News You May Have Missed: March 22, 2020

We know that fast-breaking news about the coronavirus and everything surrounding it can be paralyzing, so we have sorted through and summarized the most pressing issues with lots of possibilities for action, even if you are sequestered at home.

Keep reading Heather Cox Richardson, even if you don’t want to be saturated with news. Her March 21 column talks about the story Politico broke about Department of Justice proposal to impose emergency measures that would gut civil liberties. It is telling that the Trump administration is willing to impose these kinds of draconian measures but won’t order manufacturers to produce medical equipment.

Worldwide COVID-19 is being tracked by Our World in Data, which is relying on information from the European CDC. See also the devastating real-time site designed by a Washington State high school student that shows the increases in cases of COVID-19, percent increases and fatalities. Balance this with the map below, which shows (in orange) the counties without ICU beds and in light grey, the counties without hospitals.

From Kaiser Health News.


1. What they knew and when they knew it

The chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, warned a small group of wealthy constituents on February 27 that the coronavirus was much more serious than the U.S. government was letting on, describing it as “akin to the 1918 pandemic,” according to recordings obtained by NPR. All those in attendance had contributed $100,000 or more to his campaign in 2015 and 2016. He did not convey this warning to his constituents at large. On February 7, Burr had assured them that the U.S. was well-prepared to deal with the coronavirus, but on February 13, he sold between $628,000 and $1.72 million in stocks, particular shares in hospitality companies whose value has dropped by half in recent weeks, according to ProPublica. In 2012, Burr was one of only two senators to vote against the The Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, or the STOCK Act, which was designed to prevent insider trading by members of Congress or their aides, Politico reported at the time.

After the news about Burr dumping stocks, it came to light that four other senators sold large parcels of stocks, among them Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), according to the Daily Beast. Senator Loeffler’s husband is Jeffrey Sprecher, the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange; she began selling stocks on January 24, the same day as she attended a briefing by health officials to the Senate Health Committee, on which she sits, and also acquired stock in a tele-working company. In an opinion piece, the New York Times says that although Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) attended the same briefing and also sold his stock, according to Raw Story, he had been systematically selling it since he became chair of the Armed Services Committee. Similar, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) sold his stock, but after the stock market had begun falling. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) sold stock as well, but she had not attended the briefing and indeed, she lost money on the deals as some of the stocks she sold were in biotech, which has gained in value. Bloomberg has a graph of how the stocks the others sold tanked. The Times piece asks where we would be now if those senators who had attended the January 24 briefing had broken ranks and told the country how serious the coronavirus was, instead of preserving their own financial interests. RLS

2. We could have been prepared

A scenario about a pandemic played out January-August of last year, one that sounds eerily familiar. The scenario, however, was a rehearsal, one which uncovered how disastrously unprepared the U.S. was for such a disaster, the New York Times explains. (The Times also explains how the Obama administration had assessed the nation’s readiness in light of Ebola, and how that administration ran an exercise on responding to a pandemic for incoming senior officials in the Trump administration in January of 2017.) But it wasn’t all scenarios and models: The Washington Post reported on Friday that intelligence officials and the CDC had been trying to get Trump to take the coronavirus seriously since mid-January, becoming increasingly frantic.

After the scenario last year, a truly alarming document was circulated but not released in October, sketching the chaos and miscommunication that would ensue. Now, it reads like history. RLS

3. Easing the impact of the coronavirus on students, others

The financial vulnerabilities of many Americans are becoming painfully clear as the coronavirus pandemic progresses. Among those affected are students at colleges and universities and those living in federal housing or purchasing homes through federal loan programs. Some members of Congress have been calling on federal departments and agencies to fast-track programs to protect these groups. A bipartisan group of 72 Congressmembers have requested that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos take all possible steps to identify the costs students are incurring as a result of college and university closures and to “identify how students may be reimbursed for any educational expenditures related to the coronavirus.” These expenditures include debt accruing on student loans; the costs of travel home when dormitories are closed; reimbursement of monies paid for on-campus housing, if that is closed; and the costs related to cancelled study abroad programs.

However, the New York Times says that what looks like a waiver of student loan payments is not; it only means that payments are applied to the principal.

A group of 106 Congressmembers is calling for an immediate moratorium on foreclosures and evictions from properties owned, insured, or overseen by the following federal agencies and programs: Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Housing Administration, the Veterans’ Administration, and the Department of Agriculture. Sixty-three percent of all mortgages originating in the U.S. are affiliated with one of these agencies or programs. S-HP

Join in asking DeVos to begin immediate work to protect students from coronavirus-related expenses. You can also ask administration leadership to immediately end foreclosures and evictions. Addresses are here.

4. Social Security continued to hold disability hearings, some immigration hearings go forward

Many courts around the U.S. have shut down amid coronavirus pandemic, but some have done so only recently and others continue to operate. The Social Security Administration continued to hold disability hearings through March 20, a particularly troubling choice given the physical vulnerability of many disability recipients, though they have now suspended them, Vox points out. Immigration hearings for those not in detention have been suspended, but hearings are still being held for those in detention, despite a March 15 letter calling for immediate suspension of all hearings issued by the National Association of Immigration Judges; the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 511, which represents Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Employees; and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, WBUR explains.

Of course, cancelling hearings while continuing to hold asylum-seekers in detention or forcing them to remain in Mexico as a result of the Migrant “Protection” Protocols leave these individuals vulnerable. See the Times story on how those in the camps in Mexico are trying to manage. Multiple organizations, from local to national, have been calling for the release of immigration detainees to prevent the spread of coronavirus in detention facilities, which are notoriously crowded and under-provisioned. The former Acting Director of ICE advocates for their release in the Atlantic on Sunday. S-HP

You can join calls for an end to in-person hearing for detainees in immigration custody and for the release of these individuals until the pandemic is over. Addresses are here.

You can also contribute to El Otro Lado’s fund for assisting the 65,000 asylum-seekers forced to wait in camps on “the other side,” just over the border.

5. Whistleblower doctors call for detainees to be released; some prisons releasing inmates

Some U.S. jails and prisons are releasing prisoners early, according to the BBC. Prisoners are at risk for COVID-19, because not only are they in close quarters, but if they are handcuffed, they cannot cover their sneezes or coughs, and hand sanitizer is prohibited because of its alcohol content.

Whistleblower doctors from the Department of Homeland Security have sent a letter to Congress, calling the immigrant detention centers that house some 40,000 people “tinderboxes” for the coronavirus, according to CNN. Rather than release asylum-seekers, the government is curtailing visits from family members and advocates. ICE is seeking funding to deport more asylum-seekers and to release others with ankle bracelets. In an article Friday, Mother Jones quotes a detained Cuban doctor on the conditions in detention centers; she said that even soap for handwashing has to be purchased from the commissary, as not enough is supplied. Immigration attorneys argue that ICE could release detainees if it chose to.  The immigrants’ rights organization Raices sent CNN statements from asylum-seekers near San Antonio, among them one who wrote, “”This thing is very sensitive, and sickness spreads fast in Karnes. We will all die in here. If it comes here, we are doomed. Lack of medical care will kill us.” RLS

The ACLU has called for the release of prisoners who are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. Here is their petition. Color of Change and others are circulating a petition under the URL Humane Outbreak Response.
Immigrant rights organizations, such as
El Refugio, are raising funds so that asylum-seekers can call their families. Raices is asking people to sign a petition to release all vulnerable inmates

6. Effect of border shutdowns on migrant workers, ourselves

Every year, 250,000 workers come in to the U.S. to grow and pack our food. Now, the State Department has frozen the H-24 visas on which many of them come, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel. The impact on the food supply will be profound if these workers are not permitted to come into the country, according to a bipartisan group of 42 legislators, led by Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D), who represents California’s Central Coast.

In contrast, in Canada, agricultural workers will be granted exemptions from the otherwise closed border, though they will have to self-quarantine for 14 days after they come in and though this new policy will require some delicate negotiations with the U.S., through which they ordinarily must pass in order to arrive in Canada, according to the St. Catharine’s Standard. This policy seems to be at odds with the merciless decision to turn away refugees at the border, which Trudeau announced on Friday, the CBC reported. RLS

7. Mask shortages endanger medical workers

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to expand, medical personnel across the country are facing dangerous (and embarrassing) shortages of basic medical supplies. The Washington Post reports that healthcare workers are having to improvise safety gear, using bandanas in place of face masks, and sports goggles in place of eye shields. There are also individual reports of medical workers improvising protective gear from craft supplies, Bloomberg reports, and using face masks for a week at a time, spraying them with bleach at the end of each work day in an effort to limit transmission. The Atlantic reported on the shortage of masks on January 30. Campaigns are underway seeking donations of basic supplies from private citizens. Other campaigns have seamstresses sewing face masks at home for distribution to health-care sites, though the efficacy of these is not known. S-HP

Where did all the masks go? China produces about half the world’s masks, according to the New York Times, and with the outbreak there, they have not been shipping masks out; indeed, producers elsewhere sent masks to them. The massive fires in Australia and California used up a large supply of masks (the N95 masks are effective against both smoke and viruses). And panic buying means that individuals are holding masks that could have gone to health care providers–though others, including tattoo artists who can’t work–are donating theirs. RLS

Doctors of our acquaintance are recommending that you tweet @realDonaldTrump and call your congressional representatives. Use the hashtag #GetUsPPE when you tweet, and follow the thread to see the scope of the problem.

If you want to speak up about the supply failures that have our healthcare workers using improvised safety gear and demand an immediate increase in funding for and production of these supplies, here is appropriate contact information, as well as links for mask-making.

8. Ramping up ventilator production–better late than never

The U.S. has the capacity to produce respirators and similar equipment at a rate much faster than it is currently doing. Although Trump has invoked the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows him to order the ramping up of industry to manufacture ventilators and other necessary medical equipment, he has not actually directed companies to produce medical equipment, says the New York Times. All this could have begun much sooner if the administration hadn’t wasted two months or more minimizing the risk of the coronavirus rather than developing responses to it. According to an article in Forbes Magazine, industry could easily produce five times the number of ventilators that are currently produced. S-HP

You can call for immediate action to assure that the maximum number of ventilators and supplies will be produced as quickly as possible. Contact information is here.

9. Virginia moves to keep insulin and epipens affordable

We’ve all read stories about people facing financial challenges whose health has been threatened by or who have died as a result of attempting to ration their insulin use as the prices for insulin skyrocket. In a move that should be an inspiration to every state, the Virginia General Assembly has passed legislation that would cap the cost of insulin for patients to $50 a month, the Virginia Mercury reports. Now that many face decreased employment or unemployment due to the coronavirus pandemic, paying for medications like insulin has become even more challenging. This is true for other life-saving medications like EpiPens. S-HP

You can ask your state legislators to take action now to cap the prices of insulin, EpiPens, and similar medications. Find Your State Legislators Here.

10. Protect the 2020 election

At the moment, we have both a national emergency and a rapidly approaching election. One of the concerns raised as a result is how to guarantee the right of Americans to vote in the November Presidential election, should limits on public assembly and shelter-in-place orders remain in effect at that time. A solution to this problem is already sitting with Congress. The Vote by Mail Act (S.26 in the Senate; H.R.92 in the House) would guarantee the right of every American to receive a vote-by-mail ballot. The House also has a second, similar piece of legislation, H.R.138, the Universal Right to Vote by Mail Act. S.26 is with the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. H.R.92 is with two House committees: Administration and Oversight and Reform. H.R.138 is with the House Administration Committee. S-HP

You can urge support for H.R.92, H.R.138 and S.26 to protect our elections at this challenging time . Addresses are here.

11. What if he didn’t know?

We’re familiar by now with the Trumpian strategy in which he claims he did not say things that he did say, how he distorts truth in the way made famous by 1984. Recently, of course, he said, “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic”; in response, the New York Times carefully lists what he has actually said over the last two months. He also said that he did not know who had dismantled the pandemic response team or even that it had been disbanded (this was in the same news conference when he said his famous–though unfortunately not last–words: “I don’t take responsibility at all.” The Intercept now is asking the question: What if in fact he did not know? Most of us have assumed that he is lying, as he does. It is even scarier to think that really, he knows very little about what is going on in his own administration, and given the revolving door, decisions of grave importance are being made by his favorite of the moment–in the case of the pandemic response team, John Bolton. RLS


12. Trump’s deadly sanctions against Iran, Venezuela, Cuba

After Trump intensified the sanctions against Iran last week, a group of economists called on him to lift the sanctions, which by making basic goods unavailable are hampering people in these countries from protecting themselves against the coronavirus, Common Dreams reported. At least 1,100 people have died in Iran from the coronavirus, and Venezuela is on lockdown as cases have emerged. Cuba has one case so far. For Iran, the sanctions have not only been devastating but have put neighboring countries at risk. As Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), explained, “there is no doubt that Iran’s capacity to respond to the novel coronavirus has been hampered by the Trump administration’s economic sanctions, and the death toll is likely much higher than it would have been as a result.” RLS


13. Alternative data points might show a clearer picture than official numbers for COVID-19

An Australian academic specializing in data analysis noticed internet speeds in Malaysia plunged by over five percent over the course of the day between March 12 and March 13. The conjecture? That despite only recording 129 confirmed cases of COVID-19, Malaysia was in the middle of an epidemic crises. This is because when people decide to self isolate, call in sick or are sent home, they naturally do what everybody does; they turn on Netflix, check social media or play online games, Wired notes. This surge in demand degrades internet speeds and is almost immediately measurable. In Malaysia’s case, the public was becoming aware of their government’s poor handling of the outbreak due to a massive exposure at a public religious event that was mishandled.

Similar analysis of China’s internet traffic indicates that its return to normalcy is lagging behind the public face China is presenting. For instance, there is solid conjecture that factories that have been restarted are running for show, to prop up electrical demand which causes a return to the usual sorts of pollution levels China normally experiences. The internet traffic says something else, though; if the factories that are running are not fully staffed, employees are at home on the net. This is not to say there’s not a rebound. NO2 levels from cars are rebounding and those *are* indicative of a return to normal travel patterns with an estimate that China is at approximately 2/3 of where they were the same time last year. JC

14. Truckers adapt to fill vast supply chain needs during pandemic crisis

As grocery store shelves empty and medical facilities run low on the necessary protective equipment they need to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s truckers are stepping up to help fill those gaps. Spot prices for last minute truck deliveries have risen over six percent in the last week, diesel sales have also modestly increased, pointing to an industry that is expanding productivity while much of the rest of the nation’s economy languishes. In order to help truckers meet the need to supply essential manufacturing with raw materials, deliver food and hygiene products and get medical supplies where they’re needed, the federal government has suspended some safety regulations that require periodic rests; they have also made exceptions for truck stops to remain open as truckers depend on their facilities to meet basic needs. That being said, workout and entertainment facilities at truck stops remain closed and drivers are being cautioned to maintain social distancing from each other and thoroughly wash and clean, Ars Technica reports. JC


  • The Americas of Conscience Checklist has clear, easy actions you can take on all sorts of issues relating to social justice.
  • If you write post-cards (or the electronic equivalent), Sarah-Hope’s action items are above–or you can work through her whole list.
  • Martha’s list this week has a site for commenting on the story we featured last week, the EPA’s misnamed “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” which would essentiallu permit decisions to be made without taking into account scientific data. A couple of weeks ago we wrote about rules permitting the “accidental” killing of migratory birds; now there is a proposal for hunting them. See also the federal anti-union bill for federal workers.
  • Rogan’s list this week has lots of news and many action items on the coronavirus this week, including a call for volunteers to 3-D print ventilator parts.
  • Ars Technica is updating its comprehensive coronavirus site every day at 3 PM.