Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:
___ Feb. 10
The Tampa Bay Times on the potential of the Super Bowl to have been a coronavirus superspreading event:
The last few days brought encouraging signs, and troubling ones, on the pandemic front, underscoring the fragility of the moment with COVID-19. The nation reported fewer cases and hospitalizations, and more vaccines in the pipeline and more shots into arms, reflecting a ramped-up federal effort and greater coordination with the states. But images of the Super Bowl weekend in Tampa Bay also captured a frustrating picture, with hordes of fans partying without masks at events across town. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor will need to ensure that any celebration honoring the champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers is safe and socially responsible.
After a slow rollout, and weeks of uncertainty, the effort to vaccinate Americans is gaining speed and coordination. Some 4 million more vaccinations were reported over the weekend, with nearly one in 10 Americans having now received at least one dose. At the same time, the Associated Press reported, the number of newly recorded cases fell to their lowest levels in three months, to an average of 117,000 per day, a steep drop from the peak of nearly 250,000 daily in January. The number of Americans hospitalized with COVID-19 has also fallen, to about 81,000, down from more than 130,000 in January. And positive trends are also showing in Florida, which reported 7,023 new cases Tuesday, fewer than half the number of some peak days in January.
Experts say the drop in new infections and hospitalizations reflects an easing of the post-holiday surge. And they come as the new Biden administration has more fully mobilized the government and private industry.
While the momentum is building, only about 3 percent of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated, a far cry from the 70 percent or more needed to tame the pandemic. That’s why continued precautions and restrictions in public are key to any vaccination strategy. The Florida Department of Health has rightly asked other agencies across the country to help track coronavirus cases tied to the Super Bowl. Jurisdictions are being asked to use a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention network to document cases of those who test positive for COVID-19 and who attended a Super Bowl function in the Tampa area.
… Castor, to her credit, has led by example in consistently advocating responsible behavior in public. She and other officials must ensure that any celebration of the home team doesn’t become a source point for greater public misery. Everyone has a part to play in keeping these hopeful trends moving in the right direction.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch on ending the practice of capital punishment:
For the first time in its history, America has a president who is on record favoring complete abolition of the death penalty. President Joe Biden has an opportunity to finally rid America of this barbaric practice by dismantling the federal execution system and creating incentives for states to follow suit. And he could do it with relatively little expenditure of political capital.
Biden, a former death-penalty supporter, has evolved - as has much of America. Public support for the death penalty is lower now than it’s been in more than half a century. DNA technology has exonerated scores of death row inmates since the 1970s. The pattern of proven innocence strongly suggests that others - perhaps many others - have been wrongly executed. Data shows the death penalty continues to be both ineffective as a deterrent and rife with race- and class-based unfairness.
None of this stopped the Trump administration from engaging in a late-term execution spree of federal prisoners, killing 13 of them during its final months in office. The first federal executions in 17 years, they included five during the presidential transition, one of them just days before the inauguration of a new president who had already said he would halt any pending executions. They were the most federal executions conducted in one year since 1896, and the first time since 1889 that an outgoing administration had carried out an execution after losing reelection.
Capital punishment isn’t the hot-button issue it once was. But it’s also less popular than it’s been in decades. Public support for the death penalty hovered around 80% as late as the 1990s, but now it sits at just over 50% - and well below that when poll respondents are asked to choose between executing murderers or imprisoning them for life without parole.
As the American Civil Liberties Union and scores of other advocacy groups pointed out in a letter to Biden this week, merely declining to carry out federal executions, as the Obama administration did, isn’t enough. Such an “informal federal death penalty moratorium,” they note, won’t prevent future presidents from resuming the killing.
With the stroke of a pen, Biden can and should commute all federal death sentences to life without parole, direct the Justice Department not to seek death sentences going forward and dismantle the federal death chamber at Terre Haute, Indiana. Biden can’t unilaterally clear state-level death rows, but with the federal power of the purse nudging states toward abolition is a realistic goal.
It’s past time for America to join the overwhelming portion of the advanced world that has already declared, in the words of the late Justice Harry Blackmun, that they “no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.”
The Boston Globe on the constitutional argument behind impeaching former President Donald Trump:
Long before Tuesday’s opening of former president Donald Trump’s Senate impeachment trial, Senate Republicans largely coalesced around a strategy to acquit him: Rely on the constitutional argument - however specious - that a president cannot be convicted in the Senate if he’s already left office. Trump’s recently reshuffled legal team obliged them in their avoidance of holding Trump accountable by relying heavily on this defense in their final pre-trial filing Monday.
But that claim is not supported by the Constitution, historical precedent, or common sense. The American public must see Republicans’ embrace of this fallacy for what it is: a ploy by GOP members too afraid of the political fallout if they uphold their constitutional duty to convict Trump based on a clear case laid out by impeachment managers that he incited an insurrection.
Legal experts, including those embraced in conservative circles, have already thrown cold water on the dubious constitutional claim that former presidents can’t face Senate impeachment trials.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week, Chuck Cooper, a conservative attorney who has represented prominent Republicans, including John Ashcroft, Jeff Sessions, and John Bolton, pointed out that the very language of the Constitution undercuts Trump’s defense.
That language allows members of the Senate, after removing an official through impeachment, to take the optional step of barring him or her from holding office again.
“Given that the Constitution permits the Senate to impose the penalty of permanent disqualification only on former officeholders, it defies logic to suggest that the Senate is prohibited from trying and convicting former officeholders,” Cooper reasoned.
Another big clue that Trump’s defense doesn’t hold water is the pushback his attorneys received from even the authorities cited in its brief.
Brian Kalt, a law professor and author of a 2001 article that Trump’s lawyers cite heavily, tweeted Monday that the attorneys “misrepresent what I wrote quite badly.”
The attorneys “suggest that I was endorsing an argument when what I actually did was note that argument - and reject it,” Kalt tweeted. “They didn’t have to be disingenuous and misleading like this.”
But lying is what got Trump here. As the impeachment managers point out in their brief about the false claims of a stolen election Trump used to stoke his supporters’ anger: “He amplified these lies at every turn, seeking to convince supporters that they were victims of a massive electoral conspiracy that threatened the nation’s continued existence.” Trump’s culpability for the insurrection started long before Jan. 6, despite what his lawyers claim.
Republicans’ effort to sidestep this real crux of the impeachment case only underscores how compelling it is likely to be. In their brief, impeachment managers paint a clear picture of how Trump, for months after the election, unleashed a torrent of lies about election fraud, invited supporters to Washington for a “wild” Jan. 6 rally to take place as lawmakers counted certified electoral votes, and then sicced those rally-goers on the US Capitol building - to deadly effect.
The managers, each of whom - like the senators themselves - were witness to the insurrectionists who breached the building and put the lawmakers and others’ lives in danger, also dispel Trump’s attorneys’ defense that such actions enjoy First Amendment protection. Just as a person is not given constitutional immunity for falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre, a president cannot use the First Amendment as a shield for engaging in a months-long falsehood-fueled campaign to undermine the democratic process and autocratically use the power of his office to maintain that power.
And that is the point Americans must keep front of mind if Republicans in the Senate reject the facts and the plain text of the Constitution in order to let Trump off the hook: that those senators are choosing political allegiance to Trump over the principles of democracy itself.
They would be violating the very oath that each of them took to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” Voters, when it’s time for each of these lawmakers to seek reelection, should remember to send them a clear message that neither their political ambition nor Trump’s bully pulpit is bigger than the rule of law.
The Hindu on a deadly glacier collapse in India:
The staggering collapse of part of a glacier in Uttarakhand’s Nanda Devi mountain and the ensuing floods that have claimed many lives come as a deadly reminder that this fragile, geologically dynamic region can never be taken for granted.
A significant slice of the glacier, dislodged by a landslide, according to some satellite images, produced roaring torrents in the Rishiganga and Dhauliganga rivers in Chamoli district, trapping unsuspecting workers at two hydro power project sites. Scores of people are still missing in the wave of water, silt and debris that swamped the rivers and filled tunnels in the Tapovan power project, although the immediate rescue of nearly 15 people by the ITBP, the Army and other agencies brings some cheer.
The rescuers face a challenging environment as they try to locate more survivors and bring relief supplies to paralysed communities. These immediate measures are important, along with speedy compensation to affected families. But the Centre and the Uttarakhand government cannot ignore the larger context of the State’s increasing frailty in the face of environmental shocks.
Once the crucible of environmentalism, epitomised by Sunderlal Bahuguna, Gaura Devi and the Chipko movement, the State’s deep gorges and canyons have attracted many hydroelectric projects and dams, with little concern for earthquake risk. Red flags have been raised repeatedly, particularly after the moderate quake in 1991 in the region where the Tehri dam was built and the 2013 floods that devastated Kedarnath, pointing to the threat from seismicity, dam-induced microseismicity, landslides and floods from a variety of causes, including unstable glacial lakes and climate change.
India is heavily invested in dam development and growth of hydropower, largely in the Himalaya region - especially to cut carbon emissions. By one estimate, if the national plan to construct dams in 28 river valleys in the hills is realised in a few decades, the Indian Himalayas will have one dam for every 32 km, among the world’s highest densities. Yet, as researchers say, this may be a miscalculation for reasons, including potential earthquake impacts, monsoonal aberrations that could repeat a Kedarnath-like flood, severe biodiversity loss and, importantly, extreme danger to communities downstream.
There is also some evidence that the life of dams is often exaggerated, and siltation, which reduces it, is grossly underestimated: in the Bhakra dam in Himachal Pradesh, for instance, siltation was higher by 140% than calculated. The need is to rigorously study the impact of policy on the Himalayas and confine hydro projects to those with the least impact, while relying more on low impact run-of-the-river power projects that need no destructive large dams and reservoirs. Unlike what the NITI Aayog seems to think of environmental accounting, this would be a sound approach.
The New York Times on the lack of transparency surrounding the U.S.’s COVD-19 vaccination campaign:
A few weeks into her part-time job vaccinating nursing home staff members and residents against the coronavirus, Katherine, a pharmacist, noticed a problem: Roughly 15 to 20 vaccines were being thrown away at the end of each vaccination session. That’s because the number of doses that she and her co-workers had prepared - per the protocol established by Katherine’s manager at CVS, the pharmacy she works for - exceeded the number of people who showed up to be inoculated, often significantly.
Katherine - who asked to be identified by her confirmation name, because she is not authorized to discuss company matters - and her colleagues realized that if they prepared just one or two vials at a time, instead of 20 or more, as they had been doing, they could avoid wasting most doses.
But when Katherine asked her manager at CVS if she and her colleagues could change their protocol, she says he brushed her off. (A spokesman for CVS said that immunizers are instructed not to prepare large numbers of doses at once, and that wait lists are being established at each vaccination site to make use of any extra doses. The spokesman declined to discuss anecdotal reports to the contrary.)
It’s impossible to say whether Katherine’s experience is typical, in part because it’s impossible to say nearly anything with certainty about the nation’s vaccine rollout. Last month Rochelle Walensky, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reported that owing to failures of planning and monitoring, the federal government has essentially lost track of some 20 million vaccine doses that were delivered to the states during the previous administration.
Part of the problem seems to be a wildly ineffective vaccine management system. As M.I.T. Technology Review has reported, the federal government gave the company Deloitte a $44 million no-bid contract to develop software that all states could use to manage their vaccine rollouts. The resulting product is so unreliable that many health departments have abandoned it. Other troubles abound. As noted by ProPublica, many states have not required health facilities to report vaccine waste, despite being asked to do so by the C.D.C.
If we don’t know where shots have gone, how can we possibly know what portion have been lost, discarded or even stolen? And if we don’t know where or how or why such waste is occurring, how can we possibly hope to minimize it?
The same goes for vaccination equity. We know that the 32 million or so shots that have been administered so far have gone disproportionately to wealthier, whiter Americans. But we don’t know exactly how bad those disparities are - only about half of all vaccinations logged so far include racial data - and we don’t know what’s behind that gap.
Vaccines are not the only thing officials are in the dark about. They also don’t know where or how fast mutant variants of concern are spreading. The C.D.C. is now aiming to sequence the genomes of some 6,000 virus samples every week. That’s a big improvement over how things have been going. But it’s not nearly enough to get a handle on the crisis. In some states, just a tiny fraction of cases are being sequenced, even during large outbreaks that might be explained by more transmissible variants.
It’s tempting to attribute every failure of pandemic response to the previous administration. It has much to answer for. But the new administration - and the country - will have to grapple with problems that predate former President Donald Trump’s time in office. In the long term, a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s disease surveillance system, a massive upgrade of its data infrastructure and a reimagining of public health authority during a global crisis are all in order.
In the short term, Congress should pass the full coronavirus spending package laid out by President Biden, which would boost funding for the vaccine rollout, and should strongly consider the Tracking Covid-19 Variants Act, which would do the same for genomic surveillance.
The Biden administration also should re-evaluate its arrangement with Walgreens and CVS, established under the Trump administration, to vaccinate long-term care facilities. The program managed to vaccinate more than two million people by late January, but its success has been uneven and tempered with troubles, and some states appear to have done better by opting out. At the very least, much more oversight and accountability are needed.
The C.D.C. should also re-examine its contracts with Deloitte, and in the meantime should call loudly on all states to do two things: ramp up their genome sequencing efforts - ideally in collaboration with the agency - and require that vaccine waste be rigorously monitored and consistently reported.
These measures, taken together, could help bring the nation much closer to its ultimate goal of routing this pandemic at last.
Grim as things sound, there is great reason to hope right now. More vaccines are coming, and case counts and death counts are finally leveling off. There’s a good chance that children will return to school come fall and that people across the country will be able to celebrate holidays in normal fashion by next winter. But the nation remains locked in a desperate contest, between its own ability to vaccinate people as quickly as possible and the virus’s ability to mutate and spread ever faster. Right now, the virus still has the lead.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal on disagreement over President Joe Biden’s proposed virus stimulus plan:
In his inaugural address, President Joe Biden said that “unity is the path forward” to overcoming our nation’s challenges. He said it would “restore the soul” and “secure the future” of our country and insisted that “we have never, ever, ever failed in America when we have acted together.”
If the president’s $1.9 trillion virus stimulus plan is any indication, however, that spirit of bipartisanship is purely optional for his “side.”
On Feb. 3, the House approved a budget resolution that would trigger a procedure known as reconciliation, which would allow Democrats to avoid a filibuster in the Senate and pass the stimulus bill with a simple majority - without Republican votes - in the upper chamber. The resolution came just two days after Mr. Biden met with Senate Republicans to discuss their concerns with the legislation.
As The Washington Post reported, the 10-member GOP group led by Sen. Susan Collins of Maine countered the president’s plan with a narrower $618 billion proposal that would drop several elements opposed by the GOP. The Republican effort would not include an increase of the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and would reduce the size of the next round of stimulus checks - from $1,400 per individual to $1,000 - while tightening the income limits that determine who receives checks.
Media reports noted that Sen. Collins appeared upbeat after the nearly two-hour meeting, but no deal was reached - though she said both sides agreed to “follow up and talk further.”
Don’t count on it. The meeting appeared to be all for show.
While Mr. Biden told House Democrats last week that he’s open to tweaking some elements of his plan, Politico reported that the president told those on the call that he’s unwilling to bend on the size of the $1,400 payment. He also remains committed to acting quickly. “Let’s stick together, I have your back and I hope you’ll have mine,” Biden told House Democrats later that day in his first meeting with the group since being sworn in.
The budget measure approved by the lower chamber on Feb. 3 passed in a 218-212 vote. It directs a dozen committees to begin drafting the various pieces of Mr. Biden’s bill, including $1,400 stimulus checks, $350 billion in bailouts for state and local governments and a minimum wage hike that would crush many struggling businesses - although the president began to back off that plan by the weekend after the Senate had started the process of ramming the bill through without a single GOP vote.
Mr. Biden’s swift rejection of the Republican plan, the lack of further negotiations and his call for Congress to act immediately indicates that the only unity he cares about is the unity on his side of the aisle. The downside for the president is that he and his fellow Democrats will own this giant vote-buying porkapalooza all by themselves.
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