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How COVID-19 Changed Our Lives: a Report From Beijing

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On January 18, after attending a meeting in Hangzhou, I planned to return to my home in Beijing. At that time, the Spring Festival in China was approaching. Although I had started buying tickets one week in advance, I still did not get a high-speed train ticket from Hangzhou to Beijing so I had to go from Hangzhou to Shanghai and wait for several hours before changing to a later train to return to Beijing.

There are high-speed trains between Beijing and Hangzhou and Shanghai every five to ten minutes. Even so, it can’t meet people’s travel needs during the Spring Festival. High-speed railway stations and airports in all major cities were overcrowded and at security checkpoints, people lined up in long queues.

China’s transportation sector is doing its best to ensure the world’s largest population’s mobility and transport needs. Everyone was looking forward to the long holiday in the New Year and the reunion with their families.

There and then, nobody knew that after four days all this would change completely. Like no one expected that the whole world would change fundamentally in a couple of months.

The whole country was beaming with joy and peace.

The TV news stations were constantly showing people’s happy programs in preparation for the New Year holiday. A flash of news that reported a few cases of new pneumonia in Wuhan wouldn’t have attracted much attention.

So, people continue their preparations for the New Year.

Suddenly, however, a group of experts who have visited Wuhan appears on the TV program my family and I usually see and they suggest that people should not go to Wuhan if they could avoid it and that people in Wuhan should not go out at all.

Things are now getting quite serious and reports follow with rapidly increasing numbers of patients.

On January 23, the government suddenly announced the closure of Wuhan, a megacity with a population of 11 million. The next day, it was announced that all public transportation in the city would be stopped, private cars would be banned, and everyone would stay at home.

On January 24, on Chinese New Year’s Eve, medical staff in some provinces outside Hubei were suddenly notified that they must stop their routine work, pack their luggage within an hour and assemble for their travel to Wuhan. It’s now a huge medical rescue operation.

At this point, everyone is shrouded in anxiety.

At 8 pm, the most important TV program of the year, the New Year’s Gala, is performed as usual and broadcast live across the country. My family still sit around the TV and watch the New Year performances and celebrations. But we feel increasingly uneasy.

We keep updating news apps on our mobile phones to understand better the situation. A few hours later, the first medical teams from other provinces arrive in Wuhan.

Next, we learn that other parts of the country are also beginning to experience new cases of the virus; restrictions on travel are getting stricter.

My family originally planned to go to Hunan province which is 1300 kilometres away from Beijing to visit my parents during the new year.

But we finally recognise that the situation is such that we must cancel that trip. The next thing that happens is that the government calls on all the country’s citizens to live in isolation for two weeks. And if and when they have to go out to buy daily necessities, they must wear masks.

Over the next few days, the reports tell of ever-increasing numbers of new cases. The death rate was also soaring. The feeling of fear and anxiety is now manifest, going up and down with the reports we hear and see.

It all goes very fast…

At the same time, the country is moving quickly. One medical team after the other gathers in Wuhan from all over the country. Within ten days, two hospitals have sprung up and dozens of temporary hospitals are being built.

Seeing all this, our anxiety begins to ease and our confidence increases. I pull out a book on ancient Chinese philosophy from the shelf, intending to force myself to calm down, read it and turn my thoughts on something else but this catastrophe. I had tried to get into this book several times before but every time I had given up because it was too difficult for me. Was this the right good opportunity?

The week-long New Year holiday passed quickly, and the government decided to extend the holiday nationwide and postpone the opening date of all the schools.

My children cheered when they heard the news, but I had to think about how to deal with this unexpected situation.

Everyone is now looking for creative new solutions. How do you operate when you and your family is suddenly isolated physically in your home without any prior planning?

The demand for online office work and online education suddenly explodes and – predictably – some websites as well as many companies collapse.

The situation gradually improves after a week or two. We are learning to live with this as the new normal. My elder daughter faces her college entrance examination in her final year of high school. Her school had quickly begun to organize online teaching. Teachers and children tried their best to adapt to the new way of teaching and learning.

On social media, the learning of new skills has become popular, and people’s ability to adapt to new situations is beyond imagination – so impressive.

Eventually, the good news was that there were fewer and fewer new cases in Wuhan; more and more people were cured and discharged from hospitals. Temporary hospitals were gradually emptied and closed one by one.

Epidemic prevention and control measures are still being strictly implemented, masks are worn in public places, and special personnel deployed at all open buildings are equipped to check the body temperature of people entering.

It is predicted and expected that this will be our new ‘normal’ life for quite some time to come.

The epidemic situation in China is now basically over but – sadly, indeed – the virus has begun to spread to many other parts of the world. The number of infected and diseased are growing.

A heavy haze is now covering our global village. I believe it is just the beginning of a great change, and no one knows exactly what the world will look like during and after COVID-19.

The word “crisis” in Chinese includes the words “crisis” and “opportunity”, which means that out of a crisis new opportunities can also emerge.

We must hope that we shall all learn something constructive from the Corona pandemic and that a new and better world will emerge after it.

Liu Jian is Co-Founder and Board Member of Ichi Foundation. She lives in Beijing.

This article first appeared on TFF.

The post How COVID-19 Changed Our Lives: a Report From Beijing appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

The Return of Infrastructure Week

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According to the Washington Post, Donald Trump is calling for a fourth stimulus package, which he wants to be “very big and bold,” and to focus on infrastructure. He argued that this is a good time to do this, since interest rates are very low.

It’s good to see that Donald Trump has discovered infrastructure once again, but there are a few points worth making. First, the prior spending packages are better thought of as disaster relief or economic survival packages.  We are trying to cope with a horrible pandemic and to keep people and businesses whole through a period in which much of  the economy is shut down.

We really don’t want people to go out and spend money, as would be the case with an ordinary stimulus package. We want people to stay at home, but to be able to pay for their food, rent, and other necessities without the income they would normally get from working.

But it is good idea to think about economic priorities for when the period of shutdown is over, which will hopefully not be too many months in the future. It is not clear that we will need a boost to the economy at that point.

If the effort to contain the coronavirus is largely successful, then we could emerge from the period of shutdown with tens of millions of people having money in their pockets (from the rescue package) and anxious to do the things they have not been able to do for the prior two or three months. This means going out to restaurants, movies, traveling and all sorts of other things. In that context, especially with businesses struggling to rebuild their workforce and get other arrangements in order, we may have too much demand in the economy.

Nonetheless, the focus on infrastructure may still not be a bad plan. Since it takes a long time to get plans in place and projects underway, even if Congress passed a bill next month, almost nothing would be spent in 2020. This is money that would be spent in later years. At that point, even though we perhaps can borrow cheaply today, the infrastructure spending may still lead to higher  interest rates in the economy. (This depends on the extent to which we are close to an inflation constraint and the Fed raises rates in response.)

In any case, infrastructure is a good idea, and given the immense problem of global warming, it should be focused on clean energy and conservation. Unfortunately, Donald Trump doesn’t seem to believe in global warming in the same way that he didn’t use to believe in pandemics. But maybe he will be able to learn a little bit in this area also.

This article first appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog.

The post The Return of Infrastructure Week appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

The Relative Generosity of the Economic Rescue Package: Boeing vs. Public Broadcasting

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The media have been engaged big time in the numbers without context game, throwing out really big numbers faster than anyone can catch them. (For the biggest, the overall size of the stimulus, given the time frame, we are looking at a stimulus that is about five times as large as the Obama stimulus.) While there are many great comparisons to be made on who got what, for tonight I just want to focus on one, the handout to Boeing compared with the money provided to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As most people know, Boeing was already in trouble for reasons having nothing to do with the coronavirus. Safety problems with its new 737 Max led to two deadly crashes. Apparently the problems stem from very basic features of the plane which cannot be easily fixed. These problems have whacked Boeing’s profits and stock price and forced it to send its CEO packing, although he did get a $62 million going away present.

Anyhow, being the empathetic crew they are, Trump and the Republicans rushed to set aside a nice chunk of taxpayer dollars for Boeing in their big corporate slush fund. Boeing is slated to get $17 billion in loans to help get it through the crisis.

We should be clear on what exactly this means. The government is not handing Boeing $17 billion, it is lending it $17 billion at an interest rate below what the market would charge. So it is wrong to say that the government is giving Boeing $17 billion. What it is giving Boeing is the difference between what it would have to pay to borrow this money in private capital markets and what it is paying the government on its loans.

It is not easy to know what the current market rate would be, given the extraordinary credit situation, but let’s say this gap is 5.0 percentage points. If we assume the loans are out for a year (it could be considerably longer), then we would effectively be handing Boeing $850 million (5.0 percent of $17 billion).

While it is important to make the distinction between a handout of $17 billion and a loan of $17 billion, it is also important to correct a lie that was told about the last bailout and will be told about this one. The lie is that we made a profit on the bailout, the money was repaid with interest.

In an economic crisis, there are lots of businesses and individuals who would love to be able to borrow at the discount rate the government is providing to its favored recipients. As the lowest cost borrower, the government could always make money by lending to businesses at an interest rate between what the market would charge them and what the government pays. Yet, no one in their right mind would suggest that the government have an open-ended facility for this purpose, even though it would be hugely profitable by the bailout apologists’ standards.

Giving subsidized loans, even though they earn the government interest, is a huge subsidy. And, if we did an infinite amount of such loans we would have a serious problem with inflation, just the same as if the government were to hand everyone $100,000 a year. Serious people understand this fact, even if they choose not to be honest about it.

Anyhow, for our big comparison, we will look at the $850 million gift to Boeing and the $75 million in the package that was designated for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting  (CPB). CPB gives money to a wide range of public broadcasters including the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio.

To put this in a context that might be meaningful to people, we will use the metric of a “food stamp person year.” The average food stamp beneficiary in 2018 received $127 per month, which translates in $1,560 a year. To account for inflation, I rounded up to $1,600 per person per year.

 

Source: Author’s calculations, see text.

While some people are undoubtedly upset by the CPB getting $75 million, Boeing is getting more than ten times as much money from the rescue package. Some of this money will likely help to keep its workers employed, but much of this will go to the 8-digit paycheck of Boeing’s new CEO and keeping its shareholders happy.

Anyhow, people can have different opinions on the merits of these items, but they should at least have a clear idea of their relative size.

This article first appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog.

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Alliance for the Wild Rockies Sues Feds to Stop a Project That Will Kill 72 Yellowstone Grizzly Bears in Wyoming’s Upper Green and Gros Ventre Rivers

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Yellowstone grizzly. Photo: National Park Service.

Once over 50,000 strong in the lower 48 states, grizzlies were reduced to less than 1,000 bears. Grizzly bears were eliminated from Texas by 1890, California by 1922, Utah by 1923, Oregon by 1931, New Mexico by 1933, and Arizona by 1935.

Thus, in a historical blink of an eye, from the 1800s to the early 1900s, humans decimated grizzly populations and thereby reduced their range to less than 2% of their former range south of Canada, limiting the bear to a few isolated populations in fragmented wildlands.  One of these remnant and isolated grizzly bear populations is found in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Yet, last October the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s Pinedale District issued a decision to continue livestock grazing on some 267 square miles of National Forests in the Upper Green River and Gros Ventre River drainages near the southern end of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  The Biological Opinion, issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service projected that extending these grazing allotments will result in the deaths of an estimated 72 grizzly bears over the ten-years.

We have tens of millions of cattle in America but we only have about 700 grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – which is why the Alliance, Yellowstone-to-Unitas Connection and our allies filed a lawsuit on March 31st and are taking the Trump administration’s, U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to court to overturn this disastrous decision.

Federal district courts have already ruled twice that grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem still need to be protected under the Endangered Species Act — and did so for very good reasons.  Chief among them is the Yellowstone grizzlies’ isolation from other grizzly populations that may cause irreversible inbreeding and lead to the extinction of the Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzly population.

Adding to the Yellowstone grizzlies’ many challenges, the illegal introduction of lake trout in Yellowstone National Park has already significantly reduced populations of Yellowstone cutthroat trout, a traditional high-value grizzly food source.  And due to global warming, the drastic die-off of whitebark pines have decimated the production of their seeds, another high nutrition traditional food source, forcing grizzly bears into less secure habitat where they are often shot and killed.

The grizzly’s natural characteristics make it particularly vulnerable due to its late age at first reproduction, small litter sizes, and the long interval between litters – all of which lead to one of the slowest reproductive rates of North American mammals. A female grizzly can replace herself with one breeding age female in the first decade of her life.  One – and only if she survives to breeding age and doesn’t get shot by a rancher or poacher or Wildlife Service gunner first.

There are simple steps that ranchers can take to protect their cattle from grizzly bears.  These include guard dogs, selective deployment of electric fences, closer monitoring of cattle by ranchers, relocation of cattle pastures during key periods of livestock susceptibility, and removal of cattle carcasses so they don’t become a food source for grizzlies.   The solution here is to better manage cattle grazing operations instead of trying to manage grizzly bears by killing every grizzly they see near a cow.

While there is little or no scientific evidence supporting killing numerous grizzly bears every year to resolve cattle-related conflicts, there is scientific evidence that non-lethal measures can reduce levels of cattle depredation by grizzlies for sustained periods of time.  Simply put, if cattle ranchers refuse to use these non-lethal measures to reduce conflict with grizzly bears, the most effective means for resolving depredation-related conflicts is the termination of cattle grazing allotments on public lands that suffer from chronic cattle-grizzly conflict.

Also at issue is the Kendall Warm Springs dace, (Rhinichthys osculus thermalis), a small fish  found in the Kendall Warm Springs on the Bridger-Teton National Forest and nowhere else in  the world. Due to its incredibly limited range and threats to its continued existence,  including livestock impacts, the Kendall Warm Springs dace has been listed as “endangered”  since 1973. The Kendall Warm Springs consists of a 328-yard-long tributary to the Green  River warmed to a constant temperature of 85 degrees Fahrenheit by numerous thermal seeps.

The Forest Service maintains a fenced exclosure around the springs to protect the dace from livestock impacts. However, the UGRA Project allows cattle within the exclosure when herded by permittees to and from the Project area’s grazing allotments which lead to cattle destroying degraded riparian and channel conditions which harm the Kendall Warm Springs dace by increasing summer stream temperature, reducing winter temperatures and therefore is in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

It’s unfortunate that we have no other choice left to us except to take the federal government to court to protect Yellowstone’s grizzlies.  But if we must turn to the courts to force the Trump administration to follow the law and recover, not decimate, the Yellowstone grizzly population as required under the Endangered Species Act that’s exactly what we’ll do.  If you want to help the Alliance in this battle, here’s the link – and thanks for your support.

The post Alliance for the Wild Rockies Sues Feds to Stop a Project That Will Kill 72 Yellowstone Grizzly Bears in Wyoming’s Upper Green and Gros Ventre Rivers appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Plague Days

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Plague Days

The graves were six feet deep
To halt the spread of plague
And keep six feet away
From everyone you meet
On the street —
And when you go out
Or up to the roof
Ask: should we build some chicken
Coops
With hens we could cop
From the live poultry shop
Just down the block
So we can have eggs
As the hospital ship
With the thousand beds bobs
In the Hudson
And the ambulances‘ sirens
Wail outside all night
The janitor declares
As he stares at the moon
That as more people come down sick
We may run out of things to eat
By the middle of June —
Aside from the mulberries, fat on the trees,
If we don’t plant potatoes, beans,
And other things, like leafy greens,
In the cracks of the sidewalks
Soon

 

The post Plague Days appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Coronavirus Lays Low the Military

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Don’t look now but, for all intents and purposes the US war machine has ceased to exist. It’s not the case for defensive purposes. If the United States were to come under attack, the Pentagon would throw everything it has at the problem from ground troops to advanced fighter jets. If "fighting sick" was the … Continue reading "Coronavirus Lays Low the Military"

The post Coronavirus Lays Low the Military appeared first on Antiwar.com Original.

We Need a Coronavirus Truce

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During World War I, soldiers all along the Western front held a series of informal truces in December 1914 to commemorate Christmas. It was early in the war, and opposition had not yet hardened into implacable enmity. The military command, caught by surprise, could not impose complete battlefield discipline. An estimated 100,000 British and German … Continue reading "We Need a Coronavirus Truce"

The post We Need a Coronavirus Truce appeared first on Antiwar.com Original.

Take Rights Seriously, Even During a Pandemic

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"If the provisions of the Constitution be not upheld when they pinch as well as when they comfort, they may as well be abandoned." ~ Justice George Sutherland (1862-1942) In his 2008 book "Taking Rights Seriously," the late professor Ronald Dworkin explored the origins and governmental treatment of human liberty. He argued that Thomas Jefferson … Continue reading "Take Rights Seriously, Even During a Pandemic"

The post Take Rights Seriously, Even During a Pandemic appeared first on Antiwar.com Original.

Hooray! The Paycheck Protection Program Starts Friday.

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I’ve been whining for a while about the stimulus checks in the coronavirus bill getting outsized attention even though the expanded unemployment benefits are far bigger and more important. So it’s only fair that I hand the microphone over to a fellow whiner who wants everyone to know that the coronavirus rescue bill also authorizes a huge money hose aimed at small businesses as long as the money is . . .

. . . used for payroll costs, interest on mortgages, rent, and utilities (due to likely high subscription, at least 75% of the forgiven amount must have been used for payroll)

The program starts on April 3. Here is William Winecoff of the University of Indiana:

I can’t believe everyone is missing the news of the day: The US just went full-Denmark on payroll support. Except better (assuming quick expansion to large corporations). I haven’t smiled in weeks. I’m beaming. If we keep recapitalizing this as needed we could actually avoid a Depression.

It’s a loan program. But loans are fully forgiven if 75% or more of them go towards payrolls. Including benefits. And (rapid) rehires. So it should function like a grant program. The reason why it is structured as a loan program is because it can be administered through FDIC banks, credit unions, etc.

If this works well, you can walk into your local bank and get cash fast. Maybe on the spot? But the banks can’t profit; no fees allowed. Also no collateral, no personal guarantees required….Payroll support is for 8 weeks, which buys us a good amount of time. Also creates infrastructure if it needs to be expanded further.

So, as I read it, and if it works, it’s full payroll support, for free, without having to go through the SBA directly, and also support for business rent/mortgage/utilities payments. That’s huge! And because it’s a Treasury program it can be easily backstopped by the Fed, which allows for quick expansion if needed (it will be needed). Unless I’m missing something this is a very big deal. It needs to be expanded to ALL workers, not just small businesses, and it will need more funding support (and/or something creative like a Fannie/Freddie for SMEs). But I never thought this admin would do something this decent.

They’ve released the application form. Very simple.

Yep. This is all correct. So here’s a summary of the assistance that the coronavirus rescue bill provides for ordinary people:

  1. A $1,200 check for just about everyone with a middle-class income or less. That’s almost $3,000 for a family of three.
  2. A program that encourages small businesses to keep workers employed by funding their payroll costs.
  3. For those workers who are laid off anyway, an expanded unemployment insurance program that replaces 100 percent or more of your normal income up to $50-60,000 (depending on what state you live in).

This adds up to about a trillion dollars, and virtually all of it is for non-rich people. Is everyone starting to get an idea of why I’ve been so enthusiastic about the way this bill ended up? It’s pretty damn good.

Fox Viewers Still Believe the Risk of Coronavirus Is Exaggerated

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In a new survey from the Pew Research Center, 79 percent of Fox viewers say the media is exaggerating the risks of the coronavirus pandemic. And there’s more: 39 percent believe the virus was developed in a lab—presumably a Chinese bioweapons lab.

Fox viewers aren’t the only ones who are misinformed or prone to conspiracy theories, but they sure are the most likely. This is hardly a surprise from the network that brought you Benghazi and her emails, but it’s been astonishing to see just how far they’ll go to turn nearly anything into a partisan issue.

What It’s Like to Be Freed From Prison After 26 Years—Into a Coronavirus Hotspot

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This story was originally published by The Marshall Project

Craig Rixner walked out of the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, Louisiana last Wednesday after nearly 26 years in prison. It was a joyful day—filled with shrimp po boys, new clothes from Walmart and texts from many of his 28 nieces and nephews—but one with an ominous edge. Rixner was returning to a city, state and country that had mostly shut down during an unprecedented pandemic.

“It was beautiful walking out of the prison, but it was also scary,” Rixner said in a phone call the next day. “Because I didn’t know what I was walking into.” His 83-year-old mother, who breathes with an oxygen tank, couldn’t be there to greet him—she was sheltering-in-place in New Orleans. Waiting for him in the parking lot were the executive director of the nonprofit Louisiana Parole Project, which had fought for his release, and the law student who worked on his case. Rixner, despite the warnings, gave her a hug.

“It was beautiful walking out of the prison, but it was also scary. Because I didn’t know what I was walking into.”

Coming home after decades behind bars is always disorienting. But for the people being released in the time of coronavirus, the experience is particularly jarring—trading the fear of getting sick in captivity for a curtailed, isolated kind of freedom. Nonprofits and social service agencies that support them are overwhelmed, short-staffed or moving most of their programs online. Family members they’ve waited years to reunite with are huddled at home. Food service and other industries that might hire a formerly incarcerated applicant have been decimated. And many small, everyday liberties are now a public health risk.

“Before coronavirus, where the average person dreaded going to the grocery store, my clients looked for a reason [to go]. Little things like that bring them joy,” said Andrew Hundley, director of the Louisiana Parole Project, which helps incarcerated Louisianans prepare for parole hearings and supports them after their release. “Our clients are in some sense better emotionally prepared [for distancing]. But you want to be around people and in public places… so bad, because you’ve been in isolation for so long.”

Many service providers say they’ve been struck by their clients’ resilience as the free world unravels. Some have been emotionally supporting family members, sharing tools they used in prison to structure and pass time. Mostly, they are grateful to be facing COVID-19 on this side of the prison walls. “If it spreads inside the prison, those guys are really scared. They walk around with handkerchiefs around their face,” Rixner said. “The guys in prison feel there’s nothing going to be done for them, that they’re just going to let them die.”

Rixner worried he might not get out at all. Within prisons and in online forums for family members of incarcerated people, many are confused about whether releases are still happening during statewide shutdowns. “They were saying, ‘they ain’t letting nobody out. You gonna be here for a while,’” Rixner said, of the rumors spreading inside. He had been approved for parole on March 11, and worried up until the day before his release that prison officials would not let him go. (All parole hearings in Louisiana have since been suspended.)

Attorneys and advocates across the country are pressing states to free even more people, regardless of whether they’ve finished their sentence. Last week, U.S. Attorney General William Barr ordered the federal Bureau of Prisons to place more “at-risk inmates who are non-violent” on home confinement, to protect some of the oldest and sickest in their custody. Local jurisdictions across the country have been releasing people from jail and prison to ease overcrowding. But what awaits them when they come out to a socially distanced world in the middle of an economic crisis?

“You want to be around people and in public places… so bad, because you’ve been in isolation for so long.”

Groups supporting prison re-entry are scrambling to adapt. Many organizations used to connect with clients while they were still incarcerated, to make a plan for release. But as prisons nationwide ban visits and volunteer programs to deter the virus’s spread, it’s getting harder to reach people inside. Advocates and attorneys are trying to arrange phone calls or video visits instead, though some say corrections officials have been unresponsive. Most check-ins with parole or probation officers are now by phone.

Organizations that provide walk-in services are also getting creative. A New Orleans nonprofit called The First 72+ has offices and transitional housing across the street from the Orleans Parish Prison, so people could walk straight from the prison to meet a counselor, set up a doctor’s appointment or apply for benefits. Now, instead of providing in-person assistance, they keep a cordless phone in the mailbox on their front porch, alongside a list of mentors’ phone numbers. Residents watch to see if someone uses the phone, then wipe it down with disinfectant.

“Our residents were adamant that we provide as many services as possible,” said co-director Kelly Orians. “They were the first to recognize that it’s going to be devastating when you realize this moment you were looking forward to for decades might be a part of one of the worst moments in human history.”

The biggest challenge of re-entry—finding a place to live—has a new urgency when most of the country is being told not to leave home. Some who previously would have moved in with older family members may no longer be able to live there safely. Many people leaving prison move into halfway houses or homeless shelters, which can carry a similar risk of infection as a crowded prison dorm. In Washington, D.C., residents of the halfway house Hope Village, which houses over 300 men, say they’ve been denied toiletries and cleaning supplies to protect themselves (a spokesperson for the residence denied the allegations).

If jails and prisons do release large numbers of people, the need for housing will get even more dire. The Fortune Society, a New York City organization that supports reentry, is rushing to open up a new residential facility for those leaving jail, to keep them from ending up in city shelters or on the streets. “The large barrack-style shelters are very dangerous,” said JoAnne Page, the president. “The things you most need—social isolation, the ability to quarantine people—are not there. We are desperately worried.”

Even smaller transitional housing facilities feel more crowded and tense, as recently freed residents are again shut in. Synae McMillon-Cooper returned to Seattle, Washington, in early February, after nearly 10 years in prison. She moved into a residential work release program with over 30 other women, got a job hosting at a nearby Applebee’s and was finally spending time with her son. But like millions of other Americans, McMillon-Cooper was laid off in
mid-March.

“There’s no family visits, there’s no social outings,” McMillon-Cooper said. Last week, she cancelled the 30th birthday dinner she had planned with her extended family, many of whom she hasn’t seen since coming home. ”You can go to work, but the majority of the women here work in food. Everyone is just stuck.”

She is trying to avoid crowded common spaces and stays mostly in her room. It costs $13.50 a day to live there—each day she goes without an income adds to mounting debt. “That’s the worst, not knowing. When will I have work again?”

“That’s the worst, not knowing. When will I have work again?”

Those recently released from prison are unlikely to qualify for the expanded unemployment benefits in Congress’ $2-trillion relief plan, service providers say, as many are newly entering the workforce. Other public benefits, like food stamps or Medicaid, are even harder to access with millions of Americans out of work and in-person offices closed.

“There’s a lot of prosperity with driver jobs, delivering food or medication,” said Deshawn Kenner, who came home from New York state prison in late February. “But they suspended all drivers’ license tests and classes until further notice.”

Trainings, mentorships and other support groups are moving online, to avoid gathering large groups of people. But that transition has revealed a glaring digital divide. Many being released from prison may not have a phone, much less a laptop and steady wifi. Public libraries were once a reliable place to access the internet, but many have closed their doors. Service providers in multiple cities said they had hurriedly purchased a few laptops, phones and wifi hotspots to distribute to clients in need. In Washington, a re-entry organization called Pioneer Human Services set up a single computer in their group meeting rooms, for clients to use for
one-on-one remote counseling sessions.

Several recently released people said they were frustrated that the steps they needed to rebuild their life—finding a job, getting a degree, moving into their own apartment—were now indefinitely on hold. Most painfully, some long-awaited family reunions, especially with parents and grandparents, were further delayed.

But some said prison had given them a unique perspective. When asked whether coronavirus had hindered his homecoming, Kenner said his hopes for this time were simple. It wasn’t cheeseburgers, baseball games or skydiving he was counting down to. “I was just looking forward to freedom itself. Fresh air, being beyond the walls,” he said, from the house in Long Island, New York, he was sharing with his wife and children. “If there’s one thing that 20 years of incarceration taught me, it’s that all things will come in time. Nothing lasts forever.”

Some Governors Have Risen to the Occasion During the Pandemic. These Republicans Aren’t Among Them.

Mother Jones Magazine -

As President Trump and his aides sat on their hands for much of March and misled the public about the scope of the coronavirus pandemic, governors of the hardest-hit states were winning bipartisan praise. Joe Biden hailed Republicans Mike DeWine of Ohio and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts. “Help, I Think I’m in Love With Andrew Cuomo???” read a Jezebel headline, referring to the Democratic governor of New York whose Powerpoints (“reassuring and oddly endearing,” according to this website) have gripped the nation. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Jeb Bush (a former governor himself) hailed the “competence” and “old-school, inspired leadership” of the nation’s governors. “[T]he contagion,” the New York Times reported, “has elevated a class of veteran political leaders whom Republican voters bypassed in the 2016 presidential race and Democratic voters shrugged off in 2020.”

But the crisis has also spotlighted another class of chief executive, and the results have been less than stellar. While some governors have risen to the occasion, Republicans in some of the nation’s Trumpiest states have followed the president’s course. These governors have been slow to respond to the threat, offered false bravado, and flailed desperately to pin the blame someplace else—usually, blue states. My colleague Becca Andrews recently wrote about the situation in Tennessee, where the state department of health recommended nurses wear diapers on their faces if they run out of face masks, even as Republican Gov. Bill Lee refused to issue a shelter-in-place order. (The state had more than 1,600 cases by Tuesday, but he still hasn’t ordered a lockdown.) Trump isn’t failing alone; a cohort of mini-Trumps is failing with him.

Some of these governors responded to the crisis with defiance—as if the virus were something that could be overcome through a show of community solidarity, rather than something that would use such displays to infect and kill. The Atlantic recently published a story on the “social-distancing culture war.” Look no further than Oklahoma. On March 14, as cities across the country were taking increasingly strict measures to combat the pandemic’s spread—and one week after the first positive COVID-19 test in his state— Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (an anti-vaxxer, by the way) tweeted a photo of himself eating out with his family at a crowded restaurant in Oklahoma City. The next day, he declared a state of emergency in Oklahoma—but continued to insist that eating out in these conditions was not just fine, but commendable. “The governor will continue to take his family out to dinner and to the grocery store without living in fear and encourages Oklahomans to do the same,” a spokesperson told CNN. As of Tuesday, Oklahoma has had at least 481 coronavirus cases and 17 deaths.

Like Stitt, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a billionaire hotel owner and coal magnate, encouraged residents of his state to do exactly what public health experts said they should be steering clear of. West Virginia was the last state to report any cases of COVID-19, which President Trump attributed to Justice’s leadership. But Justice himself acknowledged on March 13 that the absence of positive tests was really a reflection of the state’s inability to test widely, rather than any sort of preventative measures. “Let’s be real, it has to be here—we just haven’t found it yet,” Justice said. His advice? “If you want to go to Bob Evans and eat, go to Bob Evans and eat,” Justice said. A few days later, West Virginia reported its first case—and Justice, belatedly, closed restaurants for dining.

Over the last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken increasingly stringent steps to restrict visitors to Florida. Last Tuesday, he announced that anyone who had traveled to the state from the New York City area over the past three weeks would have to go through a 14-day quarantine—and would be subject to jail time if they didn’t comply. On Friday, he extended the mandatory quarantine to visitors from Louisiana and implemented highway checkpoints on roads entering the state. It was DeSantis’s complaining that prompted Trump to consider placing New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut under mandatory quarantine. And DeSantis is trying to block “foreigners” from the cruise ship Zaandam being “dumped” on Florida—leaving 1,400 travelers temporarily adrift at sea.

(Update: DeSantis announced Wednesday that he’d allow Floridians—but only Floridians—to leave the ship.)

DeSantis: We will accept any Floridians on board cruise ships pic.twitter.com/GSpi8aouCM

— WSVN 7 News (@wsvn) April 1, 2020

But DeSantis for weeks resisted calls to close beaches in the state, keeping crowded tourist hubs open during spring break. He allowed counties to keep their beaches open as late as last weekend. His failure to act likely played a role in worsening the outbreak in the state, and perhaps even exporting the virus to other parts of the country.

This shows the location data of phones that were on a Florida beach during Spring Break. It then shows where those phones traveled.

First thing you should note is the importance of social distancing. The second is how much data your phone gives off. pic.twitter.com/iokUX3qjeB

— Mikael Thalen (@MikaelThalen) March 26, 2020

The number of cases in Florida more than doubled from Friday to Tuesday, up to 5,694. Only five states had more. On Monday, DeSantis finally issued a stay-at-home order—but only for South Florida. DeSantis said at the time that he was open to doing so—if Trump’s White House told him to. (On Wednesday, he finally did—but left exemptions for religious services.)

In Texas, where the Republican lieutenant governor suggested it was worth reopening business even if senior citizens like himself had to die, Gov. Greg Abbott likewise imposed a mandatory two-week quarantine on travelers flying in from the tri-state area, Louisiana, and the cities of Miami, Atlanta, Chicago, and Detroit. But the coronavirus is already in Texas, with more than 3,000 cases. There are reported cases in half the state’s counties, and roughly 87 percent of Texans live in areas where a stay-in-place order is in effect—but those are all a result of county and municipal decisions. He imposed a statewide stay-at-home order yesterday. The ban, though, makes exceptions for church services. Justice, too, has gone after out-of-state travelers, instructing state police to check in on homes that have cars with license plates from the tri-state area or Louisiana—a move he acknowledged might not be constitutional.

(Sending the police after visitors is not a strictly partisan phenomenon; Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island also instructed her state’s police force to enforce quarantines on tri-state drivers, though Rhode Island, at least, neighbors those states and has a more specific problem of city residents relocating to vacation homes there.)

In Texas and elsewhere, local authorities have tried to fill the vacuum left by state leaders, reprising familiar battles over local control. As Ron Brownstein observed on CNN, red-state cities such as Birmingham, Atlanta, Nashville, and Phoenix have issued stay-at-home orders that go much further than the guidelines pushed by their states’ governors. (Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, for instance, issued a statewide stay-in-place order but left an exception for golf courses.) And sometimes the state governments have pushed back. Greenville, South Carolina, announced late last week that it was reevaluating its stay-in-place orders after the state attorney general ruled it would have to instead comply with Gov. Henry McMaster’s less-burdensome rules. (South Carolina was up to 925 cases as of Tuesday.)

As the outbreak flared in nearby New Orleans and his own state’s numbers crept upward, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves initially rejected calls to close beaches there—even after Florida and Alabama closed theirs—and balked at implementing a stay-in-place order. 

“Mississippi’s never going to be China,” he said. “Mississippi’s never going to be North Korea.”

The sentiment was echoed elsewhere. “Y’all, we are not Louisiana, we are not New York State, we are not California,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said on Thursday, when asked if the state would adopt a shelter-in-place policy. “Right now is not the time to order people to shelter in place.”

To judge by the actions of people like Ivey and DeSantis—and for a long time, Trump—the coronavirus is a blue-state contagion, a problem for other people to deal with in places you don’t live, and conversely, a problem that won’t require the same solutions where you live because you’re not those places. It’s a crisis that’s been bungled by, according to Trump, the “snake” Jay Inslee of Washington state (“a failed presidential candidate…a nasty person”), and “the woman in Michigan,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. They’re both Democrats. In this view of the world, cutting off travel and being stingy about tests and supplies is an appropriate political and logistical move that shifts blame and pain toward people who are politically expendable.

Of course, New York didn’t think it was New York either; that’s why the outbreak is as bad as it is. That’s the point. A prevailing theme of this pandemic has been that everyone thinks they’re special but no one actually is. As China reeled, the federal government had months to learn and prepare. Instead it just sort of…watched. Then, as the first American cities struggled to deal with the early clusters in the United States, other cities and states had still more time to learn and prepare. Instead, they kept the beaches and diners open, and watched. Each of these states is like a domino that thinks it won’t be the one to topple over, because it can’t see past what’s immediately in front of it. By the time it feels like it’s time to act, it’s probably too late.

Partisan blinders and false assurances from the White House might have obscured the full scope of the threat for a spell, but contagions, it turns out, don’t care if you voted Republican or Democrat.

Lunchtime Photo

Mother Jones Magazine -

We have a a hummingbird buzzing around our yard right now, and I decided to try taking a picture of it using fill flash. The idea is to heavily underexpose the picture so that the ambient light produces almost no image. Instead, nearly all the light comes from the flash, which is very fast and can stop even rapid movement like a hummingbird’s wings.

So I went out Tuesday morning and staked out a position near our Salvia Amistad plant. By good fortune our hummingbird came by in less than a minute, and by further good fortune one of the pictures I took turned out pretty well. It shows our little guy just at the moment his beak is about meet breakfast.

On a down note, you can see that the hummingbird’s wings weren’t stopped by the flash. Maybe it’s not as fast as I thought. Or maybe my exposure setting was wrong. I’ll try again some other day.

March 31, 2020 — Irvine, California

‘Millions of People Lose Water Service Because They Can’t Afford Their Water Bills’ - CounterSpin interview with Mary Grant on Covid-19 and water

Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting -

Janine Jackson interviewed Food & Water Watch’s Mary Grant about Covid-19 and water for the March 27, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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MP3 Link

Janine Jackson: Without doing a count, I’m confident saying that vanishingly few articles noting the critical importance of frequent handwashing during the Covid-19 pandemic evince any acknowledgement at all that not everyone can do that. As some fight for attention for laid-off workers, for overstretched nurses, for underprotected delivery workers, others are also fighting to keep the distressingly large number of Americans who’ve had their water shut off for inability to pay in our vision—not just now, but in whatever is coming after.

Mary Grant is the Public Water for All campaign director at Food & Water Watch. She joins us now by phone from Baltimore. Welcome to CounterSpin, Mary Grant.

Mary Grant: Thank you so much for having me.

From “America’s Secret Water Crisis,” Food & Water Watch (10/22/18)

JJ: I say a “distressingly large” number of people. The thing is, we didn’t really know the full scope of the shutoff problem until Food and Water Watch did some mapping of it a few years back. So when we think of folks who are without water in this country—not necessarily this second, but generally—how many people are we talking about?

MG: We estimate that as many as 15 million Americans experienced a water shutoff in 2016. So millions of people every year lose water service because they can’t afford their water bills.

JJ: Fifteen million—that, I think, is a much higher number…and some of it’s temporary, but that’s at any given moment during 2016, you were talking about, yeah?

MG: The entire year. We don’t have numbers on how many people are restored each year for water service. But data from Detroit, Michigan—a hotspot of the water affordability crisis—found that about half the people who were shut off last year are still without water this year. So over a year, only about half of the people actually have their service restored. So we’re talking about as much as 2.5% of Americans could be without water because they can’t afford their bills.

JJ: There is action right now, in response to Covid-19, to stop some planned shutoffs. What’s going on on that front?

Mary Grant: “The first thing that the CDC tells you to do to help prevent the spread of disease is to wash your hands. But if you don’t have water at home, you can’t take that simple action to protect yourself or your family or your community.”

MG: Cities are finally taking action and realizing the scope of the affordability crisis, and how much it impacts public health. We’re seeing more than 400 communities and states across the country that have suspended water shutoffs, protecting more than 148 million people across our country. Making sure that people have water to wash their hands, it’s so basic: The first thing that the CDC tells you to do to help prevent the spread of disease is to wash your hands. But if you don’t have water at home, you can’t take that simple action to protect yourself or your family or your community.

JJ: We’re talking about realizing how much harm shutoffs would do at this time. But that would seem to imply action beyond that, and you’ve just referenced it: restoring service. What about restoring service to people who have already been disconnected?

MG: Only a couple of dozen communities are actually taking that next step of restoring service. And communities that have promised to restore service, like Detroit, Michigan, and Buffalo, New York, they’re really struggling to actually turn the taps back on. It was so easy for them to shut off water. But now that the onus is on them to actually restore the service, it’s taking a very long time. And people are in crisis mode, and Detroit is a hot spot of the coronavirus disease outbreak. There are a lot of people there are really suffering right now. And the grassroots organizations, from We the People of Detroit, the People’s Water Board in Michigan, are really trying to get people’s water turned back on, and giving people emergency water supplies while they are without water right now.

JJ: It sounds like a lot of the action is at the state level, and even at the municipal level. So it’s good, of course, where it happens, but it’s kind of patchwork. Where are the Feds on this?

MG: There was actually a really good provision in the House package for phase three of the coronavirus response package. So the House version released on Monday actually would tie aid to having a moratorium on shutoffs, and would also provide funding to help localities restore service, and give aid to low-income households to pay their water bills during this crisis. But it didn’t make it into the final compromise bill that the Senate passed yesterday.

It’s such a huge disappointment that there’s nothing helping households pay their water bills, helping cities restore water service in this corona aid package. But we are hopeful, there’s going to be a phase four package, we’re hearing, that maybe we can get some water funding in that.

JJ: We wouldn’t need to be doing this right now if we had some overarching legislation. So I wonder if you could just tell listeners about the WATER Act, which is designed to fight not just the shutoffs but kind of the nexus of problems that we’re facing around water.

MG: Yeah, the WATER Act is in Congress right now. It’s the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability Act, introduced by Rep. Brenda Lawrence from Detroit in the House, 85 cosponsors, and it’s in the Senate with Senator Sanders and three cosponsors.

So this is a comprehensive piece of legislation to really restore the federal government’s commitment to safe water for all, to take the onus off of localities, off of ratepayers; to have that federal investment in our water systems to make sure that every person has safe water, and water that’s affordable, at home. It would fully fund our water and sewer systems, provide funding to remove lead from school pipes; it would help rural households with septic systems and household wells. So this is a really comprehensive piece of legislation that would prevent shutoffs from happening, by making sure people have affordable water in the first place.

JJ: If we could step back just for a second, I understand that when you were trying to get the data on the extent of shutoffs, it wasn’t easy to get the information from, in particular, private utilities.

MG: Private companies overwhelmingly refused to give us any data on water shutoffs. They’re not subject to state information act requests, and they declined to reply. A lot of them pointed out that they’re not subject to the state Freedom of Information laws, and so they don’t have to tell us, and they are declining to tell us. And some just ignored us outright; we had a couple private operators hang up on interns who were trying to follow up to get data. So it was just a big struggle to get data, because there’s a black box.

We conducted state surveys. So we looked at the two largest cities in each state, and requested information under state public information act laws. So we got 73 cities to respond, but only one private utility responded.

JJ: Wow.

MG: Ten companies just outright refused to provide us data. So really, we really need to have more transparency on this so we can really map the affordability crisis in our country, where even states are struggling to collect that data, and utilities are struggling. So we need to have comprehensive laws to require transparency about shutoffs, and to also protect vulnerable populations from shutoffs beyond this crisis.

JJ: I’m sure some people are saying, “Why is it a private sector thing at all?” and listeners will have heard stories about, for example, Nestlé’s siphoning off water to bottle and sell, at the same time as people are being shut off because they can’t pay. Privatization—where does privatization fit into this?

MG: So we don’t know if private companies are shutting off households more, because we don’t have data on that. Nationwide, about 90% of people receive their water service from a publicly owned utility. Privatization is pretty rare in the United States. But there are certain states, like New Jersey, where there’s a lot of privatization, and a lot of private activity. Often this is systems that have always been privately owned: From their beginning, the systems were privately owned.

And there’s also efforts by these large companies, like American Water, Aqua America, Veolia, Suez, to purchase and take over water systems across the country. But there’s a lot of public opposition to privatization, so there hasn’t been a wave of privatization in the United States.

Our research has found that private companies charge on average about 59% more than local governments do. So we would expect private companies to have higher rates of water shutoffs, because they charge higher rates.

JJ: Yeah, yeah.

MG: We just don’t have that data. And we’ve really struggled to get data.

JJ: As we keep saying, the water crisis is an affordability crisis, meaning it overwhelmingly affects poor people, meaning corporate media don’t really care that much, or that often; let’s just be real. But when they do pay attention, when reporters do focus on it, they certainly can play a role in maybe pushing public officials to do more? What’s the place for reporters here?

Bridge (3/9/20)

MG: Oh, there’s a really good place for reporters. Bridge Magazine in Michigan has done an amazing job covering the Detroit water crisis. They’ve actually collected data, and gotten good data from the city, and compiled it in a way that’s accessible for the public. It’s been so helpful to see actual information about, not only shutoffs, but restorations, and who’s being effective, where the shutoffs are occurring, and overlapping that with public health information. So there are some local outlets that are doing great work.

And nationally, the Guardian has really stepped up looking at water shutoffs across the country, as well as looking at restorations of service, and using that information to push public officials, other localities and states to take action. Because it’s reporters and the media covering it, it’s informing the public, and allowing them, giving them opportunity, to call on their elected officials to take similar actions and to protect it. We need to know about the crisis in order to have good public policy.

JJ: Absolutely.

Finally, just like you don’t like to make arguments against mass incarceration by saying, well, it’s very expensive, you know, it’s distressing to feel forced to argue that we should care about people without access to water because their getting ill might make other, presumably more important, people get ill. That’s not a frame that’s going to carry us forward, or really ground us in this properly.

But on the other hand, if we don’t talk about water rights now, when is it going to be more central, you know? So, just final thoughts on what folks can do, and the state of affairs at the moment.

MG: Water is always a human right. It’s always necessary for basic human dignity and living a life with dignity. People should have water that’s safe and affordable at their home at all times, not just during a pandemic. And it’s not just about community well-being. It is about community well-being, but it’s also about human health, protecting yourself, protecting your families; everyone deserves to be able to live a life with dignity and having access to safe water.

Right now, we’re urging people to take action in their communities, call on their government to issue an executive order to stop all water shutoffs in their state, as well as to restore service to all households previously disconnected.

But long term, we really need to address this root cause, the affordability crisis, by passing the WATER Act. So we’re asking people to contact their representative, their senator, ask them to cosponsor the WATER Act. Maybe we can push it to be included in one of these coronavirus packages passing through Congress right now, so that we can have an economic stimulus. Because the WATER Act isn’t just about fully funding water systems, providing safe and affordable water. It’s also a jobs bill; it would create up to a million jobs across the country, at a time when we have record-breaking unemployment rates. And we really need to pass robust infrastructure legislation, to make sure people have safe water, at home and in their communities. And now is the moment that we can do that. So we definitely urge everyone to reach out to their elected officials to take action on this issue.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Mary Grant, Public Water for All campaign director at Food & Water Watch. You can follow their work online at FoodAndWaterWatch.org. Mary Grant, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

MG: Thank you so much for having me.

 

Statement from the NLG Housing and Homelessness Committee on COVID-19

National Lawyer's Guild -

Dear National Lawyers Guild Members,

We are living through an extraordinary moment, one of sadness, disorientation, and dread. Yet much of this emergency is man-made. Our system was already in crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has thrown into relief its immense inequality and the injustice of profiting off of basic human needs like healthcare or shelter.

Recognizing Housing as a Human Right

Human rights must be at the forefront of our response to COVID-19. Like healthcare, housing is a human right, not a privilege, which cannot be rationed and must be afforded to all. Yet millions of people were, and still are, without housing, despite the millions more vacant homes or short-term rentals owned by speculators and the urgent public health need for housing for all. Many more people live in substandard or unaffordable housing, creating an eviction crisis in the United States that threatens to become an avalanche as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic.

Mobilizing Around Housing Justice

A movement is growing to demand housing as a human right, not a commodity. Activists who are homeless or precariously housed are occupying vacant properties.[1] Tenants all over the United States and the world are organizing for the suspension of rent for the duration of the crisis (and beyond) and, in some cases, organizing mass rent strikes.[2] These movements are strengthening as all levels of government have failed systematically to protect people from the pandemic and are instead propping up an exploitative financial system. Government actions all but ensure that people who are poor, unhoused, precariously housed, incarcerated, people of color, immigrants, indigenous people, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ will continue to bear the brunt of this man-made emergency.

As radical lawyers, law students, and legal workers, we must support these movements of people most directly impacted by the COVID-19 crisis and their calls to decommodify housing and provide housing for all. The National Lawyers Guild Preamble states that “Human rights and the rights of ecosystems shall be held more sacred than property interests.” Our fidelity to human rights over property interests means that we must swiftly respond in support of movements for housing justice, particularly in the context of a global emergency that has systematically placed wealth and profitability above the individual health and well-being of people within our communities. This is a human crisis, and people, not property, must be protected. We have a historic opportunity to support the movements struggling to transform our society into one that meets all of our needs, humanely, equitably, and with dignity.

The COVID-19 Crisis Is Also a Housing Crisis

America’s housing crisis is a major obstacle to mobilizing an effective response to the pandemic. In 2006 epidemiologist Dr. Larry Brilliant, who worked with WHO to eradicate smallpox, described the ideal pandemic response as requiring early detection and early response.[3] The United States now represents 20% of COVID-19 cases[4] while having the fastest growth rate of new cases, with a 68% growth rate in new cases over the last three days.[5] The lackluster initial response, along with disinformation, have enflamed the threat of COVID-19, placing additional strain onto systems that were already ill-suited to meet people’s needs.

Commodified Housing Exacerbates the Pandemic Spread

Because our society treats housing as a commodity and as an elective, not a human right or a basic necessity, millions of Americans were already without homes, precariously housed, or severely rent burdened. Incomes over the last three decades have stagnated across the economy, and more people lack the ability to cover the increasing costs associated with living.[6] At the same time, housing costs have increased substantially, in no small part due to speculative investment in real estate by hedge funds, private equity, and the ultra-wealthy and intensifying gentrification in many cities. Nearly 50% of renter households are now cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their gross monthly income on housing.[7] Millions of Americans are unhoused or precariously housed, yet the country is short more than seven million units of affordable or public housing to meet the needs of just extremely low-income renters (despite millions of vacant homes, short-term rentals, and second homes).[8] Over the past decade, there were nearly ten million foreclosures and millions more formal and informal evictions, causing many to cycle in and out of houselessness, a crisis that has disproportionately impacted Black and Latinx communities.

The COVID-19 emergency will only worsen this housing crisis. Unemployment is sky-rocketing, and a majority of working class people in the United States lack the savings to cover a personal financial emergency of $400, far less than the average monthly rent.[9] Rents and mortgages are coming due, and even more people are at risk of eviction, foreclosure, and losing their housing.

This widespread poverty, houselessness, and housing insecurity will exacerbate our ability to effectively respond to the pandemic, increasing the spread of the virus among those most vulnerable to serious infections who also systematically lack access to healthcare. The COVID-19 virus has most severely sickened those with underlying health conditions and the elderly (some of whom have a 1 in 7 mortality rate). Approximately half of people who are homeless are 50 or older, and they have higher rates of underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to serious COVID-19 infection, meaning they will be especially hard hit.

Housing insecurity and houselessness also increase the risk of transmission of COVID-19 and make treatment more difficult. Crowded shelters with communal sleeping areas make it impossible to maintain social distance, let alone self-quarantine, endangering all residents and especially those who are immuno-compromised. The response of many local governments has been to move shelter beds slightly further apart, which does not eliminate the inherent unsafety of homeless shelters in this pandemic.

Rather than providing suitable housing and healthcare, many local governments continue their long-standing policy of criminalizing homelessness and activities necessary for human survival. Governments have failed to provide even basic sanitation facilities or bathrooms, despite the importance of hand-washing to prevent COVID-19, making it more challenging for people without housing to follow public health guidelines. Despite CDC guidance recommending that encampments remain in place and that local governments provide services, such as bathrooms and handwashing facilities, cities continue to sweep encampments, dispersing often tight-knit communities that are best-equipped to look after each other in this crisis.[10] These sweeps have disrupted people’s connections with their healthcare providers and increased likely social contacts and the potential spread of the virus.

Many of the working class people who are housing insecure are also at a higher risk of exposure. These include healthcare workers, who are disproportionately women, immigrants, and people of color, as well as the low-wage workers who continue to work in retail, service, and delivery industries like grocery stores and Amazon warehouses without safety equipment or access to sick leave.

There is an immediate public health need to ensure that all people who have housing retain their housing during the pandemic, regardless of their ability to pay the rent or mortgage. But beyond the immediate crisis, because of the widespread loss of income among tenants and homeowners already struggling to pay their rent or mortgage, we will soon be faced with a barrage of evictions and foreclosures likely far greater than the crises of the past.

NLG Members’ Response to the Call for Housing

National Lawyers Guild members should support the call for housing for all, both in this time of crisis and beyond. We should be prepared to meet the legal needs of the housing rights movement and the broader community of people who are unhoused or precariously housed. These needs are likely to change as the pandemic continues and as the movement to decommodify housing grows stronger.

We must defend people occupying vacant homes and living in hotels or encampments and fight to bring people inside

People need safe, stable housing to survive COVID-19. Housing protects people’s health, enables them to practice social distancing and frequent hand-washing, and ensures they can self-quarantine if necessary. But authorities are instead using the pandemic as a pretext for breaking up encampments; unlawfully seizing possessions, including tents and personal property; excluding people who are homeless from adequate shelter that already exists within the community; and trying to force people who lack housing out of their communities altogether. Legal help is already urgently needed to defend people who live in hotels, vacant homes, or encampments who are at imminent risk of eviction or arrest during the COVID-19 emergency.

We must support those tenants and homeowners organizing to suspend rent, mortgage, and utility payments

Tenants and tenants organizing movements also need our support. Eviction and foreclosure moratoria are a patchwork; many moratoria are incomplete, and all are only temporary. In many places, tenants are still being served with notices to quit, eviction lawsuits, or even put out by the authorities, creating the risk that they will become homeless at a time when staying home is a public health imperative. We need to push for stronger moratoria and fight to keep people in their homes right now, but we also can’t stop there.

We were already in the midst of an eviction crisis, but millions more across the United States will be unable to pay their rent or mortgage for April and likely far beyond as the economic impact of the pandemic grows. For working people, we are likely facing an economic recession as bad as, if not worse than, the 2008 recession, which resulted in nearly 10 million foreclosures and millions more evictions. When eviction and foreclosure moratoria end, there will be an overwhelming number of filings and few options for the majority who cannot pay up.

Right now, housing rights movements are organizing for the suspension of rent, mortgage, and utility payments for the duration of the public health crisis and the recovery period. Some are calling for a rent strike and organizing their buildings to withhold rent in solidarity with those who can no longer afford to pay. Guild members are supporting these organizing campaigns in many communities, and there is more work to be done across the country.

Now is the Time to Act

Many National Lawyers Guild members have skills to share in solidarity with these housing justice movements and with people who are unhoused or precariously housed, even if they are not housing lawyers. We must stand with the people who are most vulnerable and most directly impacted by this global pandemic, who are struggling for access to basic needs like water, shelter, and healthcare and to preserve their connections to their communities. We must also stand with those who are fighting against the economic and racial exploitation at the core of our current housing system. These movements help us see the possibility of a better future in the midst of this wreckage, one where housing is a human right and a public good.

NLG members may join the Housing and Homelessness Committee at nlg.org/join, and/or learn more by contacting the chairs, Sarah White (sarah.wht1@gmail.com) or Anthony Prince (princelawoffices@yahoo.com).

In struggle,

National Lawyers Guild Housing and Homelessness Committee

[1] See, e.g., “‘Housing is Health:’ Calls Grow for California to Give Vacant Homes to Unhoused People Amid Pandemic,” Democracy Now, March 30, 2020, available at https://www.democracynow.org/2020/3/30/california_homelessness; Dana Goodyear, “The Coronavirus Spurs a Movement of People Reclaiming Vacant Homes,” New Yorker, March 28, 2020, available at https://www.newyorker.com/news/california-chronicles/the-coronavirus-spurs-a-movement-of-people-reclaiming-vacant-homes (both accessed March 31, 2020)

[2] See, e.g., Aida Chavez, “Millions of People Will Struggle to Pay Rent in April, but Few in Congress Care,” The Intercept, March 27, 2020, available at https://theintercept.com/2020/03/27/coronavirus-rent-suspension-evictions-bill-payments/?comments=1 (accessed March 31, 2020).

[3] Dr. Larry Brilliant, “My Wish: Help Me Stop Pandemics,” TED, Feb. 2006, available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/larry_brilliant_my_wish_help_me_stop_pandemics?language=en

[4] Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) available at https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html (last accessed March 30, 2020).

[5] Francesco T., Covidgraph.com, Johns Hopkins CSSE (accessed March 30, 2020). The preceding three day period on March 27, had a 91% growth rate in cases over the three day period.

[6] See Federal Reserve, Distributional Financial Accounts, “Distribution of Household Wealth in the U.S. since 1989,” available at: https://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/z1/dataviz/dfa/distribute/chart/.

[7] See U.S. Census Bureau, 1 Year 2018 American Community Survey, available at http://data.cenus.gov (accessed March 31, 2020).

[8] See National Low Income Housing Coalition, “The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes”, available at https://reports.nlihc.org/sites/default/files/gap/Gap-Report_2020.pdf (last accessed March 31, 2020).

[9] See Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, “Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2018,” available at https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/files/2018-report-economic-well-being-us-households-201905.pdf (accessed March 31, 2020).

[10] See Interim Guidance, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Responding to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) among People Experiencing Unsheltered Homelessness” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/unsheltered-homelessness.html (last accessed March 30, 2020)

 

Featured Image: Ponderosa Templeton / CC BY-SA

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