The Lasting Impact of COVID-19 on Education

School sign reading "school closed, stay home, stay safe."
School closed, stay home. Source: Travis Wise. Creative Commons.

When the pandemic began in the United States almost a year ago, I was working two jobs. As COVID-19 spread swiftly and mercilessly through my community, I found myself unable to continue working at either of those positions. However, as the summer months progressed, a new job market presented itself to me: parents with kids who could not return to in person schooling. Since the school year started, I have worked as a nanny/teacher for a family with two children in elementary school and two parents who work full time. The first semester of school in a time of COVID has come and gone, revealing the many challenges alongside benefits of hybrid or online school. In the United States and in many countries across the world, children are guaranteed an education. How has this guarantee shifted when this education no longer includes in person teaching or the added benefits of childcare, school provided food, and educational resources?

With the onset of the pandemic in the United States in the middle of March 2020, schools have had to adapt their teaching and learning strategies as well as develop ways to provide access to services like hot food, laptops and other e-learning technology, and internet to students who might have relied on schools for those resources. These adjustments needed to happen in what felt like a split second. One minute we were preparing for spring break, the next we were preparing to teach and learn in completely new ways for what would end up being almost a year. Curriculums needed to be shifted and new materials created almost overnight. Many of these changes were placed on the shoulders of teachers, a group of workers who are arguably already underpaid for the work they do in non-COVID times. The sudden shift of teaching methods caused problems for teachers working tirelessly to ensure their students continue learning and engaging in virtual classroom activities. Some teachers reported that the main difficulties revolved around keeping students engaged while they are in their home environments and learning through Zoom, Google classroom, or some other similar program. They also reported the difficulties of ensuring students are reaching learning goals as teachers are unable to view the work as students are working on it.

 

A teacher in an empty classroom teaching online school
Teacher teaching online school. Source: Phil Roeder. Creative Commons.

Parents are also discovering problems with the abrupt change in schooling for their children. Some parents have reported noticing how hard it is for their kids to develop a relationship with their teachers, causing inattentiveness and problems with following instructions set by the teacher. The transition has been noticeably harder for parents of children with special needs or learning inhibitions. Without the resources that were provided by in-person schooling, it can be difficult for parents to help their students learn in a completely new environment. Students, especially in elementary school, have a hard time with the technology used for asynchronous learning, requiring parents and guardians to guide their students, sometimes every day. The pressure is added on parents who are now required to balance full- or part-time jobs with sometimes multiple children participating in online school. The students themselves have their own set of grievances with online and asynchronous learning. In the New York Times, students have reported a lack of excitement for school due to remote learning, wishing instead for one or two added days of in-person classes. Others have reported a drop in their grades where A students during in person classes find themselves C students with the online curriculum. The difficulty in distinguishing between homelife and school/work life causes problems with focusing, possibly contributing to these grade drops. However, many students report that Zoom and Google Classroom classes help them feel more productive and return a semblance of normalcy to the asynchronous style.

There is a general consensus that schools must reopen for in person classes, eventually. However, it is difficult to determine when that should be. Many parents and school system administrators have called for schools to reopen for at least part, if not all, of the spring 2021 semester. However, some teachers have protested vehemently against reopening in the past few weeks. Teachers unions have argued that at the very least schools need to prioritize vaccinating teachers and school staff, although this alone would not be enough to safely reopen schools in the unions’ eyes. The current COVID-19 vaccines being administered across the nation are helpful in keeping an individual from getting sick and dying, but it is still unknown as to whether they can prevent the individual from carrying the virus to those not vaccinated. Therefore, teachers could unknowingly carry COVID-19 pathogens home from school. Other precautions must be adopted. On Friday, February 12th, the CDC released an updated set of guidelines for returning kids to in person schooling. This guidance explicitly does not provide affirmation that schools should reopen, rather it reemphasizes the importance of measures like social distancing, masking, proper building ventilation, and contact tracing. The CDC also expresses how proper safety precautions can keep students and staff safe within schools, however they emphasize how dangerous a false sense of security could be in communities where COVID-19 transmission is relatively low.

Kids doing online school
Online School. Source: Mario A. P. Creative Commons.

A report found that with remote learning continuing into 2021, students will be seven months behind in several educational milestones. Within this report, BIPOC students will be even further behind and students from low income families will be behind by more than a year. The Brookings Institute report has called this phenomenon a “COVID slide,” where students in grades three through eight could be drastically behind on the progress they might have made in subjects like math or reading. 20 percent of students in the United States do not have access to the technology like laptops and reliable internet connection necessary for remote learning. A big push against remote learning is due to a concern regarding mental health problems for students. However, less of a focus is on how the pandemic might have exacerbated mental health problems that in-person schooling had been contributing to.

The added access parents have to their students’ education through remote and asynchronous learning has revealed problems within the educational system. Parents and students are learning that the system for education before the COVID-19 pandemic was not as beneficial as originally thought. Remote learning has exacerbated problems with in-person schooling. These problems include the reduced priorities of exercise, play, sleep, outdoor time, and even conversation between students. Many public schools have not evolved to reflect more modern research on education styles for years. The schedule, amount and types of homework, and learning skills prioritized (like memorization) have also not evolved.

Girl getting her temperature checked at school.
Temperature Check. Source: Dan Gaken. Creative Commons.

It is hard to determine the right course of action for many school systems. While the long and short term effects of the “COVID slide” should not be ignored, many students have really benefited from a non-traditional school setting and are making significant progress in achieving their learning goals. Some students are reporting feeling less stressed, less overwhelmed by assignments, and happier than they were during in-person schooling. More flexible schedules are allowing teenage students to prioritize sleep and many students have been able to escape bullying that had occurred in school. Other students are suffering mentally, physically, and academically from the changes in learning structures. It is clear that the American education system will need to evolve as the country recovers from the pandemic. COVID-19 has brought to light many problems with the current structure affecting parents, guardians, students, and teachers. It seems to have taken a drastic and unprecedented event like a worldwide pandemic to encourage change in the education sphere.

The Gender Pay Gap in Alabama in the Context of COVID-19

by Lauren Lockhart, UAB student

Two dollars bills reading "Equal Work" and "Equal Pay!"
Equal Pay for Equal Work. Source: Mirk, Creative Commons.

I will never forget the time in my 12th-grade year that a boy told me the gender wage gap didn’t exist. Even after being presented with evidence and facts, he still swore that there is no pay gap based on gender, and if there were, it was obviously for a reason. Although this wasn’t the first time I had heard a statement like this regarding human rights and equality, I still cannot believe the pay inequality that exists based on gender, and how this gap continues to grow for individuals with compounding intersectional identities. 

The Pay Gap During COVID-19

According to the U.S. Census, between 2018 and 2019, no progress has been made on closing the overall gender pay gap, with the average full-time working woman earning only 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. During COVID-19, this pay gap has continued to grow as women face more hardships and barriers as they try to support themselves and their families. 

At the beginning of 2020, women’s labor force participation in the U.S. stood at 58%, but by October, it had dropped two percentage points because of COVID. Not only is this due to the fields that have been shut down were majority women, such as restaurants, tourism, and office space maintenance, but women have also had to shoulder the responsibility of childcare. Not only was this already a problem contributing to the pay gap before COVID, but it has since grown into a greater responsibility with the shutdown of daycare centers, schools, and after-school programs. This has led to many mothers having to reduce their hours or leave their jobs entirely to take care of their children. Among parents working at home during the crisis, fathers’ childcare has increased by 4.7 hours per day, while mothers’ hours of childcare has increased by 6.1 hours. 

This reduction of hours for childcare has also increased the worry among women in the long-term evaluation for promotions and raises. Not being considered for raises and promotions puts working women during COVID at an even greater disadvantage due to the pay cuts they experienced at the beginning of the pandemic. A recent survey of 984 professionals showed that while men and women have experienced pandemic pay cuts at nearly equal rates, men (52%) were more likely than women (44%) to say their pay has been restored. So, these women are not only facing long-term consequences for their reduction in hours, but they are also facing issues presently with pay cuts and restoration. 

Image of protest sign that reads: I'm so sick of running as fast as I can wondering if I'd get there quicker if I was a man.
Sabrina Groschke. Source: Selbstbestimmung, CreativeCommons.

On top of childcare and the fear of demotion, women who contract COVID face even greater obstacles. Experts and health professionals have started to call women that face COVID “long-haulers” because of the continued work and hardships that women face returning to the workforce after having the virus. After getting COVID, many women still wrestle with lingering symptoms, in addition to trying to balance home life and work. This creates numerous barriers for women amidst this strange time we are living in, with no long-term guarantees. 

Women’s Well-Being in Alabama

The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham recently released its annual report, Status of Women, and although Alabama already treks behind many states in terms of gender equality, conditions for women have worsened amidst COVID-19. One of the key findings included in this report is that the wage gap in Alabama is wider than most other states and the national average, with women earning 73 cents for every dollar a man makes, compared to 82 cents for U.S. women overall. For women in Alabama who have children, the annual cost for an infant (under 12 months old) is nearly 17% of the mother’s median annual earnings, totaling approximately $5,858. However, add in that women have accounted for 57.3% of the total unemployment claims in Alabama since the beginning of COVID, and it seems that all of these factors can make it virtually impossible for women to sufficiently support themselves and their family.

Photo of a protest with woman holding sign that reads "Equal Pay"
Equal Pay. Source: Penner, Yahoo Images.

Universal Fight for Gender Equality

Even though it may not be taking place in Alabama, six mayors around the world have joined forces with the organizers of City Hub and Network for Gender Equity (CHANGE) to fight the increased gender inequality during COVID-19. The network aims to continue to spread these projects among other city mayors in hopes of attracting more attention and progress. Los Angeles mayor, Eric Garcetti is requiring that every city department must have a gender action plan and measure to show progress on tackling gender equality. These measures can range from closing the gender pay gap, appointing women to boards and top positions, and ensuring more girls use public spaces, like sports fields. While these may not be large steps towards gender equality, there is an effort, nonetheless.  

Human Rights in Appalachia: Socioeconomic and health disparities in Appalachia

The previous blog posts in this series are located here:
Human Rights in the Appalachian Region of the United States of America: an introduction
Human Rights in Appalachia: The Battle of Blair Mountain and Workers’ Rights as Human Rights

In the Appalachian region of the United States, there have long been overarching socioeconomic problems that have prevented the region from seeing the same levels of growth as other parts of the country, and even been part of its decline in other domains. Much of Appalachia’s population of twenty-five million people remains remote, isolated from urban growth centers and beneficial resources that exist in cities. The rural towns and counties in which many Appalachian people live have not had the ability to maintain the public infrastructure, furnish the business opportunities, or provide the medical services that are necessary to sustain populations.

There are three regions of Appalachia: the southern region, which covers parts of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, the Carolinas, and Tennessee; the central region, which covers parts of Kentucky, southern West Virginia, southern and southeastern Ohio, Virginia, and Tennessee; and the northern region, which includes parts of New York, Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, Maryland, and northern and northeastern Ohio. While the entire Appalachian region struggles with higher levels of poverty, unemployment, and lack of services and infrastructure, some sub-regions suffer worse than others, and in different ways (Tickamyer & Duncan).

graph of people in poverty by age group
Percent of persons in poverty in rural Appalachia by age group: 2014-2018

Even when compared to other rural areas, Appalachia struggles on measures of educational attainment, household income, population growth, and labor force participation. Rates of disability and poverty are significantly higher in rural Appalachia than they are in other rural areas of America. In 2018, the number of Appalachian residents living below the poverty line was higher than the national average in every age group except those 65 and older. The largest disparity was among young adults (18-24), where the Appalachian population was more than 3% higher than elsewhere. From 2009 to 2018, median household income in Appalachia went up by 5%, not far behind the national average of 5.3%. However, the median household income in Appalachia remains more than $10,000 lower than the national median.

 

map of population age in appalachia
Map of population age in Appalachia

One area where disparities between Appalachia and elsewhere in the country are particularly noticeable is in healthcare. The Appalachian Regional Commission released in 2017 “Health Disparities in Appalachia”, which reviews forty-one population and public health indicators in a comprehensive overview of the health of the twenty-five million people living in Appalachia. The study found that Appalachia has higher mortality rates than the rest of the nation in seven of the nation’s leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, COPD, injury, stroke, diabetes, and suicide. In addition, diseases of despair are much more prevalent in Appalachia than the rest of the country. Rates of drug overdose deaths are dramatically higher in the Appalachian region than the rest of the country, especially in the region’s more rural and economically distressed areas. Research indicates that diseases of despair will increase under COVID-19, as well. This will be especially true for women, who experience death from diseases of despair at a rate 45% higher than the national average in Appalachia. The ARC found that, while deaths as a result of diseases of despair were more numerous in metropolitan counties of Appalachia, rates of suicide and liver disease were higher in rural counties.

These issues are exacerbated by the fact that there is a much lower supply of health care professionals per capita, including primary care physicians, mental health providers, specialists, and dentists in Appalachia. The supply of speciality physicians is sixty-five percent lower in the central sub-region of Appalachia than the rest of the nation as a whole. Other factors negatively impact health in Appalachia, as well. Nearly twenty-five percent of adults in Appalachia are smokers, compared to just over sixteen percent of all American adults, and obesity and physical inactivity are extremely prevalent. However, it is worth noting that in some areas of public health interest, such as the occurrence of STIs/STDs and HIV, Appalachia does better than the rest of the country. 

Healthcare disparities are an increasingly dramatic phenomenon. From 1989-1995, the cancer mortality rate in Appalachia was only 1% higher than the rest of the US, but by 2008-2014, it had risen to be 10% higher. In the same time frames, the infant mortality rate was 4% higher versus 16% higher, respectively. And, in 1995, the household poverty rate in Appalachia was 0.6% higher than the national average, but by 2014 was 1.6% higher. We like to think of these problems as things of the past, but the gaps are still very much relevant. Fortunately, people living in Appalachian communities are more likely to have health insurance coverage than other Americans. 8.8% of the population in Appalachia do not have health insurance versus the national average of 9.4%.

This year, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, some factors of the Appalachian population have put people living there at greater risk of COVID-19. 18.4% of people living in Appalachia are over age sixty-five, which is more than two percent higher than the national average. In more than half of Appalachian counties, over 20% of people are older than 65. This, combined with high rates of obesity and smoking, put many people in the “high-risk” category. COVID-19 has affected Appalachian communities in ways that don’t result in death but make surviving even more difficult. Food insecurity, for instance, is an increasingly severe problem. At one soup kitchen, “…we were serving about 200 people a day, and our numbers have nearly tripled since COVID started,” social worker Brooke Parker, from Charleston, West Virginia, said.
However, perhaps due to the isolated nature of many Appalachian communities, mortality rates from COVID-19 have not been markedly higher than the national averages.

With schools moving to online learning, problems with access to internet in Appalachia become more relevant and pressing. Around 84% of Appalachian households have a computer, which is five percentage points below the national average. 75% have access to reliable internet, which is also five percent lower than average. There is no easy solution to this lack of access to education. Even in non-Appalachian counties, students are being severely impacted by the disruption to their normal education activities.

Human rights organizations ought to keep a close eye on Appalachia as we see the results of COVID-19 on an already vulnerable and at-risk population. The ultimate consequences of the pandemic will likely be more severe here than elsewhere in the country. People living in Appalachia deserve the same assistance being offered to and resources being put towards urban centers in other parts of America. Too often have they seemingly been forgotten.

Additional References:
1. “Health Disparities in Appalachia”. Marshall, J.,Thomas, L., Lane, N., Holmes, G., Arcury, T., Randolph, R., Silberman, P., Holding, W., Villamil, L., Thomas, S., Lane, M., Latus, J., Rodgers, J., and Ivey, K. August 23, 2017. https://www.arc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Health_Disparities_in_Appalachia_August_2017.pdf. Retrieved December 3, 2020.
2. Population Reference Bureau. https://www.prb.org/appalachias-current-strengths-and-vulnerabilities/. Retrieved December 9, 2020.
3. Tickamyer, A., Duncan, C. (1990). Poverty and Opportunity Structure in Rural America. Annual Review of Sociology. 16:67-86.

COVID-19 in ICE Detention Facilities

Children advocating for
Children ask for their parents’ safety while they are in ICE facilities during COVID-19. Source: Yahoo Images

On a visit to a private United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Texas, a reporter met with Philip, an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo, to speak about the conditions of ICE facilities amid the coronavirus pandemic. Philip recalled his experience, telling the reporter that ICE does not “pay attention to the rules,” and “agents do not wear masks and do not respect quarantine.” Furthermore, he shared that the agents claim “health isn’t ICE’s responsibility.”

How severe is the risk of COVID-19 in the ICE facilities?

After hearing about the first warnings of COVID-19, Chris Beyrer, MD, Desmond M. Tutu Professor of Public Health and Human Rights, highlighted the potential for catastrophic outbreaks of the virus in America’s jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers. His background in epidemiology and research on infectious diseases in prisons gave him the credibility he needed to make such a grave claim. Additionally, in Wutan, China, where one of the first big outbreaks of COVID-19 was, prisons and jails had all the red flags that worsened the spread of COVID – indoor facilities, crowded populations, and hygiene challenges. This was more alarming to Breyer since he was aware of America’s densely populated facilities and their lack of preparedness in handling a pandemic.

Breyer was approached by a group of lawyers working with five older Latina women in the El Paso ICE facility; the women, in addition to their age, had at least one preexisting condition, such as diabetes and hypertension, putting them at a greater risk of becoming severally ill if they were to contract COVID. The lawyers sent Breyer detailed plans of the facility and housing arrangements, and Breyer’s team concluded that ICE could not protect the five women; they would be at high risk if they were exposed. The case reached a federal court where the judge ordered the release of all five women, who fortunately had family in the U.S., so they could go home. The judge’s ruling cited the irrefutable scientific evidence and explicitly said that ICE had failed to prove that they could protect the women from exposure. This precedent itself sets the standard for any other case that emerges during COVID in relation to ICE and the safety of a detention facility amid a pandemic.

Police in ICE facilities ignore COVID-19 guidelines. Source: Yahoo Images.

What else has ICE been doing amid a pandemic?

The sad part is that this unsanitary environment was present prior to the pandemic. In a 2019 inspection of ICE facilities by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the report says the DHS found “egregious violations”: moldy bathrooms, food safety issues, lack of hygiene items, and inadequate medical care. If these problems existed pre-pandemic, there is no guarantee that ICE has improved their filthy detentions’ environments. Though the ICE website has posted that it is abiding by CDC guidelines, there is no solid proof of such changes. Instead, ICE’s ongoing deportation flights have not ceased. Since January, over 450 deportation flights to fifteen countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have taken place. Eleven of these fifteen countries have confirmed that deportees returned with COVID-19. Since March, ICE has arranged 180 flights from detention centers in hotspot states – Texas, Arizona, California, and Florida – to the Northern Triangle and Mexico. Cases across the region in March jumped from few to thousands, which has been worsened by the deportations of COVID-positive immigrants.

A Call to Action

Amy Zeidan, an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at Emory University, called for ICE to comply with mandatory CDC guidelines and release as many people as possible from immigrant detention. It has also been suggested to do three things in the meantime to fix the underlying structural issues that have worsened the spread of COVID in detention facilities: “increase COVID-19 screening and mass testing; improve access to medical care outside of ICE facilities for COVID-19 positive detainees; [and] implement systematic investigation into ICE facilities in violation of other guidelines.”

Homeland security is something that everyone cares about. But if America needs to cage immigrants in unsanitary, filthy conditions where they are at a greater risk of dying, then the DHS and ICE need to rethink their stance and their treatment of people who have immigrated to the United States. This pandemic affects everyone, but it can be mitigated with the correct precautions. People like Philip who witness such malnourishment within ICE facilities do not deserve to be treated with such cruelty.

people
One perspective into an ICE detention facility. Source: Yahoo Images.

COVID-19’s Effect on Mental Health

woman sitting alone on a bench next to a backpack
Self Isolation. Source: Bicanski, Creative Commons.

Amidst the global pandemic, we have all had to make some changes to our daily lives. It used to be normal to go to restaurants, movie theaters, and concerts, but now, for the most part, we stay away from those activities and social distance instead. While social distancing has slowed the spread of COVID-19, most of us are aware of the toll it takes on our mental health. Humans are a very social species, and social isolation can have a severe impact on overall wellness. Financial hardships and anxiety over illness contribute to a decline in mental health as well.

Social isolation has many benefits when it comes to slowing the pandemic. However, it drastically impacted the lives of many people in an unintended way. Loneliness has skyrocketed due to people only having contact with the people they live with—or no one. The effects can be even more confusing because social isolation affects everyone differently. Some people have pre-existing mental health conditions, and when the pandemic forced them into isolation, they recognized their symptoms worsening. While their original symptoms worsen, they also are more likely to develop PTSD than their counterparts without pre-existing conditions.

Even those without pre-existing mental health conditions are vulnerable to worsened mental health when facing social isolation, especially children and adolescents. Many people in this age group get most of their social interaction through school, and with many schools closed or on limited schedules, they’re not receiving the social interaction they need to grow. Because of the loneliness these children and teens are feeling, there is the increased risk that some of them will develop depression at an early age, with even higher rates than normal among those that have a family history of depression.

College students are facing very similar challenges that adolescents in middle and high school experience, except many have the added pressure of being away from their families while also no longer having a strong social network on campus to rely on. Many students are experiencing increased fear and anxiety in addition to depression, which can lead to physical health issues; anxiety and depression can worsen sleep and eating habits, which can have profound effects on a student’s energy, and in turn their performance in school and overall health.

Financial struggles have been shown to have severe impacts on a person’s overall wellbeing outside of this pandemic. Over a third of the United States’ population experienced negative financial impacts due to the pandemic. Hourly workers, who typically already struggle financially, were hard hit, which creates a lot of stress for them and their families. People who are worried about their finances may also be unable to seek mental health help from professionals, which could potentially improve mental health.

Many people with stable work before the pandemic hit, lost their jobs. They experience an added stress of worrying about evictions and foreclosures and where their next meal is going to come from. This can lead to higher levels of anxiety and depression, and in the past, economic downturn, which we have experience during the pandemic, is associated with an increased rate of suicide.

This pandemic has been a new experience for all of us. The COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t the first pandemic, and many are realizing it won’t be the last. This realization is increasing anxiety in many people, along with worrying about the health of immunocompromised loved ones or personal health. Additionally, many are worried about dying alone. This increase in stress can lead to an increase in anxiety and depression, along with other mental health issues, and worsen existing mental health conditions.

Being home all day has kept people in front of the TV, watching the news. It’s beneficial to be informed, but studies have shown that too much COVID-19 news can worsen mental health issues. This can exacerbate issues that already existed. One way to reduce being overwhelmed with the news, but to stay informed is to limit the time watching the news and instead get reliable information from the CDC, which updates information regularly.

Mental health is a human right, and should be a priority, especially during times or social isolation, financial hardship, and illness. An emphasis should be put on practicing self-care, but it’s also important that people who need help from a psychologist or psychiatrist get the chance to see them. During this pandemic, mental health has been put on the back burner. While many of the steps taken have saved countless lives, their impact on mental health should not be overlooked. In the future, when we take drastic measures, such as social isolation, we need to make sure the mental health aspects will be given the attention they need to be able to keep our population healthy in every way possible.

The Right to Protest: Black Lives Matter and the Anti-Lockdown Protests

protestor
BLM protestor. Source: Elvert Barnes. Creative Commons.

Throughout the summer of 2020, the cries of “Black Lives Matter!” and “I can’t breathe!” echoed across the United States. These cries took the form of protests that occurred in many cities around the country and even around the world. The increase of Black Lives Matter protests has been occurring in the months following the murder of George Floyd by police officers in May of 2020. Frustration over the lack of action by local and national authorities as well as community members themselves, led to some protestors to resort to violent tactics. It is important to keep in mind that while Mr. Floyd’s death was a catalyst that sparked the increase in protests, police brutality and the discrimination of black populations within many United States systems has existed since the times of slavery. These disparities within the system have been left unaddressed for too long, and many agree that peaceful protest will not incite the necessary action and change. However, while some of the protests have resulted in property damage and other violent acts, the majority of the protests have been very peaceful.

In response, President Trump has repeatedly called for a “crackdown” and continues to characterize protestors as violent and dangerous, despite the fact that over 90 percent of the thousands of nationwide protests have been peaceful. He declared New York City, New York, Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington, cities that have hosted several Black Lives Matter protests, to be “anarchist cities,” which in turn could make them ineligible for important federal funds during the Covid-19 pandemic. President Trump has also refused to address the very valid concerns of protestors, instead vowing to defend the police as opposed to answering the call to pursue reforms to the policing structure. He has taken an authoritarian approach to the Black Lives Matter protests, sending in federal agents to “take care of the situation” in cities where very large Black Lives Matter protests have been held. His response is in stark contrast to the response of protests held earlier in the summer, protesting state lockdowns and mask ordinances in response to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

police
Riot Police. Source: Igal Koshevoy. Creative Commons.

In Portland, Oregon, federal agents dressed in camouflage and tactical gear were called in to handle the local Black Lives Matter protests. They were part of ‘rapid deployment teams’ created by the Department of Homeland Security. Such agents were also deployed within Washington, D.C., San Diego, California, Buffalo, New York, and Las Vegas, Nevada. In D.C., federal agents utilized “chemical agents” to disperse a crowd. Also in D.C., military helicopters flew over protestors below roof level, causing panic and leaving protestors to run for cover. Some protestors described experiences of being grabbed off the street by plainclothes policemen and agents, thrown in a van, and being taken to a location where they were held for multiple hours without being told a reason for their apparent arrest. Lawsuits have been opened due to increased injuries experienced by protestors and accusations of the agents engaging in ‘unlawful tactics.’ The deployment of these federal agents into Portland and other cities is an extremely unnecessary show of force. The federal government labeled the protection of government property and the discouragement of unrest as the excuse for the presence of the agents. This excuse angered local authorities, with the governor of Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown, declaring the influx of federal agents a “blatant abuse of power.”

A few weeks before George Floyd’s death, in late April 2020, protestors gathered outside of Michigan’s state capital chanting, “Let us in! Let us in!” The protestors, many of them armed and carrying semiautomatic rifles, forcibly attempted to enter the Michigan capitol building. They were protesting the new state lockdown and restrictions that were put in place by Michigan’s governor in response to an increase of Covid-19 cases within the state. The protestors were tightly packed and very few were wearing masks. Some protestors shouted anti-government slogans and some compared Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, to Hitler. One protest sign threatened to hang state officials and read, “Tyrants get the rope.” The horde of protestors was blocked only by state police and a few capitol staff members. Some of the protestors managed to get into the gallery above the main legislative floor and stood menacingly above lawmakers, waving semiautomatic rifles and shouting down at the lawmakers below. It became so bad that the few lawmakers who did own bullet proof vests began wearing them. Other similar protests occurred within Michigan and the sentiment was carried across the country.

 

lockdown protest
Lockdown Protestors. Source: Michael Swan. Creative Commons.

President Trump’s response to these increasingly intimidating and violent protests? He encouraged them. In a series of tweets in mid-April, the president called on citizens to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”, “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!”, and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA…” At this time, the pressure to reopen the economy was extremely high and President Trump seceded any leadership during the pandemic to the state governors, while criticizing the ones who quickly invoked strict lockdown procedures and mask ordinances. He encouraged protestors and stoked an angry fire among his conservative supporters.

Within the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, several articles protect the right to protest. Article 7 declares equal protection under the law without any discrimination. Article 20 protects the freedom of peaceful assembly. Article 19 protects the freedom of expression. These are declared as universal human rights and the constitution of the United States echoes this important sentiment. Included within the First Amendment is the freedom of protest, or more specifically “the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances…” Protesting has long been an acceptable way to make grievances known in the United States. So why were President Trump’s responses to these two protests so drastically different?

An argument has been made that the Black Lives Matter protests are so violent that they require a similar level of violence to be contained. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) took information from over 7,750 Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations across the United States. The organization found fewer than 220 of these protests violent. This means that more than 93% of Black Lives Matter protests have been peaceful. The definition of violence, as determined by ACLED, includes fighting against police, vandalism, property destruction, looting, blocking roads, and burning of items. They also included the toppling and destruction of Confederate and slave owner statues. Despite this evidence, many people still believe the Black Lives Matter protests to be largely violent. A poll resulted in 42% of respondents stating that they believe the majority of Black Lives Matter protestors to be oriented towards violence. ACLED believes that this misconception is perpetuated by biased and disproportionate media coverage of the protests and demonstrations.

blm protest
“I Can’t Breathe.” Source: Taymaz Valley. Creative Commons.

Many studies have shown that police and federal agents have disproportionately interfered in the Black Lives Matter protests as opposed to other protests, like the mask ordinance protest in Michigan. President Trump’s actions have showcased a true bias against Black Lives Matter protestors as he actively works to impede upon their right to protest. It can very simply come down to the racism President Trump uses to dictate many of his actions and that his supporters continue to encourage. America was never a great nation to many groups of people and the presidency of Donald Trump has pushed the United States even further from greatness.

Unequally Disconnected

by Grace Ndanu

African school children in uniforms huddled around desks
African Schoolroom. Source: Creative Commons

As the novel corona virus spreads across the world, states and localities are faced with mounting pressure to close the school doors. The closing of schools has left children, teens and young adults with nothing to do because there was never a notice. Before the introduction of online learning, which was first provided through the radio and the television and then through Zoom and Skype, Kenyan children ended up walking through all the neighborhood while many teens and the young adults ended up engaging in dangerous activities like drug abuse, stealing and sexual activities that resulted to so many girls being pregnant. This became a very big concern to the nation apart from Covid-19. When the number of new cases were being aired, the teenage pregnancy cases were aired alongside it.

The purpose of closing the schools was to curb the spread of the virus. And hence transitioning to online learning became the only option, which was and is still not easy. Among many challenges from providing meals, proper clothing, proper health, to proper housing for the low income families it will never be easy. In Kenya, a person is considered poor when they lack the most basic needs. Also as long as a family has somewhere to lay their heads at night or has a shelter to keep them off the storms, cold and the hot sun, that family is regarded as okay they do not have to worry because they are surviving. This suggests that technology is not a necessity or a basic need. In Kenya, we are in need of technological empowerment.

There are so many private schools compared to government schools. In these schools the majority of the students are from rich families, that is 70%, while 30% are there because of sponsorship and scholarships. The government schools holds more of Kenyan children because majority of Kenyans are technically poor. There is no option of private school to these parents because even most of them send their children while they are still under age just for them to go and eat their lunch because when they stay at home they will have nothing to eat, instead as little they are they will have to wait till dinner. That is a bonus for the government.

In Kenya advanced technology was just introduced a few years back, meaning technology is still young. There are still households with no electricity, a radio or a simple mobile phone for just communicating. Technology courses were also introduced and they are improving since the stereotype of saying that technology courses for example computer science is made for boys is fading away and now even girls are doing better than the boys in the course. That is the good news about technology, the bad news is that, around 60% of the poor children in Kenya have little or no access to technology for learning that is the smartphone or the computer and the internet to make the learning easy.

A photo of two children's computers sitting on a desk
African children need better access to technology in order to continue their education during the pandemic. Source: Creative Commons

This makes only children from the private schools able to continue learning. But not all who continue learn online 20% are left out. Also the troubling gap in the opportunity to continue learning emerges between privileged and vulnerable children when looking at responses by other markers of economic advantages such as employment and food security status. 10 in 60 children of employed parents have access to both a device and the internet for learning always, or most of the time. This on demand availability drops where other children living in households where the parents are unemployed.

There is an extent where families who afford two or one meal a day, give it up and instead of eating or have little small that day, what was to be used to buy food will be used to pay for the virtual education by purchasing some internet bundles and if there is no a gadget to be used, the child will have to walk miles away from home in order to access cyber. The long walk will make the child tired even when it is time to concentrate,  he or she is tired even to listen. The long walk is also exposing the child to sexual abuse by strangers and before they get to speak out it is too late, which will even make the concentration more difficult hence dropping of the performance.

Many people in Kenya acquire phones only when they are already at their 18th year and some even at their 20s. Considering this, the children who were and are still learning online are really struggling because they are not familiar with the gadgets or the process itself. If the class was to start at 8am and end at 10am through zoom, the child will join the class at 9:30am or even she will never join basically because she does not understand which button is which.

The government or the stakeholder responsible for children and everyone’s right, make technology as a basic need, with that learning will become easy and efficient to everybody, be it grandparents, parents and the children.

COVID-19’s Impact on Gender Equality

women wearing patterned hijab and mask looking directly into the camera
COVID-19 emergency response activities. Source: UN Women Asia and the Pacific, Creative Commons

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the health and social structure of the world. Over one million lives have been lost, and over 35 million people have been infected with the virus. While infectious diseases don’t discriminate by age, race, social class, or gender, these factors do influence how COVID-19 and the related social ramifications will affect the illness experience for different people. For instance, when looking at gender, women have been more severely impacted than men. Men are more likely to die as a result of contracting COVID-19, but women experience the brunt of the long-term social effects, partially due to preexisting gender inequalities.

Looking at the healthcare sector alone, women were affected tremendously for many reasons. First of all, about 70% of healthcare workers are female. This means that a disproportionate number of females are putting their health and lives at risk to improve the lives of others. They were more heavily affected by PPE shortages at the beginning of the pandemic, and when PPE did become available, the “one-size fits all” design, which defaulted to the typical cisgender male body, was often ill-fitting and not conducive to managing menstrual cycles. Additionally, women who work in healthcare delivery have been historically overworked and underpaid. In normal circumstances, many healthcare professions, like nursing, have high burnout rates. However, studies have shown that the pandemic has increased the negative mental health effects of the job, primarily in females and in nurses.

Additionally, women live longer than men, and women are the vast majority of the population in nursing homes. During the pandemic, nursing homes have had to take drastic action to ensure the safety of their residents through restricting visitation and group events. This has led to significant social isolation in nursing homes, and loneliness follows closely behind. Further, many elderly people that live alone are women who rely on the care from their family. With the social distancing and their increased risk for severe disease, this has left many women almost entirely isolated—with the exception of family and friends dropping off groceries. This has led many women over 65 to meet up with friends. This makes them more likely to contract COVID-19, but for many, the increased risk is worth it to not be lonely.

Another health effect of the pandemic for women has been reduced access to healthcare, especially sexual and reproductive health. Across the globe, procedures considered elective were postponed due to concerns of restricting nonessential personnel from being in hospitals.  However, many elective procedures can play an important role in a woman’s health. For example, endometriosis is a disease in which the uterine lining grows in areas where it shouldn’t, such as in the fallopian tubes and on the bladder, and it can cause immense pain in women who have it. One of the treatments is surgery to remove the excess growth. This not only may relieve pain but also increase fertility, so women who want to have children are more likely to be able to do so. While this surgery undoubtably improves the lives of women with endometriosis, it is considered an elective surgery, and in many places, women had their surgeries postponed. For women with immense pain, finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, this was devastating.

This is one of many experiences that women have faced. Many treatments and prevention methods for women’s sexual and reproductive health are considered nonessential, so many women have had to postpone their HPV vaccines, and STI and cervical cancer screenings. Additionally, some states have tried to roll back abortion services. India had a very strict lockdown, which prevented many women from access to contraceptives. This led to “over 800,000 unsafe abortions,” which is the third most common cause of death among pregnant women in India.

Outside of the healthcare sector, women have experienced many social repercussions due to the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, women were largely responsible for the unpaid care work, such as taking care of children or older family members. Now, with children home from school, and older people less able to do their own errands because of the risk of contracting COVID-19, the burden is falling on women and girls. Because of this, many women have to give up their job, or at least cut back hours, and many girls have to put their education on pause.

mom reading a book and son holding a baby while doing homework
Homeschooling. Source: Iowapolitics.com, Creative Commons

Before the pandemic, there were indications that great strides were being made towards gender equality in society and in work. However, a lot of the progress was lost with the onset of the pandemic and with lockdowns. While female-dominated jobs are typically the most protected during economic downturns, lockdowns affected female-dominated jobs at a higher rate than male-dominated jobs: it is estimated that female job loss was 1.8 times higher than male job loss. This is mainly because women are more likely to work jobs that are part-time or temporary, which makes their job security decrease significantly. As mentioned before, women are more likely to take care of family due to closures in school and older family needing assistance, making them less able to work, even from home. All of these factors mean women will be making less money because of the pandemic.

Finally, because of lockdowns, women are staying home more. While this is frustrating for many people, it can be dangerous for women in abusive relationships. Abusive relationships are dangerous to begin with, but with the added stress of the pandemic and being stuck in the same house for days, weeks, or even months, the severity rises. Additionally, a lockdown places women experiencing domestic abuse in a dangerous situation because it’s harder for them to escape the abuse through women’s shelters. Another way some women would typically be able to escape a domestic violence situation would be through a community, but even in normal circumstances those can be hard to come by as it’s typical for abusers to isolate their victims, and with the added isolation of the pandemic, it’s even harder.

Everyone has been significantly impacted by the pandemic. However, some people have been affected more than others, especially when indirect health effects and social effects are taken into account. Because of the disparity between the effects on men and women, we must aim interventions at women and girls. Not doing so could negatively affect years of progress made toward gender equality, and negatively impact the mental and physical health of women in the future.

Fires and COVID-19 Race Through Lesvos Migrant Camp

We are asking for the European community to help. Why are they not listening to us? Where are the human rights? We took refuge in the European Union but where are they? There are no toilets, no showers, no water. Nothing. Not any security or safety. We die here every day.”

Devastation in Moria

On the night of September 8th, 2020, fires raged through Europe’s largest migrant camp in Moria, Lesvos in Greece. It is home to more than 13,000 people which is 6x its capacity. Recently, Moria has caused deep political divisions and unrest in Europe over Mediterranean migration. Moria serves a direct transit point for hundreds of thousands of people seeking refuge from Afghanistan and Syria with the European Union. After Europe started closing its borders and putting a quota on the number of immigrants 4 years ago, life in Moria began to be plagued by mental and physical health issues and desperation. What was originally a temporary camp, became the home of deplorable conditions for people who were running from another deplorable environment.

On the night of the fires, thousands of Moria residents were displaced and are currently being refused entry into Europe, being refused basic rights to shelter and safety, being refused access to proper shelter and sanitation, and being refused their human rights. Since fleeing the fires, the refugees have resorted to sleeping on fields and the sides of roads. Thousands of migrants are now demanding more permanent housing because their situation is so out of the norm and they just want to feel safe in one environment, but their cries for help are continuing to go unheard. The Greek government has taken positive steps to build a more permanent migrant camp, but this leaves little to no hope for refugees seeking a better life outside of Lesvos.

This picture shows the a part of the residential area of the Moria camp where proper housing is severely limited and lacking along with our necessities. Source: Marianna Karakoukali

While accounts of how the fires started are currently being investigated the Greek government is claiming to have identified the culprits. Rumors of how the fires started are illustrative of ethnic and political tensions on Lesvos. The refugee migrants are tired of their poor living circumstances and the local population is upset with lack of regional, national, and international support for managing the influx of migrants and refugees on the island. While a second civil rights movement is happening not only in the United States, but all around the world, racial and ethnic tensions are high. Many refugees feel the European Union is turning its back on them. The European Union is becoming less tolerant for migrants and refugees, when it had once promised to help.

So how is COVID-19 affecting Moria?

Earlier this year, Greece went into lockdown and put travel restrictions on tourists coming in and residents going out. At the beginning of September, there was a small outbreak among the residents at the Moria camp, and human rights advocates are concerned that the Greek government is using this outbreak as an opportunity to further constrain the lives and freedoms of the migrants. The Greek minister for migration; Mitarchi, released a statement saying that the outbreak suggests need for a more “closed and controlled” environment for the migrants. This is odd considering that Moria has experienced far fewer cases than the rest of Greece, but the restrictions placed over the lives in Moria were much higher in comparison. In the Spring, the United Nations was so overwhelmed and concerned with livelihood and the living conditions at Moria that they called to expedite the migration process and related paperwork. So along with the day to day living conditions at Moria, COVID-19 and readily available access to healthcare is making life harder for the migrants. The fires may have been set in retaliation against the newer COVID-19 restrictions by the migrants or they might’ve been set by the local residents who fear the spread of COVID from the camp.

What is going on now?

In the meantime, while the Greek government is talking to French and Italian national leaders, riot police have been deployed to both the site where fires have been set, and also to the new refugee camp that is being set up to shelter those abandoned in Moria. This new site is at Kara Tepe where local media has identified helicopters that have been transporting tents and other necessities for the residents. In the fires, refugee documentation and belongings have been lost and burned, so it is still being determined how accessible the new site at Kara Tepe will be. Many refugees are now saying that they will not go back to another refugee camp where proper living conditions are not guaranteed, but the Greek government is saying that it will “not be blackmailed.”

Refugees sleep on side of the road following the fires, while they await further government housing and instructions. Source: Tasnim News Agency

What can you do to help?

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?”