Did Monkeys Put A Pox On Us?–Monkeypox Cases Spread Outside Africa

Just when you thought it was safe to take off the face mask, another virus swoops in to terrorize us. The latest health scare is the appearance of monkeypox cases in the United States. I kid you not; there really is a sickness called monkey pox, and its emergence in our country is no joking matter.

Originally found in monkeys, monkeypox suggests monkeys may have put a pox on us. That’ll teach us to use them for research subjects, the monkeys are no doubt thinking. The sickness was discovered in 1958 when two outbreaks of a pox-like disease occurred in colonies of monkeys kept by researchers in Copenhagen.

Interestingly, the type of monkeys who first became ill were crab-eating macaque monkeys. Crab-eating? Maybe I’m stereotyping monkeys, but aren’t they the cute critters who eat bananas? When did they start eating crabs? And isn’t that crab-eating macaque pictured above eating a banana? Well, perhaps bananas are the dessert course following the seafood.

Apparently monkeys kept monkeypox to themselves for a few years. They didn’t share it with humans until 1970 when a case was reported in Congo. Sometimes sharing isn’t the polite thing to do, so man could’ve lived (literally) without a new medical issue to face courtesy of monkeys.

Monkeypox is normally reported in people living in the tropical rainforest regions of Central and West African with the majority of cases seen in Congo. In fact, thousands of cases are reported in Congo annually, Nevertheless, cases of this virus have occurred outside Africa (specifically Israel, Singapore, and the U.K.) which were linked to international travel or imported animals.

Fortunately for Americans, monkeypox does NOT occur naturally in the United States. Nevertheless, a monkeypox outbreak took place here in in the U.S. back in 2003. Forty-seven confirmed and probably cases were identified then in six states, but thankfully no one died.

During the 2003 outbreak, humans (Americans) contracted the illness from pet prairie dogs (people have pet prairie dogs??). These pets had come into contact with imported small mammals (read RODENTS) from the African country of Ghana offered for sale in a pet store. So you have bigger things to fear from going into a pet store than your child convincing you to bring home a cute puppy. You may bring home MONKEYPOX.

But monkeypox has reared its ugly head here in 2022. A U.S. resident tested positive for it in Boston on May 18th after returning from a trip to Canada, and a New York City resident was hospitalized at Bellevue as another possible case. According to the World Health Organization,131 confirmed cases and 106 suspected cases have been identified in nineteen countries outside of Africa, where the virus is endemic. Health experts are baffled by the illness’ spread in developed countries.

There’s good news and bad news when it comes to monkeypox. Good news? It is a rare disease which is difficult to spread. The virus typically enters the body through broken skin, the respiratory tract, or mucous membranes (eyes, nose, mouth). Of the two strains of monkeypox existing, West African and Congo Basin, the one currently being seen in patients, West African, is the milder of the two. That strain doesn’t spread as easily and has caused less deaths. The death rate in Africa is not high; only 1 in 10 people who contract monkeypox there die from it. That’s comforting unless you’re in that 10% who perish.

And, in news that could be deemed good or bad depending on your perspective, a CDC infectious disease specialist assures us that there is no need to be particularly worried about the outbreak. Why common household disinfectants can kill the monkeypox virus. (Cue the hoarding of Lysol and bleach again.) Somehow, government statements that all will be well (pun intended) don’t make me feel all that confident.

So, what’s the bad news about monkeypox? If you contract monkeypox, you may not die, but there is currently no proven safe treatment for it. (Translate that you just have to endure it.) The symptoms aren’t pleasant to suffer or even to see. The illness begins with fever, headache, muscle aches, and exhaustion. The lymph nodes swell. Then comes the “fun” part.

One to three days after the fever begins, a rash appears, usually on the face, similar to chickenpox. It starts as flat red marks that become raised blisters filled with pus. Yuk! These can spread all over your body, including in your eyes and on your private parts. Three-quarters of patients with monkeypox have lesions on their palms and the soles of their feet. The illness lasts 2-4 weeks.

A test already exists for detecting the virus. It is a PCR test of samples from skin lesions. So, nothing is stuck up your nose, but you have to have pus-filled lesions on you from which samples can be taken.

So, the illness isn’t pleasant. (That’s an understatement.) What can be done to prevent it? A preventative does exist–the smallpox vaccine. Monkeypox has symptoms similar to smallpox which was eradicated in humans in 1980. Since smallpox vaccinations are no longer given, the general public no longer has immunity to poxviruses. While they may not be immune, the public could receive smallpox vaccines if necessary since the U.S. has stockpiled millions of doses of smallpox vaccine in case of an outbreak.

Regardless of what the illness du jour is, our health is never anything to monkey around with. While it’s important to be in the know about new outbreaks, knowledge must be tempered with common sense. Health officials should be aware of and prepared to deal with illnesses whether common or rare. But we don’t need to panic just because an outbreak is highlighted in the media. Use common sense to protect yourself–keep your distance from someone who is ill, regularly wash your hands, and, for heaven’s sake, don’t buy a prairie dog for a pet.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Are you numb to new health scares after the COVID-19 pandemic? How worried are you about contracting monkeypox? Is the fact that illnesses once confined to specific locations on the globe are spreading across it a sign that it really is a “small world after all?”

Paper Paucity Poses Political Predicament

Can’t find baby formula on the grocery store shelves? That’s not the only commodity currently in great demand but short supply–printing paper is also scarce. And with that paper paucity comes political peril. The fate of the upcoming November mid-term elections depends on paper supplies.

Let’s start with the big picture. Paper, paper everywhere, but just a few pages on which to print. Don’t think paper is everywhere? Think again. It is the single largest component of landfills in the United States. Nevertheless, an ongoing scarcity of printing grade paper exists, and that problem is compounded by the skyrocketing price for the paper which is available. Paper producers simply cannot keep up with industry demand for it.

Several factors combine to result in declining paper production here in the United States. No new printing paper mills have begun operation in decades while multiple paper mills have closed. Those mills still in business have converted to production of more profitable packaging and corrugated grades of paper and consumer paper products. The almighty bottom line rules, of course.

So, how does this industry shift affect the consumer? Let’s say you love to read books. (Raising my hand.) Boosted by COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, books sales jumped 13% in 2021. More reading means more demand for books means more paper is needed to print them. But printers can’t get the paper they need, at least not from here in the U.S.

While blaming the pandemic for paper supply woes might be tempting, lockdowns aren’t the only reason for the current deficit of printing paper. In fact, about a year before COVID, U.S. paper mills shifted to producing paperboard used in packaging over freesheet paper. Why the shift? The dramatic increase in online shopping resulted in a dramatic increase in the need for packaging to ship orders in. But, of course, COVID exacerbated the problem since being stuck at home necessitated (or at least led to) a great deal of online shopping.

An additional complication is the inability to obtain the components needed for making paper. Some of them come from overseas. Lockdowns in foreign countries and supply chain logistics add to the difficulty. Labor shortages in the U.S. heighten the difficulty of transporting the components to the mills once they land here.

Why not just obtain the needed paper itself, rather than just the components, from overseas then? Although that sounds like a simple solution, in reality it isn’t. Numerous factors have combined to make that option less and less viable.

One finger of blame can be pointed at Vladimir Putin. Not only is Ukraine shell shocked by his invasion, but the war (no, it’s NOT a “military operation”) has done the same to the paper industry. Russia and Ukraine, both heavily forested areas, are big pulp-producing areas. But the countries’ focuses are now on things other than tree-cutting; Russia’s cutting down civilians and destroying the Ukrainian landscape while Ukraine is laser-focused on survival and defense of the country.

European paper mills are also affected by the ongoing war. Production is reduced because their primary energy source is natural gas which is purchased from Russia. Current events have dried up that energy source.

And then there are labor woes in Europe. UPM, the largest paper company in the world, had several paper mills shut down due to striking workers. On January 1, 2022 (Happy New Year or Onnellista uutta vuotta! as Finns would say), the Finnish Paperworkers’ Union called for a strike. On top of that, the transport workers’ union also struck shutting down the ports from which the paper the mills produced was shipped. What difference did these strikes make? Well, in October 2021, UPM made 306 sea shipments; that dropped to 53 in January 2022. Fortunately, after a 16-week strike, an accord was reached between the paper workers’ union and UPM.

With huge demand, paper production (a $188 billion industry) should be increasing, right? Wrong. The global paper output for 2022 is an estimated 416 million TONS. Nevertheless, that figure is 4 million TONS short of what was produced in 2018. And short leads to shortage.

OK, but how does all of this paper industry drama affect 2022 mid-term elections in the U.S.? Quite significantly. NINETY-TWO percent of Americans live in jurisdictions that rely on paper ballots for voting. (I’m in one of those jurisdictions.) In 2020, some 90 million mail in ballots were utilized requiring approximately 270 million envelopes. Yes, those were paper ballots and paper envelopes.

But it isn’t simply paper ballots and envelopes election officials need. Voter registration forms, “I Voted” stickers, and voter guides are also paper. Bottom line. LOTS of paper is needed for election officials to put on an election. Not just any paper will do either. Election officials must purchase ballot paper which meets specific requirements.

Even if election officials find the type of paper required, they face another challenge. Can they afford it? Inland Press in Detroit provides ~25% of the ballots for the State of Michigan. That business has seen a 40% increase in paper costs. Election officials, of course, are restricted to a budget which may not allow for drastic price increases. Even if they can handle a big increase, guess who is ultimately going to foot the bill? The taxpayers, i.e., you and me.

So concerning is the prospect of the inability to obtain the paper needed for elections that Congressional attention has spotlighted it. Congressman Rodney Davis (R-IL), who is involved with oversight of federal elections, held a roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C. on March 18th to discuss the implications for upcoming elections with restricted paper supplies. The CEO of PRINTING United Alliance, Fred Bowers, summed up the concerns with this paper shortage in the election sphere when he said, “Printing is an essential industry, and nothing highlights its essential feature more than, the fact that, without printing, faith in our democratic process and elections are at risk.”

What will happen in November remains to be seen. And I mean not only who will win the elections but whether elections can even be held if sufficient paper supplies are not obtained. Stay tuned for the results.

WONDER-ing Woman:

What should election officials do if sufficient paper supplies aren’t available? Would you feel comfortable voting online as opposed to using a paper ballot? Are you shocked that paper items are the #1 component of landfills?

Great Balls Of Fire–Fireball Streaks Across Southern Skies

In Ukraine, fiery objects streaking across the sky spell death and destruction in the form of manmade weapons. But natural beauty can also whiz by overhead in the form of meteors producing shooting stars as they disintegrate. A fireball from space recently zoomed above several southern states in the U.S. Great balls of fire!

While I’d describe spotting such light in the sky as beautiful or spectacular, scientists have more formal names for this phenomenon. And the name depends on where the object is. If the object is aloft, then it’s a meteor. It becomes a meteorite when a piece of debris from outer space survives passage through the atmosphere to reach the surface of a planet or moon. Obviously, I’m not a scientist, but the name meteorOUCH seems more fitting to something that crashes into the ground at high speed.

A dazzling fireball was seen in three states–Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas–in the early morning of April 27th. Numerous eyewitnesses reported the incident according to NASA Meteor Watch. The fireball Southerners spotted was initially reported to be traveling at 55,000 mph but was subsequently reduced to a mere 35,000 mph. Yes, that’s three zeroes after either a 55 or a 35. Yikes! Isn’t that speeding?

Meteors are referred to as fireballs when they appear brighter than Venus. This particular meteor appeared ten times brighter than a full moon at its peak. In fact, satellites picked up several bright flashes from the fireball. Cue music: “I wear my sunglasses at night!”

Not only was the recent meteor bright, but it generated energy equivalent to three tons of TNT. Cover your ears! Per reports, more people heard the meteor than saw it. The energy emitted rattled houses in Mississippi before the fireball ultimately disintegrated 34 miles over a swampy area north of Minorca, Louisiana.

NASA confirmed fragments found in Mississippi were indeed meteorites. For a picture of one such fragment, check out https://www.facebook.com/NASAMeteorWatch. And, yes, the fragment is black. I’d imagine being part of a fireball results in charring. While meteorites resemble Earth rocks, they have a burned exterior that can appear shiny.

Usually less than 5% of a meteor ever makes it to the ground. Most of it disintegrates when it enters the Earth’s atmosphere. Factors such as friction, chemical reactions, and pressure cause the meteor to heat up and radiate energy, turning it into a fireball. Resistance or drag of the air makes it very hot. The object disintegrates as the pressure exceeds the strength of the meteor, resulting in a bright flare. This lighted trail of vaporized material in the Earth’s atmosphere is called a “shooting star.”

Over 50,000 meteorites have been found on Earth. They usually range in size from a pebble to a fist. Sometimes their crashing into the Earth leaves an impact crater. Approximately 190 such craters dot our planet, including the Barrington Meteor Crater in Arizona which measures 0.6 miles across. Watch out below!

And finding a meteorite can lead to some interesting results. Historians indicate that the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, possibly originated from the observation and recovery of a meteorite. The discoverers believed the meteorite had fallen to Earth from Jupiter. No, not Jupiter the planet, but Jupiter the principal Roman deity.

Ancient history is part and parcel of meteorites. These objects from space represent the original, diverse materials that formed planets billions of years ago. So, holding a meteorite is like holding ancient history in your hands.

The majority of meteorites which fall to Earth are made of stone. The other two types of meteorites are iron and stony-iron. And it’s not just raindrops which keep falling on our heads. Scientists estimate some 48.5 TONS of meteorite material falls to earth EACH DAY. This amount seems more reasonable given NASA’s indication that several meteors PER HOUR can be seen ANY night. Since most meteors originate from shattered asteroids we can blame a pain in the asteroid for a heavenly night light show.

But being bonked on the head by a falling meteorite isn’t the only danger one can face as the Russians learned in 2013. A house-sized brilliant fireball lit up the skies over Chelyabinsk back then and blew up 14 miles above the ground. The blast equated to about 440,000 tons of TNT and generated shock waves powerful enough to blow out windows over a 200 square mile area. That’s a lot of glass to pick up!

While heavenly light displays cause wonder, meteors can also be destructive with shock waves and impact craters. But it’s not man’s fault when these naturally occurring space objects streak across the sky. On the other head, man-made objects which streak across the sky, such as is currently happening in Ukraine, are intentionally sent to wreak havoc from above. Let’s control what we can and stop killing one another. Instead, let’s all peacefully enjoy the night sky which may include a view of a brilliant fireball producing amazement not terror.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Have you ever spotted a meteor in the night sky? How would it feel to hold a meteorite made of material billions of years old? Is it disconcerting to realize how much debris actually falls to Earth from space on a daily basis? What would you do if you found a meteorite?

Offshore Accounts Not Off The IRS’ Radar

Money can be deposited in an offshore account, but stashing it outside the country won’t get it off the IRS’ radar. Out of sight is NOT out of Uncle Sam’s mind. In fact, the IRS has intensified its efforts targeting offshore issues in recent years because hiding money and assets in unreported offshore accounts is now a top tax scam.

A high profile case involving such enforcement activities is currently in the news. The Department of Justice (DOJ) is suing Paul Manafort, President Trump’s one-time campaign chairman, for approximately $3 million dollars. What did Manafort do? Well, actually, it’s what Manafort DIDN’T do that got him in hot water with the IRS. So the DOJ complaint alleges, Mr. Manafort failed to report interest received on money he deposited in foreign back accounts.

Interestingly, Ukraine is the source of the money Manafort deposited overseas. His income from consulting work with that country was placed in bank accounts in Cyprus, the U.K., and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Oops! That sounds like a pretty big oversight. Forgetting to list one foreign bank account might possibly be believable, but twenty accounts in three different countries? The DOJ isn’t buying that story, and neither am I.

So what is an “offshore account?” It’s an account held with a bank existing in a foreign country. Offshore locations are generally, but not always, island nations. Nevertheless, landlocked countries are also popular offshore financial centers. Think Switzerland–it’s neutral and eager to receive your foreign money.

Financial institutions which are “offshore” provide financial services to non-residents. But why would an individual go to the trouble of depositing money in a foreign location? Three reasons can be offered for doing so. First, offshoring provides privacy and confidentiality. The Swiss, in particular, are known for their strict privacy laws which date back 300 years. Going offshore is common for high net worth individuals (HNWI’s) who are likely to be high profile and don’t want their local paparazzi snapping photos of them filling out a bank deposit slip with an outrageous number of zeroes on it.

Taxes are a second reason for opening a foreign bank account. Offshore accounts (“OA’s”) exist in known tax havens. Countries which are tax haven offers foreigners very low tax liability in a politically and economically stable setting. Depositors there seek to avoid or evade taxes in their home country which has different, and more taxing (pun intended), tax regulations. While OA’s can be used for illicit purposes such as money laundering, fraud, and tax evasion, such as account is not itself illegal.

Another plus for utilizing these accounts is their foreign location. This situation makes it more difficult for depositors’ assets to be seized by their home country. But difficult does not equate with impossible.

Uncle Sam is on to tax avoidance/evasion schemes using foreign bank accounts. To counteract them, the U.S. took the most logical step–it passed a law. The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, familiarly known as FATCA, was signed into law by President Obama in 2010 and requires U.S. citizens to report foreign income and assets to the IRS. Failure to do so can result in civil penalties of up to $10,000 and possible criminal prosecution. Problem solved, right? Well, it didn’t prompt Manafort to disclose his offshore holdings…

The U.S. government is also attacking the problem from another direction. It has focused on getting offshore financial centers to report the information on OA’s. This strategy seems to have been a bit more successful than relying on the honesty of account holders who are U.S. citizens. According to OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 100 countries automatically shared information on OA’s with taxing authorities in 2019.

Use of foreign bank accounts for tax avoidance is a worldwide problem. Most countries now require foreign holdings to be reported. Increasing calls have been made for offshore financial centers to become more transparent with global tax authorities. Accordingly, Swiss bankers no longer have sealed lips on their account holders’ behalf. James Bond is, no doubt, heartbroken at this change in banking practice. He famously remarked in 1999’s “The World Is Not Enough,” “If you can’t trust a Swiss banker, what’s the world come to?”

Back in what 007 would consider the good old days, Swiss bank accounts were identified by a number rather than the account holder’s name, thus keeping his identity anonymous. Today, however, Swiss banks must identify the ultimate account owner and automatically send client information to the foreign tax authorities in compliance with FATCA.

Not being a HNWI, I’ve never needed to open an OA. But, if I were going to open one, where would I go? The Caribbean offers some of the most popular tax havens. That’s a win-win situation. You can take care of financial business and then lounge on the beach with a fruity adult beverage.

The Cayman Islands is a top choice for opening an OA. Why? This tiny (only 102 square miles total) British Overseas Territory with a population of around 60,000 holds approximately 75% of the world’s offshore funds. Around $674 billion (that’s billion with a “b”) of those holding are U.S. funds. International financial and banking services make up 55% of the country’s economy. While small in size, the Caymans Islands is the sixth largest financial center in the world. Why is it so popular? It imposes NO direct taxation. There’s no capital gains, no payroll tax, no income tax, etc.

Originally, an OA was beneficial to HNWI’s. But with “progress,” all countries are now basically linked. So money deposited in foreign accounts will likely eventually be discovered. Swiss bankers have looser lips under current law, and global taxing authorities are aggressively searching for money outside their country. With only a domestic account here where I live, I don’t worry about being on the IRS’ radar for hidden assets. Paul Manafort though? He should be very worried.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Does an offshore account have a negative connotation? How do you feel about the IRS reaching out to foreign countries to check on U.S. citizens’ financial activities? Where would you open an OA if you were going to do so?