Coronavirus and Quarantine

Health education poster, Hong Kong. Photo by Shawn Smallman

As I write these words nurses in Hong Kong are on strike to protest the fact that the Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, will not close the border to China. To be clear, the executive has sharply restricted entry to Hong Kong, closed most crossings, and forbidden entry from the most affected Chinese state, Hubei.  But there are still strong calls for a complete border closure coming from within Hong Kong’s medical community.  Similarly, the United States has restricted flights from China to U.S. citizens only; some U.S. airlines had already canceled service to China. All such quarantine measures are controversial.

On social media, such as Twitter, and in the press, a number of experts have denounced all quarantines as being not only ineffective but also in violation of WHO guidelines. These authors worried about panic overcoming good judgement, the economic costs of restricting travel, the stigma imposed on those from affected areas (Chinese in particular, but also all Asia), and the importance of upholding International Health Regulations. These are valid and important points. Some authors have also pointed to studies based on computer models showing that quarantines are ineffective with highly contagious respiratory diseases.

Recently the tone has shifted in the discussion, as it has become clear that some cases of the virus are being spread asymptomatically. The number of cases has grown quickly. Some apparent facts (such as no human to human transmission) that seemed true in mid-January are no longer true. So the stridency of the debate about quarantine has declined, but the debate continues.

So is there any role for quarantines to manage such a pandemic? And is there some other way to make a judgement that relies less on computer models? I would suggest that looking at the past history of respiratory pandemics, such as the 1918 influenza pandemic, might be useful. Can history suggest particular circumstances in which quarantines may work? Continue reading

Permanent link to this article: https://www.introtoglobalstudies.com/2020/02/coronavirus-and-quarantine/

Maps and the coronavirus outbreak

Hong Kong Harbor. Photo by Shawn Smallman, 2017

As we track the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, it’s helpful to have maps and other data visualizations to understand the data.

One useful site is Ncov2019Tracking, which says that it: “taps into the Twitter Streaming API and monitors tweets mentioning keywords related to the Novel coronavirus (2019-nCov) outbreak. A machine learning system trained with the supervision of experts filters informative tweets. Geographical entities mentioned in tweets – such as country and city names – are identified using the GeoNames database and used to place tweets on a global map.” This tool provides a useful means to track where people are discussing the epidemic on Twitter. It’s very clear (based on the map on January 31, 2020) that there is a lot of discussion related to the coronavirus taking place that concerns Indonesia and the Philippines.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering have also created an excellent map and dashboard which shows the geographical location of 2019-nCoV cases (we need a better name). A dashboard also shows total deaths (213 at today’s right), the total number of recovered (222 today) and the total number of confirmed cases (5,806). On the left hand side of the screen there is the total count of cases (9,925) and their geographical locations. At this time, there are 9,783 cases in mainland China, 19 in Thailand, 15 in Japan, and 13 in Singapore. There are also an eclectic group of countries that have a single case: Cambodia, Finland, India, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Sweden.

While technology has made it easier to track the outbreak, authorities in China are reportedly also using drones to chastise people who go out in public without masks, as this video purportedly shows. Lastly, you can read a blog post about quarantine and nCoV here, with some historical context on this question based on the 1918 influenza pandemic. 

Shawn Smallman, 2020

 

Permanent link to this article: https://www.introtoglobalstudies.com/2020/01/maps-and-the-coronavirus-outbreak/

Coronavirus podcast

Window of Chinese medicine store in Hong Kong, China. Photo by Shawn Smallman

There is so much discussion of the coronavirus epidemic in the media that it can be hard to find reliable information. One good source of measured, thoughtful information is this podcast, “Coronavirus Infections—More Than Just the Common Cold,” which is an interview with Anthony, S Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease. You can also find this podcast on Stitcher and other podcast platforms. To listen to it on Apple podcasts, please search for “JAMA Author interviews,” and go to January 27, 2020.

If you are interested in learning more about live markets, you can read my work here. And this blog posts discusses quarantine and nCoV based on some historical context from the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Shawn Smallman, 2020

Market Sign, Hong Kong. Photo by Shawn Smallman

 

 

Permanent link to this article: https://www.introtoglobalstudies.com/2020/01/coronavirus-podcast/

The possible coronavirus pandemic

Hong Kong. Photo by Shawn Smallman

Even though it’s only been a few days, my last blog post is becoming out of date with amazing speed. This article in Eurosurveillance describes much of what we know to date. In Wuhan, China there is evidence that the corona virus outbreak is beginning to overwhelm the health care system. The New York Times has had disturbing videos taken from inside the hospitals, where dead people lay in the halls, and a patient begs a doctor to save her. He turns and strides away without a word. The South China Morning Post has incredible coverage of the outbreak. In one article, Mimi Lau described how desperately ill people were turned away from treatment at one overwhelmed hospital after another. Of course, it’s also important to note than in these hospitals, where health care workers are short on equipment, gloves, masks and medicines, people are still working to care for patients at great personal risk.

Continue reading

Permanent link to this article: https://www.introtoglobalstudies.com/2020/01/the-current-coronavirus-threat/

Novel Coronavirus outbreak in China

Fighting SARS Memorial, Hong Kong, These busts and plaques commemorate health care workers who volunteered to fight SARS, and then sadly were infected and died. Photo by Shawn Smallman

As I write this blog post all travel has been banned in Wuhan, and two neighboring cities (Huanggang and Ezhou) in China. The cause for this travel ban is a novel coronovirus, which is currently called nCoV2019, although it will likely receive a new name soon. Coronaviruses are a virus that causes respiratory diseases, such as SARS in 2003, and MERS in the Middle East. SARS was a bat virus that passed through a civet cat at a Wet Market, and then jumped to humans. Although the outbreak was ultimately brought under control, it was contained at a very high cost. The Fighting SARS Memorial pictured above commemorates Hong Kong health care workers who died while serving their patients. Continue reading

Permanent link to this article: https://www.introtoglobalstudies.com/2020/01/novel-coronavirus-outbreak/

The South China Sea

Are you looking for an online resource that students might use to quickly understand the South China Sea dispute between China and its neighbors? You could do much worse than this brief video that was shared on Twitter. I know that we sometimes think of Twitter as the host for emotional oversharing, Russian bots and disinformation campaigns, but @9DashLine and @SCS_news are good feeds to follow if you want to keep abreast of the latest information on the South China Sea issue.

Shawn Smallman, 2020

Permanent link to this article: https://www.introtoglobalstudies.com/2020/01/the-south-china-sea/

Rick Steve’s The Story of Fascism in Europe

Adolf Hitler.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H1216-0500-002 / CC-BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Xenophobia and populism have been on the rise globally, from Brazil to the United States. Even European nations have not been immune to these trends, despite the continent’s painful history with the far right and fascism. Rick Steve’s has a new documentary, The Story of Fascism in Europe, which provides a concise study of this movement, which might be useful for an introductory class. The documentary begins with an examination of Mussolini’s rise to power, then moves to the tactics adopted by Hitler. Simplistic solutions, the promise of rapid change, economic growth funded through public debt, attacks on unions, rhetoric that emphasized peoples’ fears, the use of intimidation, and the othering of minorities  proved to be a successful political strategy. While the majority of the documentary deals with Europe’s history, the final five minutes makes a link to the present.

Shawn Smallman, 2020

Permanent link to this article: https://www.introtoglobalstudies.com/2020/01/rick-steves-the-story-of-fascism-in-europe/

Facebook, Twitter and Security

Image of globe on light, Arts Building, McGill University. Photo by Smallman

Last quarter I was  teaching a fully online course Digital Globalization, while this quarter I am teaching an online class on Cyber-warfare and espionage. In these courses we cover topics such as  Snowden, Wikileaks, Anonymous, white and black hat hackers, NSA, zero day exploits, the Panama Papers and the Cambridge Analytica scandal. What’s interesting is the division within my students regarding privacy. There are a minority of students who are unconcerned about the issue because they feel that if they haven’t done anything wrong, why should they worry? But there is a much larger group of students who feel that this is a significant anxiety in their lives. Although they worry about the government tracking their activities, they are even more concerned about how their lives are tracked by businesses. Every time they go on social media, have a sensitive conversation near Google Home or Alexa, or text message a friend, they wonder a little about how their digital lives make them vulnerable.

Whats amazing is how little security is built into many online platforms. But few platforms have faced as much criticism as Facebook. To help understand why, you might read this post by Krebs on Security: Facebook Stored Hundreds of Millions of User Passwords in Plain Text for Years. As the article explains, this meant that Facebook’s employees could have accessed peoples’ accounts over a very long period, although Facebook says there is no evidence that they did. Since people often reuse passwords, this was a terrible security breach. Facebook is key to many peoples’ social lives. But given its flaws, it’s worth remembering never to reuse passwords, especially with Facebook. It also wouldn’t hurt, to enable two-factor authentication on key accounts (such as your bank), and always use a VPN on public wifi.

Of course Facebook isn’t the only social media tool that has security vulnerability. One of the best ways to keep in touch with digital issues is through Wired magazine, which had a recent article
Twitter Insiders Allegedly Spied for Saudi Arabia. In this case, what happened was that two employees were able to access accounts, and to pass on this information to Saudi Arabia. Social media is a wonderful tool. But one of the key concepts in my digitally focused classes is that there is no absolute privacy online, only relative privacy. This fact cannot be escaped by using the Dark Web, as the Egotistical Giraffe exploit with TOR showed. Remember what happened on the Silk Road with the Dread Pirate Roberts (yes, named after a character in the movie, the Princess Bride). Even the most savvy digital user leaves breadcrumbs. No software tool, VPN, or hardware can elide this fact. And in the age of the Internet Archive, nothing online truly disappears. This doesn’t mean that social media can’t be a wonderful tool. But its worth remembering when you use social media to convey sensitive information, or politically loaded content. And we collectively need to hold the giant social media companies (as well as as other corporations with data, including health records)  to account for lax security. And if you can bear it, just delete Facebook.

Shawn Smallman, 2020

Permanent link to this article: https://www.introtoglobalstudies.com/2020/01/facebook-and-security/

The cost of education globally

Years ago I lectured in Germany at the University of Trier. While I was there these German students asked me about the cost of tuition at my school, a public institution in Oregon. At the time, my university had by far the lowest tuition rate in the state. But when I told my students what a year at my institution would cost students in tuition they were horrified. Many of them started laughing. They all gathered around me to tell me how outrageous that charge was.

In Germany at that time (about a decade ago) individual states set tuition policies. In most states tuition was free. In others there would be very low; perhaps as little as two hundred dollars. Of course the university was starved for funds. But the students were exceptional, and received an immense amount of hands-on time with their faculty. The program was rigorous, even though funding levels were much less that an American institution.

Now when I talk to my American students the subject of their student debt is always there. It shapes the majors they choose, and their career plans afterwards. Twenty years ago I would ask students in my “Introduction to International Studies” class what career path they preferred. Ninety percent of my students or more would raise their hands when I said “non-profits.” Only one or two would say business. Now that is reversed, and easily ninety percent of my students want a career in international business when they come into my introductory class. I think that is wonderful, and I want to support their career aspirations any way I can. I supervise internships, may connections to local businesses, and encourage students to do a business minor. But I wish that the choices that students made reflected their personal interests as much as their familial and financial pressures.

It is possible to create a different system. In Quebec, Canada, the in-province tuition at Concordia University would be under $3,000 a year U.S. But even that is higher than many European institutions. James Melville recently tweeted a video about how higher education is free in Denmark, and some other European nations.

I have some colleagues who hate when I talk about university finances, because they say it is part of the “business model” for higher education. There is some truth to what they say. But it’s also the case that the way we offer education in the United States imposes incredibly high costs on both our students and their families. We need to rethink our education system from the ground up. And both state and federal governments have to stop the disinvestment in higher education that has taken place over the last twenty years. At many private universities in the United States tuition alone costs over $50,000 a year. That’s without books, fees, room and board. So it might cost a student $70,000 a year to go to a private institution.

Teaching at an institution that has a tuition perhaps less than a sixth of that cost, I know that the private institutions aren’t six times better. But higher education is not a rational market because parents often feel that they cannot discuss the cost of education with their children. At the same time the perceived differences between universities is so great that students fear going to a lower level state institution. Of course, these perceptions are often wildly inaccurate. But they reflect inequalities in funding that have been taking place over a long time.

The higher education system in the United States is highly unequal, and provides a massive disincentive to education for lower-income families. Of course, student loans help many students complete college. But these funds not only saddle these students with immense debt, but also create a huge debt bubble. Ultimately, the loan-based system is part of the problem, as it papers over the fact that the business model for higher education is bankrupt. We need as a society to create institutions that charge students a fraction of the current amount. That will entail more online programs and offerings. But it should be done with tenured faculty, who are paid a living wage. It should not be done on the backs of adjuncts, who have no job security and often teach at multiple institutions for miserable wages. Universities have to drive down costs. But I don’t think that there is any way for tuition in the U.S. to drop dramatically without returning to the funding levels for state institutions that we saw in the 1980s.

Denmark, Germany and other European nations offer higher education for free. Their schools create a highly educated citizenry and workforce, which benefits the entire society. How high do tuition costs in the United States have to go before parents and students say enough; we have to make a fundamental change? What will be most difficult is that Wall Street makes immense profits off of student loans, which have been securitized. So it will be a third rail, much like talking about the public option for health care.

When I first began my career, one of my colleagues in Joplin, Missouri told me that his student loan debts were greater than his mortgage. That was in 1995. I can only imagine the pressure that today’s graduates may face. The United States doesn’t need to become Denmark, but can we find some inspiration and ideas from these models?

Shawn Smallman, 2019

 

Permanent link to this article: https://www.introtoglobalstudies.com/2019/12/the-cost-of-education-globally/

The Spider’s Web- a documentary

“The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire” is a documentary produced for 4,000 pounds, which traces how the City of London manages tens of trillions of dollars. The City of London itself is a bizarre structure, separate from the London with which we are all familiar. This strange subset of the city has its own governmental structure, which is largely dominated by financial interests. This well-researched and engrossing documentary explains how -after Britain’s empire collapsed in the 1960s- financial corporations based in the City of London created a series of secrecy areas or tax havens in U.K. territories from the Cayman Islands to Jersey. The result was a neo-colonial system, in which vast sums of money flowed by illicit means to the City. Continue reading

Permanent link to this article: https://www.introtoglobalstudies.com/2019/12/the-spiders-web/