People gathered in downtown São José dos Campos, Brazil for an anti-racism protest on June 5, 2020.

Pandemic Hotspots Continue to Shift Away from Urban Centers

The Covid-19 pandemic continued its spread in the United States this week, with the number of confirmed cases passing 2 million — far more than in any other country — and the estimated death toll now approaching 114,000 people.

There was further evidence this week, though, that the trajectory of the pandemic is continuing to shift away from major urban clusters in Europe and North America. As cases and hospitalizations subside in the northeastern U.S. and other hard-hit areas, they are climbing in some states, especially in the South and Southwest. An ABC News analysis, based on data from the Covid Tracking Project — a volunteer organization launched by The Atlantic — and published Thursday, reported growing numbers of Covid-19 hospitalizations in Arizona, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah.

The surge has been particularly pronounced in Arizona, where hospitals are already above 80 percent capacity, and analysts have raised concerns that intensive care units could soon be overwhelmed by coronavirus patients. The toll in the Southwest has fallen especially hard on the Navajo Nation, where there have been more infections per capita than in the state of New York — and where at least 292 people have died from the disease. (Complicating the situation, the federal government supplied Navajo hospitals with protective masks that did not meet standards for health care use, according to recent reporting from ProPublica).

Globally, Covid-19 cases appear to be surging in South Asia and Latin America. In Brazil, where more than 40,000 people have died from the disease, cities are beginning to reopen anyway, and policymakers have withheld coronavirus data from the public. Amid the growing instability, onlookers are worried about a military coup, while embattled President Jair Bolsonaro has continued to clash with public health experts.

In the early days of the global pandemic, as Covid-19 traveled out of China, the list of viral hotspots could read like the travel itinerary of a Silicon Valley executive: Seattle, Boston, and New York City; London, Paris, and Milan. Wealth and influence helped hard-hit areas marshal scarce resources: In New York City, one private hospital system commissioned private planes to fly in critical medical equipment from China.

As the pandemic epicenter shifts away — at least for now — from these hubs of economic, cultural, and political capital, there is the possibility that the pandemic will lose some sustained attention from people in power.

To be sure, even in some of the world’s wealthiest cities, the impact of the virus has fallen disproportionately on working class people of color. The risk now is that similar dynamics will play out on a global scale, as the virus moves through poor and marginalized countries. And the risks in some places are even more complicated to weigh, as policymakers sometimes face stark choices between allowing the virus to spread unchecked, or imposing lockdowns that could deepen hunger and poverty.

Also in the News:

• On Wednesday, more than 5,000 scientists participated in a one-day Strike for Black Lives, described by its organizers as a chance “to give black academics a break” and to allow other people “an opportunity to reflect on their own complicity in anti-black racism in academia and their local and global communities.” Researchers signed a pledge, posted on the website Particles for Justice, to cease operations on June 10. The action comes amid national protests against systemic racism — and in the context of longstanding inequalities in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, fields. A 2018 report from the Pew Research Center found that, of STEM employees in the United States, only 9 percent were black, and just 7 percent were Hispanic. On social media, supporters of the strike posted hashtags like #ShutDownStem, #StrikeForBlackLives, and #ShutDownAcademia. “Cite black scientists,” biologist Sandra Boitumelo Phoma wrote on Twitter. “Invite us to talk about our science. Don’t make us the face of your inclusion and diversity committees. Don’t ask us to build solutions. Learn to say our names correctly. Give us credit. Support our mental health.” (The Hill)

• Call it hydroxychloroquine whiplash: During the early months of the pandemic, the common antimalarial drug was touted as both a likely cure and a stout prophylactic against Covid-19. From the French scientist whose small-bore study helped stoke the enthusiasm, to U.S. President Donald J. Trump, who gave full-throated and frequent endorsements of its use, the medication became such a hot commodity that lupus patients, for whom hydroxychloroquine is a proven treatment, were often unable to have their own prescriptions filled. But doubts about its efficacy were always lingering in the periphery, and when a paper published in The Lancet in late May suggested that hydroxychloroquine and related treatments might actually increase the risk of death among Covid-19 patients, those doubts became convictions for many scientists. The Lancet paper was retracted earlier this month, briefly renewing hopes that perhaps the drug was worth investigating after all, but the tides changed again with the publication of three of the largest studies of hydroxychloroquine in the treatment or prevention of Covid-19. While the methodologies varied, the message embedded in the results of all three studies — which in two cases included large cohorts of people exposed to the virus and at risk of infection, and in the third a group of severely ill patients — was clear: The drug, Science magazine reported on Tuesday, appears to offer no benefits. “We’d be better off,” one expert told the publication, “shifting our attention to drugs that might actually work.” (Science)

• A federal grand jury this week indicted Charles Lieber, a star chemist and nanoscientist at Harvard, on charges of making false statements about his relationship with a Chinese university, along with denying involvement in China’s Ten Thousand Talents Plan, a program that the U.S. government says rewards “individuals for stealing proprietary information.” Lieber reportedly received $50,000 a month for his work with the program, which pays academics to do research at Chinese universities. Involvement with the program is legal, but the government says that Lieber failed to disclose the relationship in applications for federal funding, and then misled Harvard and U.S. officials. Lieber was charged with deceptive practices in January, with a bail set at $1 million, but the indictment was delayed until this month due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Lieber has denied the charges. His attorney calls him a victim, caught in the rising political tensions between the U.S. and China. The federal government is now investigating nearly 200 cases in which researchers are suspected of colluding with China – although, some researchers note, the government has stepped up scrutiny of collaborations with other countries as well in the past two years. If convicted, Lieber faces up to five years in prison and can be fined up to $250,000. (Politico)

• New York legislators this week passed a package of bills related to police conduct, including a repeal of the state’s Civil Rights Law section 50-a. The controversial law allowed police departments to withhold officers’ misconduct records from the public — making it difficult, advocates say, to access crucial data for holding police accountable. Instead, nonprofit organizations, public defenders, academics, and journalists have assembled databases of police records, making it easier to track and study the effects of law enforcement policies. But previous attempts to get actual transparency legislation in New York had stalled out in the state legislature, under heavy lobbying by police unions. The calculus changed this week during the widespread protests against police brutality. Other bills in the new package include a ban on the use of chokeholds, a requirement for officers to promptly report any use of their guns, and a bill requiring officers to provide attention to the medical and mental health needs of people in police custody. The bills now go to the desk of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said Monday he intends to sign them. (Democrat and Chronicle)

• And finally: The World Health Organization clarified comments made by one its top officials this week, after controversy erupted over how she had characterized the risk of asymptomatic spread of coronavirus. On Monday, Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the WHO’s Outbreak Investigation Task Force, cited a few preliminary studies in stating that transmission from an asymptomatic person to someone else is “very rare.” If true, that finding would have major implications for public health policy, perhaps suggesting that widespread lockdowns were no longer necessary. Some Republican lawmakers seized on the comment as evidence that the U.S. could now reopen safely. But on Tuesday, Van Kerkhove said the role asymptomatic people play in spreading the virus is still an “open question.” She clarified that her earlier statement was based on unpublished contact-tracing data from some WHO member countries, drawing ire from other public health officials. “There’s so much attention to everything that’s being said by every public health agency that it’s important to be extremely careful and science-based in what you say,” former Centers for Disease Control director Tom Frieden told Politico. (Politico)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Lucas Haugen, Jane Roberts, Frankie Schembri, and Tom Zeller Jr. contributed to this roundup.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.