The Center of Our Galaxy

You’re looking at the first image of the object at the heart of our galaxy, Sagittarius A—pronounced “Sagittarius A-Star”, and abbreviated Sgr A—courtesy of over 300 researchers from more than 80 institutions across the world.

The image was produced by a global research team called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration, using observations from a worldwide network of radio telescopes, some of which are among the most powerful scientific instruments ever built.

The global scale of the project reflects massive ambition: The nature of what laid at the heart of our galaxy was uncertain, though a black hole was widely suspected.

Mustering humanity’s best and brightest astronomers, and its most potent tools, we now know for certain it is a supermassive black hole, the largest type of its class.

To get a sense of its scale—however possible that is—Sgr A* is four million times more massive than the Sun, which is one million times bigger than Earth. The center of the galaxy is 27,000 lightyears away, with just one lightyear stretching close to 6 TRILLION miles.
So yeah, this was a hell of an achievement, and it took hundreds of people using purpose-built tools and supercomputers over the span of five years to confirm it.

Black holes have gravity so immense that not even light can escape—hence why images of them are so hard to capture. (As @voxdotcom put it, trying to get a photo of a quarter in Los Angeles from Washington, D.C.)

Hence, we cannot the black hole itself, but only the glowing gas and other material swirling around its massive gravitation; the stuff that falls into the black hole is unseen and basically erased from the observable universe.

This is a groundbreaking moment in our understanding of these mysterious, dark giants, which are thought to reside at the center of most galaxies. Indeed, the EHT is also responsible for the very first image of a black hole, M87*, at the center of the more distant Messier 87 galaxy over 53 million lightyears away.

Such incredible achievements are only possible with collaboration and curiosity that transcends political and cultural boundaries—something we need now more than ever.

Happy Anniversary to History’s Second Constitution

On this day in 1791, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth—one of the largest and most powerful countries in Europe—adopted the first written national constitution in Europe, and only the second in the world, after the U.S. Constitution just two years earlier.

Like its counterpart across the Atlantic, Poland’s constitution—titled the Governance Act and known simply as the Constitution of 9 May 1791—was influenced by the Enlightenment, the European intellectual movement that, among other things, pioneered concepts like civil liberty, individual rights, religious and political tolerance, and so on.

The first page of the original 1791 constitution.

Remarkably, despite the vast geographic distance between the two countries, Poland’s constitutional structure was markedly similar to that of America: There were three branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial—with checks and balances, a bicameral legislature, and a cabinet of ministers. The constitution declared that “all power in civil society [should be] derived from the will of the people” and defined the role of government as ensuring “the integrity of the states, civil liberty, and social order shall always remain in equilibrium. While Roman Catholicism was recognized as the “dominant faith”, freedom of religion was guaranteed—a remarkable proposition in a continent where people regularly killed each other for being the wrong Christian or simply holding the wrong doctrine.

The people of Poland-Lithuania were defined not as “subjects” of a king, but “citizens” with popular sovereignty—which included townspeople and peasants, who in most of Europe had no such recognition. The right to acquire property, hold public office, and join the nobility—whose powers and immunities were restricted—was extended to millions more people, including Jews (who almost everywhere else were denied anything akin to legal recognition, let alone political rights).

The new constitution even introduced a version habeas corpus—the core legal right that prevents abuse of power—known as Neminem captivabimus, summarized as “We shall not arrest anyone without a court verdict”.

The Constitution of 9 May 1791, an idealized portrayal of the constitution’s adoption, by Polish artist Jan Matejko. It was painted to commemorate the 100th anniversary of its adoption.

To be clear, the Constitution of 9 May 1791 had its limits, and its radicalism should not be overstated. The monarchy was still retained, with the king serving as head of the executive branch. Religious minorities such as Jews, as well the peasants who made up the vast majority of the population, still had few powers. While constrained, the nobility was not abolished as in the U.S. and later France, and in fact still retained many privileges.

But even in these areas, the Commonwealth went farther than almost any other country in the world at the time. The monarchy was not absolute: The king’s powers were constrained by the constitution and essentially shared with a council of ministers, who could overrule his decrees, forcing him to go to parliament. While peasants and Jews had few rights, they now had official protection from abuse—a step closer to recognizing their political rights, well beyond what was normal at the time. Eligible middle-class people could even join the ranks of nobility, a seemingly paradoxical form of progress that, again, was unusual for the time; nobles certainly couldn’t ride roughshod over commonfolk as they did elsewhere in Europe (which isn’t to say there weren’t abuses—this is still feudal Europe after all).

In any event, the Constitution of 9 May 1791 was a relatively bold and momentous step in the right direction, as evidenced by its rarity at the time—and sadly, by its short existence. In fewer than two years, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth would be extinguished by the absolute monarchies of neighboring Prussia and Russia, which felt threatened by the constitution and the dangerous “revolutionary” ideas it introduced and could spread. Poland would cease to exist for well over another century, with its experiment never being fully tested—but also never dying off entirely, as the then-ongoing French Revolution and subsequent political reverberations would prove.

What the Turkish Peace Talks Say About the New International System

As we speak, Turkey is hosting the latest round of peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, the first face-to-face meeting between the two countries’ delegates in almost a month.

The results of the talks are tenuous and at best “cautiously optimistic”, according to the parties involved; negotiations having repeatedly fallen through since the war began, and Ukranian cities remain under siege, to say nothing of the horrific revelations of civilian massacres in Bucha.

Whatever the results of Turkey’s diplomatic efforts, the country’s key role speaks to its rising influence—and reflects a changing international order.

[Of] all these countries sitting on the fence and trying to mediate, Turkey has a unique profile and position. It is a NATO member, an organization for which Russia and previously the Soviet Union served as raison d’être or the foundational threat.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been increasingly castigating the Western-centric international system. But as a member of many Western institutions, Turkey is also a beneficiary, and in a sense, part of the geopolitical West.

Meanwhile, Turkey also has maritime borders with both Ukraine and Russia. Plus, Turkey is Russia’s largest trade partner in the Middle East and North Africa region. And it has competed and cooperated with Russia through conflict zones in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh in recent years.

Compared to other contenders for mediation, Turkey has the highest stakes in this conflict. The war is fundamentally changing the geopolitics and balance of power in the Black Sea region, and Turkey is a major Black Sea power.

Turkey will probably play a humanitarian role soon, too, as the number of refugees — already in the millions — rises. French President Emanuel Macron’s announcement that France, Turkey and Greece will undertake a joint evacuation mission in Mariupol is a harbinger of a humanitarian role that might become more salient in Erdogan’s policy down the road.

In spite of its policy of not provoking Russia, Turkey is simultaneously not pursuing a policy of equidistance. It sells armed drones to Ukraine, which are exacting significant losses on Russian targets, and has closed the Turkish straits to warships.

In addition to Russia dominating the Black Sea, it has a sizable Mediterranean presence where it is deeply involved in conflicts spots in Syria and Libya. Turkey’s sea closure will put pressure on Russian policy in these conflict zones if the war is prolonged.

This is probably why Turkey is first (and hopefully last) in line to host peace talks, ahead of other neutral countries like India, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates. Like many so-called “middle” and regional powers, it knows how to leverage its unique geographic, cultural, and political position.

Geography and history play a key role in Turkey’s outsized influence on the world stage. The same goes for many other rising powers.

We live in an increasingly multipolar world, where even the great powers of the world—while still devastatingly powerful—are not quite as dominant as they once were. Setting aside the wildcard of nukes, even the most powerful nations struggle to influence ostensibly weaker partners, as we saw throughout history and into the Cold War.

It’s likely that the new international order will be one where lots of smaller countries—perhaps working in tandem—have a lot more say in a lot more areas, as economic and cultural influence start to diffuse. There is quite a bit of chaos in such a system—historically, it precipitated a lot of competition and wars, most notably the First World War—but it has the potential to address many global problems too big for even powerful nations to handle.

As always, there is a lot more to say, but so little time.

What are your thoughts?

The Ides of March Coin

The Ides of March coin, also known as the Denarius of Brutus or EID MAR, is a rare coin issued by the Roman Republic from 43 to 42 BC to celebrate the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 BC.

One side features Marcus Junius Brutus, once a close friend of Cesar who, after becoming disillusioned with his autocratic behavior and polices, helped lead his assassination.

The other side depicts a pileus cap between two daggers. The pileus cap was a Roman symbol of freedom and was often worn by recently freed slaves (it is still used in the coat of arms of several republics and in revolutionary art and propaganda); the daggers, of course, represent the assassins’ weapons. At the bottom is EID MAR, short for Eidibus Martiis – “on the Ides of March” – the date Cesar was assassinated.

The coins were minted under the auspices of Brutus during the “Liberator’s Civil War” that followed Cesar’s death; they were likely intended as a form of propaganda, or to lend official legitimacy to the assassination, which was not supported by the majority of Romans, as the assassins had hoped.

Given its brief and minimal use, the coin is considered one of the rarest in the world.

Fun fact: The Ides of March coin is a type of “denarius”, a nickel-sized silver coin that was standard Roman currency for about four centuries. It is the root for the word “money” in several Mediterranean countries, including Spain (dinero), Italy (denaro), Slovenia, (denar) and Portugal (dinheiro), and also survives in the Arabic word “dinar”, the name for the official currencies of several Arab countries, including Algeria, Tunisia, and Syria (all Mediterranean) and farther off places like Kuwait and Iraq.

The Canadian Doctor Who Discovered Insulin and Gave it to the World for Free

On this day in 1922, a dying 14-year-old named Leonard Thompson received the first purified dose of insulin for his diabetes at Toronto General Hospital in Canada.

Barely six months before Thompson received his life-saving dose, a team of researchers led by his doctor, Frederick Banting of the University of Toronto, discovered that a hormone known as insulin regulates blood sugar, successfully isolating it to treat humans. (As is common with such groundbreaking work, Banting’s colleagues came from various countries and were building on the research of German and Romanian scientists.)

Though widely seen as a modern disease (and it is indeed more common) diabetes is one of the oldest known scourges of humanity; it is described in Egyptian and Indian medical records well over 2,000 years ago. In the 19th century, a 10-year-old child with Type 1 diabetes would typically live for just another year; now, thanks to discoveries like insulin, people with Type 1 diabetes can expect to live almost 70 years.

Until Banting’s achievement, the recommended treatment for Type 1 diabetes was a near-starvation diet, in order to keep sugar from accumulating in the blood. Thompson was just 65 pounds, and probably days from death, before Banting injected him with insulin; another round of shots successfully stabilized his blood sugar levels—and spared him and countless others from enduring such a long, painful, and dangerous treatment.

Banting rightfully won the Nobel Prize in Medicine the following year, along with Scottish team member John James Rickard Macleod. (At age 32, Banting remains the youngest Nobel laureate in the field). Believing that his colleague Charles Herbert Best also deserved recognition as a co-discoverer, the humble Canadian doctor shared his prize money with him.

But more telling of Banting’s character and contributions to humanity was what he did with this groundbreaking—and potentially lucrative—accomplishment: He refused to patent it and make a profit even after being offered $1 million and royalties for the formula. Banting believed that the Hippocratic Oath prohibited him from profiting off such lifesaving treatment, stating that “insulin belongs to the world, not to me”. His co-laureate Macleod likewise turned down the opportunity.

Thus, it was Banting’s teammates Best and James Collip, a Canadian biochemist, who were officially named as inventors in the patent application—but they immediately transferred all rights to their insulin formula to the University of Toronto for just one dollar. All these men believed that insulin should be made as widely available as possible, without any barriers such as cost—something quaint by today’s standards, where the costs of the four leading types of insulin in the U.S. have more than tripled over the past decade, to roughly $250 a vial (some patients need two to four vials a month).

No doubt, Banting and his colleagues would be spinning in their graves.

The Smoking Snakes: Brazil in World War II

One of my latest Wikipedia projects concerns the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB in Portuguese), a military division of 25,000 men and women that fought with the Allies in World War II.

That’s right: Brazil was active and often decisive participant in humanity’s largest conflict. As early as 1941, the United States and Great Britain actively sought Brazil’s allegiance, owing to its vast resources and strategically location (the Battle of the Atlantic had already been raging for nearly two years, and the country’s coastline was the longest in the Western Hemisphere).

After agreeing to cut diplomatic ties with the Axis, host several major American bases—including the largest overseas airbase—and provide precious natural resources to the Allied cause, Hitler called for a “submarine blitz” against Brazil’s merchant vessels. The loss of three dozen ships and close to 2,000 lives led to Brazil’s formal declaration of war in August 1942.

Brazil thus became the only independent country outside the Western powers to fight in the Atlantic and European theaters. The FEB was deployed to the Italian Campaign, among the most grueling and difficult in the war. They were nicknamed the “Smoking Cobras”—and even had shoulder patches featuring a snake smoking a pipe—based on commenters skeptically noting that the world would more likely see snakes smoking than see Brazilian troops on the battlefield (akin the saying “when pigs fly”).

So, in characteristically Brazilian humor, those “unlikely” troops took that as their mantra. Lacking the resources of the major Allied powers, Brazilian troops were placed under U.S. command and equipped with American weapons and supplies. They mostly saw combat at the platoon level, providing a reprieve for the exhausted Allied soldiers that had already been fighting for months.

The FEB performed with distinction across Italy: they scored victories in over a dozen decisive battles, managing to capture over 20,500 enemy troops, including two generals and almost 900 officers. What the Brazilians lacked in training and experience they more than made up for in tenacity and enthusiasm—allegedly retreated only when they ran out of ammunition. Both allies and adversaries alike commented on their bravery and fighting prowess, with one German captain telling his Brazilian captors:

Frankly, you Brazilians are either crazy or very brave. I never saw anyone advance against machine-guns and well-defended positions with such disregard for life … You are devils.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s fledging air force punched well above its weight, successfully completed 445 missions and 2,550 individual sorties. Despite making up only 5% of the war’s air sorties, they managed to destroy 85% of Axis ammo dumps, 36% of Axis fuel depots, and 28% of Axis transportation infrastructure.

The Brazilian Navy actively participated in the Battle of the Atlantic, defending thousands of merchant marine convoys, engaging Axis naval forces at least 66 times, and taking out over a dozen subs. Aside from its military contribution, Brazil’s abundance of natural resources, from rubber to agricultural products, proved crucial to the Allied war machine. Brazilian forces were considered threatening enough for the Axis to target them with Portuguese propaganda leaflets and radio broadcasts urging them not to fight someone else’s war. It certainly did not help the Axis cause to fight troops that were racially integrated, which even the Allies did not do. (Notice the ethnic composition of the Brazilian units.) The U.S. also produced propaganda informing Americans of Brazil’s contributions. By the end of the war, Brazil had lost around 1,900 men, dozens of merchant vessels, three warships, and 22 fighter aircraft.

While Brazil’s involvement was hardly decisive, it served as an understandable point of pride for its people, who were proud to represent their country on the world stage. It also indicated the country’s growing global prominence, with many seeing Brazil as an up-and-coming power. The U.S. even wanted Brazil to maintain an occupation force in Europe, though its government became reluctant to get too involved overseas.

The Outer Space Treaty

On this day in 1967, the Outer Space Treaty entered into force, becoming the first effort to establish universal principles and guidelines for activities in outer space. It was created under the auspices of the United Nations based on proposals by the world’s two principal space powers, the United States and Soviet Union.

Naturally, I took the opportunity to improve the Wikipedia article about it, which deserves greater justice (See the before and after photos below.)

It may not be a household name — then again, few treaties are —but the Outer Space Treaty remains one of the most relevant texts in international law today. It is the foundational framework for what we now know as space law, a legal field that is more relevant than ever now that dozens of countries and companies are actively involved in space activities.

The Outer Space Treaty forms the basis of ambitious projects such as the International Space Station (the biggest scientific endeavor in history) and the Artemis Program, a U.S.-led international coalition to return humans to the Moon and to ultimately launch crewed missions to Mars and beyond.

May be a black-and-white image of 2 people, people sitting and indoor
The treaty was signed in Washington, Moscow, and London, representing the first three countries to have artificial satellites in space at the time.

The main crux of the Outer Space Treaty is preventing the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space; broader principles include allowing all nations to freely explore space; limiting space activities to peaceful purposes; preventing any one nation from claiming territory in space; and fostering goodwill and cooperation in space exploration (such as rescuing one another’s astronauts or preventing our space probes from damaging others).

I know, I know, it is all quite idealistic. But all things considered, the treaty has held up fairly well: Most of the world’s countries, including all the major space powers, have ratified it and abided by its terms (after all, it is in everyone’s self-interest to keep everyone else from putting nukes in space). Naturally, some provisions were written vaguely enough to allow some workarounds — for example, space forces are still allowed so long as they are not armed with WMDs and belligerent.

The Outer Space Treaty is influential enough to still be referenced by the major space programs, and has enough legitimacy that every government feels the need to at least pay lip service to its terms. Whether this holds up in an ever-intensifying rivalry among both countries and companies is a different story — but it is certainly better than nothing.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization

It is not a a household name like NATO and the European Union, but the milquetoast-sounding Shanghai Cooperation Organization may become one of the most important geopolitical blocs in the world. Iran’s recent entry into the Eurasian alliance has given it a rare spotlight in mainstream Western news media.

Founded two decades ago, the SCO is the world’s largest regional organisation, covering three-fifths of the Eurasian continent, nearly half the human population, and one-fifth of global GDP. It originated from a mutual security agreement in the 1990s between Russia, China, and several Central Asian countries (all former Soviet republics), which committed to maintaining “military trust” along their border regions.

But since being announced by member governments in Shanghai in 2001, the SCO has become more integrated along political, economic, and even cultural lines, in addition to beefing up military cooperation beyond simply maintaining border security. The fact that the alliance is led by two of America’s chief rivals, and comprised mostly of authoritarian countries, certainly adds to its image as the principal antinode to the Western-led world order.

No doubt Iran’s membership will add to that perception, though it also joins the likes of India and Pakistan, which became members in 2017, both of which are close (if tenuous) partners with the United States and other Western countries.

No photo description available.

In fact, many analysts warn that the perception of the SCO as an anti-American or anti-Western bloc is vastly overstated. While it is certainly predicated on the idea of a “multipolar” world—coded language for an international order not dominated by the U.S. specifically—the group is far from presenting itself as anything akin to an “Eastern” NATO:

Rather than major political or economic gains, Iran’s main takeaway from this success in the short term may be limited to a boost in prestige and diplomacy.

The main issue with Iran’s approach towards the SCO is that it looks at it as a “concert of non-Western great powers” rather than a modern international organisation, and views it in an anti-Western or anti-US setting, says Hamidreza Azizi, visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

“This is despite the fact that countries such as Pakistan and India are US’s close partners, and even Russia and China have never been willing to openly challenge the US on the global scene,” Azizi told Al Jazeera.

“The combination of these two misunderstandings, and also Iran’s self-perception as a natural hegemon in West Asia, would make the whole thing appear to the Iranian leaders as Iran joining other anti-Western great powers to form a strong coalition that is going to challenge the US hegemony.”

Azizi added that SCO members are reluctant to entangle themselves in Iran’s rivalries, which may be why, on Friday, they also admitted Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt as “dialogue partners” in a balancing effort.

From a diplomatic perspective, the approval is significant.

Indeed, for a country as diplomatically and economically isolated as Iran, joining such a large and imposing regional body, whatever its limitations, is at least good optics.

SCO MAP 10 July 2015 - Including two new permanent members Pakistan and India.png
A slightly dated map showing SCO partners (dark green), observers (light green) and “dialogue partners” (yellow). Source: Wikimedia Commons

The SCO is far from being a full-fledged alliance with formal and binding commitments among its members; there is nothing like NATO’s Article 5, which obligates all members to come to the defense of another member in an attack, nor does it have the level of economic integration of the European Union. As one analyst describes it, the SCO is more of a “venue” for discussion among “high-level dignitaries”—which is perfectly suited for mostly autocratic countries that jealously guard their sovereignty.

Still, many powerful regional blocs like the EU did start from humble beginnings, growing from diplomatic talk shops to fully institutionalized arrangements over the span of decades. A wide array of countries have expressed interest in joining the group or are currently engaged with it in some way, including NATO members like Turkey and strategic partners like Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen if the SCO will ever become as tightly integrated as its Western counterparts, though this is unlikely given its explicit commitment to nonintervention in members’ affairs—which ironically makes it all the more appealing for certain countries to join.

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 Duty and Devotion of Albanian Hospitality

Albania, one of the poorest countries in Europe, has committed to taking in up to 4,000 Afghan refugees, which is among the most in the world and the most in proportion to its population (which is roughly 2.8 million)Hundreds of Afghans, including roughly 250 children, are being housed in coastal resorts, under a clever emergency plan developed by the government in response to a devastating 2019 earthquake; when thousands of people were rendered homeless, officials opted to shelter them in the mostly unused space of beach hotels.

Afghan refugees in Albania are being housed in resorts along the Adriatic coast.
Credit: New York Times

Such hospitality is deeply rooted in Albanian culture. The Muslim-majority country is known for its stringent code of generosity and hospitality to anyone and everyone who needs it. Known as besa, which roughly translates to “trust”, “faith”, or “oath”, it commits all Albanians to help people in need regardless of their background or circumstances. As locals explain, the tradition is simple: “If someone needs a place to stay, you give it to them, period”.

While the practice may go back to ancient times, it was first codified in the Kanun, a set of customary laws written in the 15th century to govern the many independent tribes of the region. Within this book is a proverb that sums it up nicely: “Before the house belongs to the owner, it first belongs to God and the guest.” You could knock on the door of any house and ask for help and the owner would have to take you in. The Kanun even advises households to always have a spare bed ready at any time, just in case.

Credit: BBC

While besa is a duty that binds all Albanians, there is evidence that they genuinely find hosting guests as a point of pride. There is one anecdote about a town that rebelled against a hotel that was going to be built there; everyone went to town hall and complained, saying people who needed a place to stay could just come knock on their doors.

Perhaps the greatest proof of this tradition is the Second World War, after which Albania was perhaps the only country to have more Jews than before the Holocaust. Not only did they save nearly their entire Jewish community, but they saved another two thousand or so who had fled to the country. Albanians largely resisted all the pressure and threats by Axis forces to turn over people in hiding. Had anyone given up their guest, they would bear a great shame that could only be solved by “cleaning the blood”—meaning taking vengeance against whoever took and harmed their guest (which is one hell of a story idea…).

This is also why Albania is relied upon by the U.S. and Europe to take in folks neither wants, from Iranian and Syrian refugees, to Guantanamo detainees deemed innocent but nonetheless untrusted.