The Outbreaks That Never Happened and the Unseen Success of Global Institutions

Given all the death and dysfunction resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is worth appreciating the many potential outbreaks that never happened, thanks to the efforts of Kenya, Mozambique, and Niger, alongside the United Nations and other international partners

In December 2019, just months before the COVID-19 pandemic came in full swing, these nations managed to halt an outbreak of a rare strain of “vaccine-derived polio”, which occurs “where overall immunization is low and that have inadequate sanitation, leading to transmission of the mutated polio virus”. It is all the more commendable given that Niger is among the ten poorest countries in the world.

The fact that polio remains both rare and relatively easy to quash is the results of a U.N.-backed campaign announced in 2005 to immunize 34 million children from the debilitating disease, which often leaves victims permanently disabled. The effort was led by  by World Health Organization the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Rotary International, and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A nurse administers an oral poliovirus vaccine (OPV) to a baby at the Kaloko Clinic, Ndola, Zambia.
© UNICEF/Karin Schermbrucke

A little over fifteen years later, two out of three strains of polio have been eradicated—one as recently as last year—while the remaining strain is in just three countries: Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. This once widespread disease is on its way to becoming only the second human disease to be eradicated, after smallpox, which once killed tens of millions annually. That feat, accomplished only in 1979, was also a multinational effort led by the U.N., even involving Cold War rivals America and Russia.

Even now, the much-maligned WHO actively monitors the entire world for “acute public health events” or other health emergences of concern that could portend a future pandemic. As recently as one month ago, the U.N. agency issued an alert and assessment concerning cases of MERS-Cov (a respirator illness related to COVID-19) in Saudi Arabia. Dozens of other detailed reports have been published the past year through WHO’s “Disease Outbreak News” service, spanning everything from Ebola in Guinea to “Monkeypox” in the United States. (WHO also has an influenza monitoring network spanning over half the world’s countries, including the U.S.).

Not bad for an agency with an annual budget of slightly over two billion—smaller than many large U.S. hospitals. (And contrary to popular belief in the U.S., the WHO did in fact move relatively quickly with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic:

On 31 December 2019, WHO’s China office picked up a media statement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission mentioning viral pneumonia. After seeking more information, WHO notified partners in the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN), which includes major public health institutes and laboratories around the world, on 2 January. Chinese officials formally reported on the viral pneumonia of unknown cause on 3 January. WHO alerted the global community through Twitter on 4 January and provided detailed information to all countries through the international event communication system on 5 January. Where there were delays, one important reason was that national governments seemed reluctant to provide information

Of course, it goes without saying that the WHO, and global institutions generally, have their shortcomings and failings (as I previously discussed). But much of that stems from structural weaknesses imposed by the very governments that criticize these international organizations in the first place:

WHO also exemplifies the reluctance of member states to fully trust one another. For example, member states do not grant WHO powers to scrutinise national data, even when they are widely questioned, or to conduct investigations into infectious diseases if national authorities do not agree, or to compel participation in its initiatives. Despite passing a resolution on the need for solidarity in response to covid-19, many member states have chosen self-centred paths instead. Against WHO’s strongest advice, vaccine nationalism has risen to the fore, with nations and regional blocks seeking to monopolise promising candidates. Similarly, nationalistic competition has arisen over existing medicines with the potential to benefit patients with covid-19. Forgoing cooperation for selfishness, some nations have been slow to support the WHO organised common vaccine development pool, with some flatly refusing to join.

The tensions between what member states say and do is reflected in inequalities in the international governance of health that have been exploited to weaken WHO systematically, particularly after it identified the prevailing world economic order as a major threat to health and wellbeing in its 1978 Health for All declaration. WHO’s work on a code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes around the same time increased concern among major trade powers that WHO would use its health authority to curtail private industry. Starting in 1981, the US and aligned countries began interfering with WHO’s budget, announcing a policy of “zero growth” to freeze the assessed contributions that underpinned its independence and reorienting its activities through earmarked funds. The result is a WHO shaped by nations that can pay for their own priorities. This includes the preference that WHO focus on specific diseases rather than the large social, political, and commercial determinants of health or the broad public health capacities in surveillance, preparedness, and other areas needed for pandemic prevention and management

In fact, it was this prolonged period of chronic underfunding, and of WHO member states prioritizing nonemergency programs, that precipitated the agency’s abysmal failings in the early phases of the 2014 Ebola outbreak. But once that crisis ended, member states, rather than defund or abandon the organization, opted to reform and strengthen its emergency functions; this overhaul resulted in the Health Emergencies Program, which was tested by the pandemic and thus far proven relatively robust:

On 31 December 2019, WHO’s China office picked up a media statement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission mentioning viral pneumonia. After seeking more information, WHO notified partners in the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN), which includes major public health institutes and laboratories around the world, on 2 January. Chinese officials formally reported on the viral pneumonia of unknown cause on 3 January. WHO alerted the global community through Twitter on 4 January and provided detailed information to all countries through the international event communication system on 5 January. Where there were delays, one important reason was that national governments seemed reluctant to provide information.

I know I am digressing into a defense of WHO, but that ties into the wider problem of too many governments and their voters believing that global governance is ineffective at best and harmfully dysfunctional at worst. We Americans, in particular, as constituents of the richest country in the world, have more sway than any society in how institutions like the U.N. function—or indeed whether they are even allowed to function.

As our progress with polio, smallpox, and many other diseases makes clear, what many Americans decry as “globalism” is actually more practical and effective than we think, and increasingly more relevant than ever. We fortunately have many potential outbreaks that never happened to prove it.

The Joys of Bottled Borscht in Space

Across different times, cultures, and places, food has always been a unifier. This is especially salient in space, where the tough environment and complete detachment from Earth makes a good meal both comforting and psychologically affirming.

Some endearing examples: pictured below are American astronauts holding what appear to be tubes of Russian vodka given to them by Russian cosmonauts in a gesture of goodwill. This followed the famous “handshake in space” of 1975, when the two political and scientific rivals docked one another’s flagship space vessels in an unlikely display of cooperation and mutual respect (notwithstanding continued rivalry in and out space). The “vodka” was actually Russian borscht, a sour but hearty beet soup.

Supercluster

Flashforward to this photo of a typical dinner night aboard the International Space Station, which by some measures is the largest and most expensive scientific project in history. Not much has changed otherwise.

01G_SEP2015_Meals Group B_LIVE.jpg

Once again, the U.S. and Russia have come together in space exploration, despite their very real political differences, this time joined by Japan, Canada, and over eleven European nations. This makes the creature comforts of space all the more enjoyable, as Smithsonian Magazine notes:

One big perk of international cooperation on the station is the advancement of the space food frontier. Astronauts and cosmonauts regularly gather on both sides of the station to share meals and barter food items. Roscosmos’ contribution to the food rations is the unique assortment of canned delicacies from traditional Russian cuisine. Perlovka (pearl barley porridge) and tushonka (meat stew), dishes familiar to the Russian military veterans since World War II, found new popularity among the residents of the station. Cosmonaut Aleksandr Samokutyaev says his American counterparts were big fans of Russian cottage cheese.

The cosmonauts, meanwhile, have few complaints about sharing meals with a country that flies up real frozen ice cream (not the freeze-dried stuff made for gift shops), as the U.S. did in 2012. Ryazansky has also spoken fondly of the great variety of American pastries. “We should say,” he clarified, “our food is better than the Americans’…. Despite the variety, everything is already spiced. But in ours, if you wish you can make it spicy; if you want, you can make it sour. American rations have great desserts and veggies; however, they lack fish. Our Russian food has great fish dishes.” The cosmonauts’ cuisine benefits when European and Japanese crew arrive. Both agencies brought unique flavors from their culinary heritages—including the one thing the cosmonauts really wanted. “Japanese rations have great fish,” Ryazansky wrote.

Every new cargo ship comes with fresh produce, filling the stale air on the station with the aroma of apples and oranges. Deprived of strong flavors in their packaged food, cosmonauts often craved the most traditional Russian condiment: fresh garlic. Mission control took the request seriously. “They sent us so much that even if you eat one for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we still had plenty left to oil ourselves all over our bodies for a nice sleep,” Suraev joked on his blog.

There’s something endearing and downright adorable about astronauts perhaps the world’s toughest and gruffest folks, one would think — excitedly exchanging meals with one another like kids trading candy on the playground. It almost makes you forget all the petty and vicious squabbles back on Earth. (As I understand it, scientists, space explorers, and visionaries of these nations tend to operate on a different level than their politicians.)

International Day of Human Space Flight

Gagarin’s Breakfast (2011), a whimsical take on the first man in space by Alexey Akindinov.

I was so busy reeling from the results of my cursed Bar Exam that I forgot April 12 was also a much happier occasion: International Day of Human Space Flight, which commemorates the 1961 flight of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin—the first man to enter outer space and the first to orbit the Earth. He spent 108 minutes aboard the Vostok 1, which was basically one big cannonball with rudimentary, if resourceful, technology.

Gagarin subsequently became the most visible and iconic Russian in the world, a far cry from dour and disreputable figures that were more familiar to outsiders. His natural charm and friendliness—both personally and in every media spotlight—earned him the moniker “the Smiling Soviet“, as it contradicted the popular image of Russians as gruff and sullen.

Gagarin’s childhood home in the tiny town of Klushino.

How does one become the first human in space, especially as the son of peasants in a country as seemingly blighted as Soviet Russia? After personally enduring the grief and hardship of the Second World War—including having his home occupied by a German officer, and serving in the resistance—Gagarin returned to normal life; he loved math and science in school, and was fascinated with planes, building model aircraft and eventually a local flying club. Unsurprisingly, he joined the Soviet Air Force, where his confidence and knack for flying were matched only by his astute technical knowledge; as a youth, he worked in a steel factory and later went to vocational school, learning about industrial work and tractors.

As the Soviet space program went into high gear in the 1960s, Gagarin and other talented pilots were being screened for their fitness and aptitude as “cosmonauts”—something no one had ever been before. (There was only so much we could know about the effect of space travel on a human.)

When it came down to him and 19 other candidates, an Air Force doctor made the following evaluation of him:

Modest; embarrasses when his humor gets a little too racy; high degree of intellectual development evident in Yuri; fantastic memory; distinguishes himself from his colleagues by his sharp and far-ranging sense of attention to his surroundings; a well-developed imagination; quick reactions; persevering, prepares himself painstakingly for his activities and training exercises, handles celestial mechanics and mathematical formulae with ease as well as excels in higher mathematics; does not feel constrained when he has to defend his point of view if he considers himself right; appears that he understands life better than a lot of his friends.

Gagarin was also heavily favored by his peers—even those otherwise competing with him for the glory of first man in space.  When the 20 candidates were asked to anonymously vote for which other candidate they would like to see as the first to fly, all but three chose him

Another favorable factor was, of all things, his short stature (at least partly a product of his rough and impoverished childhood). At just 5’2″, Gagarin could easily fit in the small, rudimentary cockpit of the Vostok 1. (Being the first into space is scary enough—imagine in something that cramped.)

As Valentina Malmy wrote beautifully in the book Star Peace:

He was like a sound amplified by a mountain echo. The traveler is small, but the mountains are great, and suddenly they merge into a single whole. Such was Yuri Gagarin. To accomplish a heroic exploit means to step beyond one’s own sense of self-preservation, to have the courage to dare what today seems unthinkable for the majority. And to be ready to pay for it. For the hero himself, his feat is the limit of all possibilities. If he leaves something “in reserve”, then the most courageous deed thereby moves into the category of work: hard, worthy of all glorification, but — work. An act of heroism is always a breakthrough into the Great Unknown. Even given most accurate preliminary calculations, man enters into that enterprise as if blindfold, full of inner tension.

I can’t wrap my head around being the first person to venture into something as unknown and terrifying as space—to be able put your thumb up in front of you and our big planet as small as your fingernail.

Little wonder why Gagarin became such a worldwide celebrity, touring dozens of countries in the years following his fateful flight. The geopolitical implications melted away in the face of this impressive feat, and the man’s genuine charm and affability—this was something all humankind could celebrate.

Of course, this was still the Cold War: As a living symbol of Soviet triumph, Gagarin could not be risked on another spaceflight, given their inherent danger even today, let alone fifty years ago. Ironically, he died unexpectedly just a few years later during a routine training flight, an event subject to much secrecy and rumor (one conspiracy theory is that newly installed Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev ordered his death due to being overshadowed by the gregarious cosmonaut at public events).

For his part, the “Smiling Soviet” seemed above such politics, notwithstanding his (likely symbolic) stint as a member of the Soviet legislature. As to be expected, being the first man in space really changes you and puts things in perspective; you’re literally looking down on everything you, and all your fellow humans, have ever known. I wonder if it was surreal or even lonely being the only person with that sort of view.

Despite being banned from the U.S. by the Kennedy Administration—perhaps because his popularity among average Americans undermined the competitive spirit of the Space Race—Gagarin was honored by the Apollo 11 crew (ironically the same mission that ended the race in America’s favor). Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left a memorial on the surface of the moon commemorating him and fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, the first human to venture into Outer Space, and the first to die there. (Another memorial was left by Apollo 15 in 1971 to commemorate the Americans and Russians who died in space.)

Though untimely and cruelly ironic—an expert pilot dying from a routine flight rather than the first space mission—Gagarin is survived by one hell of a legacy: The almost banal regularity of human spaceflight in the 21st century is a testament to his courageous and spirited embrace of the ultimate unknown.

The World’s Biggest Charity You’ve Never Heard of

Did you know that the world’s largest and most successful charity and nongovernmental organization (NGO) is from Bangladesh? It is the only organization from a poor country to rank among the top in the world.

Founded in 1972, BRAC—which once stood for the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee—was the brainchild of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, a wealthy corporate accountant who was horrified by the state of his country, particularly following a devastating cyclone, which killed 300,000 people, and a bloody liberation war that killed between 300,000 and 3 million people, most of them civilians..

Whereas most would have despaired at this hopeless situation, Abed got to work. Having lived and worked in the U.K. for a time, he could have simply fled there, but instead sold his London flat and used the funds to create BRAC. The new organization immediately built housing for war refugees and storm survivors; within a year, it reportedly built up to 14,000 homes, as well several hundred fishing boats to support the refugees’ livelihoods.

BRAC soon expanded into every possible area of human development. It worked from the ground up, at the village level, to invest in agriculture, fisheries, worker cooperatives, rural crafts, adult literacy, health and family planning, vocational training for women, and community centers. To ensure efficiency, it established a Research and Evaluation Division (RED) to evaluate its programs and projects for their success, and to learn from any mistakes or shortcomings. Based on what was learned, BRAC took a more targeted approach to charity by creating “Village Organisations” (VO) to assist the most vulnerable people in Bangladesh, such as the landless, small farmers, artisans, and women. To finance its activities, it set up a commercial printing press and a handicraft retail chain, both of which employed poor people.

When diarrhea emerged as a leading cause of death for children (as it was historically and in poorer societies), BRAC initiated a field trial in two village, teaching rural mothers how to prepare a simple oral rehydration solution (ORS) that could save their children’s lives. Overtime, it scaled up its operations, which in the span of ten years taught 12 million households across over 75,000 villages across the country how to prepare ORS. The country has one of the highest rates of diarrhea treatment, with child mortality rates plummeting from 133 deaths out of 1,000 births in 1989 to 46 deaths per 1,000 in 2014—a decline of 65 percent.

The scientific and open-minded approach to charity is part of BRAC’s company culture and brand. As the Economist reported:

[BRAC] is also one of the world’s best charities. NGO Advisor, which tries to keep score, has put it top of the heap for the past four years. Its corporate culture is a little like an old-fashioned engineering firm. BEACH employees are problem-solvers rather than intellectuals, and they communicate well—the organisation constantly tweaks its programmes in response to data and criticisms from local staff. Some of its innovations have spread around the world.

Today, BRAC has about 100,000 full-time staff, mostly in Bangladesh but increasingly abroad, too. According to the World Bank, its program in Afghanistan significantly boosted incomes and women’s employment; its after-school clubs in Uganda appear to have reduced teen pregnancy rates and encouraged girls to pursue careers; and its innovate anti-poverty program, focused on giving assets and training to poor women, has been adopted with great success by charities in Ethiopia, Honduras, and India.

As of 2018, BRAC lent money to almost 8 million people and educated more than 1 million children across Bangladesh and ten other countries. Per its multifaceted approach to charity, it has founded or been involved in just about every possible venture: A university, a bank, over 8,700 primary schools, a dairy processor, a cold storage company to preserve farmers’ goods, and so much more.

BRAC is a reminder that even the poorest nations, no matter how “backward” or benighted they may seem, harbor incredible talent, creativity, and potential for progress.

Source: The Economist

The Developing Countries Winning Against COVID-19

It’s been heartening to see that many poorer countries or regions are faring a lot better than expected. For all the death and suffering that’s occured, it’s important to acknowledge the deaths and pain that haven’t—and to derive some important lessons, since these are places that don’t have our wealth and resources.

Costa Rica has had one of the most successful pandemic responses in the world. It was the first Latin American country to record a case—which is actually indicative of its open and efficient monitoring—and citizens have been able to lean on its universal healthcare system, on which it spends a higher proportion of its GDP than the average rich country (and subsequently has one of the world’s highest life expectancies). It implemented nationwide lockdowns and tests quickly, and has done a good enough job that it stared partially lifting restrictions as early as May 1st—albeit with strict restrictions (only a quarter of seats can be filled in sporting venues, while small businesses are limited in the number of customers they can serve).

The country’s President Carlos Alvarado has been transparent: “We have had relative and fragile success, but we cannot let our guard down.” Hence the borders will remain closed until at least this Friday, while restrictions will remain on driving to keep the virus from spreading: Driving at night is banned and drivers may only drive on certain days depending on their license plate number.

Ghana and Rwanda—which hardly come to mind as world-class innovators—each teamed up with an American company to become the first countries in the world to deliver medical aid and tests via drones to out-of-reach rural areas. Doctors and health facilities use an app to order blood, vaccines, and protective equipment that get delivered in just minutes. Rwanda, which has become a little known but prominent tech hub, started using drones as early as 2016 for 21 hospitals; now the drones are used to serve close to 2,500 hospitals and health facilities across Rwanda and Ghana.

Vietnam (with almost 100 million people) and the Indian state of Kerala (roughly the size of California), both learned from previous outbreaks and acted quickly and decisively to contain the outbreak. As the Economist magazine put it, despite their poverty, they have “a long legacy of investment in public health and particularly in primary care, with strong, centralised management, an institutional reach from city wards to remote villages and an abundance of skilled personnel.” Lack of wealth did not stop them from making the necessary investments.

Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic that’s hardly a household name, has pioneered remote learning. Two days after its lockdown, the Ministry of Public Education announced an unprecedented plan to roll out virtual courses and resources for its 6.1 million school students. In a matter of days, it made available over 350 video lessons to go live on national TV channels; the lessons are available in the dominant languages of Uzbek and Russian as well as sign language. Free data access has been granted to educational platforms, making them accessible for all school students and their parents. An average of 100 video classes are being prepared daily.

While it is too soon to tell what’s in store for these nations in the long term, they have proven that you don’t need lots of wealth and power to develop an effective and humane response to crises. If anything, their poverty and historic challenges have made them more resourceful and decisive, thus providing useful lessons for the rest of the world.

The School Under the Bridge

A shopkeeper in Delhi, India has been running a makeshift school for hundreds of poor and homeless children beneath a metro bridge for over eight years.

“The Free School Under The Bridge” was founded and run by 49-year-old Rajesh Kumar Sharma, the sole breadwinner of his family of five who operates a small grocery store nearby. He dropped out of college without completing his bachelor’s due to his family’s poor financial condition.

His idea started with just two local children in 2006, and has now grown to over 300, including slum dwellers, ragpickers, rickshaw-pullers and beggars, most of whom live nearby.

Sharma believes no one should be deprived of education due to poverty or denied his or her dream, so to that end he dedicates over 50 hours a week to the children — for free.

“I am driven by my selfless goal of educating these poor and underprivileged children whose smile is more than enough for me.”

He now runs two shifts: one from 9-11 AM for 120 boys and the other 9-4.30 PM for 180 girls, aged between four and 14 years. The open house school has the Delhi metro bridge as its roof and five blackboards painted on the wall, with some stationary such as chalks and dusters, pens and pencils. The children sit on the ground covered with carpets and bring their own note books, which they often share or study with in groups. The location is relatively far from traffic, and passing vehicles hardly get noticed by the students.

In addition to a standard curriculum, Sharma also teaches students practical skills like hygiene, which is difficult to maintain in such abject poverty. He’s installed separate toilets for boys and girls.

Fortunately, his example has attracted seven other volunteer teachers from the community, as well as some support from locals.

“Some people visit the school occasionally and distribute biscuit packets, fruits, water bottles and packaged food. Some youngsters celebrate their birthdays with the children, cut cakes here and have food together by sitting beneath the bridge. “Such occasions make them feel that they are also the part of the society no matter where they live or what background they belong to,” he said.

In addition to teaching full time while running his shop, Sharma also ensures students get enrolled into the nearby government schools. He ensures hey devote sufficient time to their education and conducts attendance; if a student is frequently absent, he checks in with their family.

“Sometimes, some children get absent for days as they have to assist their families due to extreme poverty. No child wants to discontinue his or her studies but they also have to make their ends meet. “They come to my school fighting hunger, extreme poverty, adverse weather and sometimes resistance from their families. They all dream big. You can see the smile on their face while they study here,” he said.

Source: Hindustan Times

Ghana’s Public Health Milestone

Here’s the sort of progress that rarely makes the news: Ghana, a country of about 30 million best known for being the first African colony to achieve independence, has now earned another distinction–eliminating one of the nastiest infectious diseases in the world. As The Telegraph reports:

Trachoma, the leading infectious cause of blindness in the world, is spread by flies and human touch, and is linked to poverty and lack of access to clean water and sanitation. It starts as a bacterial infection and, if left untreated, causes the eyelashes to scratch the surface of the eye, causing great pain and, potentially, irreversible blindness.

In 2000, about 2.8 million people in Ghana were estimated to be at risk of the disease but the World Health Organization (WHO) has now officially recognised that the country has eliminated it.

The WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, hailed the country’s achievement: “Although there’s more work to do elsewhere, the validation of elimination in Ghana allows another previously heavily-endemic country to celebrate significant success.”

Ghana eliminated the disease through a partnership between its ministry of health, the WHO, pharmaceutical companies, and charities. Around 3.3 million doses of an antibiotic effective against trachoma were donated by Pfizer, one of the world’s larges pharmaceutical companies; another 6,000 had surgery to treat more advanced stages of the disease. (Amazing what civil society can accomplish when it comes together.)

Thanks to these efforts,Ghana now joins six other countries where trachoma is endemic — Oman, Morocco, Mexico, Cambodia, Laos, and Nepal — that have eliminated the disease.

Nevertheless, trachoma still remains a significant global problem: over 200 million people across 41 countries (mostly in Africa) are at risk of infection. Ghana and several other nations have shown the way. Here is hoping more health agencies, pharma companies, and charities take note.

The Parent of All Virtues

The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero observed that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” Acknowledging every good thing in our lives, no matter how brief or small, at all times, helps fuel kindness, benevolence, and other positive traits. Numerous schools of thoughts, as well as every major religion, have affirmed the importance of gratitude to both individual and societal well-being. I can attest to the importance of gratitude for my own mental and emotional health, but fortunately there is lots of evidence to back it up, too.

In light of the universal importance of gratitude, psychologists and social scientists have increasingly focused their attention on exploring the benefits of gratitude. Multiple studies have shown a correlation between gratitude and increased well-being—not only for the individual exercising gratitude, but for their recipients and even third parties. Continue reading

The Japanese Diplomat Who Saved Thousands of Jews

Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara was a Japanese government official who, as vice consul of Japan in Lithuania, helped over 6,000 Jews flee certain death during WWII, risking his career and his life. Hundreds of Jewish refugees arrived in Sugihara’s consulate, trying to get a visa to travel to Japan. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese Empire had very strict immigration procedures, requiring applicants to pay large fees and to have a third destination lined up to exit Japan. The dutiful Sugihara contacted the Foreign Ministry three times for instructions, being told each time that he could not issue the visas.

533101_10151430822115472_1457010455_nAware of the mounting danger Jews faced, Sugihara ignored his superiors and issued ten-day visas to Jews. This level of disobedience was highly unusual – and risky – within the stringent culture of the militaristic Japanese government. With the Soviet Union occupying Lithuania – though not yet at war with Japan – he persuaded Soviet officials to allow Jews to travel through the country via the Trans-Siberian Railway, which would take them to the Pacific near Japan. He reportedly spent 18-20 hours a day handwriting visas, producing a typical month’s worth of transit documents daily. These were to heads of households, which allowed entire families to leave via a single visa. The exceedingly polite diplomat had the refugees call him “Sempo”, a variation of his name that was easier for them to pronounce. Continue reading

China’s “Rice Bunny” Campaign

Once again, the resourcefulness and tenacity of human rights activists in authoritarian regimes never ceases to amaze me. The Los Angeles Times highlights the efforts of Chinese feminists to begin their own #MeToo movement despite the government’s opposition to independent civil society, and subsequent censorship of the hashtag itself.

Employers, universities and even police are generally reluctant to get involved in sexual harassment cases in China and assailants are rarely charged and often never punished, leaving few women bold enough to speak out. When five women tried to organize multi-city protests in 2015 to focus attention on unwanted groping on buses and trains, they were arrested and jailed for more than five weeks for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.”

Yet there is evidence of progress. A prominent Buddhist monk, a university professor, the founder of a well-known charity, an environmental activist, a famous state television host, two badminton coaches and several journalists have all been accused of sexual harassment in recent months, with the accusations spreading rapidly on Chinese social media, though state censors usually quash the messages quickly.

When censors in China banned the #MeToo hashtag, activists came up with imaginative ways to get around the ban, using the characters “rice bunny,” pronounced “mi tu,” to tag posts or by using the emojis for a bowl of rice and a rabbit.

Though victims are often pressured to remain silent, Wan believes public awareness of sexual harassment is growing and pressure is building in China to finally create a clear criminal law banning sexual harassment. In a 2016 online survey of 6,592 university students, 70% reported being sexually harassed. A survey of female factory workers three years earlier by a labor rights group, the Sunflower Women Workers Center in Guangzhou, found the same thing.

[…]

One thing slowing the #MeToo movement in China is the lack of a clear legal definition of sexual harassment. Of the more than 50 million legal cases that were filed between 2010 and 2017, only two were brought by women alleging they were victims of sexual harassment.

The Beijing Yuanzhong Gender Development Center, which supports victims of sexual harassment and domestic violence, is now pushing for a national law to define and ban sexual harassment and discrimination against women and, for the first time, the government is actually drafting a measure that would require employers to take steps to discourage harassment in any form. Activists, though, say that doesn’t go far enough and want perpetrators to face the risk of criminal charges.

China’s intolerance for activism has also likely slowed the #MeToo movement.

Not if the Chinese can help it. To quote one Chinese lawyer featured in the article who handles these cases, when it comes to “the history of setting up laws and regulations against sexual harassment around the world, there was always blood and lives lost in the process, and that is the cost.”