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Suvita’s Solution to Mass Vaccinations Involves Gossip

(Featured Image: Pippa Ranger, Innovation Advisor, DFID)

In the wake of the COVID 19 pandemic, vaccination is a hot topic globally. In America, 400,000 people have died. We still don’t have a uniform understanding of the efficacy, distribution, availability, and side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines.

Thankfully our 46th President, Joseph R. Biden has signed several executive orders including a 100-day mask mandate, to use the Defense Production Act to ramp up vaccine production, mount a vaccination campaign and expand testing and treatment. While we struggle to rid some people of their vaccine hesitancy in the US, countries with less robust economies, have problems with logistics. 

Vaccines are available but children are not getting vaccinated against communicable diseases like polio, mumps, measles, and rubella. The majority of the world’s undervaccinated children are in India (about 10 million each year). A child dies in India every 4 minutes from a disease that could have been prevented by a vaccine.

What an appalling loss of human life in the 21st century! The government of India is aware of this problem, and they have vaccines but local health departments in rural and semi-urban India need assistance streamlining access to children. As a medical student at LTMMC, we went on vaccination drives to the Dharavi slums, but door to door vaccination, although effective, is very labor-intensive and may not be feasible because of the lack of manpower and portability of temperature-sensitive vaccines. WHO is encouraging think tanks to come up with innovative solutions. 

Last week, I talked to Varsha Venugopal who is the point person in the United Kingdom for Suvita, a non-profit organization.

Suvita came up with a practical solution brainstorming with a network of young like-minded affiliates. What if they used the most accessible communication device, a cell phone, to solve this problem? Team Suvita recognized that most families in India have at least one cell phone. If they could send an SMS reminder to the parents to take their kids for immunization, they would improve compliance.

Prevent disease! Save lives!

But to make the message more effective, they went one step further. They based their policy and procedures on a Nobel prize-winning work of Abhijit Banerjee, who received 2019 The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty.”

It employed the idea of using the so-called “village gossip” or euphemistically speaking, an ambassador to influence human behavior. Having them send personalized SMS reminders to caregivers, informing them when their child is due for a vaccination, worked. Not only did this approach reduce the workload of individual health care workers, but emerging evidence also suggests that a combination of both these methods is more effective and more cost-effective than either in isolation.

Mother and child in Saran district, Bihar

So far 200,000 parents have enrolled in Suvita”s SMS program. Their staff has achieved the following milestones: a signed Memorandum of Understanding with the Maharashtra Family Welfare Bureau and partnerships with Maharashtra and Bihar state governments. There are 100,000 eligible children in the Saran district of Bihar. They plan to reach at least 50,000 eligible children in 2021. Scaling up SMS reminders program starting with 2 districts in Maharashtra and the whole of Saran district over the course of 2021.

Like all wonderful projects, Suvita’s efforts have faced a few challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic lockdown has affected access to ambassadors and parents. As the program expands, there will be a need for additional funds for staff workers and carefully selected volunteer immunization ambassadors. Measures are in place to protect the personal information of users, thereby limiting the risk of a data breach and exposure of personal information to data-hungry merchants.

If Suvita takes appropriate security precautions and the model thrives, this nudge technique can be expanded to many health, wellness, education, and safety programs. It’s wonderful to harness the self-proclaimed busybodies/gossips for social and economic betterment.

I would like to share an interesting personal anecdote to illustrate Suvita’s role model with you. While writing this article, I was explaining the concept of vaccination to a ten-year-old. After three rounds of easy-to-understand information about the basic concept of vaccination, he had a question. He said: “ Grandma, are you stating a fact, or are you telling me a story?” I was amazed at his query. He questioned my source because I was not in his “peer” group but if the same information would have come from his friend or known social media platform, he would have accepted it! 


Monita Soni is a pathologist. She has one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity. Monita has published many poems, essays, and two books, My Light Reflections and Flow Through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.

Our New Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy Brings Us Together

Loneliness is like a cold hand resting on your heart. It can tighten your chest, and make you desperate with longing for company and support. I have certainly felt it on many an occasion: while new to a place, recovering from a loss, a death, a fractured friendship. You may have too. It can only be shaken off by the warm hand of a friend, a loved one, or sometimes, even a stranger.

Vivek Murthy’s book Together, The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World was written before the COVID-19 pandemic and was published in April 2020. Many of its observations, however, have a heightened bearing in the pandemic. In an interview published in the LA Review of Books, Murthy defined it eloquently: “Loneliness exists in that gap between the social connection we need, and the social connection we feel is available to us.” In the book, he calls loneliness “the great masquerader” as it can appear in different forms such as “anger, alienation, sadness, and a host of distressing emotional states.”

Vivek Murthy comes across in this book as a gentle soul, deeply understanding of the feelings of loneliness from his own life experiences. This understanding, coupled with his medical training, scientific bent, intellectual curiosity, keen powers of observation, and obvious commitment to public health makes this a very readable, thought-provoking book.

His tone, sincerity, and story-telling skills reminded me of another physician and author, Abraham Verghese, whose book The Tennis Partner is a beautiful account of friendship, addiction, and loneliness.

Murthy starts by laying out the different types of loneliness identified by research: 

  • Intimate, or emotional, loneliness – the longing for a close confidante or intimate partner;
  • Relational, or social, loneliness – the yearning for quality friendships and social companionship and support;
  • Collective loneliness – the hunger for a network or community of people who share your sense of purpose and interests.

All three dimensions are needed for us to thrive; one may have fulfillment in one or two areas but still feel lonely.

Murthy makes the case for how loneliness has evolved, the scientific, neurological underpinnings. Throughout history and evolution over millions of years, humans have depended on community for survival. Together, humans were stronger and better able to withstand dangers, such as attacks by other groups. When one strayed or was separated from the group, one’s very life could be at risk. Hence, the importance of community is practically hardwired into us.

The science underlying loneliness, along with the implications to one’s health, is well researched by Murthy and presented with the requisite references. Dr. John Cacioppo, one of the founders of the field of social neuroscience, first likened loneliness to hunger and thirst, as an important warning signal with biochemical and genetic roots, calling it “a biological and social imperative rooted in thousands of years of human evolution.” The work of Dr. Julianne Holt-Lundstad, a health and social psychologist, showed that weak social connections can be a significant danger to our health.

There are fascinating accounts of research into brain activity during the times we are engaged with others. One of the most striking findings for me was to learn that the same part of the brain that responds to physical pain also responds to emotional pain. Connecting the dots, Murthy makes the connection clear: that people in emotional pain and despair often reach for a numbing drug or drink, as they might for physical pain. This is particularly insightful for the opioid epidemic, from which society is currently reeling.

Murthy’s relates several examples of how people’s lives have been affected by loneliness: children, young, middle-aged, and older adults, both men and women. His account of his own childhood, being bullied for looking and sounding different, will strike a chord with many who have struggled with fitting in and felt they didn’t belong. In a section of friendships among middle school girls, I paused to remember my own daughter’s deep sadness when a close friendship broke off. So many children go through this in middle school, a critical period in their social and emotional development. Support and love are essential to help them tide over such times, until they feel more secure in themselves.

Some of Murthy’s accounts of children subjected to toxic stress (from neglect and or abuse) were heartbreaking. He said studies that have shown, mercifully, that all it takes is one caring adult to prevent and reverse the effects. He gives the example of  Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America,  a non-profit which matches children with supportive adults in one-to-one mentoring relationships.

While the physiological underpinnings of loneliness are the same for all, circumstances may vary, and the effective countermeasure depends on individual inclinations, preferences, and reservations people may have. It’s no big secret or surprise that men are typically less inclined to openly share what is troubling them than are women. Their styles of communicating, and hence their preferred ways of seeking and finding comfort and support, are very different. For example, “Men’s sheds”, local non-profit organizations where men gather around a common activity, build trust, companionship, and community, is an initiative that was started in one locality in Australia and has spread to different parts of the world.

In the second section of the book, he speaks of the different ways we can connect with one another to preempt or assuage loneliness, and with that, be on the path to a healthier life and a healthier society. The circles of connection he describes track with the different types of loneliness; the friendship circles consist of:

  • an inner circle of close friends and confidants,
  • a middle circle of occasional companions, and
  • an outer circle of colleagues and acquaintances.

In a beautiful section on the importance of solitary reflection, Murthy encourages us to tune in to ourselves with an analogy to the heart pumping blood: while the heart pumps blood in systole, it is in diastole that the blood is supplied with oxygen. Hence, “pausing is what sustains the heart.” Art, music, reading, and being in nature are all experiences that can be enjoyed in solitude but make us feel connected with others. One shining example for me is that of Andrea Bocelli on Easter Sunday, singing “Amazing Grace” from the Duomo Cathedral in Italy at the height of the pandemic, bringing the whole world together as we all sat apart in fear and worry. I wrote of this and other ways we have been able to come together during the pandemic.

Murthy describes the three-way relationship between service, loneliness, and addiction. He quotes Rabindranath Tagore, India’s Nobel laureate poet, and from the scriptures of Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, all of which have service written into them. I was reminded of a prominent scientist in the bay area, the late Nagesh Mhatre, who would exhort people “If you are feeling down, find someone who is suffering more and help them. You will both feel better.” The very act of helping someone makes one feel more needed, less lonely, adds a feeling of self-worth.

There are several inspiring examples of individuals, a college freshman named Serena Bian, for one, who surmounted her feelings of loneliness and depression. Even with these inspiring anecdotes and observations, the second section doesn’t hold together as well as the first. There are newer problem statements: connecting kids in the digital age, seeking support from one’s community during parental crises. Parents struggle with childcare. When anything goes awry, a carefully constructed day can fall apart in minutes. While this book was written in pre-pandemic days, parents’ struggles have only become greater. Being responsible for months for children’s schooling from home has stretched many a family to breaking point. Those who must work outside the home have sometimes been forced to make a choice between work and caring for their children. Most of the time, the burden falls on women. The economics are sobering. There have been articles stating that in the workplace, the pandemic will set back women by decades.

While the last two chapters are filled with inspiring anecdotes, I am left wondering how all this can be formalized, how scalable the approaches are without a coordinated nationwide initiative. It requires effort, work, to build community, and it might take more energy than many have when they are burdened by their circumstances or depression.

In America, we live in a deeply individualistic society. Murthy seems optimistic of the ways in which we can build community even with everything that keeps us apart. I find myself less hopeful: since this book was published, we have had the most sobering, divisive period in American history since the struggle to end segregation. Building community seems harder now than ever. On the positive side, we have a new administration, of which Murthy is an important part, and perhaps there will be change for the better.

Towards the end of the book, Murthy’s states surprisingly that “as hard as we may work… the future will depend on our children. It’s up to all of us to teach them how to build a more connected and compassionate world.” Indeed it is, we must strive to be good parents. But are we to just kick the can down the road to our children? I was reminded of Greta Thunberg’s outrage at the 2019 UN climate summit when she exclaimed to the adults who had left things to her generation: “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back at school on the other side of the ocean. You come to us young people for hope. How dare you?”

This book presents an important concept that leads to a policy focus on child development. How about assuring social-emotional development at the national level, instead of relying on countless non-profit organizations to pick up where schools and society have dropped the ball? 

In Amanda Gorman’s powerful words, delivered at the inauguration of President Joe Biden.

“…our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation.

Our blunders become their burdens.

But one thing is certain:

If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our

legacy and change, our children’s birthright.”

Vivek Murthy has used his pulpit to shine a light on a key contributor to our health and well-being. This book explicitly callout loneliness as a critical contributor to much of what ails us, our physical health as well as the health of our society. If the purpose of the book is to increase awareness and understanding, it has succeeded. If it is to show a clear path forward, it falls short. A diagnosis is the first step. A remedy must follow. In the UK, in 2018, an initiative to combat loneliness was started at the ministerial level. It is not clear what progress has been made. Perhaps the US needs to follow suit.

Dr. Murthy is in a position to chart out the role the government might play, now that he is starting his second stint as Surgeon General, this time in the Biden administration. With his deeply realized perspective on loneliness and health, perhaps we can expect to see more work on this front.

All the best, Dr. Murthy, and Godspeed.

Upcoming Silicon Valley Reads book events are shown here.


Raji Pillai lives in the SF Bay Area and writes at www.rajiwrites.com where this article was originally published. 

Game Theory Explains the Pandemic

The COVID-19 spell has left governments, markets, and civil society wobbling through disruptions and damage. The ambiguity that envelops not only the evolution of the disease but also its impact makes it a challenging and complex task for policymakers to devise a suitable policy response.

The pandemic has brought to the forefront some key ethical questions that we must explore. The ‘Human gene’ is thought of as the most skilled of making a choice based on ‘free will’, on ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’. From the study of human behavior, it is widely known that the current setting can be related to the behavior of people, the choices they make, and the human tendency for cognitive error, to be able to forecast patterns and design effective interventions.

Today, the whole world stands on the edge, geopolitics at a cusp, policymakers in a dilemma, to generate an appropriate policy response. This is the classic case for strategic thinking and can, therefore, draw on insights from behavioral economics and game theory. The former is a field of social sciences that is a blend of economics and psychology and looks into human decision-making behaviors, whereas the latter is the study of models based on strategic interactions between players, on rational choice and on maximizing behavior by the people.

In the context of the pandemic, the questions that come to one’s mind are:

  • How to encourage – and sustain – cooperation?
  • How to incentivize social distancing amongst people?
  • How to get various organizations and authorities to better coordinate?
  • How to get countries to cooperate and coordinate?

Game theory is the science of strategy that deals with outcomes that are produced by interactions, based on the behavior of the players. It is a tool to study interactions in the context of interdependencies.

A “game” is any situation involving two or more “players” in which the “fate” of each player depends not only on her “actions” but also on the actions of the other players. Some notable points are:

  1. A “situation” can be economic, social or political, etc. (e.g., social distancing). 
  2. A “player” can be a person or a group such as a firm, a political party, a country, etc. (e.g., a citizen). 
  3. The “fate” of a player is what she cares about such as profit, happiness, winning an election, growth, money, pay-offs, etc. (e.g., catch the virus or not, and keep one’s job or not). 
  4. An “action” is a choice or a strategy. (e.g., to social distance or not).

The main ingredients of a Game:

  1. Who are the players?
  2. What strategies does each player have
  3. What are the payoffs for each player?

The novel Covid-19 pandemic seems like a real-time situation that can be fitted well into the basic game theory model called the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’. The prisoner’s dilemma is basically a game in which there is an incentive to make a choice that may not produce the best possible or optimal outcome for the group as a whole.

Some aspects of this pandemic reflect the same premise, such as the decision to maintain social distancing during a pandemic looks a lot like a move in a multiplayer form of this game. One can either cooperate, and do something that costs a little while helping those around, or deviate, and bring one, a small benefit but at a greater cost to those around oneself. 

If one maintains social distancing, it is not necessary that he/she will not contract the virus as it also depends on what others are doing. Thus, it is a ‘game’-there are strategic interactions.

Let us say, we have a two-player Prisoner’s dilemma game. Both players ‘A’ and ‘B’ have two choices. Choice ‘C’, in which both choose to maintain social distancing and hence cooperate and, choice ‘D’, where they both deflect and do not social distance. The payoff matrix is given below:

Player B

Player A

Strategies C D
C 5,5 (C, C) 0,8 (C, D)
D 8,0 (D, C) 1,1 (D, D)

 

The efficient outcome is (C, C) with respective payoffs (5,5). This occurs when they both agree to cooperate and maintain social distancing. This is the result of ‘Collective rationality’. The outcome “(5,5)” is preferred by both (everyone) but is unstable in that each person has an “incentive to cheat” – there is a temptation to go out when everyone is locked inside their respective homes. However, here both the players have a unilateral incentive to deflect and this outcome becomes unstable and fragile. Each player becomes vulnerable to the so-called ‘selfish gene’ inside of him and has an urge to cheat and deviate and thus get a higher payoff for oneself. If ‘A’ falls prey to this temptation, thinking that ‘B’ would have done the same and drops the precaution of social distancing, then he gets a small benefit (8,0) but at the cost to others in the society. If player ‘B’ is led off by the temptation to deviate assuming that ‘A’ would have reacted in the same way and decides not to distance himself, then likewise his payoff is (0,8). 

Thus, the Unique “dominant” (or “rational”) strategy for each person is ‘Not to Cooperate’. There arises a tension between “Individual Rationality” and “Collective Rationality”. Individual Rationality leads them to settle at the ‘optimal’ outcome, where both them end up in deviating with lower payoffs for themselves at (1,1) and a higher risk of getting the virus. This in fact is what is called the ‘Nash equilibrium’. Cooperation gets destroyed by the ‘Art of War’ and paradoxically non-cooperation becomes the dominant strategy.

Ironically, the biggest debate rattling the world is that which political power would emerge as the winner in this ‘COVID stirred race’ for dominance.

Questions that come to the ground are, whether a country should cooperate with others and share the results of its innovative practices or not? How to get from “(1,1)” to “(5,5)”? That is, how can one make a good outcome happen? This requires Cooperation and Trust

Is there a need for a “third” party to enforce the peace, to enforce cooperation, to enforce a lockdown? Yes, perhaps and the “third” party can be the Sovereign (i.e., the State)?

What are the payoffs and the costs?

What should be the geo-political policy response?

Here lies the ‘tight-spot’ faced by policymakers today…

In the current times, the main players are the citizens and the governments whose choices make a difference and to a large extent play a vital role in checking the pandemic, which had constructed the game theory model in question, in the first place. COVID-19 will reshape our world. We don’t yet know when the crisis will end. But we can be sure that by the time it does, our world will look very different. How different will depend on the choices we make today. Every stakeholder’s choice is an externality for others. 

Global pandemics need global solutions. ‘Radical scaling up of international cooperation among scientists, economists and policy-makers is the need of the hour’. A cooperative strategy by all the players in the ‘Covid-Game’ is the optimum one. It is the Nash equilibrium, in the ‘Covid-induced policy-cogmaire’!  


Malini Sharma is the Senior Assistant Professor and Head of the Department of Economics at the Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi in India.

Policies of Exclusion

“If they’re illegal, they don’t deserve to stay.” 

My mouth dropped as I heard these words from one of my relatives, an immigrant himself. 

My family emigrated to the United States from India about 30 years ago. They were fortunate enough to have been able to stay. 

Over the past couple of weeks, the fault lines in the American immigration system have begun to show themselves. The Trump administration’s fickle policies have been of concern to international students, many from South Asian countries. One week, they’re banned from entry into the U.S. without enrollment in a live class, and the next they’re allowed again.  

 As my relative and I kept arguing, I realized the flaw in his thinking.

 He viewed immigration as a meritocracy. He worked meticulously, and he was rewarded with a visa. Those who didn’t get a visa simply didn’t try hard enough. 

The reality of legal Indian immigration is more complicated than my family member suggested, mired in government regulation. Immigration policy has allowed the state to use and exploit Indian immigrants by capitalizing on the community’s financial success but restricting future entries into this country. Today, Indians are the quickest growing undocumented population in the U.S. Between 2009 and 2014, there was a 43% jump in the number of undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. from India.

It’s a miscalculation of economics. Studies show that immigrants grow the economy, but are still being turned away. In order to address this issue, there must be a shift in American policymaking. 

In the latter half of the 1900s, a series of immigration policies opened the doors for more immigrants to enter and stay in the U.S., owing fully to the history of the civil rights movement. After the decades-long fight of black activists, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed. During this period, there was mounting political pressure to abolish racial quotas and discriminatory policies in the U.S. federal system.

This long-standing work culminated in the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which abolished exclusions based on national origin. Following this, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1990 expanded visas for skilled workers, focusing on boosting immigrants with technical talent. Technology companies voraciously hired Indian workers, who had the requisite education and were cheaper than hiring locally. South Asian immigrants were able to get access to U.S. visas due to the historical organizing by our black brothers and sisters. 

Today, Indian-Americans are viewed as the “model minority.” This label affixed to Asian immigrants is born out of deeply anti-black sentiment. In lauding the “model minority,” the white establishment has created divisions among racial groups. Insidious parallels have been drawn between Asian immigrants and black folks in this country. Being the “model minority” implies that other minority groups have to follow suit, despite their systematic oppression and the lasting impacts of slavery. Indian Americans have reaped benefits at the expense of black folks. 

Our struggle should be viewed as a collective one, in solidarity with other groups of color rather than against them. 

While there is collective anger for the policies against international students, little is being discussed with regards to ICE’s human rights abuses. Migrant children are separated from their parents at the border. Immigrants are viewed as disposable because of their status. 

President Trump has now spun a narrative that immigrants harm the economy by stealing American jobs. The praises that Indian immigrants once received have now soured, mired by collectively mobilized hatred, stemming from misguided economic calculus. We are left in a grey area: Trump poses for pictures with Prime Minister Modi for Indian-American campaign donations while simultaneously denying entry for families of those same, coveted donors.

While America has capitalized on the financial success of this group, there are over 300,000 Indians still waiting for family-sponsored green cards. Today, it is much tougher for a highly educated Indian person to obtain an H1-B visa to move to the U.S. If my family wanted to leave India today, they probably wouldn’t be able to make it. 

Immigrants should no longer be viewed as use-and-throw seals in the leaking pipe of the American economy. Policy should not just favor immigrants when there is a gap in our labor force since there are more economic benefits to immigrants than just industry-specific work. 

The solution might answer my relative’s insensitive questions. We must make legal immigration easier for those seeking a better life in America. It is imperative to increase ceilings on visas to incorporate more than merely corporate-sponsored candidates. 

The key to this solution is consistency. Immigration quotas should not fluctuate drastically. We must welcome immigrants instead of adopting policies that disenfranchise them.  

While it might be easy to buy into rhetoric that immigrants take away from the opportunities of Americans, it is important to recognize that there is no roof on economic advancement. Immigrants, through entrepreneurship and population growth, actually create opportunity for all Americans. We cannot let powerful language guide bad policy. 

It’s our duty to understand why folks of color have made America great. It’s time to be open, with our minds and our borders.

Swathi Ramprasad is a junior at Duke University studying Public Policy and Computer Science. She hopes to continue to learn through the lens of her Indian-American heritage.


Featured image by Jonathan McIntosh and license can be found here.

IP Law and Trade Policies Compete With Medical Needs

The role of Intellectual Property Law and Trade Policies in Innovation and the access to medicines and medical technologies compete against each other in the Corona impacted world.

COVID-19 has shaken the world and medical technological breakthroughs with new vaccines or drugs would be the only way to save mankind. A global health crisis always triggers concerns over patented medicines and treatments that may impede access to affordable healthcare. A global pandemic or a health crisis stimulates the need for better access to medicines, creating a gray area between the protection of ideas, investments, and access to medicines for the larger good of public health. 

The Emerging Issue     

Intellectual Property Rights awards exclusivity to the inventor or the owner to manufacture and sell their invention.  

Almost a decade ago when HIV/AIDS had become a global crisis, concerns of better access to medicines were raised. Developing nations had concerns with regard to the implementation of strong Intellectual Property regimes as it would have a negative effect on the efforts to improve public health, thereby making it difficult for governments to have policies for affordable healthcare.

The major problem in developing nations is that the prime population pays for their own drugs and state provisions are selective and constrained. Though the concept of state health insurance schemes is blooming, its effectiveness, to date, is questionable. 

A similar situation exists in the current scenario for COVID-19 where not only are the beds in each hospital limited, but extravagant costs have to be borne by patients.

In Tamil Nadu, India, private hospitals are charging a whopping amount of Rs 30,000 per day, even though government orders state otherwise, capping the charges at Rs 7500 for mildly asymptomatic patients and in case they have been admitted to Intensive Care Unit then the charges are capped at maximum Rs. 15,000 per day. Claims of unfair charges are popping up every day where hospitals are being accused of merely robbing patients.

Not only that, exploitative pricing has become a common predicament in most Asian Countries where hospitals are overcharging in COVID-19 rapid tests. The rapid test packages offered by hospitals have been differing from 500,000 rupiah to 5.7 million rupiah ($32 to $365). Exorbitant pricing remains an issue in the United States as well, where an individual faced a $1.1 million hospital bill.

Access to proper healthcare has already started becoming a concern with hospitals turning the major crisis into a money minting machine, even when there is no absolute drug or vaccine for the disease. The concern is, if every entity starts to look at this crisis as an opportunity, sustaining public policy will be a distant task for the government.

The Exclusivity of a Patent 

The key objective of the patent system is to reward exclusively to the innovator for an invention that is novel and has some industrially enhanced efficacy to it. The patented innovation could be a product or a process, as engraved in the TRIPs (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Right) Agreement, 1995. The patentee creates a solution to a problem and as an incentive, an exclusive right is given to the owner, to produce and sell it, for 20 long years. The pharmaceutical industry is majorly dependent on the patent system to recover its research and development cost and to generate profits for future innovation.

The Competing Interest: Public Health

Compulsory licensing is an act where the government authorizes a third-party to use, make and sell a patent without the permission of the patentee or the owner, when the medicine is not available at a reasonable and affordable price or when it is not obtainable in a justified quantity. Compulsory Licensing and competition from generic or biosimilar products are general issues that threaten many patent holders. A competing interest is involved here, where on one side, there is a greater good of public interest where the ownership of technological innovation should be with the public, and on the other side, there is private ownership of patents fuelling further innovations. 

Biosimilar and generic drugs are sold at a cheaper price and are said to have a trade-distorting effect. However, the provision of consensual licensing instead of any legal compulsion might be a silver lining to this whole circumstance. The possibility stems from the current world scenario where corporate social responsibilities on Multinational Corporations (MNC’s) are an obligation and a single-minded pursuit of business is no more encouraged. This can definitely balance the competing interests of the right holders and the public interest at large. 

With the current COVID-19 scenario, the World Health Organization has accepted a proposal for patent pooling in order to collectively share the patent right, test data, and information required to create drugs and vaccines. It showcases an attempt towards navigating patent rights for all countries thereby making new innovations available to everyone.

Patent Pooling is a framework where one or two patent holders enter into an agreement to share their innovation by means of licensing with each other or with a third party in order to provide fruitful technological solutions. Patent pooling can even help in the scenario where technology is not entirely developed and thereby lead to new innovations without any hindrance to access.

However, with the United States trying to quit the World Health Organization, a question emerges – ‘in case they do terminate their relationship, how is the patent pool going to function?’ We all know what happened to the International Trade Organization when the United States chose not to be a part of it and now with the changes in the current arrangement, the question emerges again. The world is approaching multilateralism and is finally able to compromise with nationalism in order to work in solidarity. 

Lahama Mazumdar is currently working as a Teaching Assistant in National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi and is a doctoral student at National Law University Odisha. 

Foreign Worker Visas Are the Tech Industry’s Dirty Secret

U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order that bars hundreds of thousands of foreigners from seeking employment in the United States by suspending new work visas.

The argument against the most significant of these visas, the H-1B, has always been that they harm employment prospects for Americans and depress wages. Some of the criticism is justified: The H-1B visa, which U.S. technology companies and outsourcing firms use to hire 85,000 new foreign specialists each year, is indeed problematic because it puts both American and foreign workers at a disadvantage. These visas are the U.S. tech industry’s dirty secret. They tie the foreign workers to their jobs and allow the employer to pay them less than they could be earning—which drives down pay for American workers as well.

But the solution isn’t for the government to lock the doors or try to control wages; it is to let competition on the labor market do its magic. The simple fix is to allow H-1B visa holders to work for any employer that pays them the highest wage or for the start-up that offers the most rewarding work.

This is something I have written about a lot, including in a 2012 book titled The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent. I warned then about the deep flaws in U.S. immigration policies and predicted that China and India would greatly benefit from these flaws—and, unfortunately, that prediction was correct. With help from workers who honed their skills in the United States but couldn’t stay, both of those countries have built innovation capabilities that rival the United States’, and both now have many technology start-ups valued in the billions of dollars.

Here is the problem: For decades, the United States has been bringing in large numbers of workers on temporary visas such as the H-1B, but it never increased the numbers of permanent-resident visas (“green cards”) available for those who want to stay. There are 140,000 green cards issued per year to employment-based visa holders, and the law stipulates that each nationality may receive no more than 7 percent of the total number of employment-based green cards. My research team documented in 2007 that this limitation had trapped more than 1 million skilled immigrants and their families in immigration limbo. The Cato Institute found that number to be unchanged in 2020 and forecast that the backlog would increase to 2.4 million by 2030. Today, skilled Indian workers make up 75 percent of the employment-based backlog, and those who recently arrived face a wait of 90 years.

Technically, any H-1B worker can change jobs by filing a petition with the government, and some do take advantage of this rule. But there is a catch: The H-1B visa allows a path to permanent residency only when an employer sponsors a worker. And this is the carrot employers offer, one that most people coming to the United States want. Once they accept this carrot, they are trapped in immigration limbo because they can only change sponsoring employers or take new jobs at their current companies if the new job is in the same category and at the same level as the old one—otherwise, they risk losing their status or having to reapply. Most don’t take the risk. Therefore, visa holders shun promotions and changes in their job descriptions, leading to stagnating careers and lower salaries than they could otherwise make.

Opponents of the H-1B visa are correct in claiming that the visa disadvantages American workers, who are effectively competing with bonded labor. To the would-be immigrants, this indentured servitude is compounded by the employment restrictions that their spouses now face once again: The H-4 visas that permit them employment have also been suspended by Trump.

The overall problem could be fixed if the number of permanent-resident visas available for skilled workers was increased and the wait times decreased dramatically. But that is not going to happen in this era of pandemics and xenophobia. The most realistic solution is to untether the visa holder from the hiring company. In other words, allow an employee who enters the country on an H-1B visa and gets an offer of a higher salary to change jobs regardless of the status of his or her green-card application—without cumbersome additional paperwork. This way there’s no cheap labor anymore, and market forces take over. And, of course, the spouses of H-1B workers must not be prevented from working; no civilized society can place such restrictions on a group that is mostly women.

Technology companies don’t propose such a fix because it would cause them to lose power over the employee. Politicians won’t propose such legislation because it is not what tech-industry lobbyists want. Instead, we get a series of convoluted proposals that increase the role of government and disadvantage all workers, both American and foreign—and create the immigrant exodus.

Sadly, there is unemployment in the tech industry, and there are many heart-breaking cases of Americans being displaced by cheap foreign labor. This is not an acceptable situation, and it is why smart immigration reform would fix the salary disadvantage. Having more highly skilled, job-creating immigrants will lead to more innovation and more jobs. It will make the economic pie bigger for everyone.

The key to competitiveness is to allow the tech industry to hire the best talent, no matter where it comes from. The economy thrives on competition of every form, including technology and skill. Attacking immigrants and demanding that companies hire Americans over people who are more skilled, as Trump is doing, is the fastest way to destroy the United States’ remaining competitive advantages—and prolong the recession.

Vivek Wadhwa is a distinguished fellow and professor, Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering, Silicon Valley.

This article was republished with permission from the author and can be originally found here.

A Parallel Pandemic in the Shadows: Women Affected

Coronavirus brings the simmering issue of gender inequity to a violent boil. 

A barrage of data can leave you with less information than the data dictates. For some, it has become a hobby to get instant updates on Coronavirus infection rates, death rates, and trends. 

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them”, Maya Angelou advises. Yet, the reductive nature of statistics are difficult to escape. One data point can blind us to the barriers of entry, the treacherous path, the years of turmoil, the fallen and left behind, and the unseen. 

Numbers indicate that men are being affected by COVID-19 at higher rates. But where does that leave our women?

In the US, prior to the pandemic, the workforce was 51% women, revealed Dr. C. Nicole Mason, President and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, at the May 22, 2020 EMS Briefing. A staggeringly high statistic, one that has taken many years to reach. From an inaccessible job market to wage gaps, having a workforce that was representative of women was an achievement.

However, from the time the pandemic began, that number has dropped to 47%. The last time such a distribution existed was in 2000 –  a complete loss of the gains made in the last 20 years, in a short 3 months. 

Global trends indicate that women are – on and off the frontlines – being affected by what is now being called the Shadow Pandemic. Dr. Estela Rivero,  Research Associate within the Pulte Institute for Global Development’s Evidence and Learning Division, shares that women are being burdened with the unpaid work that accompanies shelter in place orders. 

Unpaid work is defined by labor that has no direct remuneration; taking care of the house, your children, your children’s education, caregiving for the disabled and elderly all fall under this category. Imagine, if you were to hire someone to do said work, you would be paying them 24 hours a day. Women take on these extra tasks in conjunction with a part-time or full-time job. 

“Who is bearing the brunt of taking care of the children? Who is bearing the brunt of the online schooling?”, asks Dr. Beatrice Duncan, Rule of Law Advisor for UN Women, when she speaks about the increase in unpaid work by women. 99.9% of women, globally, are experiencing a spike in unpaid work and Duncan implores the collective to rationalize the impact of this gender disparity.  

Women are disproportionately impacted by unpaid work and caregiving during the pandemic, Dr. Estela Rivera informs. A quick look at the two tables above indicates that the burden of unpaid work has fallen on women prior to the pandemic. 

Coronavirus brings the simmering issue of gender inequity to a violent boil. Women, all around the world, with or without the pandemic, have been doing more unpaid work AND on average, work more hours (unpaid and paid) than men.

(Dr. C Nicole Mason, left; Dr. Estela Rivera, top-right; Dr. Beatrice Duncan, bottom-right)

“COVID-19 has, really, exposed some of the fragility of our economic, social and political systems”, Dr. Mason articulates. “We knew that there was something underneath the numbers. Even though women were in the workforce in record numbers, many women and families were still struggling to make ends meet. Measuring the economy by low levels of unemployment… didn’t capture the day to day realities of women and their families.”

Women are overrepresented in the health, education, and hospitality sectors, all of which have taken a hit during the pandemic and historically have lower pay. With unemployment for women jumping from 3% to 15% in the US, during the shelter in place, they are facing the loss of jobs, inadequate savings to survive the pandemic and potentially, having to make the difficult choice to choose work over their children. 

If women are to re-enter the workforce with equal footing, creation of new jobs, equal wages, increased basic pay, childcare provided by employers, flexibility with schedules, and social support systems for women, need to become part of the government’s structural dialogue. 

The economy and its jobs have changed and recovery requires adaptation. Otherwise, the violent boil will overflow, destroying everything in its wake. 

The path forward begs the question: What policies do we need long term for women and their families to succeed? 

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.

Our Planet To Save: Teens Educate

Many say that we have seen three wars in our lifetime: 9/11, the housing crisis, and the most current one, Coronavirus.

In the background, looming like an avatar for death, are cities covered in billowing smog from factories, blackened skies, and people gasping for the last bit of fresh air.  

Let us not forget the ongoing battle for clean air, fuel, and water….

In the race for power among competing foreign nations, many have pushed for industrialization to develop economic and social prowess. Toys, weaponry, and clothes all became commodities as a result of mass production, delighting many. 

It has been about 250 years since the industrial revolution and not much has changed in the fight to mitigate what we now call the climate crisis. Profits have been prioritized over well-being, as safety has taken a back seat to ease of life.

Climate change is something that is often overlooked by many who view the phenomenon as a “hoax” and question its existence due to lack of awareness and miseducation.

Is what we have done to our planet acceptable given the benefits of industries? What more can we do? Was this a problem waiting to happen?

These are questions we must ask ourselves daily, and frankly there isn’t a straightforward answer. Every individual, however, can make a change, and that’s what The Incentive, a climate change news publication built by a team of bay area high schoolers, is tackling head-on.

Founded by – Arun Balaji, Kaushal Kumar, and Sudhit Rao – juniors at Monta Vista High School, The Incentive joins the climate change movement and shakes things up.

The Incentive’s goal is to create a platform where people can receive reliable information regarding the implications of climate change. They are moving away from the average, uninspired, and repetitive news site that only reports on how climate change is impacting the environment. The Incentive’s angles on climate change are novel, as they take a look at the economy, societal culture, and local policy to frame their narratives. 

Imaged pulled from The Incentive website.

Part of their mission is to raise local awareness on the more subtle impacts of climate change by involving the next generation. In order to accomplish this, they have worked with middle school teachers in their community to increase the environmental literacy of their students by engaging with articles on The Incentive.

The organization strives to expand across the United States and turn their non-profit into a global institution. Currently, they have two affiliated chapters – one in New York and the other in Virginia – that are working to make an impact in their respective communities. They encourage their chapters to attend city council meetings, reach out to schools in their area to incorporate our website, attend climate change rallies, or create a club at their school. 

Due to collective efforts, the publication has managed to garner thousands of monthly viewers. Next steps include creating more chapters of The Incentive across several states and countries. If you are interested, here is a link to learn more about their outreach program.

The Incentive team hopes that through their publication and outreach, they will be able to make a significant impact on mitigating climate change and are strong believers that any individual, no matter their background or power can make an impact on mitigating climate change. All it takes is focus and dedication for any individual to make an impact.

Sudhit speaks on behalf of his organization, “We encourage all readers to get on social media and post ways they are mitigating climate change, whether it is planting a tree, telling your friends to do so, or being a full-on activist. It is our planet to save, and we are its last lifeline.”

For more information on The Incentive, follow their Instagram.

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.

Journey from Coerced Sterilization to Misinformation

The dialogue around health and healthcare systems has increased at similar rates to that of the pandemic. Fingers are pointed at the lack of ventilators, hospital beds, and testing kits. 

While it is easy to pick at the chipped paint, the flawed structural foundation becomes glaringly obvious when there is less paint to chip. Much like the horror one might feel seeing a panel of their home infested with termites, America’s structural integrity is threatened by its hegemonic narrative – its own version of termites. Exploration of government policies, in the past and present, is a necessary context for the receptiveness of diverse communities to information from government sources. 

A History of Racialized Care Breeds Distrust

Racism was not a singular one-dimensional vector but a pandemic, afflicting…communities at every level, regardless of what rung they occupied.- Ta-Nehisi Coates

History of racialized care has had an adverse effect on communities of color. Racialized care takes into account your race and subsequently, the healthcare you receive. African American, Latinx, Native American, and AAPI populations are disproportionately subjected to worse healthcare due to income, language barriers, lack of research, and implicit bias from healthcare professionals.

But above all, healthcare in the US is informed and shaped by an oppressive history. Disenfranchised communities have been given reason to be wary of a healthcare system that has been used as a conduit for injustice.

Virginia Hedrick, Executive Director of the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health and panelist at Ethnic Media Services April 17th briefing on the impact of Coronavirus on diverse communities, noted the distrust of the healthcare system by Native Americans and their unwillingness to believe in the protocols of the pandemic. And why wouldn’t they be skeptical, considering the “sterilization of Native [American] women existed up until 40 years ago”, Hedrick added.

So what were marginalized populations encountering up until 40 years ago? And perhaps even as recently as 10 years ago?

In the 1960s, President Lyndon B Johnson led the Great Society Project in an effort to eliminate poverty by increasing access to welfare and social services. The backlash came from physicians, white men, who took it upon themselves to lower the rates of people on welfare. No short of a God complex, they believed that by sterilizing women of color, they were helping society – limiting birth rates in low-income, minority families. 

Between the 1960s and 1970s, 25% of Native American Women were sterilized by the Indian Health Service; various government programs formed the Indian Health Service. IHS had found that the average Native American woman had 3.79 children to the white woman’s 1.79 children; within 10 years that number declined to 1.99 for the Native American woman. This was attributed to education and higher income but unwanted sterilization was erased from the historical narrative. In actuality, the decrease in births had to do with the use of coerced sterilization as a procedure to help a medical ailment even if it was unrelated or nonconsensual.

A map from a 1929 Swedish royal commission report.

Latin and African women were targeted starting in 1909 when states started adopting eugenics programs. 32 states rallied together to advance eugenics during which 60,000 people were sterilized. In the documentary, “No Mas Bebes”, a Mexican American woman speaks to the trauma of being sterilized while giving birth to her children. This story isn’t dissimilar to the story of sisters, Minnie Relf and Mary Alice, two mentally disabled African American women, whose mother tried to get them birth control shots and, unbeknownst to her, they were surgically sterilized. Relf vs. Weinberger, a landmark case, revealed that 150,000 poor women were coerced into sterilization under the threat of their welfare being taken away from them. 

Mental institutions and prisons became breeding grounds for such programs and even a law was passed allowing anyone committed to state institutions to be sterilized. Until as recently as 2010, there were cases of inhumane treatment in California prisons and it is reported that 150 Latina inmates had been inflicted with forced infertility

Eugenics was just the start of questionable activity by the US government. It progressed beyond sterilization when marginalized populations became lab rats for large-scale experiments. There are 40 documented studies done on incarcerated peoples and we have yet to know the number of undocumented studies; most studies hurt the recipients and yielded no results.

The US Public Health Service worked on a study with Tuskegee University to observe the natural history of untreated Syphilis for 6 months. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment ran from 1932 to 1972, lasting 40 years during which the patients were purposefully misinformed, misdiagnosed, untreated, and eventually, forgotten. 600 impoverished African American men, 399 with Syphilis and 201 without, joined with the promise of free healthcare; healthcare which was inaccessible to the black diaspora due to their race. Without informed consent, those with Syphilis were not told of their condition. Instead, they were led to believe they were being treated for “bad blood”. To make a bad situation worse, the free treatment the patients were receiving was no treatment at all. By 1947, penicillin was discovered as a cure but was not given to these patients for another 25 years. Not a single one of the patients consented to the experiment and many died without ever knowing their actual cause of death or that their death was preventable.

Racialized disparities in health factors in the omission of and lack of care given to minorities. Asian Americans were less likely to be asked about their lifestyle, mental health, and doctors did not understand their background and values. The same study, additionally mentioned that Asian Americans felt their doctors did not listen, spend as much time, or involve them in decisions about their care. Significantly, not much is documented about Asian American health until the 2000s. 

Lack of Access Presently

Genoveva Islas, Founder of Cultiva La Salud and panelist for EMS, is confronting the plight faced by the farmworkers in Fresno. Fresno has 1% of the farmland, provides 25% of the food we’re eating in California, yet the farmworkers don’t have personal protective equipment, health insurance, savings, or retirement funds. A majority of these farmworkers are left out of the CARES Act and their housing and food security are in question. “We need a just and fair immigration system”, Islas advocates, putting the spotlight not on the lack of healthcare, but on our immigration policies that leave immigrants and undocumented people at a disadvantage. She wants to ensure that the pandemic is not a time when those who are already being exploited are driven to the fringes of society without access to basic human rights. 

Distrust is the Seedling and Misinformation is the Byproduct

COVID19 has brought with it an onslaught of news, statistics, and warnings, both fake and real. Minority groups are struggling with effectively parsing and using this information given their inconsistent histories with the US government and healthcare systems. 

Virginia Hedrick reminds us that in Native American populations, the myth is that the Coronavirus “was here in December and that now, there is herd immunity.” Many within Native communities believe that homeopathic remedies have the ability to heal and protect someone from COVID19. 

Another reporter at the EMS video briefing expressed that African American populations are taking social distancing and Coronavirus information lightly. 

One only has to look as far as their WhatsApp groups to find confusing and misleading information and anti-Asian propaganda.

A doctor on the frontline at the University of California, San Francisco, and EMS panelist, Dr. Tung Nguyen, acts a buffer to inaccurate information:

People within your network may be struggling, sifting through information and misinformation (real and fake news) about COVID19. The onus is on our communities to understand that American history is rife with instances of disinformation and misinformation. Discerning what information is relevant requires collective work.

And right now, more than ever, action must be taken against an infodemic that is percolating through the pandemic. 

Srishti Prabha is the current 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.


Featured image is a poster for a 1971 rally against forced sterilization in San Francisco, CA designed by Rachael Romero. (Library of Congress)

FIIDS Gala: Indian American Political Involvement

The Indian Diaspora, like other immigrant communities, lives in two cultures simultaneously. Its well being is affected by the political and economic situation in the USA, while its heart stays connected to India. They address issues affecting India through various organizations and forums. 

The Foundation for India and Indian Diaspora Studies (FIISDS) is one such organization. FIISDS is dedicated to Policy Studies, Analysis, Advocacy and Awareness Related to India and Indian Diaspora.

The Silicon Valley chapter of FIISDS organized an event on Feb 22, 2020 to discuss the current policies, incidents, and decisions affecting Indians in India and the United States. The event was attended by Silicon Valley eminent entrepreneurs, community leaders, politicians, social workers, doctors, and engineers.

The event started with the panel discussion on ‘Indo American Political Involvement’. It was moderated by Vijay Rajvaidya, Managing Director of India Currents Inc.

The panelists were Raj Salwan (Councilmember city of Fremont), Rishi Kumar (Councilmember city of Saratoga and running for US Congress District 18), Ritesh Tandon (Running for US Congress District 17) and, Nisha Sharma (running for US Congress District 11). 

Raj Salwan emphasized the importance of Indian American to participate in local politics and get their issues highlighted through political involvement. 

Rishi Kumar, who has been an activist, felt that Indian American can raise their issues and get them resolved by participating in community related programs. 

Ritesh Tandon, who is running for US Congress from the US Congress district 17 stressed that Indian Americans need to unite and raise their voice as one community with America-first policy. 

Nisha Sharma pointed out that there is a vacuum in women leadership at the top, and it is the right time for them to come forward. 

The event was inaugurated by the well known physician and community leader Dr Romesh Japra. In his address, he expressed his desire to create a grand Hindu American coalition and get their issues raised at the highest level. Following Dr. Japra’s address, Dr. Jasubhai Patel, a patron of FIIDS, emphasized the need to work on strategic policy matters.

There were more speakers who held the attention of the audience.

Deepak Karanjkar very eloquently spoke about “Misinformation Campaigns & Need for Public Awareness” in the context of abrogation of Article 370 from the Indian Constitution and the Citizenship Amendment Act. He pointed out that the current government in India resolved the seventy years old Kashmir issue by abrogating Article 370, while previous governments were simply attempting to manage it. 

Rabbi Serena Eisenberg shared her experiences as Jewish leader for implementing the SAFE (Safety Awareness Friendship Empowerment) program to uplift the Jewish community in America. 

David Marshak felt that Pakistani organizations worldwide indulge in spreading misinformation about India and suggested that Indian diaspora should focus on countering the false negative.

The Keynote speaker of the evening Sree Iyer, a well-known political commentator, author, and founder of PGurus, discussed the vicious Campaign against CAA and the Role of Indians Americans. He mentioned that currently there are seven million Hindus living in the rural areas of Sindh and Punjab in Pakistan, a sizable Hindu population discriminated against and abused by the Pakistanis. They are facing humiliation on a daily basis by the majority community in Pakistan. Sree generously agreed to auction the copies of his popular book ‘WHO PAINTED MY MONEY WHITE’ at the event, with the proceedings donated to FIIDS.

FIIDS is a 501(C)(3) Tax Exempt Organization, and engages in Policy Studies, Analysis, and Awareness Related to India and Indian Diaspora. For further information, please visit www.fiids-us.org, or contact FIIDS at info@fiids-usa.org.

 

Doubts About the 2020 Census: How Will the First Online Census Work?

Question: Do you mean that this Census will be digital and we will have to put our information online? How will this work? What will happen to people who do not have access to a phone or computer?

The census will be online, but not exclusively. As we do with almost any other transaction today, the 2020 Census will be conducted primarily online. This will be the first time this happens in the survey´s 117 years of existence. 

The way things used to be: Historically, the Census has been conducted through printed forms that are sent to homes. If the form was not returned, a Census enumerator would then be sent to conduct the survey in person. 

Choosing how to respond: The 2020 Census will be conducted on a variety of platforms. This time, it will be different, explained Patricia Ramos, a Census Bureau spokeswoman. “Responding to the 2020 Census will be easy for everyone. For the first time, you can choose to respond online and you can also choose to respond by phone, mail, or to a Census worker who arrives at your home.

You will get an invitation to go online: Esperanza Guevara, director of Census programs for the Human Immigrant Rights Coalition (CHIRLA) explained that beginning March 12, the Census Bureau will send a letter to 80% of all households inviting them to fill out about ten questions online using a special identifier number. Another 20% will get similar letters plus a paper questionnaire.

Not everyone has the Internet. But the first online census does not forget that there are sectors of the population that simply do not have easy access to a computer or an Internet connection.  According to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California, 90% of households in California use the Internet and 73% have a cell phone. However, there are populations that are less connected: in low-income communities, rural areas and Latinos or African Americans, only 54% to 67% are connected to the Internet.

You will have more than one opportunity to participate. “The invitation will also include information about the option of doing it on paper or by phone,” said Guevara. “Then they will send four more reminders until the end of April.” All households that haven’t self-responded by mid-April will receive a paper form in the 4th mailing. The fifth mailing – a “it’s not too late” postcard – will be sent to those who haven’t responded.  If there’s no response from a household after that, an enumerator will come to the door.  

There will be  computers in the community: Guevara indicated that his organization, CHIRLA, is one of the “trusted” messengers who is working to answer community questions and to inform them of the importance of filling out the Census. CHIRLA will provide computers in its offices and knock on doors to remind the community that it is important to participate. It is anticipated that Public Libraries with computers will also become a favorite place for those who do not have easy access to the Internet. 

It takes little time to respond and it means a lot: “We want to remind you that the Census takes little time to complete, but it means a lot to our communities,” said the activist. “Their results help bring resources to their homes and ensure that our values are represented in government.”

Question: How can I be sure that my information will be kept confidential or that it will not be used against me by the government? 

According to a survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, 63% of Californians are concerned about the confidentiality of the data they give to the government in the Census. This sentiment is accentuated in communities such as Latinos (74%) and African Americans (74%). 

There are two levels of mistrust. 

The first is mistrust of the platform or whether delivering data “online” to the government is safe at a time when hacking into private financial companies is often in the news. 

The second is mistrust of the government and how it will make use of citizen data. 

As for the first question, the Census Bureau says it has worked at various levels to protect the information it will collect online or through its door-to-door enumerators who will also carry phones with a special application that will transmit data directly to headquarters.

The data will be “encrypted” to protect its transmission. Staff must use double authentication to verify users and the government will use the Einstein 3A system to monitor networks and identify malicious activity around databases. 

Second, the confidentiality of the personal information is guaranteed by law, according to Census spokespeople. 

“The law is clear: no personal information can be shared,” explained in an email Patricia Ramos, regional Census spokeswoman. 

“Under Title 13 of the U.S. Code, the Census Bureau cannot disclose any identifiable information about individuals, households or businesses, even to law enforcement agencies. All Census Bureau employees take an oath to protect your information. We have sworn for life to protect the confidentiality of your data. We could go to jail or be fined up to $250,000 if we violate that oath,” she added. 

Guevara, of CHIRLA added that the law is on the side of confidentiality. And for those who do not trust this government, the activist asked to trust the vigilance of the legal community and community groups. 

“We are committed to serving as guardians of what happens, we are not afraid to take on the fight necessary to ensure that this government complies with the law,” she said.

Information was gathered by https://ethnicmediaservices.org/ through social media. If you have a question or doubt about the Census, please write to pilarmarrero700@gmail.com and we will consult the experts to get the answers.