2020
July
15
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Monitor Daily Podcast

July 15, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

Loneliness and dancing in the pandemic

One of the most important questions from the pandemic, we can’t answer yet: How will it change us? Months of social distancing and self-isolation raise concerns. The Well Being Trust, which advocates for mental, social, and spiritual health, suggests there could be 150,000 “deaths of despair” from drug overdoses to suicides.

Yet several new studies on loneliness are surprising the authors. “Like most people who study loneliness, we expected loneliness to go up,” Angelina Sutin, a behavioral scientist at Florida State University College of Medicine, told NPR. But the “loneliness scale” her team uses hasn’t budged.

As the pandemic shuttered many stores and businesses, neighbors began to rely on each other more, the article notes. Dana Lacy Amarisa and her 93-year-old mother, Jeanne Lacy, put a sign on their San Francisco garage announcing a weekly dance party – at a distance. After several weeks, neighbors started coming to watch, to dance, and to chat. “Dancing is healing medicine,” Ms. Amarisa says.

Other surveys are finding similar “hints of resilience” across the United States, NPR reports. Overall, levels of loneliness are too high, the researchers say. But Jonathan Kanter of the University of Washington adds: “If there is any silver lining to this – and it’s really hard to speak of silver linings – it was that so many people are finding ways to connect and finding ways to keep relationships.”

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How Pompeo’s focus on religion could recast US rights policy

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has long advocated for a distinctly American take on human rights. On Thursday, he is expected to offer his fullest portrait of this vision.

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A year ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched his Commission on Unalienable Rights, which he tasked with determining what is a basic human right and what is not. On Thursday he will unveil the results of the commission’s work, which he previewed as “an important restatement of how the United States thinks about human rights ... and our role ... in preserving those rights for all people who are made in the image of God.”

Some say they worry this will constitute a narrowing of the U.S. vision of human rights to a focus on Mr. Pompeo’s priorities as a conservative Christian. Among their biggest concerns is that his challenging of the vision promoted by Western powers over recent decades could prove to be a boon to autocratic regimes determined to halt the expansion of rights, including democratic governance and gender equality.

“Religion is a fundamental freedom, one I think has been promoted by recent administrations,” says David Kramer, who served as an assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush. “But my worry is that Pompeo’s focus on it – as we’re seeing in this commission – will mean that other rights, like women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, will be subordinated to it.”

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1. How Pompeo’s focus on religion could recast US rights policy

Since becoming secretary of state in April 2018, Mike Pompeo has sought to distinguish his vision of human rights from that of preceding administrations and set a new course for the promotion of human rights globally.

The conservative Republican and evangelical Christian has pushed to shift the United States away from what he sees as an overemphasis on women’s reproductive rights and LGBTQ issues and toward religious freedom – which he likes to note is the first right America’s Founding Fathers listed in the Bill of Rights.

Moving the U.S. away from participation in international and United Nations-affiliated human rights bodies such as the Geneva-based Human Rights Council has also been a priority. The U.S. has a “unique” vision of human rights, he says – what he prefers to call “unalienable” rights – and should be leading in promoting that perspective rather than compromising with other visions in international forums.

Mr. Pompeo will have an opportunity to take his vision beyond rhetoric this week when he unveils the results of his Commission on Unalienable Rights in a speech in Philadelphia Thursday afternoon.

Given what the secretary of state has said about the yearlong work of his commission, it appears he intends to use the results to recast the State Department’s vision of human rights and how the U.S. goes about promoting them.

The commission’s report “is an important restatement of how the United States thinks about human rights and our unalienable rights and our role ... in the world in preserving those rights for all people who are made in the image of God,” Mr. Pompeo told reporters last week in previewing his speech. “These unalienable rights are important,” he added. “They extend across the world.”

But others in the human rights community, including many who have served in past administrations, say they worry that the recasting constitutes a narrowing of the U.S. vision of human rights to a focus on Mr. Pompeo’s priorities as a conservative Christian.

Boon to autocrats?

Among their biggest concerns is that Mr. Pompeo’s challenging of the vision promoted by Western powers over recent decades could prove to be a boon to autocratic regimes determined to halt the expansion of rights, including democratic governance and gender equality.

“One of my biggest concerns about this commission is that it’s really just questioning the international human rights system that we have – and at the same time that a lot of authoritarian states are putting that system under intense pressure,” says Amy Lehr, director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

“There’s a real risk,” she adds, that “it opens the door to the leaders of those regimes pointing to the U.S. and saying, ‘You don’t like this system [of international human rights] and we don’t like it, either.’”

It is not as though Mr. Pompeo is turning his back on human rights issues, some State Department officials say. They point out that he has recently been very vocal about the Chinese government’s treatment of the Muslim Uyghur population and its clampdown on democratic rights in Hong Kong. The U.S. has also imposed sanctions on Chinese officials involved in implementing those rights abuses.

But the recent focus on China has some experts wondering if that is more a reflection of the Trump administration’s demonization of China in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic (and in the run-up to the November election) than evidence of a prioritizing of human rights.

“There’s growing concern that human rights are being instrumentalized to go after certain governments we have problems with,” says Ms. Lehr. “We should be criticizing a country for its human rights record and practices and not because that country is a geopolitical rival,” she adds. “That is why our human rights policies need to be based on principles.”

One of those principles that has driven U.S. rights policy is the freedom from oppressive discrimination, especially of minority or underprivileged populations. But some experts say they see in Mr. Pompeo’s focus on religious freedom a narrowing of the U.S. vision to exclude groups that have made recent gains in recognition.

“Religion is a fundamental freedom, one I think has been promoted by recent administrations. But my worry is that Pompeo’s focus on it – as we’re seeing in this commission – will mean that other rights, like women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, will be subordinated to it,” says David Kramer, who served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor under President George W. Bush.

Defining what is a right

Indeed, in launching the Commission on Unalienable Rights in July 2019, Mr. Pompeo questioned what he said had been a “proliferation” of rights over recent years – and he tasked the commission with determining what is a basic human right and what is not.

“Is it true, and therefore ought to be honored?” Mr. Pompeo offered as a basic question for the commission. The 10-member body, made up largely of conservative religious scholars, should also “point the way toward that more perfect fidelity to our nation’s founding principles,” he said.

The commission and Mr. Pompeo’s characterization of its work have set off alarm bells in the human rights community, with more than 160 organizations and prominent advocates voicing concerns that the commission could backtrack on the “universality of human rights” that they say has been built and strengthened – often with U.S. leadership – over the last 70 years.

The Bill of Rights is a fine foundation for human rights policy, Mr. Kramer says, but he worries that Mr. Pompeo has shown little interest in promoting any of the rights beyond freedom of religion.

“What about freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association?” says Mr. Kramer, now a professor of human rights and foreign policy at Florida International University in Miami.

Another problem he sees for Mr. Pompeo is that he serves a president who has shown little interest in the promotion of human rights, as he has demonstrated an affinity for many of the world’s worst dictators and most despotic regimes.

“I give Pompeo credit for some of his work on human rights, but at the same time how do you push others on freedom of the press when you work for a president who calls the press the ‘enemy of the people’?” he says. “It undermines you and sets a horrible example for despots and tyrants out there who are predisposed in that direction.”

Left out of conversation

The former assistant secretary is also troubled that the State Department bureau he once ran has been “marginalized” by Mr. Pompeo and denied any involvement with the commission. Indeed, some State Department observers say the way Mr. Pompeo left the human rights bureau out in the cold on his project underscores his estrangement from much of the department’s operations and career officials and his distrust of the federal government’s “deep state.”

Still, it’s the narrowing of the conception of human rights implicit in Mr. Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights that Ms. Lehr of CSIS finds most worrisome.

An expert in business and human rights and the intersection of technology and human rights, she counts it as progress that the global conception of human rights has expanded to include new populations and sectors over recent decades.

“As we move into a less state-centric world, it’s important that more actors” like corporations, business communities, and nongovernmental organizations “are engaged and participating in recognizing and promoting those rights,” she says.

On the other hand, “if we go back to the beginning of our country” for our vision of human rights, “we have to remember that I as a woman wouldn’t have had full access to many of those basic rights,” Ms. Lehr says. “Not to mention people of color, who certainly did not enjoy what was promised” in the Bill of Rights.

A deeper look

Amid spike in crime, a question of who owns the streets

Atlanta and several other U.S. cities are seeing a spike in violent crime. When cops are demoralized and community trust in police has collapsed, how is public safety maintained?

Mark
Brynn Anderson/AP
Rodney Bryant was appointed Atlanta's interim police chief following the resignation of Chief Erika Shields, who stepped down after an officer fatally shot Rayshard Brooks June 12, 2020. Amid the upheaval, as many as 50 Atlanta officers have applied for jobs elsewhere.

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Morris Worthen feels abandoned. Violent crime spiked in Atlanta over the Independence Day weekend, with an 8-year-old girl killed by vigilantes manning a blockade on a busy city street. The sense, says Mr. Worthen, is that “the police just don’t seem to care anymore.” Data show a precipitous drop in arrests since May.

Other cities, such as New York, Chicago, and Detroit, have seen a similar surge in violent crime, particularly within Black communities. Some point to coronavirus lockdowns, which have put disproportionate stress on Black communities, with higher death and unemployment rates. But others say a deeper shift in public safety is underway.

As police have stepped back from more aggressive policing, one activist wonders how that’s been seen by those “who might be inclined to commit crime. Was it that a sense of impunity started to go up?”

Whatever the case, says Thaddeus Johnson, a criminologist and former police officer: “When people don’t trust the police or don’t feel the police have their best interests at heart, communities may start taking matters into their own hands.”

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2. Amid spike in crime, a question of who owns the streets

The barricades were set up within sight of the Wendy’s where an Atlanta police officer killed Rayshard Brooks last month. According to local reports, they had been there before, set up by civilians armed with semiautomatic weapons, deciding who would be allowed to pass. Residents had asked the vigilantes to leave but were ignored. A member of the City Council had been trying for days to defuse the situation.

When Secoriea Turner’s mother encountered the blockade on her way home, she decided to do a U-turn. That’s when the men opened fire, fatally wounding the 8-year-old girl.

Thirty-one people were shot across the city over that July Fourth weekend, as the homicide rate doubled over the previous year. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency in the city. But similar spikes have been seen in New York City, Chicago, and Detroit.

Violent crime usually increases during summer months, but the past month has seen levels not reached for years, if not decades, in these cities. The crimes have been predominantly within the Black community, with some pointing to the stresses of the coronavirus pandemic. Black communities have been hit harder both medically and economically.

Yet there’s also a sense that the upheaval around policing has played a role. Indeed, images of the vigilante blockade that led to Secoriea’s death paint a portrait of police, in at least some cases, appearing to have partially ceded the streets.

After the arrest of the officer who shot Mr. Brooks, for example, the Atlanta Police Department saw its chief resign and as many as 50 officers applying for jobs elsewhere. In New York, meanwhile, police reforms that predated the pandemic have similarly raised questions about the line between responsible policing and public safety. In Seattle, police withdrew from an entire area of the city for weeks when protesters moved in.

Now, as crime spikes in areas where police have traditionally had a conspicuous and controversial presence, the debate over policing has shifted. When a community’s faith in the police collapses, how can public safety be maintained?

There is a rising “crisis of police legitimacy,” says Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, an independent organization focused on public safety policy reform. “Police everywhere are now distrusted, and it’s boiling to the surface in a way I’ve never seen before.”

Feeling abandoned

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Morris Worthen takes a break from cutting grass in Atlanta's Edgewood neighborhood on July 8, 2020, near where five people were recently shot, two of whom died. "All this craziness is causing people to arm themselves," he says about police pulling back from making arrests after controversial police shootings.

For some in Atlanta, the feeling is one of abandonment. “The police just don’t seem to care anymore,” says Morris Worthen, a Black Atlanta native. At the same time, he adds, “Everybody protests police shootings of Black people, but I don’t see any protests when Black people kill Black people.”

Nearby, a white neighbor, Tom Doyle, says he can’t deny a shift in attitude among his neighbors, regardless of their race.

“If the police back off, there’s really only two things left to do: defend yourself or be a victim,” says Mr. Doyle, who says he sometimes carries his gun.

But the police feel abandoned, too, says Thaddeus Johnson, a Georgia State University criminologist, who spent 10 years as an officer with the Memphis Police Department in Tennessee.

“If I’m an officer right now, I’m terrified to do anything,” he says.

“The reason I left the police force is everybody I arrested looked like me,” says Mr. Johnson. “There are a lot of Black officers who are conflicted like that: ‘My God, what am I representing, what am I doing?’”

Personally, he “doesn’t feel any less or more safe” as an Atlanta resident right now. But he does see a city separated by fear: demoralized police on the one hand, scared and mourning communities on the other.

“As a Black man who has been on both sides of this, my God, I can see both sides are suffering, but neither one can see the others because of their own suffering,” says Mr. Johnson.

SOURCE: Atlanta Police Department
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

The picture in New York

In New York, which has the country’s largest police department, the crime rate still remains a fraction of what it had been in the 1990s and early 2000s.

But for the past few years, the New York Police Department has been scaling back much of its signature “broken windows” methods of policing. The theory maintains that enforcement of relatively minor quality-of-life violations will create a sense of order that in turn brings down more serious crimes.

Black and Latino neighborhoods bore the brunt of that effort, however, and community pressure forced the city to reform its focus on penny-ante violations. This year, New York City police officers have made about 40,000 fewer arrests compared with the first six months of 2019, even though gun arrests have remained nearly identical.

That makes the story surrounding the current spike in violent crime in New York much more complicated, says Mr. Aborn of the citizens commission. Shootings have been trending upward since December. And recent moves to ease criminal bail for nonviolent offenders have lowered the population at the notorious Rikers Island city jail.

Mr. Aborn wonders “if it’s a question of the narrative being received by those who might be inclined to commit crime. Was it that a sense of impunity started to go up?”

Craig Ruttle/AP
Terence Monahan, chief of department of the New York City Police, takes a knee with activists as protesters paused while walking in New York June 1, 2020. Police officials in New York City and elsewhere say recent shootings have shown there are consequences to some police reforms they see as misguided.

Nationwide, the pandemic, the sputtering economy, and armed demonstrations by both white and Black gun owners have all fed a sense of anxiety, fueling record-high gun purchases, says David Hemenway, a gun data expert at Harvard University’s School of Public Health.

The confluence, he says, can give Americans a “Mad Max” lens on 2020.

“Call it ‘blue flu’ or whatever,” says Mr. Johnson of Georgia State University. “Whether [a police pullback is] real or perceived, the costs for criminal activity are less now, and some people will see opportunity.”

“When people don’t trust the police or don’t feel the police have their best interests at heart, communities may start taking matters into their own hands,” he says.

Guns and Black America

Count Brother Charles, a Black gun rights activist in Charlotte, North Carolina, as part of that community.

“We’re seeing law and order evolve in front of our eyes, and it’s very powerful,” he says.

Many of his friends in the Black gun movement have watched armed demonstrations by largely white gun owners with dismay, sensing a racial divide in demonstrations of “our heritage” and “our rights.” They have also balked at a Black Lives Matter movement that he says many see as infiltrated and ineffective.

Their response? Under the Not F*ing Around Coalition (NFAC) banner, Black gun owners demonstrated at Stone Mountain, Georgia, site of the world’s largest Confederate monument. They called out armed white supremacists to either “join us or fight us.”

Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
Joseth Jett spray-paints over the top of graffiti from the night before and paints "RIP Rayshard" June 14, 2020, in Atlanta. Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by Atlanta police during a struggle in a Wendy's drive-thru line.

NFAC has also provided security for the sister of Mr. Brooks, the Atlantan slain by police, and patrolled the neighborhood outside Brunswick, Georgia, where Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger, was killed by three white men in February.

“I’m raising a little 11-year-old girl, so yes, I’m concerned about the direction the ... U.S. is going,” says Mr. Charles. “Even with a thousand [armed Black] people marching on Klansmen territory [at Stone Mountain] ... I don’t think we have the money or the firepower to compete with the other side’s military – the white supremacists. They’ve got a lot of guns.”

Black Americans have struggled for centuries to claim the same Second Amendment rights as white Americans. Early gun control was intended to make sure white people kept the upper hand over enslaved people. After Emancipation, white leaders wrote laws that made it more difficult for Black men to carry guns in the Jim Crow era.

“In 2020, we have to act as though these constitutional principles were sufficiently flexible to apply to everybody, [but] as we well know, the Second Amendment is not intended to apply to armed Black men,” says Gerald Horne, a historian at the University of Houston and author of “The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America.” That’s why “this spectacle of armed Black men is terrifying to many – because the contradictions are catching up.”

Yet gun violence has taken a toll on Black communities, too. Atlanta City Councilmember Michael Julian Bond called the recent rash of violence “in vitro racial self-hatred.”

The way forward, say some activists, is not in thinking these crimes require an equally strong and violent police presence, but in addressing root causes of joblessness, education, health care, and housing. Their question is whether the whole notion of public safety can be reconceived.

In the current situation, however, guns are such a nexus that they threaten to override a more essential, human dynamic that may hold a key to stemming violence between Americans more broadly, says Mr. Johnson.

“Cops are citizens, they’re our neighbors, they do a job that’s damn near impossible, and we have lost sight of that,” he says. “And officers have lost sight of the fact that this is not my enemy, this is my community. But somewhere along the line, we forgot all that as everything got so politicized and racialized. You can’t get to the real answers. It’s frustrating.”

SOURCE: Atlanta Police Department
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Patterns

Tracing global connections

How COVID-19 changed the climate conversation

Governments worldwide will be spending massive sums of money to restart economies. There's a push to put some of that money behind climate commitments, not just go back to how things were.

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For years, pleas by climate change activists for policies to slow global warming have generally fallen flat. But COVID-19 might change that.

The global pandemic has done so much economic damage, and governments are putting so much money into recovery plans, that a new opportunity has arisen to change the shape of the world economy. No longer is it assumed that carbon policy can only shift slowly and incrementally.

For the time being, only a few national governments are taking the opportunity to invest heavily in green technologies so as to reduce carbon emissions and thus global warming. That could be because, so far, money has been spent on immediate needs – to save businesses and jobs.

Now comes the crunch. Will policymakers set out in a new, climate-friendly direction? Or will they fall back on the old, familiar ways?

“We have a choice,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said last week. “We can go back to where we were, or we can invest in a better, more sustainable future.”

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3. How COVID-19 changed the climate conversation

The theoretical has suddenly become real. Climate activists’ hopeful pleas for dramatic cuts in carbon emissions are now in front of hard-nosed policymakers, as governments worldwide perform a hard reboot of their pandemic-frozen economies.

It’s a moment without precedent. The world economy hasn’t just slowed, as it did after the 2008 financial crash. It has come close to closing down, and governments are budgeting trillions of dollars for recovery. The key question now is priorities: where the money will go. 

Will it go green?

The answer, so far, is decidedly mixed. With tens of millions out of work as a result of the pandemic, some governments seem to be prioritizing getting their old economies back on track as soon as possible, rather than changing direction so as to favor cleaner energy.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

But one thing has changed: The question of priorities is at least being asked in pretty much every country now plotting its path toward a post-coronavirus economic recovery.

Even before the pandemic climate awareness had been building, especially among younger people, many inspired by the teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Scientists and climate-policy experts had been intensifying calls for action amid signs that the effects of global warming were getting worse even more quickly than they had feared.

Private investors had also begun to think differently. As alternative energy becomes cheaper to exploit and deliver, returns on traditional high-carbon investments have actually been getting less attractive. Last year, BlackRock, the world’s leading asset-management firm, announced that its actively managed funds would stop investing in companies that earned more than a quarter of their revenue from thermal coal.

Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters
Activists protest in front of Social Democratic Party headquarters for immediate phaseout of hard coal-powered plants in Berlin, July 1, 2020.

The COVID-19 economic shutdowns, meanwhile, dramatized the impact of human activity on climate change, as cities around the globe suddenly became cleaner, their skies clearer. And the coronavirus itself was a reminder of how the forces of nature can, if not properly understood and stewarded, upend the most comfortable of everyday lives.

Yet the key factor that has put climate policy front and center on national government agendas is the sheer scale of the pandemic’s economic damage and the extraordinarily large sums of money being devoted to recovery. The pre-pandemic political assumption that policy shifts on carbon emissions would almost always be limited and incremental is no longer operative.

The International Energy Agency caught the altered tone at a ministerial meeting last week. Declaring that the world was at a “key moment,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol urged that “rather than letting the COVID-19 crisis undermine our clean energy transitions, we need to take advantage of the massive economic recovery plans to achieve a definitive peak in carbon emissions and put the world on a path to sustainable recovery.”

Some national recovery plans unveiled so far have made the transition to clean energy, and thus less global warming, a priority. In Europe, the continent’s largest economy, Germany, and Denmark have said they will make clean energy an explicit building block of their revived economies. The 27-nation European Union, of which both are members, has unveiled a recovery plan devoting 25% of an $850 billion overall package to a “green new deal” that would cut carbon emissions.

In Asia, the picture is mixed. South Korea has announced a green new deal of its own, pledging to support renewable energy and phase out dependence on coal. Critics, however, have dismissed the government’s plans to invest only $11 billion over two years in this project as insufficiently ambitious.

Similar doubts have been raised about the scale of clean climate investment in Japan. And other Asian countries, including India and Indonesia, have so far shown no sign of significant focus on climate change as part of their recovery plans.

The key state is China – the world’s second-largest economy and its largest carbon emitter. There, the jury is still out. The government has pledged that one major focus of its $500 billion recovery fund will be on new infrastructure, such as ultra-high-voltage electricity transmission. It’s also reportedly considering increasing the number of charging stations for electric vehicles. More broadly, it is moving aggressively on research and development of the kind of new technologies likely to be key in future clean energy networks.

Still, in the first half of this year, China also stepped up the pace at which it opened new coal-fired power plants – a traditional remedy when the government is chasing quick and easy economic growth. And with the immediate priority likely to be shortening the coronavirus-related downturn, clean energy projects could take a back seat.

In other major economies, there are also signs of at least a short-term drive to protect existing energy companies in order to spur a return to growth. In Russia, Australia, Canada, France, and even South Korea, government support for fossil fuel businesses so far has been outweighing investments in clean energy.

That’s also true of the world’s largest economy, and second-largest emitter: the United States.

Leah Millis/Reuters
U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi holds a news conference with House Democrats to unveil a plan to cut nearly 90% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, June 30, 2020, in Washington.

President Donald Trump has yet to set out the kind of recovery program that other countries are launching. So far, most of the federal government money earmarked to cope with COVID-19’s ravages has been aimed at saving businesses and jobs.

Mr. Trump has in the past been dismissive of scientists' warnings about the effects of global warming. His rival in the upcoming presidential election, former Vice President Joe Biden, this week announced a $2 trillion economic investment plan focused on reducing carbon emissions. But the election is still four months away, and the Trump administration faces a more immediate challenge, with COVID-19 cases still on the rise in a number of states.

Amid the mixed signals, and relatively few dramatic new examples so far of clean energy commitment, there is concern among climate activists that the post-pandemic investment “moment” could be lost.

At last week’s IEA meeting, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres appealed to national governments to recognize that their recovery plans represented a crossroads. “We have a choice,” he said. “We can go back to where we were, or we can invest in a better, more sustainable future.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Interview

He used to say Canada’s health care was risky. Now he says it’s the future.

The pandemic is shining a spotlight on the differences between the U.S. and Canadian health care systems – and one former insurance executive who says he lied to make the Canadians look bad.

Mark
Carlos Osorio/Reuters
A family watches as Toronto police and the city's front-line responders pay tribute to health care workers in Toronto, Ontario, April 19, 2020. Canada's response to the pandemic has been markedly better than that of the United States.

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“Amid America’s #COVID19 disaster, I must come clean about a lie I spread as a health insurance exec: We spent big $$ to push the idea that Canada’s single-payer system was awful & the U.S. system much better. It was a lie & the nations’ COVID responses prove it.”

Wendell Potter, the author of that tweet, says it has hit a nerve at a moment when Americans feel vulnerable, with the world’s largest share of infections (over 3.3 million) and deaths (more than 135,000), and no sign of the pandemic abating. And judging by the response it has gotten – more than 86,000 retweets – he may be right.

He told the Monitor in an interview he believes this could be a pivotal moment for health care reform, and sees a clear role for himself directing a lens at how, from the inside, the corporate world conspires to shape policy and public opinion, even when the data is not accurate.

Mr. Potter summed up his tweet: “You learn a lot about a health-care system when a global crisis hits & different nations have different results. Canada’s single-payer system is saving lives. The U.S. profit-driven corporate model is failing. I’ll regret slandering Canada’s system for the rest of my life.”

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4. He used to say Canada’s health care was risky. Now he says it’s the future.

A Canadian and American might share more in common than any two foreigners – except when it comes to health care.

Americans routinely fear Canada’s universal, single-payer system as a socialist regime of endless waits; Canadians look in equal panic upon American insurance policies and its patchwork of copayments and premiums.

Wendell Potter is a big reason why.

And the former American health insurance executive, amid a deadly pandemic that has hit the U.S. per capita much harder, revealed in a recent tweet his role in keeping that gulf as gaping as possible.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

“Amid America’s #COVID19 disaster, I must come clean about a lie I spread as a health insurance exec: We spent big $$ to push the idea that Canada’s single-payer system was awful & the U.S. system much better. It was a lie & the nations’ COVID responses prove it.”

The six-tweet thread is his most viral, garnering more than 86,000 retweets. He says it hit a nerve at a moment when Americans feel vulnerable, with the world’s largest share of cases (over 3.3 million) and deaths (more than 135,000), and no sign of the pandemic abating.

He believes this could be a pivotal moment for health care reform, and sees a clear role for himself directing a lens at how, from the inside, the corporate world conspires to shape policy and public opinion, even when the data is not accurate. Some of the public has been unwilling to accept his apology, but he says that goes with the territory of the whistleblower.

“I do think that what we’re going through now can serve as a real wake-up call for a lot more people,” he says, especially as the U.S. compares trajectories of the pandemic in other countries, including Canada, which has seen 110,000 cases and fewer than 9,000 deaths. “People just simply can’t imagine that anybody in any other country could do things better than we Americans can do it. And so you start with that mindset for a lot of folks.”

Those attitudes were shaped by Mr. Potter as vice president in communications of Cigna, which he joined in 1993. He rose through the ranks, spinning data that helped consolidate profits for his company. He says he would take “cherry picked” anecdotes from the industry group, America’s Health Insurance Plans, that he then turned into talking points that he made sure got into the hands of lobbyists, politicians, and journalists – creating a propaganda machine that he claims he believed at the time.

He worked tirelessly to make Americans think Canadians waited, fatally, for necessary care by honing in on certain data. For example, knee replacements can be delayed in Canada (one study showed 30% of patients had to wait beyond the recommended time).

Jimmy Borg/AP/File
Wendell Potter speaks during a panel at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 20, 2012, in Park City, Utah. A former insurance executive, Mr. Potter says he used to magnify flaws in Canada's health-care system to scare Americans away from it, something he says he’ll regret for the rest of his life.

“You highlight that and you make people think that’s the way it is for everything, and that Canadians are flocking to the U.S. to get the care that they need because they just can’t get it in a timely fashion in Canada,” he says. “You harp on it relentlessly year after year after year. And Americans are afraid that if we had a system like Canada’s, in their mind they wouldn’t be able to see the doctor when they needed to. They wouldn’t be able to go to the hospital when they needed to.”

Meanwhile, most Canadians receive the care they need when it’s urgent. And while not perfect, the system is criticized here not because it’s universal, but because drugs and long-term care aren’t included.

His aha moment came more than a decade ago on a visit home to eastern Tennessee, when he learned of a free medical clinic being held just over the border in Virginia on the grounds of a county fair. “It was one of the most startling things I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said, desperate Americans lined up, some treated in animal stalls.

As a former newspaper man dedicated to accuracy and having been brought up as a Southern Baptist, he calls that experience an “epiphany.” He resigned in 2008. Now a major advocate for health care reform as an author and speaker, he also leads the organization Medicare for All NOW!

In part of his most recent Twitter thread, he apologized for his “disservice.” Not all were willing to let him off so easily. One user replied: “The ‘disservice’ you did kept policies in tact that killed thousands. Do you feel directly responsible? ‘Disservice’ seems...light.”

He says he does bear responsibility. “My biggest regret is that people undoubtedly have died. I know they died because of the inequities, the unfairness of our system, the expensive system that requires so many people to pay out-of-pocket money they just don’t have.”

Today he feels society might have an easier time recognizing the shortcomings of American health care after experiencing the grief and anxiety the coronavirus has wrought.

“Americans [have feared] that if we moved to a system of universal coverage, in which there is more equality in our system, somehow they will lose something,” he says. “There’s no doubt that we do have some of the best facilities, and some of the best doctors in the world. What is not fully understood, although I think there’s more of an understanding of it now, is that exceptionally good care is sometimes available only to those who have the most money.”

He summed up his tweet: “You learn a lot about a health-care system when a global crisis hits & different nations have different results. Canada’s single-payer system is saving lives. The U.S. profit-driven corporate model is failing. I’ll regret slandering Canada’s system for the rest of my life.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Difference-maker

Drivers of change

Why Jane Curtis is still fighting for justice at 102

For one Vermont town, centenarian Jane Curtis has been an inspiration, showing age does not mean disengaging from the causes and country she believes in.

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Ann Hermes/Staff
Jane Curtis in her yard on July 12, 2020 in Woodstock, Vermont. Jane and her daughter, Kate Curtis Donahue, used the 'Time for a Change' sign while attending a Black Lives Matter rally in June.

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When Jane Curtis was born, women didn’t have the right to vote. As a teen, she would go hiking with her mother on the Appalachian Trail, soaking up the smell of the pines and the beauty surrounding them. She remembers her mother saying, “It’s absolutely wonderful, but it’s up to you to take care of it.”

Now 102, Ms. Curtis is still out protesting – for Black Lives Matter, environmental justice, and getting out the vote.

“You just have to,” she says in a July interview at her home. “Being a citizen is a big responsibility. You don’t just sit here and eat food and drive a car. You have to try to make this country work.”

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has ushered in the largest wave of protests since the civil rights movement, and Ms. Curtis says she’s been inspired to see the younger generations protesting both in Vermont and across the U.S.

Democratic state Sen. Alison Clarkson has joined Ms. Curtis at multiple protests and rallies. “She’s a model for us all, to never stop caring.”

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5. Why Jane Curtis is still fighting for justice at 102

When Woodstock turned out for a Black Lives Matter rally in June, Jane Curtis and her daughter were the first in a long line of cars.

Ms. Curtis, now 102, has spent a lifetime fighting for justice. She has championed women’s rights, environmental causes, and getting out the vote. The centenarian was a toddler when women won the right to vote 100 years ago in August.

“You just have to,” she says in a July interview at her home about her lifetime of activism. “Being a citizen is a big responsibility. You don’t just sit here and eat food and drive a car. You have to try to make this country work.”

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has ushered in the largest wave of protests since the civil rights movement, and Ms. Curtis says she’s been inspired to see the younger generations protesting both in Vermont and across the U.S.

“There’s a big kettle of fire that’s steaming up, and people are getting anxious to act,” she says.

Taking responsibility for her country is something Ms. Curtis learned early in life. She would go hiking with her mother on the Appalachian Trail in the mountains of New Hampshire as a teen, soaking up the smell of the pines and the beauty surrounding them. She remembers her mother saying, “It’s absolutely wonderful, but it’s up to you to take care of it.”

Her mother walked the talk. Ms. Curtis recalled she protested tree removals by the town of Scituate, Massachusetts, where Ms. Curtis was born and raised, and was a dedicated activist for environmental causes.

For Ms. Curtis, two summers she spent in Germany with her family in the early 1930s were formative. She recalls observing from afar when she returned home as Nazis grew their power and dictators took over in Spain and Italy.

“They let themselves be walked over by somebody who’s going to ‘solve everything,’” Ms. Curtis says.

Before World War II, Ms. Curtis attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and graduated in 1939 with a degree in art history. After marrying Will Curtis, whom she’d known since childhood, the couple raised sheep in Massachusetts, while Mr. Curtis worked for his family’s shoe business. They headed to Vermont in 1953 where they eventually bought a farm in the town of Hartland. In 1962, Mr. Curtis was elected to a term as a representative in the state Legislature.

The Curtises also bought the Yankee Bookshop in Woodstock in the early 1960s and ran it until 1973; it is still operating as Vermont’s longest-running independent bookstore. Both Curtises were writers who collaborated often, including on many of Will Curtis’ famous “The Nature of Things” commentaries on Vermont Public Radio.

After the Vietnam War began, Ms. Curtis became a staunch anti-war activist. She joined activists in nearby Woodstock, and they would march every Sunday afternoon, as some passing motorists screamed at them.

“I just could not sit down and watch this stupidity without protesting,” Ms. Curtis says.

The war’s impact was also personal. Her husband’s nephew was killed in the war, and Ms. Curtis says the gulf deepened between her and her husband’s very conservative family.

“It got to the point where we could not visit each other,” she says. “It was a dreadful time, just dreadful.”

On May 6, 1979, Ms. Curtis was one of 125,000 people protesting nuclear proliferation in Washington, just over a month after the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in Pennsylvania. Tensions were high, and she could feel it.

“I remember standing there in the park really scared, because there were so many people who were angry,” she recalls. But Ms. Curtis, at her first major protest, faced her fear and stood her ground.

She remained vocal back in Vermont as well, joining marches in the state capital of Montpelier and other locations.

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, a Democrat and Vermont’s lone congressman, got to know Jane and Will Curtis as neighbors in Hartland, when he was a young public defender in the mid-1970s. From the start, Mr. Welch admired Jane Curtis’ activism and says she was a strong voice for women to stand up for justice.

“She knew her power,” he says. “She just plunged in and moved ahead. She didn’t ask for permission, she acted.”

The centenarian says that determination to act was heightened after the election of Donald Trump. She joined the Women’s March in Montpelier, in solidarity with the Washington, D.C., march and many worldwide, the day after Mr. Trump’s inauguration in 2017. Some 15,000 to 20,000 people showed up that day, she says, drawing such crowds that authorities had to close several highway exits near Vermont’s capital, home to just under 8,000.

“I think they’re realizing, finally, what power they have,” Ms. Curtis says about her fellow women.

“They should be told that they’re powerful,” Ms. Curtis says. “You’re not just a wife and a mother, you have a duty. Be a citizen and act.”

In 2018, Ms. Curtis founded a local Woodstock group called Women For A Change, which is “committed to protecting, supporting, and promoting the basic democratic values of liberty and justice for all.” The group organized a protest in Woodstock against the Trump administration’s detentions of immigrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Jane Curtis, right, sits with her daughter, Kate Curtis Donahue, in her home on July 12, 2020 in Woodstock, Vermont. Jane and Kate attended a Black Lives Matter rally in June.

Kate Curtis Donahue says that to see her mother continue her activism into her 100s is no surprise.

“She’s been this role model in Woodstock, and she’s inspired many people,” Ms. Donahue says.

One of those people is Democratic state Sen. Alison Clarkson, who has joined Ms. Curtis at multiple protests and rallies.

“Her passion for supporting women in politics, for supporting all just causes, is contagious, it’s inspiring,” Ms. Clarkson says. “She’s a model for us all, to never stop caring.”

Ms. Curtis has long encouraged women to run for public office. She has been a steadfast supporter for the Vermont chapter of Emerge, an organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to be candidates. In 2019, the Vermont Democratic Party recognized her years of civic contributions with their annual Curtis-Hoff Leadership Award, presented to her by Ms. Clarkson. A year earlier, Mr. Welch honored Ms. Curtis’ legacy in an extension of remarks in the congressional record just before her 100th birthday. Among decades of accomplishments, he noted her years of dedication to protecting the Connecticut River watershed.

Ms. Curtis appreciates the accolades and kind words, but it’s far more important to her to keep working for justice. She worries about the division in the U.S., saying she has the same “uneasy feeling” she had when observing 1930s Europe, with dictators making big promises and millions believing them.

“Things are breaking apart, and now we have to act,” Ms. Curtis says. “It’s a great idea,” she says of the United States, “but it takes goodwill.”

For Ms. Curtis that includes making sure women vote this year despite the ongoing pandemic. Ensuring people know about voting by mail is also important, she adds.

“The vote, that’s got to be the big thing,” she says, before turning to her daughter. “I think we really have to do some work on that, Kate.”

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How marginalized states refine national identity

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Two of the world’s most marginalized states, Taiwan and Somaliland, signed a pact this month to exchange representatives as well as cooperate across a range of areas. Yet for each, the pact is also a cry for global recognition and a mutual effort to reimagine their national identities. Their attempt to bolster each other is an example of humanity still learning how nation-states can bind a community by the way they define the common good.

In the three decades since the end of the Cold War, the map of countries has had to be altered 34 times as nation-states broke apart or reunified. Taiwan and Somaliland, each struggling for assured independence from a threatening neighbor, may soon force another upgrade in world atlases.

Is it possible for a people to seek a peaceful path toward recognition as a state? By looking toward each other, Taiwan and Somaliland are each making a claim to national legitimacy based less on ethnicity and historical experience than on democratic practice and economic development. A wider embrace of their aspirations could bring welcome stability to their respective neighborhoods.

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How marginalized states refine national identity

Two of the world’s most marginalized states, Taiwan and Somaliland, signed a pact this month. On the face of it, the agreement is not a big deal. It calls for an exchange of representatives as well as cooperation across a range of areas from fisheries to technology. Yet for each, it is also a cry for global recognition and a mutual effort to reimagine their national identities. Their attempt to bolster each other is an example of humanity still learning how nation-states can bind a community by the way they define the common good.

Taiwan’s bid to be a free and democratic state has been frustrated for decades by mainland China, which claims the island as its own. Only15 small countries recognize Taiwan. Somaliland began to reclaim its identity after breaking from Somalia in 1991, when the latter collapsed. Since then, while Mogadishu has seen a continuous succession of weak governments, Somaliland has been a comparative model of stability. Yet despite holding repeated elections and printing its own currency, it has not been recognized by even a single country. (In June, it did open a trade corridor for Ethiopia, which allows that landlocked neighbor to use the port of Berbera on the Gulf of Aden.)

In the three decades since the end of the Cold War, the map of countries has had to be altered 34 times as nation-states broke apart or reunified. Taiwan and Somaliland, each struggling for assured independence from a threatening neighbor, may soon force another upgrade in world atlases.

Most of those new states emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Some countries, like Germany and Yemen, erased fault lines dividing them. Others, like Czechoslovakia, separated amicably. But a key question is by no means resolved: Is it possible to move beyond historical and exclusionary factors such as boundaries and ethnicity as the defining characteristics of state formation? Are there other ways to connect people with an inclusive identity? In the United States, this is the premise underlying the aspirations of the racial justice movement as well as the creative opportunity in Mississippi as it sheds its Confederate symbols.

Elsewhere in the world, the pursuit of nationhood remains defined or cleaved by ethnicity and restrained by external interference. That is the case for Kurdish and Palestinian aspirations. But nowhere presents a more concentrated laboratory for reimagining how nations are constituted than the Horn of Africa. The two most recent states in the region to gain recognition and independence, Eritrea and South Sudan, were forged by prolonged wars. Ethiopia, a federation of nine states defined by ethnicity, is increasingly fragile.

Is it possible for a people to seek a peaceful path toward recognition as a state? By looking toward each other, Taiwan and Somaliland are each making a claim to national legitimacy based less on ethnicity and historical experience than on democratic practice and economic development. A wider embrace of their aspirations could bring welcome stability to their respective neighborhoods.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Overcoming stress during a family’s extended stay

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Whether across the globe or on our very doorstep, problems can sometimes seem overwhelming. But whether or not someone is personally present to help, God’s healing care is there for all to feel and express.

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1. Overcoming stress during a family’s extended stay

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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For much of my life, I’ve been known as a rescuer. Animals, people – if there was a need, I felt impelled to step in to meet it. But a catalyst moment occurred when one day, completely unexpectedly, my husband and I found our adult son and his two children, both under 3 years old, standing on our doorstep asking to move in with us. The needed room rearrangements, supplies, meals, and schedule changes appeared somewhat overwhelming.

Exhaustion soon started to set in. That’s when I began to think more deeply about what my role really was. Was rescuing this family entirely on my shoulders? Was it up to me to shepherd them through these deep waters?

Questions like these led me to prayer. As I prayed, the freeing idea came that it wasn’t me at the center of things – it was God, divine Love. And I felt a conviction that what God knew about these dear relatives – the truth of their being – would show all of us the way forward.

What is this truth of being? Through Christian Science, I’ve learned that it’s not based on a surface view of things. Instead, it’s the spiritual understanding of each individual as created and governed by the loving, faithful Father-Mother God, who ensures the continuity of all that’s needed for a full and harmonious life. God’s creation is spiritual and under the eternal, loving care of the Divine.

In my own life, I’ve seen that calling upon God in prayer – bearing witness to what God sees, knows, and forever maintains about each of Her, His, children – actually enables our rescue or healing in a jeopardous circumstance.

This liberating idea became my foundation as I cared for this family, and the exhaustion and burden I was feeling soon dissipated.

When we’re used to playing the role of rescuer, it can be tempting to think that success is dependent upon our own good ideas. But as I continued to pray about how best to help my son and grandchildren, I began to see that one idea was the most important: the spiritual idea of creation, which, as the Bible tells us, is very good, like its creator.

I began to see that nothing could tear down the true, spiritual sense of family, which is defined and maintained by God, our divine Parent. Home is never dependent upon a physical location but is a deep feeling of security that God provides, wherever an individual or family might be. I felt a conviction that God forever loves and cares for not only my grandchildren, but also their parents – and my husband and me!

After four months in our home, my son and his children found a new living situation that, to me, has been clear evidence of the eternal fathering and mothering of God, the divine Principle of unfailing and reliable good.

This divine, shepherding influence is, in fact, always present; no one is without it. It is the Christ, the truth of being Christ Jesus lived and demonstrated in healing. And as the textbook of Christian Science, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, explains: “The physical healing of Christian Science results now, as in Jesus’ time, from the operation of divine Principle, before which sin and disease lose their reality in human consciousness and disappear as naturally and as necessarily as darkness gives place to light and sin to reformation. Now, as then, these mighty works are not supernatural, but supremely natural. They are the sign of Immanuel, or ‘God with us,’ – a divine influence ever present in human consciousness and repeating itself, coming now as was promised aforetime …” (p. xi).

Although I still love to help and “mother,” I’m learning that our good, our help, and our hope are ultimately found in divine Principle. Sometimes we see the operation of this Principle as a divine impulsion to be supportive and loving. But whether or not a person is present to help, Principle’s healing care can always be felt. And each of us can be an active witness in prayer to the presence of this divine influence, which provides a way out of trouble or distress.

Adapted from an article published in the March 30, 2020, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

Viewfinder

Over troubled waters

Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters
A man carries an elderly woman as they cross a waterlogged street during heavy rainfall in Mumbai, India, July 15, 2020.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Thank you for joining us today. Tomorrow, we’ll look at what happens when the Supreme Court declares half of a state tribal land, as it did last week. Now, Oklahoma state officials and leaders of five tribes are working hard to move forward in a calm, cooperative way.

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