Categories
Musings

This is not a drill

Farouk Gulsara from Malaysia

 People, mainly the theistic type, are in a dilemma now. They are currently undergoing a test of faith of sorts. On the one hand, they feel they should not have been subjected through such a trial. Whoever had heard of man-made laws preventing believers from performing their daily mandatory salutations of the Divine Forces? Furthermore, at this time of calamity, if they cannot turn to the Divine for help, what else can they do?

 But wait…

Why did the Divine Forces ‘send’ such a test to us? Does He not love us so much? After all the cajoling over generations, and the importance that humankind had accorded to the divine forces all times, why are we continuously put to the test? Is it some kind of Divine Mirth for the amusement of the Maker and a testbed to gauge our devotion?

Why are the first spaces to be emptied all the places of worship? How can they be hotbeds for infection? Are they justified is asking, “My Lord, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Has God ditched his followers stricken with COVID-19 by shutting down religious centres with no prayer meetings? Social distancing seems to be the only panacea for the pandemic. Perhaps He is telling us that blind faith does not work.

 Above all, intelligence and cognitive power would make us stronger as a race. Perhaps the answer would be, “I am here just for your solace. I cannot possibly change the trajectory of the Universe just because you cajoled me in prayers. Imagine the catastrophe that could cause to the others. I have other requests too, you know!”

 It has happened many times before…

 There was a time when worshippers were contented when their scriptures protected them from dangers of the pleasure of the forbidden fruit. They thought it was only the deviants who were at the receiving end of God’s wrath. So, when people like Paul Ehrlich came up with his magic bullet, Salvarsan, to treat syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease willed to punish the wayward, he received no accolades but instead, Ehrlich was pelted with stones, and his home was torched. He was scorned for siding with the sinners and going against the overpowering might of God.

All through our civilisation, believers took it upon themselves to symbolise the omnipotence of Divinity by constructing grandiose erections in the name of His splendour. True — these abodes have been useful to house believers and non-believers at times of crises before. These robust megalithic structures are of limited use as they are of restricted use to care for the homeless. They have been labelled as sites of super-spreaders and is out of bounds to worshippers and asylum seekers alike…

 We are left with the power of human intellect and science to overcome this as we have done many times. In years to come, this current episode would be just a fleeting moment in the annals of human history. Catastrophes, one after another, we have bowled over. Floods, famines, earthquakes, tsunamis, world wars — we have defeated all. This will add another feather to our cap.

We did not attain the status of the de facto spokesperson of the planet for nothing.

We shall overcome.

Farouk Gulsara is a daytime healer and a writer by night. After developing his left side of his brain almost half his lifetime, this johnny-come-lately decides to stimulate his non-dominant part on his remaining half. An author of two non-fiction books, ‘Inside the twisted mind of Rifle Range Boy’ and ‘Real Lessons from Reel Life’, he writes regularly in his blog ‘Rifle Range Boy’.

Categories
Musings

Hope in the Pandemic: Notes from a Wuhan Physicist

By Tao Wang from Wuhan

Keeping busy: Tao Wang at his home during the lockdown period in Wuhan, China. (Courtesy: Tao Wang)

I run a research group made up of more than 20 graduate students, and in a “normal” workday my job is to supervise and direct them on research activities related to opto-electronic devices such as solar cells and light-emitting diodes. I also teach an undergraduate course in polymer physics during our teaching season, with lectures two times a week. I would normally also go to conferences, although not every week.

The city of Wuhan and the residential compounds within it responded differently at different stages of the pandemic. At the beginning of the outbreak, normal life was not affected much as the number of infected people was low. On 23 January, Wuhan was locked down, with nobody able to leave the city; however, in the early days of the lockdown people could still walk freely outside their homes. This was soon changed so that nobody could leave their residential compound except those involved in essential work, as evidence showed that less strict measures were not preventing the spread of the corona virus.

Life under lockdown

During the lockdown, a lot of medical and other resources were sent to Wuhan, and many volunteers helped deliver groceries to residential compounds, assist the vulnerable, and bring food to doctors and nurses on the front line. At first, patients with mild symptoms were asked to return home and self-isolate – partly due to the shortage of hospital beds and other resources, and partly due to a lack of experience in how to treat a virus that humans had not encountered before. Again, this soon changed, as the virus continued to spread, clusters of infections appeared, and people with mild conditions developed more serious symptoms.

To deal exclusively with corona virus patients, Wuhan constructed two new hospitals from scratch in 10 days. Another 16 makeshift hospitals were also built, some of them in one day. Other provinces in China also sent many thousands of doctors and nurses to hospitals in Hubei.

This enabled health workers to collect and treat all patients in hospital and closely watch those who have been in close contacts with patients. The number of new cases reduced immediately with these actions, and this – along with a reduced number of patients in hospitals after their cure and discharge – helped to ease the crisis.

I have kept myself fairly busy while self-isolating at home during the lockdown time in Wuhan. Whilst we report our body temperatures every day to local health volunteers and try to keep our life free of chaos and panic, we also try to do some of the work we would expect to do in a normal time.

My students and I have online meetings every two weeks, during which we discuss some of the latest literature related to their projects. We finished writing and revising a few manuscripts, and I also wrote two grant proposals (it is proposal writing time between January and March in China). At the beginning of the new semester in March, university students in Wuhan were asked not to return on campus due to the outbreak of COVID-19, and all face-to-face lectures have been turned to online virtual ones. This minimizes the disruption to their studies, while also ensuring their health and safety.

Emerging from the epidemic

For the past 20 days, very few new cases of corona virus have been reported in Wuhan, and as of today the total number of corona virus patients is less than 500. So, after 11 weeks of lockdown, people in Wuhan were allowed to leave the city from midnight on 8 April.

Thanks to the great achievement of putting down a pandemic in about two months, people in “epidemic-free” residential compounds are now allowed to leave their homes, for example to do grocery shopping in supermarkets. A lot of commercial units have resumed functioning. The authorities are evaluating how to ensure public health and safety in these new circumstances, and when that is settled our students will be allowed to return to campus. I actually tidied up my office today, and I am waiting for our students to be back, which I am sure won’t take long.

With great efforts from people in every country, this extraordinary crisis will surely be overcome, and we will be back to “normal” life.

 But this new normality won’t be the same as the one that existed before. It is going to change our society in ways we haven’t fully anticipated. I hope the changes are positive rather than negative. We should live in more healthy ways so that we can share this planet with other beings, and that will require everyone to think things over after the disruption is finished.

I do see positive things in all nations across the globe: responsibility, selflessness, self-discipline, unity and resolve. As for positive things in my professional life, the lockdown gave me time to look back and think over what I have done in my research activities over the past few years, and particularly to evaluate whether they are as methodologically robust as they could be. I have some thoughts on that and will start from those once I am able to return to my laboratory.

I hope the rest of the world can get hope from my experience in Wuhan. If we stick to social distancing, wash hands and wear masks, this pandemic is certainly controllable.

This post is part of a series on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the personal and professional lives of physicists around the world. If you’d like to share your own perspective, please contact us at pwld@ioppublishing.org.

Tao Wang is an experimental physicist in the School of Materials Science & Engineering at Wuhan University of Technology in Wuhan, China.

First Published in Countercurrents.org

Categories
Musings

A Planet of Missing Beauties – In Memoriam

By Tom Engelhardt

The other morning, walking at the edge of a local park, I caught sight of a beautiful red cardinal, the first bird I ever saw some 63 years ago.

Actually, to make that sentence accurate, I should probably have put either “first” or “ever saw” in quotation marks. After all, I was already 12 years old and, even as a city boy, I had seen plenty of birds. If nothing else, New York, where I grew up, is a city of pigeons (birds which, by the way, know nothing about “social distancing”).

Nonetheless, in a different sense, at age 12 I saw (was struck by, stunned by, awed by) that bright red bird. I was visiting a friend in Connecticut and, miraculously enough, though it was 1956, his parents had a bird identification book of some kind in their house. When I leafed through it, I came across the very bird I had seen, read about it, and on going home wrote a tiny essay about the experience for my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Casey (one of those inspirational figures you never forget, just as I’ll never forget that bird). I still have what I wrote stuffed away amid ancient papers somewhere in the top of my bedroom closet.

Six decades later, in this grim coronavirus March of 2020, with my city essentially in lockdown and myself in something like self-isolation, I have to admit that I feel a little embarrassed writing about that bird. In fact, I feel as if I should apologize for doing so. After all, who can doubt that we’re now in a Covid-19 world from hell, in a country being run (into the ground) by the president from hell, on the planet that he and his cronies are remarkably intent on burning to hell.

It was no mistake, for instance, that, when Donald Trump finally turned his mind to the coming pandemic (rather than denying it) as the economy he had been bragging about for the previous three years began to crash, one of the first groups he genuinely worried about didn’t include you or me or even his base. It was America’s fossil-fuel industry. As global transportation ground down amid coronavirus panic and a wild oil price war between the Saudis and the Russians, those companies were being clobbered.  And so he quickly reached out to them with both empathy and money — promising to buy tons of extra crude oil for the nation’s strategic petroleum reserve (“We’re going to fill it right to the top”) — unavailable to so many other endangered Americans.  At that moment he made it perfectly clear that, in an unfolding crisis of the first order, all of us remain in a world run by arsonists led by the president of the United States.

So, a cardinal? Really? That’s what I want to focus on in a world which, as it grows hotter by the year, will only be ever more susceptible to pandemics, not to speak of staggering firesfloodingextreme storms, and god knows what else. Honestly, given a country of closed schools, self-isolating adults, and the sick and the dying, ona planet that seems to be cracking open, in a country which, until recently, couldn’t test as many people for Covid-19 in a couple of months as South Korea could in — yes, this is not a misprint — a day, where’s my sense of proportion?

A Secret Life

Still, if you can, bear with me for a moment, I think there’s a connection, even if anything but obvious, between our troubled world and that flaming bird I first saw so long ago. Let me start this way: believe it or not, birds were undoubtedly the greatest secret of my teenage years.

On spring weekends, my best friend and I would regularly head for Central Park, that magnificent patch of green at the center of Manhattan Island. That was the moment when the spectacular annual bird migration would be at its height and the park one of the few obvious places in a vast urban landscape for birds to alight. Sharing his uncle’s clunky old binoculars, my friend and I would wander alone there (having told no one, including our families, what we were doing).

We were on the lookout for exotic birds of every sort on their journeys north. Of course, for us then they were almost all exotic. There were brilliant scarlet tanagers with glossy black wings, chestnut-and-black orchard orioles (birds I wouldn’t see again for decades), as well as the more common, even more vivid Baltimore orioles.  And of course there were all the warblers, those tiny, flitting, singing creatures of just about every color and design: American redstarts, blackburnians, black-and-whites, black-throated blues, blue-wingeds, chestnut-sideds, common yellowthroats, magnolias, prairies, palms, yellows.

And here was the secret key to our secret pastime: the old birders. Mind you, when I say “old,” I mean perhaps my age now or even significantly younger. They would, for instance, be sitting on benches by Belvedere Castle overlooking Belvedere Lake (in reality, a pond), watching those very birds. They were remarkably patient, not to say amused (or perhaps amazed) by the two teenaged boys so eager to watch with them and learn from them. They were generous with their binoculars, quick to identify birds we otherwise would never have known or perhaps even noticed, and happy to offer lessons from their bird books (and their own years of experience).

And, for me at least, those birds were indeed a wonder. They were genuine beauties of this planet and in some odd way my friend and I grasped that deeply. In fact, ever since we’ve grown up — though this year may prove to be the self-isolating exception — we’ve always tried to meet again in that park as May began for one more look at, one more moment immersed in, the deep and moving winged beauty of this planet of ours.

Of course, in the 1950s, all of this was our deepest secret for the most obvious of reasons (at least then). If you were a boy and admitted that you actually wanted to look at birds — I’m not sure the phrase “bird watch” was even in use at the time — god knows what your peers would have said about you. They would — we had no doubt of this — have simply drummed us out of the corps of boys. (That any of them might then have had their own set of secret fascinations would never, of course, have crossed our minds.) All you have to do to conjure up the mood of that moment is to imagine our president back then and the kind of mockery to which he would certainly have subjected boys who looked at birds!

Now, so many decades later, in another America in which the coronavirus has already reached pandemic proportions (potentially threatening staggering losses, especially among old folks like me), in which the stock market is already tanking, in which a great recession-cum-depression could be on the horizon, and our future FDR — that is, the president who helped us out of the last Great Depression in the 1930s — could an over-the-hill 77-year-old former vice president, it seems odd indeed to write about beautiful birds from another earthly moment. But maybe that’s the point.

Fini?

Think about it this way: as last year ended, Science magazine reported that, in North America, there were three billion fewer birds than in 1970; in other words, almost one out of every three birds on this continent is now gone. As Carl Zimmer of the New York Times put it, “The skies are emptying out.” Among them, warblers have taken one of the heaviest hits — there are an estimated 617 million fewer of them — as well as birds more generally that migrate up the East Coast (and so have a shot at landing in Central Park). Many are the causes, including habitat loss, pesticides, and even feral cats, but climate change is undoubtedly a factor as well. The authors of the Audubon Society’s most recent national report, for instance, suggest that, “if Earth continues to warm according to current trends — rising 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100 — more than two-thirds of North America’s bird species will be vulnerable to extinction due to range loss.”

Extinction. Take that word in. They’ll be gone. No more. Fini.

That, by the way, is a global, not just a North American, reality, and such apocalyptic possibilities are hardly restricted to birds. Insects, for instance, are experiencing their own Armageddon and while — monarch butterflies (down 90% in the U.S. in the last 20 years) aside — we humans don’t tend to think of them as beauties, they are, among other things, key pollinators and crucial to food chains everywhere.

Or think about it this way: on Monday, March 8th, in my hometown, New York City, it was 68 degrees and that was nothing. After all, on February 19th, in Central Park, the temperature had hit a record-breaking 78 degrees in the heart of winter, not just the highest for that day on record but for the month of February, historically speaking.  At the time, we were passing through a “winter” in which essentially no snow had fallen. And that should have surprised no one. After all, January had started the year with a bang globally as the hottest January on record, which again should have surprised no one, since the last five years have been the warmest ever recorded on this planet (ditto the last 10 years and 19 of the last 20 years). Oh, and 2020 already has a 50% chance of being the warmest year yet.

And by the way, soon after that 68-degree day, in our parks I began to notice the first crocuses and daffodils pushing through the soil and blooming. It was little short of remarkable and, in truth, would all have been beautiful, not to say glorious — the weather, the flowers, the sense of ease and comfort, the springiness of everything — if you didn’t know just what such “beauty” actually meant on a planet potentially heating to pandemic proportions.

How sad when even what’s still truly beautiful on this globe of ours increasingly tells a story that couldn’t be grimmer. So, think of this as my in-memoriam essay about the planet I thought I grew up on and the birds I thought I knew. Consider it a kind of epitaph-in-advance for a world that, if the rest of us can’t get ourselves together, if we can’t rid ourselves of arsonists like Donald Trump and his crew or those fossil-fueled CEOs that he loves so much, may all-too-soon seem unrecognizable.

In the meantime, consider me — semi-locked in my apartment — to be, in my own fashion, in mourning. Not for myself, mind you, though I’m almost 76 and my years on this planet are bound to be limited, but for those I’ll be leaving behind, my children and grandchildren in particular. This just wasn’t the world I ever wanted them to inherit.

In truth, in this coronaviral moment of ours, our world is being transformed before our eyes into one of missing beauties. Given my teenage years, I want to leave my grandchildren the pleasure of entering Central Park in some distant May, long after I’m gone, and still seeing the brilliant colors of a scarlet tanager. That’s my hope, despite everything.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch.com and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

First Published in Countercurrents.org

Categories
Poetry

Pandemic and more…

By Melissa A Chappell

Pandemic

Do you remember,
as the alarm bells were crying,
how we were silent in the sun,
our blood roiling red with the ruins of the sun.
Do you remember,
as the warnings were rising,
how we once lowered the moon
till it lay pale on our backs.
Do you remember,
as the virus spread across the world,
how once we curled, small, like a fiddlehead fern,
forgetting everything,
forgetting everything.
 I Walked Out

I walked out on a Sabbath day
into these woods that I have called my own.
In praise the poplars bare branches raise
In this their silvered wintry home.

I looked out over the crest of the hill,
to see, where, as a child, I wandered wild,
down to the now songless rill,
where the mysterious gray dusk once beguiled.

Laying my claim, here I call down my preening pride,
for I know that to me nothing has ever belonged.
Just the same, you were never mine.
For all that is dwells where the Lord’s graces throng.

I walked out--not even my body bore my name.
Empty hands, empty heart, room for all.
My human passions ever tamed,
the empty plenum, brimming with God, brings lauds.

The Cedars

Walk a while with me,

along this borrowed road

where courageous grows

the Queen Anne’s lace.

Let us speak of the

furious star

hurtling through the

door ajar,

our catechisms

and ponderings,

umbrous

in the roaring

light of day.

Sit a while with me,

beneath yonder poplar tree.

I cast my seed into

the dark furrows

of your yearnings deep.

Perhaps they will

settle quiet

into their loamy rest

at the diffuse dusking

in the lavender west,

readying for the waking,

the cracking of the husk.

Lay a while with me,

on a bed of evergreen boughs.

As I brush the hair from

from your brow,

the gracious breeze will

caress every sense of ours.

Together in the fire struck night,

we die, one to the other,

rising, blessedly more human,

having loved beneath the cedars,

having loved beneath the cedars.

One-Tenth of a Percent

The long awaited DNA results

radiated sundry on my computer screen.

At the bottom of my long and

kaleidescopic lineage, there it was,

as if someone had almost forgotten to link it

to my motley double helix:

“Sudanese, one tenth of a percent.”

One infinitesimal gene, which, excitedly

laying claim to an exotic slice of Africa,

suddenly became a mountain of pride.

Lordly, I passed through my days,

knowing that in my blood ran the ebulliant,

ancient tribal songs and dances of Sudan.

Yet I thought not of a fractured nation,

perishing for an independence

cut out of its mountains and plains,

and the tortured alchemy of

bloodlust, power, and dulled machetes.

The blood of Sudan courses through humanity,

its lament rising from the ancient gene,

the lament of those everywhere who,

facing intolerable danger, flee away,

away to stranger shores, or to the wilderness,

where manna from heaven is only an old story,

where seeds and leaves are the sole food that

the only God they know can offer them.

My one-tenth of a percent was lost in the infinite ocean,

yet finally swam across a sea of plasma to reach

nucleic shores, finding refuge in the improbable

gene pool of a girl so white the sun is blinded by her.

She does not understand the faint, foreign chants

that she sometimes hears in the offing.

Yet one-tenth of a microscopic percent,

real as the blood that wails for justice,

dreams of flowering hills of daffodils,

where the blood soaks silent into the waiting earth.

Melissa A. Chappell is a native of South Carolina, USA. She contentedly resides on land that has been in her family for over 130 years. She has a BA in the Theory of Music and a Master of Divinity degree. Besides writing, she plays several instruments, including the lute. Music and the land are her primary inspirations for her poetry. She has had two chapbooks published: Rivers and Relics (Desert Willow Press)