The flu pandemic that spiraled around the world a century ago had been under way for a year and a half when a University of Missouri preventive medicine professor made an admission: the effort to fight the disease had been a “dismal failure.”
Nothing had worked. “We must admit that no measures adopted controlled the course of the pandemic,” Mazyck P. Ravenel told an audience of health workers in October, 1919. “It spread with lightning like speed, went where it listed, and ceased its ravages only when available material was exhausted.”
As Nancy Bristow wrote in her 2012 book, which cited Ravenel’s appraisal, “American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic,” the pandemic that would kill about 50 million people was the “worst health disaster in recorded history.”
For those living through today’s Covid-19 pandemic, it’s small comfort that the 1918-20 outbreaks were much worse – the worldwide death toll then was more than 10 times larger than the Covid mortality count to date (though the pandemic is far from over).
But it should be reassuring that we have tools proven to fight the new disease – including vaccines. On Monday, the US Food and Drug Administration gave formal approval to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which had been authorized last year on an emergency basis, and Americans are starting to get booster shots to prolong immunity to the virus.
Now there’s no barrier to mandating that people get vaccinated, wrote Jonathan Sackner-Bernstein, a former FDA official. “Not getting the Covid-19 vaccine would be akin to refusing a new breakthrough medicine proven to keep you healthy after a heart attack or to prevent serious complications while being treated for cancer,” he noted. “State governments, schools and businesses must mandate vaccinations to protect constituents, students and employees, as well as the public at large – that is, if we want to base public health actions on rigorously scrutinized scientific data.”
Does requiring vaccination violate the US Constitution, as some anti-vaxxers have insisted? Not at all, wrote Marci Hamilton and Dr. Paul Offit. “The Constitution is not a suicide pact guaranteeing a right to harm others. The government has latitude to protect citizens from deadly conditions, especially when the science supporting vaccination is so clear.”
Delta Air Lines told employees they would have to pay a health insurance surcharge of up to $200 a month if they refuse the shot. That’s exactly right, wrote John Banzhaf III, a pioneering crusader against smoking. “Covid-19 is now an ‘epidemic of the unvaccinated.’ But we the vaccinated are still being unnecessarily exposed to the risks – however small – of illness, hospitalization, ‘long covid’ and death. We the vaccinated have to wear masks in many places like offices and airplanes where masks would probably not be required if most Americans had their shots. And the vaccinated are unfortunately also being forced to bear most of the financial costs so that some can remain refusers.”
“Let’s stop coddling the minority, and hold the unvaccinated responsible for the consequences of their own deadly decisions.”
Last weekend, former President Donald Trump publicly endorsed vaccination – only to run into pushback from some of his normally loyal fans, as Nicole Hemmer noted. “It’s good. I did it. Take the vaccines,” Trump told an Alabama rally. Hemmer observed, “The crowd, which had been cheering Trump up to that point, suddenly lost its unitary glee. A portion of the rallygoers started to boo, not with Trump but at him. ‘No, that’s OK. That’s all right. You got your freedoms,’ he said, quickly seeming to recalibrate. ‘I just happened to take the vaccine.’”
For school children under 12, there’s no approved vaccine option yet, and health experts believe masks are the next best thing – but governors in Florida and Texas are blocking mask mandates.
Lucia Baez-Geller spent 15 years teaching in Florida’s Miami-Dade County schools before joining the school board. She was one of the seven members of that board who voted to defy Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order against mandating masks in public schools. “Due to the governor’s anti-mask rhetoric,” Baez-Geller wrote, she received “a large number of angry messages” accusing her of “breaking the law, ignoring parental rights, of being brainwashed by ‘Big Science,’ of being a communist, and worse,” along with some supportive responses.
“As elected school board members, the health and safety of our students is our number one responsibility. Their health should never be turned into a political or partisan issue, and I hope that the governor changes course and starts to work with us to protect our students from this dangerous disease.” On Friday, a Florida judge ruled against the state’s effort to stop mask mandates.
Death in Kabul
The evacuation of Americans and Afghan refugees had shifted into high gear at Kabul Airport Thursday when a suicide bomber and gunmen attacked crowds outside the airport. Thirteen US service members were among the more than 170 people killed. Frida Ghitis called the “horrific attack” a “reminder of the threats in Afghanistan and the challenges that lie ahead as America tries to disengage.”
Among the many questions facing the Biden administration: Should the US recognize the Taliban regime? Will the new leaders of Afghanistan, who promise peace and an amnesty, impose the same kind of draconian rule they enforced when they first took over the country in 1996?
“So far, evidence that the Taliban has changed is mixed, at best,” Ghitis wrote. “Already women have been told to stay home, for their safety. …Prominent female journalists have reportedly been taken off the air and there is evidence that much worse unfolded as the Taliban swept toward Kabul.”
In The Atlantic, Peter Nicholas wrote, Thursday’s attacks “cast doubt on a core claim that Biden has used to justify the troop pullout—that even without a military presence in Afghanistan, the U.S. can still stave off terrorist attacks.” With the evacuation continuing ahead of the Aug. 31 troop withdrawal deadline, he noted, about 1,000 Americans were still in Afghanistan. “Biden has pledged to leave none behind. If anyone remains stranded, Biden’s unfulfilled promise may haunt his presidency for the rest of the term, while providing propaganda fodder for terrorists,” observed Nicholas.
“Is there a greater terrorist threat today than Afghanistan?” That was Peter Bergen’s question after the Kabul terror attack. “The UN says thousands of ‘foreign fighters’ have poured into Afghanistan in the past months, energized by the Taliban’s victories, to join jihadist groups such as al Qaeda,” Bergen noted. “Just when you think that Biden’s unforced error of unilaterally and incompetently withdrawing from Afghanistan couldn’t get any worse, it does.”
Gen. David Petraeus, in a Q&A with Bergen, called the takeover “hugely disheartening and sad” and said the US made key errors in its negotiations with the Taliban over the past three years, beginning with the Trump administration. “First, the negotiations announced to the Afghan people and the Taliban that the US really did intend to leave…regardless of what they committed to us. Second, we undermined the elected Afghan government, however flawed it may have been, by not insisting on a seat for it at the negotiations we were conducting about the country they actually governed. Third, as part of the eventual agreement, we forced the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters, many of whom quickly returned to the fight as reinforcements for the Taliban.”
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Starting new lives
In the past two weeks, the US and its allies have evacuated more than 104,000 civilians from Afghanistan, according to Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., who heads the US Central Command. Many are refugees who aided the US and its partners during the 20-year-long war – and they face the daunting task of starting over in a new country.
When she heard the news of the evacuation, Rep. Ilhan Omar thought back to her own childhood. Her family fled civil war in Somalia and spent nearly four years in a refugee camp in Kenya. “I wouldn’t be here today, raising my children in comfort, without the generosity of the Kenyan people, the tireless efforts of UN workers and the welcoming spirit of the American people who gave me and my family a second chance at life,” Omar wrote.
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“In this critical moment, we must draw upon the best of our history and open our arms to the huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” she argued. “Of course, every new group of immigrants is met with resistance. After an initial wave of Chinese immigration in the mid-19th century, Congress shamefully passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, a law that wasn’t repealed until 1943. After welcoming millions of European migrants at the dawn of the 20th century, nativism took hold and the Immigration Act of 1924 severely restricted immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. This law would disgracefully remain fully on the books until 1952, barring millions of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, and forever staining our history.”
Will America “recognize the suffering and needs of the Afghan people” or fall victim to “nativism and hate”? she asked. “That is the choice our country faces right now. We owe it to the Afghan who risked his life to fight alongside the United States. We owe it to the little girl huddled in a refugee camp, wondering if she will have a shot to ultimately become not just a guest, but an American. I know, because that little girl was me.”
The march for voting rights
Martin Luther King III was only 10 when his father was assassinated in Memphis, but he was old enough to see that Martin Luther King Jr. “gave his heart, soul and very life for social justice for people of color and for people who felt the sting of economic disadvantage.”
The month before he died, former President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke to students at the LBJ Library’s civil rights symposium, recalled his daughter, Luci B. Johnson. “I watched him place a nitroglycerin tablet under his tongue and rushed to his side afterwards to ask him why he had come to speak when he was so very ill? He told me, ‘If I had died speaking for civil rights then I would have gone dying for what I lived for. What more could any man want?’”
The children of King and Johnson wrote for CNN Opinion on the 58th anniversary this weekend of the landmark March on Washington. They lamented that much of what their fathers accomplished on voting rights is “unraveling,” due to the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision gutting a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, as well as legislation in many states that restricts the opportunity to vote.
“In 1965, Democrats and Republicans came together to make our fathers’ vision for the right to vote a reality for all Americans. Now we must come together once again to deliver on that promise.”
California voters will confront two questions on September 14: Should they recall their governor, Gavin Newsom. And if so, who should replace him?
Kara Alaimo wrote that if it’s talk show host Larry Elder, one of the leading GOP candidates, they would be “making a misogynist their next governor.” He “has said that ‘women exaggerate the problem of sexism’ and domestic violence. He has written that women ‘know less than men’ about the issues voters face and that when women become mothers, they are less valuable workers, lacking an ‘all-hands-on-deck commitment’ to their jobs.”
Van Jones wrote that Californians should keep Newsom as their governor. “A lot has been thrown at him – including unprecedented wildfires and a once-in-a-century pandemic,” Jones noted. “And, through it all, Newsom has brought heart, smarts, resilience and determination. Yes, he has had some well-publicized missteps. But given the size and complexity of this state, and the magnitude of the crises that have occurred on his watch, it’s hard to imagine any other state leader doing much better.” The state’s outnumbered Republicans are “attempting to steal power with a tiny minority of the vote – and install an extremist governor who is likely to disregard science and send us over a Covid cliff.”
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The half-life of fandom
It was bad enough that Louis C.K. “recently kicked off a new standup tour with a sold-out pair of shows in New York” featuring offensive jokes of all forms, wrote Sara Stewart.
Or that fans of “Ted Lasso” and “In the Heights” had to endure controversies about those otherwise broadly appealing pieces of entertainment. “All along the pop culture spectrum, the time elapsed between a star or show’s moment in the sun and a subsequent reckoning (and, sometimes, comeback) seems to be decreasing exponentially,” Stewart noted.
“I find myself more and more hesitant to sing the praises of a new movie or show or comic or singer, lest it all go to hell two news cycles later. At this tumultuous moment, I think we each have to decide for ourselves which pieces of art to keep, and which to throw out. Perhaps fandom – defined as the attachment to the artist as creator – should no longer be the point.”
As for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Stewart wrote that controversy over the director’s alleged “shoddy treatment of women” concerned her. So she gave it a re-watch and found it “a groundbreaking show that a lot of people besides that guy – many of them women, like later-seasons showrunner Marti Noxon and writer/producer Jane Espenson – worked hard to make great.”
I “still love Buffy, flaws and all. And I’ve decided I’m keeping it.”
Note: An earlier version incorrectly said Delta Air Lines had imposed a vaccine mandate.