasis in the Swedish approach, an acceptance that a degree of suffering must be endured to reach sustainable levels of safety. The Swedish death toll from COVID-19 stands at over 2,600. Sweden’s National Board of Health and Welfare has also published its own set of figures suggesting that those of the PHA might be 10 percent lower than they should be.

All methods employed so far have been devastating to limb, life and economy; what makes Tegnell’s different here is the long run, one which will keep the financiers and market watchers happy. Finland’s Osmo Soininvaara, a former minister and member of the Helsinki City Council, sees more merit in it than his current colleagues. In his view, “once the coronavirus crisis is over, the number of deaths in Sweden and Finland is the same. The difference is that in Sweden the death toll has been reached faster. And our economy is in ruins, but the Swedish one will be the strongest in Europe.”

Praise and support for Tegnell can also be found among the Scandinavian neighbours. In Norway, epidemiologist Eiliv Lund has accused his counterparts of simply “pushing the problem out in front of us.” The Swedish approach had the merits of ensuring a higher infection rate “and thus a higher immunity.” Danish epidemiologist Christian Wejse lauds Tegnell’s infection formula, suggesting that the number of immune Swedes might be triple those of Danes. This would mean that Sweden “will be in a better situation if there’s a new wave.”

The Swedish model is being saluted from the stands of the corporate friendly New York Times, with the consistently shallow Thomas L. Friedman touting its virtues. He does, however, concede that responding to pandemics presents us with only “different hellish ways.”

Whatever Tegnell and his trusted underlings in the Swedish Public Health Agency claim, the herd immunity presumption has its fair share of dangers. Questioning the relative figures of other countries and their various measures has intellectual merit; embracing the herd immunity model, however, may not. As the authors of an article recently published by The Lancet warn, “There is no certainty as to the immunological correlates of antiviral protection or the proportion of the population who must attain them, making it impossible to identify a point when this level of immunity has been reached.”

There is also uncertainty over whether, on being cleared of the virus, reinfection can take place. Last month, over 260 COVID-19 patients in South Korea were reported to have tested positive, suggesting that grim possibility. The explanation offered since is that the method of detecting the coronavirus – polymerase chain reaction (PCR) – fails to distinguish between genetic material (RNA or DNA) from the infectious virus proper and lingering fragments present in the body after recovery. The herd immunity advocates, it seems, still have stilts to stand on, even if they find support among a good number of corpses.

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Scuttling New START: Trump’s China Distraction

“If we want to preserve strategic stability using arms control as a counterpart of that, as a tool in that toolkit, then China should be in as well.” (US Defence Secretary Mark Esper, Defense News, Feb 26, 2020).

For a person keen on throwing babies out with their bath water, only to then ask for their return, President Donald Trump risks doing giving that same treatment to the New START treaty. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, also known as the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive arms, a creation of the Obama administration, is due for renewal come February 2021.

Created to replace the 1991 START document, it limits long-range nuclear weapons programs for both the United States and Russia in terms of restricting the number of strategic nuclear delivery systems and the total number of warheads that can be used on those systems, buttressed by a verification regime and possible extensions for up to five years. The document is also the only significant nuclear arms control agreement left after the ditching of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

New START has its fans in the policy fraternity. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, in arguing for its extension, has made the point that the treaty “contributes substantially to the US national security by providing limits, verification, predictability, and transparency about Russian strategic nuclear forces.”

Frank G. Koltz, former Undersecretary of Energy for Nuclear Security, claims it delivers “important equities” to the US military by imposing limits on Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and nuclear-equipped heavy bombers at known and predictable levels. The verification regime also enables the US to achieve some degree of insight into Russian capabilities beyond traditional methods of intelligence gathering. “Taken together, these features of the treaty help reduce uncertainty regarding the future direction of Russian nuclear forces and thereby provide the US military with greater confidence in its own plans and capabilities.”

The verification regime should not be dismissed as mere theatre. It has been taken seriously enough by both parties. As of August 2019, both had exchanged something in the order of 18,500 notifications. US inspectors had conducted over 150 on-site inspections in Russia. Without it, as Admiral Mullen posits, “we would be flying blind.”

Despite such cheer, both Moscow and Washington have shown, at various stages, a desire to renegotiate the deal. Cobwebs and creaks have developed. The Russian position on this has mellowed: renewal can take place without conditions. The Trump administration, on the other hand, has dug its heels in. The document, for instance, fails to cover tactical nuclear weapons, a field in which Russia is doing rather well. (US Defence Secretary Mark Esper puts the number of such devices at 2,000.) Nor does it cover the nature of novel nuclear delivery systems, another area where Russia is accused of excelling in.

But it is the third point of contention that exercises Trump the most: China. Renegotiating New START would see Beijing left out of US ambitions to restrain another competitor, even if that competitor, in the scheme of things, is relatively small beer, with 290 nuclear warheads (both Russia and the United States boast roughly 6,000 each). The person tasked with this Herculean and, in all likelihood futile mission, is the new envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea.

The PRC and its conduct in this field has become something of a bizarre fixation, according to Daniel Larison. With the PRC being given rough and ready lashings of opprobrium for being the cause of COVID-19, getting the PRC to nuclear negotiations prior to February 2021 will be a tall order. To this can be added the traditional refusal by China to engage in arms limitation talks, though the President would have you think differently, suggesting last December that Chinese officials “were extremely excited about getting involved. … So some very good things can happen with respect to that.”

Specialists in the field of arms control sense that China would only come to any table of negotiation if something were to be tangibly and generally sacrificed by either Moscow and Washington. President Obama’s Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller, at an event held in January by the Defense Writers Group, suggested intermediate-range constraints of ground-launched missiles as a starting point, as China is “staring at the possibility of a deployment of very capable US missiles of this kind.” But the inescapable feeling in looking at the Trump playbook regarding China’s potential admission is that it is a grand distraction nurtured to conceal a desire to led New START lapse.

There is one glaring problem behind adding China to any expanded arrangement. Even if Beijing were convinced to come into it, the smaller quantity of nuclear weapons it possesses would lead to a rather odd result. Not being anywhere near either the Russian and US ceiling would be an incentive to build more weapons and systems. In doing so Beijing would still be abiding by the letter of the agreement, a grimly ironic state of affairs for an instrument designed to limit, rather than expand, strategic nuclear arsenals.

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Harvard’s Fossil Fuels Formula: Engagement before Withdrawal

“Know the true value of time; snatch, seize, and enjoy every moment of it,” urged the Earl of Chesterfield in a letter of advice to his son penned in 1749. “No idleness, no laziness, no procrastination: never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.” This has not tended to be the view of university governors the world over, notably in the field of ethical investments. The elite heavy weights have shown their flabbiness in the area, dragging in their approach to matters of environment and the climate. Money is just that; where it goes, in terms of investment, is of little moral consequence, lacking smell and ethical baggage. Industry is there to be, and here, the word is essential, engaged.

Harvard University, one of the wealthiest teaching and research institutions on the planet with an endowment of $41 billion, is something of a specialist in this. In 2013, the university’s President Drew Gilpin Faust adopted the position of “engagement over withdrawal” on the subject of fossil fuel divestments. At the time, Faust considered any full divestment measure as unwarranted and unwise: the endowment fund was to be seen in purely self-beneficial terms, “a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.”

Playing the fiddle of an amoral politician, Faust attempted different measures of dismissiveness and reassurance: climate change did pose “a serious threat to our future – and increasingly our present,” and the university would be incorporating “environmental, social and governance” into its investments, thereby aligning with “investors’ fiduciary duties.” Such an approach guaranteed an indefinite series of postponements on the matter.

By April 2017, the Harvard Management Company, the entity responsible for managing the finances of the corporation, felt that some move was required. Colin Butterfield, heading the natural resources section at the HMC, accepted that climate change was a “huge problem” and that a “pause” in fossil fuel investments would take place. Slyly, Butterfield shifted the focus, distinguishing between direct and indirect investments in the industry. “What I can tell you is, from my area, I could honestly say that I doubt – I can’t say never, because never say never – but I doubt that we would ever make a direct investment with fossil fuels.”

In 2019, Harvard’s new broom, Lawrence Bacow still preferred “engaging with industry.” In a surprise appearance at a forum hosted by Divest Harvard and the Harvard Political Union in April that year, he have gave a model lesson on intellectual skiving: Teach, research and convince, and the industry itself will change. Till that was done, the fossil fuel matter could be postponed. “We need to engage with those whose behaviour we need to change. We need to engage with industry. We do that through scholarship; we do that through our teaching.”

Donning his weighty business hat, Bacow played the role of cold realist, warning against any policy coitus interruptus. Divesting from fossil fuels was not the same as tobacco, where a full-scale enterprise of withdrawal through the university from research to labs could be implemented. “The day after, if we were to divest, we’re going to turn on the lights. We would still be dependent on fossil fuels.”

It has been a long, acrimonious battle. The Harvard President and Fellows have tended to swat the claims away, regarding them as callow and unrealistic. The students, in turn, have sought to have their case taken seriously, engaging in their own little bit of climate change lawfare. In 2014, a lawsuit was lodged in Suffolk County Superior Court in Massachusetts, featuring an 11-page complaint and 167 pages of supporting exhibits asking the court to force divestment on the students’ behalf. The measure failed at first instance and on appeal, though campaign managed, along the way, to gather support from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, climate change scientist James Hansen and the Cambridge City Council.

The central problem in such climate change litigation remains one of conviction. Courts refuse to cast a distant eye upon the future, expecting evidence to be as immediate, clear and incontestable as possible. The argument by the students was precisely one of current action to prevent environmental dystopia, a case for future, potentially imperilled generations. Instead, the students failed to show they had legal standing to challenge fossil fuel investments for their negative impacts on academic freedom and education at Harvard. Their interests were “widely shared” with thousands of their peers at Harvard; their connection with the subject matter was not sufficiently “specific” or “personal”; and their allegations on financial mismanagement were too speculative to be accepted.

Both the Massachusetts Appellate Court and the lower court also came to the same conclusion on rejecting the merits of a new civil wrong on the “intentional investment in abnormally dangerous activities.” The students had, in the higher court’s assessment, “brought their advocacy, fervent and articulate and admirable as it is, to a forum that cannot grant the relief they seek.”

The Bacow formula of engagement has been tinkered with, if ever so slightly. As a tentative nod to the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, and in response to a resolution adopted by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in February, the endowment was instructed to develop an approach to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from its investment portfolio by 2050. Full Postponement Bacow had now transitioned to Partial Postponement Bacow. “Harvard’s endowment should be a leader in shaping pathways to a sustainable future,” he wrote to members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “With this in mind, the corporation has directed the Harvard Management Company (HMC) to set itself on a path to decarbonize the overall endowment portfolio.”

In doing so, few toes will be trodden upon in this new approach, as it “considers the investment portfolio as a whole, rather than simply targeting the suppliers and producers of fossil fuels.” Possible partners, he warned, would not be demonised, as they had “committed to transitioning to carbon neutrality and to funding research on alternative fuels and on strategies to decarbonize the economy.”

The reaction from Divest Harvard showed an expected mixture of “I told you so” satisfaction tinged with regret. “Until today, the administration has claimed that the endowment should not be used for political purposes.” Finally, due to the pressure of student, faculty and alumni, Harvard had “acknowledged its duty to mitigate the emissions its endowment has been fuelling for decades.” Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard was less complimentary: the university had taken “a step in the right direction”, but the plan was “insufficient”, making fossil fuel companies “cooperative partners.”

Former college president James L. Powell assessed the nature of managing an endowment sternly in a recent letter to the New York Times. “The fundamental principle of endowment management is that future student generations should benefit to the same extent as the current generation. By investing in the very companies whose products cause dangerous global warming, Harvard violates that principle and bets that it can profit from the success of those companies.” Such betting is set to continue – at least till 2050.

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Pandemic Diplomacy: The Gum on China’s Shoe

“Australia is always there, making trouble. It is a bit like chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes. Sometimes you have to find a stone to rub it off.” (Hu Xijin, Global Times editor, April 27, 2020).

Disasters always invite blame – divine, natural, human – and the current calls of blame being directed with vengeful spleen have one target. The People’s Republic of China is being accused for everything from having shoddy and irreverent diplomats to having dubious and duplicitous scientists wickedly unleashing viruses. Australia, in China’s heavy debt for keeping its fossil fuel industry boosted and primed, is happy to be the stalking horse of powers keen to find the culpable and the guilty for the COVID-19 pandemic.

The main thrust of the recent “target China” approach is the use of that mechanism any sovereign state will be suspicious over: an independent inquiry into the origins and ultimate transmission of COVID-19. Such an inquiry serves two purposes: to identify the cause of the coronavirus and vest the relevant investigative body with powers akin to those of a weapons inspector. Two parties end up being tarred in this: the World Health Organization, considered unreformable, and the PRC, considered recalcitrant.

This seems to be an Australian brainchild as much as anything else, a provincial and parochial effort to shore up support and garner prominence on the international stage. Australian politicians have seen such suggestions as benign and benevolent. As Foreign Minister Senator Marise Payne described it, “Australia has made a principled call for an independent review of the COVID-19 outbreak, an unprecedented global crisis with severe health, economic and social impacts.”

Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Senator Penny Wong sees things similarly. “We have to press for what is right,” she claims somewhat bombastically, “what we believe is right, for us and for the international community, and making sure that humanity understands how this virus started is the right thing to do.” Canberra has ceased talking to China, and any sense of conviviality has dried up. Support, instead, is being sought in France, Germany and the United States.

French President Emmanuel Macron has responded with diplomatic caution. In the words of an Élysée official, he agreed that “there have been some issues at the start, but that the urgency is for cohesion, and that it is no time to talk about this, while reaffirming the need for transparency for all players, not only the WHO.”

This is the language Beijing has hoovered up, with its envoy in Australia, Cheng Jingye, remarking that, “Resorting to suspicion, recrimination or division at such a critical time could only undermine global efforts to fight against this pandemic.” China’s ministry of foreign affairs spokesman Geng Shuang put the point less severely. “The urgent task for all countries is focusing on international cooperation rather than pointing fingers, demanding accountability and other non-constructive approaches.”

This is not a view taken in Australia. Comments by Australia’s Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton this month suggest that unison and cohesion are not exactly on the briefing notes of ministers. As he claimed in an interview, it was “incumbent upon China to answer those questions [on COVID-19] and provide information, so that people can have clarity about exactly what happened because we don’t want it repeated.” For good measure, he added that “we know that this is not the first instance of a virus being spread from the wildlife wet markets and we need to be honest about that.” These remarks were made after an oblique reference to US State Department “documentation” supposedly detailing the spread of the coronavirus, something which Dutton personally had not read.

The Chinese embassy, ruffled, responded accordingly, using the Global Times as their platform. In the view of a spokesperson, Dutton would surely have consulted the US documents before enthusiastically launching into an attack on China. “Obviously he must have also received some instructions from Washington requiring him to cooperate with the US in its propaganda war against China.” Cheng has not shied away from threats, suggesting that a boycott of Australian goods would be an appropriate response to any Australian-led inquiry. “Maybe the ordinary people will say, ‘Why should he drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?’”

As with much in such spluttering accusation, kernels of truth are discernible in the foam. Australia remains the unquestioned sentinel of US designs in the Asia-Pacific, and should never be confused with being with the angels of impartiality. Any sense of that was killed off in the brief and dying days of the Whitlam government. Washington sees Canberra as a natural front for Chinese containment, though such an effort requires gentle padding and coating to lend a certain plausible effect. This involves, for instance, the avoidance of terms such as the “militarisation” of Northern Australia, or US “garrisons” operating on home soil. Terms such as “rotation” and “friendship” are preferred.

Sentiment in Australia against Beijing is now almost militant, watered by claims of domestic interference from the PRC, cyberwarfare, and disputes in the South China Sea. It is to be found in the usual pea-shot pugilists at Sky News to the otherwise more cautious assessments in Fairfax and The Guardian Australia. “At the moment,” suggests Richard McGregor, “Beijing is like someone who lends you a book and urges you to skip the horrifying opening chapters and flip straight to the end, where the hero – in this case, the party-state – prevails, shining a path for the rest of the world to follow.”

An international investigation along the lines being proposed by Australia would also involve its own bit of chapter skipping, with China being found to be the villain at the yawn-inducing conclusion. Such bodies of inquiry tend to suffer from an oxymoronic emphasis, since the investigators run the risk of already having their conclusions ahead of time. In all of this, someone has to pay. Partiality is lost in the zeal of getting a conviction, or finding a cause.

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Pandemic Delays: Postponing the Assange Extradition Hearing

“Mr Assange will be facing a David and Goliath battle with his hands tied behind his back.”
 – Edward Fitzgerald QC, lawyer for Julian Assange, April 27, 2020

Julian Assange must have had time amidst cramped and hostile surrounds, paperwork, pleas and applications, to ponder what circle of Dante’s Hell he finds himself in. Ailing but still battling, the WikiLeaks publisher, through his lawyers, made another vicarious appearance at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Monday to delay the next stage of extradition proceedings slated for May 18. He would have appeared via video link, but medical advice suggested it would be unsafe for him to do so at Belmarsh prison.

Assange, one of the most conspicuously wanted individuals by US authorities for fancifully broad claims of espionage and computer intrusion, had a range of eminently sensible reasons for seeking the delay. The defence continued in relentless fashion, making arguments they have done throughout. The feeling for the observer is that, at some point, the District Judge Vanessa Baraitser might bite, or at least shift ever so slightly.

Assange’s legal team, spearheaded by Edward Fitzgerald QC, noted that adequate case preparations were, in the current circumstances, impossible. There had been the briefest of phone calls with their client; the defence team had been unable to speak to Assange for over a month. The case, claimed Fitzgerald, had gone “from difficult to impossible”. There were “no person-to-person meetings. The alternative of video conferences is medically dangerous.” A meeting that was due to take place last week in the holding cells of Woolwich Crown Court never transpired, as prison authorities refused to permit it.

According to the written submission, “It is not possible to take Mr Assange’s instructions in order to respond to the recently served declarations of Mr Kromberg, the US Attorney representing the case for the US.” Those representing the publisher were “unable to fulfil their professional obligations to him in the circumstances and he is deprived of equality of arms with the prosecution”.

The second ground followed from the first: no full extradition could take place in May that would enable Assange to “participate effectively in the hearing”. Abiding by principles of open justice would also be improbable given the ongoing pandemic restrictions that would prevent the press and public “to attend and follow proceedings”. The fourth ground focused on Assange’s own vulnerable constitution, already ravaged by stress and pressure occasioned by his confinement at HMP Belmarsh. The sum of this was that “he could not fairly be expected to participate in a full evidentiary hearing in May.”

The ever unsympathetic Baraitser, usually unmoved by any defence application that might suggest favour to Assange, accepted the argument that the May 18 date be vacated, and an administrative hearing scheduled for May 4, enabling lawyers on all sides to consider a new date for the full hearing. The measure was granted, in no small part because of lack of protest from the prosecution. As James Lewis QC, putting the case for the United States, submitted, “In this extraordinary time, we would support the application.”

Given the circumstances (the judge finally acknowledged the obvious: that Britain was in a coronavirus lockdown), it was unlikely that Assange and his lawyers would be able to physically attend the scheduled May 18 hearing. “Remote attendance by the parties, in this case, will not be appropriate.  It is now appropriate to vacate that hearing and fix it to a later date.” At the earliest, a three-week block from November 2 can be made available.

On other points, Baraitser remained cold and tenaciously blind. She could not see how the lockdown itself had any evident impact on case preparation, nor affect the proper attendance of witnesses. “I have been given no reason to believe that pre-hearing discussion with expert witnesses can’t take place remotely.” The issue of Assange’s safety in being transported to a video conference room was a matter for the prison to make. Nor would press reporting be impaired, despite witnessing, in her own court, the distinctly shonky coverage for media offered by the teleconference facility.

As the UK Bureau Director of Reporters Without Borders Rebecca Vincent would comment, reflecting upon the day’s technical challenges, “resuming the full extradition hearing in such conditions would not allow for open justice. This case is of tremendous public interest, and the press and NGO observers must be able to scrutinise proceedings.”

Assange supporters and case watchers were relieved by the change of heart shown from the bench. Kevin Gosztola of Shadowproof opined that a May 18 hearing during the COVID-19 pandemic “would’ve significantly undermined due process rights of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange”.

Then came the next question, a spectre over the stuttered court proceedings: Would Assange be able to obtain bail? His father, John Shipton, certainly thought so, as obtaining such relief would alleviate the danger of contracting COVID-19 in a “prison where two people have died of the disease”. According to Renata Avila, a key human rights lawyer and board member for Creative Commons, such a delay would surely entitle Assange to the measure. “Under current conditions, he cannot prepare his legal defence and he is risking his life.”

The hope for legal, and compassionate sense to prevail, remains admirably optimistic.  Assange is bound in a cruel legal purgatory, a shackled David facing the Goliath of the US imperium. But even with his hands tied, Assange is still putting up a most resolute fight.

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Threatening the Governors: William Barr’s Commercial and Civil Liberties Brief

“[Y]ou can’t just keep on feeding the patient chemotherapy and say well, we’re killing the cancer, because we were getting to the point where we’re killing the patient.” (William Barr, US Attorney General, April 21, 2020).

The US Federal Attorney General should, nominally at least, be a stickler for the Constitution and its sacred word. When President Dwight Eisenhower’s Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr. was asked to participate in the suit that became Brown v the Board of Education, his position, while disruptive to pro-segregation states, showed fidelity to that document. The “separate but equal” doctrine should, it was suggested in legal argument, be overturned.

William Barr has proven to be something of an exception, threatening the federal system with interventions that say little about legality and everything about the jarring nature of partisan politics. There is an election to be won in November, and Barr has been showing Trump the most striking plumage of loyalty, encouraging the widest and most expansive readings of executive power.

As one of the members of the “open economy” faction in the administration, he has been waving a threatening sword against any US governors who defy the White House in efforts to ease quarantine measures. He was already giving some inkling of this in an interview with Laura Ingraham. By the end of April, he explained, “I think we have to allow people to adapt more than we have and not just tell people to go home and hide under the bed, but allow them to use other ways – social distancing and other means – to protect themselves.”

This has been aided, in no small measure, by various conservative and libertarian groups, one featuring former Reagan official and Attorney General, the ever lastingly corrupt Ed Meese. In a letter penned by Meese’s group to Barr, “rampant abuses of constitutional rights and civil liberties” were alleged, requiring the Attorney General “to undertake immediate review of all the orders that have been issued by the states and local governments across the nation.”

On April 21, in an interview with Hugh Hewitt, the topic of presidential powers came up for discussion. From Barr’s answers, two things can be discerned: a president who has operated “well within the traditional rules of law” – an incongruous assessment, to put it mildly – and a confusion shown by the press about “whether the president or a governor ought to do something in particular.”

Barr proceeds to show his own confusion in looking at those powers. First, he levels a shot at the governors themselves, suggesting that a few have been rough and ready to adopt various overbearing measures such as stay-at-home measures that have been poorly adapted. “When a governor acts, especially when a governor does something that intrudes upon or infringes on a fundamental right or a Constitutional right, they’re bounded by that. And those situations are emerging around the country, to some extent.”

The Attorney General expressed a particular dislike for the entire concept of house isolation, though he did accept that “in some places it might still be justified.” But the very “idea that you have to stay in your house is disturbingly close to house arrest.”

Barr then highlights the economy, which he regards as the purview of the federal government through the Commerce clause, “the so-called Dormant Commerce Clause.” The governors, he envisaged, could stray by taking “measures that impair interstate commerce.” A good number were already of interest to Barr. “We’re looking carefully at a number of these rules that are being put in place. And if we think one goes too far, we initially try to jawbone the governors into rolling them back or adjusting them.” Not succeeding on that front, Barr promises vigorous legal counters where “people bring lawsuits”, with the administration siding with the plaintiffs in pitched battles to overturn onerous regulations. “As lawsuits develop, as specific cases emerge in the states, we’ll take a look at them.” Pity the public health argument.

The Justice Department has already been true to this, throwing its weight behind a Mississippi Church’s action against the City of Greenville over shut-down orders on alleged impingements of religious freedom. Admittedly, the April 7 measures were scatty and inconsistent, the product of a muddled bureaucratic mind. Of particular concern to the Temple Baptist Church were fines of $500 levelled on anyone attending parking lot services connected with the church, yet permitting citizens to attend drive-in restaurants with abandon even, as Barr put it, “with their windows open.” Greenville thereby appeared to have “singled churches out as the only essential service (as designated by the state of Mississippi) that may not operate despite following all CDC and state recommendations regarding social distancing.”

The action by Barr and the Church were sufficient to convince the Greenville council to relent on the issue of fines and revise the order. The new policy eliminates the distinction between drive-up church services and other forms of drive-up interactions. Worshippers will simply have to keep their windows wound up – well, at least most of the time.

The White House and Justice Department can only hope to direct their ire against the governors in such indirect actions. Other pressures – monetary, for instance – may also be directed against transgressors keen to retain the stay-home regime. All the while, the core problem – that of having sufficient testing kits and adequate equipment – will be skirted. The pandemic will continue to rage.

Certain governors have already decided in a fevered rush to unleash their state’s economic urges, easing Barr’s concerns while unnerving other officials. Despite having over 20,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, Georgia’s Brian Kemp gave the order last week permitting nail salons, massage therapists, tattoo parlours, bowling alleys, gyms and various other businesses to reopen on Friday. This week, movie theatres and restaurants can follow suit. The advice given to Kemp by Georgia’s Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey was not exactly rosy, but teasingly optimistic. “We definitely have a plateauing and what appears to be a decline.” This did not convince Marc Lipsitch of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “If you open up enough, it’s almost certain the virus will hit Georgia again.”

The view from the mayoral side was despairing, suggesting a state deeply divided between the narrative of rights stubbornly asserted, and that of public health, poorly considered. Albany Mayor Bo Dorough was aghast. “I’m flabbergasted that the governor would say we can’t take additional precautions to protect our citizens. This isn’t a mixed signal. It’s a U-turn.” For all that, the United States remains, at its core, a business civilisation; and at the helm of USA Inc. is a businessman fronted by a loyal Attorney General keen to impress. The economy-commercial faction in the administration is on the move and the public health advocates risk being mauled.

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Despots and Disease: Gossiping over Kim Jong-Un

Illness can often fall into the category of the obsessive, becoming a sport for mugs, sufferers and observers alike. The following often feature: the hypochondriac, the speculator of disease, the gossip about how far gone a person is who has contracted something or rather. When it comes to tyrants, such speculation becomes a thrill of sorts, with rich lashings of Schadenfreude. Rome’s notorious consul Lucius Cornelius Sulla and despot of the Republic was one who perished to phthiriasis, that lousy disease of antiquity characterised by stubborn lice, lesions, itching and death. His demise brought cheers from Pausanias, while Pliny thought Sulla’s victims more fortunate than him, whose “body ate itself away and bred its own torments”.

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un was never one to be accused of fitness. Fleshed over, looking every bit the glutton, he has been facing the doctors as a prisoner does the firing squad. Recent rumours of his ill-health have seen much column space dedicated to pseudo-medical commentary, marked by voyeuristic relish. The North Korean leader, according to the New York Post, “weighs about as much as the average-size sumo wrestler, smokes like a chimney and comes from a family with a history of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.”

Aside from the tabloid titterers, North Korea watchers have been casting their eye in the direction of Kim’s health for a time. At stages, the material is comical – again, disease and physical constitution as obsession. Take Anna Fifield of the Washington Post, who states, with self-satisfied precision, that the leader is five feet, seven inches tall, weighing about three hundred bounds, with a body mass index of 45 – “extremely obese”, she reminds us. Her book, The Great Successor, details those wearying moments of ill-health: the fact that Kim was “huffing and puffing” relative to his South Korean counterpart as they shovelled “dirt onto the base of a pine tree during their first meeting”; that at the age of 30, he vanished for six weeks “apparently the consequence of severe gout, and returned with a walking stick.”

This month, Daily NK, based in Seoul, reported that Kim had undergone a cardiovascular procedure and “continues to recuperate form the procedure at a villa outside Pyongyang.” It did not have much to go on, but drawing drops of blood out of hard stone is something of a specialty for students of North Korean power. Readers were still thrown a morsel or two to consume. Kim had, for instance, undergone heart surgery at Hyang San Hospital, a procedure undertaken by a doctor from Kim Man Yoo Hospital. “In a phone call with the source on April 22, Daily NK learned that Hyang San Hospital was designated for the exclusive use of the Kim family in 2014 after the North Korean leader began suffering from ‘medical issues’.”

The area had appealing geographical features, being away from the conspicuousness of Pyongyang. It also had sentimental value, with father Kim Jong-il having built the hospital in the wake of his own father’s death. (Kim Il-sung had fallen gravely ill at Hyang San Villa in 1994, dying there of a “severe myocardial infarction along with a heart attack” after being stranded by heavy rains.) The hospital itself, according to the source Daily NK loves to milk, does not want for anything, equipped with the best from Germany and Japan, with the doctors being “the best of the best even though they live in Hyang San.”

Now, the delightful plump despot is being fussed over with degrees of venom and curiosity. Will be fall victim to a team of too many doctors? The People’s Republic of China have sent a team to the DPRK to advise on the situation, including a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department.

With enthusiasm, CNN flung itself into the rumour mill. Last Tuesday, the network’s chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto had received news from a US official claiming that Kim’s “health is in grave danger following a surgery.” The BBC’s Laura Bicker preferred to go to South Korean sources instead, and found little to fuss about. “An official from the presidential office in Seoul has said that there are no particular signs or developments within North Korea amid reports that Kim Jong-un is seriously ill after heart surgery.”

The Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s attack dog in the British press, shows no such reserve. “North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is in a vegetative state, according to unverified reports.” One of those is drawn from Japanese newspaper Shukan Gendai, not a source you would expect Sun reporters to consult. But all of these pale before the social media swirl that Kim is already somewhere in totalitarian paradise, with Hong Kong Satellite Television’s vice-director Shijian Xingzou claiming that he is dead.

The Kim story, if it could be called that, also has the addition of a ruthless female annex, sexed up in the analysis and given the Lady Macbeth flourish. Kim Yo-jong, over whom tabloids masticate over, is already being appointed successor by press outlets. And my does she promise to be vicious. The Daily Mail, never one to disappoint in matters macabre and shallow, is already wondering what will happen if she were to occupy the position of her brother. “Kim Yo-jong could be even more ruthless than her brother has been in his eight year rule, experts warn.” Attempting to coat the claims with a varnishing of professionalism, the good Mail drew on the “totalitarian” expertise of Professor Natasha Lindstaedt. “I don’t believe that her being a woman will weaken her position if she takes over as leader.” Illuminating stuff.

Other news agencies of sober calm, such as Reuters, have been cautious to the point of being tedious. Their approach: Wait and see. “Reuters was unable to immediately determine what the trip by the Chinese medical team signalled in terms of Kim’s health.” How dull.

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Treacherous Accommodations: Australian Universities, Coronavirus and the NTEU

They have been struggling to keep their membership numbers healthy, but the latest antics of the executive that make up Australia’s National Tertiary Education Union suggest why. For a good period of time, Australian unions have been losing teeth, and not all of it can be put down to the measures of the federal government to pull them. In the university sector, where unionism should be intellectually vibrant and committed, the issue is one of corporatist accommodation. Do not rock the boat of management; give executives vast, byzantine powers of disciplining staff; do little to criticise the obscene remuneration packages of the Vice Chancellors and their tribunes.

With the NTEU being, in many instances, retainers for university executives, rather than defenders of the academic work force, the email circulated to members on April 8 by the general secretary Matthew McGowan could hardly have come as a shock. These are trying times in response to coronavirus, and Universities Australia chairperson Deborah Terry has promised the loss of 21,000 jobs over the next six months in the tertiary sector.

Having revealed that the NTEU had “approached a number of Vice Chancellors, Universities Australia, and the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association to press the need for an urgent national dialogue,” McGowan outlined the grim agenda. “To protect jobs, we may need to consider measures that we would never normally consider. These may include deferral of pay rises, providing the ability to direct taking of leave, or other cost saving measures.”

The letter is replete with the weasel words that have come to characterise NTEU-University “dialogues”. Any harsh measures taken are to be “temporary and proportional to the loss at each university.” There needed to be “transparency and oversight” (Australian universities do a good line in unaccountability and opaque governance, making such suggestions mildly amusing, if not downright ridiculous.)

Having outlined a position of forfeiture and compromise, the sell-out narrative is given the usual garnish: the federal government should throw money at the sector with drunken relish; a “national discussion” (tea anybody?) needed to be had about future international student enrolments. And to convince the membership that the NTEU executive was being somehow compassionate, McGowan was careful to underline the objectives of the negotiations. “Our primary aim is to protect jobs and to ensure that job cuts are the last resort. Of course, we believe that universities must divert funds from capital works and other non-staff related expenditure, as well as to take cuts to senior management salaries before staff are asked to bear the burden.”

No of course about it. The NTEU national executive is giving the most generous of signals to university management to make swingeing cuts as long as they, angelic types as they are, make a few concessions of their own. Its method is a tested and failed one: cooperation (“you can get everything you want through cooperation,” says ACTU secretary Sally McManus), or, more accurately, collaboration.

The ultimate purpose of this arrangement is to create a framework of salvation, with more profitable universities supposedly buffering weaker, less profitable ones. NTEU National President Alison Barnes, with characteristic lack of conviction, speaks of this framework as “a temporary measure to provide staff and the union with a higher degree of certainty and security than would otherwise occur in an industrial free-for-all.”

The way this will be executed will be through that vehicle that has become a symbol of some mockery: the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement. While the NTEU tends to congratulate itself about the “better pay, better conditions” line, the pathetically modest improvements, such EBAs are policing tools, controlling staff with such Orwellian notions as the code of conduct and the odd bribe.

Voting on the new EBAs is bound to take place at speed and with little information handy for NTEU members. The cheeky changes made by the federal government to the Fair Work Act on the time needed to consult over changes to pay and conditions – from one week to a mere 24 hours – is a sign of what is to come.

The NTEU branches have not been impressed, but they can hardly be surprised by the temptations of such feeble treachery. There has been little in the way of demanding heads on platters and flesh for the gallows. The preference for the membership is for indignant voting, be they ones of censure or rude notes of awakening. At the University of Sydney, a vote of 117 to 2 was taken to censure the NTEU national executive for “commencing negotiations on significant concessions.”

As for the universities themselves, the cuts have begun in earnest. “Non-essential” research and professional staff casuals have been given their marching orders at La Trobe University and RMIT. What is regarded as non-essential would not, you would think, include library and staff in the information technology sections, but then again, a library without librarians is the sort of thing that would make sense to the university politburo. Instead, we have distinctly non-essential publicists and human resources personnel spreading the cheer, with RMIT having come up with that least essential of positions, a Chief People Officer, to facilitate matters. The line between ghoulish humour and agitprop has been well and truly crossed.

An awful truth has been let out by the recent antics of the NTEU national executive: members were actually paying fees for their betrayal in the university boardroom. They would not be consulted; the executive would decide what’s best. But instead of rectifying the situation, the NTEU is seeking a membership drive. Join the union, and get 3 months free membership!  What a lark.

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An Odd Little Commemoration: ANZAC Mythology during Coronavirus

War commemorations nurse a dirty secret, though it is one displayed with a peacock flourish. The victors bring out the celebratory paraphernalia and talk about noble ideas; the defeated, quite simply, do not. We won, we celebrate and we, somehow, got things right. You, defeated, eat it, beat it. This does not quite work well with the ANZAC tradition, born, as it was in a defeat.

The Australians, along with their often-forgotten New Zealanders, lost in their effort to invade and knock out Turkey in 1915 during the Great War. The Australian New Zealand Army Corps was part of a grand gamble hatched by the chief of the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. “I can visualize great movements and combinations,” he reflected, even as the Western front had become a stymied slaughterhouse of barbed wire and attrition. This entailed defeating an ally of Imperial Germany, Ottoman Turkey, in an effort to seize Constantinople.

The Turks refused to play along in this gambit, and proved more than a match in defending their territory. In the ensuing bloodbath, 87,000 Turks lost their lives, as did 44,000 French and British Empire soldiers. From Australia, 8,500 perished; from New Zealand, almost 3,000. The defeat of the Allied forces in 1915 remains one of the graver distortions in the pop culture mash that is ANZAC. Failed invaders became sacralised heroes.

The ANZAC Day formalities on April 25 have become the stuff of secular religion in Australia. Children are inculcated into it; journeys are arranged to visit Gallipoli, with Turkish hospitality at the ready. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has used, rather oddly, the spirit of ANZAC in dealing with the current pandemic, cites the familiar line. “ANZAC Day is a sacred day for all Australians. It is an important time to remember the sacrifices of those who have gone before us, those who have laid down our lives or suffered great hardship to protect the Australian way of life.” New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern also observed that the Gallipoli services had become “a pilgrimage of sorts for many New Zealanders.” The ritual on April 25 rarely deviates: the ANZAC Dawn Service, the Australian Lone Pine Service, an assortment of wreath-laying ceremonies, the New Zealand Service at Chunuk Bair, Turkey.

But the effects of coronavirus have spooked the political classes sufficiently to cancel gatherings and make physical distancing a matter of priority. Parades have also been scratched. In a statement last week, Ardern noted that, “with global restrictions and isolation requirements in place in most countries it is simply not practical to hold this year’s event.”

Such measures have fallen poorly on aged ears. A centurion from New South Wales north coast, Henry ‘Corky’ Caldwell, has made a habit of marching for 75 years. When he got the news that ANZAC gatherings would be cancelled, he did not take matters too well. “It’s very important. I’ve been going to it ever since the war finished.”

Caldwell was fortunate to have a considerate daughter, taking it upon herself to post on Facebook about his disappointment. Thousands responded with notes of thanks for his service to country. One Phil Heesch of Grafton offered his jeep, with an idea that Caldwell would have his own private parade – observing physical distancing, of course – through the streets of Grafton.

Not having the usual parade day and gunfire breakfasts has produced a loose-ends spirit. “With parades and dawn services cancelled,” claims Channel 9 News, “many Australians are at a loss for how to pay their respects come April 25 this Saturday.” The conservative Returned & Services League (RSL), the druidical body of war commemoration, had a suggestion on what Australians might do. You might, according to the Victorian branch of the organisation, not be able to go to the Shrine of Remembrance, or a local Dawn Service, but you might #STANDTO. “As the Last Post is played during the ANZAC Day Dawn Service walk outside, stand in your yard, driveway, or on your balcony and observe a minute of silence in respect in respect of our veterans. Make sure you snap a quick picture and share it right there on our Facebook page using the hashtag #STANDTO.” Not even secular religions can resist the inexorable siren call of the hashtag.

Ahead of Saturday, there is much beating the drum for memory’s sake: Do not forget the significance of ANZAC Day, despite the anxiety caused by COVID-19. Remember sacrifices for a way of life preserved, whatever the current disruptions. But there is something to be said about forgetting the calls for war, the fictional necessity of having to invade or interfere in foreign conflicts for the sake of being relevant. The list of theatres of conflict Australia finds itself listed against should not be a source of pride. They read like a mercenary’s job list rather than a noble patriot’s calling, the woolly-headed commitments of commanders who should know better.

On the surface of it, such commemorations seem sweetly felt, and many a sentiment will be genuine enough. But as with the historically clipped versions of the Gallipoli landings available on RSL memoranda and the creation of the ANZAC “legend”, the nature of war as being necessary and a good thing will persist. As with each year, the incompetent classes, the political buffoons and gamblers who sent people to die in distant fields and towns the soldiers could hardly spell, let alone pronounce, will get a commemorative pass. Even on Zoom, Facebook or whatever zany mechanism war commemoration takes, facts will be resisted and mythology revered.

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Climbing the Revenue Mountain: Google, Facebook and the Publishers’ Right

They are rather good at raking in the cash; rather poor at sharing it. Google and Facebook have radiated, strafed and shrivelled hundreds of news outlets across the globe with their information sharing platforms while celebrating choice, advertising revenue and traffic. The idea of whether such content is news is irrelevant: what is shared, be it news, rumour or supposition, is what matters.

The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission had been tasked with something verging on the impossible: draft a voluntary code of conduct covering the interaction between digital platforms and media outlets. In so doing, the evident asymmetry between the two groups – in terms of market share, competition and revenue – would be addressed. The digital behemoths would be more generous; media outlets would be rewarded for the reuse of news snippets and summaries. But discussions, and progress, proved slow. On the issue of payment for content, no ground had been given, with, according to the ACCC, “no expectation of any even being made”.

The process might have been given more time but for the depredations of COVID-19. “The Australian media sector,” announced Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, “was already under significant pressure – that has now been exacerbated by a sharp decline in advertising revenue driven by coronavirus.”

Last Friday, Frydenberg laid out his reasons for making such a code mandatory. It was feebleness clothed in confidence. “Let’s tackle this head-on,” he opens, all sporting metaphor, “no less than Australia’s media landscape is at stake.” He referenced a second-hand printing press on the First Fleet that landed on Australian shores in 1788. (No mention of convicts.) But without too much ado, he got into the disruptive role of the digital giants. “For every $100 spent by advertisers in Australia on online advertising, excluding classifieds, $47 goes to Google, $24 to Facebook and $29 to other participants. In Australia, this market is worth almost $9bn a year and has grown more than eight-fold since 2005.”   

Failure to find some voluntary arrangement had necessitated the move towards a mandatory code, armed with powers of compulsion. Frydenberg envisages provisions covering “value exchange and revenue sharing; transparency of ranking algorithms; access to user data; presentation of news content; and the penalties and sanctions for non-compliance.”

For its part, Google has played the role of fiendish nurturer and indispensable promoter. In a statement to TechCrunch, a Google spokesman cited the familiar line that the company had “worked for many years to be a collaborative partner to the news industry, helping them grow their businesses through ads and subscription services and increase audiences by driving valuable traffic.” Consultations had taken place with 25 Australian publishers on a voluntary code; constructive conversations had been held with the ACCC and government.

Attempts to seek payment for content from the tech behemoths have had mixed results. Agence France Presse sued Google for copyright infringement in 2005 with minimal effect; Belgian publishers targeted the re-run of article snippets in Google News in 2006 in the courts, despite being able to use the opt-out option on Google’s crawler. The three newspapers got more than they bargained for: a legal victory with the court ordering the removal of their articles from Google News and Google Search. After seeing a decline in online traffic caused by the court order, the papers, along with the status quo, were quietly restored. As Mike Masnick of Techdirt quipped, the publishers spent five years battling, and defeating the digital beast, only to “then let Google immediately go back to what it was doing before. Nice work guys.”

The reasons for such erratic, and often ill-fated battles, lies in the wars being waged within the cyber community and legislative chambers over the issue of how content is used on the Internet. Regulators are badged as penny pinching tyrants; pro-freedom Internet users are coloured as in the pay of tech giants, complicit in impoverishing such content providers as publishers and the Fourth Estate. The true victors in this are always the same: Silicon Valley.

When confronted, the response from Google has been brusque and swift. In Spain, the company closed its Google News service in 2014 because of a legislative effort made to seek revenue for the search engine’s display of news items. As Google explains, “Legislation in Spain requires every Spanish publication to charge services like Google News for showing even the smallest snippet from their publications, whether they want to or not. This approach is not sustainable for Google News.” Just to rub some salt in the wound, Google suggested to Spanish readers that they might want to go to the Mexican edition instead.

The European Union Parliament, in its battle of attrition with Silicon Valley, passed online copyright reforms in March 2019 which proved sufficiently controversial to garner 274 opposing votes. (348 voted in favour.) Central to the measures is Article 15 (originally Article 11) of the European Union Copyright Directive, granting a “Publishers’ Right” that protects content, including “snippets” and summaries, against unauthorised use by digital platforms. “Creatives”, including performers, musicians, script authors, are covered, as are news publishers.

One heavy bone of contention with the Copyright Directive was that it constitutes a jarring blow to internet freedom, encouraging the pre-filtering of online uploads. The often indignant counter is that such criticism benefits the digital giants who take the freeloading gravy train in monetising copyrighted content without payment.  

France has shouldered the burden of making the publishers’ right part of its national law, one that includes extending copyright over news story ledes displayed by aggregators covered by Article 15. As in the case of Spain, Google reiterated its threats and promises, making an announcement last September that it would remove snippets in search results on the French law going into effect. To avoid this, news publishers would have to waive their rights for compensation. As News Media Alliance CEO David Chavern said at the time, “This unilateral decision is in direct conflict with the spirit of the EU Copyright Directive and raises serious questions about Google’s commitment to the future of high-quality journalism.”

The French Competition Authority has ordered Google to come to the table with local media companies on compensation for reusing content. In a statement, the FCA claimed that Google’s practices were “likely to constitute an abuse of a dominant position, and caused serious immediate harm to the press sector.”

Frydenberg does acknowledge the mountain, being under “no illusions as to the difficulty and complexity of implementing a mandatory code” but he does not delve into the consequences of retaliatory action. Should Google and Facebook turn gangster on the point, how will an already ravaged Australian media landscape cope?

A Stanford Business School study from 2017 suggests that overall news consumption dropped in Spain in the order of 20% after the shuttering of Google News. Pageviews on publisher sites other than Google were fell by 10%. “Post-shutdown, they read less breaking news, hard news, and news that is not well covered on their favourite publisher.”

An examination by the News Media Alliance suggests a rather different picture. On consulting the work of Spanish and news industry organisations in Europe, including eight Spanish news publisher websites since 2014, an assessment distinctly against the tech giant narrative emerged: that the closure of Google News in response to the Spanish law was “not detrimental to the Spanish news publishing industry as a whole.” The reduction in traffic was “low and temporary.” One of Spain’s largest newspapers, El País, reported 8.5 million unique monthly visitors in October 2014 prior to the shutdown; in December 2015, the number had increased to a very healthy 16.6 million. “The data we reviewed do not indicate that publishers would be significantly harmed if Google ceased to operate Google News in a particular country.”

Even if the mandatory code lacks the necessary bite, the European examples suggest that going it alone, or least without the boosting traffic of Silicon Valley, may not spell catastrophe. The focus, then, will be on Australian news outlets to produce material worthy of reading and viewing – a challenge, in its truest sense.

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Settling Scores: Malcolm Turnbull’s Smaller Picture

Memoirs can be unreliable artefacts. They feature fiercely subjective views, reflections tempered, or hardened, by the passage of time. They tend to be of lives edited, errors justified, triumphs amplified. Malcolm Turnbull, yet another Australian prime minister butchered by the ranks of his own party, has not set out to be an exception to this rule, though his memoir A Bigger Picture has already made the wettest of splashes by an incident surrounding its publication.

With only a few days prior to its Monday release, a pirated copy had found its way into circulation. Foreign Minister Marise Payne was one recipient of it, though she was adamant on the ABC’s Insiders programme that she had deleted the illicit copy with automatic swiftness. “I would encourage anyone who has received [it] to do the same.”  She proved less forthcoming on who was responsible for sending the copy.

A delicious twist was supplied by the fact that the email attaching a digital copy of the book to it had come from the Prime Minister’s office. Scott Morrison’s senior adviser, Nico Louw, had received an unsolicited copy of the book, which he duly forwarded to 59 individuals. A letter of complaint written to Louw by lawyers representing Turnbull and his publishers, Hardie Grant, followed. On Sunday evening, while not wishing to delve into the legal proceedings, a spokesman for Morrison revealed, rather amusingly, that “Staff have been reminded of their obligations under copyright law, and of the high standards of conduct expected of them.”

Chief executive of the Australian Publishing Association, Michael Gordon-Smith was put out. “Everyone in government, and especially anyone with a leadership role has an obligation not just to observe the law but to uphold it.” Such obligations tend to get lax in times of retribution.

As for such books, timing is important. A measure of Turnbull’s resentment may lie in the speed with which his work was published after leaving office. There was no period of rumination to take place; he had matters to settle, bitterness to front. There are buckets of generous knocking, a re-ordering of the accounts. In so doing, the impression given is one of a sound prime minister cut down in his prime, able to defeat the then Labor opposite number, Bill Shorten. (Turnbull will go to the grave convinced that he could have defeated Labor in the 2019 election.)

His stint as prime minister can hardly be regarded as a glorious piece of inspired moderate governance, despite claims that he fought the “divisive, dog-whistling, anti-immigration agenda” advanced by his Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton. Turnbull might have been the sharpest of legal eagles, the most canny of merchant bankers; but when it came to politics, he seemed to lack a sense of the terrain he was fighting, the hobgoblins he was confronting.

A refugee exchange deal with the United States was hatched under his stewardship, one that US President Donald Trump would, as he did with many other things, deem “dumb”. His record in placating the more right-wing, even reactionary elements of his party served to highlight his weakness as a leader. Whatever his own perceptions, he seemed to be haunted, a prisoner to a titanic struggle of ideology within his own party which had, he argued, lost touch with liberalism. His electoral record was also shonky, losing 14-seats in the 2016 double-dissolution election which saw a tediously drawn-out campaign period of two months.

Turnbull’s political portraits are many, unsympathetic, and deflecting. Painting himself as the purest of victims enables him to aim a few meaty blows at his target. He ignores his own role in wielding the dagger that would eventually find its way to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, whom he regarded as something close to a lunatic. Abbott’s close advisor, Peta Credlin, dominated him (and was, it would seem, “running the country”), treating the PM with withering contempt, a reverse Pygmalion. No sense of irony is detected here by Turnbull, given those many accusations during his time in office that Dutton and the right faction were really the ones calling the shots. As Shorten put it at the time, not without some merit, Turnbull was “held hostage to the right-wing puppet masters pulling the strings”.

Turnbull’s successor, Morrison, comes off as the man who courted treachery, interested as early as 2014 to “sniff out interest in removing [Tony] Abbott”. It had been but a year since the Coalition had returned to office. Turnbull, denying his own sense of agency in all of this, felt that he was “being used as a stalking horse by others, especially Scott Morrison, to position themselves.” A dinner on December 10, 2014 saw Morrison’s regicidal vision unveiled. “It was the first time he laid out, fairly comprehensively, his thinking on Abbott, who he felt would have to go by the middle of 2015 if his performance didn’t improve.” Scribblers and journalists in Rupert Murdoch country were briefed, “getting ready to dump Abbott.” It was Morrison, no one else, who “saw himself as the successor.” The theme – Morrison as the saboteur, chief conspirator, and undermining force – soaks through.

In 2018, Morrison took centre stage in the palace revolt that eventually led to Turnbull’s toppling, while denying himself that prominence. For Turnbull, Morrison “is a control freak and I’d seen before in the ballots in 2015 how he’d publicly vote one way while ensuring his supporters voted the other way.” Such devilry!

The usual suspects have come out to mount a counter-offensive against the former prime minister. The Australian, which always had its reservations about Turnbull, added its little bit of spoliation by running a portion of the book’s contents last Thursday, having asked neither Turnbull or the publisher for permission. “Malcolm Turnbull,” the paper sneered, “has a talent for living up to low expectations. In politics, he governed the Liberal Party into the ground.” Turnbull’s tall poppy had to be severed.  

Sky News has also been busy stocking the arsenal with anti-Turnbull retorts, giving the likes of Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar room to claim that “many aspects of the book” should be taken “with a grain of salt”. As for Christian Ellis, who formerly advised Turnbull, a vote as to whether his old boss should be expelled with permanent effect from the Liberal Party was a proposition to be seriously entertained. Turnbull is unlikely to care.

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Donald Trump’s Governor Problem: Debates on Opening Up the Economy

Things are getting dizzy in the White House on what, exactly, is being done to “open the economy”. Cranky advocates for the financial argument over the restrictions of public health have been attempting to claw back some ground. As Jonathan Chait puts it, “The anti-public health faction either believes the dangers of the coronavirus have been exaggerated, or that the cost of social-distancing requirements is so high that the economy should simply be opened, regardless of medical danger.”

Officials such as US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow have been busy pushing the line that the shuttered economy will be opened come May. In Mnuchin’s words, “As soon as the president feels comfortable with the medical issues, we are making everything necessary that American companies and American workers can be open for business and that they have the liquidity they need to operate the business in the interim.” On the Fox Business Network, Kudlow outlined his views. “Our intent here was, is, to try to relieve people of the enormous difficult hardships they are suffering through no fault of their own.”

The economy-before-health group, which also consists of Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, has never had much time for the medical arguments. In the views of a senior administration official, “They already know what they want to do and they’re looking for ways to do it.”

What, then, could be done to remove the shutters? President Donald Trump initially felt enough confidence to claim the broadest of powers on the subject, bypassing states and their authority to manage and ease the coronavirus lockdowns. “The authority of the president of the United States having to do with the subject we are talking about is total,” he explained at a White House press conference early last week. “I have the ultimate authority.”

He tantalised those gathered with promises of a written paper on the subject, though felt it unnecessary “because the governors need us one way or the other because, ultimately, it comes with the federal government.”

On April 14, Trump took aim at his most favourite of hobby horses – the “Fake News Media” – for claiming “that it is the Governors decision to open up the states, not that of the President of the United States & the Federal Government. Let it be fully understood that this is incorrect.” Legal authorities such as Steve Vladeck of the University of Texas in Austin disagree: “the president has no formal legal authority to categorically override local or state shelter-in-place orders or to reopen schools and small businesses.”

After his initial imputation of such vast constitutional powers, Trump felt that it was all up to the governors in any case. He called testing for COVID-19 “a local thing”, feeling that State officials were showing little or no initiative in using commercial labs.

Things are certainly not rosy, let alone coordinated, between the White House and the governors. Criticism of the president’s uneven and tardy response has earned rebuke and mocking. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer became “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer”; Washington Governor Jay Inslee was lashed by comments of being a “failed presidential candidate who was “constantly chirping”. As Trump has explained with a note of tartness to Vice President Mike Pence, “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call. Even during times of high crisis, the president luxuriates in adolescent petulance.

In certain states, there has been a rash of protests against quarantine regimes. Trump, ever the tease, has thrown in his lot with them, tweeting messages of “liberation” for Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia, all led by Democratic governors. Michigan, in particular, has one of the firmest quarantine regimes in the country, measures which have spawned such groups of disgruntlement as the Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine.

The April 15 protest, which featured a gathering outside the Michigan State Capitol, was held with a daring impertinence, with participants fobbing off anything related to physical distancing rules. Four Michigan residents have also decided to throw the law book at the governor, with legal proceedings claiming that the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order is in violation of their constitutional rights. The attorney responsible for filing the suit, one David Helm, argues that Whitner’s initial executive order passed muster in targeting “the specific needs of the crises”; the second, issued on April 9, was “unreasonable” and an act of executive over stretch.

The White House has suggested a strategy to the 50 governors, one involving three phases. Phase one continues to feature social distancing in public, the isolation of vulnerable individuals, socialising in small groups and minimising “non-essential travel”. Bars are to be remain closed, but gyms can open on the proviso of observing “strict physical distancing and sanitation protocols”. Phase Two keeps vulnerable individuals in shelter, increases the number of individuals who can gather in social settings (from 10 to 50) and permits non-essential travel. The continuation of telework where feasible and keeping common areas where workers might gather closed also feature. The final phase permits vulnerable individuals to resume public interactions, though low-risk populations should still exercise caution in spending time “in crowded environments” and the resumption of “unrestricted staffing of worksites”.

But confusion reigns, exemplified by the remarks made by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. “Open what, open it when, and open it how?” Trump continues to play – loudly – to his political base, indulging bouts of pageantry even as he mocks the methods of the States. In responding to Trump’s tweets of support for the protestors, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz tried to get some clarification. “I called to ask, what are we doing differently about moving towards getting as many people back into the workforce without compromising the health of Minnesotans or the providers?” No reply was forthcoming. And that, to a governor who has not, as Walz described it, “had open clashes with the administration.”

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The Coronavirus Liability Craze: Holding China Accountable

Politicians, as any political class, will nurse their favourite prejudice. And when there is a crisis, those prejudices will be fanned and praised to the heavens. For some politicians, who find the whole business of lockdowns and business restrictions all too much, someone has to pay for COVID-19.

Australian Senator Malcolm Roberts takes up the theme that is being pushed by assortment of talking heads across the pandemic infested world: “Should China pay compensation for unleashing COVID19 on the world?” The answer is implicit in the question; intention and causality are assumed.

In the United States, Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley and New York Republican Representative Elise Stefanik introduced a bicameral resolution in March demanding a “full, international investigation.” The resolution found “that the Government of the People’s Republic of China should be held accountable for the impact, of its decision to hide the emergence and spread of COVID-19, on the lives and livelihoods of the people of the United States and other nations.” With an arrogance that tends to accompany the aggrieved, the drafters of the resolution also wished any such investigation to be led by public health officials drawn from the US and “other affected nations.” Not that any conflict of interest was at stake: the US and allies were there to lecture the PRC about matters of liability. “Simply put,” raged Congresswoman Stefanik, “China must, and will be, held accountable.”

President Donald Trump’s former deputy assistant secretary for policy and economic development is even more gung ho. “Based on China’s culpability,” writes Gavin Clarkson, “President Trump and Steven Mnuchin should immediately extract reimbursement, starting with the $1.1 trillion in US Treasury Department bonds Communist China currently holds.”

In the land of the lawsuit, courts are already being busied by claims about Chinese impropriety and bungling. A class action complaint was lodged in Florida last month “for damages suffered as a result of the Coronavirus epidemic.” The accusation: that China and its various arms of government “knew that COVID-19 was dangerous and capable of causing a pandemic, yet slowly acted, proverbially put their head in the sand, and/or covered it up for their own economic self-interest.” Such conduct had caused “incalculable harm” and injury “and will continue to cause personal injuries and deaths, as well as other damages.”

This brings that old hoary chestnut of sovereignty into play, and even those sympathetic to the argument that Chinese officials have behaved abominably find little room to overcome it. The Foreign Immunities Act of 1976 protects, in the words of a federal court decision, “foreign sovereigns from the burdens of litigation, including the cost and aggravation of discovery.” As the well-cited Queen’s Bench case of Mighell v Sultan of Johore (1894) put it, a sovereign could never waive immunity except through submitting to the jurisdiction of the court “by appearance to a writ.”

The Florida class action suit attempts to sidestep the obstacle of sovereign immunity by claiming an exception for commercial activities and for death and harm “caused by the tortious act or omission of that foreign state or of any official or employee of that foreign state while acting within the scope of his or her employment.” Another ground is even more adventurous, and one floated by Israeli-based attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner: the fanciful argument that China’s conduct amounted to “support for terrorism.” Deliberate concealment of “a deadly medical crisis” and concerted cover-ups were not among “the protected acts of a sovereign state or of responsible leaders.”

The neoconservative British-based Henry Jackson Society has taken an interest in the whole question of PRC liability, putting the claim in a report that China’s balance sheet of damages comes in at £3.2 trillion from G7 countries alone. “The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was bound by international law, in the form of International Health Regulations (2005), to report timely, accurate and detailed public health information.” The PRC failed to do this throughout December 2019 and January 2020. “In fact, it appears at least possible that this was a deliberate act of mendacity.” (The authors seem to cast aside those common historical tendencies: negligence through error; damage caused by complacence.) The report’s central sentiment is resentment: had the detection and sharing of accurate information taken place in good time, “the infection would not have left China.”

How this affected Britain is keenly felt. “Inadequate and inaccurate information” from the PRC hampered the UK’s response. Reliance was placed upon World Health Organization reports drawing upon faulty Chinese data claiming, at that point, that “there were no cases of medics contracting the diseases.” Much of this is undeniable, but the authors are desperate to find a guilty culprit, one who will stand up and shoulder the blame.

The report, having reduced the issue of claimed Chinese malfeasance and the pandemic to a matter of Us and Them, err on the matter of “the rules-based international system”, always cited when things do not go the way of Western industrialised states. Forgotten in such enthusiastic exhortations is the sense that such a rules-based system was imposed by the imperialist’s gun and statute book. To preserve that system “and to protect taxpayers from punitive liabilities, the world should seek to take legal action against the PRC for the breaches of international law and their consequences.”

The report fits the current mood among a good number of British Conservatives who see China as needing a good clipping, wings and all. A number of senior Tories, with former Deputy Prime Minister Damian Green leading a call, badgered Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a letter worried about the “damage to the rules-based system caused by China’s non-compliance with international treaties.” As with the Henry Jackson Society, the letter underlined those “Legally binding international healthcare regulations [that] require states to provide full information on all potential pandemics.” China, the petitioners claim, failed to abide by them, a grave omission that “allowed the disease to spread throughout with extraordinary serious consequences in terms of global health and the economy.”

Green was already ripe for persuasion, having suggested the adoption of an attitude towards the PRC “similar” to that towards Russia “in the more peaceful stages of the Cold War.” A reconsideration of relations was required. “Whatever your view of how well any Western government is handling the crisis it is clear that a deeper look at the long-term interdependence of Western capitalism and Chinese communism will take place.”

Compensation claims of this sort tread in murky waters. Historical wrongs will be revisited and Chinese responses to such accusations and urgings are already being heavily referenced by Britain’s own ruinous exploits during what is termed the “Century of Humiliation.” “Cool, great, you just pay us back for the Opium Wars,” came a Twitter comment, and not without merit. As The Economist put it in 2017, “Britain and China see each other through a narcotic haze,” but it was a haze very much forced upon China at its moment of weakness. That same year, President Xi Jinping, in an address in Hong Kong, that last outpost of British Empire, referred to a poisoned legacy that enfeebled a state. “After the Opium War, China has been repeatedly defeated by countries which were smaller and less populous.” There is little basis to assume that the PRC intends to acknowledge those, let alone be defeated by, the even smaller courts of those countries.

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Cutting the Funding: The WHO, Trump and Coronavirus Wars

The US president is in a warring mood. Having declared himself a president at war, a meaningless gesture given that the US is always, somewhere in the world, at war, finding necessary enemies in distraction was always going to be a priority. Donald Trump already had the “China virus” in his artillery, attaching nationality to pathogen. Now, and it took some time in coming by his standards, is the World Health Organization, a body which has, as its utopia, an idea of health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

The US tends to contribute a large slice of funding to the WHO – some $400 million a year and ten times, say, what China does. It has been foot dragging lately: $200 million is still to be paid for the last round. (As a point of interest, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the second largest donor, with a touch over $200 million based on 2018-9 figures.) In a flourish of indignation, Trump has decided to freeze the revenue stream.  On Tuesday, he claimed that the WHO had “failed in its basic duty” in responding to COVID-19. “I am directing my administration to halt funding while a review is conducted to assess the World Health Organization’s role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.”

The White House has been eager to disgorge any material to press outlets keen to understand the nature of WHO villainy and corruption. Accusations read like mirror portraits, and the headline of one of the factsheets is hysterical: “Delaying world mobilization in the fight against COVID-19: Working with China to cover up the deadly spread of COVID-19, who hindered critical efforts that could have saved lives.”

The charge list on the White House fact sheet is the usual muddle of slung mud and mild accuracy: the role played by brave Taiwan; the WHO deference to “Chinese propaganda that covered up the virus’ spread and fatalities, praising Beijing for its false efforts and promoting the use of Chinese traditional medicine to treat the disease.”

Nor can we deny the obvious remark that the US was “not alone in its well-founded criticism. WHO has faced constant critique over its poor coordination, lack of transparency, and finances from multiple parties.” This would sound like a superb summary of the Trump administration, but the president lacks humour in such matters.

The organisation’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who had previously praised Trump as showing “leadership” in this crisis (we are all entitled to slips), was regretful. The US had been “a long-standing and generous friend… and we hope it will continue to be so.”

The WHO is the convenient whipping boy of pandemic and epidemic; of premature assessment or over eager commitment. Uncertainty is its curse, leaving it vulnerable in such instances as the swine flu epidemic, when it was accused of being too quick off the mark in declaring it to be a pandemic; or too foot slow in declaring the West African Ebola outbreak a pressing health emergency. And forgotten in its current shade of demonization by Washington is the fact that the WHO, for decades, was belittled for being an auxiliary of US foreign policy. “Like other United Nations (UN) agencies,” comes a sombre assessment in the American Journal of Public Health in 2016, “the WHO quietly abandoned its dreams of a collaborative community of nations and instead began to come to terms with international political realities. The agency moved closer to US foreign policy and became partially captive to US resources and priorities.”

By no means should the WHO be seen as angelic. No international organisation is, marked as they tend to by the gravy train effect, the flabby end of upper management more interested in first class travel than fighting healthy problems. At the same time, it has also operated with one hand tied behind its back, reliant, as it were, on the initial drips and drabs coming from the source country where an infectious outbreak has taken place. Its chief has, it is true, shown an unsettling tendency to praise the Chinese effort, which has veered between harsh and muscular concealment to harsh and muscular quarantine. But it is worth casting an eye to the more workmanlike nature of the process of how the WHO formed a picture of what was happening.

China’s first smidgens of information on COVID-19 reached the WHO on December 31, describing it as “a pneumonia of an unknown cause.” On January 5, the organisation, based on what was provided by Chinese sources, stated that the material showed “no evidence of significant human-to-human transmission.” No causal agent had been as yet identified or confirmed, and the WHO admitted to having “limited information to determine the overall risk of this reported cluster of pneumonia of unknown etiology.” The advice given in that note now seem like the haunted warnings of premature assessment: no recommended specific measures for travellers; no application of travel or trade restrictions on China. Again, the caveat, weighty as ever, was always on what was in the hands of WHO functionaries, who, it should be said, are not entirely shock horrors in the epidemiology department.

In time, the picture became more muddled as information started to clot the canvas. The Wuhan Health Commission refused to rule out the possibility of human-to-human transmission. The WHO, as January progressed, started drawing parallels, basing its assessments on other coronaviruses. What this chaotic swirl of information does not seem to show, as Trump alleges, is that Taiwan in its exchanges with WHO, went heavy on the idea of human-to-human transmission.

Then came Trump’s own glorious words of praise, lost in consciousness but retrievable in cyberspace. “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus,” he tweeted with boyish enthusiasm on January 25. “The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American people, I want to thank President Xi!” Not exactly hostile.

 

Trump’s change of heart revolves upon supposed tardiness in sending in that class of individuals he tends to despise: the experts. “Had the WHO done its job to get medical experts into China to objectively assess the situation on the ground and to call out China’s lack of transparency, the outbreak could have been contained at its source with very little death.” Lacking in this resentful assessment is the point that plagues all international bodies: their need to respect the sovereignty of member states.

The immediate consequences of such funding will have the effect, as has been threatened before, of driving the WHO to bankruptcy. The front organisation responsible for marshalling the medical side of combating disease and infection will be hobbled. Trump can at least have one historical comfort: in pulling US funding, he joins the defunct Soviet Union in refusing to pay membership fees for several years after it had “deactivated” its membership. Grievances with international governance, be it over health, security, even sport, never age.

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The Fire Fauci Brigade

The intemperate volcano that is the US President has done much to burn its way through prominent appointments. As the title of former GOP strategist Rick Wilson’s book goes, Everything Trump Touches Dies. There seem few more important individuals in the United States than Dr Anthony Fauci, and that, for the White House, is a problem. No burning bushel can distract from the orange tufted centre of power that is Donald Trump, and Fauci, as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been giving much to distract.

Over the weekend, the disgruntled anti-Fauci clan started buzzing with the hashtag #FireFauci, the underachieving work of DeAnna Lorraine. Lorraine, former challenger for Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s California House seat, likes to share material from the QAnon group, which takes pride in, shall we say, cavalier narratives pullulating with fantasies. (The fictional Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama child sex trafficking ring; the canard of Angela Merkel really being the granddaughter of Adolf Hitler.)

Momentum was generated by President Trump’s Sunday retweet of a call to fire Fauci. Lorraine, in the tweet in question, was exercised by Fauci “now saying that had Trump listened to the medical experts earlier he could’ve saved more lives.” But, she claimed, it was the medical expert – one Anthony Fauci – who told people on February 29th “that there was nothing to worry about and it posed no threat to the US public at large.” Time, then, to fire him.

Fauci, for his part, stated on CNN’s State of the Union programme on Sunday morning the obvious point that restrictive measures, had they been imposed earlier, might have lessened the harm. “I mean, obviously, you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing, and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives.” The observation tallies with discussions held by medical officers the world over on the speed, and forcefulness of suppression, mitigation and containment. COVID-19 has done its bit to baffle and alarm.

In baying – or tweeting – for Fauci’s blood the suggested replacement by the #FireFauci mob was one Dr Shiva Ayyadurai, a Massachusetts Senate candidate who comes across as a militant, zany version of that self-promoting wonder of mindfulness Deepak Chopra. Ayyadurai – not an actual medical doctor – is certainly not shy of controversy, being a votary of the vitamins-will-treat-and-prevent Coronavirus school of thought. On May 23, he penned an open letter to Trump with “a solution to restore the immune and economic health of the American people. This solution can be executed immediately in a low-risk and cost-effective matter.” This naturally entailed putting Fauci’s head on a pike. His “health” policy, sneers the doctor, “will result in the short- and long-term destruction of our citizen’s [sic] immune health as well as our nation’s economic health – a perhaps a conscious or intended goal.” Fauci is taken to task for being uninventive, a 1950’s relic of the “one-size-fits-all”, and “non-personalized approach to medicine and public health.” But what is unforgiving for the man his followers call Dr. Shiva is the “fake science” he peddles on the immune system.

Ayyadurai then settles into self-promotion mode. He was a pioneer of Biological engineering, “demanding a modern engineering systems approach to biology.” As a PhD from MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering in 2007, he invented CytoSolve, “a proven technology that enables the discovery of new medicines, combination therapies, functional foods and supplements – faster, cheaper, and safer, by using the computer to model complex molecular mechanisms and diseases.”

He concludes, from his own understanding of modern science, that it is “the over reaction of our OWN weakened and dysfunctional immune system attacking tissues and cells of our own body that harms and kills, versus the virus – be it COVID-19 or any other virus.”

On April 3, the Shiva4Senate website commenced a petition for the indictment and firing of Fauci, claiming “significant and deep conflicts with Big Pharma that has a singular aim: Force medical mandates eg. Vaccines upon all Americans.” Ayyadurai thereby becomes the anti-Big Pharma advocate, the noble knight battling the corporate and bureaucratic dragon of the medical establishment. Half-plausible critiques – the staining and at times lethal corruption of corporatized health care – are meshed with an implausible goo of self-promoting treatments that look like Chopra solutions on steroids. In doing so, the obvious point – that vaccines do save lives – is stumped.

The latest rage against expertise seems to have failed to affect any genuine change. On Monday, deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley took a bucket or two to “media chatter” that Fauci would be taken off the coronavirus task force. Forget Fauci: it was China all along that was the issue. “The President’s tweet clearly exposed media attempts to maliciously push a falsehood about his China decision in an attempt to rewrite history.” This rewriting, suggested Gidley, involved obscuring the role played by the Democrats and the media in their obsession with impeachment proceedings, thereby ignoring the dangers of COVID-19. When Trump did “take bold decisive action to save American lives by cutting off travel from China and from Europe”, he was attacked.

In this big to do, Fauci insists that Trump, for the most part, has listened to the recommendations of the COVID-19 taskforce. A diplomatic, if optimistic assessment. He hopes that cooler heads will prevail. “The idea of just pitting one against the other is just not helpful.” As for Trump, his words on Monday were reassuringly dangerous. “I’m not firing him. I think he is a wonderful guy.” Fauci beware.

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