This week’s Extra! Extra! takes a look at a variety of human rights and governance issues which have existed for a long time. Some of these problems are being exacerbated by or taking on new dimensions because of the pandemic. Others are flying under the radar as the COVID-19 crisis has drawn our collective attention.
What It Means to Vote in 2020
Natalie: Since losing the governorship in 2018, Wisconsin Republicans have been on a tear, wrestling power away from the newly elected governor and protecting their gerrymandered majority. Their power grab was startling and craven but their actions over the last few weeks take it to a whole other level. It’s voter suppression on steroids — a city that once played host to 180 voting sites, now reduced to five, for example — and it’s a dystopian glimpse into our future if Congress doesn’t move to secure the November election soon.
Democrats in Congress cannot allow another coronavirus response bill to pass without investing in a plan to protect our democracy. I’m partial to Elizabeth Warren’s plan which, among other things, includes a cash infusion into USPS to stabilize the agency and allow it to handle an influx of mail-in ballots.
Himani: Republican lawmakers, including those on the Supreme Court – because they are very obviously not nonpartisan – have been disenfranchising voters for many years now. One of the most critical moments, in my opinion, was when the Roberts Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. All of the alarm over what will happen to our elections this year in the midst of the pandemic is certainly warranted, and we desperately need a solution, as Natalie mentioned above. But this crisis of democracy has been long in the making.
Himani: In many ways, South Korea is offering a model for how to hold elections during a pandemic. The country is moving forward with National Assembly elections on Wednesday, and (unlike in Wisconsin) it seems many people in the country will be able to vote safely. That being said, the ability to vote is not going to be equal for all South Koreans because many overseas polling centers have been closed, which affects the franchise of South Koreans living abroad.
Part of this has to do with the fact that South Korea has simply done a much better job than the US at managing the spread of COVID-19. I don’t know enough about South Korean politics to know if voter suppression is as substantial a problem in South Korea as it is in the US.
Privacy and Criminal Justice Issues
Rachel: I was in middle school during 9/11, and so old enough to remember the sharp divisions in what was considered acceptable levels of surveillance both privately and legislatively before and after — from the Patriot Act to invasive TSA screenings, a large part of what changed permanently was the level of access we allowed (or were forced to allow) the government into our lives. (It’s worth noting that the “we” here is not a universal one – it’s not an exaggeration to say that the levels of surveillance the American public as a whole was subjected to post-9/11 was comparable to the level of surveillance Muslim and immigrant communities were subject to prior; the effect of increased state surveillance meant that the ‘general population’ was suddenly having an experience like the ‘other’ always was.) Given the news we’re already seeing about involving the carceral state in surveilling citizens affected by the pandemic, and the trends we’ve seen prior to this crisis in more advanced surveillance strategies — from digital surveillance like SESTA/FOSTA to products like 23andMe making biodata accessible to corporations and the state — well, it isn’t great! I am concerned that this pandemic will just hasten the advancement of a sort of biopolitical panopticon we were already starting to see develop.
Rachel: It’s heartbreaking but unfortunately not surprising that while the pandemic is putting non-incarcerated people in a position where they have to experience a fraction of the loss of freedom incarcerated people do, it does not seem to have catalyzed increased empathy or mobilization around those concerns! The most extreme version of this, of course, is Ellen’s extremely tasteless prison joke – but even outside of that, the fact is that while we’re openly acknowledging the toll it’s taking on all of us to not have freedom of movement, be separated from our loved ones indefinitely, and have to live in constant anxiety about our health and future, there doesn’t seem to be a deep understanding of the fact that incarcerated people have been facing all those concerns for years to a degree no one outside prisons can imagine, and right now they largely don’t have access to even soap, let alone healthcare or the ability to socially distance. The death toll and degree of trauma for survivors in prisons right now are going to be truly indescribable — if you haven’t had a chance previously to really look into the US system of mass incarceration or how you can help individuals inside, now is a great time to do so! One place to start is FreeThemAll4PublicHealth.
Freedom of Speech
Himani: I’m finding it harder and harder to focus on the things that were already happening before COVID-19 threw the world into further turmoil, but these articles are sobering reminders of that.
Himani: Despite peace talks and a ceasefire last year, an armed conflict has been raging in Western Ethiopia between government forces and the Oromo Liberation Army for months now. Hundreds of civilians have been killed or displaced by government forces and, between January and March of this year the government instituted a communications blackout, shutting down phone and internet connections. This is not the first time the Ethiopian government has clamped down freedom of speech with the excuse that the measures are necessary to quell violence. And, indeed, the Ethiopian government is not alone in taking such measures.
Himani: Over in the US, Trump continues to go after anyone he doesn’t deem loyal to him. Last Friday, while we were all distracted by the pandemic, he fired the inspector general, Michael Atkinson, who brought the whistleblower complaint that resulted in Trump’s impeachment to Congress’s attention in the first place.
Himani: And in Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar, governments that already had questionable records on free speech are using COVID-19 as an excuse to impose even more restrictions, particularly on the press.
Himani: When I think of labor rights, my focus is typically on discussions of wages and working conditions. All of those problems continue to exist in this pandemic. Amazon has had a long history of exploiting workers and, in one way or another, removing so-called “agitators.” That exploitation continues under the increasingly dangerous conditions of this pandemic. But unionized workers are also leveraging collective action to force their employers to assist in saving lives during the pandemic. Workers at GE are protesting to encourage the company to shift more resources towards building ventilators.
In addition to these ongoing struggles with private corporations, medical professionals are protesting around the world over lack of personal protective equipment. In Pakistan, this has turned into police violence being directed towards doctors who participated in a sit-in to protest their working conditions.
Rachel: Reading this made me cry! Workers are organizing for their right to save the lives of others! I’m sorry I can’t be more articulate about it, this was the story that emotionally destroyed me this week.
Natalie: I am struck both by the compassion of the workers and capitalism’s unending desire to crush it, at all costs.
Rise in Domestic Violence
Natalie: Two things on this: first, this is great and I sincerely wish that nations would follow suit. Of course, given the incompetence of the current administration, I’m just going to have to pin my hopes on governors and committed citizens like Rihanna to do the work our federal government will not.
Second, when we finally break free of this nightmare, I hope that we think about the ways in which our society should fundamentally change. If, in the middle of a global pandemic that has the world’s economy tilting towards a depression we can protect the victims of domestic violence…why can’t we do that always? Why haven’t we been investing in social services to ensure the capacity to protect domestic abuse victims or to house the homeless? The money is clearly there…we just haven’t had the will until now because…
Well, I don’t know…but it’s something we’re going to have to confront once this emergency is over.
Remembering the Rwandan Genocide
Himani: This is a heartbreaking read. Every April, Rwandans come together to hold a national commemoration for those lost during the 1994 genocide. Because of COVID-19, this year Rwandans were required to mourn privately at home. For one survivor, Augustine Ngabonziza, the social distancing measures in place because of the pandemic serve as a chilling reminder of the genocide itself.
Designating Hate Groups
Himani: I am, frankly, shocked. Not only is this about the US government actually labeling white supremacist violence as terrorism, but it also acknowledges that white supremacist violence is a global problem that is taking the lives of people around the world.