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.
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.
I have been researching the drug trade in Latin America this year, and recently came across this map of the global drug trade by Eduardo Asta, who created it in 2014. This particular map has now been published in the Atlas of Design, which celebrates the best maps produced in the world, and is published every two years. Although the map is in Portuguese, the images are so clear, and the cognates so similar, that it should be easy for any English speaker to decipher the map. One of the points that the map makes abundantly clear is the scale of the cocaine trade between Latin America in Europe. While in North America we tend to focus on the drug war, and the flow of drugs across the U.S. Mexican border, it’s important to remember that this is one part of a truly global trade. The European market for cocaine is almost as large as that in the United States. The Caribbean also plays a key role in the transport routes that bring cocaine from the Andes to the U.S. East Coast, but U.S. media coverage of the drug trade focuses almost exclusively on the Mexican border. The map also shifts our perspective on the drug trade by emphasizing the critical role that Afghanistan and Asia play in the global heroin trade. Finally, Africa receives little attention in discussion of the global drug trade, but it has a massive market for amphetamines. To me, this map is a beautiful work of design, which visually conveys an immense amount of information without succumbing to clutter.
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 have done work for much of the last 15 years in global health, and wrote a book about the AIDS Pandemic in Latin America. I’ve returned to thinking about HIV recently because I’ve just given a lecture on the Global AIDS pandemic, during which I discussed media coverage of not only the new gene therapy to fight HIV, but also the discovery of an HIV strain in Cuba that seems to lead to AIDS more rapidly than is typical. Behind these news stories remains the fact that over 35 million people are now living with HIV. It is true that impressive advances in both medicine and public health now mean that there is more hope concerning the epidemic than at any time before. Still, despite the merited attention given to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, it’s worth remembering that over a million people died of AIDS last year, far more than all the Ebola outbreaks in recorded history combined. How did this outbreak begin? Since I first began to study the virus a great deal has been learned about its evolutionary history, and the circuitous path that the virus took from an unknown individual in Cameroon to become a global pandemic. …
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 major questions that international agencies and governments have been wrestling with is the likely future of the Ebola epidemic in Africa. Perhaps the best website for these predictions is the Columbia Prediction of Infectious Diseases site. Unfortunately, despite the heroic efforts currently being made in West Africa, the curve towards mid-November shows a steady increase. Of course, there are success stories as well, as Nigeria has recently been declared Ebola-free. But this site indicates the scale of the challenge that world currently faces. The website is also useful for tracking yearly influenza epidemics.
At this date, a great deal rides on the outcome of Ebola vaccine trials. The Canadian government yesterday sent 800 vials of experimental vaccine to the WHO, for this organization to distribute as it sees best. The world is also increasing the supplies and manpower provided to West Africa. It is now clear that everyone underestimated the dangers of this outbreak, because Ebola had been controlled before. What has been different has been that this outbreak is taking place in an urban setting.
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With the arrival of Ebola in Texas, the media coverage of Ebola has increased dramatically. Reuters has a good video talking about the current situation with Ebola (click here). As the video discusses, people are starting to ask questions about mass transit and other technologies that bring people into contact. Could you transmit Ebola through the key pads for debit cards? Elevator buttons and handrails in public buildings. Cash? Is the United States so different that it could not have a significant Ebola outbreak? On the one hand, Ebola has been controlled in Nigeria through an effective health response. On the other hand, there are many things about Ebola that researchers are still learning, such as the implications of recent Canadian scholarship suggesting that Ebola can be spread by an airborne route in the lab. Ian MacKay (a key source for information on the outbreak) has a good blog post on the different meanings that “air-borne transmission” may have for a medical researcher as opposed to the lay person. The bottom line is that it may be possible in the lab, but is unlikely to be a major transmission route in the real world. But people have many questions, and there needs to be clearer information available. …
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.