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The Mental Health Effects of Coronavirus Are a “Slow-Motion Disaster”

Mother Jones Magazine -

This story is from Columbia Journalism Investigations and the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative media organization in Washington, D.C.

In late August 2017, Hurricane Harvey cut through Texas and other southern states, its catastrophic floods affecting millions of Americans. Within a month, Hurricane Irma swept through Florida, and then Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico.

The federal Disaster Distress Helpline saw a surge in calls and texts for help that September. Nothing since has topped that—until now.

The helpline, 800-985-5990, run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the nonprofit Vibrant Emotional Health, answered roughly 7,000 calls and received 19,000 text messages in March, a more than eight-fold increase from February. That far outstrips the number of texts and calls in August and September 2017 combined, according to data obtained by the Center for Public Integrity and Columbia Journalism Investigations.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, hotlines in the US are seeing a spike in activity that might be unprecedented. That’s because the situation is, too.

“This feels different, and it is,” said Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science, medicine and public health at the University of California, Irvine. “This is an invisible threat: We don’t know who is infected, and anyone could infect us. This is an ambiguous threat: We don’t know how bad it will get … we don’t know how long it will last. And this is a global threat: No community is safe.”

Dozens of studies link psychological burdens with isolation and crises, including epidemics. In one study of Hong Kong’s 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, nearly half of surveyed residents said the experience weighed on their mental health. Sixteen percent showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, six months after the outbreak ended.

Sarah Lowe, a psychologist and assistant professor at Yale School of Public Health, calls the coronavirus a “slow-motion disaster” with potentially widespread and persistent mental-health fallout. Lowe, who studies the effects of disasters, said she worries that some people will be disproportionately affected, particularly medical workers, the sick, those with pre-existing mental illness and anyone facing economic challenges.

“We know from previous disasters that long-term financial strain tends to be associated with depression and PTSD,” she said.

“People with mental illness require a great support system.”

Like the federal hotline, the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ HelpLine is seeing a surge in calls. Before COVID-19, the illness the novel coronavirus causes, 150 calls would be a big day, said Dawn Brown, the HelpLine director. Now it’s surpassing that number daily.

“It’s continuing to go up,” she said, adding that nearly half the callers at some point mention the virus.

Callers to NAMI’s line, 800-950-6264, are sharing feelings of anxiety and depression as well as asking for advice about how to continue mental-health treatment and get medicine refilled during stay-at-home orders.

“People with mental illness require a great support system,” Brown said. “They don’t do well with uncertainty and ambiguity, which this has certainly caused. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, something else happens, whether it be a shelter-in-place order or more news coverage talking about death and shortages.”

In New York City, which has the most confirmed cases in the country, NAMI’s local affiliate is seeing jumps in calls to its own helpline, 212-684-3264. Call volume in the past few weeks has gone up roughly 60 percent, said Matt Kudish, the group’s executive director.

And the number of people taking a free screening test for anxiety offered online by the advocacy organization Mental Health America is up more than 20 percent from mid-February through mid-March, compared with the early part of the year. That’s the COVID-19 effect, said Paul Gionfriddo, the group’s president and CEO.

He’s worried the country may be under-reacting to the mental-health toll. “And it’s only going to get worse as we have to bring widespread grieving into the equation as more people die,” he said. “Because people will be grieving alone.”

Some federal and state health authorities are rushing to maintain psychological support. The US Department of Health and Human Services has expanded access to teletherapy, including for Medicare, and some states are waiving telemedicine restrictions for Medicaid. The US Drug Enforcement Administration is now allowing doctors to prescribe medications virtually without having to first meet a patient face-to-face.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched a COVID-19 Emotional Support Hotline, 844-863-9314, and said 6,000 mental-health professionals have volunteered to help.

What officials say in this fraught period also can help, or harm, mental health.

“Not every message from public health leaders will be comforting,” said Brian Hepburn, who leads the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors. But consistent messaging will build trust, he said, and as a result “you are going to see a decrease in fear, in those spikes.”

The first uptick in calls to the Disaster Distress Helpline happened on March 16, the same day President Donald Trump announced recommendations such as closing schools and avoiding gathering in groups of more than 10 people. Six days earlier, he assured Americans that the administration’s response was “really working out” and downplayed the threat by saying deaths were minuscule compared with the flu.

Lowe said she was upset to see the president’s March 20 press conference, in which he criticized a reporter who asked, “What do you say to Americans who are scared?” Trump rebuffed the question, calling the reporter “terrible.”

“I found that invalidating of people’s fears and worry,” Lowe said. “People are afraid. Denying that will only make those feelings intensify.”

Two hotlines that aren’t seeing increased calls: the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Administrators at both are keeping a close watch for changes.

“Because we expect that people are spending more time at home, possibly not leaving the home for work each day, for example, we know survivors are spending more time in closer proximity to their abusers,” said Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the domestic violence hotline.

Helplines and crisis hotlines are only an initial support system for people in emotional distress. Gionfriddo, of Mental Health America, is urging people — and elected officials — not to assume the anxiety and other corrosive effects will disappear on their own when the pandemic is over. The amounts of mental-health funding in Congress’ coronavirus package, he said, “are rounding errors,” money that in his view will not be enough to address the surge in needs.

“If we make them an afterthought—if we don’t address them aggressively—they’ll still be there,” he said.

Dean Russell is a reporting fellow for Columbia Journalism Investigations, an investigative reporting unit at the Columbia Journalism School. Funding for CJI is provided by the school’s Investigative Reporting Resource and the Energy Foundation. Jamie Smith Hopkins is a reporter and editor at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative newsroom in Washington, D.C.

The Mystery of the Missing Testing Swabs

Mother Jones Magazine -

Despite President’s Donald Trump’s bluster, tests for the coronavirus remain in short supply. And we likely won’t contain the virus until healthcare providers can dramatically scale up testing. One major obstacle: a shortage of swabs, which clinicians need to gather samples from patients’ noses and throats to determine if they’re stricken with COVID-19.

These aren’t ordinary Q-tips. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they have to be tipped not with cotton, which is used for over-the-counter ear swabs, but with with synthetic fiber. And they’re about six inches long. (This video shows how swabs like this are typically used.)

“There’s not nearly enough product,” said Meg Wyatt, senior director of  diagnostics supply-chain services for Premier Inc., which procures medical gear for 4,000 US hospitals and health systems. Premier’s hospital customers are scrambling to bring enough swabs to ramp up testing, and “there’s just no good news.”

Two companies supply the great bulk of medical-grade swabs to the US market, Wyatt said: Maine-based Puritan, and Copan Diagnostics Inc., located in the COVID-19 hotspot of Lombardy, Italy. Both companies say they’re ramping up production, but it hasn’t been enough. And as of now, Wyatt says, there’s no clarity on when the shortage will end. Meanwhile, COVID testing is just now ramping up across much of the globe, including India, a country with more than four times the population of the United States. 

As they scramble to ramp up production, swab makers like Copan and Puritan have been forced to ration the product, supplying hospitals based on what they use in a normal year, Wyatt said.  For example, she said, swab makers may tell a hospital buyer “you’re getting 80 percent of your historical usage—and historical usage reflects a normal flu season,” she said. “But with the COVID-19 spike, that’s not nearly enough to meet what [hospitals] need.” Hospitals “aren’t seeing relief,” even as the demand for testing “just keeps growing and growing,” Wyatt said. 

I wondered whether big companies that make cotton-tipped swabs for the household market could be enlisted to rig their factory lines to produce medical-grade COVID-19 swabs. But neither of the leading consumer swab makers, Unilever USA and Johnson & Johnson, have returned my repeated calls and emails.

Meanwhile, a 3D printing company called Formlabs has jumped into the breach. A spokeswoman for the company, which is working on a design from a team of physicians at the University of South Florida Health, says it will “soon” be able to pump out about about 100,000 COVID-19 testing swabs daily at its US Food and Drug Administration-registered print farm in Ohio. Hospitals equipped with Formlabs printers will be able to produce them as well, the spokeswoman said. But she declined to give a timeline on when Formlabs would begin delivering the product. When it does, she wrote in an email, “we believe that any number of swabs we produce will provide relief to healthcare providers in need.”

Watch How Politics Slowed Red States’ Response to the Coronavirus

Mother Jones Magazine -

Source: University of Washington. Map by Mother Jones

President Trump has shifted from glibly promising the end of social distancing by Easter to warn of a “painful two weeks ahead” as the United States now reports more cases of COVID-19 than any other country. As of March 27, most states had implemented some kind of social distancing policies, from shutting down schools and non-essential businesses to imposing stay-at-home orders to slow down the spread of the coronavirus. But did they act too late?  

There is already evidence that state-level decisions on when to require social distancing were driven by politics, not public health. By March 16, the governors of all 50 states had declared a state of emergency. Yet as the animation at the top of this article shows, Democratic governors generally declared emergencies before Republican governors. Four of the last five states to declare an emergency (West Virginia, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Georgia) have Republican governors.

That data comes from a study released last week by political scientists at the University of Washington, who found that states with Republican governors and a higher number of Trump voters were slow to roll out policies to control the spread of the virus—potentially undermining efforts to “flatten the curve” of transmission.

The researchers looked at when governors in every state announced five important social distancing measures: closing schools and non-essential businesses, putting restrictions on restaurants and social gatherings, and issuing stay-at-home orders. States started implementing these policies on March 10, nearly two weeks after the first reported date of community transmission of coronavirus in the United States. But some states moved a lot quicker than others. 

States’ delays in taking action could produce significant, ongoing harm to public health, the researchers write. The variation in the timing of these policies echoes the 1918 influenza pandemic, when officials were faced with similar decisions whether to require social distancing. Philadelphia held a massive parade to welcome soldiers home while St. Louis cancelled a similar event; it had one eighth the number of deaths as Philadelphia. The University of Washington researchers note the recent contrast between Kentucky and Tennessee’s official responses to the coronavirus: “On 6 March 2020, after Kentucky had its first confirmed case of COVID-19, Governor Andy Beshear (D) immediately called a state of emergency, encouraged social distancing, and closed bars and restaurants ten days later. But when neighboring Tennessee uncovered its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 5th, Governor Bill Lee (R) waited until 12 March to declare a state of emergency and finally closed restaurants and bars on 22 March.” As of March 31, Kentucky had 480 reported cases, according to the New York Times; Tennessee had 1,642.

Overall, the researchers found that the strongest predictor of why a state responded slowly to the pandemic was political ideology. States with Republican governors and a higher percentage of Trump supporters were the slowest in implementing social distancing policies. “All else equal, states with Republican governors and Republican electorates delayed each social distancing measure by an average of 2.70 days… [A] far larger effect than any other factor, including state income per capita, the percentage of neighboring states with mandates, or even confirmed cases in each state,” they write.

University of Washington

The researchers hypothesize that these states waited to act partly because of President Trump’s statements downplaying the virus’s severity, which were magnified by Fox News and other conservative media in the early stages of the pandemic. They also speculate that Republican governors may have feared retaliation if they were seen to contradict the president.

The researchers also looked at various factors that may have influenced a governors’ decision to delay mandating social distancing, including the number of coronavirus cases in the state, what neighboring states were doing, and their states’ economic status. They found that the number of cases had little bearing on when policies were introduced, but neighboring states’ policies did influence each other. Poorer states were slower to adopt social distancing.

“Barring positive developments in the fight against COVID-19, the public health impact of this delay is likely to be massive,” the researchers conclude. “In a state where coronavirus infections are doubling every seven days, this would raise the peak caseload by 30.6%. In a state where infections are doubling every three days, Republican partisanship might raise the peak level of cases by 86.6%.”

The Dark Secrets in the Fed’s Last Wall Street Bailout Are Getting a Devious Makeover in Today’s Bailout

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Largest Recipients of Federal Reserve Bailout Funds, 2007 to 2011.

From December 2007 to November 10, 2011, the Federal Reserve, secretly and without the awareness of Congress, funneled $19.6 trillion in cumulative loans to bail out the trading houses on Wall Street. Just 14 global financial institutions received 83.9 percent of those loans or $16.41 trillion. (See chart above.) A number of those banks were insolvent at the time and did not, under the law, qualify for these Fed loans. Significant amounts of these loans were collateralized with junk bonds and stocks, at a time when both markets were in freefall. Under the law, the Fed is only allowed to make loans against “good” collateral.

Six of the institutions receiving massive loans from the Fed were not even U.S. banks but global foreign banks that had to be saved because they were heavily interconnected to the Wall Street banks through unregulated derivatives. If one financial institution in this daisy chain of derivatives failed, it would set off a domino effect.

Another $10 trillion was spent by the Fed providing dollar swaps to foreign central banks, bringing the final tally of the bailout to $29 trillion. The Levy Economics Institute used the data that the Federal Reserve was forced to release through an amendment attached to the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation in 2010 to compile the $29 trillion tab. Its figures are in line with the audit done by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), also mandated by the same amendment. The GAO audit included most, but not all, of the Fed programs, so its figures fall short of the comprehensive job done by the Levy Economics Institute.

There are two dark secrets about the Fed’s last bailout of Wall Street. First, the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C., which is a federal agency with its Chairman and Board appointed by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, outsourced the bailout to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (New York Fed), which is a private institution owned by the Wall Street banks. The New York Fed, in turn, outsourced the management of the bailout to some of the very Wall Street firms that were receiving the funds. We know this from the details contained in the GAO audit. (See our “Vendor” section below.)

The second dark secret is that the underlying cause of the enormity of the bailout – hundreds of trillions of dollars in derivatives that interconnected the same global banks as counterparties – has never been reformed by Congress. A feeble attempt was made in the Dodd-Frank legislation but that was quickly repealed by an amendment forced into a must-pass spending bill by the largest recipient of the bailout – Citigroup, which was insolvent for much of the time the New York Fed was lavishing $2.65 trillion on it.

We know that derivatives are playing an outsized role in the current financial crisis because Wall Street banks, Deutsche Bank and the insurance companies (including AIG) that are still interconnected as derivatives counterparties are seeing their share prices bleed away to a far greater degree than the broader market indices. And, emphasizing our point, just last Friday as bank stocks were under trading pressure, the Federal Reserve announcedthat it was relaxing a rule on how the big banks would have to measure their counterparty credit risk derivatives contracts.

These same banks, as we write this, are currently receiving the next round of bailouts from the New York Fed, using many of the identical programs that the New York Fed used the last time around, like the Commercial Paper Funding Facility(CPFF), the Primary Dealer Credit Facility (PDCF), and the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) along with a host of others. The goal of the New York Fed in using so many programs with so many alphabet-soup acronyms is to make it mind-numbingly difficult to keep track of the trillions of dollars it is spewing to Wall Street banks and their foreign peers. It took almost four years after the onset of the last unaccountable Fed money spigot to get accurate reports to the public about what it had done. The Fed spent more than two years in court battling to keep the public from learning the details.

How do we know that the same banks are receiving the new bailout funds? Because the New York Fed publishes a list of its 24 “primary dealers,” the Wall Street trading houses with which it conducts its open market trading operations and are eligible for its loans. (Yes, the New York Fed has its own trading floor – the only one of the 12 regional Fed banks to have one.) With the exception of AIG, which is an insurance company, Bear Stearns, which was taken over by JPMorgan Chase, and Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), every bank listed in the chart above is currently eligible for the trillions of dollars in Fed loans that have been spewing out of the New York Fed since September 17, 2019 – four months before the first reported death from coronavirus in China and five months before the first reported death in the United States.

What makes the New York Fed’s bailout of Wall Street so much more dangerous this time around is that it has decided to use a different structure for its loans to Wall Street – one that will force losses on taxpayers and, it hopes, will provide an ironclad secrecy curtain around how much it spends and where the money goes.

The New York Fed plans to use Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) for many of its funding facilities again this time around. (It should provide no comfort to the American people that Enron used SPVs to hide the true state of its finances and blow itself up.) But last time around, the New York Fed put up the equity interest in the SPV and thus was on the hook for any losses.

This time around, the New York Fed is forcing the U.S. Treasury to put up $454 billion from the taxpayer to fund the equity stakes in its SPVs, which it plans to then leverage up to at least $4 trillion, according to White House Economic Advisor Larry Kudlow. But the New York Fed is then signing a private contract with a private Wall Street firm to allow it to be the manager of the SPV, handling the purchasing of toxic waste from Wall Street’s trading houses while funneling clean cash out to them. The New York Fed is asking these firms for an iron-clad confidentiality agreement that will, according to one we have read, survive the termination of the contract. The New York Fed has already set up three programs with BlackRock, one of the largest issuers of junk bond and investment grade corporate bond Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs).

The last time around, the New York Fed created the SPVs as Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs). Because the New York Fed had put up the equity interest in the SPV, under accounting rules it was considered to have a controlling financial interest in the SPV and had to consolidate the SPVs financial reports with its own. Those financial reports showed no granular details about who got the loans and the cumulative totals. Because it’s the taxpayer that’s putting up the equity interest this time around, there should be no such consolidated reporting or transparency at the New York Fed, except for those programs that are not SPVs, such as the Fed’s Discount Window. Discount Window borrowing details, under Dodd-Frank, are not released until two years later. The GAO audit that was released in 2011 told us this on the subject of the SPV LLCs:

“FRBNY [Federal Reserve Bank of New York] consolidated the accounts and results of operations of LLCs into its financial statements, thereby presenting an aggregate look at its overall financial position. FRBNY presents consolidated financial statements because of its controlling financial interest in the LLCs. Specifically, FRBNY has the power to direct the significant economic activities of the LLCs and is obligated to absorb losses and has the right to receive benefits of the LLCs that could potentially be significant to the LLC. While FRBNY’s financial statements include the accounts and operations of the LLCs, each LLC also issues its own set of annual financial statements.” 

While only commercial banks have historically been allowed to borrow from the Fed’s Discount Window, the Fed invoked its emergency lending powers under the Federal Reserve Act and allowed its Commercial Paper Funding Facility (CPFF), which was structured as an SPV LLC, to borrow from the Discount Window. The GAO audit reveals this: 

“The use of an SPV allowed FRBNY to leverage existing market infrastructure for the issuance of commercial paper. Using loans from FRBNY’s discount window infrastructure, the CPFF LLC would purchase eligible paper in the same way that investors would purchase this paper in the marketplace.”

The reason that the New York Fed had to become the buyer of last resort in the commercial paper market (and so many other markets) was because the Wall Street banks and their foreign brethren had become so interconnected with derivatives that none of them knew which firm might be the next Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers and go belly up. So they simply backed away from rolling over each other’s commercial paper and other essential market functions. This is exactly what is happening today.

The New York Fed also used part of its $10 trillion in dollar swaps to help the Swiss central bank (a/k/a Swiss National Bank) set up an SPV to prop up UBS, the global bank with a huge footprint on Wall Street. The GAO report tells us this on the matter:

“…on October 16, 2008, the Swiss National Bank announced that it would use dollars obtained through its swap line with FRBNY to help fund an SPV it would create to purchase up to $60 billion of illiquid assets from UBS.”

The New York Fed’s “Vendors”:

According to the GAO audit, the New York Fedawarded almost two-thirds of its contracts noncompetitively” for its bailout programs. JPMorgan Chase played an outsized role in many of these, including the Primary Dealer Credit Facility, where it doled out hundreds of billions of dollars in revolving loans to Wall Street trading houses, with junk bonds and stocks put up as a big part of the collateral. It was unprecedented in the 95-year history of the Fed at that time to be accepting junk bonds and stocks as collateral as well as unprecedented to be making loans to Wall Street trading firms. JPMorgan Chase also became the manager of the mortgage-backed securities that the New York Fed purchased as part of its QE1, QEII and QEIII programs. (See The New York Fed Has Contracted JPMorgan to Hold Over $1.7 Trillion of its QE Bonds Despite Two Felony Counts and Serial Charges of Crimes.)

According to the GAO audit, there was no contract between the New York Fed and JPMorgan Chase for its work on the Primary Dealer Credit Facility. The GAO says that the New York Fed simply “relied” on JPMorgan and another clearing bank, Bank of New York Mellon, “to execute transactions between FRBNY and program recipients (primary dealers). Agreements between the clearing banks and FRBNY identified eligible collateral and other program terms, but the clearing banks were paid by program participants and Reserve Bank officials did not know what fees the clearing banks were paid.”

An audit that doesn’t seek to learn how much JPMorgan Chase was paid as an incentive to award tens of billions of dollars to teetering firms such as Morgan Stanley against junk bonds and stocks as collateral – at a time when both junk bonds and stocks were plunging in price in the market – falls seriously short as a Government Accountability Office audit.

Other financial firms employed by the New York Fed that were revealed in the GAO audit included Morgan Stanley, PIMCO, and BlackRock, which it is using again today for three of its programs. 

This article first appeared on Wall Street on Parade.

The post The Dark Secrets in the Fed’s Last Wall Street Bailout Are Getting a Devious Makeover in Today’s Bailout appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

The Temple of Self-Gratification

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Author David Foster Wallace once said that America is, “One enormous engine and temple of self-gratification and self-advancement.” The spectacle of American consumerism comes galloping to mind. But the pageant of gluttony with which we sate ourselves on a weekly basis is a pale reflection, at least in its intensity, of American foreign policy. Like our national addiction to guns mirrors our international addiction to bombs, so too our appetitive instincts at home merely reflect those same greedy impulses writ large in the global arena. From the soul of the gourmand to the surface-to-air missile, the attitude to the world is the same: take what ye would, all else be damned. But while consumers might bankrupt themselves on needless consumption, it is the imperial arm of the state that visits mass suffering on innocents abroad. The empire is an ogreish consumer that plods across the landscapes of the planet, disfiguring as it dispossesses, a kind of unreflective Freudian id blindly pursuing its own gratification. It’s thirst is unquenchable, its belly ever famished. And, thanks to the power of fiat, this growling Beowulf has unlimited credit with which to bankroll its adventurism. A ravenous profligate thumping through the agoras of the world, claws extended.

But enough with the metaphors. Let’s render it in the dry prose of the national security state: the overarching objective of U.S. foreign policy is to serve as the vanguard of U.S. multinationals and those of its European partners who, it should be said, wish to establish “full spectrum dominance” the world over. A bland and technical way of saying self-aggrandizement, the pursuit of which is as varied as its justifications for war. But we do not just mean war. Heavens, no. What do you take us for, savages? American foreign policy is far more nuanced than that. It achieves its ends not merely through military threats and interventions, but also via more subtle forerunners to that last drastic option. Namely, economic siege through illegal sanctions, the covert funding of comprador elites and traitorous organizations within the target country, as well as the procurement of mercenary proxies that we pay, train, arm, and deploy. Each of these tactics are often preferred to open warfare, partly due to cost advantages and partly to propaganda benefits. Preferably both.

A Cloak of Exceptionalism

Both parties, Democrats and Republicans, advance the extractive engines of empire behind narratives of human progress, collective prosperity, and individual freedoms, all of which come fancifully to life in so-called ‘free-market democracy’. Judging from its outcomes, this is just a cheap euphemism for corporate autocracy, since it uncouples ballot-box democracy from economic democracy, and the former without the latter is substantively empty. All of this is a bipartisan, that is to say, nonpartisan commitment. See Rob Urie for a broader look at the policy outcome uniformity of our decrepit duopoly. Chris Hedges, notable scourge of liberal optimism, recently said that thinking that the Democrats would save us is, “a kind of willful blindness.”

Lest there be any doubt that a Biden presidency would entail the same unscrupulous behavior as Trump’s, consider what candidates said about foreign policy in the last large Democratic debate. (Almost all of the candidates might feature prominently in a Biden White House, so their views are still sadly relevant.) The questions and answers were predictably rabid.

Biden roared that there wasn’t a democratic bone in Xi Jinping’s body and called him a thug, but then added we needed to work with him. True diplomacy there. Also a miserly understanding of the Chinese political system. Sanders was hammered for acknowledging Chinese and Cuban educational and economic success, before railing that both countries were dictatorships. Warren blathered on about our “sacred responsibility” and not abandoning our allies. In other words, revitalize NATO, the global arm of American imperialism. Scripted gibberish. Bloomberg reiterated George W. Bush’s ‘kill them there before they kill us here’ logic. Buttigieg raised the ‘credibility’ issue, insisting we need to restore the respect President Trump has squandered. This typically means destroying a defenseless nation in a chest-thumping show of might. Buttigieg also claimed that we need to listen to our intelligence agencies, nobly setting aside their mounting rap sheet of lying to the public since their infamous creation.

In any event, everyone including Sanders is beholden to some manner of American exceptionalism, though Bernie would be demonstrably better and considerably less volatile, a singular standout in a lineup of grovelers. But as in 2016, he seems incapable of breaking away to stage a presidential run as an independent. But what do all these dodgy euphemisms translate to in practice? It’s always useful to turn to one of the less politically savvy imperial managers for an answer.

Pompeo Maximus

In the wake of the President Trump’s illegal act of war and assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani earlier this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo crooned to the press, “We just want Iran to act like a normal country.” (This is not the first time we’ve implored the Iranians to be “normal.”) Pompeo would have you believe that Iran is a rogue agent of ceaseless intrigue and rascality. However, it has not started a war in two centuries. Nor has it sought nuclear weapons since at least 2003. It has issued a fatwa against such weapons. But it does want nuclear power to fuel its energy grid. On the foreign front, it has largely been defending Shia interests in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria against western imperialism. Not the worst of sins. But for Pompeo, resistance to empire is a black mark. In his version of international affairs, the U.S. and its sensible allies in Europe and the Middle East are ruefully contemplating how to respond to Iran’s unendurable provocations. We call its resistance terrorism. We call its desire for nuclear power a drive for nuclear war. With puckered brow and restless hands, Pompeo’s imaginary community of nations moves agonizingly to check the unbridled expansionism of Tehran.

Fortunately, this jolly cretin has a credibility rating of nil. During a sit-down interview where the estimable insider was regaling a crowd of bourgeois neoconservatives with tales of our international crimes, he laughingly admitted that as CIA chief he consistently lied, cheated, and stole. It was, he noted, the modus operandi of that illustrious presidential paramilitary. The gallery crowed happily in the background.

Pompeo has provided numerous examples of his capacity for mendacity in recent weeks. Even as the coronavirus surged across the globe, he seemed to relish the imposition of fresh sanctions on Iran, a nation in the throes of an epidemic, beset by medical shortages induced by sanctions. Pompeo made it clear Iran would not skirt its discipline by virtue of some misplaced American empathy. He defends U.S. attacks in Iraq despite its having killed half a million of its kids via illegal sanctions, invaded it illegally, lied about doing it, stole its energy, co-opted its agricultural independence, precipitated the death of a million people inside its borders, generated a refugee crisis, gave rise to ISIS, and flatly refused a demand that it finally leave. Yet he says U.S. forces inside Iraq have a right to self-defense. He has positively never laid eyes upon the Hague or Geneva Conventions.

Doubtless Pompeo had little problem with the spineless IMF decision not to extend $5B in loans to Venezuela because it said it didn’t know who was president, Maduro or Guaido. And he has now partnered with acting Director of National Intelligence RIchard Grenell to argue for limited strikes on the Iranian navy, a vulgar kind of opportunism. Now we have two U.S. Navy aircraft carrier strike groups converging in the Arabian Sea for the first time in years. In a recent speech, the Secretary launched into a thumping neo-McCarthyite harangue with a series of dumbfounding paragraphs on how the Chinese are infiltrating our nation, down to the state level, undermining democracy and sowing the seeds of division, among other crackpot piffle. Just days ago he compounded this jackanape rant by claiming that China, Russia, Iran, and others were spreading misinformation about the Coronavirus, as if his own commander-in-chief were not daily gracing the gape-mouthed populace with a potpourri of hearsay and invention. But then, the Secretary is a predictable sort. He’s a bit like a wind-up toy with a butterfly key in his back that, when cranked tight, instantly produces the boorish boilerplate of a PNAC diehard.

A Model for Behavior?

Nevertheless, despite Pompeo’s obvious guile, the martinets of mainstream opinion report his utterances as though they were Orphic decrees. Heed the Delphi on the Potomac. Yet master Pompeo’s words do beg the question: how does a normal country behave? One naturally assumes that the U.S. is the Secretary’s model nation. He’s not going to lift up as his ideal some backwater Scandinavian country like that crazed socialist currently barnstorming round the country. Let’s take him at his word. If the U.S. is the ideal, then what should Tehran do to “act like a normal nation”?

To follow the U.S. example, Tehran should do the following: develop 6,800 nuclear warheads, keep them largely free from international scrutiny, and drop a couple on civilian populations in a needless show of strength directed at one’s supposed ally. Then it should busily establish hundreds of military bases abroad, including dozens encircling one’s chief adversaries. It will be important as well to argue all along that this aggressive expansionism is actually a series of regrettable defensive maneuvers necessitated by the aggressive expansionism of other nations (whose combined defense spending and foreign military bases do not approach yours).

Should a host country then ask you to leave, as Iraq recently asked America, immediately add more troops to your stealth occupation and simply refuse, citing a need for international stability. Then proceed to invade and destabilize dozens of nations in pursuit of regional and global hegemony. Internally, you may call it full-spectrum dominance. Publicly, be sure to embellish it with the phraseology of peacemaking. To further buttress one’s behavior, gravely declare that numberless organizations thousands of miles away from your borders are “imminent threats to national security.” (Even if you “don’t know when and don’t know where” attacks will happen, as Pompeo noted after the Soleimani attack.) Ignore the guffaws from the gallery; they will soon be silenced. Be sure to litter each region with corpses in the name of international security. Don’t do body counts, but if you do, underestimate the collateral damage.

Befriend fascists, back terrorists, jail the brave, honor the craven, revile the rabble, pen odes to oligarchs, fawn upon elites, and abandon the impartial in the cause of objectivity. Censor dissent and call it security. Shutter speech and say it’s liberty. Should a rabble rouser emerge (as they invariably do) and the supplicant media cannot silence him, embroil him in slander and scandal. Deploy partisan hacks and patriotic bootlickers to seed doubt and fear in the minds of men. Blame foreigners for all domestic trouble. Always blame foreigners. Then, and only then, fair Tehran, might you accede to the community of the elect, the normal nations.

None of this is to mention what the U.S. has done in Iran itself. It installed the vicious tyrant known as the Shah of Iran, empurpled by the CIA’s overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953. The Shah assembled fascist groups to violently deal with anti-authoritarian protests (not unlike Ukraine of late). Soon the Iranian security services SAVAK was formed. SAVAK was notorious for brutal torture of dissidents. Mossad wrote their training manuals. The CIA trained them in Nazi torture methods. Since the 1979 popular revolution, Washington has backed Iraq in its war against Iran, leveled murderous sanctions on the country, launched debilitating cyber attacks, funded destabilization projects within its borders, assassinated its scientists, broadcast relentless propaganda across its borders through Radio Europe, falsely smeared it as a nuclear weapons-hungry nation, an existential threat to Israel, and ensnared it in sovereignty reducing inspection regimes via the politically compromised IAEA. And lately it murdered one its leading generals, an textbook act of war but for America’s comparative monopoly on WMDs.

Pompeo Maximus appears to advise all this because, as we noted, it is precisely what his own country, the normal nation, has done. All to facilitate the singular goal of the plutocrats that own and direct U.S. policy: self-advancement.

A Maxim for Minions

The dictate to foreign nations is the same as to domestic dissidents: Defy empire at your peril. Accept your lot or lose your life. Deny every instinct for justice, fairness, and prosperity you possess. Don’t worry, a 24-7 surveillance state will greatly help you to internalize the right values. Embrace fealty and prosper. Might makes right. It always has. Nothing has changed. But by all means, pretend it has. Hide your subjection, then refashion it as the good. Unfortunately, one cannot pursue self-advancement without the rhetoric of inclusivity. Happily, the language of mutualism soothes an angry heart. Power prospers best in darkness, as Samuel Huntington once advised U.S. leadership. To that end, become a disciple of the Big Lie. You may be on the wrong side of history, but we’ll rewrite that story soon enough. The pen of posterity is in the hand of the victor. The ink is red, the style dissembling, the story fictitious.

Foster Wallace continued, “In some ways [this engine of self-advancement] works very, very well. In other ways, it doesn’t work all that well because…there are whole other parts of me that need to worry about things larger than me that don’t get nourished in that system.” Honest words from a searching author, whose own quest evidently ended in vain. The targets of our domestic and foreign policy are the things that don’t get nourished by the imperial system. Nations that ignore the American maxims. Patriots that seek to upend the system of obscene profits. Villages that unwittingly ‘harbor terrorists’. Notions of collective security, amity between nations, planetary amelioration: these ideas smack of collectivism to the neoliberal imperialist. The collective will stymies the individual will and is synonymous with a falling rate of profit. Hence the need to reinforce the ethos of self-interest. Every nation for itself, every man for himself.

This attitude that Foster-Wallace lamented, so nakedly expressed in our imperial aggression, narrows to a single proposition: us or them. Sheer tribalism. The enemy at home is the freethinking socialist. The enemy abroad is the independent state. Substituting a congenital liar with an unstable temperament in clear cognitive decline for narcissistic laissez-faire foot soldier is no path forward. He would simply disguise our rapacity as a kind of restoration, appease lip-service liberals, and level yet another bill of indictments at recalcitrant populations abroad that stand in the way of elite gratification.

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Prisons are a COVID-19 Petri Dish

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Now is the time to empty the prisons. With over two million people incarcerated, the vast majority for nonviolent crimes, prisoners are packed like sardines, their overcrowding perfect for mass infection and spread of the Covid-19 pestilence. Nonviolent drug offenders, people who couldn’t make bail, people within six months of release, the elderly and infirm – all should be freed before they catch the disease, spread it and die.

For years the U.S. gulag has been an international scandal. We incarcerate proportionally far more of our people than any other country on earth, at a staggering rate of 698 per 100,000. This prison population explosion dates back to Bill Clinton’s attempt to attract centrist and Republican votes by getting tough on crime. Originally written by Senator Joe Biden, the 1994 federal crime bill signed by Clinton was the biggest thing of its sort in U.S. history. It ravaged minority communities. An entire generation of young Latino and African American men came of age in prison thanks to Clinton’s crime initiative. It resulted, as of today according to the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative, in 1,291,000 people in state prisons, 631,000 in local jails and 226,000 federally incarcerated. 578,000 people rot in state prisons for nonviolent offenses like DUI and public order. They could be released. In local jails, 470,000 people have not been convicted. They could be released pending trial. Federal prisons contain 213,000 nonviolent offenders. Under the current extraordinary pandemic circumstance, they too should be freed. As the head of the Cook County Board of Commissioners in Chicago recently said: “Our jails are Petri dishes.”

Right now this need for emptying jails is most acute at the pandemic’s center – New York City. That means Rikers Island, where Covid-19 is spreading like wildfire. The chief doctor there says it is “a public health disaster unfolding before our eyes.” As of Monday, Rikers had 167 confirmed cases among its thousands of inmates.  The mayor has announced freeing 650 people from Rikers, with hundreds under review for release. But the daytime population at Rikers – including staff and visitors – can reach 20,000. It is horribly overcrowded and unsanitary. The prisoners have little access to soap and running water – a perfect environment for this plague. Meanwhile Rikers prisoners have been asked to dig mass graves for those dead of Covid-19. The prisoners will be given protective gear and paid $6 per hour. Whether they can wash up after this toil was not announced.

What’s true in prisons also holds true in migrant detention centers. In March, the detention center population surged to 13,400. Recently a federal judge in Los Angeles ordered the release of migrant children. Plaintiffs had reported children testing positive for Covid-19 at a shelter in New York. The judge said she would order the release of roughly 3400 children April 10, barring an explanation of why they should remain in custody during a pandemic. Meanwhile a federal judge in New York ordered ICE detainees immediately freed from county jails with Covid-19 present. Migrant detainees in Pennsylvania are on a hunger strike, demanding release during the plague.

By freeing the 1,261,000 nonviolent prisoners and all migrants in detention, the U.S. government would eliminate much Covid-19 infection. Prisons would be less densely crammed for those remaining, routine sanitation would be easier and spread of the disease among prisoners and guards would decrease. Who knows – release that many prisoners and in some institutions there might actually be one person per cell, thus drastically curtailing contagion. Since most migrants are not held for violent crimes, practically the entire migrant detention population could be safely freed, thus arresting the spread of Covid-19 in swarming, filthy detention centers.

These releases are the just, moral and correct thing to do; they will save lives – of prisoners, migrants, guards, ICE officers and their families. While some states, localities and the federal government have started this process, it moves far too slowly. This pestilence is a highly contagious killer. Let it not be said in a couple of years that our government was as lethally irresponsible as the cruise industry, which keeps packing victims into its boats and sailing, as they die, for profit.

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What We Should Do About COVID-19

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Like their counterparts elsewhere, contract sanitation workers in Chennai work with little or no serious protection. Photo: M. Palani Kumar.

With his first speech on the coronavirus, Prime Minister Narendra Modi got us to scare evil spirits away by having people bang the hell out of their pots and pans.

With his second, he scared the hell out of all of us.

With not a word on how the public, particularly the poor, are to access food and other essentials in coming weeks, it sparked off a panic waiting to happen. The middle classes thronged the stores and markets – something not easy for the poor. Not for migrants leaving the cities for their villages. Not for small vendors, domestic help, agricultural labourers. Not for farmers unable to complete the rabi harvest – or stuck with it even if they have. Not for hundreds of millions of marginalised Indians.

The finance minister’s package – announced yesterday, March 26 – has this one saving grace: 5 kilos of free wheat or rice for each person for three months in addition to the 5 already given under PDS, the public distribution system. Even there – it is not at all clear if the earlier or existing 5 kilos will also be free or must be paid for. If that’s to be paid for, it won’t work. Most of the elements of the ‘package’ are sums allocated for schemes already in existence. The MGNREGA wage hike of Rs. 20 was due anyway – and where is there any mention of an additional number of days? And how if they get down to it at once, and with what kind of work, will they maintain their social distancing norms? What will people do in the many weeks it will take to roll out the scale of work needed? Will their health be up to it? We must pay MGNREGA wages daily to every labourer and farmer for as long as the crisis lasts, work or no work.

The Rs. 2,000 benefit under the PM-KISAN was already there and due – what does it add? Instead of being paid in the last month of the quarter, it is advanced to the first month. Nowhere did the finance minister give a clear break up of the Rs. 1.7 lakh crores package responding to the pandemic and for the lockdowns – what are its new elements? What part of this sum is old or existing schemes recobbled together to make the numbers? Those hardly qualify as emergency measures. Further, pensioners, widows and the disabled will get a one-time amount of Rs. 1,000 in two instalments over the next three months? And 20 crore women with Jan Dhan Yojana accounts will get Rs. 500 each for three months?  That’s worse than tokenist, it’s obscene.

How will raising loan limits for self-help groups (SHGs) change a situation where getting an existing loan amount is a nightmare? And how exactly will this ‘package’ help those countless migrant workers stranded far away, trying to return to their home villages? The claim that it will help migrants is unsubstantiated. If the failure to produce a serious set of emergency measures is alarming, the attitude of the packagers is terrifying. They seem clueless on the kind of situation developing on the ground.

Lockdowns of the kind we are into – with no serious social support or planning for the vulnerable –can lead, already have led, to reverse migrations. It is impossible to get a fix on the extent or intensity of those. But reports from several states suggest that large numbers of people are heading back towards their villages as the cities and towns they work in go into a lockdown.

Many are using the only transportation now available – their own feet. Some are cycling home. Several find themselves stranded midway when trains, buses and vans stop functioning. It’s scary, the kind of hell that might break loose if this intensifies.

Imagine large groups walking home, from cities in Gujarat to villages in Rajasthan; from Hyderabad to far-flung villages of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh; from Delhi to places in Uttar Pradesh, even Bihar; from Mumbai to no-one-knows-how-many destinations. If they receive no succour, their rapidly diminishing access to food and water could trigger a catastrophe. They might fall to age-old diseases like diarrhoea, cholera and other.

Besides, the kind of situation that could build up with this mounting economic distress would see those deaths very largely amongst the working and younger populations. As Prof. T. Sundararaman, global coordinator of the People’s Health Movement, pointed out to PARI, health services – so, along with this economic distress, we may end up substituting deaths from other diseases for coronavirus deaths.”

The 8 per cent of the population in their 60s and above are most at risk from the coronavirus. The outbreak of other diseases, along with decreased access to and curtailment of other essential health services, could see working age people and the younger population taking a huge hit.”

Dr. Sundararaman, a former executive director of the National Health Systems Resources Centre, asserts there is a desperate need to “identify and act on the reverse migrations problem and the loss of livelihoods. Failing that, deaths from diseases that have long tormented mostly poor Indians could outstrip those brought about by the corona virus.” Particularly if reverse migration grows – with migrant workers in the cities gripped by hunger, failing to receive even their meagre wages.

Many migrants live on their worksites. As the sites shut down, and they’re asked to leave – where will they go? Not all of them can walk gigantic distances. They have no ration cards – how will you reach food to them?

The economic distress is already picking up speed.

What’s also surfacing is demonisation of migrant labourers, domestic workers, slum-dwellers, and other poor by housing societies convinced that they are THE problem. The truth: the carriers of COVID-19, as also of SARS earlier, are the flying classes: us. Rather than recognise that, it seems we are trying to sanitise the cities by purging them of these undesirable elements. Consider this:  if our flying carriers have passed on the infection to any of those returning migrants – what could be the outcome when they reach their villages?

There have always been some migrant labourers walking back to their villages, if those were in the same or neighbouring states. The traditional way was to work at tea stalls and dhabas along the route to earn their meals – sleeping there at night. Now, with most of those shut down – what happens?

Somehow, the better off and middle classes seem convinced that if we stay at home and practise social distancing, all will be well. That, at least, we will be insulated from the virus. There is no recognition of how the economic distress will work its way back to us. For several, ‘social distancing’ resonates differently. We invented its most powerful form nearly two millennia ago – caste. Class and caste factors seem embedded in our kind of lockdown response.

It doesn’t seem to matter to us as a nation that close to a quarter of a million Indians die of tubercolosis each year. Or that diarrhoea claims up to 100,000 children’s lives annually.  They aren’t us. Panic sets in when the Beautiful People find they have no immunity to some deadly diseases. So it was with SARS. So it was with the plague in Surat in 1994. Both were terrible diseases but killed far fewer people in India than they might have. But they did get a lot of attention. As I wrote at the time on Surat: “Plague germs are notorious for their non-observance of class distinctions…. worse still, they can board aircraft and fly club class to New York.”

We need to act right now. It’s not just one virus we’re fighting – pandemics are also a ‘package.’ Of which economic distress can be a self-inflicted or self-aggravated part – driving us from calamity to catastrophe

The idea that we’re fighting just one virus, and all will be fine once we’re on top of it – is dangerous. Sure, we need to fight COVID-19 desperately – this could be the worst pandemic ever since 1918 and the misnamed ‘Spanish Flu.’ (India lost between 16-21 million lives to that between 1918-21. In fact, the 1921 Census remains the only one ever to record a net reduction in the rural population).

But focusing on COVID-19 to the exclusion of the larger canvas – that’s attempting to mop the floor dry with all the taps open and running. We need an approach which pushes ideas that strengthen public health systems, rights and entitlements.

In 1978, some great minds in the field of health drew up the Declaration of Alma Ata – in days when the WHO had not been brought to heel by western government-backed corporate interests.  It was that declaration which made famous the phrase ‘Health for All by 2000’. Something it believed all people of the world could attain “through a fuller and better use of the world’s resources…”

And from the ’80s, the idea of understanding the social and economic determinants of health was growing. But another idea, too was growing. More rapidly: Neoliberalism.

From the late ’80s and the ’90s, the idea of health, education, employment – as human rights was trashed worldwide.

With the mid-1990s came the globalisation of communicable diseases. But instead of building universal health systems to meet this deadly challenge, many nations further privatised their health sectors. In India, it was always private dominance. We have one of the lowest health expenditures – barely 1.2 per cent (as share of GDP) – in the world. From the 1990s, the public health system, never terribly strong, was further weakened by deliberate policy-driven measures. The present government is inviting private management takeover of even district-level hospitals.

Health expenditures across India today are possibly the fastest growing component of rural family debt. In June 2018, the Public Health Foundation of India, analysing diverse data sets on health, concluded that 55 million people  had been pushed into poverty in the single year of 2011-12, because of having to fund their own health issues – it also said 38 million of these had fallen below the poverty line due to spending on medicines alone.

One of the most striking common features among many thousands of households hit by farmers’ suicides across India is this: outrageous health expenditures, often funded by borrowing from the sahucar.

We have the largest population that is least equipped to cope with a crisis like COVID-19. And here’s the tragedy: there will be COVIDS by other names in coming years. Since the late ’90s we have seen SARS and MERS (both also from coronaviruses) and other global-spread diseases. In India in 1994, we had the plague in Surat. All signals of what was to come, of the kind of world we’d built and entered.

As Prof. Dennis Carroll of the Global Virome Project recently put it:  “We’ve penetrated deeper into ecozones we’ve not occupied before….” Activities like oil and mineral extraction in areas earlier having few human populations, he says, have come at a price. Our incursion into fragile ecosystems have triggered not just changes in climate but potential health disasters as wildlife-human contact increase the potential for the spread of infection, of viruses we know little or nothing about.

So yes, we’re going to see more of these.

As for COVID-19, there are two ways this can go.

The virus mutates (to our advantage) and dies out in weeks.

Or: it mutates to its own advantage, worsening the trend. That happens, all hell breaks loose.

What can we do? I make the following suggestions – over and above, or alongside and in concurrence with, some of those already put forward by some of the finest minds amongst India’s activists and intellectuals. (There are also ideas that consider measures in a larger global context of debt, privatisation and financial market failure). And accepting as inspirational, some of the measures announced by the Kerala government.

Ø  The very first thing that needs doing: preparing for emergency distribution of our close to 60 million tons of ‘surplus’ foodgrain stocks. And reaching out at once to the millions of migrant workers and other poor devastated by this crisis. Declare all presently shut community spaces (schools, colleges, community halls and buildings) to be shelters for stranded migrants and the homeless.

Ø  The second – equally important – is to get all farmers to grow food crops in the kharif season. If the present trend persists, a terrible food situation looms. They will not be able to sell cash crops they harvest this season. Going in for more cash crops could prove fatal. A vaccine/cure for the coronavirus seems many months away. Meanwhile food stocks will dwindle.

Ø  Governments must help, pick up and buy big time, the produce of farmers. Many have been unable to complete the rabi harvest – social distancing and lockdowns being in force. Those who have, can’t transport or sell it anywhere. Even for food crop production in the kharif, farmers will need an ecosystem of inputs, support services and marketing assistance.

Ø  The government must be prepared to nationalise private medical facilities across the country. Advising hospitals to have a ‘corona corner’ – so to speak – within themselves, simply won’t cut it. Spain last week nationalised all its hospitals and healthcare providers recognising that a profit-driven system can’t meet this crisis.

Ø  Sanitation workers – safai karamcharis – must be immediately regularised as fulltime employees of the governments / municipalities employing them, with Rs. 5,000 a month added to their existing salaries, and with full medical benefits they have always been denied. And supplied protective gear that they’ve never been given. We spent three decades further devastating millions of already vulnerable sanitation workers, shutting them out of public service, outsourcing their jobs to private entities – who then re-employed the same workers on contract, at lower wages and with no benefits.

Ø  Declare and rush free rations for three months to the poor.

Ø  Immediately regularise ASHA, anganwadi and mid-day meal workers – already on the frontlines of the battle – as government employees. The health and lives of India’s children are in their hands. They too must be made full employees, provided proper wages, given protective gear.

Ø  Give MGNREGA wages daily to farmers and labourers till the crisis tides over.  Urban daily wagers to get Rs. 6,000 a month in the same period.

We need to get down to these measures right now. The government’s ‘package’ is a curious blend of callousness and cluelessness. It’s not just one virus we’re fighting – pandemics are also a ‘package.’  Of which economic distress can be a self-inflicted or self-aggravated part – driving us from calamity to catastrophe.

If the virus trend persists for the next two weeks, urging farmers to grow food crops for the kharif season becomes the single most important thing to do.

At the same time, can we be detached enough to see COVID-19 as a spectacularly revelatory moment in history? A junction from where we decide which way to go. A moment to renew and pursue debates on Inequality and Health Justice.

A version of this article first appeared in The Wire on March 26, 2020

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The Coronavirus Rained on Trump’s Easter Charade

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In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump was hell-bent on loosening social restraints so that churches could be “packed” on Easter (April 12). Never mind that health care experts warned that such a premature move would worsen the spread of the virus, overwhelm hospitals with patients, lead to countless deaths and result in even more severe damage to the economy. Trump persisted, saying, “The day Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ is a ‘very special day’ to him.” And, “ ‘It would be a beautiful time and it’s just about the timeline that I think is right.’” (“’Beautiful thing’: Trump hopes to see ‘packed churches’ on Easter Sunday,” By Anthony Leonardi, www.washingtonexaminer.com, Mar. 24, 2020)

Regarding the warning from doctors, an exaggerating President Trump said, “If it were up to the doctors, they may say let’s keep it shut down, let’s shut down the entire world . . . that would be wonderful, and let’s keep it shut down for a couple of years.” But, “You can’t do that . . . with the number one economy in the world.” (“’Our country wasn’t built to be shut down’: Trump pushes back against health experts,” By Caitlin Oprysko and Quint Forgey, POLITICO, March 23, 2020)

President Trump discounted the advice of doctors and scientists. He said that he knew what the American people want. “Our people want to return to work,” he repeatedly tweeted. And “they will practice Safe Distancing and all else, and Seniors will be watched over protectively & lovingly. We can do two things together.” He then emphasized: “‘THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (by far) THAN THE PROBLEM!’” (“Trump calls for economy to be open and ‘raring to go’ by Easter,” By Associated Press, The Boston Globe, March 24. 2020) At that time, he is assumed to have felt that ‘THE CURE’ would be ‘WORSE’ for his 2020 re-election bid.

“Seniors will be watched over protectively and lovingly.” They would more likely be “lovingly” mourned “over” by their families and friends. President Trump’s behavior indicated that he could care less about the wellbeing of older Americans – and their loved ones. That assumption is based on him trying to justify re-opening the country by inaccurately compar[ing] “the threat presented by the coronavirus to the flu and automobile accidents.” He rationalized, “We lose thousands and thousands of people a year to the flu — we never turn the country off . . . We lose much more than that to automobile accidents. We don’t call up automobile companies and say ‘stop making cars.’” (“Trump just gave a disastrous coronavirus town hall full of misinformation that could kill thousands,” By Eliza Relman, Business Insider, March 25, 2020)

Dr.. Anthony Fauci, reported to be “the country’s top infectious-disease expert,” provided a needed reality check. He “repeatedly asserted that the coronavirus is 10 times as lethal as the flu.” (Ibid)

Also reported: “Projections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that deaths from Covid-19 could range from 200,000 to 1.7 million people.” And, “Estimates from other scientists place the potential deaths in a range from several hundred thousand to several million deaths, substantially more than annual deaths from car accidents and flu combined.” (“158 Million Americans Told to Sat Home, but Trump Pledges to Keep It Short,” The New York Times, March 23, 2020)

More reality checks. There is a vaccine for the flu, but none yet for the coronavirus. Regarding automobiles: they give an indispensable lift to America’s economy, and enable Americans’ pursuit of happiness in countless ways. Besides, without wheels, how would President Trump get to – and around — his golf courses? If Trump really cared about the American people, early on he would have been talking about packing all the hospitals with necessary medical equipment, not “pack[ing] churches” at Easter.

But a manipulative, 2020 election-driven President Trump rationalized, “You’re going to lose a number of people to the flu, but you’re going to lose more people by putting the country in a massive recession or Depression. Then these doomsday words: “You’re going to have suicides by the thousands. You’re going to have all sorts of things happen.” (Ibid)

Another reality check here. According to the Associated Press’s fact checking, “President Donald Trump is making a baseless claim of surging suicides if the U.S. economy remains mostly shut due to the spread of the coronavirus.” The fact checking continues: “There’s no evidence that suicides will rise dramatically, let alone surpass potential coronavirus deaths.” In fact, “Historically in a crisis, suicides tend to diminish as society pulls together in a common purpose.” (“AP FACT CHECK: Trump claims rising suicides if US stays shut,” By Lauran Neergaard, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Hope Yen, Associated Press, March 25, 2020)

Maybe it is the “pulling together” that President Trump fears most. His presidency and power have thrived on his pitting people against each other: his stoking of division, not unity; building walls, not bridges; undoing treaties, not creating them. The last thing he is believed to want is for Americans to come together and realize that their security is in their solidarity, not in their sectarianism. He thrives on setting people against each other, not bringing them together.

President Trump’s irrational reaching is also seen in him reportedly saying “that 10,000 units of chloroquine would be distributed in New York City on Tuesday.” But “Dr. Fauci [director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] and others have said that its effectiveness remains highly uncertain. In fact,” it was reported by an Arizona hospital, “that a man died and his wife was in stable condition after the couple self-medicated with a formulation of chloroquine phosphate that is used to clean fish tanks.” (“158 Million Americans Told to Stay Home, but Trump Pledges to Keep It Short,” (bid)

Nevertheless,”Mr. Trump’s enthusiasm” was reported to be “undimmed.” He said, “It would be a gift from God . . . It’s something we have to try.”(Ibid)

Easter is a time of hope and new life. “Packing the churches all over the country” on Easter would have turned this holiest of Christian observances into a death trap for masses of worshippers. The handwriting is already on church walls.

During a March 5-8 children’s event at an Assembly of God Church in Cleburne County, Arkansas, at least 34 members were stricken with the coronavirus, including the pastor and his wife, with one member, 91 year-old William ‘Bill’ Barton, a church greeter, dying. The Christian Post reports that “officials say the outbreak of the virus at Greers Ferry First Assembly of God is responsible for the spread of the disease in the relatively small Cleburne County, which has a population of 25,000. The county now has the second highest number of coronavirus cases in the state.”(“Greeter is first coronavirus death at Ark. Church where 34 infected,” By Leonardo Blair, March 25, 2020)

Rev. Mark Palenske, pastor of the Greers Ferry Church, counsels everyone who wanted to “pack the churches” at Easter: “The intensity of this virus has been underestimated by so many. And I continue to ask that each of you take it seriously.” Pastor Palenske added: “An act of wisdom and restraint on your part can be the blessing that preserves the health of someone else.” (Ibid)

The lack of “wisdom and restraint” has undermined the health of members of a Pentecostal Church in Illinois – ironically at a revival service attended by “approximately 80 people.” As reported, “Layna LoCascio, wife of pastor Anthony LoCascio who leads The Life Church of Glenview, said at least 43 . . . who attended the March 15 service . . . have fallen ill and everyone who has been tested for the new coronavirus has come back positive for the virus which has already killed more than 1,470 and infected more than 97,000 people nationwide.” (“43 people fall ill at Pentecostal church after revival, 10 test positive for coronavirus,” By Leonardo Blair, The Christian Post, March 27, 2020) Reported also is that leaders of the church, including Pastor LoCascio and his wife, “were probably infected with Covid19; and the evangelist, [Eli] Hernandez was hospitalized.” (“43 Members Of Glenview Church Said To Be Suffering COVID-19 Symptoms,” By Tom Robb, , March 27, 2020)

Evangelical magazine, Christianity Today provides a cautionary note about “packing the churches” any time soon. A CT editorial states, “However, if we do practice stringent hygiene and social distancing, coming together in the face of this pandemic actually mars our witness. Rather than looking courageous and faithful,” the editorial states, “we come off looking callous and even foolish, not unlike the snake handlers who insisted on playing with poison as proof of true faith. Better,” the editorial continues, “the recent encouragement from Wheaton College’s Esau McCaulley: ‘The church’s absence, in literally emptying, can function as a symbol of its trust in God’s ability to meet us regardless of the location. The church remains the church whether gathered or scattered.’” (“An Easter Without Going to Church,” By Daniel Harrell, March 25, 2020)

Various Christian denominations ignored President Trump’s belief that Easter “is just about the timeline” that he thinks is “right” to “have packed churches.” According to The Guardian, “The Archdiocese of Los Angeles tweeted on Tuesday night, after the president’s announcement, that all its churches would remain closed until ‘at least’ 19 April – a week after Trump’s suggested deadline.” Similarly, “the Archdiocese of New York, which includes St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, said it would celebrate Holy Week and Easter Sunday via live stream or broadcast.” Also, “Bishop Michael Curry . . . has recommended the suspension of in-person public services in the Episcopal church – including during Holy Week – and encouraged people to worship on-line.” (“US Christian leaders criticize Trump’s Easter coronavirus deadline,” By Miranda Bryant in New York and Oliver Laughland in New Orleans, March 25, 2020)

Even The United Methodist Church has cancelled its May 5-15 General Conference scheduled for Minneapolis. As reported, “The Council of Bishops executive committee requested postponement March 13 in response to the life-threatening virus and increased travel restrictions that might prevent nearly half of the delegates from reaching the U.S.” The decision to postpone the General Conference was “based on guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health ‘to protect the public’s health and slow the rate of the transmission of COVID-19.’”(“Church leaders postpone 2020 General Conference,” By Heather Hahn, United Methodist News Service, March 18, 2020)

Along with these denomination-wide forms of resistance, certain Christian leaders also rained on President Trump’s Easter charade. They include Rev. William J. Barber, activist and chair of the NAACP’s Legislative Political Action Committee, who provides a helpful model, for faith leaders, of speaking truth to President Trump’s narcissistic power. Barber says, “It is the height of hypocrisy for Trump to suggest that Easter is a time to defy public health recommendations and ‘reopen’ America . . . Jesus challenged oppression and cared for the poor,” Barber continued, “while Trump ignored the pandemic of poverty and tragically dismissed intelligence about the coronavirus.” Barber then said, “We need a resurrection of Jesus’s concern for the most vulnerable, not a capitulation to corporate greed that could cost millions of lives.” (“US Christian leaders criticize Trump’s Easter coronavirus deadline,” Ibid)

With the pressure of all closings and moral criticism of his Easter timetable, reality finally hit President Trump. In the end, he gave up on “packed churches” at Easter, and extended the social distancing guidelines until the end of April.

Thanks, in part, to the top medical doctors on President Trump’s coronavirus task force: Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious diseases expert, and Dr. Deborah Birx, State Department immunologist, who projected “that millions of Americans may wind up infected.” Earlier, at a reported CNN news conference, Fauci said “that as many as 200,000 Americans might die if efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus aren’t successful.” He also said “that he and Birx met with Trump on Sunday and shared the outbreak data that showed the death toll would increase if the U.S. lifted the social distancing guidelines by Easter.” Fauci said that Trump “looked at the data and got it right away.” (“Trump Abandons Easter Virus Goal and Steels Americans for Deaths,” By John Wingrove and Mario Parker, www.bloomsborg.com, March 30, 2020)

Without naming names, President Trump said, “We had a lot of people who were saying, ‘maybe we shouldn’t do anything, just ride it.’ They say, ‘ride it like a cowboy, just ride it, ride that sucker right through.’” He thought about it. “But doctors told him that doing nothing would have cost 2.2 million lives. ‘And that’s not acceptable,’ Trump said.” As reported, “He now hopes to keep U.S. deaths below 100,000 from a disease that only weeks ago he had minimized as ‘very much under control’” (Ibid), and before that as a “hoax.” What would Trump do without straw people to put down to build himself up?

Along with the projected large number of deaths, according to The New York Times, President Trump’s about face was also influenced by polling numbers. Reporters Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman write that “advisors said he was struck by the political surveying that indicated that the public wanted the restrictions to continue long enough to beat back the virus for fear that letting up too soon would simply reinvigorate the outbreak.” (“Behind Trump’s Reversal on Reopening the Country: 2 Sets of Numbers,” March 31, 2020) The polling contradicts Trump’s repeatedly saying, ”Our people want to return to work.”

President Trump now says that his desire to pack the churches with people on Easter was “aspirational.” Homicidal would be more accurate. It is assumed that medical advice especially led Trump to extend the coronavirus guidelines until April 30. The possibility of 2.2 million people dying from “pack[ing] churches with coronavirus on Easter would not only undermine Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign, it could result in the self-proclaimed coronavirus “war president” being prosecuted for recklessly leading Americans to their deaths at Easter. The evidence: a virus that he helped to spread early on by minimizing it’s deadly contagion, and failing to provide hospitals with adequate medical equipment.

A Boston Globe editorial, called. “A President unfit for a pandemic,” makes the case for the criminal prosecution of President Trump. The editorial states, “While the spread of the novel coronavirus has been aggressive around the world, much of the profound impact it will have here in the United States was preventable. . . . The reach of the virus here,” the editorial states, “is not attributable to an act of God or a foreign invasion, but a colossal failure of leadership.” The coronavirus “demanded a leader who would put the country’s well-being first, above near-term stock market returns and his own reelection prospects.” The editorial voices Trump’s crime against Americans: “The months the administration wasted with prevarication about the threat and its subsequent missteps will amount to exponentially more COVID -19 cases than were necessary. In other words, the president has blood on his hands. . . . Come November,” the editorial ends, “There must be a reckoning for the lives lost, and for the vast avoidable suffering about to ensue under the president’s watch.” (March 31, 2020)

In the meantime, the “resurrection of Jesus’s concern for the most vulnerable” as Rev. Barber said, is seen in the examples of countless doctors and nurses and other healthcare workers. They are on the frontlines, risking their lives, overwhelmed with a lack of equipment, caring for countless “vulnerable” coronavirus patients and their families. Healthcare workers who reveal that Easter is not about “packed churches,” but about caring for the well-being and renewal of people.

The post The Coronavirus Rained on Trump’s Easter Charade appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

It’s Time to Clean Ecofascism Out of Environmentalism

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The coronavirus pandemic is lethal, but could there be a silver lining beyond the pain? Social media is awash with how the newly cleaned environment is hosting wildlife not seen for years. Dolphins are swimming in Venetian canals: except they aren’t, they’re really near Sardinia as usual. Swans? Yes, but they’ve always been there. The canals may be cleaner but the story’s fake.

Facts matter less than our ache for an unpolluted globe. We yearn for a lost world of childhood innocence, and so project our hope onto juvenile activists. But there clearly are benefits in the reduced use of fossil fuels as flights are cancelled and car journeys shrink to levels last seen on distant Sundays when the shops were shut. Some are reporting easier breathing during an epidemic which attacks the lungs.

Surely this will strengthen the current insistence to turn thirty, even fifty, percent of the globe into “protected areas” (PAs)? We’re told this is the answer to climate chaos and protecting biodiversity – no people, no pollution, problem solved?

I’m afraid not: doubling PAs won’t lessen climate change, it’ll make things worse. Like dolphins in the Grand Canal, this so-called “New Deal for Nature” is fiction. PAs in places like Africa and Asia are often disastrous. They evict people from their traditional lands and deprive them of their self-sufficiency, forcing them into city slums and a hostile money economy. People are beaten and killed if they try to return to their land, even to collect firewood. Their resentment grows. Where they’re tough enough, they cut fences and fight back. It’s happening now in Kenya where conservation is seen as a colonial land grab, enriching outsiders and NGOs but ratcheting up local hostility.

Gangs of armed rangers won’t be enough to protect this colonial “fortress conservation”. Those promoting it preach sustainability, but themselves pursue an unsustainable model because there won’t be any PAs left in Africa in a generation, they’ll be overrun by angry and hungry Africans.

Evicting people is both criminal and tragic because the same local people, usually indigenous to the area, are the best stewards of their environments. If they weren’t, they’d never have thrived in lands which we see as wild. Our concept of “wilderness” has roots in European folklore but also in white supremacist ignorance: the apparent wildernesses were in fact shaped by humans over thousands of years.

The myth echoes the Biblical Eden, dyed with Stygian hue. Often called “ecofascism,” it asserts that some people, “foreigners”, are expendable if it makes the world cleaner and purer. An extreme expression can be read in the manifestos of racist terrorists like the Christchurch shooter, but the same undercurrent drives social media mobs baying for “poachers” to be summarily killed – never mind that some of them are locals trying to feed their families. There’s an ecofascist tone in a joke from former WWF president, Prince Philip, who wanted to reincarnate as a virus to curb overpopulation! We’re now told the real virus is humanity itself, although billions of people consume very little. And we’ve all seen the wildlife films where Africa is mysteriously devoid of Africans.

That omission is contrived, but some of the emptiness is real: millions of indigenous people have already been “disappeared” to make room for PAs. Doubling these areas would entail the theft of the lands and resources of hundreds of millions more. It’s a mad, bad idea which would finish conservation. It’s time to clean ecofascism out of environmentalism.

The conservation industry should instead be offering its huge resources to local people who actually ask for projects on their land under their own control. Eighty percent of Earth’s biodiversity is already in indigenous territories and it’s proven that local people can achieve better conservation at a fraction of the cost of alternatives. We must reject ecofascism and bring human diversity into the centre of conservation. We have to do it now because those who live most differently to us have some of the best answers about how to live at all.

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The Swedish Alternative: Coronavirus as a Grand Gamble

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As draconian lockdowns, punitive regimes and surveillance become the norm of the coronavirus world, Sweden has treaded more softly in the field.  This is certainly in contrast to its Scandinavian cousins, Denmark and Norway.  The rudiments of a life uninterrupted generally remain in place. Cafes, restaurants and shops, for the most part, remain open and stocked.  As do gyms and cinemas.  Vibrant after-ski parties persist, much to the bemused horror of those across the border.

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, embracing the principle of voluntariness over coercion, has issued warnings to citizens to keep travel down to a minimum, avoiding anything non-essential.  The traditional age group – those over 70 – have been told to mind their movements and stay at home.  In the prime minister’s words during a televised speech, “Us adults need to be exactly that: adults.  Not spread panic or rumours.  No one is alone in this crisis, but each person carries a heavy responsibility.”

Despite all of this, Sweden’s authorities show that they do have a foot on the brake, albeit one applied with slow motion caution.  Gatherings used to be limited to 500 – that confidently embraced number has now been reduced to 50, a measure that will be policed.  Bars can only provide table service.  Colleges and universities have moved to a virtual format in line with recommendations issued on March 18.

But the Public Health Agency exerts a powerful influence, insisting that a lockdown is simply unwarranted.  Local sports tournaments and matches required no cancellations – exercise and sports were healthy initiatives.  Organisers of events and seminars were responsible for conducting a risk assessment and providing information “about good hand hygiene, and access to hand washing facilities for all participants.”

The focus, rather, is on individual initiative, minimising instances of transmission while herd immunity builds up, or a vaccine is found.  If over 70, avoid using public transport, shopping in supermarkets, visiting areas of congregation. “Instead, ask friends, family or neighbours to do your shopping etc.” Work from home, if you can.  “This is to decrease the speed of transmission and the number of people needing hospital care.”

Central to such recommendations is a modelling game.  As with all such games, risks abound.  The go-easy approach has certainly caused little alarm in the country; if anything, it has given the Social Democrats a hearty boost.  The wisdom of authorities is generally taken for granted, suggesting the customary, even awesome power of the Swedish civil service.  The eggheads remain in charge.

The Swedish example shows a differing approach to measurement, which invariably involves looking at a crystal ball of sorts.  Paul Franks and Peter Nilsson, both epidemiologists based at Lund University, suggest that the government is gambling on simulations made by the public health authorities on “surge requirements”. “From these simulations, it is clear that the Swedish government anticipates far few hospitalisations per 100,000 of the population than predicted in other countries, including Norway, Denmark and the UK.”

The observations by Franks and Nilsson are filled with characteristic scientific caution.  Which modelling do you go for?  Using British variants suggests a higher death toll for Sweden, though the authorities seem to be holding to the point that most infected people will have no symptoms, leaving one in five requiring a stint in hospital.  And Britain is not Sweden.

We are left with the treacherous nature of public health modelling.  COVID-19 prediction models, for instance, tend to rely on the examples in China and Italy, furthering upon data gathered from previous Ebola outbreaks, SARS and MERS.  This brings the old question of demography into play, and the need to gather evidence of community transmission (so far, material on this is sketchy in Sweden).  An inescapable fact is that Sweden has one major metropolitan area, so any accurate modelling would require material specific to that.  Ways of interaction between generations would also have to be considered.  In Sweden, less intergenerational conduct would lessen the risk to the elderly.  More than half of Sweden’s households consist of one person, another telling factor.

The data does not tend to focus on hospital admissions and fatalities, a point stressed by Franks and Nilsson.  “This latter can be used to be a ‘poor man’s estimate’ of community transmission, providing approximately how many fatalities occur among those infected.”  The accuracy of this is somewhat compromised by the two-week period between diagnosis and the mortality, a “very blunt instrument” indeed.

The numbers of COVID-19 cases in Sweden have not been negligible.  From the first recorded case on February 4, 2020, the total, as of March 30, 2020, stands at 4,028.  Deaths come in at 146, though a disproportionate number come from a Somali community located in less commodious quarters with extended families.

Despite the highest death toll of the Nordic countries, state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell is supremely confident that the “strategy” has worked well, with Sweden showing a relatively flat curve of infection relative to Italy and Spain.  “We want to slow down the epidemic until Sweden experiences a sort of peak, and if the peak is not too dramatic we can continue.”

A large number of citizens, bearing their heavy responsibility, have chosen to avoid public transport – Storstockholms Lokaltrafik claims a fall of 50 percent in the number of commuters.  Schools might be open, but many parents are keeping their children at home.  Remote and work-from-home options have been embraced by companies with gusto.

The warning calls, while not shrill, are in evidence.  An epidemiological battle is taking shape, though it remains one dominated by parrying disagreements of expertise.  Britain’s chief scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance has much praise for the approach, having made similar suggestions to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the “herd immunity” phase of discussions.  In contrast, a petition featuring over 2,000 doctors, scientists and academics, which boast among its numbers the chairman of the Nobel Foundation, Prof Carl-Henrik Heldin, has called for more aggressive measures.  “It is risky to leave it to people to decide what to do without any restrictions,” opines a paternalistic Joacim Rocklöv, an epidemiologist based at Umeå University.  “As can be seen from other countries this is a serious disease, and Sweden is no different than other countries.”

Virologist Cecilia Söderberg-Nauclér, based at the Karolinska Institute, has not held back in her views, claiming with some punchiness that the government has committed all the big no-nos in responding to a pandemic.  “We’re not testing enough, we’re not tracking, we’re not isolating enough – we have let the virus loose.”  In so doing, Sweden had been placed on the path to catastrophe.  To avoid a lockdown, a mass-testing approach as adopted by South Korea would have to be adopted.  Time will tell which one stacks up.

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The Future May Be Female, But the Pandemic is Patriarchal

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Before I found myself “sheltering in place,” this article was to be about women’s actions around the world to mark March 8th, International Women’s Day. From Pakistan to Chile, women in their millions filled the streets, demanding that we be able to control our bodies and our lives. Women came out in Iraq and Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and Peru, the Philippines and Malaysia. In some places, they risked beatings by masked men. In others, they demanded an end to femicide — the millennia-old reality that women in this world are murdered daily simply because they are women.

In 1975 the Future Was Female

This year’s celebrations were especially militant. It’s been 45 years since the United Nations declared 1975 the International Women’s Year and sponsored its first international conference on women in Mexico City. Similar conferences followed at five-year intervals, culminating in a 1995 Beijing conference, producing a platform that has in many ways guided international feminism ever since.

Beijing was a quarter of a century ago, but this year, women around the world seemed to have had enough. On March 9th, Mexican women staged a 24-hour strike, un día sin nosotras (a day without us women), to demonstrate just how much the world depends on the labor — paid and unpaid — of… yes, women. That womanless day was, by all accounts, a success. The Wall Street Journal observed — perhaps with a touch of astonishment — that “Mexico grinds to a halt. Hundreds of thousands of women paralyzed Mexico in an unprecedented nationwide strike to protest a rising wave of violence against women, a major victory for their cause.”

In addition to crowding the streets and emptying factories and offices, some women also broke store windows and fought with the police. Violence? From women? What could have driven them to such a point?

Perhaps it was the murder of Ingrid Escamilla, 25, a Mexico City resident, who, according to the New York Times, “was stabbed, skinned and disemboweled” this February. Maybe it was that the shooting of the artist and activist Isabel Cabanillas de la Torre in Ciudad Juarez, a barely noted reminder to an uninterested world that women have been disappearing for decades along the U.S.-Mexico border. Or maybe it was just the fact that official figures for 2019 revealed more than 1,000 femicides in Mexico, a 10% increase from the previous year, while many more such murders go unrecorded.

Is the Pandemic Patriarchal?

If it weren’t for the pandemic, maybe the Wall Street Journal would have been right. Maybe the Day Without Women would have been only the first of many major victories. Maybe the international feminist anthem, “El violador eres tú” (You [the patriarchy, the police, the president] are the rapist), would have gone on inspiring flash-mobs of dancing, chanting women everywhere. Perhaps the world’s attention might not have been so quickly diverted from the spectacle of women’s uprisings globally. Now, however, in the United States and around the world, it’s all-pandemic-all-the-time, and with reason. The coronavirus has done what A Day Without Women could not: it’s brought the world’s economy to a shuddering halt. It’s infected hundreds of thousands of people and killed tens of thousands. And it continues to spread like a global wildfire.

Like every major event and institution, the pandemic affects women and men differently. Although men who fall sick seem more likely than women to die, in other respects, the pandemic and its predictable aftermath are going to be harder on women. How can that be? The writer Helen Lewis provides some answers in the Atlantic.

First of all, the virus, combined with mass quarantine measures, ensures that more people will need to be cared for. This includes older people who are especially at risk of dying and children who are no longer in school or childcare. In developed countries like the United States, people fortunate enough to be able to keep their jobs by working from home are discovering that the presence of bored children does not make this any easier.

Indeed, last night, my little household was treated to a song-and-dance performance by two little girls who live a couple of houses down the street. Their parents had spent the day helping them plan it and then invited us to watch from our backyard. What they’ll do tomorrow, a workday, I have no idea. A friend without children has offered to provide daily 15-minute Zoom lessons on anything she can Google, as a form of respite for her friends who are mothers.

As recently as a week ago, it looked as if shuttered schools might open again before the academic year ends, allowing one New York Times commentator to write an article headlined “I Refuse to Run a Coronavirus Home School.” An associate professor of educational leadership, the author says she’s letting her two children watch TV and eat cookies, knowing that no amount of quick-study is going to turn her into an elementary school teacher. I applaud her stance, but also suspect that the children of professionals will probably be better placed than those of low-wage workers to resume the life-and-death struggle for survival in the competitive jungle that is kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade education in this country.

In locked-down heterosexual households, Helen Lewis writes, the major responsibility for childcare will fall on women. She’s exasperated with pundits who point out that people like Isaac Newton and Shakespeare did their best work during a seventeenth-century plague in England. “Neither of them,” she points out,had child-care responsibilities.” Try writing King Lear while your own little Cordelias, Regans, and Gonerils are pulling at your shirt and complaining loudly that they’re booored.

In places like the United Kingdom and the United States, where the majority of mothers have jobs, women will experience new pressures to give up their paid employment. In most two-earner heterosexual households with children, historic pay inequalities mean that a woman’s job usually pays less. So if someone has to devote the day to full-time childcare, it will make economic sense that it’s her. In the U.S., 11% of women are already involuntarily working only part-time, many in jobs with irregular schedules. Even women who have chosen to balance their household work with part-time employment may find themselves under pressure to relinquish those jobs.

As Lewis says, this all makes “perfect economic sense”:

“At an individual level, the choices of many couples over the next few months will make perfect economic sense. What do pandemic patients need? Looking after. What do self-isolating older people need? Looking after. What do children kept home from school need? Looking after. All this looking after — this unpaid caring labor — will fall more heavily on women, because of the existing structure of the workforce.”

Furthermore, as women who choose to leave the workforce for a few years to care for very young children know, it’s almost impossible to return to paid work at a position of similar pay and status as the one you gave up. And enforced withdrawal won’t make that any easier.

Social Reproduction? What’s That? And Why Does It Matter?

This semester I’m teaching a capstone course for urban studies majors at my college, the University of San Francisco. We’ve been focusing our attention on something that shapes all our lives: work — what it is, who has it and doesn’t, who’s paid for it and isn’t, and myriad other questions about the activity that occupies so much of our time on this planet. We’ve borrowed a useful concept from Marxist feminists: “social reproduction.” It refers to all the work, paid and unpaid, that someone has to do just so that workers can even show up at their jobs and perform the tasks that earn them a paycheck, while making a profit for their employers.

It’s called reproduction, because it reproduces workers, both in the biological sense and in terms of the daily effort to make them whole enough to do it all over again tomorrow. It’s social reproduction, because no one can do it alone and different societies find different ways of doing it.

What’s included in social reproduction? There are the obvious things any worker needs: food, clothing, sleep (and a safe place to doze off), not to speak of a certain level of hygiene. But there’s more. Recreation is part of it, because it “recreates” a person capable of working effectively. Education, healthcare, childcare, cooking, cleaning, procuring or making food and clothing — all of these are crucial to sustaining workers and their work. If you’d like to know more about it, Tithi Bhattacharya’s Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression is a good place to start.

What does any of this have to do with our pandemic moment? How social reproduction is organized in the United States leaves some people more vulnerable than others in a time of economic crisis. To take one example, over many decades, restaurants have assumed and collectivized (for profit) significant parts of the work of food preparation, service, and clean up, acts once largely performed in indvidual homes. For working women, the availability of cheap takeout has, in some cases, replaced the need to plan, shop for, and prepare meals seven days a week. Food service is a stratified sector, ranging from high-end to fast-food establishments, but it includes many low-wage workers who have now lost their jobs, while those still working at places providing takeout or drive-through meals are risking their health so that others can eat.

One way professional class two-earner couples in the United States have dealt with the tasks of social reproduction is to outsource significant parts of their work to poorer women. Fighting over who does the vacuuming and laundry at home? Don’t make the woman do it all. Hire a different woman to do it for you. Want to have children and a career? Hire a nanny.

Of course, odds are that your house cleaner and nanny will still have to do their own social reproduction work when they get home. And now that their children aren’t going to school, somehow they’ll have to take care of them as well. In many cases, this will be possible, however, because their work is not considered an “essential service” under the shelter-in-place orders of some states. So they will lose their incomes.

At least here in California, many of the women who do these jobs are undocumented immigrants. When the Trump administration and Congress manage to pass a relief bill, they, like many undocumented restaurant workers, won’t be receiving any desperately needed funds to help them pay rent or buy food. Immigrant-rights organizations are stepping in to try to make up some of the shortfall, but what they’re capable of is likely to prove just a few drops in a very large bucket. Fortunately, immigrant workers are among the most resourceful people in this country or they wouldn’t have made it this far.

There’s one more kind of social reproduction work performed mostly by women, and, by its nature, the very opposite of “social distancing”: sex work. You can be sure that no bailout bill will include some of the nation’s poorest women, those who work as prostitutes.

Women at Home and at Risk

It’s a painful coincidence that women are being confined to their homes just as an international movement against femicide is taking off. One effect of shelter-in-place is to make it much harder for women to find shelter from domestic violence. Are you safer outside risking coronavirus or inside with a bored, angry male partner? I write this in full knowledge that one economic sector that has not suffered from the pandemic is the gun business. Ammo.com, for example, which sells ammunition online in all but four states, has experienced more than a three-fold increase in revenue over the last month. Maybe all that ammo is being bought to fight off zombies (or the immigrant invasion the president keeps reminding us about), but research shows that gun ownership has a lot to do with whether or not domestic violence turns into murder.

Each week, Washington Post advice columnist Carolyn Hax hosts a chat line offering suggestions for help of various sorts. For the last two weeks, her readers (myself included) have been horrified by messages from one participant stuck in quarantine in a small apartment with a dangerous partner who has just bought a gun. Standard advice to women in her position is not just to run, but to make an exit plan, quietly gather the supplies and money you’ll need and secure a place to go. Mandatory shelter-in-place orders, however necessary to flattening the curve of this pandemic, may well indirectly cause an increase in domestic femicides.

As if women weren’t already disproportionately affected by the coronavirus epidemic, Senate Republicans have been trying to sneak a little extra misogyny into their version of a relief bill. In the same month that Pakistani women risked their lives in demonstrations under the sloganMera jism, meri marzi” (“My body, my choice”), Republicans want to use the pandemic in another attempt to — that’s right — shut down Planned Parenthood clinics.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent recently revealed that the $350 billion being proposed to shore up small businesses that don’t lay off workers would exclude nonprofits that receive funds from Medicaid. Planned Parenthood, which provides healthcare for millions of uninsured and underinsured women, is exactly that kind of nonprofit. Democratic congressional aides who alerted Sargent to this suggest that Planned Parenthood wouldn’t be the only organization affected. They also believe that

“…this language would exclude from eligibility for this financial assistance a big range of other nonprofits that get Medicaid funding, such as home and community-based disability providers; community-based nursing homes, mental health providers, and health centers; group homes for the disabled; and even rape crisis centers.”

Meanwhile, Mississippi, Ohio, and Texas are trying to use the coronavirus as an excuse to prevent women’s access to abortion. On the grounds that such procedures are not medically necessary, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has ordered abortion providers to stop terminating pregnancies. Earlier, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost sent letters to abortion providers in that state forbidding all “nonessential” surgical abortions.

A Return to Normalcy?

When Warren Harding (who oversaw a notoriously corrupt administration) ran for president in 1920, his campaign slogan was “a return to normalcy” — the way things were, that is, before World War I. What he meant was a return to economic dynamism. As we know, the “Roaring Twenties” provided it in spades — until that little crash known as the Great Depression. Today, like Harding, another corrupt president is promising a prompt return to normalcy. He’s already chafing at the 15-day period of social distancing he announced in mid-March. At his March 23rd press conference, he hinted that the United States would be “open for business” sooner rather than later. The next day, he suggested that the country reopen for business on Easter (a “very special day for me”), saying he wants to see “packed churches all over our country.” He can’t wait until everything, including our deeply unequal healthcare and economic systems, gets back to normal — the way they were before the spread of the coronavirus; until, that is, we can go back to being unprepared for the next, inevitable crisis.

Unlike the president, I hope we don’t go back to normal. I hope the people of Venice come to appreciate their sparkling canals and their returning dolphins. I hope that the rest of us become attached to less polluted air and lower carbon emissions. I hope that we learn to value the lives of women.

I hope, instead of returning to normalcy, we recognize that our survival as a species depends on changing almost everything, including how we produce what we need and how we reproduce ourselves as fully human beings. I hope that, when we have survived this pandemic, the world’s peoples take what we have learned about collective global action during this crisis and apply it to that other predictable crisis, the one that threatens all human life on a distinctly warming planet.

This article first appeared on TomDispatch.

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By The Time We Notice We’re Hungry, It May Be Too Late

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“[A]s the top U.S. watermelon-producing state prepares for harvest, Reuters reports, “many of the workers needed to collect the crop are stuck in Mexico …. Without the workers crops could rot in fields throughout the country,” starting in Florida and California where major harvests begin in April and May.

As you can probably guess, the problem stems from the COVID-19 panic. The US State Department has halted routine visa applications and consulates are limiting both staff numbers and staff contact with applicants. That’s making it difficult for the quarter million migrant workers who normally pick America’s crops to get here and get to work.

Most Americans aren’t hungry. Yet.

But unless something changes, we’re going to start GETTING hungry in a couple of months.

And by then, it will be too late. Planting cycles don’t turn on a dime for our convenience and ripe crops don’t wait. They get picked when it’s their time, or they go to waste. We get the food while the gettin’s good, or we don’t get it at all.

There’s a non-trivial chance that Americans are rushing headlong into a horror we haven’t seen since the Civil War — mass starvation — or, at the very least, malnutrition on a scale we haven’t suffered since the Great Depression.

We can’t avoid that outcome with stimulus checks in our mailboxes. All the money in the world won’t buy you a cantaloupe if there aren’t any cantaloupes to buy.

We can’t hold it off with corporate bailouts, either. It’s not money Big Agriculture’s lacking for, it’s permission for its workers to come pick the crops.

If we want to keep eating, our politicians are going to have to knock off this “shutdown” nonsense and let people get back to work.

Yes, even if that means that COVID-19 remains a problem or becomes a bigger problem.

The varying probabilities of catching the disease, and the varying probabilities of dying from it, pale next to the absolute, indubitable, 100% certainty that if we do not eat, we WILL die.

Politicians can’t just shut down major parts of an economy at will, start them back up, and expect things to go well. They can’t throttle the food supply chain without consequences.

We gotta eat.

Which means we’re going to have to insist that the politicians hang their Mussolini costumes back up in the closet and magnanimously permit us to get back to our lives.

The post By The Time We Notice We’re Hungry, It May Be Too Late appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

An Open Letter to My Landlord #CancelRent

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We will not be paying rent for April, and we thought we’d let you know why.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Randall,

Just to let you know, since we’ve never met, I’m one of your many residential tenants.  I imagine that between you and your corporation, the Randall Group, and then between that and its subsidiary, CTL Management, Inc., there are several degrees of disconnect, so you may or may not be aware that your corporate representatives have just sent me and presumably your thousands of other tenants up and down the west coast notifications of yet another annual increase in our monthly rent.

The letter, excerpted here, is a very slight variation of the same one we have received every year since I moved in to one of the many buildings you own, in Portland, Oregon, in 2007.  You, or the management company you own, has more than doubled our rent since that time.  You have never once provided any explanation in your annual letters for why the rent has to increase so much more than most people’s wages, which have remained stagnant in this country for decades, as our life expectancy has as well.

The thing is, stagnant wages are only leading to a life expectancy that is not rising because expenses are not stagnant.  Expenses are always rising.  Chief among those expenses?  Rent charged by people like you, and corporations like yours.

It admittedly does really irk me that in 2011, you donated $10 million to a hospital here in Portland, so that they named the children’s wing of the hospital after you.  Every time I pass that hospital, it upsets me, to think that the reason my three children have to live in the same small apartment I moved into when I only had one child, is because you keep raising our rent by such an unconscionable, unmanageable amount, every year.  How many children in this city with parents less fortunate than mine are now homeless because of your unfettered greed, because your wealth is more important than the lives of your tenants?  While you donate money to a hospital that cares for children.  The irony is what upsets me — not the donation itself.  It’s the narcissism involved with such BS philanthropy, the fake philanthropy of someone who wants their name on a sign, but doesn’t care about the children who suffer in order to put that name on the sign.

Of course, I’m just making assumptions about your motives.  Maybe you really do care about regular people.  If so, you can start to show that by, for example, declaring a suspension of rent for the duration of the crisis, and then lowering the rent you charge post-crisis to something more compatible with the actual living situations of actual people — not just your preferred people, imports from even more expensive cities who keep moving in to your apartments, and displacing people who grew up around here, or have lived here a long time.  This may just be the way capitalism works, and you’re just another commercial and residential real estate company that is going along with the capitalist program, but the thing is, you and the lobbying group that you support actually lobbies in state capitals to make sure there is no regulation passed that interferes with your ever-increasing profits.  So you’re not just part of a bad system — you are the bad system.

People like you, and corporations that people like you own, need to be resisted, if there is any hope for this horrendously divided and literally very sick society.

I, like many of your current and especially former tenants here in Portland, am an artist.  I’m a touring songwriter.  I make a living largely from traveling around the world and performing.  Now, I can’t even travel and perform in Oregon, let alone in Europe, where I spend much of my professional life.  Oh, and the reason I tour Europe so much in the first place, instead of more locally, and the reason I usually spend so many more months away from home than I used to, touring there in Europe, is largely because of you, and your rent increases.  But now, I can’t tour.  But you not only want the rent as usual, as if there weren’t a massive global catastrophe going on, as if the entire society weren’t under some form of quarantine, but you have the audacity to actually raise it.

Landlords like you are a big part of this society’s problem.  Not landlords like some of my friends, who are struggling to pay their mortgages, struggling to find a way to let their tenants slide on rent, but landlords specifically like you, who own so many buildings.  Even your corporate clients are announcing they’re not going to pay their rent for April.  We lowly residential tenants would be idiots not to do the same, really.

Especially since so many of us actually can’t.  I can, for now.  I just toured Australia, before the world closed its borders, so although the rest of my spring tour in North America and Europe was canceled, and although I’m drowning in credit card debt I was planning to pay off with that tour, I’ve got a little money, no thanks to you.  But it seems to us that there are better things to hold on to that money to do, especially while there is a statewide ban on evictions and power shutoffs.

Everything is moving very fast, as you know.  We’ll see what new laws get passed, and how much government aid there is for people like me.  I’m sure there will be lots of government aid for corporations like yours.  Plus, you don’t need any more money.  You’re very rich.  It’s time for you to change your ways.  Blame the pandemic, or blame me, or blame society, I don’t care.  But two of the people who are to blame for my family’s relative poverty, and for the fact that most of my friends have moved out of Portland since I first moved here — for the fact that any musician even slightly less successful than me can’t afford to live in this city — are you guys, Mr. and Mrs. Randall.

But we regular people don’t expect people like you to change without a fight.  However, let this be entirely clear:  if there is to be a class war in America, it is people like you who started it.  We are only responding to your mindless greed and the broken system which people like you broke and make sure stays broken.  No more.

Sincerely,
David, your tenant

P.S.  I have paid the rent on time every month since April, 2007.

The post An Open Letter to My Landlord #CancelRent appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Appeal for Humanitarian Diplomacy in the Korean Peninsula

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External threats such as pandemics remind all of us the need for global solidarity. The more we cooperate, coordinate, and share information and resources the safer we all are. In times of international health emergencies, adversaries should put down their sabers and be willing to find ways to work together. As we put aside hostilities to fight together against the virus, perhaps new diplomatic doors can open and lead to a path to permanent peace.

– Dr. Kee B. Park, Harvard Medical School

As of March 28, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected over 192 countries and territories around the globe, infecting over 600,000 people and claiming nearly 30,000 lives. In the midst of one of the worst pandemics in recent history, one country still has not publicly confirmed a single case: North Korea.

North Korea closed its borders in January, restricting social activities and placing thousands under quarantine, but it has yet to announce a single confirmed case of COVID-19. On March 27, North Korean health authorities selectively lifted quarantine in some areas exhibiting low infection rates, but thousands still remain confined.

Many are skeptical of the apparent lack of confirmed infections in the North, including USFK commander General Robert Abrams, who is “fairly certain” that the pandemic has spread there despite Pyongyang having declared zero confirmed cases to date. On March 27, the South Korean Prime Minister stated that the outlook for the North is likely “not good”, agreeing with the assessment of  South Korean doctors following the situation. They point to Pyongyang’s March 20 announcement regarding the release of quarantine restrictions from 4,000 residents of Pyongan Namdo, 1,430 of Gangwon, 2,630 of Jagangdo and 380 foreigners. Based on these and other compiled data sources, South Korean analysts estimate at least 8,300 cases of COVID-19 in the North, with many potential deaths.

Sanctions and the pandemic: a deadly combination

While some experts argue that North Korea‘s healthcare sector is in a better position than many believe due to the relatively high ratio of health workers in the population, the reality is that the North is highly vulnerable to health crises due to having been subjected to a wide range of long-term economic and financial sanctions. These sanctions, which include bans on metal goods that block the entry of a range of necessary medical equipment without special permission, have caused a critical shortage of life-saving supplies. Especially hard hit are the more than 10 million North Koreans–40 percent of the population–who are already in need of humanitarian aid.

Mindful of the grim prospects for the North in the midst of the outbreak, South Korean President Moon Jae-in proposed inter-Korean cooperation in the fields of medicine and public health during his March 1 independence day address. On March 4, Chairman Kim responded by stating that he “wholeheartedly wish[ed] that the health of our brothers and sisters in the South are protected”. On March 22, President Trump sent a letter to Kim, expressing his willingness to help the North battle the coronavirus. While these gestures are positive signs during a time of diplomatic impasse on the Korean Peninsula, they fall short of offering concrete and immediate solutions that can directly help avert the worst possible scenario in the North.

Under international sanctions and self-embargo due to the pandemic, North Korea cannot receive meaningful assistance from the outside, lacks indigenous resources and technology, and is attempting to overcome the crisis on its own. At a time when even wealthy nations such as the US are reaching out for help to fight the pandemic, as evinced by President Trump’s request for South Korean test kits, Pyongyang would be hard-pressed to handle this crisis on its own. In order to prevent devastating consequences of North Koreans infected with COVID – 19, the following steps must be taken immediately:

+ South Korea must send COVID – 19 test kits to North Korea as soon as possible.

+ The United States must lift unilateral sanctions barring access to food, essential health supplies and medical support to North Korea.

+ The UN and international community must authorize the export of essential medical equipment and supplies to North Korea.

 Implementing an inter-Korean health and humanitarian regime

In response to President Trump’s request for South Korea testing kits, President Moon pledged “maximum support” for bilateral cooperation to fight the pandemic, and South Korea is currently preparing to export testing kits to the United States. It seems self-evident that South Korea should demonstrate the same commitment to helping safeguard the lives of its brothers and sisters in the North. The two Koreas can look to the precedent set by East and West Germany, who implemented a public health treaty 10 years prior to unification and created a shared system for addressing public health crises. As the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games created a historic opportunity for inter-Korea cooperation and led to two US-DPRK summits, inter-Korean cooperation during the pandemic can create momentum for peace, which at this juncture, would realize immediate life-saving dividends.

Sanctions Kill

On March 27, the Financial Times reported that North Korea is clandestinely asking officials from other countries for assistance in waiving international sanctions restricting the shipment of medical supplies. International aid groups working inside the country have been calling for an easing of restrictions as well, warning of the grave human toll that would be exacted by a wide-scale outbreak. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has already urged the waiving of sanctions in order to ensure access to food, essential health supplies and medical support, and UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet has called for flexible authorization for essential and medical equipment and supplies, noting that “the populations in [countries under sanctions] are in no way responsible for the policies being targeted by sanctions, and to varying degrees have already been living in a precarious situation for prolonged periods”.

also to create enormous diplomatic goodwill with the DPRK while adhering to basic humanitarian principles which were echoed most recently in President Trump’s offer of assistance to Chairman Kim. Offers of aid are welcome, but more material and wide-ranging benefits could be realized by selectively lifting sanctions that impact medical equipment and aid in order to at least refrain from further worsening the outlook for a vulnerable population that is already hampered in its ability to respond to the pandemic. It is quite simply the right thing to do.

Dr. Simone Chun sits on the Steering Committee for the Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea and CodePink Advisory Board, and is an Associate of the Korea Policy Institute and an active member of the Korean Peace Network.

The post Appeal for Humanitarian Diplomacy in the Korean Peninsula appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

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