Editorial Roundup: US

Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:

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Nov. 25

The Baltimore Sun on toilet paper purchases during the pandemic:

You’ve got packages of toilet paper stacked in your bathroom closet. And some stashed in the basement. But then you throw some more rolls into your grocery cart, while food shopping. And you’re tempted to add some to your online cart as you take advantage of those Black Friday deals. Just in case. Sound familiar?

We bet it does. As the COVID case numbers rise so do the rolls of toilet paper people are buying. We’re already starting to see some empty shelves and sold out signs on online retailer websites. “Panic shopping” they call it. It happens when there is a call for snow, even if it’s a meager 2 inches, and when a hurricane is scheduled to hit. The unpredictable destruction of a hurricane and likely interruption of services and regular commerce make the panic a little more understandable. That it happens during a pandemic makes less sense, given that toilet paper is not going to protect you from COVID-19 in any way whatsoever, and grocery stores are among the few things we can count on remaining open, whether you shop online or in person.

Americans have a history of panic attacks over toilet paper, though. In 1973, Johnny Carson caused a mad dash for it after reading a newspaper clipping about a toilet paper shortage on the air and joking about it. He was talking about commercial toilet paper and not the kind we use at home.

So, why the toilet hoarding, and, to a lesser extent, hand sanitizer, paper towels and wipes? It gives us a sense of control when we feel hopeless over the spread of a deadly disease. We try to eliminate one type of superficial risk entirely because we can, but it often backfires. People buy toilet paper to ease their anxiety, but then toilet paper sells out, and people get frustrated and emotional and worried about toilet paper running out — a problem they helped create. So an action that initially comforts us, ends up doing the exact opposite. “This is not a rational behavior,” says Amna Kirmani, the Ralph J. Tyser Professor of Marketing at Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. “This is based on fear. It is emotional; it is a gut reaction.”

When this happens, we run out of T.P. in the short-term, but the shortage doesn’t last long. People use an average of about 100 rolls of toilet paper a year, and there’s generally plenty for everyone in the long term, when the masses don’t stockpile it (we promise). Many companies have said they are better prepared for a sudden rush this time around, anyway, unlike when pandemic shutdowns began in March.

We can control these irrational actions if we consciously try to be kind and remind ourselves that we need to make sure there is enough for everyone. We have to remind ourselves there is plenty to go around, and we have to trust the country’s supply system. Each of us has more control than we think if we follow the safety guidelines offered by health professionals, and focus on wearing masks, social distancing and keeping our gatherings small and outdoors — rather than on panic shopping paper products.

Think about your family, particularly the children, as motivation not to hoard shop, suggests Sharon Hoover, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. When children see parents hoarding and practicing other survival mechanisms, they may take on the anxiety of their parents, she said. So for the sake of the children, resist the urge to buy toilet paper until you really need it.

Instead, take advantage of the deals right now and buy something that brings joy to your life and reduces the stress, rather than creates it. How about a robot vacuum cleaner to help with the chores or an adult coloring book or online yoga membership? Or maybe focus on holiday gifts and buying and bringing joy to others in this season of Thanksgiving. Goodness knows we can all use some cheer in our life in these not so joyous times.

Online: https://www.baltimoresun.com/

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Nov. 24

The Washington Post on President-elect Joe Biden’s choices for his national security team:

President-Elect Joe Biden’s choices for his national security team will please those who hope, as we do, that he will quickly replace President Trump’s chauvinist and self-defeating “America First” policies with a return to liberal internationalism, with its focus on building and leading alliances and promoting democratic values. But the nominations also ought to encourage anyone who values experience, expertise, integrity and fundamental competence in U.S. government leaders.

The last two men Mr. Trump installed as directors of national intelligence were partisan hacks who devoted themselves to purging his perceived enemies and releasing classified information that the president thought bolstered his conspiracy theories — regardless of the cost to U.S. intelligence operations. The successor nominated by Mr. Biden, Avril D. Haines, is a thoroughgoing professional who served as the CIA’s deputy director and as deputy national security adviser under President Barack Obama.

Mr. Trump’s second secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, boasted about his “swagger” as he alienated the United States from its closest allies, disregarded congressional mandates and dismissed an inspector general who investigated his use of department resources for personal ends. His nominated successor, Antony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state, is a thoughtful and soft-spoken consensus-builder who already has strong relationships in foreign capitals and in Congress.

Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser was convicted of lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. Mr. Biden’s choice, Jake Sullivan, is another seasoned hand who headed the State Department’s policy planning department before serving as Mr. Biden’s national security adviser while he was vice president. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who is nominated as U.N. ambassador, is a 35-year veteran of the Foreign Service who headed the State Department’s Africa bureau during the Obama administration.

The nominations could be portrayed as the return of a foreign policy establishment that led the United States to failure in the Middle East and elsewhere. But Mr. Biden’s team has reflected deeply on the shortcomings of the Obama administration and the ways in which the world has changed in the past four years. In an essay published last year, Mr. Sullivan said the United States must reassert its global role, but in new ways: It must fashion “a different kind of leadership, giving others a greater voice along with greater accountability.”

Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Blinken have both written of the urgent need to build coalitions to counter the authoritarian models and mounting belligerence of China and Russia. They suggest the Biden administration will be more assertive than Mr. Obama was in promoting democracy and human rights. At the same time, Mr. Biden’s naming of former secretary of state John F. Kerry as special envoy for climate change shows that the escalating threat will play a central role in U.S. diplomacy.

“America is back, ready to lead the world,” Mr. Biden said Tuesday in announcing the appointments. As his nominees know, delivering on those words will be a formidable task in Mr. Trump’s wake. He leaves behind deep doubts about U.S. capacity, trustworthiness and resolve. Still, if they are confirmed, beginning next year, the United States will have national security principals who are capable, conscientious, well-versed in the issues they will face and not vulnerable to being undercut by presidential tweets. That’s a big step toward recovery.

Online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/

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Nov. 24

The Wall Street Journal on Dow Jones Industrial Average surging above 30,000 for the first time:

The American economy is a wonderful engine of prosperity left to its own devices, and on Tuesday it proved this again with another surge in equity prices that pushed the Dow Jones Industrial Average above 30,000 for the first time. Stock prices rise and fall, but this symbolic milestone of optimism for the future shows the economy’s resilience despite the Covid-19 plague.

We’ve lost track of the many doom and gloom predictions, especially since politicians shut down the economy in March. Remember the disaster that was supposed to follow the end of enhanced federal jobless benefits on July 31? Didn’t happen. Third quarter growth was 33.1%.

Then recall the catastrophe if Congress didn’t pass another $3 trillion spending bill? Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi issued almost daily press releases, echoed by the sages at Bloomberg. Didn’t happen. Then last week we were told that if the Treasury ended the Federal Reserve’s special pandemic facilities, the markets would reel. Some reeling.

Instead the economy keeps growing, and the jobless rate keeps falling, despite the surge in new Covid infections. The Atlanta Fed is estimating growth in the fourth quarter, which is halfway over, at 5.6%. That could certainly change if more governors follow California’s Gavin Newsom in punishing his state’s citizens with lockdowns. That’s one reason California’s jobless rate was fifth highest among the 50 states in October at 9.3%. New York was third highest at 9.6%.

Meantime, overall U.S. growth continues to surprise for the better. The housing market is booming, and consumer and small-business confidence are strong. The unemployment rate is down to 6.9%, and continuing jobless claims fell another 429,000 in last week’s report. Americans have enormous savings they can deploy, which explains why consumers keep spending despite the pandemic. Auto sales have been strong, no doubt in part because people are flying less and aren’t taking the usual vacations.

Investors are looking at the medical miracles of Covid vaccines that portend the end of the pandemic in 2021. The fading chance of post-election political trauma helps, but the bigger boost to the market has come from the prospect of a Republican Senate acting as a check on Joe Biden’s destructive tax increases. He can still do damage with regulation, but that takes more time and is subject to legal challenge. The two Georgia runoffs on Jan. 5 producing a Democratic Senate are, apart from shutdowns, the biggest market risk ahead.

By the way, on Election Day in 2016 the Dow closed at 18,332.

Online: https://www.wsj.com/

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Nov. 22

The Guardian on potential COVID-19 vaccines:

In the 1960s, academics studying rumours drew inspiration from epidemiology. They noted how such stories spread through communities, “infecting” some individuals while others seemed immune, and how more resistant populations could stop their spread.

Their insights have in turn been taken up by health professionals. Hearsay can be useful, helping to catch disease outbreaks. It can also be deadly. Though vaccine hesitancy is as old as vaccines themselves, it has risen sharply in many countries in recent years. Unfounded scare stories about the safety of immunisation programmes have contributed to growing scepticism and outright refusal, with fatal consequences. In her new book Stuck: How Vaccine Rumours Start – and Why They Don’t Go Away, Prof Heidi Larson notes the paradox: we have better vaccine science, more safety regulations and processes than ever before, yet a doubting public.

For the foreseeable future, demand for Covid-19 vaccines is likely to far outstrip supply. The US biotech firm Moderna has now joined Pfizer/BioNTech in announcing a vaccine with more than 90% efficacy in protecting people from Covid-19, but it will not be available outside the US until next year. The Oxford University/AstraZeneca candidate is some way further off in its work.

But while many are thrilled by the prospect of immunisation – three in four adults globally have said they would take it up if it were available – the unusual speed with which these products have been developed and tested has prompted anxiety among others, including those normally sanguine about vaccines. While 72% of Americans said in May that they would definitely or probably get a vaccine, that had dropped to 51% by October.

Fearmongering has played a part, with some of those responsible profiting politically or financially. Social media has produced an “infodemic”, allowing unfounded claims to spread internationally in hours or days – with algorithms pointing people toward more extreme content. Undoing the damage caused by anti-vaccination campaigns can take years or decades. Though internet companies are belatedly taking some action, more needs to be done.

Yet the problem is not merely disinformation, but why it is believed. Prof Larson, who runs the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, warns that simply dismissing rumours can entrench them. When people’s questions or concerns are batted away, and they feel they are being treated as stupid, doubts can grow and vaccine ambivalence turn to scepticism and outright refusal.

Effective challenges to anti-vaccination messages must come before this hardening of attitudes occurs. It can feel baffling and frustrating when well-tested evidence fails to counter wild assertions and unverified anecdotes, but there is some underlying logic to suspicions. It is true that big pharma is often short on scruples; that governments don’t always make the right decisions about people’s lives; that medical staff can be dismissive of valid concerns; and indeed that vaccines are not entirely without risk.

In the US, where there is a horrific history of white scientists experimenting on black people without their consent, and ongoing racial discrimination in healthcare, African Americans are much less likely than whites to say they would take a Covid-19 vaccine, despite being twice as likely to die from the illness. Good communication about the new vaccines will mean not only clarity about the advantages and safeguards, but acknowledgments and explanations of potential risks and uncertainties, putting them into context.

Prof Larson argues that anti-vaccine sentiment flourishes when people do not feel a sense of dignity or control over their own lives. The last year has exacerbated such emotions, and they will not disappear when lockdowns end. Restoring confidence in immunisation may, in the long run, require the much more fundamental rethink that many hoped this pandemic might produce: a reappraisal of who and what is valued, and how we should be living and relating to each other.

Online: https://www.theguardian.com/

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Nov. 21

The New York Times on COVID-19 cases in prisons and jails:

As Americans grapple with how — or whether — to gather with loved ones this holiday season, the roughly two million people confined in the nation’s prisons and jails face an even grimmer challenge: how to stay alive inside a system being ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.

Like the nation overall, U.S. correctional facilities are experiencing record spikes in coronavirus infections this fall. During the week of Nov. 17, there were 13,657 new coronavirus infections reported across the state and federal prison systems, according to the Marshall Project, which has been tracking these numbers since March. The previous week saw 13,676 new cases. These are by far the highest weekly tolls reported since the pandemic began. With winter descending, the situation threatens to grow bleaker still.

The American penal system is a perfect breeding ground for the virus. Squabbles over mask wearing and social distancing are essentially moot inside overcrowded facilities, many of them old and poorly ventilated, with tight quarters and with hygiene standards that are difficult to maintain. Uneven testing, inadequate medical resources and the constant churn of staff members, visitors and inmates further speed transmission. Crueler still, inmates suffer disproportionately from comorbidities, such as high blood pressure and asthma, putting them at an elevated risk for complications and death.

Eight months into the pandemic, the precise shape and scope of the devastation remains difficult to pin down. But the available data is heartbreaking. As of mid-November, more than 196,600 coronavirus infections had been reported among state and federal prisoners. More than 1,450 of those prisoners had died. The case rates among inmates are more than four times as high as those of the general public, and the death rate is more than twice as high.

Inmates are not the only ones trapped with the virus. The correctional system employs more than 685,000 people — guards, nurses, chaplains and so on. There have been more than 45,470 reported coronavirus infections and 98 deaths among staff members to date. Their case rates are three times as high as for the general public.

Remember: These are the reported cases. The real numbers are assumed to be higher. The virus ripples outward from these hot spots, engulfing the families and communities of inmates and workers. The coronavirus does not respect prison walls any more than it respects state or national borders. It will not be confined.

This spread poses a particular problem for rural communities — 40 percent of prisons are in counties with fewer than 50,000 residents — which typically lack the health care infrastructure to deal with such outbreaks. Even a modest outbreak can quickly overwhelm local hospitals with scant numbers of ventilators and I.C.U. beds.

Local jails face additional challenges. While prisons report much larger case numbers, the rapid turnover in jails — where many people are confined for only a few days or even hours — enables the virus to circulate swiftly between inmates and the larger community, and makes tracking all the more difficult. In a report last month on outbreaks in the Mountain West, The Times noted that in Cascade County, Mont., infections at the local jail made up about a quarter of all known cases in the county. Over two months, the facility knowingly released 29 people who were considered actively infected.

As with so much about the pandemic, this is a problem that should have been dealt with more aggressively early on. In the spring, Attorney General Bill Barr was among those calling on correctional facilities to mitigate risk, with a focus on reducing overcrowding through early release and other decarceration measures. While some progress has been made, it has been uneven and inadequate.

“Prisons and jails experienced declines in total population (approximately 11 percent of the incarcerated population) in the first half of 2020,” according to a report on decarceration put out by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The report notes that “these reductions appear to be mainly the result of declines in arrests, jail bookings and prison admissions related to lockdowns and the closure of state and local courts.” It continues: “The releases among sentenced jail and prison populations that have occurred have, for the most part, occurred on a case-by-case basis and have been procedurally slow and not well suited to crisis situations.”

While many jails saw a population drop during the first few months of the pandemic, the numbers of people being held in jails began climbing again over the summer, according to a September briefing by the Prison Policy Initiative, which analyzed 451 county jails. “In 88 counties, jail populations are higher now than they were before the pandemic” the briefing notes.

Some states have taken legislative action to speed the decarceration process. A bill signed by New Jersey’s governor last month permits prisoners with less than a year left on their sentences to be released up to eight months early. This has already prompted the release of more than 2,000 people, with another 1,000 or more releases anticipated.

All too often, continued foot-dragging or dysfunction by prison officials requires the courts to step in. In the spring and summer, the San Quentin State Prison in California had a major coronavirus outbreak. Built in the mid 1800s and early 1900s, the outdated facility suffered from overcrowding, inadequate medical staffing, “exceedingly poor ventilation, extraordinarily close living quarters and inadequate sanitation,” according to a panel of medical experts from the University of California, Berkeley, who were brought in to assess the situation in June. By late July, the number of active cases had topped 1,600. Tents were erected to house the sick. Before the outbreak faded, around 2,200 inmates had confirmed coronavirus infections, and 28 had died. In addition, 298 staff members were infected, resulting in one death.

The problem continued to fester. In late October, a state appeals court ruled that the prison authorities’ efforts to address the issue had been insufficient and that inmates’ constitutional protection from cruel and unusual punishment was still being violated. To deal with the emergency, the prison was ordered to cut its population by around half, through a mix of releases and transfers. (The original outbreak was sparked by the transfer to San Quentin of infected inmates from another prison.)

Clearly, more needs to be done. The report by the National Academies outlines best practices for reducing the incarcerated population, broken down into short-term and longer-term solutions. The suggested measures start with a systemic commitment to diversion efforts such as “noncustodial penalties” for minor infractions, including probation and parole violations, and the limiting of pretrial detentions through means such as reducing or eliminating bail.

In addition to offering guidance on a bolder decarceration effort, the report stresses the importance of minimizing risks to the families and communities involved, such as “offering testing prior to release, a place to quarantine in the community, and examination of parole and probation policies and procedures.” More comprehensive and more standardized testing and reporting requirements are also needed.

Managing this kind of crisis is not a one-and-done effort, the report emphasizes. It is a process requiring “sustained engagement” by a wide array of actors at all levels.

It is all too easy for many Americans to ignore the horrors of what is happening inside the nation’s prisons and jails. Inmates are isolated from the broader populace, their suffering kept out of sight. But their welfare in this pandemic remains inextricably linked to everyone else’s. The nation’s continued failure to bring the virus to heel among this vulnerable population is both a public health catastrophe and a moral one.

Online: https://www.nytimes.com/

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Nov. 19

The Houston Chronicle on the fatal shooting of Joshua Jackson by a Harris County Sheriff’s Office deputy and the lack of public information on cases involving law enforcement shootings:

Just before dawn on April 22, Joshua Johnson was shot and killed near his parents’ home in Missouri City by an undercover Harris County Sheriff’s Office deputy. Hours later, standing behind yellow police tape about 200 feet from where the 35-year-old’s body lay under a sheet, his family demanded answers.

In a recorded conversation with Sgt. Allen Beall of the sheriff’s department, Richard Beary, Johnson’s stepfather, can be heard asking to see his son and why his body is still on the ground.

Beall gives what would soon become the official story: How Johnson walked up to the unmarked Ford Explorer where a plainclothes deputy sat on the lookout for a murder suspect. How Johnson allegedly tapped on the window holding a BB gun in one hand and his cellphone, its light shining, in the other. How he failed to lower the gun when told to and how the deputy opened fire while seated, hitting Johnson at least twice.

The family was distraught. How was the narrative — that Johnson was the victim of bad luck and poor judgment — already so neat when the medical examiner hadn’t arrived yet and, as Beall acknowledges in the recording, he hadn’t even spoken to the deputy involved?

“I’m tired of this BS, y’all,” Beary said in the recording, his voice breaking. “Police for years been shooting Black people for no reason. I’m not going to say, ‘y’all did it,’ but I want to know the facts about my son.”

Almost seven months later, the family says they’re still waiting.

The sheriff’s office has completed its investigation but is not disclosing the results. A spokesman said that’s to avoid compromising a separate review by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, which plans to take its findings to a grand jury.

“We only have one chance, unless there’s new evidence, to present a case to a grand jury,” district attorney spokesman Dane Schiller told the editorial board. “For the family and for the community, we have to get it right.”

Officials’ decisions to not disclose more information until after a fair and thorough investigation seems reasonable, even if that’s no comfort to Johnson’s family. District Attorney Kim Ogg’s policy of conducting independent reviews of each officer-involved shooting before taking the case to a grand jury has meant true progress in a county where grand juries once cleared officers in shootings some 300 consecutive times. It can be a slow process, given both COVID-related delays and the sheer number of such shootings: 33 this year alone in Harris County, 16 resulting in civilian deaths.

Still, nearly seven months is a long time for any parent to wait for answers in the death of a child — or for the community to learn what happened. The grief of Johnson’s family is understandable and so is the general mistrust in law enforcement these days given the nauseating pattern of police brutality and deaths in custody across the country.

Johnson’s family has launched its own investigation and found support from U.S. Congressman Al Green. So far, they have interviewed neighbors and gathered evidence that seems to contradict what officials said happened.

They point to neighbor testimony that places the deputy’s vehicle in a vacant lot several houses over from where the shooting occurred and the unlikely trajectory of a bullet that struck a neighbor’s garage. They wonder if the deputy identified himself. They ask how a mortally wounded Johnson managed to hold on to his BB gun and cellphone as he stumbled back to his car, where he was found by police.

“They have their theory,” Green said of the sheriff’s office, “but it doesn’t seem to coincide with the facts.”

The family also notes that in 2015, the deputy who shot Johnson, Tu Tran, a 12-year veteran of the office, killed an armed man outside a Houston nightclub while working security. A grand jury declined to indict in the shooting. The deputy was later suspended without pay in 2017 after a video showed him striking a handcuffed suspect in the throat after a vehicle chase.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez met with the family several times and tried to address their concerns, said spokesman Jason Spencer. Tran is back on active duty.

Spencer said that except in rare cases, any disciplinary action and disclosure of an investigation’s details wait until a grand jury has its say.

The skepticism of Johnson’s family is supported by a long history, in Harris County and elsewhere, of covering up police wrongdoing when it comes to the deaths of civilians, especially Black men.

That’s why each of these cases deserves our attention and vigilance as a community. We have to stop, take notice, and listen when families raise the kinds of concerns that officials and the media used to ignore. We urge agencies investigating to do so thoroughly, promptly and with as much transparency as possible.

But we also have to give law enforcement officials time to do their jobs.

We also note that both Ogg and Gonzalez have a record of holding law enforcement accountable.

The sheriff fired Deputy Chauna Thompson in 2017 after she helped restrain a man while her husband choked him to death and dismissed Deputy Cameron Brewer after a deadly shooting in 2018. During Ogg’s tenure, six Houston Police officers have been indicted over the botched Harding Street raid, including two counts of felony murder for former officer Gerald Goines.

We implore Gonzalez and Ogg to show the same integrity in Johnson’s case, and to never forget that somewhere in each of these cases, there’s a grieving family who’s skeptical, suffering and desperately waiting for answers.

Online: https://www.houstonchronicle.com/

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