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As COVID rages through India, which has the second-highest number of reported cases worldwide, hundreds of thousands of farmers are converging on the capital New Delhi to demand the government repeal new laws that deregulate agricultural markets, saying the reforms give major corporations power to set crop prices far below current rates and devastate the livelihoods of farmers. Agriculture is the leading source of income for more than half of India’s 1.3 billion people. The farmer revolt comes as some 250 million workers across the country took part in the largest strike in history against the Modi government’s neoliberal labor reforms. We speak with P. Sainath, a longtime Indian journalist and the founder of People’s Archive of Rural India, or PARI, who describes why working-class Indians are standing up against “absolutely vicious” new rules that were rammed through Parliament, and the protests show no signs of stopping.
TRANSCRIPT
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we turn to India, where tens of thousands of farmers are converging on the capital city of New Delhi by tractor and on foot to demand the repeal of new laws that deregulate agricultural markets. The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi says the measures give farmers more freedom to set their own prices and sell directly to corporate buyers. But opponents say the neoliberal policies are a boon to corporations and roll back key labor and crop price protections that could have a devastating impact on the livelihood of farmers. Agriculture is the leading source of income for more than half of India’s 1.3 billion population.
The ongoing protests come after a nationwide demonstration Thursday, when an estimated 250 million workers, farmers and their allies joined in what’s believed to be the largest organized strike in history anywhere in the world. Organizers say tens of thousands of demonstrators have now gathered at each of New Delhi’s three borders, in cold winter conditions, and more farmers are on their way. Police have put up barriers to block them from coming into the center of the city. This is one of the farmers protesting.

FARMER PROTESTER: [translated] India is my country, and Delhi is the capital of my country. I am not even allowed to enter my capital city. This is in spite of farmers never doing any hooliganism. Our whole movement has been peaceful. They also showered us with water cannons. We were also beaten. But no farmers retaliated violently.

AMY GOODMAN: Today Indian government officials are meeting with farmer representatives for a fourth time, and farmer union leaders have invited Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar to their protest site.
This comes as COVID rages through India, which has reported more cases than any country in the world outside the United States.
For more, we go to Mumbai to speak with P. Sainath, longtime Indian journalist, founder of People’s Archive of Rural India, or PARI.
It’s great to have you back again. You used to write for The Hindu and used to write for The Times of India. You’re an award-winning journalist, but felt that the majority of people were not being heard, and you wanted to give voice to the voiceless. Talk about this most significant protest, the largest, it’s believed, the largest organized protest in world history, P. Sainath.
P. SAINATH: On the 26th of October, Amy, all the workers in the country, in many, many gigantic public sector units, in power, in transport, in a number of public sector organizations, and across the banks, the insurance companies, and workers from other set of departments ceased work and went out. And it’s interesting. They were protesting against a new set of labor codes, absolutely vicious codes, that have been rammed through Parliament. But the working class out on the streets endorsed the demands of the farmers at Delhi. So it was a tremendous show of unity and solidarity, when millions of workers were saying, “We are with the farmers.” So, that was one extraordinary thing. That was on the 26th of October.
The farmers now, I think that maybe there’s 200,000 to a quarter of million of them on five points on the Delhi border. The government approach to them is actually extremely callous and very, very aggressive. On the one hand, they’re putting out some stuff for the media saying, you know, they’re talking to them, they want to solve this problem. On the other, the prime minister is making speeches in his own constituency that this entire thing is a conspiracy by the opposition.
Now, if you need to know how deep this problem is biting in the farmers, as of yesterday, Punjab, which is a famous state for athletics in India, the Olympians, those athletes of Punjab who have won multiple medals at the Commonwealth, National Games and have participated in the Olympics, are planning to throw their medals back at the government on the 5th of December. Many artists and poets and others are returning their civilian awards. So, this is slated for the 5th.
And the government has no sign of shame about it at all. It is trying to look like the reasonable host. At the same time, it has put up barricades, barbed wire. It has dug 10-feet-by-10-feet trenches in the national highways to prevent these farmers from reaching Delhi, and have used water cannon and tear gas — water cannon in the coldest winter that Delhi has had. It had its coldest day in 70 years two days ago, and you’re using water cannons on people, several of whom, those farmers, are in their late sixties and early seventies. On that kind of person, you are using water cannons and telling the — and you have a captive media, of course, that makes it look like the government is just getting it wrong in the way they are talking to the farmers: “These are all hicks and brutal yokels. They just need to be spoken to sweetly,” whereas the laws that they are protesting, Amy, are devastating.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, P. Sainath, could you talk about this protest, these protests, in the wider economic context in India? Unemployment is now at 27%, which is unprecedented in the country. As we mentioned earlier, almost 60% of India’s 1.3 billion people rely on agriculture as their main source of livelihood. In just two years, from 2018 to 2019, over 20,000 farmers died by suicide. Meanwhile, a billionaire, the richest man in India, Mukesh Ambani, has made $12 million an hour since the lockdown began as a result of the pandemic in March. Could you talk about the broader context of these protests?
P. SAINATH: Well, the entire protests, driven by a deepening agrarian crisis, are very fundamentally tied to the larger structural inequalities that you are pointing to. In just four months of the pandemic, just up to July, not only Mr. Ambani, but the entire bunch of Indian billionaires, dollar billionaires — there’s about 120 of them — added 35% to their wealth, one-third to their already considerable wealth, and it’s now around $485 billion cumulatively. Mr. Ambani went from being the richest Indian and the 19th richest person in the world; in the last year, year and a half, he has made it up to rank number four.
At the same time, Amy, there are new papers, studies showing us 76% of the rural population — that is, three-fourths of the rural population — cannot afford a nutritious meal. They cannot afford a basic nutritious diet, even if they spend — even if they spent two-thirds of their income on food. Now, apart from that, even if, say, all rural Indians spent 100% of their income on food and nothing else — no transport, health, education, rent; they didn’t spend anything of that — it would still mean 63.3% cannot afford a nutritious diet, if they spent every last paisa they earned, I mean, they got as income. So you’re seeing these unbelievable gaps, phenomenal gaps. India ranks fourth or fifth in the list of dollar billionaires in the world, and 129th on the U.N. Human Development Index.
And the pandemic has provided — you need to understand one very important thing about the protests. And for that, you need to understand what kind of mischief was played in the laws. Three major laws have been passed in Parliament which devastate the farmers, and you mentioned them as you introduced the subject. Two days later, when the opposition walked out in protest, they rammed through four labor laws codifying 29 existing complex legislations, and made them into four and rammed it through.
Now, the question is: Why did they feel the need to pass these laws at the height of the pandemic? Mr. Modi had a majority before the pandemic. He has a big majority. He will have it for two, three years after the pandemic. The reasoning was, these blokes are on their knees now. They can’t organize. They can’t hit back. And in fact, many leading neoliberal intellectuals, economists and journalists, editors, incited the government, saying, “Never waste a good crisis,” paraphrasing Winston Churchill, by the way, badly. “Never waste a good crisis. This is India’s second 1991 moment” — when we embraced the world of neoliberalism. “This is the time to ram through aggressive, next-generation reforms.” And the government, believing that, went for this action, not understanding the resolve of these farmers, who have come back massively at the government.
Just one clause I want to read you from the laws. You will not believe — I don’t know. You can tell me if you’ve ever read laws in a democratic nation which have a clause like this. Not only have they rammed through these laws, you know, on prices, on contract farming, on essential commodities, they have included this clause in one of the most important of these laws. It says, “No suit, no prosecution or other legal proceedings shall lie against the central government or the state government or any officer of the central government or any officer of the state government or any other person in respect of anything” — [read corporations] — I mean, “read corporations” in brackets — “or any other person in respect of anything which is done in good faith or intended to be done in good faith under this act. And no civil court shall have jurisdictions to entertain any suit or proceedings in respect of any matter connected to the actions under this law.” Have you read many laws like that in a democratic country?
So, they have taken with the legal recourse of the citizen. And I’ve been yelling of this that it’s not just the farmers who are affected. Nobody else can sue, either. They are dismantling the right to legal recourse. The Bar Council of Delhi, you know, the capital city — the Bar Council of Delhi yesterday wrote to the president of India, saying, “This is an extremely dangerous thing that’s happening. You’re taking away the fundamental rights of the citizen to move the courts when in distress.” So, this is the kind of stuff.
And at the same time, the inequalities are deepening. The unemployment figures, that, Amy, I mean, they have come down as some amount of opening up happens, but people are returning to much worse conditions as workers. We have tampered with the gold standard of labor law, which used to be eight hours a day. Now you can have 12 hours a day without overtime for the last four hours. It’ll be at a pro-rate, I think. You are having a massive, massive class divide in what’s happening, with the top 0.01% adding phenomenally to its wealth and a huge amount of distress at the bottom end.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip of Birendra Singh, as we talk about COVID and the effect of the pandemic on India. He used to run a food stall in Andhra Pradesh. He explained to your news organization, to PARI, the People’s Archive of Rural India, how his family has been affected by the lockdown.

BIRENDRA SINGH: [translated] Before the lockdown, our days would go like this: We would wake up at 4:00 in the morning and start to make puris. Four hours would go in just making these puris. From 3:00 in the afternoon to 10:00 at night, we used to do business. By 11:00 in the night, I would reach home. Then, from the next day, this same work, Sirji. Before, work was going well. We were eating properly. I could take care of my parents, too. Since the lockdown began, I have been in deep trouble.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, P. Sainath, could you talk about what the situation with lockdown in India is, and the fact that the mortality rate there from the coronavirus is apparently reportedly much lower than the mortality rate certainly than here in the U.S., but also Europe?
P. SAINATH: It may be. It may be lower than that of the U.S., but the numbers we have on COVID-19, on infections, on the fatality rates, are extremely suspect, barring one or two states which are very good at following up, tracking, tracing, like a state like Kerala, which has done much better. And a hell of a lot of the testing — I mean, we are doing very low levels of testing. And you will get lower numbers. Second, much of the testing, the bulk of the testing in many states, is done on rapid antigen basis, not on the RT-PCR. And the rapid antigen has — as you know, the RAT tests have a very high proportion of false negatives. So we don’t really know. And I don’t buy this idea of being one of the lowest fatality rates in the world. It’s true of one or two states which have a much better health infrastructure and a much better system of public health than a country, as a whole, which spends 1.28% of its gross domestic product on health and, two, most of the expenditure on health is out of pocket by poor, ordinary Indians. In fact, the last three surveys on health in the National Sample Survey have shown the number of Indians not seeking medical attention purely for financial reasons has doubled in 20 years. So, I’m not going to buy into this.
The second part of your question — I mean, the second aspect of your question, Nermeen, is that there are an incredible number of non-COVID deaths which have happened because of the complete collapse of the health infrastructure and the total focus of what little there is on COVID, so people dying of cardiac arrest, people dying of diabetic and stroke, and people dying of a number of other diseases, curable, treatable diseases. That number is surging massively. I, myself, since April 5, have lost 14 friends and acquaintances whom I knew very well. Just one of them — just one of them died of COVID. OK? Many of the others, their families took them from hospital to hospital to hospital to try and get admission, and couldn’t. And also —
AMY GOODMAN: P. Sainath, we’re going to have to leave it there, but I want to thank you so much for being with us. And, of course, we’ll be visiting with you again in Mumbai, India. P. Sainath is the award-winning Indian journalist, founder of People’s Archive of Rural India, or PARI.
Very happy birthday to Emily Gosselin! Tomorrow, Paul Farmer. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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If any conversation could be said to be simultaneously terrifying and boring, it is the ongoing one regarding the motives behind Donald Trump’s elaborate electoral tantrum. The question on millions of lips: Why is he doing this?
Multiple reports have suggested he knows he lost to Joe Biden, though as his niece Mary Trump has observed, the man has a singular talent for gaslighting himself. Perhaps he has genuinely convinced himself that he actually won, and that’s why we’re in this mess. Trump is also raking in cash from the willing dupes in his base, so the financial motive is clear.
Of course, the legal peril Trump faces in New York State and elsewhere would motivate him to hang on to the office past his expiration date. Likewise, it is demonstrably clear that the man has all the makings of an authoritarian tyrant, arguably save for talent and motivation, and crap like this is what authoritarian tyrants pull when Birnam Wood finally comes to Dunsinane, so there’s that, too.

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Yet all those, alone or in some sort of twisted combination, fail to account for Trump’s vivid astonishment in defeat. Ever since the deal went down, Trump has been walking around with a look on his face like he just watched Biden pull a live ocelot out of his nose and taught it to deal cards. Even the “He’s a superbrat” theory doesn’t account for Trump’s sustained astonishment; even the most epic of assholes get the message eventually, but not him, not yet.
John W. Dean, formerly of the Nixon White House and presently a political commentator for Findlaw’s Writ, proposed a theory last weekend that rang all the bells, in my opinion.
“Trump may be unable to believe he lost because, in fact, he rigged the election,” tweeted Dean. “But maybe he miscalculated with only 10 million extra votes. So he now thinks he was out-cheated. In fact, Dems outvoted him and he wasn’t ready for it.”
That sounds just about exactly right, the explanatory period at the end of this weird sentence.
It is a rule of thumb that virtually all of Trump’s accusations are, in fact, confessions of his own shabby behavior. His bellowed claims of rigged elections and vast conspiracies are actually his helpless testimonial to the serial election misdeeds of his administration and his party.
Trump, along with his Republican colleagues on the state and federal levels, have labored mightily for far longer than this election to rig the very notion of voting. The effort predates Trump by years. Look no further than the decimation of the Voting Rights Act by the Roberts court, which opened the floodgates for dozens of brazenly racist voting restrictions across multiple states. Meanwhile the rewrite of that vital legislation, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, gathers dust on Mitch McConnell’s desk.
Ever since the deal went down, Trump has been walking around with a look on his face like he just watched Biden pull a live ocelot out of his nose and taught it to deal cards.Every single election since then, it has been made deliberately more difficult for people of color to vote. Voter suppression efforts throughout this period have included deliberate acts of sabotage, such as when Georgia’s then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, wiped hundreds of thousands of people off the voting rolls, even as he was running for governor against Stacey Abrams.
Let us also not forget Florida’s decision to levy what is essentially a poll tax on 1.4 million people with felony convictions, who only recently regained the right to vote in the first place. Let it be noted that the Roberts court made sure that rule sticks.
This was a huge year for mail-in voting because of the pandemic. In Milwaukee and Houston, Republicans attempted to deprive millions of voters the ability to cast their ballots by mail by depriving them of ballot boxes; only one was allowed in each voting district until hell was raised and the attempt were stopped. False ballot boxes started popping up in multiple places.
The disinformation campaign waged against Black voters on social media during the 2016 campaign is well-documented. “Four years after Russian operatives used social media in a bid to exacerbate racial divisions in the United States and suppress Black voter turnout,” reported The Washington Post in August, “such tactics have spread across a wide range of deceptive online campaigns operated from numerous nations — including from within the United States itself.”
On the eve of the 2020 election, Trump sent out an unambiguous call for “poll-watchers” to go to voting stations in cities like Philadelphia and Atlanta, home to huge Black voter populations. The unvarnished purpose was intimidation. After he lost, Trump’s lawsuits aimed at overturning the election focused on these and other cities with large Black populations. The unvarnished motive was racism.
And there was the mother of all 2020 attempted rig jobs: Trump’s frontal and inside attack on the United States Postal Service (USPS). Full in the knowledge that millions of Democrats would use the mail service to vote against him, Trump tried to burn the postal service down in broad daylight. The USPS proved to be far more resilient than Trump anticipated, and the ballots were carried to their proper destination with nearly seamless efficiency.
Trump’s accusations regarding fraud in the 2020 election are indeed a confession: His party tried, and failed, to rig the vote. That such massive labors came to nothing has left him, as Abraham Lincoln said of defeated Gen. William Rosencrans, “confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head.”
It makes perfect sense. If I cheated that hard and still lost, I’d have trouble believing it, too.

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A harrowing study released by the United Nations early Thursday reveals that the global coronavirus pandemic is setting the stage for a massive surge in the number of people pushed into poverty worldwide over the next decade — a phenomenon that only immediate interventions in the form of ambitious investments in public health, social safety net programs, and a green transitioncan help avoid.
According to the findings of the new studyby the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the “severe long-term effects” of the global pandemic could push an additional 207 million people into extreme poverty over the next decade. On top of the current pandemic trajectory, that would bring the total number of individuals living in extreme poverty to over 1 billion by 2030 — this at a time of rampant and nearly unparalleled inequality as the fortunesof the world’s richest individuals and families continue to soar.
While the UNDP makes clear the looming intensification of poverty is not a forgone conclusion, only with urgent action can such a scenario be avoided.

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“As this new poverty research highlights, the Covid-19 pandemic is a tipping point, and the choices leaders take now could take the world in very different directions,” said UNDP administrator Achim Steiner.

📣 A new @UNDP and @PardeeCenterIFs study assesses the impact of different #COVID19 recovery scenarios on the #SDGs, evaluating the multidimensional effects of the pandemic over the next decade.
Discover the findings at 👉https://t.co/ViXKpjZF2e pic.twitter.com/oL5wL9gN7r
— UNDP SDG Integration (@SDGintegration) December 3, 2020

The analysis considers various recovery pathways and predicts how each one would affect the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Under the ‘Baseline’ scenario, based on current mortality rates and growth projections, 44 million more people will likely be pushed into extreme poverty by 2030 than would have been expected before the Covid-19 pandemic altered the world’s development trajectory.
In a ‘High Damage’ scenario in which the recovery is protracted — meaning that 80 percent of economic productivity losses remain after 10 years — 207 million additional people are projected to be living in poverty, bringing the total to 1 billion by the end of the decade.
Worsening poverty is not inevitable, however. The UNDP also finds that a “focused set” of interventions to attain the SDGs, which the authors call the ‘SDG Push’ scenario, could lift 146 million people out of extreme poverty compared to the current pandemic-driven trends and reduce the gender poverty gap, too.
By making SDG investments over the next decade in social protection as well as digital and green economic development, “we can accelerate out of this crisis,” the report says, and actually exceed pre-coronavirus expectations for human development in fragile states.
According to the UNDP, the benefits of a strong SDG push “are echoed across additional human development indicators, including nutrition and education.”
With SDG interventions, the report states, “about 128 million adults and 16 million children are likely to escape malnutrition” by 2030, and “the proportion of children graduating from upper secondary school rises from the estimated 66 percent to 70 percent.”
Additionally, the study warns the ‘High Damage’ scenario would see 37 million more people likely to become malnourished over the coming decade, including 4 million children under the age of five, and also that secondary school graduation rates could plummet to 64 percent worldwide if urgent actions are not taken.
“We have an opportunity,” said Steiner, “to invest in a decade of action that not only helps people to recover from Covid-19, but that resets the development path of people and planet towards a more fair, resilient, and green future.”

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Investors in the stock market are obviously pretty optimistic about the future state of the economy. But are they too optimistic? Why would anyone think that we’re going to recover from our current recession any faster than we recovered from the Great Recession of 2008-10?
There are two reasons for optimism. Here’s the first:
When the housing bubble collapsed in 2007 and took consumer demand with it, we were at the end of a long period in which personal saving had drifted down to a meager 3.3 percent. This made the aftermath of the recession especially bad since households had almost no savings to make up for loss of income. The next four years were spent on rebuilding those savings, which contributed to a slow recovery of consumer spending.
The situation is just the opposite today. Household savings were high before the pandemic hit and that gives families a spending cushion. This is one reason that consumer spending has recovered so quickly even though we haven’t even exited the recession yet.
But there’s a second reason for optimism that’s closely related to the first. In 2009, even though it was obvious that the Great Recession was, indeed, great, Congress was willing to pass a stimulus bill of only $800 billion over two years. That’s $400 billion per year.
Compare that to the CARES Act, passed in March just as the pandemic recession was starting. It allocated $2.2 trillion, all of it designated for this year, and Congress seems likely to approve another trillion dollars during the lame duck session, most of it designated for the next six months or so. That comes to $3.2 trillion over 16 months, an annual rate of $2.4 trillion. That’s six times as much stimulus as Congress approved in 2009.
This is what’s responsible for the huge spike in personal savings starting last summer. The CARES Act kept the economy afloat and put money in people’s pockets, much of which was put into savings. That savings is now being drawn down, which has kept consumer spending in reasonably good shape. There’s every reason to think that by next summer, when mass vaccine uptake should finally bring the pandemic to an end, the underlying economy will be in pretty good shape and can pick up where it left off rather than sputtering along because consumers are desperately trying to increase their savings instead of spending their paychecks.
There are plenty of caveats to this, chief among them the possibility of employment never recovering to its pre-pandemic level. Nevertheless, there’s a pretty basic story here: unlike 2009, Congress was willing to pass a massive stimulus bill that kept both personal savings and consumer spending in decent shape. Combine that with the fact that most people believe the pandemic recession has a natural ending point (when the uptake rate for the vaccine becomes high enough to stop the spread of the coronavirus) and there’s good reason to think that we should recover fairly quickly in the second half of next year.

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A grim record was reached on Wednesday, as more Americans died as a result of coronavirus on that day than any other since the start of the pandemic this year.
There were 3,157 COVID-19 deaths recorded on December 2, a count that surpassed the previous record set back in April by more than 500 deaths. As a result of those latest numbers, 273,799 coronavirus deaths have been recorded in the U.S. to date.
New diagnoses of coronavirus on Wednesday also exceeded 200,000 for just the second time since the pandemic began, bringing the total who have tested positive in the U.S. since March up to 13.9 million. More than 100,000 individuals infected with the virus are currently hospitalized, with nearly 20 percent of them placed in intensive care units.

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While the latest numbers are chilling, health experts warn they are likely to get much worse as the nation moves into winter. “The next three months are going to be just horrible,” Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, said to The New York Times.
Amid the latest surge in cases and deaths, President Donald Trump is focusing on overturning the results of the 2020 presidential election, in which President-elect Joe Biden soundly won, rather than addressing the coronavirus crisis.
Trump on Wednesday, for example, posted a 46-minute speech online, filled with baseless and erroneous claims of election fraud, as well as false assertions that the election was “stolen.”
During his rant, which he called “the most important speech” he has “ever made,” Trump rarely referenced the COVID-19 crisis at all. He never uttered the words “coronavirus” or “COVID” during his 46-minute speech, and only mentioned the word “pandemic” four times — not to express condolences to families of loved ones who have passed or to urge social distancing measures, but to make unsubstantiated claims that Democrats “used” the crisis as a means to defeat him at the polls.
It’s been 11 days since Trump has even tweeted the words “coronavirus” or “COVID,” according to a search of his tweets on the site conducted on Thursday morning. Since that time, around 17,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.
His actions as president in the past few weeks also demonstrate an unwillingness to accept his responsibility as chief executive to address the pandemic during his final months in office. Earlier this week, Trump held a Christmas party at the White House, in direct contradiction to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. Many in attendance were not wearing masks, according to reports of the event.
In the waning days of the election season, the president suggested that the pandemic would end after the election itself, implying that the media and his political opponents were using the issue solely as a means to make him look bad.
“That’s all I hear about now. That’s all I hear. Turn on television — ‘Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid.’ … By the way, on November 4, you won’t hear about it anymore,” Trump said at a campaign rally on October 24.
Days later, in a tweet that was written only in capitalized letters, Trump reiterated that claim.
“ALL THE FAKE NEWS MEDIA WANTS TO TALK ABOUT IS COVID, COVID, COVID,” he wrote. “ON NOVEMBER 4th, YOU WON’T BE HEARING SO MUCH ABOUT IT ANYMORE. WE ARE ROUNDING THE TURN!!!”
That prediction, unfortunately, turned out to be untrue. On the day he issued that tweet, the seven-day average of coronavirus deaths was at 813 per day — a number that is nearly four times lower than Wednesday’s death count.
As Trump continues to ignore the crisis, the number of deaths that are likely to occur between now and the end of his presidency are expected to climb rapidly. According to estimates from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, a health model that the White House itself has referenced in the past, the U.S. is on pace to reach 387,470 total deaths as the result of COVID-19 by the time Trump leaves office. That’s approximately 110,000 additional deaths in the country between now and January 20, according to the model.

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Sen. Bernie Sanders on Wednesday blasted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for pushing a coronavirus relief measure that contains a 100% tax deduction for business meals — a gift to corporate executives — but nothing for the tens of millions of people across the U.S. who are struggling to afford food for themselves and their families.
“Mitch McConnell’s ‘new’ Covid relief bill gives CEOs a 100% tax deduction for a 3-martini lunch, but ZERO to the 26 million who don’t have enough food to eat,” the Vermont senator tweeted. “Yes. The Republicans l-o-v-e corporate socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the rest. Ain’t gonna happen.”
On Tuesday, as Common Dreams reported, the Kentucky Republican began circulating a purportedly “targeted” coronavirus stimulus proposal that would grant corporations sweeping immunity from coronavirus related lawsuits without providing a federal boost to unemployment benefits, another round of direct payments, or any aid to state and local governments.

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The plan also omits nutrition assistance amid a worsening nationwide hunger crisis; according to Census Bureau data, 26 million U.S. adults reported in late October and early November that they did not have enough food to eat.
McConnell’s proposal was immediately dismissed as a non-starter by many Democratic lawmakers, who characterized the plan as woefully inadequate to address the twin public health and economic crises ravaging the nation.
“This is an insult to the millions of workers and businesses that are losing their livelihoods because of this crisis,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. “This proposal doesn’t come close to giving Americans the help they desperately need to stay afloat.”
With a possible government shutdown just over a week away and time running out to secure a coronavirus relief agreement before the end of the year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday threw their support behind a new bipartisan, bicameral compromise proposal as the “basis” for negotiations.
Unlike McConnell’s plan, the bipartisan proposal would provide a $300-per-week federal boost to unemployment insurance, a key lifeline that 12 million Americans are set to lose on December 26 without congressional action. The bipartisan group of lawmakers also called for a liability shield for corporations that would reportedly be more limited than the one McConnell is pushing, though specific language has not yet been made public.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Wednesday was among those raising concerns about the bipartisan compromise package, specifically citing the corporate liability protections as a key sticking point.
“Let’s be clear about what Covid-19 ‘liability protections’ would mean: letting corporations off the hook if they decide they care more about making a quick buck than keeping workers safe,” Warren tweeted Wednesday. “We can’t let businesses escape accountability for putting people’s lives at risk.”

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

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When COVID entered the federal medical prison in Carswell, Texas, it ballooned within weeks — of the 1,288 people tested, 504 were positive. In one housing unit of 300 women, only 26 women tested negative, including 56-year-old Sandra Shoulders.
Shoulders has severe diabetes, respiratory problems, and, since entering prison in 2015, chronic kidney disease, leaving her at only 30 percent kidney function. All of these make her more vulnerable to becoming debilitated, if not dying, from COVID.
Meanwhile, the prison’s practices discourage people from getting tested for COVID. “Even when inmates feel ill now, they are so scared of those conditions to speak up,” Shoulders explained. She described how those who tested positive were treated: “You are held in a room, and expected to wear the same set of clothes for 21+ days, without laundry facilities. Food is dropped by the door and physically kicked into the room by the guards.”

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COVID policies have also curtailed access to medical care for other problems. Shoulders is supposed to see a kidney specialist quarterly; she has only seen him once this year. Now, she says her diabetes and kidney disease have caused swollen feet; a slipped disc causes persistent backaches. She lives in constant pain.
After Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Attorney General William Barr issued a memo to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the agency responsible for federal prisons, expanding the criteria under which to release people to home confinement to stem the spread of COVID. The expanded criteria prioritize people whose age or health makes them vulnerable to COVID, as well as those in low- and medium-security prisons, people whose reentry plans show that they are less likely to contract COVID if not incarcerated, and people with low risk-assessment (or PATTERN) scores.
In August, a prison case manager said that Shoulders qualified for home confinement on September 25. Elated, she began making plans to join her godsister in Chicago. She also planned to reconnect with her three children and her 16 grandchildren, some of whom she only knew through photos and video calls.

Sandra Shoulders before incarceration.
Three weeks later, prison administrators told Shoulders that the BOP’s Central Office had denied her release. She was not told why. “I had to call my family and give them this heartbreaking news,” Shoulders told Truthout. The news not only left her reeling, but sent Shoulders — who has bipolar disorder, an anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder — into what she calls a “serious mental health crisis and meltdown.”
“To have been so close to being home, and safe, and to have that taken away — not just from me, but from my family and church community — was too much for me,” she wrote. “I am emotionally and spiritually broken at times.”
On the heels of that devastating news comes the skyrocketing COVID rate in Texas. The week before Thanksgiving, Texas had an average of 11,725 cases per day. Tarrant County, where the prison is located, had an average of 1,437 cases per day or 68 of every 100,000 residents. According to the Georgia Institute of Technology, a gathering of 10 people in that county poses a 26 percent chance that at least one person has COVID. Authorities reported 3,356 new cases from the Thanksgiving weekend.
Chicago’s COVID rate is even higher, at 6,033 cases per day (or 65 of every 100,000 residents) for the city alone, but if she returned home, Shoulders would be able to abide by social-distancing guidance; she would no longer be involuntarily exposed daily to 299 other women and staff members who enter and leave the prison.
The same pattern has been playing out in federal prisons across the country. Though the Bureau of Prisons has 8,034 people on home confinement as of December 2, many in federal prisons report experiencing a similar runaround as Shoulders. At the same time, COVID has been surging in prisons across the country. As of November 20, there were 197,659 confirmed cases in prisons, a figure not including jails, juvenile detention or military prisons. The federal prison system has the second-highest COVID rate with 22,203 cases and 152 COVID-related deaths. (The Texas state prison system has the nation’s highest COVID rate.)
Release Denied With No Explanation

Jessica Antunez’s teenage daughters on a video visit with their mother, on Christmas 2017.Photo courtesy of Antunez’s daughters.
In July, 41-year-old Jessica Antunez requested to be transferred from the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Dublin in California to a federal prison camp (or minimum-security prison). She served nearly 14 years of a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence and was eager to go to a minimum-security prison, where she has a better chance at early release.
That was when prison staff told her that she was eligible for early home confinement under the CARES Act. Antunez is diagnosed with asthma and obesity, both of which increase her risk of severe illness if she were to contract COVID-19. She was elated, but also wary.
“To have been so close to being home, and safe, and to have that taken away — not just from me, but from my family and church community — was too much for me.”She began the paperwork and was approved to be released to her 19-year-old daughter’s home. She dreamed of cooking for her three children, listening to them without the seven-minute time limits of prison phone calls, and building new memories, especially with her youngest daughter, who was three when Antunez was arrested and has no memories of her outside of prison.
In September, however, prison staff told Antunez that her release had been denied. Like Shoulders, she was not given a reason.
“I have done every day of this sentence with hopes that I am going home sooner than later,” Antunez told Truthout. “I have always kept my family in high spirits about a new law maybe cutting my time short or the chances of clemency or whatever is going on in the system that may bring me home sooner, and when the door slams shut, it affects them just as hard or maybe even harder than me. But what hurts my heart most and absolutely breaks my interior is that I can’t even soften the blows with a hug or a phone call because I don’t have the privilege of using the phone when I need or want to.”
“No One Is Getting Released Anymore”
In April, Jessica Brown was one of several women at FCI Tallahassee who were told that they qualified for early release to home confinement. Brown, age 44, has asthma and hypertension and is clinically obese, thus qualifying her to finish the remaining three years of her nine-year sentence under home confinement.
In May, she signed paperwork to be released to Benevolence Farm, a reentry farm program near the homes of her parents and sister. From there, she could work on rebuilding her life and regaining custody of her four children, now living with their paternal uncle.

Jessica Brown in federal prison, undated.Photo courtesy of Brown’s fiance.
In September, however, prison administrators said Brown’s release had been denied. The decision was not because, shortly after being sentenced to five years in prison, Brown had cut off her electronic monitor and fled to Canada with her four children, whom, she says, she hoped to leave with her fiancé rather than relinquish to foster care in the U.S. (She was given an additional four-year sentence for her escape.) Instead, the denial was because a halfway house clinical director had said that Brown lacked risk factors for COVID-19. She was not even being released to a halfway house — she was being released to the reentry farm — and yet, according to Brown, the director’s determination resulted in the cancellation of her release. She received no information on which halfway house had supposedly denied her. She was told to contact the prison’s temporary medical director. She sent him four messages but received no response.
On October 1, her housing unit was placed on lockdown after 11 women tested positive. Overall, 123 of 674 people have tested positive at FCI Tallahassee since the pandemic began. Meanwhile, Brown waits for a response and hopes she doesn’t get sick.
Others at FCI Tallahassee have also been told that they qualified for early release only to be told later that they were “too healthy” to qualify. “No one is getting released anymore,” Brown told Truthout.
Will 16 Months Become a Death Sentence?
“That is true, no one is getting released,” agrees Cydra Alexander, also at FCI Tallahassee, with 16 months left to serve.
When the CARES Act passed, the 35-year-old asked about home confinement. Alexander is, in her words, overweight, a condition that increases her risk of severe illness if she contracts COVID-19. Her housing pod consists of nearly 100 women. “We don’t even sleep six feet apart,” she told Truthout.
“I could lose more family before I get home…. I could even catch COVID and not make it to my family.”Alexander is not a biological parent, but until her incarceration, was raising her niece. She is eager to reunite with her niece as well as help her parents, now in their sixties. She hoped to be able to help them around the house and, if the terms of home confinement permitted, grocery shop and run errands. And she would be there in person when the anniversary of her older brother’s 2015 death rolled around in January. “It’s a hard time for the family around this time of year,” she said.

Cydra Alexander in her Atlanta home before incarceration.
However, prison officials told her that she did not qualify until she had served over 50 percent of her 70-month sentence; by April, Alexander had served 33 months.
Alexander applied again in September, having served over half her sentence. In October, her request was denied. “I am very worried [about COVID],” she wrote. “Several units have been closed down due to having positive cases.” On two separate occasions, her unit was locked down after two women tested positive.
Alexander now has 16 months left to serve. “I could lose more family before I get home,” she worries. “I could even catch COVID and not make it to my family.”
Ill, in Isolation and Denied Release
In April, 57-year-old Kim Earlycutt began feeling feverish and, even after bundling up in two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, a sweatshirt and coat, could not get warm. She couldn’t hold any food or liquids down. After four days, she sought medical care. The nurse took her temperature; it was 103 degrees.
“I was put in SHU [solitary confinement] for 14 days,” she told Truthout. On her second day in isolation, she was given Tylenol. On the third day, after her fever subsided, she was placed in a quarantine area with 26 other people, some of whom were quarantining before release and some of whom were beginning quarantine for being sick. Only then was she was tested for COVID; her test came back negative.
In May, her prison case worker said that she qualified for early release under the CARES Act. Earlycutt, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart problems, severe asthma and latent tuberculosis, was thrilled to hear she would be rejoining her family earlier than expected. In October, however, she received a denial.
Unlike the other women, Earlycutt’s denial came not from Central BOP headquarters, but from the prison’s warden and case management coordinator, who said that she needed a minimum rather than low PATTERN (risk assessment) score for recidivism. (Barr’s March memo instructs BOP officials not to prioritize those with a score above minimum.) Now, instead of spending the holidays with her children and grandchildren, she must wait until 2025 to rejoin them.
A Catch-22
Lazara Ordaz will turn 62 on December 17. She has spent 22 years in federal prison on a 35-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

Lazara Ordaz and daughter, who was 2 years old when Ordaz was imprisoned.
Ordaz is incarcerated at FCI Coleman in Florida, where 265 of 1,146 women have tested positive. She was told that she qualified for home confinement because of her age, thyroid condition and high blood pressure. Her case manager began processing her paperwork, but then stopped because Ordaz, who came to the U.S. from Cuba in 1980, has an immigration detainer from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that goes into effect upon her release date.
In 2017, Cuba agreed to start accepting people deported from the U.S. Sixty-four people were deported from the U.S. to Cuba in 2018 and another 1,179 people in 2019. But not every person convicted of a felony is automatically deported; when Ordaz’s brother (and co-defendant) was released from prison in 2019, he spent two months in an immigration detention facility and was then released to rejoin his family in the U.S. Ordaz is hoping for a similar outcome.
“We are not immune to this disease forever, and we are packed in here like sardines … just waiting to get sick.”Ordaz’s immigration status landed her in a catch-22. Prison administrators told Ordaz that they could continue the process if she could obtain a “no-action” letter from ICE. She had previously received one in 2017 while at the federal prison in Alabama. However, ICE officials in Florida have refused to issue a no-action letter while she was in BOP custody.
Ordaz questions the point of her continued imprisonment. “I know the harm I caused to a lot of people,” she wrote. “I know I need to pay for what I did, but if you don’t learn [after] five to ten years, you never going to learn.” The offer of home confinement, she continued, “is the first time I tasted freedom and it was taken from me because of this detainer.”

Lazara Ordaz and her children during prison visit, 2019.Photo courtesy of CAN-Do Clemency
These mothers — and many others behind bars — had pinned their hopes on the CARES Act, which would have allowed them to rejoin their families for the holidays and begin rebuilding their lives. Instead, they remain behind bars, hoping not to contract COVID.
“I want so desperately for the world — and U.S. lawmakers, including our new president, to understand that remaining in these prisons is a DEATH sentence,” Shoulders wrote from Carswell. “We are not immune to this disease forever, and we are packed in here like sardines, locked up inside seven days a week, with NO rehabilitative programming and scant religious services, just waiting to get sick.”

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