GELFAND’S WORLD - It's fitting that an end-of-year column be submitted the day after President Zelensky's speech to the United States Congress, considering that 2022 came in with the Russian invasion and will be remembered as the year of the Ukraine War.
In any case, I started writing for CityWatch back in the 2000s, when Ken Draper invited me to add my own thoughts to the year-end issue. Let us continue the tradition, even if the year-end thoughts are spread over multiple issues.
So how would you write the year-end headline?
Here's one possibility: Everyone is sick of talking about Covid, Ukraine continues to survive, and the United States is slowly digging itself out of a profound political hole.
What are the big stories of 2022?
There are a lot of them: in no particular order:
The world, and much of the United States, is beginning to believe that global warming exists and is starting to show its effects.
Joe Biden's administration, in spite of continuing attacks from the right wing, is a resounding success when you consider the slow return to economic stability, the resurrection of the transatlantic alliance, nearly universal support for Ukraine among western nations, and the continuing improvement of vaccines and treatment for Covid-19. And inflation appears to be a momentary thing which is now slacking off.
The social and political sickness that is the Donald Trump phenomenon is slowly abating but continues to exist; the Big Lie is really several Big Lies.
And blissfully, we have the return to a president who acts and speaks presidentially.
Quietly, the continuing development of technology adds, bit by bit, to what is (and will be remembered as) the golden age of biology and medicine. In 1970, it was known that DNA consists of some unknown sequence of 4 different kinds of nucleotides (the A, G, C, and T that journalists like to talk about) and that this somehow controls things like growth, aging, and cancer. We are now nearly at the point where any human being can get a complete DNA sequence done for a modest cost. Medical centers which study the so-called "rare" diseases do this kind of sequencing routinely, and have already revealed the ultimate genetic causes of many diseases. We can compare this to the time, just a few years ago, when only Sickle Cell Anemia was the rare disease with a well understood genetic component.
A satisfying offshoot of the technology is the solving of crimes (in particular that of one monstrous serial killer) because people get their DNA tested to find out their personal ancestries, and the resulting data base helps law enforcement narrow down the list of suspects.
The Covid-19 Decade
Will this become the Covid-19 decade? It's likely. In the United States, the death total hit a million in the short time of three years. The Covid has now slowed down substantially in this country, and the death total has yet to reach 1.1 million. We can thank the slowdown to vaccines and probably to the large number of people who have already had the disease. Many of us had the vaccine and later had a mild case of Covid, which compares nicely to the horrid death rates in big cities when the pandemic was just ramping up.
The United States is now seeing around 300-400 Covid deaths per day, on the average, compared to the several thousand we used to see in earlier peaks. That suggests an annual death rate between 100,000 and 150,000. As Kevin Drum points out, this would be twice the rate of deaths from the flu in a bad influenza season.
There is one other consideration. At the beginning of the epidemic, the Covid killed off elderly members of the population who were unlucky enough to get sick, so insensitive people perhaps figured that the victims would have died of heart attacks or old age soon enough anyway. It's not obvious that the continuing Covid death toll is going to follow that pattern. According to the most recently available data about 20% of Covid-19 deaths in California have been in the 20–60-year-old group, with the majority of these in the 50-59 year group, but still a substantial number in each decade from 20 to 49.
The End of Acceptance Era
There are still a few places which require masks, but not many. Sporting events and operas and public meetings have given up on mask requirements. Most of us have had the vaccine, and most of the rest have had Covid. I suspect that the American people have decided that 3 years of Covid-19 precautions was enough, and as we enter the 4th year, people will just accept the risk and try to get on with their lives. The alternatives to the continuing death toll seem to be technological: new vaccines to deal with new variant strains and more effective antiviral drugs to treat people who are unlucky enough to get sick.
In the meanwhile, there is substantial evidence that the original infections came from animal transmission originating in bats. Some people will continue to believe (or want to believe) in some vast conspiracy, but the people most familiar with DNA manipulation don't see it that way.
We should learn from the experience and consider how we might deal with another dangerously infectious virus or bacterium. We should maintain our ability to react quickly through detection, quarantine, and the invention of vaccines and antivirals.
Ukraine continues to survive
The speech by the president of Ukraine to the U.S. congress signifies an outcome that few would have believed possible at the beginning of 2022. The idea that this modest-sized country could withstand the might of the Russian Federation, the heart of the former Soviet Union, seemed unlikely at best. At the psychological level, people expected that the president of Ukraine would flee to some safe European capital and live out his life as a lonely exile until the Russians assassinated him.
Things turned out differently. Perhaps the Ukrainians were not so corrupt as the right wing in this country likes to paint them, or perhaps the invasion (what so many journalists now like to call "the existential threat") provoked the inner patriot in millions of Ukrainians. What was unexpected in the rest of the world was the inability of the initial Russian attack to carry out modern warfare against organized and supplied defenders. The defense of the airport at Kyiv was a remarkable surprise to people on both sides.
What will be the outcome? It's hard to say, but Putin's health -- or lack thereof -- has to be considered. There is lots of speculation about what, if anything, Putin suffers from, but one possible outcome is his early death from whatever it might be.
And if Putin exits the planet sometime in 2023, then the outcome becomes even more up in the air. Is there anyone who could seize power and who wishes to maintain the war?
And if not, how will it end? The west ought to limit its negotiations to when and how much our sanctions are lifted, and not to the ceding of any Ukrainian territory. And the main item of negotiation must be a permanent prohibition of the use of nuclear weapons, or the threat to use them, by Russia. We must get past the nuclear cold war.
For the near future . . .
There is more to be said about the strange politics which currently engulf the United States, but that's for another time.
Likewise, there is more to be said about politics in this City of Los Angeles, but that is also for another time. Finally, there are thoughts to consider about the past and future of the neighborhood council system, the original topic considered by CityWatch 20 years ago.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])