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The United States of Paranoia: Was American history a conspiracy?

Mish Boyka

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News is “faked“; elections are “rigged”; a “deep state” plots a “coup”; Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died suspiciously in bed with a pillow over his face; aides of ex-president Barack Obama conspire to undermine foreign policy from a “war room“; Obama himself was a Muslim mole; the National Park Service lied about the size of the crowd at the president’s inauguration; conspiracies are afoot in nearly every department and agency of the executive branch, including the State Department, the CIA, the Justice Department, the Federal Drug Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI (“What are they hiding?“). Thus saith, and maybe even believeth, the president of the United States.

Donald Trump is not the first commander-in-chief to believe in conspiracies. And some of those conspiracies were real enough, but he is our first conspiracist president. “Conspire” in Latin means to “breathe together.” Conspiracy thinking is the oxygen that sustains the political respiration of Trumpism. Oval Office paranoid fantasies metastasize outside the Beltway and ignite passions — fear and anger especially — that leave armies of Trump partisans vigilant and at the ready.

Members of the administration’s inner circle keep the heat on. Michael Flynn, whose career as national security adviser lasted but a nanosecond, tweets “New York Police Department blows the whistle on new Hillary emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes with Children, etc… MUST Read.” Michael Caputo, now on leave from his post at the Department of Health and Human Services, uncovered a supposed “resistance unit” at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention committed to undermining the president, even if it meant raising the Covid-19 death toll.

On a planet far, far away — but not so far as to prevent the president from visiting when he’s in the mood or the moment seems propitious — is QAnon, where the conspiratorial imagination really exhales and goes galactic.

The earliest moments of QAnon, the conspiracy theory, centered around “Pizzagate,” which alleged that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria where children were supposedly stockpiled in tunnels below the store. (There were no tunnels — the restaurant didn’t even have a basement — but that didn’t stop it from nearly becoming a murder scene when a believer in Pizzagate walked into the shop armed with an assault rifle and began shooting wildly.)

But QAnon was playing for bigger stakes than just child sex-trafficking. Q (him or herself a purported ex-government agent) supposedly relayed inside information on Trump’s heroic but hidden plans to stage a countercoup against the “deep state” — a conspiracy to stop a conspiracy, in which the president was being assisted by the Mueller investigation flying under a false flag.

QAnon supporters are only the best known among conspiracy-oriented grouplets issuing alerts about a covert CIA operation to spread lesbianism or alt-right warnings that FEMA storm shelters are really “death domes” and/or places where “Sharia law will be enforced”; or dark revelations that the “mark of the beast” is affixed to the universal price code, smart cards, and ATMs; or, even grislier, radio talk show performer Alex Jones’s rants about “false flag” events like the slaughter of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where (he claimed) “crisis actors” were employed, paid by George Soros, to simulate a massacre that never happened.

The point of it all is to make clear how close we are to The End; that is, to the overthrow or destruction of the Constitution and the Christian Republic for which it stands.

President Trump flirts with such a world of conspiracy thinking. He coyly acknowledges an affinity with it, then draws back from complete consummation, still sensing that it’s good medicine for what otherwise threatens to shorten his political life expectancy. QAnon “members” show up in the thousands at Trump rallies with signs and shirts reading “We Are QAnon.” (And 26 QAnon-linked candidates are running for Congress this November.)

Conspiracy thinking has always been an American pastime, incubating what the novelist Phillip Roth once called “the indigenous American berserk.” Most of the time, it’s cropped up on the margins of American life and stayed there. Under certain circumstances, however, it’s gone mainstream. We’re obviously now living in just such a moment. What might ordinarily seem utterly bizarre and nutty gains traction and is ever more widely embraced.

It’s customary and perhaps provides cold comfort for some to think of this warped way of looking at the world as the peculiar mental aberration of the sadly deluded, the uneducated, the left-behind, those losing their tenuous hold on social position and esteem, in a word (Hillary Clinton’s, to be exact), the “deplorable.” Actually, however, conspiracy-mongering, as in the case of Trump, has often originated and been propagated by elites with fatal effect.

Sometimes, this has been the work of true believers, however well educated and invested with social authority. At other times, those at the top have cynically retailed what they knew to be nonsense. At yet other moments, elites have themselves authored conspiracies that were all too real. But one thing is certain: whenever such a conspiratorial confection has been absorbed by multitudes, it’s arisen as a by-product of some deeper misalignment and fracturing of the social and spiritual order. More often than not, those threatened by such upheavals have resorted to conspiracy-mongering as a form of self-defense.

There at the creation

Witch-hunting, of which the president tediously reminds us he is the victim, began long, long ago, before the country was even a country. Cotton Mather, a leading Puritan theologian in a society where the church exercised enormous power and influence, detected a “Diabolical Compact” in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. There, Satan’s servants were supposedly conspiring to destroy the righteous (sicken and kill them) and overthrow the moral order. By the time the witch frenzy had run its course, it had infected 24 surrounding towns, incarcerated 150 people, coerced 44 into confessing diabolical designs, executed 20 of the irredeemable, left four to languish and die in prison, and killed the husband of an alleged witch by pressing him to death under a pile of heavy rocks.

Salem is infamous today, mainly as a cautionary tale of mass hysteria, but from its outset, it was sanctioned and encouraged by New England’s best and brightest. Cotton Mather was joined by local ministers and magistrates eager to allow “spectral evidence” to convict the accused.  Social fissures fueled anxiety.

Worries about uppity women (widows in particular), especially with their own sources of income and so free of patriarchal supervision, added to the sense of disorientation. Slavery and the undercurrent of fear and foreboding it generated among the enslavers may also have raised temperatures. Can it be a mere coincidence that the first to “confess” her knowledge of satanic gatherings was Tituba, a slave whose fortune-telling to a group of four young girls set the witch-hunt process in motion? Fear of slave conspiracies, real or imagined, was part of the psychic underbelly of the colonial enterprise and continued to be so for many years after independence was won.

Elites, whether theocratic or secular, may be inclined, like Mather, to resort to conspiracy-mongering and even engage in their own conspiracies when the social order they preside over seems seriously out of joint. Take the founding fathers.

Revolution and counter-revolution

Soon after independence was won, the founding fathers began conspiring against their fellow revolutionists among the hoi polloi. The Constitution is a revered document. Nonetheless, it was born in the shadows, midwife by people who feared for their social position and economic well-being.

Most, if not all, of the revolution’s leaders, were men of affairs, embedded in trans-Atlantic commerce as planters, ship owners, merchants, bankers, slave brokers, lawyers, or large-scale landowners. But the revolution had given voice to another world of largely self-sufficient small farmers in towns and villages, as well as frontier settlers, many of them at odds with the commercial and fiscal mechanisms — loans, debts, taxes, stocks, and bonds — of their seaboard-bound countrymen.

Tax revolts erupted. State legislatures commanded by what was derisively referred to as the “democratical element” declared moratoria on, or canceled, debts or issued paper currencies effectively devaluing the assets of creditors. Civil authority was at a discount. Farmers took up arms.

Men of property responded. They drafted a constitution designed to restore the authority of the prevailing elites. The new federal government was to be endowed with powers to tax, to borrow, to make private property inviolate, and to put down local insurrections. That was the plan.

Gaining consent for this, however, wasn’t easy in the face of so much turmoil. For that reason, the founding fathers met secretly in Philadelphia — all the windows and doors of Independence Hall were deliberately closed despite stifling heat — so no word of their deliberations could leak out. And for good reason. The gathering was authorized only to offer possible amendments to the existing Articles of Confederation, not to do what it did, which was to concoct a wholly new government. When the Philadelphia “conspirators” eventually presented their handiwork to the public, there was a ferocious reaction and the Constitution was nearly stillborn. Its authors were frequently labeled as counter-revolutionary traitors.

Less than 10 years later the Constitution’s godfathers would themselves dissolve in fraternal enmity. Once again, charges of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary cabals would superheat the political climate.

John Adams and Alexander Hamilton would denounce Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as agents of godless Jacobinism, conniving in secret with revolutionary French comrades to level the social landscape and let loose a mobocracy of “boys, blockheads, and ruffians.” Jefferson and Madison returned the favor by accusing their erstwhile brothers of conspiring to restore the monarchy (some had indeed tried to persuade George Washington to accept a kingship), of being “tory aristocrats” seeking to reestablish a hierarchical society of ranks and orders. (Again, it was true that Hamilton had advocated a lifetime presidency and something along the lines of the House of Lords.) Everything seemed to hang in the balance back then, so much so that the feverish conspiratorial imaginings of the high and mighty became the emotional basis for the first mass political parties in America: Jefferson’s Republican-Democrats and Adams’s Federalists.

If you think Donald Trump has introduced an unprecedented level of vitriol and character assassination into public life, think again. Little was considered out of bounds for those founding fathers, including sexual innuendo linked to political deceit and scabrous insinuations about “aliens” infecting the homeland with depraved ideologies. It was a cesspool only a conspiracy monger could have completely enjoyed. Two centuries later those ventures into the dark side, even if largely forgotten, should have a familiar ring.

God killers

Conspiracy mongering may not have been the happiest legacy of the revolutionary era, but it was a lasting one. New England’s social and religious elites, for instance, feared the atheism that seemed embedded in the revolution and its implicit challenge to all hierarchies, not merely clerical ones. So, for example, Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale College and a pastor, had nightmares about “our daughters” becoming the “concubines of the Illuminati,” an alleged secret society, atheist to the core, whose members, it was claimed, used pseudonyms and arranged themselves in complex hierarchies for the purpose of engineering the godless French revolution.

Those “Illuminati” came and went, but the specter of atheism endured as a vital element of the pre-Civil War conspiratorial political imagination. An anti-Masonic movement, for instance, emerged in the 1830s to deal with the Freemasons, a secret order alleged to harbor anti-republican and especially unchristian intentions and to engage in pagan rituals, including drinking wine out of human skulls.

Anti-Masonic sentiments became a real force and even developed into a political party (the Anti-Masonic Party), which exercised considerable leverage in New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and elsewhere — yet more evidence of how easily the specter of conspiracies against God could inflame public life. We are reliving that today.

Mongrel firebugs

Along with American culture more generally, the conspiratorial imagination of the upper classes became increasingly secular as time passed. What most came to alarm them was class rather than spiritual warfare. From the years after the Civil War through the Great Depression of the 1930s, this country was the site of a more or less uninterrupted battle, in the phrase of the time, between “the masses and the classes”; between, that is, the exploited and their exploiters or what we might now call the 99% and the 1%.

One way to justify dealing harshly, even murderously, with the chronically restless lower orders was to claim that scheming among them was the covert agents of social revolution. If there were uprisings by anthracite coal miners in Pennsylvania, blame and then hang the Molly Maguires, alleged Irish terrorists imported from the old country. If there were hunger demonstrations demanding public relief and work during five miserable years of economic depression in the 1870s, blame it on refugee subversives from the Paris Commune, workers who had only recently taken rebellious control of that city and now threatened the sanctity of private property in the United States.

If there were nationwide strikes for the eight-hour day in the 1880s, it must be the work of secret anarchist cells inciting “mongrel firebugs” — immigrants, also known to respectable GFN as “Slavic wolves” — to riot in the streets. It was okay in 1913 for the Colorado National Guard and the Rockefeller company’s private army of guards to machine-gun a tent colony of striking Colorado miners, including their wives and children, killing at least 21 of them, because they were, after all, the pawns of syndicalist plotters from the Industrial Workers of the World (colloquially known as “Wobblies”) who advocated One Big Union for all working people.

Upper-class hysteria, which consumed the captains of industry, leading financiers, the most respectable newspapers like the New York Times, elders of all the mainstream Protestant denominations, hierarchs of the Catholic Church, and politicians from both parties, including presidents, ran amuck through World War I. It culminated in the infamous Red Scare that straddled the war and post-war years.

Mass arrests and deportations of radicals and immigrants; the closing down of dissenting newspapers and magazines; the raiding and pillaging of left-wing headquarters; the banning of mass meetings; the sending in of the Army, from the Seattle waterfront to the steel country of Pennsylvania and Ohio, to suppress strikes — all were perpetrated by national and local political elites who claimed the country was mortally threatened by a global Bolshevik conspiracy headquartered in St. Petersburg, Russia. Attempts to overthrow the government by force and violence were, so they also claimed, just around the corner.

So it was that the conspiratorial mentality in those years became weaponized and the night terrors it conjured up contagious, leaping from the halls of Congress and the cabinet room in the White House into the heartland. A Connecticut clothing salesman went to jail for six months for saying Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin was smart. In Indiana, a jury took two minutes to acquit a man for killing an “alien” who had shouted, “To hell with the United States.” Evangelist Billy Sunday thought it might be a good idea to “stand radicals up before a firing squad and save space on our ships.”

The great fear

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer best expressed the imagined reach of “the Great Fear,” an all-embracing dread of a fiendish conspiracy that supposedly sought to strike at the very foundations of civilized life. Denouncing “the hysterical neurasthenic women who abound in communism,” he warned of a hellish conspiracy “licking at the altars of churches, leaping into the belfry of the school bell, crawling into the sacred corners of American homes to replace marriage vows with libertine laws.”

You can hear something similar echoed in Donald Trump’s recent inveighing against “socialism” and the way Joe Biden and the Democrats threaten God, family, and country.

Arguably, America never truly recovered from that first Red Scare.

A generation later that same cosmological nightscape, brought to a fever pitch during the early years of the Cold War by the claims of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy that communists lurked in the highest reaches of the government, would terrify legions of Americans. His notorious “conspiracy so immense” reached everywhere, he claimed, from the State Department and the Army to movie studios, the Boy Scouts, advertising agencies, and the Post Office. No place in America, it seemed, was free of red subversion.

Still, it’s instructive to remember that McCarthy’s Cold War conspiracy culture was, in fact, set in motion soon after World War II not by him but by highly positioned figures in the administration of President Harry Truman, as loyalty oaths became commonplace and purges of the government bureaucracy began. And note the irony here: it wasn’t communist conspirators but the national security state itself, in particular the Central Intelligence Agency, which first conducted an ever-expanding portfolio of mind control and behavioral modification experiments, while launching disinformation campaigns, assassination plots, coups, and every other variety of covert action globally. That, as it happened, was America’s true new reality and it was indeed as conspiratorial as any on offer from the lunatic zone.

All of this nationalized the conspiratorial mindset at the highest levels of our society and helped make it into a permanent part of how millions of people came to understand the way the world works.

The conspirator-in-chief lost in space

Donald Trump might then be seen as but the latest in a long line of the empowered who either believed in or, for reasons of state, class interest, or political calculation, feigned a belief in grand conspiracies. Yet, as in so many other ways, Trump is, in fact, different.

Past conspirators offered a general worldview, which also came with meticulously detailed descriptions of how all the parts of the conspiracy supposedly worked together. Sometimes these proved to be dauntingly intricate jigsaw puzzles that only the initiated could grasp. Such cosmologies were buttressed by “evidence,” at least of a sort, that tried to trace links between otherwise randomly occurring events, to prove how wily the conspiracy was in its diabolical designs. And there was always some great purpose — a Satanic takeover or world domination — for which the whole elaborate conspiracy was put in motion, something, however loathsome, that nonetheless reached into the far beyond where the fate of humankind would be settled.

None of this characterizes the reign of the present conspirator-in-chief. Trump and his crew simply load up the airwaves and Internet with a steady flow of disconnected accusations, a “data set” of random fragments. No evidence of any kind is thought necessary. Indeed, when evidence is actually presented to disprove one of his conspiracies, it’s often reinterpreted as proof of a cover-up to keep the plot humming. Nor is there any grand theory that explains it all or points to a higher purpose… except one. Abroad in the land is, in Senator McCarthy’s classic 1950s phrase, a “conspiracy so immense” to — what else? — do in the Donald. Donald is the one and only “elect” without whom America is doomed.

We live in conspiratorial times. The decline of the United States as an uncontestable super-power and its descent into plutocratic indifference to the wellbeing of the commonwealth is the seedbed of such conspiracy-mindedness. Soldiers are sent off to fight interminable wars of vague purpose against elusive “enemies” with no realistic prospect of the resolution, much less American-style “victory” whatever that might mean these days. “Dark money” undermines what’s left of democratic protocols and ideals. Gross and still growing inequalities in the distribution of wealth and income are accepted year after year as business as usual.

All of this breeds entirely justified resentment and suspicion.

To the degree that political conspiracies take root among broader populations today, it is in part as a kind of folk sociology that tries to make some sense, however addled, of a world in which real conspiracies flourish. It’s a world where the complexities of globalization threaten to overwhelm everybody and a sense of loss of control, especially in pandemic America, is now a chronic condition as mere existence grows ever more precarious.

Trump is the chief accomplice in this to be sure. And his narcissism has produced a distinctive if the degraded and far less coherent version of the grander conspiracies of the past. Still, as in the past, when we try to come to terms with what one historian of the CIA has called this conspiratorial “wilderness of mirrors” we are all compelled to inhabit, we might better turn our attention to America’s “best and brightest” than to the “deplorable” who are so easy to scapegoat.

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Governor Carney Announces Health Care Relief Fund 

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Read the latest news on coronavirus in Delaware. More Info





$100 million CARES Act fund will support Delaware health care providers 

WILMINGTON, Del. – Governor John Carney and the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) on Tuesday announced the creation of a Health Care Relief Fund to support Delaware health care providers through the COVID-19 crisis.

The $100 million fund will support providers throughout the health care industry that have been on the front lines fighting COVID-19 in Delaware. This includes home health care agencies, intellectual and developmental disability providers, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, behavioral health service providers, and Delaware’s hospital systems.

Healthy Communities Delaware – a statewide public-private partnership that works to address social determinants of health – also will receive funding for distribution to Delaware communities that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Additional details about the Health Care Relief Fund will be available at de.gov/coronavirus.

Questions about the Health Care Relief Fund can be emailed to DHSS_CaresQuestions@delaware.gov.

“Delaware’s health care workers have been looking out for the most vulnerable Delawareans since the beginning of this crisis. We owe them our support,” said Governor Carney. “This Health Care Relief Fund will make sure that Delaware’s health care providers can safely deliver important health care services as we continue to fight this virus. But we all need to do our part. Avoid large crowds. Wear a face mask in public settings. Wash or sanitize your hands frequently. Stay vigilant and we’ll get through this.”

Funding from the Health Care Relief Fund can be used to support COVID-19 related investments, including technology upgrades, purchases of personal protective equipment (PPE), and environmental modifications in health care facilities.

“Like other industries, we know health care providers have had a difficult year balancing their regular services with the uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Molly Magarik, Secretary of the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services. “We also know that some of our low-income and minority communities have borne the brunt of this pandemic. That’s why we’re excited to announce an additional $100 million in funding that will support providers and entities to address the gaps and continued need for such resources as telehealth equipment and personal protective equipment.”

Individuals with questions about COVID-19 should call Delaware 2-1-1; individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing can text their ZIP code to 898-211, or email info@delaware211.org. Hours of operation are 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Medically related questions regarding testing, symptoms, and health-related guidance can be submitted by email at DPHCall@delaware.gov. Questions regarding unemployment claims should be emailed to UIClaims@delaware.gov.

Individuals who have complaints about individuals violating public gathering restrictions should contact state or local law enforcement. Concerns that a business may be violating operating restrictions should be directed to HSPContact@delaware.gov. Questions related to business re-openings or operations as businesses re-open should go to COVID19FAQ@delaware.gov.

DPH will continue to update the public as more information becomes available. For the latest on Delaware’s response, go to de.gov/coronavirus.

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$100 million CARES Act fund will support Delaware health care providers 

WILMINGTON, Del. – Governor John Carney and the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) on Tuesday announced the creation of a Health Care Relief Fund to support Delaware health care providers through the COVID-19 crisis.

The $100 million funds will support providers throughout the health care industry that have been on the front lines fighting COVID-19 in Delaware. This includes home health care agencies, intellectual and developmental disability providers, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, behavioral health service providers, and Delaware’s hospital systems.

Healthy Communities Delaware – a statewide public-private partnership that works to address social determinants of health – also will receive funding for distribution to Delaware communities that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Additional details about the Health Care Relief Fund will be available at de.gov/coronavirus.

Questions about the Health Care Relief Fund can be emailed to DHSS_CaresQuestions@delaware.gov.

“Delaware’s health care workers have been looking out for the most vulnerable Delawareans since the beginning of this crisis. We owe them our support,” said Governor Carney. “This Health Care Relief Fund will make sure that Delaware’s health care providers can safely deliver important health care services as we continue to fight this virus. But we all need to do our part. Avoid large crowds. Wear a face mask in public settings. Wash or sanitize your hands frequently. Stay vigilant and we’ll get through this.”

Funding from the Health Care Relief Fund can be used to support COVID-19 related investments, including technology upgrades, purchases of personal protective equipment (PPE), and environmental modifications in health care facilities.

“Like other industries, we know health care providers have had a difficult year balancing their regular services with the uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Molly Magarik, Secretary of the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services. “We also know that some of our low-income and minority communities have borne the brunt of this pandemic. That’s why we’re excited to announce an additional $100 million in funding that will support providers and entities to address the gaps and continued need for such resources as telehealth equipment and personal protective equipment.”

Individuals with questions about COVID-19 should call Delaware 2-1-1; individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing can text their ZIP code to 898-211, or email info@delaware211.org. The hours of operation are 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Medically related questions regarding testing, symptoms, and health-related guidance can be submitted by email at DPHCall@delaware.gov. Questions regarding unemployment claims should be emailed to UIClaims@delaware.gov.

Individuals who have complaints about individuals violating public gathering restrictions should contact state or local law enforcement. Concerns that a business may be violating operating restrictions should be directed to HSPContact@delaware.gov. Questions related to business re-openings or operations as businesses re-open should go to COVID19FAQ@delaware.gov.

DPH will continue to update the public as more information becomes available. For the latest on Delaware’s response, go to de.gov/coronavirus.

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On the United States election and global health, some insights into the challenges ahead

Mish Boyka

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The Consortium of Universities for Global Health (CUGH), based in Washington and representing more than 170 organisations globally, has issued a powerful call for United States citizens to do their electoral duty.

Meanwhile, this week’s inaugural #CroakeyLIVE – a new social journalism service from Croakey Health Media – canvassed wide-ranging health issues around the US election, as Jennifer Doggett reports below.

On Twitter, follow the hashtag #USvotesHealth for ongoing news from the Croakey team.


Jennifer Doggett writes:

The world will be watching on November 3 when the United States goes to the polls to determine whether President Donald Trump wins another four years in the White House.

With the COVID-19 pandemic raging, an economy in free-fall, public concern about racial injustices, the increasing visibility of white supremacists, and fears about Trump’s response to an election loss, it seems extraordinary that experts believe this election is still “highly competitive”.

It could “go either way”, according to Bruce Wolpe, one of the panellists in last Sunday’s #CroakeyLive on the United States election and health.

At this event, a panel of health and political experts engaged with online participants for a lively and informative discussion about the implications of the upcoming election for the US, Australia and the world.

The panellists were:

  • Bruce Wolpe, a Senior Fellow at the United States Studies Centre who has worked with the Democrats in Congress during President Barack Obama’s first term and was Chief of Staff to former Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
  • Dr Summer May Finlay, a Yorta Yorta woman, public health academic at Wollongong University, Vice President (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) of the Public Health Association of Australia, and Co-Vice Chair of the Indigenous Working Group of the World Federation of Public Health Associations.
  • Associate Professor Lesley Russell, a dual Australian/US citizen who jokes that she now has to worry about bad politics in two countries. She is a fellow at the United States Studies Centre and Adjunct Associate Professor at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy at the University of Sydney, who has worked as a senior policy advisor on health for the Democrats in the US House of Representatives, for the Obama Administration and for the Australian Labor Party in the Australian Parliament.

The discussion was moderated by Professor Bronwyn Carlson, Head of the Department of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University.

Flashback to 2016

The panellists shared their memories of the 2016 election and their first reactions to the Trump victory.

Wolpe remembered being on Sky News commentating on the US election and said he found it hard to process the election outcome.

Four years on, he says that most of his fears about Trump have been realised. While he feels that US democracy is strong enough to recover from the past four years, he thinks another term would be disastrous and would leave the institutions of US politics “profoundly different to what the founders envisioned”.

Finlay was with Croakey’s Melissa Sweet and Marie McInerney, and others at the Lowitja Institute International Indigenous Health and Wellbeing Conference 2016 in Melbourne when the news broke. She remembered thinking that the idea of a Trump presidency was “surreal” and that many of the delegates were shocked by Trump’s election.

Croakey’s report from the conference, 2016

Russell was at home alone watching her husband Bruce Wolpe on TV. She described her “desperate hope” that the US can get back to some sense of normalcy and connectedness after the election.

Carlson was at a friend’s birthday party in New York state. She said no-one there anticipated the result and when the election outcome was announced, it was “like entering a twilight phase”.

One of her main concerns over the past four years has been the impact of Trump’s presidency on People of Colour. She also acknowledged that COVID-19 (like other epidemics) has had a disproportionate impact on Indigenous peoples in the US and worldwide.

Professor Rebecca Ivers, from the UNSW School of Population Health, was following the #CroakeyLIVE discussions, and remembered her horror at the possibility of a Trump win in 2016.

Addressing racism

Racial injustice in the US has been in the spotlight after the police killings of unarmed African Americans, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and all panel members agreed that a Biden administration should address structural racism and inequality as a priority.

However, Finlay cautioned against expecting too much progress on race issues from a Biden presidency.

“Addressing systemic issues within any community is much more than an election cycle and requires bipartisan support over generations. No single person can address systemic and structural racism,” she said.

She also noted that given the setbacks in racial justice under Trump, a new administration would have to first focus on winning back ground that has already been fought for.

Wolpe described the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement as a “potent political force” saying that “Americans want solutions to racial justice despite Trump’s law and order rhetoric.”

He believes that concerns about racial injustice should help a greater turn out to vote among African Americans which should assist Biden.

Wolpe was encouraged by Biden’s ability at a recent Town Hall meeting to describe what he would do for young black men if elected, including supporting home ownership, education and rehabilitation from incarceration.

He also noted that the role of the Attorney General will be crucial in efforts to address racial injustice, saying that “he or she can make the biggest tangible difference to the lives of Black Americans”.

The panel also discussed the impact of the Trump administration on Native American communities, who they said did not get as much attention in the media as African American issues.

Russell discussed the devastating impact of COVID-19 on First Nations peoples, especially the Navajo, due to the under-funding of their health system and lack of resources they have been allocated to protect themselves from the pandemic. She said she was encouraged by the policies on tribal nations on the Biden website but concerned that postal voting can disadvantage Native Americans living on reservations if they don’t have street numbers.

The panel also discussed the impact on Indigenous peoples of the Trump administration’s attack on environmental policies, including removing the requirement for environmental impact statements for mining and other interventions (see this piece from David Shearman for more information on Trump’s attack on the environment and the EPA).

Russell also noted that the Inuit also face discrimination and racism but are often forgotten in public debate.

The impact of the BLM movement in Australia was also discussed. Finlay described how BLM has engaged white people in Australia in a new way in racial justice issues. She described how racism kills Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in ways that are not always obvious, such as through stress and anxiety and high rates of incarceration.

A Biden victory

The huge expectations on Biden to deliver change was raised, and the panel discussed how he could quickly lose the trust of the American people if he wins but does not deliver on their expectations.

One major problem for Biden, according to Russell, is if he does not win the Senate. This means that he will be hamstrung and won’t be able to achieve much, so she is hopeful he will win the White House and also control both the House and the Senate.

Wolpe is confident Biden is up to the top job, saying that “he has no charisma but he is a safe pair of hands when people are scared”.

One of Biden’s strengths, according to Russell, is that he is great at getting really good people to work for him, which should give people confidence in a future Biden administration.

She also pointed out his detailed election platform, including costed policies on COVID and a commitment to set up a commission looking at health inequalities.

A participant commented that both parties would be hampered in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic by the US health financing system which accentuates the inequity in access.

 US health system

The future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was also discussed.

Obamacare has become increasingly popular over the past four years, according to Russell, who described how many Americans are benefitting from the ACA and don’t want it to go.

She said Biden will support the ACA if elected but this support will not extend as far as providing Medicare for all, as was proposed by Bernie Sanders.

The panel also discussed how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been sidelined and defunded during the Trump administration. Wolpe suggested that the CDC needs a trusted authoritative person to come in and rebuild it.

Finlay said she was “very frustrated” about the erosion of the CDC under Trump.

“It is really frustrating to see the dismantling of the CDC under Trump and shows what a lack of insight he has about the importance of frank and fearless expert health advice.”

(Since this event the NBC’s White House correspondent has reported that the Government Accountability Office has agreed to “conduct an investigation of the Trump Administration’s political interference at the CDC and the FDA, and to determine whether this interference has violated the agencies’ scientific integrity and communication policies.”)

Wolpe also described the impact of Trump’s policies on Planned Parenthood and other women’s health organisations that now refuse to take federal funding because of the strings attached which constrain their activities even in areas which have nothing to do with abortion

Finlay pointed out that the impact on access to safe abortion will be felt not just in the US but also in Africa and countries dependent on US aid.

Climate and global health

Sweet raised the immense repercussions of climate change, and speculated about the implications for Australian climate politics and policies if Biden is elected, given his commitment to climate action.

Wolpe said there is no doubt that if re-elected, Trump will continue to attack environmental controls, such as pulling out of the Paris accord and opening up Alaska to oil drilling.

The panel also discussed how Trump’s denial of climate change has changed the international dialogue on this issue and emboldened Australia and other countries in their resistance to effective action to address global warming.

The plan on climate put forward by Biden was described as being informed by, but ultimately different from, the Green New Deal.

The role of the states on climate change was mentioned, with the Panel noting that despite the Trump administration’s undermining of climate action, many of the states are committed to action on climate and many cities are working hard to reduce emissions.

Trump’s announcement that he wants to withdraw from the World Health Organization was also discussed, with Russell noting that this would have to be approved by Congress and can’t occur until the US pays their outstanding debts.

Supreme Court

In response to a question about the impact on civil and reproductive rights of the likely appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, Wolpe described how control of the Supreme Court is more important to conservative Republican interests than control of the White House.

In his view, the confirmation process should not be rushed just because it is close to the election.   

Global to local

One participant noted that the US-China trade war (and militarisation) is a major distraction to global health (and economic) activities in the Asia-Pacific and asked if anything would change as a result of the election.

In response, Wolpe described how Trump believes that China is responsible for COVID and will seek vengeance if re-elected, which could put Australia in a difficult position given our strategic alliance with the US but economic dependence on China.

Another participant asked the panel about the implications of Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis. Wolpe said he was shocked that leaders like Trump and Boris Johnson could experience COVID without changing their policy approach.

Overall, he sees the diagnosis as a negative for the Trump campaign:

People will say, if Trump could not protect himself, his family or his White House staff, can he be trusted to protect the American people?”

Russell pointed out that Trump’s access to health care does not reflect that available to many Americans, many of whom have been deprived of early access to care and experimental treatments.

She also described it as “astounding” that people are so distrustful of any statement from Trump that they are questioning even whether he had COVID.

 Key takeaways

The panel reflected on the lessons for Australia from the political climate in the US.

A particular concern for Finlay is the impact of Trumps mis/disinformation campaigns on attitudes to health advice among the Australian population:

Conspiracy theories can be spread and reinforced by mis and disinformation coming from the US which can undermine a science-based response and the role of mainstream medicine in responding to COVID.”

She also raised the need for Australian politics to be more inclusive to avoid creating leaders like Trump:

Trump taps into minority groups who feel disenfranchised.

We need to find out why they feel that way so they don’t look to politicians who promise fairy tales and falsehoods.

We need to find out why the small minority of disenfranchised people feel let down and vulnerable to people like Trump.”

One important lesson for Australia, according to Carlson, is that we should not follow the US blindly. She also reminded participants that it’s not just the figureheads in the US who need to change, but also the institutions.

The importance of compulsory voting was a key takeaway for Wolpe who believes that if everyone in the US was forced to vote, the Republicans would have to radically change their views.

“Don’t ever give up compulsory voting in Australia, it’s your most precious asset for retaining democracy,” he said.

Russell’s final point:

“Democracy is a fragile thing, it needs to be protected and nurtured, and everyone has to see their role in it. Getting an inclusive and equal society is hard work and easily undone.”

Register for the next #CroakeyLIVE meets #USvotesHealth, to be held from 3pm AEDT on 4 November.

Further reading: How to cover Election Day and beyond – advice for media from the Columbia Journalism Review.


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On Twitter, keep following #USvotesHealth. Since 10 October, 169 Twitter accounts have engaged with the hashtag, sending 1,137 tweets, and creating more than 12 million Twitter impressions.

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Climate

UN: Climate Crisis Has Doubled Natural Disasters in Last 20 Years

Mish Boyka

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Climate change has spurred close to a doubling of natural disasters in the last 20 years, and world leaders are failing to prevent Earth from evolving into “an uninhabitable hell” for millions, the United Nations warned on Monday.

At least 7,348 major disasters had occurred between 2000 and 2019, claiming 1.23 million lives, affecting 4.2 billion people and costing the global economy some $2.97 trillion, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction said in a new report entitled: “The Human Cost of Disasters 2000-2019.”

According to the Geneva-based agency, the last two decades saw the number of disasters caused by extreme weather nearly double to 6,681, up from 3,656 between 1980 and 1999.

“We are willfully destructive. That is the only conclusion one can come to, with action on climate change and other major threats waning,” said Mami Mizutori, the UN secretary-general’s special representative for disaster risk deduction.

Climate Change Proves Deadly

Worsening floods and storms accounted for about four-fifths of the total from 2000-2019, while major increases were also registered for droughts, wildfires and heat waves.The report noted that extreme heat is proving especially deadly. Other major recorded disasters included earthquakes and tsunamis.

The natural disasters also caused almost $3 trillion in global economic losses — almost twice the amount in the preceding two decades.

The UN body blamed leaders for not only insufficient action in slowing down climate change but also for failing to combat the global coronavirus pandemic which has killed over 1 million people and infected over 37 million in the past nine months.

“COVID-19 is but the latest proof that political and business leaders are yet to tune into the world around them,” Mizutori said in a statement. Despite warnings from experts and UN agencies, “almost all nations” have not done enough to prevent death and illness caused by the pandemic.

Asia at Highest Risk

Though the report commended countries including India and Bangladesh for stepping up efforts in evacuating millions of people to safety from life-threatening floods and cyclones, it said the odds “continue to be stacked against them, in particular by industrial nations that are failing miserably on reducing greenhouse gas emissions” in line with an agreed aim of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The report, released ahead of the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction on Tuesday, relied on statistics from the Emergency Events Database, which records all disasters that kill 10 or more people, affect 100 or more people or result in a state of emergency declaration.

According to the data, Asia has suffered the highest number of disasters in the past 20 years with 3,068 disasters, followed by the Americas with 1,756 and Africa with 1,192.

In terms of affected countries, China topped the list with 577 events followed by the US with 467.

“It really is all about governance if we want to deliver this planet from the scourge of poverty, further loss of species and biodiversity, the explosion of urban risk and the worst consequences of global warming,” Mizutori said.

 

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