Moyers on Democracy

While We Were Social Distancing

The team at BillMoyers.com brings you news — some of it good, some of outrageous, all of it important — that’s been covered up by COVID-19

While We Were Distancing, News You Need to Know

Photo by Markus Meier Markus Meier / flickr CC 2.0)

For most of Donald Trump’s presidency it seems that the news has come at us like a firehose — spraying information, disinformation and quotable tweets. And that was before the pandemic. Now with mounting deaths, unemployment at Depression-era highs, and daily presidential briefing spectacles, there’s even more news flying under the radar. The team at BillMoyers.com brings you the news you need to know — some of it good, some of it outrageous, all of it important — that’s been covered up by COVID-19.

Life Sentence 

Eight out of the top 10 US coronavirus hot spots are prisons or jails according to Reason magazine citing data from The New York Times. More than 70 percent of inmates in federal prisons who were tested were found to have the virus. One of those prisoners was Andrea Circle Bear. After being  diagnosed with coronavirus, she gave birth on April 1 while on a ventilator but on April 28 at the age of 30 she died. Circle Bear was serving a two year prison sentence on drug charges; she is the 29th federal inmate to die in custody since the end of March. 

Native Americans Need Help, Get Red Tape

Last week, NPR reported that after New York and New Jersey, the place with the highest coronavirus infection rate in the US is the Navajo Nation. Longstanding infrastructure problems on reservations have contributed to the spread, including a lack of clean water and reliable electricity. Additionally, The Great Falls Tribune notes that Native Americans suffer from “disproportionately high rates of diabetes, heart disease, respiratory illnesses and other conditions, putting them at a greater risk” from coronavirus, and many generations of families live under one roof on the reservation. “We are faced with extinction. We were killed by smallpox, and we were killed by the Spanish flu,” says Larry Reevis, who lives on Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation. “We need to be proactive about this. If we are, we can save some people.”

USA Today reported earlier this week that “despite billions earmarked for tribes, members of Indian Country have been met with red tape, roadblocks and new hurdles that have led to delays and deep-rooted feelings of uncertainty.” A drafting error in the PPP program legislation (which was corrected a few hours after the USA Today article was published) had prevented casinos from obtaining funds and many smaller tribes without relationships with the CDC have had trouble accessing funds set aside for them because of paperwork. 

Spy Games 

Senior Trump administration officials led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are pressuring intelligence agencies to support an unsubstantiated theory that a government lab in Wuhan, China was the source of the coronavirus outbreak The New York Times reports:

Most intelligence agencies remain skeptical that conclusive evidence of a link to a lab can be found, and scientists who have studied the genetics of the coronavirus say that the overwhelming probability is that it leapt from animal to human in a nonlaboratory setting…Mr. Trump’s aides and Republicans in Congress have sought to blame China for the pandemic in part to deflect criticism of the administration’s mismanagement of the crisis in the United States…A former intelligence official described senior aides’ repeated emphasis of the lab theory as “conclusion shopping,” a disparaging term among analysts that has echoes of the Bush administration’s 2002 push for assessments saying that Iraq had weapons of mass of destruction and links to Al Qaeda, perhaps the most notorious example of the politicization of intelligence.

One immediate impact is on a years-long research project that experts say is vital for identifying and preventing the next major coronavirus outbreak. According to NPR, the US government abruptly withdrew funding from the project being run by the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance which has, for more than a decade, been sending teams to China to check bats for new coronavirus strains. “But since early this month, US officials have been working to raise suspicions about a key collaborator on the project: the Wuhan Institute of Virology…at an April 17 news conference, President Trump said he had given instructions to check if any U.S. funding was slated for the Wuhan Institute, and if so, he said, it would immediately be terminated. Days later, on April 24, the National Institutes of Health…notified EcoHealth Alliance that the money was being canceled.”

Where’s the Beef 

President Donald J. Trump invoked the Defense Production Act on April 28, when he signed an executive order classifying meatpacking plants as critical infrastructure. The order comes after more than a dozen meat processing plants shut down in the past few weeks, some under pressure from local officials and some due to workers walking off the job after a rash of COVID outbreaks. Trump says the order will help the plants’ owners “solve any liability problems where they had certain liability problems and we’ll be in very good shape.” 

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting says “As of April 30, there have been at least 6,300 reported positive cases tied to meatpacking facilities at at least 98 plants in 28 states, and at least 30 reported worker deaths at 17 plants in 12 states.”

One worker told NPR “‘It’s almost like [the plant’s owners] don’t care about us,” the worker said. “Just keep production going, keep the money coming in, whatever they can do to just keep going, that’s how I feel. … And I know I’m not the only one who’s actually scared.”

Rotting on the Vine 

Sometimes the headline says it all (via Politico) 

USDA let millions of pounds of food rot while food-bank demand soared

Failing the Test 

Retail testing for coronavirus has failed the black community. Vox reports “Since the White House announced this ‘historic public-private partnership,’ 63 sites have opened nationwide. Just eight are in black neighborhoods.”

Physician Reveal Thyself

Personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages are a thing of the past according to President Trump. In a briefing on April 18 Trump said, “We had very little in our stockpile.  Now we’re loaded up.  And we also loaded up these hospitals.” Frontline health workers say that’s just not true. According to Politico:

States and hospitals say they have faced unusual challenges in their scramble to secure PPE — from a strained global supply chain and the Trump administration itself. They complain Trump’s encouragement of states to hunt down supplies on their own has created a chaotic competition for PPE and medical equipment…

“There’s no way that anyone could possibly think that what is happening now is acceptable, even in its improved form. It’s still not enough,” said a hospital physician in Georgia who requested anonymity. “To feel that you can’t do your job without begging, especially if you’re putting your body on the line, that you can’t get the tools you need without being gaslighted or interrogated, there’s something belittling and patronizing about it.”

Meanwhile, physicians in Germany are protesting their lack of PPE by posing nude for a photo series meant to highlight how vulnerable they feel without proper safety equipment. “We are your general practitioners. To treat you safely, we need protective equipment. If we run out of what little we have, we look like this,” one of the group’s tweets said.

Get Back to Work 

Workers in some of the states that are reopening face a difficult choice: go back to work, even if they’re at risk for contracting coronavirus, or don’t return and risk losing their unemployment benefits.  “If you’re an employer and you offer to bring your employee back to work and they decide not to, that’s a voluntary quit,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) said Friday. “Therefore, they would not be eligible for the unemployment money.”

Meanwhile, cities and states around the country are facing mass layoffs of municipal employees including first-responders, sanitation workers and educators. The Washington Post reports:

Even as President Trump and top Republicans contend that only big-spending, liberal-leaning states are to blame for mounting budget woes, a Washington Post review found the economic havoc wrought by the novel coronavirus is far more widespread — saddling Democratic and Republican mayors and governors alike with souring finances and major revenue gaps… Among municipalities, the new budget cuts could be profound: Between 300,000 and 1 million public-sector workers could soon be out of a job or sent home without pay, according to an estimate from the National League of Cities.

The Rich Get Richer 

The Federal Reserve is expected to soon begin doling out $500 billion in loans approved by Congress as part of the coronavirus relief packages according to the Washington Post. Unlike the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) which is meant to help struggling small businesses, this one will benefit “large American corporations without requiring them to save jobs or limit payments to executives and shareholders.” 

That isn’t the only way the rich are getting richer on the taxpayer dime. According to reporting from Popular Information, the top recipient of aid for the PPP is a multi-millionaire Trump donor and hotelier named Monty Bennett. “Bennett’s three companies have secured $96.1 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans. And more may be on the way. According to a fact sheet produced by the three companies, they’ve applied for a total of $126 million in Paycheck Protection Act loans.” 

At the same time, reporting by CBS News finds that flaws in the PPP are hindering businesses owned by minorities and women from getting help. “Based on how the program is structured, we estimate that upwards of 90% of businesses owned by people of color have been, or will likely be, shut out of the Paycheck Protection Program,” said Ashley Harrington, director of federal advocacy and senior council for the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit group that combats abusive lending practices and recently examined the loan program’s parameters.

Reply Guy  

On March 27, President Trump took to Twitter to demand that GM or Ford “START MAKING VENTILATORS, NOW.” The tweet received 38,000 replies, one of them from Yaron Oren-Pines, saying “We can supply ICU Ventilators, invasive and noninvasive. Have someone call me URGENT.” According to reporting from BuzzFeed News, someone from the White House recommended him to New York State which then paid Oren-Pines $69.1 million for 1,450 ventilators. The ventilators never arrived and New York is refusing to say how much, if any, of the money it has been able to recoup. 

Payday 

A former economist at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says Trump appointees manipulated the bureau’s research into payday lenders in order to justify gutting a rule that would have sharply curtailed high-interest payday loans. The New York Times reports that tactics included “pressuring staff economists to water down their findings on payday loans and use statistical gimmicks to downplay the harm consumers would suffer if the payday restrictions were repealed.” And the deregulation drive continues “despite the logistical hurdles posed by the coronavirus pandemic. This week, the agency is expected to release the revised payday rule, which will no longer require lenders to assess whether customers can afford their fees before offering a loan.” 

All Rise 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is expected to push for a quick confirmation of his 38-year-old ally, Justin Walker, to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. Per The Daily Beast

Walker is a McConnell protégé who has close ties to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and played a high-profile role defending him during his contentious confirmation hearings. Walker moved up the ranks of conservative legal circles before landing a judgeship on the United States District Court of the Western District of Kentucky. There, his record has been distinguished by conservative jurisprudence and a flair for unorthodox rulings. 

Walker was given a rare “not qualified” rating by the American Bar Association when he was nominated to the District Court of Kentucky last year because “has never tried a case as lead or co-counsel, whether civil or criminal.” The DC Circuit Court is the second highest court in the United States. 

 

Gloria Teal

Gloria Teal began her career as a PA on Bill Moyers Journal and went on to work at Now on PBS, Need to Know on PBS before transitioning to the late-night comedy world where she was a part of The Colbert Report and ran the research department at The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Most recently she produced live events for Tina Brown's Women in the World.

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