Headlines: December 2, 2020
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The United Kingdom has just approved a Covid-19 vaccine, becoming the first Western nation to formally do so. The vaccine, produced by Pfizer in collaboration with the German company BioNTech, will need to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures, kicking off a demand for special refrigeration units. While the U.S. government is behind the UK on a vaccine approval—sparking remonstrations against the FDA by the Trump administration—the European Union criticized the speed of the British approval process, calling it “hasty.” According to Al Jazeera, the EU said its, “longer approval procedure was more appropriate as it was based on more evidence and required more checks than the emergency procedure chosen by the UK.” British authorities shot back saying they had not cut any corners. Also, part of the story on vaccines is the fact that wealthy nations in the West have been able to pre-order vaccines from companies like Pfizer, pushing poorer nations to the back of the line.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention convened an advisory panel that announced vaccine priorities on Tuesday. CDC Director Robert Redfield is expected to approve the recommendations by Wednesday after which states will be sent the guidance. The panel voted overwhelmingly to prioritize nursing home and long-term care residents and employees first, given that nearly 40% of all Covid-related deaths have taken place in those facilities. Next will be healthcare workers who are daily exposed to the virus as they care for Covid patients. After that the next phase will likely be essential workers such as grocery workers, teachers, public transit operators, etc. The CDC on Wednesday also changed its recommendations for a 14-day quarantine period to 7 or 10 days. The agency did not cite a scientific basis for the change, rather the fact that it was difficult for workers to comply with a 2-week quarantine period if they thought they had been exposed to the virus. Meanwhile employers are tackling legal questions of how to ensure workers get vaccinated considering widespread vaccine skepticism in the nation as a result of conspiracy-laden misinformation.
Although news on the vaccine front is encouraging, health experts are warning that the next several weeks will be the darkest in the nation as hospitals and morgues are already overflowing. There are currently 98,691 people hospitalized with Covid-19 in the nation – the highest number ever. On Tuesday, 2,597 people died from the disease in the U.S., the second highest 24-hour total since the pandemic began.
As infections and deaths increase, unemployment and economic pain continue to plague the nation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has resolutely refused to entertain a Covid-relief bill for weeks, on Wednesday began circulating his proposal for economic relief. Critics immediately slammed the draft bill for not including one-time stimulus payments or a continuation of unemployment benefits beyond one month. Instead it focuses on returning unspent funds and preventing fraud and is centered on protecting corporations from worker lawsuits over health and safety rules. And, McConnell’s bill also bizarrely includes a 100% tax deduction on business meals. The bill apparently has Trump’s support. Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia denounced it saying, “Leave it to Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump to propose a bill that creates tax write-offs for fancy lunches and gives the middle finger to working families and 20 million unemployed Americans.” He added, “This is not a serious proposal, it is a slap in the face to people who need help.”
McConnell’s bill does extend aspects of the PPP loan program, but new analysis shows that the majority of government aid meant for small businesses went to larger companies instead. Additionally, Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s companies were major beneficiaries of the PPP program. According to NBC, which sued to obtain the loan information, “Over 25 PPP loans worth more than $3.65 million were given to businesses with addresses at Trump and Kushner real estate properties, paying rent to those owners. Fifteen of the properties self-reported that they only kept one job, zero jobs or did not report a number at all.”
In line with the self-dealing that has characterized Trump’s presidency, news broke this week that the President discussed with his legal advisers pardons for his 3 eldest children and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Discussion of pre-emptive presidential pardons for his own family and colleagues suggests Trump may be aware of criminal activity in his own orbit and stokes long-standing concerns about nepotism. And CNN reports that, “Trump’s lawyers and allies have been lobbying him for pardons ranging from their personal clients to people whom Vice President-elect Kamala Harris put behind bars, according to multiple people. She was a state prosecutor, however, and pardons apply only to federal crimes.” The Trumps are also asking an appeals court to move a marketing scam case against them to arbitration. And, the ethic group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has sued the Trump White House against illegal deletion of emails before the President and his team exit.
Attorney General William Barr struck the latest blow against Trump’s coup attempt for the presidency. In an interview with Associated Press Mr. Barr, who has been a staunch Trump loyalist, said he had seen no evidence of voter fraud that could change the November 3rd election results. After weeks of remaining silent as Trump claimed vociferously that the election was stolen from him, Barr’s truthfulness has now earned him the ire of the rightwing media ecosystem. The Justice Department was also found to have launched an investigation in August of a “bribery-for-pardon” scheme. Documents that were unsealed on Tuesday reveal that two individuals approached the White House seeking presidential pardons in exchange for large donations. The documents are heavily redacted. A Justice Department official claimed that, “No government official was or is currently a subject or target of the investigation disclosed in this filing.”
In Georgia where both major parties are gearing up for two critically important Senate runoff races, Republicans are angry at Trump for fomenting violence against them. Trump has been unhappy about losing the state of Georgia, refusing to accept that it was a legitimate loss. His insinuations have resulted in threats of violence against Republican election officials who are now demanding that he speak up. Even after a second recount Joe Biden has been pronounced the official winner in Georgia. Meanwhile voters in Atlanta picked a former city council member named Kwanza Hall to assume the seat of the late legendary Congressman John Lewis. Hall, a Democrat, will serve until January.
Democrats in the House and Senate on Wednesday unveiled a bill to amend the U.S. Constitution to expressly forbid slavery. The bill would adjust the 13th Amendment in order to, in the words of Congressman William Lacy Clay, “eliminate the dehumanizing and discriminatory forced labor of prisoners for profit that has been used to drive the over-incarceration of African Americans since the end of the Civil War.” Although the 13th Amendment ended the formal institution of slavery, its wording allowed the continuation of forced labor of incarcerated workers. Senators Bernie Sanders, Ed Markey and Chris Van Hollen have signed on as co-sponsors.
In international news, president elect Biden said he would not immediately lift sanctions against China that the Trump administration enacted. He made the remarks in a conversation with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. And European Union leaders are vocally expressing their relief at Biden’s incoming administration saying it was time to “reconnect” with the U.S. Under Trump, relations with European nations frayed dramatically.
And finally, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres this week gave a speech at Columbia University calling on humanity to end its “war on nature.” He was referencing the catastrophic impacts of climate change saying that our collective actions are “suicidal,” and that, “[a]pocalyptic fires and floods, cyclones and hurricanes are increasingly the new normal.” His speech hailed two new UN reports that he said, “spell out how close we are to climate catastrophe.”