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Stanford researchers explain how humanity has ‘engineered a world ripe for pandemics’

Josie Garthwaite, STANFORD NEWS

A pandemic can strike at any time. It takes little more than the right roll of genetic dice in a virus circulating among animals, followed by a chance encounter with a person or some go-between species, like pigs or mosquitoes. But as the new coronavirus whips around the world with a speed matched by few of the infectious diseases that have emerged in modern times, it poses the question: Why now?

According to Stanford biological anthropologist James Holland Jones, we have always had spillover events, in which disease jumps from animals to people. “What’s different now is that a spillover in one part of the world can have major consequences for the rest of the world,” he said. “We have engineered a world ripe for pandemics.”

Central to this vulnerability is the fact that our species moves around the world so much, and so quickly – whether for business, leisure, safety, education, economic necessity or other reasons. Many diseases are able to move right along with us. In fact, one of the most successful indicators of where pathogens will spread is the number of flight connections between cities, said Stanford biology Professor Erin Mordecai, who studies how climate, species interactions and global change influence infectious disease dynamics in both humans and natural ecosystems.

All this interconnectedness is particularly problematic with a disease like COVID-19, which can be transmitted by people who are not experiencing symptoms. “This disease is really nasty from a control standpoint,” said Mordecai, an assistant professor of biology in the School of Humanities and Sciences and a fellow at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “If you don’t know you’re sick, you might get on the plane and shed virus everywhere.”

An engineered world

It’s not only our highly mobile lifestyles that are helping give pandemics a runway to spread around the globe. It’s also the way we crowd together in increasingly dense cities, interact with wildlife and alter the natural world.
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A just and sustainable economic response to coronavirus, explained

David Roberts, VOX

In the short term, recovery; in the long term, resilience and renewal.

As the government considers stimulus going forward from this pause, it should see an opportunity to stimulate the growth of a cleaner, greener, more just economy. Workers should return to find jobs opened up in cleaner industries, with paid medical and family leave, better union protections, and a seat on corporate boards.

The coronavirus has all but ground the US economy to a halt. The list of states and cities that have closed nonessential businesses and urged citizens to stay home is growing by the day. Essential workers remain in place, and some people are able to work from home, but millions of jobs — at bars, hotels, restaurants, gyms, theaters, salons, shops — are simply evaporating.

Late last week, Goldman Sachs predicted that jobless claims in the US will spike to 2 million in the second quarter, which it calls “the largest increase in initial jobless claims and the highest level on record.” The Economic Policy Institute projects that 14 million jobs will be lost by the summer.

All those people with shaky or vanished jobs still have families to feed, mortgages coming due, utility bills, student debt payments, credit card payments, car payments, prescription and medical bills, and children or older relatives to care for. Already, millions of people are uncertain where they will live or how they will pay bills in the months ahead.

The result is a huge, rapid, ongoing loss of purchasing power in the US economy. The same Goldman Sachs report projected a 6 percent drop in US GDP in Q1 and a 24 percent drop in Q2, which is utterly unprecedented in a major modern economy outside of wartime.

The US appears to be heading into the mother of all demand recessions. On top of that, widespread social distancing has just begun. Some estimates say at best it could last three months; at worst — if distancing proves difficult to maintain, if the Trump administration botches the ramp-up of testing and tracing, if a vaccine takes longer than expected — it could last, on and off, for well over a year, stifling any recovery.

Even Republicans seem to have been terrified into action. Two short-term relief packages, with measures like limited paid sick leave and family leave for some classes of workers, have been passed through Congress. Another, reported to total $2 trillion, has just reached tentative bipartisan agreement. But no one believes that will be the end of the help the economy needs. Democrats are predicting at least two more stimulus bills; there will be much more to do.

For the past few days, I’ve been talking to economists and wonks, reading various proposals, trying to wrap my head around what a good economic response to the virus would look like. But there’s a slightly surreal atmosphere to the discussion, because the crucial period for stimulus will be the next six months or so, and for the next six months, the country will be run by Donald Trump and his administration.

Read more at https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2020/3/25/21180248/just-sustainable-economic-response-coronavirus-explained

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‘Tip of the iceberg’: is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?

John Vidal, THE GUARDIAN

As habitat and biodiversity loss increase globally, the coronavirus outbreak may be just the beginning of mass pandemics

Mayibout 2 is not a healthy place. The 150 or so people who live in the village, which sits on the south bank of the Ivindo River, deep in the great Minkebe Forest in northern Gabon, are used to occasional bouts of diseases such as malaria, dengue, yellow fever and sleeping sickness. Mostly they shrug them off.

But in January 1996, Ebola, a deadly virus then barely known to humans, unexpectedly spilled out of the forest in a wave of small epidemics. The disease killed 21 of 37 villagers who were reported to have been infected, including a number who had carried, skinned, chopped or eaten a chimpanzee from the nearby forest.

I travelled to Mayibout 2 in 2004 to investigate why deadly diseases new to humans were emerging from biodiversity “hotspots” such as tropical rainforests and bushmeat markets in African and Asian cities.

It took a day by canoe and then many hours along degraded forest logging roads, passing Baka villages and a small goldmine, to reach the village. There, I found traumatised people still fearful that the deadly virus, which kills up to 90% of the people it infects, would return.

Villagers told me how children had gone into the forest with dogs that had killed the chimp. They said that everyone who cooked or ate it got a terrible fever within a few hours. Some died immediately, while others were taken down the river to hospital. A few, like Nesto Bematsick, recovered. “We used to love the forest, now we fear it,” he told me. Many of Bematsick’s family members died.

Only a decade or two ago it was widely thought that tropical forests and intact natural environments teeming with exotic wildlife threatened humans by harbouring the viruses and pathogens that lead to new diseases in humans such as Ebola, HIV and dengue.

But a number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19, the viral disease that emerged in China in December 2019, to arise – with profound health and economic impacts in rich and poor countries alike. In fact, a new discipline, planetary health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections between the wellbeing of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems.

Is it possible, then, that it was human activity, such as road building, mining, hunting and logging, that triggered the Ebola epidemics in Mayibout 2 and elsewhere in the 1990s and that is unleashing new terrors today?
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“We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbour so many species of animals and plants – and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses,” David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, recently wrote in the New York Times. “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

Read more at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/18/tip-of-the-iceberg-is-our-destruction-of-nature-responsible-for-covid-19-aoe

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Six Bay Area counties will be ordered to ‘shelter in place’ as coronavirus spreads

James Rainey and Susanne Rust, LOS ANGELES TIMES

Six counties in the San Francisco Bay Area will be placed under a shelter-in-place directive by public health officials in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus, San Mateo Mayor Joe Goethals said Monday. It’s a move that will close virtually all businesses and direct residents to remain at home.

Goethals said he believed that the order, to be issued Monday afternoon, will put the six counties on perhaps the most restrictive public health footing anywhere in America, since the outbreak of the potentially deadly coronavirus.

Only police and fire departments, hospitals, grocery stores, pharmacies and a few other businesses will be allowed to remain open under the shelter-in-place order, said Goethals, who holds a master’s degree in public health.

Residents will be able to go grocery stores and other essential services, but the mayor urged residents not to rush, adding that stores will remain fully stocked.

The order will come from public health officials in the nine counties around the Bay — San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Marin, Contra Costa and Alameda. It will last for at least two weeks and could be extended for a third week, Goethals said.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10827908-181/six-bay-area-counties-will

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Sonoma County farmworkers and the 2017 and 2019 wildfires

Martin Bennett, SONOMA COUNTY GAZETTE

Last year the trade publication Wine Enthusiast recognized Sonoma County as the ‘Wine Region of the Year,’ and the Sonoma County Winegrowers Association announced that 99 percent of the county vineyards achieved their ‘sustainability’ certification. But the county’s farmworkers — who produce the wealth of wine country — are mostly invisible to the public. Winegrowers and the media rarely recognize the actual value of their labor, and their contribution to the local economy is seldom acknowledged.

Winegrowers and the media rarely recognize the actual value of their labor, and their contribution to the local economy is seldom acknowledged. Image: pxhere.com-Creative Commons CC0

Winegrowers and the media rarely recognize the actual value of their labor, and their contribution to the local economy is seldom acknowledged. Image: pxhere.com-Creative Commons CC0
Most county farmworkers do not earn a living wage nor receive employer-provided health insurance, lack access to affordable housing, and confront dangerous health and safety conditions on the job. A just, equitable and, sustainable recovery from the 2017 and 2019 wildfires must include new public policy and grower initiatives to improve the economic security and public health of farmworkers.

Nine out of 10 Sonoma County farmworkers are employed in the wine industry. Farm labor analyst Don Villarejo examined the U.S. Department of Agriculture 2017 Census and calculated the average hourly wage for a county farmworker employed directly by a farm operator for at least 150 days was $15.43 an hour; the weighted annual average income of all farmworkers who were used by growers and farm labor contractors was $21,920–these figures are likely slightly higher today due to recent increases in the minimum wage and new overtime requirements for farmworkers.

The Department of Labor National Agricultural Survey reports that few California farmworkers are employed full-time in agriculture: on average, they work just 36 weeks annually. UC Davis economist Phillip Martin calculated that in 2015 the average California farmworker, employed primarily in agriculture, earned only $20,500 annually. Three out of four California farmworkers had only one employer and, just 15 percent crossed the border or migrated between California agricultural regions.

Read more at https://www.sonomacountygazette.com/sonoma-county-news/sonoma-county-farmworkers-and-a-just-recovery

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California’s solar mandate to allow homes without solar

Cuneyt Dil, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Over the objections of environmentalists, California regulators approved a proposal Thursday to allow builders to construct homes without solar panels, a decision critics said undercuts California’s seven-week-old law that all new houses have their own solar power.

At a passionate hearing, the California Energy Commission unanimously approved the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s plan to build its own large-scale solar site that homeowners can tap into, forgoing the need for solar on each new home.

Environmentalists said it guts the state’s new landmark mandate and will lead to other statewide proposals copying Sacramento’s utility, which serves 1.5 million residents. But regulators backed the proposal after support from home builders and lawmakers who said it provides clean energy without raising home prices in a state facing a housing crisis.

“This is something that is bold and cutting edge,” Commissioner Janea Scott said of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s application.

The mandate that took effect Jan. 1 calls for new single-family houses or low-rise apartments to install solar panels. Alternately, utilities and organizations can apply to the California Energy Commission to build an offsite “community shared solar” site for buildings to draw from.

Using the latter option, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s plan sets a blueprint for private and public entities to seek their own large solar sites to meet the mandate, watchers say. The largest public utility in the U.S. — the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power — endorsed the idea in filings to the commission.

Public testimony ran for two hours at the commission meeting Thursday. Environmentalists and some homeowners said the move means fewer homes will be built with solar panels included. Solar advocates said consumers would save more money with their own solar panels rather than the savings from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s proposed plan.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10734660-181/californias-solar-mandate-to-allow

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Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport sets record for January passengers

Kevin Fixler, PRESS DEMOCRAT

The popularity of Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport continues to grow, with the regional hub recording its highest-ever passenger count for the month of January.

Nearly 37,000 commercial passengers traveled through the local airport during the first month of 2020, which represented a 30% increase from the same time last year. In January 2019, Sonoma County airport counted another record for the month, with 28,400 passengers — an 8% gain from the prior year.
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County airport adding more flights to major hubs

With the addition of new routes, including the introduction of nonstop flights to Denver and Dallas/Fort Worth in 2019, the local airport set a new record last year with more than 488,000 passengers. The all-time high maintained a decadelong streak of annual growth.

The airport, which began offering commercial service in 2007, expects to add three more flights later this year, which at its peak will bring the number of daily departing flights to 19. American Airlines already launched a second daily flight to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on Feb. 13. Starting March 19, Alaska Airlines will add a second daily route to each of San Diego and Orange County.

Source: https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10727039-181/charles-m-schulz-sonoma-county-airport

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America’s ‘recycled’ plastic waste is clogging landfills, survey finds

Erin McCormick, THE GUARDIAN

Many facilities lack the ability to process ‘mixed plastics’, a category of waste that has virtually no market as new products.

Many plastic items that Americans put in their recycling bins aren’t being recycled at all, according to a major new survey of hundreds of recycling facilities across the US.

The research, conducted by Greenpeace and released on Tuesday, found that out of 367 recycling recovery facilities surveyed none could process coffee pods, fewer than 15% accepted plastic clamshells – such as those used to package fruit, salad or baked goods – and only a tiny percentage took plates, cups, bags and trays.

The findings confirm the results of a Guardian investigation last year, which revealed that numerous types of plastics are being sent straight to landfill in the wake of China’s crackdown on US recycling exports. Greenpeace’s findings also suggest that numerous products labeled as recyclable in fact have virtually no market as new products.
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While the report found there is still a strong recycling market for bottles and jugs labeled #1 or #2, such as plastic water bottles and milk containers, the pipeline has bottomed out for many plastics labelled #3-7, which fall into a category dubbed “mixed plastics”. While often marketed by brands as recyclable, these plastics are hard for recyclers to repurpose and are often landfilled, causing confusion for consumers.

“This report shows that one of the best things to do to save recycling is to stop claiming that everything is recyclable,” said John Hocevar, director of Greenpeace’s Oceans Campaign. “We have to talk to companies about not producing so much throw-away plastic that ends up in the ocean or in incinerators.”

In a news release accompanying the report, Greenpeace threatened to file federal complaints against manufacturers who mislead the public about the recyclability of their packaging.

Read more at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/feb/18/americas-recycled-plastic-waste-is-clogging-landfills-survey-finds

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Occidental, home of sky-high sewage rates, eyes outlet in Graton, but some residents object

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Two Italian-style restaurants have drawn generations of diners to Occidental while serving pasta, pizza and soup — in recent years under the burden of the steepest sewage treatment rates in Sonoma County and among the highest in California.

Negri’s Original Italian Restaurant and the Union Hotel, both run by local families, pay about $120,000 a year in wastewater fees included in their property tax bills, shouldering much of the cost in a west county sanitation district that serves about 100 properties.

“You gotta sell a lot of ravioli to pay for that,” said Al Negri, former operator of his family’s eatery, established in 1943. “It would be fantastic if we got some relief.”

There could be some help coming from Graton, about 6 miles to the east with an underutilized wastewater plant that would profit from handling Occidental’s output of 18,000 gallons of sewage a day.

But there’s a catch: Graton’s plant is on a wooded 20-acre site north of the town with no road access, and finding a place to connect with the community’s sewer system has proved elusive. Neighborhood protests thwarted so many attempts to deal with Occidental’s wastewater that officials resorted two years ago to trucking it to a plant in an industrial area next to the county airport.

Residents of the 53-unit Blue Spruce Mobilehome Lodge on Green Valley Road in Sebastopol mobilized quickly after learning of the Graton Community Service District’s plan to build a wastewater receiving station 3 feet from the entrance to their park and 20 feet from the nearest mobile home, occupied by a 100-year-old woman and her son-in-law.

Graton’s plan calls for pumping six truckloads of untreated sewage a day into a valve on a concrete pad at the edge of a gas station at the corner of Green Valley Road and Highway 116.

A petition signed by 53 residents, some from the same family, objected to the project, and 15 people attended a Graton district board meeting last week, complaining about lack of advance notice of the project and objecting to the potential noise, traffic and odor.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10618162-181/occidental-home-of-sky-high-sewage

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Recent wildfires inspire builders to make homes more fire resistant

Matt Villano, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

On a ridge above Geyserville, one new house stands alone in the burn zone.

The home, roughly 80% finished when the Kincade fire roared through the area in late October, is perfectly intact — not a single shingle out of place. Everything around it is black and charred.

Yes, firefighters beat back flames to protect the structure. But the home also saved itself.

Tempered windows withstood extreme temperatures and did not shatter. Fire-retardant siding made with cement stopped flames from overtaking the exterior. A metal roof prevented embers from penetrating the top. On top of this, a total of 100 feet of defensible space around the house minimized the likelihood that the place would catch fire.

In short, teams from Santa Rosa general contractor HybridBuild developed the 2,000-square-foot home to withstand a major wildfire and it did.

“The fire couldn’t take the house because of the upgrades,” said Tony Negri, co-owner of the company. “You could look at what happened and say, ‘They got lucky,’ and they did, but really it was just a case of some of these extra (innovations) working the way they were supposed to work.”

The Geyserville house is a perfect example of how careful construction and an emphasis on fire resilience can put homes in a better position to withstand the onslaught of a raging fire.

Put differently, as climate change and other, naturally occurring factors wreak havoc on Sonoma County ecosystems, the anecdote offers textbook examples for the kinds of features and construction methods that homes of the future likely will need as wildfires become a more regular part of our collective reality.

“Nature (will) always be in charge,” said Tennis Wick, director of the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department. “We can no longer afford to armor our way out of risk with concrete, steel and bunkers. We need to respect nature and work with it.”

As Wick suggested, a key component to making homes more resilient is preparing for the worst.

For many developers, this means abiding by rules and regulations for building in what is known as the Wildland-Urban Interface, or WUI. (Contractors colloquially refer to this as woo-ey.)

These rules are laid out in Chapter 7A of the California Building Code. Currently, at least in Sonoma County, this means all new structures must be “built with exterior construction that will minimize the impact on life and property and help structure to resist the intrusion of flames and burning embers projected by a wildland fire and contributes to a reduction of losses.”

Contractors have responded by implementing several different tools and products to “harden” homes to fire. Negri’s company has turned to tempered glass windows, metal roofs and fiber cement siding. One particular project, a spacious new home under construction in downtown Healdsburg, features fiber cement siding.

Other firms have experimented with rammed earth construction, as well as Insulated Concrete Form (ICF) products such as Rastra blocks, which are made with foam, and Faswall blocks, which are made with wood chips and particles.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/specialsections/rebuildnorthbay/10484149-181/rebuilding-sonoma-county-making-the