This week, COVID returns to the forefront of this week’s Extra! Extra! as we look at the outbreak in India and the threats posed by variants across the globe. We look at the one thing that’s proving stronger than COVID: capitalism and how that’s impacting our recovery. The team also examines new developments on the immigration and criminal justice fronts and ponder what it means to hear the president tell transgender Americans he’s got their backs.
The Pandemic Ravages On
Natalie: Last weekend, our governor lifted the outdoor mask mandate and so when I ventured out to my nephews’ soccer games, many of the spectators were watching without a mask. I still wore mine, despite the fact that I’m vaccinated. And while some articles try to suggest that continuing to wear masks, despite the CDC’s evolving recommendations, is its own brand of lunacy — the peak of the “both sides” journalism we’ve come to expect — the truth is: there’s so much we still don’t know.
We don’t know what those variants will bring or how effective the vaccine will be against them.
But what we do know is that there’s a subsection of this country who still don’t believe COVID is a thing or that masks protect others or that the vaccine is safe. We do know that children now make up 22% of new COVID cases and that they can’t be vaccinated yet.
Wearing a mask and remaining vigilant about the ongoing threat to public health feels like the absolute least I can do.
Natalie: When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke at the World Economic Forum back in January, I had flashbacks to May 2003 when George W. Bush landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and stood before a banner that read “Mission Accomplished.” Driven by narcissism and a need to diminish critics, an egotistical leader claimed victory for a game that had barely begun…and it was a prelude to more death and more destruction. Sadly, the same has come to pass in India… and it’s far more calamitous.
But all these pieces get at what the pandemic has exposed all around the world: for far too long, we have built systems that were built to do the absolute minimum. With an investment of just over 1% of their gross domestic product in public health, people in India were already dying because of inadequate care… the pandemic just exposed the chronic underfunding for the world to see.
If you want to help address the situation in India, here are 12 places where you can donate.
Rachel: It’s heartbreaking and infuriating to see absolute disregard and indifference to human life the institutions of power are displaying toward the people of India, and the loss that’s resulting. It’s also infuriating because it’s the product of the exact same belief system that some people are disposable that we saw here in the US in its own way; I’m hopeful that the people who were abandoned in the same respect here, like frontline workers, families with young children and service industry workers will recognize this and be able to organize some degree of international solidarity and support with the subcontinent, and that xenophobia and sinophobia won’t lead us to reproduce the same deadly attitude our world governments have.
Himani: Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of that article by Arundhati Roy is when she mentions doing daily roll call over the phone with her friends to keep track of who’s alive. As this situation has gone from bad to worse to horrific to unfathomable, I increasingly wonder how many of the people I know and have met in India will still be alive at the end of this. Parts of my family over there seem to have skated by (not everyone, though), but I wonder about all the domestic staff, the drivers, the house keepers, the nannies — the seemingly invisible people that I took a closer and closer look at each visit back. What of them?
I think about what Rachel has written above, “the people who were abandoned in the same respect here, like frontline workers, families with young children and service industry workers.” But in India, these people were abandoned long before anyone even knew COVID existed. It’s hard for me, in these moments, to not think bitterly of all the shameful scenes I’ve witnessed in my life, of watching people treated as if they were truly expendable, disposable really. That happens in the U.S. too, without a doubt, but sometimes it feels like the scale, the ruthlessness and the acceptance that inequity of that extent is on a whole other level in India. Vidya Krishnan draws a parallel between upper caste and wealthy Indians’ indifference to the pandemic to the Bhopal gas leak disaster in 1984. But the same exact parallel can be made with the water and air quality crises.
The other thing that feels inescapable in this news is how close the U.S. came to this type of disaster. In October, the White House issued a press release stating that “ending the COVID-19 pandemic” was among Trump’s accomplishments. Conspicuously issued a week before the 2020 presidential election, this moment definitely felt like a callback to Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” that Natalie referenced and foreshadowed Modi’s gloating in January, which was also politically motivated because of the at-the-time upcoming and now recently passed state elections in West Bengal. Had Trump won a second term last November, I really don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the U.S. would have found itself in a crisis of similar magnitude as India. (And that’s not even getting to the fact that deaths as a result of the pandemic are massively under-reported. A new study released just this week estimates that 900,000 people have died as a result of COVID in the U.S.)
Natalie: After seeing the initial wave of COVID spread across the globe, it seems inevitable that what’s happening in India will spill across its borders to other countries…even if we enact well-intentioned travel bans. A global question requires a global answer and I hope that we’re able to unite and provide one.
Natalie: We talked about this in our last edition of EE and the administration is finally stepping up and doing what’s needed. I am a little bothered by the language around allyship and the United States giving help to India as returning a favor. That’s less about this particular situation and more thinking ahead to what could be around the bend for the world: does Nepal deserve our help less because they didn’t send ventilators to the United States when we needed them?
Natalie: This feels like the obvious choice, right? Waiving international patent protections seems like such an obvious solution to getting the vaccine out to the most people. We’ve seen the cost of not waiving patent protections before: “rigid adherence to patent laws directly led to millions of lives lost to HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s.” And yet, here we are again, fighting that same battle. I’m glad that Biden is on the right side of this issue.
On the other side? Capitalism. Per Bloomberg’s reporting, “Without the incentive of profits from research and development spending, drugmakers might not move as aggressively to make vaccines in the future.”
Himani: This has been an ongoing issue. In fact back in December, we talked about how the effort to loosen IP restrictions had been already been underway for months at that point. In many ways, this long standing unwillingness on the part of the Western, wealthy world to relax patent enforcement is responsible for the crisis in India. India has one of the largest manufacturing capacities for producing vaccines, but doesn’t have the relationships with Pfizer or Moderna to produce either of those vaccines.
Himani: I found this article to be a really interesting and informative read. There’s so much to think about here. First, how a low-income country like Senegal managed to protect its people from a virus that brought far wealthier countries to their knees. Second, the critical role of community advocates and buy-in to actually get people to follow the public health policies and recommendations from the government. And third, how the longer this stretches on, the harder and harder it is for people to adhere to any of it — which, of course, comes at the cost of human life.
Natalie: This is my shocked face.
Himani: And yet we are reopening. What little safety net there is, is being gutted for the sake of capitalism. Employers are forcing people who have proven they can do their jobs remotely back to work. People are talking about their hot summer plans.
In light of all of this news about the pandemic, I struggle to differentiate between a measured risk and flippant disregard for other people’s lives. The truth is, I’m not sure that anyone has a good answer on that. As Natalie said earlier, there’s a lot we don’t know. But there’s also a lot we do know that we don’t want to accept because we’re all tired, lonely and — inarguably — we have all paid the price in our mental health after more than a year of social distancing.
For all the time I’ve spent in my life thinking about probability and risk assessment, there’s one thing I always come back to. No amount of advanced math will ever tell your future. At some point, it comes down to making our best guess. But again and again, in this pandemic, I feel like the approach has been willful ignorance of the inconvenient truths we do know and using the charade of statistics to justify our selfish decisions. And so, here we are. Herd immunity is unlikely in the U.S. Like Natalie, I’m not surprised. I do wonder, though, how long it will be before the U.S. gets a double, triple, ultra deadly variant like what has spread in Brazil or in India?
In a meeting about coming back to working in person in the fall, a colleague of mine asked why we still have to wear masks in our offices if we’re fully vaccinated before declaring, “We have to learn to live with this thing!”
She’s not wrong. We have to learn to live with this thing. We certainly have to do a better job of living with this thing than we have over the last year and a half. But, as I’ve said before and as I’m sure I’ll say again, I’m really not sure we’re actually learning anything.
Natalie: I agree with activists that actions matter…and we need for the Biden administration to speak through their actions. The Department of Justice needs to sue each and every state that’s advancing these bigoted bills. They need to immediately establish a task force to address the scourge of anti-trans violence that’s taken two black trans women away from us this week.
That said, I think words matter too. Hearing the President say unequivocally from the well of the United States House that he has the backs of transgender Americans is a big deal…and I just don’t mean for transgender folks (who I wouldn’t presume to speak for), but to Sue Collins who has been wavering on her previous support for the Equality Act (mostly because she’s still in her feelings about the Human Rights Campaign endorsing her opponent in her re-election campaign in 2020). Collins has been parroting some of the far right’s talking points on the bill which she previously sponsored and this was the president calling her on her bullshit.
Himani: I really appreciated the context this interview with journalist Melissa Gira Grant provides on the Manhattan DA’s decision to stop prosecuting sex work as a crime. As Grant argues, there’s so much more that needs to happen to ensure sex workers are treated humanely and with dignity.
Criminal Justice News
Rachel: Reading this made me feel so ill – it’s such a damning case study of the function of mass incarceration as anti-Black violence (and reproductive violence in its targeting of children and separation of families), and also just so incredibly cruel to children. Although there are “fewer children were incarcerated than at any point since at least the 1980s” because of releases of juveniles due to COVID risk, the overwhelming majority of the youths released were white, meaning that “many youth facilities are increasingly holding almost entirely Black and Latino teens” – the unsaid portion there being ‘left to die from COVID exposure,’ on top of the trauma and violence of incarceration.
…while the number of White youths has remained historically low, the number of Black and Latino youths has risen slightly, said Tom Woods, a senior associate and juvenile justice data analyst for the Casey Foundation. The racial gap in detention is worsening even though teens, including those of color, were arrested less often in 2020, data shows.
Natalie: This is absolutely nuts… and I can’t imagine it would apply to me if I tried to run over anti-vaccine/anti-mask protesters who rallied at the state legislature in North Carolina this week, despite the fact that these people represent an actual threat (not an imagined one) to my safety and well-being. I can’t qwhite put my finger on why, though?
Natalie: I’ve been thinking, since the Derek Chauvin case concluded, about the eyewitnesses and what they’re going through… especially Darnella Frazier. I’m worried for their mental health and I’m worried about their safety. I thought about Ramsey Orta, who shot the video of the murder of Eric Garner, and how the police tormented him for revealing the truth of what they’d done. So, I suppose it’s not surprising that the same people who would harass eyewitnesses would also terrorize the families of those they killed, but still… my gosh, is there no bottom for these folks?
On the Safety Net
Natalie: Through this pandemic, we have forced “essential” employees to go to work with mediocre protection, low pay and ineffectual health care when/if they did get sick. And now, after being shown that their workplace won’t protect them, those workers want to go elsewhere…and their government deigns to step in and tell those workers that they won’t be provided for as they seek new employment? This is absurd.
Natalie: Since this piece went up, the staff of the Washingtonian has gone on strike and the CEO has apologized. Still, though, it’s gives an insight into the thinking of business leaders…and feels particularly pertinent in this moment.
Rachel: File this one under ‘issues we’ve needed to address for a long time, but were overlooked by many until the pandemic made them legible in a different way.’ I feel a certain personal concern for this as someone with (limited!) previous teaching experience – I taught entry-level college courses to pay my way through grad school at a state school with a unique program where all local high school students had their college tuition covered, and frankly, I should not have been teaching! I’m a smart and capable person who cares about my job and kids, and also had no specialized training, no competency around the evidence-based ways to respond to their lived experiences as far as caring for family, full-time jobs, or struggles with health and wellness; I was give a two-week crash orientation and told to take one semester of pedagogy at the same time as I was teaching. Ever since then I’ve been horrified by the weird double standard we often have around education in the US; it’s supposed to be a major priority, we want to believe the US has the gold standard of the whole world, people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on special private school educations – but we often don’t think as much about what makes a good teacher as we do about test scores or ‘outcomes,’ we don’t really have standardized evidence-based expectations around what kind of training or experience teachers should have, and we tend not to question what the impact is of running educational spaces with the infrastructure of a business.
This article does a good job unpacking the specific and layered ways in which these issues harm Black and Latino students by disproportionately saddling them with teachers like I was, inexperienced and uncredentialed, simply not equipped regardless of their best intentions to give students the experience they deserve. “…by channeling a proportionally larger share of less qualified or alternatively credentialed teachers to schools with higher percentages of Black, Latino and disabled students. Black and Latino students are more likely than their white peers to be taught by teachers in training who are in alternative teacher preparation programs. These alternative route programs differ from traditional teacher preparation programs in at least one significant way: Most alternative route teacher interns become teachers of record prior to completing any teacher training… This trend of placing untrained and uncertified individuals as teachers of record in schools serving the urban poor and disabled students is accelerating during the pandemic as states utilize more back door routes into classrooms through emergency certificates — in some states, these are granted to individuals with only a high school diploma.”
Although I do think there’s room to examine somewhat the conflation of advanced degrees with teacher quality, it’s undeniable this is hugely harmful – I’m hopeful that at least some people have gained a new understanding of how incredibly challenging and high-skill teaching is, and maybe think differently about how we all want our educational spaces to look, and especially how we prioritize education for Black & brown kids – no matter how many times you’ve seen Freedom Writers, it isn’t enough to give kids of color classrooms that run entirely on intentions and ~vibes~.
Natalie: This is why things will never get better: white people will always fight harder for the right to be racist than the fight to protect black lives.
(And lest you think this is an issue only in the South, perhaps revisit Nikole Hannah-Jones’ seminal piece, Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City.)
Developments on the Immigration Front
Natalie: The immigration system that was handed to this administration by the last one is akin to someone saying they’re giving you a car but only ultimately giving you the body. No engine, no tires…nothing to actually make the car operational…but still a car, nonetheless. I understand that that’s what they were given and getting everything working in proper order will take time. I’m sympathetic to that argument.
But we have to move faster. These families have been separated for far too long and anything short of reunification, restitution and permanent status in this country is a failure.
Trump Might Be Gone But Trumpism Remains
Natalie: This is infuriating and should anger all of us…and, of course, it was the Trump administration that eliminated the possibility that Gallagher would escape any possible punishment for his crimes and elevated him as a hero.
Natalie: Seeing self-proclaimed liberals elevate Liz Cheney this week as some paragon of virtue has been a sight to behold. I’m grateful to Adam Serwer for setting the record straight on her culpability (and her family’s culpability) in getting us to this moment.
Natalie: What a shit show.
Natalie: The Post has always been trash so I have a hard time mustering up sympathy for a writer that’s contributed to that garbage heap since the 90s. But the more important lesson from this is to remain viligant against the disinformation campaigns that Trump and his allies continue to perpetuate.
Natalie: If COVID doesn’t kill us all, capitalism definitely will.
Himani: Every time I read about this crisis in Ethiopia I’m left floored and speechless. To say the very least, this is a tragedy of catastrophic proportions.