- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New York’s newspapers:

With Coronavirus, ‘Health Care for Some’ Is a Recipe for Disaster

New York Times

March 6

In late January, as the new coronavirus was making its first incursion into the United States, the Supreme Court upheld the Trump administration’s contested “public charge” rule, which enables federal officials to deny green cards to immigrants who use social safety net programs. The decision received scant media attention, in part because it was overshadowed by the emerging epidemic. But public health experts warn that the two stories are intimately, perhaps disastrously, related: Infectious disease outbreaks have a long history of preying on society’s most vulnerable, disenfranchised members. Noncitizens who don’t have access to health insurance, nutritious food or safe, affordable housing fall squarely into that category.

Doctors and immigration advocates have long worried that the public charge rule would present a grave public health danger. The rule could deter millions of noncitizens - even those who were not technically subject to its provisions - from using programs like Medicaid, WIC and SNAP or from seeking medical care of any kind, lest they imperil their immigration status. That kind of avoidance would make those groups less healthy and thus more susceptible to the vagaries of, say, an infectious disease outbreak.

The administration was not blind to those risks. When it first proposed the new rule, officials at the Department of Homeland Security noted that it could very well lead to worse health outcomes for immigrants, especially infants, children and women who were pregnant or nursing. Yes, they acknowledged, vaccination rates might fall as a direct result of what they were proposing. Yes, communicable diseases might become more prevalent. But, the agency said, the new regulations were essential to a goal more important than protecting public health: making immigrants “self-sufficient.”

Many changes to law and policy have been undertaken in the past several years under the banner of “self-sufficiency” and its close cousin “personal responsibility.” Social safety net programs like SNAP and TANF have been cut; work requirements have removed thousands of people from Medicaid; and immigrant communities have been subject to a roster of anti-immigrant policies - not just the public charge rule, but also family separations and abysmal treatment of detained migrants at the border, and ICE raids and mass deportations at home.

The wisdom of each of those measures will be sorely tested now, as the coronavirus threatens to morph into a full-blown pandemic. More than 100,000 people across more than 80 countries have been infected with the new virus - and more than 3,400 of them have died, including at least 14 in the United States.

Proponents of closed borders and small social safety nets have a tendency to highlight the tension between citizen and noncitizen, to imply or explicitly state that the only way to help one group is to deprive the other. But the truth is, people on both sides are hanging by a thread.

Infectious diseases, especially those like Covid-19, have a knack for penetrating and exposing such false dichotomies. Already, citizens who are underinsured or uninsured are being slammed with medical bills that they can’t afford when they seek testing and treatment for the virus. Unsurprisingly, experts say that many of them are bound to avoid such care as the outbreak rages on. If quarantines become routine, tens of millions of low-wage workers, many of whom don’t have health insurance or paid sick leave, will not be able to stock up and stay home. One shudders to think what will happen if the courts dismantle the Affordable Care Act in the next year - a move that could ultimately leave 21 million or so more people without health insurance.

Among noncitizens, the effects of the public charge rule and other fear-based immigration policies have long been apparent. New mothers are turning away free baby formula. Hungry families are turning away food assistance. The chronically and even fatally ill are avoiding hospitals and rejecting medical care. In 2019, The Atlantic reported that at least 200 eligible families in a Virginia county had stopped accepting WIC and that many were also turning down reduced-price lunches. Both of those programs are exempted from the public charge rule - using them will not count against a person’s visa or green card application - but those families were too afraid to chance it.

It’s easy to see how all this fear might feed on itself in the months ahead and also where that might lead. If citizens struggling to cover their own health care nurture resentments against any group perceived to be getting help to which they themselves are not entitled - or worse, if they grow xenophobic and subscribe to the notion that immigrants carry diseases - they might be compelled to endorse policies even more draconian than those already in play. That would create more anxiety among noncitizen communities, which would lead to fewer people seeking medical care when they need it. From there, the epidemic would only get worse.

The best way to break this cycle of fear and further contagion is to dispense with zero-sum thinking and stitch together a safety net big enough, and strong enough, for everyone.

On Monday, more than 700 public health experts laid out clear steps for doing exactly that. Among other things, they called on the federal government to ensure that the outbreak response doesn’t exclude - or worse, penalize - the poor. The doctors and scholars advised officials not to cut existing safety net programs to pay for the work of battling the current outbreaks. They also asked that “particular attention and funding” be directed to local health centers in under-resourced communities; that diagnostic tests, and any future vaccines or treatments, be made widely available regardless of a person’s ability to pay; and that health care facilities be clearly designated as ICE-free zones. “Neither immigration status nor concerns over medical bills should deter people from seeking care right now,” said Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist and infectious-disease expert at the Yale School of Public Health.

That’s a moral position, but it’s also a practical one.

In 2018, before Covid-19 was known to humans, when the public charge rule was still just a proposal, Wendy Parmet, a professor of law and public health at Northeastern University, warned that the push for immigrant self-sufficiency would be both dangerous and quixotic. “None of us can be self-sufficient in the face of a widespread epidemic,” she wrote. “That is just as true for noncitizen immigrants as everyone.” In a pandemic, self-sufficiency can be self-deluding; our health is only as good as our most vulnerable neighbor’s.

Online: https://nyti.ms/2vaTKzb


Now Comes the Oil Shock

Wall Street Journal

March 9

President Trump has defended Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman despite his displays of bad judgment or worse. If the crown prince wants to return the favor, now would be the time amid the panic in oil markets after a price war broke out between former cartel partners Russia and Saudi Arabia. How about putting in a call, Mr. President?

The immediate cause for this chaos is a game of chicken between Riyadh and Moscow. The Saudis were keen to orchestrate production cuts among fellow OPEC members and other major producers to sustain prices as oil demand falls due to Covid-19. Vladimir Putin refused, and in retaliation the Saudis slashed prices on Sunday and promised more production to steal market share from Russia.

Oil prices fell through the floor Monday with Brent crude closing at $34.36 a barrel, down 24% from Friday and 50% from its recent peak on Jan. 6. The shock triggered a fall in equities around the world, as investors fled to gold and bonds, with the Dow falling 7.8% Monday. A morning plunge of more than 7% triggered the New York Stock Exchange “circuit breaker” to pause trading for the first time since 1997.

This response is partly panic but it’s also rooted in rational fear, despite the benefit for consumers from lower oil prices. The market worry is that the oil-price plunge will hurt the U.S. economy-the main support for global growth these days-by damaging U.S. shale oil production.

Not long ago the U.S. imported most of its oil and natural gas. But the rise of fracking and horizontal drilling have made the U.S. an energy powerhouse. U.S. crude oil exports have soared from around an average of 490,000 barrels per day in January 2016 to 3.7 million barrels per day in December 2019. (See the nearby chart.) A sharp decline in global oil demand now hurts U.S. producers. The damage to producers and workers from a price collapse could exceed the benefit to consumers who pay less for gasoline.

Some shale producers are especially vulnerable because they’ve relied on easy credit fueled by low Federal Reserve interest rates. Analysts peg energy companies’ bond issuance at anywhere between 10% and 16% of the U.S. high-yield debt market. Widespread defaults on that debt could have systemic financial consequences for banks and other lenders.

The break-even oil price for these producers varies by company and the shale oil well, with some in Texas’s Permian Basin now claiming to be able to make money at $30 a barrel. Exxon and Chevron also own much shale production and have the balance sheets to ride out a downturn.

But a Dallas Fed survey in December found that, even before the price decline since January, two-thirds of oil and gas firms in its region expected to hold steady or reduce capital investment during 2020. And 59% of those firms said they’d need the price for West Texas Intermediate Crude to be above $50 a barrel to fund their capital investment.

Mr. Putin is willing to endure lower prices because he wants to break the U.S. shale industry. U.S. exports to Europe threaten Russia’s energy hold on Western Europe. He’s also sore at U.S. opposition to his Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline linking Siberia to Germany. This oil action is another example, among dozens already, that Mr. Putin isn’t Mr. Trump’s friend.

The Saudi strategy is harder to understand. Riyadh is cutting prices at the expense of its own national oil company, which recently floated shares in the public market. With the price cut, Aramco’s shares have fallen well below their December offering price. The Saudis last tried a stunt like this in 2014-15. Their target then was U.S. shale and they nearly tipped America into a recession as lower global prices pushed numerous U.S. oil-and-gas companies into bankruptcy.

The longer this oil-price war continues, the greater the danger that a crisis in the oil patch combined with the coronavirus will do broader damage. Even the resilient U.S. economy, which had been gaining steam as trade tensions eased, may be hard-pressed to power through the dual shocks of a pandemic and suddenly collapsing oil prices.

Crown Prince bin Salman, widely known as MBS, is famous for actions that seem rash and ill-considered. In this case he’s hurting Saudi interests by hurting his main geopolitical benefactor, the United States. President Trump may need to use the phone to remind the crown prince which country has stuck by him during his war with Yemen, his standoff with Qatar, and missile attacks from Iran.

Online: https://on.wsj.com/2TSJx2F


Uncle Sam Simply Cannot Act As The World’s Policeman

The Post Journal

March 9

A peace agreement signed Saturday between U.S. officials and representatives of Afghanistan’s Taliban organization is long overdue, as far as Americans are concerned. We have spent far too much and lost too many lives in what has become the longest armed conflict in our nation’s history.

What about the Afghan people, however? Is the peace agreement good for them?

That remains to be seen. When troops from the United States led a multinational coalition in ousting the Taliban from control of Afghanistan many years ago, it was cause for rejoicing by many Afghans. The Taliban had operated a brutal regime. One aspect of it was that women had virtually no rights.

Now, after nearly a generation of life under a U.S. military umbrella, many Afghans have become accustomed to a large amount of freedom. For example, women need no longer worry that they will be beaten merely for appearing in public without a male escort.

It would be unrealistic to assume the Taliban have softened their outlook since being ousted from power. Beyond any doubt, their goal in gaining an agreement for U.S. withdrawal is to regain the control they lost.

The question is whether the Afghan people, having enjoyed a taste of liberty and tolerance, will allow the Taliban to take up where they left off in 2001. It is to be hoped they reject Taliban extremism forcefully.

What if they do not? What if the Taliban take full control of Afghanistan, then go back to extreme, violent repression?

Sadly, Americans cannot intervene again militarily unless the Taliban once again host a terrorist organization such as al-Qaida. If that occurs, all bets are off, of course.

But Uncle Sam simply cannot act as the world’s policeman. There are too many countries where brutality and repression are official policy. In Afghanistan, we have given the people tools with which to resist such a regime. It is up to them to use those tools.

Online: https://bit.ly/2Q4ZwcJ


Schools should be ready for sick days

Adirondack Daily Enterprise

March 11

COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, has brought everyday life in large areas of China to a near standstill. Schools and factories are closed. The same goes for many other businesses, including retail outlets.

As the virus has spread, other areas have been affected similarly, though not to the extent of China. Italian officials are among others taking drastic steps - essentially a national lockdown, urging people to not leave home unless absolutely necessary.

As many as 300 million children in 22 countries have been affected by school closures linked to attempts to keep COVID-19 from spreading, the Associated Press reported this week. Here in the United States, officials in both higher education and lower grades are making contingency plans.

Schools are a germ’s dream, of course. Children with little regard for personal hygiene sneezing into the air, wiping their noses on their hands, then taking colds - or worse - home can be a big problem. Once the first cycle is completed, of course, the kids bring their families’ maladies to school with them.

Closing schools at any level is a serious decision, not just for students’ education but also for parents and other caregivers. If your 9-year-old can’t go to school, someone has to stay home with him or her. That means a missed day’s work - a serious matter for many families.

On the other hand, becoming ground zero for an outbreak of COVID-19 or any other serious disease is not an appealing prospect for educators.

In our area, then, we encourage educators to communicate effectively and continually with public health agencies. Frankly, decisions on whether to keep schools open are best left to the public health professionals. If they recommend closures, classes should be suspended.

Education officials at all levels should have already begun making contingency plans for closure. One appealing alternative to classroom presence is online teaching, already being planned by some at colleges and universities.

We hope COVID-19 stays far enough away from our area that schools do not have to be dismissed until time for spring break - and after that not until summer vacation. But if public health officials recommend keeping the kids at home, so be it.

COVID-19 is not as deadly as some viral infections, but it is spreading very fast, and we don’t have vaccine or treatment drugs for it yet. It is wise to take it seriously.

Online: https://bit.ly/3aPlGYi


We’re flush with ideas for NYS Thruway travel plaza renovations

Syracuse Post-Standard

March 8

No. 1: Everybody has to eat.

No. 2: Everybody has to use the bathroom.

No. 3: Everybody who (ahem) has ever done numbers 1 or 2 at New York State Thruway rest stop has an opinion about how to improve them.

Now’s our chance, people. The Thruway’s 27 travel plazas - from Angola on the toll road’s western end to Ardsley on the eastern end - are due for their first wholesale renovation in 30 years. The Thruway Authority is getting ready to sign a contract with one company to renovate and operate the plazas for the next 30 years.

The Adirondack-lodgy rest stops are dated now, but when they were built, they were a huge upgrade from the utilitarian brick boxes they replaced. Despite spot renovations here and there, on the whole, the rest areas have not kept up with the constantly evolving way we live, eat and travel.

Take dogs. Where does Fido go to the bathroom in the vast expanse of pavement at a typical travel plaza? A dedicated grass dog walking area (and a safe way to get to it) would be great.

So would more picnic tables (and umbrellas) for outdoor dining when the weather is nice. While we’re at it, playgrounds inside and out for children to stretch their legs and blow off some steam, whatever the season or the weather.

And more restaurant drive-through windows for travelers who don’t want to wake the baby or get soaked in a rainstorm.

We all want clean and functioning bathrooms. Are there enough of them? Could the stalls be wider, for people with small children? How about more family bathrooms?

Admit it: You’ve raced the tour bus to the rest area so you wouldn’t have to stand in line for the bathroom. Why not design certain rest areas to accommodate buses, with the appropriate number of bathrooms and restaurants to handle large influxes of travelers?

Where are all the electric car charging stations? By 2050, when this contract expires, fossil fuel vehicles could be on their way out - or extinct.

How about a legit convenience store, with more than overpriced candy, snacks and bottled drinks? Or - dare we dream it - a pint-sized Wegmans?

The kiosks, shops and farmers’ markets featuring New York products are great. What more could be done with décor, signs or interactive displays to give travelers a sense of where they are?

And then there’s the food. Travelers want healthier choices, gluten-free options, local specialties, less fast food, more fast-casual, less obscure. Roy Rogers? Bonus points for you if you had ever heard of the Maryland hamburger chain before it arrived at Thruway travel plazas. Let’s have some more contemporary choices, cowboy.

There’s no pleasing all 260,000 million annual Thruway users - but the new travel plazas could try harder to offer them a bit more variety in the food department and some amenities to make the journey a little less taxing.

Online: https://bit.ly/2IBBH8k


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