New updates: Life in a time of COVID-19

January 2021 update: It’s now been a year since a brave Chinese researcher released the genome of the COVID-19 virus, against the wishes of his government, which allowed vaccine makers to get to work on new mRNA or modified RNA vaccines even before the first case was identified in the United States. Two of those vaccines — from Moderna and Pfizer — started rolling out in November (see below), although the rollout in both the US and Canada has been slow, for a variety of reasons, one of which is the fact that both vaccines need to be kept at extremely cold temperatures and plenty of places don’t have those kinds of facilities. A new Johnson & Johnson vaccine is supposed to be available soon, and it is a traditional vaccine that uses part of the virus itself as the delivery vehicle, and therefore doesn’t need special storage requirements.

That’s the good news. The bad news (in addition to the recent riot in which armed goons stormed the US Capitol, breaching its security for the first time since the 1950s, in what seemed to be an attempt to reverse the results of the election) is that there are at least two new strains of the virus that are causing concern, one that was first identified in the UK and one first identified in South Africa. They are both believed by some researchers to be more infectious than the original strain — up to 70 percent more infectious. Epidemiologists and other researchers note that viruses like COVID always evolve over time, and sometimes rapidly — measles mutates very slowly, so shots are good for years, but the regular flu mutates quickly, so you need a different shot every year. It’s still not clear which of these COVID will be more like. There is some evidence that the current vaccines may be effective against the new variants.

More bad news: A number of countries are seeing outbreaks and uncontrolled spread as bad or worse as the original outbreak in March of 2020, either because of a lack of stringent controls, a lack of desire on the part of people to wear masks, etc. and/or cases of the newer, more infectious variants. In the UK, authorities confirmed more than 62,000 cases in just 24 hours; according to a number of observers, both Sweden and Japan are paying the price for having been too lenient with their lockdowns and other measures early on. The US, meanwhile, has been the victim of a combination of the Trump government’s incompetence and American “every man for himself” individualism: roughly 400,000 people have now died of COVID, and the country has about 25 percent of the cases worldwide, despite only having 4 percent of the world’s population. The death rate in the US is now the equivalent of six fully-loaded 747 jumbo jets crashing and killing everyone on board, every single day.

To complicate matters, many people still refuse to wear masks, either because they think it’s an infringement on their rights, or because they believe they don’t work or are actively bad for you. And on top of that, even some front-line health workers have said they don’t plan to get the vaccine — in several counties in California, more than 50 percent of the doctors and nurses and other hospital workers who were eligible for the vaccine said they weren’t planning to get it. Also, the Wall Street Journal says the actual death rate for COVID is closer to 3 million worldwide, not 2 million.

November 2020 update: The US continues to set new records for cases — 181,000 on November 13, up about 75 percent from two weeks earlier. Deaths rose by 34 percent, with 1,380 people dying on November 13 and 68,000 people hospitalized (up 41 percent). Looking at a graph of the number of new cases plotted as a seven-day moving average, it’s obvious the US is in the third wave of the pandemic. There are a total of more than 10 million people in the country that have had COVID-19. Despite the continuing climb in numbers, however, there are still those in the US who believe that COVID is “under control,” that we have to “learn to live with it” (as soon-to-be former president Donald Trump put it) and that wearing masks and other precautions are not necessary. Even in Canada there have been tensions between governments that have imposed mask rules, and those who believe that such laws are an infringement on their rights. This also happened during the 1918 flu.

Source: New York Times November 13

As you can see from the above graph, the US is entering a third wave, much higher than the previous two. The 1918 flu followed a similar trajectory: a small initial wave, followed by a summer lull, and then a much higher wave in the fall and winter. Almost all 50 states are in what experts call an “unrestrained spread” category, with positivity rates climbing, and some are close to or at their limit in terms of ICU beds. On the upside, mortality rates seem to be advancing at a lower rate than in earlier waves — in part because doctors have gotten better at treating patients with COVID — but it’s also worth noting that deaths lag testing by about three weeks. And American Thanksgiving could be a very difficult time, with many people desperate to get together with family, combined with “pandemic fatigue,” where some people seem fed up with all of the quarantining and mask-wearing, and are either uninformed about the risks or willing to take them. Experts also say many people are dealing with mental health issues as a result of being quarantined, especially the elderly.

The graphic below comes from an interactive map designed by researchers at Georgia Tech, which displays the odds of you encountering someone with COVID, based on the number of people at an event and the testing results from counties across the US. So for example, if you are at an event with 25 or more people in much of the Midwest, there’s a better than 80 percent chance that someone at that event has COVID. And for much of the US, the odds are better than 50 percent that there will be an infected person at any event with more than about 25 people. Many countries in Europe are also going back into lockdown because their rates are climbing faster than they did during the first outbreak, and there seems to be a consensus that Sweden’s attempt to keep things open and pursue a “herd immunity” strategy is a failure.

via Georgia Tech
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Platform ban of Trump and Parler raises questions about speech and power

Note: A version of this post was originally published in the daily newsletter from the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer.

As Donald Trump’s rhetoric became increasingly disconnected from reality during the election campaign, spreading conspiracy theories about widespread voting fraud (for which there is absolutely no evidence), Twitter and Facebook both took to adding disclaimers, labels, and other warnings on his statements, and in some of the worst cases blocked them from being seen until the president deleted them. But after the storming of the Capitol building by Trump supporters, both platforms have banned the president from their services completely, with Twitter spending a considerable amount of time playing Whac-a-Mole blocking other accounts that Trump tried to use to spread his message after his was permanently disabled. And now, a wave of bans against both Trump and his prominent supporters has spread across much of the social web — YouTube, Twitch, TikTok, SnapChat, etc. — as well as payment services and financial intermediaries like PayPal, Venmo, Stripe and GoFundMe.

This kind of de-platforming isn’t unprecedented: It happened to right-wing gadfly Milo Yiannopolous, and then to Alex Jones of InfoWars, and to Gab (a right-wing would-be alternative to Twitter), and to 8chan, a Reddit-style community now known as 8kun. But it’s the first time the nuclear option has been used against a president of the United States. And even as the nation was trying to come to terms with the Capitol riot, the actions taken against Trump were raising questions: his supporters claimed it was an affront to his First Amendment rights (despite the fact that the First Amendment only applies to actions taken by the government). For some critics, the question was why the platforms didn’t act sooner. For others, the concern was more about whether private entities should ever have that kind of power over speech. But as troubling as the president’s de-platforming might be, some of the most dedicated defenders of free speech and individual rights said they agreed with the ban.

Jameel Jaffer of the Knight First Amendment Institute said while the platforms should be biased in favor of leaving the speech of political leaders up, “there are limits to this principle. A political leader who uses his account to incite violence is causing harms that can’t be countered by speech.” When the platforms believe a leader is doing so, he says, they’re justified in suspending his account. Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed out that the removal of a president might seem surprising, but when you look outside the US, “you would see that Facebook has booted off Lebanese politicians and Burmese generals, never mind the millions of others who have been booted by these platforms, often without cause.” Kate Ruane of the ACLU, however, said in a statement that “it should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions.”

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Shots fired inside the US Capitol as Trump supporters storm the barricades

Note: A modified version of this post appeared in the daily newsletter published by the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer.

Less than an hour after Congress started ratifying the electoral college votes that gave Joe Biden a win in the presidential election, hundreds of camouflage-wearing Trump supporters — egged on by the president’s claims that the election was stolen from him — stormed the Capitol building on Wednesday and forced their way inside. As members of Congress left the Senate and House chambers, taking the electoral college votes with them, rioters in paramilitary gear and wearing QAnon symbols filled the room, taking photos of themselves standing on the dais by the Speaker’s chair, and sitting in her office with their feet on her desk. Amid the melee, a woman was shot, reportedly by police, and later died of her injuries — she was identified as Ashli Babbit, a 14-year veteran of the Air Force. According to CNN, it was the first time the Capitol building had been breached since the War of 1812. By 6 pm, Associated Press quoted authorities as saying the Capitol was secure, and the National Guard was on the scene. One report said shots were fired within the Capitol building at one point, but most of those who occupied the building appeared to have been allowed to leave peacefully, although DC police reported there were about a dozen arrests. Fighting between police and rioters continued near the Capitol through the night.

“We are watching an attempted sedition,” Jake Tapper said on CNN during the occupation. “We are watching an attempt at a bloodless coup in the United States.” Though police deployed smoke explosives to try to halt crowds, the demonstrators managed to push the police line up the steps on the east side of the Capitol. Then a small group broke into the building, according to the Washington Post. One video posted on TikTok appeared to show Capitol police encouraging demonstrators to enter the Capitol, and other videos posted to TikTok appeared to show members of the police taking friendly photos with those who illegally entered the building. Capitol Police briefly ordered evacuations of two buildings — the Library of Congress James Madison Memorial Building and the Cannon House Office Building, both just across from the Capitol. Representative Elaine Luria, a Democrat whose office is in the Cannon building, tweeted: “I just had to evacuate my office because of a pipe bomb reported outside.” Luria also said she heard gun shots near her office.

“This is what you’ve gotten, guys,” Republican Senator Mitt Romney yelled as the mayhem unfolded in the Senate chamber, according to the New York Times live-blog of the events, apparently addressing his colleagues. The Times described “a scene of chaos and confusion seldom witnessed in the history of the capital,” with hundreds of protesters barreling past fence barricades. Just after 3 pm, MSNBC showed a woman being taken out of the Capitol on a stretcher, covered in blood, and a news report later said the woman had died of her injuries. “This is a coup attempt,” Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger said on Twitter. Washington Post reporter Aaron Davis said the Defense Department initially refused a request from DC officials to deploy the National Guard, but later relented (the Times said this was authorized by vice president Pence, not by Trump). “Amazing how the national guard gets deployed with the quickness in anticipation of protests when police kill someone but when Trump holds his fascist coup rally the national guard is nowhere in sight,” said Bree Newsome Bass. David Corn of Mother Jones wrote that Trump “is now a terrorist leader.”

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The Ingram Christmas letter, in which we say goodbye and good riddance to 2020

Every year when I write our Christmas letter, I’m aware of how much it seems like bragging: Oh yes, here are our photos from Venice or Florence or the Amalfi Coast, and here are pictures of our brilliant and beautiful children, and Becky and I looking happy and prosperous. Isn’t our life wonderful and idyllic? This year, of course, there wasn’t any of that. Not only was there no trip to Italy, but there were virtually no trips anywhere to speak of, apart from a journey to Florida in March, just as the terrible reality of COVID-19 was starting to hit (here’s a link to a blog post I’ve been updating periodically since the pandemic began). To be honest, even writing the words “there was no trip to Italy” sounds ridiculous, like I’m a prince of some nameless country whose citizens are all dying of the plague, and I’m complaining that I can’t go stag hunting because of the quarantine. Any lingering sadness about not being able to see Italy in the spring was quickly overtaken by gratitude that we were all healthy. Memories of all the lovely churches in Italy were replaced with images of them filling up with coffins because people were dying faster than they could be buried.

The trips that we did make this year, to see friends and family, or to move Becky’s mom out of her condo after the death of her husband Ron, were fraught with anxiety: Should we go inside? Will everyone be wearing masks, or do some not want to do that, and if so then what do we do? How long do we stay? Can we eat outside, and if not, then what? Should we wash all the food with hand soap, and all the door handles, and the boxes and bags everything came in? This year was like trying to navigate a ship through iceberg-infested waters, except all the icebergs were invisible and the throttle was stuck wide open, and everyone was blindfolded. Every day, there was a terrible new milestone: A record number of cases, a record number of deaths, a record shortage of ICU beds. Amid all this, we have been very lucky: we moved out of Toronto last year, and are sharing a large house (really two houses put together) just north of Peterborough. We have about a hundred acres of fields and forest to wander around in, and friends next door to have dinners with. We can go months without going anywhere, other than the odd trip to the grocery store (and the liquor store, of course).

I’ve been reading a series of newsletter entries over the past few months called “The Last Normal Day,” and it got me thinking about our last normal day, sometime in early March. Becky and I went to Florida with her brother Dave and his wife Jennifer, where we had rented a condo complex near Siesta Key. When we flew down, there were warnings about washing your hands so as not to get this new flu, etc., but it seemed like mostly a nuisance. With each passing day, however, it got more real, and more frightening. One day we were kayaking through the mangroves, and the next we were frantically trying to book new return flights for Becky’s mom and stepfather because Canada was closing the border. Our last meal there, we joked half-heartedly about taking a photo with empty tables beside us, so our daughter Caitlin and her husband Wade (both of whom are nurses), wouldn’t be mad at us for breaching COVID rules. And then not long after we came back, Meaghan had to take our cat Shadow to the vet, and we all got on a video call as she passed away in Meaghan’s arms (little did we know that most of 2020 would be spent on video calls).

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The Google case is a stew of technology, law, and politics

Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Two weeks ago, the House subcommittee on antitrust released a 400-plus page report detailing the anti-competitive practices of the four major digital platforms — Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook — and called for the Department of Justice (among others) to take action against them. And this week, the government did exactly that, filing a landmark antitrust case against Google, one the DoJ has reportedly been working on for some time. Depending on whom you ask, it is either a cravenly political gambit by Attorney General Bill Barr designed to make the Trump administration look tough, a legal quagmire that is significantly weaker than the 1998 Microsoft case and almost certain to fail, or a sign that the government is finally taking strong action to correct some of the blatant antitrust failures of the past two decades. It’s even possible that it may be all three of those things simultaneously.

What it is almost certain to be, if it survives the election (and there’s good reason to believe it will continue even if Joe Biden becomes president), is a full-employment program for antitrust lawyers both inside the DoJ and elsewhere. The Microsoft case generated work for thousands of lawyers for the more than five years it took to reach a conclusion. As a number of experts have pointed out since the Google case was filed, it also ended with a negotiated settlement and a series of fairly modest restrictions on Microsoft’s conduct, a deal the Justice Department was forced to reach after its proposed remedy — breaking of the company into two parts — was rejected by the courts. That said, however, some tech veterans believe the case was successful despite its weak conclusion, because it tied Microsoft up in legal knots, and made the company hyper-sensitive to criticism, and therefore leery of being too aggressive. This, ironically, helped the rise of a little company called Google.

Those who subscribe to the theory that the case was rushed out the door to make Trump look good point to reports before the indictment’s release that Barr was pressuring the DoJ to launch the case before the election, and some members of the staff there reportedly balked, saying it wasn’t ready. Barry Lynn, executive director of the Open Markets Institute, doesn’t buy this theory, however: he told CJR during a discussion on our Galley platform Wednesday that “it’s actually a very strong case, and a well-written case. So this was anything but a rush job”. Zephyr Teachout, a professor of law at Fordham University and a former Democratic candidate for governor of New York, said in a similar discussion that while she believes Barr “should be impeached, and I don’t trust him for a second”, the case is well-grounded, and should have been brought years ago. Both Lynn and Teachout said that despite the appearance of political divisions in the House report that preceded the Google case, there is more agreement than disagreement about the necessity for regulation.

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