Court of Appeals Lifts Oklahoma Abortion Ban

On March 27th, Oklahoma Kevin Stitt issued an executive order postponing elective procedures and surgeries, including “any type of abortion services… which are not a medical emergency… or otherwise necessary to prevent serious health risks” to the pregnant person. 

On April 6, Judge Charles Goodwin of Oklahoma’s Western District Court placed a temporary stay on the governor’s mandate, allowing some abortions, including medication abortions, to continue.

On April 21, Judge Goodwin issued a preliminary injunction blocking Oklahoma’s COVID-19 abortion ban.

This week, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the state’s request to stay a preliminary injunction. The injunction allows abortion access to resume as normal in the state. 

Nancy Northup, president & CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, stated that the Governor has exploited the coronavirus pandemic in an attempt to ban abortion. “In the wake of this latest ruling, it’s past time for Oklahoma to respect the essential needs of women seeking abortion care,” Northup said. “This attempt to ban abortion is an abuse of emergency powers.”

Oklahoma is one of thirteen states where executive orders have been issued to deem abortion care “nonessential” and limit access. The mandates have been blocked or lifted in eight of those states, and are currently still in effect in five– Alaska, Arkansas, Indiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia. 

States Tell Workers Return to Work During Pandemic or Lose Unemployment Benefits

Some states, including Iowa and Texas, have begun to reopen their economies amidst the coronavirus pandemic and have warned residents that employees who refuse to return to their jobs will be ineligible for unemployment benefits. These policies force workers to decide between their health and unemployment insurance and could facilitate the spread of COVID-19.

Congress established a pandemic program expanding unemployment eligibility to workers whose employers have temporarily closed, who have been quarantined, or who have to care for family members. But the US Department of Labor has said that concerns about catching COVID-19 only qualify a worker for unemployment insurance if they “have been advised by a healthcare provider to self-quarantine as a result of such concerns.” Thus, millions of furloughed and laid-off workers could be left to decide whether to risk returning to work when states allow businesses to reopen.

Texas Governor Greg Abbot permitted stores, malls, and movie theaters to reopen last week, but the state requires workers to be “willing and able to work all the days and hours required for the type of work you are seeking” to qualify for unemployment benefits. After relaxing social distancing measures in most counties, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds told employers that if their workers refuse to return, it would be considered “a voluntary quit. Therefore, they would not be eligible for the unemployment money.” Tennessee and Oklahoma have adopted similar policies.

While businesses like restaurants and retail stores are desperate for workers, labor activists argue that many people do not want to risk their safety to return to low-paying jobs. But with policies like those in Iowa and Texas, workers will not have much of a choice. “These states are offering people the choice to endanger your life or starve,” said Damon A. Silvers, the director of policy and special counsel for the AFL-CIO, the US’s largest federation of labor unions.

 Sources: The Hill 4/28/20; CNN 4/29/20; Newsweek 4/29/20; The Washington Post 4/30/20

COVID-19 Compounds The Struggle of Addiction During Pandemic

The novel coronavirus is creating many complications and hardships to current daily life. One often overlooked challenge faced by families and individuals is struggling with substance abuse and addiction issues.

Covid-19 is putting more stress on families and people already dealing with addiction as the taxing physical and emotional burdens of unemployment, isolation, boredom, loneliness, depression, anxiety, and hunger mount. These issues are especially intensified for children of families dealing with addiction,.

In Vinton County, Ohio child abuse reports are down by 48%, according to prosecutor Trecia Kimes-Brown, but that decline is likely due to the fact that children are no longer able to go to school, church, and other places from where reports of abuse would normally come. Many teachers in Vinton County are making efforts to reach out to children and families in order to maintain an important personal connection, but that does little to change the fact that many children in households dealing with addiction are not being fed or clothed properly and are often being mistreated.

Food insecurity is another tremendous issue facing families across the country, particularly those with addiction issues. Children who typically received two hot meals a day from school no longer have access to them. Schools are trying to provide bagged lunches for kids, but hunger and food insecurity continue to loom.

For many communities like Vinton County which has been a major hub of the opioid crisis for several years, isolation is not a new phenomenon. However, the new social restrictions imposed due to the pandemic are enhancing challenges of life by causing more stress and mental health issues and for many, using is a coping method.

Due to social distancing rules, AA and NA meetings have been cancelled or moved online, but not everyone has access to internet or computers, and the benefits of in-person therapy sessions are not easily replaced. Isolation is even harder for people struggling with sobriety because group support is so important and people in recovery are told not to isolate themselves, but now have no choice otherwise.

Addiction experts are concerned that what the pandemic is doing to those battling addiction will lead to more overdoses and overdose-related deaths, both of which have been declining in recent years until the pandemic hit. The pandemic is affecting people in all spheres of the addiction community, from those who attend AA and NA meetings, to those who receive addiction treatment medication from clinics, to those who live on the street and rely on clean syringes provided by community aid workers.

While some support networks and even the federal government have begun to act by issuing new regulations and guidelines for people with addiction issues, more still needs to be done. According to Dr. Dave Fiellin, an addiction medicine expert at the Yale School of Medicine, doctors will need to loosen office rules to allow patients to get the addiction medications they need. Drug courts will need to adjust procedures as well because thousands of people have to submit to regular urine screenings or attend meetings in order to avoid incarceration. AA and NA meetings should have more accessible online and phone meetings and should take into consideration those who might not be able to access them but still need help and support. Programs created to help people without housing should not be closed or limited because that puts those people at an even higher risk of overdose and overdose death.

Sources: NPR 04/29/20, New York Times 03/26/20

Meatpacking Facilities Forced Open by Trump Executive Order, Endangering Workers

Late on Tuesday, April 28, President Trump issued an executive order forcing meat processing plants to stay open despite the severe public health risk involved in operating as usual under the coronavirus outbreak. In states across the country, meat plants have become hot spots for the virus, with at least 20 known deaths and more than 5,000 cases.

As of last week, 13 meatpacking and processing plants had experienced closures at some point over the last two months, which resulted in a 25% reduction in the country’s pork slaughter capacity. In response to these closures, Trump declared the processing plants “critical infrastructure” in order to keep facilities open and prevent food shortages.

A New York Times article from ten days prior, April 18, reported that “some meat companies have expressed reluctance to test workers, saying such targeted testing creates the false impression that meat plants are the main culprits for the spread of the virus. The more aggressively employees are tested, the more cases emerge, putting pressure on plants to shut down”. 

As is the case with many other low-wage, dangerous, and difficult jobs in the US, the work in meat processing plants is mostly done by the most marginal communities across the country. Many of these workers are women, most are people of color, and nearly one-third are immigrants, many of whom are undocumented. 

Unions and labor activists have pushed back against the reopening of plants, where workers stand inches apart to maximize productivity. While the CDC and OSHA issued voluntary guidelines to encourage workers to stand the recommended six feet apart, food safety experts argue that these are unenforceable and futile. 

Marc Perrone, International President of United Food and Commercial Workers, America’s largest meatpacking union, issued a statement on April 28 demanding that these essential workers are safe by providing personal protective equipment, enforcing physical distance, making daily testing available to workers and communities, providing full paid sick leave for infected workers, and ensuring constant federal monitoring and access to representation to protect workers from exploitation. 

Because the plants are opening under inadequate public health standards, workers have to choose between losing pay and risking contracting COVID-19. In many states, governors are warning that laid off workers will lose unemployment benefits if they refuse to return when their employer allows them to work.

These state unemployment mandates are impacting and will continue to impact the most marginalized communities most– women, people of color, immigrants, and undocumented people.

 

Sources: New York Times 4/28/20; UFCW 4/28/20; New York Times 4/18/20; Human Rights Watch 9/04/19; KTTC 4/28/20

Supreme Court Cases May Leave Many Without Insurance Coverage for Birth Control

Next week, the Supreme Court will hear two cases, Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania and Trump v. Pennsylvania, that could significantly limit birth control access in the United States. The Court’s conservative majority may use these cases to allow most employers to claim religious or moral exemptions to providing contraception coverage in their employee health insurance plans.

With more conservative justices on the bench, the Court may go beyond the limited Hobby Lobby ruling and uphold the Trump administration’s more expansive religious exemption rules. If those rules are upheld, many low-income people will be left without access to affordable contraception.

Currently, under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), most insurance plans must cover all types of birth control approved by the Federal Food and Drug Administration without a co-pay. The Court’s decisions in the two Pennsylvania cases may undo that requirement by upholding Trump administration regulations that allow employers to claim religious or moral exemptions to contraception coverage. A federal court struck down those regulations in 2019.

The Supreme Court heard a similar case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, in 2014. Then, the Court ruled that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a for-profit company does not have to directly provide birth control coverage for its employees if its owners have a religious objection to contraception. After that ruling, the Obama administration adopted a more indirect approach to guarantee employees access to birth control. If a company had a religious objection to contraception, the government would work with the company’s insurer to establish an alternate plan to provide birth control coverage.

Sources: Vox 4/29/20, 1/4/20; The Hill 4/2/20

Domestic Violence on the Rise Globally Due to COVID-19 Lockdowns

This week, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), along with their partners Avenir Health, Johns Hopkins University, and Victoria University, published a report predicting a 20 percent rise in the rate of domestic and gender-based violence around the world due to the COVID-19 lockdowns.

According to the report, “For every 3 months the lockdown continues, an additional 15 million additional cases of gender-based violence are expected.” Already, countries around the world are reporting an increase in calls to domestic violence hotlines. In some cases, women are texting and emailing domestic violence prevention groups because they are trapped with an abusive partner at home and are unable to make a phone call.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is also expected to increase levels of violence. In the immediate term, the largest contributor is likely to come from the effects of stay-at-home orders and movement restrictions, which could increase women’s exposure to violent partners,” the report continues. “Mounting household tensions and economic stresses could also play a role.”

The report predicts a one-third reduction in response to domestic violence cases due to a decline in resources available prior to the pandemic. The figures in the report “account for the high levels of underreporting seen with gender-based violence.”

“It’s a calamity. Totally calamitous,” said Natalia Kanem, executive director of the UNFPA. “It is so clear that Covid-19 is compounding the no longer subterranean disparities that affect millions of women and girls.”

Numerous countries, including Germany, Italy, Greece, and India have responded by enacting new programs and policies intended to support women and girls who may be experiencing domestic violence during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sources: The Guardian 4/28/20; The Guardian 3/28/20; UNFPA 4/27/20

Navajo Nation Has Third Highest Rate of Coronavirus Cases in U.S.

As of Tuesday, the Navajo Nation had the third-highest rate of COVID-19 infections in the country, with 1,873 confirmed cases and 60 confirmed deaths, third only to New York and New Jersey. Tribal officials cite “broken promises” for the disproportionately high rate of cases.

“We are United States citizens but we’re not treated like that,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez told NPR. “You can hear the frustration, the tone of my voice. We once again have been forgotten by our own government.”

Over 150 years ago, the Navajo and other tribes were forced to sign treaties with the U.S. government. In exchange for their land, tribes were supposed to receive funding for housing, infrastructure, and health care. However, for decades Tribal Nations have only received small portions of what they were promised.

 Now, the Navajo Nation and ten other tribes are suing the federal government for their fair share of Coronavirus relief funds. In March, Congress passed the $2 trillion CARES Act, which included $8 billion for tribes. The coalition is suing over how the Treasury Department and Indian Health Service (IHS) is doling out CARES Act funds. The coalition is arguing that they shouldn’t have to share relief funds with for-profit, Alaska Native corporations.

As reported by Alyssa Becenti with the Navajo Times, “It was reported the Secretary of the Treasury intends to fund over 230 Alaska Native Corporations using the funds. Alaska Native Corporations are for-profit corporations organized under state law and are owned by shareholders, including non-Indian shareholders. The 12 regional Alaska Native Corporations alone have over 138,000 shareholders, employ more than 43,000 people worldwide, and generated more than $10.5 billion in revenues in 2018.”

Tribes and watchdog groups also point out that IHS money is insufficient for the size of the population it serves and the scope of health issues such as diabetes and asthma that the population faces. For comparison, recent data shows the federal government spends just $2,834 per person on health care in Indian Country, while it spends $9,404 per person on veterans’ health and $12,744 per person on Medicare.

“Native American communities are often invisible in terms of their health inequities. When you look at IHS per capita spending, it is much lower than we see for veterans medical spending or Medicare spending,” Dr. Laura Hammitt, the director of Infectious Disease Programs at the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, told NPR. “IHS is chronically underfunded.”

Sources: NPR, 4/24/2020; Navajo Times, 4/6/2020, 4/22/2020

The Hill Op-Ed Piece Calls for FDA to Lift Medication Abortion Regulations

On April 27, The Hill published an opinion piece entitled “The UK Allows Home Use of the Abortion Pill– the US Should Do the Same” by Susan F. Wood, former FDA assistant commissioner for Women’s Health and a professor of health and policy management at George Washington University, and Cynthia A. Pearson, executive director of the National Women’s Health Network. This story summarizes their piece. Read the full piece here.

  • At the end of March, the UK authorized physicians to provide medication abortion through telemedicine through the duration of the coronavirus crisis.
  • Abortion is a common, necessary, and time-sensitive health care procedure. Medication abortion is done by ingesting two pills– mifepristone and misoprostol. This method is safe and effective for early pregnancies.
  • The US Food and Drug Administration has restrictions on medication abortion that prohibit pharmacies from carrying mifepristone, requiring clinics, medical offices, or hospitals to dispense the medication.
  • In light of the pandemic, the FDA “should allow pregnant people to get the pill where they take the pill– at home, and not require them to make an unnecessary and risky visit to a clinic”. They have the legal authority to lift these restrictions. 
  • There is no time for lawsuits or campaigns. The FDA should follow the UK’s lead– by expanding abortion access, we protect public health.

Source: The Hill 4/27/20

Women in Academia Struggle in the Wake of COVID-19

Women seem to be submitting comparatively fewer papers for review to academic journals as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elizabeth Hannon, deputy editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, noted a “negligible number of submissions to the journal from women in the last month.” Anna Watts remarked upon the makeup of papers posted to a preprint science archive: “Feeling like the arXiv has skewed heavily male the last few weeks.” David Samuels, co-editor of Comparative Political Studies, said that while women’s submissions are the same in April 2020 as April 2019, men’s submissions went up 50% from year to year.

Einat Lev, an associate research professor of seismology at Columbia University, recalled hearing from a male colleague who said that the current pandemic, with resulting stay-at-home orders, “gives me time to concentrate on writing.” She said her experience couldn’t be different: she can only work 4 hours a day instead of her usual 10 with her 7-year-old daughter at home.

These anecdotes provide a look into how the novel coronavirus and existing issues with unpaid labor collide to further gender inequality. An Oxfam study released earlier this year stated that if women were paid the minimum wage for unpaid labor, such as care of family members and routine housework, the sum would total $10.9 trillion. Now, women are facing unprecedented amounts of unpaid labor due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is cutting into their professional opportunities, draining their mental health and more.

For women in academia, these effects might be proving more severe, given goals around tenure. University of California assistant professor Whitney Pirtle took a one-year extension on her tenure track clock, offered by her university, but even that comes rife with professional uncertainties. Tenure evaluators might count taking an extension as having more time at home to be productive. If there’s a recession in a year, her department might cut its budget and other universities might not be hiring. Men already benefit from such “stop the clock” policies in the case of having a baby, with studies showing that they accomplish more with a year off than women do.

A possible solution? Recognition of the difficulties that coronavirus presented academics, attached to tenure applications. Leslie Gonzales, professor of education administration at Michigan State University, said of that goal: ““We essentially want to say, ‘Hey, this was a big deal for a lot of people.’”

Sources: Elizabeth Hannon 04/18/20; Anna Watts 04/21/20; David Samuels 04/18/20; The Lily 04/24/20; Oxfam 01/19/20.

Pandemic Will Be First of Many If Climate Change is Not Addressed Immediately

Recent reports by the World Health Organization state that human activity leading to climate change greatly affects the prevalence and spread of infectious diseases like the novel coronavirus that has thrown the world into a state of crisis.

As humans continue to degrade the planet’s natural processes and systems life as we know it at risk. Deforestation, limitless growth of agriculture and farming, mining, land development, urbanization, and exploitation of wild plants and animals have allowed for disease outbreaks like COVID-19. These activities bring humans into closer contact with each other and with wild animals, from which 70% of emerging human diseases come, according to a planetary health check published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in 2019.

Human-caused changes to the environment leading to disease outbreaks are not a new phenomenon. The Ebola outbreak corresponded with agricultural deforestation in West Africa which led to habitat loss for bats carrying the virus. SARS and COVID-19 were also carried by bats faced with habitat loss and climate change. The swine flu epidemic came about due to confined animal feeding operations. Rising global temperatures lead to more extreme weather events which are predicted to cause changes across the planet, including the intensity and frequency of infectious diseases. West Nile virus first appeared in North America after a period of heavy rainfall and high temperatures in 1999.

The health of people is irrevocably intertwined with that of wildlife, livestock, and the environment. Large areas of undisturbed natural habitats serve as natural protective buffers between humans and wildlife. Thriving ecosystems can help stop the spread of disease outbreaks, while disrupted ecosystems can make us more vulnerable to disease.

Leading experts warn that coronavirus is likely to be followed by even deadlier and more frequent pandemics if we do not immediately change the way we interact with the planet. Scientists are recommending that pandemic relief packages be used to bolster and defend environmental protection rather than be used to loosen climate regulations and support agriculture, airlines, and fossil-fuel-dependent energy sectors.

While humans are responsible for the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, there is a small window of opportunity as we address this pandemic to prevent future ones. Governments are recommended to take drastic and radical actions to put the planet over profits following this pandemic. Investment in both environmental protections and health services are crucial components of both preventing and being prepared for future pandemics. UN Secretary General António Guterres said that governments and countries must “build back better” after the pandemic using more ecological societal practices. As the UN climate chief, Inger Andersen, advised following the outbreak of COVID-19, “If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves.’

Sources: The Guardian 04/27/20, 03/25/20, NPR WYFI 03/24/20, Greenpeace 04/10/20, World Health Organization 2003

Heartburn Drug Being Studied as Treatment for COVID-19

Hospitals in New York have begun testing famotidine, the active drug in the over-the-counter heartburn medication Pepcid, as a possible treatment for COVID-19 with early results anticipated in the next few weeks.

“There are many examples in the history of medicine where a drug that was designed for one purpose turns out to have an effect in another disease,” said Dr. Kevin Tracey, president of Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research at Northwell Health, which runs 23 hospitals in New York City.

Medical experts have called attention to the drug after infectious disease doctor Michael Callahan of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston noticed low-income COVID-19 patients in China who were taking famotidine were faring better than wealthier patients who were taking a more expensive version of the drug. While the official results of the study in China have not been published, patients taking famotidine seemed to be dying at a rate of about 14% versus 27% for those not taking the drug.

To date, 187 patients have been enrolled in the study, with a goal of 1,200 total participants. Patients are taking large doses of famotidine intravenously—about 9 times the normal amount used to treat heartburn.

“You should not go to the drugstore and take a bunch of heartburn medicine,” cautions Tracey.

A computer model used by Alchem Laboratories also put famotidine at the top of a list of existing drugs that could potentially combat coronavirus. Tracey said that theoretically famotidine could potentially stop the virus from replicating in the same way that protease inhibitors are used to treat HIV.

Sources: CNN 4/27/20; Science Magazine 4/2020

Kentucky Governor Vetoes Anti-Abortion Bill

On Friday, April 24, Kentucky Governor Andrew Beshear vetoed Senate Bill 9, which aimed to grant the state’s attorney general the power to restrict abortion access during the coronavirus pandemic, and require physicians to attempt to “preserve the life of any infant born after an attempted abortion”

The governor stated in his veto message that Kentucky already has protections in place to ensure children are given life-saving medical care when they are born. He also stated that bills similar to the bill have been struck down as unconstitutional “in the majority of states in America where challenged”. 

He added that during the coronavirus emergency, it is not the time to introduce “a divisive set of lawsuits that reduce our unity and our focus on defeating the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and restarting our economy”.

Senate Bill 9 states that “a physician performing an abortion shall take all medically appropriate and reasonable steps to preserve the life and health of a born-alive infant,” and that violations could lead to suspension or revocation of the license of any health care professional who violates. 

The bill also expanded the power of the Kentucky attorney general by granting the ability to sue abortion clinics to “prevent, penalize, and remedy violations” of abortion regulations. The major purpose of the bill is to reduce abortion access.

While some Kentucky conservatives believe that abortion should fall under the Governor’s March mandate restricting elective surgeries, abortion is, in reality, an essential, time-sensitive health care procedure. 

Kentucky AG David Cameron called for the Governor to include abortion care as an elective surgery, but Beshear stated that the decision is up to “our health professionals to determine what falls in the elective or the essential”. Several states have issued similar mandates, arguing for the need to conserve hospital resources. These laws face legal challenges from abortion providers and national abortion rights groups, including the Feminist Majority Foundation.

 

Sources: The Hill 4/24/20; Commonwealth of Kentucky Office of the Governor 4/24/20; Kentucky General Assembly 4/24/20; Kentucky.gov 4/16/20; YouTube 3/26/20; CNN 4/27/20; Feminist Newswire 4/22/20

Afghanistan Remaining a Republic is “Non-Negotiable”

In a virtual event on the intra-Afghan talks at the United States Institute of Peace, Habiba Sarabi emphasized that for Afghan women, negotiating on the structure of the government is “non-negotiable.” Habiba Sarabi, the former governor of Bamiyan province in Afghanistan is one of five women on the team representing the Afghanistan government, formed to negotiate peace with the Taliban.

During her remarks at the virtual event, she repeatedly emphasized on the importance of Afghanistan remaining a republic. She said that, “I have travelled to many parts of the country and have met with many women and one issue is clear: the issue of [Afghanistan remaining a] republic is non-negotiable.”

She explained that in a republic, all citizens are “equal” and that is “very important for women.” Sarabi said Afghanistan remaining a republic is “important for our freedom and for our rights.” She continued that under the republic, “I can nominate or represent myself to become a leader.” She would not be allowed to represent or lead under an emirate. Sarabi also said that she has traveled to many parts of the country and has learned that “the people of Afghanistan recognize the difference between an emirate and a republic, especially women cannot accept an emirate and to go backwards.”

The Taliban has insisted that Afghanistan become an “Emirate,” which gives power to a limited group of individuals. The small group of ultra-conservative individuals would have the authority to issue decrees and rules which the people must obey. An emirate also does not support elections or the representation of people from all backgrounds. The small group of conservative religious leaders would decide on who should be the leader.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the late 90s, it was an emirate, which was only recognized by three states in the world – Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. Sarabi also challenged their insistence on the emirate that, “if it was a favorable form of governing, why did the rest of the world not recognize their government?”

The panelists also included the leader of the Afghan negotiating team, Masoum Stanekzai.  Stanekzai who has performed in multiple capacities in the Afghan government for the past nearly 20 years also insisted on the republic and its importance for the future of Afghanistan and the Afghan people. In his remarks he said that, “the issue of republic is the wish of the Afghan people. We cannot bring an artificial dictator to rule the country.”

 

Source: USIP, 4/22/20

Women Psychologists in Herat Terrified for Their Clients During the Pandemic Lockdown

Bordering Iran, which had one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks globally, Herat has one of the highest number of coronavirus cases in Afghanistan. According to the BBC, more than 150,000 Afghans returned from Iran this past March, and thousands more are crossing the border daily. Herat also has a higher than average population of educated women who speak up against gender-based violence. Although seeking help is still an obstacle for victims and survivors of domestic violence, some women in Herat manage to get help from organizations which provide assistance and shelters to them.

25 year-old Marzia Akbar is part of a small group of female psychologists.  Her team runs a covert counselling clinic at a local hospital in Herat province. Through meetings and domestic violence hotlines, Akbari and her team help victims of domestic abuse. Herat’s stay-at-home order due to the pandemic, caused Akbari’s team to lose contact with most of their clients during the last three weeks. In her interview with The Guardian, Akbari expressed her fear for her clients. “I’m very scared for them, many women in Herat may survive coronavirus but won’t survive the lockdown.”

Afghan government criminalized domestic violence in 2009, but Afghan authorities still consider domestic violence as private family matter, which treats victims as perpetrators of so-called “moral crimes.” Other factors such as victim shaming, social and cultural stigmas, and economic vulnerability also prevent women from seeking help. Sometimes Afghan women who risk to ask for help face discrimination, have to give up their children and face revenge from their perpetrators.

According to Akbari, violence has become part of many women’s lives in Herat. She believes this normalization of violence caused her work not to be taken seriously. The clinic where Akbari and her team were helping women turned into an isolation center for patients with coronavirus. This made Akbari’s job even harder to connect with her clients. “We tried to relocate to another place but the only reason women could manage to reach us before was because the counselling center was based at the local hospital. Many of their families didn’t know these women were seeking counselling, they thought they were attending a medical appointment.” Akbari told the Guardian.

Before the stay-at-home order in Herat, Akbari had 50 clients per week, now she can barely make phone contact with 25 of those women. “I called one of my clients after quarantine who is married to a very violent man. When she answered she was very nervous and had to pretend I was her sister. She was terrified.” Zainab, another of Akbari’s client, was 13 when she was married to her cousin. Her husband physically abused and raped her. With the help of Akbari, Zainab managed to get a divorce last year, but she was forced to give up her children. Besides harassment from her ex-husband, Zainab has to endure the lockdown with her parents who are also abusive. “Because of the divorce they assume she is now an immoral woman,” says Akbari. “But at least I know she is alive.”

Students Have Fundamental Right to Literacy, Appeals Court Says

A federal appeals court ruled on Thursday that students in Detroit have a right to a “basic minimum education” ensuring literacy.

Gary B., et al. v. Whitmer, et al. was filed by students on behalf of students in the Detroit Public Schools system. It argued that conditions in the schools had deprived them of a basic education that allows a chance at foundational literacy. The 2016 case was based on the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses, and noted factors that contributed to poor conditions in the school district, including “missing or unqualified teachers, physically dangerous facilities, and inadequate books and materials.” The defendants were Michigan state officials and argued that Michigan district leaders should have been those sued; they also claimed that there was no fundamental right to access to literacy. A federal district court found the defendants the proper targets but dismissed the students’ claims on merit in 2018.

The case then went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, which in this 2-1 decision effectively sent the lawsuit will now be sent back to a federal judge in Detroit for further review.

“Every meaningful interaction between a citizen and the state is predicated on a minimum level of literacy, meaning that access to literacy is necessary to access our political process,” wrote Judge Eric Clay in a majority opinion.

Judge Eric Murphy dissented, writing that, “I see nothing in the complaint that gives federal judges the power to oversee Detroit’s schools in the name of the United States Constitution.”

The case only applies to students in Detroit, but it joins a new movement for educational equity based on literacy claims. Ella T. v. State of California, decided in February, mandated that state officials must introduce legislation that will establish a $50 million block grant program to develop high-quality literacy programs for California’s 75 lowest-performing schools. Law professor Derek Black noted, “If replicated, [the Detroit] ruling could raise the level of education for disadvantaged students across the nation.”

Mark Rosenbaum, who worked with both the Detroit students and the California students to bring the lawsuits, said, “It sends a powerful statement across the country. It’s a victory for all children who deserve a basic, minimal education.”

Sources: Washington Post 04/24/20; NBC 04/23/20; Washington Post 02/23/20.

 

Anti-Vaccine Groups Join Anti-Lockdown Protesters in Government Criticism

Across the United States, anti-vaccine protesters are leveraging anti-government sentiment sparked by the COVID-19 response to advance their cause. The right wing of the anti-vaccine movement is a natural ally for anti-lockdown protesters due to their shared distrust of government authority. These anti-vaccine activists applaud President Trump’s suggestion that COVID-19 is not dangerous enough to justify staying home at the expense of the economic disruption.

The anti-vaccine movement is perhaps taking this opportunity to recover from recent setbacks. Many states have reinforced their immunization laws to combat measles outbreaks triggered by anti-vaccine individuals. In California, these measures were met with aggressive protests–at one event, anti-vaccine protesters threw blood on California state senators and assaulted a bill’s sponsor.

Still, reluctance regarding a future COVID-19 vaccine is not limited to the far right. The left wing of the anti-vaccine movement denounces vaccines’ use of chemical pollutants, support of corporations, and bolstering of “Big Pharma.” Many express hesitancy to accept a COVID-19 vaccine that may be rushed in production and testing. For example, anti-vaccine groups point to the 1976 swine flu vaccine that caused 1 in 100,000 people to develop Guillain-Barre syndrome, a paralyzing immune system disorder.

Although the vast majority of Americans support vaccination and pro-vaccine legislation, the World Health Organization (WHO) considers “vaccine hesitancy” to be a top health threat because, depending on the disease, at least 75% to 95% of the population needs to be vaccinated to guarantee the safety of an entire population.

Nevertheless, 70 candidate COVID-19 vaccines are currently in development, with three in clinical evaluation.

Kaiser Health News, 4/24/20; Reuters 4/11/20; The Guardian, 4/21/20

Health Department Official Fired For Speaking Out Against Hydroxychloroquine

Rick Bright, the official who previously led the federal agency involved in working to develop a coronavirus vaccine was removed from his position after urging caution and research before advocating for hydroxychloroquine.

As the Trump administration pushed for the anti-malaria drug to be used in treating patients with coronavirus, Dr. Bright denounced these actions as putting “politics and cronyism ahead of science.” Bright was then dismissed from his role of director of Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), as well as removed from his position as deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response. He was given a “narrower job” at the National Institutes of Health.

Following his removal, Dr. Bright, who earned his Ph.D. in both immunology and molecular pathogenesis from Emory University, released a statement criticizing the leadership of the health department. In this statement, Dr. Bright explained that he had been pressured to direct money towards hydroxychloroquine, “one of several potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those political connections,” though described by the president and members of his administration as a “game changer” in the search for a cure for the virus.

“I believe this transfer was in response to my insistence that the government invest the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to address the Covid-19 pandemic into safe and scientifically vetted solutions, and not in drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit.” Dr Bright concluded, “I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science-not politics or cronyism-has to lead the way.”

Encouragement surrounding the use of hydroxychloroquine came as the death toll in the United States began to rapidly climb, but there is no hard evidence that shows the drug is effective against COVID-19.

Sources: NY Times 04/22/2020; NY Times 04/23/2020

Mass Incarceration, Mandatory Prison Labor Could Lead to Huge Coronavirus Death Toll

United States prisons and jails could become major sites of coronavirus outbreaks, warn public health experts, correctional staff, and prison reform advocates. According to a study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), unless prison and jail populations are “dramatically and immediately reduced,” 100,000 more people than currently projected could die of COVID-19.

The ACLU’s projected coronavirus death toll is twice as high as the estimates from the federal government due to jails acting as “veritable volcanoes for the spread of the virus.”  The organization argues that the spread of COVID-19 in jails will lead to significant deaths both behind bars and in communities via jail staff and released prisoners unless counties significantly reduce their jail populations. “We are likely facing a massive loss of life, both in jails and in communities around the country, if dramatic steps aren’t taken to reduce the incarcerated population in this country,” said Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Justice Division.

The ACLU’s model uses data from 1,200 midsize and large jails around the country housing 740,000 people. The study does not include state and federal prisons, which have already seen COVID-19 outbreaks. In Ohio, over 1,900 inmates at the Marion Correctional Institution have tested positive for COVID-19. So far, at least 23 inmates have died from COVID-19 in federal prisons.

To limit the spread of the coronavirus, the Bureau of Prisons has ordered all federal prisoners to be kept in their cells. However, some prison factories have remained operational despite the lockdown to produce materials for the military. “There’s no social distancing. It’s like what you see when you have a big exposé at some sweatshop in China,” said Kareen Troitino, a correctional worker in Miami. “We’re being made to keep producing these military jackets, which are not necessary at this moment. It’s just pure greed.”

States are using incarcerated people to produce supplies for their pandemic response efforts, including face shields, cotton masks, gowns, and hand sanitizer. Inmates at Albion Correctional Facility, a medium-security women’s prison in New York, work on an assembly line for $4 per day producing hand sanitizer for the state to distribute to healthcare workers and government officials. They do not have reliable access to disinfectant or soap and are not being given face masks, despite working in close quarters. “We are given no choice. If we refuse to come into the factory, we are threatened with disciplinary action,” said Sandra Brown, one of the women incarcerated at Albion. “It’s as if our lives don’t matter.”

Public health experts warn that these prison assembly lines are a perfect environment for COVID-19 to spread among incarcerated people. “That is a recipe for disaster,” said Gavin Yamey, director of Duke University’s Center for Policy Impact in Global Health. “They are already more vulnerable because of prison conditions, and now we are compelling them to put themselves at even higher risk.”

Sources: The Washington Post 4/21/20; ABC News 4/22/20; The Guardian 4/22/20

Texas Governor’s Executive Order Banning Abortion Expires

Tuesday night, Texas’ Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s March 21 executive order expired. The order had been the object of weeks of legal debate over the classification of medication and procedural abortion as a ‘non-essential’ medical procedure during the COVID-19 crisis.

On Wednesday, Gov. Abbott announced a new executive order, allowing certain medical procedures to resume, given they do not require significant hospital space and/or request excessive personal protective equipment from public sources. The new order will be in effect until May 8.

Gov. Abbott did not specify whether or not abortion was included in the group of medical procedures, suggesting that courts would be responsible for the final decision. Texas’ abortion providers unilaterally interpreted the new order as allowing at least medication abortion–which requires little medical attention and/or protective gear–to resume. State attorneys did not challenge their interpretation.

Whole Woman’s Health, an operator of independent abortion clinics in Texas, will proceed with medication and procedural abortion in its Fort Worth, Austin, and McAllen clinics this week. However, some other abortion providers are exercising more caution with their policy changes, wary of the state posing further obstacles to abortion access in the coming weeks. Many are reminding patients that their new appointments may be altered, and/or only offering medication abortions—the procedure that has remained at the center of the legal battle.

Pro-choice organizations have focused efforts on challenging similar bans in Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee. After the Texas order, pro-choice advocates and judges have successfully lifted bans—at least partially—in every state but Arkansas.

Sources: CBS News, 4/22/20; The Dallas Morning News, 4/22/20; Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 4/22/20

Acute Hunger on the Rise Due to COVID-19, Reports United Nations

According to the United Nations, over a quarter of a billion people could starve due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unless providing food and humanitarian aid becomes a priority fast, these millions of people in the most at-risk regions could die.

Approximately 130 million people were estimated to have suffered from lack of food last year. This year’s numbers could double, and around 265 million people across the globe are at risk of suffering from acute food shortages. “Covid-19 is potentially catastrophic for millions who are already hanging by a thread,” said Dr. Arif Husain, chief economist at the World Food Programme. Dr. Husain also pointed to how nation-wide lockdowns and economic crises affect those who can only eat if they can work and called for collective action.

A report put out by the World Food Programme, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and 14 other organizations discussed how global hunger is shaping up to be the next big outcome of the COVID-19 crisis. The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, called for the political will to address this issue. “At this time of immense global challenges, from conflicts to climate shocks to economic instability, we must redouble our efforts to defeat hunger and malnutrition. We have the tools and the knowhow. What we need is political will and sustained commitment by leaders and nations,” he wrote at the beginning of the report.

The report investigates healthcare systems and services in developing countries that are becoming even more overwhelmed by the pandemic as well as the disruption of food supply chains. The informal economy and refugees will be among those who are the most hard hit.

Sources: NPR, 4/21/20; Global Report on Food Crises, 2020; The Guardian, 4/21/20.

 

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