Gordon Campbell on Northland’s Covid case, and Biden’s battle lines

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he South African variant at the centre of the Northland case of community transmission calls for a reset of several aspects of our Covid response. Some aspects of that reset are overdue. Since the pandemic began, the debate on whether transmission can be (or is mainly) via small aerosols rather than larger droplets has barely been reflected in official health policy, which has focussed largely on the droplets. Over the course of 2020, the implications of aerosol transmission have only gradually and grudgingly been reflected in health policy concessions over masks and public transport. Policy has not grappled at all with the potential threat posed by aerosols in poorly ventilated offices and hotel rooms.

The Northland case may have been a product of air conditioning flows. Queensland evidence suggests that air filtering systems can transmit both droplets and aerosols between rooms. This would be consistent with what we’ve learned from prior experience with Legionnaires Disease. This should have policy implications. It supports the argument for imposing special conditions on those people in managed isolation who originated from high risk countries. It also supports the case for building or adapting special isolation units (at say, Waiouru or Ohakea military bases) for these high risk visitors and returnees.

Finally, the South African variant has placed a question mark over the effectiveness of the vaccines the government is buying. This morning Moderna announced it will be making available a “booster “ version of its original vaccine, because of the fresh antibody challenges posed by the variants. As Moderna says, its original vaccine has a weaker response to the South African variant :

Moderna’s vaccine is effective against new variants of the coronavirus that have emerged in Britain and South Africa, the company announced on Monday. But it appears to be less protective against the variant discovered in South Africa, and so the company is developing a new form of the vaccine that could be used as a booster shot.“We’re doing it today to be ahead of the curve should we need to,” Dr. Tal Zaks, Moderna’s chief medical officer, said in an interview. “I think of it as an insurance policy.”He added, “I don’t know if we need it, and I hope we don’t.”

New Zealand does not have access to the Moderna vaccine. Relatively few countries outside the US currently do. Yet if Moderna – hitherto the gold standard in effectiveness among the current range of vaccines – is conceding that the South African variant could pose special challenges to effective antibody protection, then one has to query the capacity of the Astrazeneca and Novovaxx vaccines to offer similarly adequate protection. Currentlty vaccines are trying to hit a moving target.

Footnote: One of the odder aspects of the government’s recent response to the pandemic has been last week’s repetition by top Health officials of overseas claims that a 70% level of vaccination would be sufficient to generate herd immunity. Really? Really? Yet in other vaccination programmes conducted in this country, concern has been expressed by New Zealand health authorities whenever our vaccination levels have fallen to the high 80s/low 90s. Given that this is such an infectious disease, how can a 70% level of vaccination possibly be regarded as offering an adequate level of community protection?

After all, there is a question mark over the durability of some of the protections offered by the vaccines currently on offer:

Early data has revealed fading antibody titres (levels) in those that have recovered from the virus. Although antibodies form only one part of the immune response, studies on other coronaviruses support the view that natural COVID-19 immunity may be short-lived — as little as 12–18 months, the researchers note. Also, it still unclear whether those who have been vaccinated can still transmit the disease to other people.

If so, this would reduce the value of any arbitrary “herd immunity” figure. Here’s Australian National University epidemiologist Dr Kathryn Glass:

“We know that mRNA vaccines [ ie, Moderna and Pfizer/ BioNTech) are really good at protecting against disease. But if a vaccination program takes three or more years to roll out among the global population, and vaccines only offer 18 months of protection, then it will be quite difficult to reach that milestone of 70%.”

Moreover, it is not yet known whether those with individual immunity are still able to transmit the virus. If so, a 70% immunisation target would be meaningless.

Assoc Prof Glass added. “If the 70% of people that are immune to COVID-19 are still able to spread the virus, that won’t help us achieve herd immunity,” she said.“It’s likely that those with underlying immunity will experience minimal viral shedding — but again we don’t know for sure if that’s true.”

For all of these reasons, the 70% figure looks a lot more like a political decision than a health based one. Arguably it is indicative of an early surrender to the anti-vaxxers, given that (reportedly) some 20% of the New Zealand population would be unwilling or reluctant to be vaccinated against Covid.

Biden’s First Week

When centre left parties gain power, they come under immediate pressure to move towards the centre to foster “unity” and a positive working relationship with the opposition. Already, President Joe Biden has made achieving “national unity” his central mission. Problem being, the centre is no longer where it used to be. After all, if the preceding administration pulled the country rightwards, then making friendly compromises will normalise that new centre point. By this process, right wing ideology tends to gain ground, no matter whether it wins or loses at the ballot box.

There are obvious parallels with where the Ardern government finds itself. As the leaders of what are nominally centre-left parties, should Ardern and Biden embrace the mandate for substantive change they’ve just been given – or do they tack towards an imaginary “centre ground” aimed at re-assuring their newly won “centrists” that they have nothing to fear because change will only be gradual, if at all, and nothing essential will change in the foreseeable. There’s an underlying (and unfounded) assumption that left wing policies will be (a) divisive, and (b) unpopular with the public.

Who’s in charge?

Less than a week after Biden’s inauguration, the control of the Senate remains so confused that the Republicans seem to be still trying to call the shots on who – for example- belongs to and chairs key committees, and who gets to confirm the nomination of key officials at say, the Federal Reserve and the State Department. In his confirmation hearings as the next Secretary of State for instance, Anthony Blinken has taken foreign policy positions that are almost identical to those pursued by the Trump administration. If confirmed, Blinken has promised to maintain the same policy line on Venezuela, and to continue to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Blinken also told the Senate hearings that “Trump was right to take a tough line on China.” On Iran, Blinken dampened any hopes for an early breakthrough by making any progress on reviving the Iran nuclear deal conditional on Iran making a fresh round of concessions. (The Republicans are also expected to oppose the confirmation of Robert Malley, Biden’s pick for the Iran negotiations, since the Republicans regard Malley as a “pushover” for Teheran.) Across the foreign policy spectrum, Trumpism lives on, at least for the meantime.

Elsewhere on China, the US sent inconsistent signals. In an initial conciliatory gesture towards China, the State Department cancelled a controversial planned trip by a top US official to Taiwan. Yet in her confirmation hearings as the next chair of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen indicated that she would maintain Trump’s hard line on economic matters, lambasting Beijing on trade issues and on intellectual property theft, while promising to maintain Trump’s tariffs :

Conventional wisdom had been that the Biden administration would change and reset the Trump-era China policy. But that no longer appears to be the case.“Far from being forced into competition with China, the Biden team appears to be more than willing to continue the fight,” said researchers at Beacon Policy Advisors, in note to clients [ about the Ye;len confirmation hearings.]

These positions may still change, over time – but it has not been an encouraging start if America’s allies are looking to Biden for changes in policy substance, rather than merely in diplomatic tone.

The battle in the Senate

Domestically, the battle lines for the control of the Senate are bring drawn over the future of the filibuster- a technique whereby opposition parties can stall legislation by simply talking it to death. In the face of Democratic threats to put a time limit on speeches – and thereby terminate the filibuster – minority leader Mitch McConnell has been threatening to cancel any further negotiations on the so called “ organising resolution” that sets out the rules for who controls what on the Senate floor.

This is largely unknown territory. A 50/50 tie in the Senate has happened only three times before in US history – in 1881, 1954, and 2001, when the Democrats conceded to an organising resolution that enabled the incoming Bush administration to advance its legislative agenda. The Democrats are now offering that 2001 concession as a possible template – and moral justification – for McConnell doing the decent thing and doing likewise. Fat chance. ( See “Supreme Court : Nominations During Election Years” for evidence that McConnell can’t be trusted to be consistent and to reciprocate in kind.) Currently, McConnell is putting all his chips on retaining the filibuster in order to frustrate and dictate what will be deemed ( by McConnell) to be the acceptable content within the Biden legislative agenda.

Uh…but what about those Senate victories in Georgia? Didn’t they deliver the Dems the power to pass their agenda, given a 50/50 tie and with vice president Kamala Harris holding the tie breaker vote? Yes and no. Unfortunately, key legislative items like Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid recovery package require a 60 % Senate majority, and the chance of getting 10 Republican senators to cross the floor is vanishingly small, once you get past the usual rebel Republican trio of Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins.

Moreover, add in the presence of at least two conservative Democratic senators (Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema) and the prospects for major liberal legislative advances lby the Biden administration look pretty slim. That’s even before you get to the point where a Republican-led filibuster could stop a decisive vote from even taking place. (It doesn’t help matters that even if an “organising resolution” does finally make it to the Senate floor then it too, can be filibustered.)

But hey, all hope is not lost. Bernie Sanders, among others, has been talking up the tactical use of something called “budget reconciliation” as a way of getting around all of the above. Basically this tactic shifts the emphasis away from trying to pass an entire legislative package by an explicit vote on the Senate floor. Instead, the Dems could pre-fund the key items and get that necessary funding on the rails with only a simple 51/50 majority being required. Provided that the likes of Manchin and Sinema agree to vote with the team, that might work, although obviously, Manchin and his fellow “moderates” could well baulk at any truly progressive proposals. Biden’s plans to substantially raise the minimum wage will be a stern test even for the budget reconciliation tactic, given the decisive power that this 50/50 tie has given to the Democrats’ own “moderate” wing.

Here’s how it works in theory:

As part of budget reconciliation, lawmakers are able to advance spending and tax-related measures with a simple majority of votes, enabling Democrats to potentially pass some aspects of Covid-19 relief like direct payments and paid sick leave, without Republican backing. The degree of Republican opposition they face will likely be a factor in determining whether they ultimately take this route.

Currently, the Biden White House seems to be holding the “ budget reconciliation” weapon in reserve, and is still trying to get McConnell to agree to jettison the filibuster without at this point, giving him much in return. Good luck with that. Somehow the onus is always on the centre-left to make the peace gestures and to offer the concessions. Centrism requires the centre left to give ground, always. Because being a Republican (or an MP in the National Party) means never having to say you’re sorry..

Footnote One: Meanwhile, Trump is threatening vengeance on the Republican Party (for its alleged “betrayal” of him) by forming his own political party. There’s a pattern here. When Trump got mad with Fox News, he threatened to start his own television network. When Twitter finally de-platformed Trump (for lies and fomenting violence) Trump threatened to start his own social media platform. Fox, Twitter and the GOP really don’t have much to worry about. The man just doesn’t have the attention span, the funds, or the work ethic to get any of those vanity projects off the ground. In Arizona though, there are a few die-hard elements in the Republican Party who seem determined to go down with Trump.

Footnote Two: None of the above was meant to suggest that it makes no difference as to who occupies the White House, or who controls the Senate. Reportedly, Senate Democrats have confirmed the first bill that’s likely to test the Senate’s new balance of power will be the re-introduction of the For The People Act, which the lower House passed in 2019.

As Daily Kos explains, this legislation will remove barriers to expanding voting access, would put public financing into House elections to create a level playing field, and would ban congressional gerrymandering. Hmm. Since drawing boundaries is a state responsibility you can safely bet that this provision once passed, will be taken by outraged constitutional conservatives straight to the Supreme Court. The bill’s provisions would require every state to create a non-partisan redistricting commission subject to non-partisan criteria. Good luck with how Chief Justice John Roberts ( let alone the Trump appointees even further to the right) would regard that kind of expansion of federal power.

Finally…and just for the record: in his first day’s package of presidential executive orders Biden did sign approval for the US to rejoin the Paris climate accords. repealed Trump’s “Muslim ban” and cancelled the use of federal funds to build the border wall with Mexico. Great start. In addition, the Biden orders mean that masks and social distancing will be required on federal property and (shortly) during all air travel within the US. Biden has also revoked the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and put a moratorium on oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

On immigration policy, Biden has also paused the deportation of some undocumented migrants for 100 days and suspended Trump’s decree that asylum seekers must5 remain in Mexico while their claims for asylum are heard. He also issues principles for accounting the impact of climate change and has signed authority for the US to rejoin the WHO and contribute to the COVAX vaccine program for poorer nations. He has also ended Trump’s policy of ignoring undocumented migrants in the census.

Biden has also re-instituted race and gender diversity training and scrapped Trump’s racist and ahistorical “1776 Commission” Biden has also extended the suspension of federal student loan payments and extended the bans on Covid related evictions and foreclosures.

Finally, Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion Covid recovery package also contains some other excellent proposals. As the Crikey website has noted, the package would increase direct Covid one-off support payments from US$600 to US$2000, expand emergency unemployment benefits to US$600 a week, boost state and local funding, increase the affordability of pre-school care and college tuition, cancel student debt, and create a $US15 minimum wage.

That minimum wage hike is something the Republicans have promised to fight to the death. Somehow, thus Republican denial of a decent wage to the poorest of American workers is seen to be consistent with “centrism” – while conversely, Democrats are being expected to cave in on this point. And if the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez urge the leadership to show some backbone, this will be taken by the media as evidence of party disunity.