Several years ago I wrote a lecture for my “Introduction to International Studies” course that looked at the emergence of new languages. While people are aware of language loss, fewer people know that new languages are also forming. So I used this lecture as a means to talk about cultural globalization. I’ve talked about Sheng before on the blog, but I thought that another faculty member might want to use this lecture.
It’s important for me to say that I based this lecture on an several peer-reviewed articles, as well as articles in the popular press, but I did not note them. So this material is not original, but I can’t cite the original authors. My apologies to these scholars.
One of the realizations that has come with COVID-19 is that the old binary between developed and developing countries is deeply flawed. Some nations that are less wealthy (Vietnam, Thailand) have succeeded very well in limiting the virus’s spread (at least in June 2020), while some wealthier countries (the United States and Great Britain saw their governments fail to control the outbreak, despite not only their relative wealth, but also sophisticated health care systems.
In the United States the CDC and FDA decided not to adopt a test for COVID-19 that was recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). But their effort to create their own test was badly flawed. When that test proved not to work, it set the US testing back perhaps a month or more behind other nations at the most critical moment in the virus’s spread within the United States. In contrast, countries that adopted the WHO’s recommended test were able to test their populations at scale.
In Boston, there was a testing debacle after a number of people were infected at a Biogen conference. Even after people reported symptoms and repeatedly sought testing they were unable to be tested, because they did not meet the overly strict criteria that included travel to China, or contact with someone from China. The result was a disaster, which saw the outbreak flare so that Boston had one of the worst outbreaks in the world. Meanwhile, Vietnam carried out a very thorough testing program that has allowed to control the outbreak to this date.
One of the most interesting points for me has been the relative difference in innovation between some developing countries and the United States, which is the home of Silicon Valley. In the U.S. there is still no national contact tracing app. Instead individual states (such as North and South Dakota) have had develop their own. But at a national level, the rate of innovation has been painfully slow. In contrast, some developing countries have moved with amazing speed. One of the success stories has been Ethiopia. As Simon Marks described in an article on the Voice of America website, Ethiopian developers quickly created seven different apps to help with everything from contact tracing to supporting health care workers. What is clear is that the size of nation’s economy does not necessarily correspond to its ability to innovate and adapt. American exceptionalism aside, wealthy nations must overcome the hubris and sense of exceptionalism, which have hampered their response to the pandemic. When developed nations take an interest in the the innovations in places from Ethiopia to Thailand, their own response will improve.
A few years ago, I was in Hong Kong, Macau and Shenzhen. When I asked at a coffee shop in Hong Kong if I could pay with a credit card, the clerk said that they could do that. Would I mind waiting while they took the machine out from the cupboard? It would take just a minute to find the keys to the cupboard. At this point, I was embarrassed and ask them not to. But they wanted to help me, and insisted on hooking up the credit card machine for the foreigner. But credit cards felt antiquated in a world in people used WeChat to pay for their subway cards, get their groceries, and order deliveries. People never had touch a device to put in a PIN. When I came back, I realized how antiquated our entire payment architecture is. I think about this during the pandemic every time I go to a gas station or department store and have to first swipe a card, and then put in my PIN on a grungy pad. Of course this is the tip of the iceberg. Why do I still need to pay bills with a check in an age of Venmo and Paypal? In Australia checks have nearly disappeared as a payment form, and it has been more than a decade since most people used one. Five years ago I was talking with an Australian. She said that she was stunned when she moved to the U.S. and people still wanted checks. And why do forms in the US still ask for my department’s fax number?
In Shenzhen I saw the sophisticated drones, electronic devices, and pristine infrastructure. Afterwards when I traveled to New York and saw the state of the airport, it felt like traveling twenty years back in time. In the United States, there is a sense of exceptionalism, which equates modernity and power with being American. But from Asia to Africa there are innovations, technologies and approaches that Western nations -particularly the United States and Britain- would benefit from adopting, particularly during this pandemic. It’s not that the developed/developing binary doesn’t isn’t useful in some circumstances. But in some respects it can conceal more than it reveals.
Last weekend 7.6 million Venezuelans voted to reject a new Constituent Assembly called for by President Nicolas Maduro. Desperate to prevent the Assembly from taking place, the opposition’s leadership have also called for a mass strike this Thursday, and may appoint their own Supreme Court. The Venezuelan military is deeply tied to the current regime through corruption, including profits from controlling the distribution of food. All of Venezuela has been in an economic and social free fall, which has profoundly undermined the health care system.In this context, perhaps it is unsurprising that over 98 percent of the people who voted rejected President Maduro’s call for a Constituent Assembly, and called instead for free and transparent elections.
The Council of Foreign Relations website has useful background reports on a number of major issues, such as cyber security, but by far the best is their report on the Eastern Congo. This conflict has taken more lives than any other conflict such World War Two, and at times threatened to destabilize much of Africa. Nonetheless, it seldom receives media coverage, especially compared with events in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though 5 million people have died of violence and starvation during the years of crisis in the region. The CFR’s new storyboard combines multiple media formats such as text, video, a slideshow, maps and a timeline. The video itself is about ten minutes in length, yet provides most of the key information needed to understand they key actors and issues in the crisis. Overall, the video is concise, well-organized and thoughtful. The slideshow also does an excellent job of integrating text, images and audio. I mainly teach online, and I find that students particularly like formats that ask them to interact with the media, such as the slideshow. Together, the different media address all the key issues: child soldiers, rape as a weapon of war, Belgium’s horrific colonial involvement in the region, the history of U.S. involvement during the Cold War, the long shadow cast by the Rwandan genocide, and the participation of a U.N. force. I will be teaching an “Introduction to International Studies” this spring quarter in an online format, and I’ll likely be using this page in the week on security. For any instructor who wants to include African content for this section of an introductory course in International Studies, this website provides a great resource. Recommended.
Terrified of outside intervention, the South African military created six atomic weapons, which were dismantled after the collapse of apartheid. The nuclear material, however, was preserved, despite requests (by the United States and others) that the South African government convert this material into a less-dangerous form. This material is stored at a site called Pelindaba, which is the country’s main nuclear research center. In 2007 two separate teams attacked the facility, and were defeated by sheer luck. A recent account of this event makes for terrifying reading, less because of how close the attackers came to succeeding than for the lackadaisical response of the South African government. According to this account, recently posted on African Defense magazine, President Obama has twice written private letters to President Jacob Zuma, to ask that South Africa convert the uranium into a form less readily converted into nuclear weapons. The South Africans have failed to respond. This article merits careful reading.
The concept of human security is currently gaining traction in International Relations theory. This paradigm defines security as those issues that threaten not only the state but also the population. This approach has many merits, particularly given the rise of non-state actors as threats, and the impact that climate change may have on entire populations. Advocates of a security paradigm known as realism, however, critique human security as being a “slippery slope.” If you adopt this approach to security, what problems are not security issues? While I believe that human security has many advantages over realism as a means to address global challenges, this particular critique by realists does give me pause. Events such as the attack on Pelindaba are particularly dangerous, in way that seems to merit a clearly defined theoretical approach. One can only hope that behind the scenes South Africa is taking more steps to ensure security at this site than seems to be the case based on this report.
I know that people may be tired of hearing about Ebola, which is a painful topic. Still, I have to strongly recommend a new storyboard by NPR reporters called “Life after Death,” which describes one village’s experience with the outbreak. The storyboard combines audio interviews and stunning photographs to create an account that is moving, informative and beautiful. It illustrates the the human reaction to the outbreak, and the toll that the disease continues to take from the community after people stop dying. I think that this storyboard shows the potential of new media, which combine the content of text-based journalism, with the artistic expression of photo-journalism. One alert- if you are viewing this at work, you probably should put on your headphones before you click on the link above.
One of the most controversial questions during the current Ebola outbreak has been whether restricting air travel to West Africa is more of a help or a hindrance. There have been passionate arguments on both sides, and the question has become politicized. For a balanced look at the question, see this recent National Geographic article. I found some of the better comments on this piece to be nearly as enlightening as the article itself. The bottom line is that there are pros and cons to both policies, which need to be acknowledged by each side in the debate. …
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has not received the resources it merits, in part because other Ebola outbreaks proved relatively easy to contain. Those epidemics, however, tended to take place in a rural context, and Africa has changed profoundly since the 1970s. The urbanization and transportation networks that are remaking the region have also meant that it is far easier for diseases to spread. The current outbreak is expanding exponentially. The latest map on the Ebola outbreak by the World Health Organization makes clear the scale of the challenge that the global community now faces. When you look at this map, keep in mind that these are confirmed cases. So this map is an underestimate. According to some calculations, there may be 100,000 cases in Africa by December. Without rapid and massive international aid, this outbreak will not be controlled. On Twitter? I recommend following Laurie Garrett (Pulitzer prize winner for her writing on public health), who has a great commentary on the outbreak, which includes key documents such as this map. If you are interested in global health, you might also be interested in my book on the AIDS Pandemic in Latin America.
There is a great deal of news today about Ebola, which has now spread to Senegal, the fifth country in West Africa to be affected by the outbreak. The nation has tried to protect itself by banning flights from affected countries, but this is unlikely to be effective given that most people cross the border by ground transport. In Liberia the government has lifted the quarantine on the slum community of West Point, after widespread media reports that the quarantine was being flouted by people who bribed police to leave. At this time, quarantines do not seem to be effective in dense urban environments in developing countries; they are difficult to enforce, and the social costs are high. …
A crowd of men recently overran an Ebola clinic in Liberia, after which 17 patients disappeared. One of the factors driving this event may have been a sense of denial that Ebola exists. Such concerns led to an improbable new pop culture hit in West Africa: a song titled “Ebola in Town.” In recent article on NPR (titled “`Shadow and `D-12′ Sing an infectious song about Ebola”) John Poole describes the emergence of this unlikely piece. At first, there would seem to be few things more inappropriate than a pop song about a fatal disease. But the song emerged from local concerns that people did not believe in Ebola, or understand how to fight the spread of the disease. For this reason, the song informs people about the appearance of Ebola, its spread through physical contact, the importance of social distancing and the dangers of bush meat. All with a catchy beat. Click here to read Poole’s article and hear the song. And bravo to NPR in general for their great coverage of the outbreak. Want to read more about the epidemic? One great source is Ian Mackay’s blog, Virology Down Under.