Headlines: February 18, 2021
Listen to story:
Download: mp3 (Duration: 8:04 — 7.4MB)
Texans are still struggling with a set of brutal and record-breaking winter storms that have left millions this week without power and now some without water. Although power was restored to most people on Wednesday, as of Thursday morning about half a million were still in the dark, trying to fend off the deadly cold. Residents received notices to boil their water because water treatment plants had gone offline, but the notices only applied to those lucky enough to have running water. The Texas Commissioner on Environmental Quality, Toby Baker announced that on Wednesday, “there were 332 local water systems reporting impacts in 110 counties across the state, 276 issued boil water notices.” Millions of Texans in major cities like Houston, Fort Worth, and Arlington were ordered to boil their water before drinking. Incarcerated people in Texas jails and prisons are particularly vulnerable as reports emerged of freezing indoor temperatures and no hot food or running water.
While Texas Governor Greg Abbott has been blaming renewable energy sources like wind turbines for the power outages, there has been push back even in mainstream news sources pointing out that the state’s deregulated energy grid that failed to prepare for winter conditions is to blame and that natural gas and oil pipelines have frozen. Gov. Abbott is now facing calls to resign. Texas Democratic Party chair Gilberto Hinojosa released a statement saying, “Millions of Texans are without power in freezing temperatures, many of them for the last 60 hours. At least 21 Texans have died. Their blood is on Abbott’s hands.” Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas is also facing calls to resign after a journalist posted a photo of him traveling to Cancun. Cruz confirmed his trip and released a statement saying he was only “wanting to be a good dad,” in flying to Cancun with his children and that he would be returning to Texas in the face of public outrage. And, former Texas Governor and Donald Trump’s Energy Secretary Rick Perry is under fire for suggesting that Texans would be willing to sacrifice their lives in order to prevent their failing energy system from being overseen by the federal government. He said, “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.”
Other parts of the United States are also struggling with extreme cold weather, including Oregon where about 150,000 people were without power, heat, internet and other necessities. Oklahoma is also being battered and indigenous communities in that state are scrambling to protect elders and other vulnerable groups. New York is bracing for a new storm that could dump 6 inches of snow in a few hours. The extreme weather has hampered deliveries of the COVID-19 vaccine among other things. Climate experts warn that the United States can expect more such severe storms. A University of Michigan climate scientist named Michael Craig told AP, “what we have now is not going to do it in the face of climate change. It’s only going to get worse from here.”
In other news, a new report by the Sentencing Project has concluded that even as most people regardless of their political affiliation decry mass incarceration, it turns out that life sentences are on the rise. And, unsurprisingly, people of color are disproportionately impacted. The report, called, “No End in Sight,” found that, “One in 7 people in U.S. prisons is serving a life sentence,” and that, “More than two-thirds of those serving life sentences are people of color.” Many life sentences are related to drug convictions. On Thursday, 37 members of Congress signed on to a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to “grant executive clemency for all non-violent cannabis offenders,” as per his own campaign promise, and pointed out the deeply racist application of the law. Meanwhile on Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing entitled, “Exploring the Pathway to Reparative Justice in America,” which was essentially a debate on reparations. And, life expectancy in the US has sharply plunged over the past year with new figures showing Black Americans to be the hardest hit group.
The Oakland Institute in California released a report this week pointing out that the U.S.’s guest farmworker program, which was greatly expanded under former President Trump, has resulted in deeply exploitative conditions akin to slavery. The temporary agricultural workers interviewed for the report said they, “suffered violations of basic labor laws, including minimum wages, breaks, and others…. 43 percent were not paid the wages promised in their contracts.”
House Democrats introduced an ambitious new immigration bill that among other things, would offer an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants an 8-year pathway to citizenship. The bill would also, as per the New York Times, “would sweep away restrictions on family-based immigration, making it easier for spouses and children to join their families already in the country.” Strangely Mr. Biden has so far chosen to keep in place Presidential Proclamation 10014 which was Trump’s ban last year on all family based green card applications that expires at the end of March. Biden could simply overturn the executive order but has refused to do so.
The latest Labor Department figures on unemployment insurance applications is out and shows extremely high figures once more as 861,000 people applied for jobless benefits. That’s 13,000 more people from the week before. AP explained that, “Though the unemployment rate fell last month from 6.7%, to 6.3%, it did so in part because some people stopped looking for jobs.” Meanwhile low-income Californians may see some relief soon as the state is readying $600 economic stimulus checks to be sent out. And Walmart announced it will raise the wages of nearly half a million of its workers. This will push the wages of 1.5 million workers to $15 an hour but the starting wage at Walmart remains at $11 an hour.
State lawmakers in New York are pushing to strip Governor Andrew Cuomo of his authority on the state’s coronavirus response. The move comes after FBI and Justice Department opened an inquiry into his handling of data concerning nursing home deaths last year when the state was hard hit by the pandemic. New York Assemblyman Ron Kim is now speaking out about threats that Cuomo made to him over the phone in relation to the scandal. Writing in the Guardian, journalist David Sirota who has been covering the story for months, accused Cuomo of fomenting, “a Nixonian campaign of intimidation and retribution against Democratic lawmakers who have for months been sounding the alarm.”
In other coronavirus news, Pfizer and Moderna, the two pharmaceutical companies whose vaccines are being distributed in the United States, have announced that their product is less effective against a new variant of the virus that originated in South Africa. The vaccines are found to be effective against the UK variant, however. Pfizer says it is developing a booster shot targeting the South Africa mutation.
And finally, Facebook has stopped allowing its Australia-based users to share news reports on its platform in an apparent pushback against a new law. The Australian government passed a law requiring companies like Facebook and Google to pay for the news content that is widely shared on its platforms. While Google announced a contract to pay Rupert Murdoch’s media empire for shared content, Facebook simply stopped allowing news to appear on its site.