LOOKING AHEAD (January 31, 2022)
In last month’s post, I looked back at 2021, recollecting key global and national developments and also recording some local impacts and adjustments. Several subscribers were kind enough to respond with appreciative feedback. This month I’d like to look forward at 2022, linking the two posts by again homing in on the coronavirus pandemic, politics, economics and climate change.
I won’t hazard any detailed forecasts. Things are changing too fast, puncturing pundits’ confident predictions almost as soon as they’re conjured. Instead, as a more modest Agile Aging exercise, I’ll try to sketch what we’re already learning in January and then explore where the new year may be taking us.
Most of my elder friends say they’re stepping into 2022 with apprehension. This is not the secure seniority they’d been looking forward to. While I respect the magnetic attraction of pessimism, in this case I believe it may be premature. Please chime in: email@example.com.
The COVID Pandemic
In late January, I detect two competing narratives describing the current state of the U.S. coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately for struggling policymakers and a confused public, these accounts are pulling in opposite directions.
On the darker side, the now dominant Omicron strain is surging steeply. There are 800,000 new cases every day, nearly 150,000 requiring hospitalization. Daily deaths are averaging 2,000. (It’s particularly distressing that CDC reports the COVID death rate for Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans is double that for Whites.) Omicron is vastly more transmissible than the prior Delta strain and infects far more people under 60 years of age. 39% of COVID tests are returning positive results. Due to an acute shortage of accurate test kits, actual current cases are presumably much more numerous than reported cases. Stretch the timeline back to the pandemic’s 2020 invasion and 65 million total Americans have been infected; 850,000 have died (90% of them 50 or older.) Some statisticians estimate 300,000 more deaths will occur before this surge is over.
The surging case numbers are overwhelming hospitals. Overworked health-care professional are themselves getting infected, driving up staff shortages. Non-COVID admissions and procedures are necessarily being postponed. Citizens’ pandemic fatigue is pushing millions to relax masking and social-distancing discipline, converting airports and sports stadiums to super-transmission sites.
The key driver of Omicron’s remaining surge remains un-vaccination. The CDC’s Data Tracker estimates that an unvaccinated individual is 10 times more likely to contract the disease, 17 times more likely to require hospitalization and 20 times more likely to die. While 62% is the stat commonly quoted for “fully vaccinated” Americans, I was surprised to learn that only 24% have been boosted. And with marked regional differences largely attributed to vaccination resistance and hesitancy, some states are doing much worse than this national average.
It’s too early to collect and analyze comprehensive data on COVID’s possible long-term effects, but preliminary findings include chronic breathlessness, cognitive impairment (“COVID fog” and memory loss), muscle pain and fatigue. With three-fourths of Americans still un-boosted and millions unmasked, every grocery-store visit is a potential exposure.
On the brighter side, there’s accumulating evidence that Omicron is generally causing less severe disease than Delta – far lower rates of hospitalizations and deaths. And the new variant is highly susceptible (80% with a booster) to the vaccines originally developed for other COVID strains. Equally important, accumulating data suggests that the Omicron surge may be rapidly peaking. Public-health statisticians, studying South African precedents, are hopeful that numbers which quickly ascended may as swiftly decline.
The federal government is scrambling to catch up. Free home test kits are becoming available; free masks, “within weeks.” Following the Administration’s lead, the vast majority of nationwide school districts are transitioning to in-person classes. Kids-back-in-school not only improves their learning, mental and emotional health but also frees up their parents to return to in-person jobs.
Vaccination compliance among vulnerable seniors is fortunately much higher than in the population at large. As of mid-December, 2021, 87% of those 65-plus were fully vaccinated and more than half of those had been boosted.
Perhaps most promising, additional anti-COVID therapies are speedily being perfected and approved to complement vaccines. Early coronavirus symptoms can be kept from getting worse by monoclonal antibodies, although these require an IV infusion. Simpler by far are emerging medications in pill form.
In the domestic political domain, 2022 is starting off with the Biden Administration struggling to move beyond multiple setbacks. Different courts have stayed or banned the administration’s attempted vaccine mandates. COVID test distribution has been snarled. School reopening plans are being contested. The President’s priority Build Back Better and voting rights legislation has already been defeated, due mainly to high-profile, embarrassing Senatorial defections within his own party. Add up these reversals, and Mr. Biden’s approval ratings have glaringly tanked.
Less headlined have been a cluster of proceedings moving forward against former President Trump, his advisors and family. In January, these include twinned investigations of the January 6 insurrection by a House Select Committee and the Department of Justice; civil and criminal inquiries in New York examining possible Trump Corporation tax evasion and corporate fraud; and a Georgia lawsuit accusing then-President Trump of election interference.
In the international relations domain, all eyes are on Vladimir Putin’s threatened Russian invasion of Ukraine, and on possible deterrents and responses by the U.S., NATO and European Union. Here the tea-leaves are being reinterpreted hourly.
You’d never know it from most media accounts, but in late January many metrics tracking U.S. economic performance and prospects remain strongly positive. President Biden’s March 2021 economic aid package buffered American families against the worst pain from pandemic lockdowns. As those relief benefits expire, the federal deficit will markedly shrink. In his first year in office, GDP climbed to 5.7%, the highest since 1984. A robust 4% is widely estimated for 2022. Six million new jobs have been created, driving unemployment down to a historically low 3.4%. The S&P 500 climbed 19% in the president’s first year. Large January 2022 market losses consumed only a small portion of those gains.
As always, however, American citizens appear to be paying much less attention to macroeconomic indices than to their own pocketbooks. With gasoline pump-prices high and grocery-store shelves re-emptying, inflation is their key complaint. Driven largely by demand outstripping supply, price increases and stocking shortages can fairly be attributed to COVID-provoked labor shortages, clogged supply-chain arteries and stay-at-home consumers using COVID-relief subsidies to shift their purchases from services to goods. The Federal Reserve has just announced a phased sequence of interest-rate hikes, commencing as early as March.
After the U.S. and other governments pledged CO2-emissions cutbacks at last November’s Glasgow climate summit, soaring energy prices have sapped governments’ zeal for pledge implementation, causing emissions to climb and coal-transition plans to be shelved. On January 24, Special Envoy John Kerry didn’t mince words: “We’re in trouble. I hope everyone understands that. The world is not on a good track to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and must intensify efforts to move away from fossil fuels this decade.”
On the extreme weather front, the new year has already witnessed record low temperatures, unseasonal tornadoes and California’s first wildfire. On January 19, the President announced a plan to allocate $10 billion from last year’s infrastructure bill to reorient the hundred-year-old federal forest-management approach from fire containment to mitigation, conducting thinning and controlled burns. The goal is to reduce wildfire intensity by removing much of the fuel that feeds them.
Perhaps not surprisingly, our San Francisco Bay Area retirement community is starting this third COVID year on an arc mirroring national trends. Folks celebrated New Year’s Eve with a campus gala, in an aura of turning the corner. The arrival of a highly regarded new Executive Director seemed to symbolize fresh community energy and confidence. One friend pressed ahead and boarded a cruise ship for a long-dreamed-of circumnavigation of South America.
By the end of the month, that emerging optimism has been largely curbed. Campus tests detected positive COVID cases among residents and staff. Delayed test-result processing reduced timely isolations. Although all cases were thankfully only asymptomatic or mild, management has renewed weekly testing for everyone on campus. Mask-wearing whenever near others is now strongly encouraged, outdoors as well as in. The dining room is open for take-out only. We’re all being strongly encouraged to avoid close contact with strangers. All on campus are doubly-vaccinated and boosted. I’d characterize the current community mood as disrupted and on-edge. Meanwhile, our seafaring friend is continuing her voyage. But transmission-wary Argentina, Brazil, and Peru have withdrawn prior permission to make port calls.
Nancy and I are trying to remain affirmative and active within this contactless new lifestyle. We’re amused to find ourselves taking keen satisfaction from trivial triumphs. The Maintenance Department’s long-delayed replacement of our malfunctioning kitchen sink tap felt like a major milestone. Tiny crocuses made it through the winter in our apartment garden and are stretching for the light. Long walks through adjacent neighborhoods are easy-access excursions of adventure.
The year-end transition has been marred by the sudden passing of no fewer than four of our close personal friends. Nancy and I accept death and dying as natural and expected for folks in our age group. But when multiple souls expire within weeks of each other, the losses accumulate in a cold torrent of gone-forevers. Less final but equally upsetting has been the silence of dear friends overseas in locations featured in the nightly news. We have multiple pals living and working in Kazakhstan and Somalia. When they don’t answer our emails, we are left with heightened concern.
WHAT LIES AHEAD?
With this January sketch as a point-of-departure, where do we all think the new year is taking us? What comes next and how do we feel about it? I’d like to address this topic by attempting to characterize conventional wisdom and then testing it for reliability with some “What if?” challenges. Many of these questions are encouraging, others are cautionary. All recommend not jumping to conclusions.
COVID’s Next Stage
I’m getting the increasing impression that politicians, citizens and even some public-health experts think the Omicron surge will soon be over. (On January 23, Dr. Fauci stated he’s confident this variant will peak in most U.S. states by mid-February.) In support of this anticipation, I hear “steep ascent, steep decline” assertions, often reinforced with reminders that this coronavirus variant is vastly less virulent. Even as daily deaths mirror 2021 peaks, news headlines trumpet “Light at the end of the tunnel” and “Back to normal,” sometimes hedged by a “Learn to Live with It” flu analogy. Looking ahead, most office-holders and individuals seem determined to move on, emphatically unwilling to contemplate a fresh round of lockdowns.
I thought the opinion of former CDC Director Tom Frieden cited in the January 24 New York Times was particularly useful for contemplating pandemic paths forward. Dr. Frieden identified three alternative near-term scenarios: “that the nation reaches a kind of truce with the virus, with clusters of outbreaks; that the virus weakens to a threat more akin to a common cold; or that, in the worst case, a variant emerges that combines the contagiousness of Omicron with the virulence of Delta.” Note that none of these options forecasts total eradication or “victory.”
His template stimulated me to tease out some possible public-policy implications of these alternatives:
- Assuming the “clusters-of outbreaks” scenario comes to pass, how should the federal government react if those clusters occur in pockets of Trump-faithful resistance to vaccination, creating hotbeds for viral mutation? And what if those pockets’ state governments actively opposed federal interventions? How many thousands of neighbors would have to die before vaccination resistance and hesitancy crumbled?
- How would you advise the national government to handle Scenario 3: with Chinese lockdowns, vaccine passports and no-exemption mandates? Realistically, how fast could we expect a new vaccine effective against this super-virus to be developed, approved, manufactured at scale, distributed and administered?
- Closer to today, what if the Super Bowl or the February 4-20 Beijing Olympics become super-spreader events? How should U.S. authorities handle returning athletes and fans?
- Meanwhile, the developing world has barely begun vaccinations. If those regions experience an explosion of infections, serious illnesses and deaths under any of the three scenarios, should America and Europe re-impose border closings?
My point is not to be alarmist or paranoid. I’m simply suggesting that “Free at Last!” is a premature expectation for all of us.
On the domestic front, the key 2022 political event attracting attention and analysis is the November 8 Midterm Congressional elections. The prevailing opinion at this stage rates it highly probable that the Republicans will recapture one or both legislative chambers. (They only need to flip one Senate seat and five in the House.) This reversal would have instantaneous, powerful consequences: the reinstallation of Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy as Majority Leader and Speaker, respectively. President Biden’s legislative agenda dead in the water for the remainder of his term. Immediate termination of the January 6 Select Committee investigation, possibly combined with censure or even prosecution of its key members. Donald Trump would claim credit for the Midterm gains, interpreting them as a tacit endorsement of his own 2024 candidacy.
Let’s pause to consider a variety of possible 2022 developments that might temper or stifle this presumed fait accompli:
- What if one or more judicial proceedings already in progress against Mr. Trump, his insiders and family were to proceed to indictment or even conviction? How many judicial defeats could Republican leadership or voters ignore and excuse?
- What if, as widely anticipated, the U.S. Supreme Court guts Roe v. Wade this coming June, in either or both of the pending Texas and Mississippi challenges? Couldn’t this rouse outraged female, independent and suburban voters to deflate Midterm flipping expectations? And if the Democrats thereby retained majorities in one or both Congressional chambers, could not President Biden’s legislative prospects and even 2024 attractiveness markedly improve? What if those 2022 results particularly punished and defeated Trump’s hand-picked candidates? Might not moderate Republican officeholders exploit this opportunity for a long-postponed intramural revolt?
- While President Biden’s defeat championing twinned voting rights bills has commanded the headlines, Senators Collins and Romney have been working quietly to reform the Electoral Count Act. Without any explicit defection from Trump’s “Big Steal” dogma, could not bipartisan passage of this modest protection of election administration make it much more difficult for Republican State Legislatures to overturn Midterm results on grounds of alleged fraud? If so, might not this low-profile repair job implicitly condemn Trump while simultaneously blocking those Legislatures?
- Both Joe Biden (aged 79) and Donald Trump (75) have serious health histories. What if one were to die or be incapacitated in 2022? Would not this totally destabilize all current political assumptions? After the flags were lowered and the eulogies televised, just imagine the scramble for succession.
- On the international front, experts seem to mostly doubt that Putin will invade Ukraine. Notwithstanding his attention-grabbing troop mobilizations and brinkmanship, he may not be willing to suffer personal sanctions targeting himself and his oligarch enablers, or to lose his lucrative Nordstream 2 pipeline. But what if he rolls the dice and does launch a military invasion? In which case, what if Biden, still smarting from the Afghanistan-withdrawal debacle, responds with his own macho response? Especially with Republican leaders already on record chiding him to be more hawkish, could he not rally the country round the flag? Poof! There go his cratering approval ratings. All hail, the Commander in Chief!
I sense that inflation, especially gasoline and grocery price hikes, may remain this year’s top economic issue. And that President Biden will continue to get the blame, despite having no effective power in this domain. But what if Federal Reserve interest-rate hikes bring inflation under control? What if supply-chain clogged arteries steadily unplug? What if Midterm victories give Biden a mandate to restore COVID subsidies to households and small businesses? Could the scapegoat morph into a savior?
My end-of-January impression is that Cairo’s COP26 Climate Summit scheduled for November is destined for an empty ritual. Rebounding energy prices are likely to further delay countries’ implementation of suspended pledges to convert coal-burning power plants to renewables.
- But what if a Biden vindication in U.S. Midterm elections coincides with Chairman Xi Jinping’s autumn extension for another term? Might not these two ambitious leaders take the opportunity to cement their historical legacies by reasserting their joint roles as global emissions-control standard-setters?
- What if biblical storms, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes or heatwaves – take your pick – destroyed vast swathes of American settlements, extinguishing thousands of lives? Could the president seize on this crisis to resuscitate global-warming mitigation?
- Even without a statutory breakthrough, Biden has huge regulatory power and budgetary resources to continue pressing for environmental reforms by Executive Order. In fact, he has already been quietly but steadily reversing Trump authorizations of drilling on federal lands, delays in tougher auto-emission standards and buck-passing to blue states on wildfire management. For example, since transportation is the largest source of America’s greenhouse-gas emissions, what if the Administration emulated and adapted Norway’s fast-track adoption of electric cars? Two-thirds of new cars sold in Norway are already electric; most of the rest are hybrids. That government has encouraged an accelerated switch-over by waiving new-vehicle fees on electric cars, maintaining high gasoline-pump taxes and offering additional inducements like free tolls and parking for electric cars.
As soon as Omicron calms down I anticipate a burst of socializing, visiting and travel by the pent-up residents here at our Northern California retirement community. Several friends and neighbors have already booked major international expeditions for the fall.
If Omicron is slow to taper off, I foresee residents’ compliance and hunkering down, perhaps complaining but uniformly accepting any reassertion of isolation constraints.
Dr. Frieden’s Scenario 3, of course, would be a game-changer. With seniors especially vulnerable and staff shortages certain to curtail on-campus care, a bona fide plague could indeed inflict science-fiction devastation.
I draw three main inferences from this recap of our end-of-January status quo and gaming of alternative rest-of-the-year scenarios.
- No one knows how any of these developments is going to play out. Early in 2022, everything in flux. No bets are off. A surfeit of variables proscribes reliable forecasting.
- All of these subjects are complicated. Internally complex and fast-evolving. But also interactive and reciprocally influencing. COVID, politics, economics and climate change are not separate silos but intricately intertwined. Each shapes and shades the others. Complexity defines the world we live in, complicating choices for citizens and leaders. There’s inevitable tension between multiple parties’ competing values and priorities. For me, this is a reminder not to be dismissive of folks who disagree with me, nor hypercritical of governmental leaders trying to navigate through hazardous shoals.
Maybe we should also turn down the volume on mass and social media. Broadcast and print media boost advertising revenue by searching for, playing up and provoking conflict. And by confronting and criticizing public officials at all levels of government. Reducing complex issues to simplistic sound-bites, they reduce public understanding and raise unrealistic expectations. In a context like COVID, by confronting government spokespersons with “gotcha” adversarial interview questions and critiques of necessarily evolving scientific data, they have exacerbated public skepticism, resentment and fatigue. I defend and respect the media’s 4th-Estate role as independent watchdogs holding public officials accountable. But COVID is a case where more educating and less fault-finding might have helped citizens and leaders pull together to confront a national medical emergency. Add to this mass-media coverage the conspiracy theories and disinformation swirling on social media, it’s no wonder that citizens are hesitant and demoralized.
- For all of these reasons, I believe pessimism about the path ahead in 2022 is premature. Not only is the Fat Lady still warming up. We also know that a positive attitude is invaluable for physical, mental and emotional health. My gifted radiation-oncologist used to assure me of the power of attitude. Despite his first-class education, 30 years of professional experience, cutting-edge technology and ever-improving pharmacopeia, he considered patient attitude the principal contributor to cancer-patient healing. In addition, research beyond the medical domain also shows that pessimism contributes to negative outcomes.
There are no reliable roadmaps to the rest of this year. But also no grounds for despair. We Agile Agers should keep on learning, pay attention, stay engaged and live with hope.
A PARTING SHOT: UP, UP AND AWAY
Our wobbling civilization consists of more than ballots and boosters. Science and technology are just two fields that are racing ahead with potentially positive discoveries. Let me leave you with one historic example unfolding right over our heads: 2022 is the most active year thus far for humans’ space exploration.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was launched on Christmas Day, 2021. By January 24, the telescope had been fully and successfully unfolded into its operational configuration and its 18 hexagonal mirror segments assembled into a 21-foot-diameter composite mirror. In orbit 930,000 miles from the earth, JWST is protected from destructive heating by a tennis-court-sized, five-layer sunshield. Now begins a six-month preliminary cooling, testing and calibration process before transmitting initial images soon after mid-year. The telescope has four core goals:
- To search for light from the first stars and galaxies that formed in the universe after the Big Bang, 14 billion years ago;
- To study galaxy formation and evolution;
- To understand star formation and planet formation; and
- To study planetary systems and the origins of life.
The telescope is a 25-year joint-venture among America’s NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Sixteen countries in addition to America and Canada have participated as pre-launch partners.
Our new year will also witness the launching of no fewer than nine lunar exploration projects, some with multiple missions. Nearly 50 years after the original Cold War space race between America and the Soviet Union, the new flurry will aim to place people and machines on or near the moon, in preparation for sustained operations there. The Moon Rush is something of a nationalistic free-for-all. In addition to NASA’s hyperactive role, other contestants include China, India, Israel, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates. To be sure, non-scientific objectives for these competing sponsors include public-relations prestige, commercial exploitation of lunar resources and securing military advantage.
Most current global issues would benefit from global cooperation. Space exploration, like climate-change mitigation, pandemic control, migration and immigration, falls into this category. In practice, for better and for worse, nations too often elect to go it alone. But separately and together, we’re again reaching for the stars. And that telescope really is a beaut!