Tag Archives: pandemic

First, Nothing – Then ….

In the beginning, the Earth was a void. Just a roundish rock, really. Lots of volcanoes and other nasty things in the early times. How it came to exist, or more importantly, why it came to exist is a question to which mankind will almost certainly never have the answer. Some people are happy to simply believe that some spirit put it here and then planted humans and all the other biological forms. Whatever.

In my worldview, over an unimaginably long time, evolution took its course. Single-celled “creatures” formed, evolved … you know the story in general outline. That’s more than enough for most of us. We could continue to struggle with the question of how to reconcile those biological facts with the spirit mythology but, for me at least, that’s a waste of time. It turns out that evolution gave humans the ability to believe two or more inconsistent concepts at the same time. We live with the cognitive dissonance, partly by compartmentalizing. You can pray on your knees in your worship space on Sunday to the spirit of your choice (there are many to choose from) and then drive in your high-tech car or search for information on your computer/smart-phone and never give a thought to how both are valid. So be it. It’s who we are.

But on this day, this day of terrible memories, on which many say they are inspired to new hope, we should be reminded of the intersection of inconsistent ideas and what that can mean. Men claiming to be men of faith who believed we were evil incarnate decided to teach us a lesson. They used their “faith” to justify killing almost 3,000 people and had hoped to kill many more.

In truth, the actions they took on 9/11 led to many, many more deaths and much, much more suffering. The words of the prince in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet come to mind:

See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,

That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love!

And I, for winking at your discords, too

Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punished.

Evolution produced the cerebral cortex in the human brain. Over millennia, homo sapiens became the Earth’s dominant species. With that came the capacity to change everything. We could do much more than just kill another animal or eat another plant to survive. We were way smarter than that. We learned agriculture, invented tools and machines, built enormous cities, how to fly in machines, how to write and share knowledge.

But there were hard times too. Times when food was scarce. Times when another “group” had access to resources other “groups” wanted. Dominance rather than sharing was apparently critical to survival and thus the prime instinct, to live on, led to competition, fighting, killing. More for me, less for you. I win, you lose. Too bad. At least for today.

Mankind evolved to be the smartest and dumbest creature on the planet. Able to perform miracles of learning and healing and loving, mankind also learned to hate, to fight even when the fight was self-defeating. To change the planet in ways that now make it likely to become uninhabitable. Yet, we continue. The same mistakes. The same hates.

Compartmentalizing.

Love your fellow man. Love nature. Then kill them both if you think it’s necessary to survive … or maybe just to have more. Acquisitiveness – another human trait. Get more stuff because more stuff is better than less stuff, and it shows other humans your superiority. Your dominance in the hierarchy. Humans are very invested in hierarchies. Animals, too, are invested in hierarchies and one might conclude that hierarchies are essential elements of life. But, of course, animals generally don’t just go invade their neighboring animals’ territory.

Is there another way? I don’t know. As a species, humans have the capacity to do the right thing. We’ve created countries, nation-states, wrapped ourselves in “national identity,” “ethnic identity,” “cultural identity,” “sexual identity,” take your pick. So many identities.

Identities help us know who is in our group and it doesn’t take much thought to see how this can be important in the world we have made. But identities are, by their nature, separating. Categorizing. If you’re X and I’m M, we’re in different groups and never the twain ….

So, here we are. Smart and stupid at the same time. Victims of our own intelligence. Suffering now from an unseen enemy, the coronavirus. Most of us are grateful for the science and scientists who brought us a life-saving vaccine. We are grateful for the healthcare workers who put themselves at risk when we are most desperate for their help and comfort. And some of us, a remarkably large number, believe in conspiracies, in dark images of evil people doing insane and immoral things. This group turns away from vaccines and other established public health measures and consumes instead known poisons and unknown other substances, placing their faith in politicians rather than scientists.

Those people walk among us. Many are our friends and neighbors. Many are dying. Yet they persist in believing the unbelievable. Compartmentalizing to prevent being told what to do or to have their “rights” diminished. These people don’t care much about the rest of us, though many often attend religious services and say many prayers. When there is a mass shooting, they send “thoughts and prayers,” but they resist meaningful measures to control violence, and the poverty and desperation that often precedes it, because … they have “rights.”

I am rambling so I will stop soon. I am distraught, I confess, at the idea that years of my inevitably shrinking future life are being stolen by ignorance and deceit. I’ll never get those years back. Neither will the victims of 9/11, the dead and the families and friends of the dead. Never get them back. The permanent silence that awaits us all draws closer by the day, and I wonder why it is that the smartest creatures on the planet continue to be the dumbest. I wonder why we can’t see and correct the self-destructive paths down which our evolutionary history has driven us. We can look back and see history. Other animals can’t. We can look ahead and predict the future. Other animals can’t. We don’t have to wait until the planetary water hole has completely dried up before figuring out a way to stop the loss. What is holding us back from using our intelligence to do what intelligence demands?

Maybe we’re just not intelligent enough. I don’t know.

 

Facing the Abyss – What Should CDC Do Now?

The COVID-19 virus that Trump predicted would “just go away” has now killed More than648,000 Americans out of more than40 million cases. https://wapo.st/38PnK3N

The leading states in new deaths are, unsurprisingly, South Carolina (+36%), Florida (+32%) and Texas (+24%). As cooler weather approaches and more people stay indoors more of the time, the cases/deaths toll can be expected to rise, especially in places with low vaccination rates and persistent refusal to follow national health guidance on masking and distancing. It is what it is.

Predictions now always face opposition from the determined crowd of COVID deniers, anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers who are doing their best to ignore reality and push the country closer to the abyss. This is happening despite the overwhelming evidence that the vaccines are safe and effective and that masking works to reduce infection rates. The excuses offered for rejecting vaccines, masking, etc. are too well known to warrant recital.

The CDC and the leaders of the healthcare community that know the most about all this have, to be sure, made “mistakes” during the runup from early 2020 to now. Those mistakes are an inevitable part of the steep learning curve during a novel virus epidemic, especially when combined with inept and corrupt national leadership promoting bogus cures and inspiring resistance to promising candidates to contain the spread. We are where we are.

The question now is what could be done to change the national narrative. I address this with full awareness that millions of Americans would rather risk a horrible death than be seen to “comply” with national health guidance. There may be nothing we can do about them, but I think there are some things we haven’t tried yet.

Starting with the CDC, setting aside the chaotic approach in the early days when Trump’s political pressure seemed to influence CDC’s public posture, I have been troubled by what I label “website data bloat.” The CDC Data Tracker [https://bit.ly/3hd72A0] is the object of my derision. The site is an extraordinary trove of information for Job and others with much patience, consisting of a multitude of boxes and lists and maps, many of which are redundant or require some study to fully understand what is being shown.

I speculate that the site is the product of turning over the communication function to programmers who believe more is always better and just don’t know where to stop or how to organize information to tell a story rather than “show what we’ve got.” But, whatever the root cause, the site, for all its robustness, does not communicate the story as dramatically as it could. And if anything cries out for dramatic storytelling, it is the continued, and avoidable, rampage of COVID through America.

It should come as no surprise at this late date that, having been blunted in impact among most older people (who, generally, have a higher percentage of vaccinated individuals than other cohorts), is turning its mindless “attention” toward other groups, including children, many of whom are too young to be vaccinated according to the latest protocols.

In my view, parents of young children who refuse vaccination should be prosecuted for child endangerment, but we know that’s not going to happen. We can, however, more effectively communicate the danger.

This is how. It will require a fundamental change in the way the government does things.

Instead of presenting a vast array of charts/graphs/pathways to still more charts/graphs and offering data in various formats (gross, per capita, per this and that), focus on one thing: the message. This is a situation in which the data should be used not just to inform but to persuade. To teach. To affect.

So, what to do?

First, move all the “just data” charts/graphs to the back of the site with a simple index of what’s there.

Second, in the front, using graphs backed by data, show the key facts in a direct comparison of, for example, deaths of vaccinated versus deaths of unvaccinated people over time. Include data on adverse effects of vaccinations to the extent it exists.

Third, add to the data on cases and deaths, the data on known cases of adverse health impacts (heart, lung, brain, etc.) for COVID “survivors,” information that has largely been ignored.

Fourth, stop focusing on the number of people with one shot. We know that for the main two vaccines, two shots are essential and that’s the key number to show. Focusing on one shot is misleading.

Fifth, show the damn videos!

A wealth of videos exists showing, especially, the end stage of COVID experience in hospital ICUs: the ones where the unvaccinated, wired and tubed beyond recognition, are facing intubation and medically induced comas and are begging doctors and nurses for vaccination and “do anything to save my life.” Show those videos in TV ads in lieu of the bland “please do the right thing” messages now in use. Show the healthcare providers, dressed like aliens from Planet X, saying, “I’m sorry but it’s too late. Vaccines can’t help you now.”

 Some people will see this as unacceptably harsh. To them I say, if you don’t like it, don’t watch. But if done properly (get some experts in this kind of dramatic communication on the task), this stands some chance of jolting resisters into doing the intelligent thing and rushing to get vaccinated.

Make the message simple and clear and unmistakable – if you don’t get vaccinated, this is what may await you. Or your family. Your children. Do it now.

We know from experience that presenting the public with vast quantities of unconsumable statistics is not achieving the level of success we need to stop the pandemic. It is time to pull out all the stops. Stop acting like the government and act like you’re trying to sell something: public health. Survival.

Do it now. We’re almost out of time. The abyss is nearer by the day. It doesn’t have to be this way. Act like it’s the emergency it really is. Just do it.

American Ignorance is Killing Us

Dr. Anita Sircar, an infectious disease physician and clinical instructor of health sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine, has published an opinion piece in the LA Times, “As a doctor in a COVID unit, I’m running out of compassion for the unvaccinated.” https://lat.ms/2W9yrLp

I’m with Dr. Sircar.

Conditions continue to deteriorate in Florida and other states of the former Confederate States of America. The Governor of Florida continues to act like Donald Trump – basically taking the position that this virus is no more than a common cold. He preaches that some vague idea of “freedom” is more important than stopping the worst pandemic in modern history that is now, once again, ravaging the country. #DeathSantis, as he is often called on Twitter, claims that parents should be able to make all decisions regarding the health of their children, just because they’re parents, without regard to their knowledge or the impact their decisions may have on others.

Florida seems to have adopted as its unofficial motto: “my body, my choice,” a favorite mantra of the anti-vaccination mob. Ironically, Texas simultaneously has placed into law SB8 that effectively bans abortions regardless of rape, incest and so on. So much for “my body, my choice.” But that’s for another time.

Here I want to address the widespread ignorance that has left the United States and much of the world in a position of failing to stop a deadly viral pandemic even though the means to do so is readily available and free. I readily confess up front that at my late stage in life I am profoundly resentful of the arrogant and ignorant decisions being made by people that have effectively stolen two years of my life and threaten to continue doing so indefinitely.

Dr. Sircar’s op-ed tells a gruesome story of a patient under age 50, normally in good health (just some mild blood pressure issues). He tested positive 10 days before, began coughing with severe fatigue 8 days before and, after doctor-prescribed antibiotics did nothing, turned to … hydroxychloroquine, the drug promoted by Donald Trump and multiple medical quacks despite compelling evidence of its ineffectiveness against COVID. That, of course, also failed. As his health continued to decline, he was, Dr. Sircar reports, a “shell of his former self.” By the time he arrived at the clinic, treatment with monoclonal antibodies also failed.

He finally ended up in the ER with dangerously low oxygen levels, exceedingly high inflammatory markers and patchy areas of infection all over his lungs. Nothing had helped. He was getting worse. He could not breathe. His wife and two young children were at home, all infected with COVID. He and his wife had decided not to get vaccinated. [emphasis added]

Dr. Sircar goes on,

Last year, a case like this would have flattened me. I would have wrestled with the sadness and how unfair life was. Battled with the angst of how unlucky he was. This year, I struggled to find sympathy. It was August 2021, not 2020. The vaccine had been widely available for months in the U.S., free to anyone who wanted it, even offered in drugstores and supermarkets. Cutting-edge, revolutionary, mind-blowing, lifesaving vaccines were available where people shopped for groceries, and they still didn’t want them.

Outside his hospital door, I took a deep breath — battening down my anger and frustration — and went in. I had been working the COVID units for 17 months straight, all day, every day. I had cared for hundreds of COVID patients. We all had, without being able to take breaks long enough to help us recover from this unending ordeal. Compassion fatigue was setting in. For those of us who hadn’t left after the hardest year of our professional lives, even hope was now in short supply.

The man claimed not to be anti-vaxxer.

I was just waiting for the FDA to approve the vaccine first. I didn’t want to take anything experimental. I didn’t want to be the government’s guinea pig, and I don’t trust that it’s safe.

Dr. Sircar, notes that,

The only proven lifesaver we’ve had in this pandemic is a vaccine that many people don’t want. A vaccine we give away to other countries because supply overwhelms demand in the U.S. A vaccine people in other countries stand in line for hours to receive, if they can get it at all.

Dr. Sircar turned to remdesivir, explained its status among approved treatments with long-term side-effects unknown:

“Do you still want me to give it to you?”

“Yes” he responded, “Whatever it takes to save my life.”

It did not work.

 Dr. Sircar concludes the story:

My patient died nine days later from a fatal stroke. We, the care team, reconciled this loss by telling ourselves: He made a personal choice not to get vaccinated, not to protect himself or his family. We did everything we could with what we had to save him. This year, this tragedy, this unnecessary, entirely preventable loss, was on him.

She is exactly right about that. The op-ed goes on to lay out the likely outcomes for the unvaccinated going forward. If you, or members of your family, are like the patient described here, read the full story at the link above.

We are headed swiftly back into the abyss of a raging out-of-control pandemic, widespread deaths and long-term impairments, loss of businesses, collapse of the economy, failure of the education system and more. Many parts of the world are declining again to admit Americans. The travel industry, among many others, is reeling as business disappears.

The CDC has just issued another warning about Labor Day travel, asking the unvaccinated not to travel this weekend and suggesting that even vaccinated individuals carefully reassess the risks of travel.

Here are the reported facts, per CNN’s summary [https://cnn.it/3kIudDh]:

US is surpassing an average of 160,000 new Covid-19 cases a day

38.6% of eligible people (everyone 12 or older) are not yet fully vaccinated

Hospitalization rates for unvaccinated are 16 times higher than for vaccinated people

180 new COVID cases were traced to a multi-night church camp and a men’s conference, neither of which complied with CDC recommendations

More than 200,000 kids test positive in a week – infection rates in children are increasing exponentially

Less than half of children 12 to 15 are vaccinated with even one dose

More than 200,000 children tested positive for Covid-19 in the last week, a five-fold increase from a month ago, with corresponding increases in hospitalizations

Between August 20 and 26, an average of 330 children were admitted to hospitals every day with Covid-19 — highest rate of new Covid-19 hospitalizations among children in more than a year

Hospitals and staff are again being overwhelmed and some are running out of oxygen

If the virus had a personality, it would be laughing out loud at the folly of humans who are so able and willing to ignore reality in favor of conspiracy theories and myths perpetrated by other humans who have no credentials or other authenticity as authorities on health decisions. What else is there to say?

Well, here’s something. A respiratory therapist, Karen Gallardo, described the Seven Stages of Severe COVID in a Los Angeles Times article at https://lat.ms/3yzlGan. It’s not pretty. Heavily summarized, they look like this:

Stage 1: Debilitating breathing problems force you to the ER

Stage 2: You’re drowning. Transfer to ICU

Stage 3: Breathing is worse. You are put on a “positive pressure ventilator” velcroed tightly to your face

Stage 4: In preparation for full intubation, from which most patients never recover, you are advised to call your loved ones, likely for the last time. Then,

You are sedated and paralyzed, fed through a feeding tube, hooked to a Foley catheter and a rectal tube. We turn your limp body regularly, so you don’t develop pressure ulcers — bed sores. We bathe you and keep you clean. We flip you onto your stomach to allow for better oxygenation. We will try experimental therapeutics.

Stage 5: If you’re not one of the few Stage 4 survivors, you may need special machine that bypasses your lungs and oxygenates your blood, if your hospital has one.

Stage 6 (Ready?):

The pressure required to open your lungs is so high that air can leak into your chest cavity, so we insert tubes to clear it out. Your kidneys fail to filter the byproducts from the drugs we continuously give you. Despite diuretics, your entire body swells from fluid retention, and you require dialysis to help with your renal function.

The long hospital stay and your depressed immune system make you susceptible to infections. A chest X-ray shows fluid accumulating in your lung sacs. A blood clot may show up, too. We can’t prevent these complications at this point; we treat them as they present.

If your blood pressure drops critically, we will administer vasopressors to bring it up, but your heart may stop anyway. After several rounds of CPR, we’ll get your pulse and circulation back. But soon, your family will need to make a difficult decision.

Stage 7 (End Game):

After several meetings with the palliative care team, your family decides to withdraw care. We extubate you, turning off the breathing machinery. We set up a final FaceTime call with your loved ones. As we work in your room, we hear crying and loving goodbyes. We cry, too, and we hold your hand until your last natural breath.

The End

Fix Stupid

Position of Republican Governors who fight to prevent implementation of strong, sensible public health measures recommended by federal and other health experts:

Why Americans Are Dying By the Thousands Under Trump’s Leadership

Here are a few excerpts from WAPO regarding the federal response to the pandemic as we head into Election Day. https://wapo.st/3oJDI69 They speak for themselves.

“President Trump’s repeated assertions the United States is “rounding the turn” on the novel coronavirus have increasingly alarmed the government’s top health experts, who say the country is heading into a long and potentially deadly winter with an unprepared government unwilling to make tough choices.”

“Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s leading infectious-disease expert, said: … “All the stars are aligned in the wrong place as you go into the fall and winter season, with people congregating at home indoors. You could not possibly be positioned more poorly.”

“Fauci … said the country could surpass 100,000 new coronavirus cases a day and predicted rising deaths in the coming weeks. He spoke as the nation set a new daily record Friday with more than 98,000 cases. As hospitalizations increase, deaths are also ticking up, with more than 1,000 reported Wednesday and Thursday, bringing the total to more than 230,000 since the start of the pandemic….”

“Trump has rallied in states and cities experiencing record surges in infections and hospitalizations in a last-ditch effort to convince voters he has successfully managed the pandemic. He has held maskless rallies with thousands of supporters, often in violation of local health mandates. Even as new infections climb in 42 states, Trump has downplayed the virus or mocked those who take it seriously.”

“… he baselessly said that U.S. doctors record more deaths from covid-19, the disease the coronavirus causes, than other nations because they get more money.”

“By contrast, former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala D. Harris have consistently worn masks in public, and have held socially distanced events.”

Fauci … described a disjointed response as cases surge. Several current and former senior administration officials said the White House is almost entirely focused on a vaccine, even though experts warn it is unlikely to be a silver bullet that ends the pandemic immediately since it will take months under the best of circumstances to inoculate tens of millions of people to achieve herd immunity.”

“Fauci said … he has not spoken to Trump since early October…. He also lamented that Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist and Trump’s favored pandemic adviser, who advocates letting the virus spread among young healthy people and reopening the country without restrictions, is the only medical adviser the president regularly meets with. “I have real problems with that guy,” Fauci said of Atlas. “He’s a smart guy who’s talking about things that I believe he doesn’t have any real insight or knowledge or experience in. He keeps talking about things that when you dissect it out and parse it out, it doesn’t make any sense.”

[Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, attacked Fauci for speaking his mind, accusing him of being a member of the Washington Swamp and repeating Trump’s talking points that the president “always put the well-being of the American people first.” Believe what you will.]

“Some White House advisers … complain [Fauci] is too focused on his personal reputation and is “not on the team,” said one senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment. The doctor has become loathed among many Trump supporters, and Fauci has told others that he has experienced a surge in harassment and threats.”

[See https://wapo.st/3kUAOJK for a list of the 184 times Trump has downplayed the pandemic threat, a reality he confessed to on tape in the Woodward interviews].

“Several senior administration officials and outside advisers described a White House overwhelmed by the pandemic, with a feeling of helplessness over the inability to curb its spread without also throttling the economy or damaging the president’s reelection chances.”

“… the campaign trail message that life is returning to normal underscores how little the president and White House have focused on the pandemic beyond pushing for development and approvals of vaccines and treatments. With the clearance of a vaccine unlikely until year’s end, that raises questions about what happens after Election Day, during what is projected to be the worst stretch yet of the pandemic. The Trump administration will be in charge of managing the pandemic until at least Jan. 20, no matter who wins.”

“Trump’s former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, Scott Gottlieb said, “If we don’t plan now, we’ll lose the opportunity to prioritize [school]opening what should be most important to us, just as we lost that chance in the fall because we didn’t plan appropriately this summer.”

“And one of the ways to say the outbreak is over is [to say] it’s really irrelevant because it doesn’t make any difference. All you need to do is prevent people from dying and protect people in places like the nursing homes,” Fauci said. “And because of that, Debbie [Birx] almost never ever sees the president anymore. The only medical person who sees the president on a regular basis is Scott Atlas. It’s certainly not Debbie Birx.”

“Fauci said that many people who catch the virus recover “virologically” but will have chronic health problems. “The idea of this false narrative that if you don’t die, everything is hunky dory is just not the case,” he said. “But to say, ‘Let people get infected, it doesn’t matter, just make sure people don’t die’ — to me as a person who’s been practicing medicine for 50 years, it doesn’t make any sense at all.”

“A similar assessment was offered by Tom Bossert, the former homeland security adviser in the Trump administration. “It sounds alluring,” Bossert said. “It sounds so seductive. It’s not possible. Math makes it irresponsible to even try and say it.”

Supreme Court Gives Back of Hand to Voter Protection

CNN reported last week that the Supreme Court, without opinion or explanation, granted a request by Alabama to prevent voters from dropping off their ballots by handing them to an election official at the curbside. https://cnn.it/3osEjJB The decision in an unsigned 5-3 order, to which Justices Sotomayor, Kagan and Breyer dissented, addressed a permissive ruling by a federal District Court judge permitting, but not requiring, willing Alabama counties to allow curbside voting, as they have done in prior elections in 2016 and 2018. The District Court judge’s opinion was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta.

The District Court judge reached the following conclusions issued in conjunction with a lengthy set of Findings of Fact & Conclusions of Law:

1. As applied during the COVID-19 pandemic to voters who are particularly susceptible to COVID-19, the requirement under Ala. Code §§ 17-11-7, 17-11-9, and 17-11-10 that absentee ballot affidavits be witnessed and signed by a notary public or two adult witnesses violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

    1. As applied during the COVID-19 pandemic to voters who are particularly susceptible to COVID-19 complications because they are either age 65 or older or disabled or have underlying medical conditions that make them susceptible to COVID-19 complications, the requirement under Ala. Code §§ 17-9-30(b), (d), and 17-11-9 that absentee voters provide a copy of their photo identification with their absentee ballot applications violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
    1. As applied during the COVID-19 pandemic to voters who are particularly susceptible to COVID-19 complications, the curbside voting ban violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
    1. As applied during the COVID-19 pandemic to voters with disabilities who cannot safely obtain a copy of their photo ID, the requirement under Ala. Code §§ 17-9-30(b), (d), and 17-11-9 that absentee voters provide a copy of their photo identification with their absentee ballot applications violates the ADA.
    1. As applied during the COVID-19 pandemic to voters with disabilities, the curbside voting ban violates the ADA.
    1. As applied during the COVID-19 pandemic, the requirement under Ala. Code §§ 17-11-7, 17-11-9, and 17-11-10 that absentee ballot affidavits be witnessed and signed by a notary public or two adult witnesses violates the Voting Rights Act.”

For the highly determined, the court papers may be read at: https://bit.ly/3opiLgI

The Court of Appeals reversed all of the District Court’s conclusions except for the curbside voting issue.

In a classic Trump Republican fashion, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall argued that “Some level of risk is inherent in life and in voting.” Stated differently, if voting in person ends up killing you (there are no mask requirements in Alabama), well, that’s life. The Alabama Secretary of State had earlier expressed concern about the security of ballots because voters “wouldn’t be able to physically put their ballot into the machines that read the ballot since they’re held indoors.” Apparently, the Alabama Secretary of State does not trust the poll workers that the counties employ for the purpose of assisting voters.

Justice Sotomayor’s dissent said, in part, “We should not substitute the District Court’s reasonable, record-based findings of fact with our own intuitions about the risks of traditional in-person voting during this pandemic or the ability of willing local officials to implement adequate curbside voting procedures.”

The Supreme Court’s decision is remarkable insofar as it permits a state to disallow voting practices that, at least in a pandemic, could reduce vulnerable voters’ exposure to sometimes deadly health risks, especially for older and health-vulnerable voters. The ultimate rationale for the state’s inexplicable overturning of prior practice was the Republican Attorney General’s view, in effect, that “life’s a bitch and then you die, so who cares?”

In truth, the state position is a form of voter suppression directed at a segment of the population more-likely-than-not to vote Democratic. These types of decisions, especially unexplained, are particularly problematic when considered against the anti-democratic decision of the Supreme Court in the landmark Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 529 (2013) that gutted the pre-clearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Those provisions compelled certain states to seek prior approval of the Justice Department for any new election or voting laws, because of those states’ prior history of voter suppression.

Shelby County involved one of the worst examples of judicial legislating ever seen, as evidenced by Chief Justice John Roberts’ explanation of the decision:

A statute’s “current burdens” must be justified by “current needs,” and any “disparate geographic coverage” must be “sufficiently related to the problem that it targets.” The coverage formula met that test in 1965, but no longer does so.

Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices. The formula captures States by reference to literacy tests and low voter registration and turnout in the 1960s and early 1970s. But such tests have been banned nationwide for over 40 years. And voter registration and turnout numbers in the covered States have risen dramatically in the years since. Racial disparity in those numbers was compelling evidence justifying the preclearance remedy and the coverage formula. There is no longer such a disparity.

As reported in The Atlantic, https://bit.ly/34uqn9C,

The results have been predictable. Voter-identification laws, which experts suggest will make voting harder especially for poor people, people of color, and elderly people, have advanced in several states, and some voting laws that make it easier to register and cast ballots have been destroyed. For many of the jurisdictions formerly under preclearance, voting became rapidly more difficult after the Shelby County decision, particularly for poor and elderly black people and Latinos.

Decisions like the Alabama curbside voting case are the predictable consequence of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority inserting its judgment, without explanation, where only the legislature should go. At the risk of repetition, the current decision affirms the elimination, for partisan political purposes, of a health-based practice that was permitted in two prior elections.

This is what we have to look forward too as the Republican majority of Trump enablers in the Senate affirms yet another right-wing judge to the high court this very day. I don’t know what the solution to the Supreme Court dilemma is, but Joe Biden’s thoughtful and measured approach seems the right way to move forward, provided his commission acts swiftly. The issue has been exhaustively analyzed by many constitutional scholars so we’re not going into new territory here. The composition of the Court has changed before and the nation survived. It’s less clear today that the Republican approach to governance is survivable by anything resembling a democratic republic. Time is therefore of the essence once the Democrats take control of the government in January.

Amtrak to Suspend Train Service to Respond to Republican Document Requests

Republican Troubleshooters Demand 190 Years’ Worth of Records

It’s natural, I suppose, for people who have not spent time on Capitol Hill to wonder what those highly privileged people do up there all day – you know, on behalf of the public that elected them and, presumably, also for those who thought someone else would be better. We have been given some insight into that question as regards Republican representatives by an October 20 records request to William J. Flynn, President and Chief Executive Officer of Amtrak, technically the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, sent by four Republican Congressmen from the Republican Office of the House Subcommittee on Rail, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials.

There is a subcommittee, often many of them, for every committee in Congress (this one is among six under the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, or T & I as it is affectionately known in Washington circles). I’m sure your mind is now trying to wrap itself around what the entire organization chart for the entire Congress must look like. Please stop right there lest you suffer lasting mental harm.

This particular Subcommittee has some pretty impressive sounding responsibilities [https://bit.ly/3knpaqr]:

  •  “jurisdiction over the economic and safety regulation of railroads and the agencies that administer those regulations.  Economic regulation is administered by the five-member Surface Transportation Board (STB).  This independent agency also has the authority to address national emergencies as they affect the nation’s rail transportation system.”
  • “The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is responsible for administering and overseeing railroad safety laws, railroad infrastructure and development programs, performing research and developing technology, and has federal oversight of Amtrak.”
  • “Amtrak [established in 1970] is the nation’s major provider of intercity passenger rail service….The Subcommittee continues to oversee efforts to increase efficiency and improve service in Amtrak’s operations.”
  • “The Subcommittee also has jurisdiction over the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is responsible for providing regulations and safety oversight of pipelines and pipeline facilities, as well as overseeing the transportation of hazardous materials.”
  • “Railroad retirement benefits and unemployment systems, as well as rail labor relations also fall under the jurisdiction of this Subcommittee.”

That’s enough responsibility and overseeing, you would think, to be a full-time job for the Subcommittee members.  But two members out of 15 Republicans on the Subcommittee, found time to produce the aforesaid letter to Amtrak. Those four are Ranking Member Rick Crawford (R-AR), fellow Subcommittee-man Scott Perry (R-PA) plus T&I full Committee members, Bob Gibbs (R-OH), and Lloyd Smucker (R-PA). The others? Who knows? Politics, as we will see, is a peculiar affair. Truth is, of course, the letter was written by Subcommittee staff and approved up the chain of command. That’s just how things work.

The letter concerns [drum roll] Joe Biden’s use of Amtrak charter trains for his recent campaigning in Pennsylvania and Ohio. The Republicans, ever watchful for profligate spending, claimed not to know what Biden paid for the trains and, through their questions suggested that something was rotten on the railroad tracks. Had they bothered to look first, they would have discovered that  “in its disclosures to the Federal Election Commission, the Biden campaign reported spending $265,000 on the train charter. Amtrak says that the starting rate for a charter is $30,000, and that no discount was given.” https://wapo.st/2ThtQCf But who wants to investigate when the opportunity to allege political scandal by an opponent arises? Not Republicans. Notify the media!

The asserted reasons for the Republicans’ deep concerns about Biden’s train charters are that [footnotes omitted],

  • “the Biden campaign’s use of Amtrak’s charter train redirected Amtrak’s scarce resources during a time of record losses, employee layoffs, and service cuts during the COVID-19 pandemic.”  
    • The premise here is that Joe Biden, a private citizen, somehow commandeered Amtrak’s charter train against Amtrak’s wishes and did so at a particularly bad time. The bad time, of course, was the result of Donald Trump’s failure to act against the virus, but never mind that.
  • “We are concerned that the apparent use of a struggling, resource-deprived, publicly-run service for political gain does not serve the best interests of Amtrak or the American taxpayers at this time.”
    • Here the premise is that Biden hurt Amtrak by paying it for services rendered in exchange for “political gain.”
  • “we question whether the Biden campaign’s use of Amtrak caused delays of freight trains at a time when supplies are crucial.”
    • Here the Republican Congressmen show profound regard for the nation’s PPE supplies that it believes, for no apparent reason, may have been delayed by Biden’s charter train.

The implication is that Biden somehow purloined the Amtrak trains for “political gain” when Amtrak would have been better off doing something else with its trains, despite the fact of collapsed demand for travel demand due to Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the Republican research,

According to Amtrak’s guidelines, charter trains are not a part of its “primary objective” of operating its “core train service safely, punctually, and efficiently.” Amtrak’s guidelines for operating charter trains include requirements that the use of Amtrak’s resources will not impact its regular operations, and that the train “must generate sufficient financial benefit for Amtrak to justify the Amtrak resources and assets.”

Moreover, the Republicans’ preliminary investigation revealed the following salacious information:

The Biden charter train included several Amtrak cars and made multiple stops for campaign events where guests were invited aboard the train. The Biden campaign distributed plastic identification cards to riders designed like actual Amtrak tickets. News reports suggested freight train interactions with the stopped charter train and the potential for delays at campaign stops.

The Republicans clearly believed they were on to a big one. “Abuse of train” is a matter to be taken very seriously, and Amtrak is committed to the policy that the truth must come out.

Now, I happen to have it on good authority that Amtrak is both short-staffed now (COVID-19 layoffs, you know) and struggling to get the trains to run on time (big surprise to past Amtrak users). So, I’m going to help out these Republicans who apparently don’t know how to conduct even a minimal investigation but who love to issue press releases. I’m going to suggest answers to the ten questions and offer them, hereby, to Amtrak and the Subcommittee free of charge. This will help enable Amtrak to answer the questions by November 2, as demanded (coincidentally, I’m sure, the day before the election), unless … well, let’s not spoil the surprise. See below and buckle up.

  1. The total cost to Amtrak, including in equipment, resources, and salaries, to operate the Biden campaign charter train.
    • Answer: “A fully-allocated cost analysis of a small set of charters would entail dozens, possibly hundreds, of hours of staff time. Since the Subcommittee has indicated its sensitivity to Amtrak’s resource use, we’re sure you won’t mind if we “hard pass” on this question,” but if you insist we address it, you may expect the answer around June 2021. We don’t mean to be disrespectful but note for the record and in our defense that many congressional subpoenas (you just sent a letter) have been flatly rejected out-of-hand by the administration. What’s good for the goose and all that…

2. The total cost paid to Amtrak for the Biden charter train     and whether the Biden campaign received any financial discount, reduced fares, special treatment, or special services for using Amtrak’s resources to campaign through Pennsylvania and Ohio.

    • Answer: This information was largely covered in the press already. You can find it here: https://wapo.st/3dPoYxv But, be advised, you’re not going to like the reporting on Republicans’ long-standing efforts to cut Amtrak’s budget and the historical data about other candidates who have used Amtrak trains in campaigns.

3. Whether the Biden campaign’s charter train delayed any Amtrak trains or disrupted any Amtrak services.

    • Answer: We’ll look into this when we can, but it’s doubtful. It’s often hard to identify exactly what “causes” a particular delay, but we will get back to you. Soon. Promise.

4. Whether the Biden campaign’s charter train received track preference over any freight trains or other trains.

    • Answer: That information is also difficult to identify since we normally don’t have to keep that data to run a railroad, but, as above, we’ll get back to you. Soon. Promise.

5. Whether riders on the Biden campaign charter train purchased tickets to board the train.

    • Answer: We think you should know the answer to this already. Biden chartered the train, so there would be no reason to sell tickets except possibly as a fund-raising activity, the conduct of which is not Amtrak’s business. Perhaps another federal agency or body of Congress can help you with this. We hope so because we take your need for information very seriously.

6. The number of Amtrak employees taken off their regular duties to staff the Biden campaign charter train, including any overtime hours worked.

    • Answer: We don’t understand the question. Working on charters are part of the “regular duties” of employees when charters are sold. Amtrak is in the passenger train business and charter trains are part of that business. Amtrak, as you know ,or have reason to know, was paid for the charters according to standard charges that cover all costs to the extent possible.

7. A copy of standard operating procedures or similar documents utilized by Amtrak and its employees in operating standard charter trains.

    • Answer: We believe you already possess this information since you cited our procedures in your letter. We respectfully decline to provide duplicate information. We’re sure you understand we are busy trying to run a railroad. If you don’t understand that, we can’t help you.

8. A copy of any documents, standard operating procedures, or guidelines Amtrak has for trains chartered for campaign and/or political events, particularly presidential campaigns.

    • Answer: We are initiating a company-wide search for these documents. Since the request was not time-limited, the hunt for historical versions of any current documents will likely take some time, so don’t expect anything before the election. We will get back to you. Soon. Promise.

9. A historical list of any time Amtrak trains have been previously chartered for campaign usage and the costs of those resources and costs paid by the individual candidate’s campaign.

    • Answer: Well, that’s a doozy, all right. We will certainly initiate a good faith search but estimate this will take the balance of 2020, 2021 and possibly 2022 since trains run by Amtrak and its predecessors for campaigns likely began in 1836 and have been used, according to reported sources, by at least Harrison, Carter, Ford, Bush (both) and Clinton. You did not specify whether you want the costs, whose estimates will necessarily be speculative, in current dollars or constant dollars. We await your clarification.

Meanwhile, be advised that good-faith compliance with the aforementioned requests will require Amtrak to suspend for the foreseeable future all passenger service in the Northeast United States until further notice, starting November 4, 2020. Have a nice day.

10.  A written response on how the Biden campaign charter train remained in compliance with Amtrak guidance and procedures on COVID-19.

    • Amtrak’s COVID-19 practices are set out on our website. You can find our website at www.amtrak.com. We assume the Subcommittee knows how to use a computer. Have a nice day

I believe my suggestions will do much to move this process along at the pace it deserves.

 

Trump’s Presidency in Memes — Round 2

The hits just keep coming so it seems only right to share what I have found on Twitter, where I spend far too much time, and Facebook. This time I will offer a few comments along the way. Just because I can. If Republicans can twist themselves into logical pretzels that would have bedazzled Escher (Google him if new to you — very interesting work) to justify reversing the decisions made to deny a hearing/vote on Merrick Garland for Supreme Court Justice, I can add my thoughts to these precious memes. Note for the record that I did not create any of them — I chanced upon them while searching for coherence on the cited sites. The are the work of people far more creative than I.

Most prominent among Trump’s failures is his decision to downplay the severity of the coronavirus the severity and deadliness of which he knew very early on. He decided to lie about it allegedly to “avoid panic” — making him the only president in modern history to not trust the people with the truth about a killer virus — with massively deadly consequences: 200,000 dead so far and many thousands more with permanent organ damage. And no end in sight.

While Trump’s crimes against humanity are the major story of the hour, we cannot overlook the loss of icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The photo on the right is from the Supreme Court the night the news of her passing spread in Washington. RIP fair lady.

Below is a random-ish collection of other memes I found. One note: I have not included a number of photos of Donald Trump inappopriately engaged with daughter Ivanka. I just can’t do that, although I think those photos speak volumes about the nature of the man who sits in the White House. For similar reasons, I did not reproduce the meme that includes the infamous quotations of his comments coming off the bus with Billy somebody about grabbing women. Everyone knows those words by heart, I suspect, so no need to repeat them here. Just remember — that was man now the sitting president of the United States.

One more note: the last shot of the Trump cabinet below had a label: “No misogyny found in our investigation” or something similar. Let your imagination run wild & add your own.

 

 

 

Let Them Eat Cake

Putting aside the apocryphal nature of the title phrase, it fits perfectly the current attitude of the Republican Party in the Senate where they are doing their best to mimic Ebenezer Scrooge by denying suffering workers a meaningful relief program. The situation is so bad that,

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said on Sunday he was not optimistic on reaching agreement soon on a deal for the next round of legislation to provide relief to Americans hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. [https://reut.rs/2EIOKpL]

The key problem should be the easiest to resolve:  whether to extend the $600 per week in extra federal unemployment benefits for Americans that has literally saved millions from total economic destruction. The benefit expired on July 31.

According to the Reuters report,

The Trump administration and some Senate Republicans have been pushing for a reduction in those extra federal benefits, saying they should be tied to wages. Other Senate Republicans have rejected any extension. [emphasis mine]

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin claims Trump supports the enhanced benefits but does not want people to make more when they are unemployed than they would if they had a job. Mnuchin reportedly said, ”we want to make sure there’s the right incentives.” Typically, Republican leaders are more worried about a few people getting an “undeserved benefit” than helping the overwhelming majority of people who are is increasingly desperate need of help.

Yale economists have studied the data on the alleged disincentive to work arising from unemployment benefits and concluded that “expanded jobless benefits did not reduce employment.” https://bit.ly/3gnWdIY At the risk of letting actual economics get in the way of Republican orthodoxy, the Republican Party would do itself and the country a favor if it stopped bowing down to Donald Trump’s uninformed view of work incentives for people with whom he has only enjoyed a master-servant relationship. The Republicans are focused on the wrong, and least significant aspect, of the problem.

In addition to the classically dense Republican view of economics, the most stunning element of this fiasco is that the Democrat-controlled House proposed relief legislation in May – MAY – but it has languished in the Republican-controlled Senate until last week (more than two months of no action) and Republicans remain divided on what should be in the next round.

Meanwhile, America burns while the Republicans fiddle.

It’s time to hold the Republicans’ feet to the fire they have stoked. The coronavirus rages largely out of control around the country and the economy is in a dead stall. Republicans own the disaster because they supported Donald Trump’s ignorance, incompetence and corruption. The time for political posturing is over. It’s time to act and help the people who elected this legislators and expect them to do their job.

Trump’s America – Food Lines in New York City

As I was walking home from an optician’s office today and passing Lincoln Center, I was jolted to see a line of people pulling grocery carts and/or carrying empty satchels. The line snaked down into the garage entry that goes underground on Ninth Avenue and came back up the other side, then went down Ninth to West 62nd and continued to the edge of Damrosch Park which is about halfway down the long block to Amsterdam Avenue. I suspected what was happening but decided, despite the 91-degree heat and my having started my walk at 79th and Broadway, to inquire. A security guard told me that the Food Bank for New York and some other companies were distributing free food to anyone who needed it.

The photo above and the one below capture the scene. It made me sick to my stomach to see this in New York City in 2020. This is where Donald Trump’s mismanagement/neglect and incompetence/stupidity has brought us. Food lines stretching for blocks. The security guard told me the lines had developed at 6 am and remained all day:

I returned to our apartment on West 59th, discussed the situation with my wife who, as usual, leapt into action pulling food items from the kitchen cabinets. We’ve been fortunate to have income during the pandemic and were well stocked with foods of various kinds. We filled our grocery cart two-wheeler (bought when we moved here and never used) and I walked it back to Lincoln Center. I was shocked to see the lines were gone, but there were still a few stragglers approaching the distribution site. I presented our offerings which were gratefully received by the young volunteers.

It’s pretty clear that people are now desperate for basic staples of life. Most of the people in the line were not young and, as I said, it was very hot and humid. This had to be a struggle for many of them.

This, then, shows us yet again the consequences of the utter failure of our national leadership – the Donald Trump administration – to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Americans in bread lines. COVID deaths exceeding 152,000 and climbing.

And what does the president do? He spends his time hawking products of companies whose leaders have praised him and promoting the use of drugs found by extensive medical studies to be ineffective and in many cases dangerous. He promotes the “opinions” of a quack doctor/minister who believes people in their sleep have sex with demons and insists that Trump’s pet drugs are the “cure” for COVID-19. And he dispatches federal law enforcement people to multiple American cities; personnel who wear no identification and use extreme violence to harass and arrest lawful protesters still enraged over the lack of action in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

This is Trump’s America. These are the acts of a tyrant and a fool. We are at the point of no return. Either Trump is put out of office through the electoral process in November or the United States is finished. Period.

Portland – What Do You See?

As I watch the videos and still photos of the chaos in Portland and read comments on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere, I am driven to ponder: how does what I see differ so much from what others see? And why?

To a large degree, we see what we expect to see. Powerful psychological forces, largely if not entirely unconscious, control what parts of a visual field actually register as “seen” in the conscious mind. You likely have experienced this a few times. You didn’t “notice” something that someone else did notice and thought was obvious. Maybe you went looking for something in a room and didn’t “see” something else; you were puzzled when this was pointed out.

So, some of us see the videos and photos of camouflaged, unidentified “soldiers” of an unidentified federal force beating, tear gassing, pepper spraying and generally assaulting protesters who have been on the streets of Portland in the vicinity of the federal courthouse for approaching two months. Two months! Two months and no apparent plan by Portland political leadership to address the concerns that led the protesters to the streets in the first place. Based on videos I have seen, it appears that Trump’s Storm Troopers have committed multiple crimes against Portland residents: unlawful search, assault with a deadly weapon, battery, false arrest (no probable cause) and kidnapping.

Others don’t see that at all. They see only rioters trying to destroy federal and private property, anarchists and enemies of America. Communists and/or fascists and/or socialists. OMG, antifa! So, they post video of fires being set and photos of people wearing what seem to be anti-American insignia or slogans.

As an interesting aside, I think, the president of the United States does not see “fine people … on both sides,” as he did when the neo-Nazis and white supremacists/KKK marched in Charlottesville with torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Trump sees only enemies. He also sees opportunity – a chance to deflect attention away from his catastrophic failure of leadership regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Trump is likely quite happy that Portland is such a visible powder-keg – it’s tailor-made to draw media attention away from the pandemic and the as-yet-unaddressed issue of Russian bounties to the Taliban for killing American soldiers.

To some degree we all have an agenda, perhaps not the same as Trump’s, but an agenda nonetheless. That agenda moderates what we tend to focus on from the multitude of images, accusations and claims emerging from the tumult in Portland.

At this late stage, this alignment is not likely to change. The mayor of Portland probably realized that last night when he joined the crowd to talk with the protesters, many days late and dollars short. He got tear gassed for his effort and, of course, that garnered the biggest headlines.

Step back,  on either side, a moment from the emotional engagement that is triggered by Portland and ask the question: why would all those people, mainly young but now joined by large numbers of women (calling themselves Momtifa), some of whom are pregnant, why would they behave as they are? Does any rational person think those people in Portland are all just hooligans who have been waiting all this time for an excuse to engage in violent activity, risking arrest and serious personal injury? Why is there so much anger in this group that some of them try to physically engage police and try to burn down a courthouse?

It’s easy, and entirely simplistic and simple-minded, to call them a “mob” and other names that have become popular on right-wing talk shows. Don’t those of us who are also angry, on either side, have a responsibility to address the underlying issues rather than just reacting emotionally to the video of the moment? Does anyone really approve of the violence as a long-term viable strategy for effectuating change? If you don’t, then you know that something must be done to address the reasons for the anger that led to the violence.

So, what now? Trump is sending his federal strike force to other cities to beat, tear gas, pepper spray and assault other American citizens, again on the pretext that the (usually Democratic) leadership of those cities cannot sufficiently dominate the streets on their own. We are thus likely to see Portland-like images from these other cities, as the protesters, already frustrated by the customary excuses and inaction, boil over in rage against what seems like, and almost certainly is, a gross and unconstitutional abuse of federal power. I can’t predict the future any better, and perhaps worse, than anyone else, but it’s hard to see how this is going to accomplish anything good.

The main consequence of Trump’s approach is going to be feeding more red meat to the most ravenous segment of his political base that is at once racist and hungry for new “enemies” to hate. Trump actually may benefit politically with his base by keeping the pot boiling over in the “Democrat-run cities” but at what cost to those cities and the country? He continues gaslighting the nation about imminent cures for COVID-19 with his renewed “daily briefings” while promising to suppress violence in cities that “can’t take care of their own business.” In reality, this will just produce more violence.

What, then, is the answer? I believe it must lie in a program somewhat similar to the one announced a while back by Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the outpouring of protests across the country and the world, Cuomo told the cities/towns of New York State: get your act together, enlist the interested parties, sit down with a blank slate and redesign your public safety/public health services in a way that makes sense to you in the local affected community and submit your plan with a budget by April. OR, lose state funding. Cuomo’s approach respects local autonomy, creates strong incentives for joint action and has a definitive timeline for outcomes. Whether local political and other leaders have the skills needed to negotiate new arrangements remains to be seen, but this is a model that at least makes sense as a path forward.

I don’t have enough information about why exactly Portland has become the hotspot for protests, but it seems that the reform process has stalled there. It was good of the mayor to finally come out to engage the protesters, but photo ops among the tear gas are not a solution to what ails the police force in Portland or elsewhere. Recognizing the additional challenges that comes with the pandemic, we cannot have this be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Local governments must rise to the occasion or risk mass carnage inflicted by both angry citizens and federal storm troopers led by unhinged politicians looking to exploit the situation for personal political gain.

The longer the protests go on, the greater the frustration at the lack of progress and the greater the risk of more violence. Unlike prior cases, these protests seem unlikely to punch themselves out. It’s time – well past time – for political leadership to step in, displace the over-reaching of the president and start the process of real and powerful reform. The people are not going to accept the routine continuation of police brutality as the norm in American society.