Is Internet Access a Human Right?

Introduction

My sister is in middle school.

She is in VIRTUAL middle school, spending almost all her time in her room physically and mentally connected to her computer for more than five hours a day, Monday to Friday.

Two weeks ago, our family received a voucher in the mail giving us the chance to receive internet service for free until December 30th, 2020. The vouchers come from a program known as the Alabama Broadband Connectivity (ABC) for Students. The goal for this program is to provide “Broadband for Every K-12 Student.” ABC uses money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act directed to Alabama ($100 million) in order to cover the costs of “installation, equipment, and monthly service” to all students “who receive free or reduced-price lunches at school.” Families who earn less than 185% of the federal poverty level ($48,470) are those considered eligible for the vouchers, including 450,000 children enrolled in the National School Lunch Program.

Which brings me to the topic of this blog post: Internet Access, and why it is so important given this day and age.

Now, I know what you might be thinking, “Yes, the coronavirus is still a major issue among governments today, and since people cannot really gather outside in large groups, the internet is the next best option. That’s why it is so important to have access to it.” Great, at least you understood that part, but what if I told you that there are governments around the world shutting down the internet, from India to Russia and even countries like Indonesia, in the attempt to resolve their problems?

Shocking right? I would personally think so.

But before we talk about Internet Access as a potential human right, let us talk about some of the things that we take for granted when we have internet access.

An image of a world map in blue showing lines representing connectivity across countries.
2015 Global Connectivity Index. Source: geobrava.wordpress.com. Creative Commons

How do we benefit from being online?

Instant Communication

    • We often tend to talk to others by text, rather than face-to-face. Texting allows people to communicate in speeds never thought possible in the past, which leads to an eventual disconnect in establishing a fully personal connection that people would have if they interacted in person.

Homework

    • Especially during these times, we need the internet in order to complete our homework, and not having that access most definitely leads to an inability to do work as efficiently as if we had access to the World Wide Web.

Yes, even the Weather

    • How many people check the weather before leaving their homes? Checking the weather resides among the most popular search terms, which makes sense, as people need it to avoid downpours and be prepared to any eventual changes in plans.

Opinions against Internet Access being a Human Rights

Reflecting on the above benefits really does help broaden one’s vision in understanding how connecting to google.com or other web sites is essential to the daily happenings of our lives. It makes sense to simply call access to the internet a human right because of the way most of us use the internet to live our lives more efficiently.

Well, before we explore the arguments why Internet Access should be a human right, let us look at two perspectives to the contrary, an NYT op-ed by Vinton Cerf, an “Internet pioneer and [who] is recognized as one of ‘the fathers of the Internet,'” and a statement by Commissioner Michael O’Rielly of the Federal Communications Commission.

According to Cerf, for something to be considered a human right, it “must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives,” In that end, he argues that access to the Internet should be an enabler of rights, but not a right itself.

“It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category (of human rights), since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things.” — Vinton Cerf

He then attempts to clarify the lines at which human rights and civil rights should be drawn, concluding his op-ed with an understanding that access is simply a means “to improve the human condition.” Granting and ensuring human rights should utilize the internet, not make access the human right itself.

While Cerf seems to believe that the internet is a necessity for people but not a human right, O’Rielly believes otherwise, making it neither a necessity nor a human right.

In a speech before the Internet Innovation Alliance in 2015, Michael O’Rielly introduces his guiding principles with a personal anecdote about his life, emphasizing the impact that technology has given him, even going so far as to claim it as “one of the greatest loves of [his] life, besides [his] wife.” Despite this personal love for technology, one of his governing principles is to clarify what he believes the term ‘necessity’ truly means. He claims that it is unreasonable to even consider access to the internet as a human right or a necessity, as people can live and function without the presence of technology.

“Instead, the term ‘necessity’ should be reserved to those items that humans cannot live without, such as food, shelter, and water.” — Michael O’Rielly

O’Rielly attempts to make the distinction between the true sense of the word ‘necessity’ and ‘human rights,’ trying to defend against “rhetorical traps” created by movements towards making Internet Access a human right. These definitions are the basis of his governing principles and how he attempts to create Internet policies with the government and ISPs (Internet Service Providers).

Opinions for Internet Access being a Human Right

One of the interesting things to note above is the distinction made between one’s need for Internet Access and its categorization into a human right. Today, many if not all businesses require the usage of the Internet, going so far as to purely rely on its presence for regular business transactions and practices to occur. This understanding of the importance of the internet is prevalent now more than ever. The onset of COVID-19 has forced businesses to shut their physical door, allowed for increased traffic of online e-commerce sites like Amazon, and pushed kids towards utilizing platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet as substitutes for attending school. As such, these next few paragraphs will discuss why Internet Access is, in fact, a human right.

Violations to internet access are prevalent around the world, ranging from countries like India and Sri Lanka to others like Iran and Russia, aiming to either curb resistance or reduce potential sparks of violence. In India, for example, the government had shut down access to the Internet for Indian-administered Kashmir, an action that brought the condemnation of UN special rapporteurs, where the regions of Jammu and Kashmir experienced a “near total communications blackout, with internet access, mobile phone networks, and cable cut off.” In Sri Lanka, only specific applications are blocked by the authorities, while Iran works to slow “internet speeds to a crawl.” The internet system in Russia allows for it to seem like it functions while no data is sent to servers. These systems aim to restrict journalists from spreading news about violations of human rights while also limiting people’s ability to freely express themselves.

The Wi-Fi symbol, with a cross through it.
Offline Logo. Source: Wikmedia Commons. Creative Commons.

This attempt to curb the spread of information also violates Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which India and Iran voted in favor, the Soviet Union abstained, and Sri Lanka was nonexistent during its passage (accepted by the General Assembly in 1948).

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” — Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Conclusion

There seems to be a fundamental agreement from many experts ranging from the United Nations to organizations like Internet.org that aim to connect people with others around the world, that Internet Access should become, or already is, a basic human right. Although arguments are made that the internet allows for freedom of speech and enable other rights to exist, accessibility to that medium of communication and connection should be guaranteed as food or water. Although the internet is not needed for physical survival, the internet is a requirement for advancement and productivity in life.

Which brings me back to the first point made. I am thankful to have a family and live in a home where I can access information and write blog posts about human rights all around the world. What about those living within my city, my state, the United States, or even Planet Earth who do not have that access to the Internet? What about people that cannot connect with people miles away from them, or people who cannot receive an education due to the environmental factors that affect us now.

Access to the internet is a critically important task that governments, local, state, and federal, all need to act upon in order for a successful and growing economy, not just for current businesses and enterprises, but for the future leaders of our country. It is during these trying times that disparities and inequities are revealed, and those in power must be held accountable for a connected and thriving population to exist.

An image of a man in a blue suit holding a tablet with a hologram of the world map shining above.
Source: PickPik. Creative Commons.

If you would like to learn more about Internet Equality and the case for Net Neutrality, I encourage you to read my previous blog post “Internet Equality: A Human Rights Issue?”

Diversity in COVID-19 Trials

Man using micropipette to perform COVID-19 test
State Public Health Laboratory in Exton Tests for COVID-19. Source: Governor Tom Wolf, Creative Commons.

Since COVID-19 became a pandemic, researchers have been rushing to develop an effective vaccine. There has been a lot of progress made in a short amount of time, but one barrier that every trial in the United States is facing is a lack of diversity within the trials. This is not uncommon for modern research trials, as the majority of participants are typically white and males. However, for a trial to demonstrate effectiveness and appropriate dose for the population, the study population needs to be representative of the whole population at risk.

When studies don’t have a diverse study population, there are adverse outcomes and side effects that are not accounted for. For example, about one in five medications has a different recommended dose across different racial and ethnic populations. This means that without diverse trials, doctors won’t know how safe the medicines that they prescribe their patients actually are.

For the COVID-19 vaccine trials, the issue of diversity is particularly important because people of color, specifically the Latinx and Black communities, are not only three times more likely to contract COVID-19 than white Americans, but they’re also twice as likely to die. Despite this health inequity, people of color only make up 29% of participants in the vaccine trial with the most diversity. This is an improvement from most studies, but still not representative of the affected population: 49.9% of the United States population is not white, and people of color experience severe cases of COVID-19 at a higher rate.

But why is it so hard to achieve representative diversity in trials? The main reason is that the United States has a history of taking advantage of people of color when performing medical studies. One of the most glaring examples of this is the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” in which almost 400 Black men were diagnosed with syphilis and left untreated. They were promised free food and physicals but were never informed of their diagnosis. Despite the discovery of penicillin, which is an effective treatment for syphilis, while the trial was still ongoing, none of the men involved in the study were ever treated. Because of this, many of them died, and many of their wives and children also contracted syphilis. The study ended after 40 years when a public health service investigator informed the press of what was going on.

The Tuskegee Study was devastating for the men who unknowingly participated and their families, but the effects did not stop with them. Because of the dishonesty within this study, Black American patients are less likely to trust their doctors and the medical system as a whole. A study done by Marcella Alsan and Marianne Wanamaker showed that immediately following the news of the Tuskegee Study, health outcomes, trust of medical professionals, and life expectancy all decreased, which shows not only a social effect but a physical one.

Mural of Henrietta Lacks with description "Henrietta Lacks, a poor black farmer, died in 1951 of cervical cancer. Her tumor cells were taken without her knowledge, and became the first human culture cells because they were found to divide indefinitely. Her cells have saved countless lives. Jannai B"
Henrietta Lacks. Source: yooperann, Creative Commons.

Another case that plants seeds of distrust towards the medical community is the case of Henrietta Lacks. Lacks was an Black American woman being treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins in the early 1950s. During treatment, and without her knowledge, doctors took samples of her cervical cells to see if they would replicate in culture, which they did. HeLa cells, as they are now called, were a huge breakthrough for medical research, but it was done without Lacks’ knowledge and consent. Additionally, her family received no compensation and has only recently gotten a say and acknowledgement in research that uses HeLa cells. Because of these two injustices, many Black Americans have little trust in the medical systems.

Black Americans are less likely to seek medical treatment and participate in trials, which leads to worse health outcomes immediately and for future generations. Because they are less likely to seek medical treatment, conditions will worsen before seeing a doctor, and treatment in later stages is more costly—financially and personally. Additionally, because of the lack of participation in trials, as discussed earlier, we don’t know about the presentation of diseases and the side effects that people of color experience. The small percentage of Black Americans that do participate in trials are often reminded by their friends and family of the injustices of the past, urging them not to participate.

How do we fix this problem? This issue is deeper than implementing policies to require more diversity, protect research participants, and ensure they have the full knowledge of the trial before going into it; all of that has already been done, and these policies have done little to increase diversity in trials. What is really needed now is to build back trust. To do this completely will take decades, but for now there are some short term plans.

To increase diversity in COVID-19 vaccine trials, pharmaceutical companies are enlisting historically Black medical schools, such as Meharry Medical College and Morehouse School of Medicine, to carry out trials. Studies have found that patients that have similar racial and ethnic backgrounds to their physicians trust their doctors more. By using this information, these predominantly black medical schools, which predominantly serve Black patients, are able to reassure their patients that the study that they are enrolling in will not repeat history.

While the effort of diversifying trials is important for COVID-19 trials, it must not end there. Many people are trying to publicize the safeguards that all studies have today, which prevent any injustices like what happened in the Tuskegee Study and in the collection of cells from Henrietta Lacks. However, this information must come from people that the patients trust. The medical community must work to rebuild trust in communities of color so that we can decrease the health inequities experienced and understand the safety of medications and vaccines for the whole population instead of just for white males.

Mesothelioma Cancer: The Ongoing Saga Of Asbestos Usage In The United States


 

A flyer with a blue ribbon that says Mesolethoma Awareness Day Sept. 26, 2020
Source: The author

Between the 1920s to 1980s, the use of asbestos was at an all-time high in the United States. From construction to the military, asbestos was utilized in a variety of different industries. Unfortunately, this abundant usage has led to the discovery of some serious health complications. Asbestos is a known human carcinogen and people who closely worked with this naturally occurring mineral are facing the consequences. One of the most common diseases associated with asbestos exposure is mesothelioma cancer, and it continues to be diagnosed to this day. With the United States not fully banning usage of asbestos, there seems to be no end in sight of its damaging effects.

What Is Asbestos?

As previously mentioned, asbestos is a mineral that is found in abundance across the United States. It’s known for its tensile strength, sound absorption and heat resistance, making it an unmatched additive at the height of its usage. Products such as flooring tiles, roofing tiles and insulation incorporated asbestos, because in the event of a fire, it could slow the burning process. This was also true when it came to usage in the military. The Navy incorporated asbestos in different areas of ships such as the boiler room and sleeping barracks. Asbestos was also great because it doesn’t degrade easily in water, making it a no brainer for use in ships. With that being said, when asbestos does degrade is when it can cause the most harm to the health of humans.

Asbestos Exposure And Health Complications

Asbestos that is degrading or damaged can release fibers into the air. These needle-like microscopic fibers can be inhaled or ingested by humans, causing damage to our internal organs. They get embedded in the linings of our lungs, heart and abdomen where they cause inflammation and scarring to occur. Over the course of 10 to 50 years, tumors may develop and this can lead to the diagnosis of mesothelioma cancer. Symptoms of this disease are minimal, and often mimic those of less severe illnesses. Coughing, shortness of breath, lack of appetite, chest pain and fever are all symptoms of mesothelioma, but unfortunately, when symptoms do appear, the disease has usually progressed into a later stage. Another disease that asbestos exposure can lead to is asbestosis, a chronic lung condition that heightens the risk of developing mesothelioma.

An image of asbestos fibers
Source: The author

Who Does This Disease Affect?

The two largest populations that are diagnosed with mesothelioma are military veterans and construction industry professionals. The reason for this is that servicemen and women who worked on Navy ships and military bases were directly in contact with asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) on a daily basis, as is true of the majority of construction professionals. Working with ACMs without the proper protective equipment is typically how someone will end up being diagnosed with mesothelioma. Asbestos fibers can cling to clothing and stay airborne for several hours, so for those working with these materials everyday, exposure is extremely prevalent. While rules and regulations have gotten better surrounding asbestos exposure, these two groups are still disproportionately affected, many of whom still are unaware of the dangers of asbestos despite there being more research.

A fence with yellow caution tape that says Asbestos Dust Hazard
Source: The author

Why Is Asbestos Not Fully Banned?

While asbestos usage in the United States has become more regulated, it is still not fully banned. Asbestos is allowed in up to 1% of certain products and plays a key role in the chlor-alkali (chlorine) industry. As of April 2019, a “final rule” regarding asbestos usage had been issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) detailing more regulations to limit exposure. These regulations were as followed:

  • The public is protected from uses of asbestos that are no longer on the market and are not covered under any other laws. 
  • The EPA is not allowing new uses of asbestos
  • Uses of asbestos covered under the 1989 partial ban will stay banned.

Researchers, experts and the public have been upset with this new ruling, as it still does not take into consideration the legacy usages of asbestos as well as all of the preexisting ACMs that are across the country to this day. There are currently 67 countries with full asbestos bans and it is unfortunate that the United States continues to let the public be harmed from such a dangerous carcinogen.

Help Spread Awareness

September 26th marks the 17th anniversary of Mesothelioma Awareness Day (MAD). Help spread awareness by sharing information about asbestos exposure with your loved ones and educating them about the serious health dangers it poses.

High School Student Perspectives on the Duel Pandemics Facing Our Country

A picture of Breakthrough students and instructors making silly faces
Source: Breakthrough Birmingham

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to talk to Breakthrough Birmingham students about human rights. Breakthrough Birmingham is an affiliate of the Breakthrough Collaborative, an educational program in which college students from across the U.S. teach high school students in traditionally underrepresented communities in an effort to reverse educational inequity and help students achieve post-secondary success. This summer, Breakthrough went fully virtual, and although this had its challenges, I was amazed at how successfully the leadership pivoted and stayed committed to providing quality education for the students. During our time together, the students and I talked about what human rights are and different examples of human rights violations, particularly those related to the COVID-19 pandemic and anti-Black police brutality and injustice. As part of our class, I invited students to write for the IHR blog, to reflect on how the duel pandemics of Covid and racial injustice are impacting their lives and what they hope to see happen in the future. While the conversation rages over how to resolve these crises, the voices of our nation’s young people are often lost in the noise. But they are certainly an important part of this conversation, as they will inherit the world that we leave them and be left with either a huge mess to clean up or a legacy of progress to carry forward. I wanted to share two essays from Breakthrough students Jeremy and Charles. 

Jeremy*

One day I was in school learning like normal, then bam! The world suddenly changed. I am going to be talking about Covid-19, aka coronavirus. It is very important to talk about this because people are dying daily and more and more families are suffering from the recovery of their losses. It is impacting how stores handle things and how we make money. Personally, I am uncomfortable with this situation going on, and I do not like it at all. It is really bad for me and everyone else on this planet. It is boring having to stay inside my home for an extended amount of time. When Covid first arrived I was actually excited that I was able to stay home. After a while though it started getting really boring, now I want to go back to school to see my friends.

I have mixed emotions about this. Like I said earlier staying home was great! I was all happy and joyful that I was able to stay home and sleep in as much as I wanted. Now I am just waiting until I can escape and go to school like normal!

In the world today, there are a lot of changes I want to happen. First of all, there is a lot going on while in quarantine. All the violence, Kanye West running for president, the “Karens,” aka the people who refuse to wear masks because of their president’s orders, and the other stuff that shouldn’t be allowed to happen. I think there are a lot of ways we can make this change. For example, the Black Lives Matter protests are attempting to make positive change.

The schools are already helping us students make that change, by sending quizzes on if we should go back to school, rotate days, or just do virtual learning. I think I could have my family go out more to make the experience more normal.

After all this mess going on I would like to just say this, don’t worry! I know a lot is going on right now, and it is just messy all around, but we will get through this! It will definitely be over soon, but it will still feel like it is lasting forever. If you know what I mean. Staying positive during this pandemic is key. I always like to stay as positive as possible. Just like any other person, I have experienced things that shouldn’t be happening on a daily basis! On the bright side, this whole situation does make me feel thankful and alive because I am able to spend more quality time with my family.

The pandemic has made me feel like I can handle that anything comes my way. This is not always the case though. Everyone in the world may feel strong, prepared, ready, but who can tell us what’s coming? This really tells us how anything can happen with just a snap of the finger! From sunny skies to dark clouds and thunder. From daily life to Covid-19.

A photo of Jeremy, the author, holding a peace sign above his head
“Jeremy” Source: the author

*Jeremy will be attending Ramsey High School, and his favorite subject is science. His hobbies include walking his dog, riding his bike, building houses online, and conducting science experiments. He aspires to be an architect, and when asked what inspires him, he notes, “New construction inspires me.”

Charles**

Many people are affected by anti-Black police brutality. Many people are killed due to this, particularly, George Floyd’s death, which was recently in the spotlight. Anti-Black police brutality does not just stop there. Celebrities, such as Jay Pharaoh, have faced police brutality because of the color of their skin. This topic is important because this is an ongoing problem that needs to be stopped. I understand what it is like to have friends and family who are police officers, but we still need to hold them accountable.

I feel distraught every time that I think about police brutality. I have to face the thought of being a victim of police brutality. It makes it harder now because everywhere I go I’m scared that I might be beaten by the police. It does not get any easier. Now the thought of driving is becoming a reality, and that idea fills me with fear. My mom for instance constantly talks about how to approach an officer if I were ever stopped. This is a thing that most African American parents talk about or should talk about with their kids.This is important to me because I cannot predict if I will or will not be one of those victims of police brutality.

My experience with this topic is hearing about people being beaten by the cops.  Also, I have recently seen these things in the media. I’ve had experiences in which I, personally, was scared to call the police because I thought I would be the next victim of police brutality. I never had an encounter in which I was beaten by the police, but seeing events like this occur on the news and social media platforms impacts how I see the police force in the United States.

I know that no matter how many protests we assemble, the act of police brutality will never end. As human beings, sometimes we have to make compromises. I think we can solve this problem by making sure police officers swear to not brutalize innocent people based on race. This should be a part of the oath they swear by, and there should be punishments for not complying with this oath. According to a New York Times article, in 2019, 59% of Police-reported uses of force in Minneapolis were used on African Americans. This statistic shows that African Americans are most likely to face police brutality. A DoSomething.org article shows that in New York City in 2018, 88% of police stops involved Black and Latinx people. The article also states that 70% of those who were stopped were completely innocent. I do think that police officers should be held culpable for their actions. These statistics are examples of African Americans being more likely to face police brutality or harassment.

I think that instead of being more accepting of different races and cultures white Americans are being more hateful towards minorities, especially Black people.  The ongoing anti-Black police brutality has made me grow more furious each and every day. Systemic racism and politicians lead white people to misinterpret the reality of life as Black people in America. White Americans should use their privilege to educate themselves and use their voices to advocate with Black people instead of using their voices for ignorance. Rather than learning new Tik Tok dances or trying to go viral, people should utilize their voice and the endless resources available to educate themselves and their followers on the history and present state of our nation.

A head shot of Charles, the author
“Charles” Source: the author

** Charles will be attending Ramsey High School, and he likes all of his classes, especially science. His hobbies include reading and poetry. He aspires to be an entrepreneur, and when asked what inspires him, he mentions his parents and “knowing he can put his all and mind into anything he wants to achieve.”

Gender and Sexuality at School: Experiences of young people and teachers in combating prejudice in Brazilian schools

By Fabricio Pupo*

A graphic of the international symbols of man and woman with various gender signs on their faces
Source: Yahoo Images
Graphic showing insecurity related to gender and sexuality in school environment
Source: The author (2019)/Graphic Design: AleMaciell

Gender and sexuality issues are not often discussed, especially in the school environment. The reasons are innumerable, and they have been historically considered controlled themes. In Brazil, the data relating to violence and prejudice are alarming and refer to the discussion of institutional security, especially within environments that are more closely linked to these young people such as school. This statement is verified when analyzing the 2016 data from the Brazilian Association of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transsexuals (ABGLT) on dissenting gender and sexuality youth in the school environment, of which 60.2% of young people feel insecure in their educational institution due to their sexual orientation and 42.8% for the way they express their gender.

Prejudice in the face of experiences outside heteronormativity can silence young people and teachers in the school setting. School is often an arsenal that regulates not only sexuality but also gender.

Graphic depicting statistics on comfort around gender and sexuality topics in school environment
Source: ABGLT (2016)/ Reprolatina (2011)

Silence in the face of the theme and oppression in relation to teaching work

The discourse that school, gender, and sexuality must constitute separate instances has been gaining strength. Reactions such as the Escola Sem Partido Program have motivated the persecution of teachers on charges of political and ideological indoctrination. It emerged in 2004, through the initiative of the attorney of the State of São Paulo, Miguel Nagib, and it has a threatening effect on teachers across the country. It seeks to criminalize teaching work around themes such as gender and sexuality. It is no coincidence that gender and sexuality are part of the themes that the defenders of this initiative point out as being the most permeable to ideological indoctrination since the persecution of these themes constituted an alignment with the agendas of the religious group representing a part of the population that supports moral precepts linked to the extreme right and Christianity.
The need for teaching work in this theme is corroborated by the National Curriculum Parameters (NCPs), they place these themes as transversal and relevant for discussion in educational establishments as well as for the pedagogical intervention process. NCPs are guidelines developed by the Federal Government that guide education in Brazil. They are separated by discipline and adopted by the public and private schools.

The school is a space where it is possible to observe the emergence of the visibility of dissenting gender and sexuality as well as conflicts over these experiences that seek to affirm forms of life hitherto subjugated. However, there are also positive experiences regarding the valuation of gender and sexuality differences at school.
Therefore, the interest in analyzing such experiences evaluated as positive by young people and teachers in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul in the central-west region of Brazil. The intention was to prioritize the reports that were evaluated by the participants as positive to better understand how they resist a prejudiced reality, which allowed a reflection not only on gender and sexuality but also on the agency of the participants concerning this theme in school institutions of different contexts.

Youth Experiences

School is a very important space for socialization, and it is part of the teacher’s job to ensure this interaction by attending to all representations. The young 20-year-old Sofia, from a private school pointing out something positive affirmed that “the teachers discuss and work on these themes in the classroom”. That corroborates the importance of making the discussion about gender and sexuality common every day.

Aurora, 19 years old, from a private school, in turn, says that she lived “an assumed relationship with a colleague at school”, which points out that, in addition to possible environments for discussion on this topic, the school also makes it a possible experience. The homosexual relationship is seen as different and the school acts positively on this issue when it allows the relationship to be seen.

In terms of school dropout, trans experiences seem to be the ones that stand out the most. For this reason, José Francisco, 25 years old, from a private school, reported: “At school, in high school, I was able to use the bathroom of the kind in which I identify myself. All of this was important, as school avoidance is avoided and dysphoria is reduced, enabling a better use of studies, which was my case”.

Graphic depicting positive experiences school can provide
Source: The author (2019) /Graphic Design: AleMaciell

In their school experience, as well as that of many young people, the fact that they can use the bathroom according to their gender identity is the validation of the school’s acceptance of this difference. Another important acceptance reference cited by José Francisco is the social name and the comfort it can generate. According to him, “My positive experience at school took place in some ways … with the social name respected by all employees, teachers and coordinators. The name was on lists, in the closet, in the call and the like”. We can understand what the use of the social name and the bathroom might represent, when we are faced with indexes related to the violence suffered by the trans population. According to the National Association of Transvestites and Transsexuals – ANTRA, in Brazil, 90% of transgender people depend on prostitution to survive.

Teacher’s Experiences

The school is an important space for socialization and discussion, the teacher has a fundamental role in this mediation. In this sense, Rafael, 35 years old, from a private school, informs that the first posture he has is to verify how young dissidents of gender and sexuality are treated by colleagues, then he has a welcoming attitude: “When I notice some isolation and others signs of suffering I try to talk to the person and ask for permission to speak with the coordination and psychologists “. When recognizing the difference in the school environment a teacher meets his daily challenges and at that moment his or her attitude may or may not collaborate with freedom and the recognition of different representations of gender and sexuality within this space.

It is not uncommon that when this theme appears it is linked to certain control efforts through great strategies of knowledge and power. Marcelo, 28, from a private school, positively does not directly refer to a threat: “I try to explain that this feeling for the same sex is normal”. However, he justifies in the sequence: “but I mention the importance of using condoms to prevent STDs”.

Here, it is not a question of questioning the importance of guidelines about the prevention of this type of infection/disease, still there is a risk of restricting the experience of sexuality to a certain threat. One way to avoid this type of approach is to bet on the pedagogical and curricular policy of identity and difference. Teachers who have participated in this research feel unprepared to put this policy into practice. Ana, 42 years old, from a public school, justified this lack of preparation due to the complexity of the theme, pointing to the effects that this might present: “If we are not well grounded we risk to reinforce what has been put in place for centuries”. However, she affirmed that she is interested in the theme and this makes her look for authors that can be helpful to her, but she does not believe that this can happen to all teachers. This scenario points to the urgency of actions that promote a fairer school and that above all, guarantees human rights, for example, the integration of Public Policies, mentioned in the NCPs for sexual orientation. However, the school, or at least part of the teaching staff, seems to be unaware of these policies which hinders practices and attitudes that can promote the resignification of the school space for young dissidents.

Examples of how teachers can create supportive environments that facilitate productive discourse and experience around LGTB issues
Source: The author (2019) /Graphic Design: AleMaciell

Toward a More Welcoming School

Young people’s experiences show us the importance of bringing the discussion about gender and sexuality to a daily practice within the school environment as we could realize how can the school be a possible place for the awareness of dissident experiences in terms of gender and sexuality. The evasion problem especially of transvestite and transsexual people appeared with the indication of the need to call people by the name that corresponds to their gender identity as well as the authorization for the use of the bathroom by that same self-assigned identity.

Teachers’ experiences value the welcoming attitude toward young dissidents of gender and sexuality which should be demarcated by the recognition of the difference in the school environment. The positive experience of dealing with these themes does not mean that they cannot be linked to speeches that may present them as a possible threat, as an example when dissident affective-sexual experiences are associated with diseases. Even so, some teachers are looking for more knowledge to approach the theme as they do not feel prepared to approach the theme from the perspective of the curricular policy of identity and difference.

Graphic depicting welcoming potential of school to LGTB students
Source: The author (2019)/Graphic Design: AleMaciell

Finally, even though the NCPs proposing to approach the theme in a transversal way, the legislation seems insufficient to guarantee in the curriculum the presence of the theme in the school as it should be taught. However, even so, the school presents itself as a possible place to resist attempts to criminalize teaching work around gender and sexuality. It is not a matter of minimizing the moral effects of the School without Party Program rather however young and teachers act independently of a “desire” in short they are involved in power relations, there are positive examples that seem to make the difference in terms of gender and sexuality, an experience that can be recognized at school.

*Fabricio Pupo Antunes is a 3rd-year high school student at Colégio Novaescola in Campo Grande – Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. He is a junior researcher in gender and sexuality, supervised by Prof. Dr. Tiago Duque at the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul, where he is also a member of Impróprias – Research Group about Gender, Sexuality and Differences (UFMS – CNPq). His research has been awarded in important scientific fairs, seminars, and academic congresses in Brazil and abroad with Regeneron ISEF, a finalist in the Behavioral Sciences area this year.

The Right to Mental Health and the Importance of Self-Care

An image of a brain embroidered on a piece of fabric in an embroidery hoop.
Brain Anatomy Hoop Art. Hand Embroidered in Pink and Blue. Source: Hey Paul Studios, Creative Commons

While it seems that most people today would agree that taking care of one’s mental health is important, it may come as a surprise that mental health is actually a human right.  According to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all people have the right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family…”  The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has declared that “that the right to health is a fundamental part of our human rights and or our understanding of a life in dignity.”  

Mental Health as a Human Right 

The United Nations Human Rights Council recognizes three principles regarding the right to health: 

The first is that it is an inclusive right.  This means that it extends “not only to timely and appropriate health care, but also to the underlying determinants of health.”  This includes things like access to clean water, safe working conditions, and important information about health.  These factors, while clearly relevant to physical health, are also important in maintaining one’s mental health. 

The second principle is that the right to health includes both freedoms and entitlements.  Freedoms would include things like “the right to control one’s health,” while entitlements would include things like “the right to a system of health protection that provides equality of opportunity for people to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health.”  This is significant because one needs to be able to access important information and resources related to mental health in order to have meaningful support for their mental health.   

The third principle is that the right to health is a broad concept that can be divided up into more specific rights.  For example, there are some aspects of health that are specific to people who are assigned female at birth, and those aspects are associated with specific rights.  The right to mental health (and the rights associated with it) is one of the many rights that make of the right to health.   

Mental Health Impacts Your Overall Future Health 

According to the World Health Organization’s Constitution, health is “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”  Based on this, taking care of your mental health is not simply making sure that you are not actively going through a crisis.  Being healthy is more than just surviving.  Taking care of your mental health involves taking daily steps to care for yourself that not only improve your health in the present, but also protect your health in the future. 

Having poor mental health puts you at a greater risk for physical health problems.  According to the American Psychological Association, having a mental health condition reduces men’s life expectancy by an estimated 20 years and reduces women’s life expectancy by about 15 years.  This is in part due to the fact that nearly two-thirds of people with mental health conditions do not seek any form of treatment. 

Mental Health is a Key Part of Accessing Many Other Rights 

In addition to being a right on its own, maintaining good mental health is also a key part of being able to meaningfully access many other human rights.  For example, even when given all the necessary tools that are directly related to education, struggling with mental health issues can impede a person’s ability to receive a truly meaningful education.  This is reflected by the long-term effects of depression.  In one study, scientists found that individuals who faced depression during mid-adolescence and continue to deal with it as young adults are at an increased risk of educational underachievement and unemployment.  One’s mental health can also impact their access to other rights such as the right to participate in the cultural life of their community, the right to rest and leisure, and the right to work. 

Scrabble pieces spell out the words "mental health."
Mental Health. Source: Kevin Simmons, Creative Commons

You Have to Help Yourself Before You Can Help Others  

You’re probably familiar with the concept of putting your oxygen mask on before assisting others on a plane.  If you are struggling to breathe yourself, not only is your ability to help others inhibited, but you’re putting your own health and well-being at risk of harm.  This can be applied to mental health as well.  If you are facing serious struggles with your own mental health, it is important to focus on helping and support yourself before taking on responsibilities related to other people’s mental health. 

For this reason, the maintenance of good mental health is especially important for people who work in fields such as human rights advocacy.  The world of human rights is full of issues and topics that can be emotionally draining, so one can easily become overwhelmed by it all.  It is vital that advocates make their mental (and physical) health a priority, even if their main concern is helping others.  Self-care needs to be a part of any human rights advocate’s tool kit. 

The Basics of Self-Care 

Self-care can be defined as “any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health.”  

Raphailia Michael, a licensed counseling psychologist, suggests that there are three golden rules to starting self-care: 

  1. “Stick to the basics.”  This makes it easier to include self-care into your schedule, make it a part of your regular routine, and figure out what works best for you.
  2. “Self-care needs to be something you actively plan, rather than something that just happens.”
  3. “Keeping a conscious mind is what counts…if you don’t see something as self-care or don’t do something in order to take care of yourself, it won’t work as such.”  

Michael also gives a basic checklist of self-care tasks that can apply to pretty much anyone.  This list includes things such as eating a nutritious diet, getting enough sleep, following up with medical care, and looking for opportunities to laugh every day. 

It is so easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday life and forget to take care of oneself.  We all do it sometimes.  It is important that we set aside time to properly take care of ourselves and pay attention to our own needs.  Mental health matters just as much as everything else that is going on, and that’s something we need to remember. 

 

Human Rights in Times of COVID-19: Public Safety vs. Individual Liberty

The flyer for the webinar with pictures of the three panelists

The tension between the authority of governments to impede on individual rights in times of public emergencies and the implications for human rights is a topic that has come into focus as the world reels from the impacts of COVID-19. On Thursday, May 21, the Institute for Human Rights hosted its first webinar on Human Rights in Times of Covid-19, which focused on how we navigate this tension between public safety and individual liberty. Our panelists included Dr. Kathryn Morgan, the Director of the African American Studies Program at UAB and an expert in civil rights, race, and criminal justice policy, Dr. Natasha Zaretsky, a Professor of History at UAB who focuses on contemporary U.S. culture and intersecting histories of women, gender, and families, and Dr. Robert Blanton, the Chair of Political Science and Public Administration at UAB who specializes in international human rights with a focus on human trafficking. We are grateful to our panelists for taking the time to share their expertise on this topic as we navigate this difficult time, and we’re grateful to the UAB/IHR community for your interest and engagement. If you missed the webinar and would like to watch it in its entirety you can find it here. Below is a recap of the event. 

Dr. Morgan focused on the implications of this tension for civil rights in the U.S., reminding us that governments do have the authority and the responsibility during a pandemic to impose restrictions on certain rights afforded by the Constitution in order to keep the most people safe. However, as we are seeing, this is not a cut and dry issue, and there is a lot of disagreement over how to keep people safe and keep the economy functioning. To this end, she mentioned three major concerns: one, what kind of restrictions will be put in place?, two, how long will this go on?, and three, how will these measures be enforced? She also mentioned the variable impact these restrictions and the virus itself will have on different sectors of the population, pointing out how this virus is disproportionately affecting black and brown people who are dying at much higher rates than white people. Dr. Morgan also expressed concern over how federal and state responses to the virus will impact people with disabilities, suggesting that times like this often exacerbate discrimination against these vulnerable populations. 

“When we look at service workers. When we look at people who are in essential positions that help to keep society running, even in a shutdown. Many of those people are from marginalized groups. They are exposed to conditions that really exacerbate the problems of exposure to the coronavirus.”

Dr. Zaretsky discussed the way that partisan division and hostility are shaping this conversation around individual liberties and public health, comparing it to the debate over vaccinations in the U.S. On the one hand, people want and need to work, but at the same time, we see that social distancing and work from home measures are effective in slowing the spread of the virus. And while this seems like a particularly loud and divisive situation, one that the Trump administration is actively inciting, Dr. Zaretsky reminded us that the media is proliferating the opinions at the polar ends of the spectrum, which likely do not represent the views of most Americans. While lockdown protestors are demanding that the economy be reopened so that they can get haircuts and pedicures, it doesn’t seem like they’re considering that this requires other people to risk exposure to the virus so that they can perform these services. What is important to remember is how interconnected we all are. However, in the absence of no comprehensive national plan to end the pandemic, the rampant spread of misinformation, and the politicization of masks and other safety measures, we are left with division and hostility rather than a sense of unity toward a common goal of resolving this crisis. 

“In the context of this pandemic, there is no such thing as individual liberty…it is bringing into view how profoundly interconnected we all are.”

Dr. Blanton spoke of how this tension is playing out on the global stage and how different nations are regarding their human rights commitments during this time. In balancing the human rights with the public good, international law provides a set of standards that calls for restrictions to be necessary, proportionate and non-discriminatory in nature. Of course restrictions on the freedom from things like arbitrary imprisonment or torture should never be lifted under any circumstances. However, Dr. Blanton mentioned what he called “coronavirus coups” happening in places like Hungary, where democratically-elected presidents are using the pandemic to suspend elections and appointment themselves rulers for an indefinite period of time. Other governments have used the pandemic to undermine civil society by using emergency powers to detain journalists and activists and health care workers who criticize the government. In moving forward, Dr. Blanton stressed that the “protection of human rights should not be viewed as an impediment to handling the crisis so much as an essential component of an effective response.”

“Several countries have used the pandemic as an excuse to undermine the rule of law or undermine democratic processes.” 

Community questions

We were pleased to have so much engagement from community members who sent in questions on Facebook for our panelists to address. Here are some of the questions and the responses: 

Would you say now is a good time for the U.S. to join the United Nations in guaranteeing health care and food as positive human rights? 

Dr. Blanton responded to this by saying that this crisis has brought into focus the mediocre job our country does in providing the positive rights, including health care. This has shown the weakness in our existing power structure in that the federal government is pushing to centralize power around the pandemic but at the same time is not able or is not willing to provide the goods and services that states need to combat the virus. He said the U.S. is unusual in its position on not identifying healthcare as a human right, though this is clearly something that needs to change.

Dr. Zaretsky also touched on how this crisis has exposed and exacerbated the pitfalls of the health care system, expressing a cautious optimism that this may serve as an impetus to reframe the healthcare debate in a way that makes forging comprehensive and long-term policy changes possible. Again, this is an example of how the extreme positions have been foregrounded and the wants and needs of the majority go unaccounted for. But there is no denying anymore that changes must be made going forward. 

What about labor rights? They are always tennis to non-existent in the U.S., but especially hard-hit right now as the U.S. and other countries like them slide further under the rug, risking worker safety while they’re at it as part of their coronavirus response. 

In addition to the weakness of our labor unions in the U.S., we fall behind other developed countries in terms of wage levels and working conditions. The crisis is bringing a lot of attention to that, but Dr. Blanton is not terribly optimistic that anything will come of it. The problem is that this requires hefty structural change, not just short-term attention. Dr. Zaretsky pointed out that there have been several labor uprisings during all this – at Amazon and Instacart for example – but these don’t get a whole lot of attention in the media. The focus is largely on militia groups storming the capitols, and the concerns of workers are getting lost in the shuffle. 

It’s easy to think of the two sides during this pandemic as people who resent not being able to shop or eat versus people who are afraid that they will die, but how do you draw the line between what different groups want and how do you decide which voices are listened to? How can a government make both sides feel that they’re being heard? Is there a way to defuse this resentment? 

A big part of this problem, according to Dr. Zaretsky, is that the Trump administration is ratcheting up this animosity by using divisive rhetoric rather than trying to rally people around a common cause. Trump is pitching this as a populist class struggle, and this narrative is dominating the media coverage. This is unfortunate because while there are differences in how Republicans and Democrats think this needs to be handled, the majority of Americans on both sides are in agreement about the need to take the virus seriously and are trying to do what they can to stop the spread. 

We are grateful to our panelists and to all the community members who joined us for the webinar. If you missed the event, you can check out the recording on our Facebook page. 

COVID-19 and Healthcare

two doctors demonstrate glucometer to patient.
How to make most of doctor’s appointment. Source: Army Medicine, Creative Commons.

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the lives of billions across the globe from a disruption of our daily lives to the loss of loved ones to the severe financial burden that has been placed on the world economy. One aspect of society that has been disproportionately affected is the healthcare system. Aside from the financial impact on healthcare systems the way we receive our general healthcare is changing rapidly with this new pandemic. While our primary concern internationally is getting control of this pandemic, non-infectious and chronic conditions are still prevalent and at an increased risk of being neglected.

With the increase in COVID-19 cases in every part of the country, people are being discouraged from coming to hospitals and doctors for non-emergent care. This means that primary healthcare visits either have to be postponed or done through telehealth, which is a remote visit. While telehealth is a great way to have normal checkups without having to go to a doctor’s office, many insurance plans don’t cover telehealth, which makes it harder to afford necessary visits safely.

Additionally, many people no longer have the financial stability they used to. With the downturn in the economy, not only are people who are working making less, but there are also some that have been laid off or furloughed and no longer have access to insurance through their employer. A quarter of those that remain insured have deductibles that are $2000 or higher, which they can no longer afford. This means that in addition to postponing primary care visits, more emergent and necessary visits are being put off.

Those with chronic conditions face more barriers than before to receiving health care. Those with underlying conditions are more likely to have a severe case if they contract COVID-19. However, they need continual care that must be done at least occasionally face-to-face. For example, people with cancer must continue to receive treatment, but many times that treatment makes them immunocompromised. Because of the increased risk, many hospitals no longer allow visitors in, which can decrease patient morale. Many patients also run the risk of having their treatment delayed due to coming in contact with someone that has tested positive for Covid-19. Many chronic conditions, like cancer, are time sensitive, so delays in treatment can be devastating.

Another group of people that have had their healthcare greatly impacted by COVID-19 is pregnant women. There are many check-ups that women are recommended to attend when expecting a baby to ensure the best health possible. However, with the pandemic, that has become harder. There is no evidence that pregnancy makes it more likely to have a severe case of COVID-19. Additionally, there is no evidence that it can be transmitted to a fetus. It’s still important that pregnant women do everything they can to prevent coming in contact with COVID-19. To help in that effort, many OB/GYNs have reduced the number of visits pregnant women should attend in person, switching these visits to telehealth visits.

While a mother cannot pass COVID-19 to her unborn baby, the baby can contract it after birth from her or any other caregivers. To prevent spread to new babies, nurses, and doctors, many mothers are tested when they arrive at the hospital to give birth. Additionally, those that have scheduled C-sections are sometimes tested at home.

doctor performing a checkup on an infant
Dusti Tellez, a registered nurse at Naval Hospital (NH) Jacksonville’s maternal infant unit, holds a newborn baby for a checkup. Source: U.S. Navy, Creative Commons

According to UNICEF, around 116 million babies will be born during the COVID-19 pandemic. These babies along with the babies born shortly before the pandemic will be missing important doctor’s appointments. The appointments in the first two years of a child’s life play a large role in the child’s overall health for two reasons. First, children will typically receive vaccinations at these appointments, which will keep them from contracting deadly, but preventable diseases. The growing number of children who will not be receiving their vaccinations on time raises concerns about outbreaks of diseases that we’ve kept at bay while also still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, these visits are a good way to track the health of children early as screening for conditions, such as developmental delays, are frequent, and catching them early can give kids with these conditions a helpful jumpstart. Because of these two reasons, many experts advise parents to keep children’s visits up to date, but parents are still hesitant.

In addition to regular checkup visits, people are hesitant to go to the emergency room when they need to for non-COVID-19 related illnesses and emergencies. Hospital visits in the Baptist Hospital system in Memphis, TN were down 27 percent between March 15 and April 15 compared to the month before. Additionally, they noticed that the people that were coming in were more likely to have to be admitted instead of treated and sent home. This means sick people are staying at home longer for fear of COVID-19, and some are dying at home from treatable conditions.

Finally, there are areas of healthcare that are overlooked when we mention essential healthcare workers. My mother is a home health physical therapist, which means she goes to people’s homes to work with them. She mainly works with elderly people, and often visits nursing homes and assisted living facilities. According to her, these places have stricter requirements than before when it comes to letting people in: visitors have to have their temperature checked and have a symptom screening. Some facilities don’t even allow visitors anymore, even for wound care or physical therapy. While therapy might not seem essential, it is often used in this population to prevent accidents, like falls, that would send them to a hospital, where they would be even more at risk of contracting COVID-19.

While many of the changes to the healthcare system are temporary, like the decrease in general healthcare visits, some may become permanent. Telehealth has been shown to be beneficial for healthcare visits that don’t require tests and scans. In fact, many shy children have felt more comfortable with these visits. Additionally, the precautions taken by nursing homes and assisted living facilities when it comes to screening visitors make sense during flu season as the flu kills the over 65 population at a disproportionate rate. While the pandemic has changed some things for the worst, it has also helped us find where some changes need to be made to increase our safety in the future.

Nathaniel Woods and Alabama’s Broken Justice System

As the world is reeling from the coronavirus outbreak and the constant inundation of new cases and increasing death rates, I wanted to call your attention to an important event that has largely been overlooked in the midst of the chaos. On March 5th, 2020, a man by the name of Nathaniel Woods was executed by the state of Alabama via lethal injection at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama. The 43 year old Woods was convicted because of his role in the fatal deaths of three Birmingham, Alabama police officers in 2004. Two entities could have stepped in to stop the execution: The Supreme Court and the governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey. The Supreme Court did delay the execution for three hours, but Kay Ivey refused to step in stating that she believed justice must be served in the name of the law. The execution of Nathaniel Woods was unjust and unfair in many ways and highlights the severe problems within the Alabama Justice system.

In the case of Nathaniel Woods, it is important to note that he was convicted of being an accomplice to the deaths of the three police officers. The man who confessed to the actual act of shooting and killing the police officers is Kerry Spencer. In fact, Spencer confessed to acting alone in the crime that landed both him and Woods on the Alabama death row. He testified this in his own trial and claimed to be acting in self-defense, highlighting that the shooting was not planned. During his confession, Spencer very clearly stated that Woods ran away from the scene and could not be considered an accomplice to the act. According to his former appellate attorney, Spencer may never be executed as Woods was. When Spencer was convicted in 2005, the jury that found him guilty recommended that he receive life in prison without parole, instead of the death penalty. A 2017 Alabama law that removed the power of the judge to override non-unanimous jury verdicts in the cases of the death penalty effectively protects Spencer. So why, when Spencer confessed to the deaths of the police officers, is Woods dead? A primary factor is that Wood’s jury never heard Spencer’s claim of self-defense. An even larger factor is that the Alabama death penalty laws are inherently flawed and unjust.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey. Source: 187th Fighter Wing. Creative Commons.

The jury that convicted Woods reached a non-unanimous verdict of 10-2 recommending the death penalty. Alabama is one of two states in the United States that allows a non-unanimous verdict to result in the execution of a defendant. The death penalty laws within Alabama have been seriously criticized by civil right leaders and have been called unjust under the accusation that the criminal courts are unfairly biased against minorities. Despite Woods’ family and a few high profile figures including Martin Luther King III, the son of the late Martin Luther King Jr., and Kim Kardashian West contending that much of the evidence supported Woods’ innocence, neither Governor Kay Ivey nor the Supreme Court intervened on Woods’ behalf.

Woods’ case is unfortunately one in a long line of executions that highlights the many problems with the Alabama justice system. Before its abolishment in 2017, Alabama allowed judges to over-ride a unanimous jury in order to impose death sentences. While this is a step in the right direction, Alabama was the last state in the United States to make this change. Alabama has had 67 executions and 9 exonerations since 1976. This means that for every seven people executed, one has been exonerated. As of today, at least 107 of the death sentences in Alabama have been reversed and resulted in a reduced sentence or an exoneration. These statistics leave Alabama with a very high error rate. After 2010, Alabama has executed a series of defendants with questionable convictions: two defendants suffering from mental illness and three defendants whose judges over-rode the jury’s decision for life imprisonment in favor of the death penalty. Alabama also has no statewide public defender system and does not pay appointed attorneys enough, resulting in a lacking quality of counsel. Until 1999, capital trial attorneys were paid $40 per hour for work in-court and $20 an hour for work out-court. The out-court work compensation could only reach $1000. During this time, almost half of the current death row convictions occurred. Now, capital trial attorneys are paid $70 per hour with a cap of $2500, a rate that is noticeably below market rates. The lack of funding has resulted in a reduced quality of work and inadequate representation for defendants who are fighting for their lives.

Alabama state sign
Alabama state sign. Source: Shannon McGee, Creative Commons.

In January of 2020, the governor of Alabama appointed a panel to issue recommendations to address the problems of the Alabama prison system reported in a 2019 report released by the Justice Department. The report identifies the major problems with Alabama’s prison system. These problems included prisoners being assaulted and tortured on a routine basis with the knowledge and participation of the prison guards. Such abuse clearly violates the Eighth Amendment that protects against cruel and unusual punishment. It also included problems within prisons such as overcrowding, understaffing, a large presence of weapons and drugs, corruption, and raw sewage. Many corrections officers have been arrested and charged with crimes such as bribery and drug trafficking. In February of 2019 a judge found that the conditions for mentally ill patients within the prison system were unconstitutional. Since the beginning of 2019, at least 29 of 28,000 people died of preventable deaths in the Alabama prison system, a big contrast to the national average of prison homicides of seven per 100,000 prisoners. The recommendations provided by the state appointed panel have been called “common-sense” and do not address the more serious problems. If these problems are not fixed, the prison system will be operated by an outside party.

Prison
Bordeaux Prison. Source: photographymontreal, Creative Commons.

There are a significant number of problems within Alabama’s death penalty policy and within the Alabama prison system in general. There is no need to prove that a defendant was at least 18 years of age at the time of the crime within the state. There is insufficient protection for mentally ill defendants. And the Supreme Court is the only thing within Alabama that is preventing the executions of defendants with an IQ of below 70. Changing and reforming the broken Alabama death penalty system will be a long process, during which there is a possibility for many more innocent people to die. The decision to end the judicial override system in 2017 was a step in the right direction but not nearly far enough. Since then, more changes have been made to protect the already broken system, such as the 2018 decision to use nitrogen hypoxia, a method of suffocation, as a backup execution method. There is hope that the execution of Nathaniel Woods would push Alabama to make serious changes. However, this hope has not yet come to fruition. Some changes that would reform the system instead of protecting it would include: requiring a unanimous agreement from the jury to sentence people to death, requiring prosecutors to prove that the defendant was at least 18 years of age at the time of the crime, and acknowledge and end the racial bias that contributes to the death penalty practices. Ultimately, even after these changes are made, the most positive change to the Alabama death penalty system is to eradicate it once and for all.

Where Social Distancing is Impossible

US-Mexico Border
Source: Yahoo Images

As the COVID-19 outbreak crosses borders throughout the United States, the Center for Disease Control has released recommendations for maintaining public health, which includes working from home, hand washing, and staying six feet away from any person, if possible. For the past few weeks, I have noticed people in my own community adapt to this new way of life. Kroger and Home Depot put masking tape six feet apart in the checkout lines, and every company I’ve ever heard of has sent me a helpful email explaining their own “pandemic plan.” Amidst the anxieties associated with this global pandemic, focus understandably turns to our immediate family and community. I may get frustrated about the lack of toilet paper in my local grocery store, but millions are incapable of following any of the CDC’s guidelines. Areas with a lack of hand-washing stations, affordable healthcare, clean water, internet, housing, and infrastructure do not allow for proper social distancing. Even at the United States’s southern border, relief agencies are struggling to address the growing pandemic.

Thousands of migrants along the United States-Mexico border are stuck in limbo. Many have fled from Central America, fleeing domestic violence, gangs, and death threats, to seek shelter in the United States. However, due to the threat of COVID-19, “The U.S. closed its border to asylum-seekers, Mexico suspended refugee processing, and many migrants are afraid to go home to their native countries, even if it were safe to travel.” Therefore, people seeking asylum are left on their own to find shelter, food, water, and medical care in a place that lacks these things when there is not a global pandemic occurring. Volunteers that would usually come to help have been quarantined, basic supplies have become hard to find due to panic buying, and any assistance from medical staff has been stretched thin as case numbers continue to rise in both Mexico and the United States. Additionally, asylum-seekers have to be concerned for their own safety even after they have made it to the border and received a court date for immigration hearings. Human trafficking, sexual assault, and gang violence are all risks in the camps, and since immigration hearings have been put on hold indefinitely, asylum-seekers have to wait even longer in these dangerous areas. Aid efforts become increasingly complex with more restrictions put in place by Mexican and United States governments each day.

Pew Research Center Graph showing countries that have closed their borders due to coronavirus
Source: Pew Research Center

As economies are negatively impacted by the virus, countries are becoming increasingly isolationist. 90% of the world’s population currently live in countries with restricted travel, while almost 40% live in countries with closed borders. These countries include Canada, China, Japan, and Ecuador, with Greece suspending asylum claims at its border with Turkey, much like the United States’s current policy with asylum-seekers at its southern border. Millions of United States citizens have filed for unemployment, and businesses and individuals are struggling to stay financially afloat and pay rent. It makes sense that countries like the United States are turning their attention to the plight of their own citizens, but according to the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, “If we let the virus spread like wildfires, especially in the most vulnerable regions of the world, it would kill millions.” For many relief agencies and nonprofits, grants and funding for the year have already been distributed. However, the funds are typically earmarked for certain programs. Unfortunately, many of these programs, like funding for computer education, community engagement, and language classes, cease to exist in a world with COVID-19. Now, funding is needed to help displaced persons combat the threat of COVID-19, but it would require authorization to transfer funds from one program to another. Jan Egeland, Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, has said that banks have not financially supported relief agencies who would help UN sanctioned countries like Iran and North Korea because they fear being sued by the US government. Bureaucratic lag in providing humanitarian resources will likely mean death for thousands, particularly those with limited resources. With donor countries being overwhelmed with their own coronavirus crises, where would the funding come from?

War-torn countries and refugee camps in countries like Syria and Sudan receive assistance from the UN in the form of educational, medical, and financial resources. When we see pictures of a child fleeing violence and war in Syria, it is understandable why the UN would come in to help. However, rhetoric around the US-Mexico border paints a different picture. Often, this population is thought of as simply a group of people seeking the “American dream”. In truth, these asylum-seekers and refugees are fleeing for their lives, just like refugees on other continents. Regardless of opinions surrounding citizenship and legal status, the reality is that thousands of people have come to this region to escape deadly violence. Executive Director of Global Response Management (GRM), an organization that provides medical care to vulnerable populations worldwide, Helen Perry explains the unique situation, “There’s not a lot of great oversight. Normally in a displacement situation, the UN would come in at either the request of the country they’re fleeing from or the country that’s receiving them…but unfortunately at the border that’s not happening because both governments [Mexico and the US] are sort of unwilling to admit that there’s a problem.” As a former nurse in the US Army, Perry is especially adept at assessing the needs of struggling communities. When she came to the US-Mexico border for the first time in 2018, she was surprised to see people facing similar levels of violence to patients she had helped in Yemen who had fled the Civil War there. Fortunately, her organization continues to provide aid along the border, but COVID-19 adds an additional layer of complications. The dire situation described above was her take last year, and her organization has had to make adjustments due to the pandemic, including creating a makeshift hospital. They’re not the only organization building makeshift shelters. A government agency tasked with building the US-Mexico border wall is currently creating semi-permanent lodging for its construction workers so they can continue building, despite concerns at COVID-19. These workers, like asylum-seekers on the other side of the wall, are worried about their health and how a lack of resources could impact them and their families.

Asylum-seekers and refugees have limited access to news updates, so there is a lack of knowledge in the camps about COVID-19 and its impact. Border towns like Tijuana are already overwhelmed with patients who are US citizens, so it would be virtually impossible for a non-citizen to get accepted should the need arise. They have been instructed by relief agencies to attempt to follow the previously mentioned CDC guidelines about social distancing and handwashing, but this is incredibly difficult in the camps. Tents are small, and many people have to sleep next to each other. Water stations and bathrooms are few and far between. As coronavirus tests are barely accessible to US citizens, finding one would be challenging for someone in the camps.

Discussions of this contagious virus have created anxiety for any empathetic person. Despite the grim reality, there are some positive efforts taking place. GRM is currently working on a twenty-bed field hospital near the Matamoros camps, although they may face more challenges as United States volunteers may not be allowed to travel there. Al Otro Lado, a legal services organization, and the Refugee Health Alliance have distributed medication and additional hand washing stations to many asylum-seekers. While there are few suspected cases of COVID-19 at the camps as of yet, these actions could be crucial in containing the virus should an outbreak occur. It’s important to remember wise words by Richard Blewitt, UN representative for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, “At this time we need global and local solidarity and compassion with all those affected by COVID-19, wherever they live.”