School closures: lessons from the Ebola pandemic

SIX YEARS ago Rosaline Margai’s secondary-school education came to a halt just as it was about to begin. In 2014-15 schools in Sierra Leone were closed for nine months because of the Ebola outbreak in west Africa. Six years later her schooling has again been interrupted. Covid-19 has caused Sierra Leone to close its schools and to cancel or postpone exams. Ms Margai was determined to start college by the age of 17. “I will turn 17 soon,” she explains. “But I fear I will not be able to take exams in time.”

Across west Africa memories of the devastation caused by Ebola and the school shutdowns are still fresh. Education for 5m children was severely disrupted. The luckiest met sporadically in small groups in homes. Others listened to government-provided education programmes by radio. But for many, learning stopped altogether.

Children were more likely to go to work. Sexual exploitation increased. Unplanned teen pregnancies rose sharply. “When you live in a country that already struggles to keep kids in school, and then schools are closed and poverty goes through the roof, you quickly become a candidate for child labour,” says Hani Mansourian of UNICEF, the UN’s children’s agency. He worries about a similar dynamic now; with the government overstretched, it is easier for employers to hire cheap young labour.

In 2014 school closures crimped many essential services, such as nutrition and health programmes, information on disease prevention, and access to clean water and sanitation. According to UNICEF, nearly 1m children in Liberia were not immunised that year.

When schools did reopen, many pupils did not return. Sierra Leone’s government banned “visibly pregnant girls” from school. In a survey in 2015 of adolescent girls asked why they were not in secondary school, “my parents cannot afford it” soared as a reason, recalls Tom Dannatt of Street Child, a British charity. Ms Margai remembers many kids dropping out: “Their parents would say ‘there is no need to be in school any more.’”

The current crisis is in some ways worse. During the Ebola outbreak, clubs for girls in some places provided education and support: those attending were less likely to get pregnant than those in similarly affected areas without such groups. Social distancing means that such efforts will be hard to replicate now. Mr Mansourian fears that the long-term consequences of covid-19 in low- and middle-income countries will be “much more dire” than Ebola was in west Africa.

Though it was terrible for children overall, Ebola did have the good effect of highlighting the flaws in west African education systems. It galvanised efforts to improve schooling, increase education budgets and reduce classroom crowding. “Whilst it seems early—and almost grim—to be thinking of it now,” says Mr Dannatt, “we should also absolutely be looking at how we can reopen education on a new level after the crisis.”

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Lessons learned”

Reuse this contentThe Trust Project

Closing schools for covid-19 does lifelong harm and widens inequality

Editor’s note: The Economist is making some of its most important coverage of the covid-19 pandemic freely available to readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. To receive it, register here. For our coronavirus tracker and more coverage, see our hub

IN THE STREETS of Amsterdam children spend the “corona holiday” whizzing around on scooters; their peers in Madrid are mostly stuck at home with video games; those in Dakar look after younger siblings. The one place they are not is at school. Over three-quarters of the world’s roughly 1.5bn schoolchildren are barred from the classroom, according to UNESCO, a UN agency. In most of China and in South Korea they have not darkened school doors since January. In Portugal and California they will not return before September.

Schools have striven to remain open during wars, famines and even storms. The extent and length of school closures now happening in the rich world are unprecedented. The costs are horrifying. Most immediately, having to take care of children limits the productivity of parents. But in the long run that will be dwarfed by the amount of lost learning. Those costs will fall most heavily on those children who are most in need of education. Without interventions the effects could last a lifetime.

For these reasons Singapore in 2003 cut its month-long June holiday by two weeks to make up for a fortnight of school closures during the SARS epidemic. Closing schools even briefly hurts children’s prospects. In America third-graders (seven-year-olds) affected by weather-related closures do less well in state exams. French-speaking Belgian students hit by a two-month teachers’ strike in 1990 were more likely to repeat a grade, and less likely to complete higher education, than similar Flemish-speaking students not affected by the strike. According to some studies, over the long summer break young children in America lose between 20% and 50% of the skills they gained over the school year.

Closures will hurt the youngest schoolchildren most. “You can make up for lost maths with summer school. But you can’t easily do that with the stuff kids learn very young,” says Matthias Doepke of Northwestern University. Social and emotional skills such as critical thinking, perseverance and self-control are predictors of many things, from academic success and employment to good health and the likelihood of going to jail. Whereas older children can be plonked in front of a computer, younger ones learn far more when digital study is supervised by an adult.

Then there are those who are missing crucial exams. Germany is reopening schools for final-year high-school students who face exams soon. But most countries are not willing to do that. China has postponed its Leaving Certificate exam (gaokao) until July. Britain and France have cancelled this year’s exams. Grades will in part be decided by teachers’ predictions of how a student might have performed. This fuels fears about inequality, as some experts worry teachers unconsciously discriminate against disadvantaged children and give them unfairly low marks.

Statistics Norway estimates “conservatively” that the country’s educational shutdowns—from crèches to high schools—are costing NKr1,809 ($173) per child each day. Most of that is an estimate of how much less today’s schoolchildren will earn in the future because their education has been disrupted. (It is assumed they are learning roughly half of what they normally would.) The rest is lost parental productivity today.

Of course schooling has not stopped completely, as it does during holidays. Nearly nine in ten affected rich countries are providing some form of distance-learning (compared with fewer than one in four poor countries). But video-conferencing has its limits. For poorer children, internet connections may be ropey. Devices may have to be shared and homes may be overcrowded or noisy. Of the poorest quarter of American children, one in four does not have access to a computer at home.

Less well-off children everywhere are less likely to have well-educated parents who coax them to attend remote lessons and help them with their work. In Britain more than half of pupils in private schools are taking part in daily online classes, compared with just one in five of their peers in state schools, according to the Sutton Trust, a charity (private schools are more likely to offer such lessons). In the first weeks of the lockdown some American schools reported that over a third of their students had not even logged in to the school system, let alone attended classes. Meanwhile, elite schools report nearly full attendance and the rich have hired teachers as full-time tutors.

Ashley Farris, an English teacher at KIPP high school in Denver, Colorado, says several of “her” kids are virtual truants. Her school worked hard to get students computers and Wi-Fi access, but the digital gap is only part of the story. Some must work to make up for parents’ lost wages. Others must look after younger siblings.

Closures in Britain could increase the gap in school performance between children on school meals (a proxy for economic disadvantage) and those not on school meals, fears Becky Francis of the Education Endowment Foundation, another charity. Over the past decade the gap, measured by grades in tests, has narrowed by roughly 10%, but she thinks school closures could, at the very least, reverse this progress. At least over summer, teachers are not on tap for anyone. In the current lockdown some students can still quench their thirst for education not just with highly educated parents but also with teachers; others will have access to neither.

Primary school is normally a crucial opportunity for gaps that emerged in early-years development to start narrowing, or at least to stop widening. That opportunity is now being missed. For a glimpse of the cost to the unluckiest young children, consider the Perry pre-school project of the 1960s, a study conducted in Ypsilanti, Michigan, which found that a control group of young children from disadvantaged backgrounds who did not attend pre-school suffered lifelong consequences.

Mr Doepke estimates that by the autumn the sizeable group of American children whose learning loss started when schools closed might have lost as much as a year’s learning. Since every year of education is associated with an increase in annual earnings of roughly 10%, the consequences for those children become clear. “I fear we will see further inequality and less social mobility if nothing is done,” he adds.

What can be done to limit the costs? Finland started distance learning only when it was satisfied that almost every child would be able to take part. South Korea extended its school holiday to prepare teachers and distribute devices where needed. “For my school of 1,000 students, just 13 borrowed tablets because they had several siblings in their house,” says Hyunsu Hwang, an English teacher at Inmyung Girls High School, in Incheon. Teachers now use a mixture of real-time interactive classes, pre-recorded material and homework-based digital classes. When schools began to reopen on April 9th, official attendance was 98%.

School systems where children are used to having to teach themselves will do better, reckons Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, a club of rich countries. “The real issue is if you’ve been spoon-fed by a teacher every day and are now told to go it alone, what will motivate you?” In Estonia and Japan students are used to “self-regulated activities”; across the OECD the share is nearly 40%. But in countries such as France and Spain, such autonomy is rare.

In the end, the only way to ensure all children get an education is to reopen the doors. At the Alan Turing primary school in Amsterdam, it quickly became clear that 28 of its 190 pupils could not take part in online classes. The school now opens its doors for 15 from this group three mornings a week and has found other ways to help the remaining 13, such as arranging for them to get assistance from their neighbours. “At first it felt like we were doing something illegal,” says Eva Naaijkens, the headmistress, “but how can you accept a situation where a number of children just drop out?” She estimates that, working remotely, her teachers can impart perhaps 40% of the education they would normally.

As well as letting final-year secondary-school students facing exams resume classes, Denmark has also begun to reopen crèches and primary schools. It has made a priority of the very young for several reasons. The early stage of learning is crucial. The burden toddlers place on parents is heavy. And the risk of young kids getting or spreading the virus appears low.

Around the world many parents will be hoping their children’s schools can also safely reopen soon. Some children may have mixed feelings about swapping extra Xbox time for geography lessons. Tough luck: holidays have to end sometime. For the future well-being of whippersnappers scooting around the streets of Amsterdam, it is good news that Dutch primary schools will partially reopen on May 11th.

Dig deeper:
For our latest coverage of the covid-19 pandemic, register for The Economist Today, our daily newsletter, or visit our coronavirus tracker and story hub

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “No more pencils, no more books”

Reuse this contentThe Trust Project

Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker Is Hitting Disney+ Two Months Early

If you still haven’t seen Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker just yet but are an active Disney+ subscriber, Disney has a surprise for you.

The final entry in the Skywalker Saga is headed to Disney+ about two months early, so you can celebrate the upcoming unofficial Star Wars holiday, May 4, in style. If the phrase “May the 4th be with you” rings any bells, that’s all part of the celebration.

Disney made the announcement that The Rise of Skywalker will finally appear on the streaming platform not he same day as Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian, an eight-part documentary series that will offer a behind-the-scenes look at the development of The Mandalorian.

It’s a veritable Star Wars-palooza on that same say, as the series finale of Star Wars: The Clone Wars is wrapping up as well. It returned in February 2020 with its final 12 episodes and marked the return of characters like Ahsoka Tano and Anakin Skywalker.

There’s still plenty of Star Wars content on the way beyond May 4, though. There’s another season of The Mandalorian hitting later this year in October, and the as-yet-untitled Rogue One prequel series that will bring back actor Diego Luna to reprise his role as Rebel officer Cassian Andor. Unfortunately, there isn’t a date for the Rogue One adventure, nor the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi spin-off that’s reportedly been in the works for quite some time.

There are more still Star Wars projects in the works at Disney+, but we haven’t heard much about any of them as of yet. At the very least, The Rise of Skywalker should be a good way to hold over fans looking for updates. Besides, we’re about due for a rewatch, anyway.

Why voting online is not the way to hold an election in a pandemic

Editor’s note: The Economist is making some of its most important coverage of the covid-19 pandemic freely available to readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. To receive it, register here. For our coronavirus tracker and more coverage, see our hub

ON MAY 3RD, months after Bolivia’s former president Evo Morales was forced to resign, the country was supposed to elect his successor. Because of covid-19, that election has been postponed. Bolivians are now stuck with a caretaker president who seems in no mood to relinquish power. They are not alone. The pandemic is playing havoc with elections worldwide. Britain, France, North Macedonia and Serbia have already postponed ballots of various sorts. Opposition politicians in Poland have called for the presidential contest in May to be delayed; some have called for a boycott if it takes place. Eighteen American states have postponed or cancelled presidential primaries, including New York, which scrapped its primary on April 27th. At this rate, scores of elections may be derailed or disrupted, perhaps even America’s polls in November.

In some quarters, this has revived the debate about internet voting. A recent poll revealed that 56% of people in France would have welcomed a chance to vote by computer or smartphone. A Polish senator has launched a petition to introduce the technology in time for the presidential election. In America, a few states have experimented with web-based voting portals. In Britain, the main opposition Labour Party this month elected a new leader in an online ballot in which 70% of its 550,000 members voted.

Electing presidents between Zoom calls and episodes of “Tiger King” certainly has its appeal. Studies show online voting could be half as expensive as the normal kind and far cheaper than the main alternative, voting by post. Disabled, elderly and overseas voters could certainly benefit, as could any country facing a prolonged lockdown.

Yet online voting faces serious, possibly insurmountable obstacles. Even its keenest cheerleaders acknowledge that it should complement, not replace, other methods. The consensus among experts is that the technology remains vulnerable to security breaches and cyber-attacks. Malware can tamper with votes before they reach government servers. Hackers can create mirror versions of an election portal, steal voter credentials, or attack computers that count and store online ballots. A recent paper by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, a non-profit group, concludes that countries without experience of online voting should not contemplate rolling it out in response to the covid-19 crisis. The cure would be worse than the disease.

Even if online voting were foolproof voters might not embrace it for years, if ever. Data security and encryption are complex. Conventional voting methods are also subject to fraud and error, but falsifying millions of paper ballots is a weighty undertaking. In contrast, electronic data are weightless, and a single flaw can in theory be exploited at large scale by anyone who finds it.

Electronic voting allows for even less room for error than other online activity like, say, banking. For banks and their customers, the convenience of transacting online makes the risks of hacking or phishing attacks easier to tolerate. Banks can endure the occasional security breach. Democracies cannot accept any doubt about the outcome of an election. Clients whose funds have been pilfered can detect fraud by browsing their bank statements, and claim compensation. But there are no agreed-upon auditing measures for voting online. Any suspicion that an outside power has tampered with votes cast online can destroy confidence in the whole electoral process.

Even in Estonia, the only country to use online voting nationwide, it took several election cycles to develop trust, says Robert Krimmer, a professor of e-governance at Tallinn University of Technology. In 2005, when the country introduced the technology, just 2% of voters filled out their ballots online. In the general elections of 2019, the share reached 44%. Estonia’s system did not emerge in a vacuum. In two decades, the country has managed to digitise its entire bureaucracy. Today, practically the only things Estonians cannot do online is get married or divorced, or transfer property.

Even Estonian officials admit no system, including theirs, can be fully immune from cyber-attacks. Estonia has reduced some of the risks, including voter coercion, by allowing people to check and change their votes before they are recorded. A state-issued electronic ID and smartcard, which Estonians use for a range of services, from paying taxes to accessing health records, ensures voter authentication. “Because of the pathological fear of government intrusion,” says Jeremy Epstein of the Association for Computing Machinery, “this would never fly in the US.”

The past year has not been kind to internet voting. Lithuania shelved the technology, citing the threat of election interference by Russia. Swiss lawmakers voted to end trials after analysts uncovered flaws in a government-designed system. In America, Democrats made a hash of the Iowa caucuses when an app designed to record votes crashed, delaying results. West Virginia ditched online voting after a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed the app it was planning to use was riddled with security holes.

For now, the only safe, viable alternative to voting in person is voting by post, though this too faces serious legal and logistical hurdles. Online voting is not ready for the world’s democracies to deploy during the covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps they will be better prepared for the next one.

Correction (29th April 2020): A previous version of this article stated that Robert Krimmer is a professor at Tallinn University, rather than Tallinn University of Technology. Apologies.

Dig deeper:

For our latest coverage of the covid-19 pandemic, register for The Economist Today, our daily newsletter, or visit our coronavirus tracker and story hub

Reuse this contentThe Trust Project

For people with dementia, the coronavirus pandemic is a nightmare

Editor’s note: The Economist is making some of its most important coverage of the covid-19 pandemic freely available to readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. To receive it, register here. For our coronavirus tracker and more coverage, see our hub

EVERY DAY Diane Evans (not her real name), from her home in London, calls her 85-year-old mother, who lives on her own in Wales. Every day she asks if she is remembering to wash her hands regularly and to keep a social distance from other people. Every day her mother is perplexed by the question. Every day the facts of life during the coronavirus epidemic are explained to her yet again, with an heroic absence of exasperation. Every day Ms Evans worries that her mother will put herself at unnecessary risk of contracting the covid-19 virus.

She also worries that the condition her mother already lives with is getting worse, as she loses the social contacts and routine that shaped her life. Her mother has dementia, a degenerative and incurable condition that affects perhaps 850,000 Britons and 50m people worldwide. It has various causes and a wide range of severity. It may start as a “mild cognitive impairment”—forgetfulness; the occasional “senior moment”. But as it progresses, it attacks mental agility and gnaws away at memory. Eventually, it renders people incapable of looking after themselves, even if physically they are up to it. They will lose the ability to read, to cook and to shop. They may forget to drink and become dehydrated, or become incontinent. At times they may suffer delusions, or become frightened or angry; at others simply subside into an apathetic slump. They will require care for most of their waking hours, and often supervision when they sleep.

People with every stage of dementia are at particular danger from the virus not just because of the difficulty they may have in understanding the threat or in remembering safety precautions. They are also likely to be subject to other risk factors. The most obvious is that dementia is predominantly a syndrome of the elderly, the group for whom covid-19 is most likely to be fatal. A small minority of people with early-onset dementia develop symptoms in their younger years. But no one doubts that it becomes more common with age. By some estimates, 2% of 65- to 69-year-olds have dementia, and its prevalence doubles every five years to the age of 90. In another widely quoted estimate, between a third and a half of 85-year-olds have dementia.

The condition has a variety of causes. The most common is Alzheimer’s disease, accounting for between 60% and 80% of cases, but there are dozens of other types. And, though all kinds of people in all states of health can develop dementia, it does appear to be correlated with other conditions that make people vulnerable to infection. Those who are overweight, depressed, smoke, have high blood pressure or diabetes and do not exercise have a higher risk of dementia, as well as of physical ailments.

Looking after people with dementia is a hands-on, labour-intensive task. For those at home, that can become almost impossible if social-distancing guidelines are adhered to. And much of the usual support system—regular visitors and day-care centres, for example—will be unavailable.

Technology can help a bit. Singapore, for example, has experimented in some public-housing blocks with a system that sends neighbours or family members of the vulnerable an alert if, say, a tap in a washbasin has not been used for a while. Researchers at the UK Dementia Research Institute’s Care Research & Technology Centre, based at Imperial College London, are working on taking this much further. Infra-red and radar sensors installed in the homes of people with dementia, or devices worn by them as watches or hearing-aid-type brain-scanners can provide data giving early warning signs of trouble.

There are also, of course, apps for dementia. “Refresh Player” and “Refresh Studio”, from a tech firm called How Do I?, offer “personalised memory support”, including videos on how to perform day-to-day tasks, such as run a bath or boil a kettle, which appear when a smartphone taps a sticker on the once familiar but now sometimes baffling object involved. Japan is pioneering the use of robotics in caring for the elderly. Examples include toys such as Paro, a furry seal used as a “therapy animal”, and Pepper, a humanoid robot deployed in hundreds of care homes to play games, hold childish conversations and demonstrate exercise moves.

But for most people in most parts of the world, the best that can be offered people with dementia at home and their carers is a daily knock on the door, or a phone call, like Ms Evans’s, and Post-it notes of helpful reminders—to wash your hands, for example. So long as they are physically healthy, now is not the time, in many parts of the world, to contemplate sending someone with dementia into a care home. Many are operating strict isolation policies, letting no one in. And many have seen outbreaks of covid-19 infection. A study by academics based at the London School of Economics estimated that in a number of European countries, about half of covid-19-related deaths have been in care homes.

Many carers of people with dementia who have been unfortunate enough to become infected with the virus see hospitalisation as a very last resort for their charges. Even Alzheimer’s Disease International, an advocacy group, reports in a position paper this month that “people over 80 who have other illnesses and need admission to hospital with covid-19 are least likely to benefit from going into hospital since their admission has associated risks.” The experience can be bewildering, and lead to delirium, a hallucinatory state of confusion and panic. “It’s pretty frightening for most people,” says Gill Livingston, professor of psychiatry of older people, at University College, London, “but even more frightening for them.” There is also the fear that, when it comes to triage—the selection of patients for scarce medical resources, the elderly with dementia will find themselves at the end of the queue, based on questionable assumptions about the patient’s underlying frailty and quality of life.

Besides the short-term dangers the virus has brought to those coping with dementia, there are fears it could do longer-term damage to efforts to improve care for the condition. One reason for this is shared with many physical maladies: that, during the emergency, people are wary of seeking diagnosis or help, for fear of infection, or of laying claim to health-care resources others need more urgently. Professor Livingston says that the “memory clinic” where she works decided to shut, as the doctors concluded “it was more risky to see people than for them not to have a diagnosis for a short period of time.” But the longer the delay goes on, the greater dangers people living with undiagnosed dementia pose to themselves, and perhaps others, if, say, through forgetfulness they start a fire, or continue to drive when they can no longer do so safely.

Scientific research into dementia has also been disrupted by the pandemic. Miia Kivipelto, a Finnish neuroscientist who led a pioneering study showing how changes in people’s ways of life could slow or arrest cognitive decline, has had to stop all the follow-up research, as it is impossible to conduct in a world of self-isolation. Similarly, Biogen, an American pharmaceutical company, has had to delay its attempt to gain approval for aducanamab, a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s. Besides the difficulty in conducting clinical trials, the company has suffered a covid-19 outbreak. So many Alzheimer’s drugs have failed that optimism about this one was at best cautious, but for some of those affected by the disease, it was a light at the end of a very long tunnel.

Before covid-19, campaigners for dementia research and dementia care had reason to believe that they were making progress. Their argument that dementia is not an inevitable feature of ageing but a disability that deserves to be treated as such was widely accepted. So too was their case that dementia represents a real global emergency. As life expectancies lengthen, especially in the developing world, the numbers of people with the condition will shoot up, to around 80m by 2030 and 150m by 2050. As population growth slows, there will simply not be enough people to care for them. No country has a good plan for how to deal with this problem, or how to finance the care of such large numbers of people. Optimists point to the current pandemic to argue that it shows how much can be done when the scale of an emergency is recognised. Perhaps more realistically, it has given yet another reason for dementia to slip down the list of global priorities.

Dig deeper:
For our latest coverage of the covid-19 pandemic, register for The Economist Today, our daily newsletter, or visit our coronavirus tracker and story hub

Reuse this contentThe Trust Project

Global arms spending is rising, but covid-19 will trim budgets

Editor’s note: The Economist is making some of its most important coverage of the covid-19 pandemic freely available to readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. To receive it, register here. For our coronavirus tracker and more coverage, see our hub

ACROSS THE world, the face of pandemic response has been not just the doctor, nurse and scientist, but also the soldier. Armies have built hospitals, enforced lockdowns and joined the hunt for a vaccine. That is not the usual business of soldiering, but armed forces must earn their substantial keep. Over $1.9trn was lavished on military spending globally in 2019, the most in inflation-adjusted terms in more than three decades, according to a report published on April 27th by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a think-tank. But as the world economy slumps and debt piles up, guns may lose out to butter.

Global military spending slumped after the end of the cold war, hitting a low of a little over $1trn in the late 1990s (in 2018 dollars). It then shot up again in the 2000s, as America tooled up for its “war on terror” and China’s economy took off. After a brief dip, spending has climbed each year since 2015, driven by competition between America and China, European fears of Russian aggression and an Arab arms-buying spree. But the league table has been shuffled over time.

America remains comfortably on top, despite some lean years. Total military spending, including the cost of operations around the world, declined continuously, by over a fifth, between 2010 and 2017, and remains 15% below its peak in 2010. But a heavyweight on a diet still packs a punch; the numbers are dizzying. America’s outlay in 2019 grew by 5.3% to $732bn, almost two-fifths of the world’s total and more than the next ten countries combined. Its year-on-year increase alone was equivalent to the entire annual military expenditure of Germany, notes SIPRI.

Moreover, America also widened the gap with second-placed China, which upped spending by 5.1% to $261bn, equivalent to just over a third of America’s total. However, some experts argue that China’s opaque military budgeting means that its spending is consistently underestimated, and that SIPRI’s use of market exchange rates disguises the lower wages and cheaper prices available to lower-income countries.

Factor all that in and China’s defence budget may in fact have reached around 87% of America’s, suggests Frederico Bartels of the Heritage Foundation, a think-tank. Raw spending disguises technological advances, too. “China appears to be driving the military-technical competition in critical areas such as quantum science, biotechnology, hypersonics, and ballistic and cruise missiles,” warns Robert Work, a former deputy secretary of defence in America.

Everyone else is a straggler by comparison. India, which has climbed from ninth place in 2010 to third in 2019, spent a relatively modest $71.1bn while Russia, whose long spending boom on tanks, missiles and warships is drawing to a close, splashed out $65.1bn (though, as with China, using exchange rates adjusted for purchasing power suggests a figure two or three times higher). Saudi Arabia’s spending fell by 16%, but, at $61.9bn, remains formidable.

Notably, no western European country stands in the top five. Britain and France, once reliably in the top rank, and Germany, which is gradually rearming, each spent around $50bn or so. But closer to Russia’s borders, budgets are swelling. Spending in central Europe was up by 14%, driven in large part by free-spending Poland. Despite NATO’s various diplomatic travails—the alliance has been criticised by Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron—its member states, excluding America, spent $303bn last year, more than even the most generous estimate of Russian expenditure.

That so many countries are spending so much on the means of war is little surprise. Tensions between America and China have worsened in recent years, and the pandemic has deepened mistrust. The breakneck pace of Chinese armament has driven up defence investment across Asia, from Vietnam to Australia. At the same time, arms-control regimes are collapsing and last year saw missiles criss-cross the Persian Gulf. Those trends look likely to continue. But for all that, military spending now faces some serious headwinds.

Bomb and bust?
Oil prices have crumbled to their lowest in decades, as global demand crashes. Even if a Saudi-brokered deal among producers to cut output holds, the collapse is likely to pummel petrostates who piled up weaponry during the fat years. Russia is expected to lose around $165bn in oil-and-gas export revenue in 2020 (based on an average oil price of $30 a barrel), about a third of its total exports, notes Tatiana Evdokimova, chief economist of Nordea, a bank. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, all big arms-buyers in recent years, are expected to cut government spending.

But democracies have little to cheer about, because the wider economic consequences of the covid-19 pandemic will be more severe still. The IMF forecasts that the world economy will shrink by 3% this year, the worst contraction since the Depression. America, Britain, Canada, France, Germany and Italy—the six largest spenders in NATO—are projected to be among the very worst-hit. Emergency spending to cushion the blow already runs to $8trn globally, or 9.5% of world output, and will leave a mountain of debt.

In these circumstances, political leaders are likely to face pressure to spend more on health and social safety-nets, and less on weapons. “We’re seeing signs that governments might begin delaying major acquisitions,” says Michael Formosa of Renaissance Strategic Advisors, a consultancy, which would leave smaller firms short of cash. “There’s a very good chance that key parts of the supply chain will be distressed or in trouble in the very near term.”

South Korea has said that it will trim next year’s defence budget by 2% ($738m) and Thailand by 8% ($557m), with the money going instead to a disaster-relief fund and stimulus package respectively. Others are certain to follow. European cuts “could sound the death knell” to NATO’s target that allies spend 2% of GDP on defence, note Christopher Skaluba and Ian Brzezinski of the Atlantic Council, a think-tank. “That could reignite a burden-sharing debate damaging to transatlantic solidarity, and by consequence, the willingness of the United States to keep forces in Europe.”

But America will not emerge unscathed itself. The RAND Corporation, another think-tank, estimates that even if American defence spending remains steady at 3.2% of GDP, the Pentagon might have $350bn-600bn less than forecast under current plans over the next decade, about the same amount ($500bn) as under a massive budget sequestration initiated in 2011. That is probably a lower bound, says RAND, because input prices for American arms are likely to rise as post-pandemic production moves out of China.

National priorities “will lean first and foremost towards improved income and health security, and better resilience and infrastructure”, says Frank Hoffman of the National Defence University in Washington. In a worst-case scenario, he says, defence spending could fall to about $610bn, “a level that could require force reductions, reduce US basing and exercises overseas, and cuts in modernisation plans”. If covid-19 is a war against the virus then the peace dividend will, as usual, go to the civilians.

Dig deeper:
For our latest coverage of the covid-19 pandemic, register for The Economist Today, our daily newsletter, or visit our coronavirus tracker and story hub

Reuse this contentThe Trust Project

The WHO launches a global initiative on treatments for covid-19

Editor’s note: The Economist is making some of its most important coverage of the covid-19 pandemic freely available to readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. To receive it, register here. For our coronavirus tracker and more coverage, see our hub

SINCE THE first cases of covid-19 emerged in China in late 2019, the pace of medical innovation has been breathtaking. The efforts of the world’s scientists are already starting to bear fruit. Within less than four months, several trials for promising new vaccines and treatments have begun. These may offer a way out of the covid-19 crisis.

Yet with the headlong global rush to develop new treatments, diagnostics and vaccines one question has not been answered: how can these essential innovations be delivered globally, and fairly, where they are most needed? An initiative led by the World Health Organisation (WHO), announced on April 24th, seeks to provide an answer.

There is urgency to this question because the global impact of covid-19, both on people’s health and on their livelihoods, means that a global solution would be superior to lots of individual national ones, in which each country tries to find a vaccine or a cure for its own citizens in isolation, and each country tries to hold on to vital but scarce supplies. The virus spreads across borders, so is best controlled globally. A common effort will be less costly, in lives as well as money, than the pursuit of national interests alone.

Both America and the European Union have already put curbs on exports of personal protective equipment. There are fears that this will extend to vaccines. During the 2009 swine-flu pandemic, the export of vaccines abroad became a sensitive political issue in America. Because vaccines are the world’s long-term exit strategy to the crisis, a global approach is especially valuable.

For several months, behind the scenes, health officials, NGOs, funders and researchers around the world have been seeking a solution. Since February it has been plain that there was an urgent need for a plan to fund, develop and distribute vaccines globally. Even if successful means of immunisation can be found, the world has never produced a vaccine at the envisaged speed (perhaps in the first half of 2021) or scale—eventually and ideally, worldwide.

And even when vaccines are being mass-produced, supplies will be limited. A strategy for using them needs to be worked out in advance. This might be, for example, to give priority to health workers, countries with active outbreaks, or hot-spots of infection. There are many possible permutations of distribution. Ideally, each needs to be considered and compared—and quickly.

On April 24th a group of self-described “global health actors” joined the WHO to launch a partnership to accelerate the development of and global access to health technologies, including vaccines, to fight covid-19 around the world. Those involved include the Wellcome Trust, a big British medical charity, as well as the World Bank and governments, including those of France, Norway and South Africa. America’s is a notable absentee.

The ACT Accelerator, as it is called, will speed and scale up whatever tools are needed to end the pandemic. Many of its partners, such as the Gates Foundation and GAVI, a vaccine-finance group, and the Global Fund, which finances the battle against AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, have decades of experience in fighting global health crises, scaling solutions and delivering them. Even without the firepower of the American government, this is a powerful group.

Although the accelerator is not short of ambition, it is short of cash. It will need $8bn of seed funding, at once. Indeed, it was identified as necessary two months ago, says Alex Harris, head of global policy at the Wellcome Trust. (The figure is based on an assessment by the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, an independent monitoring and accountability body.) Governments, UN agencies and others will, it is hoped, stump up the money at a pledging conference on May 4th. Saudi Arabia’s minister of finance has reportedly said that $2bn has been promised already. Of the $8bn, $3bn will be for R&D for vaccines and $2.25bn for drugs.

Many details will need to be worked out, and the work ahead is likely to be difficult. Heading the vaccine programme will be Sir Andrew Witty, the president of UnitedHealth Group, an American health-care giant (he is temporarily suspending that role). Sir Andrew, who used to run GlaxoSmithKline, a vaccine-maker, brings a wealth of business experience.

He will need to form a plan to help identify the best vaccine candidates, fund their development and agree on how to share them. Such a co-operative approach also means that no single country will lose out by having a vaccine fail during development, or by not being able to get hold of vaccines made elsewhere. Drugs and protective equipment will need the same sort of planning, too. It is only a start. But it is a sign that the grown-ups are coming to the table.

Dig deeper:
For our latest coverage of the covid-19 pandemic, register for The Economist Today, our daily newsletter, or visit our coronavirus tracker and story hub

Reuse this contentThe Trust Project

This Is Us‘s Niles Fitch Is Making History As Disney’s First Black, Live-Action Prince

It’s been a long time coming, but Disney has officially cast its first Black, live-action prince. Prince Tuma, a character in the upcoming Disney+ movie Secret Society of Second-Born Royals, will be played by This Is Us actor Niles Fitch. And based on a recent post he shared on Instagram, he’s pretty stoked about this history-making role.

“Welcome Disney’s first Black prince,” Fitch wrote alongside a screenshot of Entertainment Weekly‘s exclusive first-look announcement. Per Disney+, the film will follow a group of “extraordinary” second-born royals who hold “super-human powers” and have a responsibility to keep the world safe. And to learn how to use their powers properly, they must attend a special school.

Disney+/John Medland

Tuma, despite being a Disney prince, is not perfect. Per Disney+’s description, he’s a crucial part of the team, and like any human — with super powers or not — he has his flaws. “Tuma’s super-human ability is vital to the team’s success,” the character’s description reads. “But his self-centered nature needs a lesson in empathy.”

Fitch isn’t the only familiar face in the star-studded cast. He’ll be joined by Pitch Perfect actor Skylar Astin and Andi Mack star Peyton Elizabeth Lee, among others. Astin will play the role of James, the group’s mentor, who helps each royal tap into their “unique super abilities.” Lee will play Sam, “a rebellious teenage royal second-in-line to the throne of the kingdom of Illyria.”

Disney+/John Medland

Fitch, Aston, and Lee will be joined by Olivia Deeble as Roxana, Faly Rakotohavana as Matteo, Isabella Blake Thomas as January, Elodie Yung as Queen Catherine, Ashley Liao as Eleanor, Noah Lomax as Mike, and Greg Bryk as Inmate 34. And while we’re excited to see the entire cast come together for some good, old-fashioned Disney magic, we’re especially looking forward to Fitch helping Disney take one giant leap forward in terms of inclusivity.

In the past, Disney has been widely criticized for its lack of diversity. Just last year, for example, 13 Reasons Why star Christian Navarro denounced the company for casting a white Prince Eric in the upcoming, live-action Little Mermaid. And while it’s unclear when exactly Fitch will grace our screens as Disney’s first-ever Black, live-action prince, we’re thrilled that he’s becoming Disney royalty sometime this summer.

Would-be autocrats are using covid-19 as an excuse to grab more power

Editor’s note: The Economist is making some of its most important coverage of the covid-19 pandemic freely available to readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. To receive it, register here. For our coronavirus tracker and more coverage, see our hub

ON APRIL 13TH, during a discussion about when and how America should ease covid-19 lockdowns, Donald Trump claimed to have “absolute power” to decide, overriding state governors. Within a day, he was forced to retreat. No serious legal scholar agreed with him—America’s constitution is admirably clear on the limits to presidential authority.

Contrast that with Viktor Orban’s efforts. On March 30th Hungary’s parliament issued a “coronavirus law”, giving the prime minister almost unlimited powers to rule by decree, with no expiry date. Parliament can repeal Mr Orban’s new powers, but since his party has an impregnable majority, it probably won’t. Mr Orban has in effect become a dictator—in the heart of Europe. He may relinquish some of his new powers after the pandemic, just to prove his critics wrong, but perhaps not all.

Covid-19 is creating opportunities for autocrats and would-be autocrats to tighten their grip. They must assume extraordinary powers, they insist, to protect public health. No fewer than 84 countries have declared a state of emergency since the pandemic began, says the Centre for Civil and Political Rights, a watchdog in Geneva. Some will surrender these powers when the emergency is over. Others plan to hang on to them. The danger is greatest not in mature democracies with strong checks and balances, such as America, but in places where such safeguards are weak, such as Hungary.

Mr Orban has spent the past decade eroding checks on his power, nobbling the courts, tilting the electoral system and urging his cronies to gobble up independent radio and television stations. Mr Trump’s claim of absolute power was laughed at; Hungarian media welcomed Mr Orban’s corona coronation, and Hungarian institutions did nothing to block it.

Unscrupulous politicians have seen opportunity in disaster before. Vladimir Putin grabbed extra powers after a school siege involving terrorists in Beslan, a town near Russia’s border with Georgia. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan imposed a state of emergency after a failed coup in 2016, and has since ruled like a sultan. This pandemic presents an even greater opportunity for mischief, because it is raging everywhere at once. The world’s attention is on the virus. No repressive act in a far-off land is likely to make headlines elsewhere.

China chose now to arrest Hong Kong’s leading pro-democracy activists and puncture its Basic Law (see article). “Dictators and others may think there’s no better time to take repressive measures,” says Rob Malley of the International Crisis Group, an NGO in Brussels.

Serbia’s president is in effect in sole charge. Togo’s has the power to rule by decree, though in theory it runs out in a few months. Cambodia’s emergency law gives the government the power to take any “measures that are deemed appropriate” to fight the disease. It can restrict people’s movement, ban public gatherings, censor social media, seize property and declare martial law. Anyone who fails to “respect” the law faces up to ten years in prison. The prime minister, Hun Sen, can act without any real oversight. Though his ministers say the measures will last for only three months, they can be extended indefinitely.

Such powers far exceed any that democratic governments have assumed to fight covid-19, but the regimes in question try to portray them as normal. “The purpose of making this law for Cambodia is not unique, as there is this law already in many other democratic countries,” says a spokesman for the ministry of justice.

Some curbs on freedom are reasonable given the scale of the emergency. Large gatherings can spread infection, so limiting them for a while makes sense. But it also helps regimes keen to snuff out protests. Algeria banned street marches that have lasted, off and on, for a year, threatening the elderly ruling elite. India’s lockdown has squashed nationwide rallies against the government’s mistreatment of Muslims. In Russia even lone protesters against Mr Putin have been arrested.

Social-distancing rules can be applied selectively. Azerbaijan’s president says the “isolation” of members of the opposition may “become a historical necessity”. Several have been locked up for supposedly violating a lockdown. Unpopular minorities are also at risk. In Uganda police raided a shelter housing 20 gay and transgender people and later charged them with “congesting in a school-like-dormitory setting within a small house”.

Defeating the virus will require tracking who has been infected, tracing their contacts and quarantining them. This may involve intrusive surveillance. Most people will surrender some privacy temporarily to save lives. Good governments will take only the data they need from their citizens and do so only when they need it. Others will not.

Cambodia’s emergency law allows for unlimited surveillance of private citizens. Moscow is mulling a scheme whereby everyone would have to register their personal details on an official website. Every time they want to go out, they would have to provide a reason and the address of their destination. They will then be sent an electronic message to show to the police if they are stopped. The authorities would monitor everyone’s geolocation and even financial records to make sure they comply. The potential for abuse is obvious.

Spreading rumours during a pandemic can be dangerous. Many regimes have used this as an excuse to crack down on critics. Reporters without Borders, a watchdog, cites 38 countries that have used covid-19 as a pretext to harass the media. It stresses that the list is not exhaustive.

In Turkey at least eight journalists have been arrested on charges of “spreading misinformation”. Hundreds of others have been investigated for critical posts on social media. In Bolivia the interim president, Jeanine Áñez, decreed that those who “misinform or cause uncertainty to the population” can be jailed for one to ten years. Since she has a record of forcing opposition radio stations off the air, critics fear this will become a tool to lock them up.

Some governments have criminalised almost any disparagement of their response to the pandemic. A Thai artist called Danai Ussama faces up to five years in prison after griping that no one took his temperature at Bangkok airport.

“Censorship kills,” says Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch. “When governments suppress the free flow of information, it is terrible for public health, as we saw in Wuhan. The Chinese government’s muzzling of the doctors who sounded the warning gave the virus a three-week head-start to go global.” A study by the University of Southampton found that if interventions in China had started three weeks earlier, the number of coronavirus cases would have been 95% lower at the end of February, “significantly limiting the geographical spread of the disease.”

Some governments are enforcing lockdowns harshly. Several Indian states now allow the police to arrest people without charge. In Fiji there have been more coronavirus-related arrests than diagnostic tests. Kenyan cops have beaten health workers on their way to work.

In El Salvador more than 2,000 people have been locked up for violating strict social-distancing rules, often defeating their purpose. Its Supreme Court has told the government to stop arbitrarily detaining people in inhumane conditions that are likely to spread the disease. But its fiery president, Nayib Bukele, has refused (via Twitter) to obey it. Thus, covid-19 has precipitated a constitutional crisis in one of Latin America’s most violent countries.

Getting la grippe

Indonesia and the Philippines have given the army prime responsibility for fighting the novel coronavirus. In some ways this is pragmatic: only the armed forces can operate effectively across these two archipelago states. They are also popular. “They abhor useless debates. They are silent workers, not voracious talkers. They act without fanfare. They get things done,” said a spokesman for Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines. Even so, there are worries. Mr Duterte has publicly urged the security forces to shoot troublemakers dead. Fortunately, they appear to have ignored him, but in the long run, turning to the men in uniform during a public-health crisis risks weakening civilian oversight.

The pandemic is seriously disrupting elections. South Korea showed in April that a well-governed rich country can organise a vote while maintaining social distance. Poorer, less orderly places find it harder. For some leaders, that is a welcome excuse to delay their reckoning with voters.

Court-ordered re-runs of rigged elections in Bolivia have been postponed. Those in Malawi could be delayed, too. That would leave the presidency with Peter Mutharika, whose victory last year was ruled invalid after his supporters used Tipp-Ex to alter vote tallies.

Some leaders are holding votes on schedule, knowing that the opposition will barely be able to campaign, whereas the incumbent can look statesmanlike on television. Poland’s ruling party wants to go ahead with a presidential election in May for this reason, though it could still be delayed. Guinea held a referendum on March 22nd to allow President Alpha Condé to run for two more terms. The proposal passed easily. Guinea now has almost 700 covid-19 cases and possibly 12 more years of Mr Condé, who has advised Guineans to inhale menthol and drink hot water to ward off the virus.

Ethiopia’s elections, which are set for August, were supposed to herald the dawn of a new democratic era. They have been postponed and the government has assumed emergency powers. During previous states of emergency in 2016 and 2018, tens of thousands of dissidents were locked up in re-education camps or tortured. The current prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has promised that such abuses are all in the past. But if elections are not held by September, his government will no longer have a mandate, and Ethiopia’s ethnic insurgencies could explode.

Strongman flu

Some governments have used the disease itself to intimidate the opposition. Crowded jails are hotbeds of infection. Dissidents understand that detention could be lethal. Turkey has ordered a mass release of up to 90,000 prisoners to spare them from contracting covid-19. The country’s thousands of political prisoners are conspicuously excluded from the amnesty.

Some governments are looking for scapegoats. In India that means Muslims. After it was discovered that a Muslim religious meeting on March 15th was the source of more than 1,000 infections, the Hindu nationalist government made every effort to publicise this fact. For several days the ministry of health counted separately covid cases tied to the event. A cabinet member likened it to a crime by the Taliban. Health authorities assiduously traced every single case from the Delhi meeting, ultimately putting some 25,000 people under quarantine. They have made no such effort with any other vector, such as the huge wedding party of a ruling-party bigwig. #CoronaJihad proliferated on social media, along with rumours that Muslims were spitting in people’s food to spread the virus. Muslims have been attacked in the streets. A cancer hospital in Meerut said that it would not take Muslim patients unless they tested negative for covid-19.

Blaming Muslims is a handy way to fire up Hindu nationalist voters and distract attention from the fact that, at the time of the notorious Muslim prayer meeting, the government had yet to take the virus seriously. “Having spent years painting [Muslims] as a demographic, cultural, sexual, and security threat, it is now busily painting them as a biohazard,” complains Mitali Saran in the Deccan Herald.

Such bigotry not only stokes violence; it also harms public health. Many Muslims are now so suspicious of the government that they are unwilling to co-operate with quarantine rules. In Muslim slums medics have been attacked because of rumours that they are gathering data on Muslims in order to harm them. It was not until April 19th that the prime minister, Narendra Modi, made any effort to soothe sectarian tempers. “Covid-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or borders,” he tweeted. “We are in this together.”

Many leaders want credit for handing out taxpayers’ cash to tide people over during the crisis. Mr Modi is leaning on rich Indians as well as government workers to donate to a special “PM-CARES” relief fund. It is unclear how the new pot differs from an emergency relief fund that Indian prime ministers have run since 1948, except that it has less oversight and Mr Modi can claim to have launched it.

Some rulers are equally keen that their opponents should get no credit for helping the needy. Turkey is investigating the opposition mayors of Istanbul and Ankara for trying to raise funds to fight covid-19. Mr Erdogan likened them to terrorists. In Uganda President Yoweri Museveni cautions that “opportunistic politicians who try to distribute food will be arrested and charged with attempted murder.” His government claims that chaotic food distribution will draw crowds that will spread the virus. His foes think he wants to stop them from looking good by doing good.

For now, covid-19 is helping autocrats grab more power. But it poses big risks for them, too. The damage it wreaks will be vast and painful, especially in poor countries. Many despots will struggle to protect their subjects from disease and deprivation. Mr Putin is losing popularity because of his aloof response to the virus. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who scoffs at lockdowns and recently led a rally where placard-wavers called for a coup, could be impeached for incompetence after this crisis. Some are flailing. President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus said the best way to fight the virus was to drink vodka and drive a tractor.

Some regimes may run out of money. Venezuela’s dictator, Nicolás Maduro, looks particularly vulnerable. The combination of covid-19 and an oil-price crash may leave his regime without enough cash to fund its patronage network—and to keep the army loyal. Covid-19 challenges many regimes that rely on the security forces to suppress dissent.

Where governments are seen as legitimate, and where they try to ease the economic pain, people are more likely to comply with lockdowns. In many countries, however, the state is seen as predatory and the police as bullies. In them a backlash is brewing that thuggish cops will struggle to control. Protests against lockdowns have erupted in many countries, including parts of China. More may follow if the pandemic lasts for months, as it probably will.

Pandemocrats

Many autocrats fear losing control. An incident in Cambodia is suggestive. Mr Hun Sen admitted in an unguarded moment that his government lacks the money to tide people over during the outbreak. “If motorbike-taxi drivers go bankrupt, sell your motorbikes for spending money,” he said. When a director of a news site accurately quoted this insensitive comment, it was shut down and he was arrested.

Seven years ago Mr Hun Sen was rattled by huge protests by disgruntled factory workers. Cambodia’s garment factories are now laying off workers, who are more desperate and angry than before. In many countries covid-19 may foster instability. Autocracies have no immunity.

Dig deeper:
For our latest coverage of the covid-19 pandemic, register for The Economist Today, our daily newsletter, or visit our coronavirus tracker and story hub

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Protection racket”

Reuse this contentThe Trust Project

Prisons worldwide risk becoming incubators of covid-19

THE FIRST person to die from covid-19 on Rikers Island, a jail in New York City, exhaled his last breath on April 5th. The victim was a 53-year-old man, Michael Tyson, who died at a local hospital. He had been incarcerated for a technical, non-criminal parole violation and almost certainly caught the disease inside. Over the past month at least, the island has become a reservoir of the coronavirus. At least 362 people have been confirmed to have been infected, out of a total inmate population of 3,974. This is six times higher than the infection rate in the city as a whole. At least six prison staff across New York have died.

Preventing the spread of covid-19 is difficult everywhere. But prisons are among the hardest places to protect. Worldwide there are 11m behind bars, according to Penal Reform International, a pressure group. That is the highest figure ever. In most rich countries and almost all poor ones, cells are overcrowded, people come and go frequently, and effective social distancing is all but impossible. The sorts of people who end up in prison are more likely to have other problems, such as drug or alcohol addictions, or difficult family situations, which might make them more vulnerable to the virus or more likely to spread it to others. Inmates are not necessarily co-operative. And prisons cannot be shut down in the way that other places where people are confined in tight spaces can be. The risk is that if the virus enters prisons, it will prove impossible to control. Not only might it kill a lot of inmates and guards, it could also add to the pressure on health systems and spread out into the rest of the population.

In America, which has the world’s biggest prison population, there are particular risks. Between 2000 and 2016, the share of people in prison aged over 55 tripled to 12%, or more than 150,000 people. State prisons now contain more of them than they have inmates aged between 18 and 24. Many people are sent to jail for short periods—at Rikers, a third stay fewer than four days—which means that they risk picking up the virus and then taking it out again. Though visits from relatives have been banned in most places, prisoners still need to see lawyers. A defence lawyer in a large east-coast city with clients in a big jail says that at the end of March, nobody—including quarantined inmates suspected of carrying the virus—was wearing masks. Nor was anyone checking people’s temperature when she visited her clients. A mental-health clinician at a large west-coast jail says that staff and inmates alike have been reluctant to wear masks, and that keeping the jail clean has been left to inmates short on cleaning supplies.

In poorer countries, conditions make those even in American jails look good. In Latin America, the region with the most prisoners after America and China, inmates often rely for survival on family members bringing them extra food. There is often no running water. In El Salvador, inmates take turns sleeping in hammocks. In Brazil, four out of ten prisons have no doctor or nurse on site; more than 10,000 prisoners had tuberculosis last year. With family visits suspended to try to reduce the risk of the virus spreading, many people lack soap and toilet paper, since governments often do not provide it. “It’s a ticking time-bomb,” says José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch, a pressure group based in New York.

Poor conditions, when compounded with the virus, can generate unrest. On April 11th in Indonesia inmates in a prison in Manado, on the island of Sulawesi, rioted and set fire to buildings in response to rumours that a guard was infected and might have brought the virus into the facility. There have also been prison riots in much of Latin America, including Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Peru. Dozens have been killed. The unrest is not confined to the developing world. A riot in early March in Italy, after the authorities put controls on family visits, left 12 inmates dead. Many of them overdosed on drugs stolen from the medical room, according to the justice ministry. Another 16 prisoners escaped.

One way in which prisons can be improved is to reduce the numbers inside. If all prisoners were dangerous potential murderers, that would be difficult. But the reality is that in much of the world, people who are not much danger to others are locked up. In America 631,000 prisoners, roughly a third of the total incarcerated, are awaiting trial or serving short sentences for things like probation violations. In parts of Latin America, including Bolivia and Haiti, over two-thirds of prisoners are awaiting trial. Many of those convicted and sentenced committed non-violent drug offences.

The first country to try mass prison releases in response to the virus was Iran. On March 3rd it released some 55,000 prisoners to reduce overcrowding. Over the past few weeks it has been followed across the world. By April 6th New York City had released around 1,500 people from city jails, to reduce overcrowding, including all of those thought to be most at risk of death or serious illness if they caught the virus. Prisoners have been released early or not locked up to begin with in countries from Brazil to Britain. Even Kenya, where there are still just 200 confirmed cases of the virus, has released almost 5,000 inmates.

But releasing prisoners is not always popular, even in places where many people are locked up for fairly trivial offences. In Brazil the justice minister, Sergio Moro, has argued that prisoners are not threatened by the virus and should not be released. Instead, hundreds of prisoners in São Paulo are being transported to and from factories each day to make masks for the government. In Louisiana, the American state with the highest incarceration rate, prosecutors in New Orleans have argued for keeping people in jail so that they do not spread the virus elsewhere.

Even when the political will is there to release prisoners, that does not always come to pass. In Britain, where the government has promised to release around 4,000 inmates who are vulnerable (eg, pregnant women) or near the end of their sentences, ministers are insisting they go through a risk-assessment first and then be tagged. Frances Crook, head of the Howard League, a penal-reform charity, says she has heard of only a handful of releases, despite government promises, even though the virus is spreading through prisons already. In New York City, absurdly, some people have been detained for breaking social-distancing rules. Authorities in El Salvador have locked up more than 2,000 people for violating quarantine orders, confining them in ad hoc “containment centres” for days or weeks, 20 to a room.

Releasing prisoners might reduce overcrowding inside, but if the virus has already spread, it risks creating new problems. Prisoners tend to be poor, and may not have anywhere to go. Some are homeless, or have no fixed address. Angel Rodriguez, who directs Avenues for Justice, a New York-based non-profit group that works with at-risk youth, says one of his clients entered Rikers disease-free, but had contracted covid-19 by the time he was due for release. Since he lives with his 80-year-old grandmother, who has respiratory problems, his release was delayed while they worked out where to send him.

Perhaps the biggest risk, though, is that nothing happens. Fábio Jabá, president of the São Paulo prison guards’ union, says that his members are buying their own masks and gloves; many have not been supplied with anything. “We’re improvising” to isolate prisoners with symptoms, says one guard. Despite the union’s demands, some prison workers over the age of 60 have not been allowed to go on preventative leave, even though dozens of guards have been sent home with symptoms of the virus. In America, “most states are doing nothing,” says Alan Mills, who directs the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, a legal clinic.

Keeping covid-19 out of prisons was always going to be hard for governments, in both rich and poor worlds. After all, if authorities struggle to keep out drugs, mobile phones and other contraband, how can they hope to control an unseen virus? But the disaster that seems likely to unfold in prisons in much of the world—if it is not already under way—should not be inevitable. Countries such as America and Brazil rely too heavily on incarceration to deal with people who break the law. Because so many people are locked up, conditions are miserable. While a global pandemic spreads, it may be difficult to come up with alternatives to locking people up; but perhaps the catastrophe will at least show the importance of trying.

Reuse this contentThe Trust Project

Why countries can’t meet the demand for gear against covid-19

Editor’s note: The Economist is making some of its most important coverage of the covid-19 pandemic freely available to readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. To receive it, register here. For our coronavirus tracker and more coverage, see our hub

“THE BUILDING next door,” says Flavio Volpe, “is a seniors’ home.” Over Easter, as he drove to and from his office, children were outside, holding up signs sending love to grandparents within. The coronavirus had ruled out visits and hugs. On Easter Monday, April 13th, the director of the home, in the west end of Toronto, reported that 25 of its 247 residents had died of covid-19. “If you’re not asking what more you can do,” Mr Volpe says, “we’re all going to fall short.”

For Mr Volpe, that means responding to the surge in demand for essential medical supplies caused by the pandemic. He is president of APMA, the trade association for Canada’s auto-parts suppliers. So far 77 member firms are converting some capacity to making medical equipment. A consortium led by one of the biggest, Linamar, is helping to assemble ventilators. Woodbridge, an upholsterer, is turning out masks. Plastics firms are producing face shields; airbag-makers, gowns; others, nose-swabs.

Countries the world over are scrambling for kit. The hottest commodities are personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gowns and masks, ventilators for the critically ill and chemicals to make tests. Demand for PPE has risen not merely at the giddy pace of infections (of which nearly 2.4m had been confirmed worldwide by April 19th), but faster still, because of the risk of transferring the virus to colleagues and others. Britain’s guidelines, for example, say that doctors, nurses and care workers should replace gloves and aprons after every contact with a patient. Other kit, such as face masks, can be changed after each shift.

Matching such standards seems to be proving impossible as supplies run short. Estimates of the increase in demand run up to 20 times the normal level. In Britain, health officials said on April 17th that some PPE may now be reused rather than discarded. Some medical staff have used bin liners for improvised protection; care homes are complaining of chronic shortages. (On April 19th the government appointed Paul Deighton, chairman of The Economist Group, to oversee the national effort to produce and distribute PPE.) In Italy, doctors in some hospitals go into eight-hour shifts wearing adult nappies to avoid wasting the precious PPE they are wearing.

Typically in markets, surges in demand call forth extra supply. But the supply of medical gear has not been able to expand at the breakneck pace needed to keep up with the virus. Much is internationally traded. Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis estimate that in 2018 America’s imports of equipment needed to treat covid-19 met 30% of its demand; China alone satisfied 9%. China made half the world’s masks before the pandemic began; not surprisingly, its exports of PPE fell by 15%, year-on-year, in January and February. Its production of masks has in fact increased 12-fold since the pandemic started, but most are going to domestic use—eg, for workers in factories returning to work.

Worse, the world economy’s sudden halt has caused bottlenecks. Flexport, a freight forwarder, says that normally half of all air freight cargo (on some routes, up to 80%) travels in the holds of passenger planes that are no longer flying; shipping lines, meanwhile, have cancelled sailings or dropped ports from their itineraries. Vendors’ commercial terms have become tighter too. Crooks are trying to get in on the act as hospitals have become desperate and prices have shot up. The FBI has warned buyers against dodgy brokers taking advance payment for non-existent equipment.

International goodwill has been in short supply too. Amid several reports of jiggery-pokery, French officials claimed that American buyers redirected masks from China destined for the Grand Est region, after stopping the shipment on the tarmac at Shanghai airport and offering three times the original price.

Several countries are using more conventional methods to keep hold of what they have. The European Union has restricted exports of essential goods to most non-members (some countries had even blocked exports to fellow members until the EU stepped in). On April 3rd President Donald Trump ordered restrictions on American exports of PPE, including respirators, masks and gloves. Such curbs run the risk of starting a retaliatory, beggar-thy-neighbour spiral. Chad Bown of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, DC, notes that American imports of the goods in Mr Trump’s order outweigh exports by five to one.

Amid the scramble, lots of higher-minded efforts like Mr Volpe’s are under way to fill the gap. Some are of cottage-industry dimensions: across Britain, for instance, “scrub hubs” have sprouted, with volunteers making basic gowns at home for doctors, nurses and care workers. But to make more sophisticated gear at scale, you need industrial muscle.

Fashion firms are turning their supply chains to masks and gowns. Sweden’s H&M has sent 50,000 masks each to Italy and Spain, and is planning to deliver 1m protective, single-use aprons to Swedish hospitals in the coming weeks, all from suppliers in China. Canada Goose, which makes outdoor apparel, has committed itself to making 60,000 disposable gowns, designed for isolation patients, per week from its domestic factories. In France, the LVMH factory that normally makes Christian Dior perfumes has been retooled to produce hand-sanitiser.

Makers of cars and planes are starting to turn out ventilators and other equipment—sometimes from scratch, sometimes lending their scale to the existing products of specialist companies. On April 14th General Motors began producing critical-care ventilators from Ventec Life Systems, a medical-technology firm, at its car factory in Indiana. Ford, PSA, Valeo and others have also switched from vehicles to ventilators. Israel Aerospace Industries, a defence company, has converted a missile production line to the same.

“With time, we can make anything,” says Mr Volpe at APMA. “Whether you’re making a plastic part that goes into a ventilator or a plastic part that goes into a Jaguar, it’s the same process.” The difference lies in speed. Changing an engineering process, from winning a contract to retooling to production, might normally take six months. That is being compressed into a few days. Canada’s health authorities have helped by speeding up approvals, he says, without dropping their standards. There have been some failures.

Medical equipment can indeed be hard to manufacture in hurry, particularly by firms that have never made it before. In Britain, NHS staff report that some new shipments of droplet-resistant gowns—of which there is a severe shortage, because they weren’t included in the existing pandemic stockpile, designed for airborne flu viruses—have failed quality tests when they arrived, rendering them unusable. After some Chinese-made equipment sent to Europe was rejected as substandard, China is now requiring that its exporters meet importing countries’ standards before their goods leave the factory (though that causes more holdups meanwhile).

Sourcing high-specification materials also can be difficult, although Barbour has had success switching from its famous wax jackets and Ford is adapting fabric meant for airbags. Mr Volpe says his biggest bottleneck is materials: some unwoven material for specialised masks is made in volume only in China; the supply of resins used in swabs are threatened by American export restraints.

These problems become even more acute with complicated medical machinery. Britain’s government has overseen a scheme under which aerospace, automobile and engineering companies agreed to make ventilators. However, only one design—adapted from an existing ventilator, from Penlon, a medical-device company—has so far been approved for medical use. Changes to the required specification led the government to cancel an order for thousands of units of a more simple ventilating device, known as “BlueSky”, from a consortium including the Renault and Red Bull Formula 1 groups.

And clearing one bottleneck may reveal another. Although ventilators, for example, are crucial for treating many covid-19 patients in intensive care, they are not used in isolation. Every ventilator bed requires high-pressure oxygen (which many hospitals cannot provide at scale) as well as other machines to monitor the heart and kidneys. All this takes up more precious space and requires trained staff, of whom many are sick or in precautionary isolation.

Even if sufficient stock is available, distributing it is a challenge. General practitioners, ambulances, mental-health services and care homes all need PPE as well as hospitals. In England, NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts and other parts of the service, estimates that the supply chain has gone from delivering to around 250 trusts to tens of thousands of separate organisations. In America, according to a letter from a doctor published in the New England Journal of Medicine, federal agents attempted to confiscate PPE his hospital had ordered.

The problems facing rich countries, daunting as they are, are dwarfed by those awaiting many poor ones. Without domestic production capacity, many are entirely reliant on imported medical equipment, and hence acutely vulnerable to caps on others’ exports: Mr Bown calculates that 93% of Jamaica’s imports of air-purifying respirators come from America; 90% of Cape Verde’s face shields, protective spectacles and gloves come from the EU. Trade restrictions are also obstructing humanitarian aid, as agencies have to wrangle with governments to get equipment into countries where they are desperately needed.

There is some hope, though, that the companies newly supplying the home front will turn their attention abroad. Once Canada’s domestic needs are met, says Mr Volpe, his efforts will turn to “all those other countries”, in Africa and elsewhere, “that are going to be defenceless” against the virus. They may need all the help they can get.

Dig deeper:
For our latest coverage of the covid-19 pandemic, register for The Economist Today, our daily newsletter, or visit our coronavirus tracker and story hub

Reuse this contentThe Trust Project

The Economics of Health (1918)

This article appeared in The Economist on December 21st 1918

IT is evident that any financial damage inflicted on the country by the war can best be repaired if every individual works to the fullest extent of his productive power. Productive power, however, depends on physical and moral efficiency, and war statistics have shown that the ordinary Briton falls lamentably short of even a lenient standard of physical fitness. The recruiting figures can be used for industrial purposes, for if a man is not fit for fighting he is not fit for full normal industrial productivity. The country has lately been told that – (1) the standard of physical efficiency is lower in England than in France, Germany, or any other of the great belligerent countries; (2) if adequate attention had been paid to health this country would have been able to put a million more men into the fighting line, and the war could have been won speedily without the combing of essential industries. The present shortage of fuel and food should be recognised by every householder in the country as attributable in some measure to the low standard of health and fitness which we have been content to accept; (3) only one-third of the men of military age (the period when the maximum of physical strength can be expected) examined under the National Service Ministry were found to be Grade I. To give this last fact its full value, it is well to state the official definition of Grade I. “A Grade I man is one who attains to a normal standard of health and strength, and is capable of enduring physical exertion suitable to his age. He must not suffer from any organic disease, and must have no grave physical disability or deformity.” The Grade I man, therefore, is not a superman: he is merely normal. The remaining two-thirds are sub-normal. These latter, as citizens and workers, not only fall short of their full productivity, but have to spend money on drugs and medical assistance to keep at work. Some idea of the loss to the country in their lack of full productivity can be gauged by the instantaneous effect on supplies of a strike or of two or three days’ jubilation on the part of the miners. A corresponding estimate of what must be spent on keeping them at work could be reckoned from the Army figures of the sums spent in treatment and maintenance of men fallen sick who entered the Army in cate- gories lower than Grade I.

It will always be difficult, however, to give satisfactory figures in evidence of the economic value of health to the State, because health is dependent on such an extricable tangle of causes. At the present time, moreover, very few people have thought it worthwhile to investigate the matter, but certain factories under the control of the Ministry of Munitions have made a start, and their results, while still very incomplete, serve as an indication of what may be expected and of the difficulties to be encountered.

The experience of these factories is that, roughly speaking, 5% of available time is lost through ill-health, and that of this amount 80% is attributable to general sickness and 20% to accidents. But some of the accidents are occasioned by nervousness and lack of control arising from a low tone of health on the part of the worker, and, on the other hand, some of the sickness recorded may have originated in an accident. Evidence more tangible is offered by the influenza records noted during the summer epidemic (not the recent one), which show that about 36 hours a head of the munition-making population was lost, involving a loss to the community equivalent to that of about four working days.*

Another suggestive field for computation is afforded by actuarial figures showing that the average expectation of life is not more than 53 years. Still further interesting investigations could be made into the profits made by druggists and the number of men employed in that trade.

But this is not all. If the country is losing by not getting the full productivity of men and women who are still able to do something and earn a living, what of the others who can earn nothing but who must, nevertheless, be maintained at a dead loss?

In 1914 there were 17.0 per thousand of the population receiving Poor Law relief. The Poor Law expenditure was nearly 15 millions, or 4s. per head of the population. These figures do not include hospitals, nor Old Age Pensions (a large proportion of which formerly appeared under Poor Law expenditure). An instance of such non-productive expenditure was recently recorded by the Newton Abbot Guardians, who stated that a man had died under their care upon whom they had had to spend a sum well over £1,000. Not only was this man non-productive, but he was using up a portion of the national income as well as the attention and time of the highly and expensively-trained people who were looking after him, and whose energies could have been employed to more useful account.

It may be argued that pauperism is not sickness, but the experience of the Guardians is that 50% of the relief they dispense is for actual sickness. A large proportion of the remainder is given to cases who have come to the Guardians in the first instance for help in sickness, and who have thenceforth relied on them for further relief.

It is incontestable that a thorough reform of national health will require a large expenditure; but expenditure upon it, if well and judiciously made, will pay as handsomely as a business proposition. As an offset against the money required must be placed a reduction in the Poor Law, in National Insurance, and in the cost of hospitals. Of the latter there are 2,634 in existence, exclusive of tuberculosis sanatoria, convalescent homes, nursing homes, hospitals for chronic cases, and sanatoria attached to schools and institutions.

What practical steps, then, must be taken to build a nation strong in nerve and sinew? To continue to devote unremitting care to those who have been crippled by the evils of our social system is merely to pay the penalty for past slackness. It must be done, but it is not progressive work.

The health work initiated by the Public Health Act of 1875, at present administered by the Local Government Board through the local authorities, must be developed and co-ordinated. It aims at preventing disease, and includes, amongst other activities, sanitation, factory and nuisance inspection, notification of certain diseases, instruction in health habits, inspection of food, notification of births, registration of midwives and of foster-mothers, provision of maternity homes, dental clinics, venereal disease clinics, compulsory disinfection after infectious diseases, provision of public wash-houses and cleansing stations.

Further developments in preventing disease are foreshadowed by the work of the Medical Research Committee, whose report (1917-18) has recently been published. This committee gave warning of the pandemic of influenzal pneumonia; they investigated T.N.T. poisoning to such good effect that only one girl worker was affected by it this year. They have studied dysentery and malarial infections with an equally good result, and they advised a treatment for cardiac complaints which has saved the State in one hospital alone a sum of £50,000, “an amount closely equivalent to that of the whole of the Medical Research Fund which the committee are privileged to administer.”

But it is not enough to cure disease, nor to labour at preventing it. Our aim must be to establish a standard of positive good health, and this goes to the very root of those vexed questions – housing, wages, and hours of work. The National Service records, fragmentary as they are, serve as a basis for inquiry. This department state that they found the fittest section of the population to be the young miners. Their work is hard physically, but they earn wages sufficiently good to allow of their working short hours. They eat good food, and their recreation of coursing gives them the open air they need without any further physical effort.

War must be waged on such conditions by State and employer alike. The employer has already learnt that output depends on the physical efficiency of his workers, and he is ready to do his share in his own interest if for no better reason. Decent conditions of work, fair pay, and good housing will do much, but not everything. We come back, as almost always, to education, and the individual’s views and ideals. Until we all know how to be healthy and strong, and recognise that unless we are so we cannot pull our weight in the boat, and that pulling our weight in the boat ought to be one of our chief objects in life, a low standard of health and efficiency will continue to be a drag on the nation’s productive power.

*British Medical Journal, November 23rd.

Reuse this contentThe Trust Project

How the Spanish flu of 1918-20 was largely forgotten

The Economist under-reported the pandemic. Many victims were counted among the dead of the first world war

International

IN A REMARKABLE coincidence of history, this spring marks the 100th anniversary of the final serious outbreak of the Spanish flu, the world’s last big pandemic caused by a respiratory-based virus. It was the third-deadliest pandemic of the past millennium. Only the Black Death of the 14th century and the spread of smallpox to the Americas in the 16th century exceeded its death toll. From its appearance at the start of 1918 to its disappearance sometime in 1920 some 500m people—a quarter of the world’s population—caught the disease. Up to 50m died, more than were killed in combat in the two world wars combined. Yet despite the staggering toll, the crisis was poorly covered by many newspapers—including this one—and is often missing from history books.

One reason is the timing of its appearance, during the first world war. There were four major outbreaks of Spanish flu in Europe and America. Two, including the most lethal, occurred before the armistice in November 1918; a third started and ended before a peace treaty was signed at Versailles in June 1919. A fourth outbreak hit some parts of the world in early 1920, but was in most places much less deadly.

Scientists disagree on where the virus first appeared. A crowded British army camp in France, a farm in Kansas and a bird-migration route in China are all plausible suggestions. However, in order to maintain morale, wartime censors refused newspapers permission to report on the disease and its severity. In order to keep war production for the army as high as possible, few preventative measures were taken. But newspapers in Spain, which was neutral in the war, were allowed to cover the disease there freely. Their articles were republished around the world. And so the disease unfairly gained an almost certainly inaccurate nickname: “Spanish flu”.

The Economist appears to have obeyed the wartime censors and avoided discussion of the disease in its leaders or editorials until after the armistice. The newspaper and its then editor, Francis Hirst, had strongly opposed the war on pacifist grounds until 1916. But then he was forced to resign by the newspaper’s owners, the daughters of The Economist’s founder, James Wilson, including Eliza Bagehot and Emilie Barrington. They replaced him with the decidedly pro-war Hartley Withers, who seems to have chosen not to explicitly break the censors’ instructions.

Yet the disease was mentioned in parts of the paper not subject to censorship, such as commentaries on the money market and the stock exchange. These lay bare the damage the pandemic did to business. After the first outbreak hit, The Economist reported on July 6th 1918 that a credit crunch had hit the money market. There was “no really cheap money” available to British lenders or firms, because of the “disorganisation of business in various parts of the country, owing to the influenza from Spain”. Meanwhile, a report on the stock exchange in the same issue casually noted that “complaints of lack of business in all the Mining markets are as common as influenza”.

Throughout the summer we continued to blame the disease for a tight money market, as employee illnesses and absences brought financial markets to a halt. “Depletion of staffs owing to influenza is said to make the banks slow in discovering how much credit they have to dispose of.” The minutes of company meetings published in the paper also spelled out the damage influenza did to production, particularly to gold mining in South Africa (an important industry in a world where many countries still linked the value of their currencies to gold). The first (and smallest) outbreak in Britain, in 1918, lasting just over a month, caused absences equivalent to an average of four days for every munition worker, the reports indicated.

After the armistice in November 1918 more discussion of the disease began to appear. The crisis played a role in changing The Economist’s editorial line on government intervention. In the 19th century, the newspaper had become known as an advocate of laissez-faire ideas. Its first editor had set the tone by opposing central-government intervention in a wide range of areas, from tariffs to education and public sewers. In its first leader to mention the Spanish flu after the first world war, The Economist deviated from this approach, calling for more involvement to improve public health and more co-ordination from central government. The change of editor undoubtedly helped the shift from classical liberalism towards a more interventionist sort, but the Spanish flu certainly focused the journalists’ minds. “War must be waged…by State and employer alike”, thundered The Economist in a leader in December 1918, calling for “decent conditions of work, fair pay and good housing” as well as “education” as the methods that should be used to prevent the spread of disease.

Such a position was prompted by the real damage done to firms by the failure of many governments to take preventative action against the Spanish flu, such as the lockdowns widely used against covid-19. Robert Barro of Harvard University, for instance, has recently estimated that the Spanish flu reduced real GDP per person in each country it affected by an average of 6.0%. The damage done to belligerent states by the war, 8.4% on average, was not much greater.

Even so, until covid-19 rekindled interest in the history of pandemics, the Spanish flu had been widely forgotten in public memory and was even ignored in some history books. That process was helped by both press censorship and the decision by governments to bury the human toll of the disease in the collective memory of the first world war. British war memorials often state that the “Great War” lasted from “1914 to 1919” because they also included the names of troops who died of Spanish flu after the armistice. The great war against Germany and its allies may have ended in November 1918; the war against germs had not.

Dig deeper:
For our latest coverage of the covid-19 pandemic, register for The Economist Today, our daily newsletter, or visit our coronavirus tracker and story hub

Reuse this contentThe Trust Project

Eliza Hittman’s Portraits Of Teenage Pain

Never Rarely Sometimes Always gets its name from a pivotal scene. 17-year-old Autumn (played by newcomer Sidney Flanigan) is asked a series of questions at a women’s health care clinic in New York. She’s come for an abortion, having traveled to the city from smalltown Pennslyvania after discovering that the procedure requires parental consent in her home state. But first, she has to answer a series of probing questions about her sexual history. As the teen responds to each inquiry with a hushed never, rarely, sometimes, or always, she’s forced to reckon with her own buried traumas. It’s a brief moment of vulnerability; a much-needed release.

Filmmaker and screenwriter Eliza Hittman views her work as “portraits of pain,” she tells MTV News over the phone. Like many new releases this month, her third feature premiered through on-demand platforms after theaters across the country shut down in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a bit of tough sell in the social distancing era. It’s not a feel-good romp, soapy teen melodrama, or family-friendly adventure. It’s a quiet glimpse into one teen’s life, a story of girlhood, and a snapshot of a frustrating  health care system that often fails women and marginalized communities. Filmed over the course of 27 days, the heartrending drama depicts loneliness and emotional isolation, which is even more potent today when human connection is hard to come by.

Courtesy of Focus Features

In this conversation with MTV News, Hittman talks about her inspiration for the film, what makes the teenage experience so creatively compelling, why she prefers working with emerging actors, and how Autumn’s personal story speaks to a universal issue.

MTV News: A through line in your work, from Felt Like Love to Beach Rats to this film, is the teenage experience. What makes teens so compelling for you as a storyteller?

Eliza Hittman: I’ve only really gravitated to work about youth and about the representation of youth. You grow up watching all these classic John Hughes movies, and films about what it means to be a teenager and a young person in the world. And it was so hard to see myself and understand myself through those movies that I always sought out films that showed a more complicated understanding of the challenges of being a young person — that growing up is so much a process of disillusionment, having the way that you think about yourself and think about the world becoming disillusioned.

MTV News: The young characters in your film, especially in this one, Autumn and Skylar, convey a lot of emotion through silence. They’re not the typical teens you see on-screen. 

Hittman: I’m always more concerned with the way that they feel, the way that they act, more than I’m concerned with capturing the way young people really talk. And it’s about showing these very intimate private moments that you wouldn’t see in other movies about young people. I always think about films as being kind of outtakes.

Director Eliza Hittman on the set of ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ | Focus Features

MTV News: Sidney Flanigan is such a revelation in this film. Since you focus on the way that young people act and the emotions that they don’t always articulate, how did you collaborate with Sidney to develop the character of Autumn? 

Hittman: One of the real challenges always in casting young people is finding young performers that have real inner worlds on screen, and real visual, intellectual, and emotional complexity. Sidney auditioned for the film. She’d never done a movie before. And yet I could feel from her audition that there was such an emotional depth in her, and vulnerability and sincerity, and fragility. But what was most important to me is that she didn’t feel like a victim. And a lot of people auditioned, and the first thing their impulses were to amplify a sense of victimhood. Sidney didn’t do that.

MTV News: Did you work with her to bring Autumn to life, or did you already have the vision in your head of who this teenager was and what you needed Sidney to do? 

Hittman: We didn’t have much time. One of the joys of working with young people is that they really grasp the immediacy of acting. And so Sidney and Talia [Ryder, who plays Autumn’s cousin Skylar] were so much fun to work with because they just got it. They dove in. We had a couple of days to answer questions and work on building their relationship, just as young women, not as characters. But we all just dove into the shoot. I think Sidney brought a lot of herself to the role, but nothing gets improvised.

Skylar and Jasper in New York City | Focus Features

MTV News: You had the initial idea for the film after reading an article about the death of a young woman in Ireland. But you decided to set it in the United States. Obviously, a woman’s access to safe reproductive care is a global issue. Was there a reason why you made this an American story? 

Hittman: Initially, I did want to make a film set in Ireland. It wasn’t challenging, unfortunately, to think about ways to translate the story here. Because there are so many women who travel from rural areas to urban areas to access reproductive care. So for me, it was about wanting to be specific. I didn’t want to tell a general story. I’m not making a documentary.

I picked Pennsylvania, and I looked at the restrictions of minors that exist in that state. And I really just tried to think about, through talking to doctors, what the journey would really look like. It’s specific to a minor in Pennsylvania. But of course, it’s a journey that women take all over the country.

MTV News: It contextualizes a larger issue. 

Hittman: I think in telling localized stories, you’re able to tap into something universal.

MTV News: This is Autumn’s story, but we never learn much about her. The film takes place over the course of a few days, and while she’s harboring a lot of pain, and a lot of angst, the sources of that pain are never fully explored. This is just a small snapshot of her life. Why is that? 

Hittman: It’s like you said — it’s a story where you just spent three or four days with the character. And I always knew that the story was so much about the obstacles in getting the abortion, and I wasn’t telling a family drama. So I wanted the audience to feel things about her world and feel things about her family life, and just get a sketch of her world without making it the focus of the film.

MTV News: You’re a filmmaker who’s established her own aesthetic and her own point of view. How would you describe your work?

Hittman: Challenging. They’re lyrical portraits of characters in pain.

Focus Features

MTV News: Why is that so compelling for you to depict on screen? 

Hittman: It’s a truth to our experience. And especially with this film, it’s so much about the pain and loneliness of having to go through this by herself. A lot of women will watch the movie and know somebody who went through something similar, or might’ve gone through something similar alone. Abortion, it’s a reality. People need abortions. People go through these experiences, and the fact that it’s such a stigmatized subject and controversial subject makes it difficult for people to find community around what they’ve been through.

MTV News: You’ve said that this is an important film for young people to see, specifically young women and conservative men. Why is that? 

Hittman: It’s an important film because we live in a country where it’s so hard to get access to our reproductive rights, which are our Constitutional rights. And I don’t think women should have to suffer.

Governments are starting to ease restrictions

Editor’s note: The Economist is making some of its most important coverage of the covid-19 pandemic freely available to readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. To receive it, register here. For our coronavirus tracker and more coverage, see our hub

AFTER SPENDING the long Easter break cooped up at home some Spaniards went back to work this week. They were greeted at transport hubs by police officers and Red Cross volunteers handing out face-masks. Though reported as a “relaxing” of the lockdown imposed a month ago, the government insists that it is not. Only those who cannot work from home are allowed to go back to their workplaces. Most shops remain closed, as do schools, bars, restaurants and hotels. Outdoor exercise is still banned and enforcement is tight: between March 14th and April 6th the police arrested 3,267 people and levied 340,000 fines for breaking the lockdown.

Spain seems to have turned a corner in one of the worst outbreaks of covid-19. The daily number of cases has begun to fall, compared with a daily increase of around 30% a month ago. Hospitals which were overwhelmed a fortnight ago now have some spare capacity. But Pedro Sánchez, the prime minister, was clear. “We aren’t even beginning the second phase,” he said on April 12th. “De-escalation will begin in a fortnight at the earliest, and it will be gradual and cautious,” Mr Sánchez insisted.

Governments around the world are trying to work out how to exit their covid-19 lockdowns. Several other European countries, including Austria, Germany, Norway and the Czech Republic, are reopening nurseries, schools and shops as their efforts to stop the spread of covid-19 start, as in Spain, to pay off (see table). In various American states discussions of exit strategies are gaining traction. In New York state, where covid-19 has killed more than 10,000 people in just a month, the total number of cases in hospitals is starting to plateau. On April 13th, along with five other states on the east coast, it disclosed it was working on a strategy for reopening the region’s economy. On the same day three states on the west coast, including California, announced a similar project.

The big unknown is whether any of the exit strategies being considered or implemented will avoid a second wave of infections. Researchers at Imperial College London estimate that, even when the many infections that were never registered are added to the total, just 1-15% of people in Europe had some immunity to covid-19 at the end of March. Until a vaccine is available, governments will need to keep sufficient numbers of infected people tightly quarantined to prevent new outbreaks that would overwhelm their health systems. But most failed to do this during the early days of covid-19. That is why the epidemics grew so bad that they needed to implement full lockdowns to save hospitals from disaster. It is not yet clear that they will do well enough the second time around to prevent a resurgence of the disease.

Governments in countries that are already past the peak of the first wave of their epidemics have some breathing space to plan for their post-lockdown future. More important, they have better data. They have a clearer sense of how their hospitals will cope with a certain number of cases of covid-19. They no longer need to rely on data from China to make educated guesses about how their populations and health systems might fare. Such experience matters for all sorts of reasons. For example, the spread of the disease among the close-knit intergenerational households in southern Europe is different from the paths it takes in the insular societies of northern Europe where a large share of old people live alone or in care homes.

Even with these data, however, government planners do not know which restrictions they should begin to ease and when. “There are no absolutes here,” says Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation (WHO); the evidence that when countries reach a specific number of cases they should take particular actions does not yet exist. The accepted wisdom is that countries can begin to consider easing restrictions when the number of new cases is tapering off, and their hospitals have free beds—in other words, when they can accommodate a surge in infections that could follow the easing of a lockdown.

Those easing lockdowns are using one principle: the epidemic must be under control. Austria was the first European country to announce a comprehensive plan detailing when various sectors would be allowed to reopen. In the first week of April tests of a random sample of about 1,600 people found that fewer than 1% had active covid-19 infections. Norway decided to begin reopening kindergartens from April 20th after scientists advising the government reported that the epidemic’s reproduction rate—the number of new infections generated by each case—had fallen to 0.7. If the reproduction rate of a contagion is lower than one then an epidemic will die down over time. Spain’s health ministry plans to test a sample of at least 30,000 families around the country over the next three weeks to get a sense of the real scale of the outbreak and the extent to which the population has acquired any immunity.

Harder than the decision about when to lift restrictions is choosing which to lift first. The reasoning varies from country to country, but the conclusions are often the same. Norway’s commission, which assessed the long-term costs to society of various combinations of restrictions, found that closing primary schools and nurseries were among the costliest policies. In Denmark, too, nurseries and primary schools opened first on April 15th; older children may be allowed back to school a month later. (Not all parents were impressed; 40,000 Danes have joined a Facebook group called “My kid is not going to be a Guinea Pig for Covid-19”.) And in Germany, which outlined an exit strategy on April 15th, schools will start to reopen on May 4th, but only for those children facing exams. “Emergency” services for the parents of younger children will be expanded.

Back to abnormal

Nowhere, however, is the slow lifting of lockdowns a return to business as usual. Europeans going back to shops, trains and offices will have to follow new hygiene and social-distancing rules—some of which were introduced during the lockdowns. Austrians and Czechs are already required to wear face-masks in public spaces, including at work; Spain is considering a similar requirement. Shops in many countries will have to limit the number of customers in at any one time. Norway’s guidelines, released on April 15th, say that children in nurseries must be split into smaller cohorts, with three-year-olds in groups of three and older children in groups of six; each group will be assigned one adult. Changes to the cohorts will be permitted no more than once a week.

Like the lockdowns themselves, many of these new rules are transplants from China, which has, its government says, avoided a second wave of infections. In Beijing employers must keep their employees separated, so many firms have only a fraction of their workers on-site each day, with the rest working at home where possible. Restaurants must limit the number of customers to keep them apart. Chinese schools which have welcomed back their students have introduced measures to minimise infections: constant ventilation of classrooms; extra spacing between desks; frequent cleaning and disinfecting; the reduction of the size of classes; staggered dismissal times, to avoid crowding; assigned seating and installation of partitions in dining areas. The list goes on and on. And officials stress that they will pull back and make adjustments if they see signs of a second wave.

There is no solid evidence that any one of these measures alone is particularly effective in reducing the transmission of the new coronavirus. The hope is that in combination they could work reasonably well. In China, however, the easing of lockdown has been accompanied by stringent efforts to identify and quarantine those infected and their close contacts. In some areas restaurants must sign in every customer—and if any later test positive to notify those who visited at the same time. China’s strategy suggests that Europe and America’s plans to stop infections after they lift their lockdowns with masks, good hygiene and social distancing may not be enough.

Instead post-lockdown life might more closely resemble that in South Korea, a democracy with a population similar in size to England’s, throughout its covid-19 outbreak. Unlike America and much of Europe, South Korea has never instituted a complete lockdown. Even at the height of the outbreak people remained mostly free to go about their lives thanks to extensive testing, tracing and isolation of infections. In only 10% of cases have public-health investigators been unable to determine the source of infection. New daily infections are now below 30.

It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it

Despite the pandemic on April 15th South Korea held legislative elections. But schools, universities, museums and many churches have been closed for weeks, and there are no plans to reopen them. Travellers returning from abroad must quarantine themselves for two weeks, either at home or in government-provided facilities. Breaking quarantine can lead to fines, jail or, for foreigners, deportation. The government advice still discourages leaving home for non-essential reasons, especially socialising in groups.

Compliance with social-distancing recommendations, however, is flagging. Using data gathered from mobile-phone masts, South Korea’s disaster-response agency estimates that people moved around about 16% more in the last week of March compared with the last week of February, which was the height of the outbreak. That number is likely to have ticked up further in recent days. Seoul’s restaurants are filling up again. Hiking trails teemed with people over the weekend.

And yet of the roughly 57,000 people currently in strict self-isolation, just over 100 have been caught violating it. After various groups voiced concerns about privacy, the government abandoned a plan to issue electronic wristbands to everyone in quarantine. Instead, it will now provide them only to those who have broken their quarantine and even then only with the person’s consent. The public supports the idea either way; in a poll conducted by the culture ministry, more than 80% said the wristbands were a good idea.

South Korea’s experience has prompted some European countries and a few American states to begin ramping up their contact-tracing capacity as they prepare to lift their lockdowns. That requires expanding public-health departments; calling everyone an infected person has been in close contact with—and checking on them regularly during their 14-day quarantine—is hugely labour-intensive.

Is antibody out there?

It is not a highly skilled job; anyone with a secondary-school education can be trained in a day. But with a disease that spreads as easily as covid-19, enormous numbers of workers are needed. Public-health departments in America are currently doing this sort of work for outbreaks of sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis and the occasional measles outbreak. But the numbers involved are minuscule compared with a respiratory bug like covid-19. Calculating on the basis of the number of contact-tracers used to contain the outbreak in Wuhan, the Chinese city hit hardest by the country’s epidemic, public-health experts recently convened by Johns Hopkins University estimated that more than 260,000 new hires would be needed at local and state public-health departments in America—up from just 2,200 at present. To make a start, they recommend that America recruits 100,000 such new hires dedicated to covid-19. Their salaries for a year would add up to $3.6bn—a rounding error on the cost of shutting down the American economy.

Massachusetts has begun hiring 1,000 additional contact-tracers and social workers who would support people under quarantine by shopping for food and collecting medications, for example. American universities are developing crash training courses for contact-tracers. Similar efforts are starting to appear in Europe. In March Germany’s public-health institute put out a job advertisement aimed at students for “containment scouts” to do contact-tracing; 10,000 applied. Germany plans to have at least one five-person team per 20,000 inhabitants to help with contact-tracing. In badly affected areas the army and other personnel will be called in. The Czech Republic may also use army recruits.

Apps that will help health officials track where hotspots of covid-19 may be emerging and trace the contacts of infected people are being developed (see article). Such apps are already widely used in China. They can make contact-tracing more efficient, says Anita Cicero of Johns Hopkins University, but they cannot replace the traditional methods of contact-tracing—nor the humans who do it. The European Commission, which on April 15th unveiled a “road map” to ensure that EU member-states co-ordinate the lifting of their restrictions, wants them to agree on a common framework for such an app; at the moment, many countries are forging ahead with their own plans.

Many experts doubt that such apps, which people will have to install voluntarily, would be popular. “I don’t think Americans are going to go for that,” says Michael Fraser of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials in America. “I’ve been surprised before, though,” he concedes. If the alternative is being cooped up at home, lots may opt in. Almost two-thirds of Germans told one survey they would forgo the privacy of their data to protect the lives of others; a separate poll found that 70% of respondents would be happy to install a contact-tracing app.

But organising quarantines on the scale required by covid-19 would require more than just manpower and technology, notes Mr Fraser. Most of the new contact-tracers can work from home, by phone or using other technologies. Some, however, would need to go to people’s homes. For that, they would need face-masks and gloves to protect them—which are in short supply globally. At a local level, isolation facilities are needed for people who cannot isolate themselves at home. These must be safe, private and comfortable.

Above all, every country that wants to contain a second wave will need to test everyone suspected of being infected with covid-19 and their contacts. This will have to be rapid diagnostic testing, says Ms Cicero, where people get the results in less than an hour. Testing sites would need to be set up in every health-care facility. The way things are now in America, people often wait for their results for several days—too long for a virus that they can spread before they develop symptoms.

Testing capacity everywhere has been growing. But at its current pace America will take months to attain the level needed for effective contact-tracing, says Mr Fraser. In many countries, the crimped global supply of materials, including reagents (chemicals necessary for tests), means that testing is reserved primarily for those hospitalised with covid-19 and health-care workers. The dearth of reagents means that Austria may not be able to increase its testing as planned, even though it has the capacity to carry out ten times the number of tests it conducts now.

Reagents are not the only thing in short supply. Swabs to take samples from patients, glass tubes, machines and trained technicians with protective masks and gloves are also scarce. With so many different inputs, bottlenecks can easily occur. And when every single country in the world needs enormous supplies, it will be a while before there is no shortage of them.

Corona and out

Every plan and guideline for what a country must have in place before it lifts its lockdown puts expanded testing near the top of the list, but few outline how to do this fast. For countries hoping to be rid of both their lockdowns and a runaway covid-19 epidemic, no problem is as urgent.

Dig deeper:
For our latest coverage of the covid-19 pandemic, register for The Economist Today, our daily newsletter, or visit our coronavirus tracker and story hub

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Emergency exit”

Reuse this contentThe Trust Project

Tigertail Brought Christine Ko Closer To Her Taiwanese Identity — And To Her Moms

Toward the end of our conversation about Netflix’s Tigertail, I tell actor Christine Ko something that a friend once shared with me. Growing up the daughter of Korean immigrants in Seattle, her father had always reminded her that she was American first — an American-Korean, he said. I wondered if Ko, born to Taiwanese parents in the Midwest and raised by her aunt and uncle, felt like that too, or if her character Angela had internalized a similar feeling, ingrained into her by her Taiwanese father Pin-Jui (played by Tzi Ma). Their relationship, or lack thereof, is the emotional center of writer and director Alan Yang’s first feature film, a family drama that spans generations.

“I love the idea of being American-Taiwanese,” Ko tells me over the phone. She’s currently “chilling” in her apartment in Los Angeles with a cup of coffee. (“I don’t have heels on, so that’s awesome,” she adds.) “It’s very specific to people who feel like they’re from two different cultures. Because being American is something that we should be proud of. It’s not something that needs to be defined in a certain way. This is our culture, too.”

Christine Ko | Getty Images

But Yang’s trilingual film isn’t so much interested in depicting a life in-between two cultures, which Ko refers to as the “identity crisis thing” that so many second-generation kids experience. Instead of emphasizing the differences between an immigrant father and his American daughter, Tigertail understands their similarities, even if the characters themselves don’t. As the story switches between Pin-Jui’s past and present, scenes of Angela dealing with feelings of disillusionment and loneliness in adulthood mirror that of her father as a young adult, navigating life as a husband — in a marriage of convenience, not love — and foreigner in the Bronx.

“I read the script and cried my eyes out,” Ko says, adding that the story was “a little bit too close to home.” For starters, the actor explains, “You get an email about a film or a show, looking for a Taiwanese American maybe once a year.” But Ko could also relate to Angela on a deeper level.

Born in Chicago and raised in Acworth, Georgia, by her aunt and uncle (who adopted her when she was three), Ko didn’t have a relationship with her biological father, the late Taiwanese megastar Frankie Kao, until she was in her twenties. So much of Angela’s story is wanting to connect with her father, to understand him, but not knowing how to. In fact, there’s very little dialogue spoken between her and Ma throughout the film. “I was yearning to work on a project like that,” she says. “The whole film is about her trying to just get a sentence out of him, and everything she gets in return is criticism. A lot of people can relate to that, having their parents judge them or criticize their choices.” Ko certainly can.

Angela has a quiet tea with her father Pin-Jui | Netflix

Despite being born into show business — her biological mom is also an actor in Taiwan — Ko didn’t pursue acting until after she secured a college degree. Still, her parents didn’t understand why she forewent a stable career to wait tables and drive Ubers around Los Angeles while chasing her Hollywood dreams. “Growing up, I refrained from saying how I really felt,” she says. “And it was because my parents were very strict. They were not the type of parents who hugged me, or said, ‘I love you’ and ‘I’m proud of you.’ I always wanted it, but I never expressed it to them.”

Similarly, Angela also refrains from showing emotion, a trait she got from her dad. As a young girl, she’s told not to cry, that it never solved anything. She spends so much of the film asking herself why her father is so emotionally unavailable that she fails to see it in herself, to see the ripple effects it’s had on her own personal relationships. “Some of us don’t want to admit to it, but we are a lot like our parents,” Ko says. “The way that we are in our own personal relationships is very similar to how we grew up. And whether that’s positive and negative, it’s definitely something to be aware of. And if it is something negative, where you’re like, ‘I wish I was more emotionally available,’ then how great is it to discover that while you’re living your life.”

As such, working on Tigertail helped her redefine her relationships with both sets of parents. She was able to fully empathize with them in ways that only time and perspective bring. When Ko traveled to Taiwan with the production, her birth mom came to watch her film her final scene with Ma. “She had never seen any of my work before,” Ko says. Yang’s grandmother was also on set that day. The scene is a moment of catharsis for Pin-Jui, a sequence in which he takes his daughter to the place he grew up: the rural community known as Tigertail. Standing outside his old family home, long since uninhabited, he recalls the ghosts of his past and weeps.

Angela and Pin-Jui visit Pin-Jui’s Taiwanese village | Netflix

“I felt a sense of being home,” the actor recalls filming the scene. “I had this realization of, ‘This is where my grandma grew up, this is where my birth mom lives.’ This is a life that they had, that they haven’t seen on-screen before. It made me appreciate all the things that my parents did for me. I’m really lucky that I have many parents. I have two moms, two dads, and I have a very different relationship with all of them. My Georgia mom raised me, and my birth mom influenced my acting career. After this film, I was able to tell them, ‘You’re both so important to me, and you’re both so human.'”

It’s that humanity that spoke to her from the very first time she read the script. For Ko, Tigertail isn’t just an Asian-American immigrant story; it’s a universal tale of connection, and just how isolated you feel without it. “We’ve all had relationships that have not gone exactly the way we want them to,” she says. Sometimes they’re salvageable and other times they’re not. Pin-Jui, who first appears to viewers as a child alone in the rice fields of occupied Taiwan, ends the film alongside his adult daughter decades later. They walk through those same fields together.

After wrapping her scenes in Taiwan, Ko strolled through that same land with her biological mom. “It made me more in tune with my culture and my family,” she says. “And instead of hiding that identity, I realized that’s what makes me special — and that’s what makes them special. It’s who they are, and they should be proud.”

And who is Ko? “I’m taking that American-Taiwanese thing with me, by the way. Thank you for that,” she says before we hang up. “I can’t wait to tell it to my friends.”

The Cast Of High School Musical Are Reuniting For One Epic Sing-Along

Is a High School Musical reunion what you’ve been looking for? Well, you’re about to get what you’ve been wishing for. Bet on it.

According to Deadline, the cast of High School Musical are set to come together in the upcoming Disney Family Singalong special coming to ABC on Thursday (April 16).

All your favorite cast members are doing it up big for this unique event, which will be filmed entirely at home as everyone is currently practicing social distancing. Talk about an epic Zoom meeting. That means Zac Efron is even coming back to reprise his role, which is huge news. Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Corbin Bleu, Monique Coleman, and Lucas Grabeel – the gang’s all going to be there, and ready to sing their hearts out from their own homes.

“We couldn’t reach Zac until late but when we did, he immediately jumped in, of course,” said director Kenny Ortega. “Everyone we reached out to was quick — and you’ll see it in their spirit and the way they come together from their homes.”

The group will be performing “We’re All in This Together” as part of the Disney-themed special, which Ortega referred to as possessing a “communal spirit.”

“You’re hearing those words chanted out — I’ve been sent videos from doctors, orderlies, nurses and medical professionals in masks and hospital gowns singing ‘We’re All In This Together’ in the hallways of hospitals,” Ortega said of the song. “It’s a really nice fun coming together of a lot of young people that are banding together under the lyrics of this song for the show.”

Get ready to flash back all the way to 2006 with a Zac and Vanessa reunion and one of the coolest things you’ll see on TV this week. Who said social distancing had to be all doom and gloom? Seeing our favorite High School Musical cast members together again, even virtually, are making things feel pretty sunny indeed.

Soul’s Delay Means There Won’t Be Another Pixar Movie Out Until Fall

If you were planning on turning to Pixar’s upcoming film for a little soul-searching, it looks like you’re going to have to do that later this year.

Soul, the studio’s latest film since debuting Onward, has officially been pushed back from its initial release date of June 19. This is only the latest delay in a long line of pushbacks due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Soul is a colorful, emotional drama that looks set to explore what we can accomplish during our short time on this planet. Jamie Foxx will portray Joe Gardner, an aspiring jazz musician who teaches middle school band. After getting his big break at a New York City jazz club, he falls down a manhole and presumably dies.

Next thing he knows, Joe’s popped up as a simple soul at the “You Seminar,” where he meets 22 (Tina Fey). He’s meant to chill out here for a while and then return to the world to inhabit a new body. His new pal 22 doesn’t think living on Earth is all it’s cracked up to be – but Joe couldn’t disagree less. After agreeing to disagree, they work together to try and get Joe back into his own body on Earth before it’s too late.

“We only have a short time on this planet,” Gardner says in a voiceover in the trailer. “You want to become the person that you were born to be. Don’t waste your time on all the junk of life. Spend your precious hours doing what will bring out the real you, the brilliant passionate you that’s willing to contribute something meaningful into this world.”

If Soul sounds like your jazzy cup of tea, you can save the date to go check it out (hopefully with others) when it’s set to debut on November 20.

Timothée Chalamet Is Bringing A Dark Vision Of Dune‘s Paul Atreides To The Screen

Timothée Chalamet is stepping into the role of one of sci-fi’s most iconic characters: Dune’s Paul Atreides.

In a Vanity Fair exclusive, we finally got our first look at Chalamet as the primary protagonist of the intergalactic saga, and it looks like he’s bringing his own darker flair to the character.

“The immediately appealing thing about Paul was the fact that in a story of such detail and scale and world-building, the protagonist is on an anti-hero’s-journey of sorts,” said Chalamet of his role.

“He thinks he’s going to be sort of a young general studying his father and his leadership of a fighting force before he comes of age, hopefully a decade later, or something like that.”

This blockbuster adaptation is set to give the classic sci-fi novel and David Lynch cult classic film a fresh coat of paint. And while few details are known about what this particular version will explore, it seems like it’s going to go a long way in bringing the tale to modern audiences and giving it a fresh new twist. It could revitalize the franchise for a whole new crowd of moviegoers hungry for epic sci-fi.

Dune is still set for a theatrical release on December 18, despite the closure of theaters due to the current novel coronavirus outbreak. It isn’t clear if it will end up coming to theaters by its initial date, so we’ll have to wait and see how the current conditions evolve over the next few months.

Dune was made by people from all over the world. Many of these people are like family to me, and they’re very much in my thoughts,” Villeneuve said. “I’m so proud to showcase their hard work. I look forward to a time when we can all get together again as Dune was made to be seen on the big screen.”