J’accuse: pinning down responsibility for Belgium’s dismal record of Covid-19 mortality

For a number of weeks in a row as coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths spiraled upwards exponentially, the broad population in Belgium and many other European countries came out at specified times in the evening to collectively celebrate the heroism of their medical cadres on the front lines of the pandemic.  For a while I joined in, but then as it became clear that Belgium has the world’s highest number of deaths per capita in the world, and that the explanations for this given by the authorities are utterly unconvincing, my feelings towards our medical profession changed from admiration to pity for their risking their lives only to produce miserable results. Clearly the foot soldiers had been let down by their generals.

As of today, more than 9,500 patients have died in this country of 11.5 million, half in hospital and half in old age and care homes. To put this in proper perspective, in the United States, where the chaotic response of the federal government under President Trump has been exposed to scathing ridicule both domestically and by observers abroad, today was marked with solemnity as the country crossed the threshold of 100,000 Covid -19 deaths.  If the official Belgian mortality rate per million were to be projected onto the United States, which is 28 times more populous, we should be marking 270,000 deaths there today.  Of course, given the unruly de-confinement now going in many U.S. states with the active encouragement of the White House, the numbers there may reach and exceed that level in the coming weeks. But they also may not.

If we use another yardstick which has been promoted by the Financial Times, namely the total excess deaths in a given country in 2020 during the months of the pandemic compared to the normal mortality in the same country in the same period over the past several years, Belgium once again comes out at the top of the list of shame, just behind the UK and Italy.

Most of the Covid-19 deaths in Belgium could have been spared had the right decisions been taken at the outset. And I do not mean earlier imposition of confinement. I will explain myself below. Many other unnecessary deaths have continued even up to the present day because of critical errors that are not being corrected due to pure incompetence, aided and abetted by a dysfunctional political system of power sharing, placing political ideology above pragmatism, and being penny wise and pound foolish in the spending to combat the epidemic. In this regard, it is relevant to note that the daily death toll in Belgium this past week has persistently exceeded that in neighboring France, a country with 5 times the population.

In this brief essay, I will ask some of the tough questions that our lame print media seem unable or unwilling to do during the thrice weekly press conferences held by officials of the federal health ministry.

As recently as a few days ago I hesitated to come out with accusations since I am not a health professional and can base my doubts only on the inconsistencies I have remarked between how the epidemic has been handled in other countries including South Korea and Russia where deaths per million are vastly lower, and what is being done and said from high offices in Belgium. However, the very sharp criticism reported on 26 May in the middle-of-the-road French language newspaper La Libre Belgique directed against the Sciensano institute at the center of the Government’s Covid 19 management has brought starkly into the open some of the weaknesses we in lay society had observed among ourselves in kitchen talk. A breach in the Government’s defenses of its policies has opened up and it is high time to march through.

 

* * * *

La Libre Belgique assigned to the article mentioned above a title sure to attract the attention it merits: “Coronavirus: the Royal Academies castigate the ‘opaque decisions of Sciensano’ which ‘put our country in danger.’”   The Royal Academy of Medicine and the Royal Academy of Sciences, Letters and Fine Arts denounce in particular the monopoly of power exercised by the Scientific Institute of Public Health (Sciensano) with respect to management of the health crisis and the way their own advice has not been taken into account. They call for ‘rethinking the strategy for developing the Belgian medical plan.’ They note that the oncoming pandemic provoked panic in the country. Decisions were taken precipitously and without any well thought out plan despite the fact that the viral outbreak had occurred in China already in December. They insist that Belgium must learn from its errors if it is to face up to the likely second wave of viral infections ahead.

The one specific charge the Royal Academies raise is over the flip-flop on public policy with respect to wearing masks. We are told that “They point their finger at the ‘denial of the interest in the population wearing masks to cover up the shortage [of masks] and a lack of foresight, as well as the ‘restrictions on use of diagnostic tests’ for the asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic cases of persons having been in contact with a contaminated person.’”

The net result of the démarche is the following: “The two Academies ask Sciensano to collaborate with them in order to ensure transparency, independence and coherence of the decisions taken. They emphasize that they are composed of ‘internationally recognized experts in numerous disciplines concerned by the problem at hand.’”

Finally we are told that the two Academies point to the mistrust which the population is showing with regard to the management of the health crisis, saying ‘’It is urgent that we reestablish confidence and credibility between the decision-making authorities and civil society.”

* * * *

For little Belgium, the open conflict among elites that we see in the article I have summarized above is quite remarkable. We read that the public has lost trust in the authorities, and we read that internationally recognized experts have been sidelined.

Neither phenomenon is particularly unusual in this country where the flip side of the advanced democratic solutions for holding the kingdom together, given the rivalries of the French-speaking and Dutch-speaking regions, is power sharing. This power sharing broadly equates to institutionalized corruption and incompetence. Ministers receive their portfolios by back-room deals among the parties forming the governing coalition of the day. The coronavirus is the sharp end that has driven these abuses out into the open for public scrutiny, particularly as regards the reviled minister of public health Maggie de Bock.

The remarks about government lies about the usefulness of masks when there were none for the hospitals let alone for the general public hit at the most talked about and grating abuses of the Minister of Health. Moreover, she had a year earlier overseen the destruction of millions of masks purchased for the feared ‘bird flu’ H5N1 ten years ago, thereby leaving the country totally exposed in case of some new viral epidemic. On these grounds alone, the Belgian doctors’ association had called for her to be stripped of her license to practice medicine. That may not seem more than a tap on the wrist, but the notion of hauling her into court for dereliction of duty was too improbable of success to be contemplated.

In the meantime, two months into the pandemic, Belgium has stocked up on masks and latex gloves. In my own commune of Ixelles, one of the boroughs in central Brussels, we received a knock on the door a couple of weeks ago, from a communal official delivering for me and my wife individually packaged double layer cloth masks. A very nice gesture, if somewhat late. In Brussels, it is now mandatory to wear masks on public transit and in stores.  However, the damage to public trust from the prevarication of the minister was substantial.

What we see in the allegations of the two Academies is that the rot goes much further than one incompetent minister. The Institute advising the ministry, Sciensano, is itself a concoction of political interests rather than a serious center of expertise. It serves two very different administrations: Public Health and Agriculture. Wikipedia tells us that “its core business is scientific research in the fields of public health, animal health and food safety.” The same source spells out the ideology which Sciensanto promotes: “that the areas of human health, animal health and the environment are inherently connected with each other.” Given this ‘green agenda,’ is it any wonder that early on in the pandemic we heard that the high levels of infection and mortality in Belgium might be explained by the high levels of industrial pollution in its cities. I would suggest that this irrelevancy blinded officials to the mortal threat posed by a vicious and uniquely contagious viral infection, full stop.

* * * *

 

There is no question but that lockdown everywhere has been effective in “flattening the curve” and bringing the daily admissions into hospital, and more particularly into Intensive Care Units, down to manageable levels and so avoiding the kind of pandemonium that we all saw to our horror hit Lombardy in early March.

It is also beyond dispute that imposition of draconian lockdown rules in democratic societies could come only after the existential threat to society was made plain by the kind of disaster that hit Italy.  During an interview with the BBC, Italian Prime Minister Conte said as much to justify his foot-dragging in the early days of the epidemic: “Had I imposed lockdown then, all the political classes would have said I was crazy.”

In this respect, we have to give credit to the government of Belgium, and to its Acting Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès for its breaking the political logjam and imposing lockdown in time to avoid the tragedy of Northern Italy. However, it also has to be said that this very rich country did not do what could have changed the game in favor of both saving lives and saving the economy:  it did not reach into its wallet to do what China had done so impressively, namely to urgently construct one or more large scale dedicated hospitals to isolate and treat Covid 19 patients. Removing the flow of patients from the normal hospital infrastructure could have maintained essential services to the public., so important to dialysis patients, oncology patients undergoing chemotherapy, those suffering from cardio-vascular events, and the like. Equally importantly, the concentration of fire power in a very few facilities would have helped to ensure proper training and availability of proper protective equipment for those dealing with the Covid-19 patients.  Instead, Belgium chose the cheap and dirty solution, distributing the daily influx of Covid-19 patients among more than 100 hospitals around the country, most of which were very poorly prepared for the daunting challenges ahead.

The second, very important strategic failure of the Belgian health profession was to advise all those who were reporting Covid-19 symptoms to remain at home as long as possible and merely consult with their ‘family physicians’ (which a great many people do not have) by remote.  The net result of this practice is that Belgian patients came to hospital by ambulance in advanced and often untreatable condition. Yes, they may have been placed on respirators in ICU’s. Indeed, Belgium never fell short of respirators.  We can have no doubt that failure by the health authorities to inform us about the fatality rate of those placed on respirators is simply that the figures are too shocking.

So what do other countries that have been more successful both in patient outcomes and in damage to the economy show us?  First, that those exhibiting or complaining of Covid-19 symptoms should be isolated by the authorities, not by self-quarantine, and that they should be observed closely and given drugs now known to inhibit the reproduction of the virus, among which we find the Gilead substance remdesivir.  This is what is being done with great effect in South Korea.  It is what is being done in Russia, where another virus-inhibitor discovered in China during the Wuhan treatments is now undergoing massive production in Moscow for widespread distribution to treat the virus. Russian authorities claim that the Chinese pills shorten the Covid-19 recovery time and lessen the damage from the infection by a factor of two compared to remdesivir.

As we all know, Western media have focused on the high incidence of Covid-19 infections in Russia, said to be third in the world after the United States and China, and the very low mortality, with death toll less than 4,000 at last count. The first fact results directly from the massive testing going on in Russia, far greater than in any other country now experiencing this plague.

The reasons for the relative benign outcomes in Russia are simple if you make an effort to understand what is being done. First, the Russians have copied directly the Chinese approach to urgent construction of dedicated Covid-19 field and permanent hospitals.  These are state of the art facilities with $60,000 allocated for each bed. Second, the Russians followed the draconian lockdown on the most vulnerable populations, namely those over age 65.  In Russia, seniors are directed, not merely advised to stay at home. No walking the dog, no visits to pharmacies or food stores. As regards the urban population, volunteers bring food and other essentials directly to the apartments of the seniors. This is precisely what the Chinese were doing in Wuhan for the entire population.

Unfortunately, in Belgium as in most of Western Europe and in the USA, China is today viewed only as the source of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yes, they are paid suppliers of our masks and other protective gear.  But we do not see in them solutions to medical management that are proving very effective in Russia and which have parallel, home developed solutions elsewhere in Asia.

Despite all the talk of globalization, the reality here in Belgium with respect to handling the Covid-19 pandemic has been insular and, quite plainly, ignorant.  Let us hope that now, when the first wave of the pandemic is receding, we will stop rallying around the interim government and start exercising our minds by challenging the authorities on the points above and many further points which I am sure our medical experts in the Academies are aware of.

Postscript, Friday, 29 May 2020

I just opened today’s coronavirus news from the Ministry of Health press conference and it all looks very good, in the sense that the level of infection in the general population seems to have gone down dramatically.  The number of tests administered yesterday seems to have risen to over 18,000 from an average of 12,000-13,000 in previous days and of those only 1% proved positive.  Why this spike in testing has occurred is all by itself worthy of explanation, though none was offered.  It may just be that the artificial constraint on testing in Belgium namely the failure of the authorities to agree on whose budget would pay, has been resolved now that private companies are ordering testing for all employees who are coming back to office work in the days ahead. Meanwhile, the level of hospitalizations has just fallen below 1,000,  the number of people in intensive care is below 200 and presumably the number of people on ventilators is reported to be 90.
Behind these good figures are some disturbing figures if you care to add and subtract.
About16,000 people have left hospital alive from the start of the pandemic in Belgium.  Great.   But 4500 have died in hospital.  Add the two and you get about 20,000 – this means that one quarter of all people who entered hospital died.     That same one quarter is the overall number of people who were in Intensive Care Units at any given time, of which half were on ventilators.   To my understanding this means that nearly all the patients who were on ventilators died, and a lot of people just in intensive care also died. Now, I could well be wrong: but it would be appropriate for the authorities to make some clarifications here in the interests of transparency.
Finally, let us look at another set of figures.
Forty-two people died of the virus in Belgium yesterday.  Of that number, half were in old age homes.      In old age homes?  Why weren’t these people moved into hospitals given that there are great numbers of free beds now, free ventilators??   This suggests that the medical authorities and the government decided that these folks in old age homes should simply die.   It is eugenics by another name. And at last report, though medically assisted suicide is legal in Belgium, eugenics is not. Nor does it meet the test of the much vaunted European values.
One reader of this essay wrote to me that I am being severe in my reporting.  However, it is not the task of journalism to be kindly. This country badly needs a public debate of how it has managed the Covid-19 medical crisis. Only in this way will it be possible to identify the mistakes and correct them before the second wave of the pandemic hits.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow,  2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

All in the family: a new historical novel on Russia during the first half of the 20th century

The Tolstoy tradition of broad canvas novels dealing with epic events presented from the perspective of a given family has not died out, whatever else happens in literature of our day. The recently published Mosaic of My Life in English and its counterpart in Russian, Мозаика моей жизни belongs to precisely this genre.

The back cover sets out a concise argument for the book’s intrigue:

The Mosaic of My Life is the author’s second novel. The original Russian language edition was published in 2019. The novel has been nominated for three national literary awards in Russia which will be adjudicated in the autumn of 2020.

The Mosaic of My Life covers a broad swathe of Russian history from the still ‘normal’ living conditions at the turn of the 20th century through World War I and the 1917 Revolution, the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War, to the New Economic Policy and semi-return to a market economy followed by the Great Terror, World War II and the immediate post war years. The story is based on reminiscences of people who lived through this complex historical period and, in their own words, explain their various decisions to stay or emigrate. The narrative takes the reader through several social strata from workers to high bourgeoisie, from inside the director’s box at the Bolshoi Theater to inside solitary confinement cells of political prisoners awaiting interrogation and likely execution.”

The Look Inside function on the amazon.com web page of the English edition allows for browsing, to sample the narrative style.

The novel is a fine demonstration of how and why some of our best histories are written by non-historians.  I know well. The author, Larisa Zalesova, happens to be my wife.

https://www.amazon.com/Mosaic-My-Life-Larisa-Zalesova/dp/1728361001/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=larisa+zalesova&qid=1590330912&sr=8-1

https://www.amazon.com/Mosaic-My-Life-Russian/dp/1728361028/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=larisa+zalesova&qid=1590331553&sr=8-2

The books in print format are also in stock from the Amazon global websites, from Barnes and Noble, as well as all other bookstores everywhere upon order.  An e-book version of the Russian edition can be purchased online from the publisher at www.authorhouse.com  (Bookstore: Лариса Залесова). An English e-book will be released shortly.

Biological Warfare and Covid19

In the ‘fake news’ exchanges between China and the USA, the question of whose biological warfare lab may have developed and lost control over the coronavirus has figured prominently, although most intelligence agencies seem to agree that the virus had natural causes and was not manufactured by humans anywhere.

At the same time, it seems to me that no one is talking about how nations having cutting edge experience in biological warfare can apply that knowledge to combatting the virus.  In Western media there is one tiny exception that is not properly drawn out and explained: namely the mention that the US Army is contributing to efforts of private pharmaceutical concerns to develop a vaccine.

Meanwhile, the fact that the Russian military is being brought into action on the Covid19 front hardly figures in Western coverage, except as related to the Russian mercy mission to Lombardy, when giant Russian freight aircraft brought in equipment and military medics to assist the vastly overwhelmed Italian medical establishment to cope with the tide of infected, ailing and dying. At that point there were some snide comments to the effect that the Russians were in Italy on an intelligence gathering mission, not truly humanitarian in motivation.

It escaped mention in the media, though surely did not escape notice in our intelligence services that the Russian mission to Italy was a powerful demonstration of what Russia’s military has learned in the domain of biological warfare. Italian journalists expressed their amazement at the specialized motorized equipment that the Russians brought to disinfect the towns, from streets to building by building, often using for interior work not chemicals but oxygen as the sanitizing agent.

If Britain, for example, has any similar insights in combatting biological agents at its Porton Down facility (so well publicized by the Skripal case), then we have heard nothing about these capabilities being harnessed for combatting the ongoing pandemic.

I make the foregoing remarks about Russia’s very special knowledge in the realm of biologicals because it is a possible additional reason why the country so far has an astonishingly low mortality rate compared to most countries in Western Europe and the USA.  Perhaps from the same pool of knowledge, it would appear that the Russians are getting much better results with their use of ventilators to treat the worst affected cases of Covid19.

We have heard a lot about ventilators in the past two months everywhere in Europe and the USA.  They were said to be in grave shortage in New York as the epidemic approached its peak there.  What no one has talked much about is how capable our medical practitioners have been to achieve life-saving results with these devices. If I am not mistaken, there was mention several weeks ago that 88% of those put on ventilators in New York died.  Here in Belgium it appears to be more than 50% die.

Does it have to be that way, or is it the lack of know-how in using these sophisticated devices to treat Covid19 that explains these shocking results?  A very interesting program on Russian television several weeks ago indicated that they have been experimenting with the gas mixtures used in ventilators, in particular with the volume of helium versus oxygen to find the right balance whereby the oxygen is not blocked by the virus but in turn purges the virus from the lungs and allows the oxygen levels in the blood to return to levels sustaining life.  We do not hear a peep about these issues in the Belgian media, for example.

If I may sum up, when the crisis passes and our journalists and civic activists begin their assessment of what has gone wrong in Western Europe to allow the levels of mortality to reach the shocking levels we have seen, let us hope attention will be given to the questions I have raised here, as well as to the issue I discussed  yesterday:  why our national governments did not open their checkbooks and order the urgent construction of dedicated state of the art hospitals to treat coronavirus patients well apart from the normal hospital establishments which were overtaken by the virus and ceased to perform their essential services for the non-infected population in oncology, in cardio-vascular medicine and the like. The Russians and the Chinese have done precisely that.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Russia’s handling of the Covid19 pandemic: a busy week

This week started with a major presentation by President Putin of Russia’s plans for gradually lessening the strictures of lockdown, restarting the economy and restoring normal life as the epidemic in the country passes stabilization, which was just reached, and enters the ebb phase of contagion, hospitalization and death. The setting was a virtual conference with major players in the government responsible for managing the health crisis. However, since Putin’s lengthy speech which came to 17 typed pages was televised live by all Russian state channels, it could just as easily be called an address to the nation.  The main focus was on the economy and assistance to citizens and to business.

That speech has received little attention in the West and I will come back to it in a follow-up tomorrow, because it tells us a great deal about the guiding principles of Russian governance and its ‘social economy.’

In this essay I deal with the second major appearance by Putin this week dedicated to the coronavirus which took place this afternoon, Friday, 15 May. It also was carried live by all state television channels. It also was nominally remarks made within a virtual intragovernmental conference. And it also was a major policy statement that merits our greatest attention, not only for what it says about Russia, but more importantly for what is says about us, in the West, and how we are badly handling the challenges of the pandemic because of our stubborn and proud disparagement of China.

I listened closely to two of the reports to Putin from the ‘regions’, meaning territories outside Moscow on what is being done right now to handle the growing case load of coronavirus sufferers, and Putin’s comments which may be characterized as ‘programmatic’ insofar as they seek to use the ongoing experience in combatting the coronavirus to deliver, at long last, a substantial rebuilding of medical infrastructure across the country with the help of the military.

The regions reporting were St Petersburg, which is still relatively healthy compared to Moscow but has seen a growing number of infections and hospitalizations in the past few weeks, and Voronezh, which more typically represents the Russian provinces and till now has had a very low level of infection, but is preparing for the worst. In each case the governor read a report of what is being done to build dedicated hospitals for treatment of coronavirus cases both by the local administration and with the help of the Ministry of Defense, represented by the senior officer standing at their side who is overseeing construction of modular hospitals by military personnel and staffed by military doctors.

In Petersburg, which is Russia’s second largest city with a population of approximately 5 million, there are specialized hospitals for light cases with 1,000 beds being completed and specialized hospitals with Intensive Care Units in the size of 200 to 600 beds also reaching completion.  A similar approach is being implemented in Voronezh.

The involvement of the Armed Forces in building some of these hospitals is very significant, because they have developed modular solutions that can be applied uniformly across the vast continent that is Russia.

In a way, these projects are similar to what Moscow did as first mover when it opened the state of the art hospital at the city’s periphery in a district called Kommunarka.  The logic is to remove the coronavirus patients from the general hospital system. This leaves the general hospitals free to continue to serve their traditional ‘clientele,’ the community of those with other ailments. It focuses training, equipment, medicines in locations where maximum attention can be given to ensuring sanitary conditions that protect medical staff and encourage application of well-rehearsed solutions to the challenges of each patient.

Now where would the Russians have gotten this idea from?  It is not hard to imagine.  We need only think back at the response of the Chinese authorities following the recognition that the outbreak in Wuhan posed existential questions for the local population, indeed for the nation as a whole if it were not contained and wiped out. We all were stunned at the construction of the first specialized facility to deal with the epidemic in one week!

The Russians are less “Stakhanovite” these days, and the hospital projects mentioned above are being executed on a 6 week schedule.  But they are being implemented at the highest technical level. Putin gave the figure 5 million rubles as the cost of one hospital bed in the new units; that comes to $60,000 and in Russia’s price equivalency to the dollar probably represents a US cost double or triple the nominal ruble cost. So they are not skimping, not planning to put the incoming patients on matrasses on the floor as happened in Bergamo, Italy.

We also know from the day’s press, that the Russians are now entering into mass production of the few medicines which the Chinese told them proved to be effective in treating their coronavirus patients. Which ones Putin did not say.

And now I must ask, how does Russia’s borrowing from the Chinese playbook compare to what we see around us in Western Europe and the United States?  Here China comes up in the coronavirus story only as a punching bag, the people who ‘kept us in the dark’ about the dangers of this plague, not as providers of solutions and advice from their own first and successful experience snuffing it out.

The question I must pose is this:  are the Russians being especially clever, or are we being especially stupid?

The segregation of coronavirus patients from the general flows of the ailing contrasts dramatically with what has been going on in Belgium, for example.  Here about 100 hospitals around the country have been sharing the aggravated cases of coronavirus requiring hospitalization. This population reached about 5,000 at its peak with nearly one third in Intensive Care, of which to two thirds required ventilators. At the peak a couple of weeks ago, the number of patients in the last category came close to the national inventory of ventilators, a bit more than 1,000.  Thankfully, the numbers in the past ten days have come down sharply and there are now half the number of hospital beds taken by virus sufferers.

However, at the peak all of Belgium’s hospitals resembled war zones with ‘extraterrestrial’ suited medics at the entrances. Normal patients did not have to think twice to shun them. Accordingly, even non-elective surgery was being cancelled; chemotherapy patients were staying at home, etc.  This is one element of the mortality brought on by the coronavirus that no one has been recording.  Moreover, one has to ask about the quality of medical attention when 100 hospitals, mostly without any experience in epidemics, in virology, were being used to treat Covid19 patients. This had to be a contributor to the body bag count that went into official statistics.

Finally, in closing ,a word about body counts.

In the past several days there have been news reports in Western media accusing Russia of under-reporting deaths in the country due to the coronavirus epidemic.  In particular, I can point to articles in The New York Times and in the Financial Times.

With respect to the New York Times the piquant title given to one respective article pointing to a “Coronavirus Mystery” – is fully in line with the daily dose of anti-Russian propaganda that this most widely read American newspaper has been carrying on for years now.  A couple of weeks ago the same paper carried an article by one of its veteran science journalists accusing President Putin of using the coronavirus to undermine American science, and medicine in particular. That article was totally baseless, a collection of slanderous fake news.

With respect to the accusation of intentional underreporting of mortality figures in Russia, the New York Times was actually borrowing from the Financial Times, which stated that Russian deaths from the virus may be 70 per cent higher than the official numbers.  In both cases, even if the underreporting were true, and this is very debatable, it obscures the fact that both official and unofficial numbers are miniscule compared to the devastation wrought by the virus elsewhere in Europe (Italy, Spain and the UK) or in the USA, where the numbers continue to spike.  Russia has either a couple of thousand deaths or something closer to three thousand. Compare that to the official deaths ten times greater in the worst hit European countries having overall populations less than half or a third of Russia’s.  So the accusation of 72% underreporting in Russia is a debating point that can easily be shown to be deceptive if not irrelevant.

 

However, there is a missing element here: context.  The whole issue of underreporting Covid19 deaths has been reported on by the Financial Times for a good number of countries, not just Russia. Indeed, their first concern has been to show that the official numbers posted by the UK government, now in the range of 30,000 are a fraction of the actual deaths in the UK (more than 50,000) if one uses not the death certificates case by case but the overall excess of deaths in a given month in 2020 compared to the norm in the given country over the 3 preceding years.  The New York Times in its typical cherry picking approach to find what is worst to say about Russia ignores this background of FT reporting.

 

Why is there underreporting?  There are many possible reasons, the chief one is the varying methodology used by the various countries to allocate a given death to the virus.

By curious coincidence this very issue was addressed in today’s press conference on the pandemic by the Belgian Ministry of Public Health. As is widely reported, Belgium has one of the world’s highest rates of mortality from Covid19, very close to the figures in Spain and Italy. This has been reported in the local press and the Ministry today chose to respond.  As they noted, Belgium is one of the few countries to report ALL Covid-19 deaths, meaning both those in hospital and those in care homes (mostly old age homes). In Belgium, as in France, deaths have been equally split between these two sets of institutions. Almost no deaths have occurred at home or, as they say, ‘in the community.’ Moreover, deaths are attributed to Covid-19 if the symptoms were there even if no proper test was carried out to confirm this.

In total, Belgium death count today stands close to 9,000 for a general population of 11.8 million.  High, but still substantially lower than the mortality in New York, for example, whichever way you count.  And, to put the picture into a less dire context, it is reported that each winter Belgium experiences about 5,000 deaths attributable to the seasonal flu.  Of course, the flu does not lay waste to the medical establishment, and there you have the difference that makes the ongoing Russian approach to Covid19 so relevant.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Russia still licking the ass of the Liberal West

These days Russian television, like television in Europe and the USA is almost entirely given over to reportage on the coronavirus epidemic:  how it is being experienced in Russia and how it is being experienced in the world at large. The only positive notes are those on laboratory research into vaccines. Even the occasional interview with a celebrity who came down with the virus and was saved thanks to the dedication and possibly unique knowhow of Russian medics serve the purpose of warning the general public of the horrendous, life-threatening complications that may come with the infection. And so, Russian news programs are presently bleak and depressing.

However, there are some obvious conclusions to be drawn from the videos showing Russian police measures to enforce lockdown that somehow are missed by the political watchdogs in Moscow and which bear explicit discussion here: namely, what is being done at present to enforce social distancing is nothing more than a tap on the wrist.

Yes, the limitations on travel within Moscow technically facilitated by electronic passes are controlled by police roadblocks and we may assume that violators are being turned back.  However, during these May day holidays, Muscovites and presumably residents of other Russian cities are being allowed to leave the city for their country dachas, which about 50% of them own. They are advised not to socialize outside their household, not to hold their traditional barbecues with neighbors and relatives.  But this is only advice and it likely will not be controlled, except by investigative television crews on a spot basis for the evening news.

More important is how Muscovites are behaving within their neighborhoods in the city.  Are they out and about? Is youth on the prowl for partying in the parks as usual?

In the television reportage, police officers are shown gently reminding young people and the not so young congregating at recreation areas that this is not allowed and proposing that they disperse.  In a way, these scenes are no different from what CNN shows us of the enforcement attempts on some Florida beaches.

Meanwhile, the daily count of confirmed infections in Moscow and Russia in general seems to be following the kind of exponential curve we have seen in the West, even if hospitalizations are relatively low and deaths, so far, are very low.

Where, one might ask, is the heavy-handed policing that one might expect given the criminal jeopardy that violation of quarantine carries under recently passed federal law, namely up to seven years in prison.  Nowhere!  To date, Russian enforcement agents are behaving like pussy cats.

The same may be said of Russian state control of the churches and the pussy-footing of secular authorities with rebellious clerics who have created hearths of infection and death in many parishes.

Why is this lax control of the population amidst a pandemic being allowed to continue?  I venture to guess there is one reason:  to avoid at all costs the appearance of authoritarianism that might be exploited by the non-systemic Opposition and provide grist for the country’s defamers and detractors in the USA, in the UK, in continental Europe. To be sure, there is also a potential domestic resistance that could be inflamed by stricter closing of churches: the fervently religious, of whom there are now a great many in Russia.

So far, with rare exceptions like The New York Times and the odd article in the Financial Times, Western news coverage of the coronavirus epidemic in Russia has been benign and non-ideological. The Information War on Russia has been shelved and coverage is in both print and electronic media focused on the ‘human interest story’ where Russia is just one more large and somewhat exotic country on which the news machine informs the public, alongside reports on coronavirus in Latin America or in Africa. As a case in point, I would mention yesterday’s featured report on BBC World from its Russian correspondent Steve Rosenberg.

Rosenberg blows hot and cold on Russia in general.  Yesterday’s report was definitely friendly: he interviewed a 97 year old Russian WWII veteran, a much decorated lady sergeant who earned her medals at the Battle of Stalingrad. She was moved by the past weeks’ BBC reporting on 100 year old British veteran, Captain Tom who has now raised tens of millions of pounds on behalf of the National Health Service by daily walks to and fro in his garden. Our Russian heroine just knitted him a pair of socks to keep his feet warm on these fund-raising promenades. Rosenberg filmed her packing the socks in a little parcel that has been carried express to London for delivery.  A heart-warming story that happens to center on Russia.  This is as close to international solidarity in the face of the pandemic that we get as regards East-West relations.

If the Russians put in place draconian police and military enforcement of lock-down, which is entirely possible in the coming weeks should the infection rate, hospitalization rate and mortality surge rather than plateau and decline because of the utter indiscipline and egoism of so many Russians and their scorn for social distancing, then it will be a wholly different kind of news coverage that we will see in the West.  The hints at how facial recognition techniques are being implemented in Russia for coronavirus control that we have noted in some Western media will explode into daily tirades against the Putin regime and how it is reintroducing Stalinist repression.

I have no doubt that the Liberal minority among Kremlin elites, the faction of Kudrin and Medvedev, to name but two visible personalities, has been urging great restraint for this very reason. What it comes down to is their usual ass-licking of the West.  The days ahead and the evolution of the viral infection in Russia will determine whether the country puts paid to Public Relations and focuses on the mortal threat to its population and economy presented by the novel coronavirus.  To their credit, the Chinese had no compunction about deploying massive force to ensure that self-isolation was imposed and not voluntary. The results in terms of deaths and in terms of present reopening of their economy speak for themselves.

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

Has Putin lost control? Revisiting the issue..

In the days since publication of my essay entitled “Kremlinology 2.0” on 28 March, I have received fairly wide exposure in the alternative media as a ‘formerly’ reasonable observer of the Russian scene who has gone rogue.  I am said to have joined the Anglo-Saxon propagandists who are working nonstop to discredit President Putin and Russia more generally.

The signal for this stampede of the herd of Russia’s would-be defenders to trample my objectivity and credibility was given by The Saker originally in its English language portal, but then broadcast by its multifarious network in French, in Russian, in Greek and other languages. But whereas the couple of words directed at me by Andrei Raevsky were a hint rather than a full-blown denunciation of apostasy, the Comments sections of his blog and associated portals, were overrun by the usual claque of no-nothings keen to spill blood.

The same flood of ignorant commentary bordering on the obscene occurred on portals like www.anti-empire.com which merely re-posted (without permission, as usual) my 28 March essay. I responded there to a couple of the defamers and let it drop.  Here in this essay, I take up the gauntlet in a more public way because the issue is too important to go unremarked.

And what is that issue?  It is that, regrettably, the vicious and mindless propaganda of Russia-bashers who dominate mainstream and “own” America’s newspapers of record, The Washington Post and The New York Times (witness the utterly scandalous publication there on 13 April of a concocted and factually baseless article by William Broad entitled “Putin’s Long War Against American Science”) is matched in equal measure of vicious and mendacious propaganda among the more fervent defenders of the ‘Putin regime’ in the West.

I hasten to add that far too many of these defenders know absolutely nothing about Russia and care still less about the facts. Russia and Putin are of interest to them solely as a bludgeon against the American world order that they despise.  Indeed, they are entitled to their loathing for the USA, for capitalism, and the rest. They are not entitled to invent a Russia and a Kremlin leadership as a foil and to pick and choose factoids in support of their theses.

Both sides in the Info Wars are adept at smear techniques, using guilt by association and ad hominem argumentation to avoid entirely responding to the reasoning of those they are pillorying.  It is not what you are saying and proving factually that counts, but who publishes you and how what you are saying can be used by one’s enemies that matters. A supporting technique is to take separate phrases one might use out of context in order to misrepresent the target’s ideas as the inversion of what they are in context, and to ignore irony so as to construe it as the opposite, meaning the author’s avowal of what he is lampooning. I called out these abuses in my response to Comments on www.anti-empire.com.

Then there is the pure invention of a Curriculum Vitae for the purposes of discrediting today’s object of attack. In my case, as one example, a reader of my “Kremlinology 2.0” commented that I had a long record of “working for” anti-Russian propaganda publications, in particular for the Finnish-owned  Moscow Times.  In its obliviousness to the truth this allegation from would be Kremlin defenders matches perfectly the denunciations I received a couple of years ago from our overzealous Progressives and Liberals over my “working for” the anti-Semitic, pro-Kremlin news portal Russia Insider.

I state here flatly that I have never “worked for” or “written for” anyone.  My life as a political commentator specializing in Russia-related news began in 2010 as a post-business career avocation, acting as a “public intellectual” who neither expects nor receives compensation from anyone. All of my writings appear first on my own blog site and are copyrighted. They are reposted with or more usually without my permission because other portals appreciate their value to their reader communities. Period.

And specifically with respect to The Moscow Times, which published a total of a half-dozen of my analytical articles at the start of my re-invention of myself as political analyst, these articles got through the anti-Russian filter of the responsible editor for the Op-Ed page, the nominal journalist Michael Bohm, who made cuts and assigned titles at odds with my intent.  I put up with this mangling because theirs was the only game in town at the time when they still had a paper edition. But all of that is history. Bohm went on to become a highly paid talk show guest on all Russian state and commercial channels where his keen knowledge of Russian in all of its folk wisdom and his invariable regurgitation of CIA propaganda were a useful foil to the patriotic experts deployed by the shows’ hosts.  I went on to publishing online in my own blog site attached to a middle of the road Belgian newspaper, La Libre Belgique.

* * * *

So much for current Info Wars. Now I direct attention to the main contention of my article of 28 March, namely that ever since the roll-out of his planned constitutional reform during a state of the nation address on 15 January 2020, Putin seemed to have lost control of the political agenda. To be very specific, what Putin had suggested would be a re-balancing of powers at the federal level between Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches, moving gently in the direction of parliamentarism, eventually, in the bill passed by both the State Duma and the Federation Council, turned out to be nothing more than a consecration in the Fundamental Law of the values of the Putin era, namely a social economy, protection of living standards for the broad population, patriotic defense of the Motherland and of its historical record, bouquets to motherhood and the family, etc. That and the incredible point reversing to zero the time Putin has served in the presidency so that under the two-term limit he will again be eligible to run when his present mandate expires in 2024.

All of these changes in what will be put to the electorate for ratification in a referendum indicated to me that the course of Russian politics was now being dictated not by Vladimir Putin, the key figure as arbitrator among Kremlin factions that he has been for the past 20 years, but by one of these factions which has overruled his preferences. Given the virtual disappearance of Duma opposition party spokesmen from Russian state television since the end of January,  it seemed to me that all of the opposition has been sidelined, made irrelevant and that United Russia has seized control of the political agenda in the hopes of retaining majority control of the legislature in the upcoming 2021 elections.

In my article, I also pointed out that Russia’s response to the oncoming coronavirus crisis revealed the same kind of infighting among elites that we have seen in virtually every one of the major countries in Western Europe and the United States.  There were too many contradictions in policy at that moment, not least of which was a promotional airfare being offered by Aeroflot to boost domestic traffic at the very moment when the government should have curtailed or ended such traffic to avoid spread of the infection.

Putin was obviously caught in the cross-fire between defenders of the economy and defenders of public health. And in the meantime, there was ongoing clan fighting over the just initiated oil and price war with Saudi Arabia.

Looking at these contests going on behind the scenes in the Kremlin, I made the simple argument that it was and is high time to resume Kremlinology, to look beyond the lynchpin of Russian politics, Mr. Putin, and to sketch out in detail what the interest groups are doing as they jockey for and perhaps seize control of Russian politics in one domain or another.  I stand by that reading today, undeterred by the slings and arrows that have come my way.

In the meantime, for the moment some consistency has been restored to Russian domestic policy as regards the coronavirus with a temporary victory of the defenders of public health and imposition of ever tighter shutdown in the hearth of the epidemic, Greater Moscow.

Moreover, the second shoe is about to drop.  At the start of anti-coronavirus measures, the Kremlin announced the cancellation of this year’s regular St Petersburg International Economic Forum scheduled for the first week in June. However, not a word was said about the fate of the still earlier May 9th Victory Day celebrations marking the 75th anniversary that would, if held normally, with mass public participation numbering in the millions, provide a splendid platform for propagation of the virus throughout the population and across the country.  It is only now that we hear that Veterans’ Organizations are petitioning the Kremlin to postpone the celebration.

What we see here is that just as Russia is following the multi-nation curve of infection rates to a peak and plateau, so Russia is following the near-universal laws on the political risks of taking on the corona virus by quarantine and other draconian measures.

This question was very aptly put in a recent Euronews interview with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. The journalist probed and probed again whether the Prime Minister felt any guilt for the government’s slow response to the oncoming pandemic which cost so many thousands of Italian lives.  In a carefully worded answer that was fully in line with his professional background as a law professor and intellectual, Conte said that he was ‘not so arrogant’ as to claim that no mistakes were made.  At the same time, he noted that had he introduced quarantine and lockdown at the outset he would have been universally condemned in Italian political circles as being ‘mad.’

Indeed this is the predicament facing political leaders in all countries today and name-calling  or guilt-attribution by the public in the midst of the crisis does not help.  It is also the predicament facing the Russian leadership which is divided the same way as in most countries.  These political realities merit investigation and discussion, not politically motivated silence.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Pages from the Personal Archive of a Russianist, Installment Three

My letter to an aunt in California, 15 January 1989

As I suppose you know I left ITT a year ago and set up two trading companies of my own in Switzerland and in Holland. I did about $400,000 in sales in the first six months. I was on my way to becoming the television picture tube king in South Africa with sales of Soviet and Polish made tubes, but then prospects started to dim about last July and I decided to look for a safer harbor. Happily there is at the moment great interest in East-West trade and several good offers came up at the end of a three month search. In early December I accepted one of these and I am now commuting to London each week, and traveling out into Eastern Europe from London for United Parcel Service. And so after Harvard and Columbia I am working for a team of ex-truck drivers helping to take them to Russia.

My work with United Parcel got off with a bang. My first day on the job was when that earthquake devastated Armenia. Two days later at my initiative UPS landed the first foreign jet, a company-owned DC-8 freighter, to get into Yerevan airport after the quake….I will be following up these developments with negotiations with Soviet organizations in New York next week and in Moscow the week after hoping to win the rights to open a UPS delivery service at Moscow airport.

The coming weeks are not likely to provide such instant gratification on the job. There will be just travel and more travel.

 

Letter to my parents in New Jersey, 23 December 1988   

 My work at United Parcel has gotten off to a good start. Within the first two days at the office I was able to enjoy a greater feeling of accomplishment than over 8 years at ITT. My joining coincided with the Armenian earthquake and as the first written reports came in on Thursday evening December 8th the scope of the catastrophe began to appear truly Biblical. Friday morning I understood that there could be something for us as a transportation company with our own air fleet to do in the emergency and I proposed an airlift to my boss, who took it up to his boss, who took it to the Vice President, International in Greenwich, CT and within 4 hours the company approved the idea of placing our DC-8 in Cologne at the disposal of relief efforts.

Our German office then rounded up donations of medicines, blood fractions, disposable syringes and other equipment from among our corporate clients in Germany. We in London worked to get the permissions for overflight and landing in the Soviet Union and kept the U.S. State Department informed. Then at 6AM, Saturday December 10 our plane took off from Cologne carrying 42 tons of emergency supplies. At 10AM ours was the first foreign plane to land at Yerevan airport. Over the next 5 hours it was unloaded by hand by some 250 volunteers. During that time Gorbachev’s plane landed at Yerevan and the chief made a slow circle by car around the UPS freighter.

Regrettably our name did not get in the papers, though Pravda the next day described in a dispatch from Cologne all aspects of the mission. We just didn’t have a PR department to match Norma at Trump’s. But we were all jubilant to have been of real assistance when it was most needed and to have accomplished our first landing on Soviet soil.

There has been plenty of follow-up to do in order to move from charity to commercial business. And as part of this work, I expect to come to New York on January 22 for meetings with some Soviet organizations. So tentatively please block out this date for a visit. I imagine that I will have two days in the city then a day in Washington and then will fly back to London. Between now and then I will be in perpetual motion: January 3 in London, 4-5 in West Berlin, 6 in London, 7-8 in Brussels, 9-13 in London, 14-15 in Brussels, 16-18 in Helsinki, 19th in Copenhagen. That’s what I mean about the suitcase syndrome. It’s hotels and restaurants all the way and I am losing the battle on the scales as a result.

On the bright side, I now have a guy reporting to me and I expect to break out of Eastern Europe into Africa and the Middle East in the next few months. This seems to be a company very serious about development the potential of its managers. So we are willing to put up with inconvenience.

 

Notes

 

These first impressions of my on the job experience with United Parcel Service are a foretaste of the fascinating and encouraging possibility of combining doing good with doing well when working for major corporations and riding high off the ground. This was precisely what made my employment as country manager in Russia so attractive in the second half of the 1990s: managing corporate sponsorship in the performing arts and literature.

The distinguishing feature of UPS in 1988-89 was the colossal expansion of its international services, till then limited to serving the US military bases in West Germany, in the midst of a repositioning of all the express parcel and logistics companies so as to achieve global capabilities.

In the run-up to my joining UPS, I had done a brief in-depth, in the field marketing study of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union for Fedex, which included a visit to their Memphis hub and talks with prospective service partners in Moscow, Ljubljana, Warsaw and Budapest.   I also was engaged in inconclusive negotiations for employment with DHL, who had just months before opened an operational center for Eastern Europe in Budapest and were expanding all guns blazing.  This kind of double and triple job hunting was entirely typical of all expatriate managers with whom I associated later, during the 1990s, in Moscow and St Petersburg.  Our employment positions were highly volatile and it was up to us to reinsure ourselves against changing moods back in corporate headquarters.

This life of expatriate managers, which I will describe in detail in my forthcoming book of memoirs dedicated to the 1990s shows how the new Eldorado in the East attracted not only the most dynamic industries and corporations but also the most ambitious and talented young people from everywhere to be business managers, financial and legal advisors, and journalists, if I may name several key professions.  It was not accidental that someone like Chrystia Freeland, today’s deputy premier of Canada, first came into wide public view as a talented and energetic and reasonably impartial journalist based in Moscow for the Financial Times in the mid-90s.

I mention here in passing Norma Foerderer who for 25 years was public relations vice president to Donald Trump, looking after in particular damage control for his dalliances, divorces and the like. Prior to joining the Trump Organization, Norma had been for five years my co-founder and partner at East-West Marketing, Inc., a small consultancy to major U.S. food processing companies aspiring to enter the Soviet market in a big way, among them The Ralston Purina Company, Castle & Cooke and Burger King. We maintained close ties of friendship till her death in 2013.

A word about ITT.  In the 1970s, this mother of all conglomerates created and run by the business genius Harold Geneen, was a sort of stock portfolio that paid out 10% dividends year after year to its many conservative small shareholders. However, with the change of leadership at the start of the 80s to Rand Araskog, and with the change of technology in its core business, telecoms, from electromechanical to purely digital switching, the company invested vast sums in development that were not covered by income from sales, with the consequence that it was on a long road to disposal of that core business that came in 1987 and to eventual extinction, as followed later. Thus, a major industrial group in an extended declining or ‘disrupted’ period was not a cheerful place to be employed, nor could it give any of us on board opportunities for exercising creativity or expecting reward such as I now found in the ebullient express courier industry.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020