Headlines: February 19, 2021
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Bitterly cold temperatures continue to plague the state of Texas even as warmer weather was finally on the horizon. Water shortages have now replaced power outages as the number 1 problem in the state. As of Thursday an estimated 13 million people were being asked to boil water for drinking and untold numbers are wondering how to deal with frozen and damaged pipes. On Friday morning about half the state’s residents were dealing with disrupted water supplies. Food stores are also dwindling as grocery store shelves have emptied out and food pantries were closing. Many residents are dealing with stored refrigerated food that spoiled during days-long power outages. Carbon monoxide poisoning cases are also on the rise as freezing Texans try to warm up by running car engines indoors. The situation inside Texas jails is even worse with horrifying reports of clogged toilets and freezing cells. Jailed people who have not been convicted of crimes are being held in intolerable conditions. There has been a total of at least 30 deaths so far linked to the harsh winter conditions across the state.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz continues to be under fire for escaping the cold weather by taking his family on a luxury vacation to Cancun. Text messages from his wife to their neighbors were leaked to the New York Times on Thursday and revealed that the family planned a getaway from the inhospitable conditions that have thrown millions of Cruz’s constituents into a life risking situation. The texts undermine Cruz’s claim that he was only going to Cancun to drop his kids off and was trying to be a “good dad.” He has now admitted that his vacation was “obviously a mistake,” but many pointed out his hypocrisy considering that he has often shamed other politicians in the past for vacationing during crises. Many, including the Houston Chronicle have called on him to resign. While Cruz excused his behavior saying he didn’t know how he could help his constituents, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents New York, raised two million dollars for Texas-based aid organizations using her social media platform. Meanwhile President Joe Biden, in stark contrast to his predecessor’s partisan political responses, approved new disaster declarations for Texas and authorized aid supplies.
In a blow to his supporters a report emerged that Biden privately told governors last week that the federal minimum wage increase to $15 an hour will likely not happen. He apparently said, “I really want this in there but it just doesn’t look like we can do it because of reconciliation,” referring to the budgeting process that Democrats are relying on to pass bills without GOP support. Biden is also under fire for backing down on canceling college student debt but a new study on that topic shows that the overwhelming majority of those who would benefit from debt forgiveness would be low income young Americans of color. Meanwhile Senator Bernie Sanders, as chair of the Senate Budget Committee has jumped on the findings of a new Congressional Budget Office report on how drug prices to Medicare Part D enrollees were outrageously high and that the same drugs were sold to Medicaid and VA enrollees for far less. Sanders called it a “national embarrassment” and vowed to fix it.
The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus held a virtual news conference on Friday together with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus to denounce rising hate crimes against elderly and other Asians in the U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi joined the call and emphasized the importance of data gathering on these attacks. According to the Washington Post, “Recent cases lawmakers are expected to highlight include the murder of Vicha Ratanapakdee, 84, who died after being pushed to the ground while on a morning walk in San Francisco, and the assault of Noel Quintana, 61, whose face was slashed while he was on the subway in New York.”
President Biden visited a vaccine production plant run by Pfizer in Michigan on Friday as harsh winter weather has thwarted delivery efforts. According to AP, White House coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt said Friday that the weather has led to a three-day delay in shipping vaccine, or about 6 million doses. Slavitt says the vaccine won’t spoil and is “safe and sound” in warehouses.” Meanwhile a new peer-reviewed Israel-based study has concluded that even a single dose of the Pfizer vaccine results in 85% efficacy at preventing illness 2 to 4 weeks after it is administered. Additionally, the study found that the vaccine can be stored at normal refrigeration temperatures rather than the ultra-cold freezers and remain viable. The findings could have positive implications for the storage and distribution of vaccines worldwide. U.S. state leaders are now reportedly working to unlock supplies that are in storage having been reserved for nursing homes and second doses. According to the New York Times which reported on the story, “Millions of doses wound up trapped in logistical limbo, either set aside for nursing homes that did not need them or stockpiled while Americans clamored in vain for their first doses. Now a national effort is underway to pry those doses loose — and, with luck, give a significant boost to the national vaccination ramp-up.”
Internationally, African nations have announced 100,000 Covid-19 related deaths on the continent, realizing fears that the virus would have a serious impact there even after months of low rates of infection. Meanwhile Japan has just confirmed the existence of a new Covid variant that is adding to concerns about vaccine effectiveness against mutated versions of the virus. The Biden administration has announced a $4 billion global vaccine effort that the President revealed at the G-7 Summit that just began in Munich, Germany.
Speaking at the Summit, Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry announced the formal rejoining of the U.S. with the UN Paris Accords. Kerry said the next ten years will be a “decisive decade” in how well nations adhere to the climate agreement. Laying out his foreign policy for the first time on a world stage Mr. Biden effectively declared the era of Trump to be over. “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident,” he said. “We have to defend it.” Biden also reiterated his long-standing rivalry with China saying to European allies, “We must prepare together for long-term strategic competition with China.”
A large part of Biden’s foreign policy focuses on the Middle East and particularly on resuming ties with Iran. Biden did not appear to find much traction among allies like Israel and the Gulf Arab nations for repairing the Iran nuclear deal and even Iranian authorities appear to be less than enthusiastic. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif announced on Friday that Iran would be happy to stop its nuclear power development after the U.S. lifts all sanctions on the nation. As per Reuters via a senior EU official source, “The European Union is working on organizing an informal meeting with all participants of the Iran deal and the United States, which has already signaled willingness to join any gathering.”
The Biden administration is coming under fire for resuming ties with Egypt’s dictator Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. In a continuation of Trump’s foreign policy embrace of al-Sissi, Biden’s State Department just approved a $197 million weapons sale to Egypt of surface-to-air missiles. The Washington Post explained that Egypt, “pays for its U.S. weapons with $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid — one of the largest subsidies to a foreign nation.” As Presidential candidate, Biden had slammed Trump’s cozy relationship with Egypt tweeting, “NO MORE blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator.’”
The U.K. Supreme Court has just delivered a landmark ruling for gig workers, deciding that Uber drivers are actually employees of their company and not “self-employed.” The decision is considered an international labor victory and means that drivers may be entitled to all the benefits of full time workers. In reading the ruling one of the British justices said, “Drivers are in a position of subordination and dependency in relation to Uber such that they have little or no ability to improve their economic position through professional or entrepreneurial skill. In practice, the only way in which they can increase their earnings is by working longer hours while constantly meeting Uber’s measures of performance.”