Heatwaves are increasing in frequency, intensity, and duration, and, as temperatures rise, climate change activists are concerned that inaction could lead to more deaths in the summer.
Its severe intensity puts the drought in the top tier historically, surpassing the 2016 drought considered the worst in California’s history.
“Ultimately, there’s just less water available on the landscape, which means that the soils become drier and the vegetation becomes drier. It means that plants require more water, but there is less water in rivers, lakes, and streams available to humans, the environment, and agriculture. This means that there is less capacity of the atmosphere to buffer against extreme heatwaves,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.
“This will be an *exceptionally dangerous* heatwave from a public health perspective, especially since this is a part of the country where structures are not designed to shed heat and where air conditioning is rare. Infrastructure/power disruption is also possible,” tweeted Swain, as an extreme heatwave unfolded along the West Coast of North America, centered on the Pacific Northwest and southwestern Canada.
(From left to right: Dr. Daniel Swain, Climate Scientist, UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability; Dr. Kristie L. Ebi, Professor, Center for Health and the Global Environment; Aradhna Tripati, Associate Professor, UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.)
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) climate change is speeding up. Wildfires are bigger, heat waves more frequent, and seas are warmer.
At a briefing organized by Ethnic Media Services on June 18th, experts pointed at data tracking the impact of climate change on the U.S. and worldwide, and warned that the best way to address the climate crisis is with scientific models as well as with policies focused on equity.
In the current decade, almost 12,000 premature deaths are recorded annually in the contiguous United States, though experts suggest this is an undercount. Almost all of the deaths are preventable.
Heat and higher temperatures kill, and the poor and disadvantaged are at a higher risk. Low-income families cannot afford to move after a natural disaster; they generally live in asphalt or concrete jungles and lack green space, making them vulnerable to the dangers of heat.
“Any injustices that exist will interact with other inequities in ways that will be particularly devastating for low-income communities and communities of color,” said Tripati, citing the disproportionate impact on marginalized groups by hurricanes like Maria and Katrina or the Paradise wildfires in California.
She believes that ethnic minorities who historically are more adept at dealing with scant resources and have developed workarounds should be invited to participate in making climate change decisions and environmental protection policies.
Effective solutionscome naturally to people who come from hot areas, said Tripathi.
“Actions we can take to reduce our core body temperatures must be taken. Self-dowsing i.e. wetting your skin and turning on the fan are highly effective”, said Dr. Kristie L. Ebi.When heatwave early warning systems alert people to prepare for such events, “Make sure to look in on your neighbors to ensure they are hydrated and their environment has good air circulation.”
Additionally, said Ebi, mortality is impacted not just by the temperature but our development choices – for example, green roofs and environments with good air circulation work when temperatures are high. Air conditioning causes urban heat islands. Anything we can do to reduce these islands will help people keep their core body temperatures down during heatwaves.
Judicious and equitable choices in planning cities and our living environment are critical to managing the heat that is coming, concluded Dr. Ebi.
Redistricting silences communities who cannot ask for help
Harbir Kaur Bhatia ran for City Council (District 1) in Santa Clara in the 2020 general election because minority voices in her district were not adequately represented. She told IC that the Asian Law Alliance sued the city after the post-Census 2010 redistricting because it did not give people of color or grassroots leaders in her district (45.6% of Asian origin) a chance to run or to win.
“When we have such a large population of voters we have a very powerful voice,” said Bhatia but, “there was a lack of minority voices or perspectives.”
Redistricting draws boundaries that determine whether a community’s voice gets heard
In its most basic form said Nina Perales, VP of Litigation at MALDEF , “redistricting is just about drawing lines on a map to represent who is going to vote for certain elected officials.” From time to time a district’s boundaries are redrawn following a census. Certain neighborhoods are grouped together in types of districts essentially to create groups of voters.
Drawing lines on a map is “a very political act”, so it’s important for communities to get involved and become part of the process, added Perales.
Redistricting makes community invisible to the powers that be
Texan Myrtala Tristan shared a cautionary tale about how redistricting discriminates against communities of color.
A 35 year resident of Lakewood – a suburb of Houston – Tristan’s neighborhood was devastated by Hurricane Harvey. As a river of water swept down her street and flooded her home, no help was forthcoming from the authorities. Her district said Tristan was not represented in local government and had no political clout. When the hurricane hit there was no alert to evacuate, no phone response to calls for help. Tristan and her husband waded to safety on their own and were eventually transported by an 18 wheel truck to a shelter. “People started falling off the truck into the water, older folk, kids,” recounted Tristan. No food or water was supplied at the stadium where evacuees were held. In the aftermath of the hurricane, when her community desperately needed help to recover, there was no response from the government to appeals and claims for assistance.
Redistricting discriminates against communities of color
Perales explained that in racially segregated Pasadena (TX), Latino populations concentrated in the north side receive fewer services than the south side where Anglos have control. When it rains said Perales, flooding occurs in the north side, but flood control measures are in place to safeguard the southern part of the district. The Texas House of Representatives split neighborhoods in the north for political purposes, so while the north side was represented in city government, but not at the state level.
Lines were redrawn after litigation following the 2010 census to ensure neighborhoods stayed intact, allow more Latinos to register to vote, and elect officials who represented their growing numbers (Latino population grew by almost 2.8 million in the 2010 Census). As a direct result, the district elected Mary Ann Perez, a progressive Latina woman to the House of Representatives, replacing the conservative Anglo who previously held the seat.
“Our growth and increased political participation are strongest when the political lines that are drawn around our neighborhoods are fair,” said Perales. ”So redistricting is a time where we need to be very involved and very vigilant…so that we can ensure that our growth, registration and votes are fairly reflected in political lines.”
Immigration and natural family growth are increasing AAPI and Latino populations in Texas, said Perales, so it’s important to look at redistricting as a fair representation of what neighborhoods look like today.
Who controls the redistricting process?
Responsibility for redrawing political lines varies by state and local government, and intent.
In Texas, city councils are responsible for redrawing lines in cities which have elections by district, while school boards of trustees control school district boundaries, and county commissioners redraw district lines for the county
The Texas Legislature controls boundaries that will determine political representation for congressional seats, state house representatives, state senate and state board of education. Currently, Republicans have the house, senate, and governorship, resulting in a one-party Trifecta that controls how the state’s boundaries are drawn. “Don’t pass up an opportunity,” urged Perales, to engage in local redistricting processes– city, school board, and county –and influence decision making at the local level that impacts the quality of life in communities.
“It can make the difference to the schools -to-prison pipeline policies within school districts, or a neighborhood park in the minority side of town.”
Activists are fighting to make redistricting fair
“You don’t have to be a citizen or registered voter to participate in local redistricting,” confirmed advocate Debbie Chan of OCA Greater Houston. The census includes every resident, regardless of immigration status or ethnicity, so districts have to represent that count in its redistricting to ensure that public services (schools, roads, hospitals) match community needs. She encouraged communities “to pay attention at the local level because that’s where it’s going to impact everyone immediately.” Federal dollars that are redistributed into communities is our tax money added Chen, so we need to have a say in how budgets are spent.
Fair Opportunity Maps
Advocates are focusing on the equitable distribution of tax dollars among minority groups in communities: Is funding going towards fixing potholes, open sewers, broken streetlights, or damaged sidewalks? Is money allocated to fix problems and who is making that decision on how money gets spent?
Chan referred to ‘cracking and packing’ – a process that splits communities of interest into sections which limit their political clout, or consolidating them into groups that give them opportunities for a better chance of representation. Opportunity maps are evenly balanced and give multiple communities an even chance to elect someone who has the best ideas for everyone, not just the community of interest.
Discriminatory redistricting after Census 2010 ‘packed’ districts 137 and 149 “like a can of sardines”, said Chan, specifically to prevent them from having opportunity districts for minority candidates to run for office. API communities successfully fought back against with a lawsuit that allowed allow two Asian Americans to run and win in those districts.
Advocates are demanding transparency in the redistricting process to give communities an opportunity to offer input. They are calling for public display of maps, public hearings, and translation services so immigrants and those with limited English proficiency have their voices included as decisions are made.
Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents
On June 22, the voting rights bill For the People Act (S1) (also known as H.R.1), met a solid Republican wall of opposition in the Senate even though the bill passed in the House with bipartisan support in March. Republicans voted against starting debate on it.
After the bill failed to advance in the Senate, President Biden condemned the suppression of a bill to end voter suppression, stating that the Act defended “the rights of voters…and stood against the ongoing assault of voter suppression that represents a Jim Crow era in the 21st Century.”
Earlier in the month, voting rights advocates at a June 11 briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services were optimistic about the prospects of legislation aimed at blocking voter suppression in many states.
Elizabeth Hira, Spitzer Fellow and Policy Counsel, Brennan Center’s Democracy Program described the election reform bill as “an opportunity to fundamentally transform American democracy by changing who gets a seat at the table.”
What’s at stake is reduced voting options at the local level that disenfranchise vulnerable populations.
In Texas for example, the Senate approved an election law – SB7 – that could make voting more difficult for people of color and people for whom English is a second language. Mimi Marziani, President of the Texas Civil Rights Project explained that SB7 prohibits local election officials distributing vote by mail applications. This would impact the right to vote for people with disabilities, college students or people who are incarcerated. Instead, the bill could empower partisan poll workers who are known for intimidating people of color and make it easier for politicians alleging fraud to have elections overturned with very limited proof.
“Invidious discrimination, often race-based is very much alive in American law,” added Hira, citing the example of voter ID laws in North Dakota which require proof of residential addresses. It’s a requirement that’s impossible for Native American communities to provide as the state does not assign them home addresses.
The S1 “fundamentally asks the question, what would it look like to have an inclusive American democracy,” said Hira.
The For the People Act aims to recognize and rectify historical inequities in voting rights by expanding access to the ballot box, changing campaign finance laws, and making infrastructural changes.
S1 includes automatic voter registration and same day voter registration which will benefit communities of color and young people from one of the most demographically diverse generations in America today. It also includes online voter registration for ten states which don’t have operational systems, and supplies two weeks of early voting with hours before and after, to ensure that people get to cast their ballots – especially women and lower wage workers who do not have the flexibility to stand in line for hours at the polls on election day.
In order to reduce the influence of big money in politics, the bill would establish a baseline minimal standard for campaign finance reform. It restores the vote for about 4 million Americans who are out of jail or prison and living in their community. Other provisions include an increase in penalties for intimidation at the polls, as well as an endorsement for DC statehood and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
Ensuring that people can elect leaders to represent them through fair redistricting is a fundamental tenet of S1. It bans partisan gerrymandering that lets politicians draw districts to choose their voters, and instead, opens the process to allow the public to choose their leaders. It also prohibits discriminatory voter purges and provides grants for election security and election administration so that states can get paper ballots and “voters can know their votes are cast and counted,” said Hira.
Fortifying our democracy by instituting anti-corruption measures and strengthening ethics rules for public servants is integral to the For The People Act, which provides a judicial code of ethics for the Supreme Court which is the only court in America that does not abide by one, and will require the President and Vice President to abide by conflict of interest laws and submit the last ten years of their taxes.
In conjunction with the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, the S1 advances the work of the Civil Rights movement to achieve racial justice, but it also involves intersectional equities – ensuring voting rights for women who change their names after marriage or divorce, and for transgender people without documents that match their gender identity.
After the bill failed to advance in the Senate, President Biden issued a statement that he would be ramping up efforts to overcome suppression of a bill to end voter suppression, declaring, “This fight is far from over—far from over.”
Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents.
Ben Chilli Bowl, an iconic Washington D.C. diner, was going to close its doors. It did not receive a loan under Payment Protection Plan (PPP), the government scheme to help small businesses.
In a tweet, then Sen. Kamala Harris, (D-CA) noted, “@benschilibowl is a DC icon I used to eat at during my @HowardU days. It’s outrageous small businesses like Ben’s Chili Bowl aren’t getting the kind of relief the president’s friends are getting. Congress must prioritize helping minority-owned businesses.”
After being shut out of the initial round of forgivable federal loans, the Ali family, owners of Ben’s Chili Bowl, applied again. They finally did get Paycheck Protection Program assistance.
“Most small businesses do look at federal programs, similar to SBA, but what they should be aware of is that each state has programs as well, such as the State Small Businesses Credit Initiative which has 600 percent more funds in it than it had the last time. The program has been tweaked to ensure small businesses even those with weaker credit profiles will now get help, he said.
The American Rescue Bill had roughly 350 billion dollars that went out to individuals in states and counties and cities with 200,000+ in population sizes. That money, in this moment, while we are reopening, represents capital that can be catalytic.
“It is extremely important that the small business owner, one, looks at advocacy work to see where the money is going and who it is going out to; two, talks to their economic development in the cities to find their programs; and three, most importantly APPLY!,” said Sands.
“What we have learnt from the pandemic is that most opportunities come a second time. If you look at PPP it has come up a third time. We are into the third iteration of the program to ensure that some of the smaller small businesses now have access to capital,” said Sands. It is therefore important that businesses apply.
Congressman Ro Khanna, D-California. Rep. Khanna, a member of the Congressional Small Business Caucus, reiterated the importance of making sure that the money is distributed to small businesses and not default to big bank customers.
“Establishments with under 25 employees like local restaurants, dry cleaners and nail salons are small businesses,” said Khanna. “Secondly, the distribution of monies should keep racial and gender diversity in mind,” he said.
PPP helped small businesses stay afloat with low-interest loans. A $2.2-trillion economic relief measure, it was signed into law in March 2020, during the first pandemic surge. It was conceived as a loan program that could be forgiven entirely if borrowers met certain conditions involving retaining employees.
In 2020 and 2021, Lendistry provided Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to small businesses in all 50 states and was selected by the State of California to administer the California Small Business COVID-19 Relief Grant Program, which distributed grants to small businesses that lost significant revenues during the pandemic.
Mom-and-pop Main Street America can emerge from this crisis and admired the resilience of the small business owner, agreed panellists. The key characteristic of a small business owner is that they never give up. They urged small business owners to apply for government help.
“For amounts less than $150,000, most of the red tape or the bureaucratic process of a loan has been cleared away,” Sands explained. “They must apply for help even if they don’t know the information, even if they get it wrong.”
Ritu Marwah is an award winning author whose story Jinnah’s Daughter, featured in the New York Times’s Express Tribune blog, exemplifies her deep interest and understanding of history and the place of people in it.
By September this year, children as young as two may be eligible for a Covid vaccine. While many parents welcome the prospect of protection against a deadly virus, some parents aren’t so sure.
What do parents think about vaccinating their children?
“In my circle”, says Anjana Nagarajan, a Los Altos parent with two high school age children, “parents are gung-ho.” Her 16-year-old daughter is fully vaccinated while her 14-year-old son just received his first shot. Her view is largely shared by parents in her area where, according to CA data, almost 87% of the population have received one or more doses of the vaccine.
But for Priya Nair Flores, a management consultant in San Antonio, TX, the vaccine is still out of reach for her son who just graduated fifth grade. “My son is 11 years old,” says Flores, “so he’s one year from the age at which CDC recommends children start getting the COVID vaccine, which is 12 years old. I and other parents of his friends talk about how much we wish they could get the vaccine. I believe in science.”
The science says that the vaccine is safe. Clinical trials have demonstrated even higher efficacy rate among adolescents than young adults (16-25 years old). The FDA just approved the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for emergency use in adolescents 12 to 15 years old. Moderna just announced that its TeenCove study was highly effective at preventing COVID-19 in adolescents ages 12 to less than 18 and will request FDA emergency authorization in early June. By this fall, children ages 2-11 could potentially be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. It will be the next major milestone in containing the coronavirus pandemic.
Even so, though vaccine availability across the US is going up, some parents are refusing to vaccinate their children, citing concerns about the newness of the vaccine and its potential side effects in the future. Public health experts fear that vaccine hesitancy will prolong the fight against Covid19.
Scientists and doctors emphasize that vaccinations are safe and offer protection from COVID-19. The CDC reports that some people may experience short-term side effects which subside after a few days but are normal signs that the body is building protection.
However, at an Ethnic Media briefing on May 21, Dr. Jose Perez, Chief Medical Officer at the South-Central Medical Center in LA, identified misinformation spreading on the Internet as a troubling cause of vaccine hesitancy in his patients.
Dr. Perez’ view was supported by surveys which found that fear and uncertainty about the Covid 19 vaccine ranged from its safety and efficacy to myths about infertility, and fetal cells in vaccines that could change DNA. Among 48% of people ages 18-49 , fear of future infertility was a top concern.
There was uneasiness that the vaccine was created too quickly, even though the technology for mRNA vaccines has been in development for decades and processed through the same FDA clinical trials for all other vaccines.
A KFF survey found that while 30% of parents with children aged 12 to 15 will get them vaccinated right away, nearly 23% definitely will not.
When it comes to vaccinating their children, households which have an annual income of under $25,000 or people who have only high school diplomas are the most vaccine resistant, added Simonsen, compared to most pro-vaccine people who tend to live in households making $150,000+ a year or hold a graduate degree.
But, for many parents explained Dr. Perez, whose clinic serves primarily Latino and African American working families, vaccination hesitancy is not a choice. Rather, socio-economic barriers keep many from getting the vaccine.
“One of the major reasons for lack of vaccination, is access to time off from work,” he explained. Parents who have just returned to work low-income jobs as day laborers or in restaurants, have to juggle taking an extra half day off to get their children to a clinic. Most of Dr. Perez’ patients use the bus, so it’s difficult to access public vaccine centers without a car.
“It’s a tremendous barrier,” he stated when “our patients are being asked to choose between earning a day’s living and or vaccinating their children.”
The KFF survey also confirms that underlying socio-economic factors cause vaccine hesitancy. People worry they may have to pay out-of-pocket costs for the vaccine. Fears about immigration status and vaccine eligibility have created vaccine hesitancy because of requirements for a social security number or government-issued identification to get vaccinated (34%), a lack of trust in the provider (32%), or travel difficulties reaching vaccination sites (15%).
Allison Winnike of Texas-based Immunization Partnership told KERA news that their data showed increased vaccination rates in communities of color who were initially skeptical, but that there were higher hesitancy rates among some people that self-identify as more conservative or evangelical.
As a parent himself, with children aged 3 and 4, Vivek Murthy empathized with the challenges of parenting kids in a pandemic which has percolated into kids’ lives in an extraordinary way. “Parents have had to have difficult conversations with their kids about why they can’t see friends and family or have to go to virtual classes.” But parents also worry about the risks of taking their children to the playground or back to school, he said, which is why vaccinating them should be the highest priority.
“It’s a significant disease. Kids are also at risk,” said Dr. Grace Lee, Professor of Pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. She has personally seen children hospitalized and dying from the virus. Lee pointed out that less attention had been paid to the ‘burden of infection’ on children, though AAP data has confirmed that 4 million children have tested positive for Covid 19 since the onset of the pandemic. She warned that the CDC noted that when adjusting for under-reporting or under-testing on children, at least “22 million children and adolescents 5 to 17 years have been infected in the US since the pandemic began.” Forty percent of children who are hospitalized have no high-risk conditions like asthma, diabetes, obesity or developmental delay or immune compromise issues, said Dr. Lee, “So, we cannot predict who will be hit more severely by Covid 19 infection.”
“We have to protect children from Covid disease,” Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a principal investigator at Stanford Pfizer trials told NBC. She reiterated that vaccines are necessary for herd immunity. Reports of long-term side effects in teens are only rumors spread by anti-vaxers she added. “There is no evidence that vaccines cause fertility issues – it’s an idea that “has been disproven over and over again.”
In Texas, Priya Flores agrees. “We are a family of scientists and I strongly believe that facts should impact your decision making.” As a healthcare professional, she was in the early wave of those vaccinated . “I felt lucky and grateful I could access the best of what science could offer. When my extended family who wasn’t vaccinated got sick with Covid, I was able to help them because I was better protected by the vaccine. It was challenging because I wanted my husband and kid to get it too.”
How to Move Forward
Getting that shot in the arms of adults and children means that “The role of people of color like me and professionals like me becomes very important,” said Dr. Perez. Providers who are POC need to dispel misinformation and encourage parents to vaccinate themselves and their children, because when “patients trust people that look like them, the more likely they are to listen to our voices.”
“We have paid a heavy price” said Dr. Murthy, referring to the unprecedented toll on human lives by the virus, but the US has a pathway out of the pandemic with its arsenal of vaccines that time and again, have proven effective.
In Texas, the CDC reports that 51.73% of Texans are fully vaccinated. But Priya Flores says her family is only ‘half protected’ from the virus as she waits for her son’s age group to be approved. “I often tell my husband our job has shifted from constant vigilance in general to vigilance for our son. We have relaxed a bit, but once again, …the virus hasn’t disappeared, and our fellow Americans haven’t decided to help our children gain herd immunity. So here we are again.”
“If someone asked my son to be part of a vaccine trial I would say yes. I believe in this vaccine and that it is safe and effective for almost all, with the understanding that there will always be vulnerable populations that need higher monitoring and consideration before deciding to take it.”
Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents image source: CDC
On May 13, after combating three waves of the coronavirus, the CDC released guidelines stating that Americans who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 can resume activities without wearing masks or physically distancing in most settings, indicating that the pandemic may be near an end.
But experts at a May 14 Ethnic Media Services briefing questioned whether it was too soon to go back to normal.
“Bubbles are beautiful, but bubbles do not last long in this world,” remarked Dr. Ben Neuman, Chief Virologist at the Global Health Research Complex at Texas A&M University. “Any vaccine bubble that may exist is going to be fragile, unfortunately.”
As Covid-19 outbreaks occur in Michigan, Florida and Puerto Rico, the AMA reports there is potential for a fourth pandemic surge.
And yes, the Indian B.1.617 variant is here, says the CDC. It’s monitoring the Indian mutation that the World Health Organization classified as “a variant of concern at a global level” because it may spread easily. According to the CDC, new mutations of the virus are more transmissible and are resistant to treatments or vaccines. These include five notable variants – B.1.1.7: (UK), B.1.351 (S. Africa), P.1 (Japan/Brazil), B.1.427 and B.1.429 (identified in CA).
Going back to normal could expose adults and children to deadly new strains of the virus and its variants, rippling across the US and elsewhere in the world.
Dr. Ben Neuman
Dr. Marc Lipsitch
Dr Rosane Guerra
Can America survive in its Covid-19 bubble?
Variants can burst our bubble said experts, voicing concerns about our vulnerability to virus mutations and the prospect of ever reaching herd immunity.
Dr. Neuman has been sequencing the virus strains in Texas, and has identified different variants thriving even locally. At the peak of Covid-19 in January, he found that 30% variants of concern were from the B.1.1.7. UK variant. By late April and early May however, he added, “every single virus …has been a variant of concern.”
The virus is changing in unexpected ways, explained Dr. Neuman, driving certain lineages of the virus out of existence. It’s a Darwinian process that showcases “an increase in viral fitness.”
But, without any checks or balances on the virus which operates on a short-term risk-reward cycle – a 6-to-8-hour timetable – scientists find it difficult to predict long-term movement.
You can trust a snake, a chicken, or a cat to act in its own best interests to the best of its ability said Dr. Neuman, but “a virus has no such impulse.” Instead, it has an evolutionary incentive that drives it not in the direction we would hope or expect, but in the direction of more severe, sustained disease.
Over time the virus will continue to mutate, and vary unpredictably, warned Dr. Neuman, and solutions will have to be updated continually.
“In this particular place and time, there is approximately a 100% chance that you will run into something that grows faster, and has the potential to spread farther, and perhaps hit harder than one would be expecting otherwise.”
The world has underestimated the virus over and over by relaxing restrictions and causing a virus resurgence, reiterated Dr. Neuman.
The question is, “Can we do the wrong things and still expect the right results?”
One outcome that scientists predict could keep the virus at bay or banished altogether is Herd Immunity, a popular concept that is mired in misconception and misunderstanding. Dr. Marc Lipsitch, Professor of Epidemiology and Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard School of Public Health, described herd immunity as a state in which completely immune completely or partially immune people in a population slow down transmission by making it impossible for the virus to pass through them from one person to another in a sustained way, “till the virus essentially goes away.”
Will vaccinations and infections create herd immunity in the current phase of the pandemic? Dr. Lipsitch believes that’s an unlikely scenario – even with the vaccines we have.
At the start of the pandemic, before lockdowns and social distancing, a person infected up to 21/2 or 3 people each. But compared to early versions of the virus, contagious new variants have increased transmissibility by up 4 to 5 persons each. To reduce transmissibility by a factor of 5, explained Dr. Lipsitch, means immunizing 80% of the population, a challenge that may be impossible given a number of factors.
At the moment, every variant in the world is present in the US. Immunizing the nation won’t be easy because vulnerable populations – especially racial/ethnic minority groups and economically and socially disadvantaged communities – lack equitable vaccine access, children under the age of 12 are ineligible, and vaccine hesitancy is prevalent.
In the US vaccine hesitancy is based on a lack of trust in its efficacy. At issue also, is that all vaccines currently available in the US do not offer 100% protection. But added Dr. Neuman, “I trust the virus less!”
While Yale Medicine rated Pfizer-BioNTech at 95% for preventing symptomatic disease, its stability depends on strict storage requirements; Moderna has a similar high efficacy of 90% upon full immunization, while the single shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine has a 72% overall efficacy.
There is also concern about waning immunity and about revaccination. Limited studies that exist clarify that antibodies decrease over time, but there is uncertainty about at which point a person is no longer protected.
Annual boosters may be necessary at a minimum, confirmed Dr. Neuman, but although each of the vaccines is reasonably effective against each of the variants, there is definitely a lower effectiveness against some, like those coming out of Brazil and South Africa.
It’s more the virus changing than waning immunity that will drive the vaccination cycle.
Defanging Not Defeating the Virus
In the wake of the CDC’s new mask guidelines, Dr. Neuman noted that people calculating what precautions to take – to mask, social distance, or get vaccinated – are making decisions predicated on the original versions of the virus.
As ‘stay-at-home’ lockdown measures gradually ease, NIH reports also say that much of the population may return to spending increasing amounts of time in inadequately ventilated workplaces, offices, schools and other public buildings, where they may be exposed to a risk of acquiring viral infections by inhalation.
So, in the midst of an ongoing epidemic, as social barriers to transmission are lowered without reaching herd immunity, and high-risk populations in the other parts of the world face vaccine shortages, we are “in some sense “ said Dr. Lipsitch, “not ‘totally defeating, but simply defanging the virus,” – just making it less dangerous to have transmission.
He predicts “a quiet summer” followed by “some virus resurgence in the fall” as people move indoors and continue to lower their guard.
Fighting the Virus at Warp Speed
All the experts argued that the only way out of the pandemic is to ensure that more vulnerable populations across the world get vaccinated.
Peter Maybarduk, Director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines Group, called for a global response at warp speed for the world – a catalyst for more funding, sharing resources and technical assistance, more manufacturing, and a definite plan to vaccinate everyone, everywhere, with at least 8 billion doses of MRNA vaccine within a year to make up the global shortfall.
Apart from the moral argument, added Dr. Lipsitch, “we like having interactions with the rest of the world, and for all the reasons we value the rest of the world, we should value their health as well.”
Dr. Neuman called for a single global solution to vaccinate everyone within a window of six months to a year.
Maybarduk, an expert on the Covax initiative which partners with the World Health Organization to get vaccines to low-income countries by sharing vaccines equitably, pointed out that wealthy countries have purchased much of the global supply of doses in bulk, so less than 5 % of the world’s population – only 340 million (one quarter of the doses already administered in the US alone) – have been vaccinated worldwide.
In Brazil only 17% of Brazilians have been vaccinated, said Dr. Rosane Guerra from the Department of Pathology, Biological and Health Sciences Center at the Federal University of Maranhao (UFMA). Brazil does not have an adequate supply of medication to prevent or control the virus.
Covax aims to vaccinate 20 percent of the world with a 2 billion dose target for 2021 but has only been able to ship 64 million doses, stated Maybarduk. Worldwide access to vaccines is hobbled by the lack of manufacturing capacity, inefficient distribution channels, and low production volumes, access to raw materials, export controls, meeting regulatory requirements for safety and efficacy, obtaining qualifications from WHO for manufacturing facilities, and by politicians prioritizing their own citizens for vaccination first.
Sharing vaccines and vaccine knowledge (like the Trips waiver) is imperative to overcome the vaccine shortfall Maybarduk suggested, and getting vaccines to those who desperately need it in other countries..
“We should not cross our fingers and assume all is going to work out.”
Fighting the virus is like mobilizing for a world war which requires collective, integrated human effort towards achieving one goal. “I don’t think halfway solutions are going to get us there,” said Dr. Neuman. Getting to the next stage requires an integrated effort that scientists know is doable but is ultimately a political decision that world leaders must make.
“It’s impossible to have any kind of bubble in a world when people can move between countries in the middle of an epidemic. We have to close every border to control the disease,” Dr.Guerra concluded.
The bubble could burst as restrictions are relaxed before the pandemic is under control, said Dr. Neuman. “I don’t think that is the path that leads to the fastest extinction of the virus.”
“Get the vaccine, wear a mask, and when the numbers go down, then you know it’s safe to relax!”
Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents
In traditional South Asian families, women trapped in abusive situations don’t leave for fear of societal scorn.
“What will people say?”
Our social structure, based on arranged marriages and multi-generational households, regard family as sacrosanct – staying intact is prioritized over individual wellbeing.
“Culturally in the AAPI community, …victims may be encouraged to stay in their situations for their families, for their communities, for the larger family,” said Monica Khant, at an April 23 EMS briefing on domestic violence (DV).
“That was something I had seen first-hand, that leaving their situation might being shame or embarrassment to the family.”
So, victims stay to avoid disrupting family dynamics, losing status, financial security, or children, but mainly because they have very few alternatives.
But during the pandemic, quarantining at home with an abusive partner because of stay-at-home orders, has made a difficult situation even worse for DV survivors. In fact, studies by the NIH reported increasing risk of family violence during the Covid-19 pandemic, stating that “domestic abuse is acting like an opportunistic infection, flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic.”
According to the CDC, approximately 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men report experiencing some form of IPV each year. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, law enforcement agencies across the country are reporting an alarming upward trend in domestic violence.
By March 2020, compared to March 2019, calls reporting DV increased by 18 % (San Antonio Police Department), 27% (Jefferson County Alabama) and 10% (New York City Police Department).
DV rates have spiked among women of color and immigrants who face additional structural and cultural challenges trying to access support from the government and community, even before the pandemic.
Narika, a 30-year-old, Fremont-based, domestic violence advocacy group with 90 % of South Asian clients connected to the Bay Area, reported a 3x increase in DV calls since the pandemic began, while the API-GBV has found that 64% of Indian and Pakistani women had reported intimate partner violence IPV.
Yet fewer survivors are calling for help despite being trapped at home in abusive situations. At API-GBV which recorded a 76% drop in calls and in people seeking shelters, Khant explained that survivors are unable to access phones or information on computers, so less calls are coming in for assistance.
You Can’t Tell the Police!
In South Asian communities, inaction and compliance by DV survivors has its roots in a patriarchal society which views DV as a taboo subject. Though we worship goddesses and powerful female icons (Mother India, Kali), female stereotypes in secondary roles to men are equally revered (dutiful, submissive, wives like Parvati, Draupadi), and DV remains a systemic, pervasive issue. Families are expected to stay intact. In fact, by raising awareness, Narika has been accused of breaking up families and planting ideas in survivors to move out.
Bindu Fernandes, the Executive Director of Narika explained that survivors don’t want to ‘out’ their family.
Survivors who reach out will say,
“I don’t want to cause any trouble, but if I die, I just want someone to know what’s happened,” and, “I’m probably going to be pushed down some stairs so I want somebody to know that could happen,”, and unequivocally add,
‘BUT YOU CAN’T TELL THE POLICE.’
In many cases in South Asian community says Fernandes, this is the story.
Findings from an ATASK (Asian Family Violence Report: South Asian) survey in Boston supports her claim. In the survey, 44% percent of South Asians said they knew a woman who has been physically abused or injured by her partner. Yet 5% of male and female respondents said that a woman who is being abused should not tell anyone about the abuse. Even though they overwhelmingly endorsed battered women seeking help – from a friend 82%, the police (74%), a family member (66%), a shelter (50%) or a therapist (48%); in reality, very few women from their communities actually do.
Their dependency and passivity, steeped in inflexible tradition, propels a vicious cycle of IPV and in-law violence.
Cultural norms and traditional roles force women to stay silent. Attitudes expressed in the ATASK focus group convey the insular mindset within South Asian families which prohibit survivors from coming forward and seeking help. Focus group members felt that the woman in a marriage becomes the property of her husband and no longer belongs to her parents. The group felt that in-laws play a critical role in ‘family violence’ within South Asian families especially in cases of dowry disputes. A woman cannot turn to her own family for help once she is married and parents are not supposed to intervene in the daughter’s marriage. Sometimes parents don’t take divorced daughters back.
Survivors face challenges accessing assistance because of a complex mix of family dynamics, immigration status, cultural mores, lack of English proficiency and technology access, and financial dependence.
In the AAPI community, when survivors with limited English proficiency call law enforcement, said Khant, the officer may speak to the abusive partner who has the dominant English proficiency which enables them to control the narrative. The same language access issue applies when survivors who seek help from medical or hospital facilities need interpreters; having to rely on translation services adds time to getting the attention they need, so sometimes they just may not go. In Brooklyn for example, a nurse said it took over an hour to get a translator for a survivor who used a less mainstream Asian language.
Women who do not have valid immigration status or are on temporary status are not eligible for assistance, for example, even Covid19 testing.
In the Bay Area, many immigrant women are dependents of H1B visa holders employed by Silicon Valley’s tech sector. When the Trump administration revoked their EAD 4 work permits, they lost their right to work and experienced increasing abuse, domestic servitude, and financial dependency.
Khant said that for AAPI community members who work in the service industry, the loss of jobs and lack of work increased financial dependency on abusive partner who is earning income, a key factor in DV survivors not being able to leave. Some of the immigrant DV survivors are ineligible for unemployment benefits because they don’t have valid work authorization permits and may not be allowed to apply for other benefits
Survivors who have lost jobs face eviction. According to the Census Bureau’s housing survey added Khant, 1 in 5 Asian renters reported that they were behind in rent payment as of September 2020. This forces DV survivors to stay with partners in violent and unsafe situations because they cannot afford to pay back rent. Narika said they issued $50,000 in cash assistance requests to survivors in the past year.
Transnational abandonment is the new manifestation of DV inflicted on immigrant women already besieged by the pandemic and loss of EAD-4 work permits. Narika reports 2 to 3 cases of transnational abandonment a week, where vulnerable immigrant women are abandoned in their country of origin by their husbands. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent within the SA community, in marriages where victims face domestic violence, emotional abuse, cultural alienation, or financial exploitation. Once they are deliberately removed from the US, these disposable women lose legal protections, rights to their homes, finances and even children. Narika reports an instance where a woman was dropped off at a grocery store and never saw her husband again.
There is no accountability as courts do not prosecute perpetrators or accept cases when victims are absent. Narika reports that abusers take advantage of differences in laws governing marriage and assets between the US and the victim’s country of origin. Nor is help available through VAWA which has few protections for abandoned victims who don’t reside in the US.
Where do we go next?
While there is a compelling need for broader language service access and more food pantry and housing relief, there’s a growing demand from South Asian families about addressing DV outside the traditional systems in place.
Khant’s work has involved observing existing laws (or a lack of laws and assistance in place during certain administrations), and recognizing the nuances in immigrant cases related to the legal system of DV. But first, she said, we need to acknowledge biases in responses to communities of color. In the land of opportunity with its many resources for DV survivors, Khant suggested a new approach is necessary to address DV in the South Asian community.
Traditionally DV survivors have been encouraged to follow the traditional systems in place – law enforcement, justice system, filing a complaint and following through with the courts.
But the pandemic has made it difficult for families to seek help from law enforcement or the justice system, so many families would rather go a new route to find resolution. At Narika, Bindu Fernandes shares that restorative justice is one approach that could form a pathway to helping families heal.
“DV is a delicate subject because it involves intimate relationships, family secrets, and it’s a subject many of us are reluctant to raise either publicly or in private. It’s embarrassing, sometimes even shameful to talk about. But we also know that staying silent (about the topic), won’t make it go away. Suffering in silence makes people give up….lose hope,” remarked Sandy Close, EMS Director, at the briefing.
Khant said her experience as an immigration attorney shows that, “If divorce or leaving the abusive situation is not the first choice, it’s the choice survivors only take after many attempts at reconciliation.”
Using social services or less criminally endorsed systems, “may get better traction in AAPI community,” said Khant, and help families find a path to reconciliation.
Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents.
I grew up in an environment where my grasp of English determined my intelligence and the colour of my skin determined my beauty. Undermining those with ‘heavy Indian accents’ or a dark brown skin tone were a part of the Indian mindset that what must be eventually achieved is “whiteness”. I attempted to be as white as possible with my brown skin.
When I came to America as a kid, I did not know much about systemic racism. It was a distant concept that I had not tackled in India. In my first week living in America, I was called so many names and racial slurs. I realized I knew of a very different world. Whiteness did not mean intelligence or perfection like I had previously believed. The white man has conned us.
At an Ethnic Media services briefing on March 26th, a few distinguished speakers gathered to discuss and explain the process of redistricting in the US.
Redistricting is the redrawing of political district boundaries – the boundaries of a district are redrawn to account for a relatively equal population and to have better representation in that community or district.
EMS panelist, Thomas A. Saenz stated, “Redistricting is the redrawing of district lines not just for Congress, but also for state legislatures, also for local bodies like city councils, county boards, boards of education, community college boards. Where those systems elect their representatives by district, rather than at large.” He further went on to state the reason for redistricting: “In the 1960s, the U.S Supreme Court concluded that each state and each locality must redraw their lines after the census to make the districts relatively equal in population.”
Once every ten years, after the census— the official count of the population— the district lines are redrawn to create a relatively equal population in each district and also have a better representation of people of colour in these districts and offices. This means that people of colour can engage and actively participate in communities and vote from city councils to legislative areas, it also helps create a better environment for minorities in their day-to-day lives.
Despite all these beautiful laws that should be protecting minorities, in the 2020 Census, the Trump administration was trying to change the way data was collected for the census from total population to citizenship population. This would mean that people under the age of 18, illegal immigrants, and any non-citizens in the U.S would not be counted in the census and lead to drastic misrepresentation.
The people that minorities may seek validation from are not even willing to count them as part of the population or have them represent a community in American society.
Leah C. Aden, who currently serves as Deputy Director of Litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund (LDF), stated that the next round of redistricting will be a struggle because in 2013, the Supreme Court “immobilized section 5 of the voting rights act.” This was a provision that stated some states require federal approval prior to redistricting, just to make sure that there was proper representation of people of colour as those states had elected officials who would finish the voice of POC to come up in power. But now, due to the immobilization, places like Georgia, or Texas, or Louisiana, will not need federal approval, potentially making it worse off for communities of colour.
The speakers at the EMS briefing gave concrete examples of how people of colour can be affected negatively in every community. The constant need to push out people of colour from finding equality and comfort in communities is just perturbing.
It’s been a series of events, the way white supremacy has constantly pitted people of colour against each other while simultaneously driving them out of political places that influence their daily lives.
I’ve seen Black people and Native American people scream on top of their lungs and seen Asian and Latino communities having to protest all day, just to be considered human. I’ve seen the privileged find comfort in their privilege and only raise their voice if the privilege isn’t extended to them. This year has perhaps been one of the biggest eye-openers…
As people of colour a lot of us feel tired. But I urge you to accept and love and define your own self. I urge you to unlearn the ideologies that have been instilled in you and learn that you are enough because you exist. You deserve respect because you are human. I urge you to decolonize your mind. To engage in communities and be the representation in society you want to see.
Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and is an aspiring creative writer who loathes speaking in the third person.
Sumi Patel opened Sumi Beauty in 2007 and ran a thriving cosmetology business
on El Camino in Mountain View for more than 13 years. A single mom with two children, Sumi built a steady stream of customers seeking beauty treatments designed with desi clientele in mind. On offer were services like threading, waxing, skincare, and facials, as well as special heritage henna treatments and make-up for brides to be. Her salon was popular.
“I’ve been going here for over a year and have always been so pleased with the results! The women who work here….both do great jobs at the Indian beauty salon,” says a testimonial on her website.
As Sumi’s clients became regulars, she hired an aesthetician to help with the increased workload.
And then the pandemic hit. On March 15, 2020, Sumi Beauty shut down as Governor Gavin Newsom’s pandemic regulations were enforced, flatlining Sumi Patel’s source of livelihood.
In Southern California, Sumita Batra, the CEO of a successful, family-run chain of beauty studios called Ziba Beauty, made a tough decision even before Newsom issued his statewide lockdown orders. She shuttered all 14 branches of her stores and laid off her entire team of 144 employees so they could file for unemployment benefits. Batra used her personal savings to fund their final paychecks and to keep her business afloat.
As the pandemic placed communities of color under siege, minority-owned small businesses like the ones run by Sumi Patel and Sumita Batra were among the hardest hit.
While workers of color were impacted by job losses, women’s job losses were significantly higher than men’s, reported Chad Stone, Chief Economist at The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), at an ethnic media press briefing on March 12. Stone co-authored a study which found that “Workers born abroad, especially women, were more likely to work in the industries hit hardest by the pandemic and have suffered disproportionate job losses.”
For both Sumi(s), the impact of losing a lifetime of work was devastating.
Ziba Beauty had been in business for 33 years since it first opened shop in Artesia, CA. It had served more than forty-five thousand customers out of its 14 studios. Batra describes the experience of closing her stores as going “into a complete meltdown.” Losing her business felt “like losing a family member.”
Batra applied for PPP funds “using every contact in her book and everything in her power,” but it still took several weeks to arrive.
“But my business is very small, so I did not get that much,” said Patel, who had to let her aesthetician go.
One year after the pandemic hit, the business has dwindled at Sumi Beauty. Before the pandemic, Patel would see at up to 20 to 25 customers a day. “Today, I saw one person,” she notes, after which she waited for 3 hours for a walk-in customer. Customers aren’t calling to make appointments Patel added. She does not understand why. On weekends, business picks up a little. “Maybe I’ll have 4 or 5 customers.”
Her salon can only accommodate one person at a time, as pandemic restrictions are still in place.
She briefly reopened last year when restrictions were lifted before shutting down again as infections rose. “My business is reduced to only 10% of what it was before the pandemic. We’re not back to 100 %. This whole year has been very hard.”
Ziba Beauty remained closed, announcing that its priority was the safety of customers and employees.
In March 2021 Biden signed off on the ‘American Rescue Plan Act’ -a $1.9 Trillion COVID Relief Bill which the CBPP predicts will help millions and bolster the economy.
Chad Stone reports that the coronavirus relief package and its new round of stimulus payments are aimed at “getting the virus under control,” so that life can get back to normal, reducing the levels of hardship many Americans have endured over the past year, and which has been particularly acute among people of color and immigrants.” It will provide a stimulus for an economic recovery that had stalled “only halfway back to full employment,” he added.
But the Congressional Budget Office projects that the economy won’t return to its full potential until 2025. Today’s labor market, says the CBPP analysis, is much weaker than the headline numbers suggest.
According to the CBPP, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell recently testified that “The economic recovery remains uneven and far from complete, and the path ahead is highly uncertain. . . . There is a long way to go.”
Sumi Batra agrees.
“Touch services coming back too soon will be one of the things that end up spreading COVID.”
At the risk of losing her 33-year-old brand after shutting down last year, Batra was adamant that she would not reopen until it was safe to do so. “I’m not going to feel comfortable opening up my stores and risking my team as well as my customers.”
Touch services like threading operate in ‘intimate spaces’ says Batra, where aesthetician and client sit in close contact. So a ‘phased opening is the right approach’ because a threading artist works differently from a hairdresser.
Unlike e-commerce companies, touch service industries need a phased reopening to facilitate a safe recovery post pandemic. Batra is calling for a separate stimulus for the beauty and nail industries, and suggests they need to come together to create a recovery plan that will ensure the safety of practitioners and clients.
Sumi Patel says though her salon now is fully open her customers are ‘scared to come back,’ even though she has implemented health and safety changes. When threading eyebrows on a customer, for example, she wears a mask and anchors the thread around her neck instead of holding it in her mouth, which is the traditional technique. She attributes the drop in clients to the fact that many of her customers from the IT industry, may not need beauty services now that many work from home, do not socialize, or travel.
At Ziba Beauty which has gradually reopened about 6 stores, Batra is using PPE and stringent safety measures. At the start of each day, each studio is thoroughly sterilized by a UVC robot, and bookings, payments, check-in and check out are contactless.
For Sumi Patel who has two kids to support, the loss of income has been a challenge
“Right now it’s a tough time. My only hope is that my business will come back – I hope.”
Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents.
Anjana Nagarajan Butaney contributed to this report.
Are variants more contagious? Will they cause worse infections? Are current vaccines effective against mutating variants? And should we take different precautions to keep safe?
Dr. Nirav Shah, MD, MPH, of Stanford University’s Clinical Excellence Research Center, fielded questions and concerns from ethnic media reporters at a press briefing on March 19. Along with other COVID 19 experts from the Bay Area, Dr. Shah shared information about new strains of the virus and safety net information for communities of color who want to sign up to get their vaccine shot.
“We cannot start to celebrate just yet,” said Shah, even though America reached an important milestone when the 100 millionth vaccine was administered on March 19.
The Story of Virus Variants
The emergence of variants has raised the specter that the current generation of vaccines might be rendered obsolete before they have even been fully rolled out. Are variants gaining ground and will they be immune to distinct vaccines before we reach herd immunity?
“It’s a race between how fast we get people fully vaccinated versus the level of disease in a community and how much transmission is going on,” explained Shah, about how a variant becomes dominant.
In heavily infected communities, the more virus particles there are, the greater the chance of one being different. All you need is a spike protein change, said Shah, which will give the variant a better chance of attaching to cells, so it spreads better and faster, becoming the dominant strain.
Simultaneously, as more people get vaccinated to combat COVID19, “the selective advantage of some particles relative to other particles, allow them to spread much faster.”
Now the race is on to get everyone vaccinated before the B.1.1.7. variant – the most dominant variant takes over.
“The story of virus variants is the story of evolution and natural selection,” added Shah.
Investigations of Variants
Currently, the CDC and WHO are studying the spread of three designated variants. Variants of interest -like the P2 which have ‘caused a cluster of infections’ in some countries, seem to be driving a surge in cases, though less is known about their transmissibility and lethality, or even if vaccine recipients are ‘fully neutralized against them or not’.
Their genetic sequence has some changes which suggest they may be more contagious, said Shah, and likely to be resistant to immunity bestowed by vaccines, treatments, or tests.
People are at greater risk from variants of concern that could reinfect survivors of certain Covid19 strains. Therapies and vaccines may be less effective against these strains which have “proven to be more contagious and cause more severe disease,” explained Shah.
Recent studies report that COVID-19 survivors and fully vaccinated people seem able to fight off infection from the virulent B.1.1.7 variant but may have less protection against the B.22.214.171.124 variant. Shah referred to research that shows the B.1.1.7 variant spreads about 50% faster and is more lethal, relative to prior strains of the virus.
The good news is that the existing range of vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna, Oxford/Astra Zeneca, and Novavax) have proven effective against this variant. But less is known about the transmissibility and lethality of the P1, B.126.96.36.199, and B.188.8.131.52 strains.
So far, however, assured Shah, no variants have met the definition for variants of high consequence which refer to strains that cause “more severe disease, more hospitalizations, and have been shown to defeat medical countermeasures” – like vaccines, anti-viral drugs, or monoclonal antibodies.
In the contest between vaccines and variants, “We will win the race by …vaccinating people as quickly…and broadly as possible” noted Shah.
An Annual Shot
Infectious disease experts liken variants to flu viruses which require new flu vaccines every year; scientists are even considering the possibility of multivalentvaccines designed to immunize against two or more strains of the virus.
“It’s a race of the mutant viruses against the vaccines…and to date, none of the mutants have escaped fully the major vaccines. The hope is that with minor modifications, we can get the continued evolution of the vaccines to match the evolution of the viruses.” It wouldn’t be surprising if the COVID vaccine was administered like a flu shot every year, added Shah.
Getting to Herd Immunity
The likelihood of reaching herd immunity will be a reality if at least 70% or more of the population are resistant to existing strains of the virus. However, as states relax public health restrictions as well as mask and social distancing mandates, herd immunity may be challenging to achieve. “More people getting infected simply means more chance of variants,” cautioned Shah.
I asked Dr. Shah if we would need a new generation of vaccines before the current vaccine roll is complete and if boosters would be introduced. “I am an optimist”, said Shah. “I imagine we would have booster shots by the fall but what’s important is that we all get that first shot, and make sure the vulnerable and elderly get theirs. That will make us collectively win”.
Dr. Shah reiterated that the Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use, are still the most powerful tools to fight all the strains of COVID-19.
“This is a race for the world,” said Dr. Nirav Shah. “We know the virus doesn’t respect any borders, and so we should be as broad as possible in our thinking about getting the vaccine to everyone across the world.”
The incoming Biden-Harris administration has an opportunity to immediately revoke implementation of the public charge rule, easing anxiety for millions of immigrants who have denied themselves federal benefits over the past three years for fear of losing their ability to upgrade their immigration status.
“Public charge will be a front-burner issue for the new administration because it is so entwined with our current public health crisis and connected to the pandemic,” said Daniel Sharp, chief of the Office of Immigrant Affairs in Los Angeles County’s Department of Consumer and Business Affairs. “We do expect the new administration to prioritize the issue,” he said in an interview with EMS, noting that President-elect Joe Biden had committed to ending the rule while campaigning for office.
If Democrats take back the Senate with the Jan. 5 Georgia run-off election, the incoming Congress has an opportunity to permanently remove public charge from the immigration code, said Sharp. He noted that if it is not permanently removed, a future administration could once again implement the rule, which has had an enormously chilling impact on immigrants even before it was formally rolled out by the outgoing Trump administration.
“It is going to take a multi-year effort to undo the harm that this rule change has set in,” he said.
The public charge rule, which was introduced with the Immigration Act of 1882, is a means test used to determine ineligibility for immigration or residency status. The seldom-used rule can be used by consulates abroad to determine whether an applicant could ever become completely dependent on public benefits; and by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to deny a green card to those unable to essentially pass a wealth test. Factors such as age, the ability to speak English, and future earning capabilities are used as determinants of whether or not to grant a visa or green card.
USCIS can deny a green card to immigrants who have ever used Supplemental Security Income; Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; general assistance cash benefits (welfare); Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called food stamps); Section 8 Housing or Rental Assistance; or federally funded Medicaid.
Public charge is not invoked during the naturalization process.
Critics of the rule have called it a “cruel wealth test,” used to keep poor immigrants out of the U.S. In the early 1900s, the rule was frequently invoked to bar immigrants from the developing world for permanent residency in the U.S. In more recent years, the rule has been less frequently invoked: prior to 2019, less than one percent of all immigration cases were denied based on the public charge rule.
Currently, more than 10.3 million immigrants use some form of federal benefits.
Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, noted that when President Donald Trump hinted in 2017 that he was going to implement the little-used rule, “the news spread like wildfire in the immigrant community.”
Even before the rule was finalized in August 2019, immigrants began denying themselves federal benefits, including school lunch programs, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which are not considered in public charge determinations; immigrants nonetheless dis-enrolled their children from the benefits, fearing possible impact to their immigration status.
Kulkarni referred to data from Health Affairs which reported that 260,000 immigrant children had been dis-enrolled by their families from receiving Medicaid since 2018 and 70,000 children were no longer enrolled in SNAP.
A paper published by the Journal of Pediatrics in December noted the severe impact of the public charge rule on children. “By tying the use of vital public health programs to immigration and residency status, the Administration is forcing a choice between seeking critical services or securing status in the United Status,” said the authors of the study: Nina Patel, Swapna Reddy, and Natalia Wilson of Arizona State University. They described the rule as impacting the most vulnerable children in the nation.
“Current anti-immigrant sentiment, rhetoric, and policy changes, such as the public charge rule, have resulted in a culture of fear, misinformation, distrust, and isolation, all of which have health implications,” noted Patel, Reddy, and Wilson.
Despite the current uncertain future of the rule, Kulkarni encouraged immigrants to avail of federal benefits, especially during the pandemic. “It is so important for all of us to stay as safe and as healthy as possible at this time, when we are living under the greatest public health crisis of our lifetime.”
“People should not go without meals, COVID-testing and care, and housing benefits,” she said, noting that the Biden Administration is likely to take a “180-degree turn” to remove the rule.
Sharp noted that immigrants in California also began dis-enrolling from Medical, a state-funded program, for fear of losing their immigration status. “People were confused,” he said, adding also that students dropped their applications for federal scholarship programs, which are not considered in public charge determinations. Benefits were also dropped by U.S. citizen children living in mixed-status families with undocumented parents or siblings.
At the start of the pandemic, Sharp’s office began receiving a record number of calls from immigrants who were concerned about accessing benefits. “The people most impacted by the pandemic were not applying for public benefits,” he said.
Sharp characterized it as a “double whammy.” Undocumented people, despite being gainfully employed with deductions taken out of their paychecks, did not qualify for unemployment insurance benefits, and they were not accessing benefits for which they were qualified to receive, he said.
The public charge rule is written so as not to be invoked during a national crisis, but immigrants have little understanding about the nuances of the rule, said Sharp. National election results, which brought Biden to office, held out a glimmer of hope for immigrants “that better times are ahead in the near future,” he said, but added: “We have been down this road before. There have been so many moments of on again, off again in this tennis match of implementation.”
After the final rule was rolled out in August 2019, it was immediately blocked by several lower courts.
On Jan. 27, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the administration’s Public Charge: New Ethical Considerations for Adjustment Cases and allowed public charge to be implemented nationwide beginning Feb. 24, just as the COVID pandemic began to take force in the U.S.
On Nov. 2, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked public charge in the Cook County v. Wolf case. Amy Coney Barrett, now a Supreme Court Justice, wrote the dissenting opinion, siding with the Trump Administration’s theory that immigrants must be able to prove self-sufficiency. That case will now be heard by a full panel in the 7th Circuit. Meanwhile, immigrants in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin must continue to file the I-944 form, a declaration of self-sufficiency, with their adjustment of status applications.
On Dec. 2, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in the City and County of San Francisco v. USCIS case, blocked the rule from being implemented in 15 states, including California.
Kulkarni said it is highly unlikely that the incoming administration will appeal the Ninth Circuit ruling. Consulates abroad have been blocked from implementing the public charge rule since July.
Although many feel the democratic urgency of voting this election cycle in the US, it is not uncommon to hear, “My vote won’t count anyway.”
Associate Professor of Political Science at SFSU and Researcher, Jason McDaniel addresses the importance of local elections as a “foundation for democracy” and a “pathway to racial-ethnic equity.” Whether it be, city, county, or state jurisdiction, local law supersedes federal law and can more accurately represent the sentiment of its community.
Entrenched in the SF Voting Data, McDaniel cautions that RCV can be a contributor to the confounding nature of ballot response but its results are that of a lower democratic deficit. He finds that complexities within the SF local election and lack of information lowers voter turnout for communities of color.
The US follows the First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system, in which you vote for one candidate and the candidate who receives the most votes wins the election. At the Ethnic Media Services briefing on October 6th, McDaniel reviewed Rank Choice Voting, also known as Instant Runoff Voting.
When RCV is used, candidates are ranked from 1-10 (depending on the number of candidates). If a candidate immediately has an outright majority (50 percent plus one), then that candidate is declared the winner of the election. However, if none of the candidates have an outright majority, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed based on their voters’ second choice rankings. The process continues until one candidate’s adjusted vote number hits an outright majority.
Ranking candidates requires more knowledge of all platforms and of RCV. McDaniels comments, “Reformers who want to change democracy often overestimate what voters care about…The vast majority of voters don’t have strong preferences for more than one or two candidates.” The idea of voters having multiple informed preferences in nonpartisan, local elections is quite novel, unheard of, and is likely a barrier to participation. Research shows that it is possible to recover the loss of voter participation.
Benefits can outweigh the implications of using RCV in a few ways:
This particular method of voting can mitigate “spoiler” candidates, where a candidate that may be a third choice wins an election to a split vote.
The candidate that wins better represents the majority.
Voters can cast “sincere” votes, unbridled by the burden of a “wasted vote”. Independent third-party candidates can be represented by a genuine vote, but if they are dropped during the process of RCV, then another candidate with a similar platform can receive that vote.
It can reduce negative campaigning because it may lie in the interest of multiple parties with resembling platforms to advocate for one another.
It can reduce polarization by rewarding moderate candidates. There is no research to support this yet.
Why stop at local elections?
India, which generally employs FPTP voting, explored a version of Rank Choice Voting in electing their 14th and current President, Ram Nath Kovind. President Kovind is only the second Dalit president elected in Indian history. RCV secured a notable win for someone like Kovind, who overcame countless adversity in his path to a presidential win, while accounting for the public vote in a substantial way. After his win, Kovind addressed the Indian populace, “My win should prove that even honest people can get ahead in life.”
An ongoing dialogue around voting processes can be beneficial for our communities and for reform. If not to change the process, then to better educate everyone around us.
Anni Chung, SF resident and CEO of Self Help for the Elderly, “Rank Choice Voting has always been a mystery to me, even now, after all these years.”
Voting can only be effective if understood. Keep the conversation going and go out and vote this November 3rd!
Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.