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Texas Coronavirus Politics Are Dangerously Broken – The Atlantic

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Updated at 10 a.m. ET on August 12, 2021.

A year and a half into the pandemic, Texas is running out of hospital beds.

The Texas Tribune reported on Tuesday that nearly 10,000 COVID-19 patients have been hospitalized, and that the state’s intensive-care units are being overwhelmed. Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order asking hospitals to delay elective procedures and authorizing local facilities to seek out-of-state medical staff to help with the coronavirus surge, which is approaching levels not seen since winter. Despite the desperate situation, Texas’s case rate is not even the worst in the nation—Louisiana and Florida have more cases per capita.

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The coronavirus pandemic should have been over by now, but instead the U.S. is facing what some medical experts have described as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Last week, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff held a press conference urging residents to get vaccinated, offering a dramatic chart showing that close to 90 percent of new infections are among the unvaccinated, who in turn make up 95 percent of hospitalizations. Out of the nearly 9,000 Texans who died of the coronavirus from February 8 to July 14, just 43 were known to be vaccinated. In other words, unvaccinated people constituted 99.5 percent of coronavirus deaths in Texas during that period.

Calling it a pandemic of the unvaccinated, however, may mislead some people into believing that the current wave is merely a problem for those who haven’t gotten the shots. The surge is straining the state’s hospital capacity, forcing Texans to delay medical procedures. Children under 12 remain unvaccinated, and some adolescents and adults who have gotten the shot, including those who are immunocompromised, remain vulnerable to infection and serious illness because of the Delta variant. The longer so many people go unvaccinated, the more likely the evolution of even-more-deadly strains of the disease becomes. And, put simply, you should care when the people around you are dying in droves of a preventable illness.

As my colleague Ed Yong has written, being unvaccinated and being anti-vaccination are not the same. Startlingly consistent statistics across states, no matter which party is governing, show that low-income people are more likely to be unvaccinated, particularly if they are Black or Latino, than their wealthier peers. There is no silver bullet for increasing vaccination rates—mandates will help, but community-based outreach efforts are also necessary, and employers must give workers sufficient time to get the vaccine and recover from potential short term side-effects without having that affect their employment. The U.S. appears to be compounding one of the original tragedies of the pandemic: The essential workers who kept society functioning as the nation was ravaged by a plague were more likely to be felled by the illness, and they are now less likely to access the vaccine that could save their lives. America has failed them twice.

For this reason, the coronavirus surge is not entirely attributable to conservative media’s irresponsible campaign against vaccines, which makes the campaign no less reprehensible. Taking a cue from the once and future king of the conservative movement, Donald Trump, right-wing media outlets such as Fox News have devoted hours and hours to programming that is, if not outright anti-vaccine, at the very least anti-pro-vaccine. The same outlets have portrayed other mitigation efforts, such as mask requirements, as a form of tyranny. Some Republicans, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have responsibly sought to counter this messaging, but they are the exception.

Although this misinformation is a real issue, and has driven a partisan divide in vaccination, not every unvaccinated person is being brainwashed by conservative media. The larger issue is that the conservative media’s devotion to undermining vaccination encourages Republican elected officials with political ambitions to make irresponsible public-health decisions, because they understand how media coverage shapes the attitudes of the GOP’s voters. Vaccine mandates for things such as school and air travel are supported by more than 60 percent of Texans, despite the state’s conservative lean. But Republican elected leaders fear the wrath of the GOP primary electorate more than they fear thousands of residents of their states dying of COVID-19.

Abbott and Texas Republican legislators have undermined virtually every effort to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. In June, Abbott signed legislation that would deny state contracts or licenses to businesses that require proof of vaccination. Last month, he issued an executive order banning cities and other jurisdictions from enacting mask and vaccination mandates, even though schools across the state already and rightfully require other vaccinations for students to enroll. “The new Executive Order emphasizes that the path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates,” Abbott proclaimed, while issuing a government mandate. Many Texas cities are in revolt, instituting their own mask mandates in defiance of Abbott’s directives and taking the governor to court.

Abbott did, however, direct state troopers to stop vehicles suspected of transporting undocumented immigrants, a reaction to the widespread conservative falsehood that immigrants are propelling the pandemic surge. The primary step Abbott has taken to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, in other words, is to encourage armed agents of the state to engage in racial profiling. You know, in the name of freedom.

These efforts are not justifiable on the principles conservatives claim to hold. They are not small-government measures, given that they represent intrusive state intervention. They do not respect local control, given that they bar cities and other jurisdictions from taking measures that their residents want them to take. And they are not deferential to the free market, given that they seek to use the state to punish businesses that engage in mitigation efforts. They are designed solely to appeal to the culture-war shibboleths of right-wing media, no matter how many Texans die as a result.

A pathetic irony is that Texas Republicans such as Senator Ted Cruz, who has proposed banning vaccine mandates on the federal level, formerly insisted that the seriousness of the pandemic was a liberal plot to harm Trump and would subside when he left office, as would liberal support for mitigation measures. But now Cruz, ever the craven apparatchik, the type of man who kissed the ring of someone who smeared his father and insulted his wife, is opposing the policies that would more quickly end the pandemic and make such measures unnecessary.

But liberals should not allow themselves to indulge in smugness here. The consequences of this madness will fall on liberal and conservative alike, and disproportionately on working-class Americans of all backgrounds. It is not simply the most conservative areas of Texas that are lagging in vaccinations; Black and Latino communities across the state also have lower-than-average vaccination rates. And even the voters who support Abbott’s approach deserve better than his disastrous anti-governance; their lives are also worth saving.

Perhaps, you might say, this is democracy in action. Texas after all is a red state, and so Abbott acting according to the preferences of the right wing of his party is simply him being responsible to the public. Even if we set aside Texas Republicans’ careful and long-standing efforts to engineer a more conservative electorate, though, the present situation illustrates something deeply dysfunctional about our democracy. Something is wrong when an extreme primary electorate has such a stranglehold on a state of 29 million people that a public official believes it is against his interest to take basic steps to keep his own constituents alive.


This story originally stated that 10,000 COVID-19 patients are in Texas ICUs; in fact, that is the total number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

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Johnston hired crisis communications firm as he prepared report on foreign interference

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David Johnston, Canada’s special rapporteur on foreign interference, has hired a firm known for its crisis communications to support him — and taxpayers are footing the bill, CBC News has learned.

Valérie Gervais, a spokesperson for Johnston, confirmed that the former governor general, appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to investigate foreign interference in Canadian politics, first retained Navigator at the start of his mandate as special rapporteur to provide “communications advice and support.”

Navigator calls itself a “high-stakes strategic advisory and communications firm” that offers a range of services. Its slogan is, “When you can’t afford to lose.”

Hockey Canada hired the firm to help it through the fallout from its handling of sexual abuse allegations and use of players’ registration fees to quietly pay out settlements. A Hockey Canada executive confirmed the organization paid Navigator more than $1.6 million to guide it through its public relations nightmare.

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Before resigning his position, Ottawa’s police chief Peter Sloly hired Navigator to help with communications during the convoy protest in Ottawa that shut down the downtown core of the capital for more than three weeks.

Police enforce an injunction against protesters taking part in the convoy protest in Ottawa on Feb. 19, 2022. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Navigator’s work for Johnston has included drafting press releases, preparing him for interviews, analyzing news media reports and social media and providing logistical support for the release of his first report on foreign interference, Gervais said in a written statement sent to CBC News.

“Navigator has had no involvement in [Johnston’s] investigation or the development of his conclusions, and has not been privy to any classified materials,” she wrote.

Johnston is set to appear for three hours before a parliamentary committee on Tuesday to discuss his report on foreign interference by China’s government.

The House of Commons passed an NDP motion earlier this week, with Conservative and Bloc Québécois support, calling on Johnston to step down from his high-profile role.

CBC News asked for an estimate of how much taxpayers are paying for Navigator’s services to Johnston. His office said Johnston’s “work is ongoing and as such final costs are not available at this time.”

“In accordance with the Terms of Reference and Treasury Board policies, the Independent Special Rapporteur is authorized to incur necessary expenses to conduct an independent review,” Gervais wrote.

“These services were retained in accordance with Treasury Board policies, and are subject to any necessary disclosures.”

 

Trudeau sticking with Johnston as opposition demands his ouster

 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says parties are playing partisan games off the back of David Johnston’s appointment as special rapporteur on foreign interference, and reiterated Johnston’s impartiality and engagement with different federal parties throughout his political career.

Along with Navigator, Johnston also hired the Ottawa-based communications company RKESTRA to provide “media relations support” related to the release of his first report.

RKESTRA’s website currently lists Gervais as the founder and CEO of the company.

Her LinkedIn profile says she has a “decade and a half of experience advising high-profile employers.” She worked as a spokesperson at Rideau Hall in 2019 when Julie Payette was governor general — before Payette resigned in 2021 in the wake of a report that found she presided over a toxic workplace.

Gervais was also press secretary to then-justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould in 2016.

Johnston also hired the international law firm Torys LLP to provide “legal, investigative and drafting support,” wrote Gervais.

In a media statement, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the “Liberals have missed the mark and consistently failed to reassure Canadians that their elections are free of interference.”

“Hiring a crisis communications firm suggests to Canadians the Liberals’ main concern is how this looks — not getting to the bottom of a very serious issue.”

Singh said that if the Liberals had launched a public inquiry, “taxpayers wouldn’t be on the hook for another crisis management service.”

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner tweeted that she’s “scratching her head” at this move to hire Navigator and said the firm has “exposed itself to potential weeks” of “questioning by all opposition parties.”

A spokesperson for the Conservatives, Sebastian Skamski, said hiring Navigator has “given Canadians yet another reason to demand an open and independent inquiry.” He said Johnston is wasting Canadians’ “hard earned tax dollars”.

CBC News asked Navigator for comment. The firm said “it is Navigator’s policy not to comment on our client engagements.”

Opposition critics have claimed Johnston’s appointment is tainted due to his connections to the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation and the prime minister’s family. Johnston has said the family connection is overstated, while the Conservatives have called him a “ski buddy” and “personal friend” of Trudeau.

Trudeau said Friday he’s committed to keeping Johnston in his role and looks forward to public hearings Johnston is expected to hold in the coming months before releasing his final report this fall.

 

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South America: A hard road to unity – Al Jazeera English

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Unlike other parts of the world, Latin America is free of war. Yet it is a region plagued by inequality, crime, corruption, drug trafficking and social upheaval. Political stability and strong democratic institutions are more the exception than the rule.

South America, in particular, never seems to stop moving from one extreme to the other, shifting from the political left to the right and back again, without addressing the social and economic demands responsible for moving the pendulum.

Such instability has made it difficult for the continent to form an influential bloc, despite estimates that it collectively represents the fifth-largest global economy.

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Earlier this week, all 12 South American countries, represented by 11 presidents and Peru’s prime minister, gathered in Brasilia to give another crack at the elusive goal of continental integration. Spearheading the effort was Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

“What he is trying to achieve is the unity of South America,” Lula’s chief adviser, former Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, told me.

“I think it’s always been important, but it’s now even more important in a world which is progressively divided in blocs. I think, in a world like that, even a country like Brazil — which is very populous and has a huge economy — is not big enough alone.”

But while Lula is still considered the region’s most influential leader, many at Tuesday’s summit were not willing to follow his advice.

Lula had hoped to revive UNASUR, the South American bloc that he had helped create 15 years earlier during his first two terms as president. But ideological disputes eventually convinced more than half of its member countries to abandon the organisation.

“It’s better not to start from zero,” Lula said at this week’s summit, as he pitched reconvening UNASUR.

But he was unable to convince all of his peers who, in the end, chose to assemble a group with members from each country to work on a plan for regional integration over the next 120 days.

Lula had appealed to South American leaders to put aside their ideological differences and concentrate on common interests, including economic growth, energy production and environmental protection.

But his decision to welcome Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro the day before the summit led to open criticism. In his remarks, Lula had dismissed the image of an “anti-democratic” Venezuela as a “narrative” promoted by Western countries and the media.

But Chilean President Gabriel Boric said that, as a left-wing president, he disagreed.

“It’s not a narrative construction. It is a reality. It is serious,” Boric said. He added that respect for human rights was “basic and important” for Chile, no matter the ideology of those who violate them.

Milestone for Maduro

For President Maduro, the meeting was an important milestone. For years, he had been isolated from his South American peers — Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Peru and Argentina, for example — after many chose not to recognise his re-election in 2018, opting instead to support an opposition government.

During hours of closed-door meetings at this week’s summit, Maduro faced direct criticism of his human rights record from at least two presidents, but he did not take up the glove.

“We have no problem sitting down to talk with any political force or president in a respectful, tolerant dialogue of unity in diversity. That is what we had here,” Maduro said when the meeting ended.

Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro, his Argentine counterpart Alberto Fernandez and Chile’s Boric — all left-wing figures — were among the majority who agreed that at no time in history has South America shown such economic potential.

It is home to the largest reserves of copper and the highly sought-after lithium used in rechargeable batteries. The region also has the potential to become the largest producer of green hydrogen and other sources of sustainable energy. And it has huge reserves of freshwater, rainforests and an increasingly — though not sufficiently — educated population.

But South America’s economic and political disparities have frustrated decades of attempts to create regional unions. UNASUR has not been the only bloc to flounder. MERCOSUR — a union between Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay — has also struggled amid internal disputes.

What is needed is more pragmatism, according to some experts. And the current immigration crisis in South America could help spur it.

More than seven million Venezuelans have left their homeland since 2015, according to the United Nations. If countries like Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia want to repatriate undocumented Venezuelans and institute an orderly system of legal migration, some observers believe they will need Maduro’s cooperation.

Boric referred to cooperation with Venezuela to resolve the crisis at the Chile-Peruvian border.

“Together, with the governments of Peru and Venezuela, through a dialogue with Venezuela’s foreign minister, we were able to resolve this crisis and allow a Venezuelan aeroplane to return citizens of that country to their homeland,” said Boric.

Following the EU model?

Amorim, Lula’s adviser, pointed to the European Union as a model for how South American nations can proceed to build a new bloc, even with a diversity of political opinions.

“You have several political positions In Europe. You have governments of the centre-right. You have governments which one might say are even more right than centre-right. And you have the centre-left governments,” Amorim said. “And still, on some subjects at least, they are able to speak — if not with one single voice — at least in a coherent way.”

Lula’s dream of a united South America, however, is still a long way from success. But politicians like Amorim see hope in Europe’s example. The 12 countries of South America, after all, are much more culturally and linguistically similar than the members of the European Union.

“Of course, there will be different views,” Amorim said of a possible South American bloc. “But we have common interests in many respects. We have to work for our interests in a unified way. Because like that, we have more strength.”

There is a lot to be gained and no time to lose, Lula explained at the summit, as he referenced South America’s long history of being under the shadow of powerful economic and political powers, stretching back to the earliest days of colonialism.

“We cannot wait another 500 years in the margins,” he warned.

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David Johnston's report on foreign interference will keep the issue front and centre – The Globe and Mail

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David Johnston, independent special rapporteur on foreign interference, presents his first report in Ottawa on May 23.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

There is little chance of a public inquiry into foreign interference in Canadian politics and elections unless Prime Minister Justin Trudeau resigns or is forced into a general election.

Since neither is likely in the near future, our best hope for preserving the integrity of our electoral system lies in the report coming this fall from David Johnston.

Opposition politicians, editorial boards and the public, according to a recent poll, have all lost confidence in the special rapporteur’s ability to deliver an effective report. But like it or not, he’s the only game in town.

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Parliament expressed its lack of confidence in the former governor-general, and in the Prime Minister who appointed him, on Wednesday, with a motion calling on Mr. Johnston to step down and for the government to establish a public inquiry into foreign interference. The motion passed with the support of the opposition parties. The Prime Minister ignored the motion, and Mr. Johnston quickly stated he intended to carry on.

“I deeply respect the right of the House of Commons to express its opinion about my work going forward, but my mandate comes from the government,” he said in a statement. “I have a duty to pursue that work until my mandate is completed.”

This earned a sharp rebuke from NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who called the response “tone-deaf.”

“I would have expected a more thoughtful approach and respect for the will of the House of Commons from a former Governor General.” he said in a statement on Thursday.

Mr. Singh could, of course, force the issue by withdrawing from the supply and confidence agreement that props up this Liberal government and then moving or supporting a motion of non-confidence if the government continues to refuse to launch a public inquiry. But he remains unwilling.

So barring an unlikely change of heart from Mr. Johnston, Mr. Trudeau or Mr. Singh, the government will carry on and Mr. Johnston’s investigation will continue.

Opinion: David Johnston’s duty without purpose

We need to step back and remind ourselves of what we should all be seeking: measures to preserve (restore?) public confidence in our political system by deterring foreign powers from influencing or covertly supporting candidates.

That could require new regulations and legislation. Creating a registry of foreign agents would be a good start. It could also require new ways to get relevant information to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office, and for them to act on it. For that, we need to hear from authorities speaking in a non-partisan forum, such as the hearings Mr. Johnston plans to hold before submitting his report at the end of October.

We won’t get any of the juicy stuff – who ignored, suppressed or failed to receive what information and why. But we might get substantive recommendations for improving the effectiveness and responsibility of politicians, public servants and the intelligence agencies.

Mr. Trudeau may have been hoping that, by the time Mr. Johnston submits his final report, the caravan will have moved on and the report will be ignored. He can forget about that. Mr. Johnston’s hearings and report will, if nothing else, keep the issue front and centre.

This is why it is wrong for opposition politicians to denigrate and belittle Mr. Johnston. Rather than threatening to boycott the process, they should be pushing to have the report delayed to early next year, so that Mr. Johnston can have adequate time to conduct hearings and prepare his recommendations. They need a strong report from him. He’s all they’ve got.

There are good reasons why many set little store in whatever Mr. Johnston may say in the future. In the eyes of skeptics, his ties to the Trudeau family placed him in an apparent conflict of interest the day he agreed to take on the task of special rapporteur.

In his initial report, Mr. Johnston failed to realize that public confidence in the system had been shaken by reports in The Globe and Mail and elsewhere of Chinese meddling in the 2019 and 2021 elections, and that only a public inquiry before someone all sides could trust could restore it. He erred.

But he is determined to complete his mandate. We should all wish him well as he seeks to establish new rules and methods for protecting our political system. He’s all we’ve got, too.

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