An Alternative to Chasing New Variants of SARS-CoV-2

In discussing the push to vaccinate against COVID-19 in developed economies like the US, UK, etc., what gets lost in political rhetoric is the importance of effective vaccination among the immunosuppressed, especially the HIV+ group.

In groups with underlying immunosuppression [i.e., people with hematological malignancies, people receiving immunosuppressive therapies for solid organ transplants, or other chronic medical conditions], there have been reports of prolonged COVID-19 infection. The latest one is from South Africa, where an HIV+ patient experienced persistent COVID-19 infection –of 216 days– with moderate severity. The constant shedding of the SARS-CoV-2 virus accelerated its evolution inside this patient. This is possible because suboptimal adaptive immunity delays clearance of the SARS-CoV-2 virus but provides enough selective pressure to drive the evolution of new viral variants. In this case, the mutational changes of the virus within the patient resembled the Beta variant.

The largest population of immunosuppressed [HIV+] is in South Africa. So an alternative to chasing variants like Delta and Beta after their largescale emergence or trying to convince people who reject vaccination in the Global North is to tackle super-spreading micro-epidemics of novel variants among the immunosuppressed in the Global South. Since Novovax and J&J are demonstrably ineffective among the immunosuppressed, the Moderna vaccine is the best bet to slow down the emergence of future variants.

Who has millions of unused mRNA Covid-19 vaccines that are set to go to waste? The answer is the United States. As demand dwindles across the United States and doses will likely expire this summer, why not use them in the Global South, especially South Africa, by a concerted international effort?

US and China: Knowledge Deficit or Trade Deficit?

The problems with headlines such as this: “US Trade Balance With China Improves, but Sources of Tension Linger” are twofold.

A: It furnishes support to the notion that trade surpluses are FOREVER safe and trade deficits are INVARIABLY grave. That is not accurate because foreign countries will always wish to invest capital in countries like the US, which employ it relatively well. One clear case of a nation that borrowed massively from abroad, invested wisely and did excellently well is the United States itself. Although the US ran a trade deficit from 1831 to 1875, the borrowed financial capital went into projects like railroads that brought a substantial economic payoff. Likewise, South Korea had large trade deficits during the 1970s. However, it invested heavily in industry, and its economy multiplied. As a result, from 1985 to 1995, South Korea had enough trade surpluses to repay its past borrowing by exporting capital abroad. Furthermore, Norway’s current account deficit had reached 14 percent of GDP in the late 1970s, but the capital it imported enabled it to create one of the largest oil industries.

B: The headline makes a normative claim while equating bilateral trade deficit with the overarching narrative of bilateral tensions. Such normative claims follow from the author’s value-based reasoning, not from econometric investigation. China and the US may have ideological friction on many levels, but the surplus or deficit has much to do with demographics and population changes within a country at a given time. Nonetheless, a legacy of political rhetoric relishes on inflating and conflating matters. We hear a lot about the prediction that China is forecasted to become the largest economy by 2035, provoking many in the US to bat for protectionist policies. But we ignore the second part of this prediction. Based on population growth, migration (aided by liberal immigration policies) and total fertility rate, the US is forecasted to become the largest economy once again in 2098. 

Therefore, it is strange that a lot of the “trade deficit imbalance” headlines neglect to question if the borrower is investing the capital productively or not. A trade deficit is not always harmful, and no guarantee that running a trade surplus will bring substantial economic health. In fact, enormous trade asymmetries can be essential for creating economic development.

Lastly, isn’t it equally odd that this legacy of political rhetoric between the US and China makes it natural to frame trade deficits with China under the ‘China’s abuses and coercive power’ banner but intimidates the US establishment from honestly and openly confronting the knowledge deficit in SARS-CoV-2’s origin? How and when does a country decide to bring sociology to epistemology? Shouldn’t we all be concerned more about significant knowledge deficits?

Relicts of the past? The current challenges for diplomacy

The last few weeks were quite a blast for me: I’ve interned at the German embassy in Rome. A new job in a new city. I thought to process the experiences I made here in one (or a few?) articles.

It’s been quite a rough month for Germany’s Foreign Affairs department. First, Daniel Kriener, the German ambassador in Venezuela, was forced to leave the country after welcoming Interim President Guiadó at the airport of Caracas. Interestingly, although plenty of other diplomats joined him, he was the only one to be declared a “persona non grata” for interfering in Venezuela’s internal affairs. A few weeks later, a deputy speaker of the German Bundestag (who is also a member of the liberal party) demands to expel the US ambassador Grenell for the same offence. Prior, the US diplomat has criticized Germany’s plan to break their promise of contributing more to NATO’s defence budget. Albeit I politically agree with both actions of the diplomats in these cases, they delineate the ongoing structural changes in the diplomacy sector. To illustrate this, I will first provide a theoretical framework to analyze ongoing diplomatic challenges before trying to examine the role of diplomacy in the future.

Principal-Agent Theory and decreasing relevance

I conceive diplomacy as mostly a principal-agent based problem. I believe that many problems in diplomatic negotiations can be traced back to the classic effects of asymmetric information. Since two principals, in this case two states, cannot negotiate with each other directly in most cases, these arbitrations are carried out between various agents. Those agents are of course not always the ambassadors. In a broad meaning, one can apply the principal-agent paradigm to diplomacy by every negotiating process initiated by the state.

Through the lens of the principal-agent paradigm, I perceive the main task of diplomacy to achieve a good negotiating position, for example through an informational advantage. However, due to globalization, state-to-state diplomacy has been drastically weakened. The negotiating game is now mostly carried out within other institutions with lower transactions costs. Two countries want a new trade deal? Just orientate on WTO Rules. Sue another country? Call the International Criminal Court. A few voices made reasonable arguments even for abolishing unnecessary embassies and only keeping the crucial ones. The Trump administration, for example, seems not eagerly committed to fill the around 18 vacant ambassador positions hastily.

Certainly, the globalization combined with the expansion of robust institutions leaves little space for traditional diplomacy as a driving force in interstate relations. This is not necessarily a bad development: As Paul W. Meerts points out, this can be a huge chance for weaker states since negotiating in multilateral rather than bilateral constellations tends to weaken the position of stronger states. Thus, playing out the trump cards in negotiations will be harder for the hegemon. We can currently witness this in the Brexit debate: Even though the strong states, Germany and France, have a vast repertoire of power resources to use as leverage against GB in the negotiations, the can hardly deploy them through EU’s multipolar negotiating structure.

Contrary, there are also recent examples of deploying bilateral traditional diplomacy measures successfully. China’s initiation of Italy’s accession to the Belt Road Initiative (see Tridivesh Singh Maini’s great article here for a quick overview) is a prime example for this. But no other case shows the weaknesses of bilateral diplomacy in a more drastic way: China was able to transpose their tremendous power resources into a deal which heavily favours the Chinese economy. The very ambiguous agreement laid down a strategy of “closer economic collaboration.” The oppositional criticism of the deal coming from the very left and the right is based on economic nationalism and thus misses the important point. Chinese government exerts immense influence on key enterprises like  Tencent, Alibaba, and Badoo: Digital fundamental research topics such as AI were distributed to the firms not through competition but through the state ( I highly recommend Amy Webb’s EconTalk if you want to dig deeper into this.). Once they build sufficient digital infrastructure here in Europe, network effects and technological advantage will come into effect and engender high entry barriers and exit costs. This makes it easy for China to enforce its regulation rather than obeying European ones. Although it is hard to finally determine if multilateral negotiations would have secured a politically better deal, I favour higher short-term transaction cost of multilateral negotiations over the long-term threat showed above.

Embassies as service provider

Of course, taking care of a good interstate negotiation position is not the only task of an embassy. A popular counterargument is that the principal-agent perspective neglects the vital daily business of embassies to help their citizens abroad. Speaking of large and prestigious Embassies though, I estimate that their role as service provider for abroad living citizens will further decline. Most of their maintenance work for citizens living abroad will be redundant due to technological process and further institutionalization. Renewing a Passport, issuing visas and transporting back coffins (yep) are a frequent task, but easy to “source out” to private actors in the future.

But what is the role for ambassadors and embassies then?

This question is where it gets interesting in my opinion. Deeply rooted in international conventions and international customary law, discreet and silent work has been prerequisite for an ambassador. Carefully collecting small pieces of information and building bridges to local actors were the key for a good negotiating position. But as elaborated above, international institutions do the job more efficiently. A new role of ambassadors as advocates for concrete policy measures would be diametrically opposed to international conventions. Based upon the “legality creates legitimacy” premises, a further politicization of diplomacy seems not at present having a majority and thus is unlikely to be buttressed by legal means.

However, if we fall back into a narrative of nationalism, bilateral diplomacy will regain relevance. Otherwise, it will continue to slowly lose importance and eventually wane. Hence, the main challenge nowadays is to look for the right niche for traditional diplomacy – and it seems that it has not been found yet.

Entendiendo la inmigración a los Estados Unidos

El día de hoy murieron una o dos personas intentando cruzar la frontera entre México y Estados Unidos. El número de fallecidos es, sin embargo, ignorado pues la mayoría de la información existente sobre la situación migratoria en el sur de Estados Unidos se encuentra oculta por un manto de ignorancia y desinterés político crónico que ha desgastado los incentivos para discutir y explorar el tema migratorio.

Los datos provistos por el gobierno de los Estados Unidos de América son, sin embargo, alarmantes. Desde octubre, 2013 hasta junio de este año más de 52,000 niños sin acompañantes alcanzaron la fronteras superando en un 200% la cantidad reportada por el gobierno el año anterior.  Se espera que en el año 2014 más de 70,000 niños intentaran cruzar la frontera.

Tres niñas en vestido de quinceañeras juegan en Tijuana al lado del muro de la frontera México-USA. Fotografía: Romel Jacinto. Flickr. CC.
Tres niñas en vestido de quinceañeras juegan en Tijuana al lado del muro de la frontera México-USA.
Fotografía: Romel Jacinto. Flickr. CC.

La crisis aumentó cuando las imágenes de niños en campos de deportación empezaron a ser compartidas en las redes noticiosas y redes sociales. El gobierno de Barack Obama (quien ganó el premio Nobel de la Paz en el año 2009) reaccionó solicitando al Congreso de los Estados Unidos la cantidad de US$3,700 millones para empezar a responder a la emergencia humanitaria. El plan, en general, es una campaña cortoplacista que busca apaciguar las aguas en espera de que los medios de comunicación se interesen por otros temas.

En los países centroamericanos (la región de donde provienen la mayoría de estos niños) los gobiernos también reaccionaron rápidamente solicitando recursos económicos para financiar campañas de ‘educación’ y ‘concientización’ sobre las amenazas que representa realizar el viaje de alrededor de 2,000 millas. Estos gobiernos también reaccionan en espera de que la atención de este urgente problema se desvíe hacia los otros problemas cotidianos de seguridad, hambre, corrupción, insalubridad y pobreza que afectan la región.

La única solución para frenar esta crisis humanitaria, sin embargo, está muy lejos o es prácticamente imposible de conseguir si las condiciones globales actuales no cambian. Además, la solución a la situación migratoria requerirá que acciones legales, económicas y sociales sean tomadas en los países de Estados Unidos, México y Centro América para encontrar respuestas a largo plazo en estos países. De no hacerse nada, la actual situación migratoria continuará sin solucionarse de la misma manera en que la Guerra contra las Drogas continúa año con año aumentando.

Actualmente, la reforma migratoria no será discutida en el Congreso de los Estados Unidos de América y las acciones necesarias para atacar el flujo originario de inmigrantes indocumentados en los países de origen implican un reto dantesco. Los migrantes centroamericanos viajan al norte en busca de empleos y escapando de la violencia en la que fue inmersa el Istmo Centroamericano desde finales del siglo XX por el crecimiento del crimen organizado, las mafias del narcotráfico y la incapacidad de los gobiernos por afrontar los cambios globales fomentando un desarrollo económico sostenible para responder a las demandas de la economía mundial.

A pesar de la firma de un tratado de comercio regulado entre Estados Unidos y Centroamérica en el año 2005 conocido como DR-CAFTA, los países centroamericanos han sido incapaces de aprovechar las ventajas competitivas del tratado y los beneficios han sido para tan solo algunos sectores económicos.

Inmigrantes hondureños y salvadoreños que cruzaron la frontera entre Mexico-USA detenidos en Tejas.  Fotografía: Eric Gay/AP
Inmigrantes hondureños y salvadoreños que cruzaron la frontera entre Mexico-USA detenidos en Tejas.
Fotografía: Eric Gay/AP

Pero no crea estimado lector que la batalla está totalmente perdida para las miles de personas que buscan mejorar sus condiciones de vida mediante la migración forzosa de la que son víctimas. A continuación les comparto algunos estudios y ensayos que analizan el tema y profundizan en la compleja situación migratoria que enfrenta el continente americano. Al final del día, es solo educándonos y compartiendo el conocimiento adquirido que podremos contribuir a la búsqueda de soluciones a este tema migratorio que hasta el día de hoy ha sido detenido por una filosofía política inmoral y inhumana.



Cooling of relations between the U.S. and Russia

Добрый день, читатели сообщества! Сегодня я хотел бы поделиться с Вами моими соображениями касательно последних событий в мире, имеющих отношение к России и США. В частности, меня интересует проблема некоторого ухудшения отношений между нашими странами. Началось все, если рассматривать только недавние события, с дела о смерти Магнитского и принятии закона, запрещающего депутатам из России иметь счета в зарубежных банках. После этого рассматривались несколько дел о смерти русских детей в американских семьях – и как следствие – принятие закона, запрещающего американским семьям усыновлять моих соотечественников из детских домов. Закон, понятное дело, чудовищный. Я не понимаю, почему депутаты, которым слегка ограничили права решили отыграться на русских детях. Русский народ, кстати, тоже не понимает. Данный закон, принятый несколько месяцев назад собрал большое количество негативных откликов со стороны граждан России, однако он так и не был отменен. В этом вопросе я полностью поддерживаю Америку и право американских семей усыновлять детей из России. Законы остаются в силе, а наши отношения между странами ухудшились. Большое количество детей лишились своего права на счастье. Что скрывать, средняя американская семья способна предоставить ребенку из России больше, чем средняя русская. Дело, в основном, в различии материальных уровней и сложившемся менталитете. Именно с финансовой стороны вопроса, а также со стороны “возможностей”, одинокие дети могут получить в Америке больше вариантов развития. Не буду касаться такого понятия как “патриотизм” и “любовь”, так как боюсь быть непонятым в сообществе, равно как и непонятым моими русскими друзьями. Я стараюсь трезво оценивать вещи, не углубляясь в эфемерные материи.

Тем не менее, закон принят, и русские сироты навсегда потеряли возможность перебраться в Америку. Возможно, многие обвинят меня в излишнем либерализме или про-западных взглядах, но я со своей позиции не сверну. Есть некоторые вещи, на которые нельзя закрывать глаза.