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What Happened: October 28, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: Vaccine protests; Biden’s infrastructure bill; State Department queers the gender binary

The Scroll
October 28, 2021


The Big Story

Thousands of essential workers and first responders in New York City are protesting a vaccine mandate that they say violates their rights and makes no exemptions for people who have natural immunity after recovering from prior COVID-19 infections. Fire department officials warned Thursday that the city could see a 20% reduction in available ambulances and fire companies on Monday, after a deadline passes this Friday requiring public employees to have at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose. Workers who don’t comply with the mandate face unpaid leave. As of Wednesday, roughly 64% of firefighters were vaccinated. Compliance among police officers and the emergency medical service workers who staff ambulances is higher, at 74%, but only 67% sanitation workers have met the requirement. Hundreds of members of the New York City’s Uniformed Firefighters Association protested in front of City Hall Thursday while notable trash pileups in the city’s outer boroughs indicated a work slowdown by some members of the Sanitation Department. “First responders were exceedingly hard hit by COVID early in the pandemic, contracting the virus as they responded to calls amid a chaotic unknown. UFA says more than 70% of its members were infected at some point,” a local NBC News affiliate reports. New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio said that any staffing shortages would be dealt with on a “managerial level” and would not impact the city’s emergency services, but he did not provide details on how affected agencies could ensure there would be no lapses in essential coverage.

Read More:
Today’s Back Pages: Norman Doidge on the True History of Vaccines and Sources of Vaccine Hesitancy

The Rest

-President Biden pushed House Democrats Thursday to accept a new $1.85 trillion spending plan to fund social and environmental policies—still a vast proposal but scaled back from the original $3.5 trillion bill that the party’s Progressive wing had been pushing for. Biden delayed a trip to Europe to rally support for the new plan, which he said was crucial to his administration’s agenda and the country’s prestige. The new framework funds child-care subsidies, affordable housing, universal prekindergarten, and in-home care, and it authorizes $550 billion, mostly in tax credits, to combat climate change. But the framework leaves out several of the initiatives that earned the original plan its comparisons to President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program. It cuts funding for federal paid leave and free community college, among other provisions. To pay for the plan, Democrats plan to “raise the top tax rate on ordinary income to at least 45% and raise the top capital-gains rate to 31.8%” as well as apply “a 3.8% investment-income tax to active business income, hitting high-income owners of many closely held businesses,” The Wall Street Journal reports.

-Would U.S. public servants abuse their position and exploit a grave danger to their fellow citizens to make a crooked buck? It’s an unpleasant thought, but hold onto it when considering the new information about Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina. In February 2020, shortly after being briefed on privileged information about the likely economic impacts of the novel coronavirus, Burr sold more than $1.6 million worth of his stocks. Following his own fire sale, Burr called his brother-in-law Gerald Fauth, the chairman of the National Mediation Board. They spoke on the phone for 50 seconds, and that same day, Fauth “sold between $97,000 and $280,000 worth of shares in six companies,” ProPublica reports in a new article based on Securities and Exchange Commission filings investigating the sales. 
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-Top credit-rating agency Moody’s published a report this week warning that “systemic risks” caused by “explosive” growth in the $1 trillion private lending industry could have “broader economic consequences.” The industry “took off in the wake of the global financial crisis, when regulatory restrictions spurred many big banks to curtail their lending to smaller companies,” the Financial Times explains, which led to the growth that has resulted in the industry now being overleveraged. Moody’s warning is echoed by another rating agency, S&P Global, which also assessed “heightened risks” in the private credit market.

-The State Department (with a $58.5 billion annual budget) boasted Wednesday of having issued the first U.S. passport with a nonbinary gender option allowing people to mark X. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the new passport showed the agency’s “commitment to promoting the freedom, dignity, and equality of all people—including LGBTQI+ persons.” The Associated Press called it “a milestone in the recognition of the rights of people who do not identify as male or female.” Noted—and with that out of the way, The Scroll would like to issue an open challenge to anyone, including current State Department officials: Name any other accomplishments, just one will do, the agency (which got $58.5 billion last year, in case you were wondering) can claim credit for over the past 10 months that do not involve symbolic gestures, are related to its core mission negotiating treaties and promoting U.S. national interests to other states, and have demonstrably benefited the material interests of American citizens.

-Days after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) finally admitted to funding gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology—something officials, including Anthony Fauci, had repeatedly denied—it appears that the federal agency quietly deleted the page on their website that defined gain-of-function research.

For those that don’t know - this is how the @NIH defined “gain-of-function” on their website until at least October 19th, 2021. Just 3 days ago.

It looks like this section was deleted, and the page was edited, within the last 2-3 days. @R_H_Ebright @RandPaul

— Jeremy Redfern (@JeremyRedfernFL) October 22, 2021

-Which reminds us of this editorial in The Wall Street Journal yesterday that asked, “Where Are the Wuhan Subpoenas?” We now have hundreds of pages of documents in the public record that show how the NIH, through the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, provided a $600,000 grant in 2014 to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology to research titled “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence.” Add that to the abundant evidence of top U.S. officials lying and dissembling the facts about the origins of the research and U.S. government agencies’ connections to Chinese virus research, and it’s more than enough to merit an official investigation. 
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-There’s nothing surprising about hearing that a rap song at the top of the music charts has the suggestion of a dirty word in its title; sophisticated music listeners know that complaining about vulgarity is for Philistines. But it is a little weird, we’ve gotta admit, to learn that the current number one song on the iTunes music charts, which knocked the majestic Adele out of the top spot, is “Let’s Go Brandon,” an anthem by the pro-Trump rapper Bryson Gray that takes its title from a viral incident in which an NBC news reporter claimed that the chants of “Fuck Joe Biden” at a Nascar event were actually cheers of “Let’s go, Brandon.” The song has been banned on YouTube, but that hasn’t stopped it from blowing up. The audience for anti-Biden rap is large enough, as we are now learning, that, in addition to Gray’s No. 1 track, other songs using the “Let’s Go Brandon” title by different rappers also appear in the number 2,3, and 8 spots on the iTunes top 10 chart.
Read more:

-Chris Arnade is a former finance guy who left Wall Street to document American poverty and photograph the forgotten and overlooked parts of the country. He’s down in South Carolina at the moment putting his sharp eye and considerable talents as an anthropologist to use documenting the scene there in an unfolding photo essay he’s publishing to Twitter.
See it here:

Not sure you can begin a South Carolina walk with a more South Carolina-y scene (Palmetto tree sadly fallen & out of picture)

— Chris Arnade (@Chris_arnade) October 28, 2021

The Back Pages

Today’s Back Pages features the opening section of Dr. Norman Doidge’s masterful essay on vaccines. Doidge explains the historical development of vaccines in connection to American regulators and the pharmaceutical industry and guides readers through the complex set of instinctual reactions vaccines evoke, which can cloud our judgment and pique our tempers. It’s probably too late to say, “If you only read one thing on vaccines,” but if you only read one more thing, make it this. The full essay appears here in four parts and in an easy-to-read special PDF edition:

Since my days in medical school, I have had a fascination with the kernel insight behind vaccination: that one could successfully expose a person to an attenuated version of a microbe that would prepare and protect them for a potentially lethal encounter with the actual microbe. I marveled at how it tutors an immune system that, like the brain, has memory and a kind of intelligence, and even something akin to “foresight.” But I loved it for a broader reason too. At times modern science and modern medicine seem based on a fantasy that imagines the role of medicine is to conquer nature, as though we can wage a war against all microbes with “antimicrobials” to create a world where we will no longer suffer from infectious disease. Vaccination is not based on that sterile vision but its opposite; it works with our educable immune system, which evolved millions of years ago to deal with the fact that we must always coexist with microbes; it helps us to use our own resources to protect ourselves. Doing so is in accord with the essential insight of Hippocrates, who understood that the major part of healing comes from within, that it is best to work with nature and not against it.

And yet, ever since they were made available, vaccines have been controversial, and it has almost always been difficult to have a nonemotionally charged discussion about them. One reason is that in humans (and other animals), any infection can trigger an archaic brain circuit in most of us called the behavioral immune system (BIS). It’s a circuit that is triggered when we sense we may be near a potential carrier of disease, causing disgust, fear, and avoidance. It is involuntary, and not easy to shut off once it’s been turned on.

The BIS is best understood in contrast to the regular immune system. The “regular immune system” consists of antibodies and T-cells and so on, and it evolved to protect us once a problematic microbe gets inside us. The BIS is different; it evolved to prevent us from getting infected in the first place, by making us hypersensitive to hygiene, hints of disease in other people, even signs that they are from another tribe—since, in ancient times, encounters with different tribes could wipe out one’s own tribe with an infectious disease they carried. Often the “foreign” tribe had its own long history of exposure to pathogens, some of which it still carried, but to which it had developed immunity in some way. Members of the tribe were themselves healthy, but dangerous to others. And so we developed a system whereby anything or anyone that seems like it might bear significant illness can trigger an ancient brain circuit of fear, disgust, and avoidance.

It can also trigger rage, but rage is complex, because it is normally expressed by getting close to the object, and attacking it. But with contagion, one fears getting too close, so generally the anger is expressed by isolating the plague-bearer. The BIS is thus an alarm system specific to contagion (and, I should add, to the fear of being poisoned, which before the development of modern chemistry often came from exposure to living things and their dangerous byproducts, such as venoms). Thus it can also be triggered by nonanimate things, like body fluids of some kinds, surfaces others may have touched, or even more abstract ideas like “going to the grocery store.” There is one exception: The BIS doesn’t get or stay activated in people who don’t feel vulnerable, perhaps because they have good PPE, or because their youth gives them strong innate immunity, or because they know they’re already immune, or because they’re seriously misled or delusional about the reality of the disease. For everyone else, though, what might trigger the system is rather plastic; but once triggered, the system is involuntary.

The BIS is, I would argue, one of the instinctual reactions that missed appearing in medical textbooks perhaps because we’ve not had a pandemic on this scale for 100 years. Because it focuses on potential bearers of disease, the BIS triggers many false alarms, since an infected person may at first show only the mildest and nonspecific symptoms, such as a cough or sniffle, before they become deathly ill; that’s why even a small exhalation or a surface touched by a stranger could trigger the BIS. Were it a medical test of danger, we would say this system tends to err on the “false positive” side. We see it firing every day now, when someone drives alone wearing a mask, or goes for a walk by themselves in an empty forest masked, or when someone—say with good health and no previous known adverse reactions to vaccines—hears that a vaccine can in one in 500,000 cases cause death, but can’t take any comfort that they have a 99.999% chance of it not happening because it potentially can. Before advanced brain areas are turned on and probabilities are factored in, the BIS is off and running.

One of the reasons our discussions of vaccination are so emotionally radioactive, inconsistent, and harsh, is that the BIS is turned on in people on both sides of the debate. Those who favor vaccination are focused on the danger of the virus, and that triggers their system. Those who don’t are focused on the fact that the vaccines inject into them a virus or a virus surrogate or even a chemical they think may be poisonous, and that turns on their system. Thus both sides are firing alarms (including many false-positive alarms) that put them in a state of panic, fear, loathing, and disgust of the other.

And now these two sides of the vaccination debate are tearing America apart, at many levels: families, friendships, states, and the federal government. It’s even affecting the country’s ability to deal with the pandemic, splitting hospital staffs and sundering relations between the scientists studying it.

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