Wednesday, January 13, 2021

"Sending more time with family" is now a popular career move for top politicians

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has just carried out another cabinet reshuffle. A shuffle like this is often a prelude to an election, and most people seem to believe that a federal election will indeed be called this year, perhaps as early as the spring, although Trudeau insists that it is the last thing he wants.

The main instigating event, though, is the announcement by current Innovation, Science and Economic Development minister Navdeep Bains, a long-time Trudeau insider, that he will not seek re-election and is to stand down from his cabinet post, which he has held for the last 4 years. The awkwardly-named ministry is a pretty high profile one, and Mr. Bains must be considered to be at the height of his career. Which makes me wonder, cynical as I am, what the REAL reason behind his announcement is.

The stated reason for Mr. Bains' departure is that old chestnut, to spend more time with family: "It's time for me to focus on the most important job I have, being a Dad". There's even a whole back-story to it, that his daughter mentioned one day that, were he to be elected for another four years, she would be grown up and in university by then, which made Mr. Bains stop and think about his priorities in life. 

It's a good story, but I (cynical as I am) can't help but think: wait, a top level politician of this kind has to be so drive and so ambitious that very few of them can have had such a life-altering Damascene moment, and chucked a high level and lucrative career to help a teenager with her homework. See, cynical!

The "wanting to spend more time with family" line has been used over and over again when major politicians and business people stand down from top jobs, and it doesn't always mean what it says. Often people turn out to have been pushed out, or are being proactive in avoiding some kind of a scandal. 

This may not be the case with Navdeep Bains, but it just seems a bit disingenuous to me for politicians to always resort to the family  explanation, rather than saying something like, "I realized I could make more money as a lawyer or a corporate consultant" or, "I am totally disillusioned with federal politics". Rather, it seems to me, spending more time with my family" is a recognized shorthand for "I don't want to talk about the real reasons".

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Why we need a comprehensive paid sick leave program

Pretty much everyone I speak to, and many of the people I read, cite the lack of paid sick leave in Canada (and elsewhere) as being a major contributor to the continuing spread of COVID-19. Workers in essential industries, from healthcare to warehousing to manufacturing to food production, keep on working even when they get sick, because they need the money coming in and their employers (and their governments) do not offer paid sick leave.

The federal government did introduce the Canada Revovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) last fall, which it claims is basically the same as paid sick leave. But the program requires users to navigate a government website to apply for it, and payments may be delayed several weeks, which does not answer the need for short term cash (for rent, groceries, etc) that these generally low-paid workers have. 

Activists in the field often point to Germany as an example of a good comprehensive paid sick leave system. And Germany has fared better than many countries, although certainly not as good as others, as regards the virus. Either way, though, common sense dictates that the rash of industry-related outbreaks (and the elevated incidence of COVID cases in areas with lots of warehouses, food distribution businesses, etc, like Surrey, BC and Brampton, Ontario) could have been alleviated by paid sick leave. 

If the government is willing to help by instituting a program like CRSB, then why not go the whole hog and make it a mandatory and immediate paid sick leave program?

Sunday, January 10, 2021

The supply of vaccines depends on how much countries pay for doses

It had never occurred to me that different countries would be paying different prices for the same COVID-19 vaccines.

The only reason we really know anything about that is due to a tweet from from a Belgian budget official. The tweet was hastily deleted, but not before the price the European Union is paying for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine ($14.76 per dose) was compared to the price the USA is paying ($19.50). Now, it is possible that some of that difference is due to the subsidies the EU provided towards the vaccine's development. The total number of doses ordered may also play into it, as may the speed of delivery. But it seems like few other people had thought about how much different countries were paying for the vaccines either, and countries were not going to be widely broadcasting that information.

There are significant differences in the relative prices of other vaccines too (all courtesy of that same unfortunate tweet): the EU will pay about 45% less than the USA for the AstraZeneca vaccine, and 20% more for the Moderna vaccine. Again, this may (or may not) be a function of the relative investments made by these countries to the development of the vaccines. AstraZeneca's response to requests for information was that, "The price per dose varies depending on the supply chain. We are unable to comment on specific agreements". Which is not very helpful.

It is not clear how much Israel has paid in order to obtain such large quantities so quickly. (Israel is streets ahead of any other country in the proportion if its population already innoculated.) Did they just pay lots of dosh to get preferential treatment? Is this fair? One leaked report suggests that Israel may have paid as much as $30 per dose to get such a large early supply, two to three times the reported market price per dose. This is how the "Israeli miracle" was achieved. Added to this, Palestinians under Israel occupation are not getting vaccinated, while Israelis illegally squatting on Palestinian territory are, but that is, as they say, a whole other issue. If you are cynical, you might say that the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu is due to contest yet another general election in March may also have had something to do with the strong push for early vaccinations, cost be damned.

The whole issue is quite opaque and clearly very sensitive. The Canadian government is not releasing any information about how much Canada is paying for the vaccines it has ordered, and this is becoming much more of a concern as our supply of the vaccines seems to be drying up (or at least progressing much more slowly than promised), and the provinces are complaining that they urgently need more doses. They have huge unused vaccinating capacity as a result, they say, of lack of supply from the federal procurement system.

It has also come to light that Ottawa has offered to pay more in order to expedite supplies of the vaccines, which seems like an embarrassing public admission, and reflects poorly on the whole process. And where does this leave poor countries, many of which are faring much worse than we are?

All of this shouldn't come as a surprise to me. Drug companies are commercial enterprises, out to make a buck. I just naively thought that such considerations might have taken a back seat during such a global crisis.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Duck-billled platypus' genome is as weird as you might expect

I have read several articles recently about the duck-billed platypus, that weirdest-of-the-weird animal from Down Under, the one with the bill and webbed feet of a waterbird, the venomous ankle-spikes, the biofluorescent fur, and the ten sex chromosomes (unlike every other mammal, which have just two), that lays eggs but still feeds its young on its milk (even if it happens to secrete it through sweat glands!), and hunts using electroreception (emitting electrical impulses to locate objects in the water).

It is such a strange beast that it appears to be a random mish-mash of several different animals, the closest thing we have to a real-life chimera. The latest information we have gleaned (and the reason for the recent proliferation of articles), shows that that is actually not that far off the truth.

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have now mapped the complete genome of the platypus, as well as that of the only other living monotreme, the short-beaked echidna. Monotremes are unrelated to any other living mammal, having split away from other mammals as long ago as 170 million years, a time when the early dinosaurs were colonizing the earth, and millions of years before other modern mammals emerged. The duck-billed platypus in particular appears to have genes similar to both mammals and birds, and even some otherwise found only in reptiles.

This report comes almost a year after another groundbreaking study of platypuses, which suggests that this weird and wonderful animal may be "on the path to extinction", and could see its population halved by 2070 as a result of development and the effects of climate change (particularly droughts).

Republicans' continued pursuance of the "stolen election" fiction makes no sense

After Wednesday's shocking insurrection at the US Capitol building, many Republican congress-men and -women seem to have seen the error of their ways and have definitively broken with Donald Trump, and with his assertion that the election was "stolen" from him. For many, Trump has well and truly "jumped the shark" with his incitement of the far-right rent-a-mob, and with his dogged pursuance of the electoral fraud narrative, even in the face of over 60 failed court cases.

A disquieting number of them, however, remain intransigently adamant that the election was indeed fraudulent, despite all evidence to the contrary. Just hours after the storming of the hallowed halls of Congress by an unruly mob, no less than 147 Republican members of Congress objected to the certification of Joe Biden as President (8 Senators and 139 Representatives). This represents just 5% of Republican Senators (chief among them Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, both of whom have pretentions to standing for president in 2024), but fully two-thirds of the Republican Representatives in the House.

So, what gives? Are these people making a principled stand against what they see as an egregious miscarriage of justice? Are they just grandstandingor shit-disturbing for no apparent good reason? Are they still in thrall to the Svengali-like charisma of Trump, or maybe scared of what push-back or retaliation Trump might enact? Are they just stupid? What is their angle?

Arguably, Cruz and Hawley have at least some motivation, keen as they both are to inherit the mantle of Trumpism for themselves in the next election, as well as the hordes of rabid and undiscriminating supporters that come with it (although they are facing a substantial backlash from everybody else). But why would all these other lesser-known Republicans stick with the "stolen election" fiction? Even Trump seems to have pretty much given up on it, and has been broadcasting something close to acceptance of the result (in between more claims of skullduggery and fraud - the man has not suddenly become all sensible and consistent!)

Maybe this all makes some kind of twisted sense to Americans, but to the billions of us outside of the USA it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Friday, January 08, 2021

No, the kids are not alright

As it is announced that Ontario (or at least southern Ontario) is to keep in-class school learning closed for at least another two weeks, I have finally, after all this time, seen a breakdown of Ontario's COVID-19 positivity rates by age group.

And it is as I had suspected and feared: the highest rates, by a long chalk, are among teens and younger. 12-13 year olds are the worst with a 20% positivity rate, followed by 4-11 year olds (16%), and 14-17 year olds (14%). Even 2-3 year olds have a positivity rate of 9%, similar to the rate for 18-22 year olds, and 23-29 year olds are not far behind (8%). Thereafter, as the age groups increase, the positivity rates fall, until all the over-50 age ranges have relatively moderate rates of around 5-6%. All of the positivity rates are increasing week by week, and those of the teenagers and younger kids are increasing fast, doubling weekly in the case of 12-13 year olds.

So, it is mainly kids that are spreading this thing, even if they are not showing many symptoms. They should have been testing schoolkids regularly and often since September (then we might not be in this situation now). I am very glad that Ontario at least has seen sense and is keeping kids home from school (Quebec, on the other hand, has gone the other direction on this). And all those people who are kvetching that kids are "special", and it is imperative that they be allowed to attend school in person, will hopefully see that there is a bigger picture here.


And now, finally, there is scientific evidence that keeping kids home from school significantly reduces the community spread of the virus (along with banning gatherings of more than five people, and closing bars and restaurants). I rest my case.

Lockdown policing gone wild

Sometimes - actually quite often - you read things that make you very grateful that you live where you do, and not somewhere else. I'm not referring to the embarrassing goings-on in the USA, although that definitely falls into that category. What made me stop and think this particular morning occurred in my birth county of Derbyshire, England.

Two young women had driven about 5 miles from their home to go for a walk at the usually quiet and peaceful Foremark Reservoir. There, they encountered several police cars and "loads" of police officers. The two women assumed that there had been a crime in the area, maybe even a murder. They were even more surprised, then, when police officers headed straight for them and handed them a £200 fine each. 

It turns out that the police officers were very liberally interpreting the local lockdown laws, which forbid citizens from travelling out of their "local area" for exercise. "Local area", though, is not actually defined anywhere in law, and various government departments failed to give the BBC a straight answer on how it should be interpreted. 

Derbyshire Police defended the officers' actions, arguing that it is up to individual officers on a case by case basis. In this case, they had argued that driving somewhere for a walk was "not in the spirit " of the lockdown, and that carrying two cups of takeaway Starbucks coffee could be "classed as a picnic", which is also disallowed under lockdown rules.

Well, yes, but you have to be sensible about it. The two friends had arrived in separate cars from their respective homes and and were maintaining their distance from each other. What they were doing seems entirely within the spirit if the law. In fact, there is no law as such against driving somewhere for exercise, and lawyers agree that police have no power to enforce what are just government guidance and recommendations. Surely, a simple warning should have sufficed if they really thought that the women's behaviour was out of line.

Basically, the police officers were just making a bad pandemic unnecessarily worse for two unsuspecting individuals.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Some good news for a change: there is hope for Swinhoe's softshell turtle

If you are depressed about this here pandemic and all the shenanigans going on in Washington DC, then a smidgen of good news might just cheer you up.

The good news starts with some bad news: Swinhoe's softshell turtle (also known as the Hoan Kiem turtle or the Yangste giant softshell turtle) is the most endangered turtle in the world, one of the most endangered animals in the world. Up until April 2019, there were just two of them left, a male and a female, living in Suzhou Zoo, near Shanghai, China. Then, the female, died of childbirth complications after last-ditch artificial insemination, following years of unsuccessful natural breeding attempts. It was thought that there was, then, just one animal left alive, with no chance of continuing the species.

Then, this last October, after months of searching, Vietnamese researchers discovered a female Swinhoe's softshell turtle in Dong Mo Lake in Vietnam, a healthy, 190lb giant in good condition and of breeding age. The animal was released back into its home lake for now, and is being closely monitored. It is thought that there may also be another turtle, a male, in the same lake, and possibly a third in nearby Xuan Khanh Lake.

The Swinhoe's softshell turtle is not out of the woods yet, so to speak. But there is now at least some hope for the species.