World Events

Opinion: CDC guidance startles America

In the early days of the pandemic, American public health experts warned people against wearing them. Officials weren’t sure how easily the coronavirus spread between people and were concerned that widespread mask-wearing would deplete the scarce protective equipment front-line health workers needed.

Weeks later, the scientists reversed course and advocated that everyone wear masks, a recommendation that helped slow the spread of the virus, but was politicized when prominent Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, cast doubt on how well they worked.

Now there is an even better safeguard against the disease — safe and effective vaccines. On Thursday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surprised many with a sweeping announcement: it’s OK for fully vaccinated people to take off their masks in most settings. (People whose immune systems are compromised should check with their doctors first, the agency said.)

Changing the guidance is one thing. Getting people who have spent a year wearing face-coverings to adapt to the new rules — which still require masks in transportation and health care settings — is another. And there’s no outward way to tell who has been vaccinated and who has not.

David Holtgrave, dean of the University at Albany School of Public Health, and epidemiologist Eli Rosenberg are among those raising questions about the CDC’s unmasking guidance. The vaccines in the US “have outstanding effectiveness and should be fully utilized,” they wrote. “Unfortunately, we are still not across the finish line with Covid in the US. There is still a Covid death about every 2.5 minutes in the nation, and serious racial and ethnic disparities … A central mistake in public health is easing up infectious disease control efforts just before crossing the finish line. Unfortunately, and we suspect inadvertently, that is what the CDC did on Thursday.”

The CDC’s encouragement for vaccinated people to drop their masks may act as an incentive for more people to get the shot, though the agency said that wasn’t the reason for the change — it cited scientific studies showing the effectiveness of the vaccines. The change came as governments and businesses have unveiled a range of more tangible inducements, from free doughnuts and drinks to time off and cash bonuses. The ultimate example arrived this week when the state of Ohio announced it would award a million dollars each week for five weeks to the winners of a special lottery-style drawing if they’re vaccinated.

“We shouldn’t have to bribe” people to get vaccinated, wrote David M. Perry…but it might help. “From doughnuts to marijuana, beer to cash, private and public entities have been appropriately creative when it comes to persuading people about vaccines. But all of those are carrots. We also need a stick.

He added, “While people can do what they want with their own bodies, that doesn’t include the right to carry a deadly disease into public spaces. The way to get people vaccinated should be simply to require vaccination or documented medical exemption in order to return to schools, businesses, and crowded public spaces.”

Keeping our guard up against a sudden spike in the pandemic is crucial, wrote Jeffrey D. Sachs: “For the public, there is one overarching message: get vaccinated. The lies of the anti-vax community are disgusting and must be countered.”
School buildings should all be reopened now, wrote US Secretary of Education Miguel A. Cardona. “Anything less than 100% of students being offered the option to return to in-person learning full-time is not enough,” he pointed out. “We must continue to lead with the same urgency as the President to put every resource to bear to reopen more schools this spring. Waiting until the fall is too late. Because when it comes to helping students succeed, we don’t have a moment to spare.”

Trump and the ouster of Liz Cheney

On the surface, Donald Trump’s sway over the Republican Party, demonstrated this week by the ouster of his critic Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney from the House party leadership, doesn’t make historical sense. He is a defeated one-term president, on a par with Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, whose records were seen by their contemporaries as examples of how not to govern successfully.

“The biggest challenge that one-term presidents have faced with their party is that after losing, they are seen as losers,” wrote historian Julian Zelizer. “Party leaders don’t want to invest in their future and often conclude that their record explained the outcome. Not with Trump.” The reason: he promoted the lie that the election was stolen from him and “a majority of Republicans bought the lie.”

“Trump is in perfect sync with the modern Republican Party,” wrote Zelizer, who noted that it “has shifted to the extremes — both in terms of policy and in its partisan tactics. Though considered anti-establishment in 2016, Trump, it turns out, fit the GOP like a glove…Most in the party are unlikely to be swayed by Cheney’s remarks to Congress that the election is over and ‘our freedom lasts only if we protect it.'”
As Frida Ghitis observed, “This week showed us two diverging paths in America.” The growing number of vaccinated Americans and the easing of mask guidance showed that “life is now moving much closer to normal.” But recent days have “also confirmed that the political insanity that gripped the United States during the past administration has entered the bloodstream of the Republican Party. Watching the GOP — now home to Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and other, shall we say, ‘unique’ personalities — we re-experienced that sense of disbelief that was our daily fare over the past few years.”

At the same time, a new survey made clear where most Americans are politically. In the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, 63% approved of the job President Joe Biden is doing and 71% gave him high marks for his handling of the pandemic, including 47% of Republicans, Jill Filipovic noted.

“He may not be getting accolades on Fox News, but average Americans can look around and see that things are a lot better than they were just a few months ago. Vaccination rates have soared. Hospitalizations are way down,” Filipovic wrote. The most encouraging part? “It’s still possible for a president to handle a crisis well and see his efforts recognized, even from those on the other side of the political fence who are being fed a steady stream of outrage and misinformation.”

For more on politics:

What we can’t count on

On May 7, a ransomware attack led operators to shut down a 5,500-mile pipeline that carries fuel from Texas through the south and up the East Coast. Fearing a gas shortage, drivers rushed to fill their tanks, and in some states service stations ran out of fuel.

Four days later, engineers inspecting a heavily used bridge in Memphis, Tennessee discovered a crack that forced them to close a six-lane artery that carries 45,000 vehicles a day over the Mississippi River. Hundreds of barges were stranded when authorities halted traffic on the river.

In the best of times, systems that enable travel and the rest of our complicated lives hum along so smoothly that we imagine we can always rely on them. But at these moments, they take on the ephemeral quality Prospero describes in Shakespeare’s “Tempest” — the actors “were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air…the cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself … shall dissolve,” leaving nothing behind.

Of course, when vital systems break down, panic sets in. A nation that was hoarding toilet paper a year ago began to scramble for gasoline, Meg Jacobs wrote. “Nothing seems to scare Americans more than the fear of running out of gas.”

“At one level, Americans love their cars — they are a sign of freedom and the open road,” Jacobs wrote. “At another, we created a suburban landscape that depends on driving everywhere. Americans drive more miles and do so alone more than citizens of any other country.”

She noted: “We’ve seen this dance before. If you are of a certain age, you surely recall sitting in the back of your family’s station wagon (with no seatbelts of course) waiting hours on end in the 1970s to get a gallon of gas.”

Colonial Pipeline, the target of the ransomware attack, was reported to have paid an unknown amount of ransom money to its attackers, identified as DarkSide. Such attacks have gone on for years, noted Arun Vishwanath, and are taking a heavy toll. “In 2020, nearly 2,400 local governments, health care facilities and schools were victims of ransomware. The average downtime because of it was 21 days, with an average payment of $312,493 — a 171% increase over 2019, according to an analysis by the Institute for Security and Technology. We cannot afford this.

New technology hasn’t solved the problem, Vishwanath wrote, because it doesn’t sufficiently address the vulnerability of users. Attackers gain access to computer networks by “using spear phishing that deceives users into clicking on a malicious hyperlink or attachment.” Companies need to do a better job of evaluating and training workers to beware of cyber risks, he argued.

The week’s infrastructure troubles coincided with bipartisan meetings over Biden’s spending and taxing plans. “Republicans and Democrats can find the money to pay for the infrastructure to rebuild America if the political courage exists,” wrote Aaron Klein, who served in the Treasury during the Obama administration. “The easy part is coming up with a plan for investing in American infrastructure. Done properly, infrastructure makes our lives better, creates quality jobs and fosters prosperity. The trick is how to pay for it.” Republicans who have taken a “no new taxes” pledge are balking at Biden’s proposal to raise corporate taxes.

In search of peace

The sudden outbreak of violence in the Middle East has killed more than 100 people. It came at a time when the future of political leadership in Israel and of the Palestinian Authority is in question, and with a new US administration focused on domestic issues rather than thorny international ones. Aaron David Miller and Daniel Kurtzer, who, as American diplomats, long wrestled with the conflict, wrote, “There is time, even as the situation deteriorates, to change the recurring cycles of pain and war that lead nowhere but to more of each. Everyone must act, not just issue statements — the Biden administration, Arabs, Europeans and, most of all, Israelis and Palestinians. Indeed, without Israeli and Palestinian buy-in, no amount of external pressure or inducement will end what promises to be an endless conflict.

As David A. Andelman noted, it was only last year that “former President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled their peace plan for Israelis and Palestinians at the White House…”

At first, the plan negotiated by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner “seemed like a colossal success. Though Palestinian representatives rejected the entire plan from the outset and refused to be involved in any aspect of its creation, two of Israel’s longest-standing foes in the region, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, followed by Morocco and Sudan, reversed generations of hostility, opened diplomatic relations and eventually allowed commercial air flights.” But now, Andelman noted, “the question that begs to be asked is whether that plan has worked at all.”

Tulsa massacre, a century later

One hundred years ago this month, Rebecca Brown Crutcher fled the Greenwood community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, “in fear of her life as White Tulsans burned her neighborhood to the ground,” wrote her great-granddaughter, Tiffany Crutcher. “On May 31 and June 1, 1921, White gangs flooded into the thriving Greenwood neighborhood and murdered up to 300 Black men, women and children.” The attackers burned 1,500 homes, leaving 10,000 Black residents homeless; they destroyed more than 600 “businesses, and places of worship, healing, learning and gathering.”

To compound the crime, “to this day, not one person has ever been held accountable and not a single cent of reparations has been paid to the survivors or the victims’ descendants,” Crutcher wrote.

She criticized Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt for signing laws that immunize drivers who kill or injure protesters “unintentionally” and that prohibit Oklahoma schools from teaching critical race theory. “My hope is that our teachers will look this evil in the eye and refuse to give in or back down. I hope they will continue teaching the truth about topics like the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre — including that it was born from White supremacy, a mortal threat to our democracy that remains with us today.”

Don’t miss

AND…

Tiger trouble

A week ago, Jose Antonio Ramos spotted a 9-month-old male Bengal tiger on the front lawn of his Houston home. “I had to pinch myself,” he said. “Was this real?” Police said the tiger was found and turned over to authorities Saturday.

John Goodrich, chief scientist for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, survived a mauling by a wild tiger. So he knows the danger of keeping big cats in private hands.

“A frightened tiger is just as likely to attack as run away and a scared cat that weighs a few hundred pounds is no small threat,” Goodrich warned. “There is no doubt that a thinly regulated patchwork of laws governing private ownership and exploitation of tigers in the United States has created a public safety, animal welfare, and law enforcement nightmare.

There are only about 3,900 tigers left in the wild, a tiny fraction of the number a century ago, Goodrich wrote. “By some estimates, there are twice that many in captivity in the US. Tigers belong in forests, savannas, and mangrove swamps, not in backyards, not in selfies, and certainly not in a Houston neighborhood.”

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