21 February 2021 – Sunday – #135

History and politics are rich in Barcelona.

Last week’s election was marked by low voter turnout and left Catalonia in essentially the same political configuration. That is to say, while Catalonia’s independence movement probably will control the regional government’s agenda, its voters remains split on the issue of regional independence.

My Catalan friends tell me that after the failure of the 2017 independence referendum, it will take much more than 50% popular support to achieve independence here. I assume the pro-independence parties know this and their actual political agenda is concessions from the central government rather than outright independence. After all, Catalonia has asserted its independence repeatedly since the Bourbon dynasty, so what’s the hurry?

When helicopters first fluttered above Barcelona last week, I thought the police must be monitoring post-election independence protests. However, last week’s street protests were a continuation of the protest that passed by Casa Solar three weeks ago, a protest in support of the rappers Pablo Hasel and Valtònyc. Now Hasel is in jail and Valtònyc in exile for their songs against crown.

Free Hasel graffiti on Passeig Sant Joan bus stop. It’s in English for a reason.

As political as music can be, it never occurred to me that a music conservatory would produce a political action instead of an overtly political concert. The Catalan Academy of Music, in concert with 70 arts organizations and left-leaning political parties, demanded the federal government pardon the rappers. I suppose when the government starts jailing musicians during a pandemic that has closed public stages, the stages move to the street.

Want to know where this evening’s stage is? Look in the sky for a police helicopter.

Covid-19 has more than a cameo in the recent street protests. The looting of the large Decathlon sports store downtown, for instance, has nothing to do with rap lyrics and everything to do with generating cash from stolen goods. All the luxury brands got hit on Passeig de Gracia.

Protesters ransacking stores on Passeig de Gracia.

There’s also a social media angle. How many dumpsters were set ablaze and retail windows smashed to promote street theater with clicks?

Matthew Bennett on the bounty of street protest media coverage.

The pandemic has disrupted life and income for most Barcelonians. As good as social services are here, the protests have been a way to vent the pressure from the public health restrictions and decimated economy Covid-19 hath wrought.

As the political situation simmers outside, I’m reading George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. From late 1936 to early 1937, Orwell fought Franco’s Fascists forces near Huesca, about 250 km (150 miles) northwest of Barcelona. Fought might be too strong a word, at least for the half the book I’ve read. Orwell participated in only one actual skirmish. The rest of the time he camped in squalid conditions with POUM militias, holding ground against Fascist forces.

On leave after his time near Huesca, Orwell returned to Barcelona, looking for a black market pistol (the militias provided few arms to soldiers), tobacco (Franco controlled domestic plantations on the Canary Islands), and a way to join the military action closer to Madrid.

On this Barcelona visit, the informal and salud of Orwell’s first visit had been replaced with usted and buenas días. He found a Barcelona where class differences had re-emerged, where indifference to Spain’s Civil War had replaced the socialist camaraderie he experienced nearer the beginning of the conflict.

Orwell also saw more clearly during this visit the agendas and relationships of the various political parties and their militias. He describes party operatives murdering members of other parties during street protests and the subsequent funerals staged for political messaging. The time Orwell spent in Catalonia became fodder not only for the commercial dud Homage to Catalonia, but later for his best-selling Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Hint: if you want wide readership of your views on political ideology, learn to write fiction.

This week’s protests, at least nominally against the Spanish crown, feel to me like echos of the Barcelona protests 84 years ago that Orwell describes (perhaps should I write eighty-four like Orwell). Certainly last week’s street protests featured neither the murders nor staged funerals that Orwell describes, but there was violence in Barcelona—dumpster fires and physical attacks on police and media.

Trash bins on fire during last week’s protests in Barcelona.

The protests spread, too. There were Hasel protests in Valencia this week. My friend Simon messaged me from Vic, reporting the protests there were “about Hasel and just freedom of expression overall.” Here’s the report from Pamplona last night.

Hasel protests in Pamplona.

The Orwellian echo I’m sensing in Catalonia may be from the way Covid-19 has revealed the region’s class differences. What protest, after all, could be more about classism and hierarchy than a protest over songs against the crown?

Besides being a hideous virus that kills and maims people, Covid-19 impartially reveals us for who we are.

Hint: the entitled are coming out ahead.

As evidence accrues on the safety and benefits of Covid-19 vaccines, the inequality of vaccine distribution was last week’s hot news topic. To start with, it seems that the Pareto Principle got its Covid-19 vaccination—ten wealthy countries have consumed 75% of vaccines produced while 130 countries have none. Not quite the 80-20 rule. Worse, actually.

Dr. Craig Spencer: “I’ve received more vaccine than 130 countries.”

Covid-19 vaccine inequity abounds. Israel, which is going gangbusters on vaccinating its citizens, is still considering whether to provide vaccine for West Bank Palestinians. Scarce front line African healthcare workers are dying from Covid-19 while a US Soulcycle instructor posing an an educator got vaccinated. US anti-immigrant sentiment is preventing immigrants from getting vaccinated, postponing herd immunity.

If you’re rich in the US, your experience of Covid-19 is more comfortable and you’re much less likely to die than if you’re poor. Wealthy Silicon Valley types are flying private jets to shelter in place on Costa Rican beaches while awaiting vaccination. Even though many wealthy New Yorkers have fled to the Hamptons or Palm Beach during the pandemic, New York City vaccinations still favor the rich and white who remain.

NYC Covid-19 vaccine administration maps.

I should mention that Covid-19 has created many inequalities other than who gets a jab. For example, school closures in Europe and elsewhere exacerbate class differences. The Guardian ran a good piece last week about Covid-19 ending relationships. Often, privileged people feel they don’t need to participate in or advocate for public health measures like masking and vaccination.

This week’s virtual G7 is discussing ways to provide Covid-19 vaccines to poor countries. In a reversal of Trump’s America First policy, President Biden committed US$2 billion now and US$2 billion later to WHO’s COVAX vaccination program for poor countries. President Macron wants rich countries to contribute 3%-5% of their vaccine purchases to poor countries as well.

One trade-off the world can make right away? Postpone second doses of vaccines so more people can get first doses. More and more studies show that the the first doses of the Moderna and Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines are highly effective. Not all scientist agree that changing the two course regime is good policy. In Israel, though, which may achieve herd immunity as early as next month, public health officials now believe the first dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine is at least 84% effective.

So, perhaps the inequalities Covid-19 reveal about ourselves were an impetus for the Barcelona protests. The protesters on the street, after all, probably are last in line for Covid-19 vaccine and have to be as tired of the restrictions as I am. I have to ask myself, though, what else besides Covid-19 might be fanning Barcelona’s protest flames. I believe there is another Orwellian angle to what happened here last week, a kind of death rattle of Franco. I’m going to take you to Texas to explain.

If you have a heartbeat, you know that Texas is in the midst of an energy and water infrastructure catastrophe. After a snow storm last week, energy demand spiked, crippling the state’s power grid. Within days, water systems froze and burst. Scores of Texans are dying from hypothermia and, while idling their cars for warmth, from carbon monoxide poisoning. Photos of Texans waiting in line for water look more like Maduro’s Venezuela covered in snow than like a scene of everyday life in the United States.

Republicans have had trifecta control of Texas (governorship, senate, and house) since 2003. They have controlled Texas government about half the number of years that Franco controlled Spain. That didn’t keep Governor Abbot from blaming Democrats’ Green New Deal for the blackouts.

The real problem isn’t Democrats, though. AOC and Beto O’Rourke are fundraising for victims and working phone banks to help fellow Texans with resources.

The real problem is that Texas Republicans have prioritized profits over regulation. Federal regulators warned Texas a decade ago that it needed to winterize its power infrastructure for climate change. Federal regulators lost to Republicans’ dogged support of short term profits. The cost of winterizing Texas’ power grid would have been inconsequential compared to the cost of the current catastrophe, but it would have required regulation. Republicans don’t know how to do regulation. The cost of the catastrophe won’t be passed on to the power companies that profited.

When I looked at the Texas power grid on a map, it reminded me of something.

US and Canadian power grid map.

The way Texas insulated its power grid reminded me of the way that Franco kept Spain’s train system separate from the rest of Europe.

Train gauges throughout Europe. Source: Jakub Marion’s Language Learning, Science, and Art.

The evidence isn’t complete, but one explanation is that Franco kept Spain’s distinct train gauge because he didn’t want foreign trains invading sovereign Spain. The evidence is clear, on the other hand, that Texas Republicans kept a separate power grid because they didn’t want US Federal regulators touching the state’s sovereign power structure. It’s a weak association, but stay with me. There’s a reason that people keep mentioning Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four when Republicans are in control.

The quandary Texas Republicans now find themselves in is that they are advocating small government and deregulation because they claim the free market always leads to the best outcome. They’re locked into an ideology that puts them at odds with realities of the unusual weather events that climate change brings (not to mention with the realities of Covid-19). I am not an apologist for Franco, but he wasn’t one to lock himself into ideologies.

As the catastrophe unfolded, Senator Ted Cruz hopped on a plane with his family for a vacation at a luxury resort in warm Cancun, Mexico. Chris Hayes has a great explanation of the way Cruz distorted the Republican Matrix by taking this trip.

Both Abbot and Cruz went to Fox News, of course, to present their respective cases. The Fox News echo chamber, of course, is an echo of Franco’s censorship. Fox News won’t acknowledge that climate change has better economic and health outcomes with a government coordinated response (not to mention Covid-19).

Both Abbot and Cruz depend on gerrymandering and voter suppression to maintain the Republican trifecta in Texas, an echo of Franco’s bloody political repression. If you think I’m exaggerating, well, maybe, but check with the people behind Black Lives Matter before you discount that claim entirely.

The Republican ideological intransigence has larger implications than simply, as Hayes points out in his video, having no idea how to use government resources effectively. When President Biden told his G7 counterparts that America is back on the world stage, German Chancellor Merkel and French President Macron weren’t entirely convinced. They know the Republicans may control the White House again. The US may have the world’s largest economy, but it also has the one major political party that puts Jesus and profit in front of climate change and science.

So, you’re asking, what does this have to do with the protests in Barcelona last week? What does this have to do with Franco’s death rattle?

I don’t know what will happen with the US Republican party. If Texas is best the party can offer, the party is starting to look like a Franco regime in which infrastructure is separate and sovereign, in which messaging is controlled to fit the party rather than reality, in which political power is maintained through suppression, physical and otherwise, rather than free and fair elections. The Republicans could end up looking like Franco, but at least Franco knew how to get a few things done.

It also could be curtains for the current Republican party orthodoxy. It’s possible that after the power grid catastrophe, after Cruz pulled back the curtain on how wealthy people sit on the beach while the rest of us figure out how to survive, Texans will figure out that profit isn’t everything, that regulation can be good for business, that sometimes government is the best answer.

When it was curtains for Franco, he reverted to the royalist playbook, bringing back the exiled King Juan Carlos. What Franco wanted was a way to stabilize Spain after his death. I assume Franco wanted to preserve his legacy, but who knows. What Spain ended up with is an expensive government. It now supports both a monarch and a democratically elected government.

Spain also fixed its trains after Franco died. There is high speed rail and, in spite of the gauge differences, international travel doesn’t require switching trains. When Simon said the protests were “about Hasel and just freedom of expression overall,” I took that to mean not just an end to royal power, but an end to Franco.

Covid-19 bits.

  • The US will surpass 500,000 confirmed Covid-19 deaths this coming week. According to excess deaths statistics, the actual number of dead is much higher.
  • US life expectancy declined by a year during the Covid-19 pandemic last year, the largest decline since World War II. The impact on minorities was higher.
  • Johnson & Johnson will have only a few million doses of its Covid-19 vaccine ready to ship when it presumably obtains FDA approval this month.
  • Sinovac reported its Phase 3 trial results. In Brazil, no Covid-19 deaths after 14 days.
  • The US CDC says food packaging is an unlikely medium for Covid-19 transmission.
  • WHO investigators found 13 different genetic sequences from Covid-19 cases in Wuhan in December 2019, suggesting that the virus had been circulating for some time. The Biden White House has asked China for more transparency in its early Covid-19 data.
  • Israel is measuring a 94% drop in symptomatic Covid-19 cases in populations that have received the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine. The real world is aligning with the trial world.
  • It looks like the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine works nearly as well with 1/2 the approved dose. Israel has measured 84%+ efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine with one dose. We also know that even though Johnson & Johnson is testing the effectiveness of using 2 doses of its vaccine, it works fine with one dose. These data points suggest that it’s possible to squeeze 2x more doses out of current production.
  • Denmark is seeing more Covid-19 outbreaks in school children as the new UK strain dominates cases there.
  • Researchers found that Covid-19 vaccines give better protection against emerging strains than natural immunity.
  • UK researchers have started the world’s first Covid-19 human challenge. About 100 young people will be exposed to the virus to study the way it infects people in a controlled setting.
  • Brazil is vaccinating the entire adult population of Serrana, a city of about 45,000 people in the south, to study how vaccinations reduce Covid-19 infections.
  • South Korea is providing Covid-19 tests for pets. If they test positive, they have to quarantine for 14 days. Fido may be dangerous for your health.
  • Researchers believe that high level of Covid-19 in saliva tests may be a good predictor of severe cases.
  • Austria will offer free Covid-19 tests in March to anyone.
  • A leaked study concludes Israel will achieve Covid-19 herd immunity next month.
  • Russia reports seven cases of H5N8 bird flu in humans. So far no reports of human-to-human transmission of this virus.

This is a helpful reminder about staying warm and ignoring Covid-19 disinformation.

2 thoughts on “21 February 2021 – Sunday – #135

  1. Please continue this blog. I love it and I learn so much. Always get a laugh, as well. Who are these crazy people who don’t wear coats when it’s snowing.?

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