News You May Have Missed: March 1, 2020

Trump is preventing scientists in federal agencies from speaking about the coronavirus without clearance from Pence’s office. But we are not gagged, nor is the World Health Organization; their situation reports provide current, reliable information, as does the Johns Hopkins site. (For information about infectious diseases in general, you might look at ProMed.) See our first and last stories for a comprehensive look at the political and medical context of COVID-19.

We know that avid readers of the news are fixated on the Democratic primaries as well as the tailspin in Washington. But each seat in the House and Senate is acutely important. Chrysostom reviews some key races.

As is her wont, Heather Cox Richardson has given us some historical context for that tailspin; her most recent columns are an especially useful corrective to the view that the present has no precedent in American history.

“Coronavirus spike protein structure” by National Institutes of Health (NIH) is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0


1. US to divert funds from low-income heating program to fight COVID-19.

There are a great many things wrong with the Republican administration’s response to coronavirus. These include a fixation on economic impact over public health, as evidenced by the inclusion of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House economist Larry Kudlow in Vice President Mike Pence’s Coronavirus Task Force and the consideration of additional tax cuts as part of the coronavirus response, according to the Washington Post; a requirement that all public statements about coronavirus and the U.S. response by any federal employees or appointees be pre-approved by Pence (the Director of Allergy and Infectious Diseases was quickly instructed to cancel interviews with five Sunday talk shows, the Hill reports); misleading statements about the development timeline for a coronavirus vaccine; and a clear assumption that it will be perfectly acceptable if the cost of the virus makes it unavailable for the majority of Americans. Even now, the CDC has not told the medical community all it knows about American patients, hampering treatment, CNN reported on March 1.

Let’s consider another problem with the coronavirus response: Trump has proposed moving $37 million from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to the coronavirus response effort, according to the Minnesota Post Bulletin. In case you don’t know what LIHEAP is, it’s the program that provides winter heating assistance to low-income Americans. S-HP

You can tell the administration that risking the health of low-income Americans is no way to go about funding a pandemic response and call for Congressional resistance to this proposal: addresses are here.

2. Family separation practices meet the definition of torture, according to physicians

After conducting psychiatric evaluations of parents and children separated at the U.S. border, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has issued a substantial report documenting the ways in which these separations meet not only the definition of trauma, but of torture as well. Nearly every individual interviewed met at least one criterion for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or another mental health condition. The report includes a number of urgent recommendations

For the Administration, Department of Justice, and Department of Health and Human Services these recommendations include:

An end to separations, except in cases where rigorous assessment finds a risk of immediate danger to the child; full maintenance and disclosure of records on all family separations and reunifications; abiding by existing federal standards for care of children in custody and licensing of all facilities where children are held; full implementation of all recommendations made during previous investigations of child detention by the Department of Homeland Security and the Inspector General of Health and Human services; establishment of a recovery fund for mental and physical health screening and treatment for those who have been separated; acknowledgement that separation without due process is unlawful and a guarantee that these policies will not be continued or repeated.

For Congress these recommendations include:

Increased funding for alternatives to detention and for more timely, fair, and thorough processing of asylum claims; legislation banning family separation and detention; public access to all data on separations and reunifications; U.S. ratification of the Convention on Rights of the Child, an international agreement that went into effect in 1990; the U.S. is the only nation in the world that has not ratified this Convention. S-HP

You can insist that the Administration act on PHR’s recommendations, highlighting those that seem most crucial to you. Relevant addresses are here.

Parents of child shot by the Border Patrol cannot sue

The US Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the parents of 15 year-old Sergio Hernandez, a Mexican citizen shot and killed by a Border Patrol agent in 2010, cannot sue the agent responsible for their son’s death in US courts, CNN reports. At the time of his shooting, Hernandez was unarmed, and on the Mexican side of the border, although the government has alleged that the shooting occurred while “smugglers” were attempting to cross the border illegally and were throwing rocks at the agents. Hernandez’s parents claim he and friends were playing games on a cement culvert separating El Paso, Texas from Ciudad Jarez, Mexico, through which the international border runs. 

Writing for the 5-justice majority, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that although the case is “tragic,” allowing the agent to be sued in US Courts would have national security implications, and that action to regulate agents’ behavior should fall to Congress, not the courts. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, dissented, disagreeing about the national security implications of the suit and pointing to a pattern of problems at the US-Mexico border; she also concluded that although the majority felt that Hernandez’s being on Mexican soil was significant to a lack of grounds to sue, the boy’s location “should not matter one whit.” JM-L

3. Immigration detention centers violate “basic human needs”: judge

Following a seven-day trial and a ruling by federal judge David C. Bury, Tucson sector Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention centers are now under a permanent federal injunction due to ongoing conditions that violate the Constitution and fail to meet “basic human needs.” Basic needs, under the judge’s ruling include uninterrupted periods of sleep on a bed and with a blanket; nutritious food; shower access; and medical assessment by qualified medical professionals, according to the Washington Post. Evidence at the trial included footage of detainees attempting to use facility toilets by first crawling over other detainees forced to sleep in the bathroom and in the stalls themselves. Under the injunction, no individual may be held at the facility for longer than48 hours until CBP has provided proof that all requirements have been met. S-HP

If you want to call for Congressional action to address this inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers, you can find the addresses of your elected representatives here.

4. Refugee Act would require the U.S. to protect refugees

H.R.5210, the National Refugee Protection Act, would require the United States to take in at least 100,000 refugees a year from Central America and prevent the government from forcing people to apply for asylum in other countries they passed through. It would stop the policy of charging people who cross without documents with a criminal offense, reverse the policy that bars people fleeing domestic or gang violence from obtaining asylum and require our government to appoint lawyers for migrant children. This legislation is currently with multiple committees: the House Judiciary Committee and its Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship; the Ways and Means Committee; the House Budget Committee; and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. S-HP

You can tell these committees that you want to see swift, positive action on H.R.5210. Relevant committee members’ addresses are here.

5. Court rules against “Remain in Mexico” and then stays its order

On Friday, the 9th Circuit court found the government’s “Remain in Mexico” policy to be illegal and said that asylum-seekers must be allowed into the United States to pursue their cases. Potential asylum-seekers living in filthy, freezing camps across the border rejoiced and prepared to enter the U.S. Almost immediately, however, the court stayed its own ruling in order to give the government time to appeal and for the plaintiffs to respond, the New York Times reported. 

The administration’s policy that asylum-seekers could not request asylum if they came into the United States illegally was also thrown out–and not stayed–by the 9th Circuit Court. RLS

6. Department of Justice focuses on denaturalization

The Justice Department has established an office to pursue denaturalization of U.S. citizens, the New York Times reported, noting that “denaturalization case referrals to the department have increased 600 percent.” Denaturalization had ordinarily been used when citizens lied on their applications or turned out to be criminals. Some immigration attorneys–including some within the Justice Department who were quoted anonymously–fear that denaturalization will be used more broadly to revoke the status of legitimate immigrants. Small errors or omissions on applications could be regarded as fraud. The American Immigration Lawyers Association has a background piece on denaturalization, with relevant policy and information.

In Canada, too, naturalized citizens can have their citizenship revoked if their application was based on false representation, according to the government of Canada, or if they are convicted of treason or spying. In Canada, however, citizenship revocation is not being used as a weapon against immigration. RLS

7. Sanctuary states and cities lose a round in court

Last week we described the Trump administration’s vendetta against sanctuary cities and states, which have refused to cooperate with the apprehension of immigrants by the Customs and Border Patrol. The CBP has sent in elite tactical units to sanctuary cities and sued a number of states, several of which have sued in return.  New York City as well as the states of New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Washington, Massachusetts, Virginia and Rhode Island sued the administration when it decided in 2017 to withhold grants unless the city and states agreed to give immigration authorities access to jails and let them know when an undocumented person was released from jail, reported Al Jazeera, drawing on an AP story. Now the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals has overruled a lower court decision that said the Trump administration had to release funding. RLS

8. Oil and gas leases voided because of insufficient public input

A judge in Idaho has voided almost a million acres of oil and gas leases, saying that the way the Trump administration had limited public comment was “arbitrary and capricious,” according to the Washington Post. The Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity had brought the case to try to preserve habitat for the sage-grouse (among other species dependent on sage), whose population is declining precipitously. The Wilderness Society’s website explains what the original Bureau of Land Management actions were, and the Post cites many examples of how the administration has tried to shorten public comment periods or eliminate public comment entirely.  Chase Huntley from The Wilderness Society’s climate and energy program, told the Post that “A centerpiece of this effort has been the administration’s efforts to silence the public and local communities.” RLS

9. Communities in California would be buffered from oil drilling sites

California’s AB-345, “Setbacks from Oil Drilling: Health and Safety Zone,” would create a 2,500-foot protective distance between oil drilling sites and homes, schools, childcare facilities, healthcare facilities, and other sensitive locations. Oil and gas extraction pose severe environmental, health, and safety risks to nearby communities, which are disproportionately low-income communities and communities of color, according to the Daily Kos. This bill would ensure that oil drilling does not happen within such dangerous proximity to where people live. AB-345 has been passed by the California Assembly and is now with the California Senate. Public input hearings are being held. S-HP

Californians can ask their state senator to support AB-345 and can also submit a public comment. Addresses are here.

10. Fracking is good for the environment, says the DOE

A Department of Energy (DOE) proposal (“Expanding Natural Gas Export Authorizations to Non-Free Trade Agreement Countries through the Year 2050”) would extend liquified natural gas (LNG) export authorizations to 2050 for dozens of corporations. Most LNG is derived from fracking. The Department of Energy wants to extend export authorizations for another 30 years—and to allow those exports to be without volume limits. The main criterion is economic, a variation on the old theme of “what’s good for General Motors is good for America.” But in an interesting twist of logic, the DOE puts forth an argument that continued LNG sales are actually good for the environment, because if the countries importing the LNG were to use coal instead, their emissions would be worse. We know we cannot allow fracking and LNG sales to continue for the next 30 years: the most dire effects of climate change will happen in the next 10-12 years S-HP

You can send a comment to let the DOE know it needs to pursue energy sources that are truly environmentally friendly, rather than using regulatory smoke and mirrors to exchange one destructive policy with another.

11. 750,000 civilian DoD workers to lose collective bargaining rights

In a memorandum published on February 20 in the Federal Register, Donald Trump granted Secretary of Defense Mark Esper the power to strip collective bargaining rights from the 750,000 civilian employees of the Department of Defense (DoD). Many of these employees are currently represented by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest union representing federal employees. The memo also empowers Esper to delegate to other officials the right to strip collective bargaining (though they may not delegate it further). The justification for this move is a claim that “national security” requires “expedient and efficient decisionmaking” [sic] and that collective bargaining is “incompatible” with this requirement. S-HP

You can support DoD workers before Esper decides to exercise this new power, by calling for legislation to stop this attack on unionization. Find Esper’s address and those of your members of Congress here.

12. Proposal to collect social media activity from all foreign travelers

The Department of Homeland Security is accepting comments on a proposal “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” Under this proposal, the Department of Homeland Security would have “generic clearance” to collect five years’ worth of social media activity from all foreign travelers to the USA, whether they are entering via tourist visa, educational or work visa, as a refugee, or as an immigrant. It will also affect anyone applying for naturalization. A statement submitted by a group of forty-two civil rights organizations—including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the Brennan Center for justice at the NYU School of Law, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the International Rescue Committee, and PEN America—raises a number of serious objections to this proposal, including: its undermining of the First Amendment; its excessive invasion of privacy; the likely subsequent increase in monitoring of speech of those living in the U.S.; the inefficiency of past social media monitoring programs; the increased likelihood of ideological vetting based on stereotypes, particularly for Muslims.

It is also worth noting that the U.S. Office of Management and Budget defines as appropriate for “generic clearance” only information that can be provided in a manner that is “voluntary, low burden… and uncontroversial,” which is not the case with this proposal. Comments are being accepted through March 11. S-HP

You can speak out against this sweeping, invasive, and (most likely) discriminatory policy [note: mention Docket Number DHS-2019-0044 when commenting]. Instructions for commenting are here.

13. Financial exploitation of minors in prison

A Newsweek opinion piece by Jonna Matstropascua, a secondary teacher in an adult jail in Pima County, Arizona, and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project, draws attention to the high costs of being a young adult in prison—not for governments, but for the children themselves, who can be placed in adult facilities when charged as adults, even before they have been convicted of any crime. And standards for charging minors as adults vary significantly across the country. In the Pima County jail where Mastropascua works, young women go without undergarments because they aren’t part of the clothing issued by the jail and must be purchased by inmates at a cost of $3.25 per pair of underpants and $13.50 per bra. Even when young women can afford to pay for undergarments, it takes days for an order to be processed and additional time for the products to arrive and reach the purchaser. If family members want to place money in a minor’s commissary account, there’s a $4 fee per deposit. Single ramen packets cost $1.25 each, though six- or ten-packs are readily available in groceries at the same price. Minors pay fees of twenty cents a minute for phone calls and five cents a minute to use e-readers. Private commissary companies serving prisons have an estimated annual profit of $1.6 billion. California has passed legislation banning for-profit prisons and detention centers—the Republican administration is suing to have that law invalidated. S-HP

You might call for hearings on the financial exploitation of minors in U.S. prisons and jails with appropriate follow-up legislation. You can find the addresses for your elected representatives here.


14. Shootout in Haiti between the army and police

Last Sunday, Haiti’s National Police exchanged gunfire with the country’s army, Business Insider reported, which was disbanded in 1995 and reconstituted by President Jovenel Moïse in 2017. The violence was a reaction to the government refusing to increase police pay and firing five police officers negotiating to unionize the force. The police, trained by the U.N. and partially funded by the U.S. and Canada, are fighting a resurgence in gang activities including kidnappings, according to the Miami Herald. The US State Department has had the country under a level 3 travel advisory since last June. Protesters are demanding the resignation of Moïse, in part because of the unionization effort, notes the BBC, but also, as News You May Have Missed explained last year, because of Haiti’s economy and the ongoing PetroCaribe scandal. The president has responded by asking to give him more power in a new constitution, citing the closure of parliament and canceling of parliamentary elections; critics worry about dictatorship, the Financial Times suggests. The Miami Herald has an illuminating piece explaining how the army and the police ended up in a violent clash. JM


15. Not a drop to drink

Reporting by Time highlights the dire state of America’s drinking water. Examples include Alabama homes where sewage drains directly into backyards and can also flow back into homes out of sinks and showers; South Carolina water treatments to prevent rust in pipes that result in skin ailments; toxic sludge in Kentucky that has been poisoning water with arsenic and mercury for over two decades; and Navajo nation water across several states that is unsafe as a result of uranium mining. The Environmental Protection Agency itself acknowledges that 30 million Americans (that’s slightly less than 10% of the U.S. population) live in areas where water systems violate safety rules. Time quotes Alexis Temkin, a toxicologist at the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization, who says “Legal standards are often compromises between what the data shows in terms of toxicity and risk, and how much it’s going to cost,” suggesting that even water that does comply with government standards may not be completely safe. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s water a D rating and called for $25 billion of upgrades over the next twenty-five years. International law and U.N. conventions identify clean drinking water as a basic human right. S-HP

You can tell your Congressmembers that we need a nation-wide effort to fix this nation’s drinking water systems. Find their addresses here.

17. COVID-19: Where we stand

Readers may be excused for being confused about the facts regarding the novel corona virus that emerged out of northern China and spread into a health crisis in and around the city of Wuhan over the last two months. Even as this summary was being written, new data are being released as health officials across the globe scramble to attempt to contain and or mitigate this growing pandemic. Here is the most up-to-date summary of facts available. 

Currently there are 67 countries and territories reporting at least one infection, a total of over 88,000 infections to date and as I type this, 3000 reported deaths. The virus has displayed a transmission rate (also called the Ro) of somewhere between 2 and 3, which puts it on a exponential growth curve. With an Ro of 2 one can expect every actively infected person to pass the virus to 2 other people; in that scenario it is very easy to see how quickly things get serious. As a basis for comparison, the flu has an Ro of between 1 and 2 for most strains. The fatality rate for COVID-19 is more difficult to ascertain as it seems to depend greatly on the standard of care available. The low range estimate based on the example of South Korea which provides excellent universal healthcare and has responded quickly with effective containment measures is roughly .5%. That means for every 200 persons infected, one person will succumb.

In contrast, Iran has a very high reported fatality rate of over 5%, which would mean that out of every 20 persons one can be expected to die. The global average is around 2%, or one in every 50 persons. The average global fatality rate for the flu is .1%, or one in every 1000 persons. The numbers suggest that, conservatively, COVID-19 is around twice as infectious as the flu and five times more deadly. Complicating all of these numbers are data suggesting that many, possibly even a majority of infections may have no or very mild symptoms which would inflate fatality statistics, but also make the disease almost impossible to contain. Worldometers has a continually updated site, and the WHO has daily situation reports.

As concerning as the actual disease is, it is the impact on the economy and global supply chains that may prove to be the most disruptive result of the pandemic. Scientists can already observe significant air pollution reductions across China as their economy has ground to a halt as a result of movement restrictions and quarantines, similar to reductions briefly observed after 9/11. The US stock market has had its largest decline since the 2008 recession as news hit financial markets that the virus has spread outside of China. The supply of goods to the US has not yet been affected very much as shipped goods arriving now started out 30 days ago, but impacts related to shortages of goods may be expected to hit in mid-March, Harvard Business Review estimates. 

 There have been comparisons to the SARS outbreak in 2002, which caused both a measurable drop in Chinese productivity and a shock to global supply chains which cleared relatively quickly. The China of 2020 is very different than the China of 2002, though, as China has doubled its share of global trade and quadrupled the size of its economy. SARS also had a significant effect in Canada, with 44 deaths; since then, the country has advanced significantly both in its preparations for a viral outbreak and its ability to diagnose infections, Al Jazeera notes. Worldwide, SARS peaked with just over 8000 infections in 2003, with eight infections in the United States which caused no deaths; it cost the global economy 40 billion dollars. COVID-19 is already an order of magnitude worse than SARS, according to the CDC.

While numbers from China are sobering, the government is not known for its transparency and the veracity of the reported statistics is in question; however, as the virus has spread, we have other outbreak examples to use as models. The one possibly most relevant to the US is Italy. Italy is currently contending with the largest outbreak in Europe with 1694 infections, according to the government webpage. Italy has a modern, western style healthcare system with ample capacity and strong public health agencies; it went from two infections reported as of February 2 to 80 cases twenty days later; ten days after that it stands at 1694, with a quarantine in place for over 50,000 people. Italy is now expected to be in an economic recession for the next year, according to the BBC.  

To prepare, the CDC recommends that you have a supply of food staples and basic hygiene products in place as an emergency measure with at least 30 day supply of any prescription medications you may need as well as ample over-the-counter medications needed to treat a flu-like illness. The Red Cross suggests that you learn how to obtain up-to-date health information from your local health departments, observe stringent hand washing techniques, wipe daily contact surfaces like door knobs, light switches and toilets with disinfectant, avoid ill people and–if you are ill yourself–please stay home and self-quarantine. While the CDC recommends using N95 face masks if you are sick, the U.S. Surgeon General has asked people not to use masks to avoid getting sick–as they are needed for health care personnel. Finally, the most at-risk population for COVID-19 are people 60 years of age and over, the CDC points out, so have a plan to care for family members in this age range should they fall sick. JC


  • The Americas of Conscience Checklist offers ways to weigh in about housing discrimination, reducing the sentences of non-violent prisoners in federal facilities for 10 years or more, voter suppression of Native Americans–and more.
  • Sarah-Hope’s list has some action items for issues we addressed last week, including the “Remain in Mexico” policy, the use of therapy notes in deportation proceedings, and the catastrophe in Syria.
  • On Mondays, Rogan’s list provides a listing of proposed rule and regulation changes that are currently accepting public comment. As Martha explains (see below), “Our comments also become part of a record that will be reviewed by courts if and when a regulation change is contested. Courts use comments to judge whether an agency is acting arbitrarily and capriciously. “
  • Martha’s list will tell you how to speak up for the Clean Water Act, address the destruction of records in the National Archives, object to Trump’s proposal to exempt Federal agencies from having to take climate change into account in their planning, and much more.