Readers write: Rural America

Rural America

The story of a rural Oregon family – told in the Feb. 10 Monitor Weekly’s book review “Working-class Americans on a tightrope” – isn’t typical, but it is symptomatic. A century of industrialization has left cities and the countryside in shambles, both socially and environmentally. 

How about a century of revitalization to undo the destruction? The goal: a permanent city-country partnership in taking care of home. The program would emphasize local knowledge, design, and management, as well as local work. Urban and rural places would contribute all the money and work they can, with state and federal funds to give the program strength. An early focus would be helping rural people to truly understand the countryside they live in. 

And not only have rural youth gone to the cities, city minds now run country places. A century of revitalization would offer meaning as well as money. Folks would feel that their home landscapes are worth caring for and belonging in.

Bob Weeden
Salt Spring Island, British Columbia

Audio edition

Thank you for the recording of Monitor Editor Mark Sappenfield’s insightful interview with Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn – the authors of “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope” – which appeared in the Feb. 3 Monitor Daily.

I particularly appreciated that Mr. Sappenfield noted the progress these dedicated authors share in the book while also pointing out a gross injustice in how we have dealt with victims of drug use in this country. The Monitor is so good at seeking a positive angle, even in serious challenges.

We all need to know there is a glimmer of hope to hang on to – something that will help us continue to expect a better outcome when things look bleak. 

Susan Atkinson
Durango, Colorado

https://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Readers-Respond/2020/0328/Readers-write-Rural-America?icid=rss

As jobless numbers spike, a question rises: When can economy reopen?

On Thursday, the U.S. Labor Department reported that 3.3 million Americans filed initial jobless claims, a record in more than 50 years of data and more than four times the previous record.

It’s a sign of how the stay-at-home orders that 21 states will have in place by the end of this week represent a blunt instrument, which may help keep the coronavirus from spreading but is also pounding the economy in unprecedented ways.

Some Americans are chafing already at the restrictions – not least of them President Donald Trump, who this week suggested lifting restrictions at least partially by Easter on April 12 to start revving up the economy. And some economists are also calling for a return-to-work timetable to protect the economy from long-term damage.

Still, the recent focus on containing the spread of the COVID-19 disease could be key to limiting the ultimate costs both to the economy and to human lives.

“We have to stop the threat of this epidemic,” says Sherry Glied, a health economist at New York University. “There’s no point rebuilding while the bombs are still dropping.”

Some Americans are beginning to chafe under the coronavirus restrictions that authorities have put into place – not least of them President Donald Trump, who this week suggested lifting restrictions at least partially by Easter on April 12 to start revving up the economy.

It’s an ambitious timetable and, to many, a callous one. How dare a president, or anyone, put the health of the economy ahead of the safety of citizens? But the president’s statement highlights another reality that conservatives especially have been grumbling about: The extraordinary stay-at-home orders that 21 states will have in place by the end of this week represent a blunt instrument, which may keep the virus from spreading but is also pounding the economy in unprecedented ways.

The latest evidence came Thursday, when the U.S. Labor Department reported that 3.3 million Americans filed initial jobless claims last week, a record in more than 50 years of data and more than four times the previous record.

A recession is likely, if not already underway. The restrictions on the economy are so far-reaching that businesses have been forced to close, throwing millions out of work, and keeping consumers, a mainstay of the economy, from shopping. 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Some analysts are predicting that economic activity could shrink by up to a quarter this spring, a terrifying drop that, were there no recovery the rest of the year, would mean economic dislocation on a scale that would outstrip any single year of the Great Depression. 

To many experts, the question is not really if authorities will ease the restrictions, but when. In theory, the sooner that happens, the less damage the economy will sustain. But there’s a big caveat. The recent focus on containing the spread of the COVID-19 disease could be key to both limiting the ultimate costs both to the economy and to human lives – including the risk of hospital systems becoming overwhelmed with patients. For now, that focus on containment remains paramount, many say.

“We will get to a moment where there will be [only] so much risk we have to be willing to take, but right now we’re not in that world,” says Sherry Glied, a health economist and dean of New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. “We have to stop the threat of this epidemic,” she adds. “There’s no point rebuilding while the bombs are still dropping.”

In her view, it makes sense to wait for progress on the scientific front, and for the government to be planning now for how it will reopen the economy in the future, while also making sure basic needs like food and housing are met.

Already, nations including Denmark and Britain are trying to cap economic damage by covering a large chunk of worker salaries for businesses that have seen revenues plunge. A $2 trillion relief package moving through Congress Thursday, similarly, throws a lifeline to businesses (loans) and workers (cash payments and stepped-up jobless benefits). 

SOURCE: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis (with data from U.S. Department of Labor)

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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

In weighing how and when to reopen the economy, part of the conundrum is that no one has fully quantified the risks posed by the virus.

“We don’t have that data,” says Howard Markel, a medical doctor and professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. The number of reported deaths has triggered alarm in the medical community and suggests that this virus is several times more deadly than a more typical seasonal flu. But public health officials have not been able to establish a concrete fatality rate because testing limitations have made it difficult to get a handle on the number of individuals who have become infected and recovered. When will health authorities have a handle on those numbers? “My hope is two to four weeks,” Dr. Markel says.

It’s such timetables that make Mr. Trump’s Easter deadline, just over two weeks away, look unrealistic. 

Even with the data in hand, health authorities would have to determine the best ways to ease restrictions. Should they target only hard-hit regions? Or is it better to focus on sheltering the elderly and those diagnosed with other diseases? 

“Real damage to people’s lives”

The World Health Organization on Tuesday said the U.S. has the potential to become the new center of the pandemic. Only China and Italy have more confirmed cases than the 69,000 in the U.S., according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.

With the House of Representatives taking up the $2 trillion Senate-passed rescue bill, health authorities have some breathing room to determine the best ways to keep the population safe. 

The economy can accept a certain amount of risk, and cost-benefit analyses are made routinely, points out Vivian Ho, an economics professor at Rice University and a professor at Baylor College of Medicine, both in Houston. “It’s a tough exercise in this particular situation, but someone needs to put those numbers down. We need to start thinking of maybe we should not shut everything down.”

“You’re talking about real damage to people’s lives, to the 30 million small businesses in America,” says Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. “People’s lives and dreams are in these small businesses and in their careers. And some of them could be ruined permanently.”

Already, some Americans are beginning to push back on the restrictions, such as by holding social gatherings. A Louisiana pastor continues to defy Louisiana’s ban on gatherings of more than 50 by busing in attendees from five different parishes (counties) for Sunday services with what he claims are up to 1,000 people. 

In Texas, public officials have begun to complain openly about the restrictions.

“My message is: Let’s get back to work. Let’s get back to living,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told Fox News in an interview Monday. “Let’s be smart about it … but don’t sacrifice the country. Don’t do that. Don’t sacrifice the American dream.”

In Harris County, home to Houston, Republican state Sen. Paul Bettencourt warned that a stay-at-home order restricting business would be “economically calamitous.” 

There’s no real precedent for the economic threat now facing the U.S. The Spanish flu of 1918 occurred in a far different context. The country was coming off a war footing. Restrictions were limited to certain cities.

Even comparisons to sudden recent economic disasters like 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis are off base, says Jonathan Bydlak, director of the Fiscal and Budget Policy Project at the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington. “We’re dealing with a very unique situation, and there’s not a whole lot in economics books that teach you how to deal with these situations.”

Dangers in reopening too quickly

Nevertheless, many economists continue to stress the importance of taming the virus first before tackling the economy.

“I think the first order of business will be to get the spread of the virus under control, and then resume economic activity,” Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell told NBC’s “Today” show Thursday.

While not opposing that sequence, two high-profile economists called on Monday for a timetable to avoid letting the economy die of neglect. 

A quarter of all workers should be back on their jobs within two months, and 75% of workers within four months, wrote Nobel Prize winner Paul Romer and Alan Garber, a physician and economist at Harvard University, in a New York Times opinion column. The return to work would be coupled with ramped-up testing and widespread use of protective gear by workers, which they said should limit the spread of the virus.

Still, even from a strictly economic point of view, trying to reopen the economy before virus cases have spiked could lead to a longer disruption.

“We’re not anywhere near a flattening of the curve” of infection, says Joe Brusuelas, chief economist of RSM US LLP, part of a global network of independent audit, tax, and consulting firms. “Should we move prematurely, it could risk the general spread of the disease that would require subsequent shutdowns.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

https://www.csmonitor.com/Business/2020/0326/As-jobless-numbers-spike-a-question-rises-When-can-economy-reopen?icid=rss

Home theater: Children’s films to delight the whole family

The best children’s movies work equally well for grown-ups. Almost nothing is more inspiriting than seeing a great movie as a wide-eyed youngster and then, years later, rewatching it as an adult and experiencing the same joy all over again. The experience is validating, as if, despite all we may have lived through, there remains within us that same astonished child. For this latest column of comfort movies, I thought I would single out three of my favorites, all readily accessible, that both fulfill the children’s movie genre and triumphantly transcend it.

[Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.]

“The Red Balloon”

Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 “The Red Balloon” is so firmly entrenched in the timeless classic category that it may come as a shock to revisit it and realize it’s every bit as marvelous as you remembered. To see the film in the company of a child who has never seen it before is a special blessing. Few children’s movies have elicited as much instant love. In fact, I suspect “The Red Balloon” is one of the rare movies that could justifiably lay claim to creating movie lovers for life. (“E.T.” is certainly another one, and I’ll get to a few of the others in a moment.) 

At a brisk 34 minutes, with almost no dialogue, “The Red Balloon” manages to encompass a vast swath of childhood experience without seeming in any way overladen or overblown. It has the logic, and the lyricism, of a fanciful child’s dream, and yet the film is rooted in the very real world of post-war France – specifically the gray, drab neighborhood of Ménilmontant on the outskirts of Paris.

The plot, at least in the telling, is simple: A little boy of perhaps 6 (played by the director’s son Pascal) is mysteriously befriended by a big lollipop-red helium balloon that floats above him everywhere. Its shiny redness rebukes the neighborhood’s grayness. It follows him to school (the headmaster is not amused), to his home (his mother is even less amused), and to church (where boy, balloon, and mom are shown the door). In one of the film’s most magical scenes, the boy passes a little girl on the sidewalk with a big blue balloon and, for a brief, romantic moment, both balloons enact a little midair duet. (An added grace note: The little girl is played by Lamorisse’s daughter, Sabine.)

Lamorisse doesn’t deny the frights of childhood. When a gang of schoolyard bullies brings down the balloon, the scene for me was as sorrowful as that moment in “Cast Away” when Tom Hanks is irreparably separated from “Wilson,” the soccer ball that is also his sole desert island companion. But all is blissfully righted in the final scene, as thousands of balloons are suddenly released into the air, wafting the little boy high into the sky. It’s a poetically perfect ending to a perfect movie. (Unrated)

“The Black Stallion”

Equal in entrancement to Lamorisse’s masterpiece is Carroll Ballard’s 1979 “The Black Stallion,” a ravishing rendition of the Walter Farley novel. Kelly Reno plays Alec, who is shipwrecked on a deserted island with the magnificent Arabian stallion he dubs “The Black.” The oceanside scene where they warily warm to each other, shot by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel in glimmering shafts of reflected light, is peerless. Rescued, brought back home, boy and horse are inseparable. A retired jockey, played by Mickey Rooney in his finest performance, sets them up for the heart-pounding big race that closes out the film. From first image to last, Ballard sustains the story with surpassing grace. No other film has captured quite so well the transcendent bond that can exist between people and the animals they love. (Rated G)

“A Little Princess”

I would be remiss if I finished out this column without mentioning “A Little Princess,” Alfonso Cuarón’s 1995 adaptation of the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel that had earlier been filmed with Shirley Temple. On its simplest level, it’s about little darlings in a Victorian gothic girls’ boarding school in 1914, but it soon turns into a resplendent fantasia. I championed the film when it came out, writing that “the filmmakers want us to perceive the fundament of magic in the everyday, and how that magic can sustain one’s spirit.” For children of all ages, there is no better time for this film than now. (Rated G)

These films are available for rent from Amazon’s Prime Video and iTunes. “The Black Stallion” and “A Little Princess” can also be rented from Google Play. “The Red Balloon” may also be borrowed through some public library systems with Kanopy.  

https://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Movies/2020/0325/Home-theater-Children-s-films-to-delight-the-whole-family?icid=rss

Legendary Vocalist John Schlitt’s Latest Album a ‘Declaration of Movement’

Best known for his ten years as the lead vocalist for legendary Christian rock group Petra, GMA (Gospel Music Association) Hall of Famer John Schlitt has been called “the best rock singer in Christian Music history”. 

Known for his wide and diverse vocal range, the multiple Grammy and Dove Award winner has released his first solo album in seven years called Go.  Comprised of 11 songs, the project focuses on compelling lyrics, rough and tumble rock and roll arrangements, and Schlitt’s full-throttle approach to the music.

Interestingly, even though Go is a 2020 release, it was celebrated late last year as one of Classic Christian Rock Magazine’s Top 10 albums of 2019 in its pre-release form.

I recently spoke to Schlitt about his 35 years in contemporary Christian music, whether he ever plans to slow down, and why he calls this latest album a ‘declaration of movement’.

For someone who’s never heard a John Schlitt record or a Petra album, how would you describe your music to someone?

Well, I’d say it’s energetic. It’s definitely rock and roll. My music has always been based around rock, which is a very exciting music form in my eyes. But rock also covers mellow material. It’s just aggressive. It’s an aggressive music. Even with slow songs, I’d say it’s probably a little more aggressive than then pop or adult contemporary. With that music style the whole focus is to bring across a message that changes lives. It’s always been that way, especially with Petra and with me also. I never wanted to try to be a Petra, part two. I tried to do what I’m supposed to do but in a different way. So, whenever I do a solo record, it doesn’t sound exactly like Petra. I don’t need to be Petra. Petra was Petra when Petra was supposed to be, and it’s still being used because of that. I have a duty to carry out what God is putting on my heart.

Has your music evolved over the years into something that is different from what you originally intended?  Especially your solo work because you don’t have as many voices speaking into the final product?

Intentionally no, but probably yes. As time goes on, the style of music is different, and you want to be as relevant as possible. But I will tell you one thing that’s never changed and that is my music is to be used to bring across the message that changes lives. Does that mean that every sentence in my songs say, Jesus? No. But in fact, I believe in evangelism of music. I believe that music can be that. And sometimes you’ve got to be careful not to shut the door before anyone gets a chance to hear what you’re saying. If I have developed or changed at all, it’s probably that I’m a little less obvious.

I need people to understand that I want to get the message out, but I don’t want to scare the people I want to get the message to. That’s a very difficult situation. Everybody says that being a Christian artist is easy. That’s easy. No. Being a true Christian artist to compete with the secular side of things as far as skill and quality of music is almost twice as hard because you have so many responsibilities with it. Have I developed? I hope so. I hope I’m getting more educated towards being able to bring across the message that doesn’t chase people away before they get a chance to hear it.

You have called your new record, Go, a ‘declaration of movement’.  Why do you say that?

I feel that Jesus never sat on his laurels. He had a very important responsibility and He knew He only had so much time. He used those three years in an amazing way. He changed the world in three years. I think especially here in this country, we have a tendency to go to church as a refuge and praise God for it. But I don’t think we’re supposed to think in terms of refuge. I think in terms of anything else, the Bible and church is like a bootcamp to get us ready to go find out what God has in store for us as far as preaching the Gospel and fulfilling the Great Commission. So, my whole point is absolutely to go to church, absolutely read the Word, but there is a responsibility as we educate ourselves. It’s time to open the doors and go find out what God has for us. Go. Let’s go forward and start being excited about what God has in store for us.

Would you say that this is the overarching theme of the new album?

Oh, absolutely. Just look at all the different songs. I want you to know that using three different producers was absolutely a God thing. It was like having three different camps or points of view, which is exactly what I wanted. When all was said and done all the songs came together. Granted there was one common denominator and that was me. They would say, ‘Well, what’s so-and-so doing?’ I would respond, “Hey, don’t worry about it. Let’s just do what we do.” And as we were writing the songs, I absolutely let my producers and co-writers sort of guide the direction of what they were feeling. It was just exciting to see how God directed it. And when all the songs were done, I sat down and I started putting together the set of songs that are on the album.

It’s a set. It’s always a set. I’m a front man, I have been all my life. One of my responsibilities is to make sure that the show has a momentum that’s exciting and never boring or tiring. You put the slow songs where they need to be, the fast songs where they need to be, and you have what I call the ‘roller coaster of vibe’. That’s very exciting. With this album, as I was putting the songs together, I’m saying to myself, “This is perfect.’ The themes go together well, and it flows well. To me it was God. It was God. Thank you. Thank you Lord for putting this thing together.

The Internet is a dangerous place. I was on your Wikipedia page last week and I discovered that you just turned 70.

That’s a scary number.

Are you planning to slow down anytime soon or is it full throttle for the years ahead?

Oh, full throttle. It’s got to be that way for me. As long as God gives me a voice. And so far He has, praise God. As long as I’m healthy, there is no such thing as retirement. So, let’s go for it. Let’s see where it takes us. You never work a day in the life if you are doing what you love and let’s face it, I love what I do. I even love being on the road. I’m sort of a road warrior but I also love being at home. I love recording. I love writing which is something that’s sort of new to me because my responsibility as I always thought for years and years was to be that front man who always delivered night after night.

Being in my seventies is no big deal to me. I confess though, every time a zero comes in my life. it’s scary. After 70, along comes 80. At that point, I’m hoping that I can say the same thing. Let’s go! But that’s all in God’s hands. We’ll see where it takes us.

After people have listened to Go, what would you like to see audiences get out of the listening experience?  What is your greatest hope for the record?

Motivation. I want people to realize with all the doom and gloom that is around us at all times, that people just need to forget it. This is just one new stage for God’s plan for the next amazing thing. I want this record to be a motivator. I want it to be exciting. This record is just a reminder that we have a responsibility as Christians. For non-Christians, I hope people love the music, love the words and will ask what it all means. I just know the Holy Spirit’s going to use it!  God put this album in my heart and I just know the music will work in amazing ways.

https://www1.cbn.com/music/legendary-vocalist-john-schlitt-latest-album-declaration-movement

Dan Jones plunges into the clash of religions in ‘Crusaders’

Meet Margaret of Beverley. She was likely born during the 12th century in the Middle East to Frankish parents and raised in northern England. As an adult, she returned to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage, setting in motion events that would turn her into a historical figure remembered by Christians for her courage during the siege of the city.

While she was in Jerusalem, noted Muslim warrior Saladin led a seige against the city. Margaret is said to have joined the defense by donning armor and using a cooking pot for a helmet. She reportedly helped fire projectiles from large slingshots at the enemy, was hit by shrapnel, and, after Saladin eventually took Jerusalem, paid for her freedom – only to be recaptured soon after by a different group of soldiers.

For the 15 months of her subsequent captivity, Margaret faced the misery of hard labor along with frequent beatings. Her memories of being held prisoner were vivid: “My chains rusted with my tears,” she wrote. Her experiences live on because of the publication of her diaries (or, perhaps, diaries credited to Margaret but ghostwritten by her brother).

Dan Jones, a best-selling author known for his witty, engaging, and carefully researched popular histories, relates the tale of Margaret, along with many other fascinating stories, in “Crusaders: The Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands.” Jones covers the years leading up to the First Crusade, when Christian soldiers successfully stormed Jerusalem in 1099, and ends with Italian explorer Christopher Columbus stumbling into the Bahamas in 1492.

And, as Jones explains in his introduction, the title conveys his approach to telling the story of the violent, bloody centuries when Christian and Muslim fighters clashed on a near-constant basis. Using diaries, histories, and other sources, Jones concentrates on the experiences of those who participated in and those who witnessed the horrors of the period.

As Jones puts it, “In choosing these crusaders I have deliberately cast my net wide. I have selected women and men, Christians of the Eastern and Western churches, Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, Arabs, Jews, Turks, Kurds, Syrians, Egyptians, Berbers and Mongols. There are people here from England, Wales, France, Scandinavia, Germany, Italy, Sicily, Spain, Portugal, the Balkans, North Africa. There is even a band of Vikings.”

There are also, among his characters, both those who wielded great power and those who endured what the powerful brought upon everyone else.

Those not steeped in the period – many people in Jones’ vast general-interest audience likely fit that description, including this reader – may find themselves occasionally at sea with the dozens of characters, clashes, sects, and settings related here. But for those of us who might confuse Godfrey of Bouillon and Baldwin of Boulogne, or Al-Adid with Al-Adil I, relief is always in sight.

For a start, Jones includes an overview of his cast of characters that wisely includes years of birth and death and notable characteristics for each. Even better, they are listed in order of appearance in the book. Chapters are well paced, and Jones’ prose is, throughout, felicitous. Helpful maps at the front of the book and scattered throughout make it easy to understand the geography. 

“Crusaders” also includes a contemporary coda showing how the holy wars of long ago continue to be referenced and misappropriated by extremists and terrorists – Christians and Muslims alike – in an effort to stir up true believers in their midst. Examples abound, including Osama bin Laden’s call for jihad on the West as he led al-Qaeda and planned the 9/11 attacks, and the manifesto of the Christchurch, New Zealand, gunman, which referenced the Crusades and the medieval Catholic military order known as the Knights Templar.

History crackles in Jones’ assured hands. He finds bawdy humor to leaven some of the grim violence. As much as anything, he even-handedly shows how endless propaganda, greed, and naked political ambition drove the battles and alliances of the Holy Land wars as much as religious fervor did.

Massacres and other atrocities fill these pages, but so too do a wide range of people who, while deeply flawed, exemplify the worst and best of humanity. Poets, popes, and princesses amble through these pages searching for love, courage, and absolution. They remind us how much – and how little – things have changed.

https://www.csmonitor.com/Books/Book-Reviews/2020/0324/Dan-Jones-plunges-into-the-clash-of-religions-in-Crusaders?icid=rss

Self-isolation as a gift, not a grind

As it leads the global battle against the coronavirus, the World Health Organization has advised people to manage their mental well-being as much as their physical health. The advice is especially true for the hundreds of millions of people who have self-isolated during the pandemic. WHO suggests engaging in healthy activities to relax, eating well, and keeping regular sleep routines.

Yet WHO also knows such advice may not be enough for those people hunkered down at home with feelings of fear, loneliness, and sadness. The agency also recommends people be empathetic toward those with COVID-19, seek accurate information about the crisis, and find safe ways to help others in isolation.

“Assisting others in their time of need can benefit the person receiving support as well as the helper,” the agency stated.

In other words, one’s home is now both a sanctuary from the virus and a place to rethink the principles that ought to govern home life. Are we seeking out truthful sources of news? How can we better calm a friend with loving assurance? What new ways of expressing life might be possible during the still silence of self-isolation?

For many, the pandemic is reshuffling the notion of home as a sanctuary, or a sheltering space that allows one to anchor one’s thoughts and values. People are redefining their cords of attachment in new ways. Instead of going to religious services in person, they are worshipping online. Instead of going to parties, weddings, sporting events, or even funerals, they are holding digital gatherings. 

Adjusting to a new life of quarantine can have its rewards. “All of this can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t need to be,” wrote the leaders of the United Methodist Church in Simsbury, Connecticut, in a message to congregants. “This can be a time where we can deepen our prayer life, increase our meditation time and work to expand the peace of God around us as those near and dear grapple with heightened anxiety.”

WHO’s call for people to maintain their mental well-being is meant as a challenge. In the sanctuary of one’s home, some of the old ways of thinking about relationships, skills, and interests must be rethought. The isolation can be a gift, not a grind, especially as a new inner life leads to bettering oneself as well as the lives of others.

https://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/the-monitors-view/2020/0323/Self-isolation-as-a-gift-not-a-grind?icid=rss

Altruism or PR? China sends supplies to help fight coronavirus

Beijing

As the fight against COVID-19 shifts to Europe and beyond, China is supplying millions of masks and other desperately needed items to struggling governments, hoping to build political ties and defuse criticism that it allowed the disease to spread early on.

Serbia’s president plans to be at the airport this weekend to welcome a shipment of medical supplies from his “brother and friend,” Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Xi’s government has flown gloves and protective clothing to Liberia. It is sending 100,000 test kits to the Philippines. More than 10 flights carrying millions of masks and other supplies are bound for the Czech Republic this week.

China, said Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamacek, is “the only country capable of supplying Europe with such amounts.”

It’s part of an effort by the Communist Party to reshape the narrative, from one of early missteps to a nation that acted decisively to bring the outbreak under control. China is touting its deliveries of ventilators and masks overseas and dispatching its medical experts to share the lessons of its success.

China hopes to benefit from a realization in the West of how difficult it is to bring the virus under control, said Julian Ku, a law professor at Hofstra University in New York.

“The Chinese government’s failures … will be less harshly viewed in light of the failures of other governments to respond effectively as well,” he said.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic blasted the European Union and praised China for offering help when he announced a state of emergency to combat the outbreak. His country wants to join the EU, but his government has moved closer to Russia and China in a seesaw battle for influence.

“I believe in my brother and friend Xi Jinping and I believe in China’s help,” Vucic said. “European solidarity,” he said, was just a fairy tale.

EU officials denied they were stopping aid to Serbia, but said their first priority was EU members.

China has given $20 million to the World Health Organization for COVID-19 efforts. While the EU and the U.S. have made larger pledges to combat the disease, they are now preoccupied by the crisis at home.

The Chinese “are winning points,” said Theresa Fallon, the founder of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels. “Serbia thinks that China is their savior.”

Six weeks ago, Chinese authorities were trying to quell outrage at home and condemnation abroad. The critics said due to politically motivated foot-dragging, China had mishandled the viral outbreak racing through a major province and its capital, Wuhan.

Now the criticism is raining down on governments from Tehran to Washington, D.C. A visiting Chinese Red Cross official chastised Italy on Thursday for letting so many people stroll the streets of Milan.

“Right now we need to stop all economic activity, and we need to stop the mobility of people,” said Executive Chairman Sun Shuopeng.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.

At one level, China is reciprocating assistance it received. Nearly 80 countries sent supplies to China, some on charter flights they sent to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan.

“It is China’s traditional virtue to repay goodwill with greater kindness,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said, citing an ancient Confucian saying: “You throw a peach to me, and I give you a white jade for friendship.”

But at the same time, China is deepening ties with countries that have been receptive to its outreach as it assumes a larger international role. It is shipping supplies to Cambodia, whose Prime Minister Hun Sen has been an outspoken supporter of Xi and even visited him in Beijing last month as the outbreak raged.

China moved quickly to send experts and equipment to Italy, which last year became the first western European country to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The massive program seeks to expand trade by building ports, roads and other transportation projects in a 21st century version of the fabled Silk Road.

China is ready to work with Italy to contribute to international cooperation on epidemic control and to the building of a “Health Silk Road,” Xi was quoted as telling Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in a phone call Monday.

“It’s not an accident that the heat map of where Xi Jinping is sending condolences and China is sending N95 masks overlaps pretty closely with those countries that have demonstrated a willingness to accommodate China,” said Daniel Russel, a former senior U.S. diplomat now with the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York.

Opinions vary on the effectiveness of China’s efforts.

“It’s an open question how far that’s going to get … but they’re clearly giving it the old-school try,” Russel said. The Communist Party’s propaganda, he said, has been more successful at home than abroad.

Clive Hamilton, author of “Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia,” said that China has poured enormous resources into shaping the global discourse in recent years.

“It would be a mistake to underestimate how effective” this “major international campaign to rewrite the history of the coronavirus” might be, he said.

But Chu Yin, a professor of public administration at the University of International Relations in Beijing, said China lags the U.S. and Europe in its understanding of public diplomacy and has always struggled to convert humanitarian aid into diplomatic returns.

“If people really expect a big boost of China’s influence through the aid, it will be difficult,” he said. “In my opinion, let’s just take the aid as doing a good deed, and it would help China’s economy if the epidemic situation in these countries is contained.”

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Asscociated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, Karel Janicek in Prague, Victoria Milko in Jakarta, Indonesia, and reseacher Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2020/0322/Altruism-or-PR-China-sends-supplies-to-help-fight-coronavirus?icid=rss

Readers write: The fate of American wild horses

Our Jan. 20 cover story, “Taming a wild controversy,” elicited many reader letters. Here’s a selection of the responses.

Difficult decisions

I have been a horse lover my whole life, but I have had personal experience with seeing the consequence of too many horses on range land. Sadly, the wild and free image of wild horses overlooks the conditions where they live and try to survive. It is not so much poor range management on the part of livestock owners as the simple limitations of the environment. 

During seasons of extreme drought, the desert can have devastating effects on all animals, particularly horses that suffer from lack of water and feed. The conditions on much of the range have always been short on precipitation. Parts of these regions are referred to as “deserts” for a reason.

Horses are beautiful and exciting. And if properly managed – with population control – they have an important part in the American culture and landscape. We have to decide how to control their breeding, and it might well be more humane to euthanize them when their physical conditions are compromised or there are insufficient resources for them to thrive.

Margaret Smith
Buffalo, Wyoming

Equine well-being

When I worked in Colorado in the 1980s (including on an overgrazing project), this issue of competition for grazing lands was a fierce thing. But the cattle always get what they want, because the ranchers make sure of it. They are empowered (you might say entitled) advocates. 

The real issue, of course, is the welfare of these iconic horses. It’s a desperately sad situation that needs correction quickly – just like a lot of other problems in this world. To me, the cover story was interesting – I liked the story’s focus on pushing for sterilization, and that the article showed how frustrating it is for both sides – but it didn’t ignite the sense of desperation that exists for wild horse advocates.

And it went easy on the actual equine suffering. Yes, many are adopted into good homes. However, many wait in cold, muddy enclosures before being sold into what is often a tragic fate.

Considering that the horses are there because of humans, and considering the monumental positive impact horses played in American history, don’t they deserve a conscientious, kind management plan – not one that traumatizes them? It is a sad situation for both sides. But the elk – and the horses, especially – suffer the most.

Kirsten Bouchard
North Chittenden, Vermont 

Editor’s note: Ms. Bouchard is related to the Monitor’s director of editorial innovation and outreach, Clayton Collins.

Alternative solutions

Once again, an excellent article outlining the problems presented in managing the feral horse problem that Americans have created as we insist on seeing them as pets rather than livestock. 

However, there was no mention whatsoever of the “fertility control measure” used by all livestock managers for centuries: castration. Why is it not being done with the wild horses? Unlike the vaccine given to mares that was discussed in the cover story, castration is an operation that is minimally invasive, involves a one-time interaction, and is permanent. The gelding can live out his life in the wild and never contribute to unwanted population growth. 

It probably seems more labor-intensive and a more hands-on activity than inoculation, and it’s possible that within the first few years it might be. But as the number of foals born each year drops, the job would dwindle each year. In about three or maybe four years, the job would be finished.

Judy Kurtz
Socorro, New Mexico

Subsidies from taxpayers

To me, the cover story positioned wild horses as the culprits who have enacted ecological damage that was actually done by vastly larger populations of taxpayer-subsidized cattle and sheep. I believe that the Monitor should have published a completely different kind of article – one that exposed the money ranchers receive from the U.S. government.

The Center for Biological Diversity published a 2015 report titled “Costs and Consequences: The Real Price of Livestock Grazing on America’s Public Lands.” It states: “The federal grazing subsidy is even larger when all costs to the taxpayer are accounted for. Indirect costs for livestock grazing include portions of different federal agencies budgets, such as the USDA Wildlife Services. … The full cost of the federal grazing program is long overdue for a complete analysis.” 

It’s not only Brazilian rainforests that have been destroyed by the livestock industry. It’s the American West.

Vickery Eckhoff
New York

https://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Readers-Respond/2020/0321/Readers-write-The-fate-of-American-wild-horses?icid=rss

Points of Progress: Serbia’s tech boom draws workers, and more

Worldwide 

Carbon emissions from the global electricity system fell by 2% in 2019, the largest such drop in 30 years, according to a report from the climate think tank Ember. The decrease comes as the United States and European Union increasingly eschew coal-generated electricity in favor of gas and renewables. Worldwide output from coal power plants contracted by 3% last year, falling by a quarter in the EU and 16% in the U.S. Solar and wind power, meanwhile, rose 15%, accounting for 8% of the world’s electricity generation. The report warned that some of the recent decrease is a product of mild winters and that much more dramatic action is needed from governments and businesses to avoid the worst effects of climate change. (The Guardian)

Nick Oxford/Reuters/file

Wind turbines in Texas are helping reduce America’s reliance on fossil fuels, such as coal. Globally, emissions from electricity use fell at an unprecedented rate in 2019.

1. Ireland

The Pritzker Architecture Prize, the field’s highest award, was jointly awarded to two women for the first time. Irish architects Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell received the prize after 42 years of working together at their Dublin-based firm, Grafton Architects. Only three other women, two of them in collaboration with male architects, have received the award since its establishment in 1979. Sarah Whiting, dean of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, says this year’s prize reflects the increased number of women in architecture. (NPR)

Federico Brunetti/Pritzker Prize/AP/File

Irish architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara earned architecture’s highest award for designing buildings such this one at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy.

2. United Kingdom

Across the United Kingdom, 104 communities have been awarded Plastic Free Community status, up from just one in 2017, and more than 500 others are seeking the accreditation. The increase is largely a product of the Plastic Free Communities initiative, a grassroots campaign led by Surfers Against Sewage, a Cornwall-based conservation nonprofit that awards the accreditation. To receive the status, which does not mean the area is completely devoid of single-use plastics, locales must follow a five-point plan focused on community-based advocacy and regulation. Totally eliminating single-use plastics in these areas, advocates say, will require wider reform from larger corporations. (HuffPost)

3. The Netherlands

Around 75% of commercial vessels on the waters of Amsterdam are now emissions-free. Canal boats, the city’s most popular tourist attraction, are converting to electric power as part of a push from Amsterdam’s new mayor, who has called for a ban on diesel engines in city waters by 2025. Retrofitting existing craft with new electric engines is much cheaper than building new vessels, and the government aims to have 100 boat-charging stations operational by the end of next year. The city estimates that only about 5% of Amsterdam’s total 12,000 recreational vessels qualify as emissions-free. (Reuters)

Eva Plevier/Reuters

Amsterdam’s canal boats, like this electric one, are increasingly being converted to electric power as the city attempts to reduce its carbon footprint.

4. Serbia

A surprising tech renaissance in Serbia is helping reverse brain drain in the Balkan country’s economy. Serbia’s technology industry now accounts for at least 6% of gross domestic product and employs around 45,000 people. Tech exports reached $1.5 billion in 2019, up 55% from two years before. The sector’s growth has attracted investment from large corporations such as Microsoft, and the national government, which has poured tens of millions of dollars into improved tech education and digital infrastructure. While hundreds of thousands of well-educated Serbs have emigrated since strongman Slobodan Milosevic lost power in 2000, new opportunities for employment in information technology are encouraging citizens to return to or stay in their country of birth. (The Economist and Reuters)

5. Hong Kong

A Hong Kong court ruled that married same-sex couples have the right to apply for public housing. In one of the world’s most expensive cities – where almost half of the population of 7 million relies on public housing – the ruling will increase access to affordable housing for LGBTQ residents. While Hong Kong decriminalized homosexuality in 1991, it still does not recognize same-sex marriage. Despite maintaining a ban on same-sex civil partnerships last year, Hong Kong has seen a recent uptick in LGBTQ rights, with court rulings granting same-sex partners the right to dependent visas and spousal benefits. (Thomson Reuters Foundation)

https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Progress-Watch/2020/0320/Points-of-Progress-Serbia-s-tech-boom-draws-workers-and-more?icid=rss