We can all be heroes in the time of COVID-19

Superhero fabric makes superhero masks for health care heroes.

News stories are filled with images of health care heroes in medical facilities nationwide treating patients sickened with the novel coronavirus. No one would disagree with that characterization — those working on the front lines deserve nothing less than our full respect, not to mention hazard pay. That includes not only health care workers, but all essential workers restocking grocery shelves and making deliveries.

What about the rest of us? How can we rise to the challenge of service? You don’t need to have superpowers to make a difference and become a hero in your own right, even if it’s in a limited fashion.

Here are just two examples on how people are stepping up during this time. We may not personally be working on finding a cure, treatment, or vaccine for COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be part of the force that helps those who have been affected by this global pandemic.

Food insecurity. Food pantries throughout the country are being overrun with requests from new clients. With the national number of people filing claims for unemployment now reaching nearly 39 million, it’s no surprise that people need help to feed their families.

We’ve seen the staggering photos of what looks like miles of cars or hundreds and hundreds of people waiting in line to pick up food donations. A story from Vox spelled it out.

“Our city struggled before Covid — many … families [are] living on the edge — and Covid knocked them over the edge,” says San Antonio Food Bank President Eric Cooper.

The spike US food banks are experiencing now is unrivaled in modern history. The images of thousands queued up to receive basic necessities throw the effects of the recent economic downturn into sharp relief.

How you can help: Food banks can do more with your money than they can with the forgotten canned goods lurking in the back of your cupboards. Every dollar donated “helps secure and distribute at least 12 pounds of food — the equivalent of 10 meals — through our nationwide network of food banks,” says the Feeding America website. “Through large-scale negotiating and nationwide donation programs, we’re able to stretch your donation to make the biggest impact possible.” With a network of over 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries, Feeding America can help you find service providers in your ZIP code, whether you need food or want to volunteer.

Feeding America is not the only national group fighting hunger, but it receives high marks from both Charity Watch and Charity Navigator. Charity Navigator also has compiled a list of well-rated nonprofits responding to the coronavirus pandemic. That list contains both national and local groups and is broken down into those providing the following:

  • Medical services.
  • Relief supplies, health and medical.
  • Relief supplies, community support and services.
  • Funding local organizations.
  • Education and awareness.
  • Cross-categorical.

If there was ever a time to make a donation to help those in need, this is it. Every charity you ever supported is likely asking you to step up. It’s probably best to start with those meeting the basic need of hunger. If you can’t donate, you could still volunteer at a local food bank, especially because many regular volunteers are older and might not feel comfortable going out in public more than necessary.

The mask and PPE shortage. Before this pandemic hit, unless you worked in a medical field, I bet few of us knew that PPE stood for personal protective equipment, but now it’s an abbreviation that few of us will ever forget.

How you can help: First of all, wear a mask yourself while out in public. Just because Donald Trump refuses to wear a mask in front of a camera doesn’t mean the rest of us have to mirror such ignorance. The practice is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wearing a mask is your way of saying you care about those around you, especially for people who may not know they’re infected.

What about other masks? If you sew, you can become part of the sewing army. The New York Times chronicled stitcher’s early efforts:

All over the country, homebound Americans are crafting thousands upon thousands of face masks to help shield doctors, nurses and many others from the coronavirus.

They are pulling together to meet an urgent need: Hospitals, overwhelmed by the fast-spreading pandemic, are burning through their supplies of protective gear, in particular masks, at an alarming rate. Doctors and nurses are getting sick and dying.

Because I sew, I decided to start making masks. A local group in my Chicago suburb started small, with one person who said, “I can’t cure corona, but I can sew a mask.” She and another mask-maker formed a Facebook group that started with a handful of members. It gradually added more volunteers to become an army of sewers, suppliers, and supporters. Its geographic volunteer base spread from one suburb to throughout the Chicago area.

Chicago Mask Makers is run by seven volunteer leaders, all women and moms, one of whom is a registered nurse, but they haven’t all met each other in person. “We bonded with a common mission,” said one of the group’s administrators, Christine Baumbach (full disclosure: I knew Baumbach before COVID-19; we carpooled to our kids’ preschool).

While the group has about 2,000 members in support, many of whom have donated supplies, about 200 take part in actual mask-making. They sew; cut fabric squares; track down elastic, pipe cleaners, metal nose pieces, thread, and nonwoven fabric; and transport supplies, since some of the older volunteer sewers don’t drive. The group’s Facebook page and website offer online tutorials and a PDF with step-by-step instructions on how to sew a mask.

Medical organizations in need of masks can fill out a request form. So far, in the group’s two months of existence, more than 13,000 masks have been donated to health care professionals at more than 40 area hospitals, ICUs, ERs, birthing centers, nursing homes, and clinics, but there’s always a waiting list of requests. “We opened it up to first responders, so anybody who is caring for a COVID patients is welcome to ask for masks,” Baumbach said.

“So many of our sewers had not sewn in 20 years, but it was incredible how many people were willing to step up and say, ‘I can contribute.’ It’s very gratifying,” Baumbach added.

“We have not done any real fundraising. Almost everything has been donated, but for some things we do need to buy, such as elastic, someone steps up with a donation.”

Sewing these masks has made me feel that I’m making a contribution. When I pick up fabric squares each week, I like to imagine that they were leftover fabric from a loved one’s quilt or a child’s curtains. I felt like I scored a home run when I received fabric with Marvel superheroes.

I keep telling myself, “This isn’t Project Runway,” but I like to coordinate the fabric and non-woven backing. Dark blue fabric and orange backing? I hope that hospital has lots of Bears fans. Yellow fabric and backing with blue ties? Maybe that will go to a Michigan Wolverine.

I’ve made more than 100 masks, when I count masks I’ve sewed for friends, family, church members, and health professionals. But I feel like a total slacker compared with what Rob and Susan Parks are doing.

The Parkses (full disclosure again: I’ve known Susan since our days in the PTO of the elementary school our kids attended) started a network to make and donate 8,000 face shields for health care professionals throughout Chicago. They use a 3-D printer to create a plastic frame. A heavy-duty plastic page protector, like the kind bought at an office supply store, serves as the actual shield. They put out a call for volunteers and have dubbed their group the “Noble Army.” It’s up to 40 people creating 200 frames a day, according to WTTW, the local PBS station (click link to play video).

https://player.pbs.org/viralplayer/3042855077/

The couple also created a website with directions on how to make such frames on a 3-D printer. The cost per unit is about $1, and donations are covering much of those costs. “I will be glad when what we do is not necessary anymore,” Susan Parks told WTTW, “because that means that people will not need this type of protection. But while it is there we will fill the need.”

You likely have a volunteer story one of your own, with a talent of your own that you’re using to help others during this time.

But we all have a superpower that we don’t need to keep hidden. We can use that power in the months leading up to Nov. 3 to elect people who share our empathy for patients, those out of work, and those on the front lines. Work for the candidates of your choice, even if social distancing requires a new kind of campaigning and volunteering from home. Send postcards. Make phone calls. Most of all, VOTE.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to head to the basement to sew some more masks.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on May 27, 2020.

After COVID-19 closures, economy is returning with a whimper, not a roar

Salons, such as this one in Atlanta, offer one of the few bright spots in economic recovery. Let’s hope people aren’t literally dying to get their hair cut.

What if you reopened the economy and nobody shopped?

It’s still way too early to measure the economic effects of several states allowing the reopening of retail stores, restaurants, salons, gyms, doctors’ offices, and other businesses that have been hit hard by stay-at-home orders because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence is based on anecdotes rather than hard data, but businesses are desperate: U.S. retail sales tumbled a record 16.4% in April.

Who will spend money at those businesses is even more problematic. The U.S. unemployment rate soared to 14.7%, according to the April jobs report, and in just the first week of May, nearly 3 million people filed unemployment claims, for a total of 36.5 million unemployed Americans since mid-March.

But one thing is certain: The economy hasn’t come roaring back, as Donald Trump and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin promised in late March. Instead, the Trump administration is now singing a different, less lion-like tune: In a May 10 Fox News Sunday interview, Mnuchin admitted that the economy and employment numbers are “probably going to get worse before they get better.” Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell warns of long-term economic damage without more financial help to taxpayers from the federal government.

Governors itching to get their states going again — to appease both Trump and a small minority of often heavily armed protestors in several states screaming about “liberty” and demanding that businesses reopen — are announcing reopening plans, often going too fast for public health physicians and scientists. A dozen states were set to launch a major reopening of businesses by May 18, and more than two-thirds have reopened in some significant way.

On May 14, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued brief checklists of guidance on how to reopen public spaces safely, with details on transmission thresholds, travel recommendations, rules for large venues, and more.

Too bad the vast majority of U.S. citizens aren’t ready for reopening. Because they don’t want to die if they can avoid it.

Americans are obviously tired of living in quarantine and want to get back to a normal life, whatever that might look like in the age of COVID-19. But poll after poll, such as this one from Pew Research, shows that a large majority of people fear that states might be lifting restrictions too quickly.

The Pew data show that 68% of all Americans are wary of reopening too fast. There’s a growing partisan divide, too: In data collected from April 29 through May 5, 53% of Republicans thought restrictions were being lifted too slowly, up from 48% who thought that from April 5-12. Contrast that with 87% of Democrats who thought restrictions were being lifted too quickly, up from 81% a few weeks earlier.

Partisan divide, yes; class divide, no. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found that “there just aren’t meaningful divisions along class or education lines on these questions,” as a Washington Post story put it.

By 78 percent to 22 percent, Americans believe it is “necessary” for people in their communities to stay at home as much as possible.

The spread is very similar among those of incomes below $50,000 (82-18), those of incomes of $50,000 to $100,000 (77-23), and those of incomes over $100,000 (71-29).

Like many media outlets, CNN regularly updates its list of each state’s reopening status. Some were early out of the gate, such as Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp unbelievably said he didn’t know that asymptomatic people could spread coronavirus.

Wisconsin joined the “let freedom ring and then die” club when the state Supreme Court struck down the stay-at-home order from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers after a challenge from the GOP-led Wisconsin Legislature. The decision also comes after 72 people in Wisconsin who attended a large protest against the stay-at-home order have now tested positive for coronavirus. There’s no telling what the infection rate will be in the hordes of people who descended on the state’s bars to celebrate opening up again after the Supreme Court decision.

Everyone is tired of being cooped up, and we all want to support local businesses that are hurting. But states where stores have been open for a few weeks are seeing a sluggish recovery at best. Most Americans are still too frightened to be in enclosed spaces with lots of people. According to a story in TIME:

A new study by Fivestars, a marketing platform for small businesses, found that while sales at small businesses in Georgia, Texas, Florida and California jumped 18% the weekend of May 7-10 compared to the weekend prior, they were down 63% compared to the same weekend last year.

The TIME story gives examples of several small businesses telling the same tale: gift shops, tattoo parlors, and music stores all report a trickle rather than a rush of business.

Lanie Lewis, the owner of State Street Trading Company in West Columbia, S.C., is less sanguine. Her store is a gift shop and arts & crafts store in a rapidly growing part of town. Before the pandemic, she had ordered $8,000 worth of trinkets and small gifts to sell during what she expected to be a bustling street fair season.

Lewis opened her doors back up on April 23, but the fairs are not returning, leaving her sitting on boxes of unsold goods. While regular customers buy things to support her from time to time, the foot traffic is nonexistent, and Lewis says she’s lucky if she gets two customers a day. “I’ve had days where I’ve had nothing in the register,” she says.

One exception seems to be salons and barber shops. We’re all feeling pretty shaggy and long to get a professional haircut, so it’s no surprise that business has been booming in salons in reopened states. The TIME story quoted the owner of Salon Gloss in an Atlanta suburb.

“Our clients were just elated to be back,” Tim Timmons, the store’s owner, tells TIME. “Their hair looks terrible. It’s long and they’ve got bad roots, so they’re getting everything done.”

It’s not just the regulars who are coming in: Timmons says he had 60 new clients in his first two days of operation. While his staff is half of what it used to be, Timmons estimates he is taking in 75% percent of what he normally would, because his clients are asking for extra work: color, cuts, perms and more.

Another current economic success is community supported agriculture, or CSAs. While some of the nation’s farmers are being forced to pour milk down drains and leave crops rotting in fields because their restaurant markets have dried up, the CSA market of delivering boxes of fresh, locally grown produce to customers has seen a resurgence — and many CSAs have growing waiting lists. Customers fearful of shopping in grocery stores or even visiting a local farmers’ market are instead choosing to have produce delivered safely. From an NPR story:

CSAs have long been something of a niche market that have never really penetrated the mainstream. Yet the coronavirus just might prove to be sparking community supported agriculture’s breakout moment.

“In all the time that we’ve worked with CSAs, which is several decades, we’ve never seen a surge as quickly as we have of the last few weeks,” said Evan Wiig with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, which supports and lobbies on behalf of CSAs across California. …

The coronavirus has exposed the vulnerabilities and fragility of the U.S. global agribusiness supply chain. The CSA model’s focus on local and fresh is ideally suited for a crisis that has people deeply worried about germs on lettuce, beets or broccoli as the crops make their way from the field to the kitchen counter.

Even with the CDC guidelines, in the absence of a national plan from the Trump administration, governors are weighing public health against economic recovery. There have been successes in opening outdoor activities such as golf, hiking, boating, and even drive-in movie theaters. After some serious missteps that led to large crowds, most officials now know that reopening beaches means issuing requirements such as no sunbathing or beach volleyball to avoid crowds and maintain social distancing. Indoor events or events with bigger crowds, such as most worship services, professional sports, music concerts, and theater performances, are still on hold for now. Restaurants will function very differently, with waiters in masks, spaced-out booths and tables, and e-menus.

But will customers come back? The industry newsletter Restaurant Business said only 41% would go out to eat within 30 days.

In comparison, 18% of consumers canvassed by The Harris Poll said they’re likely to stay in a hotel within a month of infections decelerating. Fifteen percent said they expect to board a plan within a month of that marker, and 21% indicated their expectation of going to see a movie.

About 13% of consumers expect to resume going out to eat as soon as the risk of decontamination starts to abate. Twenty-eight percent said they’d dine out within the next one to 30 days.

Another 25% said they’d wait two to three months. Six percent said they’d hold off for a year, and 1% indicated they’d never again eat within a restaurant.

Germany and South Korea provided admirable models of COVID-19 containment with widespread testing and contact tracing. Yet when the two countries took steps to reopen, they were hit with higher infection rates. In South Korea, one man who went dancing at five nightclubs in one evening spread the virus to 162 people. Germany saw a tripling of cases in one day. A second wave in the U.S. could be much, much worse.

It’s best to listen to the advice of infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, who told a Senate panel that reopening too quickly could lead to needless suffering and death. Despite what Trump and Fox News commentators shout to discredit his warnings, Dr. Fauci, a member of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force and longtime head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is found to have more credibility than anyone else about the pandemic.

Until the new normal emerges, perhaps we should change our national motto to “In Fauci We Trust.”

Originally posted on Daily Kos on May 15, 2020.

How to mark Earth Day’s 50th anniversary during COVID-19: online

Children used push brooms to sweep up litter in a New York City park during Earth Day 1970. This year, people seeking change through climate action will look for ways to do it online.

In the face of a pandemic, Earth Day 2020 is going digital.

COVID-19 has rightfully seized the world’s attention, and many around the globe are on lockdown. But being stuck at home doesn’t mean we can forget the long-term struggle to save the environment and fight global warming.

Groups marking the 50th anniversary of Earth Day were planning in-person events, but they had to switch gears quickly to comply with the new reality of social distancing. Commemorations of the first Earth Day, held in April 1970, will still take place, but organizers will be using the digital space to keep people engaged, informed, and inspired about the climate change fight. Instead of speeches, tree plantings, and protests, there will be online film festivals, Zoom webinars, and three days of livestreaming.

The first Earth Day is credited with launching the modern environmental movement and has been described as “the planet’s largest civic event.” As explained on the Earth Day 2020 website:

Earth Day was a unified response to an environment in crisis — oil spills, smog, rivers so polluted they literally caught fire.

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans — 10% of the U.S. population at the time — took to the streets, college campuses and hundreds of cities to protest environmental ignorance and demand a new way forward for our planet. …

The Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts were created in response to the first Earth Day in 1970, as well as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Many countries soon adopted similar laws.

Earth Day continues to hold major international significance: In 2016, the United Nations chose Earth Day as the day when the historic Paris Agreement on climate change was signed into force.

The inspiration for the original Earth Day came from Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin after he witnessed the effects of a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. Long interested in environmental issues as both Wisconsin’s senator and governor, Nelson wanted to harness the energy of campus protests against the Vietnam War and turn it into a national force for environmental action. A website outlining Nelson’s actions to launch Earth Day explained it further.

Nelson struggled through the 1960s to get his colleagues in Congress to take ecological concerns seriously. Nelson spoke out early and often against the Vietnam War and ballooning defense spending, which he saw deflecting funds and focus away from domestic crises. …

Reflecting on the empowering effects of campus activism, Nelson proposed a day when citizens nationwide would host teach-ins to raise awareness of environmental problems. His proposal was met immediately with overwhelming support. The national media widely broadcast the plans for this so-called “Earth Day” and Nelson’s office was flooded by enthusiastic letters.

But while Nelson established a small national office to offer support to the thousands of grassroots efforts, he firmly rejected a top-down organization. Instead, “Earth Day planned itself,” he later reflected. An estimated 20 million Americans, young and old, gathered on April 22, 1970, to confront the ecological troubles in their cities, states, nation, and planet—and to demand action from themselves and from their elected officials.

It worked. All of those millions of Americans formed huge crowds to listen to speeches from lawmakers, activists, and entertainers. They picked up garbage along roadsides. They swept up litter in city parks. Earth Day 1970 became the first day of what came to be called an “environmental decade,” with passage of major environmental legislation at national levels.

The size of events ranged from small high-school assemblies to the hundred-thousand participants who created a “human jam” on New York’s Fifth Avenue and flocked to the open-air carnival in the city’s Union Square. Tens of thousands congregated in Fairmont Park in Philadelphia. Colleges across the nation held teach-ins, such as Pittsburgh or Ann Arbor, turning Earth Day into a several-day event.

Each Earth Day event nationwide was some combination of festival, political and academic discussions, outlandish theatrics, and coalition building. The common act on April 22 was the speech. Earth Day presented the opportunity to speak at length about local and national environmental problems, and audiences discovered the will and expertise available in their communities to face the challenges ahead.

Earth Day 2020 organizers invite you to find a local digital event out of the hundreds scheduled worldwide–or create your own. Instead of in-person protests, speeches, tree plantings, teach-ins, and nature clean-ups, there will be Zoom webinars, online environmental film festivals, and a three-day live event with training sessions, performances, and appearances by environmental activists and politicians. Searching for #EarthDayAtHome will be a good way to find activities.

Some of the nation’s leading environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, have their own digital events and offer plenty of environmental tips. The Earth Day Network issued daily challenges throughout April to allow people to take climate action from home. NASA has a special Earth Day Toolkit for students learning from home.

We’ve never needed Earth Day more. During his time in office, Donald Trump has tried to reverse the gains in climate action made by his predecessors. Now he is using the COVID-19 pandemic to gut environmental regulations, rolling back auto fuel efficiency standards and other rules. A story on Common Dreams spells it out.

Just last week, the EPA announced it would indefinitely suspend enforcement of environmental health standards in direct response to a request from the American Petroleum Institute. Trump’s EPA is currently racing to complete a half dozen other significant environmental and public health rollbacks over the coming months but has not extended deadlines on public comment. In some cases, the administration has even refused requests to hold virtual public meetings.

The Trump administration can block public meetings, but we can combine our voices by meeting online. Earth Day Live will hold a three-day livestreaming event from April 22-24 featuring celebrities, musicians, politicians, scientists, and youth activists. Among the many well-known participants are author and activist Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, and the Rev. William Barber, who gained national attention as leader of the Moral Mondays movement. The 72-hour event has three aims over three days: climate strikes, amplifying the voice of indigenous leaders and youth climate activists; divestment from fossil fuel companies; and political engagement, with an online youth voter registration drive. You also can search for a local live-streamed event in your area.

Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, who has motivated students across the globe to fight against climate change with her weekly school strikes for climate, had to switch gears. She has organized a series of weekly webinars titled “Talks For Future” each Friday featuring climate experts such as scientists, activists, and journalists to carry on the spirit of the climate strikes online.

The 17-year-old also has changed her weekly strikes each Friday to #ClimateStrikeOnline:

While you’re stuck at home, learn more by watching a film about the environment. The One Earth Film Festival is offering a virtual “mini film fest,” streaming films about climate action for the entire week of Earth Day, April 20-26. You can register for one or more free screenings (donations always appreciated, of course), watch a film in community online, then discuss with experts via live chat on Zoom. Featured films include some made by student filmmakers. Some museums also are streaming environmental films and hosting discussions, such as Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Since so many are staying home to stay safe, automobile traffic has cut down considerably — and so has the amount of air pollution. These effects can be seen worldwide. According to a story in Johns Hopkins Magazine:

Seismologists studying planetary movement have reported less ambient seismic noise—the daily rumbles and vibrations of mass human transit—and Belgian scientists have observed the Earth’s crust moving less. Widely shared satellite imagery shows fewer cars on the road in China as a result of lockdown orders, prompting speculation about a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. Satellite measurements of nitrogen dioxide show dramatic decreases of the dangerous gas over China and Italy.

The effect might not last, says Peter DeCarlo, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

We know there are fewer emissions, so the air that we’re breathing outside is going to be cleaner than it would otherwise be. … In the U.S., where social distancing and stay-at-home measures are becoming more common, we’ve certainly seen fewer cars on the road, meaning fewer emissions from cars and lower concentrations of traffic-related pollutants than we’d otherwise see. Looking at PM 2.5 data from the February through April period from 2014 to 2020, we’re seeing really low concentrations of pollutants, but they’re not concentrations we haven’t seen previously. Pollutant concentrations are strongly governed by meteorology — how winds move things around, how sunny it is, and if it’s raining or not raining. …

With fewer cars on the road, there will be fewer emissions of CO2 from traffic, similar to their being fewer emissions of particulate matter. Compared to our normal lives, we’ll have lower CO2 emissions while we’re all working from home and basically not driving very often. And that’s good for the short term. But how that translates into future gains is kind of an open question. A one- or two-month drop in emissions, for something that has a 100-year lifetime in the atmosphere, is probably not going to change things all that much.

Instead, it gives us a window into what we could potentially do to mitigate climate change going forward.

Even with millions of fewer cars on the road worldwide, March 2020 was heading toward new levels of global warming.

We don’t have to choose between taking climate action and fighting COVID-19. There is evidence that increased air pollution might be linked to higher death rates of COVID-19 patients, as explained by The New York Times.

In an analysis of 3,080 counties in the United States, researchers at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that higher levels of the tiny, dangerous particles in air known as PM 2.5 were associated with higher death rates from the disease. …

The paper found that if Manhattan had lowered its average particulate matter level by just a single unit, or one microgram per cubic meter, over the past 20 years, the borough would most likely have seen 248 fewer Covid-19 deaths by this point in the outbreak.

Better air and fewer COVID-19 deaths: That’s a combination that should appeal to everyone. It’s a start as we mark Earth Day’s 50th anniversary in the fight against climate change.

It’s a reminder not only of how far we’ve come but also how far we still have to go.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on April 18, 2020.

COVID-19 relief law will send you a check. If you’re able, pay it forward — now

The nation’s food pantries are being overrun even as resources run dry.

The extraordinary $2 trillion coronavirus relief package approved by Congress and signed by Donald Trump will offer help to individual Americans, small business, cities and states, hospitals, U.S. industry, and more. The most immediate effect will come in the form of a $1,200 payment going to nearly all Americans (those with incomes up to $75,000, phasing out for incomes of $99,000) and $2,400 for married couples (with incomes up to $150,000).

If you can, take some of that money and donate it to those who need it most. But don’t wait for the check — do it now.

This message isn’t aimed at those who already have lost jobs (such as the 3.28 million Americans in the latest report, a number that is likely higher and will grow in coming weeks). Millions more probably will lose jobs soon in the coming recession, with restaurants, retail stores, and anything related to the hospitality industry either temporarily closing or going out of business. Young workers in the service sector will be those hardest hit.

Nor is it aimed at those who are still employed but who will be forced to take pay cuts. Analysts in some industries such as advertising and marketing are calling for voluntary 40% pay cuts for executives and other white-collar workers. CEOs and other top executives in some industries, such as airlines and hotels, have already cut their salaries or are donating their entire paychecks, even though their total compensation remains generous. Even the heroes in the medical field who are on the front lines of caring for COVID-19 patients, such as doctors and paramedics in Cincinnati, may be facing 20% pay cuts.

All of those folks, especially those who find themselves out of work, will welcome the $1,200 government check. They still need to pay the rent or the mortgage and buy groceries to feed their families, which is a lot harder with no money coming in.

No, this message is for those of you for whom getting that check won’t make that much difference. Those who are working from home and are still on full salary. Retirees getting Social Security and perhaps (if they’re lucky) a pension. They won’t need that $1,200 for immediate needs. But nonprofits serving those hit hardest by the COVID-19 recession do.

Food pantries across the country are being hit with a triple whammy: Fears of COVID-19 contagion means they have fewer volunteers than usual, especially as many of those volunteers are retirees and thus fall into the category of those most vulnerable. Monetary and food donations have dropped off, especially those from corporate America. Grocery stores, which usually donate excess food, don’t have as much to donate, as people across America are clearing grocery shelves.

The food pantry run by our church has developed a “drive-through” method so that volunteers can just hand boxes to people in their cars, limiting the chance of contagion. People arriving by public transportation receive boxes of food on the sidewalk.

The number of those facing hunger issues is growing exponentially, just like the number of cases of those infected with the coronavirus. According to a story from The Washington Post:

“Not in my lifetime has there been a precedent for this,” said Catherine D’Amato, chief executive of the Greater Boston Food Bank, which is servicing two coronavirus hot spots, Boston and Pittsfield, Mass. “We know how to respond to fires, earthquakes, floods. There isn’t a playbook for this.” …

School closures, job disruptions, lack of paid sick leave and the coronavirus’s disproportionate effect on older adults and low-income families have further contributed to the demands placed on food banks.

Those $1,200 checks from the COVID-19 relief package will arrive before too long, especially for those with direct deposit already recorded with the IRS for tax refunds. Others will be mailed checks, likely by sometime in May at the latest. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin estimated that the first payments could start in three weeks.

Food pantries can’t wait until May — too many families are facing food insecurity and shortages now. Those organizations helping the homeless can’t wait that long, either.

If you can’t spare the cash, here’s another idea: Donate blood. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a shortage of blood, and many planned blood drives have been canceled. Check the Red Cross website to find a donation site near you.

Or maybe you’re a home sewer or crafter. With the shortage of N95 masks for hospitals workers and first responders, many are having to make do with the next best thing, even if it’s constructed from fabric instead of the nonwoven material that provides the protection of an N95 mask. Groups all over the country have formed to offer video instructions on how to make such masks and how to donate them. They are pitching in at the sewing machine — A Sewing Army, as The New York Times put it. Facebook groups have formed to offer members tips, such as this site, Masks4Medicine.

So thank you to all the medical workers on the front lines taking care of patients. Thank you to all who are volunteering your time to check in on older neighbors. Thank you to grocery store workers who are keeping us fed. Thank you to restaurants offering take-out and delivery (and make sure you tip those food delivery guys well). Thank you to blood donors and mask makers.

Organizations all over the country have started their own relief funds to raise money for nonprofits. In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker enlisted his sister, former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, to run the Illinois COVID-19 Response Fund. The governor and his wife made an initial donation of $2 million of their own money, with an additional $2 million from the family foundation (when you’re a billionaire, you can do that).

If you’re able, find a fund in your area and make a donation. And if you can spare anything at all, please donate to your local food pantry.

A St. Patrick’s Day song parody about coronavirus (WITH POLL)

Who’s ready to dance a jig … at home?

Bald Piano Guy, the New York state public school music teacher who regularly posts ditties against Trump, is offering us an original St. Patrick’s Day special.

Bald Piano Guy, whose real name is Alan Schwartz, has taught music for some 25 years at a middle school on Long Island. His first claim to fame came in his parodies against Betsy DeVos, who knows nothing about public education, so naturally she’s the Education secretary. His parodies are available on his Facebook page and his YouTube channel — and they’re pretty darn funny, especially if you’re a teacher or a musician.

Watch and enjoy, and see if your feet don’t start tapping, if not moving to a jig.

I’m with Irene in quarantine
to battle the spreading of COVID-19.
There’s nothing as fair and quite as serene
than to be with Irene in quarantine!

I’m not positive, but I think the lovely Irene pictured in the song is actually Mrs. Bald Piano Guy, as he referred to her once as they danced in one of the parodies.

On a day when we might be hoisting a few at a local pub, we’re doing it in the privacy of our own homes. Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone, and don’t forget to wash your hands. And VOTE in November.

Biden displays compassion, competence over Trump on coronavirus

Joe BIden’s speech on COVID-19 accomplished more in 18 minutes that Donald Trump’s previous three months of inaction.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has shown us why he deserves to be the Democratic presidential nominee and why he will beat Donald Trump in November.

While Americans are left confused by inaction, contradictions, and downright lies from the Trump administration — mostly from Trump himself — on how best to fight the novel coronavirus pandemic, Biden delivered a clear plan of action on how to take charge of the public health crisis. He knew how to respond and what to say because he had faced this kind of crisis before when he was vice president for eight years.

While Trump never admits that he ever does anything wrong, the world knows differently. A March 11 televised address to the nation contained several inaccuracies that had to be clarified within minutes. Specifically, he was wrong on travel bans (U.S. citizens and permanent residents can return home), acceptance of foreign goods (the U.S. will still accept cargo from other countries), and payment for COVID-19 infection treatment (health insurers say they’ll pay for testing but not treatment).

This is the same guy who claimed that coronavirus was a Democratic hoax, that the virus would go away by April, that the risk remains low, that his administration is doing a great job handling the crisis, and much more. The Washington Post has a timeline of all of Trump’s outrageous and false claims as he tried to play down the health threat.

Congress passed and Trump signed a bill to spend $8.3 billion to fight this pandemic. Yet many communities across America have no access to test kits — zero. Delays in testing have greatly exacerbated the crisis. The first cases in the U.S. were found in January, and officials in Seattle had to do their own tests without U.S. government approval. According to a story in The New York Times:

The failure to tap into the flu study, detailed here for the first time, was just one in a series of missed chances by the federal government to ensure more widespread testing during the early days of the outbreak, when containment would have been easier. Instead, local officials across the country were left to work in the dark as the crisis grew undetected and exponentially.

Even now, after weeks of mounting frustration toward federal agencies over flawed test kits and burdensome rules, states with growing cases such as New York and California are struggling to test widely for the coronavirus. The continued delays have made it impossible for officials to get a true picture of the scale of the growing outbreak, which has now spread to at least 36 states and Washington, D.C.

So instead, let’s listen to Joe Biden. He lists his proposals for COVID-19 on his campaign website, and he invited Trump to use any and all of his ideas, which include:

  • A decisive public health response that ensures the wide availability of free testing; the elimination of all cost barriers to preventive care and treatment for COVID-19; the development of a vaccine; and the full deployment and operation of necessary supplies, personnel, and facilities.
  • A decisive economic response that starts with emergency paid leave for all those affected by the outbreak and gives all necessary help to workers, families, and small businesses that are hit hard by this crisis. Make no mistake: this will require an immediate set of ambitious and progressive economic measures, and further decisive action to address the larger macro-economic shock from this outbreak. 

The entire speech is here and is definitely worth your while:

Is it any wonder that Democratic voters have realized who they want as a standard-bearer come the fall? Dare we say it: Joe Biden sounded downright presidential.

Be sure to keep washing your hands, don’t touch your face, stay away from large crowds, and stay home if you’re sick. And vote for Democrats in the fall.

Women candidates got a raw deal. Just like always.

We could have had one of them as our next president.

What started as the most diverse Democratic field in history has ended up as two old white guys pushing 80.

WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?

As maddening as it is that the choices left to us are not our favorites, many voters — especially women voters — saw 2020 as a chance to avenge Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, especially since she received nearly 3 million more votes than Donald Trump.

When Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren ended her campaign after disappointing results on Super Tuesday, her campaign really had no choice but to fold, as there was essentially no path forward to the nomination. She followed the path of a series of excellent female candidates, all of whom were forced to suspend their campaigns after running out of money, not receiving enough support in the polls, and not getting enough votes.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was an early dropout. California Sen. Kamala Harris,  whose poll numbers soared last summer but sank amid a crowded field, could never raise enough money to run a full campaign, especially facing a juggernaut of money sent to male candidates. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar always shone on the debate stage, but she had to share the “moderate” voting bloc with too many others.

(I realize that Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is still technically a candidate, but, except for her one delegate from American Samoa, she has been and remains a non-factor, only serving as a spoiler.)

A record number of women ran for office in 2018, and another record number of Democratic women won House seats. It was the “Year of the Woman” all over again, as many of those new women lawmakers have made their voices heard sponsoring legislation, making numerous media appearances, and gaining influence on social media.

When candidates started launching presidential campaigns, it was heartening to see so many women candidates, as it was to see candidates who were black, Latino, and gay. It was almost as if — at least for Democrats — those distinctions weren’t as important as they once were.

But from the beginning, women faced a double standard. Women candidates are judged on their “moralizing tone” (Warren), their “hysteria” (Harris), or their “likability” (Gillibrand and Warren). Their media coverage was much less than that of male candidates, especially the “B-boys” (Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg). The lopsided coverage became what Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan called a “dangerous, self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Both Sanders and Warren backed a Medicare for All plan. One candidate (Warren) received much media criticism about how to pay for it. The other (Sanders) got a free pass, with media instead focusing on his huge rallies of fawning supporters.

The most anger-inducing fact of all of the women having to abandon their campaigns is that, by all practical measurements, they were just better candidates and would have made better presidents. Warren ran a better campaign than anyone and had a website full of proposals, even selling T-shirts that proudly proclaimed, “Warren has a plan for that.”

Klobuchar had all of the characteristics of being the best candidate on paper, as FiveThirtyEight put it, with her effective Senate career and her winning electoral record in a Midwestern state. Former FBI Director James Comey, who went to the University of Chicago Law School with Klobuchar, once described her as “annoyingly smart.”

Harris displayed her prosecutor chops in multiple Senate hearings. Attorney General William Barr embarrassed himself when he stumbled over her repeated questions about whether Trump had ever asked him to investigate anyone. You know, like Joe Biden’s son Hunter in Ukraine.

There are many reasons why this race ended up as it has. Each candidate spent too much time in Iowa and New Hampshire, chasing a small number of delegates in two overwhelmingly white states. They had no way to fight against Sanders’ money and organization or against the hundreds of millions spent by short-time candidate Mike Bloomberg, even though that fizzled in the end. They couldn’t fight against Trump’s media dominance, in which the media still chase down and cover his nonsensical and insulting tweets. The media still allow themselves to get distracted when Trump directs their attention away from his lies and bad judgment.

The media spent so much time focusing on “electability” of Democratic candidates that they eventually convinced voters that Democrats had to choose a white male to defeat Donald Trump. That became the self-fulfilling prophecy, even though Warren, Harris, or Klobuchar would have wiped the floor with Trump during a debate.

Hey, media — think you can be a little more even-handed from now on? Give candidates equal and fair coverage? After all, 29 countries currently have women leaders, and 59 countries have had women as heads of state. Don’t you think it’s past time for the U.S. to catch up to the rest of the world?

The biggest factor was the fact that there were just too many candidates for lesser-known candidates to break through. Some in the race had no business being there and had no base of natural support. Before the next contest, many candidates need to check their egos at the door and take a good, hard look at what’s possible before wasting a lot of our time.

So now we’re down to the two old white guys. Warren’s campaign suspension was like a final punch in the gut to women everywhere:

An NPR story quoted the head of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University about the problem women still face getting elected to executive positions:

The rapid rise of black women mayors in large American cities is a sign that black women are making strides in an area where all women have long been absent, said Debbie Walsh, the center’s director.

“One of the challenges that we’ve seen over time for women, in general, is women in executive leadership,” Walsh said. “There’s an assumption that women in legislative positions, whether federal level, state level or even at the city level work well in committee, work well on councils. It fits for the stereotype for women.”

“Breaking that final glass ceiling of women as executives really opens up a world of possibilities. To be the person who is the final decider, the place where the buck stops, is something that we think voters may be more hesitant about,” Walsh continued.

Now, all we can do is move forward and hope we make the right choice in the voting booth. If Joe Biden wins in November, I hope he’s smart enough to realize that he’ll need good younger people around him and in his Cabinet, and that many of them need to be people of color and have two X chromosomes. The group that ran for president would be an excellent starting point.

As for the women candidates, this is the best suggestion I’ve seen:

I’d gladly buy a ticket to that event. Heck, let’s televise it. It would get Super Bowl-level ratings, and wine sales beforehand would go through the roof.

Maybe afterward, we can all throw our wine glasses at that glass ceiling that holds qualified women back. If not this year, then in 2024.

U.S. must step up the urgent fight against plastic waste

This cleanup activity at a beach in the Philippines shows only a tiny part of the plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. (Photo by Daniel Muller/Greenpeace)

A recent study from Australia’s University of Newcastle estimated that each person consumes the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of plastic each week. Clearly, we’re well past the crisis point; while many other countries realize that the world is becoming awash in plastic waste and are passing bans on plastic bags and other kinds of single-use plastic, the United States is taking only baby steps when giant steps are needed.

A new bill, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020, was recently introduced in Congress by Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Democratic Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California. The bills, H.R. 5845 and S. 3263, are co-sponsored by six senators and 29 representatives, all Democrats. The legislation is being described as “one of the most aggressive, sweeping attempts to hold the plastics industry, beverage makers, and other companies financially responsible for dealing with the waste they create.”

Just like the concepts in the Green New Deal, the legislation is ambitious and necessary, even if its passage right now is as likely as the chance of Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe (who infamously brought a snowball to the Senate floor to “disprove” climate change) joining Greta Thunberg at a climate strike. Among the bill’s provisions:

  • Companies that manufacture plastic would be required to take responsibility for collecting and recycling materials. This is now done unevenly around the country by state and local governments.
  • Beginning in 2022, there would be a nationwide fee for single-use plastic bags, something done by several states and in many cities now.
  • Also beginning in 2022, some common single-use plastic products that can’t be recycled would be phased out from sale and distribution, such as polystyrene food and drink containers, plastic stirrers, and plastic utensils.
  • Plastic beverage containers would be required to include an increasing percentage of recycled content in their manufacturing process before they enter the market.
  • The EPA would develop standardized recycling and composting labels. Currently, consumers are often confused by what can be recycled, as different localities have different rules. When it comes to composting, here’s a hint: If it used to be alive, it can be composted.
  • There would be a 10-cent national surcharge for all beverage containers, regardless of material, to be refunded to customers when they return bottles and cans, a practice now done in 10 states.

“The plastic pollution crisis is past the tipping point: our communities, our waterways, and even our bodies are at risk,” Udall said in his official press release. “We are already bearing the cleanup costs of mountains of plastic waste, and it will only get worse for future generations. We have a responsibility to act now before the overwhelming public health, environmental, climate and economic effects of plastic pollution reach the point of no return. Our solutions are not only possible — they are practical and are already being implemented in cities and states across the country, including in my home state of New Mexico. But we need a comprehensive, national strategy to tackle this tidal wave of pollution before it is too late.”

While this all sounds optimistic, the bill is not going to pass in this form, and certainly not any time soon: It has no Republican co-sponsors, it’s an election year, and a climate denier sits in the White House. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would never bring up such a bill for a vote, given that it would harm some of the fossil fuel companies that are big GOP donors. As plastic production has become one of the fossil fuel industry’s most promising areas of growth, companies have been investing more in such production as demand for their fuel products levels off.

It’s way past time to get serious about plastic pollution. Much of the plastic waste and plastic bags that Western countries used to send to countries in Africa or Asia for recycling (and only about 1% of the 100 billion plastic bags used in the U.S. annually actually get recycled) aren’t being accepted anymore. Many countries such as China, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and multiple countries in Africa have reversed many policies on plastic garbage. Some no longer accept plastic waste; some have instigated stricter rules when plastic garbage is contaminated; and some are even sending it back to its countries of origin, mainly the U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.

The European Union, Canada, and 34 countries in Africa have banned or are phasing out many single-use plastic items. A United Nations study reports that plastic bag bans are working and are especially effective in African countries where waste is often burned, releasing poisonous gases into the air.

Skeptics of such policies may be unaware of the depressing statistics about plastic waste and its impact on the world’s oceans:

  • The world produces 381 million tons of plastic waste each year. That figure is expected to double by 2034.
  • Fifty percent of plastic waste is single-use plastic. Only 9% of that has ever been recycled.
  • The U.S. throws away 80 million tons of plastic every year.
  • More than 1 million single-use plastic bags are thrown away worldwide each minute.
  • Eight million pieces of plastic find their way into the world’s oceans each day. The annual total is about 12.7 million tons.
  • Some 100,000 sea creatures and 1 million seabirds die each year from being tangled in plastic.
  • Plastic is found in one-third of fish caught for human consumption.

Many states are doing what the federal government is not. California, Oregon, each county in Hawaii, and several U.S. territories have banned or taxed plastic bags. A statewide ban in New York goes into effect on March 1. About 200 municipalities have either banned or require a fee for using single-use plastic bags. (Just to be ornery, Republican legislatures in 10 states have laws banning plastic-bag bans by individual cities.) The National Conference of State Legislatures has a roundup of what states are doing to cut down plastic bag use.

In California, the plastic bag ban is working so well that plastic bag litter dropped by 72% between 2010 and 2015. Plastic bags now account for less than 1.5% of all litter, rather than the nearly 10% that used to be the case.

New legislation in Illinois has some of the same components of the federal bill. A comprehensive package of bills aims to reduce single-use plastic, with proposals to ban polystyrene beginning in 2022. The legislation also would create a statewide container deposit for both plastic and aluminum, establish a statewide 10-cent carryout bag fee, and require single-use plastic utensils to be provided only by request or at a self-serve station. The bills would push the state to lead by example, buying recyclable and compostable materials. Chicago is considering its own ordinance to cut down on single-use plastic.

Anti-plastic activist and author Beth Terry has gained a nationwide following with her YouTube videos and blog, My Plastic-Free Life, which offer advice on how to cut down on plastic use. Here are some of her top recommendations. Even if you don’t do all of these, they’re easy to try.

  • Carry reusable shopping bags (shouldn’t this be a no-brainer by now?).
  • Give up bottled water and carry your own refillable water bottle.
  • Shop at your local farmers’ market and bring your own bags to fill with fresh produce rather than buying plastic-packaged produce from grocery stores.
  • Return containers for berries, cherry tomatoes, etc., to farmers’ markets to be reused.
  • Say no to plastic produce bags (we re-use ours and wash them out).
  • Buy from bulk bins as often as possible.
  • Cut out sodas, juices, and all other plastic-bottled beverages.
  • Buy fresh bread that comes in either paper bags or no bags.
  • Bring your own containers for meat and prepared foods. (Grocery stores will let you do this. I’ve tried it myself and it works, even if the guy at the deli counter gives you a funny look).
  • Choose milk in returnable glass bottles.

Terry gave a Ted Talk with many more examples of how she works on achieving that plastic-free life.

This April 22 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the day designated to “build the world’s largest environmental movement to drive transformative change for people and planet,” as the group Earth Day Network says in its mission statement. The organization grew out of the first Earth Day observance in 1970 and has 75,000 partners in 190 countries that are working on climate change. Yet the climate crisis is only getting worse. So the theme for Earth Day 2020 is “climate action,” and individuals can find a planned Earth Day event near them, including teach-ins, rallies, tree planting, environmental cleanups, and more. People also can register one of their own events.

Since 2011, Plastic-Free July has organized a global movement to help people fight plastic pollution, with over 250 million participants in 177 countries. The group asks people to commit to avoid purchasing and using single-use plastic items every July, and the movement has gained more adherents each year. The organization’s website lists testimonials from people around the world and includes many ideas consumers can adopt in all avenues of life to avoid using plastic.

Who knows: Those habits might stick with you all year long.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Feb. 25, 2020.

William Barr’s scam of claims of ‘independence’

U.S. Attorney General William Barr has gone public complaining that Donald Trump’s incendiary tweets are making it “impossible” for him to do his job at the Dept. of Justice. And at least some in the media seem to be buying it.

Next, Barr is going to try to sell them a bridge in Brooklyn.

Many in the legal profession dropped their collective jaws when the Justice Dept. abruptly changed course on a sentencing recommendation for convicted felon Roger Stone, longtime Trump buddy and Republican operative convicted of obstructing Congress and witness intimidation. The original recommendation was sentence of seven to nine years. Trump tweeted about how “unfair” that was, and Barr cut down the recommended length of sentence.

Four career Justice Dept. lawyers who had handled Stone’s case withdrew from the proceedings in protest, one even resigning from the Justice Dept. itself. Legal analysts and others said the episode represented a low moment for the department. Nine Democratic senators signed a letter calling for Barr to resign.

Even worse, Barr has now appointed a hand-picked independent prosecutor to “review” the criminal case against Michael Flynn, Trump’s disgraced ex-national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Flynn’s case is another favorite subject of Trump’s tweets of outrage. Legal experts are calling this review “highly unusual.” Talk about an understatement.

Now we’re all supposed to believe, as Barr told ABC News, that he is being totally honest when he asserts his judicial independence. We’re supposed to take him seriously when he claimed, “I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.” As if he’s ever stood up for his department before and hasn’t just done Trump’s bidding.

Yet there was straightforward reporting by multiple news outlets, from The New York Times on down, that William Barr was asserting his independence. Come on, media. This is the same Bill Barr who:

  • Won Trump’s heart in the first place with a Washington Post op-ed claiming that Trump was right to fire FBI Director James Comey. That toadying op-ed was the real reason Barr was appointed attorney general in the first place.
  • Summarized the entire Mueller report in just four pages, claiming that it totally “exonerated” Trump (it didn’t). The Barr memo on Robert Mueller’s 400-page report on the investigation of Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 election drew heavy criticism once people actually had a chance to read the whole document. Even Mueller criticized the summation by his longtime friend Barr, saying it “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the report.
  • Dodged questions during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee whether anyone at the White House had suggested he open an investigation of anyone. “I’m trying to grapple with the word ‘suggest,’ ” Barr said in answer to a question from California Sen. Kamala Harris. This was before the whole matter of Trump’s asking Ukraine to investigate a possible political rival, Joe Biden, and his son Hunter Biden. Barr was mentioned as being part of the investigation in the July 2019 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The biggest tell that Barr’s supposed “independence” was a scam came from Trump himself. Trump said he wasn’t bothered by Barr’s claims and congratulated him on how he “took charge of the case” — as if Barr hadn’t sold Trump on this bit of Kabuki theater beforehand to give the whole distasteful episode an aura of respectability.

The Department of Justice is the one federal agency in the president’s Cabinet that must be independent. Most presidents understood that. As one of the U.S. attorneys appointed by President Obama tweeted:

That independence is key to democracy, argued world affairs columnist Frida Ghitis, in an opinion piece on CNN.

An independent judiciary is an indispensable ingredient in the rule of law, and without rule of law, there is no justice. Without rule of law it’s all but impossible to preserve a functioning democracy, let alone a well-functioning government.

We have seen this through even recent history: as would-be autocrats have torn multiple countries away from their democratic moorings, a primary target has been the judiciary. …

Claims that the Justice Department’s decision had nothing to do with Trump’s wishes takes Americans for fools.

The necessity of an independent Justice Dept. is something that William Barr perhaps once knew but Trump conveniently ignores. And some in the media just lapped up the Barr Kool-Aid, even though they should know better.

Which is it going to be, media? Protection of access to your sources or honest reporting?

Election security at higher risk in high-turnout election

Election support specialists checking equipment in Miami-Dade County before the 2018 midterm elections. How can voters be sure their votes will be secure in November?

High voter turnout is widely predicted in November, which is always good news for democracy. The bad news for democracy is that many voters are worried about election security and might not trust the eventual outcome of the presidential election. Concerns include voting machines that could be hacked, voter suppression, voter fraud, and widespread dissemination of misinformation.

The failure of technology in the Iowa caucuses only adds to that concern. The delay in reporting vote totals because of a new and untested smartphone app was frustrating, especially as cable news channels flooded the caucuses with reporters while talking heads tried to fill hours with new ways of asking, “What’s going on?” Many are left asking whether they should trust the results at all, and Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez is calling for drastic action.

Iowa Democratic officials slogged their way through counting paper preference cards filled in by caucus goers. But Democratic officials blamed Republican trolls for tying up phone hotlines that were supposed to be used to report vote totals, slowing the process even more. Photos of caucus paperwork featuring the hotline number were posted online, allowing any GOP troublemaker to call. Here’s how a story on Talking Points Memo summed up the situation: “A perfect storm of incompetence, over-reliance on technology, and new reporting requirements have delayed caucus results for days.” Iowa Democratic Party officials now say they will launch an independent forensic review of the entire process.

As many polls about impeachment show, a majority of voters believe that Donald Trump is encouraging election interference. In addition, a plurality of voters are worried about election security. A recent NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist Poll showed that 41% of voters have a high level of concern that voting in 2020 will not be safe and secure, a figure that has gone up 3 percentage points since September 2018.

Poll respondents answered along party lines: 66% of Democrats say the U.S. is not very prepared or not prepared at all on election security, while only 11% of Republicans had such concerns. Responses from independents were evenly split and matched the overall responses, with 41% landing on either side of the voting security question.

Here were poll respondents’ top voting security concerns:

  • 35% of voters fear misleading information.
  • 24% complain of voter fraud.
  • 16% list voter suppression.
  • 15% fear foreign interference.
  • 5% report a fear of possible problems at a polling place, such as long lines, broken voting machines, or an inability to take time off work to vote.

Perhaps voters should be more concerned about problems at polling places:

  • Recent reports show how easy it is to hack into voting systems, which might have occurred in Georgia in 2016 and 2018.
  • A report to the Senate Intelligence Committee states that election systems in all 50 states were targeted by Russia in 2016.
  • When election security experts assembled a group of 100 voting machines at a conference in August 2019, hackers were able to break into all of them.
  • California officials have not yet certified a new electronic voting system in Los Angeles County because of multiple potential vulnerabilities.

It’s not just voting machines, according to a Bloomberg News report on cybersecurity.

Election machines are just one way hackers could try to infiltrate an election to change the vote or undermine its credibility. They also could corrupt voter registration rolls or lock up the computers of voting officials with ransomware. Only in the case of voting machines, though, does the safest technology also happen to be simpler and cheaper.

Predictably, 47% of Republicans listed the favorite GOP bugaboo, voter fraud, as a top concern, even though it’s practically nonexistent. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School has put voter fraud incident rates at between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent of all votes cast. But facts don’t matter to GOP voters who believe Trump’s constant lies about “illegal voters” and “rigged elections.”

Voter fraud hysteria gives Republican-led states an excuse to pass stricter voting requirements: According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 36 states have laws requesting or requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls, 35 of which are in force in 2020. Eighteen states ask for a photo ID, while 16 states ask for a non-photo ID.

When voter fraud does occur, it adds fuel to the GOP fire. A technical glitch recently discovered in Illinois meant that several hundred legal immigrants getting driver’s licenses were actually registered to vote at the same time. State election officials estimate that only 16 members of that group actually cast ballots in 2018, but the number obviously should have been zero. The state is working with local election authorities “to make sure anyone who was mistakenly registered is taken off the rolls,” says a story from Chicago’s WGN-TV. Not surprisingly, the state’s Republicans are up in arms.

A much bigger problem is voter suppression. In a different report, the Brennan Center found that states purged 16 million voters from voting rolls between 2014 and 2016 alone. Several Republican-led states, such as Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin (just to name a few) have purged or are in the process of purging voters, but even states led by Democrats, such as New York, have purged voters incorrectly, and California is deleting voters as a result of a settlement with the conservative group Judicial Watch. On the federal level, the House of Representatives passed a bill banning voter purging. It’s in the Democrats’ signature voting rights and election security bill that is now gathering dust on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk.

Voting security is only part of the story, though. Voters also are increasingly worried about the spread of disinformation. According to an NPR story about the poll, 59% of respondents said it was hard for them to tell the difference between facts and misleading information. A whopping 82% say it’s “likely or very likely” that they will read misleading information on a social media site such as Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. (If ever a poll result should be 100%, it’s that response.)

Trump’s reelection campaign already is spreading disinformation throughout social media, attacking Democrats, twisting people’s words using out-of-context clips and quotes, and just flat-out lying. It’s $1 billion operation is even being referred to as “the Death Star,” according to a story in The Atlantic.

Every presidential campaign sees its share of spin and misdirection, but this year’s contest promises to be different. In conversations with political strategists and other experts, a dystopian picture of the general election comes into view—one shaped by coordinated bot attacks, Potemkin local-news sites, micro-targeted fearmongering, and anonymous mass texting. Both parties will have these tools at their disposal. But in the hands of a president who lies constantly, who traffics in conspiracy theories, and who readily manipulates the levers of government for his own gain, their potential to wreak havoc is enormous.

The Trump campaign is planning to spend more than $1 billion, and it will be aided by a vast coalition of partisan media, outside political groups, and enterprising freelance operatives. These pro-Trump forces are poised to wage what could be the most extensive disinformation campaign in U.S. history. Whether or not it succeeds in reelecting the president, the wreckage it leaves behind could be irreparable.

Several questions must be answered in coming months as officials brace for a predicted avalanche of voters.

How will state and local officials handle a voting surge? Will they guarantee enough polling sites, enough ballots, enough voting machines, and enough election judges? How much will voter suppression tactics, such as voter ID laws, voter purges, and poll closures, especially in areas that skew Democratic, limit voter access, and thus affect outcomes? How will officials guarantee accuracy when votes are being counted on machines that are often bought over the objections of cybersecurity experts?

On the voting rights front, how much will efforts to open up voting, such as same-day registration, automatic voter registration, no-questions-asked absentee ballots, and early voting encourage more people to cast ballots? Right now, 18 states and the District of Columbia have automatic voter registration or are in the process of implementing it, most of them through the process of getting a driver’s license or interacting with another state agency. Laws allowing automatic registration have been in effect for only five years but led to a big jump in registered voters: New registrations rose by as high as 94 percent, according to yet another report from the Brennan Center.

Henry Olsen, a Washington Post conservative columnist, admits that voters are right to be worried.

Our state election systems are almost certainly not prepared for this. We already face complaints that there are too few polling stations, especially in inner-city areas, to accommodate the people who wanted to vote in past years. Imagine if those two-hour waits double to four-hour waits. Affected populations would surely cry foul, leading to even more charges of intentional voter suppression and election manipulation. …

Imagine what would happen if after an incredibly bitter campaign, millions of people faced insuperable burdens that lead to them either not voting or extending polling hours into the wee hours of the night to accommodate voter demand. Both parties would likely end up crying fraud, with the loser possibly even claiming the election was stolen.

No one wants to wake up Nov. 4 to election results they don’t trust. It’s up to all of us to ensure that access to ballots remains fair and that everyone who wants to cast a vote can do so in a timely manner, without hassle, and be assured that their votes were counted fairly.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Feb. 7, 2020.

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