Saturday, January 30, 2021

Indian online store has to change its logo

Myntra, one of India's largest and most popular online apparel and accessories stores, is having to change its logo, after successful complaints from women's rights activists.

Looks innocent enough, right? It certainly took me a long time to figure out what might possibly be offensive to anyone. I don't even know if I am right - the website where I found it unfortunately did not spell it out for me - but I assume the problem is that you could see it, if you squint a bit, as the spread legs of a woman (or, I guess, a man)? My first impressions were of flower petals or possibly insect wings, but may that says more about me than about the logo?

But if I have to stop and think about if, can it be that much of a problem? And, even if you can somehow see a woman's legs in the logo, is it necessarily offensive? I can only think that it is offensive to religious fundamentalists more than to women, but that does not play so well in the courts? I don't know, it's all a bit of a mystery to me.

Either way, the company has meekly agreed to change it's logo throughout. Changing its website and app, all its promotional materials and all its packaging, will cost a pretty penny.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Species migration and what makes an invasive species

As I have mentioned, I have been enjoying The Next Great Migration by Sonia Shah. And the book continues to surprise me.

After blowing up some long-held conventional wisdom about how humans came to colonize some of the more obscure parts of the globe in Chapter 7, Chapter 8 made me think long and hard about invasive plant and animal species.

Foe example, the assumption among biologists and ecologists, and certainly among laymen like myself, is that invasive species = "BAD". Period. The name itself says so, and there are whole university courses aimed at "invasion biology". But just how black and white is this issue?

I confess I had always wondered how scientists establish whether a particular species is native or not. Doesn't it depend on when you are comparing it with? Does native mean pre-colonial? Pre-human? Pre-ice-age? Go back far enough and we arrive at the single continent of Pangaea, and then how do we think of native habitat? The species that live in a certain area are constantly changing, and always have done, as rock core samples and fossil records show with great aplomb. 

And the more we research, using GPS trackers, genetic analysis and other technologies, the more - and the more improbable - changes and routes and methods of transportation of plant and animal species we discover. 

And some of them elude us still, such as the highland tamarind trees of Réunion and the almost identical koa trees of Hawaii, 18,000 kilometers away, with no obvious means of transportation between the two. To take another example, the camel is usually considered a Middle Eastern animal, but, in fact, the camel family originally evolved and attained its greatest diversity in North America; it is currently most diverse in South America; and it only actually occurs in the wild in ... Australia!

Another issue, though, is whether what we choose to describe as "invasive" species are wholly and necessarily bad. Recent research suggests that only 10% of newly-introduced species establish themselves, and only 10% of those (i.e. 1% of original number) flourish in ways that can threaten existing resident species. And a surprisingly small number of those actually displace (i.e. cause exinctions in) local species. Indeed, some studies have shown that newcomers can actually INCREASE biodiversity (this one I find a little difficult to believe, and Ms. Shah suggests that the study in question was rejected by Nature periodical (suppressed, she hints at, because of its radicalness, although Nature is not normally so shy and tentative).

Furthermore, she suggests that the economic and ecological benefits of wild migrants are not always included in cost-benefit analyses. For example, zebra mussels are considered wholly bad, but they filter water very effectively and provide food for fish and waterfowl (and it is argued, less convincingly, that they cannot be held responsible for the collapse of native clams, which were struggling anyway).

Other papers have questioned whether European purple loosestrife, which has become so ubiquitous in North America, actually "kills wetlands" or "creates biological deserts", as is commonly claimed. And it is undeniably pretty, and that must count for something, right?

Not all of these arguments seem totally convincing to me, although they are apparemtly based on real papers by real biologists and ecologists. But it's certainly food for thought. Some of our long-held beliefs and presuppositions may be starting to crack.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Blackberry renaissance conjured out of nothing (or possibly an EV bubble)

Remember Blackberry? Clunky black keyboard-based cellphone company that was once the darling of Canada's tech industry?

Well, Blackberry hasn't made cellphones for sometime now, overtaken as they were by better, cheaper and more user-friendly cellphones made by almost every other tech company. But they did try to reinvent themselves as a software company, and they didn't do a half-bad job of it. Now they're getting into autonomous car software and all sorts of sexy things.

Still it came as a bit of a surprise to learn that their share price had tripled in less than a month, from around $8 at the beginning of this year to almost $25 at opening on Monday morning. So, what gives? What bold announcement did they make that I missed?

Well, nothing really. The recent rally seems to have been conjured out of thin air, mainly as a result of a bunch of aspirational posts on Reddit, as far as I can see. (Gaming retailer GameStop Corp was treated to a similar a Reddit-based stock rally - ridiculous as it may seem, Reddit has apparently become required reading for investors and day-traders.) Blackberry did sign a deal with Amazon to work on connected cloud software program for cars, and it did manage to resolve a patent fight with Facebook. But even the company itself cannot explain the sudden investor interest in it, saying it is, "not aware of any material undisclosed corporate developments ... that would account for the recent increase in the market price or trading volume of its common shares".

It may all be part of the unprecedented and inexplicable boom in electric vehicle (EV) stocks over the last year, which some are comparing to the dotcom bubble of the late 90s (and we all know how THAT ended). American EV companies like Tesla, Fisker and Nikola, and Chinese companies like Nio, XPeng and Li, are leading the charge, with British company Arrival snapping at their heels. Hardly any of these companies are making any profits - some have not even started trading yet! - but their valuations are way in excess of anything that traditional financial analysis or commonsense might dictate.

EV stocks, and tech stocks in general, which account for a good proportion of the inexplicably booming stock market indices during this pandemic, look for all the world like the 1999 dotcom bubble. Goldman Sachs even has a Non-Profitable Technology Index for those looking to invest in tech stocks that look shaky in traditional terms, but whose share price is soaring regardless, which I think is hilarious (they also have a Most Shorted Index). Of course, it doesn't necessarilty follow that the bubble is about to burst, at least not anytime soon. Some analysts argue that today's companies are "made of stronger stuff" than the tech unicorns of 20+ years ago. They are certainly much bigger. But, then, the bigger they come...

But the main thrust of Blackberry's spurious revival seems to have come about (like GameStop's and AMC's) through the whole Reddit (r/WallStreetBets) thing. That story continues to make news, particularly after Robinhood and a couple of other major brokerage forms tried to shut down the amateurs and protect the profession short-sellers who had been betting against these struggling tech and media companies. (GameStop, for example, was one of the most heavily shorted stocks on the exchange, meaning that most regular investors only expected its shares to go further down - and that is exactly what the Reddit disruptors were targeting.)

But how bad is it that a bunch of individuals on a social media site legally subvert the system (and make a few bucks - quite a few bucks - in the process), given that the professional hedge funds and investors are doing just that, in a different way, all the time? (If you want a short explanation of conplelicated concepts like short-selling, short-squeezing, options, and a bite-sized summary of how the Reddit crowd managed to beat the system, the Globe and Mail has a good one.)


This little flurry of investment in so-called "meme stocks" was relatively short-lived and, according to the Canadian "free" stock-trading app Wealthsimple's analysis, not particularly effective.

Shares in GameStop, for example, have fallen by 90% since their record highs in early February, and many of these amateur investors got burned: 67% of them lost money, most just a small amount as they only invested small, but 3% lost $5,000 or more.

Those doing this speculative investing were overwhelmingly male millennials and Gen Zers, and 75% of them bought just 5 shares or fewer. So, it seems like most were just interested in playing a little game, and seeing if they could beat "the man" (yes, and no, it seems). But the cumulative effect of all these small investments - inexperienced investors jumping on dangerous trends that have no relationship  financial fundamentals - was still enough to seriously worry the industry.

Signs of (tentative) political evolution in Alberta

Alberta's Conservative Premier Jason Kenney claims to have been completely blindsided by Joe Biden's executive order to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline linking Alberta's oil sands with America's oil refineries. Everyone else saw it coming, and Biden made no secret of it throughout his whole presidential campaign. But Kenney is outraged - outraged, I say! - at this latest slap in the face (or "gut punch", as Kenney would have it) for Alberta and its oil industry. He is especially worried as he spent $1.5 billion of his province's money on an ill-advised gamble on the pipeline just last spring (in full knowledge of an upcoming American election).

A surprising number of other politicians, including Prime Minister Trudeau (albeit with a rather tame and tepid "disappointed"), are also in high dudgeon, although one has to wonder whether they are not secretly heaving sighs of relief. At least they can blame the Yanks for hammering yet another nail (as if more were needed) into the coffin of the oil sands, the bête noir of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions profile. And Trudeau, like most Canadians, just wants to move on.

It's good to know, though, that at least Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley is an evolved Westerner, and is willing to at least consider facing facts and moving past Alberta's traditional over-reliance on oil and gas. Addressing the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce this week, Ms. Notley took what for Alberta is a very radical and brave stance, and opined that Alberta needs to take advantage of the global investment in renewables and clean tech if it wants to continue to be an energy leader. (Sharp intake of breath all round.)

"We need to take control of our own destiny, and not tie our fortunes to projects outside our jurisdiction, subject to another nation's policies", she intoned. "We have to recognize where the world is going, and move with it". Amen to that. But Alberta has had its head in the (oil)sand for so long, that this necessary restructuring will be a long and painful process. In the meantime, though, Mr. Kenney's (and much of Alberta's) sky-is-falling whining is not helping anyone, least of all Albertans.

This was Ms. Notley's first major speech since stepping down from her position as Premier in 2019. It's good to know she is still kicking. Interestingly, though, she knows where Alberta's limits are, and declared herself unwilling to institute a sales tax of any kind in the province, despite the parlous state of its finances (Alberta is the only Canadian province without - and, until recent years, without the need for - a sales tax. 

This, of course, would be very far from an NDP philosophy in the rest of the country, but Alberta, as it never ceases to remind us, is "special" (read, spoiled and many degrees to the right). And Ms. Notley is a seasoned campaigner, and know that there is little point in being ideologically pure while remaining unelectable.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Canada's home-grown vaccines

Well, who knew? Canada is in the process of producing its own home-grown COVID-19 vaccine.

In a week when Pfizer reneges on its vaccine delivery schedule, and the risk of an EU embargo on vaccine exports raises its head (although this will supposedly not affect Canada), this is bigger news than it might have been.

Now, granted, it's still in its early stages, starting its first human clinical trials this week, with 60 volunteers in Toronto making up its Phase 1 trial. But, hey, that's cool, and it may be a good option for the future in an increasingly uncertain world. Phase 2 trials are  expected to commence in May, and it MAY be ready for mass markets by January 2022, if all goes well.

The vaccine, developed by Toronto-based Providence Therapeutics, is an mRNA vaccine, similar to Pfizer's and Moderna's. And the company has not has a whole lot of assistance in its development, certainly nothing on the level of those competitors, despite having started work on it last March. And, given that we now have other vaccines already being administered, a new csndidate may have some problems finding volunteers for its trials (unless, Heaven forbid, the new British/South African/Brazilian/other variants of the virus prove to be resistant to existing vaccines). But, nothing daunted, Providence has persisted, and it has already invested in mass manufacturing facilities in Calgary in full confidence that its product will come to fruition.

The only other "Canadian" vaccine to have progressed significantly in its development is from Quebec-based Medicago, which began its clinical trials as long ago as July 2020. But, unlike Providence, Medicago's  product, if approved, would base most of its production in North Carolina. A joint Chinese-Canadian vaccine project (CanSino), established early in the pandemic, fell apart last May after communications broke down with the Chinese arm of the agreement. Saskatoon-based VIDO-Intervac is also close to being able to start Phase 1 trials.

So, there is still a possibility that Canada will be able to produce its own vaccines. Just don't hold your breath.

Carl Linnaeus, Father of Modern Racism and general creep

I have mentioned before that I am reading, and enjoying, The Next Great Migration by Sonia Shah. In Chapter 3, she takes a bit of a detour to an area only marginally related to migration, and it concerns the figure of Carl Linnaeus.

I will take a leap of faith and assume that most people are at least superficially familiar with the so-called Father of Modern Taxonomy, the guy who spent his life categorizing and organizing all life into families and species and subspecies, etc, albeit based on the very incomplete knowledge of the 18th century. Science owes a debt of gratitude to the man. However, I was less aware of what an oddball he was, and just how far of the mark on some of his pronouncements.

Linnaeus was very much a product of his time and deeply religious, and his approach to science was shot through with this supremely unscientific underpinning. For example, he was not willing to accept that animals, birds and insects could migrate, as that would have suggested that God's initial plan was in some way incomplete or unfixed. 

Out of his belief - call it faith or call it ignorance - that all of God's creatures were assigned an immutable home region, Linnaeus even divided the human species into several subspecies, assigning each its own characteristic features. Thus: Homo sapiens europaeus, the people of Europe (white, serious, strong, active, smart, inventive, covered by tight clothing, and ruled by laws); Homo sapiens asiaticus, the people of Asia (yellow, melancholy, greedy, severe, haughty, desirous, black hair, dark eyes, covered by loose garments, ruled by opinion); Homo sapiens americanus, the people of the Americas (red, ill-tempered, subjugated, obstinate, contented, free, black straight hair, wide nostrils, harsh face, scanty beard, painted with red lines, ruled by custom); and Homo sapiens afer, the people of Africa (black, impassive, lazy, crafty, slow, foolish, kinky hair, silky skin, flat nose, thick lips, women with large breasts and a "genital flap", anointed with grease, ruled by caprice). 

Still others, Linaeus decided, were not even human. He designated some black people as Homo troglodytes (essentially cavemen), and some as Homo caudatus (referring to the "tailed men" of Borneo and Nicobar). Dwarves, "Patagonian giants", and the Laplanders (Sami) of northern Sweden for some reason, he lumped together under the heading Homo monstrosus.

Wow! Not only was Linnaeus the Father of Modern Taxonomy, he was probably the Father if Modern Racism, especially given the high esteem in which he was held across the civilized world and the outsized influence he wielded. These ideas persisted until the refutations of Charles Darwin in the late 19th century, and even well beyond that in some circles.

And about that "genital flap"... this is a strange one. Linnaeus, as well as several others in the European scientific community of the mid-18th century, was convinced, with no good evidence, that black women had a long flap of skin covering their genitals, which went by the Latin name "sinus pudoris", also known as a "Hottentot Apron" or "genital flap". It's not clear why he and many others believed this to be the case, but he went to great lengths to obtain (often to buy) black women and cadavers so as to be able to inspect and dissect their pudenda.

Now, I know, this was the 18th century. Our knowledge of the world was rudimentary, and the age of reason was just beginning. Many things were different back then, including, it seems, morality. But this, surely, was beyond the pale.

So, which masks ARE considered effective these days?

I notice that France has now officially banned most homemade cloth masks from being used in public on the grounds that they are no longer considered effective enough against the new stains of the coronavirus, as has Germany.

In fact, they have gone so far as to say that they recommend against the use of any homemade masks, although it seems to me that a good homemade mask is surely at least as good as those flimsy pale-blue "surgical" masks, especially given in practice that they often tend to be worn so loosely as to be all but useless (but that's a whole other comversation).

France now only recommnds the use of one of three types of masks: surgical (not described in any detail), FFP2 masks (equivalent to North American N95 masks), and cloth masks made to Category 1 standards (ones that filter out 95% of 3-micrometre particles, not that that helps much, because 99% of masks do not come with this kind of designation).

The World Health Organization has also changed its recommendations recently to a three-layer home made mask for the general public, as well as medical or surgical masks and respirators. But they describe medical masks as being composed of three layers of synthetic non-woven material with filtration layers in between. So, these are clearly not the flimsy blue masks most people think of as medical masks. The US CDC makes it pretty clear that it does not think surgical masks are worth the man-made materials they are made of, as does Healthline.

This is obviously a minefield of known unknowns and unknown unknowns. If even educated and concerned people like us, who read around the subject and strive to do the right thing, are not sure what the deal is, what chance does everyone else have?

I think the best I can do is to continue to use the two-layer reusable cloth masks I have good stocks of (manufactured courtesy of my daughter) in most regular situations, like on a busy street or on a quick visit to a store, and just double them up in more difficult situations, such as when I occasionally ferry a friend to an appointment or have to wait in a waiting room for any extended length of time.


And, guess what, one Anthony Fauci agrees with me, it seems!

Monday, January 25, 2021

How the right-wing routinely misrepresents immigrants

I have started reading The Next Great Migration by Sonia Shah, subtitled (and it seems like ALL non-fiction books these days HAVE to have a wordy subtitle) The Beauty and Terror of Life On the Move, and it's already proving to be a goldmine of information, fact-checking and disambiguation on all things relating to human migration and the movement of refugees. 

For example, Ms. Shah explores the media reporting of several incidents in the period around 2016 and 2017, when migration into Europe and USA was getting a particularly bad press. In early 2016, many women in Germany were reporting sexual assaults and rapes after the usual debauched New Years Eve celebrations across the country, and they were specifically reporting them as occurring at the hands of newly-arrived migrants from Arabic and North African countries. Many news outlets (including right-wing American mouthpieces for newly-elected Donald Trump like Breitbart and Fox News) reported these events in lurid and incendiary terms, as well as the putative burning down of one of Germany's oldest churches by Islamic militants around the same time.

Some time later, it came out (courtesy of NPR reporters) that the rash of rapes and sexual attacks over New Year in Germany was not actually that exceptional. Sexual violence is endemic in Germany, and New Years Eve in particular always provides an opportunity for crimes of all kinds. The purported crime wave had not actually occurred, but had remained pretty much constant from previous years. And that old church? Accidentally set on fire by an errant firework by Syrian migrants celebrating a cease-fire in Syria!

Around the same time, there were reports out of Sweden, which had accepted more immigrants per capita than any other European country in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, of a sudden rise in reported rapes and violence, particularly in the tony Rinkeby suburb of Stockholm, as well as attacks by young migrants on an Australian film crew attempting to film the area. Once again, Donald Trump, Fox News and other right-wing news outlets gleefully covered what they saw as liberal Sweden's well-deserved comeuppance.

Later, it turned out that the documentary that made the claims about Sweden's migrant crime wave was artfully biassed. Sweden turns out to have much lower rape figures that most of Europe, and the "no-go" zones in Stockholm did not actually exist either, with the interviewed police officers confiming that their answers had been edited and deliberately taken out of context. And the Australian news crew turned out to be working for a racist, anti-immigration hate site, and police confirmed there had been no damage or injuries, and all investigations had been dropped.

Finally, government reports in 2016 and 2017, in Donald Trump's heyday, claimed there had been huge increases in attacks on US Border Patrol agents, who suffer the highest level of assaults of any group of federal law officers. Furthermore, it was claimed, fully three-quarters of those convicted of international terrorism were born outside of the USA. Then, the bodies of two Border Patrol agents were discovered at the bottom of a concrete culvert in Texas, apparently the victims of a gruesome attack by illegal immigrants. One officer died soon after in hospital, and the other suffered a brain injury and memory loss. The whole thing was portrayed as just one example of the threat that America faces from the porous border with Mexico.

As so often, the truth paints quite a different picture. The sudden rise in Border Patrol assaults turned out to have been because the Trump administration completely changed the method of counting assaults on immigration officers, so that the figures now show not just the number of officers attacked, but the number of officers times the number of attackers times the number of objects used in the attack (I kid you not!), so that each stick or rock thrown counts as a separate incident! Using more traditional methods of counting assaults would not show any spike in attacks, and would show that Border Patrol actually experience the LOWEST assault rate among law enforcement officers, much less than those who police residents, for example. 

As for the international terrorist figures, a Department of Justice report into the situation concluded that immigration was NOT undermining national security or public safety because international terrorism only makes up a small fraction of total terrorism in America, most of which can not be blamed on immigrants. Oh, and those agents discovered at the bottom of a culvert? Well, the FBI found no evidence of any attack at all. It turns out that they FELL down the culvert in the dark, as the surviving agent confirmed when his memory returned!

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Peter Carey's A Long Way from Home is a fine addition to his impressive canon

Peter Carey's A Long Way from Home finally found its way to the top of my list of books to read. Only three or fours years late. And a good choice it was too.

It follows the Redex Trial, a brutal round-Australia car race in the mid-1950s. But more importantly it follows a three-person driving team who were thrown together by fate, apparently: Titch Bobs (aka Bobst, aka Bobsey), a lively diminutive figure, perennially in thrall to his competitive and domineering father; Irene, his wife, a strong but secretly sensitive woman, in a rigid colonial society where women just did not wear overalls and drive souped-up vehicles in harsh and savage conditions; and Willie, a neighbour and schoolteacher with no prior car experience, who always thought he was just a regular white guy from Bacchus Marsh, near Melbourne, Victoria, but who finds, as the race progresses into more obscure, Aborigine-dominated reaches of the country, that he is actually of mixed race (or "half-caste", in the argot of the time), and had been adopted out at an early age.

Gradually, Willie's story becomes the dominant one, as he finds himself involuntarily dragged into strange and unexpected circumstances, and steadily learns more about his own surprising back-story. As it progresses, the plot becomes less about a race, and more about race.

Carey writes in a sing-song, slightly elliptical style, redolent of the time and place, and peppered with the local vernacular ("mulga", "jila", "chooks", "blackfellah", "tucker", "nong", "wowser"). A couple of random examples from early in the book:

"Mister must have been five foot two and she even smaller. Missus's hair was so tousled and curling she might have been, had not all the other evidence been so much to the contrary, a boy. Her husband's complexion was smooth and glowing, he could have been a girl."

"He was not a big boy but he had mass. He squirmed and flapped and I felt the horror of my relentless dreams which were peopled not only by snakes but creatures like possums that would end up being born as children if I did not kill them. The rivers in my dreams were filled with fish which broke apart like wet cardboard. I often skeepwalked, but in my classroom I was wide awake, dangling a pupil out my window. There was no precedent for this except the unexpected fit that had me leave my marriage."

It's a relatively easy read in general, but compelling and interesting, as it teases apart colonial attitudes and the very different vibe of Australia's indigenous people. You can see why Carey is one of the rarefied few to have won the Booker Prize twice, and why I read every new book he produces (eventually!)

Saturday, January 23, 2021

What are the chances of BLC1 being a message from another star system?

Mankind has been looking for communications from the stars for many years now, to little or no avail. There was the famous "Wow!" signal back in 1977, when a regular and unexplained radio signal was received for all of 72 seconds. "Unexplained", of course, does not mean it was sent by little green men in search of pen pals; it just means that there is an awful lot that we still don't understand about what goes on in deep space.

Nevertheless, many people were intrigued by a second "Wow!" signal, technically known as BLC1 (Breakthrough Listen Candidate 1), picked up by the Breakthrough Listen project at Parkes Observatory in Australia a couple of months ago. The actual signal in question was recorded on 29 April 2019, but was only spotted by a student going through archival records in October of 2020. This was a much longer-lasting event than the 1977 one, lasting some 30 hours, and it took the form of a very narrow band radio signal in the part of the radio spectrum often used by earth's satellites and spacecraft. It appeared to be emanating from Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our sun.

So, is this a "technosignature", a deliberate message from a technologically-advanced civilization living on one of the two planets orbiting our next closest sun? Well, the chances, it seems, are pretty slim.

For one thing, the signal only APPEARS to be coming from Proxima Centauri - it could actually be coming from much further afield BEHIND Proxima Centauri. And there are many other things it could also be: an echo or reflection of an outbound radio signal from earth, or from one of our satellites or spacecraft, or a natural signal from some odd kind of quasar or pulsar, about which we know very little.

Experts have met the finding with a healthy dose of skepticism. The chances of two civilizations so close together and using a similar kind of technology are considered to be vanishingly small.

So, little green men from Proxima Centauri? Probably not. 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Joe Biden's first 15 executive orders

In the first few hours of his administration, new US president Joe Biden signed no less than 15 executive orders, most of them reversing out some of the dafter things Donald Trump brought in. And they certainly give a good indication of where this presidency is headed:

  • Masks and social distancing to be required on all federal properties by federal workers.
  • An "ethics pledge" will be required for all executive branch personnel.
  • The USA will rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change.
  • The USA will rejoin the World Health Organization (WHO).
  • Construction of the wall along the USA/Mexico border will cease, and the national emergency on illegal immigration from Mexico will end.
  • Trump's ban on travel from predominantly Muslim countries will end.
  • The permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the USA will be cancelled, and permits for oil and gas drilling in protected national wildlife areas will be revoked.
  • The pause on student loan repayments will be extended.
  • The pause on the nationwide restrictions on evictions and foreclosures will also be extended.
  • Every federal agency is to review the state of its racial equity, and deliver an action plan to address any disparities in policies and programs.
  • The 1776 Commission (Trump's response to the New York Times' prize-winning 1619 Project on America's history of slavery) is to be rescinded.
  • Trump's order to exclude non-citizens from the census will be revoked.
  • Workplace discrimination in the federal government based on sexual orientation or gender identity will be prohibited.
  • A COVID-19 response coordinator, reporting directly to the president, will be appointed.
  • Trump's Interior Enforcement Executive Order, which broadened the categories of undocumented immigrants subject to removal and expanded the federal deportation program, will be revoked, and a path to citizenship for "Dreamers" will be created. 

A whole load more directives and executive orders are planned for the coming days, but - wow! - what a breath of fresh air this is, after 4 years of holding our collective breaths.

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 Recovery 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 inoculated.) 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 grandstanding or 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.

Canada is not protecting its borders against the pandemic

Despite the fact that, appearances to the contrary, Canada seems to be dealing reasonably well with the the pandemic, at least compared to many other countries, there is still much that could have been, and still can be, improved on. 

One such thing is to clamp down on international travel. The countries that have really done well - think Taiwan, South Korea, Australia - are those that introduced strict, even draconian, measures to restrict travellers entering the country, and, when people do enter, for legitimate essential purposes, they are tested, quarantined, traced and generally made uncomfortably conscious of their responsibilities.

Canada has imposed no such restrictions until just this week, when anyone flying into Canada must show proof of a negative PCR test result; otherwise, they will not be allowed to board the plane, whether their flight is for essential purposes or not. Once arrived in Canada, all passengers, wherever they are arriving from, will need to show evidence of a pre-arranged 14 day quarantine plan; otherwise, they will be placed in a federal quarantine facility for the 14 days. (The announcement further rules that federal quarantine facility will also be used for anyone coming from a country that does not offer PCR tests, although just how that squares with the requirement for a PCR test before boarding, I don't know).

It still seems very strange to me that: 1) Canada has come so belatedly to this realization, and 2) that we are letting anyone at all into the country if they don't have a very specific and very essential purpose. Why are we allowing tourists in, for example, from anywhere at all? Hell, we are even opening the country up to travellers from the UK, of all places. Why are airlines aggressively marketing overseas beach holidays at the same time as we are being told by our governments to shelter in place and not leave our local area, never mind our country? Talk about cognitive dissonance! But don't expect airlines to put the public good before profitability (or, as they would probably describe it, survival).

And it's not just international flights that are being under-policed. Thousands of truck drivers each day drive over the border from the States, and they are inexplicably exempt from testing and quarantine rules. I'm sure most of them are on official essential business, but there is no monitoring at all, and no requirement for a negative test. We are inviting in thousands of people from COVID Ground Zero, and we have no idea how many of them are infected. At the very least, we should be insisting that truck drivers be tested regularly before they cross the border.

Yes, we need to pay attention to community spread of the pandemic. But all our efforts will be wasted if we keep allowing people to import new sources of the virus - including more virulent strains - from abroad, just because some people feel that they are owed a holiday.


This isn't getting any better. Just this week, three packed flights of holidaymakers from Haiti flew into Montreal with so many COVID cases that all the passengers on all three flights were advised to quarantine (Haiti lacks testing ability, and so is exempted from Canada's new requirements). And this is not an isolated case, just an example. Some airlines are also reporting that a "significant number" of passengers are testing positive on arriving in Canada even from countries where testing is required before flying. Clearly, not all testing is created equal.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Georgia Senate run-offs called for Democrats - look out!

Some, but not all, news outlets have already called the two Georgia Senate run-off elections, both in favour of the Democrats.

Get ready for civil war...


Yup, here we go. Trump supporters forced their way into the Capitol in Washington DC, while a joint session of Congress was underway to certify Joe Biden's electoral win. Vice President Mike Pence (who had just rejected Trump's last-ditch pressure to block Biden's win) was hastily ushered out of the building, and the whole area was locked down by security forces. Members of Congress in the building were advised to don gas masks, before being evacuated to a safe place. Four people are reported to have died during the armed standoff, one shot and three dead from separate mysterious "medical emergencies".

Footage of coup attempts in Venezuela and Belarus are probably trending as we speak. And that noise? It's the sound of America's reputation going down the toilet.

Meanwhile, almost as a footnote to all these shenanigans, both Georgia run-offs were indeed called for the Democrats and the Democratic Party now has the trifecta - control of the Presidency, the House of Representatives and the Senate - which will make Joe Biden's job of undoing all the havoc that has been wreaked in the country over the last four year just a bit easier. On any other day, this would be huge news; today, it received scant attention.

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

How will a curfew help?

The province of Quebec, which is having a horrible second wave of COVID-19, is seriously considering bringing in a curfew, with an announcement expected to be made tomorrow. Fines of between $1,000 and $6,000 are being suggested. This would be a first for Canada, although many other countries are going down that route, even as we speak.

Supposedly, the theory behind curfews is to "reduce non-essential interactions between people from different households", especially at times "when people tend to participate in non-essential social gatherings that often result in less compliance with social distancing guidance and mask mandates". (Read: get drunk).

I understand all that. But I am at a loss to understand just how a curfew might help anything in practice. Who are they expecting to keep at home after 7pm or 8pm or whatever? What are these people to be prevented from doing? Bars are not open anyway, neither restaurants. I suppose some young risk-takers and rebels might conceivably be meeting up and socializing out of doors after dark, but we don't need a curfew to police that kind of rule-breaking behaviour, we just need a police force.

So, are we trying to stop people from going for walks at a time when the streets are less busy? Or maybe essential workers who have to go shopping late in the day?

Is there any evidence that curfews actually work in this kind of circumstance? A quick trawl of the internet turns up a whole host of web-pages claiming the contrary, but many of these have their own axe to grind. So, what about more official sources. Well, studies are few and far between, but the indications suggest otherwise. In fact, curfews could cause people to socialize indoors in secret, making things worse, not better. People who feel they have to get drunk on a regular basis are going to do that, come what may. Adding a curfew into the mix is just going to piss people off.

As a Montreal professor of public health notes, "the curfew is unlikely to lead to big changes in urban hot spots where bars and restaurants have been closed since October", and "the government's goal is likelier to shock people into observing the rules". Other public health experts in Canada seem to think that a curfew is unlikely to prevent much social contact, and furthermore warn that a big problem with curfews is the possibility of a rebound when the curfew is finally lifted. School closings, on the other hand, are widely considered a very effective measure for limiting the spread of the virus and - go figure! - Quebec is going the opposite way on that, and opening schools up! 

Experts are warning that, curfew or no curfew, this kind of "lockdown light" (i.e. anything short of a complete, Australia-type, draconian lockdown) is unlikely to be effective at this point. And, of course, the civil liberties people have jumped all over it, despite the rather tame nature of this latest lockdown model and the inprecedented crisis levels in the hospitals of Canada's largest and most populous provinces.

So, curfews are what governments opt for when they don't know what else to do. No-one really knows if they work, but at least something is being seen to be done. Apparently, the only thing a curfew might actually achieve is to bring home to people that things really are desperate, and that it is time for last resorts. But do we really need to be reminded of that? Is it actually in any doubt?

Trump's (maybe) final gesture: allow oil drilling in sensitive Arctic areas

As a parting gesture, the lame-duck (dead duck?) Trump administration has forced through one last insult to the environment, just for good measure. 

Having passed a law allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as part of his signature 2017 tax-cuts-for-the-rich bill, supposedly as a means of paying for the tax cuts, Trump has now made very sure to follow through, during the sad waning days of his odious regime, by auctioning off parts of the ANWR to his friends among the oil drillers.

The ANWR was established by Dwight Eisenhower in 1960 to protect the migratory and calving lands of the endangered porcupine caribou herds and the increasingly important land habitat of polar bears as climate change continues to decimate their ice-floe hunting grounds. It is also a sacred place for local Indigenous bands.

Trump and his Republican friends, though, are not big fans of wild animals or Indigenous rights, whereas they are big fans of oil and money. So, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), under the direction of tame Trump man Andrew Wheeler, has been directed to ensure the leases are sold off before Joe Biden can come in and protect the Arctic lands once and for all, as he has promised to do. Yes, that's right, the Environmental Protection Agency selling off protected lands to the highest bidder! Once sold, it will be very difficult for Biden to legally claw back the lands, although he could make them less desirable by imposing regulatory hurdles.

It's an unfortunate and spiteful action at the end of an administration that has been disastrous for the environment. The only possible silver lining is that oil companies, which ironically are more environmentally-conscious than Trump & Co, and which are at least governed by economics and practicalities, might balk at buying up leases that some organizations have valued at a much lower level than Trump's estimations, especially with the knowledge that a new federal administration is coming in that might make their investments even less appealing.

Wouldn't it be nice to see oil companies coming out and saying that no, this is the wrong thing to do, that the polar bears and caribou need the lands more than they do? Don't hold your breath on that one, though.


Well, oil companies didn't exactly come out full of environmental passion and outrage, but maybe this was the next best thing. In their own economic interests, major oil players like Exxon, Shell and BP decided to forego the Alaska auction, preferring to invest in renewable energy projects, leaving an Alaskan state agency as the only bidder. The auction raised a measly $15 million, a small sliver of what Trump & Co had hoped and predicted.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Canada became much more pro-immigration during the pandemic

As we enter into another calendar year, and after almost a year of pandemic across the world, many articles in print and online have been taking stock of how our lives have changed and how our attitudes have changed.

One interesting one, based on surveys of Canadian attitudes by the public opinion research and polling firm, the Environics Institute, shows how Canadian attitudes towards immigration have changes in the decades since the 1970s, but particularly over the last year.

Back in the 1970s and 80s, and even well into the 90s, the percentage of Canadians who believed that there was too much immigration into Canada was between 60% and 70%, and those who disagreed languished around 30%-40%. There was a sea change in attitudes in the 1990s, and since the early 2000s those percentages have reversed, with less than 40% agreeing with such a proposition and a steady 60% saying that there is most definitely not too much immigration into the country.

Over the much shorter period of the plague year of 2020, that sea change has gained new impetus, and the curve steepened precipitously until some 66% of Canadians now think that there is not too much immigration, and the proportion that thinks that there is too much fell to around 28%.

So, unlike some countries (or at least some populist leaders) that have seen the pandemic as an excuse to double down on immigration and to stress nationalist and  nativist policies of all kinds, Canada has gone even further the other way, embracing openness, inclusiveness and internationalism.

As for why, I can only think that Canadians have been very cognizant of the fact that, during the pandemic, the country has been almost entirely dependent on essential workers and healthcare workers, the vast majority of which are demonstrably racialized and from immigrant backgrounds. This has clearly been enough to make people stop and think that, oh yes, without them we would be struggling in the dark during these lockdowns, whereas in fact, despite all our complaining and kvetching, our lives have not actually changed that much.

Recent immigrants, and their families and descendants, have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic so that the rest of us do not have to be. We owe them a huge vote of thanks, and the polling data reflects that.

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Why are so many healthcare workers refusing the COVID vaccine?

I've read so many articles about vaccine hesitancy and, even more specifically, the outright refusal of some healthcare and frontline workers to take advantage of the COVID-19 vaccines.

For example, only 40% of Ohio nursing home staff are planning to get the vaccine, more than half of the staff of a large Houston hospital  are going to refuse it, 55% of New York firefighters are planning on refusing it, over half of staff at a Riverside, California, hospital will be refusing it, as will over 40% of Chicago hospital workers, and 20-40% of LA County frontline workers. These are large numbers in areas where the pandemic is running rampant, and areas where Black and Hispanic people have been disproportionately affected by the virus (65% of fatalities, according to one study). 

In more general terms, a December poll in the US showed that vaccine hesitancy is more pronounced among healthcare workers (29%) than among the general publc (27%), which is a strange turn-up.

These are all American studies (and I can only hope that these people have re-thought it since), but the situation in Canada is probably similar. For example, one BC study found that only 57% of long-term care workers were keen to get the vaccine.

Part of the issue seems to be that healthcare and frontline workers in North America tend to be Black or Asian, and people of colour in general are much more reticent to get the vaccine. In one large survey, less than 43% of Black people say they are definitely or probably going to be vaccinated. Among some of the stated reasons for this in America are a perceived lack of Black and Latino involvement in research and testing of the drugs, a distrust of Donald Trump and his accelerated rush of the vaccines (as though he was the only person looking to expedite the process!), and in some cases a belief that Trump and his administration is actively trying to harm certain segments of society in some way. Most of this is firmly in the realm of conspiracy theories, but nonetheless firmly believed.

Often, in America at least, the Tuskagee Syphilis Study is referenced as an example of the "culture of medical exploitation, abuse and neglect of Black Americans". Why people would assume that the same thing is going to happen with the COVID vaccine as happened in that particular egregious case of unethical and racist surgeries, I have no idea. Be that as it may, some see the push to get healthcare workers first as evidence of a negarious experiment on people of colour, not a commonsense protection of those most at risk. There is very little that can be done in the face of this kind of suspicion and mistrust.

Interestingly, some studies suggest that vaccine hesitancy among healthcare workers is often a temporary thing: they are not refusing it outright, but would like to see si months or a year of results in the general public before they get rhe shot themselves. There is also some evidence that education (or lack of it) plays into the decision: most healthcare workers who say they will definitely get the vaccine have at least a college education, and over half of those who say they will definitely not get the vaccine have not been educated beyond high school.

Even in Canada, healthcare workers seem to have an innate distrust of governments. But it's not just governments that are making the assurances here: do they also distrust the pharmacare compamies that have spent months testing their vaccines, and the federal agencies throughout the world that have re-tested and approved them. Do these people distrust everyone? And anyway, what viable choices do they really have? Do they want to continue laying themselves and their families open to the virus. After all, as one Canadian nurse laconically quipped about the vaccines, "it's safer than COVID".

Another inexplicable (to me) attitude I came across in a Globe and Mail article on this very subject. A well-connected and influential figure in one of Toronto's most at-risk (and heavily racialized) districts opined that the COVID vaccine is getting much more attention than gun violence and homelessness in marginalized areas like hers (probably true). So, she convinced herself, people of colour should resist the vaccine (presumably as some kind of protest?) And anyway, she argued to herself, there are all these claims online and on her WhatsApp feed alleging nefarious government motives, so there must be some truth to them. It was only very recently when she was persuaded by an authority figure that SHE trusted that most of the misinformation and conspiracy theories that she was helping to spread were bogus and unsubstantiated, that she has stopped her protest.

But anti-vaccination sentiments are, almost by their very nature, not logical, not science-based. A straight comparison of the possible risks and benefits would leave no-one in any doubt about the best way to proceed. But risks and benefits are just two of the factors at play here. 

Be that as it may, if the general public sees healthcare workers refusing the vaccine, then you have to know that the already high rates of vaccine hesitancy will only get worse. Maybe it's not fair to ask even more of healthcare workers, but I do believe that they have a responsibility to lead on this - many of them have been quite outspoken in this regard - I'm not sure how we will get to herd immunity otherwise.