Wearing a face mask is both socially responsible and self-interested

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by Raywat Deonandan

This article was published in The Ottawa Citizen on July 14, 2020. It was adapted from a blog post titled, “COVID19: Heroes Wear Masks.”

In many cities, each night at dusk, grateful residents applaud health care workers. It’s a reminder that in the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors and nurses held the front line. All that was required from the rest of us was to stay home, watch Netflix, and learn to bake.

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COVID19 Testing is Our Salvation

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by Raywat Deonandan

This article was first published in India Currents Magazine on April 7, 2020. It is based on this blog post.

We are weeks into widespread social distancing in many parts of the world, though it feels like months. Cases of COVID19 continue to mount, as expected, and we watch Italy and Spain for signs of when our society might be cast into crisis and chaos. Health care workers, the heroes of our time (and of all times, really), gird themselves for a flood of respiratory distress cases, projected to peak sometime in April. Physicians and nurses of all specialties are being asked to update their ventilator training in anticipation of being called to the front lines for service. Yet many fear that they will not have sufficient weapons for this fight, such as masks and ventilators.

At this time, it’s important to remember that COVID19 has a global case-fatality rate of about 2 to 3%lower in the USA, meaning that most people will survive this. In the words of Larry Brilliant, “this is not a zombie apocalypse. It’s not a mass extinction event.” What is it, then? This is, and always has been, a health systems crisis more than simply a health crisis. Continue reading

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COVID-19 is not a health crisis, it is a health systems crisis

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by Raywat Deonandan

This article was published in The Toronto Star on April 7, 2020. It is based on an earlier blog post.

Most models of the COVID-19 pandemic show it continuing for another year or two, with North America stifled beneath the current wave of cases until June at the earliest. With such harrowing realities, it’s easy to mischaracterize this crisis as solely a medical one. Continue reading

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Coronavirus shows the urgent need to invest in health infrastructure

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by Raywat Deonandan

This article was first published in The Ottawa Citizen on Mar 13, 2020. A longer version is available here.

Bill Gates recently speculated that COVID-19 could be the “once in a century” disease whose severity rivals that of the 1918 Spanish Flu. That disease was so dire that it likely played a role in ending the First World War, having removed so many soldiers from the battlefield.

COVID-19 has already caused profound economic, psychological and even climatic impacts. But with a century of experience since the Spanish Flu, how resilient is our health infrastructure against this and future pandemics? Continue reading

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Closing the Indigenous Education Gap in Canada

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by Raywat Deonandan

The United Nations estimates that there are over 370 million indigenous people globally, spread across over 70 countries. In Canada, our approximately 3100 reserves are home to less than half of our 1.4 million Aboriginal citizens, who constitute one of the fastest growing and youngest segments of our society. Yet many Aboriginal communities in this country are characterized by deep poverty, high unemployment rates, substance abuse, suicide ideation, and domestic violence. In recent years, Canada has ranked between 6th and 8th on the UN Human Development Index, while our Aboriginal communities fall between 63rd and 78th. The federal government’s Community Well-Being Index shows that the gap has not changed at all since 1981. Continue reading

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Why Do We Need A Control Group?

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by Raywat Deonandan

Feb 4, 2019

A version of this article first appeared as a blog post.

We educators, when feeling bored and troublesome, often pass the time both by complaining about the failures of public education and by making bold and unreasonable suggestions about how best to reform education for all. While I have always erred toward the essential skills of numeracy, literacy and even history, my good friend, statistician Dr Nicholas Barrowman, once offered something more intriguing. Continue reading

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No, Humanity Isn’t Worse Off Because Elon Musk Launched SpaceX

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by Raywat Deonandan

This article was first published in the Huffington Post on Feb 12, 2018. A longer version is available here.

Elon Musk’s company SpaceX successfully launched the second heaviest rocket to have ever left Earth. The so-called Falcon Heavy rocket carried the whimsical payload of Musk’s red Tesla roadster and a mannequin in a spacesuit, blasting David Bowie tunes while flashing on the car’s dashboard Douglas Addams’s famous phrase, “Don’t Panic.” It was a triumph of nerdish power, but also an effective demonstration of SpaceX’s new space commercialization capacities.

Every time a grand achievement in space exploration occurs, the feat summons a predictable chorus of critics decrying the supposed waste that such a spectacle represents. And this event was no exception, as Nathan Robinson quickly wrote in The Guardian, in a piece titled Why Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch is utterly depressing: “If we examine the situation honestly, and get past our natural (and accurate) feeling that rockets are really cool, it becomes hard to defend a project like this.”

The launch was an easy target: a rich playboy spends hundreds of millions of dollars to put his private sports car into space. The intent of the spectacle was to demonstrate Musk’s capability to put an enormous payload into orbit and beyond: critical for potentiating the next great steps in the commercialization and exploration of deep space.
Robinson’s arguments are not new. With every space launch come the cries of disgust that money and resources are expended to expel materials from the world, while crises remain unaddressed here on the ground. In essence, the plea is one for rational priorities that rank the alleviation of human suffering above what Robinson describes as “indulgent projects” that only confirm that “rockets are really cool.”

Years ago, actor Ashton Kutcher appeared on Bill Maher’s TV show to complain about the new Mars rover, about how we shouldn’t be putting “stuff on Mars” when there is still “child slavery” here on Earth. The implications are twofold: first that we are somehow incapable of doing both things — addressing human crises here on Earth while simultaneously exploring the heavens; and second that if we did not do the latter, then the money saved would be redirected to service the former.

Leave aside the hypocrisy of a wealthy critic like Kutcher, whose $200-million net worth could be redirected to rescue countless child slaves, and whose purchase of a ticket to be a space tourist might be in conflict with his seeming anti-space and anti-equity stance. The real issue that Robinson brings up is one of the need to address wealth inequality. The specific injustices to which he alluded — insecure housing, health care and education — are essentially issues of poverty.

It is important to note that on a global level, there is compelling evidence that poverty is decliningChina alone reduced its poverty rate from nearly 90 per cent in 1981 to under two per cent today. It bothers a good leftist like me to admit, but China accomplished this Herculean feat by embracing market reforms. A brand of modern capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than any other force in human history.

The NASA budget is just under $20 billion. The latest valuation of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company is about $21 billion. This is comparable to the size of a major airline, like United, which holds assets worth about $39 billion. If the SpaceX venture is an “indefensible waste of resources,” as Robinson claims, then what of other frivolous industries, like entertainment? Disney is valued at about $160 billion. But the endless production of Marvel movies, each the price of a space mission, is not seen as frivolous, since they employee hundreds and generate rivers of downstream wealth.

If we apply that same standard to the space exploration industry, a similar narrative emerges. A 1992 article in Nature estimated these economic benefits to the American taxpayer wrought by the space program: $21.6 billion in sales and benefits, 352,000 (mostly skilled) jobs created or saved, $355 million in federal corporate income taxes, $95 billion in economic activity and $1.5 billion return on investment in the form of sold commercial goods and services.

Elon Musk’s space venture is primarily a for-profit commercial venture. However, it produces wealth and income for hundreds of employees and thousands of downstream benefactors. It creates new technologies, some of them with the potential to help free us from environment-wasting fossil fuel dependence. Musk’s venture creates entire new sectors and a career pipeline for young scientists seeking to create more value, multiplying across future generations. All of this amounts to increased societal wealth, limitedly concentrated; in other words, if well-managed, his venture contributes incrementally to global poverty reduction.

So, where is the resource waste that Robinson really needs to scorn and scold? Well, a single new Ford class aircraft carrier costs the U.S. taxpayer $10 billion… half the total valuation of SpaceX. And its purpose is not to employ thousands, lift thousands more out of poverty, combat environmental degradation, explore the universe or train young scientists. Its purpose is to kill people.

I implore critics like Mr. Robinson to turn their attention to the sector that consistently wastes the largest proportion of public resources for no greater virtue than mass murder: military overspending. I would include in that call the need to resist the perversion of the development of space industries in service of militaristic ends, for that frontier is where the space sector loses its moral advantage. Meanwhile, as a character in The West Wing once said, “No one is hungrier, colder or dumber because we went to the moon.”

If it unfolds as many hope, space exploration shall be our salvation — economically, spiritually, technologically and possibly even ecologically. We denude it at our peril, especially in service of unspecific, misdirected and naive activist goals.

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The World Isn’t Facing An Overpopulation Problem

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This article was first published in the Huffington Post on April 28, 2017. A longer version is available here.

by Raywat Deonandan

Many people believe that overpopulation is the greatest threat to the world’s security and prosperity. It was probably Malthus who first pointed out that population growth is exponential, while agricultural growth is arithmetic. He reasoned that every population must inevitably outgrow its food source. Political instability and border insecurity naturally follow, when growing populations seek to nervously protect their shrinking resource base.

Critics of Malthus pointed out that human populations, unlike bacteria, do not grow exponentially; fertility rates vary geographically and over time. New economic models, including those that factor labour as capital, valued large populations as assets rather than detriments, allowing industrializing nations to convert population to production and therefore to wealth, allowing them to purchase needed resources.

The predicted Malthusian collapse did not occur, due largely to improvements in agricultural sciences and something called the Demographic Transition. It’s this latter thing that gives many demographers hope that the world’s population growth might be slowing, soon to be plateauing, and eventually reversing.

The Demographic Transition was first proposed by Warren Thompson in the 1920s and is well described on BBC’s educational site. From observing changes in Europe over the centuries, Thompson and his intellectual heirs suggested that societies evolve through five stages of demographic development.

In Stage 1, we live pre-industrial lives, dependent on the land and at the mercy of the elements. Diseases are plenty, lifespan is short. Infant mortality rates are very high, such that we don’t even name our children until we are sure they will live beyond infancy. The cost of a child is simply the price of feeding that child, whereas its value as a labourer is high. Both death rates and birth rates are high, and the population is neither growing nor shrinking.

In Stage 2, with the arrival of public health and hygiene measures, infectious diseases recede, and mortality declines, particularly among children. But the cost of children is still low, while their utility is high. Thus, reproduction behaviours remain unchanged. But overall population size increases dramatically. Many so-called developing countries would have been in Stage 2 in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, accounting for their explosive growth.

In Stage 3, social factors intervene to lower the birth rate. When infants survive and women are socially empowered, fertility rates drop. As economies shift from agrarian to industrial bases, more people move to cities. In fact, so many countries have entered Stage 3 that the human race is now a majority urban species.

The widespread introduction of contraception methods, and the use of new wealth to invest in public education (especially for women), leads to smaller families. The cost of children increases with housing and educational demands, while their utility diminishes, as they are no longer needed as labourers.

Thus, in Stage 3 population size is still increasing, but more slowly. Western Europe began emerging from Stage 3 in the 19th century. India and China, with their expanding middle class, are in the latter half of Stage 3 or beyond.

In Stage 4, we transition to a services and information economy, with few economic incentives for reproduction. Birth and death rates are balanced, and there is minimal population growth.

Canada is likely a Stage 4 nation. Rapidly modernizing Stage 3 nations may be progressing to Stage 4 quickly. China is approaching a sort of demographic cliff, since a majority of its people are over the age of 30 and are having fewer children than their recent ancestors.

Some recognize a fifth stage in which birth rate drops below death rate, and the population shrinks. Japan is a Stage 5 country. Subsequent generations are too small to provide an adequate tax base for maintaining social programs. Immigration policies must be re-thought, and governments begin to experiment with strategies for encouraging larger families.

The Demographic Transition is a theoretical construct with some vulnerabilities. It is unclear whether deep religiosity can compel modernized generations to reproduce at rates against their economic self-interest, leading to what some call a “demographic trap.”

Also, it is possible that globalization is a disincentive for modernization, compelling some populations to remain agrarian or manufacturing-based, never to progress to an information-based economy. Climate change, antibiotic resistance, and the unpredictability of international affairs can confound a nation’s linear progression through the stages.

However, given that the basic tenets of the Demographic Transition are being observed in real time in such living social laboratories as India, China, and parts of Africa, it is reasonable that the world is in the process of transitioning.

With investments in public health, reproductive rights, and wealth-building programs, we have seen dramatic recent reductions in the global fertility rate. Most of humanity is transitioning to Stage 4, which means that while total population size is still growing, growth is slowing down.

Human population growth is expected to drop to one per cent by 2020, though we are still on schedule to reach the 9 billion mark by 2050. Total world population should plateau at about 13 billion by 2100, and actually decline thereafter.

Some projections, like that of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, are more optimistic, suggesting that total fertility rate will drop below replacement rate in the 2070s, plateauing around the 9 billion mark.

It took wealthy nations like the United Kingdom a century for fertility rates to fall from over six babies per woman to fewer than three per woman. It took China and Iran a mere decade, because economic and human development initiatives are better understood and better targeted. There is every expectation that current nations with high fertility rates, like Niger and Somalia, can perform similarly.

Draconian measures driven by xenophobia are not necessary to slow the expansion of our numbers. Nor do we need pandemics, famines or wars to cull our numbers. So long as we continue to invest in education, public health, access to contraception and global trade, our numbers are likely to decline naturally and painlessly.

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