Canada

Iran, COVID-19 and a pandemic

新型冠状病毒

Sign to SARS memorial in Hong Kong

Canadian health authorities have announced a positive test for SARS-2-COV in a returning traveler from Iran. Yesterday, Iranian authorities announced two deaths from COVID-19. There are eighteen confirmed cases, which are spread across the country, and include a case in Tehran. It would seem plausible based on a the death count so far, and a case fatality rate of two percent, that there are over a hundred cases circulating in Iran. It is telling that one of the Iranian cases is a doctor, which suggests transmission within the health care system. Given that a case has appeared in Canada, which likely has fewer travelers than Iran’s neighbors such as Iraq, we can expect that health authorities will announce  new cases in these nations in coming days. Unfortunately, two of Iran’s neighbors -Afghanistan and Syria- are in the midst of civil wars, and have damaged health care systems. Sadly, the cases in these countries will likely first be detected in critical cases, which will make it unlikely that these countries can control community transmission. …

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? …

Ghosts across cultures

The Old Burial Ground at the Boston Commons. Photo by Smallman

I’ve long loved Japanese ghost stories, ever since I came across the stories of Lafcadio Hearn. As the epitome of modernity, with its vast urban metropolis of Tokyo, sophisticated infrastructure, and advanced education, you might expect that these supernatural traditions would be fading in Japan. After all, Hearn recorded his stories in the nineteenth century. Instead, the traditions are evolving, as Christopher Harding has described in an article, “Ghosts on the Shore.” In the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami, ghosts didn’t disappear, but their role changed, as they comforted the living. Harding’s well-written and thoughtful piece is worth reading, particularly to hear the thoughts of one Zen priest who has an interesting take on the divide between the living and the dead. …

Crazy Book Prices

As authors, the prices that Amazon and other e-stores charge for our books can be mystifying. Today I received an email from a graduate student interested in accessing a book (Dangerous Spirits: the Windigo in Myth and Legend) that I had written on an evil-spirit being in Algonquian religion. They said that they couldn’t afford over $700 for the book, and asked if I could help them. I was confused and went online to look on Amazon. Sure enough, what I saw was the prices that you can view on the screenshot below. This left me rather mystified. The Kindle version of the book is under nine dollars (U.S. funds), while on Apple books the e-book is selling for just under ten dollars. Why would anyone pay $1,187.50 for the physical book? And why didn’t I save a couple of copies myself to sell on Amazon?

I know that the windigo is a common subject in pop culture, such as young adult novels, television and video games. I also know that a movie on the windigo called Antlers (set in Oregon) is coming out shortly. But these prices are unbelievable. Just to be clear: I certainly receive no share of these inflated prices, and my profits on the book have been quite modest. That’s typically the way it is for academic authors. I spent eleven years researching and writing my first book, and my first (and by far the largest) royalty check was about $220 U.S. dollars. My wife and I used it to go out for dinner to celebrate. You can imagine what the hourly rate for writing that book must have been, especially after spending a year researching amongst dusty papers in Brazil’s military archives. I try not to think about it.

So when you see such elevated prices for a book, please don’t think that this has anything to do with the authors, or that we are somehow receiving a large share of these funds. For anyone who is interested, you can obtain a paperback copy of the book for $19.95 Canadian from my publisher, Heritage House press. If you can afford to buy it from the publisher (and are in Canada), your purchase supports a small, independent house that’s an important venue for books on history.

Want to learn more about the windigo? You can watch a video by PBS’s Monstrum on YouTube here.

Shawn Smallman

Dangerous Spirits on Amazon

Brazil and populism

Few topics have attracted as much writing in recent years as the rise of populism and nationalism. I was interviewed recently by a student reporter at PSU, who wanted to talk to me about Jair Bolsanaro’s rise in Brazil. How does a politician -who served as an officer during the dictatorship, and has made offensive comments about many groups-  win the Brazilian presidency? Of course, Brazilians are exhausted by the endless political scandals, which have left one previous president impeached, and another in prison. Anyone who once promised to shut down Congress will attract votes in this context. The Worker’s Party failed to denounce its leaders for corruption, which cost them legitimacy. I quoted Bolsanaro in my book on military terror in Brazil, in which he said that 30,000 corrupt officials needed to be lined up and shot. He made that statement about twenty years ago. Brazilians have been so frustrated by the massive scandal involving Brazil’s national oil company, Petrobras, that these and similar comments probably helped more than hurt him. …

Northern Supernatural

Skogtroll/Forest Troll. Theodor Kittelsen [Public domain], 1906, via Wikimedia Commons
Every Halloween I do a post on global folklore or an international mystery, from a haunted building in Hong Kong, to the mystery of the ghost ship Baltimore. This year I’m doing some additional posts on this theme, because I want to share a wonderful BBC podcast, the Supernatural North. Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough travels to Norway to look at how the weird in the North has haunted the European imagination. Along the way, she explores everything from a Sami shamanic drum made by a Californian (with an image of a surfer) to the witch trials of 18th century Finmark. What is impressive about the story she tells is how stories from this area with a relatively low population have shaped modern fantasy literature from the trolls in the Lord of the Rings to the White Walkers in the Game of Thrones. But these stories live on not only in literature but also popular memory. One Norwegian community is haunted by the history of the tragic 17th century witch trials in Finmark. Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough described an unsettling visit to a public art work built to commemorate those who were burned at the stake. You have to admire the work of someone who has been knighted with a walrus penis bone, and who is on the trail of a Norse Arctic explorer.(1)

After listening to the podcast, you might wish to watch the 2010 movie Troll Hunter, which the podcast suggests built carefully upon actual traditions. It’s also very funny, and doesn’t have too much gore, despite some twists. There’s nothing worse (spoiler alert) than a rabid troll. …

The Mystery Woman of the Baltimore

Captain’s quarters of an 18th century sailing vessel, such as that in which the mystery woman was found. Photo by Audrey Smallman, 2018.

 

Every Halloween I discuss an international mystery, or an aspect of folklore such as the ghost stories of southeastern China. This year will be different, because I am going to do three posts dealing with mysteries or the supernatural. With this post, I want to discuss the strange ship the Baltimore, a mystery with threads that reach from Ireland to Canada, and from the United States to Barbados. In his book, Maritime Mysteries: Haunting Tales of Atlantic Canada, Roland H. Sherwood tells the story (pp. 24-29) of how the ship mysteriously appeared in Chebogue, Nova Scotia. The local people wondered where the brigantine had come from, and why no people were seen on deck, even though someone had anchored the vessel. They sent ships, and people called out to those aboard, but no answer came. When local men boarded the ship on December 5, 1735 they saw signs of a struggle, including blood splattered all over the deck. There must have been a terrible battle aboard the ship. But of the crew there was not a trace. Seemingly, every single crew member had vanished. And everything valuable had been stripped from the ship. Then they heard the moaning within the cabin. They tried to open the door, but it had been barricaded shut. On that blood-soaked ship, they must have feared what they would find inside. When they burst through the door they found a woman on the floor, the only survivor. She said that her name was Susannah Buckler. Could she tell them what had happened to the ship’s crew? …

Canada, Saudi Arabia and the CBC

As one of my colleagues often states, there is no escaping media studies in International and Global Studies, because the news media is how most of us receive information about global issues, even in an era of Twitter and blogs (OK news on the U.S. Presidency might be an exception). It’s interesting, therefore, to look at how different publications cover the news. As Colin Dwyer described in an article on the NPR website, Canadian diplomats denounced Saudi Arabia’s arrest of multiple human rights activists. Dwyer details how Saudi Arabia responded to the statements by denouncing Canada’s actions as meddling, recalling its ambassador, and freezing all new trade investments. Now Saudi Arabia has announced that it is withdrawing students from Canadian universities. …

Fracking and Canada’s Oil Sands

Syncrude Mildred Lake Plant. “This is a picture of Syncrude’s base mine. The yellow structures are the bases of pyramids made of sulphur – it is not economical for Syncrude to sell the sulphur so it stockpiles it instead. Behind that is the tailings pond, held in by what is recognized as the largest dam in the world. The extraction plant is just to the right of this photograph and most of the mine is to the left.” By TastyCakes is the photographer, Jamitzky subsequently equalized the colour. (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In 2003 I wrote an article, “Canada’s New Role in North American Energy Security,” which examined Canada’s growing importance to U.S. energy security. This paper was written in the context of 9/11, and looking back I wish that I had talked much more about the environmental costs of this resource. In the years since, so much has changed. Canada’s oil has become a stranded resource. Indeed, Alberta is so unhappy with the opposition to an oil pipeline by its provincial neighbor, British Columbia, that it briefly banned the sale of B.C. wine.

The fundamental issue, however, for the oil sands is not the pipeline policy of BC, but rather the underlying economics. The fracking revolution has remade the finances of oil. It’s true that Canada remains the top oil exporter to the United States. Still, the financial value of its exports fell 47.5% between 2016 and 2017 (this is the dollar value, not the number of barrels shipped). Indeed, the drops in the value of petroleum sales were even larger for other major oil suppliers to the United States. Venezuela, the third largest oil exporter to the United States, saw it’s sales fall a staggering 71.8% during the same period, while Mexico’s fell 79.3%, according the website “worldstopexports.” The truth is that focusing on pipelines to the Pacific is rather like improving buggies to compete with Ford as the auto industry developed, which no less true for being a meme.

The Tyee is an online newspaper with good coverage of West Coast politics and society in Canada from a left-wing perspective. Mitchell Anderson has a wonderful article titled “Only Fantasies, Desperation and Wishful Thinking Keep Pipeline Plans Alive.” While Anderson’s article reflects the paper’s ideological leanings, the overall analysis shows the folly of trying to rely on this resource, at a time that global energy markets are undergoing a massive change, and coastal regions are trying to plan for sea level rise. With the rise of electric cars, the falling costs of utility scale batteries, and the growth of fracking, the energy landscape has change dramatically from 2003. No ban on BC wine is going to undo the dramatic changes in U.S. oil demand, and the United States will remain Canada’s main energy market internationally. While Albertans must rethink and diversify, they are only one player amongst many, which are struggling to adapt to new global realities.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

Canadian doctors

In case you have ever wondered if Canada’s culture is truly different, you might want to read Amy Wang’s article in the Washington Post, “Hundreds of Canadian doctors demand lower salaries.” While most people who read the article comment on the fact that Canadian doctors are willing to give up part of their salaries to help others, I think that the picture it paints of an overstrained health care system is equally important. Free health care is a core Canadian value, but it’s also important to receive that care in a timely fashion, from caregivers who are treated well.  The article describes a disturbing Facebook video by an exhausted nurse, who has been pushed past the limit. Still, it’s hard not to finish the article without a smile on your face.

Shawn Smallman, 2018.

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