Thursday, December 31, 2020



So, what was posted on this blog during 2020? A few highlights:

Burning Australia, Trump's dangerous ignorance and revenge, Illinois public pension debt, Alzheimer’s research, climate change, Trump's impeachment... 

Covid-19: pandemic deniers, panic buying, the ineptitude of the Trump administration, business and school shutdowns, teaching during the pandemic, anti-mask protests, herd immunity, vaccines... 

The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, racism, Black Lives Matter, rioting and looting, Confederate statues, John Lewis, Ruth Bader Ginsburg...

Conspiracy theories, political polarization, the election: mail-in voting, mail sabotage, schadenfreude, morons and egotists, Republican hypocrisy and treason…

Blog Views Since March 2011: 1,839,920

United States: approximately 1.37 million
Other Countries: 470,000+
(France, United Kingdom, Russia, Ukraine, Italy, Germany, China, Canada…)

Thank you for reading and sharing my blog.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

When Children Return to School by Teresa Thayer Snyder

 Dear Friends and Colleagues:

 I am writing today about the children of this pandemic. After a lifetime of working among the young, I feel compelled to address the concerns that are being expressed by so many of my peers about the deficits the children will demonstrate when they finally return to school.

 My goodness, what a disconcerting thing to be concerned about in the face of a pandemic which is affecting millions of people around the country and the world. It speaks to one of my biggest fears for the children when they return. In our determination to “catch them up,” I fear that we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era.

 What on earth are we trying to catch them up on? The models no longer apply, the benchmarks are no longer valid, the trend analyses have been interrupted. We must not forget that those arbitrary measures were established by people, not ordained by God. We can make those invalid measures as obsolete as a crank up telephone! They simply do not apply.

When the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told. They have endured a year that has no parallel in modern times. There is no assessment that applies to who they are or what they have learned.

Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death. Our job is to welcome them back and help them write that history.

I sincerely plead with my colleagues, to surrender the artificial constructs that measure achievement and greet the children where they are, not where we think they “should be.” Greet them with art supplies and writing materials, and music and dance and so many other avenues to help them express what has happened to them in their lives during this horrific year.

Greet them with stories and books that will help them make sense of an upside-down world. They missed you. They did not miss the test prep. They did not miss the worksheets. They did not miss the reading groups. They did not miss the homework. They missed you.

Resist the pressure from whatever ‘powers that be’ who are in a hurry to “fix” kids and make up for the “lost” time. The time was not lost, it was invested in surviving an historic period of time in their lives—in our lives. The children do not need to be fixed. They are not broken. They need to be heard. They need be given as many tools as we can provide to nurture resilience and help them adjust to a post pandemic world.

Being a teacher is an essential connection between what is and what can be. Please, let what can be demonstrate that our children have so much to share about the world they live in and in helping them make sense of what, for all of us has been unimaginable. This will help them– and us– achieve a lot more than can be measured by any assessment tool ever devised. Peace to all who work with the children!

-Teresa Thayer Snyder was superintendent of the Voorheesville district in upstate New York


Monday, December 28, 2020

Of course, teachers are considering quitting because of the pandemic

"The coronavirus pandemic has put significant pressure on America’s teachers. Some have been asked to weigh risks to their personal health and teach in person. Some have been asked to teach from behind computer screens and perfect distance learning. Many have been asked to do both. These pressures are taking a toll on teachers across the country. 

"According to a new report, 77% of educators are working more today than a year ago; 60% enjoy their job less, and 59% do not feel secure in their school district’s health and safety precautions. Roughly 27% say they are considering leaving their job, retiring early or taking a leave of absence because of the pandemic.

"Horace Mann Educators Corporation surveyed 1,240 U.S. educators from K-12 public schools for the report. 'Before the pandemic, large numbers of U.S. educators were already leaving the profession due to the financial pressure the job puts on their lives. Then COVID-19 came along.'

"Richard Milner, professor of education at Vanderbilt University says these figures do not surprise him.  'In fact, I suspect those numbers will probably increase over time,' he says. 'Many teachers are barely keeping their heads above water and we don’t know how much longer we’re going to be in this space.'

"Teachers have long raised concerns about the difficult financial circumstances that educators often face. Over the past several years, tens of thousands of teachers have gone on strike for improved pay and school funding.

"These financial concerns are also highlighted in the Horace Mann report: 'Educators’ salaries have been falling further behind the compensation of their college-educated peers, while educators’ college costs (and the resulting student loans) have risen sharply. As a result, many educators find their debt burdens can feel insurmountable and delay or prevent achievement of other life goals, such as starting a family, buying a house or saving for retirement.'

"Beyond improved pay and school funding, Milner adds that 'educators really, really, really need strong psychological and mental health support in this moment. Teachers are grappling with and working through the same things that their students are,' he says. 'Many teachers are grappling with the loss of loved ones and teachers of color, and in particular, are grappling with these issues.'

"Estimates suggest that 31% of Black adults and 17% of Hispanic adults know someone firsthand who has been killed by Covid — compared to just 9% of those who are White. 'I know teachers with whom I’m working who are checking in on their students, making those phone calls to social workers to make sure families are taken care of because the parents are working or the parents have just been laid off,' says Milner. 'We’ve got to build stronger respect for teachers'" (

Commentary Redux

Of course, many teachers are considering quitting during this pandemic, especially if they are forced to teach in a classroom filled with students. In addition to the aforementioned, teachers are still afraid of contracting the coronavirus and infecting their family and others. They are afraid of their students contracting the coronavirus and infecting their families. They are afraid for students who ride buses and for bus drivers who bring them to school and home each day.

They are afraid that frequent hand-washing is impossible for students to do throughout the entire day. They are afraid there is not enough space in their classroom for proper distancing. They are afraid of sharing classrooms. They are afraid social distancing and wearing cloth masks for hours is impossible for students. They are afraid of students eating lunches without masks, passing in hallways, and congregating in bathrooms or by their lockers. They are afraid their students cannot safely "socialize" in a pandemic despite the irrational push to send them to school. They are afraid some parents will undermine their safety concerns.

They are afraid of airborne transmission of the coronavirus that thrives indoors, especially in closed spaces. They are afraid the windows cannot be opened or will not be opened in inclement weather. They are afraid the school's ventilation system is antiquated or poor; that the HVAC system has not been upgraded and will easily spread the coronavirus. They are afraid every surface in their school will not be sanitized each day.

They are afraid their school will have insufficient Personal Protective Equipment to keep everyone healthy and safe, such as portable HEPA air purifiers for each room, N-95 masks, Nitrile gloves, face shields, Clorox wipes, hand sanitizers... 

They are afraid they will not be able to tell the difference between the symptoms of the coronavirus and the flu, or the difference between the coronavirus and the common cold, or the difference between the coronavirus and common allergies. They are afraid of asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus.

They are afraid their school cannot guarantee everyone’s health and safety through reliable and consistent testing and professional contact tracing. They are afraid there are not enough nurses and custodians for each school. They are afraid administrators and the school board lack the expertise to determine health and safety measures for students, teachers and staff. 

They are afraid of the blatant incompetence of some of their administrators, the risky agenda of the school board, and the selfish irrational priorities of many parents in their school district. They are afraid for their students’ lives. They are afraid of dying.

This country has lacked a unified and coherent federal, state and local strategy. The federal government has not increased its funding for health and safety for all schools across this nation; nor has it provided federal funding for parents to assist with their at-home childcare and technology. Moreover, the morons among us continue to spread misinformation and conspiracies because of their own gullibility, ignorance, stubbornness or spitefulness.

-Glen Brown


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

We Need Executive Branch and Congressional Reforms after Trump Exits

“Now that Donald Trump’s time in the White House is ending, an urgent task is the reform of the presidency that for four years he sought to shape in his image and to run in his personal and political self-interest. What those years have shown is that the array of laws and norms that arose after Watergate and Vietnam requires an overhaul.

“Any program for reform of the presidency must give precedence to our health and economic crises. It must also acknowledge political realities. Some reforms can be carried out by the executive branch, but others require legislation. Those must attract at least modest bipartisan support in the Senate. With these constraints in mind, an agenda for reform of the presidency could realistically reflect the following priorities:

Executive Branch Reforms

“These reforms should focus on restoring the integrity of the rule of law, especially to check presidential interventions in law enforcement for self-protection or to harm political enemies. The Constitution vests executive law enforcement power in the president, so the executive branch must institute most of these reforms. Internal branch reforms lack legal enforceability but can establish or reinforce guardrails that constrain even norm-breaking presidencies, especially by influencing presidential subordinates.

“Because President Trump defied them regularly, and sometimes his Justice Department did, too, there’s a lot of skepticism about norms. But actually, norms succeeded more in checking him than has been appreciated — for example, in ensuring that Robert Mueller, despite Mr. Trump’s opposition, could complete his inquiry; in protecting federal prosecutors in New York in any investigation of matters related to Mr. Trump; and in preventing the Justice Department from carrying out the president’s desire to prosecute his enemies.

“Reforms should include sharpening Justice Department regulations against political bias in law enforcement; extending to the attorney general the department norms against interfering in investigations; clarifying the rules for investigations of presidents and presidential campaigns to protect against the political impact of investigative steps or announcements, like actions taken close to an election; and changing the regulations so that a special counsel possesses enhanced independence from the attorney general and can report to Congress and American people the facts of any credible allegations of criminal conduct against a president or senior executive branch official.

Congressional Reforms

“Congress should by statute supplement the executive reforms. Three should have broad public support and should be easier for Republican legislators to vote for once Mr. Trump is out of office.

“First, Congress should transform into law the anti-corruption norms of presidential behavior that have long been accepted by both parties but were flouted by Mr. Trump. That would include requiring presidents and presidential candidates to make a timely disclosure of their tax returns. It should also bar the president, under threat of criminal penalty, from any role in the oversight of any business; ban presidential blind trusts, which in this context are inconsistent with core concepts of transparency and accountability; and establish procedures for Congress to police the ‘emoluments’ the president would receive from foreign states.

“Second, Congress should expressly bar presidents from obstructing justice for self-protection, protection of family members and to interfere in elections. It should also make it a crime for a president to offer a pardon in exchange for bribes, including clemency granted for silence or corrupt action in a legal proceeding.

“Third, Congress must upgrade legal protections against foreign electoral interference, a concern for both the American people and the U.S. intelligence community. Congress should require campaigns to report to the F.B.I. any contacts from foreign states offering campaign support or assistance. And to clarify that foreign governments cannot offer, and presidential campaigns cannot solicit or receive, anything of value to a campaign, like opposition research, it must criminalize any mutual aid agreements between presidential campaigns and foreign governments.

“One sharp conflict between the executive and legislative branches needs an urgent fix and is ripe for a deal: the regulation of executive branch vacancies. Many presidential administrations — the Trump administration more aggressively than others — have circumvented the Senate confirmation process for top executive branch appointments by making unilateral temporary appointments.

“These tactics exploited loopholes in federal vacancies law. Compounding this problem is that the number of Senate-confirmed executive branch positions has grown (it is now around 1,200), and the Senate in recent decades has become more aggressive in using holds and filibusters to block or delay confirmation. Congress should significantly reduce the number of executive positions requiring confirmation in exchange for substantially narrowed presidential discretion to make temporary appointments.

“The strength of a presidency is measured by its capacity for effective executive leadership. Mr. Trump’s record of feckless leadership was closely related to his unrelenting efforts to defy or destroy constraining institutions. The reforms proposed here would enhance the institutional constraints that legitimate the president’s vast powers.

“They would thus serve the twin aims of ensuring that the ‘energy in the executive’ that Alexander Hamilton defined as ‘a leading character in the definition of good government’ is nonetheless embedded, as the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. rightly insisted, in a ‘system of accountability that checks the abuse of executive power’” (“How to Reform the Presidency after the Wreckage of Trump,” New York Times).


Bob Bauer, a senior adviser for the Biden campaign and a professor of practice and distinguished scholar in residence at New York University School of Law, and Jack Goldsmith (@jacklgoldsmith), a law professor at Harvard, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former assistant attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, are the authors of “After Trump: Reconstructing the Presidency.”


Tuesday, December 22, 2020

More Flagrant Abuses of Presidential Power


WASHINGTON (AP) — ...Donald Trump on Tuesday pardoned 15 people, including a pair of congressional Republicans who were strong and early supporters, a 2016 campaign official ensnared in the Russia probe and former government contractors convicted in a 2007 massacre in Baghdad.

Trump’s actions in his final weeks in office show a president who is wielding his executive power to reward loyalists and others who he believes have been wronged by a legal system he sees as biased against him and his allies. Trump issued the pardons — not an unusual act for an outgoing president — even as he refused to publicly acknowledge his election loss to Democrat Joe Biden, who will be sworn in on Jan. 20. 

Trump is likely to issue more pardons before then. He and his allies have discussed a range of other possibilities, including members of Trump’s family and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. 

Those pardoned on Tuesday included former Republican Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York, two of the earliest GOP lawmakers to back Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Trump also commuted the sentences of five other people, including former Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas. 

Collins, the first member of Congress to endorse Trump to be president, was sentenced to two years and two months in federal prison after admitting he helped his son and others dodge $800,000 in stock market losses when he learned that a drug trial by a small pharmaceutical company had failed.

Hunter was sentenced to 11 months in prison after pleading guilty to stealing campaign funds and spending the money on everything from outings with friends to his daughter’s birthday party. 

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the pardons for Hunter and Collins were granted after “the request of many members of Congress.” She noted that Hunter served the nation in the U.S. Marines and saw combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the group announced Tuesday night were four former government contractors convicted in a 2007 massacre in Baghdad that left more a dozen Iraqi civilians dead and caused an international uproar over the use of private security guards in a war zone.

Supporters of Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard, the former contractors at Blackwater Worldwide, had lobbied for pardons, arguing that the men had been excessively punished in an investigation and prosecution they said was tainted by problems and withheld exculpatory evidence. All four were serving lengthy prison sentences.

The pardons reflected Trump’s apparent willingness to give the benefit of doubt to American servicemembers and contractors when it comes to acts of violence in war zones against civilians. Last November, for instance, he pardoned a former U.S. Army commando who was set to stand trial next year in the killing of a suspected Afghan bomb-maker and a former Army lieutenant convicted of murder for ordering his men to fire upon three Afghans.

Trump also announced pardons for allies ensnared in the Russia investigation. One was for George Papadopoulos, his 2016 campaign adviser whose conversation unwittingly helped trigger the Russia investigation that shadowed Trump’s presidency for nearly two years. He also pardoned Alex van der Zwaan, a Dutch lawyer who was sentenced to 30 days in prison for lying to investigators during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. 

Van der Zwaan and Papadopoulos are the third and fourth Russia investigation defendants granted clemency. By pardoning them, Trump once again took aim at Mueller’s probe and advanced a broader effort to undo the results of the investigation that yielded criminal charges against a half-dozen associates.

The pardons drew criticism from top Democrats. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said the president was abusing his power.

“Trump is doling out pardons, not on the basis of repentance, restitution or the interests of justice, but to reward his friends and political allies, to protect those who lie to cover up him, to shelter those guilty of killing civilians, and to undermine an investigation that uncovered massive wrongdoing,” Schiff said. 

Last month, Trump pardoned former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and months earlier commuted the sentence of another associate, Roger Stone, days before he was to report to prison.

Trump has granted about 2% of requested pardons in his single term in office — just 27 before Tuesday’s announcement. By comparison, Barack Obama granted 212 or 6%, and George W. Bush granted about 7%, or 189. George H.W. Bush, another one-term president, granted 10% of requests.

Also among those pardoned by Trump was Phil Lyman, a Utah state representative who led an ATV protest through restricted federal lands.

Lyman was serving as a Utah county commissioner in 2014 when he led about 50 ATV riders in a canyon home to Native American cliff dwellings that officials closed to motorized traffic. The ride occurred amid a sputtering movement in the West pushing back against federal control of large swaths of land and came in the wake of an armed confrontation Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy had with Bureau of Land Management over grazing fees.

Lyman spent 10 days in prison and was ordered to pay nearly $96,000 in restitution. The Trump administration in 2017 lifted a ban on motorized vehicles in parts of the canyon but left restrictions in place through other areas where Lyman led his ride.

Two former U.S. Border Patrol agents were also pardoned, Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, convicted of shooting and wounding a Mexican drug smuggler near El Paso, Texas, in 2005.

Others on the list included a Pittsburgh dentist who pleaded guilty to health care fraud, two women convicted of drug crimes, and Alfred Lee Crum, now 89, who pleaded guilty in 1952 when he was 19 to helping his wife’s uncle illegally distill moonshine.

Crum served three years of probation and paid a $250 fine. The White House said Crum has maintained a clean record and a strong marriage for nearly 70 years, attended the same church for 60 years, raised four children, and regularly participated in charity fundraising events.


Associated Press writers Zeke Miller Jill Colvin, Michael Balsamo in Washington and Michelle Price in Las Vegas contributed to this report.

Would you vote for a non-theist?


"...A 2019 poll asking Americans who they were willing to vote for in a hypothetical presidential election found that 96% would vote for a candidate who is Black, 94% for a woman, 95% for a Hispanic candidate, 93% for a Jew, 76% for a gay or lesbian candidate and 66% for a Muslim – but atheists fall below all of these, down at 60%. That is a sizable chunk who would not vote for a candidate simply on the basis of their nonreligion.

"In fact, a 2014 survey found Americans would be more willing to vote for a presidential candidate who had never held office before, or who had extramarital affairs, than for an atheist.

"In a country that changed its original national motto in 1956 from the secular 'E pluribus unum' – 'out of many, one' – to the faithful 'In God We Trust,' it seems people don’t trust someone who doesn’t believe in God.

"As a scholar who studies atheism in the U.S., I have long sought to understand what is behind such antipathy toward nonbelievers seeking office.

Branding issue?

"There appear to be two primary reasons atheism remains the kiss of death for aspiring politicians in the U.S. – one is rooted in a reaction to historical and political events, while the other is rooted in baseless bigotry.

"Let’s start with the first: atheism’s prominence within communist regimes. Some of the most murderous dictatorships of the 20th century – including Stalin’s Soviet Union and Pol Pot’s Cambodia – were explicitly atheistic. Bulldozing humans right and persecuting religious believers were fundamental to their oppressive agendas. Talk about a branding problem for atheists.

"For those who considered themselves lovers of liberty, democracy and the First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion, it made sense to develop fearful distrust of atheism, given its association with such brutal dictatorships.

"And even though such regimes have long since met their demise, the association of atheism with a lack of freedom lingered long after.

"The second reason atheists find it hard to get elected in America, however, is the result of an irrational linkage in many people’s minds between atheism and immoralitySome assume that because atheists don’t believe in a deity watching and judging their every move, they must be more likely to murder, steal, lie and cheat. One recent study, for example, found that Americans even intuitively link atheism with necro-bestiality and cannibalism.

"Such bigoted associations between atheism and immorality do not align with reality. There is simply no empirical evidence that most people who lack a belief in God are immoral. If anything, the evidence points in the other direction. Research has shown that atheists tend to be less racistless homophobic and less misogynistic than those professing a belief in God.

"Most atheists subscribe to humanistic ethics based on compassion and a desire to alleviate suffering. This may help explain why atheists have been found to be more supportive of efforts to fight climate change, as well as more supportive of refugees and of the right to die.

"This may also explain why, according to my research, those states within the U.S. with the least religious populations – as well as democratic nations with the most secular citizens – tend to be the most humane, safe, peaceful and prosperous.

Free thought caucus

"Although the rivers of anti-atheism run deep throughout the American political landscape, they are starting to thin. More and more nonbelievers are openly expressing their godlessness, and swelling numbers of Americans are becoming secular: In the past 15 years, the percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation has risen from 16% to 26%. Meanwhile, some find the image of a Bible-wielding Trump troubling, opening up the possibility that suddenly Christianity may be contending with a branding problem of its own, especially in the skeptical eyes of younger Americans.

"In 2018, a new group emerged in Washington, D.C.: The Congressional Freethought Caucus. Although it only has 13 members, it portends a significant shift in which some elected members of Congress are no longer afraid of being identified as, at the very least, agnostic. Given this new development, as well as the growing number of nonreligious Americans, it shouldn’t be a surprise if one day a self-identified atheist makes it to the White House.

"Will that day come sooner rather than later? God only knows. Or rather, only time will tell" (Why is it so hard for atheists to get voted in to Congress? by Phil Zuckerman, Professor of Sociology and Secular Studies at Pitzer College, The Conversation).

Monday, December 21, 2020

“As habitat and biodiversity loss increase globally, the coronavirus outbreak may be just the beginning of mass pandemics”

“…Research suggests that outbreaks of animal-borne and other infectious diseases such as Ebola, Sars, bird flu and now Covid-19, caused by a novel coronavirus, are on the rise. Pathogens are crossing from animals to humans, and many are able to spread quickly to new places. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that three-quarters of new or emerging diseases that infect humans originate in animals.

“Some, like rabies and plague, crossed from animals centuries ago. Others, such as Marburg, which is thought to be transmitted by bats, are still rare. A few, like Covid-19, which emerged last year in Wuhan, China, and Mers, which is linked to camels in the Middle East, are new to humans and spreading globally.

“Other diseases that have crossed into humans include Lassa fever, which was first identified in 1969 in Nigeria; Nipah from Malaysia; and Sars from China, which killed more than 700 people and travelled to 30 countries in 2002–03. Some, like Zika and West Nile virus, which emerged in Africa, have mutated and become established on other continents.

“Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at UCL, calls emerging animal-borne infectious diseases an ‘increasing and very significant threat to global health, security and economies.’

Amplification effect

“In 2008, Jones and a team of researchers identified 335 diseases that emerged between 1960 and 2004, at least 60% of which came from animals. Increasingly, says Jones, these zoonotic diseases are linked to environmental change and human behaviour. The disruption of pristine forests driven by logging, mining, road building through remote places, rapid urbanisation and population growth is bringing people into closer contact with animal species they may never have been near before, she says.

“The resulting transmission of disease from wildlife to humans, she says, is now ‘a hidden cost of human economic development. There are just so many more of us, in every environment. We are going into largely undisturbed places and being exposed more and more. We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.’

“Jones studies how changes in land use contribute to the risk. ‘We are researching how species in degraded habitats are likely to carry more viruses which can infect humans,’ she says. ‘Simpler systems get an amplification effect. Destroy landscapes, and the species you are left with are the ones humans get the diseases from.’

“‘There are countless pathogens out there continuing to evolve which at some point could pose a threat to humans,’ says Eric Fevre, chair of veterinary infectious diseases at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Infection and Global Health. ‘The risk [of pathogens jumping from animals to humans] has always been there.’

“The difference between now and a few decades ago, Fevre says, is that diseases are likely to spring up in both urban and natural environments. ‘We have created densely packed populations where alongside us are bats and rodents and birds, pets and other living things. That creates intense interaction and opportunities for things to move from species to species,’ he says.

Tip of the iceberg


“‘Pathogens do not respect species boundaries,’ says disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie, an associate professor in Emory University’s department of environmental sciences, who studies how shrinking natural habitats and changing behaviour add to the risk of diseases spilling over from animals to humans. ‘I am not at all surprised about the coronavirus outbreak,’ he says. ‘The majority of pathogens are still to be discovered. We are at the very tip of the iceberg.’

“Humans, says Gillespie, are creating the conditions for the spread of diseases by reducing the natural barriers between host animals – in which the virus is naturally circulating – and themselves. ‘We fully expect the arrival of pandemic influenza; we can expect large-scale human mortalities; we can expect other pathogens with other impacts. A disease like Ebola is not easily spread. But something with a mortality rate of Ebola spread by something like measles would be catastrophic,’ Gillespie says.

Wildlife everywhere is being put under more stress, he says. ‘Major landscape changes are causing animals to lose habitats, which means species become crowded together and also come into greater contact with humans. Species that survive change are now moving and mixing with different animals and with humans.’

“Gillespie sees this in the US, where suburbs fragment forests and raise the risk of humans contracting Lyme disease. ‘Altering the ecosystem affects the complex cycle of the Lyme pathogen. People living close by are more likely to get bitten by a tick carrying Lyme bacteria,’ he says.

“Yet human health research seldom considers the surrounding natural ecosystems,’ says Richard Ostfeld, distinguished senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. He and others are developing the emerging discipline of planetary health, which looks at the links between human and ecosystem health. ‘There’s misapprehension among scientists and the public that natural ecosystems are the source of threats to ourselves. It’s a mistake. Nature poses threats, it is true, but it’s human activities that do the real damage. The health risks in a natural environment can be made much worse when we interfere with it,’ he says.

“Ostfeld points to rats and bats, which are strongly linked with the direct and indirect spread of zoonotic diseases. ‘Rodents and some bats thrive when we disrupt natural habitats. They are the most likely to promote transmissions [of pathogens]. The more we disturb the forests and habitats the more danger we are in,’ he says.

“Felicia Keesing, professor of biology at Bard College, New York, studies how environmental changes influence the probability that humans will be exposed to infectious diseases. ‘When we erode biodiversity, we see a proliferation of the species most likely to transmit new diseases to us, but there’s also good evidence that those same species are the best hosts for existing diseases,’ she wrote in an email to Ensia, the nonprofit media outlet that reports on our changing planet.

The market connection

“Disease ecologists argue that viruses and other pathogens are also likely to move from animals to humans in the many informal markets that have sprung up to provide fresh meat to fast-growing urban populations around the world. Here, animals are slaughtered, cut up and sold on the spot.

“The ‘wet market’ (one that sells fresh produce and meat) in Wuhan, thought by the Chinese government to be the starting point of the current Covid-19 pandemic, was known to sell numerous wild animals, including live wolf pups, salamanders, crocodiles, scorpions, rats, squirrels, foxes, civets and turtles.

“Equally, urban markets in west and central Africa sell monkeys, bats, rats, and dozens of species of bird, mammal, insect and rodent slaughtered and sold close to open refuse dumps and with no drainage. ‘Wet markets make a perfect storm for cross-species transmission of pathogens,’ says Gillespie. ‘Whenever you have novel interactions with a range of species in one place, whether that is in a natural environment like a forest or a wet market, you can have a spillover event.’

“The Wuhan market, along with others that sell live animals, has been shut by the Chinese authorities, and last month Beijing outlawed the trading and eating of wild animals except for fish and seafood. But bans on live animals being sold in urban areas or informal markets are not the answer, say some scientists.

“‘The wet market in Lagos is notorious. It’s like a nuclear bomb waiting to happen. But it’s not fair to demonize places which do not have fridges. These traditional markets provide much of the food for Africa and Asia,’ says Jones. ‘These markets are essential sources of food for hundreds of millions of poor people, and getting rid of them is impossible,’ says Delia Grace, a senior epidemiologist and veterinarian with the International Livestock Research Institute, which is based in Nairobi, Kenya. She argues that bans force traders underground, where they may pay less attention to hygiene…

Changing behaviour

“So, what, if anything, can we do about all of this? Jones says that change must come from both rich and poor societies. Demand for wood, minerals and resources from the global north leads to the degraded landscapes and ecological disruption that drives disease, she says. ‘We must think about global biosecurity, find the weak points and bolster the provision of health care in developing countries. Otherwise, we can expect more of the same,’ she adds.

“‘The risks are greater now. They were always present and have been there for generations. It is our interactions with that risk which must be changed,’ says Brian Bird, a research virologist at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine One Health Institute, where he leads Ebola-related surveillance activities in Sierra Leone and elsewhere.

“‘We are in an era now of chronic emergency,’ Bird says. ‘Diseases are more likely to travel further and faster than before, which means we must be faster in our responses. It needs investments, change in human behaviour, and it means we must listen to people at community levels.’

“Getting the message about pathogens and disease to hunters, loggers, market traders and consumers is key, Bird says. ‘These spillovers start with one or two people. The solutions start with education and awareness. We must make people aware things are different now. I have learned from working in Sierra Leone with Ebola-affected people that local communities have the hunger and desire to have information,’ he says. ‘They want to know what to do. They want to learn.’

“Fevre and Tacoli advocate rethinking urban infrastructure, particularly within low-income and informal settlements. ‘Short-term efforts are focused on containing the spread of infection,’ they write. ‘The longer term – given that new infectious diseases will likely continue to spread rapidly into and within cities – calls for an overhaul of current approaches to urban planning and development.’

“The bottom line, Bird says, is to be prepared. ‘We can’t predict where the next pandemic will come from, so we need mitigation plans to take into account the worst possible scenarios,’ he says. ‘The only certain thing is that the next one will certainly come’” (The Guardian).