2020
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28
Tuesday

Monitor Daily Podcast

July 28, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

How to play pro sports during a pandemic? MLB swings and misses.

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

What’s the best way to play professional sports during a pandemic?

There are two models now being live-tested in the United States. Basketball, hockey, and soccer are using a bubble approach – essentially a bigger version of the shelter-at-home model. All 22 participating NBA teams, for example, live, practice, and work in one place, Disney World resorts in Orlando. 

But Major League Baseball teams are traveling to different cities, playing in empty ballparks, and following a 113-page safety manual. Or should be. Four days into the shortened season, the Miami Marlins, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, and Baltimore Orioles were forced to cancel games Monday due to an outbreak of COVID-19 among 12 Marlins players and two coaches. On Tuesday, more players tested positive and more games were canceled. Some called it a disaster brought on by arrogance, that is, safety protocol violations. Some called it a wake-up call. 

The NBA restarts its season Thursday. The NHL returns Saturday. So far, their catered bubbles seem to be working. “The hardest adjustment probably is just not being able to do what you want to do,” Los Angeles Lakers center JaVale McGee told the Los Angeles Times. 

The Marlins outbreak may be an anomaly or a cautionary tale. And there may be lessons for less-wealthy workplaces. Be humble and follow the guidelines. Be flexible enough to adjust to changing conditions. As my high school math teacher used to say, “Work the problem.”

Coronavirus relief: GOP caught between ideals and economic reality

What’s the right path out of a pandemic-induced economic recession? The U.S. political divide is once again forged by ideology, but this time election-year pragmatism is pushing the parties toward common ground. 

David
Susan Walsh/AP
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, July 27, 2020, about the new Republican coronavirus aid package.

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As the economy approaches a daunting “cliff” of expiring coronavirus relief programs, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are locked in negotiations over the next round of aid.

Unemployment benefits to some 30 million Americans are poised to diminish after this week, while safeguards against tenant evictions have already expired at the federal level and in some states. Emergency loans to businesses are also fading, and more job losses are shifting from temporary to permanent. 

House Democrats have already passed a $3 trillion rescue bill, while Senate Republicans are proposing roughly $1 trillion to aid struggling Americans and an ailing economy. The gap is ideological – Republicans have traditionally been a party of economic individualism, not big government, and some express concern about profligate spending.

Yet even many conservatives say the riskiest move right now would be for government to give too little help, rather than too much. And time is of the essence. 

“The cost of the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program loans] or related business assistance programs is significantly cheaper than the cost of millions of businesses going under,” says Brian Riedl, an economic policy expert at the conservative Manhattan Institute. “Congress should absolutely spend what it takes to keep businesses afloat.”

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1. Coronavirus relief: GOP caught between ideals and economic reality

As the economy approaches a daunting cliff of expiring coronavirus relief programs, House Democrats have already responded by passing an economic rescue bill that’s even bigger than the first. 

Republicans are exhibiting a very different mindset – espousing the view that, despite the urgency of the moment, it’s better not to rush in spending such large sums of taxpayer money.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell argued for a “pause” back in May, and on Monday he defended that cautious approach, even as his party proposed a roughly $1 trillion plan to offer new aid to struggling Americans and an ailing economy. House Democrats, with their HEROES Act, would spend another $3 trillion. On Tuesday, they painted GOP senators as harming the economy with their slowness to act.

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

The gap is rooted heavily in ideology. Republicans have traditionally been a party of economic individualism, not big government. Some GOP senators would rather pass no bill than what they view as a profligate one. 

In the end, however, pragmatism and politics are likely to bring the two sides toward a compromise as they negotiate a relief package that, judging by economic data, is acutely needed. Whether one views Senate Republicans as a useful check against liberal excess or a source of needless delay and parsimony, conservative lawmakers appear poised to play a pivotal role in the next policy steps at a critical time for the economy.

“The strategy of the Democrats is ‘bigger is better,’ and that we need to aim a Keynesian bazooka at the economy in order to get it going,” says Brian Riedl, an economic policy expert at the conservative Manhattan Institute. “By contrast, Republicans are taking the approach that we need targeted social insurance to keep businesses and families afloat ... but that we want to do this without spending anything beyond what is necessary.”

The Republican plan still includes everything from new “economic impact” checks for households to money for school systems and for coronavirus testing and vaccines. Among the sources of disagreement with Democrats: Republicans want to be less generous in providing extra assistance for unemployed people, and more generous toward businesses by shielding them from potential lawsuits over the COVID-19 disease.

“This is not free money,” said GOP Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, last Thursday. “In the end, someone is going to pay taxes for this.” 

Whatever Congress does, it’s important to make sure the investment of taxpayer dollars gets “a return,” Senator Scott said, in an interview outside the Senate chamber. For him, shielding businesses from liability is key to aiding an economic recovery, as are funds for coronavirus testing.

“Congress should absolutely spend what it takes”

Even for disciples of John Maynard Keynes – the British economist who pioneered the idea that government spending could lift economies out of recession – it’s clear that pouring in federal dollars is at best a partial fix for the economy’s current troubles. Without progress toward getting the coronavirus pandemic under control, restoring normal activity for consumers and businesses is unrealistic.

Yet that doesn’t mean the next round of federal relief isn’t critical. 

Already about 30 million Americans are relying on unemployment benefits, which are poised to diminish after this week with the expiration of a special boost enacted by Congress in March. Similarly, safeguards against tenant evictions during the pandemic emergency have expired recently at the federal level and in some states. 

Emergency loans to businesses – also dating from the $2.2 trillion CARES Act in March – are fading as a prop-up to help pandemic-affected employers. By some recent indicators, businesses are increasingly feeling unable to survive the long wait for a rebound, and job losses are shifting from temporary to permanent. 

Mr. Riedl, while generally sharing the conservative instinct against big spending, says the riskiest move right now would be for government to give too little help, not too much. And time is of the essence. 

“We’re already seeing reports of restaurants closing permanently in large numbers,” he says. “The cost of the [Paycheck Protection Program loans] or related business assistance programs is significantly cheaper than the cost of millions of businesses going under, keeping the unemployment rate high, and prolonging the downturn several years. Congress should absolutely spend what it takes to keep businesses afloat.”

Negotiations with Democrats over a final bill that both the House and Senate can approve (and the president sign) may last into early August. But in the end, Republicans who control the Senate have a powerful motive to strike a deal. 

Failing to act would be a big election-year liability, at a time when the economy is operating far below its capacity and the pandemic is not contained.

“The longer Congress negotiates what our next [relief bill] will look like, the longer American families are suffering, the longer American business is hurting, and the longer we are delaying our economic vibrancy in this country,” says C. LeRoy Cavazos-Reyna, vice president of government affairs at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. 

That reality is pushing the two sides toward common ground. Both sides want to help schools operate amid the budget squeeze, and to address the pandemic itself. 

Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said Monday his party is ready to spend billions to support production of vaccines – even if some of that money is wasted on vaccines that prove ineffective. The idea: having a successful vaccine ready for public use in January rather than next May “is worth billions of dollars” more to the economy.

And both sides know that businesses need additional help. Some senators in both parties support not only a new round of loans for hard-hit small businesses, but also making additional investment money available to firms in distressed neighborhoods across the country.

Speaking in a corrective tone toward some members of his own party, GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said Monday that business loans are “not a bailout. This is about viable companies who are struggling because of necessary government regulations.”

Partisan rifts to be overcome

Yet alongside likely points of bipartisan agreement are partisan rifts to be overcome.

How much aid do states and cities need? Should the bill include Democratic priorities like stepped-up nutrition assistance, more relief from eviction, and hazard pay for essential workers during the pandemic? Where to draw a line of compromise on the overall size of the package?

The most publicized divide – and one that puts the parties’ ideological differences in sharp relief – is over unemployment benefits. 

Republicans are resisting an extension of the $600-per-week CARES Act supplement to the regular unemployment insurance that states offer. They argue that, with many people getting more income while jobless than they did working, it’s a disincentive to return to jobs. 

Their proposal: Replace 70% of income for the unemployed, and offer a new hiring bonus for people who go back to work. Since some states are unable, administratively, to implement relief as a percentage of lost income, the GOP plan would temporarily offer a flat federal supplement again, but at $200 per week rather than $600.

To supporters, this proposal still offers bolstered aid to the unemployed during a time of emergency, while also hewing to the conservative ideal of promoting individual responsibility. 

“It just wouldn’t be fair to use taxpayer dollars to pay more people to sit home,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a TV appearance Sunday

But critics of the proposal say generosity toward the jobless is warranted on both economic grounds and out of justice toward individuals.  

“There’s a sort of basic question of fairness here,” says Ernie Tedeschi, a former U.S. Treasury economist now at the strategic advisory firm Evercore ISI. “These people are not able to work and not able to make money because we had, in many cases, shut down their places of business to control a pandemic. So it just seems fair to me that those families should be made entirely whole.”

As for the economy, he sees little evidence that generous benefits are harming the labor market. Job seekers far outnumber available jobs, and “if we withdraw it too early, we really run the risk of a pretty serious self-inflicted wound on the U.S. recovery,” by undercutting consumer spending, Mr. Tedeschi says. 

Although the Hispanic Chamber hasn’t taken a stand in the debate over jobless benefits, Mr. Cavazos-Reyna notes that the stakes are particularly high for Latino and Black Americans.

“Latinos and African Americans are some of the hardest hit populations in this country health-wise when you look at the pandemic, and hitting them again economically would just be disastrous,” he says. 

Susan Dawson, board chair-elect at the National Association of Women Business Owners, says the CARES Act in general failed to bring a fair share of relief to minority populations and women.

In her view, a top economic priority – once safety allows – is reopening schools, not just for the sake of kids but also for parents who are straddling roles as remote workers and caregivers. “I suddenly went from not just a full-time working business owner but also having to suddenly learn how to be a teacher to some degree,” she says.

Like Mr. Cavazos-Reyna, Ms. Dawson has been hearing from business owners about their need for loans and other relief – and the sooner a bipartisan deal can be reached, the better. 

Many economists, while acknowledging that deficits could become a future drag on economic growth, say the top priority now should be clear to both parties.

“We know the pandemic is having a sharp and persistently negative effect on household income and the American economy right now,” Mr. Tedeschi says. “That should be our priority.”

Staff writer Noah Robertson contributed to this report.

Under cover of COVID-19, ISIS making gains in Arab world, Africa

Our reporter finds the Islamic terrorist group attempting to cause havoc and regain legitimacy as governments in Syria, Iraq, and parts of Africa focus on the pandemic.

David

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Three years after the destruction of its so-called caliphate by a United States-led coalition, and with the world distracted by a pandemic, the Islamic State has shown renewed strength, staging dozens of attacks since March in Arab countries and West Africa.

Its ranks boast around 10,000 fighters, according to U.N. and analysts’ estimates. Alarming experts is its ability to move freely between eastern Syria and western Iraq, entering villages with relative ease.

With health sectors and economies crumbling, analysts are highlighting what they call a “symmetry” between ISIS and the vicious coronavirus. The pandemic amplifies, they say, what ISIS attempts to achieve through its attacks and propaganda.

“ISIS focuses on exposing the same failures in a country that the coronavirus is now exposing: collapse of the nation-state, weak security, and deep economic, political, cultural, and sectarian crises,” says Hassan Abu Haniya, an expert in Islamist and extremist movements.

“Although the U.S.-led coalition focused on containing and dismantling ISIS, they never addressed the root grievances in Arab countries that allowed its rise in the first place,” he says. “Coronavirus is now laying these bare once again and exacerbating them.”

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2. Under cover of COVID-19, ISIS making gains in Arab world, Africa

The Islamic State is eyeing a comeback on the battlefield and the world stage, testing a fragile global community that is combating the coronavirus and distracted from its fight against extremism.

ISIS is taking advantage of the pandemic’s burden on local governments and world powers’ inward focus to step up attacks and pitch to new recruits, the United Nations and experts warn, and reemerge from the hinterlands to strike in the Arab world and Africa.

The reawakening of ISIS exposes not only the fragility of the status quo, but the extremist group’s evolution as a movement.  

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

Three years after the destruction of its so-called caliphate and the dismantling of its organizational leadership by an American-led coalition, ISIS has since March shown renewed strength, staging dozens of attacks in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and West Africa.

“From approximately March 2020, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic became a factor in ISIL operational, propaganda, and fundraising activities,” the U.N. Security Council was warned last week.  

ISIS is “consolidating in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic,” said a U.N. report to the Council, “and showing confidence in its ability to increasingly operate in a brazen manner in its core area.”

Alarming experts is ISIS’s ability to move freely between eastern Syria and western Iraq – territory that once fell under its “caliphate” – entering towns and villages with relative ease. Its ranks boast around 10,000 fighters, according to U.N. and analysts’ estimates.

“The pandemic came at a time with preexisting conditions on the ground in Iraq and Syria that allowed ISIS to benefit,” says Hassan Hassan, director of the Non-State Actors and Geopolitics program at the Washington-based Center for Global Policy.

“Namely, the pandemic came amid already existing political and security issues in Iraq and Syria and a vacuum left behind by the Trump administration,” he adds. “Add to this the fact that with the pandemic, the last thing on people’s minds was ISIS.”

COVID as catalyst

Iraq has struggled with a surge in coronavirus cases. And across Syria, despite government statistics claiming the contrary, the virus is ravaging communities, according to citizens, the U.N., and health officials in neighboring states.

Syria and Lebanon are also witnessing economic collapse, and in much of the Arab world, populations are struggling under lockdown-imposed economic costs and rising joblessness.

With health sectors and economies crumbling, experts are highlighting what they call a “symmetry” between the militant group and the vicious virus.

COVID-19 amplifies, they say, what ISIS attempts to achieve through its attacks and propaganda, exposing inequality, communities’ disenfranchisement, and the failures of the state.

“ISIS focuses on exposing the same failures in a country that the coronavirus is now exposing: collapse of the nation-state, weak security, and deep economic, political, cultural, and sectarian crises,” says Hassan Abu Haniya, an Amman-based Jordanian expert in Islamist and extremist movements.

“Although the U.S.-led coalition focused on containing and dismantling ISIS, they never addressed the root grievances in Arab countries that allowed its rise in the first place,” he says. “Coronavirus is now laying these bare once again and exacerbating them.”

Divisions in Iraq

In Iraq, political and security setbacks are lowering the resistance to ISIS.

Sectarian infighting among and between Shiite, Kurdish, and Sunni militias has created local power vacuums, allowing ISIS to fill back in, including north of Baghdad and in the disputed areas near Iraqi Kurdistan, experts and analysts say.

And the Iraqi government, under a new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, is consumed with an uphill battle against powerful Shiite militias unwilling to lay down their arms or accept central government authority.

In Baghdad, protests against corruption and militias’ influence continue.

Meanwhile, joint operations against ISIS with U.S. forces have largely come to a standstill amid the tensions with Iran-backed militias following the January assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.

Not only did the U.S. strike disrupt America’s fragile common cause with Shiite militias against ISIS, but it triggered a wave of revenge attacks that prompted U.S. forces to retreat to non-frontline bases, crucially forcing a halt to U.S.-Iraqi and U.S.-Kurdish operations. The U.S. expertise in counter-insurgency operations is needed now to stem ISIS’s resurgence and is especially missed, analysts note.

“The fact that ISIS can operate almost freely in a massive and expansive space in Iraq and Syria without popular support says a lot about how Iraq cannot secure itself … without current American involvement,” says Mr. Hassan at the Center for Global Policy.

Mr. Abu Haniya, the Jordanian expert, takes a longer view.

“The West and the world shouldn’t forget that ISIS has gone through this phase and metamorphosis before,” he says.

“In 2009, after the U.S. surge and the Sunni ‘Sahwa’ awakening movements drove Al Qaeda in Iraq to the desert in the hinterlands, it reorganized, adapted and waited to stage a comeback as ISIS in 2014,” he notes.

“This is history repeating itself.”

Ludovic Marin/AP
French President Emmanuel Macron, second left, listens as Mauritania President Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani, third right, speaks during the G5 Sahel summit on June 30, 2020, in Nouakchott, Mauritania. The five countries of the Sahel region south of the Sahara – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger – have formed a joint military force that is working with France to battle Islamic extremists as jihadist attacks mount.

Africa push

ISIS has also used the pandemic as a diversion to expand further into West Africa and the Sahel, using a network of surrogate groups and affiliates to connect cross-border territories and overwhelm local forces in a way that experts say mirrors the rise of the caliphate in Iraq and Syria in 2014.

ISIS affiliate Boko Haram, under the umbrella Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), is expanding territory in Nigeria, Niger, and Chad; ISIS affiliate Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) is extending in Niger and Mali.

March 23 saw twin attacks by ISIS affiliates killing a combined 160 soldiers on both sides of the Nigerian-Chad border.

This April saw the bloody arrival of ISIS’s “central African province,” with affiliates waging their first large-scale attack in Mozambique, massacring 50 villagers on April 7, and the same day killing seven civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

With the global preoccupation with COVID-19, West and Sub-Saharan Africa has seen ISIS strategy evolve from “filling the gaps” where international presence was weak to creating connected territories and a public presence in communities and villages.

“West African states show much more potential because the conditions are ripe for a bigger presence,” says Mr. Hassan, who chronicled ISIS’s rise in Syria.

“It almost looks like 2013 in Iraq and Syria. ISIS can move freely, control territory, and they can work with locals who do not have the knowledge of their brutality that Iraqis and Syrians have.”

Combined with its activities in the Arab world, ISIS’s Africa presence has given it a new hybrid model: an ever-shifting insurgency on the move in Syria and Iraq, and held territory in Africa where militias are able to extract resources, funds, and recruits.

“These are opportunities for these terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State to step in and provide alternative services and gain legitimacy in some of these populations,” says Nikita Malik, director of the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society, a trans-Atlantic think tank based in London.

Battle for ideas

ISIS’s bold re-emergence is not only taking place on the battlefield.

In a world consumed with the coronavirus, with economies crumbling, lives halted, and people losing hope for the future, groups such as ISIS are making a pitch for followers, experts say.

“You have people out of work, you have isolation, people staying at home and going on the internet and searching for a rationale why this has happened,” says Ms. Malik, noting that “conspiracy theories are increasing [that are] blaming groups and communities for the pandemic.”

“It is a toxic mix, and what we might be seeing in the long term are spikes in both extremism and terrorism,” she says.

ISIS’s online propaganda has depicted the coronavirus as “divine retribution” against the West and highlighted states’ failures.

“What we are seeing is not COVID replacing terrorism concerns, but adding to terrorism concerns,” Ms. Malik says.

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

The Explainer

As pandemic halted much of the world, scientists shifted gears

To maintain public trust and accuracy, scientific research is often a plodding process. But during the pandemic the pace has accelerated, which can be both messy – and productively nimble. 

David
Jacob Turcotte/Staff

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The COVID-19 pandemic has focused the public’s attention on the scientific method like never before. And, to the outsider, it looks like a haphazard and chaotic mess.

Any nonscientist looking at the snarl of studies and retractions available online would be forgiven for thinking that scientists studying the virus are perpetually contradicting themselves. But to the scientist, this is business as usual. 

Except that it’s happening a lot faster. And with a lot more public scrutiny. To meet demand for public understanding of the virus, many scientists have turned to preprint servers, which post manuscripts online without peer review. Other publishers have sped up their peer-review process from weeks to days. But, as the process speeds up, some results based on small datasets or other unreliable work have sneaked into the public discourse. 

At the same time, the virus has prompted laboratories around the world to build new collaborations, to widen the scope of their studies, to amass more critical data, and to check each other’s work. Science continues its steady march, even if it doesn’t always look that way.  

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3. As pandemic halted much of the world, scientists shifted gears

As COVID-19 spread around the globe, public-health experts and policymakers hustled to get on the case. But that pressure for speedy scientific results has also led to confusion.

Some findings seemed to contradict one another, and others have been swiftly retracted or amended. To nonscientists, this may seem like a bumbling approach, but it actually fits within the scientific process. It’s just been thrust into the public view in an unprecedented manner. Understanding how that process works could help us untangle the snarl of coronavirus research papers. 

Why can’t we get answers more quickly?

Discoveries are often depicted as instantaneous, but research rarely works that way in real life. Most of the time, science is an incremental process of amassing information over repeated studies to slowly move toward a greater understanding. Rather than yielding sure answers, it’s about reducing uncertainty. 

That means one study by itself offers little surety. The key to producing sound results is replication. If an experiment can be repeated with the same conclusions, and, better still, repeated by different researchers, that adds confidence. Amid too little data, small inconsistencies can seem much more significant than they really are. Getting all the relevant facts takes time.

How does the scientific publication process usually work?

Typically, researchers submit a manuscript to a scientific journal where it is vetted by experts in the field who evaluate the study from top to bottom before it is accepted for publication. That process, called peer review, can take several weeks and helps prevent misleading or erroneous results from being released. It also fosters a sense of reliability. 

But with the sense of urgency in the quest for answers around the coronavirus crisis, traditional journals have sped up the peer review process to just days, in some cases. And many researchers are skipping it altogether, turning to websites that post manuscripts online without peer review, called “preprint servers.” Servers like bioRxiv and medRxiv have published more than 7,000 studies on the coronavirus alone. 

Preprint servers allow findings to be shared rapidly and widely, so policymakers and others can respond to those results quickly. But without the vetting process of peer review, some results based on insufficient data or faulty instruments have made a public splash prematurely. 

For example, in 2011 a study was posted to the popular preprint server arXiv that made a startling claim: that neutrino particles had been observed moving faster than the speed of light. The study, understandably, made headlines globally. Physicists were intensely skeptical. And the following year, the research team itself reported possible timing problems with their original measurements that could have made it seem like the neutrinos were traveling at the speed of light when they were, in fact, not. Another team also tried to replicate the results and clocked neutrinos at just shy of the speed of light. (Scientists now suspect the initial measurement arose from a bad connection between a GPS and a computer.)

What impact has this had on our understanding of the pandemic?

With the surge in preprints about the novel coronavirus, many highly speculative claims have sneaked through and into the public discourse. 

The surge in preprint publications doesn’t mean that the research isn’t being reviewed. Rather, that process is now happening more casually and more publicly – on online forums and social media. And, because the heated academic debate has been thrust into the public view, it may be jarring to nonscientists who are looking for experts to trust.

But as the pandemic wears on and the papers pile up, progress is being made in the slog toward less and less uncertainty. Researchers have built collaborations among laboratories and across borders to widen the scope of studies, amass more critical data, and check each other’s work. Science continues its steady march, even if it doesn’t always look that way.  

Is recycling broken? Don’t toss it out yet, say insiders.

Our next story is about the dogged resiliency of the recycling industry. Despite international market shifts and recent worker shortages caused by the pandemic, recyclers keep finding new ways to make a profit. 

David

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The recycling industry, still reeling from China’s 2018 decision to stop accepting America’s paper and plastic trash, took another severe blow in March when the coronavirus pandemic appeared. Facilities across the country closed down out of fear for workers’ safety.

But declarations that recycling is broken, say people in the industry, are overblown. Recycling is, they say, a wild business filled with jarring price swings, and those who survive – and the industry itself – must hang on for the long ride. 

“Every time there’s a crisis in this industry, we recover,” says Kevin Roche, the chief executive officer of Ecomaine, Maine’s largest recycling facility. “The market always has its ups and downs.”

Indeed, following China’s ban, 23 U.S. mills for recycled paper and cardboard have opened or expanded, along with dozens of plastic plants. And as recycling plants have reopened, some have found the demand overwhelming.

“The American public loves recycling. That has not changed in 45 years,” says scrap industry veteran Chaz Miller. “We have to continue to struggle to get people to do it right.”

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4. Is recycling broken? Don’t toss it out yet, say insiders.

Up the hill from Kevin Roche’s office, trash trucks clank and grind into a gaping warehouse, disgorging to conveyor belts the flotsam of modern households: bottles drunk, papers crumpled, plastic wrappers tossed, laundry cartons drained. 

It is evidence, says Mr. Roche, the chief executive officer of Ecomaine, the state’s largest recycling facility, that neither a pandemic nor a ban by China has stopped recycling. 

“The stories that recycling is dead are so far from the truth,” he says. “Even at the market conditions that we have today, material still is moving. It didn’t move at the prices that we’d like to see. But it still moved.”

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

When the coronavirus pandemic brought some recycling collections to a halt, most of them temporarily, it struck a blow against an industry still reeling from China’s 2018 decision to stop taking America’s paper and plastic refuse.

These setbacks cued a chorus of declarations that recycling is broken. “When people realize that the blue recycling bin is largely a lie,” Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat and a champion of recycling, told a Senate committee in June, “they are angry.” 

But those in the recycling industry mostly shrug that off as hyperbole. Recycling is, they say, a wild business filled with jarring price swings, and those who survive – and the industry itself – must hang on for the long ride. 

“Every time there’s a crisis in this industry, we recover,” says Mr. Roche. “The market always has its ups and downs.”

The long haul

Take his prices, for example. Mixed paper – the bulk of what is put out in curbside bins – is selling at minus $25 a ton with transportation, meaning Mr. Roche has to pay a paper plant to haul it away. A lousy arrangement? Yes, he says. But at one point it was selling for minus $70. 

The last bale of milk jugs he sold earned $850 a ton – “a pretty good market,” he says with a grin. A bale of plastic soda bottles still fetches $115 a ton. And cardboard, suddenly in demand because of the surge in online shopping, is selling for $75 a ton. 

“These are commodities, raw materials. The value fluctuates,” says Chaz Miller, a former Environmental Protection Agency employee who has spent 40 years in the scrap industry. 

“Recycling is a business that you are not going to make a profit on every year,” he says by phone. “But if you do a good job and produce a quality product you are going to make a profit more often than not.”

Doug Struck
Kevin Roche, CEO of Ecomaine, on July 21, 2020, in Portland, Maine. Ecomaine handles recycling and trash disposal for 70 municipalities.

Ecomaine, owned by 20 municipalities in Maine and contracted to take trash from another 50 – altogether more than a third of the rubbish collected in the state – is not trying to make a profit. 

Twice as much trash ends up in the plant’s adjoining incinerator, where it is burned to make electricity, and some ends up buried in the landfill that Ecomaine also owns. Both landfilling and incinerating are, in the short term, cheaper than recycling, Mr. Roche says. His plant charges municipalities $75 a ton to bring trash to his waste-to-energy incinerator or when it is diverted to the landfill, and $95 a ton to bring materials into his recycling plant. 

But he argues that simple comparison “is causing bad decisions,” and ignores the cost of maintaining a landfill in future generations. 

Some municipalities say they can’t afford such long-term calculations. “We quit when it got cheaper to burn it than recycle,” says Mike Amero, foreman of the waste plant in Franklin, New Hampshire, which ended its curbside recycling program in 2018.

They were not alone. Several municipalities stopped recycling, at least temporarily.

High demand

Then, in March, the pandemic appeared. 

“It was totally impossible to do recycling,” says Randy Cookson, director of solid waste and recycling in Gray, Maine, population 8,000. He stopped accepting recyclables at the town facility for three weeks to protect his small staff. Townsfolk stashed their materials in garages and basements, and when they reopened, the drop-offs were “overwhelming.” 

In fact, recycling is such a household routine that most municipalities either continued recycling or quickly resumed when they figured out how to keep workers safe, and when initial fears subsided about the virus remaining on items placed in bins.    

Waste Dive, a news site that covers the trash industry, compiled a list of about 150 municipal operations that temporarily suspended and another 90 that had stopped recycling in the past two years, out of roughly 10,000 curbside recycling programs nationwide. Some have resumed. 

That’s not all prompted by civic motivation, notes Cole Rosengren, senior editor at Waste Dive. Recycled materials are a valuable, and growing, part of many manufacturing processes – between one-third to one-half of new paper in the United States is recycled feedstock, for example.     

“The majority of this is stuff that manufacturers need and want and claim to want even more of,” Mr. Rosengren says.  

In fact, following China’s 2018 ban, 23 new or expanded U.S. mills for paper and cardboard, and dozens of plastic plants, are opening to buy domestic recyclables, according to a study by Mr. Miller and others for the Northeast Recycling Council. Perhaps ironically, four of those plants are owned by a Chinese company that sends pulp to China. 

Increasingly, recyclers are cutting costs through automation: Robot arms pluck items from conveyor belts, optical sensors direct a puff of air to separate certain plastics, automated intelligence is making smarter machines.

Recyclers also say homeowners should learn what to recycle and how to make it cleaner. They can be motivated. Hollywood, Florida, is putting scan-tags on recycling bins; the trash truck automatically credits the homeowner with 25 “Waste Pro Rewards” points for every full bin, which they can use for discounts at restaurants, oil change shops, and other businesses.

“They love it. They’re so enthusiastic. I get calls daily,” says Stacy Morin, recycling coordinator of the town.

Adds Randy Stovall, environmental services manager of Hollywood, “At the end of the day, everybody wins.”

Recyclers say the volatility of prices can be tamed by laws setting a minimum percentage of recycled material that must go into new products, or perhaps by added fees on landfilling.

“The American public loves recycling. That has not changed in 45 years,” says Mr. Miller. “We have to continue to struggle to get people to do it right.” 

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

Points of Progress

What's going right

Where dolphins get a second chance at life

This is more than feel-good news – it's where the world is making concrete progress. A roundup of positive stories to inspire you.

David
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5. Where dolphins get a second chance at life

1. United States

Vermont is tackling a “throwaway culture” by banning food waste in trash. The Food Scrap Ban is the country’s first statewide ban on food waste – an ambitious move that lawmakers say is necessary to achieve the state’s goal of diverting 50% of all waste away from landfills. Officials have found that roughly 20% of residents’ trash is food waste, which is a significant source of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The new legislation is designed to provide more opportunities for drop-off and curbside collection, resources for at-home composting, and support for food rescue and donation efforts. The law came into effect in July, along with new regulations limiting single-use plastics and plastic foam.

Fast Company, Burlington Free Press

2. Sudan

The Sudanese government has taken a “great first step” toward improving its human rights record with wide-reaching legal reforms, activists say. The imposition of strict Islamist laws in the early 1980s was a major catalyst for Sudan’s long-running civil war, but now, after more than 30 years and the ousting of former President Omar al-Bashir, Sudan is relaxing its most conservative rules. Under the revised laws, women no longer need a male relative’s permission to travel with their children. The country has also decriminalized apostasy, or the act of renouncing one’s faith – in this case Islam – an act previously punishable by death. Gay sex will no longer be punished by flogging or execution, but still risks prison terms ranging from five years to life.

BBC, Reuters

3. India

The number of undernourished people in India has declined by 60 million since 2004, according to the United Nations. A new U.N. report presents India as a countertrend to growing hunger worldwide, along with similar improvements in China. 

Both shifts are attributed to economic growth, reduced inequality, and improved access to basic services, such as supermarkets in India’s rural areas. Some say India’s figures are a sign that government efforts to combat starvation, including school lunch programs, are gradually bearing fruit. The prevalence of undernourishment in the general population went from 21.7% in 2004-06 to 14% in 2017-19. Stunting in children under 5 years old also declined from 47.8% in 2012 to 34.7% in 2019.

The Hindu, India Times

MHI/AP
A Japanese H-IIA rocket with United Arab Emirates’ Mars orbiter launches from Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima, Japan, on July 20, 2020.

4. United Arab Emirates

The launch of the United Arab Emirates’ Amal spacecraft marks the first interplanetary mission of the Arab world, once a hub of mathematical and scientific innovation. Amal, meaning “hope,” is expected to reach Mars in February, and will start transmitting data later that year. Emirati scientists say the atmospheric observations will be available to the international scientific community. 

The UAE is a newcomer in space development, but the wealthy Gulf nation has already launched three observation satellites into Earth’s orbit, and sent its first astronaut to the International Space Station in late September. To build the Amal spacecraft, the Emiratis partnered with researchers from several U.S. universities and used Japan’s launching services. 

The Associated Press

Pepe Arcos/Courtesy of DolphinProject.com
Rocky And Rambo At Bali Dolphin Sanctuary.

5. Indonesia

The Bali Dolphin Sanctuary is helping rehabilitate previously captive dolphins, potentially offering a model for similar efforts around the globe. More than 3,000 dolphins are in captivity across 336 entertainment venues worldwide, according to a 2019 report by World Animal Protection. But returning dolphins to the wild is no simple task. Successful rehabilitation hinges on the animals’ ability to catch food and relearn other skills they lost in captivity, including the use of sonar to navigate the vast ocean and communicate with other dolphins.

To address these challenges, the Dolphin Project – a charity run by dolphin-trainer-turned-activist Ric O’Barry – has partnered with the Bali government and animal rights groups to open what they describe as the world’s first permanent rehabilitation center. Dolphins unable to make the transition can live out their retirement in the sanctuary. Mr. O’Barry says the Bali center is a model that can be replicated in other places where dolphinariums have closed down.

Reuters, World Animal Protection

6. Australia

Australia appointed Benson Saulo as the country’s first Indigenous consul-general. In his post in the United States, he will be tasked with strengthening the U.S.-Australia relationship. Mr. Saulo has roots in the Wemba Wemba, Jardwadjali, and Gunditjmara nations of western Victoria, and will relocate to Houston at the end of the year. The historic appointment comes as Black Lives Matter protests help shed light on Indigenous rights movements in Australia and around the world.

“Being the first Aboriginal person to hold the position of an Australian consul-general comes with a huge weight of responsibility but then also a sense of achievement,” Mr. Saulo said. He’s looking forward to “being able to share my culture in the U.S. and connect with other Indigenous people and highlight ... the global Indigenous economy.”

SBS Australia, ABC

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Malaysia upends its malaise on corruption

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Just three years ago, fewer than half of people in Malaysia said it is socially acceptable to report corruption, according to a poll. My, how attitudes have shifted in the Southeast Asian nation of 32 million. On Tuesday, former Prime Minister Najib Razak became the first Malaysian leader to be convicted of corruption. He faces 12 years in prison for looting a government fund known as 1Malaysia Development Berhad while in office from 2009 to 2018. In fact, the 1MDB scandal so angered voters in 2018 that they kicked out both Mr. Najib and his ruling party, the United Malays National Organization.

After the historic first transfer of power two years ago, Malaysia’s new leaders started remarkable reforms, driven by the public’s rising demands for clean governance. By the end of last year, Malaysia’s ranking in a global corruption index greatly improved after five years of deterioration. If the anti-corruption reforms stick in the country’s often messy politics, Malaysia could quickly achieve the status of a developed country. The people and their new leaders will have shown how an embrace of equal justice under the law can begin to shred a corrupt past.

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Malaysia upends its malaise on corruption

Just three years ago, fewer than half of people in Malaysia said it is socially acceptable to report corruption, according to a poll. This dismal view was reinforced by the fact that about a quarter of Malaysians regularly paid bribes for basic public services.

My, how attitudes have shifted in the Southeast Asian nation of 32 million.

On Tuesday, former Prime Minister Najib Razak became the first Malaysian leader to be convicted of corruption. He faces 12 years in prison for looting a government fund known as 1Malaysia Development Berhad while in office from 2009 to 2018. In fact, the 1MDB scandal so angered voters in 2018 that they kicked out both Mr. Najib and his ruling party, the United Malays National Organization. The party had governed the country for 61 years since independence from Britain.

After the historic first transfer of power two years ago, Malaysia’s new leaders started remarkable reforms, driven by the public’s rising demands for clean governance. They created an anti-corruption agency and set a five-year goal to raise the integrity of civil servants and elected officials. (The latter, for example, must publicly declare their personal assets.) More than 1,230 people were arrested on corruption charges. One particular goal was bolstered by Tuesday’s court ruling: ensuring the accountability and credibility of judges and prosecutors.

By the end of last year, Malaysia’s ranking in a global corruption index greatly improved after five years of deterioration. If the anti-corruption reforms stick in the country’s often messy politics, Malaysia could quickly achieve the status of a developed country with an advanced economy. Foreign investors would have more confidence in the legal system’s ability to root out financial crime.

After Mr. Najib’s conviction, the lead prosecutor in the case said the ruling serves “as a precedent for all in public office that no one is above the law.” That notion of equality has been a long time coming in Malaysia. The country still openly discriminates against its ethnic and religious minorities in granting access to government benefits. Such favoritism for the majority Malay people must eventually end.

In the meantime, the people and their new leaders have shown how an embrace of equal justice under the law can begin to shred a corrupt past.

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.

What does love have to do with ending a pandemic?

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If we’re feeling there’s little we can do to contribute to healing the world’s ills, it’s worth considering the power of love impelled by God, all-powerful divine Love itself.

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1. What does love have to do with ending a pandemic?

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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By the time I arrived at my apartment, the only thing I could do was collapse on my bed. I was suffering from a variety of flu symptoms and desperately wanted to go to sleep. But before I did, I called my mom and asked her to pray for me.

This was nearly 25 years ago, and I don’t recall all the details of our conversation. I do remember, however, how comforted I felt as Mom assured me that I had been made in the image and likeness of God (see Genesis 1:26, 27); that God, divine Spirit, was both the source and substance of my being; that God loved me.

Shortly after hanging up, I fell asleep. When I got up the next morning, I was completely well and have never since had the flu.

Looking at this experience in the context of the current pandemic, I’ve been asking myself if it’s not only a deeper appreciation of God’s love for us that holds the key to ridding the world of this disease, but also a more consistent commitment to love one another – that is, to be sure that our thoughts of others reflect God’s thought of us. Jesus said: “ ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Matthew 22:37-39, New Living Translation).

The commitment to love others can be seen these days in the selflessness of frontline workers and the kindness of neighbors helping neighbors. Yet, how often do we think of such expressions of love as hinting at something even more powerful – powerful enough to bring about physical healing?

Jesus certainly proved through his healing of others that there’s a love higher than even the most unselfish human love, a love that mirrors God’s love for us: pure and constant. Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, wrote in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” “The prayer that reforms the sinner and heals the sick is an absolute faith that all things are possible to God, – a spiritual understanding of Him, an unselfed love” (p. 1).

Of course, it’s going to take a lot more than a group hug, no matter how heartfelt, to rid ourselves of something as challenging as a pandemic. But there’s value in recognizing the power and significance of Christly love that strives to see only the goodness that God, good, sees. After all, if “unselfed love” heals disease, then it stands to reason that any opposite state of mind, such as fear or hostility, would tend to have the opposite effect.

What’s required of us, then, is to not only acknowledge the supremacy of God, divine Love, but also to see others and ourselves as Love’s essential expression, naturally and inevitably inclined to love.

This isn’t always easy. For instance, there are times we may feel that someone or some circumstance has managed to deprive us of God’s goodness; that there’s some legitimate reason for our being unable to express all that God has given us to express, to enjoy all that He has given us to enjoy. When this happens, we face a crucial choice between accepting or rejecting the notion of a power opposed to God.

Ironically, it’s at moments like this that we are perhaps most receptive to Truth, a synonym for God that Mary Baker Eddy in her writings often couples with Christ. It’s this ever-present Christ – “the true idea voicing good, the divine message from God to men speaking to the human consciousness,” as Science and Health describes it (p. 332) – that reveals divine Love as the only true power.

It’s the Christ that inspires us to distinguish between what is and isn’t true about God and about all of us as God’s reflection; to love not just those who love us, but our so-called enemies as well; to become more conscious of the allness of that divine Love that heals, and as a result, to experience that healing love more tangibly.

Thinking back on my own healing so many years ago, I’m reminded that the conviction of God’s love for us is often what motivates our love for one another. And it’s our love for one another that opens the door more widely to feeling God’s love for us. This ceaseless cycle of Love inevitably lessens fear, dissolves hatred, and enables us to do our part in bringing an end to this pandemic.

Adapted from an editorial published in the July 13, 2020, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all the Monitor’s coronavirus coverage is free, including articles from this column. There’s also a special free section of JSH-Online.com on a healing response to the global pandemic. There is no paywall for any of this coverage.

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A nod to the past

Daewoung Kim/Reuters
The statue entitled Everlasting Atonement depicts Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo bowing to a “comfort woman” at the Korea Botanic Garden in Pyeongchang, South Korea, July 28, 2020. The installation has sparked consternation in Tokyo.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We’re working on a story about Clarice Assad, a Brazilian American musician who champions women and minority classical artists.

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