What Happens When Politicians Get Creative

Sure, politics can seem like little more than a popularity contest where participants frequently promise more than they can deliver. But in a world beset by life-or-death challenges ranging from COVID-19 and climate change to sectarian violence and hunger, some leaders are trying something different.

In today’s Daily Dose, we’re looking at the innovative steps political leaders around the world are taking to try to fundamentally reset the destinies of their nations — from a Caribbean prime minister who’s building a republic out of a former colony to a Kosovar mayor bridging ethnic tensions with language and culture.

You might not agree with everything they’re trying. And it’s likely not all of these initiatives will succeed. But the world needs bold, new ideas, and these officials are leading the way.

HUNGER

Seeds of Change

The island nation of Singapore brings in more than 90% of its food from abroad, and that’s not normally a problem. But the pandemic’s disruption of global supply chains forced the wealthy city-state to recognize the food insecurity it could face in future crises. Now, seeds of change are sprouting under an initiative led by the country’s National Parks Board and former Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee. Called Gardening With Edibles, the program involves sending out seeds to residents so they can grow fruits and vegetables on their tiny balconies. It’s part of the country’s wider “30 by 30” initiative: to meet 30% of its nutritional needs domestically by 2030. As of March, the initiative had sent out nearly half a million seed packets.

The Masterclass

To make sure legions of new amateur gardeners aren’t left guessing, Singapore’s National Parks Board has released instructional videos on how to sow and harvest the produce. Those who sign up don’t get to choose their seeds, but the plants were selected to reflect the ingredients in traditional Singaporean dishes, like stir-fried cai xin and kangkong belacan. Part of the rollout also means doubling the number of community gardens by 2030, since growing vegetables on a windowsill or balcony can get cramped, and space on the island is at a premium. Additionally, Lee’s pushing an initiative aimed at getting developers of residential apartments to increase green spaces, like rooftop gardens and wall landscaping — providing the additional benefit of cooling ambient temperatures.

Invisible Enemy

While still in its infancy as an independent nation, Bangladesh suffered a major famine in 1974, when an estimated 1.5 million people died. Today, the country that former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once derisively dismissed as a “basket case” has emerged as a success story against food shortages. Between 2000 and 2015, it cut chronic hunger by half, though a sixth of the country’s population remains food insecure. Now, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is focusing on the next big threat to food supplies: antimicrobial resistance, (AMR), in which microbes, by evolving over time, no longer respond to medicine. She’s warning the world of the risk of future pandemics because of this phenomenon and the threat it poses to food security. Will richer nations listen before it’s too late?

Fishing for Nutrition

It’s not just about having enough food; it’s also about having the right nutrition. Hasina has been encouraging Bangladesh’s youth to take to fish farming. Not only is it an opportunity for self-employment, she has said, but it’s a way of locally shoring up her nation’s food supply. Her government is reportedly focusing on increasing fish production while providing food for farmers and fisherfolk to make sure they don’t fall into financial hardship, as well as organizing collateral-free loans for those looking to set up a fishing enterprise.

Woman watering lavendar plant with watering can

POLICY AND ECONOMY

The Crypto King

Creative? Yes. Effective? Only time will tell. El Salvador has made headlines after burgeoning authoritarian and down-with-the-kids President Nayib Bukele made Bitcoin legal tender in the Central American country. It’s been permitted since early September. But that doesn’t mean all businesses are obligated to accept it as payment. Bukele’s vision is a libertarian dream: He has argued that he wants citizens to have access to a market-governed currency instead of being reliant on the U.S. dollar, which is also legal tender. And at least in theory, it should be easier and safer to access money virtually.

Rollout Rumbles

But Bukele’s bold move hasn’t had the smoothest launch. Bitcoin initially took a beating in the markets soon after formally becoming legal tender on Sept. 7, before recovering. There’s also been significant pushback from Salvadorans, many of whom are concerned about Bitcoin’s volatility — it’s a fickle friend — and the potential for it to be used in money laundering. The state launched an official digital wallet, called Chivo, with $30 worth of bitcoin preloaded, but since its introduction, it’s been beset by glitches. Some users didn’t get the $30 and couldn’t use ATMs or even access their wallet. And now the president is urging Salvadorans to “buy the dips,”  by joining him in currency speculation. Sink or swim, the outcome of this experiment could mean big changes for a country in which 70% of the population doesn’t have access to banking services.

The Republican

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle aren’t the only ones severing ties with the British monarchy. Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley, elected in 2018, has announced her intention to remove the queen as the island nation’s head of state to make the country a republic by Nov. 30. Speaking to Vogue, Mottley described the decision as “accepting responsibility for who we are,” rather than any ill will toward the royal family. The next few months will see the crystallization of a new constitution, as current Governor-General Dame Sandra Mason is poised to become Barbados’ first local head of state as president.

Marriage Equality by Popular Vote

But Mottley’s a change-maker in more ways than one: She also has marriage equality in her sights. She’s spoken about how, as “A country that was forged in its modern incarnation in the experiment of racism and discrimination,” Barbados can’t now willingly discriminate against its own citizens. Her plan includes first making same-sex civil unions legal, then holding a referendum on same-sex marriage. LGBTQ groups and activists aren’t that confident, however, saying that building equality would take a lot more than civil unions and warning that it may be too early for a marriage referendum.

Woman watering lavendar plant with watering can

INTEGRATION AND EQUALITY

Breaking the Language Barrier

As an ethnic Albanian, Qëndron Kastrati, the mayor of Kamenica, Kosovo, doesn’t speak much Serbian. But along with a growing number of others in his area, he’s learning — thanks to language exchange classes his municipality set up to bridge ethnic and cultural tensions. The vast majority of Kosovars are Albanian, following violent conflict in the late 1990s that prompted many Serbs to leave. Those who remain live largely separate from Albanians, and language and culture barriers perpetuate historic rifts. The course includes visits to sites of religious and cultural importance for both sides. More than 100 people have joined the program, and Kastrati hopes to expand its reach, while other towns are borrowing his idea.

Taking on Teachers

But Kastrati’s ideas are also controversial. The first-time mayor has set out to reform education in his city, where some schools only had one pupil, and ordered 19 schools shut in 2019. Teachers and parents clapped back, pointedly attending the closed schools. Kastrati has nonetheless stood his ground. And last year, then-Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti — who had earlier criticized the Kamenica mayor — praised him for pushing for education reforms even as he urged him to seek a compromise with his critics.

Freedom Zone Activist

It takes guts to be an openly gay, atheist, feminist and pro-European politician in an increasingly conservative Poland ruled by the right-wing Law and Justice party. Yet it’s a stand that Robert Biedroń has been taking for years. A member of the European Parliament and a candidate in his nation’s 2020 presidential election, Biedroń advocated for a project to fight back against Poland’s proliferating “LGBTQ-free zones,” where local authorities have, since 2019, vowed to prevent pro-LGBTQ policies. Biedroń tabled a resolution before the European Parliament arguing that the bloc instead become an “LGBTQ freedom” zone. The resolution passed, though some regions have opted to lose their EU funding rather than comply.

Red-Haired Solidarity

In March, Biedroń appeared on one of Poland’s biggest current affairs TV shows with dyed tomato-red hair. “This is my manifesto” he said, explaining that it’s his sign of support for young people dealing with a lack of access to sex education. Poland’s social history is interwoven with a lack of sex education, leading to perpetuated stereotypes, homophobia, inequality for women and minorities — and increasingly, physical violence. Biedroń said that from that day and for the foreseeable future, he will have red hair in solidarity with “this great, goddamn injustice” that mostly affects children.

Mental Health, With a Side of Psychedelics?

Sleep, exercise, therapy and antidepressants are some of the top remedies prescribed to assist the 1 in 4 Americans who struggle with mental health issues. But while these are all critical and effective tools, are they enough? After all, suicide is among the leading causes of death in the U.S., especially among the younger population.  

As we mark Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, perhaps it’s time we tried something different. How about magic mushrooms? Or LSD? Oregon made history in November when it legalized psilocybin in supervised, licensed facilities. Texas and Connecticut have recently done the same, and California is hot on their heels. Then there’s the growing evidence of MDMA’s efficacy in treating PTSD after it was given the green light for research in 2016. 

In today’s Daily Dose, you’ll meet a man advocating for psychedelic therapy, see how psychedelics could upend medical treatment and learn how they could become a beacon of hope for veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

THE BEGINNING, MIDDLE AND FUTURE

A (Very) Short History

Natural psychedelics have been around forever, and for centuries they have been used by Indigenous cultures. In 1938, while isolating compounds from a species of fungus, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann synthesized LSD — revisiting it in 1943, he accidentally absorbed it and experienced its effects. After coming to prominence in the West in the 1950s, LSD underwent a hippie makeover by the ’60s, — and research consequently ground to a halt. Now, following decades of stigma, criminalization and appropriation, we’re again seeing a bloom of innovation in psychedelic research. Studies and clinical trials, beginning at Johns Hopkins University, the first institute in the U.S. to get permission to restart psychedelics research, are showing how psychoactive compounds can support treatment plans for depression, addiction and PTSD.

The MDMA-PTSD Connection

PTSD is a complex condition, and one we now know is not limited to war zones. In the U.S., it disproportionately affects women, the Latino community, African Americans and Native Americans. One of the most common Food and Drug Administration-approved treatments for PTSD is SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) therapy — antidepressants like Zoloft and Paxil. This class of drugs is effective in 40% to 60% of cases, but it also has a number of common and potentially unpleasant side effects. A study published in May in the medical journal Nature Medicine has another promising suggestion: MDMA. Not only does it help our brains release serotonin, but it also helps “enhance fear memory extinction” and “modulate fear memory reconsolidation.” The study called it “highly efficacious” in treating severe PTSD and a “potential breakthrough.”

Ketamine: Not Just for Horses

Deployed as an FDA-approved battlefield anesthetic during the Vietnam War, today “Special K” is better known as a party drug (or a horse tranquilizer) that’s especially popular in the U.K. and increasingly in Southeast Asia. Now, however, medical research is revealing that ketamine, popular for its dreamlike trippiness, could serve as a new way to treat depression. As with MDMA, it’s not yet clear how its biochemical mechanism works — but that’s also often true of conventional antidepressants. Still, ketamine does seem to be highly effective in rapidly decreasing suicidal thoughts and aiding severe treatment-resistant depression and anxiety, while conventional treatments can often take weeks or months to start working. Since at least 2013, it’s already been used to help people with severe depression.

Magical (Mushroom) Realism

Psilocybin — the hallucinogenic substance in “magic mushrooms” — dates back 3,000 years, when it was an important part of shamanic ceremonies in Mexico. More recently, it made headlines in May after actor Kristen Bell spoke about using it to treat her depression. Based on results of clinical trials, psilocybin is considered by some to be the safest of the psychedelics as it has low toxicity, almost no lasting side effects and is effective in the treatment of alcoholism and treatment-resistant depression. It’s not difficult to see why magic mushrooms have been considered sacred for centuries, given their ability to help the user alter their perspective. But Western medicine has some catching up to do — and clinical trials are increasingly promising.

psy people

THE TRAILBLAZERS

The Teacher

French-born psychologist Françoise Bourzat has spent three decades collaborating with Indigenous healers in Mexico to help bridge the gap between Western psychology and psychoactive experiences. Having developed close relationships with the Mazatec people and with their permission, Bourzat helps train new professional “guides” in psychedelic-assisted therapy via the Center for Consciousness Medicine in California, which she co-founded in 2020. The center’s members trace their lineage back, via apprenticeships and teaching, to the mushroom healers and ceremonialists Maria Sabina Estrada and Regina Carrera Calvo, who were active in the 1950s and 1960s. The center’s mission is to develop safe, effective and legal ways to use psychedelics medically while keeping Indigenous knowledge at the core of its teaching practices.

The Racial Trauma Researcher

Monnica T. Williams is a rare Black researcher in the field of psychedelic therapy. An associate professor in psychology at the University of Ottawa, Williams is trying to bridge the racial gap in the subject. She has done extensive research on and spoken about how psychedelics can help ease racial trauma — and how people of color have been left out of the narrative and clinical trials. Williams was once asked by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) for advice about how it could diversify its research. Her response was to jump into the field herself. 

The Psychiatrist Suing the DEA

Psychiatrist Sunil Kumar Aggarwal, a Seattle-based palliative care specialist, is leading a landmark case against the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. He’s seeking access to psilocybin for two of his terminally ill cancer patients. “It is a first-of-its-kind lawsuit,” said Kathryn Tucker, the lead attorney on the case. After the DEA rejected Aggarwal’s 2020 application to obtain the drug under the Right to Try (RTT) Act, he, Tucker and others filed the suit. “Our focus is on maximizing quality of life at all costs,” Aggarwal has said. The first oral argument in the case took place at the beginning of September, where much of the discussion centered on whether or not the DEA could even provide an RTT avenue. A ruling could be made by the end of the year.

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WHERE ARE WE NOW?

Safety Concerns

One thing psychoactive compounds have going for them in the current early stages of research is their relative safety — low or no toxicity and low addiction risk — when compared to many conventional prescription drugs. But mind-altering substances are not for everyone. Among the risks associated with psychedelic use are psychosis, long-term mental health issues and hallucinogen persisting perception disorder — which causes frequent, unsettling flashbacks. However, researchers in the field maintain that many worrisome side effects arise chiefly due to contaminated drugs and a lack of formal, professional supervision of users that would change if regulated adequately. The bottom line? Things are moving fast, but it’s still early days. 

A 50-Year Void?

Psychedelic treatment for mental health conditions isn’t exactly a concept that’s beloved by the medical research world. It’s underfunded and soaked in decades of stigma. In March, the Australian government earmarked about $11 million for clinical trials into the effectiveness of MDMA and psilocybin. Australia, however, has also delayed the long-awaited reclassification of MDMA and psilocybin as controlled medicine (they are currently categorized as prohibited substances). Speaking to The Guardian, Dr. Arthur Christopoulos of Monash University bemoans the lack of pathbreaking treatment options for the last 50 years. “We have had enormous advances in the destigmatization of mental illness . . . but there have been effectively zero new additional therapies,” he said. 

Baby Steps

Some parts of the world, however, are seeing forward movement. Come 2023, residents of Oregon may be able to access psilocybin treatment in purpose-built “psilocybin service centers.” Last year, the Oregon Health Authority set up the Oregon Psilocybin Advisory Board to make recommendations on “research on the safety and efficacy of psilocybin in treating mental health conditions” for anyone 21 or older. Known as Measure 109 on the ballot, the proposal was tabled last year by physicians impressed by the body of research showing the benefits of psilocybin therapy in people with addiction and mental health issues. A two-year development period began in January to work out licensing, regulation and implementation. But it’ll be at least January 2023 before the OHA opens up applications for manufacture or provision of services.

Love and Loss in the COVID-19 Era

Like many, I’ve lost someone I loved during the COVID-19 pandemic. And even though I got to attend a service, I still felt they’d be back when the pandemic was over and when life went back to “normal.” The one constant of grief is that everyone experiences it differently. In more familiar times, we had rules and rituals to help us say goodbye. But now, amid a pandemic that has claimed almost 4.5 million lives globally, many of us are at a loss. For those unable to gather or comfort each other, it has been even more difficult to find closure.

Marking National Grief Awareness Day, today’s Daily Dose looks at how to grieve when we can’t congregate, the importance of closure and what we can learn from cultures around the world when it comes to saying goodbye.

LOSS AND GRIEVING IN A PANDEMIC

No Outlet for Pain

After three marriages, Mandy Nicholson, 56, from Northumberland, England, said never again. But then in 2013, she met Gary, who nine years earlier had undergone a double-lung transplant, and was “so different to anyone I have ever met,” she tells OZY. She decided to give marriage another shot. When Gary, who had cystic fibrosis, suddenly lost his short-term memory one night last summer, it took 13 hours to get a doctor to call her back and he was then taken to a hospital. “He was a high-risk patient with no immune system,” so COVID-19 was a real threat to him. The hospital’s COVID-19 visiting restrictions meant she missed the last month of his life. Then she got a call that she should come in to say goodbye. “We were allowed to have eight people at his funeral, and he had hundreds of friends.” They were hard choices. “I found it hard to comprehend that I should send him off in such an insignificant way,” she says. “It felt like I had been robbed of the goodbye and comfort that I needed.”

Sharing Stories

Sophia Husbands, 42 and based in London, met her best friend and future travel buddy on a plane to Germany some five years ago. She was heading off on a business trip, and her friend was returning from the U.S. “We both were sitting in the same aisle. I remember looking at her scarf and thinking, ‘What a chic woman she is,’” Husbands tells OZY. They clicked in that moment, she says. Her friend recently died unexpectedly in Germany. Travel restrictions, however, meant Husbands couldn’t attend the funeral. It was difficult for her to miss it, she says, but she made a conscious effort to reach out to other people who would be there. She sent a letter that was placed on the coffin and had a rose quartz ring designed with a butterfly to commemorate her friend. She wears it often: “So that way, she stays with me.”

The Long Goodbye

There has been a deluge of guides and articles written in the past year and a half on how to manage the lack of closure that can result from losing a loved one during the pandemic. Some researchers have even suggested that the circumstances around deaths during the pandemic might lead to a higher incidence of prolonged grief disorder globally. COVID-19 has caused “disruptions” in how we accept what we think of as a “good death,” Liv Nilsson Stutz, professor of bioarchaeology at Sweden’s Linnaeus University, tells OZY. “Many people had to die alone in the hospitals — isolated. This in itself became traumatic for the survivors.” These deaths are tragic and feel unnecessary. Mourners could no longer pay tribute and comfort each other, which can inhibit the process of moving on, Nilsson Stutz says.

Fear for the Future

“The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving,” David Kessler, an expert on loss, told the Harvard Business Review. Even though we know the pandemic is temporary, it doesn’t feel that way, because there’s still so much uncertainty ahead of us, he said. Yet there’s a lot of strength to be found in naming our experience as grief, so that we can feel it properly. Knowing and experiencing a fear like this, without being able to identify it, “breaks our sense of safety.” Kessler’s suggestion for coping? Focus on things that are within our control and take charge of the narrative in our heads, even if it feels forced — and don’t imagine the worst-case scenario.

Tokyo skyline at Night

THE MEANING OF MOURNING

Unresolved Grief

COVID-19 has been responsible for the deaths of about 635,000 people in the U.S. alone. In March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraged Americans to hold only small family memorial ceremonies and to livestream those services for others. Across the Atlantic in Italy, funerals were banned entirely for two months last year, up until early May. When we’re denied the very traditions specifically created to help us cope with the death of a loved one, it can be “very problematic,” Nilsson Stutz of Linneaus University says. “We often do not understand just how important and meaningful these rituals are until we are not able to perform them.” It can result in unresolved grief, a lack of closure and the feeling that we can no longer control the traditions around death, which can be frightening, she adds.

The Jazz Funeral Lives On

If tradition and ritual help us grieve, then nowhere is that felt more keenly than in New Orleans. With millions of Americans now vaccinated, traditional public gatherings marking someone’s passing have been allowed to take place once again. One of the most famous in the country, jazz funerals — a brass band and community procession to mourn and celebrate the dead — returned to New Orleans in May when “second line” parades were once again permitted. This parade’s roots lie in the musical funerals common in the American South during the 1800s, passed on from West African tradition, and they have been an integral part of Black culture in the Big Easy ever since. Typically, a jazz funeral procession begins at a church or home, and musicians join the walking mourners along the route to the cemetery playing slow, sorrowful dirges. On the way back, the mood changes to a celebration of life, and the streets are filled with music and dancing.

Not Over the Bridge Yet

For as long as residents in the Ringsend suburb of Dublin can remember, when a local dies, their coffin is carried over the Ringsend Bridge by pallbearers from the community — usually dock workers — who oftentimes will organize the remembrance to take the burden off the grieving family. The small bridge connects the area to the rest of the city, and the coffin is carried to St. Patrick’s church nearby. Traffic stops for about 10 minutes while this happens. “It puts you in touch with people, it gives you a heart,” pallbearer Eoin Dunne tells the Dublin Inquirer.​​ “I think it’s comforting for some nearing their end to think of their family and friends carrying them on their way,” Ringsender Orla Murphy tells OZY. Fewer people have been allowed to take part in accompanying the coffin on its church-bound journey during the pandemic, but the tradition continued. “Everyone in the community wanted to keep this tradition going,” Murphy says.

Tokyo skyline at Night

GRIEVING, PAST AND FUTURE

The Town That Branden Built

With the number of funeral attendees restricted in many countries around the world, some video game fans have turned to their hobby to find a way to memorialize their loved ones. Branden Perez, a 23-year-old New Yorker who died from coronavirus complications in April 2020, was given a ceremony his friends and family thought was perfect for him. Due to strict local restrictions against meeting in person at the time, his family and friends provided him with a goodbye via Animal Crossing, the popular Nintendo game. In the game, players take the form of cute animals and play as avatars in a virtual world known for its peaceful, conflict-free society. Speaking to Fox News at the time, Perez’s cousin Pricilla said her big family was able to partake in the online “ceremony” in a town that Branden himself had built in the game. “It made us so happy to have that for Branden, it’s a place we can always go back to, to be with him.”

The Wall of Grief

In India, the dead won’t be forgotten. Established by The Reporters’ Collective, the Wall of Grief is an online project in India commemorating those who’ve succumbed to COVID-19. With India currently recording the second-highest COVID-19 death toll in the world, the aim of the project is to visualize the scale of the tragedy and provide a cathartic space to people adjusting to lives without their loved ones. The memorial consists of an interactive wall of names, which highlights the age, location, occupation and date of death of each person. The initiative also serves as a resource for journalists, researchers and activists.

Klara and the Son?

Spoiler alert: In Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Klara and the Sun, the author focuses on the idea of artificial intelligence and robotics as a way to recreate, and thus extend, the lives of loved ones, however inaccurately. The book raises some interesting real-world quandaries, such as: Is using voice, memory or physical attributes collected from those who have died to create a pseudo-version of them ethical? Writer and bot developer James Vlahos details how he could still have conversations — of a sort — with his father after he had died. Vlahos, who lives in California, created what he calls a “Dadbot” by recording extensive conversations with his father before he passed away, and creating a chatbot — software that communicates via text in lieu of a real person — based on his father’s voice and memories. Would you want a bot to speak to after a family member has passed?

Vocal Opposition

But sometimes, technology can take commemorating someone too far. When a documentary about chef and writer Anthony Bourdain was released in July, viewers and fans of the beloved New Yorker had mixed feelings. Bourdain was admired for his direct yet insightful approach to food and travel and for his impressive use of swear words. But the spoken words in the film — some voiceover sections of Bourdain speaking, or reading — were not technically his own. Director Morgan Neville used voice-cloning software to lend Bourdain’s voice to the production, which caused many to question the ethics behind the move. Similarly, recently announced posthumous hologram tours by Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse have been met with controversy. To be sure, there’s a fine line between remembering our loved ones and overdoing it. And that’s why so many of us are yearning for the old ways of saying goodbye.