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Ideas | The Atlantic
Ideas | The Atlantic
Mass Vaccination Is a Show of American Might
Every so often, an emerging technology changes the global balance of power, alters alliances, and shifts the relationships among nations. After World War II, nuclear weapons overthrew all of the existing geopolitical paradigms. The countries that got the bomb were considered global powers; countries that did not have it sought it, so that they could be considered powerful too.Now a different technology is shifting global politics: the coronavirus vaccines—or, quite possibly, vaccines more broadly. Unlike nuclear weapons, vaccines don’t have the potential to end life on Earth, and their production and distribution will never require rigid rules to limit who gets them. Indeed, the international institutions being created to govern vaccine distribution are designed to promote proliferation, not restrict it. Nevertheless, global politics will be shaped by the vaccines, as will domestic politics in some countries, and in ways that might outlast this particular pandemic.One major change is already evident. During 2020, Donald Trump’s chaotic, mendacious response to the pandemic; the wave of COVID-19 denialism that swept across America; and the high U.S. death rates were a shock to anyone, anywhere, who still expected competent American leadership. Clips of Trump’s infamous comments about bleach (“And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning, because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs?”) were replayed all around the world and translated into dozens of languages. The Trump administration’s refusal to join any of the international efforts to fight the pandemic left a gaping hole that for many months was filled by Chinese planes delivering face masks and doctors.The U.S. became an outlier, even among democracies. A clear line emerged between countries that had high levels of social trust and decent public-health systems—Taiwan, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, South Korea—and those, including the U.S. and Brazil, that did not. Whereas South Korean public-health officials supplemented the country’s contact-tracing system with credit-card and phone-location data to help keep case numbers down, nobody in the United States has enough faith in government contact tracers to make those kinds of data available in the first place. That difference was reflected in domestic registers of satisfaction with government performance. It also contributed to an international perception of American decline.[From the September 2020 issue: How the pandemic defeated America]But if the United States is very, very bad at social trust and public-health systems, it is very, very good at large-scale logistics. And skill at large-scale logistics, far more than social trust, has turned out to be a big advantage in this new stage of the pandemic. Mass production of vaccines, mass distribution of vaccines, “mass vax” centers in stadium parking lots, even string quartets playing for the 10,000 New Yorkers getting their vaccines every day at the Javits Center—all of this we can do, now that we have a president who wants to do it. With zero percent interest rates and the deficit a term belonging to the distant past, Americans can also throw money at problems like nobody else.The result isn’t always pretty. In many states, even eligible people seeking a vaccination appointment have had to play an online version of the Hunger Games. Attempts to create some kind of logical order to the distribution process fell victim to overcomplicated criteria, cheating, and the proliferation of registration websites. But once the federal government entered the arena, much of that ceased to be relevant. If you are delivering 4 million vaccine doses a day, it matters less who goes first, because everyone who wants a shot is going to get one soon enough. Although some local drives have been tailored to particular communities—efforts to vaccinate Native Americans have been one of the underappreciated successes—the experience, for many people, has resembled nothing so much as shopping at a remarkably efficient big-box retailer: customers in, customers out, no time for neighborly chitchat, but everyone gets the product they wanted. Instead of orderly distribution, we got speed, which amounts to the same thing.Other countries had a similar attitude. Israel also paid top price for vaccines, not least because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hoped to use the vaccine rollout to win an election campaign. Great Britain opened its wallet too, not least because Prime Minister Boris Johnson hoped that the vaccine rollout would flip his bad polling numbers, make up for his country’s high death rates, and help hide the economic losses caused by Brexit. All three countries have won some admiration, but so far not many friends.On the contrary, a form of what is either admiringly or disparagingly called “vaccine nationalism” was baked into the American vaccine program, like the British and Israeli programs, from the start: Whatever it takes, whatever it costs, and screw everyone else. The Trump administration refused to join COVAX, the international consortium that seeks to distribute vaccines around the planet. At one point, Trump made noises about getting exclusive access to a vaccine under development by a German company. Except for some rhetorical and symbolic gestures, President Joe Biden hasn’t really moved away from this position either. He has decided to send Mexico and Canada several million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine—which the U.S. hasn’t yet approved and may not need—and made a few other promises to “work together” with other nations down the road.[Thomas J. Bollyky: Democracies keep vaccines for themselves]Much has been written about how the European Union chose a different path, jointly purchasing vaccines for all its members on the grounds that a bidding war among European countries would leave the smaller ones without anything. The EU also convened the meetings that created COVAX and, expecting reciprocity, allowed European manufacturers to export to Britain and elsewhere. In Europe, pride at having done “well” in the first phases of the pandemic has now turned to anger, in some countries, at the failure to distribute vaccines faster. But vaccine nationalists are not only on a different path from the EU. They have also gone in a different direction from Russia and China, two countries that are so convinced of the global importance of this moment that they have been selling and distributing vaccines abroad even before their own populations are vaccinated. As of late March, China had produced 250 million doses of its vaccines and sent 118 million abroad, to more than four dozen different countries. Russia, whose own vaccination percentage is in the single digits, has also been boasting of its exports to 22 different countries, as well as deals to produce its Sputnik V vaccine in South Korea, India, Serbia, and possibly Italy.Read: Vaccine nationalism is doomed to failAnd no wonder: Unlike Biden, Johnson, Netanyahu, or any of the EU prime ministers, leaders in Beijing and Moscow don’t need to worry about electorates who might judge their vaccine distribution. The Chinese may have also concluded that their contact-tracing, border-control, and quarantine systems are so successful, they don’t need to hurry with mass vaccination. More to the point, both countries have already identified the vaccines as a game-changing technology, and have already decided that the foreign-policy benefits of vaccine distribution abroad are too important to waste.That decision is shaping other countries’ policies. Three-quarters of the vaccines supplied to Chile, the country with the highest vaccination rate in Latin America, are Chinese CoronaVac shots. Serbia, which is not part of the EU, is using Russia’s Sputnik V to power ahead of other European countries. San Marino, a microstate that is also not part of the EU, bought Russian vaccines for its 29,000 citizens and has become the envy of Italy. The United Arab Emirates, a world leader in mass vaccination—ahead of both the U.S. and the U.K.—has not only used China’s Sinopharm vaccine but is planning to co-produce a version under the name Hayat-Vax, from the Arabic word for “life,” a decision clearly made with an eye toward marketing in the Arab world.Some of these new pacts are commercial, no different from AstraZeneca’s arrangement to produce millions of doses in partnership with the Serum Institute of India. But many are political. After Algeria accepted a gift of vaccine doses from China, Chinese state media quoted the country’s foreign minister, Sabri Boukadoum, declaring that he “opposes any interference in other countries’ internal affairs”—meaning that he will not support human-rights groups and others who criticize China—and will “strongly support China on issues involving China’s core interests,” an allusion to Hong Kong and Xinjiang province. Serbia’s pro-Russia foreign minister chose to use the moment of his inoculation with a Sputnik V vaccine to demonstrate his support for Russia more broadly: “I wanted to get the Russian vaccine, because I believe in Russian medicine.”Neither Russia nor China is particularly shy about its political goals. In addition to pushing sales of Sputnik V, the Russians are running a full-scale disinformation campaign, wearily familiar from all the other Russian disinformation campaigns, that is designed to discredit Western vaccines. Quasi-academic publications as well as Russian state media have sought to create a miasma of distrust around the mRNA technology behind the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in particular. A recent article in one Russian state-backed publication speculated that the pandemic was created to service Western interests, including those of pharmaceutical companies. Both Russian and Chinese state-media Twitter accounts have tweeted sensationally, and misleadingly, about Pfizer too. And that’s just the visible stuff. Because trolls linked to Russian security services have been masquerading as anti-vax conspiracy theorists on American social media as far back as 2015, no one should be surprised if they are doing the same now.This time, the goal may be to create doubt not just in the U.S., but around the world. One recent study showed that nearly a quarter of Jordanians and Kuwaitis believe that Western vaccines cause infertility; nearly a third fear that they contain microchips that will control recipients’ brains. Iran’s supreme leader has also called Western vaccines “untrustworthy.” Iran is betting instead on the Cuban researchers who, in pursuit of this globally prestigious technology, are in the final stages of testing several vaccines. They too see a chance to broadcast the advantages of their political system. One of their most advanced vaccines is called Soberana 2—the name invokes the Spanish word for “sovereign”—while another, Abdala, has been named after a poem by José Martí, a Cuban independence hero.But an opportunity for the U.S. might lie precisely here, in the authoritarian drive to politicize the vaccines. The best answer to Russian and Chinese strongmen who offer thousands of vaccines to countries that say nice things about them is to flood the market with millions of American doses, helping everyone regardless of what they say about the U.S. or anyone else. After Trump, the American political system won’t win much admiration again anytime soon. But if American democracy is no longer a trusted product, American efficiency could be once again. Within a matter of weeks, a majority of American adults will have had their first dose of a vaccine. What if the U.S. then begins to pivot from mass-vaccinating its own citizens to mass-vaccinating the rest of the world? Americans can’t do social trust, but we can do vaccines, plus the military logistics needed to distribute them: planes, trucks, cold-storage chains. The best cure for propaganda and disinformation is real-life experience: If people see that the vaccines work, they will eventually get one. We can end the global pandemic, improve the economy for everybody, protect ourselves and everyone else, and create the relationships that can help us deal with crises to come.The U.S. might even have an opportunity to turn a mass-delivery effort into something more permanent. If the World Health Organization has become too bureaucratic and too reliant on China to enjoy the complete confidence of the rest of the world, then let’s use this moment to build COVAX into something new, something more trustworthy: an institution that provides smarter delivery systems, more efficient biomedical cooperation, and links among production centers in Europe, India, Africa, and elsewhere in the world. Vaccine nationalism is small-minded, self-centered, and ultimately self-defeating, because COVID-19 will not cease to be a problem until no one has it. This is the moment to think big, the moment for generosity and big ideas. As our massive logistical investment in refrigerated transport begins to pay off, the question for Americans is not just how we can enter the game, but how we can change it.
Trump’s Power Won’t Peak for Another 20 Years
The Trump presidency may be over, but the Trump era has only just begun—at least when it comes to influence over the nation’s courts. Measured solely by the number of judges he appointed, Donald Trump’s impact is staggering: 234 judges, including 54 powerful appellate judges, almost one out of every three. By comparison, President Barack Obama appointed 172 judges (30 of them appellate) in his first term, while George W. Bush managed 204 (35 appellate). But Trump will have an even greater influence than this measurement suggests. That is because his judges won’t reach the apogee of their power until the early 2040s, when Trump-appointed chief judges are on track to simultaneously sit atop nearly every appeals court in the country.This portends a potential disaster for progressive gains in many areas of law, including voting rights and health care. The limelight typically falls on the Supreme Court for these developments, but the lower courts are where much of the action happens. In its most recent term, which ended in July, the Supreme Court issued 63 signed opinions. The Circuit Courts of Appeals, by contrast, decided or issued orders on 48,300 cases in 2020. Although the Supreme Court has the final say, and Trump’s three new justices will shape the law for decades, the large majority of appeals—more than 97 percent—will be decided by the 12 geographic circuit courts, and the 167 appellate judges who sit on them. And the individuals who wield the most influence in shaping those outcomes are the chief judges of each circuit.[Mary Ziegler: A dangerous moment for the court]Officially, each chief judge has two roles: handling administrative matters and presiding over en banc (“full court”) hearings. Those are important, but they pale in comparison with the remarkable power the chief has behind the scenes—influencing which judges are assigned to which panels. A panel of three judges decides every appellate case, and the composition of those panels can be the whole ball game.Imagine a nine-judge circuit court with a 5–4 liberal majority. A conservative chief could congregate three liberals in one panel and then erect two panels with a 2–1 conservative edge, swinging the effective conservative weight on that court from a 44 percent minority to a 67 percent advantage. I call this “judicial gerrymandering.”The techniques that make this possible are already in use. Marin Levy and Adam Chilton, law professors at Duke University and the University of Chicago, respectively, have studied the partisan composition of panel assignments. Their findings “produce strong evidence that strictly random processes are not always used,” thus skewing “the ideological balance of panels.” In plain terms, this means that chief judges are permitted to quietly control which judges sit together, a power that could affect the rights of millions.How this plays out today is generally pretty benign. On nearly every circuit, the assignment process begins with an automated system that randomly assigns judges to panels before allowing the chief to fiddle with those results. For now, chiefs generally take a minimalist approach to interventions: solving a scheduling conflict or separating panel members who loathe one another. Today’s chief judges would hesitate before aggressively stacking their courts with unequal panel assignments.But much of what we know about the Trump nominees so far suggests that some may be willing to flout norms to achieve their ends. Many of Trump’s picks have “open experience in ideological and political warfare,” according to a report by The New York Times. A forthcoming study indicates that after 60 years of nonpartisan en banc decisions, the arrival of the Trump judges has fueled “a dramatic and strongly statistically significant” change in the en banc voting process, potentially turning it into “a weapon to advance majority party preferences.” Altering judicial assignments to attain certain results might not be beyond them.This would be worrisome even if it were to affect only a handful of courts over time, but the reality is much more distressing. Because of a quirk that Trump’s nominations team seized, these judges will enjoy power for decades. When Congress introduced the chief-judge position in 1948, it created a seven-year post that would be filled by a circuit’s longest-serving judge under age 65. Trump’s team exploited that system in two steps. It began by picking nominees younger than Congress had ever imagined; this has been widely recognized, but did not itself maximize the number of future Trump chiefs. The crucial second step was nominating eligible judges in order of age.[Julian E. Zelizer: How conservatives won the battle over the courts]Here’s how this is likely to shake out. Although Trump’s picks are unusually young, with an average age of 48, simply appointing three 48-year-olds to a single circuit would have done little good. In most circuits, that strategy would produce a single chief, during whose term the latter two would cross the age-eligibility line. In the optimal scenario, age is carefully aligned with seniority—start with a 48-year-old, followed by a 44-year-old, then a 38-year-old, which enables all three to serve as chief, producing an uninterrupted 20-year rule over their circuit.This is the pattern we see in Trump’s appointments, with stark and sobering results. An analysis of all 574 circuit judges appointed since 1948 reveals his outsize impact. Cumulatively, Trump chiefs are slated to serve for more than 120 years, longer than the appointees of any president in the postwar period. For context, President Obama picked four chief-eligible judges in his first term, while President Bush picked eight. Trump did far better, fostering a coming wave of 18 chief judges over the next 30 years.Take the Tenth Circuit; there, Trump picked only two judges, but they are teed up to serve in perfect succession. Both will turn 64 in the year they are on track to become chief. By contrast, none of President Obama’s five appointees to the Tenth Circuit will qualify to serve as chief, because all five will be too old when their time comes.The apex of Trump’s strategy will arrive in the years 2040 and 2041, when his chief judges are set to control 11 of the 12 circuits. But Trump’s influence will increase much sooner (his first chief judge will take office in 2027), and may stretch even further into the future. The last Trump chief is expected to still be serving in 2049, barring unusual circumstances.To catch up, the Biden administration needs to be intensely strategic as it fills more vacancies in the coming weeks and years. On most circuits, only young nominees such as Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, the 41-year-old whom Biden has tapped for the Seventh Circuit, will have a chance of one day serving as chief. But, as with Trump’s successful arrangements, youth is only the first step. Joe Biden must pick successively younger appointees over time to maximize his influence decades from now. This strategy will not only lock in a generation of progressive chief judges, but also provide a necessary deterrent. The threat of a coming progressive wave may be the only way to stop Trump chiefs from pursuing judicial gerrymandering.By looking decades ahead, Republicans have secured unprecedented future influence over the courts. If Democrats fail to be similarly farsighted with their forthcoming nominees, the 2040s and beyond are destined to be the true Trump era.
Mitch McConnell Learns It Isn’t Personal—It’s Strictly Business
The long marriage between Republicans and big business hits a rough patch.
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When the Pandemic Ends, I Worry I’ll Be Left Behind
“This is what we should do,” one of my best friends told me a few weeks ago. “After it’s safe to travel, we should just treat ourselves and go for a river cruise in France.”Yes, we should, I thought. How lovely. Except that, like millions of other people, I have a chronic illness, so my “after the pandemic” is bound to look a lot like my “before,” and my before never included a river cruise in France. I think my friend’s post-vaccination giddiness had momentarily made her forget. I have a variant of multiple sclerosis that features ongoing imbalance and fatigue that squashes me like a beetle every afternoon. You don’t want me on a boat.I am mobile. I don’t use a wheelchair, and I don’t often use a cane. But when I do go out, I don’t go far, and I don’t go for long. What a weird surprise, then, to find joy in the pandemic’s additional confinements. And how equally startling to fear that those joys will soon end.[Read: 3 ways the pandemic has made the world better]In New York City, where I live, the pandemic shutdown was ordered early last spring, and as the crisis escalated, so did shortages of toilet paper, Purell, and Clorox. People were desperate for cleanliness and safety. But when baker’s yeast could not be found for love or money, I didn’t think that people were desperate for bread. I felt that they were desperate for distraction, for pride in small accomplishments, and for the kind of comfort that comes when following a set of instructions produces a reliable outcome. I felt that healthy people had entered the world of the chronically ill.“My whole life was already lockdown,” one of my neurologist’s patients told him when he asked her how she was coping. And I’ll admit that when I heard people complaining about their loss of freedom, my first, if admittedly guilty, reaction was “Now you know.”They now knew how it felt to be cheated out of a holiday dinner, a graduation, a wedding; to miss the theater, museums, sports, restaurants, and, above all, visits to friends. They had discovered what it was like to wake up every morning in amazement that their circumstances had not changed, to go to bed thinking about all the things that they would have done if they could. And they even knew to be careful not to complain about it too much, because with the hospitalizations and fatalities climbing, they understood that so many people had it so much worse than they did.After a few weeks of seeing Instagram posts of homemade baguettes, boules, and challahs, though, I started to wonder if my illness had taught me anything I could share, anything that might help my friends grapple with their newfound restrictions. I told them about the importance of establishing a routine so that work and sleep and trips to the refrigerator wouldn’t get out of hand. I described the joy of cleaning a closet so that order could be imposed on chaos, however minor. I explained that when you’re spending every day in one place, any window that shows movement—even of buses or bicycle messengers—is an affirmation of life. And I reminded them of the consolation of music, the comfort of well-loved books, and the virtue of remembering that no one knows the future. For the first and—I’m quite sure—only time in my life, I felt like Audrey Hepburn, who, in the classic thriller Wait Until Dark, plays a blind woman who uses her disability as an advantage. Trapped by a murderer, she smashes the light bulbs in her apartment, knowing better than her attacker how to navigate the darkness.When everyone started arranging Zoom get-togethers, my world shifted into a kind of balance I hadn’t felt since I first was diagnosed with this stupid illness. We were all meeting in the same ways, doing and not doing the same things. The chance to go to a “party” without using up all my energy just to get there was (and still is) a revelation. I don’t need good balance to have drinks with friends if I’m in my living room. I don’t need a lot of energy if the party I’ve been invited to does not require grown-up clothing, or makeup, or transportation, or standing, or a day to recover. The two-dimensional screen, that glass barrier that healthy people said was keeping their relationships static and imprisoned, was a liberator for me. I finally had freedom from FOMO because everyone was missing out.I also felt free from guilt, perhaps the sweetest freedom of all. To be chronically ill is, for many of us, to be chronically guilty, to vacillate between knowing one’s limitations and thinking that we can magically overcome them by force of will. “Could”s and “should”s do an elaborate tango: I’d go if I could gets entwined with I should go. We think: I should try harder. Could I try harder? I should. During the pandemic, the only shoulds have been to stay put, socially distance, and wear a mask. Find me a person who's chronically ill who hasn't at some point had to stay home, avoid social events, and, one way or another, put on a mask.[John Dickerson: The questions that will get me through the pandemic]Now that my friends are reentering the world, their plans are flowering. “Won’t it be great to get back to normal?” I’ve been asked a bunch of times. Don’t get me wrong: If you’re a friend of mine, please don’t stop asking me to do things. I absolutely will have days when I will be able to join you. But when the pandemic is over, the chronically ill, like every group on the margins, will undoubtedly be left behind. That awful feeling—Wait for me! I can’t keep up!—will return. And the empathy of friends, which was such an extraordinary gift of the lockdown, will most likely turn back into sympathy (or neglect). Sympathy and empathy are both forms of love, but the first one separates; the second unites. What I want the healthy to remember, back in the three-dimensional world, is what it felt like to live in two dimensions. If “hybrid” becomes a lasting way to work, let it also be a lasting form of friendship. Don’t stop writing, and calling, and—especially—Zooming. If I can’t meet you where you are, I’ll still be here, on the little screen, and it will be wonderful to see you.
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