North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Cathedral Rises in Romania

Romania, an eastern European country, former Soviet satellite, but now a prospering member of the EU and NATO. The country has a population of over 20 million, but is now a little nervous with the confrontation between Russia and neighboring Ukraine. Map from

To this country bumpkin, Romania is a bit of a mystery. Teatree thinks of it as one of those former Soviet Union satellites that was run by a particularly coarse and nasty duo, Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena. Romania was one of the few countries that suffered some violence during the collapse of the Soviet Empire. And then of course, there was a Romanian gymnast, Nadia Comaneci...

The strongman Nicolae and his wife Elena prior to 1989 ... Photo from the BBC

Mr CeauSescu came to power in 1965, approved apparently by the Soviet Politburo. Over time, he built his own platform of power and ran a slightly independent course from the USSR. In the later years, he and his wife Elena emphasized their own egos by concentrating on a cult of personality (think Kim Jong-Un in North Korea).

This is how the official court painter portrayed the CeauSescu's, with the court poet pronouncing him a “lay god” with a voice of “planetary resonance.” Sycophant Romanian newspapers referred to him as “the Genius of the Carpathians” and compared him to Napoleon. Photo of painting at

Increasingly isolated from the Romanian population, they were stunned as the Soviet Empire collapsed with the various Eastern European communist governments falling in rapid order. After street mayhem in the capital Bucharest, the CeauSescu's attempted to flee the People's Palace on December 22, 1989 (they had this built earlier as the symbol of their national seat of power). However, within hours, the CeauSescu's were captured nearby, tried by a hastily assembled military tribunal (on charges of genocide, damage to the national economy and abuse of power), convicted on all charges, and immediately executed on Christmas Day 1989 - just three days later.

If one is a dictator, and all these people in front of your palace are against you, it is likely not going to be your best day ... Photo in 1989 of the demonstrations in Bucharest in front of the Palace of the Parliament, from

Romania's new direction since 1989

As with many former USSR satellite countries, Romania regrouped with its new freedom, creating a western style democracy, worked on its economy, etc. etc. What is a little different and controversial, is a surge of rebuilding churches across the land. Romanians are 90% Orthodox, and their religious buildings suffered greatly under the CeauSescu regime - many buildings bulldozed for various reasons, and many more shuttered under state atheism. In a BBC article in 2013, the building of new churches was going on at a rate of one every three days.

A rather beautiful new Orthodox church ... photo from

Another ... photo from

The building spree has become controversial. It highlights a close connection between the Orthodox church and the government (a bright line in the US, though much less so in many Western democracies - think of Great Britain and the Anglican Church, progressive Sweden which had its state church right up to 2000, etc). There is public money in a poor country being used for building churches when many critics say the money should be spent on other priorities.

The ornateness inherent to the Eastern Orthodox church is rather amazing. Photo from

But others say that the CeauSescu government destroyed many church assets, so it is right that the government redress that damage.

The biggest is yet to come

With the monies being spent, past grievances being dealt with, there remains the biggest project of them all. A huge new Eastern Orthodox church is being built right across from the monumental Palace of the Parliament (renamed from the People's Palace).

Called the Cathedral for the Salvation of Romanian People, plans for its construction began in 1990. Once built, the cathedral complex will include the cathedral building itself; , a soup kitchen with capacity for 1000 below the cathedral building; two hotels; and parking for about 500 cars. The cathedral is designed with seating for approximately 5,000 worshipers (though for Americans this amount of room is merely a mini-megachurch ...). One can assume there are several statements being made - "the church more important than man's governments" ? "I can mispend money too" ?

The new Cathedral going up next to the People's Palace. Photo from 2013 at

CeauSescu's infamous People's Palace - at the time, the second largest public institution in the world, right behind the US Pentagon ... Photo from

A rendering of the new complex - it seems as this will beat the People's Palace in size.... If one wishes to see a video on the new project, access the one here ...

Well, we can muse, click our tongues thinking of what else might be built with the money, but we all know there are much more destructive forces at work in the world. We can wish the Romanians much good will, and hope for a tad more humility among religious, government, and corporate leaders wherever we encounter them.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Ebola surges - West African countries struggle

The news regarding the Ebola eruption in small West African countries continues to darken. The death toll is now over 2600, with Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone the hardest hit. This number of deaths is a major jump from just over 1000 deaths in early August.

In a blog post back in late March this year, we were talking about fruit bats being the reservoir for the virus and Guinea banning bat meat at its markets. At the moment there is no concern over the reservoir, as the virus is out and raging through humans.

The three small hard hit countries - Nigeria has had a few confirmed cases as well. Graphic from

Yes, just a few months ago in March, there was no real awareness of an effective vaccine. 6 months later, there appears to be something of value - ZMapp - though it has still not been properly tested as in a clinical trial on humans. The lack of testing did not stop several Westerners and two Liberian doctors from getting dosages, however, and behind the headlines, there is no doubt a frenzied effort to evaluate the vaccine for real results and possible widespread use.

Unfortunately, the Spanish priest and one of the Liberian doctors did not survive, unlike two Americans - one doctor, one missionary - who did after being flown back the the U.S. for intensive treatment.

American Ebola patients Dr Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol are among those who have received the experimental Ebola cure. Photo from

ZMapp, the experimental Ebola drug is produced by Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. a California-based company. The company said after a few doses handed out "that in responding to a request from an unidentified West African country, it had run out of its supply of the treatment." From a CBS report in late August, "it is expected to be months before more can be produced by its U.S. maker. Health experts caution that the drug had never been tested in humans before and it was unclear whether it actually works. It appeared to help two Americans who received it, but experts note there is a huge gap between the treatment the two Americans got at an Atlanta hospital, where five infectious disease experts and 21 nurses provided rigorous care, and the medical care available to victims in West Africa, where even such basics as sterile fluids can be in short supply."

The Spanish priest, 75 year old Miguel Pajares, seen here being unloaded at a Spanish air force base in mid August, did not survive the virus. Photo from

So on to the brave health workers

Teatree thinks it appropriate to highlight the bravery of Liberian, Guinean, and Sierra Leone health workers who are stepping up to challenge the disease. Among the thousands of deaths, many are health workers, beyond family members who were on the immediate front lines.

A Liberian health worker at a checkpoint near the international airport at a checkpoint near Dolo Town, Liberia. Photo from CNN

Liberian health workers remove an Ebola victim from a residence. Photo from

Sierra Leone declares a curfew and widespread search for infected citizens

Late this week, the government of Sierra Leone declared a three-day curfew across the country of 6 million, while a "surge" of health workers would systematically search for those suffering from Ebola. From the BBC, "Sierra Leone is one of the countries worst hit by West Africa's Ebola outbreak, with more than 550 victims among the 2,600 deaths so far recorded. In the capital, Freetown, normally bustling streets were quiet, with police guarding roadblocks. During the curfew, 30,000 volunteers will look for people infected with Ebola, or bodies, which are especially contagious. They will hand out bars of soap and information on preventing infection. Officials say the teams will not enter people's homes but will call emergency services to deal with patients or bodies. Volunteers will mark each house with a sticker after they have visited it, reports say.

Sierra Leone surveyors train on wearing protective gear. Photo from BBC

On Thursday, President Ernest Bai Koroma said: "Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures." He urged citizens to avoid touching each other, visiting the sick or avoid attending funerals. Freetown resident Christiana Thomas told the BBC: "People are afraid of going to the hospital because everyone who goes there is tested for Ebola." Another resident in Kenema, in the east of the country, told the BBC families were struggling because the price of food had gone up. In the hours leading up to Sierra Leone's lockdown, there was traffic gridlock in Freetown as people stocked up on food and essentials."

Social unrest

With such a deadly contagion, citizens are fearful, angry, and suspicious. Eight individuals - a team of health workers, local officials, and journalists - in Guinea were attacked and killed by villagers who had armed themselves with machetes and clubs. In other instances, hospitals are avoided and talked of as where Ebola is spread. A New York Times article noted, "A fear of contagion ... “aversion behavior” is driving most of the economic losses. Panic is closing places of employment, disrupting transportation and severing air and sea links with other nations, the analysis found.

So these countries are now struggling deeply - the fragile social fabric in normal times is fraying.

Responses from outside the infected countries? Kind of tardy.

While the UN works ponderously to develop a response, Doctors without Borders and the World Health Organization (WHO) have moved towards the region in various ways.

The most striking response to date is from the U.S. where in mid September, President Obama directed 3000 military to engage on the ground, providing medicine and equipment to augment the national responses, as well as $750 million in aid dollars. From the Economist, "His move follows earlier, more modest, commitments from countries such as Cuba and China (each is sending about 170 people) and Britain, which will build a 62-bed hospital. Commitments from other countries look even more paltry. Germany will provide a few million dollars, the European Union is giving $15.5m (though it is giving 12 times that amount in general humanitarian aid) and a laboratory."

Aid is also arriving from other neighboring African countries, in this case, supplies from Ghana. Photo from

Deadly and tragic, and not nearly over.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Blue Recovery

Taking a break from humanity's woes, let's celebrate the news this week that the Blue whale population has apparently stepped back from the brink of 40 years ago, and is now in healthy territory in one of the three major groups - in this case, those living between the North Pacific and the California Coast.

The Blue Whale - (Balaenoptera musculus)- belonging to the baleen whales family. Nearly 100 feet long and weighing 190 tons or more, it is the largest existing animal on the planet. Yet,as with the baleen family, its diet mainly consists of tiny krill. Photo from The Guardian

From 1905 to 1971, the Blue whale population plummeted from whale harvesting. When the Blue whale was given protected status in the early 70's, its population was still at risk from increasing ocean traffic.

Blue whales and other species remain at risk from ocean shipping, though increasingly shipping lanes are being modified to avoid known migration routes and seasonal concentrations. Photo from

Blues, along with other species have identified migration routes between their summer and winter homes. Graphic from

The largest Blue concentration is that found in the Northern Pacific, with a population over 2000. An equally sized concentration, though much less understood or counted is found in around Antarctica and between India and Australia. A third, but much smaller concentration of 500 (clearly plus or minus) is found in the North Atlantic - between Greenland and Iceland.

Tracking and monitoring of Blue whales has been much stronger among the North Pacific population. Graphic from

Blue off Greenland ... actually this is a photoshopped picture to be used for wallpaper on one's computer desktop, but WHY NOT?? We're celebrating! from