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Rahima Begum Wins AALDEF Lawsuit To Vote In Bengali

When the city of Hamtramck in Michigan goes to the polls on August 3,  Bangladeshi-American Rahima Begum will cast her vote for the first time in Bengali.

Rahima, 47, who lives in Hamtramck with her husband and two daughters is a limited English speaker like many in her Bangladeshi community. For years she struggled to understand the English-only election information that Hamtramck provided and relied on her daughters to translate the ballots when casting her vote.

Though Bengali is a minority language protected by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, and designated for language assistance provision in Hamtramck since 2011, it took ten years and a lawsuit for Rahima to win the bilingual-language assistance that was rightfully hers.

Rahima was a plaintiff along with Detroit Action, a grassroots organization that advocates for marginalized communities, in a lawsuit filed by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) against the City of Hamtramck, over the failure of its former City Clerk to provide Bengali language information and assistance in compliance with the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

The complaint prompted a speedy resolution by Hamtramck City Council to provide Bengali language assistance for its Bengali-speaking electorate.

“It shouldn’t have to take a complaint to ensure people comply with a law that they have been subject to since 2011,” said Susana Lorenzo-Giguere, Senior Staff Attorney at AALDEF. In an interview she told India Currents that with the new decree in place, Rahima and other Bangladeshi voters in Hamtramck will now have access to translated ballots and Bengali-speaking poll workers in the upcoming primary elections.

The win was a relief for Rahima who told India Currents that many other Bengali speakers were unable to vote due to a language barrier. “I know first-hand how difficult it is to vote. Other Bengali speakers may not have children to rely on. I am confident that it will encourage more people to vote and participate in the democratic system.”

A formula to protect eligible immigrant voters

Hamtramck sits 5 miles from the center of Detroit. It is home to a diverse immigrant population from Yemen, Poland, and Eastern Europe, and reflects the changing face of America as immigrants make the country their home.

Over the last 20 years, more immigrants across the US are becoming eligible to vote – approximately one out of every ten eligible voters is an immigrant. A  Pew study found that the immigrant electorate nearly doubled to 23.2 million since 2000.

But many of these voters have difficulty communicating in English. They need access to voting materials in their own language so they can cast informed votes. Section 203 of the VRA was implemented to ensure that  eligible immigrant voters were not excluded from the voting process by their lack of English language skills.

According to the law, when 5% of voting-age citizens are limited-English proficient (LEP) in a jurisdiction, local election officials must provide election information in the minority language in order to help them participate in the voting process, and ensure equitable elections.

“The law has a numeric formula of 5% or 10,000 of voting-age citizens who are limited English speaking in a jurisdiction running elections, like Hamtramck,” explained Lorenzo-Giguere, “and Hamtramck met that formula.”

Bangladeshis, who make up 20% of the population in Hamtramck, made sure their voices were heard in the 2010 census.

“What local advocacy groups did in Hamtramck is that they mobilized to ensure everybody in the community filled out their census form and also to specifically write in “Bangladeshi” on their census form, not just check off Asian Indian,”   said Lorenzo-Giguere.

“So that’s why the Director of the Census-designated Hamtramck for ballots in Bengali. Once that designation is made by the Census it isn’t reviewable, except if the next Census shows they no longer meet the formula. Under the law, Congress has decided that such cities that meet the formula must provide election materials and assistance in that language because that is what the community needs.”

Out of four jurisdictions designated for Asian Indian language assistance by Section 203 – (New Jersey (Middlesex), New York (Queens) and Illinois (Cook – Hamtramck is the only one covered for Bengali.

But Hamtramck’s former City Clerk made no such provision for its Bangladeshi community.  The city had an English-only elections website for its English-speaking residents and did not offer Bengali ballots, or adequate numbers of Bengali-speaking poll workers or interpreters at its poll sites.

Race relations upend civic participation in Hamtramck

Even though Hamtramck holds the distinction of electing the first Muslim-majority city council in the history of the United States, and is recognized as Michigan’s most internationally diverse city with a foreign-born population that stands at 41.1%, underlying racism still divides the community.

“We’ve heard that certain city ordinances have been disproportionately enforced against the Bangladeshi and Yemeni residents,” said AALDEF. “The vast majority of people responding to citations – too much garbage in their garbage cans, or hedges being too high, or screened-in porches – are Bangladeshi and Yemeni.”

“Despite the fact that there were gains in the election of Yemeni and Bangladeshi City Council members, the white, non-Yemeni and non-Bangladeshi city council meeting attendees like the city clerk, city manager, city mayor, city attorney, and other city council members, still controlled the way the city and city elections were run,” said Lorenzo-Giguere.

Hamtramck’s public officials exhibited prejudicial behavior to thwart immigrants trying to engage in their civic duty.

“Live recorded meetings show that a white city council member told a Yemeni city council member to shut up. A couple of years ago that same white city council member was censured for physically assaulting a non-white city council member with whom he disagreed. Before that, he had made public comments that the City of Hamtramck was dirty because of its immigrant residents.”

“Although the election of Barack Obama as the first black President was historic, it didn’t mean that there’s no more racism in the United States,” said Lorenzo-Giguere, explaining why the city lagged in its compliance with Section 203.

Advocates described how discriminatory tactics derailed Hamtramck’s minority communities as they tried to navigate barriers to casting their vote.

When Bangladeshi voters turned to Bengali-speaking exit pollers (mostly high school volunteers) for assistance, white poll workers came out and called the police on the volunteer Bangladeshi exit pollers saying that they were intimidating voters.

“It’s quite frightening, I imagine, for high school volunteers who were there to help their community.”

Community leaders who tried to offer assistance incurred criminal liability while simply trying to help people.

“Limited English-speaking voters would not have needed help with their absentee ballots if Hamtramck had just complied with the law and provided Bengali ballots and assistance. The voters couldn’t know that asking a friend to bring their absentee ballot to the clerk’s office was possibly a crime because the notice was only in English.”

“There is tension between this idea of voter integrity and actual voting access,” said Lorenzo-Giguere. “Unbeknownst to them, they may be committing a crime. There is the appearance of committing fraud though that’s not their intention at all.  It’s troubling the criminalization and weaponization that’s asserted when people are trying to vote or help others to vote.”

In October, before the last general election, Detroit Action reviewed a sample ballot and identified poorly made translations and other language inaccuracies.  The former City Clerk confirmed that the sample ballot was the same as what was made available to voters as the official ballot.

Community groups like Detroit Action, Rising Voices, APIA Vote offered their assistance to recruit election workers, and to look at the translations, and they were declined.

“So in the face of all of those declined offers and for the voters who had problems because they didn’t have Bengali assistance at the polls, or Bengali ballots or materials, or a Bengali website to get  election information, there was a clear violation,” said Lorenzo-Giguere, “and the effect was that it suppressed voters.”

In a statement, AALDEF confirmed it sent a letter to the former city clerk, August Gitschlag, alerting the City to specific violations under Section 203, ahead of its 2020 special election to fill the late Representative Isaac Robinson’s seat of Michigan’s 4th House District (including Hamtramck).

But Bengali speaking voters continued to be excluded from City’s 2020 primary and general election process despite 10 years of Section  203 coverage.

After a year without any response to specific notifications of Section 203 violations, AALDEF filed the lawsuit against the Hamtramck; the City resolved the complaint by agreeing to provide Bengali language information and assistance and convening an emergency meeting to approve the terms of a negotiated Consent Decree on June 30, 2021.

Hamtramck settles AALDEF lawsuit and agrees  to provide Bengali Language Assistance

“This lawsuit was necessary to protect the voting rights of this growing population and to remove unnecessary barriers to engaging in our democracy,” said Branden Snyder, Executive Director of Detroit Action.

“We are pleased with the results. These are good community solutions which we hope can be replicated for other communities and in other cities, even where they aren’t required by the VRA.”

Going forward, the city of Hamtramck will comply with the Consent Decree for all future elections, and provide accurately translated election materials in Bengali, assign Bengali speaking bilingual poll workers and interpreters to its poll sites, and appoint a Bengali Elections Program Coordinator and an Advisory Group to advise its Bengali Elections Program.

“The right to vote is fundamental and cannot be taken away or restricted based on English language ability, said Sarah Prescott, partner at Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter which served as pro bono co-counsel in this lawsuit with AALDEF; neither organization sought attorneys’ fees for their work.

“With this Consent Decree, Bangladeshi American voters achieved progress toward equality at the polls,” said Lorenzo-Giguere. “It is an expenditure that has to be made in order to comply with the law. And if the result is that hundreds of citizens can understand and participate in the voting process, then it’s worth it.

Lorenzo-Giguere applauded Rahima’s role in the outcome. “We’re hopeful that this lawsuit, thanks to Rahima’s bravery, will make a difference.”

In the primaries coming up, Rahima can vote in Bengali to elect Hamtramck’s next mayor and council members from a slate of minority candidates.

Rahima’s daughter Farhana is proud of her mother.  “I remember when I first told her about the lawsuit she was very nervous. She is a housewife, and this is the first time she got to do something big.”

“Her smile when I first told her she had won she said, oh my goodness I helped with that.”

“Sometimes when you are afraid, take a step forward. Big change can happen.”

Contact AALDEF to find out more about protecting Asian American civil rights.


Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash


 

Why Is Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy Worried?

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is worried that the pandemic is getting worse in the US.

At a White House briefing on July 15 to announce a new campaign against COVID-19 misinformation, he shared his concerns about an urgent public health crisis – the growing surge of new Covid infections in the US. “Millions of Americans are still not protected against COVID-19. We are seeing more infections among those who are unvaccinated.”

The CDC warns that a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” is on the rise.

Murthy’s view was echoed by experts at a July 16 EMS briefing on the current state of the COVID-19 epidemic and vaccine rollout.

The CDC’s José T. Montero said on July 15 alone, the CDC recorded 33 thousand new cases of COVID-19.

After a reprieve in early 2021, granted by effective vaccines, masking mandates, and lockdown measures, new COVID-19 infections are increasing, driven by lagging vaccination rates and the highly contagious Delta variant.

The country is witnessing an alarming escalation in the 7 day average of Covid infections added Montero –  from 26% to 211 % per day.

“It is quite clear that this pandemic is not over,” said Montero.

The upward trend is a warning.

Although 160 million people (48.3% of the total U.S. population) have been fully vaccinated, and 55% have received at least one dose, the rapid rise in infections makes it evident that the coronavirus and its lethal Delta variant has unvaccinated communities squarely in their sights.

“Our 7-day average is at 26,300 cases a day,” said Montero, the CDC Director for Center for State, Tribal, Local, and Territorial Support. That represents a 70% increase from the previous 7-day average. The CDC, which is tasked with monitoring the nation’s health reported a 7-day average of hospitalization admissions (around 2790 per day), an increase of 36 % from the previous 7-day period.

Montero emphasized that people who are unvaccinated account for a majority of the new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. Unsurprisingly, communities that are fully vaccinated are faring way better. Outbreaks of cases are erupting in different parts of the country “especially those with low vaccination coverage”.

The CDC’s Covid data tracker reported a corresponding ten percent increase in counties at high risk and a 7 percent increase in counties at substantial risk in the past week.

As of July 14, a total of 605,905 COVID-19 deaths have been reported. Almost 99.5 percent of the Covid deaths were among the unvaccinated, confirmed Dr.Fauci in an interview on PBS.

Surgeon General Murthy called the needless loss of life  from the virus “painful” and pointed out that “nearly every death we are seeing now from COVID-19 could have been prevented.”

So why is a surge in infections occurring despite the wide availability of vaccines available nationwide?

To a large extent, social determinants of health – “ where people live, work, learn and play”  – affect health risks and outcomes. Long-standing systemic health and social inequities in rural areas, for example, put some communities at greater risk of getting Covid.  But the uptick in cases correlates with low levels of vaccination and not in areas where a high percentage of the population is vaccinated.

Statistics shared by experts at the briefing confirm the virus is surging in pockets of the country with low vaccination rates. Cases are spiking in Yuba and Sutter Counties (California), which rate high on the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index.  Only 33% of Yuba County is vaccinated, compared to Placer County which has vaccinated more than half its residents.

“We are going to continue to see preventable cases, hospitalizations, and sadly, deaths among the unvaccinated, ”said Dr. Murthy.

He blamed the rapid spread of misinformation on the Internet for exacerbating the Covid public health crisis. His office has issued an advisory on how to counter misleading health information which “poses an immediate and insidious threat to our nation’s health.” Inaccurate content is poisoning the health environment and leading vulnerable people in high-risk settings to resist wearing masks, turn down proven treatments and choose not to get vaccinated.

“Simply put, health misinformation has cost us lives,” said Dr.Murthy, and is “taking away our right to make informed decisions about our health and the health of our loved ones.”

Current vaccines offer a measure of protection against COVID-19 and its mutations.

But the greatest danger ahead comes from the Delta variant which is quickly becoming the dominant coronavirus strain across the country. The Delta variant is highly transmissible and spreading rapidly. CDC experts confirmed that it is the most prevalent variant in the US, representing more than 57% of the samples being sequenced across the country. Less than a month ago in the middle of June, infection rates which were at 26% have gone up to 57%.

Dr. Lauri Hicks and Dr. Jose T. Montero, CDC

Lauri Hicks, DO |Chief Medical Officer of CDC’s Medical Task Force, warned that people who are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated were at high risk of COVID-19 and its mutations. She urged people to get vaccinated ‘on time’ and take advantage of the increase in nationwide vaccine availability of FDA-approved vaccines that offer protection against Delta and other known variants.

Hicks, who works with an independent advisory committee that makes vaccine recommendations, reiterated the importance of getting fully vaccinated. Pfizer and Moderna each exceed “90 percent effectiveness against illness including severe disease,” she said.

Hicks emphasized that completing the series of two doses for both vaccines offer effective protection two weeks after the second dose. She confirmed that there was no need to restart the series if the second vaccine dose was taken later than recommended – after three or four weeks.

“Not completing the series puts those who are partially vaccinated at risk of Covid, including the highly contagious Delta variant,” said Hicks, adding, “COVID-19 vaccination is our most effective strategy without a doubt to prevent infection and control the pandemic!”

At the White House briefing, the Surgeon General shared that he lost 10 family members to Covid, highlighting that the pandemic affects everyone.  As the concerned father of two young children who are not yet eligible for the vaccine, Dr. Murthy urged people to get their shots because our kids rely on us to shield them from the virus. Younger, unvaccinated people are more at risk, says a CDC study which reported that people under age 30 accounted for more than 20% of US COVID-19 cases. 

“We’ve come a long way” he said, “but we are still not out of the woods yet.”

As the Delta variant rips through unvaccinated communities across the US, how painful will it have to get before states reconsider their rescinded mask mandates?


Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents


 

Redistricting Strangles Voices in Minority Communities

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.

At an EMS briefing on June 30, in partnership with the Texas Civil Rights Project, Houston In Action, and Mi Familia Vota, advocates explored how redistricting has traditionally discriminated against communities of color and low-income neighborhoods.

 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


 

Out Of Sight. Out Of Mind. Why Seniors Are Getting The Invisible Treatment.

America is going back to normal as states reopen and Covid restrictions lift, but in many communities, the elderly, people of color and people with disabilities feel left out. Though vaccines have brought hope to millions of Americans, seniors are getting the invisible treatment in the race for population immunity. They are at the most at risk, the hardest to reach, and have suffered the highest fatalities from Covid 19.

Covid 19 vaccines are now available at no cost to everyone living in the US (over the age of 12+) regardless of insurance or immigration status.  Given that the world is bracing for the next wave of infections spawned by the virulent Delta and Delta Plus variants, why aren’t vaccines reaching vulnerable seniors who need it most?

Advocates at a June 5th EMS briefing explained why seniors are getting left behind.

Why seniors in minority communities aren’t getting vaccinated 

Overall, some 25% of people 65 and older have not been vaccinated though that number is possibly higher, said Kim McCoy Wade, Director, California Dept. of Aging, which co-sponsored the panel. Data showed shocking disparities about why older people in minority communities were not getting their shots.

Describing the vaccination trend in California, Wade said the variation in vaccination rates by race, ethnicity and age, and by community, was striking.

“The number that jumped out at me was that only 40% of Latinos over 60+ were vaccinated, compared to more than 75% of older adults (3 out of 4 seniors 65 + ) statewide – half of what the state is tracking for White and Asian American elders,” said Wade. The vaccination rate for white and Asian elderly in California is at 80%, and only at 60% for Black and Native American elders, she added. But older Latinos (60+) are the only racial group where the vaccination rate is much lower than for Latinos in their 50s and even lower for those in the 70-80 age range.

At issue in the vaccine rollout employed by the medical establishment, noted disability rights advocate Jessica Lehman, is that race hangs like a shadow over black and brown bodies.

It’s why people facing the greatest challenge accessing vaccines are seniors with limited English language ability from immigrant and low-income communities.


What’s stopping seniors from signing up for vaccines?

Typically, many seniors are isolated and hard to reach because they live alone, are homebound, not mobile, do not speak English, or cannot access the Internet. But there is a higher biological risk associated with age and disability, that the pandemic exposed with devastating effect.

Four percent of older Americas live in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, explained Dr. Louise Aronson, Professor of Medicine, UCSF, but accounted for 35% of deaths nationwide. Older people who contracted Covid when the pandemic hit were relocated to nursing facilities alongside the high-risk residents already there. There was limited or no access to testing or PPE for care givers, who in turn took Covid back into their communities.

For Infectious Disease specialist Dr. Rakhshan Chida, Medical Director at an OTP (opioid treatment program) clinic in New York, it was a nightmare that became reality.  Working in inadequately ventilated treatment rooms when the pandemic hit, without access to masks, PPE, or testing, Chida described the inevitable disaster as “working in a den of covid.” Every day 2 or 3 patients tested positive.

In March, at the start of the pandemic, half her staff of 40 contracted the virus, and Chida took the infection home to her 87-year-old mother who lives with her. While her mother made a quick recovery, Chida experienced severe Covid symptoms and was ill for three weeks. But she was back on the frontlines after her quarantine, to attend to her vulnerable population of active and ex-users, including those who are in the 50+ age group.

But Chida was starting to see signs of vaccine reluctance in her patients. One 73-year-old patient who developed nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea after the first shot, refused to get the second because her reaction scared her.

Fear of the vaccine is not an uncommon barrier reiterated Aronson, an expert on aging and author of the book “Elderhood”. While some seniors are primarily concerned about unknown side effects or allergies, there is a prevailing distrust of vaccines that stems from how quickly they were developed, and suspicion of the people responsible for decision making around them.

One of Aronson’s patients confessed she feared the vaccine would insert a tracking device into her body. Others felt their existing illnesses should preclude them from getting the vaccine when in fact the opposite is true.

“There is so much misinformation, particularly for the limited English community,” added Anni Chung, President & CEO, Self Help for the Elderly.

The fault lies in the US public health structure, remarked Aronson. Without a nationwide system, federal, state, and county websites employ digital strategies that don’t reach or address the needs of at-risk seniors, for the same reason that census and voter registration drives did not work effectively.

With little or no Internet access, it becomes harder for the homebound elderly, people in rural areas, and people for whom English is a second language, to get or receive communication from Federal, state and county health systems.

“Digital strategies are adding to the problem and to the risk,” said Aronson.

A study of Black seniors in their seventies, by Cindy Cox Roman, CEO, Help Age USA, identified gaps in their knowledge of vaccine facts arising from difficulty with digital access, and also from conflicting information obtained via a mix of sources – TV news, senior centers, elected officials, and libraries.

“Everybody does not have access to the web and cable is expensive,” said one respondent. “When the library is closed, where do people go for information? We are the lost generation of the information age.”

Chung, a member of the California Commission on Aging, said that elders could not navigate the appointment system. Some had grandchildren who hovered over their computers for 6 to 8 hours to get two appointments for their grandparents. But a senior who has nobody to help them “is at the mercy of waiting for something to happen.”

Even when seniors did manage to sign up for vaccines at mega sites, they encountered long lines and no seating which drove them away said Aronson. Homebound people had no way to get there. Unfortunately, the mega-site vaccine roll-out also kept away older folk who had been advised to stay away from crowds for their protection.

At Chida’s clinic in New York, one patient refused a vaccine, saying “We don’t leave the house so why should I vaccinate when I’m not going out and meeting people?”

The problem when elders don’t come out of the house, is that they remain invisible in the public eye, warned Aronson, but an older person of color who is homebound – is triply invisible and gets left behind.

Seniors with disabilities are another group getting the invisible treatment, added Lehman, Executive Director at Senior and Disability Action in the East Bay. She said nearly 1 in 10 nursing home residents died of Covid, while 1 in 12 died in long-term facilities, a crisis that took a while to recognize. Instead, hospitals with limited beds or ventilators were guilty of care rationing – making judgment calls about who to treat based on who they viewed as having a better quality of life. Often it meant that older people and people with disabilities were low on the priority list because they are seen as ‘expendable”. In Texas, for example,  Michael Hickson, a black, 46-year-old quadriplegic patient died of Covid after a doctor ordered his removal from a ventilator.

“The Covid pandemic is the most horrific manifestation of ableism and ageism we have ever seen in our lifetime,”  remarked Lehman.

 

How are states vaccinating seniors and at-risk adults?

In California, there’s a push to funnel vaccines from mega-sites to community sites, offer free transportation, phone lines in addition to online sign-ups, and drop-in appointments.

Community groups are getting outreach grants from the state, so trusted messengers – community leaders and partners – can address people’s concerns. In California, public health officials have planned town halls to reach minority communities. For example, Surgeon General Dr. Burke Harris will meet with the African American community and similar strategies will be employed for the Latino and AAPI communities. Gov. Gavin Newson has also introduced a lottery and gift cards to persuade the unvaccinated to get their shot.

High-touch community programs are necessary to reach and deliver information at a local level, using trusted messengers such as the local press, faith leaders, and caregivers. Aronson urged people to contact their health department to identify community groups that are creating vaccine access for homebound elders – fire departments, in-home supportive services, Meals on Wheels, the YMCA, and other community partners.

At her clinic in New York, Chida offered mobile patients metro cards and arranged car services to assist with transportation. About 27 homebound patients were targeted with single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccinations administered at home by nurses, and schedules for older patients were adjusted to sync vaccines with regular visits. Social worker representatives coordinated with the clinic to organize nurses, sharp boxes, PPE, consent forms and arranged dedicated outreach to patients at homeless shelters. And, the clinic coordinated with New York’s Department of Health to organize an in-house vaccination drive for  its own patients, including seniors.

“The community really has to step in big time,” and rally the community agreed Chung, because many seniors, especially in immigrant communities, are unlikely to answer phone calls from “official government agencies.”

In San Francisco, her Self Help team asked the Department of Health to identify alternative ways to get vaccines out to where seniors need them instead of waiting for seniors to come to get their shots.

Local health departments listened.  By March and April, they began to approve the distribution of vaccines through clinics, PCPs, primary care providers, and locations where seniors were more like to have access and are comfortable. At senior centers, people received shots along with their healthy meal packages.

“At one point 7 of our centers were reaching about 1500 people every day,” said Chung.

In April, Self Help and a community partnership team with providers from  NICOS Chinese Health Coalition, YMCA, Chinatown CDC-Self Help Chinese Hospital, and the Chinese doctors association, headed to a Chinatown zip code with the lowest vaccination rates to administer doses at congregate housing facilities. Through an intensive phone call campaign and neighborhood canvassing, they identified and contacted almost 1000 people in the tract.

”We were just very fortunate there were no major outbreaks in Chinatown,” added Chung. What helped was door-to-door advocacy and education early in the pandemic advising people to mask and practice social distancing, and trust in local, community health professionals. In an initiative to reach vulnerable bed-bound and homebound seniors, Self Help mobilized 14 doctors, 10 volunteer drivers, and 10 social workers, to administer vaccines to about 130 seniors. Self Help’s next vaccination rally in partnership with Walgreen will include a small raffle to persuade seniors to get the vaccine.

The panel encouraged reporters to cover stories from their communities to remind the government to add more resources where they were needed.

The pandemic is far from over cautioned Wade, and a true comeback will depend on being ‘laser focused’ on vaccinating older and at-risk adults.

******

In California, everyone age 12 can easily book a Covid 19 vaccine up via the MyTurn website, while entering to win Vax for the Win incentive program. My Turn also helps with organizing transportation and provides a list of hundreds of COVID-19 vaccine clinics accepting walk-ins, or call for services at 1-833-422-4255.


Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents.


 

Is Your Right To Vote Safe? No, Says Voting Rights Advocate Elizabeth Hira

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.

In California, CalMatters reports that schools do nothing or next to nothing to help eligible 18 year old students register to vote, because the state legislature has voted year after year to suspend funding for local initiatives. According to a USC study by the Center for Inclusive Democracy in February 2021, only 11% of 16- and 17-year-olds in California are preregistered to vote.

Both federal bills – For the People Act (S1), and the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, under consideration in the US Senate, sought to protect the rights of voters by pushing back the ongoing assault of voter suppression.

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.


Photo by visuals on Unsplash

Photo by Jennifer Griffin on Unsplash

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

 

 

Will They? Won’t They? What Parents Think About Giving Kids A Covid Shot

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.

In a White House briefing on May 19, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy urged parents to protect their children from Covid 19 and help turn the pandemic around.

Why Parents are Hesitant

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.

The Institute for Policy Research reported that young mothers aged 18 – 35 were largely driving the resistance among parents who indicated they were ‘extremely unlikely’ to get their children vaccinated. In contrast, said Matthew Simonson, a researcher with the COVID States project, fathers have become less resistant to the idea of vaccinating their kids.

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.

Why Parents Should Worry

A joint report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association found that Covid is now one of ten leading causes of death among young people who make up 22% of all new Covid cases, compared to only 3% a year ago.

“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


 

Can COVID Burst America’s Bubble While The World Battles The Virus?

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.

“If you are fully vaccinated you can start doing the things you had stopped doing because of the pandemic,” announced CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

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.

 

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

Photo by Marc Sendra Martorell on Unsplash

Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash


 

Store Your Energy, Go Green & Save Money Says Campbell Scott

Our Climate is Changing. Why Aren’t We?

Climate Reality activist Campbell Scott talks to DesiCollective about why Energy Storage is important for a sustainable economy.

When Texas lost power after two devastating winter storms  mid-February 2021, over 4 million homes and businesses lost power for several days. In Austin,  people were burning their furniture to cook food and to keep warm. 

 Campbell Scott says  this disaster was preventable. The  Texas electrical grid failed to keep up with the demand, and Texas repeatedly failed to protect its power grid against extreme weather.

What is the  science behind energy storage?

Can California halt the frequency of its rolling blackouts?

How do you store green energy when  the wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine? Are there energy storage solutions?

And what can communities do to advocate for a greener future?

We asked Campbell for answers.

https://audioboom.com/posts/7863188-store-your-energy-go-green-save-money-says-campbell-scott

 

Climate Reality Activist, Campbell Scott

A Primer on Green Energy Storage by Campbell Scott

Energy Storage is Key to Green Energy

Why should we start using green energy rather than fossil fuels? 

Renewable, carbon-free electric power, generated by solar panels and wind turbines, is now cheaper than from any other source.  If we are to reach zero carbon-dioxide emission,  fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas, must  be phased out. 

How do we store renewable energy when  sunshine and wind are intermittent sources: the sun sets every night or may be clouded over; the wind does not always blow.  

The solution is to store electrical energy when supply exceeds demand and to use that stored energy as demand increases.  It is just like “saving for a rainy day.”

Peak demand usually occurs in the evening as people get home from work, cook dinner and turn on other electric appliances.  Most generating stations providing on-demand power are typically natural gas powered “peaker plants.” So as electric utilities transition to renewable energy sources, it is necessary to provide a green backup power supply.

What are different ways to store energy?

Energy comes in many forms, and each can be stored in several ways.  

Wood, coal, oil and gas
These familiar fuels store chemical energy that is released when the fuel burns. It combines with oxygen to form, mostly, carbon dioxide and water.  Burning converts the chemical energy into heat, i.e., thermal energy, that we use to heat homes, cook food, heat water, power vehicles, generate electricity and run factories.  They are easy  to store in bunkers, railcars or tanks, and the fluids, oil and gas, can also be distributed in pipes.

Electrochemical Storage
Batteries are the most convenient way to store energy from electricity. 

From the end of the 19th century, the most common battery was lead-acid.  Lead-acid batteries can deliver high electric current during discharge and so are still in use today to start cars and trucks with internal combustion engines.  In  the mid-20th century, they powered vehicles, such as milk-trucks, that travelled short distances with heavy loads.  But lead is one of the heaviest metals, making lead acid batteries unsuitable for long-range transport. Gasoline and diesel were dominant until the recent development of affordable lithium-ion batteries that power today’s electric vehicles (EVs).

When a battery is being charged, current is passed through it and changes the chemical composition of the material at each electrode.  When the charged battery is connected to an external circuit (a motor, a cell phone etc.), it delivers the energy used in charging back into that circuit.  Lithium-ion batteries offer a greater advantage because they are extremely lightweight and can be recharged.

Thermal energy
For centuries, people stored heat by “banking the fire” at night:  blazing evening fires were partially smothered with ashes at bedtime to keep the embers hot, while slowing down combustion overnight.  

Today storage space-heaters and water-heaters do the same thing. In the electrical era, we heat bricks or water overnight when electricity is less expensive and then use the stored heat during the day for hot water or to warm the house.

German and Danish companies are developing thermal storage for utility companies, by heating rocks, bricks, or concrete blocks to well above 1,000 deg. C during the day when solar energy is plentiful. At night, high pressure steam is generated to drive turbines.

Gravitational energy
Gravitational energy is the storage mechanism  used in pumped hydroelectricity.  When excess energy is available, water is pumped uphill from a lower reservoir to an upper reservoir.  When electrical demand increases, the water is allowed to flow back downhill through turbines to generate electricity.  

At the O’Neil Forebay at the bottom of the San Luis Dam near Los Banos for example, the lower reservoir is also used to distribute water for other needs such as irrigation.  So, the lack of water availability may limit  electrical generation.  Also, this form of storage needs dams and there are not enough places suitable for building an upper reservoir. 

One solution is to ‘ invert’ the roles of upper and lower reservoirs. That means installing the lower reservoir deep underground, in old mines for example, and  building a shallow upper reservoir on the surface to create a large gravitational “head.”

Hydro plants are expensive. So, a Swiss-based start-up called Energy Vault, has developed a method to store gravitational energy, not with water, but with massive concrete blocks.  The unit uses a six-armed crane to raise and lower the blocks,  recapturing the energy used in raising to turn a generator during lowering.  The cost is much less than a hydro-plant and power can be ramped up in just a few seconds.

Hydrogen
Hydrogen, like oil and gas, can be stored in a container or distributed through pipes. It’s the lightest of all gases and burns in air/oxygen to produce only water.  

Hydrogen is colorless, but it has acquired several colorful labels depending on how it is produced.  Black or brown hydrogen is made from coal of different types and water, and has been used in industrial processes for two hundred years.  Nowadays natural gas and water are used  to produce grey hydrogen, as with coal, carbon dioxide is still a byproduct. If it is captured and stored underground you get blue hydrogen.  An abundant supply of cheap renewable energy makes it economically feasible to produce green hydrogen directly from water by electrolysis; the byproduct is oxygen which can be captured for industrial and medical use or safely released to the atmosphere.  

Ammonia
Ammonia is made by reacting hydrogen and nitrogen in a catalytic converter. Like propane, ammonia is easily liquified and stored under modest pressure. It’s used in many industrial processes such as fertilizer production, but it is also a fuel in its own right, burning under appropriate conditions in air to yield water and nitrogen.  

Both hydrogen and ammonia can also be used in fuel cells to generate electricity and thus to provide backup power for the grid, or to run motors in electric vehicles.  It seems increasingly likely that hydrogen, in some form, will play a major role in long-haul, heavy duty transportation: trucks, trains and shipping.  

Biofuel
Everything that grows under the sun is a potential biofuel, from algae and seaweed to crops and trees.  Even waste foliage from vegetables can be dried and burned.

Biofuels directly harness sunlight via photosynthesis, taking CO2 from the atmosphere.  However, in order to avoid soot and other pollution,  many schemes are being developed to process crops to yield more pure fuels, such as fermenting corn sugar to produce ethanol, or extracting oils from canola or soy.

Microbes and synthetic catalysts are being evaluated to “digest” various types of biomass to make better fuels, -the stretch goal being  jet-fuel.  Ideally,  biofuels will be used in facilities that capture CO2 and store it deep underground or use an industrial process that fixes it in a solid such as concrete. 

The future of our energy supply looks increasingly clean and bright, but we must urgently make full use of these new technologies in order to meet net-zero carbon-dioxide commitments in the coming decades.


Meera Kymal & Anjana Nagarajan Butaney produce the climate change podcast ‘Our Climate is Changing, Why Aren’t We?’ at DesiCollective.
Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

 

 

We Can’t Go Back Once Climate Change Hits A Tipping Point, Warns Climate Reality Activist Bill DeVincenzi

Our Climate is Changing. Why Aren’t We?

What happens when ice caps melt, forests die, the permafrost thaws and microbes multiply?

Climate Reality Activists Bill DeVincenzi and Erin Zimmerman join DesiCollective to clear up some misconceptions  about the pace of climate change. Scientists warn that we are in 6th extinction and that some of these changes are irreversible. Humans only have a ten year window to reverse the chain reaction of ‘feedback loops’ that are escalating the climate change crisis. The world is at a tipping point which can put us over the top to runaway climate change.

 

A Short Primer on Feedback Loops with Bill DeVincenzi & Erin Zimmerman

Climate Reality Leader Bill DeVincenzi

What’s A Feedback Loop?

A feedback loop is defined as a certain set of circumstances that can become self-perpetuating. They are present in everything from machines, and economics, to biological processes. They can be both positive and negative; however, in the case of climate change the consequences would be bad. Very bad.

Why Feedback Loops are Bad

Feedback loops are important to consider when trying to halt the climate crisis. And while entire books can, and have, been written about them, here’s a short primer on why climate action is essential now, and not at some point in the future.

When Earth Loses Its Best Reflector, that’s The Albedo Effect

You wouldn’t think the earth’s reflectively matters but it does. The Albedo effect, or loss of earth’s reflectivity is probably one of the most dangerous, and little known feedback loops. While much of the sunlight that hits the Earth is absorbed, some is reflected into space. You’ve probably experienced the Albedo effect if you have gone skiing or visited the high mountains in the winter. Snow and ice reflect around 85% of the sunlight that hits it and keeps the planet from getting too warm. But the volume of ice around the world has decreased by 75% in the last 40 years. According to scientists, we could lose Arctic sea ice completely by the end of this century. The ocean absorbs about 90% of the sunlight that hits it. So, we are replacing the best reflector, sea ice, with the worst absorber, open ocean. If you add in the loss of snow and ice on land as well, this adds up to approximately 40% loss of reflectivity. More heat absorbed means a warmer planet and results in even more ice melt and the cycle repeats itself.

Climate Reality Leader Erin Zimmerman

Permafrost Melt Releases Methane – It’s Wrapping Earth in a Warm, Toxic Blanket

Thousands of years ago, an icy cover in the North froze billions of tons of biological material to create Permafrost.  When permafrost melts, the biological materials thaw and then decompose, releasing the greenhouse gasses (GHGs) carbon dioxide (CO2) and Methane. GHG’s are like a blanket that covers the Earth, keeping it warm. As the blanket gets thicker (more GHG’s), the planet gets warmer. Today, permafrost keeps twice as much CO2 in the ground as there is CO2 in the atmosphere right now. If this CO2 is released, the consequences could be devastating. It’s vicious cycle. As global temperatures rise, the permafrost thaws, which increases greenhouse gasses and more warming. The cycle then repeats itself. The carbon dioxide is bad enough, but the Methane is 30 times more potent than CO2 in terms of trapping heat in the atmosphere.

The Jet Stream’s Deadly Loop De Loop

The Jet Stream ironically, is an actual loop of air current. It circles high above the earth around the Northern hemisphere between the colder north and the warmer south. The temperature differential between the two keeps the jet stream in place; however, the temperature in the North is increasing 2 to 3 times as fast as the temperature in the South. This is pushing the jet stream South; the further South it wanders, the more it picks heat from the South to carry North. This reinforces the cycle and causes wild and unpredictable changes in weather, from extreme cold spells in the South (ice storms inTexas!) to hotter days in the Arctic (or 100.4F in Siberia!). Dry areas become drier, and wet places get wetter.

Stand Up to The Folly of Fossil Fuels

As you have probably noticed, all the feedback loops start with fossil fuel emissions. If we reduce fossil fuel emissions, stop deforestation, and re-green the Earth, we can prevent or start to reverse these feedback loops.

Advocate for Climate Action or Elect Leaders Who Will

The single most important thing we can do is elect leaders who will move us in the right direction. We must vote in political leadership that will take on this problem and collaborate with other countries around the world. It is up to us to continue to put pressure on our local legislators to support the administration in the effort.

Regardless, the planet will continue to exist just fine, albeit a lot warmer, like in the time of the dinosaurs. We humans may not exist, nor would many of the species that now exist with us. So, we can sit back and let global warming wipe us out. Or we can act now to save ourselves and our fellow species. We have total control over this.

Let’s make it happen!


Meera Kymal & Anjana Nagarajan Butaney produce the climate change podcast ‘Our Climate is Changing, Why Aren’t We?’ at DesiCollective.

Photo by Hans-Jurgen Mager on Unsplash

Students Kaushik Tota, Radhika Agarwal, & Peri Plantenberg Make ‘Clean Energy’ Waves In The Bay Area.

Our Climate is Changing. Why Aren’t We?

Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action advocates Kaushik Tota, Radhika Agarwal and Peri Plantenberg are still in high school, but their climate change activism is making ‘clean energy’ waves across the Bay Area! Their team is spearheading climate change reform and has successfully influenced environmental policy in Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Cupertino, for starters.

Reach Codes mean anything to you? Listen to why these committed young climate change advocates are driving reform to safeguard the environment, and standing up for their future before it’s too late.

Kaushik Tota
Radhika Agarwal
Peri Plantenberg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kaushik Tota suggests “If you are interested in joining a youth-led environmental initiative, options run the gamut from community engagement to policy advocacy. The Climate Youth Ambassador Program is a youth-led environmental education organization that aims to equip individuals (especially children) with resources and knowledge to lead sustainable lifestyles. Organizations such as Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action and the Youth Public Policy Institute (both of which I’m a member of) are working on all sorts of climate policies with varying scopes—you can join an existing city team or advocacy team, or start a new team if one doesn’t exist yet.”


Meera Kymal & Anjana Nagarajan Butaney produce the climate change podcast ‘Our Climate is Changing, Why Aren’t We?’ at DesiCollective.

Erase Your Carbon Footprint. Save Our Earth, Says Seema Vaid

Our Climate is Changing. Why Aren’t We?

Going vegan or  reducing your carbon footprint does not mean you’re losing your lifestyle or giving it up, when in fact you’re actually gaining a better relationship with your health, with nature and especially the environmental legacy you leave behind for future generations.

Climate Reality Activist Seema Vaid

The facts are simple, says Seema Vaid. Every day a vegan saves one animal’s life, 11 hundred gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 20 pounds of CO2, and 30 square feet of forested land.

Do you want to figure out your own carbon footprint? Go to footprintcalculator.org

 

Bay Area Climate Reality activists Seema Vaid and Erin Zimmerman, Ph.D,  tell DesiCollective why reducing our carbon footprint will help save the environment.

 


Meera Kymal & Anjana Nagarajan Butaney produce the climate change podcast ‘Our Climate is Changing, Why Aren’t We?’ at DesiCollective.
Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Bay Area Activist Erin Zimmerman Checks If Biden’s Climate Agenda Stacks Up On Earth Day

Our Climate is Changing. Why Aren’t We?
Bay Area Climate Reality Leader Erin Zimmerman, Ph.D (she has a doctorate in Political Science), talks to DesiCollective about President Biden’s executive actions on climate change and what the political and financial implications of his ambitious agenda  will mean for all of us.
Will it drive more technological innovations for green tech in Silicon Valley?

 


Meera Kymal & Anjana Nagarajan Butaney produce the climate change podcast ‘Our Climate is Changing, Why Aren’t We?’ at DesiCollective.