Category Archives: Weighing Benefits and Harm

Lessons From Plagues

 

 

European plague. the guardian.com photo.

 

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

 

The history of plagues and pandemics shows some similarities in the way they spread, and how people react.

Travelers, whether soldiers or traders, often were the super spreaders of their day.

Quarantine is a centuries-old strategy against pandemics. Wearing masks is an old defense too, including public resistance to wearing them.

Another similarity is that millions of people die. Survivors muddle through, sometimes with the help of modern medical treatment. But medicine often was useless against plagues. Blame it all on civilization.

“Plagues and epidemics have ravaged humanity throughout its existence, often changing the course of history,” writes Owen Jarus in livescience.com., offering a list of 20 of the worst epidemics and pandemics in history. At times, they signaled the end of entire civilizations.

The list starts with an epidemic 5,000 years ago that wiped out a prehistoric village in China. Bodies of the dead were stuffed inside a house that was burned down at a site called Hamin Mangha in northeastern China. Prehistoric mass burial sites dating to roughly the same time suggest an epidemic swept the entire region.

Jarus’s list ends with the Zika Virus epidemic dating from 2015 to the present. The impact of the Zika epidemic in South America and Central America won’t be known for several years. It is spread by mosquitoes and can attack infants still in the womb, causing birth defects.

 Learning From the Past

Focusing on what we’ve learned from past pandemics, Tim McDonnell in quartz.com starts with the Antonine plague beginning in 165 AD, one of the world’s first epidemics. A form of smallpox or measles, legionnaires returning from a siege in modern-day Iraq brought it to Rome. It devastated the Roman army, fueled the growing popularity of Christianity and was an early contributor to the empire’s eventual collapse. It also offered an early glimpse into a key tenet of virology: Disease outbreaks are deadliest when introduced to a population for the first time, when people lack immunity.

Genoese traders brought the plague known as the Black Death to Europe after escaping a siege in which a Mongol general used infected corpses as a weapon. Spread by fleas, the plague killed up to 23 million people, one-third of Europe’s population, from 1347 to 1351.

The first true flu pandemic appeared in the summer of 1580 in Asia, writes McDonnell, and quickly spread over trade routes into Europe and North America. Earlier cases might have occurred among Greek soldiers fighting the Peloponnesian War in 430 BC. The first reference to “influenza” in scientific literature dates to 1650 and comes from the Italian word “influence.”

Possibly the worst medical disaster in history, the 1918 Spanish Flu infected a third of the global population and killed up to 50 million people. It revealed how many lives can be saved by social distancing. Cities that cancelled public events had far fewer cases. The disease spread quickly in the United States and Europe through troop movements during World War I, infecting armies involved in the conflict.

A pandemic occurs when a disease turns into a global outbreak, writes M. David Scott in Listverse.com. Covid-19 is now considered a pandemic. It is causing countries to close their borders, urge people to stay indoors and order businesses to cease operations. Scott lists the top 10 deadly pandemics of the past. This list includes leprosy of the Middle Ages, a bacterial disease that can lead to damaged nerves, skin, eyes and respiratory tracts. Called “the living dead,” lepers were considered “unclean” and had to wear bells to signal their presence. It is believed Europe had about 19,000 leper houses about this time because lepers were forbidden in many locations.

Plagues Spawned By Civilization

Though plagues often are described as threats to civilizations, Andrew Sullivan writes in New York Magazine that plagues are spawned by civilization.

“Plague is an effect of civilization,” writes Sullivan. “The waves of sickness through human history in the past 5,000 years (and not before) attest to this, and the outbreaks often became more devastating the bigger the settlements and the greater the agriculture and the more evolved the trade and travel.”

We live in a genocidal graveyard, he contends, and plagues remind humans of their mortality. The story is far from over.

“As the human population reaches an unprecedented peak, as cities grow, as climate change accelerates environmental disruption, and as globalization connects every human with every other one, we have, in fact, created a near-perfect environment for a novel pathogen-level breakout. Covid-19 is just a reminder of that ineluctable fact and that worse outbreaks are almost certain to come.” He calls Covid-19 “mercifully, relatively mild in its viral impact, even though its cultural and political effects may well be huge.” It could serve as a harbinger.

At times like this, humans scramble for cures and defenses. And those have histories of their own.

Centuries-old Strategy

“In the new millennium, the centuries-old strategy of quarantine is becoming a powerful component of the public health response to emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases,” writes Eugenia Tognotti of the University of Sassari in Italy.

“During the 2003 pandemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, the use of quarantine, border controls, contact tracing and surveillance proved effective in containing the global threat in just over three months. For centuries, these practices have been the cornerstone of organized responses to infectious disease outbreaks.”

But these methods are controversial and raise political, ethical and socioeconomic conflicts.

Even during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic more than a century ago, resistance to wearing face masks was as controversial as it is today, writes Christine Hauser in the New York Times. Those who objected to the practice were called “mask slackers” and fined or jailed.

“The masks were called muzzles, germ shields and dirt traps,” wrote Hauser. “They gave people a ‘piglike snout.’ Some people snipped holes in their masks to smoke cigars. Others fastened them to dogs in mockery. Bandits used them to rob banks.”

Masks Stoke Division

As the 1918 influenza pandemic raged in the United States, masks of gauze and cheesecloth became the facial front lines in the battle against the virus, she wrote. “But as they have now, the masks also stoked political division. Then, as now, medical authorities urged the wearing of the masks to help slow the spread of disease. And then, as now, some people resisted” while thousands of Americans were dying in a deadly pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic behaves in unexpected ways, writes Laura Helmuth in scientificamerican.com, making it difficult to keep up with current findings. People tend to remember the first things they learned of the disease, making it psychologically difficult to replace old information with new knowledge. Helmuth listed nine of the most important things we’ve learned in the past seven months. Among them:

*Covid-19 outbreaks can happen anywhere. Chinese people got it where they buy groceries. Italians got it through their habit of greeting each other with kisses on the cheeks. People on cruise ships got it because of the buffets. People in nursing homes got it because they are frail. People in New York got it because the city is crowded.

*Covid-19 can sicken and kill anyone, not just the elderly but teenagers and children too.

*Contaminated surfaces are not the main danger.

*It’s in the air. When people cough or sneeze, they expel droplets or particles of mucus and saliva that carry the virus.

*Many people are infectious without being sick.

*Warm weather will not stop the virus.

*Masks work.

*Racism, not race, is a risk factor.

*Misinformation kills.

  Infodemic of Misinformation

As governments fight the Covid-19 pandemic, snopes.com is fighting an “infodemic” of rumors and misinformation about the pandemic.

A common phenomenon during crises, said the fact-checking organization, is attempts by people to find patterns in them as a way to control or understand events.

A common misperception, said Snopes, is that plagues happen every 100 years by citing those in 1720, 1820, 1920 and 2020.

“It’s an example of the common technique of creating the impression of a regular pattern by cherry-picking a small amount of (not necessarily relevant) data, while completely ignoring a much larger body of related data that doesn’t fit the desired pattern,” said Snopes. The misperception ignored pandemics in years that did not end in 20.

At this writing, the medical community is struggling to find a vaccine to cure or treat Covid-19. That is another history in the making, likely to be filled with misconceptions and misinformation before it all plays out.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Predicting a Future With Covid-19

Predicting a future with covid. Barrymoltz.com photo

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

“Life as we know it” is a phrase used so blithely and innocently in the past, before the coronavirus ushered in a global pandemic that turned life as we know it into a big mystery.

How long will this deadly disease continue to stalk the world’s population? How many more cases? How many more deaths? Can it be cured or treated?  So far, there are more questions than answers.

In such uncertain times, humans respond by turning to an age-old tendency to divine the future with crystal balls, Ouija Boards, sorcerers, fortune-tellers and prophets. Today we call them predictions.

It’s always interesting to hear what people believe is in store for us. We normally get such reports at the advent of a new year, or the arrival of something totally unexpected.

One thing is certain: The disease already is changing life as we know it.

The AARP Bulletin appears to be among the first to make predictions on how life will change in the wake of this outbreak.

“Just a few months of life within the coronavirus pandemic has caused almost every business leader, researcher and planner to thoroughly rethink the future of America and how it will work for older Americans,” reports AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.

Americans might rethink past pleasures, like leisurely browsing in stores. Or living in a small apartment in a congested city. Or going to a ballgame with 50,000 others in the stadium. Or going to crowded restaurants. Taking frequent vacations. Or use public transportation.

                                           Goodbye to handshakes

One epidemiologist, says AARP, predicts that handshakes will be retired, possibly for good. They said nothing about elbow-bumps. Others predict that downsizing retirees will choose less populated areas. Hyperattention to cleaning will be the new normal in aircraft, office buildings and wherever people gather.

It’s too early for a full exploration of how the pandemic will change future behavior, customs and policies. The coronavirus pandemic took the world by surprise, despite warnings from some scientists.

But this is a good time to consider whether past predictions by some of the smartest people in the world thought a pandemic or something like it was looming. For that, it’s worth looking at two reports delving 50 years into the future.

“What Will the World Be Like in 50 Years? 19 Futuristic Predictions,” appeared in Bustle.com in June, 2014, written by Seth Millstein.

“Predicting the future is tricky business,” allowed Millstein. “And while attempting to project decades into the future is damn-near impossible, plenty of people attempt to do so on the regular regardless. They’re called futurists, and it’s their job to predict what the world will look like in hundreds of years from now and beyond.”

Many predictions are comically off-base, wrote Millstein. The New York Times in 1920 proclaimed that “a rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere,” while Variety insisted in 1955 that rock and roll was merely a fad, and would “be gone by June.”

                                   Predictions by leading minds

Millstein went on to list 19 predictions by some of the leading minds. Right at the top was, “disease will be more common, as everybody will be physically closer to everyone else….” Though a pandemic was not mentioned specifically, the prediction touched on the spread of disease and scored a point for the futurists.

Also touching on health, the report said going to a doctor for a checkup will not be necessary in the future. Run a scanner over your body and results will be forwarded to a health network.

Futurists commented on global warming, population growth and technological advances.

The pandemic clashes with two of the predictions: That a majority of people will live in cities and that air travel “will be exponentially more awesome.” The coronavirus already is putting a damper on those expectations as people flee crowded urban areas with high virus death rates and avoid sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on aircraft without social distancing. Disease is reversing those trends, at least for now.

All of us are racing toward what is blithely called “the new normal,” which is yet to be fully defined.

                                         Future of digital life

Another fifty-year forecast, practically on the eve of the pandemic, looked at the future of digital life.

“Fifty years after the first computer network was connected, most experts say digital life will mostly change humans’ existence for the better over the next 50 years,” wrote Kathleen Stansberry, Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie, in October, 2019. “However, they warn this will happen only if people embrace reforms allowing better cooperation, security, basic rights and economic fairness.”

Their report is based on work by the Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imaging the Internet Center. They asked 530 experts how lives might be affected by the evolution of the internet over the next 50 years. They included technology pioneers, innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers and activists.

Disease is not specifically mentioned, but one finding involved living longer and feeling better. “Internet-enabled technology will help people live longer and healthier lives. Scientific advances will continue to blur the line between human and machine,” said the report.

Artificial intelligence is expected to take over repetitive, unsafe and physically taxing labor, leaving humans with more time for leisure, a claim made since the beginning of the technological revolution.

                                Hopeful and worrisome visions

The report is broken down into hopeful visions and worrisome visions. Among the hopeful visions:

* Digital life will be tailored to each user.

* A fully networked world will enhance opportunities for global collaboration, cooperation and community development, unhindered by distances, language or time.

* Expanded internet access could lead to further disruption of existing social and political power structures, potentially reducing inequality and empowering individuals.

Among the worrisome visions:

* The divide between haves and have-nots will grow as a privileged few hoard the economic, health and educational benefits of digital expansion.

* A powerful elite will control the Internet and use it to monitor and manipulate, while providing entertainment that keeps the masses distracted and complacent.

* Personal privacy will be an archaic, outdated concept, as humans willingly trade discretion for improved healthcare, entertainment opportunities and promises of security.

* Digital life lays you bare. It can inspire a loss of trust, often earns too much trust and regularly requires that you take the plunge even though you have absolutely no trust.

* The future of humans is inextricably connected to the future of the natural world. Without drastic measure to reduce environment degradation, the very existence of human life in 50 years is in question.

Some 72% of the respondents say there would be change for the better, 25% say there would be change for the worse and 3% believe there would be no significant change.

                              Updated predictions needed

The coronavirus was not yet loose in the world when this report came out. It might have changed perceptions and predictions.

Among those responding to the survey was John McNutt, a professor in the school of public policy and administration at the University of Delaware. He said:

“Not every technology is a good idea, and every advance should be carefully considered in terms of its consequence. On balance, technology has made much human progress possible. This is likely to continue. We will always have false starts and bad ideas. People will misuse technology, sometimes in horrific ways. In the end, human progress is based on creating a future underpinned by knowledge, not ignorance.”

It’s not a matter of good or bad outcomes, argues Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, but rather “how will we shape the outcome, which is currently indeterminate?”

Fiona Kerr, industry professor of neural and systems complexity at the University of Adelaide, South Australia, saw it this way:  “People love bright, shiny things. We adopt them quickly and then work out the disadvantages, slowly, often prioritizing on litigious risk. The Internet has been a wonderful summary of the best and worst of human development and adoption — making us a strange mixture of connected and disconnected, informed and funneled, engaged and isolated, as we learn to design and use multipurpose platforms shaped for an attention economy.”

Attention economy is the recognition of attention as a limited and valuable resource subject to market forces. The coronavirus captured world attention and swayed market forces.

The futurists and the experts most likely are rethinking their notions of life as we know it in the next 50 years.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

 

 

Coronavirus Taking Mental Health Toll

Covid-19 taking a mental health toll. Web24.news photo.

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Writers often resort to the word “dystopian” to signify an imaginary place of misery and dread, a place beloved by horror and science-fiction movie fans.

Then along came covid-19, and the world finds it is such a place. It’s not fictitious. It’s real.

The toll this dreaded disease is taking on the human race is easy to measure in one way, and not so easy in another.

It’s relativity easy to count the dead, or those stricken, if reports are accurate.  By about mid-May, the count by those measures were 4.8 million cases worldwide, with 319,187 deaths and 1.8 million recovered.

Pandemic Ethics

A pandemic image. Allure.com photo.

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Look what happened to ethics in this time of a global viral pandemic.

It became important, a matter of life and death.

This became clear when the national demand for life-saving ventilators was greater than the supply, forcing doctors and medical technicians to decide which patients struggling to breathe gets them.

Until now, this is not how most people imagine ethics works. Mention ethics and they think it’s something for ivory tower scholars to ponder, but nothing that touches them personally, more a matter for study and debate.  A sleepy sort of science, they thought. By definition, ethics is a system of moral principles or values, of right or good conduct.

Americans tend to have a me-first attitude. If they need something, they want it now. The coronavirus humbled those attitudes as medical ethicists step in to decide who gets scarce medical resources. They must wait their turn, if at all.

Masking The Coronavirus

Masking the coronavirus: Seeing is believing, writes Al Tompkins, but “hospitals are blocking  journalists from documenting what it’s like inside their walls….”

Imagery from inside hospitals is needed, though “no reasonable person would suggest journalists should sneak into hospitals to grab photos.”

 

A Lifetime of Journalism Ethics

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Back in 1972, a Harris poll found that only 18 percent of the public had confidence in the print media; television ranked lower.

Garbage collectors scored higher in public confidence.

As a reporter for the Chicago Tribune at the time, I thought that was shameful, and not only for journalism and journalists.

That got me started on a lifelong mission to make the news media more trustworthy, and to earn public confidence in the belief that factual information is the lifeblood of a self-governing democracy.

You’d think you were on the side of the angels if you spent much of your life campaigning for journalism ethics. But you need more than angels to make much headway in getting the public’s respect and the cooperation of journalists, some of whom consider journalism ethics an oxymoron. A contradiction in terms.

Bartman, the Ball and Ethics

Bartman and the ball  —- NBCsports.com photo

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The coronavirus batted the 2020 major league baseball season into limbo, but stories about baseball never get old.

Here’s one about the Chicago Cubs, a seriously maligned baseball fan and journalism ethics. Like many classic tales, it’s told, retold and people argue about the details in their favorite watering holes. Sometimes the story gets better each time it’s told.

It boils down to this: Was it ethical to name a baseball fan who deflected a foul ball, possibly costing the Chicago Cubs a trip to the World Series? This question has become a staple in some journalism ethics classes. I was reminded of that when a student named Maddie contacted the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, asking if news organizations violated the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics by naming that hapless fan.

President Excoriates Media

Breitbart.com photo

“Every American has a role to play” in combatting the coronavirus menace, says the president.

That includes journalists, although President Trump does not seem to recognize that. He excoriates them every chance he gets.

NBC’s Peter Alexander asked him at a news conference: “What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?”  The president answered: “I say that you are a terrible reporter, that’s what I say. It’s a very nasty question. It’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people.”

Actually, it was a soft-ball question that offered the president a chance to appear presidential and to comfort a nation under attack by a viral pestilence. The president’s drumbeat of negativism is not helpful.

On Sunday, President lashed out against media again, tweeting: “I watch and listen to the Fake News, CNN, MSDNC, ABC, NBC, CBS, some of FOX (desperately & foolishly pleading to be politically correct), the @nytimes, & the @washingtonpost, and all I see is hatred of me at any cost. Don’t they understand that they are destroying themselves?”

Actually, this attack dog mentality against the media appears to be destroying his credibility at a time of extreme urgency, when public trust in credible sources of information is vital to public safety.

Coronavirus Mixed Messages

 

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

At a time of extreme urgency, public trust in all credible sources of information is vital to public safety.

As the global coronavirus death toll rises, it’s clearly time to set aside petty disputes that divide or confuse us. Yet in the United States, we get coronavirus mixed messages from the Trump administration, beginning a few weeks ago when President Trump called the coronavirus threat a hoax by Democrats and the news media.

That appears to be taking a toll on the president’s credibility.

“Americans have little trust in the information they are hearing from President Trump about the novel coronavirus, and their confidence in the federal government’s response to it is declining sharply,” according to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

Just 46 percent of Americans now say the federal government is doing enough to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, down from 61 percent in February, writes Domenico Montanaro. According the poll, he writes, just 37 percent of Americans now say they had a good amount or a great deal of trust in what they’re hearing from the president, while 60 percent say they had not very much or no trust at all in what he’s saying.

The president rates worst of all groups tested, according to the poll, and that includes public health officials, state and local leaders or the news media. When it comes to the news media, two-thirds of Democrats trust news media information, independents were split and Republicans overwhelmingly said they do not trust media information. Republicans think the coronavirus is blown out of proportion.

Public health officials got the highest level of trust at 84 percent, followed by state and local leaders at 72 percent. Americans were split 50 percent to 47 percent on whether they trust news media information or not.

“Having significant chunks of the country either not believing their president (who controls the fedral government’s response), the press (which is a gate-keeper for information), or both, could be dangerous in a pandemic,” writes Montanaro.

These divisions rooted in political squabbles does nobody any good, and it’s a good time for President Trump to stop demonizing the media because it does not help his reputation as a credible source of information, and tarnishes the nation’s only real reliable network of information. They should work together against the coronavirus scourge.

The president should quit using  coronavirus briefings as a platform for attacks on the media, as he did recently, when he said: “It amazes me when I read the things that I read. It amazes me when I read the Wall Street Journal which is always so negative, it amazes me when I read the New York Times, it’s not even – I barely read it. You know, we don’t distribute it in the White House anymore, and the same thing with the Washington Post. Because, you see, I know the truth. And people out there in the world, they really don’t know the truth, really don’t know what it is.”

How do remarks like that fit into a briefing on the coronavirus, an existential threat to people across the world? It’s pandering to his political base, who can’t seem to let go of their political haggling as though that is more important than life itself.

Erik Wemple, the Washington Post media critic, writes: “Nearly five years into Trump’s nonstop attacks on the media, it’s bewildering to consider the proper way to rebut them, or whether to rebut them. They come in torrents, based on thoughtless, factless presidential eructations. They serve their political purpose: Solidifying a population of supporters who believe Trump over the media even when presented with evidence upending their inclinations.” He quotes a Trump supporter who says you have to live in New York to understand what Trump is saying.

This comes at a time when New York State moved to join California in confining nearly all residents to their homes, as reported by the Associated Press. Governors undertook their most sweeping efforts yet to contain the coronavirus and “fend off the kind of onslaught of patients that has caused southern Europe to buckle.”

“We’re going to close the valve, because the rate of increase in the number of cases portends a total overwhelming of our hospital system,” New York Gov Andrew Cuomo said, as cases in the state climbed to more than 7,000 and the death toll reached at least 38.

The World Health Organization took note of the epidemic’s dramatic speed, the Associated Press reported.

“It took over three months to reach the first 10,000 confirmed cases and only 12 days to reach the next 100,000,” the U.N. health agency said. Across the U.S., governors and public health officials watched the European crisis from afar with mounting alarm and warned of critical shortages of ventilators, masks and other protective gear.

Worldwide, the number of infections exceeded 244,000, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally. More than 86,000 people have recovered, mostly in China.

By comparison, the Spanish flu, also known as the 1918 influenza epidemic, infected 500 million people — about a quarter of the world’s population – from January 1918 through December 1920. The death toll is estimated at anywhere from 17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest epidemics in human history.

Extraordinary Times

Extraordinary times: We can no longer doubt that we are living through extraordinary times, writes Pankaj Mishra about the coronavirus pandemic.

“In fact, the last such churning occurred almost exactly a century ago, and it altered the world so dramatically that a revolution in the arts, sciences and philosophy, not to mention the discipline of economics, was needed even to make sense of it,” Mishra writes.