The level of atmospheric carbon dioxide observed at a government facility in Hawaii reached a new peak in May, scientists from National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) and the University of California San Diego said Thursday.
Last month, that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere recording at the at Mauna Loa observatory was as high as 417.1 parts per million (ppm).
According to a NOAA statement, this was the highest monthly carbon dioxide level ever recorded. It was 2.4 ppm higher than the 2019 peak of 414.7 ppm.
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Carbon dioxide levels measure how much of the gas there is in the atmosphere. This is different from carbon dioxide emissions, which measure how much new carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere.
The rate of increase this year did not appear to reflect the drop in emissions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Studies have shown that the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere is expected to drop this year due to a decrease in energy usage.
“The buildup of CO2 is a bit like trash in a landfill. As we keep emitting, it keeps piling up,” said Ralph Keeling, who runs the Scripps Oceanography program at Mauna Loa, in a statement.
“The crisis has slowed emissions, but not enough to show up perceptibly at Mauna Loa. What will matter much more is the trajectory we take coming out of this situation,” Keeling added.
Scientists have overestimated the effect of agriculture methane emissions on climate change, an Irish academic believes.
Shane McDonagh, an environmental researcher at UCC, said Ireland has been measuring the impact of farming on carbon emissions in the wrong way leading to an overestimation of the negative impacts on our carbon footprint.
Agriculture in Ireland accounts for 33 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions compared with 10 per cent in the EU as a whole. Most farm-related emissions are from methane gas, which has a global warming potential 84 times greater than carbon dioxide (CO2) over 20 years and 28 times greater over 100 years. Methane gas breaks down into CO2 over time, and loses global warming potential.
There is broad consensus that widespread SARS-CoV-2 testing is essential to safely reopening the United States. A big concern has been test availability, but test accuracy may prove a larger long-term problem.
While debate has focused on the accuracy of antibody tests, which identify prior infection, diagnostic testing, which identifies current infection, has received less attention. But inaccurate diagnostic tests undermine efforts at containment of the pandemic.
Diagnostic tests (typically involving a nasopharyngeal swab) can be inaccurate in two ways. A false positive result erroneously labels a person infected, with consequences including unnecessary quarantine and contact tracing. False negative results are more consequential, because infected persons — who might be asymptomatic — may not be isolated and can infect others.
Given the need to know how well diagnostic tests rule out infection, it’s important to review assessment of test accuracy by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and clinical researchers, as well as interpretation of test results in a pandemic.
The FDA has granted Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs) to commercial test manufacturers and issued guidance on test validation.1 The agency requires measurement of analytic and clinical test performance. Analytic sensitivity indicates the likelihood that the test will be positive for material containing any virus strains and the minimum concentration the test can detect. Analytic specificity indicates the likelihood that the test will be negative for material containing pathogens other than the target virus.
Clinical evaluations, assessing performance of a test on patient specimens, vary among manufacturers. The FDA prefers the use of “natural clinical specimens” but has permitted the use of “contrived specimens” produced by adding viral RNA or inactivated virus to leftover clinical material. Ordinarily, test-performance studies entail having patients undergo an index test and a “reference standard” test determining their true state. Clinical sensitivity is the proportion of positive index tests in patients who in fact have the disease in question. Sensitivity, and its measurement, may vary with the clinical setting. For a sick person, the reference-standard test is likely to be a clinical diagnosis, ideally established by an independent adjudication panel whose members are unaware of the index-test results. For SARS-CoV-2, it is unclear whether the sensitivity of any FDA-authorized commercial test has been assessed in this way. Under the EUAs, the FDA does allow companies to demonstrate clinical test performance by establishing the new test’s agreement with an authorized reverse-transcriptase–polymerase-chain-reaction (RT-PCR) test in known positive material from symptomatic people or contrived specimens. Use of either known positive or contrived samples may lead to overestimates of test sensitivity, since swabs may miss infected material in practice.1
Designing a reference standard for measuring the sensitivity of SARS-CoV-2 tests in asymptomatic people is an unsolved problem that needs urgent attention to increase confidence in test results for contact-tracing or screening purposes. Simply following people for the subsequent development of symptoms may be inadequate, since they may remain asymptomatic yet be infectious. Assessment of clinical sensitivity in asymptomatic people had not been reported for any commercial test as of June 1, 2020.
Two studies from Wuhan Province, China, arouse concern about false negative RT-PCR tests in patients with apparent Covid-19 illness. In a preprint, Yang et al. described 213 patients hospitalized with Covid-19, of whom 37 were critically ill.2 They collected 205 throat swabs, 490 nasal swabs, and 142 sputum samples (median, 3 per patient) and used an RT-PCR test approved by the Chinese regulator. In days 1 through 7 after onset of illness, 11% of sputum, 27% of nasal, and 40% of throat samples were deemed falsely negative. Zhao et al. studied 173 hospitalized patients with acute respiratory symptoms and a chest CT “typical” of Covid-19, or SARS-CoV-2 detected in at least one respiratory specimen. Antibody seroconversion was observed in 93%.3 RT-PCR testing of respiratory samples taken on days 1 through 7 of hospitalization were SARS-CoV-2–positive in at least one sample from 67% of patients. Neither study reported using an independent panel, unaware of index-test results, to establish a final diagnosis of Covid-19 illness, which may have biased the researchers toward overestimating sensitivity.
In a preprint systematic review of five studies (not including the Yang and Zhao studies), involving 957 patients (“under suspicion of Covid-19” or with “confirmed cases”), false negatives ranged from 2 to 29%.4 However, the certainty of the evidence was considered very low because of the heterogeneity of sensitivity estimates among the studies, lack of blinding to index-test results in establishing diagnoses, and failure to report key RT-PCR characteristics.4 Taken as a whole, the evidence, while limited, raises concern about frequent false negative RT-PCR results.
If SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic tests were perfect, a positive test would mean that someone carries the virus and a negative test that they do not. With imperfect tests, a negative result means only that a person is less likely to be infected. To calculate how likely, one can use Bayes’ theorem, which incorporates information about both the person and the accuracy of the test (recently reviewed5). For a negative test, there are two key inputs: pretest probability — an estimate, before testing, of the person’s chance of being infected — and test sensitivity. Pretest probability might depend on local Covid-19 prevalence, SARS-CoV-2 exposure history, and symptoms. Ideally, clinical sensitivity and specificity of each test would be measured in various clinically relevant real-life situations (e.g., varied specimen sources, timing, and illness severity).
Assume that an RT-PCR test was perfectly specific (always negative in people not infected with SARS-CoV-2) and that the pretest probability for someone who, say, was feeling sick after close contact with someone with Covid-19 was 20%. If the test sensitivity were 95% (95% of infected people test positive), the post-test probability of infection with a negative test would be 1%, which might be low enough to consider someone uninfected and may provide them assurance in visiting high-risk relatives. The post-test probability would remain below 5% even if the pretest probability were as high as 50%, a more reasonable estimate for someone with recent exposure and early symptoms in a “hot spot” area.
But sensitivity for many available tests appears to be substantially lower: the studies cited above suggest that 70% is probably a reasonable estimate. At this sensitivity level, with a pretest probability of 50%, the post-test probability with a negative test would be 23% — far too high to safely assume someone is uninfected.
Chance of SARS-CoV-2 Infection, Given a Negative Test Result, According to Pretest Probability.
The graph shows how the post-test probability of infection varies with the pretest probability for tests with low (70%) and high (95%) sensitivity. The horizontal line indicates a probability threshold below which it would be reasonable to act as if the person were uninfected (e.g., allowing the person to visit an elderly grandmother). Where this threshold should be set — here, 5% — is a value judgment and will vary with context (e.g., lower for people visiting a high-risk relative). The threshold highlights why very sensitive diagnostic tests are needed. With a negative result on the low-sensitivity test, the threshold is exceeded when the pretest probability exceeds 15%, but with a high-sensitivity test, one can have a pretest probability of up to 33% and still, assuming the 5% threshold, be considered safe to be in contact with others.
The graph also highlights why efforts to reduce pretest probability (e.g., by social distancing, possibly wearing masks) matter. If the pretest probability gets too high (above 50%, for example), testing loses its value because negative results cannot lower the probability of infection enough to reach the threshold.
We draw several conclusions. First, diagnostic testing will help in safely opening the country, but only if the tests are highly sensitive and validated under realistic conditions against a clinically meaningful reference standard. Second, the FDA should ensure that manufacturers provide details of tests’ clinical sensitivity and specificity at the time of market authorization; tests without such information will have less relevance to patient care.
Third, measuring test sensitivity in asymptomatic people is an urgent priority. It will also be important to develop methods (e.g., prediction rules) for estimating the pretest probability of infection (for asymptomatic and symptomatic people) to allow calculation of post-test probabilities after positive or negative results. Fourth, negative results even on a highly sensitive test cannot rule out infection if the pretest probability is high, so clinicians should not trust unexpected negative results (i.e., assume a negative result is a “false negative” in a person with typical symptoms and known exposure). It’s possible that performing several simultaneous or repeated tests could overcome an individual test’s limited sensitivity; however, such strategies need validation.
Finally, thresholds for ruling out infection need to be developed for a variety of clinical situations. Since defining these thresholds is a value judgement, public input will be crucial.
In 2015, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich coauthored a study declaring the
world’s sixth mass extinction was underway. Five years later, Ehrlich and
colleagues at other institutions have a grim update: the extinction rate is
likely much higher than previously thought and is eroding nature’s ability
to provide vital services to people.
Their new paper, published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy
of Sciences, indicates the wildlife trade and other human impacts have wiped
out hundreds of species and pushed many more to the brink of extinction at
an unprecedented rate.
For perspective, scientists estimate that in the entire twentieth century,
at least 543 land vertebrate species went extinct. Ehrlich and his coauthors
estimate that nearly the same number of species are likely to go extinct in
the next two decades alone.
THERE IS a growing body of evidence which, if it is ever proved true and it may well be when our present nightmare is over, would leave the Government’s policy over the past 20 months in discredited tatters.
We lack the figures that would prove it one way or the other because they are simply not being released to us. Which in itself is suspicious. In short, when the final all-sources death count is authenticated, did total lockdown cause more deaths than it prevented? And by how much? It is already established government policy swerved violently from inadequate to panic-stricken around March 14. This was because the Government swallowed, hook, line and sinker, the prediction of one man that without total lockdown there would be a holocaust of over half a million casualties.
Increasingly it is being alleged that, as with his previous predictions in earlier pandemics, he didn’t know what he was talking about. Since then the damage to our society, economy and country has been beyond calculation.
It is a very true axiom that if you are faced with a problem or an enemy – and coronavirus is both – the first task must be a rapid and accurate analysis. Get that right and your plan of action will probably work. Get it wrong and nothing will work. Worse, it might even be counterproductive. That is the accusation now being levelled at lockdown.
Trying to predict the future is the oldest delusion known to Man. It has never worked, save exceptionally by a fluke. This time we were told “Follow the science”.
Meaning bow to the new god. The Government certainly did. Two problems: the scientists all said different things so the Government chose the scariest “model”.
Second snag: no one examined what had happened before. We had had bird flu, Asian flu, BSE, MERS and SARS. We had survived them all without wrecking our country.
Boris Johnson with Chris Whitty (left) and Sir Patrick Vallance (right) on March 19 (Image: PA Video/PA Wire/PA Images)
No clues here? Rubbish – the clues were all there. By following faulty science we might as well have been following bird entrails, crystal balls, tarot cards or the old lady’s tea leaves. Of the previous pandemics the worst was Asian flu which ran through most of 1969 and spring 1970. When it finally faded we had lost 80,000 citizens.
But we did not close down a single bar, restaurant, pub, corner shop, major industry, airline, hotel, public park or anything else. We took the pain and carried on. We grieved for the dead but we did not buckle. The Wilson government, with all its faults, did not panic. It was ousted in June 1970 but for different reasons. That was 50 years ago. Perhaps we were a different people then. Each year we are swept by seasonal winter flu. Each year it carries away 20,000 to 30,000 of us, the huge majority enfeebled by advanced old age and illness.
Thousands of treatments for non-Covid ailments have been cancelled or delayed to give blind preference to Covid, while non-Covid deaths are mounting. We know our Covid deaths are not yet 40,000. But have all the other causes plus non-Covid flu topped that figure? Has all the misery been for nothing? Was it all based on a catastrophic series of misjudgements in high places? Only Covid-ascribed deaths are being released to us.The others are being quietly buried.That too must end when lockdown ends, the sooner the better. We have a right to know. Have we been duped?
The COVID-19 pandemic may just be a ‘dress rehearsal for the coming plague’, according to acclaimed plant-based doctor Dr. Michael Greger.
Dr. Michael Greger, who has a background in infectious disease, is an internationally recognized speaker on nutrition, food safety, and public health issues. He is the author of Bird Flu: A Virus Of Our Own Hatching, which looks at infectious diseases and human’s role in them – as well as how we can protect ourselves.
Now his new book How To Survive A Pandemic* looks at the pathogens that cause pandemics and how to face them – and the role chicken farming is playing in the risk of future pandemics.
Covid-19 cases may rise as protests in US continue02:30
(CNN)Covid-19 is not mutating, health experts say, but that doe
sn’t mean it’s not dangerous.
So far, evidence does not show that the coronavirus is changing to become more severe or more transmittable, but complacency by people and local governments could increase its spread, World Health Organization infectious disease epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said Wednesday at a news briefing.
“I remain concerned about the public health consequences both of individual and institutional racism (and) people out protesting in a way that is harmful to themselves and to their communities,” US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams said in an interview published Monday. “Based on the way the disease spreads, there is every reason to expect that we will see new clusters and potentially new outbreaks moving forward.”
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Oklahoma State linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga tested positive for the virus after attending a protest, he tweeted Tuesday. “Please, if you are going to protest, take care of yourself and stay safe,” he wrote.
New York state, long an epicenter of the US outbreak, reported 49 coronavirus-related deaths Tuesday, the lowest death toll since the pandemic began, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday.
The Floridian restaurant opens in May in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
CDC chief: Public health system weaknesses exposed
The coronavirus pandemic has “highlighted the shortcomings of our public health system that has been under-resourced for decades,” Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Thursday.
Another 1.9 million Americans file for unemployment benefits01:16
That’s especially true in the field of information technology, said Redfield.
“Never has it been more clear that our nation’s public health IT infrastructure requires modernization, to support and collect reportable, reliable, comprehensive and timely data,” he told a House Appropriations Committee hearing on the Covid-19 response.
“When we confront any disease threat, CDC and public health departments must make real-time decisions based on real-time data. Data forms the roadmap, and it informs policy. Data is the backbone of any disease threat response,” he said.
Some numbers move in ‘right direction,’ others don’t
As US states push forward with reopening plans, nearly as many are seeing coronavirus caseloads trending upward as those where case numbers are declining, an analysis of Johns Hopkins data shows.
Nineteen states have averaged more new cases over the past week than the prior week, while 13 are holding steady and 18 are seeing a downward trend.
Louisiana is one of those downward-trending states and is set to begin Phase 2 of its plan to reopen the economy Friday, allowing businesses to open at 50% capacity, according to Gov. John Bel Edwards.
“Louisiana is slowly moving in the right direction, but we must continue to remain vigilant in the fight against COVID-19,” Edwards tweeted Wednesday.
Connecticut, which is seeing its lowest positive test rate in months, will allow in-person graduations with a limit of 150 people beginning July 6, Gov. Ned Lamont said.
Texas and Florida are still recording increasing weekly averages of new cases as they take steps toward reopening.
Almost all Texas businesses are allowed to operate at half capacity, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Wednesday evening. And much of Florida will enter Phase 2 of reopening on Friday, allowing businesses such as bars, movie theaters and bowling alleys to operate at half capacity indoors, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Wednesday.
A classroom sits empty at Kent Middle School in Kentfield, California.
Dr. Fauci weighs in on schools
Among the reopenings, questions remain about when and how students can be back in a classroom.
That will depend on the communities the schools are in, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN Wednesday.
“I hesitate to make any broad statements about whether it is or is not quote ‘safe’ for kids to come back to school,” Fauci said. “When you talk about children going back to school and their safety, it really depends on the level of viral activity and the particular area that you’re talking about. What happens all too often — understandably, but sometimes misleadingly — is that we talk about the country as a whole in a unidimensional away.”
It is premature to begin talking about reopening schools, Fauci said, adding there could be many scenarios in the fall, including changing classroom layouts or having students alternate schedules.
Health experts are still working to understand exactly how the virus affects children.
A National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases study will follow 6,000 people, both children and their families chosen from 11 cities over six months, to get further clarification on whether children are less likely to catch coronavirus than adults.
A pharmacy tech holds a pill of hydroxychloroquine.
Study of potential treatment may continue
As the US continues to reopen, many are looking to treatments and vaccines that do not yet exist to keep an interacting public safe.
WHO’s Data Safety and Monitoring Committee recommended that the organization continue studying the drug hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a Wednesday news briefing in Geneva.
A University of Minnesota study showed that the drug does not help patients in the hospital, and its author said he told the President’s physician that no published research shows it is effective as a preventative measure either.
CNN’s Amanda Watts, Annie Grayer, Janine Mack, Mirna Alsharif, Mitchell McCluskey, Maggie Fox, Joe Sutton and Sheena Jones contributed to this report.
A significant melt event is unfolding in Greenland this week.
With temperatures nearly 20 degrees Fahrenheit higher than usual in some areas, the southern part of the ice sheet is melting at its highest rate this season. Forecasts suggest that the melting on Greenland’s South Dome—one of the highest elevations on the ice sheet—may be the strongest for early June since 1950.
It worries experts that Greenland could be priming for another big melt season.
Early melting this spring, low snowpack in some areas and the potential for strong high-pressure weather systems later this summer have all raised red flags. Scientists are paying close attention after last summer’s record-breaking ice loss—an event scientists expect to occur more frequently as the Arctic continues to warm.
Scientists typically define the beginning of melt season as the first three-day period in which melting is observed across at least 5% of the ice sheet. This year, that period began on May 13—nearly two weeks earlier on average over the last few decades.
The melting coincided with a heat wave across much of the Arctic. Siberia and the central Arctic were some of the hardest-hit regions. But temperatures skyrocketed in parts of Greenland, as well, after an otherwise chilly start to the month.
At the same time, snow began rapidly disappearing along the margins of the ice sheet, exposing bare rock and ice. The lack of snow is one factor increasing the possibility of an above-average melt year, according to Jason Box, an ice expert with the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland.
Snow plays an important role in the Arctic. Its bright surface helps to reflect sunlight away from the Earth. When snow disappears, more heat is able to get through and warm the surface. That, in turn, can cause faster melting.
The exposure of bare ice is happening earlier than usual this year, according to Box.
“Like last year, a dearth of snow along the western ice sheet preconditioned stronger than normal ice loss because the seasonal snow shields the dark bare ice with a bright reflective cover,” he told E&E News by email. “So, all else equal, we can expect more melt this year.”
Xavier Fettweis, a polar climate scientist at the University of Liège in Belgium, agreed that the lack of snow can pose a risk. He added that warm events are also necessary to kick-start the feedback process.
The ice sheet is in the midst of one now. And the fact that melting is happening at such high elevations, where snowpack tends to be stronger, may be cause for some concern.
The melting at South Dome, for instance, is likely to make the snow wetter and denser, according to Fettweis. That will diminish its ability to reflect sunlight and to absorb meltwater that forms on the surface of the ice sheet.
“Such an event so early in the season will certainly favour an above-average melt season this year,” he told E&E News in an email.
It’s possible that more heat waves are on the way.
According to Judah Cohen, director of seasonal forecasting at the analytics firm Atmospheric and Environmental Research, model forecasts suggest strong high-pressure events over Greenland this summer. High-pressure systems are often associated with warming on the ice sheet.
In fact, a recent study concluded that last summer’s extreme melting was linked to abnormally persistent high-pressure systems over Greenland (Climatewire, April 16). Greenland’s melt rates last year were second only to those in 2012—and the total amount of ice lost was actually the highest on record.
This summer’s forecasts seem to suggest the high-pressure systems will be most intense in July. And they may affect larger swaths of the ice sheet than the current melt event, which is mainly limited to the southern part of the ice sheet.
Cohen cautions that there’s still considerable uncertainty about forecasts this far in advance. It’s too early, for now, to say whether these events will definitely occur.
But if the forecast is accurate, he said, it’s “definitely suggestive of high melt over the ice sheet.”
In general, he added, the forecast is in keeping with research indicating that these high-pressure systems are becoming more frequent over Greenland. Some scientists believe that climate change, which can alter the structure and flow of the atmosphere, is partly to blame.
“Nothing is impossible; there’s always variability,” Cohen said of this summer’s forecasts. “But I think just the background would support a continuation of this pattern of high pressure in and around Greenland.”
None of the events this spring necessarily promises a melt season like last year. But put together, with the threat of more heat events this summer, they do suggest cause for a watchful eye on Greenland this season.
The words “authoritarian regime” or “dictatorship” perhaps call to mind Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution” or George Orwell’s fictional 1984. Yet some Americans may still have trouble seeing the authoritarian tactics on display today from President Donald Trump.
As the country erupts in anti-police-brutality protests, Trump’s response has been to double down on the use of state-sanctioned violence. On May 29, Twitter — concerned that one of the president’s tweets about shooting looters could incite violence — took the unprecedented step of hiding a tweet from the official White House account. By Saturday, Trump was threatening to use “the unlimited power of our Military and many arrests” to control protesters. The president followed up on this threat of force on June 1: In a chilling Rose Garden address, Trump told state governors that they “must establish an overwhelming law enforcement presence until the violence has been quelled.” He then threatened to send in military troops — without governors’ consent — if they did not.
While the president was addressing the nation in the Rose Garden, officers were firing rubber bullets and tear gas on a crowd of peaceful protesters outside the White House. The officers had been ordered to clear Lafayette Square in preparation for Trump’s post-speech photo op.
Moreover, as the COVID-19 death toll exceeds 100,000 in the U.S. and the infection rate is more than 1.8 million, the president’s response has only become more autocratic.
Earlier, when the death toll topped 22,000, Trump threatened to override governors’ stay-at-home orders, claiming that the federal government “has absolute power” over the states. As the death toll reached 45,000, the president threatened to suspend immigration into the United States.
As the death toll climbed above 47,000, Trump fired Rick Bright, the scientist in charge of the federal government’s effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Bright refused to support the use of hydroxychloroquine — the president’s preferred COVID-19 treatment.
As the death toll surpassed 67,000 Trump barred members of the coronavirus task force, including Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, from testifying before the house on its activities.
As the United States reached the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths, Trump threatened to “close down” social media companies after Twitter fact-checked the president’s claims about mail-in voting.
Despite Trump’s well-documented failures to take early or sufficient action against COVID-19, a recent polling analysis from FiveThirtyEight demonstrates that the president’s May approval rating — currently sitting at 43 percent — is roughly equivalent to what it was before the pandemic.
For some, this style of governance perhaps appears merely embarrassing when compared to that of Germany’s Adolf Hitler or Italy’s Benito Mussolini.
However, in this time of crisis, it is more imperative than ever that Americans recognize the threat Trump and his Republican colleagues pose to democracy. Americans cannot allow them to use the twin crises of COVID-19 and recent anti-police brutality protests to further consolidate power.
As a political scientist, I study how constitutional democracies can backslide into authoritarianism.
Around the fall of the Soviet Union, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the type of brutal authoritarianism associated with leaders like Joseph Stalin became much less common.
Post-Cold War governments in places as diverse as Cambodia, Kenya, Peru and Ukraine understood that they would need to pretend to be democracies if they wanted to have a favorable relationship with the world’s only remaining superpower, the United States. As a result, a new type of hybrid government was born: competitive authoritarianism.
Today, countries like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela and Vladimir Putin’s Russia are considered by political scientists to be “competitive” because their leaders are still chosen by an election. All three countries also have constitutions.
However, these regimes also exhibit some hallmarks of traditional “authoritarian” governments. For example, Erdoğan has been criticized for jailing journalists and violating the human rights of Kurds. Likewise, Maduro ensured that his most popular political opponent was disqualified from Venezuela’s 2018 presidential race.
Rulers of competitive authoritarian regimes also frequently rig economic and political systems for their own benefit. Putin is estimated to have amassed between $60 and $200 billion in wealth since rising to power in Russia.
COVID-19 now provides authoritarian leaders around the world the opportunity to consolidate more power. Hungary’s parliament recently passed a bill that gives its autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orbán the power to rule by decree and arrest anyone spreading “fake news” for the duration of the crisis.
Certainly, Trump and his Republican supporters are not Hitler or Mussolini, but they share some striking similarities with more modern autocrats like Erdoğan or Orbán.
Like other autocrats, the U.S. president has used the power of the state to harass political opponents.
On Mother’s Day, Trump unleashed a tweet storm about “Obamagate” — a right-wing conspiracy theory alleging that President Barack Obama orchestrated the Russia investigation with the sole purpose of discrediting the Trump administration. Trump further implied that investigations into the Obama administration — and presumably Joe Biden — would be forthcoming.
Trump has also habitually attacked blue state governors like Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Washington’s Jay Inslee, claiming that they are weaponizing coronavirus against him.
An unwillingness for the American president to listen to blue state governors represents a real danger for citizens living in those states. Trump continues to support anti-lockdown protesters in blue states, and demands a general reopening of the economy. Hypocritically, he expects states to reopen without sufficient personal protective equipment and testing at the same time that the White House is using an extensive test-and-trace program on West Wing employees.
The president has also used the COVID-19 crisis as another opportunity to discredit the free press.
A Washington Postanalysis of Trump’s first six weeks of COVID-19 briefings revealed that he spent over two hours attacking political opponents and the media, and attacked someone personally in 113 out of 346 questions he was asked. By comparison, he only spent a total of four and a half minutes expressing condolences for the victims of COVID-19.
Trump further suggested that TheNew York Times should be sued for libel for its coverage of his coronavirus response. Using defamation laws to silence political dissent is a common practice in countries like Morocco, Thailand and Burma.
The president’s constant refrain that the press is the “enemy of the people” is even more disturbing in light of reports that at least a dozen journalists were injured while covering protests last weekend. In several instances, journalists reported being harassed by police even after they had displayed their press credentials. In one chilling instance, a police officer in Louisville, Kentucky, pointed a gun filled with pepper bullets directly at a local TV reporter. A CNN crew was also arrested on air. The harassment of journalists trying to cover protests is common in authoritarian regimes and represents a serious threat to the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press.
Further, like a Russian oligarch, Trump has attempted to use his office to enrich himself and his cronies. He used the power of his office to expand Trump properties overseas and benefit his son-in-law’s real estate business.
Democrats agreed to pass a $2 trillion stimulus package only after Republicans agreed to add oversight to the $500 billion the bill allocates for corporate bailouts. Senate Republicans were also forced to add a provision that businesses owned by current government employees (including Trump) could not benefit from the bailout money.
Trump then issued a signing statement to the bill essentially arguing that oversight mechanisms provided in the bill are an illegitimate encroachment on executive power and do not need to be respected by his administration.
At the end of April, Congress passed an additional $484 billion in stimulus to boost the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) aimed at protecting small business.
Recently, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer raised oversight concerns when it was revealed that Trump donor and luxury hotel owner Monty Bennett received $70 million from the fund. Bennett agreed to return the money, but serious concerns remain regarding how the money from the PPP program has been allocated.
Modern authoritarianism doesn’t announce itself with death camps and killing fields. It creeps up suddenly, with constraints on the freedom of the press, attacks on opposition leaders and a slow corruption of the laws. The first step to remaining vigilant in this time of crisis is to recognize the Trump administration’s and Republicans’ actions for what they are.