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While the emergence of yet another troubling coronavirus variant seems abrupt, it was entirely predictable — and fully anticipated here and elsewhere. More than predictable, the mutation of the virus will remain inevitable for so long as it continues to infect millions of human hosts.
Scientists don't yet know for certain whether the new "omicron" variant — so named by the World Health Organization — will prove to be substantially more infectious, transmissible or dangerous than the delta variant that became dominant last year. What they do know, however, is that sooner or later, as COVID-19 continues to spread and change, our prospects for emerging from the pandemic will dim, and millions more will die.
To prevent the new variant's rapid spread, the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and other nations closed their borders to travelers from southern Africa, where it is believed to have originated — and are requiring their own citizens coming home from that region to quarantine. But while this swift response may prove more effective than the useless border closing ordered by then-President Donald Trump at the pandemic's outset, such measures cannot permanently shut out the latest threat.
Already at least one case has showed up in Belgium, and two in Hong Kong; the appearance of thousands more could be only weeks away. By then the nature of omicron, sporting more mutations than any of its predecessors, will be better understood. And that may well mean that we are back where we began in early spring 2020, with lockdowns, isolation and a crushing recession looming. Markets are behaving now as if the worst is to be expected.
Was there any way to avoid the viral mutation that has led us back to this familiar and very dark territory? Is there any way to avoid repeating this same cycle for years to come, while we neglect the world's other pressing crises?
Perhaps historians will someday offer definitive answers to the first question, but it is clear that our efforts, as a species, to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic were halting and inadequate. As soon as effective vaccines became available last winter, the advanced industrial countries ought to have mobilized their entire capacity behind a global inoculation campaign — precisely in order to block, insofar as possible, the emergence of novel and lethal variant viruses.
This would have meant abandoning patent protections for the vaccines produced by Western pharmaceutical firms, all of which benefited from government subsidies and research. Beyond that, the vaccine manufacturers ought to have been required to open up their methods to enable replication in the developing world.
Instead, the pharma firms fought the suspension of their patents, while too many of their home governments endorsed that myopic stance. The contracts they negotiated with the blindly "America First" officials in the Trump White House had allowed them to escape any obligation to license the vaccine processes to other countries. Then the Biden administration dithered until late spring, when the White House at last announced its support for lifting patent protection on the vaccines. That came too late and meant too little, without the investment of billions to jump-start production and distribution around the world.
Bitter experience has proved that making vaccines universally and freely available will not, by itself, suppress the pandemic or the appearance of variant viruses. Government and nonprofit campaigns to encourage vaccination have too often been frustrated by anti-vaccination networks whose shadowy sponsors include authoritarian regimes, fascist organizations, and quasi-religious cults, their influence powerfully enhanced by digital technology.
Anti-vaccine extremists finally forced officials to implement the policy they had protested against most vociferously: vaccine mandates. Even before omicron appeared, Western governments were beginning to plan the implementation of mandates to stem the latest surge of infections. Now those vaccination requirements should expand as swiftly as possible to protect us all from the next threatening variant.
Maybe this newest mutation won't prove to be a harbinger of apocalypse, just a loud warning about the policy failures of the past two years (and all the prior years when pandemic preparation languished). If so, the message will be unmistakable: Hesitation is doom.
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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In December 1972, I was part of a nationwide campaign that came tantalizingly close to getting the U.S. Senate to reject Earl Butz, Richard Nixon's choice for secretary of agriculture.
A coalition of grassroots farmers, consumers, and scrappy public interest organizations (like the Agribusiness Accountability Project that Susan DeMarco and I then headed) teamed up with some gutsy, unabashedly progressive senators to undertake the almost impossible challenge of defeating the cabinet nominee of a president who'd just been re-elected in a landslide.
The 51 to 44 Senate vote was so close because we were able to expose Butz as ... well, as butt-ugly — a shameless flack for big food corporations that gouge farmers and consumers alike. We brought the abusive power of corporate agribusiness into the public consciousness for the first time, but we had won only a moral victory, since there he was, ensconced in the seat of power. It horrified us that Nixon had been able to squeeze Butz into that seat, yet it turned out to be a blessing.
An arrogant, brusque, narrow-minded and dogmatic ag economist, Butz had risen to prominence in the small (but politically powerful) world of agriculture by devoting himself to the corporate takeover of the global food economy. He was dean of agriculture at Purdue University, but also a paid board member of Ralston Purina and other agribusiness giants. In these roles, he openly promoted the preeminence of middleman food manufacturers over family farmers, whom he disdained.
"Agriculture is no longer a way of life," he infamously barked at them. "It's a business." He callously instructed farmers to "Get big or get out" — and he then proceeded to shove tens of thousands of them out by promoting an export-based, conglomeratized, industrialized, globalized and heavily subsidized corporate-run food economy. "Adapt," he warned farmers, "or die." The ruination of farms and rural communities, Butz added, "releases people to do something useful in our society."
The whirling horror of Butz, however, spun off a blessing, which is that innovative, free-thinking, populist-minded and rebellious small farmers and food artisans practically threw up at the resulting "Twinkieization" of America's food. They were sickened that nature's own rich contribution to human culture was being turned into just another plasticized product of corporate profiteers.
"The central problem with modern industrial agriculture... (is) not just that it produces unhealthy food, mishandles waste, and overuses antibiotics in ways that harm us all. More fundamentally, it has no soul," said Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist and former farm boy from Yamhill, Oregon. Rather than accept that, they threw themselves into creating and sustaining a viable, democratic alternative. The Good Food rebellion has since sprouted, spread and blossomed from coast to coast.
This transformative grassroots movement rebuts old Earl's insistence that agriculture is nothing but a business. It most certainly is a business, but it's a good business — literally producing goodness — because it's "a way of life" for enterprising, very hardworking people who practice the art and science of cooperating with Mother Nature, rather than always trying to overwhelm her. These farmers don't want to be massive or make a killing; they want to farm and make delicious, healthy food products that help enrich the whole community.
This spirit was summed up in one simple word by a sustainable farmer in Ohio, who was asked what he'd be if he wasn't a farmer. He replied: "Disappointed." To farmers like these, food embodies our full "culture" — a word that is, after all, sculpted right into "agriculture" and is essential to its organic meaning.
Although agriculture has forestalled the total takeover of our food by crass agribusiness, the corporate powers and their political hirelings continue to press for the elimination of the food rebels and ultimately to impose the Butzian vision of complete corporatization. This is one of the most important populist struggles occurring in our society. It's literally a fight for control of our dinner, and it certainly deserves a major focus as you sit down to your holiday dinners this year.
To find small-scale farmers, artisans, farmers markets, and other resources in your area for everything from organic tomatoes to pastured turkey, visit www.LocalHarvest.org.
To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.
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