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.”

Mounting Peril: COVID-19 in Mexico

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) expands throughout the United States (U.S.), its impact has rapidly reached vulnerable communities south of the border. As the 10th most populous country in the world, Mexico is beginning to experience an influx in COVID-19 cases and, especially, deaths which has exacerbated many inequalities throughout the country. This blog addresses Mexico’s relevance in the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has influenced human rights issues concerning gender-based violence, indigenous peoples, organized crime, and immigration.

As of late-August, approximately 580,000 Mexicans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over 62,000 have died from the virus. Mexico’s capital of Mexico City is currently the country’s epicenter with over 95,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. North of the capital, Guanajuato is nearing 30,000 confirmed cases as the second-largest hotspot, while the northern border state of Nuevo León has nearly 28,000 confirmed cases. Additionally, on the Gulf side, Tabasco and Veracruz are each nearing 28,000 cases of COVID-19. Interestingly, the southern border state of Chiapas, which has a large indigenous population, presumably has the lowest death rate (<1 death per 100,000 cases) which ignites concern about access to COVID-19 resources throughout this treacherous nation.

Gender-Based Violence

Mexico is on track to set an annual record for number of homicides since national statistics were first recorded in 1997. Femicide, which is the murder of women and girls due to their gender, has increased by over 30%. In the first half of 2020, there were 489 recorded femicides throughout Mexico. Much of this violence is attributed to the increased confinement of families since the arrival of COVID-19. For Mexican women, these atrocities are often the result of domestic abuse and drug gang activity which have both been on the rise. Regardless of how and why these acts are committed, it is plain to see that the vulnerability of women in Mexico has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (often referred to as AMLO), has been notorious for downplaying the country’s proliferation of gender-based violence. Despite an 80% increase in shelter calls and 50% increase in shelter admittance by women and children since the start of the pandemic, AMLO has insisted 90% of domestic violence calls have been “false”. As part of the COVID-19 austerity response, AMLO has slashed funds for women’s shelters and audaciously reduced the budget of the National Institute of Women by 75%. This all comes after the country’s largest ever women’s strike back in March, which AMLO suggested was a right-wing plot designed to compromise his presidency. AMLO has consistently scapegoated a loss in family “values” as the reason for the country’s endless failures while he promotes fiscal austerity during a global crisis.

Indigenous Peoples of Mexico

In Mexico’s poorest state, Chiapas, many indigenous peoples are skeptical about the COVID-19 pandemic. This is largely attributed to their constant mistrust of the Mexican government which views state power as an enemy of the people. As such, conspiracies have emerged such as medical personnel killing people at hospitals and anti-dengue spray spreading COVID-19, the latter inspiring some indigenous peoples to burn several vehicles and attack the home of local authorities. Nevertheless, Mexico has confirmed over 4,000 cases and 600 deaths of indigenous peoples throughout the country. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) suggests fostering better relationships with traditional practitioners can help limit the spread of COVID-19 in indigenous populations. Additionally, community surveillance efforts and communication through local language, symbols, and images will better protect Mexico’s indigenous populations.

Recently, 15 people at a COVID-19 checkpoint in the indigenous municipality of Huazantlán del Río, Oaxaca were ambushed and murdered. The victims were attacked after holding a protest over a local proposed wind farm, while the perpetrators are presumed to be members of the Gualterio Escandón crime organization, which aims to control the region to traffic undocumented immigrants and store stolen fuel. In 2012, members of the Ikoots indigenous group blocked construction of this area because they claimed it would undermine their rights to subsistence. This unprecedented event has garnered national attention from AMLO and the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) as they seek to initiate a thorough investigation. As demonstrated, existing land disputes have been further complicated by the presence of COVID-19 and have thus drawn Mexico’s indigenous peoples into a corner of urgency.

Organized Crime

Over the past 50 years, more than 73,000 people have been reported missing throughout Mexico, although 71,000 of these cases have occurred since 2006. Frequently targeted groups are men ages 18-25 who likely have a connection with organized crime and women ages 12-18 who are likely forced in sex trafficking. This proliferation in missing persons is largely attributed to the uptick in organized crime and drug traffic-related violence that has plagued the country. Searches for missing persons have been stalled since the arrival of COVID-19 which counters the federal government’s accountability, namely AMLO’s campaign promise to find missing persons. AMLO insists that the government countering the drug cartels with violence, like Mexico’s past administrations, is not the answer. However, many analysts argue his intelligence-based approach has emboldened criminal groups, namely with homicides, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the other hand, with many Mexicans unable to work and put food on the table, drug cartels are stepping up to fill the void. The Sinaloa cartel, which is one of Mexico’s largest criminal groups and suppliers of Fentanyl and heroin, has been using their safe houses to assemble aid packages marked with the notorious Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s liking. Although this tactic has long been used by the drug cartels to grow local support, the COVID-19 pandemic has served as an opportunity to further use impoverished Mexicans as a social shield. These acts of ‘narco-philanthropy’, which is one of the many weapons employed by the drug cartels, has enraged AMLO who has relentlessly defended his administration’s response to COVID-19. This irony reveals how growing incompetence from Mexico’s government has left its people vulnerable to not only the pandemic of a generation but more drug cartel activity.

Immigration

With the U.S. government extending its border closures into late-August, tensions mount for the migrants who seek a better life in the U.S. In addition, with a growing number of COVID-19 cases in Arizona, California, and Texas, governors from Mexico’s northern border states have demonstrated reluctance to let Americans enter the country. These reciprocal efforts have made it exceedingly difficult for migrants, namely from Haiti, to seek asylum. As a result, the Mexico-U.S. border town of Tijuana has become a stalemate for 4,000 Haitian migrants in addition to another 4,000-5,000 in the Guatemala-Mexico border town of Tapachula. This has contributed to an economic crisis where there is no work available and people face the risk of being promptly deported, effectively nullifying their treacherous journey to Mexico.

Many undocumented migrants are afraid to visit Mexico’s hospitals due to fears of being detained which would introduce harsh living conditions that put them at greater risk of COVID-19. Across from Brownsville, Texas, in the Matamoros tent encampment, aggressive isolation efforts were enacted after it was discovered that a deported Mexican citizen had COVID-19. To curtail to risk of COVID-19, the mostly asylum seekers are now expected to sleep only three-feet apart, head-to-toe. On the other hand, some Mexican nationals are crossing the Mexico-U.S. border into El Paso, in addition to Southern California, under the travel restrictions loophole pertaining to medical needs. This influx is largely attributed to the lack of resources, such as oxygen and physical space, seen in many Mexican hospitals. As such, COVID-19 resource limitations are endured by both asylum seekers and medical migrants.

Woman sitting in front of a poster that includes pictures of femicide victims.
DRG Photo Contest Winner. Source: USAID U.S. Agency for International Development, Creative Commons.

Human Rights in Mexico

As shown, issues notoriously attached to Mexico, namely femicide, indigenous autonomy, organized crime, and immigration, have been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Femicide has grown due to a culture of misogyny that has proliferated during the lockdown. Indigenous communities have developed more distrust for the federal government, particularly as it relates to public health and land rights. Organized crime groups have extended their reign of terror on the Mexican people by weaponizing the effects of COVID-19. Immigrants, mainly from Central America and the Caribbean, are not only running from their dreadful past but also face the challenging prospects of a world with COVID-19.

As a global influence, Mexico fosters the responsibility to uphold international standards related to women’s rights, indigenous rights, and immigrant rights. Despite each of these issues having their own unique human rights prescription, they could all be improved by a more responsive government. This has rarely been the case for AMLO who has consistently minimized the urgency, and sometimes existence, of human rights issues in Mexico. Furthermore, austerity measures provoked by COVID-19 should not come at the expense of Mexico’s most vulnerable populations because they exacerbate existing inequalities and serve as a basis for future conflict, insecurity, and violence. One of the most important ways the Mexican government can limit these inequalities is by properly addressing the war on drugs which includes closing institutional grey areas that foster crime, strengthening law enforcement, and ensuring policies carry over into future administrations. All the while, the U.S. must address its role in Mexico’s drug and arms trade. Confronting these growing concerns from both sides of border is the only way Mexico while encounter a peaceful, prosperous future.

COVID-19 Pandemic Has Drastically Worsened Worker Protections for America’s Journalists

by Andy Carr (guest blogger)

Vintage newspaper ads from mid 20th century newspaper
Vintage advertisements in a mid-20th century newspaper. While advertising revenue remains essential to both digital and print media, revenues have only plunged further amid COVID-19. Source: AnnaliseArt, Pixabay.

Throughout the past three decades, newspapers, magazines and online sources of news and analysis have faced deepening challenges. As I explained in a blog post last year, “the labor crisis in journalism [is] a human rights concern unto itself.” In particular, consolidation of media outlets into fewer holding companies restrains the “viewpoint diversity” in coverage, an essential quality for citizens of democratic societies to stay informed and to hold leaders to account.

Just over a year later, these concerns have only escalated with the twin public health and economic crises brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The Poynter Institute has maintained a regularly updated list of all closures, pay cuts, furloughs, layoffs and other employment changes at American outlets, here. One cumulative figure for media-sector impacts? Over 36,000 to date in 2020, according to the New York Times.

Granted, media and journalism job losses are a small fraction of total job losses. According to another New York Times report on unemployment claims since the start of the pandemic, estimated at 36 million jobs vanished throughout the United States through mid-May; by May 21, NPR added in an update, the total climbed to 38.6 million unemployed, with America’s poorer families and minority communities facing job loss rates double the national average.

Because of the advertising revenue-based funding model for most media organizations today, however, proportional financial losses in the field have been extreme, far offsetting increased readership and subscription rates. At Boston Globe Media—publisher of the storied daily paper, The Boston Globe—subscriptions surged by more than a third between March and May, but ads plunged by 30%, according to Digiday. Per CNBC, meanwhile, the New York Times might see ad revenue drop by a staggering 50 percent in the second quarter of 2020.

The same pattern is everywhere, from global conglomerates like Disney and major city papers like the Dallas Morning News to countless smaller, local outlets nationwide. At the extremes are cases like Cleveland’s 178-year-old daily, The Plain-Dealer, which cut almost its entire unionized staff by April 2020, leaving only some “60 to 65 journalists” at Cleveland.com, “a sister non-union company,” reports Poynter.

A subject covered less comprehensively amid drastic shifts is the combined effect of remote work, lockdowns and mass layoffs on labor organizing and activism—to say nothing of daily individual hardships—throughout this industry. In brief, it’s been a bloodbath. VICE Media offers an instructive example.

In mid-April, the Wall Street Journal initially reported that some “300 Vice employees in its digital operations unit” were set to be laid off, per an internal document obtained by the Journal. In response, as The Hill reported, Vice pushed back, claiming “that the plan [had] not been ‘vetted or endorsed’ by Vice Media Group and that no decisions at the company [had] been made.” Just a few weeks later, VICE ultimately went ahead with layoffs, though fewer than the Journal had suggested: cutting 155 workers as of May 15, on top of roughly 250 just a year earlier.

CNBC’s accounting of VICE’s latest cuts noted that the latter company’s CEO Nancy Dubuc blamed “not only…coronavirus, but [also] Big Tech companies taking the lion’s share of digital advertising growth.” Dubuc’s comment is an understatement: As of 2019, just three firms—Google, Facebook and Amazon—collected “68.1% of all digital ad spending,” including 69% of mobile ads.

At the same time, the extraordinary financial stratification of digital media companies has not gone unnoticed. Kim Kelly, a freelance journalist who has been published in Teen Vogue and contributed to The New Republic and others, in addition to VICE, said on Twitter that this “annual bloodletting ritual” left her “sad and furious.”

Kelly pointed to Dubuc as one example of many sky-high “executive salaries,” despite the precarity of rank-and-file journalists: While Dubuc’s VICE CEO salary has not been published, the New York Post in 2016 published details about her sale of a 4,200-square-foot Upper West Side townhouse for $9.4 million.

It’s part of an indelible pattern at media firms. Poynter noted early last year that even companies with “revenues down, posting a loss and stock price sliding” still pay out millions in top-level corporate compensation – more than “$5.2 million for [Gannett’s] Bob Dickey and [$2.8 million] for Craig Forman at McClatchy.” Coronavirus-related layoffs at McClatchy have hit roughly 4.4% of all staff; Gannett has laid off an unknown number of workers at its 261 newspapers throughout the country, though dozens of smaller-scale losses have been reported individually.

(As a structural concern, these patterns map onto the trajectory of TV broadcasters a generation ago. As Halliwell and Morley explained in American Thought and Culture in the 21st Century, deregulatory actions from the 1980s through the 1996 Communications Act “loosened restrictions on station ownership [and] allowed media conglomerates…to amass greater numbers of [TV] and radio stations” (p. 278). Many of the same conglomerates own significant stakes in digital and print media firms today, replicating their TV models at newspapers and magazines.)

Back at VICE, the company’s WGAE-represented union was blindsided by the cuts, condemning the company’s leaders for “repeatedly failing to discuss workshare programs…used to avoid layoffs” at other outlets, according to a union statement posted on Twitter. Moreover, the statement continued, VICE “did not agree to make further cuts to executive compensation” to avoid layoffs “in the middle of a global pandemic.”

Between the more than 30 million unemployment claims and tens of thousands of media-sector layoffs since the start of the pandemic, though, a large number of freelance workers have been excluded from most tallies. Especially in media, where delays in paychecks and low “kill fees” for scrubbed articles routinely put freelancers in a bind, the data are undercounting and effectively excluding many who already struggled.

As early as mid-March, long before many major cities followed New York and Seattle into lockdowns, freelancers saw their lined-up interviews, previously accepted pitches, speaking engagements and editing opportunities suddenly canceled.

Taylor Crumpton, an Oakland-based freelance cultural journalist who has written for Paper Magazine, Pitchfork and many other outlets, was one of few to give a precise dollar amount: $2,000 in lost commissions through March 2020. As Crumpton explained further to Girls United, an Essence Magazine project providing mentoring and community for young Black women in digital spaces, simultaneously working as a social worker on the “front line…with homeless youth” was simply “frightening.”

She added: “The disheartening part of this is witnessing my counterparts lose 50–80% of their yearly income, so I’ve been uplifting their links to purchase products, or donate to PayPal, CashApp, and Venmo. Because of this pandemic, I lost a cover story with an artist who I’ve been working towards interviewing for years.”

Through early May, Crumpton added in a Twitter update, other opportunities evaporated, from co-hosting a podcast to multiple staff writer positions.

As Crumpton and others have pointed out as well, the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on racial and ethnic minority groups in CDC data and in employment figures appear to be reflected in media-layoff patterns. Bianca Gracie, who left Billboard in April, frankly summarized the layoffs in her network on Twitter: “Woman, woman, Black person, woman, Latinx person, Black person, woman, another POC, Black person, Latinx person…the pattern is either coincidental or deliberate.”

Crumpton, Gracie, and their colleagues’ experiences speak to society’s digital superstructure, especially amid a global pandemic that precludes most in-person interaction. As E. Gabriella Coleman explained a decade ago in her survey of digital media ethnographies, the totality of our “digital age remains a powerful structuring emblem with material and cultural consequences” (490), including both its capacity to give voice to or further “marginalize groups,” in academia and in practice.

In other words—just like the wrenching, cyclical losses across America’s broader economy—the social, economic, and other costs of media’s implosion are not evenly distributed, but are weighted heavily against those already long excluded.

Black and white photo of the New York Times newsroom in 1942, Men in suits sit behind desks
The New York Times newsroom ca. 1942. Source: janeb13, Pixabay

But what are the implications of these far-reaching changes for organizing efforts in media? And what particular, heightened challenges do they pose, especially now?

At unionized outlets, bargaining with executives over protections for fired, furloughed or otherwise affected workers continues. Both the BuzzFeed News and VICE Media unions, for example, have been engaged in discussions, while Wired, part of Conde Nast’s portfolio of outlets, is seeking union recognition. All three, among many others, have centered robust severance packages in their demands – vital financial safeguards for suddenly unemployed former colleagues, often living in some of the nation’s most-expensive cities.

At BuzzFeed News, the union’s overriding goal has been making any crisis-response decisions collectively and, most importantly, preventing any job losses, union members or not. One potential model for distributing costs while preserving employment sought by the BuzzFeed News Union is the modified “Work Sharing Program” at the recently recognized Los Angeles Times’ own newsroom guild. The Program, adopted at the start of May, implemented across-the-board pay cuts and hour reductions, but with a minimum 12-week ban on layoffs.

Crucially, the Program—whose name derives from the “Work Sharing Program” under California Unemployment Insurance laws, established in 1978—“allows eligible employees to receive unemployment benefits” while working reduced hours, subject to state approval. Although the Program’s legal requirements and applicability restrictions are extensive, it helps fill income gaps for individual workers while allowing the company to absorb lost advertising revenue.

Though union-led efforts are in flux, they offer some promise to their members and other workers at those outlets. For others working at non-union outlets and for freelancers, in particular, the challenges are even greater.

Some media freelancers may have access to membership in the IWW Freelance Journalists Union, from “journalists, writers, [and] editors” to “researchers, programmers and printers.” But IWW-FJU’s New York City membership criteria, for example, are limited to current industry workers. For those already laid off or who have worked more than a month in other sectors to make ends meet, may be ineligible to join, or, if they are already a member, “must transfer” their union membership, where possible.

Regardless of union affiliations or publishing platforms, freelancers face compounded frustrations that are all-too-familiar, but worse than before. These include challenged or reneged invoices, late payments, slashed budgets, and the logistical difficulties of simply doing their jobs—when they can—entirely remotely, without any meaningful separation from their commitments to family or roommates at home.

Nor are billionaire philanthropists and “impact” investors, like the high-profile owners of the Washington Post or L.A. Times, likely to save the day. Another billionaire-backed publication, the Atlantic, was reported to be joining the vast ranks of hobbled legacy media outlets. In total, 20% of all staff are being laid off at the magazine.

It would almost seem remarkable—except for its familiarity—that just last year, billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs, “the California-based widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs,” further consolidated financial ownership and control of the magazine through Emerson Collective, an “impact investing” LLC founded by Powell Jobs, POLITICO reported at the time. Powell Jobs herself wrote in the Atlantic about the values of journalism—a lifeblood of democracy—as well, aligning herself with journalists’ “struggle for the soul of this nation,” the “side of those who are fighting for the truth.” (Forbes estimates current Powell Jobs’ net worth is $19.5 billion.)

What’s left for solutions? Crowdfunding, like any number of fundraisers for furloughed and freelance workers or for state-specific media sectors, is heartening proof of media camaraderie and commitments to mutual support, but a limited source of relief given the extremity of losses.

For similar reasons, expanding subscription-based funding is unavailing at best in times of Great Depression-level unemployment – such individualized, voluntary forms of support simply lack necessary scale. Such “subscription-powered” media have been extended with some success to individual journalists and writers through newsletter-styled Substack, on Patreon, or other platforms. Unfortunately, as Forbes magazine recently explained, subscriber models, whether for media outlets or solo writers, “need a lot of name recognition” to work.

Given the enormous losses accelerated by the pandemic and less-than-promising options above, public efforts, coordinated and funded through the state, are likely necessary. This alternative is favored by the NewsGuild-CWA, America’s largest journalist union, which announced their Save The News initiative and related efforts “calling for federal, state, provincial, and local governments to provide public funds to sustain news operations.” As the NewsGuild explained, such efforts are “quite possibly the only way to ensure long-term viability for…news-gathering operations.”

Many individual outlets’ unions have signed on and Save The News has channeled petitions, letter campaigns, and social media support into generating public support and congressional action. In a promising sign, Congress seems to be heeding the call: multiple bills have been introduced to extend some forms of emergency assistance, especially for struggling local media.

Prospects for passing remain uncertain and, even if passed, myriad structural and financial challenges predating the pandemic will not be resolved. Much, much more will be necessary.

But there’s a start.

Street Families Suffer Under the Cloak of COVID-19

by Grace Ndanu

A poor woman in traditional African garb holds out her hands for a relief package
Source: Yahoo Images

Not everyone has the chance to leave the city for a new home. It’s in the few dry and wet and dark spots that a forgotten bunch of people hide from the harsh winds and the temperature which is slowly dropping off. I am writing about Kenyan street families because they are the ones I know of and understand their history pretty well. These groups of homeless people depend on the company of each other for survival and to see another day.

Street people have for a long time fully depended on begging for money, food or doing casual jobs to get money, but with how Corona Virus is affecting the world, specifically the economy sector, all their sources of survival have been deflated, creating a threat of hunger, which I believe is more severe and more dangerous that the Corona Virus itself.

I was reading through the news on my phone and I got so emotional when I came across a boy who ran away from home in 2007 due to poverty and domestic violence saying that, “Even if you have fifty Kenyan shillings to buy food, you end up buying a loaf of bread. One slice for you and the other slices for the others. You don’t know how many days they haven’t eaten and it’s only that one slice of bread they are getting.” He added that, there might be new members in their group who haven’t known how to work or look for food. They are still learning and adapting to their new environment.

To add to that I also think the Corona Virus has contaminated the money or even people who are now taking advantage of the voiceless street people. When a street person decides to work for someone then this person may end up telling him or her that he doesn’t have cash and therefore he has to do the payment through mobile money, and yet the street person doesn’t have a phone, which make things more and more difficult and complicated.

An impoverished mother clutches her sick child with another  child by her side
Source: Yahoo Images

In an effort to contain the spread of Corona Virus, directives such as closure of schools, closure of hotels, staying at home, a 7pm to 5am curfew and shutting down of many non-essential businesses have greatly affected the street people community. The closure of schools brings more people to the streets, especially children, due to poverty, sexual violence and domestic violence in general. This adds pressure to people who are already in the streets. When the hotels were open, they supplied this community with the food that was not consumed, which at least made their stomachs full, but now the Corona Virus has crushed the hotels to the ground, leaving them hungry.

For the street people all that they have got is each other and it is that little slice of bread each one gets that barely sustains them each passing day. Even though their unity is their greatest strength, it appears to be their greatest fear and enemy as efforts of social distancing are tricky because they live to share — if one has it, the others have it too. If they don’t have it then the others won’t have it too. They live by faith and caring for each other.

As the news gets hotter and hotter I heard that the government rolled out a Covid-19 emergency response fund to cushion the painful wounds inflicted by the Corona Virus pandemic, for example the street families, the elderly, the refugees and the poor. And yes I was shocked when I discovered that no help trickled down to the street people who I know  are the neediest people and makeup more than twenty one thousand of Kenya’s population according to the last conducted census.

In all these government and Non-governmental organizations, those with no homes, no jobs, no families and some with no hope of tomorrow are clearly forgotten. About this I am talking to the whole world. At least make sure that a street person if not people have eaten something. Share the little that you have, because there are women with small babies and they do not have milk in their breasts. They haven’t eaten and kids haven’t also eaten.

Just show a little humanity, which is free of tax.

As we fear  for the days  to come  and wonder how  long  this  pandemic will  last, many  in the street  think  of the present — of where and  when  they  will get  their next meal. If you get a chance to show you generosity never fail to show it. Make someone remember what you have done for him or her because whatever you do to  the least of these it will be done to you.

Republic At Risk: COVID-19 in India

While the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has impacted almost every corner of the globe, parts of Asia are still just beginning to see the systemic effects of the pandemic. As the second most populous country in the world, India has experienced a rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths which magnify current injustices across the country. This blog addresses India’s importance within the COVID-19 pandemic and its relationship with human rights issues concerning feeble governance, police brutality, migrant displacement, and Islamophobia.

As of late-July, over 1.4 million Indians have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over 32,000 have died from the virus. India’s western state of Maharashtra is currently the country’s epicenter with over 375,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. On the southern coastline, the state of Tamil Nadu has the country’s second-largest number of confirmed cases (210,000+), while the capital territory of Delhi in the northwest has recently exceeded 130,000 confirmed cases. Additionally, the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh has confirmed over 95,000 cases of COVID-19. Interestingly, India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, has only confirmed just over 65,000 cases which triggers questions about access to COVID-19 testing and essential resources throughout the country.

A National Lockdown

In late-March, the Indian government issued a nationwide lockdown that lasted two months. Inconveniently, the country’s 1.3 billion inhabitants were given less than a 4-hour notice of this initial 3-week lockdown. The effects of this tall order were apparent on day one since so many people throughout the country live on a daily wage or in extreme poverty. As food supply chains became compromised and manufacturing facilities closed, the country’s unemployment rate reached a 30-year low. All the while, facilities such as schools and train coaches have been converted into quarantine centers. These attempts have seemingly delayed the inevitable spike of COVID-19 cases. However, it is speculated that the low number of confirmed cases is the result of low testing rates.

This outcome has been attributed to lax contact tracing, stringent bureaucracy, and inadequate health service coordination, namely in Delhi where cases have recently surged. However, as India reopens, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has increased. Additionally, the introduction of newly-approved antigen kits have allowed for rapid diagnostic testing, although testing is not to be distributed proportionately. More specifically, family members and neighbors of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 claim they are not being tested. Also, in several instances, the family members of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 were not being informed about their loved one’s diagnosis. After much scrutiny, however, local health authorities in Delhi have attempted to pick up the pieces by using surveillance measures such as door-to-door screenings, drones, and police enforcement.

Policing the Police

While the recent murder of George Floyd sent shockwaves across the world, India has been confronting its own relationship with police violence. In June, two Tamil Nadu shopkeepers, J Jayaraj and his son Bennicks Immanuel, were arrested for keeping their business open past permitted hours during the national lockdown. They were then tortured while in police custody and died days later in the hospital. Due to this event garnering considerable attention and protesting, six police officers have since been arrested for their deaths. Also, Tamil Nadu police officers with questionable track records will now undergo behavioral correction workshops. However, this incident is no anomaly. According to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), nine Indians die in judicial or police custody every day. In comparison, official government crime data claims 70 people were killed in Indian police custody in 2018. This striking differential in reported custodial deaths suggests India’s law enforcement entities lack accountability and are riddled with corruption.

Much like the United States, India has a history tainted with police violence that disproportionately affects minority groups, namely people from the lowest Dalit caste, indigenous groups, and Muslims. With no choice but to work during the national lockdown, many of India’s poorest citizens were beaten by police. Videos of these violent acts surfaced across social media. In opposition, there have been over 300 reported incidents of attacks on police officers alone in Maharashtra. These recent events highlight the need for the Indian government to pass anti-torture legislation that curbs police violence. By ratifying the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the Indian government can help remove the colonial vestiges of power and punishment that have plagued the country for generations.

Migrant Displacement

The sudden announcement of a national lockdown had tremendous repercussions for the tens of thousands of daily-wage migrants throughout India. Overnight, businesses closed and transportation systems suspended throughout the country, placing many migrant workers in precarious economic conditions. Men, women, and children hunkered down in urban centers across the country as they waited for their workplaces to reopen but to no avail. In response, India’s major cities experienced an exodus of migrant workers attempting to return to their home states on foot, many living hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. As thousands trekked home, many died due to dehydration, exhaustion, sunstroke, and traffic accidents. Reports of pregnant women delivering, and subsequently carrying, their children in these horrific conditions have also surfaced.

A recent Supreme Court order has urged the well-being of India’s 100 million internal migrant workers affected by the hardships of COVID-19 by requiring the government to register, feed, shelter, and transport them until they return home. However, these efforts are seemingly inadequate because most internal migrant workers have not qualified for these “relief packages”, while those who have qualified are experiencing limited coordination between state governments. All the while, India has ended its national lockdown and many migrant workers are trying to return to their places of employment. Some employers are sponsoring the return of their lost workers, while some must find their own means to return. As such, some states have sought local help to accommodate the loss of migrant workers which places many Indians in even greater economic uncertainty.

Migrant workers walking on the shoulder of a highway during the nighttime.
The Indian Lockdown Migration – IV (PB1_4728). Source: Paramvir Singh Bhogal, Creative Commons.

Pathologizing Islam

COVID-19 in India has contributed to a surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric that suggests this religious minority group is purposely spreading the virus.  The rumors began after Tablighi Jammat, a Muslim missionary group, held a congregation outside of India and, soon after, many members tested positive for COVID-19 in New Delhi. Videos on WhatsApp and various television channels have proliferated this misinformation to the Indian public alongside the usage of phrases such as “corona jihad” and “corona terrorism”. To make matters worse, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government, which is notorious for its Hindu nationalist sentiments, has begun incorporating Tablighi Jamaat-related statistics to its daily COVID-19 briefings. Such rhetoric has influenced a slew of Islamophobic acts such as prohibiting neighborhood entry, restricting sales by street vendors, and even violent attacks.

These recent events fuel an existing fire that posits Muslims as reproducing at a pace to outnumber Hindus and compromising “Mother India”. However, recent efforts between Muslim Indians and allies has been quick to respond to this COVID-19 misinformation because they have been protesting India’s new citizenship law that offers amnesty to various non-Muslim immigrants and a nationwide citizen count that necessitates proof of documentation dating several years back. The BJP has made it apparent that Muslims are not welcome in India and weaponized the COVID-19 pandemic as a part of its Islamophobic campaign. As such, these efforts corner Muslim Indians into political and economic insecurities that pressure apartheid at a time when unity is paramount.

Masked medical professionals walking with a crowd in the background.
coronavirus-india-rep-image-hyd. Source: Anant Singh, Creative Commons.

Human Rights in India

As displayed, India has an array of prevalent human rights issues that have compounded since the arrival of COVID-19. Among the efforts that could protect Indians from these concerns are labor protections, health care reform, civil rights for minority groups, food security, and income equality. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has propagated a narrative of self-reliance that undermines these systemic inequalities. Service provision has highlighted these discrepancies because resources are scarce, and those with power and privilege are placed to the front of the line. In addition, many Indians cannot abide to the recommended sanitation and social distancing measures due to living in poor, dense settlements in the heap summer when water sources are limited.

Although tearing through communities and disrupting daily life in India, the COVID-19 pandemic can be viewed as an opportunity for social change. More specifically, it is well within the power of Parliament, the media, civil society, and local governments to right these wrongs by ending communal bias and impartiality within state institutions. Addressing these corrupt and oppressive practices will not only remediate the effects of COVID-19 but help shape an equitable future for a country that is rapidly becoming a global super power and expected to be the most populous country in the world by 2027. Real change and equity in the world’s largest democracy could send a much-needed shockwave of justice across the globe.

COVID-19 and Teenage Pregnancies

by Grace Ndanu

A group of girls dressed in traditional Masaai clothing
Source: Creative Commons

It takes a lot of love, effort and dedication to be a good mother. For that reason, I believe it is important that everyone has the choice whether or not to be a parent, and when to take on that responsibility. Unfortunately, many girls around the world do not get to choose. Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic remains a pain to society because it is definitely complicating the efforts of reducing teenage pregnancies. It has caused an immeasurable disruption to every aspect of our lives in the last few months. To contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, governments have taken drastic measures to minimise the spread. Learning has been suspended, with schools being closed indefinitely. Religious meetings and worship programs have been affected similarly meaning there will be no more youth programs in the religious institutions, including churches and mosques for the time being.

In Kenya, the Ministry of Education has put in place strategies to ensure continuity of education through distance online learning delivered through radio, television and the internet. However, these strategies have further widened the inequality gap, as learners from poor, vulnerable, and marginalized households are unable to benefit from continued learning through these platforms due to lack of access. Further, with the loss of livelihoods particularly in low income households, some children may be forced into income-generating activities to support their families’ survival. Also, school closure has stopped the provision of school meals and sanitary towels.

And it’s more complicated for girls living in refugee camps or girls that are internally displaced. For them, school closures are even more devastating as they are already a disadvantaged group. Girls at secondary level are only half as likely to enroll as their male peers. While the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented, we can look to the lessons learned from the Ebola epidemic. At the height of the epidemic, five million girls were affected by school closure across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the countries hardest hit by the outbreak. And poverty levels rose significantly as education was interrupted.

There is evidence that links poverty with teenage pregnancies during this pandemic. One reason is because many young girls are getting involved in economic activities to supplement what their parents are bringing home. On the other hand, as the cases rise day by day there is a strain on the healthcare system, leading to the disruption of healthcare services, re-prioritization of sexual and reproductive and health services and a. shortage of contraceptive commodities and essential drugs. As SRHR services are reducing, sexual behaviour is rising since the teenagers have nothing to do, and it seems to be more risky where parents don’t really care what their children are doing while at home. I feel that there will be more unintended pregnancies all over the world, many of which will occur among teenage girls.

As I have discussed, there is no culture or tradition, it just happens. There are girls, especially those who come from communities or families that are rooted in culture and traditions, these girls must undergo what their parents wants them to, and the girls have no choice in the matter because their hope was school where they would run for help.

A positive pregnancy test
Source: Creative Commons

For example, in the Maasai community, when a girl is at least nine years old she is circumcised then married after two to four weeks. These girls are now expected to take care of their husband and to bear children at that early age.

Unintended pregnancies among teenagers may result in some difficulties in the lives of young girls. There are unsafe abortions, which may happen as a decision of the girl maybe to feel clean and also as a result of family decision in order to keep the family name clean. There is increased poverty where a girl who is being provided everything with the struggling parents bring another baby who needs to be taken care off and be provided everything as they are babies and as they grow all the way to adulthood. At some point there may be denial where by the parents kick out their daughters because of getting pregnant early because they have disgraced the family. This may cause psychological problems because she doesn’t have the supporting system which may force her to get married not only at an early age but also to an old man who may be violent on her. If not marriage she may have suicidal thoughts. Early pregnancies are the leading cause of deaths among the teenage girls because their bodies are not yet matured to give birth. The girls who are forced into marriage as teenagers, the responsibility that they are given drains them off because also their minds are not yet matured to do what is expected of them, which may lead them to be beaten and abused. Everyone deserves to enjoy their childhood.

Something has to be done before it’s too late. The governments should have committees that will develop and implement proven solutions. Different stakeholders should work to respond and to prevent by meeting the unique needs of adolescents by may be providing sanitary towels and also help them access SRHR services. The people responsible for taking care of pregnant teenage girls should teach them how to improve their sexual and reproductive health and well-being. Lastly I believe there are already existing activists in our towns and villages and they can potentially help to reduce negative coping mechanisms, such as child, early and forced marriage, especially during this time, where every energy is driven to the corona situation.

Cataclysm: COVID-19 in Brazil

As the number of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases continue to grow in the United States (U.S.), another epicenter has been growing in South America. As the sixth most populous country in the world, Brazil has experienced an uptick in COVID-19 cases and deaths alongside an array of national controversies that make the response efforts considerably more difficult. This blog addresses Brazil’s growing importance in the COVID-19 discussion and how it impacts human rights issues concerning indigenous peoples, environmental degradation, favela communities, and good governance.

As of late-June, more than 1.3 million Brazilians have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over 55,000 have died from the virus. Brazil’s most populated state, São Paulo, is currently the country’s epicenter with nearly 250,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The northeastern state of Ceará has the country’s second-largest number of confirmed cases (100,000+), while Pará in the northwest is nearing 100,000 confirmed cases. Additionally, the iconic city of Rio de Janeiro has over 105,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Unfortunately, Amazonas has to the highest COVID-19 death rate of any state with 67 deaths per 100,000 cases, compared to Bahia’s 11 deaths per 100,000 cases, which highlights the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on indigenous communities that have been systematically killed, displaced, and denied access to health care and other preventative services that could help fight the spread of the virus.

Indigenous Peoples of Brazil

As the largest Brazilian state in the Amazon region, Amazonas is known for its indigenous communities who often live in isolated villages and have poor access to health care. In the city of Manaus, which has a population of 2 million+ and is only accessible by aircraft or boat, many recent respiratory-related deaths have resulted in quick burial in mass graves, which has likely led to a severe underestimate the pandemic’s toll on the local population. In the remote community of Betania, the Tikuna tribe has five government medical workers that accommodate an approximate 4,000 inhabitants, but they are not treating the sick due to lack of protective equipment and COVID-19 testing supplies. One considerable threat are the indigenous community members who are not quarantining and are, instead, traveling in and out of town for work.

These unprecedented events compound the colonial legacy that has threatened Brazil’s indigenous peoples for centuries. Centuries ago, indigenous tribes throughout the Amazon were decimated by diseases brought by Europeans. In a way, history is repeating itself because the Brazilian government’s ineffectual response to the crisis have allowed COVID-19 to ravage the surviving indigenous communities and put them on the brink of genocide. Aside from the tribes who have contact with the modern world, the Brazilian Amazon inhabits 103 uncontacted tribes who have virtually no knowledge or resources to protect them from the threat of COVID-19. Signing this petition will help urge Brazilian officials to protect the surviving indigenous communities throughout the Amazon.

Deforestation in the Amazon

Since COVID-19 has reached these Amazonian communities, deforestation in the region has also proliferated. The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world and is important to the global ecosystem because it absorbs approximately 5% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Thus, protecting the Amazon is pivotal for stalling the effects of climate change. However, for years, the Amazon has been ravaged to accommodate the agricultural industry as well as illegal loggers and drug traffickers. As a result, indigenous leaders fear that the COVID-19 pandemic will be used to exacerbate the destruction these industries have already caused.

During the month of April, deforestation in Brazil increased by nearly 64% which resulted in more than 150 square miles of rainforest destruction. In response, 3,000+ Brazilian soldiers were deployed to the region to prevent illegal logging and other criminal activities that contribute to deforestation. Some worry that such activity in the rainforest will lead to outsiders giving indigenous communities infectious diseases, namely COVID-19. Brazil’s Secretariat of Indigenous Health (SESAI) has made efforts to distribute N95 masks, gloves, and goggles to the region, but activists warn that the only way to protect uncontacted tribes is by keeping illegal loggers and miners out of these areas. Despite the Brazilian government establishing three military bases to prevent illegal actors from permeating the region, they are only expected to be present for 30 days. This is because Brazil’s main environmental enforcement agency, Ibama, is expected to take over these efforts but are currently understaffed and underbudgeted.

Favelas in the Age of Social Distancing

More than 11 million Brazilians live in favelas which are shantytowns outside of urban centers. Already hit hard by gun violence, unsanitary conditions, and militaristic police presence, people living in Brazil’s favelas struggle to adhere to social distancing measures. Research has found that people living favela-like conditions spend roughly 50% more time per day with others than people in less-impoverished areas. Often, favelas are composed of two or three rooms with five or six people sharing these spaces. As such, favela conditions enable the spread of COVID-19, and with precious little assistance from the government, Brazil’s most impoverished communities are left to fend for themselves.

With little government help, residents of Paraisopolis in Sao Paulo (population: 100,000) have offered a community-based solution. Due to donations and volunteer work, residents have responded to COVID-19 by organizing distribution of free meals, ambulatory services, and neighborhood watch persons. They even designated one building the quarantine house and repurposed closed schools in self-isolation centers. In Rio, members of the gang City of God drive through the local favelas, blaring a recorded message ordering people to stay home. Other gangs have become knowledgeable about COVID-19 in order to deliver essential goods to favela residents and have even gone as far to enforce social distancing measures by preventing restaurants from putting tables out. These forms of gang vigilantism in Brazil’s favelas demonstrate the lack of government support and tension with local police.

Small grave onlooking a favela.
At the bottom of this block destined to the burials of COVID-19, is the favela of the Vila Nova Cachoeirinha housing complex. Source: Léu Britto, Creative Commons.

Trump of the Tropics

These criticisms are largely attributed to the leadership of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who notoriously dismissed COVID-19 as a “little flu”. Aside from personally ignoring social distancing measures, Bolsonaro has organized large rallies in an effort to confront local governors who have locked down their regions. Recently, after ignoring federal regulation that require wearing a face mask in all public places, a judge ruled that Bolsonaro (and any public official) is not exempt from this policy and should expect a 2,000-reais ($387) fine like anyone else. Bolsonaro even fired his Health Minister, Luiz Mandetta, in April after he supported social distancing measures. His successor has since promoted a reopening of the economy and unproven medical treatments for COVID-19.

Known by many as the “Trump of the Tropics,” Bolsonaro has successfully maintained a strong coalition of supporters such as the agriculture community, evangelical Christians, and the military. Unlike the U.S., Brazil is an emerging economy with a weak social safety net that makes it difficult for government officials to convince people to stay at home. Health care access and the conditions to work from home are also quite limited. Recent cell phone tracking data has revealed that 45-60% of Brazilians are not complying with social distancing measures, likely due to the fact that they have to choose between feeding their families and being exposed to the virus. As such, it is assumed Bolsonaro’s defiance of a public health approach to COVID-19 is an effort to appeal to his core supporters. Bolsonaro has also slashed regulations and enforcement of land grabbing, which exacerbates the deforestation crisis currently impacting the Amazon.

Human Rights in Brazil

As demonstrated, Brazil has an array of chronic human rights problems that have been compounded by the arrival of COVID-19. In 2016, a constitutional amendment was passed that limited public expenditures in Brazil for the next 20 years. As a result, we are now witnessing how these austerity measures have affected access to housing, food, water, and sanitation when Brazilians need it the most, particularly within the most vulnerable groups – women, children, Afro-Brazilians, indigenous peoples, rural communities, and informally-settled persons.

Much like the U.S., Brazil’s COVID-19 response has mostly been subnational social distancing measures and an emergency basic income to placate the masses. However, these efforts are clearly inadequate considering Brazil’s COVID-19 cases are surging alongside another potential Zika outbreak. As a result, Brazil has effectively become the most prominent COVID-19 case study in the Global South, a nation plagued by a deadly virus and an array of human rights issues. Human rights experts suggest fiscal stimulus and social protection packages would only be the beginning of a COVID-19 response because many of these concerns are the consequence of marketization and privatization of public goods and services. As such, the COVID-19 pandemic serves as an opportunity to reverse the market-based ideology that has failed so many countries, especially the Land of the Palms.

Please sign the petition to help urge Brazilian officials to protect the surviving indigenous communities throughout the Amazon.

Juneteenth 2020: Celebrating the Past, Fighting for a Better Future

Juneteenth in yellow, black, red and green with black power fist
Source: Yahoo Images

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”

What is Juneteenth?

Celebrated on June 19th, Juneteenth commemorates the official end of slavery. Although President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the U.S. government made little effort to enforce the executive order, allowing Texas and other Southern states to uphold the institution of slavery for two and a half years after it was declared illegal. It was not until Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, that the news of freedom and the end of the Civil War reached the enslaved people there. Alternatively called “Freedom Day,” “Emancipation Day,” and “Cel-Liberation Day,” African Americans have celebrated Juneteenth since the late 1800s.

History

In the decades following the ratification of the 13th Amendment, Juneteenth celebrations grew in size and popularity. Some formerly enslaved men and women and their descendants made pilgrimages back to Galveston to celebrate the holiday. Early celebrations often included a ritual in which revelers tossed ragged garments that enslaved people would have been forced to wear into the river and adorned themselves in fancy clothes taken from their former plantations. In 1872, a group of African-Americans ministers and businessmen purchased 10 acres of land in Houston and created Emancipation Park as a place to hold the city’s annual Juneteenth celebration. The festivities typically involved fishing, barbecue, rodeos, baseball, and prayer services.

In the early 1900s, Juneteenth celebrations declined, as White employers did not recognize the holiday and would not let Black people off work if the holiday fell during the work week. Educational text books for students marked the official end of slavery as January 1, 1863, without mentioning its continuance through the end of the war. American Independence Day was celebrated on July 4, and Juneteenth went largely under the radar. Celebrations were revived in the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and cities across the country reinstated the festivities. Through the tireless efforts of Al Edwards, an African-American state legislator, Texas declared Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980. Other states are following his lead. In fact, 45 states and the District of Columbia have either made Juneteenth a state holiday or an official day of observance; however, it is not yet a national holiday. This year, several corporations, including Target, Twitter, Nike, and the NFL have announced that June 19 will be a paid holiday for their employees.

Protest sign reads "End White Silence. Black Lives Matter"
Source: Creative Commons

The Struggle Continues

As we celebrate the official end of institutionalized slavery, it is important to remember that the struggle for true freedom and equality for African-Americans is far from over. As the country is waking up to the duel pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, Juneteenth celebrations are expected to be particularly festive and well-attended this year. Following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks and countless other victims of anti-Black violence, there is a renewed sense of urgency and activism around the Black Lives Matter movement. Massive protests are happening all over the country with hundreds of thousands of Americans demanding an end to systemic racism and police brutality. In order to truly understand and participate in Juneteenth celebrations, it is important to remember the horrors of slavery, the extreme violence inflicted on Black people in the years following liberation, and how these legacies continue to plague our society. In anticipation of Juneteenth, the Equal Justice Initiative has released a new report – Reconstruction in America – describing the various ways in which White people and the State invented new forms of slavery, perpetuated anti-Black sentiment and justified violence and oppression. As Bryan Stevenson aptly reminds us, “Slavery did not end in 1865, it just evolved.” Today, Black Americans still do not enjoy the same freedoms and rights as White people, as they continue to experience lynching, police brutality, mass incarceration, and unequal justice disproportionately to their White counterparts.

While Juneteenth in years past has focused on celebrating the advances that Black people have made in the United States, this year is expected to center around a call to action. For White people who want to show their support, this includes showing up for the causes of anti-racism and equal justice, understanding the structural and institutional underpinnings of white supremacy and white superiority, exploring their own complicity in upholding a racist social order, and using their privilege and agency to take actionable steps to dismantle racism, both in their personal lives and on an policy level.

History is calling the future from the streets of protest.

What choice will we make?

What world will we create?

What will we be?

There are only two choices: racist or anti-racist”

– Ibram X. Kendi

To learn how to build an anti-racist world, watch Ibram X. Kendi’s inspiring TED talk.

Juneteenth in Birmingham

Juneteenth festivities will be held in Kelly Ingram Park on Friday, June 19, starting at noon. Make sure to drive down First Avenue South to see the freshly painted Black Lives Matter street writing commissioned by the city.

Taking It To The Streets

by Peter Verbeek, Ph.D.
Associate Professor,
Program Director MA Program Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights

Large crowd of individuals with masks on march in the streets holding signs that say Black Lives Matter
Source: Yahoo Images

On March 9, 2020, the IHR published my blog entitled ‘A Time to Recognize and Safeguard The Rights That Connect Us.’ On that date, there were 717 reported cases of the corona-virus infection in the US and 26 reported deaths. Today, about 3 months later, on June 6, 2020, while I am finishing writing this new blog, there are 1.94 million reported cases of the corona-virus infection in the US, with 111 thousand reported deaths. These numbers take one’s breath away; they invite retreating into a state of silence – to a state of being ‘comfortably numb’ (3), and to leave it all to others, whomever they might be, to deal with this shocking reality. But I cannot afford to become a passive bystander to this, no-one can. Not when so many scientists and practitioners are speaking up and calling for action on the urgent human rights aspects of the pandemic, not when so many health-care workers are putting their own health and well-being on the line for the care and comfort of COVID-19 patients, and not when so many of those most affected by and at risk for COVID-19 are out in the streets protesting against the human rights violations of police brutality and murder, and for the equal justice to which they have an inherent right and that is so long overdue.
On March 6, 2020, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, M.D, urged policy makers and governments “to take great care to protect the most vulnerable and neglected people in society, both medically and economically” while devising and implementing measures to curtail the virus outbreak. She also wrote that “human dignity and rights need to be front and center in that effort, not an afterthought,” and added that “COVID-19 is a test for our societies, and we are all learning and adapting as we respond to the virus.”

Here in the US, the “COVID-19 test of our society” that Bachelet referred to, once again highlights the glaring inequalities and deep-rooted racism that continues to severely harm and disadvantage people of color, in particular African-Americans, and that in all its ugliness diminishes life for us all. In a statement released on June 3, 2020, Bachelet commented that “structural racism and police violence are of course found across the world,” and that “the anger we have seen in the US, erupting as COVID-19 exposes glaring inequalities in society, shows why far-reaching reforms and inclusive dialogue are needed there to break the cycle of impunity for unlawful killings by police and racial bias in policing.” She added “in addition, there must be a profound examination of a wide range of issues, including socio-economic factors and deep-seated discrimination. To move forward, communities must be able to participate in shaping decisions that affect them and be able to air their grievances.”

What role does science have to play in bringing about solutions for what plagues our society? What can scientists do to make things better? Taking my cues from conservation science and from my own work in the behavioral science of peace I propose two things: (a) taking our science to the streets-metaphorically, and (b) taking a holistic and comprehensive approach to the crises that we face. My inspiration for the former comes from an article that was released this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), which documents the mass extinction and biodiversity loss caused by human activity and how it threatens our mere survival. It is one of the most urgent calls for “humanizing conservation” that I have come across in the last 10+ plus years.

I’ll let the authors, Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Peter H. Raven, speak for themselves:

“In view of the current extinction crisis and the lack of widespread actions to halt it, it is very important that scientists should metaphorically take to the streets (my italics). We have, for example, started a new global initiative we called “Stop Extinctions,” to address and publicize the extent of the extinction crisis and its impacts on the loss of biodiversity, ecosystem services, and human well-being, aspects still rather ignored by most people. There is time, but the window of opportunity is almost closed. We must save what we can, or lose the opportunity to do so forever. There is no doubt, for example, that there will be more pandemics if we continue destroying habitats and trading wildlife for human consumption as food and traditional medicines. It is something that humanity cannot permit, as it may be a tipping point for the collapse of civilization. What is at stake is the fate of humanity and most living species. Future generations deserve better from us.”

The major crises of the present time, the corona-virus pandemic, systemic racism, and the ecocide of climate change, mass extinctions and biodiversity loss are not disjointed separate crises, but, rather, interlinked existential crises that are impacting the entire world population. Attempts to solve one of them without considering the others are folly and doomed to failure. Attempts to solve one of them in one part of the world without considering the rest of the world are equally foolish and doomed to failure. What this implies for policy is that “we the people” need political leadership and governance informed by the science that shows how and why these crises are interlinked and why they constitute existential crises.

This also implies that across natural and social disciplines scientists need to develop and publicly share comprehensive solutions in ways that both clearly inform and can drive policy. I think that the times of coasting through a scientific career from tenure track to tenure on strictly basic research with no immediate applied value for society are over. Every science career should involve interlinked basic and applied work, and tenure and promotion reviews as well as grant reviews should be updated so as to properly assess achievements in each of these interlinked domains. The crises facing us are too formidable not to enlist all available good minds in both properly delineating the relevant component parts of the crises that we face as well as developing solutions to them.

Person holds up sign that reads "Science is Real"
Photo: Liz Lemon; Source: Flickr

While I have confidence in science in the part it can and must play in dealing with the crises that we face, my confidence in politics and governance here in the US in its present form is at an all-time low. In my opinion, the kind of informed and enlightened leadership that draws on science to map out the immense problems that we face to find the appropriate solutions, is, with few notable exceptions, missing in action here in the US, whether we look for it to the left or right of the political spectrum or right down the center aisle. As a consequence, the global leadership that is needed to guide international partnership efforts to combat global crises, leadership for which the US as the main democratic superpower is uniquely qualified, is equally lacking at present. Global partnerships developed and spearheaded by the US and built on mutual trust and respect that accomplished so much good for so many in the past, from defeating fascism and bringing down the iron curtain to establishing a universal human rights framework and systems to deal with global health responses, are, to put it bluntly, pretty much in shambles right now. Looking in solely on the status quo of the political side of things here in the US and their global effects, the future for humankind appears to look grim, indeed.

In his Gettysburg Address President Lincoln, exhorted Americans to resolve that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. I think that President Lincoln’s call to preserve the essence of what and who we are as a nation has rarely been more urgent than now. I also think that the thousands of lawful nonviolent protesters that are out in the streets right now, are heeding President Lincoln’s call for action magnificently, showing America’s inherent greatness in doing so. I am deeply moved when I see the people most affected by the corona-virus pandemic and most at risk, risking their well-being by taking their rightful call for justice and equity, so long overdue, to the streets. I say to you, your lives matter tremendously, to all of us, and to the future of this country! And I say to you, take it beyond the streets! Run for office and practice to become the informed and enlightened leaders and policy makers that we so desperately need right now! I have my vote and science at the ready to share with you!

And to return to the call by the eminent conservation biologist Paul Ehrlich and his colleagues, yes, we must take our scientific knowledge “to the street,” as scientific knowledge is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people. We must step down from our ivory towers and speak up publicly and clearly about what the facts tell us and what we see as solutions to the crises that we face. Yes, we need those peer reviewed publications to keep our work valid and meaningful, but we should work with our institutions and granting agencies to provide free access to these journal articles to all. The existence of large for-profit publishing houses dominating the journal article universe becomes untenable in the face of the role that science has to play in combating the existential crises that threaten us all.

We must overcome any distrust and tribalism that hampers collaboration between natural and social science. We need good minds in both major areas of science to work together on the interrelated crises of the corona-virus pandemic and ecocide. For those of us working in the behavioral science of peace we must call a spade a spade when it comes to human rights violations right here at home. Attacks on human dignity, whichever form they may take, and irrespective of where they take place, or who commits them, from teargassing lawful and peaceful demonstrators during a respiratory disease pandemic to publicly insulting and disparaging individuals and groups holding a different opinion than one’s own, are attacks on human dignity and thus constitute human rights violations and should be properly labelled as such (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, see Articles 1,3,5,12,19,20).

Three pairs of hands painted blue and green to represent the earth
Source: Yahoo Images

As peace scientists, we must also speak up about the solid evidence that our biological inheritance includes a capacity for peace through our ability for empathy and for taking the perspective of others, and through our natural preference for reciprocity and justice (1). We can point anyone who has any doubts about the content validity of our comparative findings to the international news feed showing peaceful demonstrations from Asia to Europe to Africa and the Middle East in solidarity with the protests against police brutality and murder and systemic racism that are going on throughout much of the US. Politicians of all stripes should be made aware of the fact that people in vastly different cultures across the globe all demonstrate a shared disposition to not take kindly to injustice. And we can point anyone who expresses doubts in how science and government can effectively work together to deal with crises as monumental as the corona virus pandemic to New Zealand, where the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced yesterday that the country has officially eradicated COVID-19 and will return to normal after the last-known infected person recovered.

News reports show that many of the protesters who have taken their grievances to the streets of America following the murder of George Floyd are young. As US scientists let’s take to the streets – at least metaphorically – to offer our support and to help make a difference toward a just society and a sustainable future for all – in sum, toward a sustainable peace. As Paul Ehrlich and his colleagues propose, “future generations deserve better from us.”

(1) Verbeek, P. (2018). Natural peace. In P. Verbeek & B.A. Peters (Eds.), Peace ethology. Behavioral processes and systems of peace. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Publishers

Pigmented Pandemic: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in COVID-19

Ubiquity of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has drastically changed the way we behave in almost every corner of life. One silver lining drawn into these unprecedented times is that many people are more appreciative of their families, friends, and communities. However, the odds of being in a social network that knows someone who has been diagnosed or died from COVID-19 are greater if you are a racial/ethnic minority living in the U.S. As such, this blog focuses on COVID-19’s disproportionate effect on communities of color and how a human rights approach can help address racial/ethnic health disparities.

Racial/ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable to reduced access of health services and the psychosocial stressors of discrimination which is why some argue that racism is a fundamental cause of health inequalities. These disparities are largely due to the disadvantaged economic and social conditions commonly experienced by many racial/ethnic minorities. Compared to Whites, racial/ethnic minorities are more likely reside in densely populated areas, live further from grocery stores and medical facilities, represent multi-generational homes, and be incarcerated. Additionally, racial/ethnic minorities disproportionately represent essential worker industries and have limited paid sick live. As a result, the living and working conditions for many racial/ethnic minorities put them at odds with threat of COVID-19.

Vestiges: Black American Health Disparities

Black Americans have disproportionate rates of COVID-19-related risk factors such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. As such, they are disproportionately dying of COVID-19 in many counties across the U.S. These disparities are even more alarming at the state-level. For example, in Georgia, 83% of all COVID-19 cases linked to a hospitalization were Black patients despite the community only representing a third of the state’s population. Also, in Michigan, Blacks represent 14% of the state’s population but 41% of the COVID-19 deaths. On a national level, Blacks (13% of the total population) represent 33% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations, while Whites (60% of the total population) represent 45% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Not only do Black Americans disproportionately live in many of the U.S.’s early COVID-19 hotspots (e.g., Detroit, New Orleans, and New York), they are also more likely than their White counterparts to experience poverty and have no health insurance. For centuries, the labor of Black Americans has been deemed “essential”, while the COVID-19 pandemic adds insult to injury. In the medical field, Blacks are less likely to be health professionals and more likely to represent personnel that cleans, provides food, or work in inventory. As such, Black essential workers who are not on the frontlines are more likely to acquire COVID-19 in the pernicious form of regularly contacting cardboard, clothing, or stainless steel. Thus, health disparities in the Black community demonstrate how the legacy of slavery and segregation thrive in the social and economic conditions of COVID-19.

Segmented: Latino American Health Disparities

Many Latinos in the U.S. have immigrant status and work in high-risk essential industries such as agriculture, food service, and health care. This largely explains why Latinos are up to three times more likely than Whites to be infected and hospitalized by COVID-19. These striking outcomes are compounded when considering that Latinos face other disproportionate hurdles such as inadequate communication resources and language barriers. Also, Latinos often socialize in “mixed status” immigrant networks which means those who are undocumented are not eligible for COVID-19 stimulus funding.

A recent Pew poll found that Latinos are almost 50% more likely than the average American to have been laid off or lost a job due to the pandemic. This is particularly salient to Latinos with a high school education or less and those ages 18-29. However, immigrant Latinos were less likely to lose their jobs but more likely to take a pay cut. As a result, the Latino experience during the COVID-19 pandemic is not only fraught with social and economic drawbacks, much like other communities of color, but complicated by the fact that their large immigrant population is ineligible for needed resources and often relied on in the essential workforce. These outcomes suggest the social and economic consequences of COVID-19 are uniquely challenging to Latinos, namely immigrants with limited access to resources that are often afforded to citizens.

Overlooked: Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Health Disparities

Often overlooked in the racial health disparities conversation are outcomes for Native Americans. Some state health departments (e.g., Texas) classify Native American COVID-19 statistics as “other” which ultimately dismisses the unique health profile of this underserved population. However, early statistics from Arizona and New Mexico suggest Native Americans represent a disproportionate number of COVID-19-related deaths and cases, respectively. Reports from health authorities in Navajo Nation, which is comprised of areas in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, indicate this community’s confirmed COVID-19 prevalence rate is the highest in the country, although they have a test rate higher than most U.S. states.

In March, the Seattle Indian Health Board requested medical supplies from local health authorities but instead received body bags and toe tags. This callous response demonstrates that local authorities in Washington state have actively devalued the lives of Native Americans during these trying times. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota have responded to their state’s negligence by refusing to end COVID-19 highways checkpoints across tribal land. Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier argues that the checkpoints are the best thing the tribe has to prevent the spread of COVID-19 because they are only equipped with an eight-bed facility for its 12,000 inhabitants. The nearest critical care facility is three hours away.

Also overlooked are COVID-19 outcomes among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (NHPI). Early reports from California, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington indicate that NHPI have higher rates of COVID-19 when compared to other ethnic groups. A precursor to these outcomes is that NHPI have some of the highest rates of chronic disease which puts this demographic at higher risk of COVID-19. Much like other racial/ethnic minority groups, NHPI are more likely to work in the essential workforce and live in multi-generational households. Thus, these conditions allow COVID-19 to proliferate among NHPI enclaves.

Person with a protective mask preparing food with a front door sign that reads "No Mask, No Entry".
Thank you essential workers! Source: spurekar, Creative Commons

Health and Human Rights

Health is argued to be a fundamental human right. Ways this can be achieved is through creating greater access to safe drinking water, functioning sanitation, nutritious foods, adequate housing, and safe conditions in the workplace and schools. As such, health exists well outside the confines of the typical health care setting. However, the U.S. has yet to officially ratify the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which ultimately prevents the government from being held accountable for the socioecological influences that generate health disparities across racial/ethnic minority groups.

These health disparities are not debatable and even acknowledged by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In response, national efforts, state-level policies, and public health programs have successfully reduced these disparities but have only made modest progress. Thus, comprehensive, systemic, and coordinated strategies must be implemented to achieve health equity. Although solving this daunting task cannot achieved by the U.S. government alone. It must also incorporate non-profit and philanthropic on-the-ground efforts already seeking this goal as well as greater public awareness about the impact social and economic policies have on racial/ethnic health disparities.

Despite these discrepancies, the COVID-19 pandemic serves as an opportunity for social change. More specifically, these unprecedented events bring greater light to issues such as poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and migration, all of which disproportionately affect communities of color. As a result, the ubiquity of COVID-19 has gathered people from every corner of the justice community to declare that health is a human right, thus bringing us one step closer to true equity and inclusion.