US Outbreak: How Monkeypox Spread in a Failing State

The new order of our times seems to be that everything must get worse. Because one plague was not enough, we’ve added another: monkeypox, a close relative of smallpox that causes flu-like symptoms and painful, pus-filled blisters. Making matters even worse, it’s spreading primarily in gay communities, giving new life to old bigotries and complicating public health messaging.

Formerly endemic to West and Central Africa, monkeypox is now circulating globally, including significant outbreaks in the US and Europe. As of August 1, the case count stands at some 30,000 worldwide and 6,000 in the US, though the numbers multiply daily. The disease spreads most easily by close physical contact, particularly with the rash or pus of an infected person, but may also be transmissible by air. Anybody can be infected, but the reported cases have overwhelmingly been in gay and bisexual men, who account for as much as 98% of the current outbreak, according to one study.

Last month, the World Health Organization declared monkeypox “a public health emergency of international concern.” Health officials are cautiously optimistic that we can still contain the outbreak if we act quickly and aggressively. However, in keeping with the American tradition of doing nothing until a problem is out of control and then doing less than the bare minimum, we are acting neither quickly nor aggressively.

President Biden has been contemplating for weeks whether to declare a national emergency. Taking this long to consider whether a situation is an emergency is almost comical. The whole point is to mobilize resources and stop the problem before it spreads. A small fire may not do much damage, but it gets bigger. New York, California, and Illinois, the states with the largest outbreaks, have declared public health emergencies.

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told reporters, “We have done everything we can at the federal level.” Loosely translated, this means, “We haven’t done much of anything, nor do we plan to.” The federal government’s plan is apparently to leave the situation up to states and individuals.

Individual decisions do play a role in halting any disease. But relying on individuals alone, or on state and local health authorities, is not enough. Not everyone has the education they need to understand the risks, and access to vaccines and testing is dismal. By not taking swifter, more aggressive action, the federal government is leaving Americans at the mercy of states with fewer health resources or less interest in protecting the health of gay men.

What makes this all so frustrating is that monkeypox vaccines do exist. The US has hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of doses that it has simply not deployed. While monkeypox ripped through gay communities, the US allowed 300,000 perfectly usable doses of the Jynneos vaccine to sit in Denmark. The US has 100 million doses of ACAM2000, a smallpox vaccine that’s also effective against monkeypox, but it’s been slow to deploy those, too. Only after watching the outbreak spiral out of control did the government import and order more vaccines, but these may not be ready for months.

Vulnerable people in cities across the country have reported long lines, inadequate testing, and widespread misdiagnosis – if they’re able to get any medical attention at all. There are, of course, plenty of complicating factors. Healthcare professionals are badly strained from battling COVID-19 for more than two years. But the issues with vaccine shortages, shipments, and bureaucratic red tape could all theoretically be overcome by decisive executive action – if only we had a decisive executive in the White House.

Our system itself is the biggest obstacle. Capitalism simply isn’t designed to solve social problems. Its only purpose is to make money. If our society was oriented around solving problems, we would immediately increase vaccine production, ramp up distribution and vaccination efforts, and educate people. In 1959, the Soviet Union contained a smallpox outbreak in just 19 days. If we wanted to, we could do the same with monkeypox. But confronting a disease outbreak requires collective action, a dirty thought in US society.

The public health message here is also tricky. While there are increasing reports of spread into other communities, monkeypox still seems to be overwhelmingly spread by men with multiple partners. It appears that raves and sex parties have been especially fertile breeding grounds. In contrast to previous outbreaks, the rashes and blisters have often appeared on the genitals or in the anus, causing immense pain and difficulty sitting or using the toilet – and giving doctors some clues where the close skin-to-skin contact may be taking place.

None of this means that the population is dirty, or responsible for this public health crisis. All it means is that they need access to medical care, and need to be the focus of vaccination and education campaigns. Unfortunately, it’s provided an opportunity for the religious right to blame some of their favorite targets. The media has a hard time finding balance, either inferring that monkeypox is an STI for gay men – which isn’t true – or bending over backwards to avoid potentially politically incorrect facts, which may prevent the community from getting the attention they need.

Luckily, there are some silver linings. Monkeypox is not especially contagious. Its spread is nowhere near as fast as COVID, nor will it ever be. While some patients have experienced unbearable symptoms and lonely, month-long quarantines, other reports show this strain is relatively mild. Few have died, and none in the US. The disease doesn’t spread easily on contaminated surfaces and may be difficult to transmit asymptomatically. We already have effective vaccines available, and could halt a lot of spread by vaccinating vulnerable communities.

This is not a problem that we want to sit back and watch, as we have so far. Like COVID, the more monkeypox spreads, the more potential there is for newer, vaccine-resistant mutations to emerge. And the more it gets into other communities, the more vicious the anti-gay sentiment could become. By the time Biden decides whether it’s an emergency, it could become a catastrophe. We could solve the problem relatively easily – if, that is, we were capable of solving anything at all.

Why Overturning Roe Could Be the Last Straw for Many

On June 24, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that has been the focus of America’s abortion debate since 1973. In that decision, the 1973 court ruled that the Constitution protected a woman’s right to an abortion, with some limits. By overturning that decision, today’s court leaves abortion laws up to individual states, allowing them to ban abortion under any circumstances and at any point during pregnancy. In doing so, the Supreme Court has placed millions of women across the country at grave risk.

How Democrats Dropped the Ball on Choice

Though the decision was leaked almost two months ago, it was met with outrage from pro-choice Americans when formally announced. Much of the rage has been directed at Democrats – and for good reason. Despite often placing abortion protection at the center of campaign messaging, Democrats in power have done very little to safeguard Roe.

As a candidate in 2007, Barack Obama promised that the first thing he’d do as president would be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act. After he took office, the bill stalled, and President Obama declared a woman’s right to choose “not [his] highest legislative priority.” Candidate Biden made a similar promise and, like Obama, never followed through.

Other Democratic leaders have also wavered in their commitment to choice. In 2016, Hillary Clinton chose an anti-choice Democratic Senator, Tim Kaine, as her running mate. Former DNC Chair Tom Perez, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have all backed anti-choice candidates and sought to downplay the issue in the party’s overall messaging.

Among Democrats, President Biden is especially bad on abortion. He’s on record as opposing a woman’s right to choose as far back as 1974, saying, rather incredibly, “I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.” Biden even played a key role in getting Clarence Thomas, one of the conservatives who overturned Roe, appointed to the Supreme Court. Throughout his career, Biden backed multiple abortion bans in the Senate. Even today, he’s planning to appoint an anti-choice judge to Kentucky’s Supreme Court.

In short, abortion rights have never been secure, even with Democrats controlling two-thirds of the federal government. And the Democratic response following the overturn of Roe has been bleak. When the Supreme Court’s decision first leaked, prompting protests at the home of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, rather than preserve abortion protections, Democrats moved overwhelmingly to pass a bill granting additional security to Supreme Court justices and their families. The most action they’ve taken so far has been sending out fundraising emails.

Some, including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have aggressively used their platforms to push for solutions. Proposed solutions include impeaching Supreme Court justices who lied under oath about protecting Roe, opening abortion clinics on federal land in red states, and ending the filibuster to pass abortion protections through Congress. In a surprise reversal, Biden recently voiced support for ending the filibuster to codify Roe, but no formal action has been taken and he’s been dismissive of other strategies.

Unmasking the system

Pro-choice protests have popped up all over the country. Many of these have been met with a violent police presence. On Twitter, users share new videos daily of police arguing with, shoving, arresting, and assaulting protesters. Capitol Police arrested 181 protesters in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. In one of the more high-profile incidents, LAPD officers shoved sitcom actress Jodie Sweetin to the ground.

At a rally in Texas, protesters chanted, “Voting blue is not enough, Democrats we call your bluff.” Their rage is justified. The decision was an abysmal rollback of a fundamental right. By taking America so far backwards, the Supreme Court highlights how illegitimate our system is.

Some legal experts praise the overturn of Roe, arguing that abortion law belongs in the hands of individual states. Perhaps in some constitutional readings, this is so. But the practical effect of repealing Roe is that the federal government has blessed states to impose punitive and regressive abortion laws. These laws will inevitably lead to suffering, unsafe medical procedures, death, and parentless children. If it’s constitutional for the state to come between a woman and her physician to outlaw certain kinds of medical care, then we have very big problems.

Why abortion protection is so critical

With the fall of Roe, any national protection of a woman’s right to choose is gone. Some of the most restrictive abortion laws in states like Mississippi, Ohio, and Arkansas can now go unchallenged. In Texas and Idaho, the repeal of Roe triggered laws banning almost all abortions. The overturn has emboldened governors and legislators in red states like Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis – widely seen as a 2024 Republican presidential candidate – vowed to defend the state’s most restrictive abortion laws to date.

This is all under the pretext of protecting the unborn. Unfortunately, the abortion debate has been hijacked by hysterical fundamentalists who view all abortion as the equivalent of murder. This has led to extreme measures from the pro-life movement, up to and including, ironically, murdering doctors and calling for women who have abortions to be hanged.

The question of when life begins is more spiritual or philosophical than legal or scientific. The sperm that fertilizes the egg is made of living cells, as is the egg itself. When the two join, they can potentially undergo a process that may or may not lead to a human baby birth, but arguing that a zygote is a human being with full rights is problematic even for pro-lifers. Prominent pro-life activist Matt Walsh, for instance, recently embarrassed himself on Twitter by declaring an elephant fetus was a person.

For these reasons, it is hysterical, dangerous, and fundamentally false to refer to abortion as murder. Abortion is a medical procedure for terminating a pregnancy. Access to safe abortions is critically important – for would-be mothers who suffer life-threatening medical complications, for victims who don’t want to be forced to birth their attacker’s baby, and, yes, for anyone who made a mistake and doesn’t want to bring a new life into the world.

Even outside of extreme cases such as rape, incest, or life-threatening medical emergencies, abortion is a crucial part of smart family planning. And even if eliminating abortions was a worthy cause – which it isn’t – outlawing abortions isn’t going to eliminate them. Much like the War on Drugs, a War on Abortion will just drive abortions underground, exposing women to dangerous, unsanctioned medical procedures.

Only a grim Dark Age society would force all women to carry every pregnancy to term, particularly while making such pitiful investments in education, healthcare, childcare, nutrition, and foster care. If a woman gets pregnant – even if it’s against her will and she has no support – conservatives want her to live with that burden forever, with no assistance.

What can we do now?

No one should tolerate living under oppressive, abusive systems. When a law is unjust, people must disobey it. Already, a sort of abortion underground railroad has emerged. Activists have shared resources, offered to pay for transportation to abortion-safe states, and shown ways to safely communicate in states that outlaw abortion.

Democrats have options, including making a filibuster exemption to codify Roe into law. Sadly, the party’s dearth of leadership makes it seem unlikely they will use all the options at their disposal. Therefore, it falls on activists to pressure elected officials and put forward progressive challengers to moderate candidates.

The Supreme Court’s decision calls into question the legitimacy of the US government itself. Recent polling shows 61 percent of Americans support abortion rights. For six justices to have the power to override that will shows how off-the-rails things have gone.

But in this, too, there could be a silver lining. By allowing the American people this rotten glimpse under the government’s mask, the Supreme Court may have initiated a sea change. It’s far too early to tell what the consequences will be, but if the only way to fix the problem is a political revolution that completely restructures the government, overturning Roe may be what lights the kindling.

Why we should think beyond “returning to normal”

The COVID-19 pandemic affected nearly everyone on the globe, bringing with it a great deal of suffering and significant changes in the way people work and live. Despite the initially dismal US response to the pandemic, we are now among the most vaccinated countries on earth. All across the country, restrictions are relaxing, masks are coming off, travel is resuming, and people have begun returning to normal.

Unfortunately, “normal” in the US is a dire situation to begin with.

As bad as COVID was, it also brought with it several silver linings. The scope and horror of the situation forced us, for the briefest moment, to prioritize something other than profit. The rich weren’t immune to COVID-19. A far-right Republican government temporarily instituted an eviction moratorium and student debt relief, issued stimulus checks, and expanded unemployment benefits. Some essential employees received pay increases. Those who were able worked remotely, reconnecting with their families, clearing up the roads, and allowing nature some respite from our constant hustle.

For a while, it seemed like some of these changes might become permanent. Pundits and politicians seriously discussed universal basic income and student debt forgiveness. As we realized society is only as healthy as the least-healthy among us, the need for a Medicare-for-All system became apparent. Businesses explored more flexible work models, and some made work-from-home permanent.

Now, there is no “new normal.” Instead, we are rushing back to the old normal as quickly as possible.

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The fatal flaw of George Clooney’s Catch-22

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Christopher Abbott as Yossarian prepares to fly yet another mission.

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is a classic American novel about World War II, bureaucracy, the illogic underpinning our social charades, and the courageous use of cowardice to do the one thing that really matters: survive. It is long, dense, and nonlinear, with a large cast of characters who represent Heller’s satires of capitalism, incompetence, American exceptionalism, and more.

Previous attempts to translate Catch-22 in motion pictures proved difficult. Mike Nichols’s 1971 film fell flat before critics and audiences, though Heller himself praised it. A 1973 TV series fizzled before it got off the ground. Now, Hulu and George Clooney have produced a six-part miniseries and most reviews contend that Heller’s epic novel has finally been given the treatment it deserves. Continue reading

Stan Lee, major architect of American pop culture, dies at 95

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“Most people retire so they can go do what they want. I’m already doing what I want. I like to write. I like to work with creative people. If I retired, I’d be giving up my fun.” – Stan Lee

Stan Lee was 95 years old, pushing 96, when he passed away on November 12. His wife of nearly 70 years, Joan, died last year. After her death, reports emerged about Lee’s own health issues and troubled personal life, including elder abuse and shady estate finagling. The writing was on the wall: the living legend’s time was coming.

Everyone whose life he touched – and they must number in the hundreds of millions – is affected. By now, the story is well-known. Lee, the editor of Timely Comics – later Atlas, and eventually Marvel – was frustrated with his industry and contemplating a career change. On his way out the door, and with two of the most imaginative artistic storytellers in the field, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, in his employ, Lee transformed a company known primarily for cheap genre comics into the leading innovator in superhero literature. Continue reading

Republicans plead for civility

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Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant, an incident that became a flashpoint in the culture war.

For three years, Donald Trump has dominated America’s cultural conversation. In that time, he has accused Mexico of sending rapists and drug dealers over the border, mocked a disabled reporter’s handicap, encouraged his crowds to physically assault protesters, and labeled journalists the “enemy of the people.” As President, he has done all he can to shred America’s life-saving social safety net, banned Muslims from entering America, and held migrant children hostage in cages. Now, Trump and his enablers are asking for one thing: civility. Continue reading

Right-wing snowflakes outraged over Michelle Wolf’s anti-elitist standup routine

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Comedian Michelle Wolf performs at the White House Correspondents Dinner, mere feet away from the targets of some of her most brutal jokes.

Comedian Michelle Wolf delivered a risqué performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner last Saturday and became a hot topic overnight. The annual dinner, which is typically a stuffy affair, brings together Democratic and Republican politicians and media personalities for a night of awkward, elitist camaraderie. Wolf’s performance, laced with explicit references to President Trump’s scandals and sexual history, earned the ire of the far-right – a rich irony, given that group’s crusade against political correctness. Continue reading

The Second Amendment, the NRA, and the quest to militarize American life

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Parkland shooting survivor-turned-activist Emma Gonzalez (left) grills NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch on gun control.

The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution is one of the most hotly debated pieces of text in history. For devotees, it guarantees the most important freedom ever enshrined in a government document. For critics, it is a dangerous relic of colonial history with little relevance to modern life. Continue reading

Republicans abandon all pretense of public service

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President Trump appears with two powerful members of his administration, both Goldman Sachs alumni. Gary Cohn is on the left and Steve Mnuchin is in the middle.

If there’s one thing the Republican Party can be counted on to do, it’s lower the tax burden of wealthy Americans. They’re in the midst of an effort to do so right now, and one bill recently passed in the House of Representatives. But the bill is massively unpopular, with only 25 percent of Americans approving of it. Republicans have a remarkably candid response when pressed as to why they are pushing such unpopular and destructive legislation: it’s to please their donors. Continue reading

A tale of two responses: Trump on attacks in Vegas, Texas and New York

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The president adopts a voice of calm after white terror attacks, and a voice of venomous outrage after Muslim ones.

Three high-profile atrocities have occurred on American soil in the span of five weeks. On October 1, a man opened fire from a Las Vegas hotel window and shot more than 600 people, killing 58 of them. On October 31, a man drove a truck into a crowd in New York City and killed eight people. And on November 5, a man shot and killed 26 people at a church in the small town of Sutherland Springs, Texas.

At least since 9/11, the protocol for atrocity in America is militarism and nationalism if the perpetrator is a dark-skinned Muslim, thoughts and prayers for the victims if the perpetrator is white. In these recent events, President Trump’s tweets gave us a healthy sample of each. Continue reading