Archive | May 28th, 2020

The Race to Replace a Dying Neoliberalism

by: WALDEN BELLO

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The morning will come
When the world is mine.
Tomorrow belongs to me!

From Cabaret

In response to the cataclysm occasioned by the coronavirus, three lines of thinking are emerging.

One is that the emergency necessitates extraordinary measures, but the basic structure of production and consumption is sound, and the problem lies only in determining the moment when things can return to “normal.”

One might say that this is the dominant opinion among political and business elites. Representative of this outlook is the infamous Goldman Sachs-sponsored teleconference involving scores of stock market players in mid-March of this year, which concluded that “there is no systemic risk. No one is even talking about that. Governments are intervening in the markets to stabilize them, and the private banking sector is well capitalized. It feels more like 9/11 than it does 2008.”

A second line of thinking is that we are now in the “new normal,” and while the global economic system is not significantly out of kilter, important changes must be made to some of its elements, such as redesigning the workplace to accommodate the need for social distancing, strengthening public health systems (something even Boris Johnson now advocates after Britain’s National Health System saved his life), and even moving towards a “universal basic income.”

A third response is that the pandemic provides an opportunity for transforming a system that is ridden with deep economic and political inequalities and is profoundly destabilizing ecologically. One must not simply talk about accommodating a “new normal” or expanding social safety nets, but of decisively moving toward a qualitatively new economic system.

In the global North, the needed transformation is often articulated in the form of demands for a “Green New Deal” marked not just by “greening” the economy but by a significant socialization of production and investment, democratization of economic decision making, and radical reductions in income inequality.

In the global South, proposed strategies, while addressing the climate crisis, stress the opportunity offered by the pandemic to tackle deep-seated economic, social, and political inequalities. An eloquent example is the “Socialist Manifesto for a Post-Covid 19 Philippines” by the Laban ng Masa people’s coalition, a detailed list of short and long-term initiatives the introduction to which proclaims:

The manner and disorder of these hegemonic players’ responses to the crisis proves beyond a shadow of doubt that the old order can no longer be restored and its ruling classes can no longer administer society in the old way. The chaos, uncertainties, and fears resulting from Covid-19, depressing and dreary though they may be, are also pregnant with opportunities and challenges to develop and offer to the public a new way of organizing and managing society and its attendant political, economic, and social components. As the socialist Albert Einstein pointed out: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

This Time is Really Different

The first two perspectives downplay the possibilities for radical change, with some predicting that the popular response will be much like that during the 2008 financial crisis — that is, people feeling dislocated but with no appetite for much change, much less radical change.

This view rests on mistakenly equating where people were at during the two crises.

Crises do not always result in significant change. It is the interaction or synergy between two elements: an objective one, meaning a systemic crisis, and a subjective one, that is, the people’s psychological response to it that is decisive.

The global financial crisis of 2008 was a profound crisis of capitalism, but the subjective element — popular alienation from the system — had not yet reached a critical mass. Owing to the boom created by debt-financed consumer spending over two decades, people were shocked by the crisis, but they were not that alienated from the system during the crisis and its immediate aftermath.

Things are different today.

The level of discontent and alienation with neoliberalism was already very high in the global North before the coronavirus hit, owing to the established elites’ inability to reverse the decline and living standards and skyrocketing inequality in the dreary decade that followed the financial crisis. In the U.S., the period was summed up in the popular mind as one where the elites prioritized saving the big banks over saving millions of bankrupt homeowners and ending large-scale unemployment, while in much of Europe, especially in the south, the people’s experience of the last decade was captured in one word: austerity.

And in much of the global South, the chronic crisis of underdevelopment under peripheral capitalism, exacerbated by neoliberal “reforms” since the 1980s, had already shredded the legitimacy of key institutions of globalization like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization, even before the 2008 crisis.

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020, in short, roared through an already destabilized global economic system suffering from a deep crisis of legitimacy. The sense that things had run out of control — certainly out of the control of the traditional political and economic managers — was the first shocking realization. This mass perception of astonishing elite incompetence is now connecting to the already deep-seated feelings of resentment and anger boiling over from the post-financial crisis period.

So the subjective element, the psychological critical mass, is there. It is a whirlwind that is waiting to be captured by contending political forces. The question is who will succeed in harnessing it.

The global establishment will, of course, try to bring back the “old normal.” But there is simply too much anger, too much resentment, too much insecurity that have been unleashed. And there’s no forcing the genie back into the bottle. Though for the most part falling short of expectations, the massive fiscal and monetary interventions of capitalist states during the last few weeks have underlined to people what is possible under another system with different priorities and values.

Neoliberalism is dying; it’s only a question if its passing will be swift or “slow,” as Dani Rodrik characterizes it.

Who Will Ride the Tiger?

Only the left and the right are serious contenders in this race to bring about another system.

Progressives have come up with a number of exciting ideas and paradigms developed over the last few decades for how to move towards a truly systemic transformation, and these go beyond the left-wing technocratic Keynesianism identified with Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman. Among these truly radical alternatives are the already mentioned Green New Deal, democratic socialism, degrowth, deglobalization, ecofeminism, food sovereignty, and “Buen Vivir” on “Living Well.”

The problem is these strategies have not yet been translated into a critical mass on the ground.

The usual explanation for this is that people are “not ready for them.” But probably more significant as an explanation is that most people still associate these dynamic streams of the left with the center left. On the ground, where it matters, the masses cannot yet distinguish these strategies and their advocates from the social democrats in Europe and the Democratic Party in the U.S. that were implicated in the discredited neoliberal system to which they had sought to provide a “progressive” face. For large numbers of citizens, the face of the left is still the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany, the Socialist Party in France, and the Democratic Party in the U.S., and their records are hardly inspiring, to say the least.

In the global South, leadership of or participation in liberal democratic governments also led to left-wing parties being discredited when these coalitions adopted neoliberal measures that came under the rubric of “structural adjustment,” even as the “Pink Tide” in Latin America ran into its own contradictions, and communist states in East Asia became state capitalist systems with a strong dose of neoliberalism. Once seen as a break with the past, the Concertacion in Chile, the Workers’ Party in Brazil, Chavismo in Venezuela, and the so-called Beijing Consensus are now seen as part of that past.

In short, the center-left’s thorough-going compromise with neoliberalism in the North along with progressive parties and states going along with if not actively adopting neoliberal measures in the South tarnished the progressive spectrum as a whole — even though it was from the non-mainstream, non-state left that the critique of neoliberalism and globalization initially issued in the 1990s and 2000s.

It is a dark legacy that must be decisively pushed aside if progressives are to connect with the mass anger and ressentiment that are now boiling over and transform it into a positive, liberating force.

Advantage: Far Right

Unfortunately, it is the extreme right that is currently best positioned to take advantage of the global discontent, because even before the pandemic, extreme right parties were already opportunistically cherry-picking elements of the anti-neoliberal stands and programs of the independent left — for instance, the critique of globalization, the expansion of the “welfare state,” and greater state intervention in the economy — but putting them within a right-wing gestalt.

So in Europe, you had radical right parties — among them Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, the Danish People’s Party, the Freedom Party in Austria, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz Party in Hungary — abandoning parts of the old neoliberal programs advocating liberalization and less taxation that they had supported and now proclaiming they were for the welfare state and for more protection of the economy from international engagements, but exclusively for the benefit of the people with “right skin color,” the “right culture,” the “right ethnic stock,” the “right religion.”

Essentially, it’s the old “national socialist” class-inclusivist but racially and culturally exclusivist formula, whose consummate practitioner at present is Donald Trump. But, unfortunately, it works in our troubled times, as shown by the unexpected string of electoral successes of the far right that have pirated large sectors of social democracy’s working class base.

Meanwhile in the global South, charismatic leaders with cross-class appeal, like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Narendra Modi in India, harnessed for their authoritarian projects the popular discontent with long-time liberal democratic regimes whose severely unequal social structures belied their democratic pretensions, sidelining progressive parties that had either compromised with neoliberalism, were imprisoned in classist paradigms that failed to understand the new “populist” realities, or were debilitated by sectarian feuds. Now, using the coronavirus as an excuse, these authoritarian personalities have tightened their repressive hold on the political system with extremely high levels of mass approval of their measures.

…But Don’t Count Out the Left

But one would be foolish to count out the left.

History has a complex dialectical movement, and there are often unexpected developments that open up opportunities for those bold enough to seize them, think outside the box, and willing to ride the tiger on its unpredictable route to power — of which there are many on our side, especially among the younger generation.

But history is also unforgiving, and it rarely tolerates making the same mistake twice. Should progressives again allow discredited social democrats in Europe and Obama and Biden-type Democrats in the U.S. to drag progressive politics back to a new compromise with a dying neoliberalism, the consequences can be truly, truly fatal.

If that happens, then that chilling scene in the movie Cabaret, where ordinary people led by a young Nazi sing “Tomorrow belongs to me,” has a great chance of becoming reality… again.

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Trump’s Megalomania and Boris Johnson’s Incompetence Have Only Increased in COVID Pandemic

by PATRICK COCKBURN

Photograph Source: The White House – Public Domain

The US and UK are the nation states that have performed worst in the world in coping with the coronavirus pandemic. Americans and Britons make up more than a third of the 300,000 people worldwide who have died from Covid-19. They have paid the ultimate price for their governments’ slow and incompetent response to the spread of the disease.

Both countries have obvious points in common that explain their excess fatalities: Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are nativist demagogues skilled in winning elections, but not in coping with real crises as opposed to the ones they invent or exaggerate. Their critics had long predicted disaster if either man became national leader and this has finally happened.

I had thought that Trump and later Johnson were safer than they looked so long as they avoided real crises. I was thinking primarily of wars, probably in the Middle East, in the case of Trump. But for all his verbal belligerence towards Iran, he has stopped just short of a full-scale military conflict over the last three years.

In the case of Johnson, I believed that he would muddle through and, if there was a true crisis it would be to do with a no-deal Brexit. This seemed unlikely because he has a track record of carrying out U-turns and retreats while announcing famous victories: this week the government quietly admitted that there would indeed be border checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, though Johnson had repeatedly denied conceding this as the price of last October’s withdrawal agreement with the European Union.

It was the pandemic that turned Trump’s and Johnson’s character and behavioural flaws into lethal failings that have since killed many people. Both had risen to power by skilfully exploiting nativist fears and ambitions and scapegoating foreigners at home and abroad. They had become like a pair of conmen who have been successfully peddling lies and fantasies, but who must suddenly grapple with a highly-dangerous reality.

In Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana, an amiable British businessman selling vacuum cleaners in pre-Castro Cuba bamboozles MI6 by inventing a string of well-paid secret agents. He passes off his scaled-up drawing of a vacuum cleaner as a mysterious weapon of mass destruction. As an accidental conman, he believes that he is safe from trouble because neither his agents nor the secret they have discovered actually exist, but because there are those who believe his imaginings, he unexpectedly has to deal with a dangerous reality in which real people begin to die.

Trump and Johnson are both like Greene’s conman in that they suddenly had to deal with a real crisis instead of a fictional one. Unsurprisingly, they have been manifestly incompetent in doing so with the result that their highly-developed countries lead the world in the number of deaths. In dealing with the all-too-real lethal coronavirus, they have not only done worse than powerful well-resourced states like Germany and South Korea, but also worse than poor and weak ones like Slovakia in Europe and Kerala in India.

Neither leader has risen to the challenge. Instead, it is the most negative and damaging aspects of their personalities that have become more pronounced under pressure. Trump was always self-obsessed, mendacious and authoritarian, but he has visibly turned into a ranting megalomaniac in the last five months.

Johnson, for his part, was always a shambolic opportunist, at one moment aping Shakespeare’s Falstaff and, at another, Winston Churchill in 1940, but it is the present catastrophe that made his poor judgement and contempt for facts such a lethal combination.

Trump’s performance is the more extraordinary: for long he denied the seriousness of the outbreak, refused to coordinate measures against it, publicised crackpot ideas on how to cure it, ignored or dismissed experts trying fight the virus. The government scientist, Rick Bright, once in charge of the critical task of developing a vaccine against coronavirus, testified this week before congress about how he was sacked because, among other reasons, he refused to endorse an anti-malaria drug favoured as an antidote for Covid-19 by Trump without any scientific evidence.

The main US public health institution, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), once played a crucial role in combating malaria and polio. But today it is led by Robert Redfield, a Trump appointee, who once controversially headed the Pentagon’s response to HIV-Aids in the 1980s. When Trump horrified doctors in April by suggesting that coronavirus victims inject themselves with disinfectant, the CDC showed the degree to which it had been cowed into submission by contenting itself with reasserting that consumers should read the instructions that come with the medicine.

Because half of Americans – and a higher proportion in the rest of the world – have always thought of Trump as a crackpot, the moment that this transformed into dangerous mania has not had the impact it might have had otherwise. Even so, it is extraordinary to watch Trump – like that Roman Emperor who claimed to have conquered the sea – boast of great American victories over the virus.

Johnson’s political approach has always been a muted and cosier version of Trumpism, adapted to British political conditions. Both men are political campaigners of proven effectiveness. plugging into nativist fears and ambitions. In contrast to Trump’s divisiveness, Johnson specialises in appeals to national unity and support for the NHS, yet the consequence of having these two leaders in office during the pandemic has in both cases been a great number of people dying.

What Trump’s terrifying megalomania has achieved in the US is being replicated in the UK by the drip-drip of government incompetence and poor decision-making: the slow response to the onset of the epidemic, the lack of equipment, the famously inadequate number of tests. Daily press conferences were at first seen as a sign of government openness, but it has since become apparent that the confident-looking ministers and health officials did not know how many people were infected or had died.

Foolish decisions led to the shifting of 15,000 untested elderly patients from hospital to care homes where they inevitably infected others. Heroic but untested carers and nurses became the unwitting carriers of the disease to patients and each other. Much of this was obvious to anybody with common sense which was why so many seriously ill people decided not to go near a hospital and have died at home.

In the first half of March government policy was based on establishing herd immunity on the assumption that 60 per cent of the population would be infected. But the inadequacy of the information on which they were taking life-an-death decisions was exposed this week when the Office for National Statistics published a survey showing that coronavirus is less infectious than supposed and only 0.27 per cent of the population have got it.

Trump’s lust for power has inflicted a far worse epidemic on Americans than would have happened otherwise; the incompetence of Johnson’s Brexiteer administration has done much the same in Britain.

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Ebola ’14 vs. Covid ‘19

by: CAROLINE HURLEY

Security, claim peace scientists, is the experience and expectation of well-being. Analyzing management of the major 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa is instructive given Covid 19’s global rampage. Despite internal UN dysfunction, especially the veto system pitting members at cross-purposes, that organization proved its worth.

Moral ambiguity, even disingenuity, about oil and Africom aside, America’s response was particularly stellar. The contrast with supervision of the Covid ‘19 outbreak is stark. Eugene Jarecki stated in a recent Washington Post op-ed, that “had the guidelines been implemented earlier, a crucial period in the exponential spread of the virus would have been mitigated…and approximately 60 percent of American COVID-19 deaths could have been avoided.” Jarecki’s website, TrumpDeathClock.com charts deaths from COVID-19 and the portion estimated as preventable, 53,781 unnecessary COVID-19 deaths in America as of May 17.

Home after treating patients in Liberian clinics, two Americans were diagnosed with Ebola in July 2014. The news generated widespread worry and despite both recovering quickly, deterred UN volunteers. Donald Trump, at that time, vilified both authorities and the afflicted. Advised that unchecked, the contagious virus could result in a million plus deaths, then-President Obama set the Pentagon, National Security and the CDC the task of jointly designing ‘a logistics mission with a medical component’.

Meanwhile USUN Ambassador Samantha Power convinced her more war-schooled National Security colleagues to arrange an emergency UN session to push through a pioneering resolution declaring Ebola ‘a threat to international peace and security’. Not only did Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, the worst affected countries, readily subscribe but the biggest ever number of co-sponsoring countries, 134 passed the resolution on 18 September. Donations were generous in response to appeals for international aid toward the emergency effort. Obama took another novel initiative by deploying 3,000 troops to build Ebola Treatment Units and train local health workers in critical areas.

In early October, an American transport worker died after sickening on return from Monrovia, an Ebola hotspot. Hospital staff who’d tended him also caught the virus, to public consternation. Acting promptly to intercept and treat cases, Obama authorized the CDC to carry out intensive airport screening of anyone who travelled to infection areas, even as another American casualty (the last), an Doctors Without Borders MD from New York was detected. Obama wanted to avoid unnecessary blanket quarantining such as Governor Cuomo and others were imposing on symptom-free citizens. ‘Better is good’, Obama was often heard saying – doing something constructive rather than merely ‘admiring the problem’.

To quell alarm, boost morale and minimize stigma, he subsequently embraced recovered patients invited to visit the White House. He dispatched UN Ambassador Power to West Africa, already reporting more than 10,000 positive cases and 500 deaths. Power carefully adhered to protocols including social distancing and medical monitoring, while observing vastly improved practices in safe burial and greater testing capacity. Trained staff could do their jobs thanks to smart international humanitarian intervention.

Disease-free declarations were made before the New Year in respect of those three African countries who had logged the highest incidences. On this occasion, intelligent creative cooperation among UN countries defeated the epidemic. The military transitioned into purveyors of true security delivering health, education and solidarity, demonstrating a global security system offering a superior alternative to war.

The peacekeeping mission also fulfilled the 1999 UN General Council‘s Declaration and Programme on Action of a Culture of Peace [UNGA resolution number 53/243]. The Global Campaign for Peace Education assesses this achieved when “citizens of the world understand global problems, have the skills to resolve conflicts and struggle for justice nonviolently, live by international standards of human dignity and equity, appreciate cultural diversity, respect the earth and each other.”

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US Is Using Pandemic as an Excuse to Send Asylum Seekers Back Into Harm’s Way

The first of three flights coming from Houston, Texas, arrives carrying migrants deported from the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic in Guatemala City, Guatemala, on May 4, 2020.
The first of three flights coming from Houston, Texas, arrives carrying migrants deported from the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic in Guatemala City, Guatemala, on May 4, 2020.

BYSandra CuffeTruthout

Despair and Disparity: The Uneven Burdens of COVID-19

Fernanda* doesn’t know what to do. She fled Honduras with her husband and their toddler last year after death threats from gang members she says work with police officers in the family’s neighborhood to extort local businesses and workers. They made it more than 1,500 miles north, hoping to seek asylum in the United States, where Fernanda’s husband has an uncle who could provide them housing and support.

“We just want to be safe and work and contribute,” Fernanda told Truthout.

The family stopped for a while in northern Mexico, where Fernanda’s husband found temporary work. The news they received from asylum seekers ahead of them at the border was worrisome and confusing. People were being attacked. Hondurans were being sent to Guatemala. Sometimes no one could ask for asylum.

“They are always changing the rules,” Fernanda said.

For now, the family’s final leg of the route to the U.S. border is on hold. They are just trying to stay healthy, as the novel coronavirus is rapidly spreading in Mexico, which now has more than 5,000 related deaths, according to government figures. They still hope to be able to seek asylum in the U.S. at some point despite fears they could be deported to Honduras or sent to Guatemala.

COVID-19 Weaponized to Shut Down Borders

The Trump administration began pushing its agenda of shutting down asylum in the U.S. right out of the gate, and COVID-19 has now provided a new justification. Purportedly to protect public health, the government has essentially shut down asylum at the southern border with Mexico while the U.S. spreads the virus through deportations. Asylum deals with Central American nations are currently in limbo, but the administration could begin sending people to a third country, Honduras, at any time.

In 2019, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security signed a series of bilateral agreements with security officials in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, including an asylum cooperative agreement (ACA) with each country. The agreements permit the U.S. to send asylum seekers of other nationalities to precisely those Central American countries that hundreds of thousands of citizens have been fleeing, and forcing them to seek asylum there instead or return home.

More than 900 Hondurans and Salvadorans were sent to Guatemala under the agreement between November 2019 and mid-March 2020, when implementation was suspended due to factors related to COVID-19, and the president of El Salvador said months prior that his country did not yet have any capacity to receive people under the third country deal. But implementation of the U.S.-Honduras asylum cooperative agreement could potentially begin at any time, following its publication on May 1 in the U.S. Federal Register.

“There are some reasons why the Trump administration might roll out some other ACAs like the Honduran ACA,” said Yael Schacher, senior U.S. advocate at Refugees International, a humanitarian and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

Together with Human Rights Watch, Refugees International just released a new report, “Deportation with a Layover,” that examines the U.S.-Guatemala asylum cooperative agreement. The May 19 report details rights violations and lack of protection at every step of the way, from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody to Guatemala. People are effectively compelled to abandon their asylum claims, according to the report, which notes only 20 of the 939 Hondurans and Salvadorans sent to Guatemala under the deal applied for asylum in Guatemala.

“We wanted to document how bad it was, the human rights violations, in Guatemala, because however bad it was in Guatemala, Honduras is going to be worse,” Schacher, one of the report’s authors, told Truthout. In Guatemala, a handful of asylum officers contend with a backlog and cumbersome process that requires high-level officials to sign off on each case, but Honduras has even less capacity to process asylum claims, said Schacher. Honduras is also more dangerous, with a higher murder rate, staggering levels of state violence and political repression, and high-level government involvement in drug trafficking.

For the time being, the Central American asylum deals appear to be on the back burner. The U.S. is using a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) order authorizing the expulsion at the border of noncitizens without entry documents, including asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors. More than 20,000 people have been expelled since the initial CDC order in March covering a 30-day period that was then renewed.

“The administration is using this CDC order, which is ostensibly about protecting public health during the pandemic, to effectively eliminate asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Kennji Kizuka, a senior researcher and policy analyst at Human Rights First, a human rights organization based in four U.S. cities.

“What that means is that CBP is not processing anyone who’s applying for asylum at the ports of entry and anyone who does cross the border between ports of entry is being expelled under the CDC order, either into Mexico or to their home countries,” Kizuka told Truthout.

The CDC expulsions join a long list of illegal and dangerous policies aimed at curtailing asylum, Human Rights First argues in a May 13 report titled “Pandemic as Pretext.” The report also provides an update on the group’s ongoing research into the devastating consequences of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) – which, since January 2019, has forced thousands of predominantly Central American asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while awaiting U.S. immigration court hearings. There have been more than 1,000 reports of attacks – including kidnappings, rape and torture – against asylum seekers in Mexico subject to the MPP, and the CDC order is expelling thousands more people back into border areas where migrants and asylum seekers have been targeted.

The CDC order is currently in effect until May 20, but the restrictions could soon be extended indefinitely without the need for active renewal every month. The New York Times first reported on May 13 that the Trump administration is planning an indefinite extension by way of a new order that would keep the measures in place until the CDC director deems COVID-19 no longer a threat.

“Were the CDC to extend this order indefinitely, that seems to point even more solidly to the fact that this is a political decision and not one based in public health, because the administration has clearly been wanting to shut down asylum at the border for a long time and now they’ve found this pretext to do it,” said Kizuka.

“That’s at a time when people are still able to cross the border between the U.S. and Mexico to go to work or to school, to do essential activities, but CBP isn’t taking even basic precautions like requiring CBP officers to wear gloves and masks,” he said.

The potential indefinite extension also comes at a time when the U.S. has more total confirmed COVID-19 cases (over 1.5 million) and deaths (over 90,000) than any other country in the world, and has been propagating the global spread of the virus through deportations. More than 1,000 migrants and asylum seekers in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody have tested positive for COVID-19, but the percentage of detainees who have been tested is still single digit.

Deportees have subsequently tested positive for COVID-19 in Guatemala, Mexico and Haiti. Many more unreported cases are very likely, due to extremely limited testing in both ICE custody and home countries. Deportations began dropping in March in comparison to January and February and recent years, but throughout the pandemic, the U.S. has still been expelling and deporting thousands of migrants and asylum seekers to Latin America and the Caribbean. In April alone, the U.S. deported 1,307 Hondurans and 716 Guatemalans, according to government statistics in the two countries.

Guatemala has briefly suspended incoming U.S. deportation flights after confirming COVID-19 cases among returning migrants and asylum seekers. More than 100 deportees are among the country’s 2,001 total cases. Flights have resumed following U.S. commitments to step up monitoring and testing, but deportees have periodically continued to test positive upon arrival in Guatemala, even when carrying U.S.-issued paperwork claiming they did not have the virus.

“ICE is just not adequately testing people either in detention or before deportation,” said Schacher. “Guatemala’s the only country in Central America that’s sort of been pushing back on the Trump administration,” she told Truthout. “Other countries have not demanded what Guatemala has demanded, like the paperwork proving they’re negative for COVID.”

Schacher posits that ongoing Guatemalan pushback on deportations with regard to COVID-19 is one of a few scenarios that could potentially lead to implementation of the asylum cooperative agreement in Honduras amid the pandemic. The ACAs are more complicated than most U.S. policies and programs restricting asylum for a few reasons, not the least of which is their bilateral nature, and overall, the agreements are “really a relatively minor piece of this enormous enforcement plan at the border,” said Schacher.

The U.S. “has other tools in its toolbox to use. I think this is sort of a policy that it used when other policies failed,” she said. “The Trump administration turns to it when it’s in a lurch, when it’s in a bind with other policies,” Schacher added, explaining that U.S. pushes to move the ACAs forward have coincided with moments when implementation of other measures to restrict asylum have been at least temporarily hindered, particularly by litigation.

“If Guatemala puts up too much of a fuss and prevents the U.S. from deporting as many Guatemalans to Guatemala as it wants to because of the COVID [issue], I could see the U.S. just sending Guatemalans to Honduras under that ACA,” she said.

After months of U.S. and Honduran government indications that implementation of the ACA was just around the corner, there is now no clear timeline as to if or when that will happen beyond the recent official publication of the agreement paving its way. A court challenge against all three ACAs continues in the U.S., where Human Rights First, the American Civil Liberties Union, National Immigrant Justice Center and the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies filed a federal lawsuit against the agreements in January.

“No one should be sent to Honduras,” said Fernanda. “If it were safe, we would not have left. We had no option.”

* Fernanda’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

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Trump Lashes Out at Fox News After Host Criticizes Hydroxychloroquine Use

President Trump speaks during a roundtable in the State Dining Room of the White House, May 18, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
President Trump speaks during a roundtable in the State Dining Room of the White House, May 18, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

BYChris WalkerTruthout

President Donald Trump announced on Monday that he was taking hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial medication that some have suggested, anecdotally but without scientific evidence, can help in treating those diagnosed with coronavirus.

Trump told reporters at the White House he’s been on the drug for a number of days, and was doing so as a preventative measure, as he also explained he had tested negative for COVID-19.

“I’m taking it for about a week and a half now and I’m still here, I’m still here,” the president said.

When asked for evidence he had that taking the drug was a good idea, Trump wasn’t very scientific in his response, and did not reveal specific names or titles of those that said it was fine, stating that he had received “a lot of positive calls about it.”

Trump has often peddled the drug as one that should be used by those who have deep concerns about the virus, at one point in April telling Americans, “What do you have to lose?” and urging them to “take it.”

In fact, a number of scientific studies and medical professionals have said there’s a lot one can lose from taking the antimalarial drug — including one’s own life. Hydroxychloroquine, like most other medications, comes with a number of risks, including the chance that it can negatively affect a person’s vision (sometimes permanently) as well as increasing the possibility of heart disease in patients, sometimes resulting in fatal outcomes.

It’s questionable, too, whether the drug does any good for COVID-19 patients at all. One study examining its effects on hundreds of patients in VA hospitals around the country who had the disease found that fatality rates were actually higher for those using hydroxychloroquine than they were for those who were treated with standard care without the drug.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, responding to news about Trump’s use of hydroxychloroquine during an interview on CNN with host Anderson Cooper on Monday evening, made it clear that she did not approve of the president using the drug.

“He’s our president, and I would rather he not be taking something that has not been approved by the scientists, especially in his age group and his, shall we say, weight group,” Pelosi said, adding that she viewed the president as being “morbidly obese.”

Trump weighed in at 243 pounds in 2019, which, at his height of 6’3″, would categorize him as “obese” according to the Body Mass Index.

Neil Cavuto of Fox News on his program on Monday following the president’s revelation also decried the decision by Trump, reminding viewers that taking hydroxychloroquine without medical evidence that it could help was not advised.

“If you are taking this as a preventative treatment to ward off the virus, or in a worst-case scenario you are dealing with the virus and you are in this vulnerable population, it will kill you. I cannot stress that enough. This will kill you,” Cavuto said.

Trump responded to Cavuto’s statements by unleashing a flurry of retweets from other Twitter users deriding the Fox News personality, some calling him “foolish & gullible,” “an asshole,” and “an idiot”.

Trump himself sent out a tweet warning Fox News that it was close to losing him as a dedicated viewer if they continued broadcasting the content that was critical of him.

“You have more anti-Trump people, by far, than ever before. Looking for a new outlet!” Trump wrote in his tweet.

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Trump Sends Letter Threatening Permanent Freeze of US Funding to WHO

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a press conference following a WHO Emergency committee to discuss whether the novel coronavirus outbreak that began in China constitutes an international health emergency, on January 30, 2020, in Geneva.
World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a press conference following a WHO Emergency committee meeting to discuss whether the novel coronavirus outbreak that began in China constitutes an international health emergency, on January 30, 2020, in Geneva.

BYJake JohnsonCommon Dreams

President Donald Trump on Monday sent a four-page letter to Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, threatening to permanently freeze U.S. funding to the United Nations agency in the midst of a global pandemic that has made international cooperation as crucial as ever.

Trump’s letter, which he posted to Twitter Monday night, repeats the president’s accusations that WHO is deferential to China and says that if the organization “does not commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days, I will make my temporary freeze of United States funding to the World Health Organization permanent and reconsider our membership in the organization.”

The president also alleged that WHO ignored early warnings about the spread of the coronavirus and made “grossly inaccurate or misleading” claims about the virus. Observers noted that much of Trump’s critique of WHO’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic applies to the White House’s handling of the crisis, which has been condemned as fatally slow and inadequate.

“This is a phenomenally damning letter — of the president’s own response,” tweeted HuffPost White House correspondent S.V. Dáte. “All of those early dates? Late December and January? Were known to U.S. officials and relayed to Trump. Who did nothing.”

Donald J. Trump@realDonaldTrump

This is the letter sent to Dr. Tedros of the World Health Organization. It is self-explanatory!

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268K3:55 AM – May 19, 2020Twitter Ads info and privacy131K people are talking about this

Trump wrote that WHO “consistently ignored credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019 or even earlier, including reports from The Lancet.”

Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, a U.K.-based medical journal, refuted the president’s claim in a tweet early Tuesday.

“Dear President Trump — You cite The Lancet in your attack on WHO. Please let me correct the record,” Horton wrote. “The Lancet did not publish any report in early December, 2019, about a virus spreading in Wuhan. The first reports we published were from Chinese scientists on Jan 24, 2020.”

Trump’s letter comes just over a month after he announced his decision to temporarily halt U.S. funding to WHO, a move Horton condemned at the time as an “appalling betrayal of global solidarity” that “every scientist, every health worker, every citizen must resist and rebel against.”

Devi Sridhar, professor and chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, tweeted that the U.S. president’s letter shows that he “doesn’t understand what WHO can and cannot do.”

“It is a normative, technical agency which needs to keep member states at the table,” Sridhar said. “If he thinks they need more power then member states should agree and delegate it more. This letter is written for his base and to deflect blame.”

John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies and former economist at the WHO, wrote in an op-ed for Foreign Policy In Focus earlier this month that while “WHO is far from perfect,” the organization “is playing a key role in poorer countries, and its importance will only grow as the pandemic spreads in these nations.”

“The story line from Reagan to Trump is the same: undermining global public health to serve narrow interests,” Cavanagh wrote. “For Reagan, it was to help a few well-connected corporate backers. For Trump, it may be to help a single billionaire in particular — himself. Only now, we’re in the middle of a pandemic that’s only just begun to devastate the vulnerable regions that need the WHO the most. The United States shouldn’t be cutting support now. We should be increasing it.”

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We Don’t Have to Choose Between Our Health and the Economy

Members of the National Nurses United stand in protest among empty shoes representing nurses that they say have died from COVID-19 in Lafayette Park across from the White House, May 7, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
Members of National Nurses United stand in protest among empty shoes representing nurses they say have died from COVID-19, in Lafayette Park across from the White House on May 7, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

BY: Kevin Zeese & Margaret FlowersPopular Resistance

The United States is at a critical moment in the COVID-crisis. This week, the nation is likely to surpass 100,000 deaths and new hotspots in the south and midwest are developing. Forty-two states have either started “reopening” their economies or imminently plan to do so without putting in place essential public health measures to prevent the spread of the virus. As of May 7, more than half of the states that had either reopened or planned to do so (30 at the time) have seen an increase in case counts or positive tests. Public health experts are predicting another round of mass illness and deaths.

President Trump, whose political future is tied to the pandemic and economic collapse, has been encouraging protests demanding the reopening of the economy. This is the latest in a series of mistakes made since China first warned the Centers for Disease Control of the new virus on January 3. He is putting the economy ahead of public health and risking more than 200,000 deaths by October at the height of the 2020 elections. He seems to fear a recession becoming a depression more than mass COVID-deaths. In the end, he may get both.

Two opposite popular movements are developing. The movement encouraged by Trump is minimizing the pandemic and pushing for reopening the economy. They garnered national attention because of their open display of weapons, which resulted in the Michigan legislature closing down. The other movement is characterized by a wave of wildcat strikes, rent strikes, and a nascent general strike campaign calling for health protection for workers, hazard pay, a basic income during the pandemic, and access to healthcare without financial barriers. This movement is covered only in independent and social media.

The Extremist Reopen Movement

The reopen protests play on the frustration of the restrictions put in place to respond to the pandemic. They shroud themselves with labels of “patriotism,” “freedom” and “libertarianism” but there are indications of manipulation by the Charles Koch-financed Americans for Prosperity and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The pro-business magazine Forbes described the reopen protests as not spontaneous but astroturfing. They report on a security firm’s finding that they come from “various gun rights groups, state Republican Party organizations, and conservative think tanks, religious and advocacy groups.”

Many of the protesters wear Trump red hats and t-shirts. Trump responded by embracing the state-level push to reopen, and even encouraged protests against governors who maintain shelter-in-place instructions, declaring in late April, “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” and “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” When protesters confronted the media, Trump encouraged them, calling the media “nonessential” and “fake news.” He described armed anti-lockdown protesters as ‘great people.’

In Michigan, the brandishing of weapons has been aggressive. Groups such as the Michigan Liberty Militia sent armed protesters inside the statehouse and crowded into the gallery of the state Senate after demanding to be allowed on the House floor. An attempt to ban weapons inside the statehouse was blocked by the Republican-dominated legislature resulting in Michigan canceling their legislative session.

Newsweek reports, “Dozens of posts in private invitation-only Facebook groups called for Whitmer to be hanged, lynched, shot, beaten or beheaded. One suggested crowdfunding sources to hire a hitman to kill her.” These followed President Trump’s attacks on Whitmer. Some legislators wore bulletproof vests to the capitol building and one black legislator was escorted by armed protectors. The armed extremists are in the minority as polling has shown that a majority of Michigan residents support the lockdown measures.

In Wisconsin, Governor Tony Evers’ lockdown order was overturned by a 4-3 ruling by the Republican-controlled state Supreme Court. The Tavern League of Wisconsin posted news of the ruling on its website and said it meant businesses could open immediately. Just hours after the decision, people flocked to bars in Milwaukee without wearing face masks or practicing physical distancing. Some county governments moved quickly to impose their own lockdown rules. Evers said the Supreme Court does not change science and urged people to stay safe at home to protect their families, friends, and communities. There have been reopen protests even though 70 percent of Wisconsinites support the governor’s order.

At protest rallies, people were seen holding signs with swastikas on them. At a May 2 protest in Boise, Idaho, militia extremist Ammon Bundy compared government quarantine measures to the Nazi holocaust and called public health measures “tyranny.” A “Reopen Philadelphia” protest, organized by small business owners and members of the far-right Proud Boys, was held at City Hall last Friday.

These reopen extremists that use fear are a slim minority in the United States. A recent PBS/Marist poll showed broad opposition to the rush to reopen. Results included 85 percent opposed to reopening schools, 80 percent opposed to allowing dine-in restaurants, and 65 percent believe reopening now would be a bad idea. Nicole Hammer, author of Messengers of the Right, said these were protests designed for media coverage, but “The thing to remember about these protests is they’re very small. They represent a small constituency.”

Evidence throughout history shows that pandemics can have second and third waves. Countries that have attempted to reopen have seen spikes and closed down again. During the Spanish Flu of 1918-19, the second wave was worse than the first. We have been warned that a second wave is likely in the fall, during flu season, especially if we reopen too quickly.

The reopen protests are a death choir that is willing to sacrifice lives for the economy. Former Republican governor Chris Christie compared it to World War II when soldiers were sent to battle. He said, “In the very same way now we have to stand up for the American way of life” as we ‘are going to have to’ accept more death to reopen the economy. Along the same lines, Trump issued an executive order under the Defense Production Act to force meat processors to stay open despite the risk to workers’ health and urged states to deny unemployment benefits to people who refuse to return to work.

The Larger Popular Movement Protects Life

People are taking action for the majority view by calling for adequate health protection for workers as well as hazard pay, access to healthcare without financial cost and an ongoing basic income to provide economic security throughout the pandemic and economic collapse.

There have now been three months of a COVID strike wave. The Payday Report has identified over 200 wildcat strikes since the beginning of March. Essential workers in the food industry, healthcare, and transportation are among those striking. The fruit workers strike wave in Washington State has spread to 13 major sites and there is a growing movement of truckers striking nationwideTruckers disrupted a Rose Garden presentation by Trump blowing their horns as he spoke. Trump falsely told the audience they were supporting him. When sanitation workers went on strike in New Orleans, they were replaced by prison slave-labor but the contractor has since stopped that. The strike is now in its second week.

Amazon, owned by Jeff Bezos, the world’s wealthiest human, is being protested across national boundaries including in Spain, France, Germany, Poland, and the United States. Among the workers’ demands are permanent wage increases and extra break time, two weeks of paid sick leave, and extending the unlimited unpaid sick leave program that the company just ended in the U.S. They want the company to work in good faith with unions and reinstate the workers fired for their activism. As Bezos’ wealth increased by $30 billion amid the pandemic, Amazon ended its $2 per hour hazard pay for workers. One executive engineer for Amazon resigned over the mistreatment of workers.

In the US, 91 nurses have died from treating patients with COVID19, while no nurses have died in Canada. Multiple nursesdoctors and hospital staff have been fired for complaining about the lack of protective equipment. An empty shoe protest was held outside the White House over the deaths of nurses.

Amalgamated Transit Workers Union members across the country have engaged in work stoppages to demand safety in mass transit. Detroit bus drivers kicked off protests on March 17, early in the pandemic, and won all of their demands around health and safety. Birmingham drivers took action on March 23 and went back to work the following day after having won multiple safety measures. In April, drivers in Richmond, Virginia, and Greensboro, North Carolina also won safety measures. Transit workers are now looking to redefine mass transit in the post-COVID era where confronting climate change will be important.

Groups representing workers, immigrants, and civil rights advocates are protesting reopening the economy too soon. As one advocate said, “We will not be guinea pigs.” People want to return to work but they want the economy reopened safely. People’s lives should not be jeopardized for the economy.

These advocates have science on their side. On May 12, two top health officials in the federal government informed a Senate committee that the coronavirus is not contained and that reopening too swiftly is profoundly dangerous. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci warned that “there is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control.” Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the current director of the CDC, who was hired by Trump said, “We are not out of the woods yet.”

Deborah Burger, the co-president of National Nurses United (NNU), told In These Times, “We are way premature for opening when the cases nationwide have not gone down but continue to go up,” adding, “We are still experiencing a rationing of personal protective equipment, N95 masks, and other protective gear. We just did a vigil for over 100 nurses who have died.”

Protect Public Health Before Reopening

It is a false choice to claim the country must immediately reopen despite the health risks. This is a red herring political maneuver by Trump. We can protect public health and economic security so we can quarantine safely and reopen when it is safe. This includes a public health system in every county that screens and tests for COVID19, traces the contacts of those who test positive and isolates all positives and their contacts until they are clear. It requires a universal basic income until the pandemic and recession are over. And it requires housing for all, universal health care and debt forgiveness. Essential workers must be provided with whatever they need to protect their health during the pandemic. This may include child care and separating them from their families so they can work.

President Trump’s divisive politics may mean the US will have more than 200,000 COVID deaths by the fall and that the recession has turned into a depression. His politics of disposability will result in human sacrifices for a failed restarting of the economy. Already data is being manipulated to falsely lower the number of deaths. For example, Florida is not counting reports from medical examiners. And, the loss of jobs is being underreported. In the end, none of this will hide reality. People will see how the super-rich Wall Steeters once again cheated the rest of us while pillaging Main Street. To prevent this, we need to organize and strike now.

The crises of COVID and economic collapse are triggers for people to demand change as a gateway to a new and better world. The short term demands of public safety and economic security should be followed by longer-term demands for Medicare for all with a community-controlled national health service. After the pandemic and recession, we need to restart the economy in a way that provides economic security for all by confronting inequality and protecting the planet with a Green New Deal. The realities of capitalism have been exposed as the stock market shows its disconnect to the real economy and high unemployment.

The established order has been exposed and this experience will be embedded in people’s understanding of the world. This makes the powerholders weaker than ever before and if we act in solidarity, the opportunities for positive change are great.

Popular Resistance is continuing to build a General Strike campaign. Readers who are interested can join the next organizing call on Thursday, May 28 at 7:00 pm Eastern/4:00 pm Pacific. The featured speaker is Kali Akuno of the People’s Strike and Cooperation Jackson who will describe the organizing behind the General Strike campaign. Register at bit.ly/MayDayMeeting for the Zoom information.

Posted in USA, Health, PoliticsComments Off on We Don’t Have to Choose Between Our Health and the Economy

Trump’s “VERY Promising” Vaccine Is at Least a Year Away, Leaked Memo Suggests

U.S. Marine recruits stand in formation as they wait in line for health screenings at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on April 13, 2020, in San Diego, California.
U.S. Marine recruits stand in formation as they wait in line for health screenings at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on April 13, 2020, in San Diego, California.

BYChris WalkerTruthout

Aleaked memo from the Pentagon suggests the Department of Defense does not hold the same optimistic tone that President Donald Trump does when it comes to how fast a vaccine for coronavirus could be developed.

The document, which is not the official view of the Pentagon, warns of a “globally-persistent” coronavirus environment in the U.S. for some time to come, and states that a vaccine likely won’t be available to the public until “at least the summer of 2021.”

“We have a long path ahead, with the real possibility of a resurgence of COVID-19,” the memo states. “Therefore, we must now re-focus our attention on resuming critical missions, increasing levels of activity, and making necessary preparations should a significant resurgence of COVID-19 occur later this year.”

The memo was written by Kenneth Rapuano, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security, according to reporting from Task & Purpose, which first reported on the document’s existence. While Rapuano was the initial author, the memo was written out as if to be authored by Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

It’s unclear if Esper has seen the document or not, or weighed in on its contents. A spokeswoman at the Pentagon said the document was outdated, but wouldn’t say when it was specifically authored. The memo is meant to update previous guidance issued by the Pentagon on April 1, and was reportedly circulated among military services around the beginning of May.

The memo’s contents are a bleaker assessment of what the president has suggested might happen, especially with regard to the development of a coronavirus vaccine.

Last week Thursday, Trump tweeted that “vaccine work is looking VERY promising,” and that a vaccine for the disease could be available “before [the] end [of the] year.”

On Friday, reporters at the White House were informed about “Operation Warp Speed,” an ambitious plan to “manufacture and distribute a proven coronavirus vaccine as fast as possible,” according to the president.

“I want to see if we can do that very quickly. When I say ‘quickly,’ we’re looking to get it by the end of the year if we can,” Trump said about the program. “Maybe before.”

Moncef Slaoui, a former pharmaceutical executive at Moderna, the company that’s working in conjunction with the government in developing a COVID-19 vaccine, was named by the president to lead Operation Warp Speed. In his own comments about the vaccine’s development, he gave an assessment that was more in line with the Pentagon’s leaked memo than Trump’s rosy outlook.

“Frankly, 12 to 18 months is already a very aggressive timeline,” Slaoui said.

Slaoui himself was embroiled in a bit of controversy on Monday, after it was announced that the vaccine from Moderna had performed well in initial small-sample trials. Stocks in Moderna responded positively from the news — and Slaoui appeared to benefit financially as a result.

On Friday, when trading on Wall Street closed for the weekend, the stock price for Moderna was around $66 per share. On Monday at noon, the price jumped up to around $84 per share on news of the vaccine’s initial successes.

Slaoui still had millions of dollars in shares from Moderna even after he left the company to join the White House’s efforts on Operation Warp Speed. In response to criticisms over him profiting from being on the project, the former Moderna executive announced he was selling off his shares, and donating the gains he made from the time the news was announced to his divestment, to cancer research.

Tal Zaks, Moderna’s chief medical officer, expressed optimism that a vaccine from the company could be made available by January. But again, experts have cautioned against such thinking.

“In the best of circumstances, we should have a vaccine — or let’s say vaccines — between 12 and 18 months,” Stanley Plotkin, the individual credited with creating the rubella vaccine in the 1960s, told NBC News. “Whether those circumstances will be the best or not, we don’t know.”

Even if a vaccine is produced by the end of the year, it’s unclear that many Americans would be able to access it, as the White House has not made any guarantees on whether there would be universal access to the coronavirus vaccine.

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As States Rush to Reopen, Lack of COVID-19 Testing Is “Achilles Heel” for US

BY: Amy Goodman & Juan González

Democracy Now!

President Trump claimed Monday he’s been taking the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, even though multiple studies show the drug can be dangerous and is not an effective treatment for COVID-19. This comes as the U.S. COVID-19 death count tops 90,000 and all 50 U.S. states prepare to partially reopen by Memorial Day. We speak with Dr. Ashish Jha, the director of Harvard University’s Global Health Institute, who says that testing needs to vastly improve in order for widespread reopenings. He calls the lack of accurate tests in the U.S. the nation’s “Achilles heel,” saying, “The testing saga will go down as one of the big fiascos that led to us being where we are today.”

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, here in New York City. Juan González is joining us from his home in New Jersey. As the COVID-19 death toll tops 90,000 in the United States, President Trump claimed Monday he’s been taking the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, even though multiple studies show the drug can be dangerous, is not effective in treating COVID-19.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Good things have come out about the hydroxy. A lot of good things have come out. And you’d be surprised at how many people are taking it, especially the frontline workers, before you catch it. The frontline workers, many, many are taking it. I happen to be taking it. I happen to be taking it.

REPORTER 1: Hydroxychloroquine?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I’m taking it, hydroxychloroquine.

REPORTER 2: Right now?

REPORTER 3: When?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Right now, yeah.

REPORTER 3: Yeah, when?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Couple of weeks ago, started taking it.

REPORTER 4: Why, sir?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Because I think it’s good. I’ve heard a lot of good stories. And if it’s not good, I’ll tell you right: I’m not going to get hurt by it.

AMY GOODMAN: The Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about self-medicating with hydroxychloroquine last month, following Trump’s repeated remarks touting its effectiveness.

President Trump’s announcement came as he ramped up attacks on the World Health Organization, threatening Monday to pull out of the international organization entirely and permanently freeze U.S. funding over its, quote, “failed response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population but almost a third of the confirmed COVID-19 infections worldwide. Despite these numbers and a quarter of the worldwide deaths in the United States, all 50 states will at least partially reopen by Memorial Day weekend, even as infection rates in many states continue to rise. Only 16 states are currently seeing downward trends in cases, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Well, for more, we’re going to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we’re joined by Dr. Ashish Jha, the director of Harvard University’s Global Health Institute, a professor of global health at the Harvard School of Public Health.

We welcome you, Doctor, to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with this, I guess, bombshell that Trump dropped yesterday, because the impact it has all over the country, not possibly just on his own health, when he said that he started about a week and half ago, presumably after his personal aide, valet, tested positive for COVID-19 — he said he’s now taking hydroxychloroquine. Now, this flies in the face of the latest studies. If you can tell us what they are and what you thought when you first heard this?

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah. So, thanks for having me on. I was — I have to tell you, I was pretty surprised. If I was his personal physician, I would not have recommended it. I would have actually recommended very strongly against it. There is no evidence, that I’m aware of, that hydroxychloroquine is helpful in preventing getting coronavirus, COVID, if you’ve been exposed. And we know that it does have toxicities. Almost every medicines have some toxicities. And while hydroxychloroquine is reasonably safe under close medical supervision, it still has real side effects. And I just — I think the risk-benefit here is all wrong for the president. And I personally don’t think he should be taking this medicine.

AMY GOODMAN: And the effect this has on people? There will be a rush on hydroxychloroquine, of course, if the president is taking it, or requests of doctors to give it. And also, isn’t it simply a message? Like we see with his approach to climate change and the climate crisis, it’s just this anti-science slap.

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah. So, we want our leaders to model good behavior, right? And part of that is that we do have a scientific approach to coronavirus. We do have one therapy now that looks like it’s going to work. That’s remdesivir, though that’s right now really only for sick people in the hospital. And when the president really kind of goes off where the scientific consensus is and starts doing things on his own that are really against the scientific consensus, I think it is harmful. And I think what happens is a lot of people decide, “Well, he must know something that others don’t,” and will try to emulate that, and that will end up being harmful for those people’s health, as well.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dr. Jha, I wanted to ask you this. These contradictions here of, on the one hand, federal health officials saying one thing to the general public, allowing individual states to develop their own policies, while, on the other hand, the president, as a lone ranger, occasionally either contradicting the states or contradicting his own federal health officials, what this does to the ability of the country to develop a systematic plan to confront the coronavirus?

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah, this has been one of the biggest challenges in this outbreak. You know, the federal leadership has really been lacking. And at times it’s been — the federal approach has been downright harmful. So, for instance, they came up with a plan for how states can open safely. It was called “Open Up America Again.” And it was pretty good. I mean, there were parts of it I disagreed with, but it was generally in the right direction. And then the president has spent the last couple of weeks essentially undermining his own plan. And that creates an incredible amount of confusion in states, who don’t know: Should they be listening to his plan, or should they be listening to his tweets? And that’s a — there shouldn’t be any separation between the two. And it’s very confusing, and that has left a lot of states to try to sort all this out on their own without any federal guidance, and, in fact, at times, contradictory federal guidance.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about what the states are pursuing? About 48 states now are partially reopening this week. Fifty will have partially reopened by Memorial Day. What is your sense, especially given the fact that several of these states are still seeing upticks in the number of cases?

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah. So, if we go back to that initial guidance that I mentioned, which I thought was generally right, you know, the main principles were you should see declining cases for 14 days or very, very low number of cases, and you should have adequate testing and tracing capacity. Very few states meet all of those.

And my general feeling is, I get that people are kind of antsy to get back to work, to the extent possible. Obviously, for a lot of poor people, this has been an extraordinarily difficult financial hardship, as hourly wage workers, others.

So, what we really need is a very careful, very slow plan. And, you know, some states, I think, are being responsible. Other states, where cases are still rising and yet they’re opening up bars, that worries me immensely about what’s going to happen there, in terms of both spike in cases and eventually maybe having to shut down again because their outbreak gets out of control.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Dr. Jha, can you talk about the significance of testing, this critical issue? President Trump stood in the Rose Garden against a banner that said the U.S. leads the world in testing, when, in fact, when President Trump started to begin to hear about the pandemic, you know, the intelligence agencies, his own heads of agencies saying you have to move, as late as — as early as January, even December — what he keeps touting is he pushed this Chinese travel ban. But if he thought it was that significant at that time to push the ban, this issue of immediately ramping up testing and getting PPE, personal protective equipment, to people all over this country — first and foremost, healthcare workers, of course.

Start off by talking about what happened with testing at the beginning. You’re very critical of the CDC. But also, what it means even today, the fact that here in New York City, if you are not symptomatic but you want to get a test — and we know that more than half of people that are infecting others are not symptomatic — you cannot get a test, unless you have some special connection, even though President Trump insists that that’s not true?

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah. So, the testing saga will go down as sort of one of the big fiascos that led to us being where we are today. There’s no question in my mind that this has really been one of the Achilles heels of our entire response.

So, the saga really begins in later part of January, when the World Health Organization offered up a test kit that was developed by a German virologist, and it was available to countries around the world, including the United States. The U.S. decided not to use the WHO test kit. Now, that’s not a totally unreasonable decision. The CDC — it was a premier public health agency — has a lot of experience building its own tests, so it built its own test. OK, that’s reasonable. It’s fine. Problem was that test failed. It got contaminated, and it didn’t work. And weeks and weeks and weeks went by. And private labs —

AMY GOODMAN: [inaudible] use the World Health Organization test, which was proven, which worked. It was there.

DR. ASHISH JHA: It was there. And what should have happened is, at the moment that CDC realized its test failed, it should have gone back and gotten the WHO test kit and started using that while it was fixing its own. But instead, we wasted all of the rest of January, all of February, into early March. We prevented private labs from making tests, and we didn’t really build one ourselves in the public sector. And so we found ourselves in March with a large outbreak and no real testing capacity.

And that was, in my mind, the main reason we had to shut our economy down, is because we just could not figure out who was infected and who was not, and the best way to stop exponential growth at that point is to have everybody shelter in place. But that’s a very costly way to slow down a viral outbreak. But you have to do it if you don’t have a good testing infrastructure.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Dr. Jha, now we have various types of tests that have been produced, and some of them with disturbingly high percentages of false negatives. What about the quality control now, that should be the federal government’s responsibility in terms of determining what’s the best test to use?

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah. So, what’s really important for your viewers and listeners to know is that there are two types of tests and two broad categories of tests. There’s antibody testing and then testing for the virus. And testing for the virus is mainly what we’ve been talking about so far. We can talk about antibody testing, which is another important but unrelated issue.

On the testing for the virus, the primary approaches we have do have a false negative rate. They vary from 10 to 30%. And some of that is a quality control issue, but some of it is just the reality of the virus that we’re trying to test for. It may be early in the disease course. You may not have enough virus. You may not get a good sample. And that’s why you often actually need to be testing people more than once, if they have what looks like coronavirus but test negative. I really do think that on the issue of that, the problem has been we’ve been too slow to develop new technologies.

On antibody testing, it’s been a mess in terms of quality control. That’s where the quality control problems have been really rampant. But on the virus testing, it’s been primarily an issue of just not being able to ramp up and do enough of these tests. There are some quality control problems, but, to me, that’s not — hasn’t been the biggest concern on the virus testing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you — at the international level, there are great disparities between where COVID-19 is spreading in countries around the world. For instance, I mean, the startling situation of the island of Hispaniola, where, in the Dominican Republic, there are more than 7,600 confirmed cases, but right across the border on the same island, in Haiti, it’s about only 85. Do you think that there are any genetic issues in terms of which populations are more disposed to being affected by COVID-19?

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah. So, you know, one way to think about this is, we are early in this pandemic. The way I’ve sort of often described it, using a baseball analogy, is that we’re probably in the top of the third inning of a nine-inning baseball game, meaning that we have a long way to go. And in the early days, you’re going to see a lot of variations in who’s been infected, where the disease has spread. It’s going to be driven in large part by things like travel, where did the virus first show up. There’s a certain amount of idiosyncratic features.

I am not convinced — I haven’t seen any data that any group of humans are more susceptible than others in terms of populations. Obviously, older people are more susceptible. But I mean, you know, are Haitians more or less susceptible than Dominicans? Are Indians more or less susceptible than Chinese? I don’t see any data out there that makes me think that’s a major factor.

I think social structure, I think resources, I think travel — all those other things are much bigger determinants of where we’re seeing the outbreaks so far. But six months from now, the picture may look very, very different. And so, we just have to remember that we’re still early.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Africa? I mean, we don’t see large numbers in Africa. Is that because of lack of testing? I mean, South Africa is dealing with this. Kenya is dealing with this, of course. And Kenya has just shut down its borders to Somalia and Tanzania. But is it because it’s a much younger population, or the other issues you just mentioned?

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah. So, Africa, the entire African continent, has been interesting. It has done better so far than I was expecting, just to be very frank. I was deeply worried. I still remain worried. And I remain worried because, again, it is still early days, but so far they have done better than I was worried they might.

And so, the questions are why. One is, certainly it is possible that, you know, you have a younger population, and so, even if they’re getting infected; maybe the lack of robust testing; maybe the lack of a very substantial surveillance system; maybe missing a lot of cases. I think that’s possible. There may be some seasonality issues. There is reason to believe that warmer, more humid temperatures lead to lower levels of transmission. That might be playing a factor. There’s a variety of kind of theories out there.

I hope, obviously, that the entire continent ends up being spared. I will tell you that I worry that as time goes on we’re going to see more and more outbreaks across the African continent. Obviously, lots of variation across the continent, but I worry a lot about that. And I always hope that I’m wrong on that. So, we’ll see how that plays out, but we’re still early days.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you about the vaccine situation. Of course, we saw the news yesterday about Moderna’s vaccine showing some promise, and of course the stock market immediately having a major rally as a result. What is your assessment of how long it will take to produce a vaccine, and, of course, then the issue of mass producing it in sufficient numbers for the entire planet?

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah, it’s a great question. So, you know, among public health people, I tend to be on the optimistic side. So you should know that, because what I’m going to tell you, obviously, my views, is a bit more optimistic than I think where most public health people are. But that said, let me give you my views on this.

I am pretty optimistic we’re going to have a vaccine. I am very optimistic that that vaccine will come in 2021. It’s very, very hard for me to see a vaccine being safe, effective and widely available in 2020. I just — I can’t quite figure out how that would happen. Obviously, again, love to be wrong, but I think sometime in 2021, and I’m guessing probably mid-2021 is my best guess.

Now let’s talk about where we are on vaccines. There are over a hundred different efforts to build a vaccine. There are eight that are in clinical trials, and a few of them are moving along very nicely. There’s Moderna. There’s the Oxford one. There’s one in — actually, two in China that are both also potentially promising. There are others in Europe. So, there’s a lot of activity here. I have no idea which of these vaccines will play out and when, right? I have no idea which one will turn out to be safe or effective. Any of them could. It could be that we have five or six vaccines that work. I don’t know, but I am very confident that one of them will.

And one of the reasons I’m so confident is that we have been able to show that we really can induce immunity to this virus. We know that people clear the virus. They get a pretty robust immune response. And so, scientifically, believing that we’re going to have a vaccine in 2021, I think, is a pretty fair assumption.

Now, the other question of — OK, you have a vaccine, let’s say. You know, you do the testing. It’s safe. It’s effective. How do we make sure everybody gets it? And that is going to be a massive challenge. And there’s a huge set of production issues. There’s a huge set of distribution issues, equity issues. I think it’s incredibly important that people in India get it, people in Kenya get it, people in the United States get it, people in China get it. And that is going to require a certain amount of global coordination. It’s going to require a certain amount of global solidarity. And I worry a little bit about kind of where we are heading — certainly our political leadership, but other political leaders, too — in terms of that movement towards global solidarity.

AMY GOODMAN: [inaudible] to Moderna’s chief medical officer, Dr. Tal Zaks.

DR. TAL ZAKS: We can indeed, with this vaccine, induce an immune response in everybody that received the vaccine, and that immune response generates the kind of antibodies that one would hope to generate, antibodies that can neutralize the virus, and that we can get to the levels of antibodies that are those seen in people who have been infected with SARS-CoV-2, or, in fact, even exceed those levels.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to go to this issue, this test that was done by Moderna that everyone is holding out such hope in, although you talk about a bunch of others, Dr. Jha. This was just done on eight people, right? It’s in the first phase of the trial. And it showed that they produced antibodies. And then explain — and safety, that it didn’t kill them. The shot didn’t kill them. Explain what then has to happen, how this ramps up, because President Trump so quickly just throws out things, and it’s hard to put them in a kind of scientific context to understand what we should take seriously. And then, your most critical point, like Jonas Salk with the polio vaccine, how it’s made free for all?

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah. So, basically, what I would say to folks is, you’re going to see a lot of sensational headlines in the upcoming days, weeks and months, because we’re all paying attention, and we’re all hoping. And I generally think it’s important to listen to scientists, and less to politicians, and especially when politicians really go off and start saying things that are not science-based.

In terms of where the Moderna vaccine is, again, eight people, phase one, early days, right? But encouraging early days. Like, the effect that those eight people developed a level of immune response that we’ve seen with people who have cleared the infection, the fact that their antibodies were neutralizing — could neutralize the virus, that all is very, very encouraging.

Now, there is a lot between here and having that vaccine be produced safely and effectively for hundreds of millions or billions of people. There are many, many steps along the way. We’ve got to give it to a much larger group of folks. We’ve got to make sure that — you know, imagine if the vaccine kills one in 500 people, which would be an incredibly bad outcome — I’m not saying it does, by the way. It’s been shown to be very safe. You’re not going to pick that up in small studies. You need to study it in large enough people to identify untoward effects. So, we’ve got to do that. We’ve got to do that, and then we really have to make sure that those neutralizing antibodies do protect people.

And we’re going to have to think about how do we test that, not in a laboratory, but actually — I mean, are we going to expose people to live virus? There are people who have suggested that. Are we going to give it to healthcare workers who are on the frontlines, and then look to see if any of them get infected?

There’s a lot of work ahead, because if we don’t build a vaccine that’s safe and effective, but certainly safe, people aren’t going to want to take it. And so, that is really an incredibly important part of this, moving forward. And then, of course, there is a ramp-up of how do you then produce billions of doses of the vaccine in a way that, again, people are going to feel confident — healthy people are going to feel confident giving it to their kids, giving it to themselves, giving to their parents. Those are going to be really important issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quick —

DR. ASHISH JHA: Again, I have no — I think we can get there, sorry, but it’s going to be work. Please.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, you’re talking to us from Harvard, one of many schools in this country. It has more chance of surviving than a number of other schools if they don’t reopen. But can you talk about the decisions? You have places like Northeastern, that’s saying, “We’re open, starting in the fall.” You have places like Notre Dame that are saying, “We’re going to open early and then end by Thanksgiving,” also University of Alabama, “because we expect there to be a surge in December, and so we want the kids out by Thanksgiving, and then they won’t come back for a while.” Can you talk about the decision? And not only colleges, of course, high schools, elementary schools. What must go into this decision? And what do you think should happen?

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah. As you might imagine, this is not just a conversation I’m having with lots of public health people and education officials, but also at home with the kids about what’s going to happen in the fall.

The way I think about this is there’s going — what is likely to happen is a lot of variations. Some schools are going to open, some schools are going to stay online. What should drive the decision-making? Well, one is how much community transmission is happening in that place at that time. So, if we’re thinking about Harvard University, for instance, how much community transmission is happening in eastern Massachusetts? If a lot of people are getting infected and sick, it’s going to be very hard for Harvard or any university in eastern Massachusetts to open.

Second is around availability of testing. I think you have to have a strategy where you’re going to have to be able to test kids and staff and faculty on an ongoing basis.

Third is you’re going to have to do certain social distancing things. There are going to be no large classes. There should be no large classes. There should be — if you’re going to do sporting events, certainly not with any kind of spectators, and you have to really think about what sporting events can you justify and how do you do that.

So there’s a lot of changes that are going to need to happen. I like the idea of starting early and trying to end early. I think most of us believe there will be a surge of cases in the fall. All the principles I just laid out need to happen for primary and secondary schools, as well, really rethinking things like cafeteria, rethinking things like sports. And if we do all of that, I believe there’s a very, very good chance that we can open up schools, we can get kids back to school in the fall. It may not look like a normal fall, but if we can get through this fall and we have a vaccine early in 2021, we can get through this pandemic.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dr. Ashish Jha, we want to thank you so much for being with us, professor of global health and director of Harvard University’s Global Health Institute.

When we come back, can local journalism survive the pandemic? Tens of thousands of journalists have lost their jobs, been furloughed or received pay cuts as newsrooms continue to shrink or shutter. Stay with us.

Posted in USA, HealthComments Off on As States Rush to Reopen, Lack of COVID-19 Testing Is “Achilles Heel” for US

Brazil Latin America Sees Rise in COVID-19 Cases as Economies Reopen

Peru has experienced a rise in COVID-19 cases as the total number of infections increase across South America.

On Thursday, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro urged business leaders to push for lifting lockdown orders in financial center Sao Paulo to help the economy.

Latin American countries on Saturday reported a further increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths, as some are gradually reopening their economies.

RELATED: Puebla Group Discusses Peace in Colombia and Pandemic Crisis

Brazil reported a total of 15,633 deaths from COVID-19 and 233,142 confirmed cases, after 816 more patients died of the disease and 14,919 infections were detected in the past 24 hours, according to the Health Ministry.

Sao Paulo, the most populous state, was hit the hardest, with 4,688 deaths and 61,183 confirmed cases, followed by Rio de Janeiro with 2,614 deaths and 21,601 cases, and Ceara with 1,614 deaths and 23,795 cases.

On Thursday, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro urged business leaders to push for lifting lockdown orders in financial center Sao Paulo to help the economy.

Bolsonaro also published a resolution this week that expanded essential activities in the country to include beauty salons, barber shops and gyms.

The Peruvian Ministry of Health said the country registered 4,046 new cases in the past 24 hours, bringing the total number to 88,541, with 2,523 deaths.

“This virus does not let its guard down; the virus is latent, waiting to continue attacking and it attacks the last day just as it attacked the first day, in a simple way: through contact between people,” said Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra on Saturday during his trip with medical teams to the city of Tacna bordering Chile.

Vizcarra highlighted the importance of wearing masks, washing hands, and maintaining social distance to help slow the spread of the virus.

Peru, which is currently under a state of emergency that includes quarantine measures and a curfew, entered this month into phase one of economic revival, which will include the gradual reopening of a number of sectors.

In Chile, the Health Ministry reported that the total number of confirmed cases in the country has risen to 41,428, with 421 deaths.

Arturo Zuniga, the ministry’s undersecretary of assistance networks, said 624 people are currently put on ventilators, with 127 in critical condition.

“The hospital network has an occupation of 78 percent at the national level, and … there are a little more than 400 ventilators available to the network,” he said.

Chile has predicted its outbreak would peak in the coming weeks, leading officials to announce lockdown measures for 38 districts, mainly in the capital Santiago and the metropolitan area, affecting over 7 million people.

According to Ecuador’s Ministry of Public Health, the country registered a total of 32,723 confirmed cases, 54.3 percent of which came from Guayas Province, the epicenter of the disease in the country.

Besides, the country reported a total of 2,688 deaths, 1,213 out of which were from the province.

So far, Ecuador’s National Institute for Public Health Research and other public and private laboratories have conducted 93,344 tests for COVID-19, said the ministry.

On Friday, Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno announced his decision to renew the national state of emergency for another 30 days.

“I do it with the aim of protecting the well-being of all Ecuadorians and being able to deploy the necessary measures to deal with the emergency,” Moreno wrote on his official Twitter account.

Since May 4, the country has relaxed the quarantine and moved into the social-distancing phase in order to reactivate the local economy. 

Posted in BrazilComments Off on Brazil Latin America Sees Rise in COVID-19 Cases as Economies Reopen

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