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Senator Dumped Up to $1.7 Million of Stock After Reassuring Public About Coronavirus Preparedness

Soon after he offered public assurances that the government was ready to battle the coronavirus, the powerful chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, sold off a significant percentage of his stocks, unloading between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his holdings on Feb. 13 in 33 separate transactions.

As the head of the intelligence committee, Burr, a North Carolina Republican, has access to the government’s most highly classified information about threats to America’s security. His committee was receiving daily coronavirus briefings around this time, according to a Reuters story.

A week after Burr’s sales, the stock market began a sharp decline and has lost about 30% since.

On Thursday, Burr came under fire after NPR obtained a secret recording from Feb. 27, in which the lawmaker gave a VIP group at an exclusive social club a much more dire preview of the economic impact of the coronavirus than what he had told the public.

“Senator Burr filed a financial disclosure form for personal transactions made several weeks before the U.S. and financial markets showed signs of volatility due to the growing coronavirus outbreak,” his spokesperson said. “As the situation continues to evolve daily, he has been deeply concerned by the steep and sudden toll this pandemic is taking on our economy.”

Burr is not a particularly wealthy member of the Senate: Roll Call estimated his net worth at $1.7 million in 2018, indicating that the February sales significantly shaped his financial fortunes and spared him from some of the pain that many Americans are now facing.

He was one of the authors of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, which shapes the nation’s response to public health threats like the coronavirus. Burr’s office did not respond to requests for comment about what sort of briefing materials, if any, on the coronavirus threat Burr may have seen as chair of the intelligence committee before his selling spree.

According to the NPR report, Burr told attendees of the luncheon held at the Capitol Hill Club: “There’s one thing that I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history … It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”

He warned that companies might have to curtail their employees’ travel, that schools could close and that the military might be mobilized to compensate for overwhelmed hospitals.

The luncheon was organized by the Tar Heel Circle, a club for businesses and organizations in North Carolina that are charged up to $10,000 for membership and are promised “interaction with top leaders and staff from Congress, the administration, and the private sector.”

Burr’s public comments had been considerably less dire. In a Feb. 7 op-ed that he co-authored with another senator, he assured the public that “the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus.” He wrote, “No matter the outbreak or threat, Congress and the federal government have been vigilant in identifying gaps in its readiness efforts and improving its response capabilities.”

Members of Congress are required by law to disclose their securities transactions.

Burr was one of just three senators who in 2012 opposed the bill that explicitly barred lawmakers and their staff from using nonpublic information for trades and required regular disclosure of those trades. In opposing the bill, Burr argued at the time that insider trading laws already applied to members of Congress. President Barack Obama signed the bill, known as the STOCK Act, that year.

Stock transactions of lawmakers are reported in ranges. Burr’s Feb. 13 selling spree was his largest stock selling day of at least the past 14 months, according to a ProPublica review of Senate records. Unlike his typical disclosure reports, which are a mix of sales and purchases, all of the transactions were sales.

His biggest sales included companies that are among the most vulnerable to an economic slowdown. He dumped up to $150,000 worth of shares of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, a chain based in the United States that has lost two-thirds of its value. And he sold up to $100,000 of shares of Extended Stay America, an economy hospitality chain. Shares of that company are now worth less than half of what they did at the time Burr sold.

The assets come from accounts that are held by Burr, belong to his spouse or are jointly held.

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These Are the 51 GOP Senators Who Just Voted Against Expanding Paid Sick Leave to Protect Americans

Republican senators on Wednesday teamed up to kill an amendment introduced by Democratic Sen. Patty Murray that would have expanded paid sick leave to millions of U.S. workers left out of a bipartisan coronavirus relief package.

Every Republican present for the vote, 51 in total, voted against the amendment while every Senate Democrat voted in favor.

Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) were the only senators who did not vote on the amendment, which would have guaranteed two weeks of paid sick leave as well as 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave to all U.S. employees and independent contractors.

“[Fifty one] Republican senators just voted against an amendment… that would have expanded paid leave to millions of Americans left out of the package,” tweeted progressive advocacy group Indivisible. “Let that sink in.”

“If one of these Republicans (or two!) is your senator,” the group added, “call their office right now and tell them you saw their vote and you won’t forget that they voted against the Murray amendment to expand paid sick leave to millions of Americans: 1-855-980-2355.”

The full coronavirus relief package, formally known as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, easily passed the Senate Wednesday afternoon by a vote of 90-8, and President Donald Trump subsequently signed the measure into law.

While calling it an urgently needed first step, progressives criticized the legislation as woefully inadequate given that it only provides paid sick leave to about 20% of the U.S. private sector workforce while excluding workers at companies with more than 500 employees.

In a speech on the Senate floor ahead of Wednesday’s vote, Murray pitched her amendment as a “commonsense step” that would be good for both workers and small businesses. The amendment was a modified version of the PAID Leave Act, which Murray introduced Tuesday alongside Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.).

“It’s the right thing to do for our economy and for public health—and we should get it done as soon as possible,” Murray said. “If we don’t do this, if we let this opportunity slip by, we are sending a message to scared people across the country that we still are not willing to acknowledge the scope of the tragedy we are seeing unfold.”

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Elections May Have to Change During the Coronavirus Outbreak. Here’s How.

As the novel coronavirus spreads through the U.S. during presidential primaries, election and government officials are scrambling to figure out how to allow voters to cast their ballots safely ― or postpone primaries altogether. Managing in-person voting during an unprecedented pandemic has forced authorities to overcome new virus-related hurdles: providing sufficient cleaning supplies to polling places, moving polling places out of nursing homes and ensuring there are enough poll workers.

There’s also a huge open question: If the virus continues to infect large numbers of people, how can the general election take place safely this fall?

Just this week, Arizona, Florida and Illinois held primaries, and Ohio postponed its election at the last minute, causing widespread confusion. Several states with upcoming primaries, including Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maryland, also announced they would postpone their elections. Voting rights advocates have recommended states expand early voting and access to no-excuse absentee voting, among other measures. One advocacy group, Common Cause, called for a delay in in-person voting for “at least the next few weeks.”

Given the daunting logistical challenges of holding elections in the time of the coronavirus, we had a lot of questions for Rick Hasen, an election law expert and a law and political science professor at the University of California, Irvine. He’s the author of several books on elections, including “Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust and the Threat to American Democracy,” published this year. This interview has been condensed for clarity.

So what happened during voting in four states this week?

Well, we only had voting in three of those four states [that were scheduled to vote] because in one state at the last minute, the governor and Ohio election officials essentially postponed the primary, despite a court saying that the primary should not be postponed. In other states where the voting actually took place, we saw a number of problems, including missing poll workers, last-minute people deputized as election judges, some unsanitary conditions at polling places and what will probably turn out to be a decline in in-person turnout at those elections.

How can states hold elections without being in violation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance of avoiding gatherings of more than 50 people?

Well, I’m not all that familiar with the CDC guidance, but I believe that the guidance relates to social activities. I’m not sure it relates to government activities. So a group of firefighters, for example, at a fire, there might be more people than the CDC recommends. [Editor’s note: Earlier this week, the CDC issued guidelines for large gatherings of more than 50 people, with separate guidance for workplace, first responders and polling places.] But I think a better question to ask is how can elections be conducted safely under these conditions where we need to practice social distancing? I think it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge because people queue up to vote on Election Day. People are handling the same machinery, the same surfaces. Those can’t be constantly cleaned between each voter. So it’s going to be difficult. I think this is why you’re seeing so many government officials trying to delay their primaries to a later point in time. And of course, increased use of absentee balloting can vastly increase the safety of voting at this point because you’re keeping people further away from each other, and allowing people to vote in the comfort of their own home.

What legal authority do states have to postpone elections like happened in Ohio?

So this is a state-by-state question if we’re talking about something besides the presidential election. The presidential election is set by federal statute, the date of the presidential election. So it could not be easily postponed. And there are provisions of the Constitution for what happens if the election cannot take place. The question of whether or not a state can postpone a primary is a function of what the state constitutions and state statutes say. One of the points I make in my book, “Election Meltdown,” which was written before this coronavirus crisis arose, is that many states do not have adequate Plan Bs in place to deal with questions of election emergencies, whether it’s a hurricane, a cyberattack or in this case a pandemic. So, we really need state legislatures and Congress right now to be thinking about what steps need to be taken in November to assure that as many people as possible will be able to exercise the franchise and vote.

So, on the local level, for example, who decides what changes get made on Election Day?

Again, these are state-by-state questions. Often decisions about closing polling places or making voting changes are done by county election boards. Sometimes they come from a state’s directive. Because we have such a decentralized election system in the United States, we don’t run a single election for president — we run something like 8,000 or 9,000 elections for president. Given that we have that, it’s really hard to generalize about who has authority.

I should add that until the Supreme Court’s decision in the Shelby County v. Holder case in 2013, before any polling places could be closed in a state that had a history of racial discrimination in voting, approval had to be obtained from the Department of Justice or [from] a court in Washington, D.C. That protection for voters is now gone.

When changes are made on Election Day, like they were this week, for example, how are election officials communicating those changes? How are voters supposed to find out if their polling place was moved?

So this is very problematic because often there is not adequate communication. Often this information will appear on a government website. Sometimes voters don’t learn that a polling place has moved or changed until they try and show up to vote. Another good practice is that election officials should be doing whatever they can to use a variety of methods of communication, including social media, to try to get the word out about any changes in polling place or rules. One of the things we saw earlier in Ohio was that there was tremendous confusion about whether the election was on or off. Poll workers didn’t know if they were supposed to show up until the day before. I think what we saw on Tuesday in Ohio and in other states is a good indication, for those states that still have primaries, that they better have good plans in place, including the extended use of absentee balloting. I think we’re going to see a huge increase in absentee balloting for the remaining primaries, given the dangers of going to the polling place.

How are the states protecting voting rights when changes are made? And what more should states be doing?

Some states do not have a very good record of protecting voting rights. So it is going to require the public or voting rights groups to push the states to make sure that people are not disenfranchised. I think states need to be asking themselves: How can we ensure that as many voters as possible under these difficult conditions still may be able to exercise their constitutional rights and register and vote?

And I want to underline this point about voter registration, because I think it’s getting a lot less attention in this conversation than voting itself. Many people would ordinarily be registering to vote between now and November. Under state laws, there are different cutoff times for when you can register to vote. If people have to register to vote in person, this can also create problems if there are orders to not visit government buildings, and government buildings are closed. So I think it’s very important for states, if they actually care about voting rights, to move to online voter registration if they don’t already have it. Many states have online voter registration, some don’t. But providing ways that people can exercise their constitutional rights without having to show up in person is something that should be on the minds of all election administrators around the country.

Has something like this happened before in terms of a big crisis? And if so, what did states do and what did we learn?

Well, we had voting taking place on 9/11 in New York. That was not a federal election. They were able to postpone that election and reschedule it. I think the lesson we should have learned is that it’s crucial to have a backup emergency plan in place in the event of a disruption. The closest thing is probably the voting that took place during the flu pandemic in 1918, and voting was disrupted in a number of places. Vote-by-mail was not really a thing back then. And so many people ended up being disenfranchised. There are pictures of people lined up wearing surgical masks at polling places which, you know, seems like such a strange image. But it probably won’t seem strange to us now.

What about hurricanes?

So, Florida is a state that often has problems with hurricanes occurring during voting season. They have enacted rules for dealing with voting and they do make accommodations, for example, extending the period of early voting, or allowing people to vote outside their polling place in the event of an emergency. As I detail in “Election Meltdown,” even with these rules, sometimes election administrators take matters into their own hands, such as an election administrator in one county in Florida who allowed people to vote electronically, sending in a ballot by email, which was against the rules and not part of the emergency rules.

I think it’s very problematic for election administrators, even with the best of intentions, to change voting rules, even to enfranchise voters, if it’s in violation of state law. And so this is why I think states need to be thinking now before we get to the next set of voting as to what the rules should be in the event of an emergency. So everybody’s on the same page. Because we don’t want different election administrators coming up with different rules that may or may not be fair and secure as a means of voting.

What do you think will be most affected by changes to voting regulations caused by the coronavirus? Are there some states it could affect more than others or some demographics it could affect more than others?

If we don’t make accommodations for increased vote-by-mail, I think there is a special burden that’s going to be placed on older voters who are most susceptible to having serious complications if they get this virus.

And so I think that the most important thing right now is for election officials to think about those vulnerable populations and ask what they can do to ensure that they’re not disenfranchised. We don’t know what things are going to look like now in November. I certainly hope that things are better, but we should plan as though things are not going to be better and provide the tools now, so that every eligible voter will be able to have a means of safely casting a ballot.

Given the potential impact of the virus, does the U.S. need to make changes to how it votes before November on a federal level?

I support federal legislation. I recently wrote a piece in Slate advocating that Congress pass a law requiring states that don’t currently offer no-excuse vote-by-mail to require that the states do so in November. I think Congress also needs to come up with funding. Assuming we continue to have problems, there’s going to be a flood of new vote-by-mail voters. It’s more expensive to process those ballots, and states are going to need all the help they can get in this environment. So I support folding into some of the coronavirus bills that are coming before Congress now additional funding and this mandate for states to allow this option. We also need to have protections for voters who are voting by absentee [ballot], because one of the things we know is that absentee ballots are much more likely to be tossed for noncompliance.

And also, we know that although voter fraud is very rare in this country, when election crimes do happen, they tend to happen with absentee ballots. And so we need rules to make sure that there’s no ballot tampering.

Given all of the logistics involved with vote-by-mail and the decentralized nature of our elections, is it logistically possible that we could roll out a full-scale vote-by-mail system by November?

I’m not advocating a full vote-by-mail system for November. I’m not saying we should have only vote-by-mail. I think that would be extremely difficult to do. It took the states that have moved in that direction years to get their systems in place. What I’m suggesting is that voters have the option of voting by absentee ballot. I think that is something that is doable so long as there’s enough planning and resources and we start thinking about it now.

Can the general election be postponed or canceled? Can you talk about the constitutional aspect of that?

The Constitution gives Congress the power to be setting the time of the election. Congress has done that in the statutes in order to change the election date. That statute would have to be changed. I don’t foresee that happening. That’s not really a concern I have, although I hear that a great deal.

I’m much more concerned that the federal government, or state officials, as we saw in Ohio recently, say people have to stay away from the polling places on Election Day. That would not be postponing Election Day, but that would be disenfranchising potentially millions of people. And that’s why I think we need to have an absentee ballot backup system, because if the election takes place and people can’t go to the polling places, the vote would then be either done by those who were able to vote early or by absentee before there might be some restrictions.

Or in the case of the presidential election, state legislatures might take back the power that the Constitution gives them to appoint electors to the Electoral College directly. That is, the state legislature in Pennsylvania might say, you know, we’re not going to let voters vote for president this time. We’re going to decide who gets Pennsylvania’s Electoral College votes. I think that would be profoundly anti-democratic and dangerous. I don’t want that to happen, and I don’t want the excuse to be “Well, voters can’t vote,” which is all the more reason I think we need this vote-by-mail backup system in place in as many places as possible.

There is a dispute over whether a state legislature could decide to take back the power to appoint electors directly, and whether that would have to happen through ordinary legislation signed by the governor or [being passed into] law over a veto or if it could be done by the state legislature acting unilaterally. I hope we never have to test this to find out the answer.

Rachel Glickhouse contributed reporting

You can read the original ProPublica article here

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Inside the Pro-Trump Facebook Group Where First Responders Call Coronavirus a Hoax

In a 27,000-member private Facebook group for first responders who support President Donald Trump, firefighters and paramedics have posted thousands of comments in recent weeks downplaying the coronavirus pandemic that they are responsible for helping to handle.

Posts in the group, which is called IAFF Union Firefighters for Trump and has been endorsed by Trump, scoffed at the seriousness of the virus, echoing false assertions by Trump and his allies comparing it to the seasonal flu. “Every election year has a disease,” read one meme, purporting to be written on a doctor’s office whiteboard. “This is a viral-pneumonia being hyped as The Black Plague before an election.”

As of Monday, there were 4,464 cases and 78 deaths in the U.S., according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

As confirmed cases and deaths expanded and officials began shutting down mass gatherings and public places, the posts intensified their attacks on Democrats and the media. “I believe this is all by design,” wrote a Texas firefighter whose identity was corroborated by ProPublica. “Democrats have wanted to slow down and even kill the economy. It’s the only hope they have of beating Trump. Sad and disgusting the depths of shit the Democrats will descend to in order to gain power.”

Posts containing factual information or firsthand experiences with the virus were met with more accusations of plots to harm Trump’s reelection. When a Florida firefighter said action was required now to prevent a crisis like is currently underway in Italy, where 27,980 have been infected and 2,158 have died, because the virus spreads at an exponential rate, the first reply was poop emojis and “Trump2020.”

Some comments promoted a baseless conspiracy theory that the virus is a biological weapon developed by the Chinese in collaboration with Democrats.

“By the Chinese to stop the riots in Hong Kong,” one member wrote.

“[Y]ou are absolutely correct,” another replied. “I said that in the beginning. Democrats saw an opportunity to use it against Trump and get rid of older people which they have been trying to do for a while.”

Commenters contacted by ProPublica declined to answer questions or didn’t respond to messages. ProPublica reviewed hundreds of screenshots provided by co-workers of members of the group who asked to be anonymous, fearing retaliation. Those people said the social media posts are not idle online venting — they reflect real-world attitudes that are leading some first responders to potentially shun special plans and protective equipment. That dismissiveness, the people said, could put first responders and others at risk as they attend to emergency calls with potentially infected people.

Leaders at the International Association of Fire Fighters are also concerned. “I’ve read the social media. I know there are going to be accusations that this is all hype,” Jim Brinkley, IAFF assistant to the general president for technical and information resources, said in a video that the union posted online. “If we ignore it, if we take it lightly, we will set a new standard in the wrong direction for infectious disease in this country.”

Firefighters and paramedics, who jointly respond to 911 calls in most places, are among those at the greatest risk of encountering the coronavirus, and their exposure could endanger others if they have to be quarantined and are no longer available to work. Dozens of firefighters who responded to the nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, that was a hot spot of the outbreak had to be quarantined for weeks.

The private Facebook group was formed last year to protest the IAFF’s official endorsement of Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden. Trump encouraged his followers to join the Facebook group in May 2019.

The group’s founder, Kelly Hallman, told ProPublica he doesn’t speak for everyone who posts, but he can understand why many emergency professionals share his skepticism about the coronavirus. He said previous outbreaks such as SARS, the H1N1 “swine flu” and Ebola didn’t prompt such a big response, and he thinks the reason is politics.

“There’s never been this much hoopla given to the other things,” Hallman said. “They’re doing it to crash the economy and make Trump look bad.”

Hallman’s view hasn’t changed as Trump went from calling concerns over the coronavirus a “hoax” on Feb. 28 to declaring a national emergency on Friday. Hallman said Trump has had to address fears stirred up by the media.

“If you had to point a finger at why the leftist media and the left in general has a smile on their face about this whole thing, it’s the Dow,” Hallman said, referring to the historic decline in stock prices. “My wife and kids are scared, they’re believing what they’re seeing on TV. And I’m trying to tell them it’s not as bad as the media makes it out.”

Public health experts are unified in calling for drastic measures to contain and mitigate the spread in the U.S. “When you’re dealing with an emerging infectious diseases outbreak, you are always behind where you think you are,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a White House press conference on Monday. “It will always seem that the best way to address it would be doing something that looks like it might be an overreaction. It’s not an overreaction. It’s a reaction that we feel is commensurate with what is actually going on in reality.”

The government’s guidelines, Fauci said, “will fail if people don’t adhere to them.”

IAFF spokesman Doug Stern said views like those expressed in the Facebook group reflect the minority of first responders, citing conversations with local leaders who are eager for more information about how to prepare for the coronavirus.

“Our leadership is aware of this issue, and we are taking it seriously because we know how important it is,” Stern said of COVID-19. Most important, Stern said, is for 911 callers to tell the dispatcher if anyone is experiencing flu-like symptoms so responders can wear protective gear and send a smaller team.

Caroline Chen contributed reporting.

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“A Seller’s Market for Bankruptcy Talent:” The Beginning of the End of Methane-Producing Fracking?

On Monday, the price of West Texas Intermediate petroleum fell below $30 a barrel for the first time in four years. Elliot Smith at CNBC reports that BP CFO Brian Gilvary is braced for petroleum demand actually to contract in 2020.

This prediction is very bad news for US fracking firms, most of which need a price point of from $40 to $60 a barrel to make their hydraulic fracturing method of oil production profitable.

In the Democratic primary debate on Sunday, Bernie Sanders pledged to ban fracking entirely, and even Joe Biden said no new fracking would be allowed. Fracking may be moribund anyway by November, and if a Democrat wins the presidency, the industry may never recover.

Not only is petroleum likely headed way below that profitability floor, but many energy firms involved with fracking are deeply in debt, and had taken out the debts with their petroleum fields as collateral. Since their collateral is worth only half what it used to be, the banks will call in their loans. Other energy firms involved in fracking have held significant assets in their own stocks, the price of which just zoomed to earth like a crashing meteor.

Reuters observed,

    “Energy investor EnCap Investments pulled off a rarity in the U.S. shale business earlier this month, the $2.5 billion sale of oil producer Felix Energy to rival WPX Energy Inc, striking a deal at a time when energy mergers have all but dried up. EnCap’s big payday, 153 million WPX shares valued at $1.6 billion plus $900 million in cash, proved short-lived as convulsing oil and stock markets knocked nearly two-thirds off the value of WPX shares within days of the closing.”

Fracking has been banned by countries such as France, and by states such as New York because it is highly polluting, leaving behind ponds of toxic water. Moreover, research has demonstrated that the process of fracking, which involves pumping water under high pressure underground to break up rocks and release oil or natural gas, causes gargantuan methane emissions that had earlier been underestimated as much as 45%. The methane in the atmosphere is burgeoning, and scientists had puzzled over why. But scientists have fingered the culprit: fracking. Methane is 80 times as potent a heat-trapping gas as carbon dioxide over two decades, and carbon dioxide is no slouch. A quarter of the global heating effect of greenhouse gas emissions put out by humans burning fossil fuels is owing to methane emissions. Rapid heating is melting the North and South Poles, causing sea level rise that will soon be calamitous.

Given that the world population is increasing and that developing countries such as China and India and Indonesia are seeing more and more people abandoning their bicycles or bus rides for mopeds or automobile ownership, for the world to want less petroleum this year than it did last is extremely unusual.

We are getting a preview courtesy COVID-19 of what will happen through the next decade and a half as electric vehicles take off, significantly reducing demand.

The world produces about $100 million barrels of petroleum a day, and given the Saudi determination to expand production starting on April 1, it could be producing 102 million barrels a day later this spring. The world may only want 90 mn. barrels a day this spring. What with the novel coronavirus pandemic, fewer trucks and cars will be on the road. Petroleum is largely used for transportation fuel.

Do you know what happens if demand falls and production increases? The price falls. In fact, it doesn’t just fall. It collapses. It takes a deep dive. It falls off a cliff. It craters deep beneath the earth’s crust.

How steep the fall is depends in part on whether Saudi Arabia and Russia keep playing chicken. Saudi Arabia wants to discipline Moscow, which rejected OPEC + production quotas aimed at reducing supply and supporting a $60 per barrel price. So Riyadh is opening the spigots, upping its production by two million barrels a day. Saudi Aramco says it is comfortable with a price point of $30 a barrel. But unfortunately for Aramco, the price may not have stopped falling.

Andreas de Vries at Oilspot.com believes the price could fall to as little as $10 a barrel later this spring. In 2019 the price tended to be around $60 a barrel.

The fossil fuel companies that lack deep pockets could well just fail this year. Brenda Sapino Jeffreys quotes Jason Cohen, an attorney at Bracewell in Houston, as saying of the oil industry, “There is, I’d say, a sellers market for bankruptcy talent.” His observation gave me my title.

This steep decline in stock prices and oil prices comes on top of a 5-year run in which the market has destroyed 90% of the value of US investor stocks in oil services. That is, we could this year be entering an oil market crisis as severe as the Asian banking crash of 1997-1998.

The difference is that by the time fossil fuels come out of their economic doldrums, renewables will have stolen a further march on them. From here on in, hydrocarbons are beginning their death spiral. Friends don’t let friends invest in petroleum companies, and nobody should have those stocks in their retirement accounts– if they want ever to retire.

The post “A Seller’s Market for Bankruptcy Talent:” The Beginning of the End of Methane-Producing Fracking? appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

How to Talk to Someone You Believe Is Misinformed About the Coronavirus

The medical evidence is clear: The coronavirus global health threat is not an elaborate hoax. Bill Gates did not create the coronavirus to sell more vaccines. Essential oils are not effective at protecting you from coronavirus.

But those facts have not stopped contrary claims from spreading both on and offline.

No matter the topic, people often hear conflicting information and must decide which sources to trust. The internet and the fast-paced news environment mean that information travels quickly, leaving little time for fact-checking.

As a researcher interested in science communication and controversies, I study how scientific misinformation spreads and how to correct it.

I’ve been very busy lately. Whether we are talking about the coronavirus, climate change, vaccines or something else, misinformation abounds. Maybe you have shared something on Facebook that turned out to be false, or retweeted something before double-checking the sourceThis can happen to anyone.

It’s also common to encounter people who are misinformed but don’t know it yet. It’s one thing to double-check your own information, but what’s the best way to talk to someone else about what they think is true – but which is not true?

Is it worth engaging?

First, consider the context of the situation. Is there enough time to engage them in a conversation? Do they seem interested in and open to discussion? Do you have a personal connection with them where they value your opinion?

Evaluating the situation can help you decide whether you want to start a conversation to correct their misinformation. Sometimes we interact with people who are closed-minded and not willing to listen. It’s OK not to engage with them.

In interpersonal interactions, correcting misinformation can be helped by the strength of the relationship. For example, it may be easier to correct misinformation held by a family member or partner because they are already aware that you care for them and you are interested in their well-being.

Don’t patronize

One approach is to engage in a back-and-forth discussion about the topic. This is often called a dialogue approach to communication.

That means you care about the person behind the opinion, even when you disagree. It is important not to enter conversations with a patronizing attitude. For example, when talking to climate change skeptics, the attitude that the speaker holds toward an audience affects the success of the interaction and can lead to conversations ending before they’ve started.

Instead of treating the conversation as a corrective lecture, treat the other person as an equal partner in the discussion. One way to create that common bond is to acknowledge the shared struggles of locating accurate information. Saying that there is a lot of information circulating can help someone feel comfortable changing their opinion and accepting new information, instead of resisting and sticking to their previous beliefs to avoid admitting they were wrong.

Part of creating dialogue is asking questions. For example, if someone says that they heard coronavirus was all a hoax, you might ask, “That’s not something I’d heard before, what was the source for that?” By being interested in their opinion and not rejecting it out of hand, you open the door for conversation about the information and can engage them in evaluating it.

Offer to trade information

Another strategy is to introduce the person to new sources. In my book, I discuss a conversation I had with a climate skeptic who did not believe that scientists had reached a 97% consensus on the existence of climate change. They dismissed this well-established number by referring to nonscientific sources and blog posts. Instead of rejecting their resources, I offered to trade with them. For each of their sources I read, they would read one of mine.

It is likely that the misinformation people have received is not coming from a credible source, so you can propose an alternative. For example, you could offer to send them an article from the Centers for Disease Control for medical and health information, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for environmental information, or the reputable debunking site Snopes to compare the information. If someone you are talking to is open to learning more, encourage that continued curiosity.

It is sometimes hard, inconvenient, or awkward to engage someone who is misinformed. But I feel very strongly that opening ourselves up to have these conversations can help to correct misinformation. To ensure that society can make the best decisions about important topics, share accurate information and combat the spread of misinformation.

is assistant Professor of Communication Studies, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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Black Plague, Spanish Flu, Smallpox: All Hold Lessons for Coronavirus

Pandemics are nothing new in history, and their long record across the ages and continents has much to teach us about how best to handle the current outbreak, writes California State University professor Ibrahim Al-Marashi in a fascinating piece at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Al-Marashi begins with a tour through the animal origins of both common viruses and lethal pathogens, of which COVID-19 is just the latest example. Three-quarters of infectious diseases result from what he calls “zoonotic spillovers,” mostly from common farming animals. “The domestication of the horse led to the virus responsible for the common cold in humans, while the domestication of chickens gave humans chickenpox, shingles, and various strains of the bird flu,” he writes. “Pigs were the source of influenza, and measles, smallpox, and tuberculosis emerged from cattle.” (Popular history often associates the wrong animal with famous outbreaks. For example, the medieval Black Death, commonly associated with rats and fleas, most likely originated with a marmot or great gerbil.)

Al-Marashi argues that modern pandemics hold “key lessons” for us today. Specifically, the need for “transparency as well as the effectiveness of quarantines.” One of these lessons is passed down in the very name of the so-called “Spanish” flu pandemic of 1918. It has this name, writes Al-Marashi, “not because it originated in Spain, but because Spain was the first country to widely publicize the outbreak. Since Spain was not a belligerent in World War I, it did not have wartime censorship in place, while other nations censored the news of the pandemic. Because of the headlines and coverage in the Spanish press, many people simply assumed that’s where the outbreak started.”

There are echoes of this in the way Chinese officials initially ignored the current outbreak, likely making it worse. “[The initial Chinese response] resulted in little critical information being released in a timely manner, depriving national leaders in Beijing the opportunity to implement informed decisions,” he writes, describing the reasons for the delayed quarantine. (The word “quarantine” comes from the Italian “quaranta giorni,” or 40 days, and “was first implemented in the mid-14th century to keep the bubonic plague from spreading from incoming ships.”)

Despite their mostly zoological origins, xenophobic tropes are as old as pandemics, as is what we today call “misinformation.” During the Black Death, writes Al-Marashi, “fake news then included attributing the disease to bad air and miasmas, as well as to Jewish communities. Today, coronavirus has been falsely attributed to biological weapons labs and the Gates Foundation. As an individual, one can fight this virus by debunking the viral myths that spread today, as they did centuries ago.”

Read this full article here.

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Fear Can Spread From Person to Person Faster Than the Coronavirus – but There Are Ways to Slow It Down

As cases of COVID-19 proliferate, there’s a pandemic of fear unfolding alongside the pandemic of the coronavirus.

Media announce mass cancellations of public events “over coronavirus fears.” TV stations show images of “coronavirus panic shopping.” Magazines discuss attacks against Asians sparked by “racist coronavirus fears.”

Due to the global reach and instantaneous nature of modern media, fear contagion spreads faster than the dangerous yet invisible virus. Watching or hearing someone else who’s scared causes you to be frightened, too, without necessarily even knowing what caused the other person’s fear.

As a psychiatrist and researcher studying the brain mechanisms of social regulation of emotions, I frequently see in clinical and experimental settings how powerful fear contagion can be.

Responding with fear in face of danger

Fear contagion is an evolutionarily old phenomenon that researchers observe in many animal species. It can serve a valuable survival function.

Imagine a herd of antelopes pasturing in the sunny African savanna. Suddenly, one senses a stalking lion. The antelope momentarily freezes. Then it quickly sets off an alarm call and runs away from the predator. In the blink of an eye, other antelopes follow.

Brains are hardwired to respond to threats in the environment. Sight, smell or sound cues that signal the presence of the predator automatically triggered the first antelope’s survival responses: first immobility, then escape.

The amygdala, a structure buried deep within the side of the head in the brain’s temporal lobe, is key for responding to threats. It receives sensory information and quickly detects stimuli associated with danger.

Then the amygdala forwards the signal to other brain areas, including the hypothalamus and brain stem areas, to further coordinate specific defense responses.

These outcomes are commonly known as fright, freeze, flight or fight. We human beings share these automatic, unconscious behaviors with other animal species.

Responding with fear, one step removed

That explains the direct fear the antelope felt when sniffing or spotting a lion nearby. But fear contagion goes one step further.

The antelopes’ run for their lives that followed one frightened group member was also automatic. Their escape, however, was not directly initiated by the lion’s attack but by the behavior of their terrified group member: momentarily freezing, sounding the alarm and running away. The group as a whole picked up on the terror of the individual and acted accordingly.

Like other animals, people are also sensitive to panic or fear expressed by our kin. Human beings are exquisitely tuned to detect other people’s survival reactions.

Experimental studies have identified a brain structure called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) as vital for this ability. It surrounds the bundle of fibers that connect the left and right hemisphere of the brain. When you watch another person express fear, your ACC lights up. Studies in animals confirmed that the message about another’s fear travels from the ACC to the amygdala, where the defense responses are set off.

It makes sense why an automatic, unconscious fear contagion would have evolved in social animals. It can help prevent the demise of an entire group bound by kinship, protecting all their shared genes so they can be passed on to future generations.

Indeed, studies show that social transmission of fear is more robust between animals, including humans, that are related or belong to the same group as compared to between strangers.

Nevertheless, fear contagion is an effective way of transmitting defense responses not only between members of the same group or species but also across species. Many animals, through evolution, acquired an ability to recognize alarm calls of other species. For example, bird squawks are known to trigger defense responses in many mammals.

Transmitting fear in 2020

Fear contagion happens automatically and unconsciously, making it hard to really control.

This phenomenon explains mass panic attacks that can occur during music concerts, sports events or other public gatherings. Once fear is triggered in the crowd – maybe someone thought they heard a gunshot – there is no time or opportunity to verify the sources of terror. People must rely on each other, just like antelopes do. The fear travels from one to the next, infecting each individual as it goes. Everyone starts running for their lives. Too often, these mass panics end up with tragedies.

Fear contagion does not require direct physical contact with others. Media distributing terrifying images and information can very effectively spread fear.

Moreover, while antelopes on the savanna stop running once they’re a safe distance from a predator, scary images on the news can keep you fearful. The feeling of immediate danger never subsides. Fear contagion didn’t evolve under the always-on conditions of Facebook, Twitter and 24-hour news.

Tempering fear others transmit to you

There’s no way to prevent fear contagion from kicking into gear – it’s automatic and unconscious, after all – but you can do something to mitigate it. Since it’s a social phenomenon, many rules that govern social behaviors apply.

In addition to information about fear, information about safety can be socially transferred too. Studies have found that being in the presence of a calm and confident person may help overcome fear acquired through observation of others. For instance, a child terrified by a strange animal will calm down if a calm adult is present. This kind of safety modeling is especially effective when you have your eyes on someone close to you, or someone you depend on, such as a caretaker or an authority figure.

Also, actions matter more than words, and words and actions must match. For example, explaining to people that there’s no need for a healthy person to wear a protective face mask and at the same time showing images of presumably healthy COVID-19 screening personnel wearing hazmat suits is counterproductive. People will go and buy face masks because they see authority figures wearing them when confronting invisible danger.

But words do still matter. Information about danger and safety must be provided clearly with straightforward instructions on what to do. When you are under significant stress, it is harder to process details and nuances. Withholding important facts or lying increases uncertainty, and uncertainty augments fears and anxiety.

Evolution hardwired human beings to share threats and fears with others. But it also equipped us with the ability to cope with these threats together.

Jacek Debiec is an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry, and an assistant research professor at the Molecular & Behavioral Neuroscience Institute, University of Michigan. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The Unaccountable Nation

Exceptionalism, triumphalism, chauvinism. These characteristics define most empires, including, like it or not, these United States. The sequence matters. A people and national government that fancies itself exceptional — an example for the rest of the world — is apt to assert itself militarily, economically, and culturally around the globe. If that self-righteous state happens to possess prodigious power, as the U.S. has since the Second World War, then any perceived success will lead to a sense of triumphalism, and thus put into motion a feedback loop whereby national “achievement” justifies and validates that conception of exceptionalism.

Then the exceptionalist-triumphalist power inevitably runs off-the-rails, and — especially when it feels threatened or insecure — lashes out in fits of aggressive military, economic, religious, or racial chauvinism. This cycle tends to replay again and again until the empire collapses, usually through some combination of external power displacement and internal exhaustion or collapse.

Such imperial hyper-powers, particularly in their late-stages, often employ foot soldiers across vast swathes of the planet, and eventually either lose control of their actions or aren’t concerned with their resultant atrocities in the first place. On that, the jury is perhaps still out. Regardless, the discomfiting fact is that by nearly any measure, the United States today coheres, to a remarkable degree, with each and every one of these tenets of empire evolution. This includes, despite the hysterical denials of sitting political and Pentagon leaders, the troubling truth that American soldiers and intelligence agents have committed war crimes across the Greater Middle East since 9/11 on a not so trivial number of occasions. These law of war violations also occurred during the Cold War generation — notably in Korea and Vietnam — and the one consistent strain has been the almost complete inability or unwillingness of the U.S. Government to hold perpetrators, and their enabling commanders, accountable.

Enter the International Criminal Court (ICC). First proposed, conceptually, in 1919 (and again in 1937, 1948, and 1971), in response to massive war crimes and human rights violations of the two world wars, the Hague-headquartered court finally opened for business in 2002. With more than 120 signatory member states (though not, any longer, the U.S.) the ICC has the jurisdiction to prosecute international violations including “genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression.” A compliment, rather than a replacement, to sovereign national justice systems, the ICC is designed to be the “court of last resort,” obliged to exercise jurisdiction only when a nation’s courts prove unwilling or unable to prosecute such crimes.

All of which sounds both admirable and unthreatening (at least to reasonably well-behaved states with accountable, responsive justice systems), but to the contemporary American imperial hyper-power, the very existence of the ICC is viewed as a mortal threat. Matters demonstrably came to a head this past week when an ICC appeals court reversed a lower-level decision and allowed its special prosecutor — whose visa Washington has already revoked — to simply open an official investigation into alleged war crimes committed in Afghanistan by all three major parties to the conflict: the Taliban, U.S., and U.S.-backed Kabul-based Afghan government. This decidedly mild decision, which only allows a multi-directional inquiry, unleashed an immediate firestorm in Washington.

The reflexive reactions and responses of current and former Trump officials was both instructive and totally in line with decades worth of bipartisan U.S. disavowal of the very notion of international norms and standards. Trump’s recent hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton — now an MSNBC-DNC darling for his apparent critique of the president in a new memoir — has spearheaded opposition to the ICC since its inception, has asserted that the ICC is “illegitimate,” and that the U.S. Government “will not sit quietly,” if “the court comes after us.” After the most recent ruling, Secretary of State (and former director of the very CIA that is likely to be implicated in said war crimes investigation) Mike Pompeo declared the ruling a “truly breathtaking action by an unaccountable, political institution masquerading as a legal body,” adding, threateningly, that “we will take all necessary measures to protect our citizens from this renegade, unlawful, so-called court.”

On that latter point, Pompeo is neither wrong, nor espousing a policy — no matter how aggressive or rejectionist — unique to Donald Trump’s administration. Here, a brief bit of all but forgotten history is in order. In 1998, the UN General Assembly voted 120-7 to establish the ICC. The United States, in good company with a gaggle of criminally compromised states — China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Yemen, and Qatar — voted against the measure. Two years later, however, President Bill Clinton unenthusiastically signed onto this foundational Rome Statute, but with some dubiousness and the requisite American exceptionalist caveat that he “will not, and do not recommend that my successor, submit the treaty to the Senate for advice and consent until our fundamental concerns are satisfied.”

Then came the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This tragedy turned (for then ascendant neoconservatives) opportunity for expanded U.S. military global assertiveness, ensured that Clinton’s successor — one George W. Bush — wouldn’t even consider ICC treaty submission to the Senate. Rather, in May 2002, Bush sent a note to the UN Secretary General informing him that the most powerful and influential country in the world no longer intended to ratify the Rome Statute or recognize any obligations to the ICC (which officially opened for business only two months later). Never simply a morality tale of Republican villainy, Bush’s disavowal didn’t explain the half of it.

Far more disturbingly, a stunningly euphemistic American Service-members’ Protection Act of 2001 amendment, first introduced just 15 days after the 9/11 attacks, to the Supplemental Appropriations Act for Further Recovery From and Response to Terrorist Attacks on the United States, was already under consideration in Congress. With broad bipartisan majorities, that legislation — which authorized the U.S. president to use “all means necessary and appropriate to bring about the release of any U.S. or allied personnel being detained or imprisoned by, on behalf of, or at the request of the International Criminal Court” — passed in the House a couple weeks after Bush sent his note to the UN, and the Senate just two weeks later. President Bush then signed this authorization for, up to and including military, force into law on August 2, 2002. Much of the world was appalled and international human rights organizations took to – quite appropriately – calling it the “Hague Invasion Act.” It remains in force today.

The timeline is instructive and itself tells a vital part of the story. Democrats and Republicans alike had chosen to “preempt” — an internationally prohibited precedent that Bush would later invoke to invade Iraq — the not yet in force ICC with this bill. They did so, I’d assert, because they knew a salient dirty secret: the U.S. was about to unleash martial fury across the Greater Middle East. In the process, inevitably, American troopers and intelligence spooks would push the limits of acceptable wartime behavior, and thus be vulnerable to international prosecution by the soon effective ICC.

This was unacceptable for an exceptionalist, triumphalist nation, about to undertake chauvinist actions the world over. That unilateral, world-order-be-damned national position held, and still holds, sway in the intervening 18 years. So, for all the Trump administration’s coarse obtuseness in response to the opening of the latest ICC Afghan investigation, this is, at root, not (as the mainstream media will inevitably now claim) a Donald phenomenon.Three administrations, and multiple guard-changing Congresses, chose to not to touch the infamous Hague Invasion Act or realign the U.S. with the ICC or the spirit (or even the pretense) of international law.

The cast of elite characters, many still politically influential, who voted for the Hague Invasion Act is nothing short of astounding. The bill passed the House by a margin of 280-138, and counted such “yea” votes as House Intelligence Committee Chair — top Trump opponent and Russiagate investigator — Democrat Adam Schiff. Notably, especially in this ongoing electoral cycle, then Vermont Representative Bernie Sanders opposed the measure.In the Senate, an even larger portion of Democrats joined current Speaker Mitch McConnell (and most of his Republican caucus), to vote for the Act. These included such past and present notables as former Secretaries of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, current Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and, then Foreign Relations Committee Chair, and now Democratic presidential frontrunner, Joe Biden. His vote, naturally, should come as scant surprise since even in early Senate committee hearings four years earlier, ranking minority member Biden was at best tepid, and at worst quite skeptical of the ICC – even finding unlikely points of agreement with the later Hague Invasion Bill’s sponsor, and longtime unilateralist hawk, Republican Senator Jesse Helms.

Still, the swift, frenetic response of senior Trump officials to ICC decision is telling. I suspect that Pompeo and Bolton know the inconvenient truth – that U.S. national security forces have committed crimes in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) and that the U.S. Government hasn’t ever truly held these select perpetrators sufficiently accountable. Contra Pompeo, Bolton, and other Trump officials’ ardent public assertions, the U.S. military and intelligence community are, in fact – due to being demonstrably “unwilling or unable to prosecute such [war] crimes” – the perfect candidates for ICC investigation, and if evidentiary appropriate, prosecution. The U.S. has a historically abysmal record either of restraining or punishing wartime violations.

The rarely recounted record is an extensive as it is appalling:

  • After U.S. Air Force pilots and U.S. Army soldiers strafed and gunned down some 400 Korean refugees (most women, children, and old men) hiding under a bridge at No Gun Ri over the course of four days in 1950, there was no criminal investigation when the military determined the killings represented naught but an “unfortunate tragedy inherent to war.”
  • When, after a two-year coverup, the journalist Seymour Hersh brought to light the blatant execution of at least 504 civilians in the hamlet of My Lai, South Vietnam, just six soldiers were charged, and only one – Lieutenant William Calley – convicted. Though countless victims were beheaded, scalped, or had their throats slit in an orgy of violence, even Calley’s original life sentence was repeatedly reduced by senior generals until he was ultimately granted clemency by President Richard Nixon. Convicted by jury of military officer peers of personally killing at least 22 civilians, Calley served only five months in detention and some three years under house arrest.
  • Later in the Vietnam War, when Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Herbert blew the whistle on endemic torture among some U.S. troops, and a subsequent investigation uncovered 141 confirmed incidents of prisoner abuse, not a single criminal charge was filed and only three soldiers were administratively fined or reduced in rank. The only significant punishment meted out was leveled at Herbert — recipient of four Silver Stars and three Bronze Stars, who was also shot 10 ten times and bayonet thrice — when his reputation and career were ruined in retaliation.
  • When allegations of systemic prisoner abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib Prison were reported by Major General Antonio Taguba, and simultaneously uncovered by the very same Seymour Hersh, not a single soldier above the rank of staff sergeant faced charges. Taguba, incidentally, did suffer — his career unceremoniously curtailed in the wake of threats, intimidation, and harassment by the senior army commander in Iraq (General John Abizaid) and the then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
  • Finally, and perhaps most relevant to the current ICC investigatory backlash, after an American AC-130 gunship unloaded on a civilian hospital (by definition, a war crime) repeatedly for 30-60 minutes and killed 42 doctors, patients, and staff members, the top theater commander, General John Campbell, and then Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter changed their stories four times in four days without ever fully explicating what exactly caused the massacre. An official military probe – instructively, the generals always investigate themselves in these matters – found no criminal culpability, and, while Campbell’s nominal boss, General Joseph Votel, claimed to have administratively disciplined sixteen soldiers and officers, the names of those personnel – and he details of their punishment – were never released.

Add to that the disconcerting fact that the U.S. crossed a rather macabre tipping point in 2019, whereby, for the first time, the American military and its Afghan allies killed more civilians than the Taliban, and this brings us full circle to an alarming present reality. The very figures who championed and supported the wildly chauvinistic “Hague Invasion” Act seem set to hold sway over, and in Biden’s case serve as candidate for, the Democratic Party.In November, that faction will likely, then face off against a Trump team that vehemently opposes even a basic investigation into alleged American criminal misbehavior in the Afghan theater of its ongoing forever wars.

All of which demonstrates, once and for all, that human rights, and international law or norms were never of genuine interest to the United States. None of this will play well on the “Arab,” or even broader global, “Street,” and will – just like U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo – actually increase worldwide “terrorism” and anti-Americanism. None of which matters to, or greatly concerns, a Washington elite lacking even a modicum of self-awareness.

Because empires, like the United States, which peddle in exceptionalism, triumphalism, and chauvinism are, historically, the world’s true rogue states.

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and a contributing editor at antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet. Check out his professional website for contact info, scheduling speeches, and/or access to the full corpus of his writing and media appearances.

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The RNC Gave Massive Contracts to Companies Linked to its Chairwoman’s Husband and Political Backers

The Republican National Committee has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to contractors closely connected to the organization’s chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel.

One contract went to her husband’s insurance company. Two others went to businesses whose executives recently donated to Ronna for Chair, a largely inactive political action committee that McDaniel controls. She had set it up in 2015, when she successfully ran for chair of the Republican Party in Michigan, her home state.

The companies won the contracts soon after McDaniel became the party’s top official. She was picked for the position by President Donald Trump after the 2016 election.

The RNC vendor payments and PAC contributions, detailed in federal tax filings and campaign finance reports, mirror a trend of transactions with favored contractors and employees previously reported by ProPublica.

The RNC conflict-of-interest policy states that employees “should avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” such as steering work to “members of an employee’s family” and businesses “with which the employee has a financial relationship.”

An RNC spokesman, Mike Reed, did not make McDaniel available for an interview. In a statement, he said ProPublica’s reporting was an attempt to make “innocuous RNC spending items seem scandalous,” and he accused ProPublica of harboring “a severe bias against conservatives and President Trump.”

Under McDaniel, the RNC is generating and disbursing record amounts, bringing in about $240 million last year and spending just over $190 million. And public scrutiny of its spending is increasing. ProPublica reported last month that in 2019 the RNC obscured payments to its chief of staff, who executes vendor contracts and is part of a tight network of operatives who have reaped financial rewards during the Trump era. This week, The New York Times reported that since 2017 the tiny circle, including a husband-and-wife duo of former RNC chiefs of staff and Trump’s campaign chairman, Brad Parscale, have billed the campaign, the RNC and other Republican groups some $75 million.

During McDaniel’s first year as chairwoman, the RNC hired a large, privately held insurance brokerage firm called Hylant to conduct an insurance review and liability assessment. Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show that the RNC specifically paid Hylant’s Detroit branch almost $40,000 for the company’s services.

The president of that particular office is Patrick McDaniel, the husband of the RNC’s chairwoman.

Reed, the party spokesman, told ProPublica that the Hylant contract “did not violate any RNC policy,” despite the organization’s written guidance about awarding business to members of an employee’s family. Reed said the RNC’s then-treasurer “solicited and signed off on” Hylant’s services. He did not not address who recommended Hylant or why the work was done out of the company’s Detroit office. Reed added that McDaniel’s husband “does not own this company and he received no financial benefit from this work.” Neither Hylant nor Patrick McDaniel returned messages seeking comment.

The two companies whose executives made contributions to McDaniel’s PAC had not received work from the RNC before she became chair.

Less than a week after McDaniel took over the party in January 2017, the RNC made its first monthly payment to the Templar Baker Group, a small political consulting outfit in Michigan headed by Robert Schostak, who chaired the Michigan Republican Party before McDaniel. Since she has been at the RNC, campaign finance reports show, Templar has been paid more than $550,000 for “political strategy services.”

Schostak is also a partner in MadDog Technology, a firm that is chaired by Peter Karmanos Jr., who helped found Compuware, once Michigan’s leading computer technology company. Last year, according to FEC filings, the RNC paid MadDog $50,000 for “website services.”

During McDaniel’s first month as RNC chair, Karmanos and a political spending entity used by the Schostak family contributed $10,000 each to McDaniel’s PAC, federal tax filings show.

Reed, the RNC spokesman, did not describe what services Templar and MadDog provided the organization, but he said they were “invaluable.” When asked about McDaniel’s relationship to Schostak and Karmanos, and the timing of their PAC contributions, he said that ProPublica was “trying to connect dots to come up with something scandalous.” Moreover, he added, McDaniel “has no financial relationship” with MadDog and Templar.

Reed also disputed that the vendors had not worked with the RNC before McDaniel became chair, an assertion that is contradicted by FEC reports. When asked to explain the discrepancy, he referred to Kim Jorns, who, he said, “has worked with the RNC prior to the Chairwoman’s tenure.”

Jorns is an employee at Templar and previously was an RNC staffer, serving as regional political director in the 2016 election cycle. She didn’t return a message seeking comment.

Karmanos and Schostak did not respond to requests for comment.

Last year, Ronna for Chair received no contributions, but it continued to spend money, a practice that is legal and common among elected officials.

McDaniel was reelected as chair of the RNC in January 2019, with Trump’s endorsement. Two days earlier, her PAC paid $5,000 to Kathleen Berden, a voting member of the RNC, a volunteer position. Reed said the PAC paid Berden because she “whipped votes” for McDaniel’s reelection. He would not address why McDaniel needed Berden’s services or whether it was appropriate for McDaniel to pay a volunteer RNC voting member to influence fellow voters.

When reached for comment, Berden declined to elaborate on her work for McDaniel.

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Chelsea Manning Is Free From Jail, Faces Exorbitant Fines

On March 12, prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia ended the grand jury of Julian Assange and Wikileaks in which Chelsea Manning refused to testify. As a result, US District Court Judge Anthony Trenga ordered the immediate release of Chelsea Manning.

Manning has been incarcerated since May 2019. Judge Trenga had tried to coerce Manning into testifying by imposing a fine for every day she resisted even though she said repeatedly that she would not violate her principles, which include opposition to the secret grand jury system, and would never testify.

A hearing was scheduled this Friday on a motion for release filed in February 2020 by her attorneys. Manning was arguing that her long time in jail had shown she could not be coerced to testify and that her incarceration was a punishment, which is illegal under U.S. law. On Wednesday, her lawyers and Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne reported she attempted suicide in jail. With the end of the grand jury and Manning’s release, the Friday hearing was canceled.

In May 2019, Manning wrote a letter to Judge Anthony Trenga, the presiding judge regarding her incarceration. The letter examined the history of grand juries and how they no longer serve their original purpose. Manning wrote:

“I am certainly not alone in thinking that the grand jury process, which at one time acted as an independent body of citizens along the lines of a civilian police review board, slowly transitioned into the unbridled arm of the police and prosecution in ways that run contrary to the grand jury’s originally intended purposes.”

She pointed out how grand juries were originally independent of the police and were investigations by citizens without a prosecutor.  In fact, grand juries were originally a check on government as Manning wrote, they “nullified unjust laws or their unjust application.”  She told the judge that only the US and Liberia continue to use grand juries as many western and developed nations have abandoned the process.

After providing the judge with a “nuanced understanding of my conscientious objection to the grand jury” she wrote:

“Each person must make the world we want to live in around us where we stand… I object to the use of grand juries as tools to tear apart vulnerable communities. I object to this grand jury in particular as an effort to frighten journalists and publishers, who serve a crucial public good. I have had these values since I was a child, and I’ve had years of confinement to reflect on them. For much of that time, I depended for survival on my values, my decisions, and my conscience. I will not abandon them now.”

Manning has once again shown courageous political leadership, standing up to an abusive criminal justice system and exposing the corrupt grand jury process that has often been used for political purposes — from indicting anti-slavery activists to members of the Black Panther Party — and now against the political prisoner, Julian Assange for being an editor and publisher who told the truth about US war crimes, violations of international law and how US foreign policy dominated by corporate interests.

Manning has also shown great bravery in advancing trans rights. While imprisoned in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, she fought for her right to treatment. She also struggled for her right to be held in the women’s prison in Alexandria. Her openness about being trans has been an inspiration to others. As Lexi McMenamin wrote: “One in six trans Americans — and one in two black trans Americans — have been to prison, according to Lambda Legal. Incarcerated trans people face higher levels of violence, and experience higher rates of rape and sexual assault. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, trans people are ‘ten times as likely to be sexually assaulted by their fellow inmates and five times as likely to be sexually assaulted by staff.’”

The injustice against Manning continues. Manning’s attorneys sought to have the fines imposed by Judge Trenga vacated. Manning is facing more than $256,000 in fines, which have been accumulating at a rate of $1,000 a day. The court left those fines in place.

CLICK HERE TO DONATE TO CHELSEA’s GOFUNDME TO COVER HER FINES.

The incarceration of Manning was a violation of US law as the authority to incarcerate a recalcitrant witness was abused by Judge Trenga. Nils Melzer the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment wrote that Manning’s incarceration violated international law focusing on the prohibition against torture.  While we are pleased Manning has been released, she should have not served anytime in jail and the fines against her should be vacated.

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Democrats’ Next Big 2020 Worry: Nominating Delegates Amid Virus

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Top Democratic Party officials are scrambling to figure out how to handle voting by crowds at their next big event of the 2020 presidential season: the county conventions where Democratic National Convention delegates start to be named.

“We are now in the season of actually selecting delegates,” said Elaine Kamarck, a presidential election scholar and member of the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee from Massachusetts. “How that will happen is an open question.”

“The issue is that we are beginning the season where a lot of county and congressional district conventions are taking place to actually select people for the delegate slots,” she said. “That’s complicated because those are large meetings. States are busy trying to figure out what do they do with these [events]. Do they postpone them? How do you do these? By and large, we do not have actual people selected as delegates. We just have [candidate delegate] allocations.”

The national health emergency surrounding the eruption of the coronavirus has raised many questions about how 2020’s forthcoming elections will be held. In the four states that will be holding primaries on March 17—Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio—state officials have been taking last-minute steps to minimize exposing voters. Those steps include moving polling places away from senior centers and regularly wiping down touch screen computers used by voters to cast ballots.

So far, government officials in only one state, Louisiana, have postponed their primary from early April to late June due to the virus. In Congress, Sen. Ron Wyden has proposed allocating funds to help states to vote by mail in the fall, as a way to lessen exposure to the virus during the voting process.

However, the next big events in the Democratic Party’s nominating process are the county-level conventions—starting in Iowa on March 21, moving to congressional district conventions on April 25 and a state convention on June 13. Attendees of these conventions tend to be the party’s activists, organizers and elected officials.

Ironically, some states holding these conventions are eyeing the use of electronic voting systems—even after digital systems failed or delayed the results in some important early 2020 contests—namely party-run caucuses in Iowa and Nevada, and the government-run primary in Los Angeles County, the nation’s largest voting jurisdiction. Democrats in Virginia were eyeing systems used by unions and trade associations in their elections, according to DNC officials following that process.

Stepping back, ex-Vice-President Joe Biden’s emergence as the Democratic frontrunner and the national health emergency have DNC officials hoping that the nominating season will begin to wind down after the March 17 primaries. (So far, the DNC has not made a decision to cancel their national convention in July.)

November Election Still on Track

The uncertainties unleashed by the pandemic have raised many questions about whether the 2020 national election will be held as scheduled—or how the voting would be done. The decision by Georgia’s Republican Governor, Brian Kemp, to cancel a state Supreme Court election and appoint a conservative justice, followed by Louisiana’s postponement of its 2020 primary, has underscored that concern.

However, party primaries, state-level contests and federal general elections are all different legal exercises, said Ned Foley, director of the election law program at Ohio State’s law school and author of Ballot Battles: The History of Disputed Elections in the United States. The parties always get to pick their nominees, he said, citing U.S. Supreme Court precedents. Governors, on the other hand, have varying powers under state law to intervene in state elections.

For example, New York’s GOP Gov. George Pataki rescheduled voting after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, struck on a state primary day. In 2008, Florida Democratic Gov. Charlie Crist extended early voting to accommodate African American voters. Kemp’s move, in contrast, is a power grab amid a major public health crisis. But Foley’s main takeaway was that presidential elections have never been delayed.

“There was no delay in the [1864] election in the Civil War, and I think that’s very important,” he said. “The point here is not whether but how. America is going to have a 2020 election. America is committed to the idea of popular sovereignty—‘We the People’ as expressed in the Constitution—the question is how we do that in difficult times.”

Foley and other experts said that there still was time to plan for fall voting.

“We may need to make adjustments,” he said, citing Louisiana’s move. “The mere fact that an election has been postponed because of emergency health considerations is not a subversion of voter choice. It may be the best way to effectuate voter input and the right of the voters to choose who governs.”

But shifting to a vote-by-mail system isn’t necessarily a cure-all, said Ion Sancho, who for nearly three decades was supervisor of elections in Leon County, Florida, where the state capital is located.

“Mail ballots are the most labor-intensive [way to count votes], and the switch to them in 2020, as you well know, is causing delays in final results,” he said. “That is becoming increasingly evident. And that runs counter to one of the Republicans’ main goals, which is trying to end the election on election night. That is certainly their goal in Florida.”

Sancho, like others contacted, said that the county was in a period of great uncertainty, including how 2020’s elections will be conducted. But no expert said that the process would not continue. The question was what changes would be necessary, starting with 2020’s remaining primaries and the Democrats’ nominating process.

“We’re in such uncharted territory,” said Kamarck.

“I suppose we could try to do an electronic ballot,” she said, thinking aloud about what some state parties were now studying. “The Russians have no interest in who the delegates are at the [national] convention, frankly. I don’t think they would particularly care to mess with who is the delegate from the first congressional district of Virginia.”

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

The post Democrats’ Next Big 2020 Worry: Nominating Delegates Amid Virus appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

We’re Winding Down the War on Weed — But Not Fast Enough

Crystal Munoz gave birth as a federal prisoner. She had just one night to hold her newborn before she was taken back to the holding facility. Crystal screamed and cried. An officer demanded she calm down. After that, she kept crying, but quietly.

In February, she was granted clemency after advocates and criminal justice reformers petitioned the White House for her early release. She was back home with her two daughters on February 21.

“To see them and to be free and to be with them is the most beautiful feeling in the world,” Munoz told Truthdig. “It’s the biggest blessing I’ve been blessed with in my whole lifetime.”

Munoz’ crime: A few years back, some friends asked her to draw a map. The friends ended up being indicted in a drug-trafficking conspiracy, mostly for marijuana. They would go on to claim that they used her map to circumvent a drug check-point.  She was offered a plea deal that would have resulted in at least a 10-year-sentence. That seemed unfathomable with young kids. Crystal thought she hadn’t done anything that bad and went to trial. She was found guilty and sentenced to 18 years in federal prison.

She admits that she should have faced some kind of consequences for her actions. But it never made any sense that the federal government was keeping her in prison for almost two decades, away from her daughters and husband. She notes that she had responsibilities on the outside, including raising her kids. On the inside she felt useless, unable to fulfill her duty as a parent and as a citizen. “My kids are out here. There are bills to be paid, it’s not like I was paying my bills from prison. There has to be an alternative.”

A lot of people might not realize how conspiracy charges work. Amy Povah, the founder of CAN-DO clemency, a group that advocates for non-violent drug offenders, explains. “Crystal is a prime example of the conspiracy statute run amok. She drew a map to circumvent check points on the reservation,” Povah told Truthdig. “That is not an illegal act. But the conspiracy law can take a legal action and if the feds deem it an overt act that moves a conspiracy one step in the furtherance of a conspiracy you can be held responsible for all the illegal acts contributed to the co-conspirators many of whom you might not of even met or conspired with.”

For years, Povah has worked relentlessly for Munoz’ release. In the past year, her campaign picked up steam. “Jason Hernandez asked me which Latinas needed help and I told him Crystal had filed a petition….the Texas AM students filed a supplement, and that’s the petition that got sent over to the White House,” Povah explains. Alice Marie Johnson, the federal prisoner who got clemency after her case was famously taken on by reality star Kim Kardashian, also lobbied hard for Crystal. “Of course Alice went hard for her cuz they were friends,” Povah says.

The reality has yet to sink in for Ricky, Crystal’s husband. “I’m very happy. I’m still feeling like I’m in a dream. You’d think it’d end more and more every day. I mean, we went to the White House, met up with Kim Kardashian… really man, that’s crazy. I still feel like I’m in a dream.”

There are few issues that confound traditional political alignments in the Trump era as much as clemency for non-violent drug offenders. Towards the end of his term, Obama granted a record number of clemency petitions to nonviolent drug criminals. Yet, the process was opaque. Prisoners who were turned down, like Munoz, had no idea why. After all, they were in prison for more or less the same drugs that the hip then-President had bragged about trying. Critics pointed out that it’s arbitrary — and counterintuitive — for clemency petitions to be reviewed in the Department of Justice, which is a building full of prosecutors.

When Trump took office, activists hoped that the president’s willingness to circumvent procedure might actually work in prisoners’ favor (traditionally presidents don’t grant clemencies their first term). In a sense they were right: after reality star Kim Kardashian personally appealed to the president in Alice Marie Johnson’s case, Johnson was home with her family within weeks. Yet the optics of the president making life-and-death decisions based on personal asks from Kardashian rattled his critics.

 

At its worst, the tendency manifested in liberals and mainstream media pillorying Kardashian. “Trump meets Rump!” the New York Post gloated. On the View, the hosts fretted that the president was once again dangerously blowing up standard procedure. Others derided Kardashian for lacking expertise. It almost seemed as if progressives were fighting the release of a black grandmother who was serving a life without parole sentence for playing a low-level role in a drug conspiracy. She’d already spent 22 years behind bars.

At the time, Johnson’s counsel, Brittany Barnett, told me that Kardashian’s advocacy was essential to the case and deserved respect. “First of all, she’s at the White House advocating on behalf of Ms. Alice. You do not need to be an expert to know that Ms. Alice does not deserve to die in prison.”

“That’s a humanitarian issue. She’s using her platform to literally save someone’s life. You don’t have to be an expert to know this shit is wrong.”

Munoz’ case wasn’t as high profile as Johnson’s. But it nevertheless generated stories like this New York Times feature that seemed to conflate Munoz’ and Johnsons’ commutations with those of more controversial figures like Bernard B. Kerik. “The 11 Criminals Granted Clemency by Trump Had One Thing in Common: Connections” the headline read, suggesting there was something untoward about Munoz’ release.

Mark Osler, a former prosecutor who now advocates for less harsh sentencing and clemency policies, points out why “connections” were necessary in the first place. It’s because the traditional system doesn’t work.

“I think the fact that they had to do a workaround of the regular process to free someone as worthy as Crystal tells us how broken the process is,” Osler tells Truthdig.

“You’ve got thousands and thousands of people waiting who submitted their petitions to the pardon attorney and we don’t know where those stand. And there’s this process driven by Fox news and people close to the president that doesn’t seem capable of addressing those large numbers.”

Osler, who is a contributor to The Hill, notes that solution is straightforward.

“Take the pardon attorney out of the Department of Justice. Create a bipartisan clemency commission and have them make the evaluations and recommendations directly to the president.”

He also cautions against scapegoating former prisoners like Munoz and Johnson just because they were freed by Trump, rather than Obama.

“Despite what anyone might say or criticize, there is nothing bad about Crystal Munoz having freedom. And I think that’s important to say.”

As pot becomes legal around the country and wealthy people are making money in an increasingly lucrative industry, it seems intolerable that anyone should serve a day in jail for doing or selling drugs: yet there are still people serving long sentences for drugs, including marijuana, thanks to mandatory minimums and other tough-on-crime measures embraced by Republicans and Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s.

Amy Povah, who herself was caught up in a drug trafficking conspiracy, says there are plenty of more cases similar to hers.

“Like Crystal I met many women who were serving the longest sentence within a drug conspiracy case even though they were the least participatory,” she says. “Essentially these women and some men are serving 20 to life for exercising their 6th amendment right to a trial and suffer the trial penalty phase because a judge has no discretion and must impose strict mandatory sentencing regulated by the sentencing guideline chart that was created during the zero tolerance tough on crime drug era of the late 80s.”

“Almost Everyone CANDO is advocating for went to trial and ended up with 15 to life as a result of exercising their constitutional rights. That is an abomination of justice!”

The post We’re Winding Down the War on Weed — But Not Fast Enough appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

The FDA Is Forcing the CDC to Waste Time Double Testing Some Coronavirus Cases

A federal directive that’s supposed to speed up the response to a pandemic is actually slowing down the government’s rollout of coronavirus tests.

The directive, issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, requires that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a sister agency, retest every positive coronavirus test run by a public health lab to confirm its accuracy. The result, experts say, is wasting limited resources at a time when thousands of Americans are waiting in line to get tested for COVID-19.

The duplicative effort is the latest obstacle that is slowing the federal response to COVID-19, which has infected more than 1,300 people and resulted in 38 deaths in the United States. Progress was already delayed because the CDC decided to make its own test rather than adopting the design endorsed by the World Health Organization. The test then didn’t work properly and had to be fixed. The problems were further compounded by delays in certifying tests by private laboratories as well as a shortage of supplies and raw materials used for testing.

On Feb. 4, the FDA, which regulates devices as well as drugs, released a document called an Emergency Use Authorization to govern the use of the test. The goal of the emergency authorization is to short-circuit the typically onerous regulatory review that the agency imposes on new diagnostic devices — a process that can take months to years.

In the face of an imminent outbreak, however, the stringently written EUA appears to have become more of a hindrance than a help. Because of the requirement that the CDC rerun tests conducted by public health labs, as of two weeks ago the CDC’s website was lagging in its tally because it was only reporting confirmed cases. The CDC is now reporting both presumptive positives, which have been tested only by local labs, as well as cases it has confirmed.

“This is the time when we need as many tests as we can very quickly, because we need to know what is happening in this country,” said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and former health commissioner for the city of Baltimore. “Right now we are in the dark about the degree of COVID-19 spread. It’s hard for us to proceed to do our work in public health without concrete information.”

The CDC says it is simply following the process set out by federal regulations, though it couldn’t say how many false positives, if any, have shown up in the verification process.

“The regulatory language of the EUA dictated that,” CDC spokesman Richard Quartarone said. “We have to follow the rules. If we don’t follow the rules, FDA could shut us down. That is a real thing.”

The CDC is designed to serve as a short-term bridge to widespread testing while it analyzes a new disease and makes sure diagnostic tests are working correctly before handing the role off to the private sector, Quartarone said. If duplication hadn’t been required, the CDC may have been able to help with more front-line testing before private-sector labs took over, he said.

The emergency authorization also slowed the process of tests offered by private labs, which became available last week. The FDA initially required private labs to copy the CDC’s test design and have the agency review their tests before allowing them to begin testing. It took more than three weeks and growing criticism for the FDA to update its guidelines to allow certain academic labs to start testing once they had validated their tests internally.

In response to questions, FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Caccomo referred a reporter to a speech by FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn on March 7, in which he defended the agency’s process.

“In the U.S., we have policies in place that strike the right balance during public health emergencies of ensuring critical independent review by the scientific and public health experts and timely test availability,” Hahn said. “The CDC test is a high-quality test, and it’s important to remember that false negatives or positives can be detrimental to making sure we are treating patients early, without delay, and also not quarantining healthy individuals.”

Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at Johns Hopkins’ School of Public Health, said the FDA’s high standards might have been appropriate for smaller outbreaks. The FDA issued EUAs for diagnostics during the 2014 Ebola crisis and in 2016 for the mosquito-borne Zika virus. The coronavirus, however, is moving too fast to maintain absolute control — and the FDA could have ordered up a more flexible process, Scharfstein said.

“If you were to go back in time and tell the FDA ‘you’ve got a month to get a million tests ready,’ I imagine they wouldn’t have chosen this strategy,” said Sharfstein, who oversaw EUAs while he served as deputy commissioner of the FDA during the Obama administration.

Requiring confirmatory tests not only adds time to the process but also uses crucial chemicals needed to set up the tests. “You need some of the reagents that now are in short supply to prepare the tests,” said CDC Director Robert Redfield in a hearing before the House Oversight Committee on Thursday, explaining the difficulty in expanding capacity even as private labs received green lights to start testing.

Private labs need only get confirmation for their first five positive and first five negative clinical specimens, according to the FDA’s Feb. 29 guidance. Commercial giants like LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics say they are now able to run thousands of tests a day.

“We want them to come online, because we don’t have the manufacturing capacity; our system in place is not designed for that massive amount,” Quartarone said of the private labs. “In general, CDC testing is a drop in the bucket for the overall testing that happens.”

According to the American Enterprise Institute, as of Thursday afternoon, nationwide testing capacity was at about 20,695 people a day. California public and private labs accounted for 39% of capacity, and the CDC and public health labs together accounted for about 17% of available tests.

That’s only testing capacity, however. According to Redfield, actual testing is still hampered by shortages of essential equipment and manpower.

The post The FDA Is Forcing the CDC to Waste Time Double Testing Some Coronavirus Cases appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Donald Trump Is Using the Coronavirus Crisis to Attack Social Security

Donald Trump’s proposal to cut the payroll contribution rate is a stealth attack on Social Security. Even if the proposal were to replace Social Security’s dedicated revenue with deficit-funded general revenue, the proposal would undermine this vital program.

The proposal is a Trojan horse. It appears to be a gift, in the form of middle-class tax relief, but would, in the long run, lead to the destruction of working Americans’ fundamental economic security. While the goal of the proposal is stated in terms of fiscal stimulus, its most important impact, if not its intent, is to do what opponents of Social Security have been unable to do—end Social Security as we know it.

The supposed purpose of a reduction in payroll contributions is to address the coronavirus crisis. Tax cuts do not meaningfully address the coronavirus, or even the resulting market panic. We do want to ensure that people have the cash they need while they face massive uncertainties around employment and other costs. We want people to stay home as much as needed without having to worry about paying their rent or other costs. What we need most is a robust public health response, which the Trump administration is utterly failing to provide.

Alongside that vital public health response, there are better options for economic stimulus. These include a one-time progressively structured direct payment, restoring and expanding the Making Work Pay Tax Credit, or expanding the existing Earned Income Tax Credit and provide greater economic stimulus, are more targeted and equitable, and place no administrative burdens on employers. The only reason to support Trump’s proposal above those others is to undermine Social Security.

Cutting the payroll contribution rate is a deficient stimulus. Most of the benefit would go to the wealthiest Americans—including CEOs, senators, congresspeople, and members of the Trump administration—who are the least likely to spend the extra money. The other big winners are the nation’s largest corporations and other employers. The lower workers’ wages are, the lower their benefit. Moreover, those state and local employees who do not participate in Social Security would get nothing.

What Trump is proposing to cut, to be clear, are Federal Insurance Contributions Act payments. As the name indicates, these payments are not general taxes, but insurance contributions, or, in today’s parlance, insurance premiums. By law, they can only be used to pay Social Security insurance benefits and their associated administrative costs. Social Security has no borrowing authority. Consequently, Social Security does not and, by law, cannot, add even a penny to the deficit. If Social Security were ever to have insufficient revenue to cover every penny of these costs, those benefits would not be paid.

The late President Ronald Reagan eloquently explained, in his words, “Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit.” This proposal would change that, at least temporarily, if Social Security’s dedicated revenue were replaced with general revenue. (Of course, more accurately, the dedicated revenue would be replaced with borrowed money since the general fund is running unprecedently large deficits.)

The proposal would either undermine Social Security’s financing or employ general revenue, both of which would set the stage for future demands to cut Social Security. And it likely would not be temporary. When the cut would be set to expire, opponents of Social Security would undoubtedly characterize its expiration as a middle-class tax increase.

Too many Americans believe, understandably, that their Social Security contributions have been stolen. Using their contributions for economic stimulus would reveal that their elected officials indeed do not respect the fire wall between their contributions that are held in trust and can be used only for their dedicated purpose and the taxes they pay to the federal government that are held in the general fund and can be used for any constitutional purpose that Congress chooses.

On March 8, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer released an excellent list of steps we should take to combat the coronavirus. Their plan includes paid sick leave, free coronavirus testing, and treatment for all. Our government should enact these measures, not undermine Social Security by slashing its dedicated revenue.

Nancy J. Altman is a writing fellow for Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute. She has a 40-year background in the areas of Social Security and private pensions. She is president of Social Security Works and chair of the Strengthen Social Security coalition. Her latest book is The Truth About Social Security. She is also the author of The Battle for Social Security and co-author of Social Security Works!

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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Should I Quarantine Because of Coronavirus? It Depends on Who You Ask.

By Maya Miller, Caroline Chen and Joshua Kaplan / ProPublica

Travelers disembarking a plane from Rome to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City on Tuesday said they were not told that they needed to stay home for two weeks, despite a clear policy by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying they should. A woman exposed to the coronavirus at a New York wedding was told by state officials she didn’t need to go into quarantine, even though county officials said she did. In fact, they thought the venue had already called and told her.

Even the journalists covering the virus are not immune from confusion. As three ProPublica reporters were working on this story Tuesday night, word came that an attendee at NICAR, a data-reporting conference in New Orleans they all attended, had tested positive. We were told by newsroom management to work from home, but one of our editors, who had direct contact with the person who was infected, was told by a state health agency he could still go out, as long as he kept a 6-foot distance from others. A different state agency said he needed to isolate himself in a room at home, having no contact even with his family.

While health officials offer near uniformity on how to conduct self-isolation, which is what you do when you are sick, it’s hard to get a straight answer on what to do when you’ve been in contact with someone who tested positive.

Interviews with people across six states who have been exposed to the coronavirus show that even when agencies like the CDC or local health departments have a clear standard on paper, they often fail to carry out their own policies. People say agencies are giving wildly different advice to those in similar circumstances. This may be appropriate, considering the varying situations in different geographic areas; some have given up on tracking down people for quarantine and begun canceling public events. But the failure to clearly explain what to do and why has led to confusion and mistrust.

Many proactive, civic-minded citizens appear to be taking matters into their own hands, deciding on their own to stay at home, frustrated, scared and anxious, while they wait on health officials to return their calls.

The lack of clear instruction, exacerbated by a paucity of tests, comes at a critical juncture, as the number of reported cases in the United States has risen above 1,000 — a considerable increase over a week ago, yet still not so many that it’s too late for the country to curb the spread of the disease, according to public health experts.

“We need to be putting out clear and consistent messages to have a huge public health impact now,” said Dr. Megan Murray, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “The data from China and from previous epidemics is absolutely clear that in cities that put clear social distancing and quarantine measures early, the epidemics have been small.”

Not everyone agrees on whether imposing quarantines on individual people is the best way to approach the virus right now. Quarantines can drain a health department’s resources because they require teams of “disease detectives” to retrace a sick patient’s steps and ask all the people who came into contact with them to self-quarantine. At a certain point, local authorities might decide that this form of containment eats up too many resources, given the number of cases, and move on to what’s known as mitigation — canceling large events and asking people to work from home and avoid public transit.

On Monday, Sacramento County, California, called off all 14-day quarantines for anyone not exhibiting symptoms. As part of the new measures, the county advised people who are elderly as well as people with underlying conditions, like heart disease or immunodeficiency disorders, to stay home and away from social gatherings where people are at arm’s-length distance. Dr. Peter Beilenson, the head of the county’s Department of Health Services, told The Sacramento Bee that the decision was designed to conserve resources and focus on reducing risks for the most vulnerable people. Two neighboring California counties announced similar efforts Tuesday.

Dr. Thomas Farley, head of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, who previously worked in the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service, said he thinks it’s too early to abandon containment efforts like quarantine — especially since there’s evidence that it worked well in China and helped to reduce cases.

“If we abandon containment,” he said, “we will just allow the virus to spread.”

When state and local officials don’t seem to agree — or communicate

Five days after Elisheva Avital attended a wedding in Rockland County, New York, her heart sank when she saw a tweet that a waiter at the banquet hall had tested positive for COVID-19. It was March 6, a Friday night, about 20 minutes before sundown. As a strict Jewish observer of the Sabbath, she couldn’t use the phone after dark. She called the hotline for her state, New Jersey, desperate for information. She waited on hold and then the line disconnected. She called again and waited a few minutes, but time ran out.

Avital waited anxiously through the Sabbath and then started calling again Saturday night. Once someone finally answered, she peppered him with her concerns. What if the caterer had served her food or touched someone? “The person was clearly, evidently annoyed with me for asking questions and kept saying, ‘If you think you had contact with the person, you can self-quarantine,’” she told ProPublica. “He didn’t tell me how to interact with my children.”

Unable to get answers, Avital asked a friend, who is a pulmonologist, for help. The pulmonologist called the local health department, where an official confirmed to him that someone at the event had, indeed, tested positive for the coronavirus.

That Sunday, six days after the wedding, the Rockland County Health Department put up a press release saying those who attended the event could have been exposed. The delay came because the worker had not been forthcoming, according to county spokesperson John Lyon. The release did not specify whether wedding attendees should quarantine themselves.

Avital decided to stay at home while continuing her efforts to get clarity from state and local health departments. On Tuesday, after repeated attempts to get in touch, she heard back from someone at the New York State Department of Health. “They told me that given the length of time that has passed without Rockland notifying me of an official quarantine, I don’t have to be quarantined,” she said

Lyon, however, told ProPublica that the county agency had reached out to the wedding venue and asked it to alert attendees that they should be in a precautionary quarantine for two weeks. When ProPublica told him that Avital hadn’t heard from the county Health Department or anyone at the venue, he paused. “That is concerning. I’ll relay that to the Department of Health.”

His office put out a press release Tuesday announcing six confirmed cases countywide and recommending three school closures. But Avital and other wedding guests still had not heard updates from the county Health Department as of Wednesday morning. “I’m incredibly frustrated,” Avital said. “People are still living under the assumption that we’re in a functioning society and we can trust our public systems to keep us safe — this has shown me we can’t.”

When two countries don’t agree

On the same day Avital went to the wedding, her two sisters attended the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C.

Dina Rabhan left the conference for Israel, where she lives, and already knew what she had to do. The Israeli Ministry of Health had made it clear that any resident returning from an international conference had to self-quarantine for two weeks, under threat of fines or criminal charges.

Three days later, she found out that at least two people at the conference had tested positive for COVID-19. Rabhan thinks her chances of having contracted the coronavirus are low, but she’s content to stay home. She sees it as her civic duty. “We all have a shared sense of not wanting what happened in Italy and other countries to happen in our little country here,” she said. She checks the Health Ministry’s website daily for updates.

Israel began imposing restrictions early. By Feb. 4, it required everyone who’d recently been to mainland China to self-quarantine. By Feb. 23, officials expanded the quarantine list to include four other countries, Hong Kong, and Macau. Then this Monday, they made quarantine mandatory for all travelers returning from abroad. As of March 11, the country had 75 confirmed cases and no deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

“I’m definitely grateful there is a place I can look and find answers on what I can do,” Rabhan added. “We’re getting very clear messages.”

Her sister, who also attended the conference, returned to Long Island and called the New York City Department of Health. In a text message shared with ProPublica, her sister wrote, “NYC dept of health said no quarantine necessary since they” — the attendees who came down COVID19 — “were asymptomatic at AIPAC and therefore not contagious. That’s their guidelines.” The New York City Health Department didn’t respond to a request for comment.

A group of George Washington University students who also attended the conference initially self-quarantined for a night, but the university later discontinued the measures after consulting academic experts and the D.C. Department of Health.

When no one can agree on when to test or how long to quarantine

Christine Norrie’s teenage daughter, Jo, got back from Italy after a school trip on Feb. 23. She had visited Rome, Florence and Assisi — cities currently under lockdown in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, which has infected more than 12,000 across the country. About five days after her return, she started feeling sick and was diagnosed with an upper respiratory infection. Her doctor said she didn’t need COVID-19 testing because she was otherwise healthy but recommended she stay home for two weeks as a conservative measure.

Jo’s symptoms persisted. So Christine called New York’s general information hotline and was routed to an official with the Department of Health, who advised her to seek testing. She booked an online visit with an ER doctor. “Basically, it seemed that if we want to test we would have to seriously lobby for it due her symptoms being mild,” Norrie said.

The ER physician recommended they continue self-isolating. But the timelines she was given by the various medical personnel were scattershot: Jo’s pediatrician had directed her to self-isolate for two weeks from the day she visited the office. The ER doctor said isolation meant two weeks from the onset of symptoms. And when Norrie consulted the CDC’s website, the agency said that meant two weeks from the day she left Italy.

Confused, Norrie decided to keep Jo home for the longest period of time suggested. “I’m grateful she’s an excellent student and she can manage taking the time off from school,” she said. “No matter how hard it is to stay at home, we’ll take the more liberal amount.”

When federal officials have clear guidelines but fail to fill you in

The guidance from the CDC was clear: Anyone flying into the United States from Italy should go home and stay there for two weeks. But on Tuesday afternoon, one critical group hadn’t gotten the memo: passengers. ProPublica went to John F. Kennedy Airport to meet passengers coming off a flight from Rome. Eight spoke to a reporter, and all of them expressed surprise that over the course of the journey, no one had instructed them to self-quarantine.

“Nothing in Rome. Nothing from the airlines. … No one told me to quarantine,” said Yan Meshoyrer, on his way home to New Jersey. “If I didn’t watch CNN, I’d have no idea this was happening.” Jessica Andir, a Milan native living in Rome, said that before the trip, she was worried that agents with Customs and Border Protection would grill her about the outbreak in her hometown. Instead, she ended up worrying about how little she was told: “Absolutely nothing.”

A CDC spokesperson told ProPublica that the entity responsible for telling travelers about the recommended quarantine depends on how people fly in. Customs is supposed to direct travelers from China and Iran to CDC officials stationed at the airport. Those coming from China are supposed to receive detailed booklets, which contain instructions to call their local health department and stay home for two weeks and include a journal to write down their temperature twice a day. Those coming from Iran should get shorter self-quarantine guidance. For those coming directly from Italy and South Korea, airlines are supposed to give passengers instructions on their flights; for those not flying direct, they’re supposed to get the instructions from CBP.

The passengers on the plane said they heard nothing from Alitalia Airlines before they landed. Alitalia did not respond to ProPublica’s questions.

A CBP spokesperson did not answer repeated questions about whether its agents are telling people who arrive from Italy to self-quarantine.

Dr. Cyrus Shahpar, former team lead of CDC’s Global Rapid Response Team, said that at a time when resources are limited, the government’s scattershot approach to self-quarantining all but defeats the purpose: “If you’re doing something with limited effectiveness and you’re only doing it halfway, it’s going to be extremely ineffective.”

When even investigative journalists are having trouble getting answers

As we were calling people around the country to learn how hard it was to get answers from public officials, we received news that brought our reporting (quite literally) closer to home. The three of us had just returned from an 1,100-person conference in New Orleans, and Tuesday night, we learned one of the attendees was later diagnosed with COVID-19. ProPublica’s president, Richard Tofel, told all of us not to return to the office for two weeks.

Suddenly, we were fielding questions from worried colleagues. Conference attendees started a spreadsheet with the conflicting information they’d received from their local health departments. Some couldn’t get through to anyone at all.

Andrea Suozzo, a newspaper editor in Winooski, Vermont, came back from the conference Sunday and woke up the next morning feeling under the weather with a sore throat. When she learned about the attendee who tested presumptively positive Tuesday evening, she started to panic.

“I called the Vermont Health Department,” she told ProPublica, “and they said to call my doctor or 211. I called my doctor and they said, don’t come in, and call the urgent care. I called the urgent care center, and their voicemail said, ‘If you think you might have COVID-19, don’t come in — stay home.’ I called 211, and they said nothing in the system can happen without going through your primary care provider.”

On Wednesday, Suozzo was waiting for a call from her doctor with instructions. “I just want to make sure I’m on somebody’s radar,” she said. “I just have no idea what to do or who to talk to.”

Scott Klein, a deputy managing editor at ProPublica, was also trying to navigate the disparate information he was receiving. Klein had spoken to the person who tested positive. He was sure they’d stood within 6 feet of each other at the conference. “Ironically, we talked about doing a coronavirus project together,” Klein said.

Klein first called the state Department of Health where the person who tested positive lives. He was initially told that for him to have been at-risk, he needed to be within 6 feet of someone showing symptoms — and the attendee hadn’t had symptoms until leaving the conference. But then the official changed course, saying the person who tested positive didn’t need to be showing symptoms for Klein to be at-risk. The department official told Klein he would get a call back to clarify and said Klein could go get groceries and gas for his car so long as he stayed more than 6 feet away from people. The official also advised Klein to call his local department of health for further guidelines.

When he got through to the New York State Department of Health, an official instructed him to remain in a room isolated from his wife and kids and to use a mask. “They seemed to be giving me information as though I already had symptoms,” Klein said. He tried calling the New York City Department of Health afterward, but he was put on hold and didn’t wait for the call to go through.

Given the diverging information from health departments, Klein decided to move forward in what he felt was the most responsible way. “I’m going to stay home and not leave my apartment, but I don’t have the ability to be in an isolated room. I live in a small New York apartment,” Klein said. “I’ll do the best with the circumstances I have.”

The post Should I Quarantine Because of Coronavirus? It Depends on Who You Ask. appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

China Shuts Down Mount Everest Climbing Routes

The Latest on the world’s coronavirus pandemic:

Mountain climbing expedition operators on Mount Everest says Chinese mountaineering officials will not allow spring climbs from their side of the world’s highest mountain due to fears of coronavirus.

On the other side of the mountain in Nepal, operators say cancellations for the popular spring climbing season have been pouring in, despite the mountain being open for business.

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As the virus is coming under control in China, officials there are taking steps to prevent new infections coming from abroad, including by putting overseas travelers arriving in Beijing into 14-day quarantines.

China has seen nearly 81,000 infections but some 61,000 of them have already recovered. Over 3,000 virus victims have died in China, the world’s hardest-hit nation.

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President Donald Trump sought to assure the markets mid-day Thursday as he took questions from reporters while meeting with Ireland’s prime minister. The president often takes credit for market gains in the last three years, though the bull market that ended this week began in early 2009.

“You have to remember the stock market, as an example, is still much higher than when I got here,” Trump said. “It’s taken a big hit, but it’s going to all bounce back and it’s going to bounce back very big at the right time.”

Trump decision to ban travel from most European countries for 30 days has rattled markets around the world and sent stocks plummeting.

Trumps says “I don’t want people dying and that’s why I made these decisions. Whether it affects the stock market or not, very important, but it’s not important compared to life and death.”

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is self-isolating at home after wife has exhibited flu-like symptoms.

Trudeau’s office said Sophie Grégoire Trudeau returned from a speaking engagement in the United Kingdom and began began exhibiting mild flu-like symptoms including a low fever late Wednesday night. She is being tested for COVID-19 and is awaiting results.

The statement said “Out of an abundance of caution, the prime minister is opting to self-isolate and work from home until receiving Sophie’s results.”

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The Southeastern Conference has cancelled the remainder of its 2020 men’s college basketball tournament in Nashville after holding two games the first day. It marks the first time since 1978 that it hasn’t held a tournament.

The SEC tweeted its cancellation a little more than an hour before Alabama was to face Tennessee in the first of four second-round games at Bridgestone Arena. It comes less than a day after the conference announced that spectators would be banned.

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Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said religious leaders have agreed to cancel weddings, baptisms, funeral services and other ceremonies in the coming weeks to help prevent spread of the new coronavirus.

Kurz said Thursday the measures were part of efforts to enforcing “social distancing” that also includes closing middle schools and high schools beginning Monday and postpone local elections March 22 in the state of Styria. Burials are still allowed.

He added that further measures would be announced Friday. Austria has 302 confirmed cases.

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Oregon has banned all gatherings of more than 250 people statewide for four weeks to try to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.

The order was issued by Gov. Kate Brown, who said “it’s time for us all to do what we can to slow its spread.”

Officials assume that thousands of Oregonians will get the new coronavirus. Brown, who was to speak at a news conference Thursday in Portland, said all non-essential school gatherings and activities should be canceled — such as parent meetings, field trips and competitions.

She also recommended businesses increase the physical distances between employees, limit travel and stagger work schedules.

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The Philippine president has suspended domestic travel to and from the Manila area for a month and authorized sweeping quarantines in the region to fight the new coronavirus.

President Rodrigo Duterte also banned large gatherings in the capital, suspended most government work and extended the suspension of classes by a month in new restrictions announced Thursday in a nationwide TV address.

He warned that violators and officials who refuse to enforce the restrictions would face possible imprisonment. But he insisted “this is not martial law.”

Health officials in the Asian nation have confirmed 52 infections and two deaths.

___

Singapore’s Islamic Religious Council says all mosques in the city state will close beginning Friday for at least five days for disinfection.

It says all activities, religious classes and lectures will also be halted for two weeks. The council says the move is intended to minimize the spread of the virus after two men, out of 90 Singaporeans who attended a recent mass religious gathering in Kuala Lumpur, were diagnosed with the virus.

With the suspension of obligatory Friday prayers for Muslim males at mosques, it said sermons will be carried online. Malaysian authorities say 10,000 people, half of them foreigners, participated in the four-day religious event in late February at a mosque in a Kuala Lumpur suburb.

Malaysia has reported 149 infections.

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The Dutch government has banned gatherings of more than 100 people until the end of the month in an effort to control the spread of the new coronavirus.

Health and Sports Minister Bruno Bruins said the far-reaching measure would cover events and venues such as sports clubs, museums and theaters. He also urged people to stay home if they have symptoms and to work from home if possible.

The Netherlands has 614 confirmed cases of the virus and five deaths.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the government had decided not to close schools yet.

__

Azerbaijan is reporting its first death of a patient infected with coronavirus, a woman who had recently returned from Iran who had underlying health issues.

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Hospitals in Italy’s hard-hit Lombardy region, already overwhelmed trying to care for the increasing number of sick people in limited intensive care units, are overflowing with the dead.

Lombardy’s top health care official, Giulio Gallera, said at the request of the hospitals, the region had simplified the bureaucracy needed to process death certificates and bury the dead, which in Lombardy alone had reached 617 by late Wednesday.

Italian officials have halted both weddings and funerals for a month in their efforts to control Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak. The country has nearly 12,500 infections and has seen 827 deaths overall.

Worldwide, 126,000 people have been infected with the new coronavirus, 68,000 have recovered and 4,600 have died.

___

Borders are re-emerging in Europe due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Czech government declared a state of emergency Thursday due to coronavirus and was renewing border checks at its borders with Austria and Germany.

People will be banned from crossing in at any other place. The measure, effective Friday at midnight, was approved Thursday.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis said people from 13 risk countries that include not only China, South Korea and Iran but also EU nations such as Italy, Spain, France, Austria and Germany as well Britain will not be allowed to enter the Czech Republic.

In addition, Czech citizens are not allowed to travel to those countries. Exceptions include truck drivers, train workers and pilots.

Also, starting Friday, all public gatherings of more than 30 people will be banned.

___

Congress is shutting the Capitol and all House and Senate office buildings to the public until April in reaction to the spread of the new coronavirus.

The House and Senate sergeants at arms said that the closure will begin at 5 p.m. EDT Thursday. Only lawmakers, aides, journalists and official visitors will be allowed into the buildings. The statement says officials are acting “out of concern for the health and safety of congressional employees as well as the public.”

Politicians in Europe, Iran and China have contracted the virus and several U.S. lawmakers have already self-quarantined due to exposure. The virus has infected over 126,000 people worldwide and killed over 4.600 but over 68,000 victims have already recovered.

___

World markets are enduring violent swings amid uncertainty about how badly the outbreak will hit the economy.

An early plunge of 7% on Wall Street triggered a trading halt as a sell-off slamming global markets continued.

The Dow Jones industrials dropped more than 1,600 points, or 7%, the S&P 500 fell a similar amount. Trading resumes after 15 minutes.

The rout came after President Donald Trump imposed a travel ban on most of Europe and offered few new measures to contain the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

Benchmarks in Europe fell more than 7% even after the European Central Bank announced more stimulus measures.

___

Norway and Lithuania are shutting down kindergartens, schools and universities for at least two weeks and the Norwegian government says employees at work must be at least one meter apart.

In Oslo, the Norwegian capital, gatherings of more than 50 people were banned. Norway’s royal palace said all official arrangements till early April will either be cancelled or postponed. King Harald V said it’s “crucial” that everyone “avoid exposing ourselves or others to infection.”

Lithuania suspended gatherings of more than 100 people and closed museums, cinemas and sports clubs. In the capital of Vilnius, the lockdown was for five weeks.

In Finland, the government recommended banning all events with more than 500 people until end of May.

Denmark’s royal palace said Crown Prince Frederik and his wife will return from Switzerland “to be with the Danes” at this time.

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Princess Cruises has announced, due to the new coronavirus, it will voluntarily pause global operations of its 18 cruise ships for 60 days, affecting trips departing March 12 to May 10.

Cruise ships have been particularly hard hit amid the new pandemic and have been turned away by dozens of ports and countries. The Diamond Princess cruise ship, which Japanese officials held in a flawed quarantine operation, infected hundreds of passengers and crew.

Jan Swartz, president of Princess Cruises, says “by taking this bold action of voluntarily pausing the operations of our ships, it is our intention to reassure our loyal guests, team members and global stakeholders of our commitment to the health, safety and well-being of all who sail with us.”

Passengers now on a Princess cruise that will end in the next five days will continue to sail as expected through the end of the itinerary. Current voyages that extend beyond March 17 will be ended at the most convenient location for guests.

Under normal operations, it serves more than 50,000 passengers a day.

___

Britain, which is exempt from the U.S. travel ban on most European nations, has not taken the stringent measures seen in other European countries, such as closing schools or banning large events.

The U.K. has 456 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus and eight deaths. But the centerpiece of official British advice so far is that people should wash their hands often in warm, soapy water.

On Thursday, Britain’s Conservative government is expected to announce that it is moving from attempting to contain the virus to delaying its spread. That is likely to bring wider measures, including a recommendation that people with flu-like symptoms stay home for a week. But there are so far no plans for travel bans or large-scale closures of schools or other institutions.

In Ireland — which is also excluded from the U.S. travel ban — 43 cases have been confirmed and one person has died.

U.S. President Donald Trump has golf courses in Scotland and Ireland.

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Iran has asked for an emergency $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to combat the outbreak of the novel coronavirus there, which has killed more than 360 people and infected some 9,000 nationwide.

Iran’s Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati said Thursday he made the request last week in a letter to IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva.

Iran’s economy has been battered by U.S. sanctions, which have choked Tehran’s ability to export oil widely. The virus outbreak prompted all of Iran’s neighbors to shutter their borders and nations have cut travel links with Iran, including shipping in some cases, affecting imports, as well.

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Greek authorities say a ferry with 341 passengers and 77 crew on board is being held in port on the Greek island of Lemnos after a crew member presented symptoms similar to those of the new coronavirus.

The Merchant Marine Ministry said the ship had set sail in late Wednesday from the northern Greek port town of Kavala, where the crew member was removed from the ship and taken to a local hospital. He is being tested. The 127 people who had disembarked in Lemnos have been contacted by authorities and told to self-isolate at home until the results of the crew member’s test are in.

Lemnos was the first of the ferry’s 10 scheduled stops between Kavala and Greece’s main port of Piraeus, near Athens.

Greece has 98 confirmed virus cases and one death, a 66-year-old man who died Thursday.

___

Ireland is closing all schools and cultural institutions until March 29, in a major escalation of its response to the new coronavirus.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar announced the measures would take effect at 6 p.m. Thursday. He said the closure applies to schools, colleges, childcare facilities and cultural institutions. All indoor gatherings of more than 100 people and outdoor events with more than 500 are also canceled.

Speaking during a trip to Washington, Varadkar said people should work from home as much as possible.

He said the measures would mean major disruptions but “acting together as one nation we can save many lies.”

So far 43 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Ireland and one person has died. Ireland, along with Britain, is excluded from a 30-day U.S. ban on travellers form continental Europe

___

Real Madrid says its soccer and basketball teams have been put into quarantine after a basketball player for the club tested positive for the coronavirus.

The Spanish club says the soccer team was also affected because it shares training facilities with the basketball team.

The decision by the club came moments before the Spanish league said the next two rounds of Spain’s first- and second-division matches are being suspended due to fears of the coronavirus outbreak.

___

The European Union has slammed the new anti-virus travel ban announced by U.S. President Donald Trump, lashing out at the “unilateral” decision.

In a joint statement, EU Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen insisted that the coronavirus pandemic is a “global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action.”

Trump’s new restrictions apply only to most foreign citizens who have been in Europe’s passport-free travel zone at any point within 14 days prior to their arrival to the United States.

The so-called “Schengen” area comprises 26 countries including EU members France, Italy, German, Greece, Austria and Belgium, where the EU has its headquarters, but also others like Switzerland, Norway and Iceland.

Trump said the monthlong restriction on travel would begin late Friday. He accused Europe of not acting quickly enough to address the “foreign virus” and claimed that U.S. clusters were “seeded” by European travelers.

Von der Leyen and Michel dismissed Trump’s suggestion that the EU has not done enough.

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Japan’s lower house of parliament has endorsed a legislation that will allow Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to declare state of emergency due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The legislation, a revision to add the coronavirus to an existing law enacted for earlier influenza outbreaks, is a controversial one that opponents say could severely limit civil rights, including the right to gather.

The bill, passed Thursday by the lower house, is expected to be enacted as early as Saturday. Under it, Abe can issue compulsory nationwide school closures and confiscate private property to build new hospitals.

Japan has 645 cases of the virus, not counting cruise ship passengers and crew.

___

The U.S. Army has decided to reduce the number of troops taking part in massive war games that have been planned across Europe over the next six months due to the new coronavirus.

The Defender-Europe 2020 exercises were set to involve some 20,000 American personnel, the biggest deployment of U.S. troops to Europe in the last 25 years.

But U.S. Army Europe said in a statement that “in light of the current coronavirus outbreak, we will modify the exercise by reducing the number of U.S. participants.” No details on numbers were provided.

In all, around 37,000 soldiers from 18 countries, not all of whom are members of the NATO military alliance, had been expected to take part. Some troops and equipment have already deployed.

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Denmark, which has 514 confirmed cases of the virus, on Thursday entered a virtual lockdown.

All schools — public and private — and daycare facilities will be closed from Monday, but many students are staying home already. Schools offered to take care of children but said there would be little teaching.

All public servants who do not perform critical functions have been ordered to stay home for the next two weeks. Hospitals and nursing homes have been urged to impose tighter restrictions on visits. All indoor cultural institutions, libraries and leisure facilities are closed.

The restrictions are to continue for two weeks.

___

Two more passengers on board a river cruise boat in eastern Cambodia have tested positive for the new virus.

The Cambodian Health Ministry said a 73-year-old man and his 69-year-old wife who are both from the United Kingdom have been infected. They were on the same boat where another passenger from the United Kingdom tested positive two days ago

The remaining passengers who are awaiting their test results are being transferred from the cruise boat to a hotel in Kampong Cham for continued quarantine.

The luxury cruise with 64 passengers and crew originated in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City.

The post China Shuts Down Mount Everest Climbing Routes appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Rudy Gobert’s Health Scare Shuts Down NBA, for Now

It started as a joke: Before leaving a post-practice interview session Rudy Gobert touched all the tape recorders that were placed before him on a table, devices that reporters who cover the Utah Jazz were using during an availability with him on Monday before a game with the Detroit Pistons.

It isn’t so funny now.

Gobert is now the NBA’s Patient Zero for coronavirus after becoming the first player in the league to test positive, a person with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press.

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The 7-foot-1 Frenchman is at the center of why the league has been shut down for the foreseeable future:

— Utah’s game against Oklahoma City Wednesday night was canceled and the Pistons are among five teams that have played the Jazz — and Gobert — since the start of March, the others being Boston, Toronto, New York and Cleveland. And Washington, which played Utah in late February, said Thursday that it was having its players, coaches and basketball operations personnel self-quarantine for the next three to four days.

The Wizards played at Utah on Feb. 29. Washington also played Tuesday against the New York Knicks, another recent opponent of the Jazz. The Wizards said players, coaches and basketball operations staff who have flu-like symptoms will be tested for coronavirus.

— The Raptors also said Thursday they are self-quarantining. “Our players, coaches and traveling staff have all been advised to into self-isolation for 14 days,” the team said, also confirming that Toronto players had been tested.

— Gobert shared the court with 50 opposing players in those games, plus 15 referees.

— One of the refs was Courtney Kirkland, who was to work the New Orleans-Sacramento game on Wednesday that got canceled because he had been on the court with Gobert two nights earlier, and who knows how many ballboys, stat-crew employees, security guards, attendants and others did as well.

— Then there’s Gobert’s own teammates and the Jazz coaches and staff. And everyone he’s been on a plane with in recent days. Or shared a hotel elevator with. Or dined with. Or shook hands with. And so on, and so on.

“I’m sure I probably had contact with him,” Detroit’s Langston Galloway said.

He added, “Staying focused on that moment of interaction with a lot of different people and knowing that at the end of the day you might have touched the ball, you might have interacted with a fan and just being (cautious) with that going forward.”

The NBA shutdown could cost teams well into the hundreds of millions of dollars depending on how long the shutdown lasts. Those teams that have faced Gobert in recent days will likely face some testing. And some of those Jazz reporters said they were getting tested for COVID-19, just in case.

“It’s unprecedented,” Detroit Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “I think it’s the prudent thing to do. And what went on in Utah, I don’t know all the information but that just shows you how fragile everything is right now.”

This is the reality of the coronavirus, which was labeled a pandemic by the World Health Organization on Wednesday weeks after beginning its havoc-wreaking global run that has sickened well over 100,000 and killed more than 4,000.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the WHO, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

Charlotte coach James Borrego said these are scary times in the NBA, and no one argued.

“They’re all concerned and rightfully so,” Casey said. “Everybody in our league should be concerned. I think everybody in our country right now, more than just basketball, is concerned. We all have to take care of ourselves and look out for our fellow man.”

That’s what Orlando’s Evan Fournier did Wednesday night.

Fournier, a French national teammate of Gobert’s, reached out to him after news of the diagnosis and leaguewide shutdown broke.

“Was just on the phone with Rudy,” Fournier wrote. “He is doing good man. Lets not (panic) everyone. Love you all.”

___

AP Sports Writer Howard Fendrich in Washington contributed.

The post Rudy Gobert’s Health Scare Shuts Down NBA, for Now appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Dow Sinks 8% as Sell-Off Slamming Global Markets Deepens

NEW YORK — The sell-off bludgeoning financial markets around the world got even worse Thursday as the economic pain caused by the coronavirus became more painfully clear. Worries are rising that the White House and other authorities around the world can’t or won’t help the weakening economy soon.

After the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed in a bear market for the first time in more than a decade, President Donald Trump said late Wednesday he would restrict travel to Europe in hopes of containing the virus. It’s the latest hit for an airline industry already battered by frightened travelers cancelling plans, and market losses accelerated around the world as Trump spoke while giving few details about a big stimulus program that could help.

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The S&P 500 was down 7%, as of 10:15 a.m. Eastern time, after trading was temporarily halted following a steep drop in the first few minutes of trading. The index is set to join the Dow in entering a bear market after losing more than 20% from its record set last month, and one of the greatest eras in Wall Street’s history is crumbling. The Dow was off about 1,800 points, or close to 8%.

The damage was worldwide and eye-popping. Among the big moves:

— European stocks tumbled 10%, even after the European Central Bank pledged to buy more bonds and offer more help for the economy.

— In Asia, stocks in Thailand and the Philippines fell so fast that trading was temporarily halted. Japan’s Nikkei 225 sank 4.4% to its lowest close in four years, and South Korea’s market lost 3.9%.

— Treasury yields, which were one of the first markets to sound the alarm on the economic risks of the virus, fell further in an indication of more fear in the market. The yield on the 10-year Treasury fell to 0.65% from 0.82% late Wednesday as investors are willing to own bonds that pay close to nothing in exchange for safety.

Not only has the degree of the market’s drop in recent weeks been breathtaking, so has its speed. If the S&P 500 remains under 2,708.92, which looks very likely, it would be the fastest that the index has fallen from a record to a bear market since World War II, according to CFRA.

It was just two days ago that the S&P 500 soared nearly 5% amid hopes that big stimulus from the U.S. government could arrive soon to help cushion the economic blow from the virus. Trump’s pitch for a cut in payroll taxes has hit resistance on Capitol Hill, though, and hopes dissipated after Trump’s Wednesday remarks from the Oval Office, where he blamed the “foreign virus.”

“The market judgement on that announcement is that it’s too little too late,” said Michael McCarthy of CMC Markets.

Investors know that stimulus from governments and central banks around the world won’t solve the COVID-19 crisis, which global health authorities declared a pandemic Wednesday. Only the containment of the virus can do that. But those measures could help support to the economy in the meantime, and investors fear things would be much worse without them.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus, but the fear is that COVID-19 could drag the global economy into a recession as quarantines and other measures force companies to close shop and worries about the virus scare customers away.

Many analysts say markets will continue to swing sharply until the number of new infections stops accelerating. More than 126,000 people in more than 110 countries have been infected.

Travel stocks again were among the market’s hardest hit. Norwegian Cruise Line lost more than a quarter of its value, and Royal Caribbean Cruises fell 23.6%.

Crude continued its brutal week of trading as producers continue to pull oil from the ground even as demand sags from a virus-weakened economy. Brent crude, the international standard, fell $2.90, or 8.1%, to $32.89. Benchmark U.S. crude lost $2.36 to $30.62 per barrel.

The S&P 500 was down 7%. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 1,842, or 7.8%, to 21,706, and the Nasdaq was down 6.5%.

The post Dow Sinks 8% as Sell-Off Slamming Global Markets Deepens appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

March Madness Will Go On Without the Crowds

The buzzer-beaters, upsets and all the other shining moments of this year’s NCAA basketball tournaments will be played in mostly empty arenas.

Trying to avoid spreading the deadly coronavirus that has become a global pandemic, the NCAA has decided that the men’s and women’s tournament games will be off-limits to the general public.

NCAA President Mark Emmert said Wednesday that he made the decision to conduct both tournaments, which begin next week, with only essential staff and limited family in attendance. The decision comes after the NCAA’s COVID-19 advisory panel of medical experts recommended against playing sporting events open to the general public.

Emmert told The Associated Press that canceling the tournament was considered.

“The decision was based on a combination of the information provided by national and state officials, by the advisory team that we put together of medical experts from across the country, and looking at what was going to be in the best interest of our student-athletes, of course,” Emmert told the AP in a phone interview. “But also the public health implications of all of this. We recognize our tournaments bring people from all around the country together. They’re not just regional events. They’re big national events. It’s a very, very hard decision for all the obvious reasons.”

Emmert said the NCAA wants to move the men’s Final Four from Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium to a smaller arena in the area. The NCAA also will consider using smaller venues for regional sites currently set to be played at the Toyota Center in Houston, Madison Square Garden in New York, Staples Center in Los Angeles and Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

“We have to determine the availability of the sites, obviously, but it doesn’t make good sense to have a football stadium be empty,” Emmert said.

All sites for next week’s men’s games will remain the same unless conditions in those areas force relocation, Emmert said.

First- and second-round sites for the women’s tournament will become official next week. Those games are usually played at or near the campuses of the highly seeded teams.

“It’s really sad. Obviously it’s disappointing for all our fans,” said Louisville women’s coach Jeff Walz, whose team is ranked No. 6 in the latest AP poll. “At the same time I completely understand for the health and safety of the fans and student-athletes and everyone involved.”

Walz said the university already had sold more than 4,000 tickets for the first- and second-round sessions.

The decision applies to more than just men’s and women’s basketball. All NCAA-sponsored championships including hockey’s Frozen Four will be affected.

But the men’s basketball tournament is the crown jewel, one of the most popular events on the American sports calendar. March Madness draws hundreds of thousands of fans to arenas from coast to coast. The men’s tournament generated more than $900 million in revenue last year for the NCAA and its members, though the majority of that was from a media rights deal with CBS and Turner that pays about $800 billion per year.

Emmert said CBS and Turner plan to broadcast the games us usual. Other media members will be allowed into the arenas to cover the games, but how many is still being determined, he said.

Emmert said a protocol for the medical screening of people entering the arenas is still being worked out, along with what constitutes essential staff and how to define family members.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the virus.

The 68-team field for the men’s basketball tournament is scheduled to be announced Sunday and the 64-team women’s tournament field is to be unveiled Monday. Games begin Tuesday and Wednesday on the men’s side in Dayton, Ohio, where earlier in the day the governor said he would issue an order to restrict spectator access to indoor sporting events.

The Mid-American Conference on Tuesday announced it was closing its men’s and women’s basketball tournament games at Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, home of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and scheduled site of the men’s NCAA games, to the general public. The women’s tournament started Wednesday.

The Big West Conference announced a similar move, not allowing the general public into its basketball tournament games to be played this week at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California.

Conference basketball tournaments are in full swing across the country this week.

Emmert said it will still be up to conference officials and their members to decide how they will proceed with their tournaments for the rest of the week.

The Atlantic Coast Conference is in Day 2 of its five-day men’s tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Pac-12 played the first game of its tournament in Las Vegas on Wednesday.

Later Wednesday, the Southeastern Conference was to begin its men’s tournament in Nashville, Tennessee; the Big East was set to start at Madison Square Garden in New York; and the Big Ten was scheduled to tip off in Indianapolis. There were no plans to restrict fan access to those events.

March Madness hits another level next week with the start of the NCAA Tournament to crown a national champion.

There are eight first- and second-round sites for the men’s tournament, scheduled to be played March 19-22. Locations include Cleveland; Spokane, Washington; Albany, New York; Sacramento, California; and Omaha, Nebraska. The four regional sites for the second weekend of the tournament are Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Houston and New York. The Final Four is in Atlanta, with the semifinals on April 4 and the championship game April 6.

The women’s tournament first- and second-round games begin March 21 and will be played at 16 sites. The regionals will be played in Dallas, Greenville, South Carolina; Portland, Oregon; and Fort Wayne, Indiana. The Final Four will be held in New Orleans on April 3 and 5.

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AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.

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